Critical objectivity can be difficult to sustain. As members of the family, we have an implicit contract with our readers to consider each work on its own merits, without undue preconceptions; to determine what a given project is trying to do, and base our critique on how well it accomplishes its goals. Our only bias — not just acceptable, but necessary — must be to favor good work over bad. Recognizing that true objectivity is probably impossible, we must, like judiciary officials, acknowledge our prejudices insofar as we are aware of them.
And when those prejudices prove insurmountable, we must recuse ourselves. Such was the case for your Old Professor earlier this week. I was tucking into a newly-collected, critical acclaimed work — it would be unfair to call it out by name — in a peculiar, specific subgenre that I generally enjoy, from a creator now coming into her own after years in the field, who brings a distinctive and appealing voice to her medium and has become an inspirational figure to a broad and diverse fanbase; a work that’s already being hailed as a career best. So I was looking forward to this one, is what I’m saying.
The story kicks off with an Old Skool narrative gambit: A wandering Player blows into town and, through the magic of performance, gives us a sort of prologue, laying out the backstory for the lead character and the world she inhabits. That shtick had hair on it when Shakespeare was a pup, but it suits the heightened, mythic atmosphere of the piece — remember what we said about judging a work by what it’s trying to do? — so I remained eager to see where this went.
When it turned out that “wandering player” was a musician, telling her story in the form of a tragic ballad, I started to get a little uneasy — and by fourteen pages in, the spell was broken. I laid the book down unfinished, and so far have not picked it up again.
Why? Because the ballad didn’t scan. The A-B-B-A rhyme scheme stayed intact, but the meter started falling apart by the third stanza. And that’s enough to throw me out of a story.
This happens more often than you’d think. Authors, in general, pride themselves on their research. No self-respecting writer would have a character toting a Colt Peacemaker if the story’s set in 1865, or riding to the 90th floor of the Chrysler Building, or serving a Jell-O mold with chunks of papaya — or if she did, she would be rightly mortified to realize her error. But she’ll think nothing of putting a “song” into a character’s mouth that no singer would actually sing. Readers who (like me) chant rhythmically in our heads as the song starts will stumble, and sputter, and come to curse the hand that wrote it: How could anyone sing this?!?
Bards in literary kingdoms from Shannara to the Forgotten Realms chant “ancient rhymes” so profoundly uncatchy you’d be hard-pressed to recall them after thirty minutes, let alone thirty generations. We’re supposed to accept that Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat becomes a rock ‘n’ roll megastar singing verses that have all the Stonesy swagger of , well, Stan Rice giving a reading with his sweater tied around his shoulders; and for all that Salman Rushdie postures and preens, even his buddies in U2 can’t make his lyrics for “The Ground Beneath Her Feet“ believable.
But Rushdie’s lyrics are only pedestrian, rather than flat-out disastrous; at least he knows how to count syllables. Often, when a confirmed prose-monger takes a stab at verse, he’s content to bang out couplets of inconsistent, irregular length — so long as they rhyme. If he’s a newspaper columnist, he may take a well-known poem as his model; I’m pretty sure the syndicates have a rule that each columnist must take a run at “A Visit from St. Nicholas“ at least once in his career, with predictable results:
‘Twas the night before the Election, and all through the Democrat White House
Not a creature was stirring, not even the Federally-protected white-footed field mouse.
The EPA had imposed on us the duty unpleasant
Of replacing all our light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescents.
…and so on, for far too long. (It is customary for columnists to dedicate these pieces “with apologies” to the original poet, but an apology could never be enough.)
If it seems that I get disproportionately torqued about this kind of thing, understand this: It’s personal.
I’ve been reading and writing poetry since I was a kid. I started, as everyone does, with parody and pastiche, but I worked hard and kept my lines tight. In college, I won some prizes, but still considered myself a dabbler. After I left school I delved seriously into songwriting, penning more than a hundred songs during that period, of which I would today judge about ten as being any good. While working in the education sector, I began a study of academic prosody, intoxicated with the power of poetic forms — sonnets, villanelles, tanka, sestinas. A chance encounter with a scholar of folk music sent me to the Child ballads, to Peter Kennedy, to the Appalachian songs collected by the Lomaxes and John Jacob Niles. I read, I sang, I wrote — reworking old themes, drawing from a dozen traditional sources to make new versions of “She Moved Through the Fair” and “The Buffalo Skinners.”
