The Ode Less Travelled
Unlocking the Poet Within
by Stephen Fry
Hutchinson, 220 pp., $25
AMERICANS WILL REMEMBER STEPHEN FRY as Bertie Wooster's indispensable Jeeves in the BBC adaptations of P.G. Wodehouse. In Britain he is a personality, and occupies a firmly upper-middlebrow location on the country's bandwidth and presses. He is the host of QI, a sort of comedy quiz show for those whose brains are overfull and underemployed. In 2003, Bright Young Things, an adaptation of Waugh's Vile Bodies that Fry wrote and directed, was released. A radio program, Stephen Fry's Incomplete & Utter History of Classical Music, was adapted into a book in 2004. He has also written a few very funny novels (The Liar prominently among them) and a memoir, Moab Is My Washpot. Now he has written a book on poetry.
According to Fry, this latest effort began as the result of a friendly chat about the villanelle, "a pastoral Italian form from the sixteenth century written in six three-line stanzas" with a set system of repeating certain lines as refrains. (Don't you get your book ideas this way?) Fry was praising it to his companion as an example of "the extraordinary resilience and power of ancient forms" of verse. The companion (who remains unidentified) responded with ridicule, complaining that no one interested in poetry in our modern age should have to trouble himself with tired old media "dictated by some medieval Italian shepherd."
Fry, knowing his companion to be a fan of Dylan Thomas, set the trap: Inquiring "nonchalantly" into his friend's poetic tastes, he secured the innocent admission that "Do not go gentle into that good night" was a personal favorite. You do not need any education in medieval prosody to guess at what comes next: "Do not go gentle into that good night" is, in fact, a perfect villanelle. Its titular first line is the refrain that ends stanzas two and four, and the last line of the first stanza--"Rage, rage against the dying of the light"--ends stanzas three, five, and six.
That the story is vaguely preposterous, and saved by the wit of its telling, is characteristic both of a particularly English mode of discourse, and of Fry's own style. The reader might feel talked down to, but somehow the overall effect charms. The key tactic, of which Fry makes liberal use, is for the author to indicate to the reader that he knows that he is being precious. But Fry's obvious mastery of the subject matter, not to say his passion for it, is the main saving grace. This is a delightful and useful book for all of us who might remember snatches of what formal education we had in poetry, but wish we had paid better attention.
Fry perceives this particular condition to be widespread, and intimately tied to another: the willful modern rejection, by those who consider themselves versed, of the classical forms. As the case of Fry's unfortunate friend shows, it is a rejection frequently made in ignorance. Fry's cure is to hold his reader's hand through a compulsively readable and detailed account of meter, rhyme, form, modern diction, and poetics. The added twist, and a key distinguishing feature in a market with plenty of poetry-appreciation books already on the shelves, is Fry's conviction that one is best served not just by learning to "appreciate" poetry, but also by learning to write it one's self. Thus, after each lesson, the reader is presented with an exercise.
They begin with elementary assignments to write a few lines of doggerel in a given meter or rhyme scheme, and progress to assigning parodies ("imagine yourself a Victorian poet"), villanelles, and beyond. (Fry's own examples are good fun: "Collections of these odes, or RUBA'IYAT / Showed sultans where progressive thought was at; / Distributed by dissidents and wits, / Like early forms of Russian samizdat.")
If the sufficiently motivated reader works through every exercise, there is no promise that he will produce anything particularly magnificent (though there is no promise that he won't), but he is certain to gain a degree of competency with the English poetic tradition which will aid not only an effort to be the next Philip Larkin, but also the more modest goal of reading a poem with the technical appreciation that a poet brings. The only complaint I can make is that the exercises have an uncanny ability to bring you face to face with your own banality, so there is substantial incentive just to keep reading.
All that Fry is doing, of course, is offering to serve as tutor in an education that any self-respecting school system would have already provided. While the reading, writing, and teaching of poetry are far from requiring any obituaries, there is no question that the days are long gone when a young lad, of a certain privileged social position, was taught in school not only to read Greek and Latin poetry, but also to write them as well, fluently, and as a precondition of college admission. This Greco-Latin foundation, combined with later attempts to restore Anglo-Saxon forms, and to import further international styles in translation, constituted English poetry.
It is still our common heritage, and in theory ought to be more widely available in a more egalitarian society. But with democratization, not only has access to education been widened, but what is being accessed has been narrowed.
Attempts to establish Fry's book as a school text would be, unfortunately, ill-advised, due to his tendency to tell jokes for grownups. ("Milton, like many 17th-and 18th-century exponents of iambic pentameter, seemed very reluctant to use feminine endings, going so far as to always mark 'heaven' as the monosyllabic 'heav'n' whenever it ended a line. Finding two hendecasyllables in a row in Paradise Lost is like looking for a condom machine in the Vatican.")
The average high school student, however, might identify with the exercise proposed on page 208: "Try a short dramatic monologue, à la Browning, in which a young man in police custody, clearly stoned off his head, tries to explain away the half-ounce of cannabis found on his person. Use the natural rhythms of speech, running-on through lines, pausing and running on again, but within rhymed iambic pentameter . . . "
But The Ode Less Travelled does serve as a welcome contribution in the oft-neglected field of the middlebrow, which was always designed for the edification of adults in a democratic society--a polity that, by its very nature, is always in danger of plunging to the lowest common cultural denominator.
It is another feature of Fry's Englishness that the class-clown act (not to mention the mock-serious packaging of the book) is meant to obscure his clear ability for serious criticism. Fry is a spirited and sensitive reader, with an infectious and knowledgeable admiration for the classics of the English tradition. His treatments of William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins (readers of whom will be relieved to learn that no exercises are assigned in sprung rhythm), Thomas Hardy, John Betjeman, W.H. Auden, and more, would be worth reading just for themselves; and his polemical style, directed at the proponents of the more antinomian style of poetic education (which he suggests be named "prose-therapy," or "auto-omphaloscopy . . . --gazing at one's own navel") is balanced and bracing.
This is a modest work of literary criticism, and readers will be happy to discover Fry to be the sort of teacher who combines an old fashioned affection for tradition with an ability to inspire love for his subject by the fluency and depth of his own enthusiasm. Jeeves, we may presume, would not object.
Aaron MacLean is a Marshall Scholar at Oxford.