Monthly Archives: March 2011

Dissonance and resolution in poetry

I was going through some old notebooks and found this:

With this my guilt how shall I live
Unless, my darling, you forgive
Me? Can you? Yes, I know you said
That God forgives, but God is just
A word which you can use instead
Of “I” and which means no one. Must
I turn to Him and not to you?
I guess that He will have to serve.
God only knows what I shall do.
I guess I’ll get what I deserve.

I can’t be sure how effective this is, since I’m the one who wrote it, but the idea is to create an effect analogous to dissonance and resolution in music. (“The rhetorical trope of deceiving expectation,” writes Bacon in Novum Organum, “is conformable with the musical trope of avoiding or sliding from the close or cadence.”) Expectations are set up, violated, and then fulfilled after all in an unanticipated way.

The first foiled expectation comes at the end of the fourth line, where both the rhyme scheme (after aab, he should expect b) and the familiarity of the phrase should lead him to anticipate “God is dead,” but what he reads is “God is just.” This sets him up again, since the context should lead him to misinterpret it to mean that God is just (as opposed to being merciful). The fifth line violates this expectation, forcing him to reinterpret “just” as an adverb, but at the same time it fulfills the previously-violated expectation by saying something which is very close in meaning to “God is dead” and by ending with the anticipated b rhyme.

The word “serve” at the end of line 8 also plays with expectations, since “do” would have fit just as well and would have rhymed with line 7, but I can’t really say it violates an expectation, since at this point the reader isn’t sure whether to expect a couplet or a quatrain. Then the end of the poem resolves an expectation which had been left hanging for a few lines by referring back to the idea of justice.


Is this a legitimately useful technique in poetry? I’ve been playing with it off and on for a while now (see “Dear Old Bill” and “No Freedom to Fight For“), but it’s always been just that — playing with a technique, not really writing poetry. Nor am I aware of any real poet who has used it successfully.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

Smoking and creativity: a few data points

Bruce Charlton recently posted on a possible link between smoking and creative accomplishment. In the comments, Dennis Mangan said that nicotine seemed especially helpful for writers and even asked, “Has there ever been a great writer who wasn’t a smoker?” Out of curiosity, I decided to check.

I took out Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment, looked at the highest-ranking writers in his roster of significant figures in Western literature — those with a score of at least 25 on a scale from 1 (Joyce Cary, DuBose Heyward, and others of like stature) to 100 (Shakespeare) — and tried to find out who smoked and who didn’t. I had originally planned to check a larger number of writers, but sleuthing out the smoking habits of historical figures quickly becomes tedious. For whatever it’s worth, here’s what I found. If you have additional information about the smoking habits of any of these people, please leave a comment.


  • Molière: “No matter what Aristotle and the Philosophers say, nothing is equal to tobacco; it’s the passion of the well-bred, and he who lives without tobacco lives a life not worth living.”
  • Lord Byron: “Sublime tobacco! which from east to west / Cheers the tar’s labor or the Turkman’s rest. / Divine in hookas, glorious in a pipe / When tipp’d with amber, mellow, rich, and ripe; / Like other charmers, wooing the caress / More dazzlingly when daring in full dress; / Yet thy true lovers more admire by far / Thy naked beauties—give me a cigar!”
  • Dostoevsky: a heavy smoker, rolled his own cigarettes
  • Schiller
  • Sir Walter Scott
  • T. S. Eliot: died of emphysema reportedly brought on by his heavy smoking
  • Milton: smoked a pipe every night before going to bed
  • Baudelaire
  • Pushkin: an occasional social smoker
  • Dickens
  • Keats

Smokers who quit

  • Tolstoy
  • Émile Zola: “Perfection is such a nuisance that I often regret having cured myself of using tobacco.”

Non-smokers by choice

These people lived at a time when tobacco was available but did not use it.

  • Goethe: “Only a few things I find as repugnant as snakes and poison. These four: tobacco smoke, bedbugs and garlic and [cross].”
  • Rousseau
  • Voltaire
  • Victor Hugo: hated smoking, refused to allow anyone to smoke around him

Non-smokers of necessity

These people lived and died before tobacco had been introduced into the Old World.

  • Dante
  • Virgil
  • Homer
  • Petrarch
  • Boccaccio
  • Euripides
  • Horace
  • Cicero
  • Ovid
  • Aeschylus
  • Sophocles


I’ve been unable to find any definite information on these people’s smoking habits.

  • Shakespeare: never mentions tobacco in his writing, but that doesn’t prove anything
  • Jean Racine
  • Ibsen
  • Balzac
  • James Joyce
  • Cervantes
  • Gogol
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Rilke: a biography mentions that he at first considered tobacco smoke “vile” but later got used to the smell; implies that he was a non-smoker, though I suppose he may have taken up the habit later
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley


Filed under Drugs, Literature, Statistics

Dreaming in a forgotten language

I dreamed that I was organizing an activity at a high school, at which the students were going to recite a certain prayer or psalm or something in several different “holy” languages — Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Coptic, I think. I wanted to assign each language to a different group of students, but none of them would agree to do Greek, which was considered the most difficult of the four. I said, “Come on, who’s going to do Greek? Who’s going to recite the good old Chliep Doroch?” (I’ve transcribed the sound as best I can, with “ch” as in “Bach.” The IPA would be [xljep dorox]. In the dream, I didn’t have any particular spelling in mind.)

