sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
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This is one of those posts about Things All Writers Know that turn out to be less clear-cut than you think. In this case it's inversion, the violence that poems sometimes do to normal word order in the name of rhyme and metre. This was commonplace in the 18th and 19th centuries, fell out of use in the 20th and nowadays will cause an editor to bin you without a second thought. And quite right too, in most cases. But just now and then, something happens to make you think twice. In my case, it was pondering the construction of Latin sentences while listening to a recording of a wartime George Formby ENSA concert.

He was singing the slightly less polite version of "When I'm Cleaning Windows" that he reserved for such occasions, with the verse:
At eight o'clock, the lady wakes,
At ten past eight her bath she takes,
At quarter past, me ladder breaks,
When I'm cleaning windows.


Now it's clear that the inversion in the second line is needed for the rhyme (and forgivable anyway in a song lyric), but it's also clear, to me at least, that it's actually funnier. Even if "she takes her bath" could somehow be got to rhyme, something else would be lost, and I think it has to do with the three hammer-blows of those verbs, wakes-takes-breaks, ending the lines. And this is where Latin comes in…

Your typical English sentence goes: subject (with any necessary qualifiers), verb (ditto), object, any other business. There can be alternative orders, but they are limited, because English nouns, like those of most modern languages, don't decline and therefore depend on their position in the sentence to make their function clear. Take the sentence "A boy kisses a girl in a garden". You can alter the placing of the garden, but move the boy and girl and you invert the meaning. Nor, normally, does it seem at all natural to put the verb at the end.

You might compare this sentence to Rolf Harris painting a picture: first he puts in the main figure, then makes clear what he's doing (say draws a bat in his hand). Then comes the object, the ball, and last of all he fills in the background – grass, spectators, etc. Rolf, of course, could paint in a different order, but this sentence hasn't got many alternatives. Certainly it can't go "a boy a girl in a garden kisses". But that is just what Latin does: puer puellam in horto osculat. Here too there are alternatives, more in fact, because the function of declined nouns does not depend on position in the sentence; puer is nominative wherever you put it. But the verb, typically, does come at the end.

This sentence is less like a painting than a scene being shot in a film. The director places the actors, arranges the scenery, however he wants, but only then comes the call of "action" that animates the scene – the verb. And that's what happens, three times over, in the Formby verse. The lady – wakes, and we at once mentally fill in the background of the bed. Her bath she – fills, runs, cleans? No – takes, and we have as good as seen her undress and get in. And the ladder… breaks. Those three line-endings are so sharp, and so funny, because they are verbs, because they are dropped into the scene to animate it like the director's "action".

It's interesting that, though amateur poets these days surely do invert "for the rhyme", I'm not sure this was how it began, because if you look at old folk songs and ballads, you won't find much of it. They use other rhyming expedients like stock filler phrases and approximate rhymes, but they don't invert normal word order near as much as you might think. It's far more common among the literate, educated poets of the 18th and 19th centuries, and I do wonder if it seemed more natural to them because they knew Latin.

None of this means, of course, that contemporary English poets can construct their sentences as if they were writing Latin. But it is interesting, and instructive, to look at how other languages structure sentences, and what a verb can do if you can somehow manage – and it can now and then be done, with inventive syntax – to get it in what is arguably its natural place, the equivalent of the director's "action", without sounding contrived. (A boy and girl, in a garden, kiss..?)

I wonder how that Formby verse would run in Latin…
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December 2011

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