An unexpected vacancy left me in charge of a church choir. I knew next to nothing about liturgical music when I started, and I immersed myself in traditional hymnody — learning new and startling things about the stickiness of phrases and melodies, about rhythm, about strategies for adapting a source text, about the relationship of words and music. I led the choir for seven years, and when I left I felt that maybe now — in my mid-thirties — I was finally, finally beginning to understand the discipline of songwriting.
I don’t write many songs, these days, but the years of work and study inform everything I write; even in a critical or informational piece like this one, I’m choosing the words I choose as much for music as for meaning. This is my wheelhouse, is what I’m saying, and it pisses me off when somebody thinks they can just waltz in and half-ass it and no one will care.
Look, if you want to include songs or poetry in your fantasy story, by all means, be my guest. But as in all things, it is only appropriate to do your research and check your work. If a character sings it, you should be able to sing it. This is not hard. Indeed, it should be a first principle.
The galling thing is that it’s not that hard to get it right. In fact, I could teach you everything you need to know about lyrical scansion right here, with no bullshit and no excuses. All I need is twenty minutes of your time and a copy of the Pilgrim Hymnal.
That’s my copy, a beat-up blue hardback printed in the year that I was born. Most of its content is freely available on searchable multimedia sites like this one, which come complete with sound files; but that book, tattered and stained, is still dear to me. I have it on extended loan from my wife, who picked it up in the basement of her old church. She came out of the foursquare New England Congregationalist choir tradition, whereas I grew up Catholic during a cultural moment when the church was determinedly abandoning its old music in favor of upbeat, guitar-driven folk-pop liturgy. When I started programming music, I was trying to square the circle — to retain the humble simplicity that was the aim of post Vatican II liturgy, while mining the traditional canon for whatever was useful.
The results were revelatory. Congregations that had spent the last thirty years mumbling their way half-heartedly through pop-style hymns by “charismatic” composers like Dan Schutte and Marty Haugen were able to muster a full-throated roar on old chestnuts like “From All That Dwell Below the Skies“ — even though those songs had long since fallen out of the standard repertoire. Do you get what I’m saying here? We got a better response from songs that people hadn’t heard in twenty years than from some songs that they heard almost every week.
So I use hymnody as a framework because it works. If you understand hymns, you understand folk song. You understand verses that people will continue to sing for hundreds of years in an oral tradition, songs that generations will learn by heart.
And that begins with scansion.
Now. When we talk about scansion in folk songs or hymns, we need to define first what we’re not talking about. We’re not concerned with the time signature of a tune — that is, the pulse that determines whether a tune is a waltz or a march or whatever — only the phrasing of the melody. And we’re not talking about quite the same thing as we do in academic poetry, which is more proper called accentual meter. When considering Shakespeare (say), you would determine meter firstly by counting the stressed syllables; in the Bard’s case, there are usually five metrical “feet” — that is, distinct syntactic units, each consisting of one stressed syllable and one or more unstressed syllables — in any given line. Shakespeare most commonly employs the metrical foot known as the iamb — made up of one unstressed syllable followed by one stress. Look at where the accents fall in a famous line from Romeo and Juliet:
but SOFT | what LIGHT | through YON | der WIN | dow BREAKS
That’s straight iambic pentameter — a line of five iambs in a row — and it formed the basis for Shakespeare’s verse. But hours on end of dit-DAH dit-DAH dit-DAH dit-DAH dit-DAH would become monotonous; the Shake would keep things lively by swapping out individual iambs for other sorts of metrical feet — trochees, anapests, dactyls — mixing up the number of total syllables and the placement of the stresses. Here’s another from Romeo and Juliet:
o RO me o | RO me o | WHERE fore | ART thou | RO me o
That’s fourteen syllables total, and not an iamb in sight — but it still reads as pentameter, because there are only five stressed syllables in the line.
