Date: Mon, 20 Aug 2001
Subject: LANGUAGE PROSODY (H.D., "Helen in Egypt")


[This reply is somewhat incomplete (defective), as a comprehensive survey
of "Helen" goes further than this--- but as other matters are distracting
me for greater thoroughness here, I thought of posting this as is,

JJ was back-channeled:

>>I'm finding these metrical lessons fascinating. You mentioned HD's poetry
earlier. I've been looking at the metrics of Helen in Egypt for a
while now and can see why I've made little progress. what is your source
on the Greek metrics? I know of nothing like this published on H in E,
nor on HD at all, really. Do you have any suggestions?

Thank you for calling my attention to "Helen in Egypt," which I had passed
over too lightly: I've been pursuing a genealogy for mainly
double/multiple-stress feet, and "Helen" didn't seem pertinent.

I've now scrutinized the "Helen" meter extensively. Here's what I find:

1 I3/I3*, A3/A3*; variations (A.I, I2.A2, etc.)

About three-quarters of the lines can be completely summed using
conventional meters such as anapestic trimeter (A3: _ _ / _ _ / _ _ / ) or
iambic trimeter (I3: _ / _ / _ / ), with some trochaic lines (T: / _ . . .
) and dactyls (D: / _ _ . . .). There are novel but recognizable
combinations of those four standard feet: A.I, I2.A2, DT, DT2, etc. And
there are occasional, conventional (I5) iambic pentameter decasyllables ( _
/ _ / _ / _ / _ / ). {Not necessarily a pentameter, but an amusing instance
of a decasyllable: "the syllables H-E-L-E-N-A" [P.VII.2]}


Many of these meters end with an "extra," unstressed syllable which I mark
----f: I3 or even I3* (below) become I3f ( _ / _ / _ / _) and I3* ( _ / _ _
/ _ / _ ), A3 becomes A3f ( _ _ / _ _ / _ _ / _ ), etc. In standard
contemporary Formalist scansion, familiar lines such as iambic pentameter
or such are "allowed" to assume an additional, extra-metrical syllable:
those lines are called "feminine," which, in the case of H.D. and the
feminism surrounding her, seems like an apt reading.

That scansion, though, is vulnerable to a larger re-mapping of the entire
book as possibly hinging on two important, other classical feet uncommon to
American English readings: the cretic ( / _ / ) and amphibrach ( _ / _ ).
The case for terminal amphibrach is not, though, a particularly strong one,
I believe: lines inexplicable by any other system are few. Regardless, I'm
left inconclusive on this point: it regains relevant upon examining the
amphibrach/cretic lines in "Helen": three-syllable lines consisting of only
one cretic each ("gold from dross? / death from life?"), cretic dimeters


"flame, I prayed, flame forget" [P.I.7];
"No--- I spoke evil words" [P.IV.8];
"underneath vault and tomb" [E.I.6];
"day before yesterday" [P.IV.3] = D2?;
"being god-like and poor;" [L.III.3] = A2?/Dod B?;
"so my throat knew that day" [L.VII.3] = A.cret? A2?!),

cretic-choriambic (cret.chor: "Amen-Zeus, let me not ask" [P.II.8],
appearing after the above-cited string of two full cretic lines, hence
"weighting" its reading against an interpretation as lekythion), or cretic
leading into exceptional "colarions" [figures] helpfully interpretable as
containing cretics (cret, I.cret: "bring her here / to join hand with hand"
[P.V.5] = cret, bacchiac.I?), or in combination (cret.T2: "Learn of me
(this is Paris)---" [L.I.8]).

It also seems cursory to ignore final unstressed syllables as feminine
since, when followed by lines beginning with iambs they set up a
transversal! cross-line dactyl/anapest and, more significantly, when
followed by anapests, they create three unstressed syllables (a pyrrhic, _
_ _ ), a rhythm uncommon to pre-XXth cent. poetry that's difficult to
explain by Formalist conventions and hence more interesting as a Modernist


(The first two syllables of an English verse are typically the most
vulnerable to ambiguity.)

