Portent

Title: Portent
Poet: William Carlos Williams


Red cradle of the night,
…..In you
…..The dusky child
Sleeps fast till his might
…..Shall be piled
Sinew on sinew

Red cradle of the night,
…..The dusky child
Sleeping sits upright.
…..Lo! how
……….The winds blow now!
…..He pillows back;
The winds are again mild.

When he stretches his arms out,
Red cradle of the night
…..The alarms shout
From bare tree to tree,
…..Wild
……….In afright!
Mighty shall he be,
Red cradle of the night,
…..The dusky child!   !

My initial plan for this post was to primarily discuss the meter of the poem (which I may still do later). I also planned to mention, briefly, an interesting way that Williams toyed with the rules of rhyme in the poem. But investigation of the deviation I thought I had found revealed something more interesting. Williams obeys the rules of rhyme, but this forces us to read the poem in an unintuitive way. I present below my initial reading of the lines in question, followed by my reasons for abandoning this reading.

Williams in the first stanza Williams rhymes “in you” with “sinew.” Other poems in his collection The Tempers (in which “Portent” appeared) show Williams experimenting with feminine or double rhyme. “The Death of Franco of Cologne: His Prophecy of Beethoven,” for instance, is written almost entirely in couplets with feminine rhyme. Generally, such rhymes are held to the rule that the first syllable of the rhyme must be stressed, the second unstressed. I did not check carefully, but I think every rhyme in “Franco of Cologne” follows this rule. But the “in you”/”sinew” rhyme does not. Out of context, it could: both “in” and “you” could take or leave a stress. But in context I think “in you” must be read as an iamb, not a trochee.

Or so I first thought. But my instinct is to treat deviations of meter and rhyme as justified, if at all, by their impact on the meaning of the poem, and I could find no reason for any such variation in this instance. This led me to experiment more seriously with reading “in you” as a trochee, preserving the proper feminine rhyme, and I’m now convinced that this is how Williams intended the poem to be read. It is certainly a less intuitive reading than the iambic reading I first countenance, for a few reasons. First, the poem is dominantly iambic, and the first line presents the appearance of perfect iambs (but see my discussion of this above) so that’s what I expect of that line. Second, line-opening trochaic substitutions are generally connected to action and generally involve words that demand a stress, not words that merely take them optionally. Third, semantically I expect the stress on to fall on “you,” because the first line of the poem establishes the red cradle of the night as the subject thereby addressed. Knowing only that, and not knowing what is to follow, it is more natural to stress the address (“you”) than the seemingly more incidental statement of location (“in”).

But the rhyme dictates that “in” must be stressed, and indeed I think this is ultimately semantically justified. The true subject of the poem is not the red cradle of the night, but the dusky child. The red cradle of the night is of no intrinsic interest except for the fact that within it sleeps the dusky child. But we do not know this until we have read the entire poem. This creates the interesting effect that it is nearly impossible to correctly read this poem on the first try. It must be reread.

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