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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
I wrote two columns this week, because neither could be set aside. This one's about poetry, so a small number of Freepers will be interested. The same will be true of the other one. Still, enjoy as you choose.

John / Billybob

1 posted on 01/28/2005 6:27:26 PM PST by Congressman Billybob
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To: Congressman Billybob
I don't think Alexander Pope is forgotten. That acerbic dwarf was a witty fellow! Now his direct predecessor John Dryden is relatively forgotten.
2 posted on 01/28/2005 6:30:14 PM PST by Borges
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To: Congressman Billybob

Sounds Sherwin Cody'ish.


3 posted on 01/28/2005 6:33:10 PM PST by mdittmar (May God watch over those who serve to keep us free)
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To: Borges
I don't think Alexander Pope is forgotten.

Nor is Carmelita.
4 posted on 01/28/2005 6:36:03 PM PST by BikerNYC
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To: Congressman Billybob
I am interested. I hadn't paid attention to anything but the content, because of the Peggy Noonan columns.

Great work on callingthis to our attention! It is an important characteristic of this speech.

5 posted on 01/28/2005 6:36:06 PM PST by Miss Marple
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To: Congressman Billybob

Thank you for your contribution, as always.


6 posted on 01/28/2005 6:39:02 PM PST by Socratic (Ignorant and free? It's not to be! - T. Jefferson (paraphrase))
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To: Congressman Billybob
Thank you. Don't forget one of my favorites, John Donne. He also wrote in iambic pentameter almost exclusively I think.

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promentory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death dimishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

7 posted on 01/28/2005 6:41:26 PM PST by Cornpone (Aging Warrior -- Aim High -- Hit'em in the Head)
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To: Congressman Billybob

Very interesting.

Thank you for calling this to note. I'd be interested in hearing from Bush, Gerson and anyone who might have intimate knowledge about this aspect of the speech.


8 posted on 01/28/2005 6:56:27 PM PST by Soul Seeker
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To: Congressman Billybob

I teach lit for a living, Billybob, and those lines don't scan out as iambic pantameter. Whoever taught you scansion did a poor job (no offense).


9 posted on 01/28/2005 7:00:04 PM PST by pickemuphere
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To: Congressman Billybob

Modern prose doesn't do it very often, but the use of iambic and other rhythms in prose is fairly common in older prose. It was common in the great prose writers of the seventeenth century. I noticed a good bit of it in parts of Jane Eyre, which I was listening to on an MP3 disk a few weeks ago while commuting. And there are whole chapters in Moby Dick that are in iambic pentameter.

It's a commonplace that poetry is, and should be, more elevated than prose, an observation that goes back to Aristotle. When you are talking about elevated matters, it's natural to fall into rhythmic patterns and an elevated style.

You have to be careful not to do this sort of thing all the time, or it begins to sound artificial. But at the right moments, it's very effective.


10 posted on 01/28/2005 7:05:23 PM PST by Cicero (Marcus Tullius)
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To: pickemuphere
You are quite right that this does not scan as pure iambic pentameter, that is: da DA, da DA, da DA, da DA, da DA However, both Pope and Shakespeare deliberately varied the meter from that classic metronome.

The reason I mentioned Homer is that I looked first for the five strong syllables per line, which was the crossover point between Homer and Shakespeare. Admittedly it is a rough match, but good enough to take note of, in my mind.

John
11 posted on 01/28/2005 7:33:45 PM PST by Congressman Billybob (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.)
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To: Soul Seeker
I made five calls over two days trying to get a response from Michael Gerson about my conclusions from the text itself. I got five promises of a call back from three different people. The return call with the answer to my question never came.

John
12 posted on 01/28/2005 7:35:48 PM PST by Congressman Billybob (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.)
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To: Congressman Billybob

Pope is forgotten? I will adjust to this, but it's going to ruin my evening. :(


13 posted on 01/28/2005 9:22:39 PM PST by Graymatter
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To: Congressman Billybob

Many commentators have noted that President Bush’s Second Inaugural Address presented “lofty” themes, rather than “plans for specific action in his second term

And if he'd offered "plans for specific action in his second term", they would of howled that he had no “lofty” themes.

With people like this there's no pleasing them.
All I can say is would you like some cheese to go with that whine?
Or
Tell me how does it feel to be irrelevant?


14 posted on 01/28/2005 9:59:40 PM PST by Valin (Sometimes you're the bug, and sometimes you're the windshield)
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To: Graymatter

There there..there there. It'll be alright, remember we're here for you.


15 posted on 01/28/2005 10:02:13 PM PST by Valin (Sometimes you're the bug, and sometimes you're the windshield)
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To: Congressman Billybob
"To-DAY,/ I AL-/ so SPEAK/ a-NEW/ to my FEL-/ low CIT-/ i-ZENS."
That is how I'd scan the first line you posted from the 21st paragraph of Bush's speech. "Pentameter", it ain't! As you can see, there are 7 feet in that line--iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb, anapest, iamb, iamb--rather than 5. But, Billybob: If there's another way for scanning that line (and the others you posted), I'd be interested in seeing it (them). I'm always willing to learn. :-)
16 posted on 01/28/2005 10:17:07 PM PST by Longwalled Newbie
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To: Longwalled Newbie
I would not put a hard accent on the AL in also, nor in the ZENS in citizens. Compared to the rest of the line, these are less accented syllables. There are instances in both Shakespeare and Pope where you can see them pushing around the accents on syllables.

The poetical influence I see in the President's speech is not precise, and mathematical. But it IS there.

John / Billybob
17 posted on 01/29/2005 9:09:09 AM PST by Congressman Billybob (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.)
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To: Cornpone
John Donne-aside from Keats, and perhaps, A.E. Housman-is probably my favorite English poet.

I even have a classic Donne poem-among others-posted on my old profile page.

18 posted on 01/29/2005 1:06:37 PM PST by Do not dub me shapka broham ("Hope so, because in this country, no news is always bad news"-Bahman Farmanara)
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To: Congressman Billybob

got ping?

If so, be so kind as to add me.

Thanks


19 posted on 01/29/2005 2:56:50 PM PST by don-o (Stop Freeploading. Do the right thing and become a Monthly Donor.)
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To: Congressman Billybob

Bush does not belong in that list.


20 posted on 01/29/2005 2:59:25 PM PST by k2blader (It is neither compassionate nor conservative to support the expansion of socialism.)
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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."

Billybob
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.

Billybob
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

BTTT


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
THANKS!

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

Later


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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