Daily Archives: November 1, 2011

hemistich

Many a mortal || makes rhymes
But pompous poets || prefer apposition
Of available alliterations || alternating evenly
Central caesura || seizing suddenly
Hacking halfways || every hemistich

Thus runs the pattern of Old English alliterative verse, best known from Beowulf, but most entertainingly exemplified in Hrodulf Readnosa Hrandeor. I’ve indicated the pause in the middle – the caesura – with || for clarity (spaces appear with varying consistency). Many other kinds of verse also have a division in half with a break in the middle. One could argue that there is some of it in Robert Service, even (“There are strange things done || in the midnight sun”), but it is certainly a feature of classical poetry and of Anglican chanted psalms.

The pomposity meter really goes through the gothic arches with some renditions of those psalms. I’ve sung with a choirmaster who would have one line run right into the next, but have a two-second pause in the middle of the line. Think of a section like this (with : representing the pause, a convention in the Book of Common Prayer):

O go not from me, for trouble is hard at hand : and there is none to help me.
Many oxen are come about me : fat bulls of Basan close me in on every side.
They gape upon me with their mouths : as it were a ramping and a roaring lion.

Now imagine it sung like this:

O go not from me, for trouble is hard at hand

and there is none to help me.Many oxen are come about me

fat bulls of Basan close me in on every side.They gape upon me with their mouths

as it were a ramping and a roaring lion…

You want pompous, pretentious, and formally self-conscious? You got it.

But, ah, this is not about caesuras so exaggerated they seem like seizures. No, today’s word is about the halves that are meant to be stitched together, with the caesura as a hem, not riven like garments in mourning (and sewn to the next person’s garments).

But is it that you stitch them together, or just that you stick them together? True, stick doesn’t seem all that mystic, but think about the exoticism you get whenever you see a ch unexpectedly pronounced /k/. (I say unexpectedly because in choir and school you hardly think twice about it.) And in hemistich, which comes from Greek, the ch comes from the Greek letter chi χ, which as a rule ends up in English sounding as /k/.

The Greek word in this case is στίχος stichos, “line, row, verse”; ἡμι hemi means “half” as always. So then we may ask a couple more questions. First, as Stan Backs, who suggested this word, says, “A hemistich in time saves four and a half?” (He knew that the pronunciation was more sticky, though.) But then there is also the issue of what a sesquistich might be…

Well, macaronic, for one thing, since sesqui is Latin and stich comes from Greek. But we may consider that if a line is a foot in the meter, a line and a half is a meter and a half but also a foot and a half – sesquipedalian. But since a foot and a half is half a metre (roughly), we have made a loop between hemistich and sesquistich; loop after loop makes stitches, and hemistich sesquistich may be a mystic sadistic. Or perhaps a hamitic sasquatch… or a red-nosed reindeer. I mean readnosa hrandeor.