Metered verse in a quiet place

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Graeme Orr writes:

In the hit post-apocalyptic movie A Quiet Place there is a touching scene where the mother is home-schooling her son.  He is being drilled in numeracy; but on a whiteboard she has written out the first quatrain of Shakespeare’s "Shall I Compare Thee to A Summer’s Day".  With metrical feet and accents neatly marked.

The entire conceit of the movie is that the world is overrun with bloodthirsty aliens, whose hearing is so acute that to survive one must avoid not only speech but any deliberate noise.  The family has survived, when seemingly no-one else has, because it has an eldest daughter who is deaf.  They not only can communicate (as they must to stand any chance of protection as a group) via sign language, but they are collectively acutely aware of sound, its sources and significance for everyday life.

How, if at all, is it possible to communicate meter in poetry without any sound?  I’m aware there’s an old debate about deaf poets, and the essence of poetry as image rather than music, e.g. John Lee Clark, "Melodies Unheard", 10/30/2005.  In the film, the poem-on-whiteboard is shown twice, in letters so large the audience is deliberately drawn to it.   The tease is surely something more than just ‘Shakespeare, like cockroaches, will survive any apocalypse’.

I'll leave it to others to comment on the role of Shakespearean scansion in the movie, which I haven't seen.

But on the value of studying rhythm even (or perhaps especially) in the abstract, I'll quote St. Augustine's letter to Memorius No. 28 (Ep. CI) A.D. 409, discussing his unfinished work "De Musica":

Verum quia in omnibus rerum motibus, quid numeri valeant, facilius consideratur in vocibus eaque consideratio quibusdam quasi gradatis itineribus nititur ad superna intima veritatis, in quibus viis ostendit se sapientia hilariter et in omni providentia occurrit amantibus, initio nostri otii, cum a curis maioribus magisque necessariis vacabat animus, volui per ista quae a nobis desiderasti scripta proludere, quando conscripsi de solo rhythmo sex libros et de melo scribere alios forsitan sex, fateor, disponebam, cum mihi otium futurum sperabam.

Now, since the power of rhythm in every kind of movement is most easily studied in sounds, and since the study of those leads upwards to the highest secrets of truth by a kind of gradual ascent in following which Wisdom pleasantly reveals herself and in every act of providence meets those who love her, I intended at the beginning of my retirement, when my mind was free from greater and more necessary tasks, to make those books you asked from me a preliminary trial of strength. I then wrote six books exclusively on rhythm, and proposed, I confess, to write others, six perhaps, on music, as I was expecting to have leisure before me. 

I'll also remind us that Augustine's (conventional Latin) word for "rhythm" is numeri = "numbers", and point to the spiritual connections sketched in Aelred Squire's "The Cosmic Dance", Blackfriar's 1954.



  1. Theophylact said,

    April 24, 2018 @ 8:38 am


    Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
    Life is but an empty dream!
    For the soul is dead that slumbers,
    And things are not what they seem.

    Life is real! Life is earnest!
    And the grave is not its goal;
    Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
    Was not spoken of the soul.

  2. KevinM said,

    April 24, 2018 @ 9:43 am

    Many examples; it was a poetic staple, or perhaps a coded signal that one had learned Latin among "English poets who grew up on Greek."

    E.g. Wordsworth:
    Will no one tell me what she sings?—
    Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
    For old, unhappy, far-off things,
    And battles long ago:

    I'm guessing the use of the word "number" to mean a song may be an etymological descendant. (Unless it has something to do with jukeboxes.)

    [(myl) "Numbers" to mean "(metered) verse(s)" was of course standard English usage for hundreds of years. The point of the Augustine reference was not to inform readers of that fact, but to underline Augustine's quasi-Pythagorean faith that the study of such rhythms/numbers "leads upwards to the highest secrets of truth".]

  3. Anarcissie said,

    April 24, 2018 @ 10:36 am

    I thought it was most directly from numerically indexed hymnals and fake books.

    [(myl) No, the use of Latin numerus to mean "Musical measure, time, rhythm, harmony" dates from classical times. The concept is also etymologically present in the words measure and meter.]

  4. Ursa Major said,

    April 24, 2018 @ 11:24 am

    They clearly have access to Shakespeare's muse, but it seems the extraterrestrials are also wielding their writing implements in response her/him, so perhaps this is something to bond over and end these interplanetary hostilities. From sonnet 78:

    So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse
    And found such fair assistance in my verse
    As every alien pen hath got my use
    And under thee their poesy disperse.
    Thine eyes that taught the dumb on high to sing
    And heavy ignorance aloft to fly
    Have added feathers to the learned's wing
    And given grace a double majesty.

    BTW He uses 'numbers' in that sense in sonnet 100.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 24, 2018 @ 12:19 pm

    Ursa Major: Nice "alien".

    If we're doing obligatory quotations, there's one from Pope's "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot":

    As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
    I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.

    I haven't seen the movie, but is the idea that most members of the family could hear, and thus knew from the pre-alien time what metrical accents were? And they were preserving that knowledge by scanning poetry?

    I do find it hard to imagine what the accents could mean to people who had never heard speech.

  6. KevinM said,

    April 24, 2018 @ 12:57 pm

    And speaking of alien, Keats made the first known reference to GMO:

    Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
    Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
    She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

  7. Graeme said,

    April 24, 2018 @ 8:13 pm

    Jerry, the thought this was revision, rather than a new lesson, crossed my mind.
    But the boy, at a guess, is about 10. (The actor Noah Jupe was 12 at the time of filming, but the character's timorousness implies someone a bit younger). Also, the scene is set on 'Day 472' after the calamity of the aliens' arrival, and the setting is deep rural. So I doubt the boy is meant to have been formally scanning verse before the cone of silence descended.

    Anyway, the movie is a hoot. And I'm not one normally to recommend blockbusters.

  8. Margaret Wilson said,

    April 24, 2018 @ 11:34 pm

    Leaving aside how the daughter and family are fluent in ASL without being part of a Deaf community (who would presumably all survive), there's this:
    and this:
    Rhythm, poetry, and literature can all be conveyed in sign language on its own terms without reference to spoken language. (If one were so daft as to try to teach scansion of spoken poetry without sound, it could be done pretty easily with large and small claps or taps.)

  9. ajay said,

    April 25, 2018 @ 6:36 am

    part of a Deaf community (who would presumably all survive)

    Not seen the film, but I would have thought that deaf people would be among the first to be hunted down, because they wouldn't be able to tell when they're making noise (for example footfalls) or not, and so would have more difficulty in keeping quiet…

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 25, 2018 @ 12:13 pm

    Graeme: I'm suggesting that the members of the family know what accented syllables are because they remember speech from before the aliens came. So the idea of scansion is comprehensible to them, as it wouldn't be for people who had never heard speech.

    Whether that's reasonable for the boy in the film, given the amount of time since the alien invasion, I don't know. And why they're doing it I don't know either. They're that attached to Shakespeare? They're hoping that the aliens will leave, or that peace will replace quiet when humans and aliens bond over a shared appreciation of Shakespeare?

  11. Ray said,

    April 25, 2018 @ 11:49 pm

    whether deaf or not, we all share the universal language of movement and rhythm.

    it's in our walking. our metrical feet (our iambs and dactyls, our jambons and gambas. it's all about the limbs.). just as counting (numbers) is related to our ten fingers.

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