Listening to someone reading or reciting Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot, I was struck by the fact that there are some poems in the English language that are instantly and unmistakeably recognisable by their rhythm. Not only the Lady, but Hiawatha, Charge of the Light Brigade, James James Morrison Morrison, and The King asked the Queen and the Queen asked the Dairymaid to name but a few. You don’t need to be able to distinguish the words – the rhythm and melody are so distinctive.
What an achievement for a poet this is! A truly unique product, a one-off that nobody can appropriate without being accused of parody or plagiarism. Just try to write a poem on the model of The Charge of the Light Brigade, I challenge you, without somehow evoking the galloping hoofs in the dactyls. More galloping hoofs in How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix, but less military. It is not only those poets whose genius as such is universally recognised who have produced these masterpieces. Tennyson, yes, but A.A. Milne is hardly in the same league despite the great popularity of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin.
I once heard that Arthur Sullivan composed the tunes to W.S. Gilbert’s lyrics by reciting them as poems, and letting the rhythm dictate the melody. It is difficult nowadays to separate Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics from their musical settings and consider them simply as poems, but the effort is rewarded with an appreciation of Gilbert’s great poetic and dramatic gifts.
It would be strange if these immediately identifiable poems had never been set to music, given their inherent musicality. Some of the Christopher Robin verses have become songs – though not to my knowledge The King’s Breakfast – and Loreena McKennitt has recorded haunting versions of The Lady of Shallot and Alfred Noyes’ Highwayman. What disturbs me personally in many cases, however, is that the composer has heard the poems in a completely different way from how I hear them. It’s rather like seeing a film version of a book you enjoyed, where the main characters seem to be miscast and the scriptwriter or director has altered the story to fit his own ideas.
I enjoyed the London production of Cats, for instance, but had to dissociate the songs from my beloved Old Possum’s poems, especially Macavity, because the tunes that Lloyd Webber had composed bore no affinity whatsoever to the melodies they evoke in my own mind. Different interpretations can be very disappointing. Mike Oldfield’s version of Hiawatha is yet another example, where Longfellow’s lilting trochaic tetrameters just vanish into a tedious repetitive litany up and down the scale. How can it be possible that these acclaimed musicians manage to miss in their music the one aspect of the poem that makes it unique?
Seeking further examples of this phenomenon, I wondered if it also occurred in other languages. Romance languages such as French, Italian and Spanish are, I feel, unlikely to provide examples as their poetry follows different rules to English verse. I could imagine that there are German poems which meet the criteria, but so far have failed to prove my point in practical experiments with German speakers. That could be because my German guinea pigs are philistines where poetry is concerned but I doubt if they would agree, as it would be tantamount to admitting that they are deficient in Kultur, something abhorrent to any self-respecting educated German speaker. My research continues!