How about, “She Love You, Yes, Yes, Yes?”

19 Jan
Great phrases, including those by Churchill, are often edited by the masses.

Great phrases, including those by Churchill, are often edited by the masses.

 

Once a writer gets deep into the art, craft and process of writing, there is a temptation to be more taken with sound and rhythm than with content.

I once read that Edgar Allan Poe very much liked the cadence of the words “cellar door” and hoped to fashion a poem around them. He failed, but compromised and used the similar-sounding “nevermore” to create “The Raven.”

When you read the Raven, you’ve got to think that Poe cared much more about the tap dance underneath his verse than what it actually said:

 

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

Only this and nothing more.”

 

But what’s important to the ear of the writer is not always important to the mind of the reader. The cliché (and name of a 60s rock band) “blood, sweat and tears” seems to have been authored by a mass of people who intentionally or unintentionally chose to edit a speech by Winston Churchill.

Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, was trying to rally his people in 1940 when he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

It was a certainty that the content and meaning of this speech was crucial to Churchill, but so was its sound, hence the alliterative “toil, tears” and the five-beat rhythm of da, da, da, da, da – a little like iambic pentameter. Still, for all Churchill’s literary and artistic intentions, the people ultimately had their way. Churchill’s words have pretty much been lost and their words have stayed.

KhayyamIn college people would quote a line from the 12th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam. With romance in mind they would say, “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou.”

I had never read Khayyam and I’m not sure they ever did. But recently I learned they did to him what they did to Churchill.

Having stumbled upon a copy of Khayyam’s poems, which in English is call “The Rubaiyat,” I looked for that line and found:

 

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou.”

 

Again, a rhythm of four things was turned to three.

When Tonight Show host Johnny Carson would do a series of four jokes – and bomb – he’d turn toward his producer and say, “I told you four never works.”

And so the difference in opinion between those who create art and those who consume it remains.

We should be aware of this when we read great works like the Iliad or listen to traditional folk songs. Those things started out one way, and along the way people made what they considered improvements. The Iliad, for much of its life, was not written but recited. If a clever reciter made a good edit, it stuck and was passed on. Same thing with many songs whose original authors have been lost to history.

Which leaves us the question: Should literary greats like Homer and Churchill and Khayyam be altered by lesser literary lights? I don’t know, but it’s clear that a whole lot of people think they can do better. I think in some cases, they probably have.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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