The great iamb: King Charles III


beech trees
A family of Beech trees  in Calderstones Park 10 May

Not reading Silas Marner today – you’ll find all Silas postings if you search under the tag ‘Silas Marner’. But today, it’s about telly, then a bit of Shakespeare.

Came home and had my tea in the back garden, the day still warm and sunny, did a little pottering, admired my new plant ( Paeonia, Bowl of Beauty – photos to come) . Had to make a few phone calls. Lay on sofa talking to my old mum. Went to find husband watching TV. Some programme about the Royals was just starting. Watched for a few moments out of sheer nosy interest (I go to bed early – sometimes at 8.30pm) and was surprised to find myself thinking the music was rather good, not what I would have predicted for a TV mini series. But it wasn’t a TV mini series – it was play. It was a play ! On telly! This was like living in 1967 when people still thought you could put culture on the box. And even more weirdly, it was a play written in iambic pentameter.

Don’t swipe away! That meter’s good for stuff! (That’s an iambic-ish pentameter)

If you didn’t catch King Charles III, written by Mike Bartlett, on BBC 2 last night, I recommend it. Inventive, moving, well-pitched, and with lively intelligence at play all the way through, it kept me up until 10.30pm, and not much does that. Iambic pentameter! Fancy that, though. It made the play seem related to Shakespeare, and there were echoes of Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, but it wasn’t pastiche. It was something new, its self, made of  bits of old stuff and bits of modern stuff. It was creative and witty. There was a great (iambic) line from Kate to the Duchess of Cornwall (sorry I can’t remember it) about the need for ‘column inches’ but there was also another that drew on Lear’s ‘nothing comes of nothing…’ There were also echoes of ‘say this was a mini series’ and echoes of ‘say you were reading this in the Daily Mail’ which made the play feel incredibly up to date. Lots to think about. I might even watch it again.

But mainly it made me think about blank verse, which is  verse without rhyme and verse often (usually?) written the meter known as iambic pentameter. I love it! I’ve been wanting to read a little Shakespeare, so that is today’s poem for the day.  It’s a little portion from the end of The Winter’s Tale. Perhaps a little connected to Silas Marner, in that Queen Hermione, falsely accused by her husband of infidelity and treason, and who has lost two children to her husband’s rage, has been ‘gone’ (presumed dead) for sixteen years. As we join the court at the culmination of the play, a great reunion  is about to happen, Hermione is not dead but has been absent, turned to stone (lots of ways you might understand it: e.g. in a state of psychotic splitting, severely depressed, so deeply traumatised as to be locked in, etc.) Paulina, her friend, a great lady of the court, is about to bring her back to life and her daughter, Perdita, also presumed dead, is found. Here Paulina calls on Perdita to come forward and help bring her mother back to life:




That she is living,
Were it but told you, should be hooted at
Like an old tale: but it appears she lives,
Though yet she speak not. Mark a little while.
Please you to interpose, fair madam: kneel
And pray your mother’s blessing. Turn, good lady;
Our Perdita is found.


You gods, look down
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter’s head! Tell me, mine own.
Where hast thou been preserved? where lived? how found
Thy father’s court? for thou shalt hear that I,
Knowing by Paulina that the oracle
Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved
Myself to see the issue.

The great iamb, the two syllable sound pattern that underlies our normal English speech  (say te-tum and you are sounding out an iamb, short unstressed syllable followed by longer stressed syllable) is set in groups of five  to make the classic line-rythym of blank verse (te-tum, te-tum, te-tum, te-tum, te-tum).

Where hast/ thou been/ preserved?/ where lived?/ how found

Why does this matter, I can hear someone shouting, for goodness sake, Jane, I thought you were against formal teaching of English Lit?

I am against bad teaching. I’m against  things being turned into dead stuff! But I’m for good teaching! And I love playing with iambs! If someone had  playfully taught me about these at school I might have liked it.

Reading literature is partly a process of noticing a lot of tiny things. You have to notice as much as you can. there’s an awful lot to notice and most of it goes by us. Noticing a lot of tiny things and caring about them  must go into good practice of anything – cooking, gardening, sub-atomic physics, accounting, dog-training.

The meter of a poem is one of the things you can train yourself to notice. Noticing this kind of stuff began to matter to me early on in my life as  a teacher because it does something in the poetry. I thought  that last night while watching King Charles III. Now what does it do?

It formalises ordinary speech into general patterns, which means you can play with rhythms, with emphasis. Look at this

Please you to interpose, fair madam: kneel
And pray your mother’s blessing. Turn, good lady;
Our Perdita is found.

Paulina is talking to the lost, now found child, Perdita. Hermione is standing like a statue frozen in her sixteen year loss. The iamb (te-tum) is like a gentle, rhythmic heartbeat under the  lines. Read the lines aloud very slowly. Feel the rhythms. Shakespeare can leave a word like ‘kneel’ pulling against the rhythm at the end of the that line because it is a single syllable word  in a two-based pattern, so we get different rhythms playing over each other. These rhythms affect the meaning, add to the emotional charge: speak it, th command ‘kneel’: you have to wait there despite the fact that the sense rushes on. And here’s another, where (I think) the underlying rhythm changes a little, a slight variation. Though this line has ten syllables and therefore might be an iambic pentameter, the stresses fall in other places. (There are other names for other types of stressed and unstressed syllables but I have no time for that today, look here).

As when tones or keys change or resolve in music, our mind is looking out for the pattern and the change of pattern alerts us to something or moves us in some way. The stresses are on the first parts of  mothers and blessing and the last three words are all stressed; ‘Turn, good lady.’ Perhaps ‘good’ is slightly less stressed ( you have to keep saying, reading the words, to feel it), so that the big message is ‘turn lady’.

Ow, time’s up. Messy post.