Richards’s Reversals

25 06 2018

Today I stumbled upon a fine little essay I feel compelled to share: I. A. Richards’s “Reversals in Poetry,” collected in his Poetries: Their Media and Ends, edited by Trevor Eaton (The Hague: Mouton, 1974): 59-70.

In this brief essay, Richards examines a number of ballads and ballad-like poems. (He notes that “[t]he title of the original talk [of which his essay is a transcription] was Ballads” (65).) However, as his essay’s title indicates, Richards was intrigued by the structural reversals that he found in a number of the poems he was examining, and so he decided to focus on that. The structure Richards investigates is one “which often seems fundamental in poetic composition and really important: the way verses can be ABOUT a many-stepped hierarchy of situations simultaneously: up, up, up or, if you like, down, down, down, deeper deeper (63).”

“Down, down, down, deeper deeper” is right. Richards offers a number of poems that seem to be headed on way, but then, oddly, surprisingly, turn to either keep going in a downward (negative) direction or else, shockingly, simply turn negative. Here’s the first poem, a lullaby sung to former Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick by his mother:

White was the sheet
That spread for her lover,
White was the sheet;
And embroidered the cover.

But whiter the sheet
And the canopy grander
When he lay down to sleep
Where the hill-foxes wander. (59)

As Richards asks, and answers: “It has a powerful plot–hasn’t it? The pull and tension are pretty strong between the expectations generated by the opening…and the grimness of the last five words…” (60). He calls this turn a “violent grim reversal” and “an extreme reversal–sprung upon us as suddenly and unpreparedly as possible” (60).

About Sir Walter Scott’s “Proud Maisie,”  Richards notes, “Here are the same grim surprises: the same sudden reversals and the same polarities of Love and Death” (61). Then Richards offers this terrifying little gem, a motto from the beginning of a chapter from chapter ten of Scott’s A Legend of Montrose:

Dark on their journey frowned the gloomy day.
Wild were the hills, and doubtful grew the way.
More dark, more gloomy and more doubtful showed
The mansion which received them from the road. (62)

Glorious! Terrifying! Terribly ironic! Ah! This is how so many great horror movies have begun…! While I’m very glad my bookshelf wanderings led me to this today, I wish a bit that I’d discovered this in autumn, closer to Halloween. Ah, well: we are a few days past the solstice’s turn, so, even though it’s not yet fully registered, the days are getting shorter–down, down, down, deeper deeper…

Richards closes with two additional ballads. I’ll close with them, as well. I hope you enjoy the strange, dark gifts of these grimly surprising plots–!

“The Unquiet Grave” [The version Richards uses differs slightly from this one, but you’ll get the gist…]

“Faithless Nelly Gray”

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