Stephen Dobyns
Stanford Mohr Poet 2011
Aspects of the Syllable

Commentary on Chapter 4
of Stephen Dobyns in
Poet's Work, Poet's Play

Poetry Workshop
(English 192V)
Stanford University
Winter Quarter 2011

Peter Y. Chou

Best Words Best Order
Essays on Poetry (2003)

Preface: Stephen Dobyns, Stanford Mohr Poet (Winter 2011) told his Poetry Workshop class (English 192V) on January 19, 2010 that our homework assignment for next week is a 300-350 words essay on his handout— Chapter Four: Aspects of the Syllable (pp. 89-119) from Poet's Work, Poet's Play (2008) edited by Daniel Tobin & Pimone Triplett. Usually I enjoy reading books on poetry such as Donald Hall's Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird (1978), Maxine Kumin's To Make a Prairie (1980), Robert Hass's Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (1984), Edward Hirsch's How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999), and Stephen Dobyns' Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry (2nd Edition, 2003). However, I found this chapter difficult reading since I'm not familiar with many of the sound terms in poetry. This is probably the reason why I didn't devour Robert Pinsky's The Sounds of Poetry (1998) when attending his Stanford Poetry Workshops in 2007, though his book was not assigned reading. Below are notes of what I learned from this chapter, realizing what appears difficult may bring rewards if we pursue it with diligence. Since Dobyns placed more emphasis on William Barnes's "The Hill-Shade" than any other poem in this chapter, I will focus on this poem after making some surprising discoveries on its meaning. At the end my frustration turned to elation.

Poetry Definition & Reader's Anticipation

Dobyns begins this chapter addressing where does the poem exists— in the air as sound, on the page as text, or in the reader's mind, nonexistent until it is perceived. He defines the poem as both sound and text on the page, since the third alternative is suggested by the other two. By comparing literature and music to sequential arts (as opposed to painting and sculpture that can be glanced at once), we become invested in what is going to happen. Hence a writer can create suspense and anticipation to keep the reader's interest in the story. The example of more tension in "lion leaps" than "lion sleeps" or "kitten leaps" is obvious. The tension mounts if the object is "little girl" rather than "rubber ball" since we have a sense of cause and effect. All this seems obvious, but I've not seen it analyzed so simply as Dobyns did. That's why he's so prolific in poetry (15 books) and fiction (21 books) with ten Saratoga detective stories.

History of the English Language

I've not read much about the origins of the English language, so this section was fascinating. As a result of the Norman Conquest of 1066, thousands of Old French words were added to the Old English, so that there are more synonyms in English than other Western languages. Because the aristocracy spoke Norman and French, and court proceedings written in Latin, the people had no idea what is said against them in the courts. The Statute of Pleading (1362) stipulated that all pleas shall be rendered in the English Tongue. After 1362, Middle English (Chaucer's English) became the dominant language in England. The English used today derives mainly from West Saxons, with more word endings after loss of inflections. That's why it's easier to rhyme in French, Italian, and Spanish than in English. Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), introduced the sonnet into English. He recognized that the Petrarchan sonnet abba-abba used four rhymes with eight words, easy for Italian but hard for English. So he created the abab-cdcd rhyming scheme for the English sonnet. For Dobyns, "syllables are junctures within a stream of sound coming from a person's mouth." He notes the proto-Indo-European derivation for "word" (breaking or biting off something) and "speak" (strew, sprinkle, scatter). Thus, "we scatter words as we might scatter straw or sparks." This image is quite poetic!

"The Hill-Shade" by William Barnes

William Barnes's poem "The Hill-Shade" has three 6-line stanzas in iambic tetrameter with rhyme scheme of ABABCC, DEDEAA, FGFGAA


At such a time, of year and day,
In ages gone, that steep hill-brow
Cast down an evening shade, that lay
In shape the same as lies there now:
Though then no shadows wheel'd around
The things that now are on the ground.

The hill's high shape may long outstand
The house, of slowly-wasting stone;
The house may longer shade the land
Than man's on-gliding shade is shown;
The man himself may longer stay
Than stands the summer's rick of hay.

The trees that rise, with boughs o'er boughs,
To me for trees long-fall'n may pass;
And I could take these red hair'd cows
For those that pull'd my first-known grass;
Our flow'rs seem yet on ground and spray,
But, oh, our people; where are they?

Rhyme Scheme




The poem's theme is transiency of all things— some pass away more slowly than others— hills, trees, houses, people, cows, hay, flowers. Barnes used more closed syllables at the beginning of his lines than at the end. His A-rhymes (day, lay, stay, hay, spray, they) are all open. The O-sound of the B-rhymes brow and now sets up the Oh in the poem's last line— a sigh of grief. Cows and flowers pass away but have no specificity. Humans on the other hand are irreplacable, as we are all unique. Dobyns points out that Barnes used the word "shade" in the first two stanzas as darkness blocking rays of light. But by the poem's end the meaning evoked is of a ghost. Thus his title embraces both meanings. The question posed by his last line: "But, oh, our people; where are they?" is answered by the perceptive reader (Dobyns)— "The shades of our people are all around us, whether as ghosts or as memories." This is indeed a rich poem.

