Saturday, April 7, 2012

Elizabeth Daryush Day

Elizabeth Daryush Day

Elizabeth Daryush (December 8, 1887 to April 7, 1977) was a British poet who significantly contributed to the development of syllabic verse in English.  She was the daughter of Robert Bridges, a British poet laureate.  She married Ali Akbar Daryush and lived in Persia for a time.  She was one of the first translators of Hafez into English and I suspect that Persian poetry had a lasting influence on her.

Elizabeth’s father, Robert, had an inclination towards a syllabic approach to poetry.  I suspect that this makes Elizabeth one of the first poets to grow up with a syllabic approach to poetry part of her everyday life.  But Robert’s approach to syllabics was complex and was based on an analytical approach to the classification of different types of syllables.  Elizabeth retained her father’s interest in syllabics, but dropped her father’s analytical approach.  Instead Elizabeth’s approach was strictly aural.  That is to say the number of syllables in a word is what an ordinary person would count upon hearing the word.  Thus Elizabeth’s approach did not require the appropriation of an abstract system.  Rather it is an approach very easy to understand and easy to communicate.

Elizabeth’s poetry was slightly dated in its style in some ways.  Though a syllabic approach is new, many of her word choices and images come from an earlier, Victorian, period.  And all her poetry that I have read rhymes.  This didn’t seem to bother her at all and she continued to write in her chosen style.  Over the decades, with the rapid increase in modernism in poetry and free verse views, this meant that her poetry sounded more and more like a relic from a previous generation.  Nevertheless, Daryush had her strong defenders and she had a following.

The question of using a somewhat dated style is an intriguing one.  I can think of several examples of artists who have wedded themselves to a style which, during their lifetime, became dated, but they continued to work in the style they found comfortable.  I think the most famous example would be J. S. Bach who wrote in a highly contrapuntal manner at a time when that High Baroque approach was being replaced by a simpler, more chord based, approach to music.  None of J. S. Bach’s sons continued in their father’s manner; instead adopting the more contemporary approach.

When an artist speaks in a somewhat dated manner, I think a few generations need to pass before their work can be evaluated cleanly.  Contemporaries will tend to be dismissive because they are breaking new ground.  But three or four generations forward, and the work in question will be appreciated on its own terms instead of contrasting it with what others were doing at the time.  I’m suggesting that this may be applicable to Daryush as well; I’m not sure of this, but this kind of thing has happened before.

Elizabeth Daryush’s most significant contribution for a syllabic approach to poetry was her composition of syllabic sonnets.  Daryush demonstrated that a syllabic approach to the sonnet was efficacious and could work well.  Her most often referenced poems are some of her syllabic sonnets.  Here is probably her most famous one:

Still Life

Through the open French window the warm sun
Lights up the polished breakfast-table, laid
Round a bowl of crimson roses, for one  -
A service of Worcester porcelain, arrayed
Near it a melon, peaches, figs, small hot
Rolls in a napkin, fairy rack of toast,
Butter in ice, high silver coffee-pot,
And, heaped on a salver, the morning’s post.

She comes over the lawn, the young heiress,
From her early walk in her garden wood,
Feeling that life’s a table set to bless
Her delicate desires with all that’s good.

That even the unopened future lies
Like a love-letter, full of sweet surprise.

Notice the absence of iambics, the colloquial usage, and the use of rhyme-defined run-on lines.  The rhyme scheme is Shakespearean, but Daryush divides the sonnet into 8 lines, 4 lines, and 2 lines.  The opening 8 lines give us the setting.  The 4 line section introduces to us the character of the sonnet, the heiress.  And the concluding 2 lines sum up all the previous lines. 

Daryush’s shift to a syllabic approach to the sonnet brings the sonnet full circle back to its origins.  The Italian sonnet was a syllabic form.  When the sonnet was transmitted to England poets were attracted to it, but they needed a few decades of tinkering to shape the sonnet according to the needs of a metrical approach.  So the Italian 11-syllable line became iambic pentameter, and the rhyme scheme was changed as well.

I would like to see some new editions of Daryush’s poems.  Perhaps a selection of the best by a judicious editor.  For those taking a syllabic approach to poetry, and to the sonnet in particular, such an edition would be a wonderful resource.


Brian said...

Nicely atmospheric, artfully crafted poem.

Some lovely verse and instructive essays here of late. Daryush is new to me and I must read more of her work.

The McCullough translation of the Kokin Wakashu is stellar and, I agree, the best. Worth every penny of its often high out-of-print price.

Jim714 said...

Hi Brian:

The price of Kokin Wakashu is high. It's too bad; I keep hoping that Stanford will publish a paperback edition, but I've been hoping for that for years. On the other hand, they have issued paperback editions of Cranston's Tanka translations (I believe Cranston was a student of McCullough), so it is still possible. I have to admit to a feeling of irritation regarding Stanford U. Press. Their prices are very high, even by University standards, they seem uninterested in keeping their books available, and they are incredibly sluggish at issuing more affordable (i.e. paperback) editions. University presses in general remain aloof from a general public, targeting other universities and libraries instead. So I'm afraid there's not much we can do but wait patiently.

Thanks for your kind comments,