Thursday, February 4, 2016

Limerical Catalexis

I was recently reminded of some verse I composed four or five years ago to illustrate the meaning of the word "catalectic" in James Joyce's Ulysses to a group of students who were mostly unacquainted with the terms and concepts of prosody. A more detailed discussion of that passage in Ulysses is in my post of March 20, 2015 titled "Protean Prosody" in this blog, which you can scroll down to, if you so wish.

Below is the text of my verse and its gloss:

His Grandmother to the Fox: "Iamb that I Am"
Delining the (Night)Mare

The verse we read has rhythmic feet
That measure out prosodic beat;
And if the poet's sense is sure,
The game's afoot in meter pure:
Unstressed, then stressed, the iambs trot,
While stressed-unstressed is trochees' lot.
The count of feet within each line
Is one more thing to here define:
A tetrametric line is thus;
A catalectic line's this.

[This relates to the third chapter of Ulysses by James Joyce. Those familiar with Stephen's seaside introspections will recognize the passage this illumines.]

The last line loses a syllable without losing a foot, thereby becoming catalectic. It falters, rhythmically. And the rhyme falters, too, becoming more an alliteration or a slant rhyme, whereas the previous eight lines were perfectly rhyming couplets. I did this to emphasize the effect of the catalexis.

One further note, in case a point above is misunderstood: Losing an entire foot is not usually considered catalexis. Sometimes, poets deliberately employ lines of different length--as in the traditional ballad form, which alternates four feet, three feet; four feet, three feet in each stanza. The form itself calls for the second and fourth lines to be shorter by a foot than the first and third. Usually, catalexis consists of a single dropped syllable with the foot-count remaining consistent to the pattern established.

A further example employing meter change and catalexis to show the difference: A limerick.

Limericks are composed of anapests. An anapest is a triple-syllable foot in which the syllables are unstressed-unstressed-stressed. The metrical pattern of limericks is anapestic trimeter/trimeter/dimeter/dimeter/trimeter. In other words, the first line should have three feet, the second line should have three feet, the third and fourth lines should have two feet each, and the last line should return to trimeter, with anapests throughout. The anapests give the limerick its rollicking gallop [Touchstone to Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It: "This is the very false gallop of verses"]. But, it is most common for the first line of a limerick to be catalectic with the first foot an iamb: "There once was a lass named McGoo"....

Note the stresses and rhythm:

There ONCE   was a LASS   named McGOO
ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM

I'll improvise the rest to show the rhythm.

There once was a lass named McGoo
Who had met her true love at the zoo.
     He'd the face of her Ma
     And the breath of her Pa
And was hooked by her Mulligan stew.

Here the limerick is, again, with the stressed syllables in bold. Hopefully, you can see the catalexis in the first line, now, and can see the difference in metrical count in the third and fourth lines--which are defined by the conventions of the form, and are therefore not examples of catalexis.

There once   was a lass   named McGoo
Who had met   her true love   at the zoo.
He'd the face   of her Ma
And the breath   of her Pa
And was hooked   by her Mu-lligan stew.

I hope this clarifies catalexis sufficiently to be of use. :-)

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