Back to Abstract
Back to home page
Back to "Occasional Papers"

Reuven Tsur

Addendum to

"Perceptual Organization, Absorption and Aesthetic Qualities of Poetry"

At a certain point of our work I started wondering, why out of all quatrains in the world I hit precisely upon this specific Rubáiyáth for manipulation as a convenient example of the Gestalt-qualities under discussion. The question concerns how my own creative intuition chose precisely this quatrain of all quatrains in the world. One small part of the answer is implied by the foregoing analysis. The aaba version has an in-built instability: two stable Gestalts compete for dominance in it, and thus it calls for precisely the kind of manipulations we have experimented with. The more stable Gestalts (aaaa and aabb) don't exert similar pressure for such experimentation. But this is only a small part of the story. At any rate, it does not explain why precisely this out of all possible Rubáiyáths of FitzGerald's selection. Usually, such questions are not asked; but in the present case it arises by itself, since a considerable part of our first group of subjects complained about the clumsy formulation of the Hebrew text with the original rhyme-scheme. So, why precisely this specific Rubáiyáth? The first answer I tended to offer was, that the "original" English version is much better. However, on a closer look it is not very exciting either from, precisely, the point of view of its rhymes. Only then it came to my mind, that I got first acquainted with the Rubáiyáth, when a teen-ager, through Lörinc Szabó's Hungarian translation, and that this specific Rubáiyáth's rhymes are of an especially virtuoso quality in Szabó's translation, and that I have been haunted for decades by its spell:

Rozzant szeráj a Föld és jajszavát
az éji szél süvölti rajta át;
   ki tudja, hány szultán nyitotta ki
és csukta már be korhadt ajtaját!

In an English literal translation it says: "The Earth is a battered serai, and its mournful cry / the night wind is howling through it; / who knows how many sultans have already opened / and closed its rotten door". This is not a very faithful translation; at the same time, it achieves an unusually virtuoso rhyme: its rhyme-fellows include no less than three closely similar syllables (jajszavát ... rajta át... ajtaját). What is more, these words tend to form a "dactylic" rhyme, which is more easily achieved in Hungarian than in English.1

Now, if we check the changes in the thematic structure and the structure of figurative language from the English to the Hungarian version, it seems to be precisely in the direction of a "spell-weaving" quality. Let us consider, first, the structure of the main figurative device, by which Caravanserai becomes a symbol of "this world", or of "the Earth", in the two versions. In the English version, the Caravanserai assumes symbolic significance, in the very first words of the poem, by the extra emphasis by this. In this way, the concrete noun Caravanserai shades smoothly into its symbolic meaning.

Think, in this battered Caravanserai
Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,
   How Sultán after Sultán with his Pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

This smooth shading is disturbed but, by the same token, the symbolic meaning is made more explicit, in the second line. The symbolic nature of the Caravanserai is made explicit by "Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day"; by the same token, the focus of perception is split by the impossible picture of identifying the spatial entities "Portals", with the temporal entities "alternate Night and Day". Furthermore, it is not merely the entities that are spatial and temporal respectively, but their relative disposition too: the portals are juxtaposed side by side, whereas "alternate Night and Day" come one after the other in time. This split focus tends to render the image witty, or at least intellectual. The symbolic meaning intrudes again more or less explicitly in the fourth line, in "Abode his destined Hour".

The Hungarian version, by contrast, begins straightaway with an explicit identification: "The Earth is a battered serai". From this point on, the image is drawn out with a smooth, uninterrupted surface to the end of the poem, suggesting some coherent scene. The symbolic suggestion becomes, by the same token, some barely-perceptible innuendo. This figurative technique seems to have been a favourite of the French Symbolist poet, Paul Verlaine, as in the beginnings of the following poems:

Je suis l'Empire à la fin de la décadence ...

Votre âme est un paysage choisi ...
                    ("Claire de Lune") 2

The conspicuous purpose of this device in his poetry is, indeed, to generate symbolic suggestions that are little more than some transient, barely-perceptible innuendo.

What seems to have prompted to the Hungarian translator the sentence "and its mournful cry / the night wind is howling through it", that has no equivalent in the English version, is the possibility of the virtuoso rhyme discussed above. By the same token, it offers an illustration of the earlier phrase "battered serai". However, the symbolic value of the description is considerably heightened by the properties of the wind: it is a thing-free and Gestalt-free entity that comes, with great impetus, from some indefinite place and moves on to some indefinite place. It is thus a natural force that resembles in important respects the irruption of supernatural forces into our natural world. This property may be closely related with possible "spell-weaving", or "hypnotic" or "ecstatic" qualities in poetry.

Since I am interested here in accounting for my own intuitions that "crop up" in an involuntary manner, I wish to point at an additional issue. When writing the present Addendum, I have discovered that during the decades I have slightly changed the first two lines, interchanging their rhyming words, thus:

              és rajta át
az éji szél süvölti jajszavát;

receiveing "And through it / the night wind is howling its mournful cry". Syntactically, both word-orders are equally possible in Hungarian. What is most conspicuous in both phrasings is what elsewhere (Tsur, 1972) I have termed "requiredness". Requiredness is the demand that one part of the perceptual field may have on another part. In both cases we have a sentence run-on from the first to the second line. Likewise, in both cases the first sentence overrides the exact middle of the first line, and exerts a rather strong perceptual force in a demand for completion of the line. In both cases this demand is fulfilled by the first unit of a run-on sentence, itself vigorously demanding its completion by the rest of the sentence. Thus, we have in both cases a prosodic requirement for four syllables toward the end of the first line, and a syntactic requirement for the main parts of a sentence, after a faint indication of what is to come, by a noun in the accusative (jajszavát), or a prepositional phrase (rajta át). The satisfaction of such requiredness results in a considerable sense of gratification and stability. Now consider this: my memory sharpened both the sense of requiredness and the sense of stability by interchanging the rhyme-words. The prepositional phrase is less meaningful, and therefore exerts a greater demand for completion than the accusative noun, at the end of line 1; by the same token, the accusative noun is more meaningful, and therefore grants a greater sense of stability than the prepositional phrase at the end of line 2. Thus, the sharpened version is more dynamic throughout the first two lines, resulting in a stronger, more stable closure, whereas the correct version is more static throughout the first two lines, resulting in a weaker, less stable closure.


1. Dactylic rhyme is a rhyme in which the last but two is the most strongly stressed syllable, as in

One more unfórtunate
Weary of bréath,
Rashly impórtunate,
Gone to her déath!
Take her up ténderly,
Lift her with cáre;
Fashion'd so slénderly,
Young and so fáir!
      Thomas Hood: "The Bridge of Sighs"

For reasons not yet sufficiently understood, such rhymes tend to contribute to a "spell-weaving" or "hypnotic" quality, where it is generated by additional elements.

2. Szabó himself translated these two poems into Hungarian.

Back to Abstract
Back to home page
Back to "Occasional Papers"

Original file name: Addendum - converted on Friday, 16 January 1998, 19:18

This page was created using TextToHTML. TextToHTML is a free software for Macintosh and is (c) 1995,1996 by Kris Coppieters