Tag Archives: scansion

Odd poem: Edward Lear, ‘Imitation of the Olden Poets’

Time is a taper waning fast!
Use it, man, well whilst it doth last:
Lest burning downwards it consume away,
Before thou hast commenced the labour of the day.

Time is a pardon of a goodly soil!
Plenty shall crown thine honest toil:
But if uncultivated, rankest weeds
Shall choke the efforts of the rising seeds.

Time is a leasehold of uncertain date!
Granted to thee by everlasting fate.
Neglect not thou, ere thy short term expire,
To save thy soul from ever-burning fire.

This poem is a gorgeous piece of deliberately bad verse. Edward Lear had a wonderful ear for rhythm, and this appalling piece is a great jab at poets who, even to a Victorian like Lear, were long out of date: meaning, syntax and prosody are all garbled, wrapping around bland but unclear moralising exhortations.

The first line of each stanza ends with an exclamation mark even if, as in verse three, it is in the middle of a sentence.

The very first line has four simple feet in iambic tetrameter, eight syllables.
The second line also has eight syllables but manages to make the rhythm stumble through poor phrasing.
The third line has ten syllables; it can be read as iambic pentameter, but the previous lines encourage an attempt to keep to four slightly crowded feet.
The fourth line goes to twelve syllables, at which point the prosody is collapsing towards Lear’s younger contemporary, William McGonagall–you either cram everything into four feet, or let the stanza dribble out in too many iambics.

The second stanza begins “Time is a pardon of a goodly soil!” Very affirmative, but what does it mean? And are we back to pentameters now? It’s not clear–the second line is definitely tetrameter… so how to read the third and fourth lines?

The last stanza is pure iambic pentameter. The chaos is in the confused understanding of time, “a leasehold of uncertain date”, but is somehow part of “everlasting fate”. Similarly “thy short term” is shadowed by burning fire”. On balance, time appears to be represented as infinite–events are portrayed as everlasting–but time is also called “a leasehold of uncertain date”; that phrase is merely a poor expression that confuses Time with the time of a human’s life.

The poem has been set to music by Bertram Wooster with a Betty Boop video. They credit Lear, and the poem shows up in PoemHunter and a couple of other places… and I want to believe it is Lear… but I’d be happier if I could find more about the origin of the piece.

Candle” by kkalyan is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

Short poem: ‘Golden Childhood’

Golden girl on a sunset beach
With a dog and a horse,
Golden boy spears a silver shark
Under the sea;

Is such a dream forever in reach
Or forever false?
We stumble, emotional, through the warm dark
Back to the sea.

I wrote this in my 20s when I was saying goodbye to the Bahamas – my father had died, my mother had sold the house and moved back to Europe. For the next few decades I lived in Denmark, Canada, the US… but eventually came back to the sea.

The poem was originally published in Candelabrum. I always had difficulty with that seventh line. Originally it had “emotionally”, and I sort of justified it with the line itself being a stumble… but it’s a bad line, too many syllables, too many consonants. Sometimes when I submit a poem to a magazine, the editor points out a flaw, and more rarely, offers a useful alternative. Poems can always be tinkered with.

Photo cropped from “Girl riding a horse at sunset on Bali” by Jimmy McIntyre – Editor HDR One Magazine is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0