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Homer, Shakespeare, Pope, and George Bush

Posted on 01/28/2005 6:27:22 PM PST by Congressman Billybob

Edited on 01/28/2005 7:40:17 PM PST by Admin Moderator. [history]

Many commentators have noted that President Bush’s Second Inaugural Address presented “lofty” themes, rather than “plans for specific action in his second term.” Some saw this as a virtue, that too little attention is paid to the long span of America’s civic life. Others saw this as over-reaching, and some objected especially to the many religious references in Bush’s speech.

There’s an aspect here no one else has noticed. The speech is almost entirely in iambic pentameter, which is called blank verse when it does not rhyme. The entire output of William Shakespeare, the greatest wordsmith the English language has ever known, was in this meter.

So was the entire output of poet Alexander Pope. He is largely forgotten today, but many of his lines have entered our language. “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

Those authors, and the authors of the King James Bible, were using a powerful form of speech of ancient heritage. Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey in the heroic measure, a ten-beat line from which iambic pentameter grew.

Assume that Bush’s speech was iambic pentameter; we’ll get to the proof in a moment. Why does this matter to readers and listeners today? Because this form of speech is more powerful than any other. Recall that Homer’s works were memorized, and then recited from memory for centuries, before they were ever reduced to writing. Only a form of speech written for the ear could survive that long with that clarity.

Here are two paragraphs from the President’s Second Inaugural Speech, chosen at random by using the phone number I called repeatedly over two days seeking a response from the President’s chief speech writer, Michael Gerson, about why this pattern appeared in the speech. The phone number ended with 2131, so here are the 21st and 31st paragraphs, displayed as blank verse:

“Today, I also speak anew to my fellow citizens.
From all of you, I have asked patience
In the hard task of securing America,
Which you have granted in good measure.
Our country has accepted obligations that are
Difficult to fulfill and would be dishonorable to abandon.
Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition [of this nation],
Tens of millions have achieved their freedom.
And as hope kindles hope,
Millions more will find it.
By our efforts we have lit a fire
As well as a fire in the minds of men.
It warms those who feel its power,
It burns those who fight its progress.
And one day this fire of freedom
Will reach the darkest corners of our world.”

The brackets in the seventh line above, and the fourth below, represent two of only nine times in this speech where a few words exceed the bounds of iambic pentameter.

The 31st paragraph reads as follows:

“Self-government relies, in the end,
On the governing of the self.
That edifice of character is built in families
Supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our nation[al life]
By the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount,
The words of the Koran and the varied faiths of our people.
Americans move forward in every generation
By reaffirming all that is good and true
That came before ideals of justice and conduct
That are the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

The entire speech parses the same way. This cannot be by accident. Either Mr. Gerson and others who wrote the speech immersed themselves deeply in the most powerful speeches from America’s past and naturally adopted the cadence of those, or they deliberately chose to write in iambic pentameter.

The early Presidents, including the four on Mount Rushmore, all were schooled in the classics, including Homer, Shakespeare, Pope and the King James Bible. This pattern of speech came naturally to them. From those sources, those men crafted their statements. The final paragraph of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural demonstrates why moments in Bush’s speech sound both ancient and memorable:

“With malice toward none, and with charity for all,
With firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,
Let us strive on to finish the work we are in,
To bind up the nation’s wounds,
To care for him who shall have born the battle
And for his widow and his orphan,
To do all which may achieve and cherish,
A just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

About the Author: John Armor is a constitutional lawyer in the Blue Ridge Mountains. His eighth book is on Thomas Paine, who also wrote in iambic pentameter.