Here's where it gets interesting:

Almost half of the above-mentioned trimeters come in a consistent
alternative: they vary the middle foot, using the associated complement:
two outer iambs begin and end a line with an anapest in the middle --- I3
becomes I3* (or I.A.I: _ / _ _ / _ / ); vice-versa, a trimeter with
beginning and ending outer anapests may take an iamb in the middle foot: A3
becomes A3* (or A.I.A: _ _ / _ / _ _ / ). In fewer cases, forms like T.D.T
(trochee-dactyl-trochee: / _ / _ _ / _ / ) appear.

In H.D.'s practice, the interchanging of these alternatives is very musical
and constantly surprising in a way that makes it understandable why someone
would have made no progress in detecting the pattern. It must seem
constantly shifting and changing read aloud, although simultaneously
continually familiar. Every time one of these line starts, it can go in
one of two directions, and from there branch out into further-multiplying


There is a heavy use throughout the book of a line ( / _ _ / _ / ) known
in classical meter as DODRANS A, and its anti-type, DODRANS B ( / _ / _ _ /
) (although Dodrans are nor technically classified as part of the
iambic-anapestic family, but aeolo-choriambic). These less familiar lines
may be worth quoting, at the offset; many of them are questions, and
book-sections often start with dodrans:


few were the words we said, [1.3]
turning to view the stars, [I.6]
How could I hide my eyes? [I.8]
This is the spread of wings, [II.4]
Will he forever weigh [II.7]
Helen against the loss . . . "
suddenly weighs me down "
Love should be born of War? . . . [II. 8]
written upon the Walls, . . . "
whether he broke the law "
What does he mean by that? . . . [III.2]
many the problems solved "
Why should I answer him? [III.4]
why does she hold us here? [IV.1]
listen and make an end . . . [IV.2]
Helen will be your share . . . "
this is the iron-ring, . . . "
how did the story end? "

[In the arguable cases where the line ends not in a clearly accented
monosyllable ("stars," "eyes," "wings") but in more ambiguous
pronoun/particle-type words ("him"), others might read the lines as D2,
dactylic dimeters, / _ _ / _ _ . The upswing inflection of the voice at
the end of an interrogative sentence, that slight rise of pitch, though, I
think weights the meters more strongly toward Dodrans A. Also, I find few
"pure" D2s in the book. D2 functions more as part of a larger (often
"falling" rhythm") line, such as D2.T: "merciless strokes for the Flower"
[Eidolon, VI.3], "over the smoldering embers" [Eid.IV.8], ---

Even where a pure D2 may be discernible (Eid. V.4: "numb with a memory"),
the final ambiguous syllable is of a type conventionally mis-accentuated .
. .]


Anyone giving even cursory attention to the matter of classical/Gk. metrics
becomes familiar with "hemiepes" ( / _ _ / _ _ / ). Like an expanded
version of our earlier "hypodochmiac" but with two unstressed syllables
instead of one on each side symmetrically framing the middle stress:

whether he laughed as they fell; . . . [P.II.8]
whether he cheated, he lied --- "
why did I call him to me? . . . [P.III.1]
"shall we seek Cyprus' rose . . . " ~ "
was he afraid of the dead? [P.III.3]
~Helena, which was the dream?~ [P.III.5]
but for the wisdom of Thoth; [P.V.2]
never the Star in the night. [ " .8]
into the innermost shrine [ " .VI.3]
Why did he pledge her to death? [ " . VI.4]
Surely, I am not alone, [ " .VI.7]'
Helena, reads the degree, [ " . VII.2]
counting the fall of your feet, [ " " .6]
kindles a spark from the past; . . . [L.IV.2]
only the heroes remained, "
ravaging eagle; his war [E.I.6]
hostler who tended his steeds, [E.III.5]
thunder and roar of the sea [E.IV.1]