Further Exploration of Barnes's "The Hill-Shade"

Five full poems were discussed in this chapter— William Barnes's "The Hill-Shade", Edward Lear's "He Lived at Dingle Bank", Janet Lewis's "Girl Help", John Keats's "When I Have Fears", and Robert Lowell's "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket". However Dobyns spends more time analyzing Barnes's poem for its richness of syllables, stresses, and symbolic meanings (pp. 95-97, 111, 115-117). I never heard of William Barnes (1801-1886) before. Now I learn that he was not only a prolific poet (800 poems), minister for 40 years, philologist with Philological Grammar (1854) quoting from more than 70 different languages. He was a friend of Thomas Hardy, Alfred Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Since these poets have had glimpses of cosmic consciousness, I ask myself did Barnes experience this state of heightened awareness? With his strong interest in language, Barnes would see the word "photograph" (Greek: light+writing) as "sun-print" (Saxon). The Celtic Cross at Barnes grave symbolizes time (cross) and eternity (circle). This led me to examine his poem "Hill-Shade" again. Now I notice that Barnes has 10 "T"s in a row as the first letter of lines 5-14, symbolizing the flow of time in his first line of the poem. The letter T symbolizes a cross, with the horizontal bar representing time, and the vertical eternity. In his The English Alphabet (1975), Robert M. Hoffstein writes of the letter T as symbolizing Christ on the cross, representing renewal or rebirth. Tat in Sanskrit means Absolute (Brahman) as in "Tat Tvam Asi"— "That Thou Art". In the word "tree", T expresses the growth upward to produce the fruit in the garden (Tree of Life). The word "trees" appear in lines 13 & 14 of the poem. Barnes's A-rhymes (day, lay, stay, hay, spray, they) end with the letter "Y" (also last letter of his poem). The letter Y is the 25th letter in English. Hoffstein notes that the letter Y is a disguised hieroglyph for Christ on the cross. It represents a man with outstretched arms welcoming life— affirming it. Enclosed in a circle, it stands for three radii emanating from a center: the mystery of creation (Trinity). It is the measure of manifestation, as in year, yuga, and youth, in affirmation as in yes and yearn. Historically related to the letter U, it spells out you. (Image: Barnes is buried beneath a Celtic Cross memorial at St Peter's Church, Winterborne Came, England).

Cornerstone Letters in Barnes's "The Hill-Shade"

After the string of ten "T"s beginning lines 5-14, lines 15-18 begin with AFOB— a fob is a pocket watch, measuring time. Lines 2-4 begin with ICI— meaning here in French or the concept of space (presence). The first and last lines of this poem begins with the letters A and B— first two letters of the English and Hebrew alphabet. In Hebrew Aleph () is the "father" of the Aleph-Bet, whose original pictograph represents an ox ("cows" in line 15 of poem). Aleph also alludes to the ineffable mysteries of God's oneness. In Hebrew Bet () means house ("The house" in lines 8 & 9 of poem). Hoffstein notes that letter A symbolizes the first principle— Ain Soph Aur (infinite light) of the Kabbalah. "A" also means "without". "A" is then non-being or ground of our being, out of which being arises. This B (Beth) is the house or container of the Lord (Aleph). Genesis opens with the letter B in Hebrew— Bereshith (in the beginning) as in baby and birth. I recall attending a talk by Carlos Suarès, author of Cipher of Genesis (1970) in Cambridge, Massachusetts (circa 1974). He said that Aleph is the unthinkable first principle of all that is and all that is not. Bayt (Beth) is the container, archetype of all dwellings, the bowl housing this universe. The Hebrew glyph Bet () resembles a house constructed of three Vav () glyphs whose numerical value (Gematria) of 6 add up to 18, the same numerical value for chai or life (also linked to the 36 righteous souls, Lamedvavniks). The house of creation is then the life of the universe. Was Barnes aware of this when composing "The Hill-Shade" with 18 lines? By placing AB as the cornerstones of his poem, Barnes may also be alluding to Egyptian hieroglyphs AB for heart and BA for soul.

Etymology for Syllable & Hill Symbolism

Since this chapter is about syllables, its etymology comes from Greek syllabe "a syllable, several sounds or letters taken together," lit. "a taking together," from syn- "together" + stem of lambanein "to take". The word lambanein reminds me of Platonic Lambda Λ— "Soul of the Universe" (Timaeus 35b), a sonnet written last week for Dobyns class. Now I see this shape in Barnes's "The Hill-Shade" and that this poem while alluding to man's mortality is also hinting at the soul's immortality and eternity. The hill or mountain symbolizes inner loftiness of spirit. In alchemy, it refers to the hollow mountain, a cavern which is the "philosopher's oven". The vertical axis of hills and mountains drawn from its peak down to its base links it with the world-axis, and anatomically, with the spinal column. Eliade says "the peak of the cosmic mountain is not only the highest point on earth, it is also the earth's navel, the point where creation had its beginning"— the root. The mystic sense of the peak also comes from the fact that it is the point of contact between heaven and earth. The mountain's interior has often been taken as the Land of the Dead: the derivation of the Celtic and Irish fairy-hills, and of the legend, of a demiurge or hero asleep inside a mountain, one day to emerge and renew all things sublunar. In general, the mountain, the hill and the mountain-top are all associated with the idea of meditation, spiritual elevation and the communion of the blessed. (J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 1962, pp. 208-211) (Image: Silbury Hill, near Avebury, Wiltshire, England).

— Peter Y. Chou, January 26-27, 2011