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Poetic Analysis: Christopher Morley's “Two O' Clock”

“We heard a critic remark that no great sonnets are being written nowadays.”

This editorial statement opens Christopher Morley’s “The Permanence of Poetry”, an essay from his variegated collection of musings, Plum Pudding. In response to such critics, Morley wonders “How can you tell? It takes time for any poem to grow and ripen and find its place in the language.” While such critics may consider the great sonnets to be found only in the works of Shakespeare, Spenser, or the Romantics, others may believe Morley’s poem “Two O’ Clock” to be a worthy induction into this illustrious canon. Following the 14-line form of pentametric lines, the poem’s dreamy yet accessible imagery makes for a sonnet as solid as any other. In the modern context of free, unstructured verse, it has decidedly ripened into a new classic.

Two O’ Clock

Night after night goes by: and clocks still chime

And stars are changing patterns in the dark,

And watches tick, and over-puissant Time

Benumbs the eager brain. The dogs that bark,

The trains that roar and rattle in the night,

The very cats that prowl, all quiet find

And leave the darkness empty, silent quite:

Sleep comes to chloroform the fretting mind.

So all things end: and what is left at last?

Some scribbled sonnets tossed upon the floor,

A memory of easy days gone past,

A run-down watch, a pipe, some clothes we wore—

And in the darkened room I lean to know

How warm her dreamless breath does pause and flow.

One glance at the bones of this composition reveals the basic sonnet form in terms of line count and meter. Though variations from the original Italian sonnets have been generated over centuries in many languages, the three-quatrain-couplet-crowned Shakespearean sonnet is arguably the most familiar form known to English speakers. Despite a complete lack of quatrains, this poem leans Shakespearean with its ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyme scheme. However, instead of three stanzas of four lines followed by an isolated couplet, Morley made the unconventional decision to combine the first two would-be quatrains to form an octave followed by an isolated sestet, perhaps as a way to highlight the sonnetic volta which occurs between the 8th and 9th lines.

Though moments of irregularity peek through familiar lines of unstressed and stressed syllables, the steady bounce of iambic pentameter is not lost on this poem. Still, beginning any sonnet with a stressed syllable as seen in the word “Night” is an audacious move, even for Morley’s unfettered literary spirit. The poem’s resignation to form is not seen until the second half of the first line, “and clocks till chime” which is fitting for the image it describes of a time-bound object.

As the familiar sonnetic rhythm begins to move the poem forward, a perfectly metered line emerges with “And stars are changing patterns in the dark.” This underscores the “changing pattern” of the rhythm. It also allows for other sonic elements to stand out, especially the double internal near-rhyme of “stars are” and “dark”. The complex assonance of “watches tick” in the next line is remarkable in its use of a short “e” in conjunction with a long “i” to approximate the same vowel sound. The “ch” sound preceding “tick” has an observably onomatopoeic quality that cushions the figurative image that follows: “over-puissant Time.” Employing an archaic compound adjective, Morley personifies the force which moves the Universe forward. Indeed, everything leading up to this moment are phrases that indicate this motion: night after night, clocks chiming, changing patterns, watches ticking.

Further on, the hard-sounding consonants of the first few lines are softened with the alliterative “benumbs the eager brain.” An interesting moment of structural deviation occurs in this line, offsetting the choice to forgo the stanza break that would be seen in a Shakespearean sonnet. Here, the “eager brain” that generated these initial images is numbed to a full stop as the sentence ends in the middle of the line. This also brings the enjambment of the preceding lines to a jarring halt. A new sentence begins within the same line, and continues through to the end of the octave, again using enjambment to connect these typically distinct sections. Further complexity is seen as the prominent “r” sounds that appear in this line travel down to “trains that roar and rattle” while also providing an opportunity for the internal rhyme of “brain” and “trains”. Soon after, the nighttime setting takes full hold of the narrative with “cats that prowl” and empty, quiet darkness.

The poem’s standout line is found in “Sleep comes to chloroform the fretting mind”. Here, we see sleep personified as an entity capable of administering a real chemical substance as a solution to the anxiety of a mind trying to find rest in the midst of chaotic imagery. The curious use of “chloroform”, a verb not often seen in poetry, is a brilliant opportunity to highlight the assonant rhyme inside the word that comes with the double “or” sounds. It’s an edgy choice with a sense of modernity that can be expected from Morley, whose literary perspective often appears to straddle the transition from classically-influenced verse to a more contemporary style. It is fitting that he chose the sonnet form to illustrate this shift because of its highbrow association yet malleable potential. As a whole, the line provides a sharp, moody transition to the final sestet, especially with its iambic break as seen with the double stress of “Sleep comes”. The poem’s self-awareness is at its height here as the speaker is also self-aware of their mind winding down.

Though modern language pervades, Morley does not eliminate the sonnet’s transitional volta, incorporating it into the final sestet where the speaker poses the question: “So all things end: and what is left at last?” Though simple in its language, the question is a rhetorical lead-in to the self-aware line of “Some scribbled sonnets tossed upon the floor.” This may suggest that the poem we are reading was not the first one written in the evening it describes, but perhaps the one that the speaker believes is worth keeping. As the sonnet draws to its closing couplet, the resignatory air of “A memory of easy days gone past” may represent the facility with which we take “easy days” for granted as the speaker has done with the “scribbled sonnets.”

With the poem now reaching the late hour of its title, the speaker sheds a list of waking-time objects: “A run-down watch, a pipe, some clothes we wore.” This is where the sonnet’s classic ending couplet also ends the day as a dark bedroom is entered where “she” is already sleeping. In spite of prior deviations, the closing couplet makes its appearance with no detectable metrical divergence, just the lilting iambic pentameter that mimics the final image of “How warm her dreamless breath does pause and flow.”

Though it completes the 14-line requirement of any sonnet, thematically, this poem appears a bit unfinished. That may be because the speaker does not actually end with sleep, but with a still-waking watch of their soon-to-be bedmate breathing. It’s a strikingly intimate conclusion that feels appropriate for the form because of the sonnet’s long association with romance. However, this abrupt end is the first time where anything regarding relationships is mentioned. Everything that comes before the couplet is self-examining and mimics a late-night headspace in its mix of both tangible and theoretical/figurative descriptions. Still, this hazy ending may be seen as a reflection of the nonlinear nature of the poetic shift from old-world forms to the lawless modernity of free verse.

Celebrate National Poetry Month by reading more poems from Christopher Morley's Chimneysmoke at Project Gutenberg. You can also download the ebook to your Kindle!


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