Thursday, June 26, 2008

e.g. "Ever adventuring Doctor Jones finds the ark thought lost"

Today Meredith Martin alerted me to the neatest thing, with the most unassuming title: John Box's A Metrical History of England (1882). It's a 36 page poem that goes chronologically through the events of English history. It's also a gimcrack, proto-Oulipian mnemonic puzzle!

As Box's "Preface and Key" describes:
"The following rhymes are a synopsis of English History - easily learnt and remembered. They have, however, some other advantages: -
1st. Each line expresses a historical fact;
2nd. The date of that fact is contained in the line.
The letters a, b, c, d stand for 1, 2, 3, 4 respectively; o stands for nought; f for five; s for six; e for eight; n for nine; v, the only unappropriated letter of the word seven, stands for that number.
With the exception of the first stanza, the dates up to 978 are found by taking the initial letter of the first three words of each line, thus: -

"A bulwark arises from Solway to Tyne"

a, b, a; that is 121, the date of that event."

To avoid every line beginning with an "A", centuries are given by "the measure of the verse," with the first words then encoding the particular year within that century. "Measure" seems to mean syllable count, but is hardly explained and doesn't seem to hold up. In any case, verses are grouped by century, as if in admission of the failing.

At its best, the result sounds like this:

"Over blighted England rose from bleeding Dane a mournful wail;
Over craven England flew red vengeance with each eastern gale;
Over English waters sail a noble fleet that traitors lead,
Only noble Alphege standing firm against the Danish greed." (14)

(so that would be: A.D. 1002/1003/1008/1009)

The first years of any century begin with these orotund "O"s, which fits the almost incidental chant of the poem. The poem doesn't have space within its constraints for suggesting causation: with no enjambment each event stays on its isolated line, and only rhetorical cues can partly suggest the causes and effects that the poet, nevertheless, seems always on the verge of suggesting. A conqueror will arrive in one line, vengeance will be meted out in the next; his son is full grown as new couplet begins; canonized as a saint soon after.

The result is a cryptic, anaphoric tide of half-comprehensible moments that sounds, in total, more like a soothsayer intoning the future than a legend of past events. Particularly since the dates in early English Chronicles vary, such Saxon incidents as the ones cited above can be hard to place as particular events. Lines that lack a proper noun may only find their referents when we decipher cryptic, seemingly non-objective judgments ("traitors", for instance, above). The strange mix of verb tenses, throughout, works against any sense that these events occurred, or are occurring, in a succession. In fact, the poem often seems to be describing some Sarum plain in which all of English history, every invasion and expansion, dukes it out simultaneously.

While Box's diction doesn't particularly strive to follow the development of the history it's describing -- (as, say, in the Oxen of the Sun episode in Ulysses) -- he does, by sheer fact of his nouns, present a sort of march from Anglo-Saxon ("Egbert boldly came crushing through Essex and Kent") to the polyglot Victorian imperium ("Decisive march to Goojerat brought Punjaub 'neath our rule"). Perhaps most strangely, the gradual lengthening of the lines, due to that inscrutable but somehow advancing "measure" of the centuries, lends a prosodic telos to the development of history. By the end of the poem, after the Whitmanesque anaphora that has structured time all along, we arrive at Whitmanesque lines that stretch to 18 syllables/8 or 9 feet (it's mostly iambic throughout). Fitting then that we get "Southern against the Northern States now stand in sad array" as the marker for 1861. That American-focused line should also suggest that the bounds of a metrical history of England, per se, must become global, and the meter distends accordingly. It's really at the breaking point by the end of the work, which is of course also the end of the possible history that Box could have helped us to remember.

There's some kind of rhythmic-nationalist lesson here that I'll leave it to Meredith to decipher. It's unclear to me whether the lines expand necessarily to "keep beneath control" (45) the far corners of the empire, or whether such octameter (?) is a symptom of over-reach.

As for being useful, as a portable mnemonic for national history, I wonder how this would fare. Could anyone actually use this poem to study for their history exams? The poem seems like a strange mix of mundane classroom drill (Roy G Biv, et al) and prophetic Hebraic numerology. The preface, in any case, notes that the mechanism of the poem, which seems to encrypt history as something both arbitrary and fated, leads to lines "written with unaccustomed fetters and manacles which hamper the freedom of their flow." If the poem does seek to document some movement toward imperial control, it does so only by enslaving the poet.