by Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Taylor and Gillian Clarke
Walk, run, row a boat, use a hammer, a pen, a shovel. Heartbeat, breathing, moving. That’s where rhythm comes from. Poets use rhythms learned from being alive. Poets today are influenced by three main English language sources.
1. The oldest is the ballad, or working song. Ballads usually rhyme. Often they use a stressed 4/3 beat, with 4 thumps in the first line, 3 in the second. (See the 2 example poems below)
2. Next came Shakespeare. He didn’t invent the 5 beats of iambic pentameter used in his poems and plays. He heard it and spoke it.
‘It was the nightingale and not the lark’.
(Romeo and Juliet).
Even today we still often use this speech rhythm:
‘Come on, a cup of tea will do you good.’
‘Get out of bed and do a bit of work!’
3. Then came the way we think and speak now. This is easy as breathing and is the drum beat of today. You’ll find all 3 of these influences, and other rhythms too, in the work of most modern poets.
Read aloud to the class the following two poems. Find the 4/3 ballad rhythm first in Gillian Clarke’s poem, ‘Overheard in County Sligo’, and then find the same rhythm in ‘John Barleycorn’. You should easily hear 4 beats in line 1, then 3, then 4, then 3, in both poems.
Overheard in County Sligo
I married a man from County Roscommon
and I live in the back of beyond
with a field of cows and a yard of hens
and six white geese on the pond.
At my door’s a square of yellow corn
caught up by its corners and shaken,
and the road runs down through the open gate
and freedom’s there for the taking.
I had thought to work on the Abbey stage
or have my name in a book,
to see my thought on the printed page,
or still the crowd with a look.
But I turn to fold the breakfast cloth
and to polish the lustre and brass,
to order and dust the tumbled rooms
and find my face in the glass.
I ought to feel I’m a happy woman
for I lie in the lap of the land,
but I married the man from County Roscommon
and I live at the back of beyond.
Now read ‘John Barleycorn’, a quite different poem, an anonymous traditional ballad probably made up hundreds of years ago. ‘John Barleycorn’ is the name given to the ripe barley growing in the field. It’s an example of personification. It must have been made up by workers cutting, gathering, threshing and binding the corn, centuries ago.
There came three men from out the West
Their victory to try;
And they have taken a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.
They took a plough and ploughed him in,
Laid clods upon his head,
And they have taken a solemn oath
John Barleycorn is dead.
So there he lay for a full fortnight,
Till the dew from heaven did fall;
John Barleycorn sprang up again,
And sore surprised them all.
But when he faced the summer sun,
He looked both pale and wan -
For all he had a spiky beard
To shoe he was a man.
But soon came men with sickles sharp
And shopped him to the knee.
They rolled and tied him by the waist,
And served him barbarously.
With forks they stuck him to the heart
And banged him over stones,
And sent the men with holly clubs
To batter at their bones.
But Barleycorn has noble blood:
It lives when it is shed:
It fills the cupboard and the purse
With gold and meat and bread.
O Barleycorn is the choicest grain
That e’er was sown on land:
It will do more than any grain
By the turning of your hand.
Help the class to tap the rhythm in both poems. The musical children, drummers especially, will hear it quickly. Tapping fingers on tables is all that’s necessary, but permission to use percussion would be more fun.
What do the poems mean? Help the class to ask questions and to understand the poems.
The title of ‘Overheard in County Sligo’ tells you the first two lines, which appear in italics, quote the very words spoken by an Irish woman in County Sligo in the west of Ireland. She also said that she wanted to be a playwright or an actor for the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Then with a little sigh she said:
‘But I married a man from County Roscommon
and I live at the back of beyond.’
Listen to the beat. Don’t count the syllables, because some are stressed and some are not. Here it is again with the strong beats in bold type:
But I married a man from County Roscommon
and I live at the back of beyond.
The words of the rest of the poem describe an imagined picture of the anonymous woman’s life. The poem, which is a ballad, is about any woman who, as a young girl, had dreams and ambitions, grows up, makes her choices. She makes the best of it, but she sometimes feels her life has not quite lived up to her dreams.
‘John Barleycorn’ is also a ballad. It is a working ballad often sung to music, it’s anonymous, and it’s hundreds of years old. The work described in the ballad is still done today. We still grow barley, and other corn. We wait till it ripens in summer, then we cut it down, and toss it in the sun to dry, separate the grains from the stalks, store the barley grains, bind the stems into straw bales for farm animal bedding in winter. The difference is that now we have machines to do all this work. Centuries ago, they had only scythes, pitch forks, threshing tools, mills to grind the corn.
This is a chance to research the changes in the ways in which we grow, harvest and use our food.
- In what way did John Barleycorn ‘die’?
- What did it mean when he ‘sprang up again’?
- What is John Barleycorn’s ‘spiky beard’? Find a picture of a stalk of barley.
Go through each verse helping to class to see how the personification of the barley gives each verse two meanings, the life and death of John Barleycorn, and of the field of barley.
Help the class to find other ballads.
Adults who learned ballads in childhood always remember them. Why?
The class could perform an old ballad, using sound, percussion, and voice.
“John Barleycorn’ would be a good harvest poem to perform for a school assembly.
Let the class divide into groups to write their own ballads about work. See the piece about assonance for further discussion of working songs.
There are other ballad rhythms. Let the children try to write their own poems listening for the rhythm.
Read aloud ‘The Lady of Shalott’, by Alfred Lord Tennyson. This a chance for children to research King Arthur and his Knights. Once they get the rhythm, some of the children could read a verse each. It is a long poem, of 19 verses, but the right extracts will give children the rhythm and the story.
Note the lovely 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 3 rhythm. Here are two verses from Part 1:
On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road runs by
To many towered Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to towered Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
listening, whispers ‘Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott’.