This section is from the book "Feeling Better? Amusements and Occupations for Convalescents", by Cornelia R. Trowbridge. Also available from Amazon: Feeling Better.
With any poem one can thus experiment with substitutions and seek out the reasons why they are less satisfying than the poet's own words. In these familiar lines a word has been substituted for one in the true version, without changing the rhythm or the meaning. What synonym did the author use and why?
When to the sessions of sweet, quiet thought.
Absent thee from all happiness awhile.
Season of fogs and mellow fruitfulness.
O fierce West Wind, thou soul of Autumn's being.
The twittering birds sing madrigals.
Sometimes one can experiment with word order. For the third line of Gray's Elegy,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way, at least nine arrangements of the words are possible, all scanning correctly. To work them out gives one further insight into the problems which a poet may be confronted with. As Gray revised his Elegy many times before it satisfied his exacting taste, we can fancy him scrutinizing the line to find just how it could best suggest the slow steps of a tired man.
To paraphrase a poem in prose is another pleasant and profitable diversion. It will test your understanding of what the poet is trying to say. And do not be afraid that by all this careful study you are destroying the beauty of a poem. Any true work of art survives analysis, unharmed, whether it is a poem or a painting or a symphony.
After poetry is memorized and its meter and wording are studied and its meaning is fully understood, there is still the question of how to bring out all its beauty in repeating it to yourself, how to phrase it, how to keep its music without making it singsong. One can find endless interest in saying over a passage from Shakspere as it should be spoken on the stage. The circumstances under which it occurs, the speaker's character, those before whom it is said, must all be taken into account. Yet the words must seem to come to the speaker as he utters them, not to be memorized and studied over, and they must be spoken with the cadences of ordinary human speech.
You may like to try Portia's witty description of her suitors in The Merchant of Venice, with its undercurrent of vexation at the terms of her father's will. Or the moonlight scene between Lorenzo and Jessica, with its mixture of playfulness and ecstasy.
Actors delight to give Mercutio's famous description of Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet. That other great soliloquy, Jacques' Seven Ages in As You Like It, is a wonderful study. After Orlando goes off to bring in old Adam, the Duke alludes to that "wide and universal theater" in which we all play a part. In an instant Jacques picks up the idea, divides man's life into seven ages, a purely conventional number, and as he talks, selects the character to play each act. Perhaps he hesitates now and then for an idea, perhaps he stops for a response from his hearers. He likes an audience and the Duke and his exiled courtiers always relish his sarcastic humor. But after he has jested about whining schoolboy and woful lover and judge full of wise saws, he falls into a more serious vein. Satire begins to give way to sympathy. When he reaches the last line, has he forgotten his audience entirely as he thinks on the pitiful helplessness of extreme old age? How can all these overtones be brought out in repeating the lines?
Another familiar passage, Antony's funeral oration for Caesar, is a study of an orator's power to sway a mob, which a Mussolini or a Hitler might envy. Antony speaks only by Brutus' consent. He pauses often to sense the feelings of his listeners. Gradually he reveals the irony of his praise of Brutus and the other honorable men. The speech should be given so that every inflection leads up to the last lines, which suddenly tear aside the veil and reveal his purpose. In the first act of A Winter's Tale there is a very beautiful scene in which Hermione's lines must be so spoken as to show her modesty and graciousness and gentle wit as she urges Polixenes to prolong his stay in Sicily. Try, too, that delightful scene in Twelfth Night in which Viola with such gayety and charm delivers the Duke's message to Olivia and at the same time studies her rival with keen scrutiny. Her words alternately hide and reveal her feelings.
One more illustration before this chapter closes. When The Taming of the Shrew was played in New York in modern dress, an actress trained in the Moscow Theater, Maria Ouspenskaya, applied for a part in it. Only one place in the cast remained to be filled, that of the servant in Petruchio's household to whom Gru-mio brings notice of their master's return. She asked a few days to study the part. On her return she offered nine different interpretations of it from which the producer might choose. Her characterization of Curtis on the stage was unforgettable. She made the servant into a little old woman, lively as a cricket, sharp-tongued, all curiosity about her new mistress, all zeal in respectful service to her master and greatly relishing his mad humors. The finished artist read all this into a speaking part of twenty-six lines and saw in them eight other possible interpretations.
A note on this chapter will be found on page 249.
New Voices, Marguerite Wilkinson. The Macmillan Company, New York. 1928. An interpretation and anthology of contemporary poetry.
The Winged Horse, Joseph Auslander and Frank E. Hill. Double-day, Doran and Company, New York. 1927.
Discovering Poetry, Elizabeth Drew. W. W. Norton and Company, New York. 1933.
The Name and Nature of Poetry, A. E. Housman. The Macmillan Company, New York. 1933.
The Way of the Makers, Marguerite Wilkinson. The Macmillan Company, New York. 1925. Comments by poets and their interpreters on the making of poetry.
The Enjoyment of Poetry, Max Eastman. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 1913.
The Oxford Book of English Verse, A. T. Quiller-Couch. The Oxford University Press, New York. 1904. India Paper Edition.
The Golden Treasury, Francis T. Palgrave. Published in many editions by many publishers. Reprinted with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish, 1935, by Dodd, Mead & Company, New York.
The Home Book of Verse, Burton E. Stevenson. Henry Holt and
Company, New York. 1912. The Home Book of Modern Verse, Burton E. Stevenson. Henry
Holt and Company, New York. 1925.
The two most complete anthologies. But you will need a book-rest to hold the huge volumes.
The Winged Hone Anthology, Joseph Auslander and Frank E.
Hill. Doubleday, Doran and Company, New York. 1929. The Poetry Cure, Robert H. Schauffler. Dodd, Mead & Company,
New York. 1925. Poems for every mood, prescribed by a discriminating critic. The Junior Poetry Cure, Robert H. Schauffler. Dodd, Mead &
Company, New York. 1931. High Tide, Mrs. Waldo Richards. Houghton Mifflin Company,
Boston. 1921. Poems of courage and good cheer. Nonsense Anthology, Carolyn Wells. Charles Scribner's Sons, New