Draco Layer One: The Literal or Historical Sense

Learn to scan.

Literature in English begins in poetry. Not because it was highfalutin’ and inaccessible, although literature in Latin was. But because it was not. 

Literature in English begins in a poem composed, or so the story goes, by a cowherd at the monastery of Whitby in Northumbria around the year of Our Lord 700. Our cowherd—his name was Caedmon—had left the feast when the harp came round because he was too embarrassed not to be able to scan.

He went back to his cowshed to hide, but the Holy Spirit found him anyway (you know it was the Holy Spirit because it looked like a dove) and told him to write down what he heard. Okay, that’s not quite the story. Doves tended to talk to great composers like Pope Gregory the Great (see the manuscripts). Caedmon reportedly was visited by an angel in a dream, but the result was similar.

Just as Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604, but only after he sent missionaries to England) was credited with composing chants for the liturgy, Caedmon was inspired (technical term—the Spirit breathed through him) to compose hymns on the themes of Creation, the Fall, and Redemption. Significantly, Caedmon (like the authors of the Gregorian liturgy) composed his hymns in verse—thus giving birth to over a thousand years of great hymn-writing in English.

Thanks be to God—it is the only poetry most people now can remember.

It is surely ironic that a tradition that begins with a cowherd is now considered so highbrow that only professors of literature are allowed to talk about it, much less learn it. Tell someone you want to write poetry, and you will immediately be taken for either a Marxist or a fool. (You doubt me? Read The ABC of Communism—once the machines take over, we are all going to have time for writing poetry!)

The poets of the Dragon Common Room are not Marxists, but we are happy fools for Christ! Thus, like Caedmon, although we were never trained in the high art of literary poetry, we have taken up the figurative harp and learned to scan.

Our primary meter is iambic pentameter, which if you have not taken fancy literature classes on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, is simply the meter of your heartbeat in sets of five:

daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM

I have read a number of different explanations of how to spot this meter, some of them more helpful than others.

Clandestine poet and famous comedian Stephen Fry compares the beats of the iambs to musical counts, with each bar or measure counting as a single foot:

and ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and FIVE

Five beats, five feet: “Five feet marching in rhythm. If the foot is a heartbeat, the metre can best be described as the readout or cardiogram trace.” [1]

Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Pinsky insists that what matters is the sound, not the stress as such, so that in iambic pentameter it is simply pairs of syllables “in which the second syllable sticks out more in sound,” [2] while professor of creative writing and cinema William Baer describes iambs in terms of “constantly rising rhythm, moving from light syllable to stressed syllable,” as one might say, the HEART. [3]

Professor of literature and translator of Dante Anthony Esolen describes metrical English as a pattern of stresses which we hear as a series of rising and falling waves. In iambic pentameter, there will be five “crests” and five “troughs,” with each line beginning with a trough and ending on a crest. For example, from Milton: 

To JUS·ti·FY the WAYS of GOD to MAN.

Which all sounds quite intimidating, until you read it out loud. Notice how the stresses fall where they would if you said the words without realizing you were reading verse. That is what makes great poetry in English sing: the stress on the syllables rises and falls “naturally,” although to achieve this perfect concordance of stress and vocabulary takes great art, a.k.a. attention to detail. [4]

The question I am sure you are asking: But why would you want to?

Because poetry is the form not just of hymns and Communists, but of all great folklore in every tradition, including English, although you wouldn’t know it from most modern verse. That most modern poets don’t seem to remember this fact about poetry—that it was folk—is, as Professor Esolen points out, because they have forgotten something even more important about poetry than that it was written by cowherds: it was originally for the most part religious

Think Homer and Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Dante, Petrarch, and Milton. Great poetry like Caedmon’s takes up religious themes like Creation because what folk like Caedmon sing about are things that matter—like God. In Professor Esolen’s words:
Perhaps that is why American schools [and, presumably also, British] have so thoroughly abandoned the study of literature written before 1900, and poetry in particular. It touches upon the eternal things. How can you read Paradise Lost [see line above], when in your mad institution God is deemed a filthier word than those scrawled by a teenage boy on the wall of a lavatory? [5]
It is almost as if, for modernity, poetry is dangerous because it touches on eternal things—but why should that be?

Here’s another theory: because it is beautiful, and beauty depends on something that frightens modernity even more than the word God. Because poetry is beautiful, it is also memorable, which means it sticks in the mind and becomes real—and thus a powerful antidote to the manipulation of those who would have us think otherwise about God.

What was it that Caedmon sang? The Venerable Bede (d. 735) offered a translation into Latin, which, he said, could hardly do the lines justice: “For it is not possible to translate verse, however well composed, literally from one language to another without some loss of beauty and dignity.” [6] And yet, we remember Caedmon thanks to Bede as the author of this first English hymn (here, as translated by Craig Williamson):
Now let us praise the Creator and Guardian
of the heavenly kingdom, his power and purpose,
his mind and might, his wondrous works.
He shaped each miraculous beginning,
each living creature, each earthly kind.
He first made for the children of men
heaven as a roof. Then our holy Shaper
crafted middle-earth, a home for mankind:
our God and Guardian watching over us—
eternal, almighty—our Lord and King. [7]
The holy Shaper crafting our middle-earth? It almost sounds...magical. Like something you would read in a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Like something that might bring you sorrow—and joy. Like something breath-taking and solemn, written by hobbits. Like the song of Creation as crafted by Everyman.

Why are we writing Draco Alchemicus in iambic pentameter? Because that is the meter in which Everyman sings in English to God. To be fair, Caedmon’s verse was written in Old English and, therefore, in alliterative verse, but those of us who write in modern English are but poor craftsman in comparison. And yet, as that great professor of Old and Middle English J.R.R. Tolkien put it in his argument in favor of myth, 

We make still by the law in which we’re made. [8]

Which, if you read it out loud, you will realize is written in iambic pentameter. 

Read on: Draco Layer Two: The Allegorical or Christological Sense

Can you solve the riddle and read the signs?

dragoncommonroom.com


[1] Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within (London: Arrow Books, 2005), 7.
[2] Robert Pinsky, The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 31.
[3] William Baer, Writing Metrical Poetry: Contemporary Lessons for Mastering Traditional Forms (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2006), 20.
[4] Anthony Esolen, The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), 14.
[5] Ibid., 10.
[6] Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, IV.24 (22), trans. Bertram Colgrave (Oxford: Oxford Medieval Texts, 1969; with new introduction by Judith McClure and Roger Collins, 1994), 216.
[7] Craig Williamson, The Complete Old English Poems (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 1050.
[8] J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 1964), 87.

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