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Deconstructing Morley


National Poetry Month is upon us, which calls to mind the works of one of our most treasured library patrons, Christopher Morley. As referenced in previous articles on our dear Mr. Morley, his preferred legacy as a writer was that of an illustrious poet. Though Morley’s talent as a writer is indiscriminate among forms, his masterful use of words and wordplay is especially suited to poetic verse, as is his interest in suffusing whimsy with realism. Readers of his works can attest that Morley's ability to unite both serious and playful tones within a single composition is an attribute that transcends his genre-rich canon.


In celebration of Morley’s contributions to English-language poetry, we decided to take a look at his 26-line poem “Hymn to the Dairymaids on Beacon Street”:


Sweetly solemn see them stand,

Spinning churns on either hand,

Neatly capped and aproned white

Airy fairy dairy sight.

Jersey priestesses they seem

Miracling milk to cream.

Cream solidifies to cheese

By Pasteural mysteries,

And they give, within their shrine,

Their communión in kine.

Incantations pure they mutter

O'er the golden minted butter

And (no layman hand can pen it)

See them gloat above their rennet.

By that hillside window pane

Rugged teamsters draw the rein.

Doff the battered hat and bow

To these acolytes of cow.

Genuflect, ye passersby!

Muse upon their ritual high--

Milk to cream, yea, cream to cheese

White lacteal mysteries!

Let adorers sing the word

Of the smoothly flowing curd.

Yea, we sing with bells and fife

This is the whey, this is the Life.


Written in an unstanzaed progression of primarily heptasyllabic trimeter, the lines of this poem are mainly structured as a sequence of two trochaic feet trailed by a three-syllable foot with varied patterns of stress. Each line contains end rhymes with an AABBCC scheme, though they are not arranged in couplets. The form is less common for an English-language poem and takes few diversions from the seven syllable structure.


Beginning with a lilting s-sound alliteration, the poem moves immediately into a dream-like scene of the feminine ideal, captured in the opening line “Sweetly solemn see them stand”. This continues through to the third line where the image is completed with the purity of “neatly capped and apron white”. The figures then receive an encompassing summation of “airy fairy dairy sight” which further mysticizes their presence as ethereal creatures. The rollicking cadence formed by the triple internal rhyme creates a sense of fanciful tranquility, reminiscent of a nursery rhyme.


The emotion the speaker shows in describing these “Jersey priestesses” fluctuates from true veneration to self-amusement with punny phrases like “Pasteural mysteries”. A series of religious terms and imagery creep in with “miracling milk to cream”, “communion”, and likening the cows to a shrine (which conveniently rhymes with “kine”). Another somewhat opportunistic rhyme occurs with “Incantations pure they mutter/O'er the golden minted butter” which also sparks the realization that the poem is not actually describing a religious ceremony but rather the production of dairy. Despite its adornment with embellished adjectives, the use of the word “butter” as opposed to an ornate euphemism reminds the reader that the subject of description is an everyday staple. These lines, along with the two which immediately follow, are the poem’s only instance of trochaic tetrameter, a form most closely associated in English with Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.


Occurring halfway through the poem, this metrical diversion gives way to several lines of more grounded language with “By that hillside windowpane/Rugged teamsters draw the rein./Doff the battered hat and bow.” However, the speaker swiftly reverts to dairy-themed imagery cast through the lens of religious adoration, describing the maids as “acolytes of cow” and urging passersby to “genuflect” at the performance of their ritual milking. Though this thematic combination is not an explicit allusion to actual biblical content, readers who are familiar with the Exodus narrative will most likely be reminded of the Golden Calf.


Though the poem, as stated earlier, follows an AABBCC rhyme scheme, lines 21 and 22 serve as a refrain of lines 7 and 8 with the use of “cheese” and “mysteries”. Both line sets describe a process propelled by a seemingly esoteric force and are the only such lines in the poem that employ matching end rhymes. They immediately precede the poem’s final four lines which culminate in the clever pun of “This is the whey, this is the Life”.


Though written over a century ago, the poem’s dramatic style and form were already archaic for that time. The use of lofty language to describe an unlofty image pegs the work as an affectionate caricature of romanticism, a genre which Morley likely studied in his youth. The playful sensibility of this early poem crops up in Morley’s later works, especially those written for children such as I Know a Secret and Where the Blue Begins.


As a standout example of his poetry, Morley's voracious wordplay and parodic tone in “Hymn to the Dairymaids on Beacon Street” serves well to convey the mercurial sophistication of his literary voice and by many accounts, his real-life persona. The zesty enthusiasm for life and for literature that permeate his works provoke both enjoyable and highly memorable reads.


Glossary

Stanza: a grouping of lines that form a unit in a poem.

Heptasyllabic: consisting of or having seven syllables.

Trimeter: a line of verse consisting of three metrical feet.

Foot: the rhythmic unit that forms part of a line of verse.

Trochee: a metrical foot of a stressed syllable and an unstressed syllable.

End Rhyme: occurs at the end of two or more lines of poetry.

Rhyme Scheme: a pattern of rhymes that fall at the ends of a poem’s lines.

Couplet: two successive lines of poetry, often rhymed.

Alliteration: the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginnings of words.

Internal Rhyme: a rhyme involving a word in the middle of a line.

Trochaic Tetrameter: meter of poetry consisting of four feet of trochees.


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