The prayer began “Chliep doroch…” in Greek, you see, and people often used those two words to refer to the whole thing, just as with the Pater Noster or the Kyrie Eleison. Their literal meaning was “Dear Lord.” I was rather proud of the way I had pronounced the Greek words in precisely the correct way, avoiding the novice’s mistake of reading it Chlieb dorog.


Upon waking up, I immediately jotted down the “Greek” phrase using the International Phonetic Alphabet — both the correct pronunciation and the common mistake — just in case it should turn out to mean something.

Throughout the day, the phrase was in the back of my mind. I figured it probably wasn’t any actual language (certainly not Greek!), but that my mind was unlikely to have created it out of nothing at all. Maybe chliep was related to the German Liebe, and doroch to the Latin dirigere — “loved director” for “dear Lord”? Or maybe doroch just came from the English dear, with chliep perhaps cognate with the Old English hlaf — as in hlafweard, “loaf-guard,” from which our modern word lord is derived. . . .

Then it suddenly struck me that pronouncing chlieb dorog as chliep doroch was consistent with the phonological rules of Russian, and that, come to think of it, I was almost certain that хлеб was an actual Russian word, though I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it meant. (I took a few semesters of Russian in college but have forgotten almost all of it.) When I got home from work, I found a Russian dictionary online and discovered that хлеб means “bread” and thus probably is an etymological cousin to “loaf” and “lord,” just as I had speculated. It turns out that дорог is also a word in Russian — either of two different words, actually, depending on which syllable is stressed. If the final syllable is stressed, it means “of the roads” (genitive plural of дорога); but if the first syllable is stressed, it means — of all things — “dear” (short form of дорогой). So “Хлеб дорог” could mean either “the bread of the roads” or “Bread is dear.” The dream pronunciation, with the syllables equally stressed and both [o]s fully realized (in actual Russian, the unstressed vowel would be reduced), is perhaps meant to suggest both simultaneously.


The Russian word for “dear,” like its English equivalent, can mean either “beloved” or “expensive.” A Google search for “хлеб дорог” turns up David Ricardo in translation: “не потому хлеб дорог, что платится рента, а рента платится потому, что хлеб дорог” –“Corn is not high because a rent is paid, but a rent is paid because corn is high.”

As for the “bread of the roads” reading, it reminds me of the”waybread” (lembas) of Tolkien’s elves.

Leave a comment

Filed under Anecdotes, Dreams, Language

Was the firmament good after all?

Much of the 13th and final book of St Augustine’s Confessions is given over to a very meticulous — even tedious in places — analysis of the first chapter of Genesis, combing over every word and turn of phrase again and again, interpreting and reinterpreting it as if determined to winkle out every last molecule of meaning.

As I was reading this, I was naturally curious to see whether Augustine would pick up on the oddity in Genesis 1 which I had recently noticed and commented on —  namely, that God created the firmament on the second day but neglected to pronounce it good until the sixth. But instead I was startled to read this:

Of the several kinds of Thy works, when Thou hadst said “let them be,” and they were, Thou sawest each that it was good. Seven times have I counted it to be written, that Thou sawest that that which Thou madest was good: and this is the eighth, that Thou sawest every thing that Thou hadst made, and, behold, it was not only good, but also very good, as being now altogether.

Apparently the puzzle I had spent so much time pondering didn’t even exist in Augustine’s Bible! Where my King James clearly has only seven instances of God pronouncing his creation good, it appears that the version St Augustine was using had eight — with the additional “it was good” presumably being applied to the firmament.

I tried looking up Genesis 1 in the Vulgate, which is figured is what Augustine would have been reading, but it turns out to be the same as our English Bibles, with God saying “it was good” only seven times and neglecting the firmament. Then, figuring that Augustine may instead have been reading Vetus Latina versions translated from the Septuagint, I looked that up and, sure enough, the Septuagint Genesis 1 inserts an extra “and God saw that it was good,” applied to the firmament, into the eighth verse.

I don’t really know what to conclude from this. I suppose it’s possible that a line which was accidentally lost in the Masoretic text has been preserved in the LXX — but it seems equally probable that, the original text being so decidedly odd on this point, the LXX translators fudged it a bit and inserted a line which obviously seemed to belong.

At any rate, it’s too bad St Augustine didn’t have a Vulgate handy when he wrote his Confessions. I’m sure he would have noticed the firmament discrepancy and come up with an ingenious explanation for it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Old Testament, Translation