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Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Great Molossus Disaster





















Tom Paulin has a hard ear, a heavy ear. Trying his hand at scansion in The Secret Life of Poems he almost always over-stresses. He hears Donne’s ‘yeares midnight’ and Coleridge’s ‘thin blue light’ as examples of the molossus, the rarely-used combination of three stressed syllables.

And then there’s this line from Edward Thomas: ‘Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved.’ Read it. Scan it. Did you read ‘Downhill’ and ‘not starved’ as spondees, giving the line a total of seven stresses? Because that’s how Paulin hears it.

Had Sylvia Plath got in on the over-stressing act she could have called her first collection, not The Colossus but The Molossus.

The great molossus disaster is not, of course, to be confused with the great molasses disaster of 1919, in which 21 peopled in a tidal wave of the sticky brown stuff.

Truly tragic.

6 comments:

Mark Granier said...

"Did you read ‘Downhill’ and ‘not starved’ as spondees, giving the line a total of seven stresses?"

The first is a trochee, the second closer to a spondee, but, I thnk, more naturally iambic (unless the narrator's voice is supposed to be that of a robot, an (A)E Thomas).

Anne said...

Not a heavy ear, but a different one. It's his NI accent. When they say "Post Office" it's two stresses and then one unstressed (an antibacchius), though for most mainlanders it's a dactyl.

I love to hear Paulin read. He's wonderful with Hopkins.

puthwuth said...

I say Post Office with two heavy stresses too. I also pronounce Berryman with a heavy stress on the 'man'. It must be all the molasses in my ear.

Mark Granier said...

"It must be all the molasses in my ear."

But at least you've had your antibacchius shot.

kit fryatt said...

Essex and Sussex are trochees when English people say them but usually spondees when Irish people do. Dorset as in Dorset Street in Dublin is an iamb, though Dorset the county is a trochee. So the phenomenon does exist: but I don't see how you could read "yeares midnight" as a molussus without sounding clunky. "Thin blue light" could be one, as a unit on its own, but it's unlikely to be scanned that way as part of a longer line. similarly, you could read both "Downhill" and "not starved" as spondees on their own, but it sounds very Stephen Hawking as part of what I read as an iambic pentameter line with 2 inverted feet.

Mark Granier said...

"Essex and Sussex are trochees when English people say them but usually spondees when Irish people do."

I've noticed that myself when talking with reps from the IDA (Irish Daleks Association).