The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

Personal Rhythm


    THERE is a rhythm of poetry, and there is a rhythm of people. And these two rhythms are similar in their charm and power.

    By a rhythm of people I do not mean any magnetic or magic influence generated in congregations of individuals, but rather the rhythm peculiar to each individual. In this sense rhythm is an attribute of personality, and is manifested through the person in motion and speech. Observe your friends and notice the rhythm peculiar to each; how one is slow and another quick, one deliberate and another hurried, one jerky and another graceful. I almost fancy, indeed, that you might find one was iambic and another trochaic in essential rhythm. Can you not think of the [Page 183] ponderous character that moves step after step, word after word, with the emphasis always delayed until the second thought, the second look, the second movement, the second words? Dons and dowagers and policemen are always iambic in their rhythm. Recall the rhythm of blank verse, the most common iambic measure in English, in the lines:

                            “So all day long the noise of battled rolled
                             Among the mountains by the winter sea,”

and you will perceive at once how settled and prosperous and conservative it is, quite aristocratic and assured. On the other hand, to quote again from Tennyson, there is the line of excellent trochees:

             “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”

    How different from the iambics! How sprightly, tripping, gay, and emotional! The rhythm of a soubrette rather than a savant. Then, again, there is the slow, uncertain, meandering [Page 184] rhythm of some large people who move like a hexameter:

           “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.”

    Undecided people are usually of this dactyllic measure; and it is a very dangerous one to handle.

    Again, persons are like poems in this, that it is possible to have a bad rhythm, though every rhythm is good in itself. We may, however, destroy our rhythm or nullify its effect by misuse. If we are naturally iambic, we must be careful how we break into troches; and, if we are trochaic, we must beware of lapsing into iambics. The result of a bad use of rhythms is always ludicrous. The strut of a bantam and the skip of an archbishop are incongruous, and, therefore, to be employed with discrimination. And with this provision any rhythm may be used at will with expressional power. The prime rule in the poetry of man is this: Stick to your [Page 185] own rhythm. And remember you cannot help using your own natural rhythm so long as you are simple and sincere. The moment you begin to pose, you will unconsciously use another rhythm, not your own; and every one will know it. Do not imagine for a moment that you can appear to be what you are not. You are betrayed in every gesture. Every syllable “gives you away.” Occasionally a great genius may play a part which is not his own by nature; but in that case he passes by imagination into the new character, and actually is the person he plays. This is the genius of the actor, and it is the lack of just this power that is so apparent in the mediocre player.

    To live according to one’s rhythm is the law of common sense and common honesty. It is the first requisite of sanity, too. And it is one of the greatest evils of modern life that it tends to throw us out of rhythm. We are nearly all hurried to a point of hysteria. It is not so much that we have more than [Page 186] we can do, as that we allow the haste to get on our nerves. Without being aware of it in the least, we become distraught, inefficient, and flighty, simply through the hurry in which we live. You may deny it as you please, but noise and haste are maddening. Watch the average business man, fluttering about like an agitated hen. He is divorced from his natural, legitimate power, for he has lost his own rhythm. He does everything too quickly, and he does nothing well. If he would only take time to breathe and smile and hold up his chest, he would accomplish much more, and save his soul alive at the same time. To be in a hurry is sometimes necessary. In that case, you must be prepared with the natural celerity of lightning, prompt but poised. It is never necessary to scurry. And in order to maintain this deliberation, of course, we must never let events tread on our heels. We must never dawdle, never allow our rhythm to run more slowly than is natural. That is equally a fault. But, if [Page 187] we always do things that are becoming to our personality in the rhythm that is our true expression, neither breathless nor lagging, we shall accomplish more than we dreamed and we shall always have time to spare. We have all the time there is; and in that time everything can be done that ought to be done. It is merely a matter of balance, of adjustment, of rhythm, of keeping the soul at poise amid the forces of circumstance and will. If we miss that fine poise, we suffer, we feel the deterioration that comes of ineffectual effort, we have wasted our power, we have depleted our fund of inertia and initiative impulse, we have hindered the delicate rhythm of personality.

    Does this seem fantastic and far-fetched? It is not really so. Perhaps it is a matter that will not bear discussion. It will bear experiment, however. If you do not believe in a personal rhythm, it is only because you have never thought of it in so many words. If you consider it for a moment in the light of [Page 188] your own experience, you will be convinced of its truth and power.

    There is in poetry a certain influence or power quite apart from its logical meaning. There resides in the lines a subtle force not given to prose. This is the genius of the measure making itself felt. In the same way our personality makes itself felt in all we do, through the influence of our peculiar rhythm. And we shall be wise to cultivate our own proper and peculiar measure of speech and movement. For there is surely a power given to each one of us, call it what you will, that is not expended in word or act, but exerts itself in the unconscious time of speech, in the unconscious time of our deeds. And just as the measure of verse influences the hearer and serves to carry an impression from the poet, so our own rhythm affects all who come into contact with us in life. It is a form of power about which a materialistic age knows little, and therefore one the more to be cultivated and preserved. [Page 189]