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; Editorial; Extended News; Government; News/Current Events; Philosophy; US: North Carolina; War on Terror
KEYWORDS: alexanderpope; homer; iambicpentameter; inauguraladdress; inauguralspeech; kingjamesbible; poetry; presidentbush; shakespeare
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To: Congressman Billybob
Hi again, Billybob! When it comes to "pushing around the accents on syllables" in iambic pentameter (or, shall we say, using substitute feet in an iambic line?), I think that Robert Frost should be placed right up there with the other masters inasmuch as he sorta stretched things to the limit without losing the underlying meter . . . which brings me back to what you said about the first syllable in the word "also" not being a strong accent . . . and the last syllable of the word "citizen" isn't accented either? Hm-m. Would you, then, scan that line as follows:
To-DAY / I also SPEAK / a-NEW / to my FEL- / low CIT-i-zens.
That, indeed would make the line a 5-footer . . . BUT . . . the underlying meter is lost because of the two feet containing 4 syllables in that line--in the second and fifth positions. Is there a name for those two critters? Since I'm at a loss for words when it comes to explaining such irregular feet . . . shoot! . . . I'm just gonna call that line a 7-footer and forget about it. So, if you think that Bush's speech is poetry . . . well . . . no offense meant, but there's nothing wrong with (perhaps) calling it prose poetry, is there? ;-)
21 posted on 01/29/2005 3:14:48 PM PST by Longwalled Newbie
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To: Longwalled Newbie
I agree from the get-go that this is "prose-poetry." The same is true of the works of Tom Paine that I'm working on now for a book.

A poet writing poetry would tighten up the meter by changing words and phrases and dropping words. I'm not suggesting that we have that here. Nor, given how presidential speeches are written, could it possibly be that, unless the President in question wrote his own text. All four of the men on Mount Rushmore did exactly that, and three of them would have been recognized as excellent writers if they'd never been president.

But today, there are committees who review such speeches, and each member is tugging and hauling for certain references to appear, and against others. Imagine what that process would have done to the Gettysburg Address:

"Abe, baby, what is this 'four score and ten' business? If you mean 87, say 87."

22 posted on 01/29/2005 4:01:22 PM PST by Congressman Billybob (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.)
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To: don-o
No, I don't have a ping list. Never learned how to operate the new and improved FR in that department. But count on me to come through with a new column every week, usually on Friday. I seldom post anything else. Don't want to wear out my welcome.

23 posted on 01/29/2005 4:05:16 PM PST by Congressman Billybob (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.)
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To: Congressman Billybob

Incredible insight! I think you're right - I'm going through it right now. A truly brilliant observation. Let us know if you hear from Gerson.

I would like to send your comments to some Spanish writers who have written on the Address, but I'll Freepmail you later to ask your consent.

24 posted on 01/29/2005 4:13:51 PM PST by livius
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To: Congressman Billybob


25 posted on 01/29/2005 4:42:59 PM PST by Fiddlstix (This Tagline for sale. (Presented by TagLines R US))
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To: Congressman Billybob

Pope is an integral component of the diversity curriculum taught in high schools today.

26 posted on 01/30/2005 6:41:37 AM PST by Huber (Conservatism - It's not just for breakfast anymore!)
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To: Congressman Billybob

The analysis is great.
On an unrelated note, I could not for the life of me remember who gave us the "a little learning is a dangerous thing" line. Alexander Pope!
You have saved my sanity!
27 posted on 01/30/2005 11:40:26 AM PST by e5man_r_u? (A Man's mission: Build, Protect, Provide)
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To: e5man_r_u?

" A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again."

From "A Little Learning", Alexander Pope 1688-1744

28 posted on 01/30/2005 1:14:35 PM PST by MountainYankee
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To: MountainYankee
Thanks, I was able to pull it off the net with Google once I knew the name of the poet.
Yours is a little different than the one I found.
29 posted on 01/30/2005 1:17:13 PM PST by e5man_r_u? (A Man's mission: Build, Protect, Provide)
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To: Tax-chick


30 posted on 02/01/2005 3:02:52 PM PST by Tax-chick (Some people say that Life is the thing, but I prefer reading.)
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To: Huber

What is that remark supposed to mean?

31 posted on 02/03/2005 10:11:04 AM PST by justshutupandtakeit (Public Enemy #1, the RATmedia.)
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