Don’t run away: it’s metrics!

So here you have it, my heart,
shut up with a key so tightly.
Now open it up and come in
for you will fit in and you only.

I’m sending my heart to you
with the key to open it up;
There’s nothing more I can give
And you can ask for no more.

These two little verses come from the Cancioneiro Popular Galego collected by Álvaro de las Casas and published in Chile in 1939. The edition I am using has an excellent introduction by Armando Requeixo (Santiago de Compostela: Libros de Frouma, 2005).

I am going to run the risk of being a bore by talking metrics. Metrics is not everyone’s favourite subject and a good deal of contemporary poetry has so far done away with traditional structures and forms that it could seem an entirely unnecessary discipline. However, I am enthusiastic because I was given a great little book by Antonio Quilis, Métrica Española (Barcelona: Planeta, 1984) last Christmas. I had already spent a morning with a battered old paperback in Avilés library and was delighted to have my own copy.

“This will make a difference,” I said to myself.

Truth be told, the book has been sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to do something with it. Reading it is all very well, but metrics doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless you put them to work. Let’s see if we can examine these two verses.

From the start we have to follow Quilis in getting our terminology right. He defines the line as a verse and the verse as a strophe. This is a little confusing for English-speakers, but let’s follow him in this. He says that “a verse on its own is not really anything, not even a poetic line: it is a sentence or statement of any kind. For a verse to really be considered as such, it has to be joined to other verses, forming a part of a whole greater than each separately, which we call a strophe.”

I chose these two strophes because, although they are part of a longer poem, they stand by themselves. First of all we should look at the accentuation of the lines:

–     ^      ^     –     –   –  ^
Aquí está meu corazón
^       –     –  ^  –   –        ^ –
ben pechadiño con chave,
^    –    ^        ^ – –      ^    –
ábreo xa e métete dentro
–    ^  – ^ –    –     ^   –
que tí soíña ben cabes.

As Quilis says, Spanish words can only have one accented syllable. Depending on where that accent lies, a word may be defined as oxitonic- with the stress on the last syllable, like corazón here- or paroxitonic- with the stress on the penultimate syllable, like chave, dentro and cabes here.  Oxitonic and paroxitonic words make up 97% of all Spanish words according to Quilis so it is nice that we have an example of esdrújula or proparoxitonic here in “métete”:  accent on the pen-penultimate syllable.

In Spanish verse an oxitonic line like the first one here, where the last word in the line ends in an oxitonic word, counts an extra syllable. This is not an arbitrary rule but a function of the rhythmic sense on the ear because paroxitonic words make up 79% of all Spanish words and, therefore, an oxitonic word at the end of the line has a special force. This also means that the lines in this strophe are all eight syllables. Notice that “está” in the first line loses its first syllable by ellision, and “e” in the third line is subsumed into “xa”.

I am used to scanning English verse into feet. As James Fenton observes the iambic pentameter, with its ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum rhythm, is the flexible standard of English versification. The ti-tum is a iamb. Quilis observes that this doesn’t work in Spanish:
in our metrics the fundamental unit of the verse line is the syllable, and not the foot, but the Latin classification has been adopted, substituting the opposition of long/short for tonic/atonic.
There are two other words in this Latin classification we need to know here: trochee (tum-ti) and spondee (tum-tum).

Let’s have a look at these lines and see if we can scan them using this system.

Aquí está: you could read that as ti-tum ti-tum, reinstating the syllable I cut out before. It depends on who you are listening to. Fenton says that spondees are unusual in normal language, that normally one syllable logically assumes more weight than the other. In Galicia, however, there is a tendency to reduce “está” to just “sta”. If you want to pay the bill, your friend might say, “Ya sta.” It is assertive and direct. It is a spondee. In this case I think we can do the same.

“Here it is, my little heart” in English would reflect something of the rhythm of the Spanish words, little replacing those two unstressed syllables in corazón:
Aquí está meu corazón                ti tum tum / ti ti ti tum
ben pechadiño con chave            tum ti ti tum ti // ti tum ti
ábreo xa e métete dentro            tum ti tum / tum ti ti tum ti
que tí soíña ben cabes                  ti tum ti tum ti // ti tum ti

That is my more informal Fenton-esque analysis. Here it is following Quilis:

Verse 1              _ _´ _´ // _ _ _ _´
Verse 2             _´ _ _ _´ _ / _ _´ _
Verse 3             _´ _ _´ // _´ _ _ _´ _
Verse 4            _ _´ _ _’ _ / _ _´ _

From this schematic representation of the rhythms of the language you can see a kind of structure, which is reinforced by the rhyme of “chave” and “cabes”. Here you need to know that “v” is almost indistinguishable from “b” in Spanish pronunciation: chA- bay. cA- bay; a true rhyme. You can also see the assonance in line one and line three on the third syllable: ábreo xa- open it now- is also a command and therefore echoes the direct assertiveness of “aquí está”.

I have placed the markers // where it seems to me there is a natural break in the line. Of course you can put pauses into spoken language and exaggerated pausing will destroy the natural sense of the phrasing and make you sound pompous. You can work out where the natural pauses are by lengthening them to the point where they sound absurd: this means they are genuine pauses. If you put a pause in and it ruins the sense it is not a natural pause. You can say: with the key/ to open it up; with the/ key to open it up, would be ridiculous.

You can see that the verbal architecture is reinforced by these natural breaks, so that lines two and three end // ti tum ti. Notice how “pechadiño” and “soíña” in the second and fourth lines also echo, slowing the lines down to a warble. Lines one and three hurry along; lines two and four are gentle and slow. This follows the sense. The strophe starts with the lover saying, “Here it is: my heart”. It is a romantic outburst. When he says “open it now and get inside” that esdrújula we noticed before really does its work making the line stutter along with impatient urgency.

The second strophe was used by Rosalía de Castro in her Cantares Gallegos:

O meu corasón che mando                         I send you my heart
cunha chave para o abrir.                          with a key to open it.
Nin eu teño máis que darche,                  I have nothing more to give you
nin ti máis que me pedir.                      And there is nothing more you can ask.

Whereas the folk verse is happy and optimistic with “tí soiña” being a girl, so that we have to imagine the speaking voice as male, here the speaker is sad Rosa addressing her faithless lover Mauro. This makes the declaration of these closing lines particularly heartbreaking: the echo of a familiar song of courtship calling out the peculiar pain of a despairing girl.

Is metric analysis a waste of time? Quilis says it is “not an end in itself, but one more component that helps us get to a deeper understanding of the poem and its meaning.” That seems right to me. Call me strange but I also enjoy observing things about poems.

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About Jason Preater

Working on Projects
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