This section is from the book "Feeling Better? Amusements and Occupations for Convalescents", by Cornelia R. Trowbridge. Also available from Amazon: Feeling Better.
SIR PHILIP SIDNEY wrote in the gallant days of Elizabeth:
"I have known men, and that even with reading Amadis de Gaul (which God knoweth wanteth much of a perfect Poesie) have found their hearts moved to the exercise of courtesie, liberalise and especial courage."
Poesie still does the same brave service to those whose hearts are open to it. Precious far above rubies when one is ill are the lines of poetry memorized in other days that one can say over at twilight or in wakeful hours of the night. They subdue restlessness to their rhythm and bring to the inward ear the music of their recurring rhyme and hidden harmonies of words. At such times poetry has given to countless grateful souls
The strength that walks in ways of quietness.
As health returns to you, you can store up added wealth in your memory. There may be some half-learned poems or some lines that have always just escaped you and you now have the opportunity to make them wholly yours. If you go on to new fields, you will probably find verses simple in form, wording and feeling, like William Blake's or Emily Dickinson's or Robert Frost's, better suited to your present need than more emotional or more intellectual poetry. If you recite poetry to put yourself to sleep, go back to the beginning every time you forget a word or even hesitate over one. It will be a better sedative, for it will call for concentration.
Some people recommend learning a poem as a whole by reading it through as often as necessary. Others learn line by line or stanza by stanza. The great helps to memorizing poetry are meter and rhyme. The poets who write free verse, without either a fixed meter or a rhyme pattern, acknowledge regretfully that they cannot hope to be quoted often from memory. It is always well to begin by reading the poem over until you catch its swing. This will fix in your mind also many of the words stressed. Then notice the rhyme scheme. If you stop to work it out in the alphabetic form, use one letter to represent each pair or group of rhymed words. For instance Mary Had a Little Lamb goes abcb; Shelley's Skylark, quoted below, runs ababb. Robert Browning in Herve Kiel begins with a stanza that rhymes abaaba and goes on with a different and often very intricate pattern for each stanza.
Sonnets are specially to be recommended for memorizing. They are short, they rhyme, each one has a single theme which is summed up in the last line or couplet. Ever since Henry the Seventh's courtiers brought back the sonnet from Italy, where poets were experimenting with this new poetic fashion, much of the greatest of English verse has been written in the sonnet form. If you are interested in poetic form for itself, you can work out from sonnets of Shakspere, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats in any anthology the astonishing number of rhyme schemes possible within the strict limitation of fourteen lines. The meter must always be iambic pentameter. That is there must always be five metric feet with the accent usually on the last syllable of each foot, as in
Full many a glorious morning have I seen.
It Is interesting to study the adaptation of meter to the underlying thought or feeling. The rhythm scheme is usually emphasized in the first two lines. We all hear at once the thunder of horsehoofs in The Charge of the Light Brigade and the swift gallop of the horse that "brought the good news from Ghent to Aix." But such strong rhythm would not suit every theme. For the polished, formal, intellectual verse of the classic Eighteenth Century no form was so appropriate as the heroic couplet, those two rhymed lines that Pope made so fashionable.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.
The whole spirit of the age is reflected in them.
When the Romantic poets broke away from this highly artificial poetry, they tried a variety of meters. In Shelley's Ode to a Skylark the meter seems chosen because the long last line of each stanza carries us up to the skies in the ecstasy of the skylark's flight.
Higher still and higher From the earth thou springest, Like a cloud of fire, The blue deep thou wingest, And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
Browning, in Love Among the Ruins, used a long line of five beats alternating with one of only two beats, with which it rhymes. The reader is struck at once by this unusual and very musical poetic form.
The meter seems to repeat the movement of the "sheep, half asleep" as they stray over the pasture, pause to crop and move on again fitfully, while the rhyme keeps echoing in our subconscious thought the tinkling of the sheep bells.
Every age has used the iambic pentameter. It is a marvelous poetic instrument because it suits so many kinds of poetry. Milton used it in Paradise Lost, Tennyson in Idylls of the King, both long narrative poems. As was said above, in Pope's day the fashion prevailed of using it rhymed in couplets, a form which Chaucer had used four centuries before. Freed from the bonds of rhyme, it is blank verse, the meter of the great body of poetic drama. You know how it catches the cadences of ordinary speech so exactly that audiences are often hardly conscious that plays written in it are in verse form. Maxwell Anderson is using it today and stirring up fresh discussion of its possibilities.
a poet's choice of words As we say over familiar lines perhaps we substitute a word of our own for one the author used and we know that though the meaning may be unchanged, the line has lost some of its beauty. This sets us to listening again to its harmonies. When original manuscripts have been preserved, we can sometimes see how carefully lines have been worked over. In his sonnet On First Looking into Chapman's Homer Keats wrote originally
Yet could I never judge what men could mean and then avoided the succession of commonplace words and short vowels by changing it to read
Yet could I never breathe its pure serene.
William Blake's notes show that he tried various wordings in Tiger. Do you know which words were chosen for the line for which he jotted down
Did laugh h his work to see?