Edward Lear and the Dolnik

From: Derek Attridge. “Rhythm: Children’s Poetry and the Dolnik“. In The Aesthetics of Children’s Poetry. Ed. Katherine Wakely-Mulroney and Louise Joy. Routledge, 2017.

In what follows, I hope to show by means of a few examples both the ubiquity and the effectiveness of the dolnik, as the most immediately recognised and most memorable metrical form in English, acrosstwo hundred year of children’s poetry.

Dolnik verse, unlike its stricter cousins, thinks nothing of overriding natural speech patterns in favour of a strong, regular rhythm; skilful users of it ensure that the syntectic and lexical properties of the words in question are such that the suppression can happen without a sense of disruption or tension (except where this contributes to the effectiveness of the verse).

The suitability of _dolnik_ for longer narrative verse s demonstrated in two famous poems, Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” and Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” (The latter is a little freer in its versification but returns repeatedly to the regular form.) Both use rhyme extensively, though without falling into a regular scheme, and the metre helps to move the poems along at a rollicking pace. These two poems aim at dramatic intensity, but another kid of narrative aims at comedy, a genre for which dolnik verse, with its capacity for bouncy thythms and prominent rhymes, is eminently suited. One master of the comic dolnik was Edward Lear. Let us take part of the first stanza of “The Jumblies”:

On the page its metre looks fearsomely complicated, and an attempt to explain it in terms of classical feet comes up with a seemingly random mixture of iambs and anapaests. But to the native speaker of English, at any rate, the lines need non conscious metrical analysis in order to flow with a joyous, infectious, and entirely appropriate rhythm. Lear bases his long stanza on the traditional form to provide an immediatelyt familiar framework, but gives it a delicious extension by adding a second full four-beat line before the final shorter line, thus creating a rhyming couplet where we might have expected a rhyme with the opening line. The lines I have omitted constitute another variation on th etraditional form: the realised beats occur in the long measure sequence, as the Jumblies shout difiance to the alarmed crowd, followed by a line with three full beats echoing the earlier three-beat lines: “In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!” The stanza then ends with a more conventional, abab stanza, beginning with a line that reduces the four-beat group to its minimal verbal proportions — “Far and few, far and few” — and ending with one that echoes, but inverts, the earlier refrain, “And they went to sea ina Sieve.”
The five following stanzas repeat this pattern of beats exactly, but the disposition of single and double offbeats changes (except for the final quatrain, which is repeated from stanza to stanza). The irrepressible jollity of the Jumblies, notwithstanding the shortcomings of the sieve as a sea-going vessel, comes over as much in the effervescent rhythm as in the tale of their adventures. It may be an example of critical over-inventiveness to suggest a connection between the choice of single or double offbeats and the content of the lines, but it si perhaps significant that both the friends’ warning and the repeated “Far and few” are slightly more sober lines, with no double offbeats.

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