In hymnody, though, we’re talking about syllabic meter — where we count the total number of syllables in a line, and the number of lines in a stanza. Let’s take “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” as our example. It takes its tune from one of the most famous pieces in all of Western music, the big theme from Beethoven’s 9th symphony. It’s got eight lines per stanza, alternating eight and seven syllables per line:
Joyful, joyful we adore thee
God of Glory, Lord of Love:
Hearts unfold like flow’rs before thee,
Op’ning to the Sun above!
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness,
drive the dark of doubt away:
Giver of immortal gladness,
fill us with the light of day!
Before we go any further, it’s important to remember that in classic hymnody, the words and music were almost always written separately. There’s a sort of standard canon of tunes from various sources; each tune will have a generic title printed in all caps, traditionally a place-name, and will be indexed by meter. “Amazing Grace,” for instance, is sung to the tune called NEW BRITAIN, and its meter is 86.86. “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” is OLD HUNDREDTH 88.88, while “For the Beauty of the Earth” is DIX 77.77.77. “Now Thank We All Our God” is sung to NUN DANKET, and breaks down to slightly-tricky 188.8.131.52.184.108.40.206.
When a lyricist would devise a set of words, he would sometimes have a specific tune in mind, and sometimes not. That’s why some hymns are listed with two or more different tunes. (You may know two different melodies for “Away In A Manger,” for instance.) And many, many tunes have more than one set of lyrics. I can think of three songs offhand that use the Beethoven’s 9th (HYMN TO JOY 220.127.116.11, as you’ll find it in the hymnal).
The metrical numbers are also (theoretically) interchangeable: that is, if you’ve got a particular text that you want the congregation to sing, but they don’t know the tune well, you can have them sing that text to another tune in the same meter. Say, for instance, you want to use the hymn “Alleluia, Alleluia, Let the Holy Anthem Rise” at Easter — but the tune (HOLY ANTHEM 18.104.22.168) skips around too much for your congregation to follow. They are familiar with HYMN TO JOY, though, so you substitute these words…
Let the Holy An-them rise
And the choirs of Heaven chant it
in the temple of the skies!
Let the mountains skip wi-hith gladness
And the-huh joyful valleys ring
With hosannas in the highest
To our Saviour annnnnnnnnnd our King!
It’s not a perfect fit, as you can see; but it increases the number of texts available to you if you’ve got a congregation of limited ability or a choir without much rehearsal time.
It’s an interesting idiosyncrasy of the system that when tunes are indexed in the hymnal, repeated phrases do not “count” towards the syllabic total. So NEW BRITAIN, the familiar tune of “Amazing Grace,” is metered 86.86 — but so is ANTIOCH, best known as “Joy To the World.” Which gives us the amusing possibility of singing:
Ahhh-ma-zin’ Grace! How sweet! The! Sound!
That saved! A wretch! Like meee!
I o-once wa-as lo-o-ost,
But now-wow a-a-am fow-wow-wound,
‘twas blind but now I-high see,
‘twas blind but now I-high see,
‘twas bli-ind, twas bli-i-ind,
But now I see!
I wouldn’t recommend this, of course. In fact, since consistency is essential to catchiness, I would advise the novice bard to write with a specific tune in mind, rather than just aiming for a particular syllable count; as we’ve seen, accents and emphases that work perfectly well in one tune might come off a little awkward in another. So humming the tune to yourself will help you keep on track.
And it’s the “keeping on track” part that seems to be the stumbling block. It’s not difficult to come up with a decent first verse, even for a poetic novice; once you do, the hard work is in keeping it on the rails. That’s where the vast and diverse canon of traditional hymns becomes a lifeline. When you’ve counted out the syllables, you’re almost certain to find a suitable melody in the metrical index upon which to model your remaining stanzas. Got a clumsy quatrain of 10.10.11.12? That works with SLANE, which you might know as “Be Thou My Vision.” What if I’ve got five uneven lines — say, 22.214.171.124.8? Looks like a dog’s breakfast — but that’s “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty“ (LOBE DEN HERREN).
Whatever tune you choose, hum it loud and often as you go, and sing each verse as you complete it to check your work. This is part of your research, your due diligence, your fact-checking. And if you do it right, you can take How could anyone sing this?!? all the way to “How Can I Keep From Singing?”
That’s ENDLESS SONG (87.87 with refrain), by the way, in case you needed to know.