After your city feet in socks and shoes, After your crowded evening with its booze, Your air is tainted with your body’s sweat, Unclean and laden with a vague regret. But we are free Who live beside the sea, Can choose what our life spurns or craves. Surely we reach Purity on a beach, Daily dallying barefoot in the waves.
I grew up barefoot. The only downside came when I was sent away to school, and shoes were always too tight even if they were EEE width. That in turn meant that in England I suffered from chilblains all winter. As an adult I still go barefoot, wear sandals in town, have shoes for rare stuations. But let’s face it – shoes make your feet sweat, and also make it hard to climb trees and to swim.
The form of the poem reflects the argument: the first four lines about shoe-wearing are regimented: iambic pentameters, rhyming AABB. The barefoot lines are less constrained, more playful, rhyming CCDEED – the short lines could be written together as iambic pentameters, but the rhymes work against seeing and hearing them that way. And the seventh line is the most unorthodox, having only four feet, while the last line is the most whimsical with its ‘daily dallying’.
An Austrian army, awfully arrayed, Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade. Cossack commanders cannonading come, Dealing destruction’s devastating doom. Every endeavour engineers essay, For fame, for fortune fighting – furious fray! Generals ‘gainst generals grapple – gracious God! How honours Heaven heroic hardihood! Infuriate, indiscriminate in ill, Just Jesus, instant innocence instill! Kindred kill kinsmen, kinsmen kindred kill. Labour low levels longest, loftiest lines; Men march ‘mid mounds, ‘mid moles, ‘mid murderous mines; Now noxious, noisy numbers nothing, naught Of outward obstacles, opposing ought; Poor patriots, partly purchased, partly pressed, Quite quaking, quickly “Quarter! Quarter!” quest. Reason returns, religious right redounds, Suwarrow stops such sanguinary sounds. Truce to thee, Turkey! Triumph to thy train, Unwise, unjust, unmerciful Ukraine! Vanish vain victory! vanish, victory vain! Why wish we warfare? Wherefore welcome were Xerxes, Ximenes, Xanthus, Xavier? Yield, yield, ye youths! ye yeomen, yield your yell! Zeus’, Zarpater’s, Zoroaster’s zeal, Attracting all, arms against acts appeal!
Belgrade was besieged nine times between 1440 and 1806. It is right on the edge of the area the Ottoman Turks were able to wrest from the Christians, and control went back and forth. This poem is about the 1789 Siege of Belgrade, when the Austrians showed up in mid September with 120,000 troops and 200 siege guns to try to take control of the Belgrade fortress that was held by 9,000 Ottoman troops with 456 cannon. On 6th October the Austrians began a devastating bombardment. Two days later, in exchange for the surrender of Belgrade, the Ottoman garrison was given a free passage with their personal and private possessions to Orșova; a prisoner exchange was also arranged between the combatants.
The poem was written by British journalist and poet Alaric Alexander Watts (1797-1864) and published in 1828. There are a couple of versions floating about on the internet, with various spellings and typos, and with and without the ‘Just Jesus’ line which deteriorates from J’s to I’s. The rhyme pairing isn’t perfect, the metre is imperfect, the syntax is stretched in places, and meanings and references are sometimes obscure. (‘Suwarrow’ for instance is the brilliant Russian general Alexander Suvorov who, though instrumental in winning battles with Turkey and others in the late 18th century, was not present at the 1789 Siege of Belgrade. He was defeating the Turks elsewhere at the time, but how can you ignore a general credited with winning 63 major battles, and never losing one?)
My initial impression is that the metre is an easy-to-read, easy-to-recite ‘four beats to the bar’, but the number of syllables varies with the needs of the alliteration:
But then it dawns on me that the poem is actually in iambic pentameter, with five beats… but the first line is so technically weak that it’s misleading: it has eleven syllables instead of ten unless you pronounce the second word ‘Austrin’, and also requires the ‘-ly’ of ‘awfully’ to be a stressed syllable. But once you reinterpret the rhythm of that line, the poem settles down properly. (There is a good lesson in poetics here: the technical purity of your opening line is super important!)
Anyway, I think we can cut Watts some slack: I don’t know of any other alliterative abecedarian poem at all, though surely there must be some. Wikipedia quotes this fragment from the Harper Handbook to Literature:
An abecedarius always alliterates Blindly blunders, but blooms: Comes crawling craftily, cantering crazily, Daring, doubtless, dark dooms.
Under our armoured mirrors of the mind
where eyes watch eyes, trying to pierce disguise,
an ape, incapable of doubt, looks out,
insists this world he sees is trees, and tries
to find the scenes his genes have predefined.
This ape I am
who counts “One, two, more, more”
has lived three million years in empty lands
where all the members of the roving bands
he’s ever met have totaled some ten score;
so all these hundred thousands in the street
with voided eyes and quick avoiding feet
must be the mere two hundred known before.
This ape I am
believes they know me too.
I’m free to stare, smile, challenge, talk to you.
This ape I am
thinks every female mine,
at least as much as any other male’s;
if she’s with someone else, she can defect –
her choice, and she becomes mine to protect;
just as each child must be kept safe and hale
for no one knows but that it could be mine.
This ape I am
feels drugged, ecstatic, doped,
that Earth’s two hundred people includes swirls
of limitless and ever-varied girls.
This ape I am
does not look at myself
doesn’t know about mirrors, lack of health,
doesn’t know fear of death, only of cold;
mirrorless, can’t be ugly, can’t be old.
This is one of my favourite poems. Originally published in Ambit ten years ago, it has been reprinted in magazines as diverse as Better Than Starbucks, Verse-Virtual and, last month, Bewildering Stories. It speaks to what I believe is a largely overlooked truth, that we are genetically predisposed to function best in social groups or households of 20 to 30 people, within a larger network of six to ten such groups. These provide the numbers of people that we can know well (the social group) and people that we can also recognise and interact with comfortably (the larger network). This is the world of chimpanzees and bonobos, and of the hunter-gatherer existence of early humans.
In practical terms, I am in favour of recreating the sense of community of the village, even within the context of cities. Develop housing complexes that become neighbourhoods – keep schools small – reintegrate nursing homes into the community, let the children and the old people interact – and (a further step in acknowledging our hunter-gatherer humanity) keep everyone in touch with parks, with gardens of fruit, flowers and vegetables, with trees and birds, and with a variety of animals.
Technically the poem is written in iambic pentameters, loosely structured in stanzas of varying length, with lines mostly rhymed but with no set rhyme scheme. (And note: a stanza’s initial “This ape I am” needs to be counted with the next line to produce the pentameter.) Iambic pentameters provide a natural mode for meditative or expository verse. The rhythm is comfortable for quiet reflection or narration. The rhyme in this case is a secondary enhancement.