Last Time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer…

Be honest. You just read that in Giles’s smooth accent.

But let’s transition to another accent for today. One a little less smooth, one that inexplicably transitioned to a rebellious Cockney. Yes, dear readers, let’s think of William the Bloody, but not just in any way, but as William, the Bloody Awful Poet.

We know he got that epithet from, well, his bloody awful poetry.

Take a look at this one from “Lies My Parents Told Me”:

tumblr_mbeu5tbtko1qkf372o1_250
William the Bloody Poet, 1850-1880

Yet her smell, it doth linger,

painting pictures in my mind.
Her eyes, balls of honey,
Angels’ harps her laugh.
Oh, lark, grant a sign if crook’d be Cupid’s shaft.
Hark! The lark! Her name it hath spake:

“Cecily” it discharges from twixt its wee beak.

Wow, that is terrible. It’s so terrible, I cringe just reading it silently to myself. It’s one of those inner cringes where you imagine your spine internally curling away from the terrible thing you’re reading.

But why don’t we like it?

I mean, look, it has some interesting poetic uses of sound to hold it together. There’s some consonance that doesn’t quite become alliteration:

Yet her smell, it doth linger,

painting pictures in my mind.
Her eyes, balls of honey,
Angels’ harps her laugh.
Oh, lark, grant a sign if crook‘d be Cupid’s shaft.
Hark! The lark! Her name it hath spake:

“Cecily” it discharges from twixt its wee beak.

And there’s some shared vowel sounds and near-rhymes that are almost there:

Yet her smell, it doth linger,

painting pictures in my mind.
Her eyes, balls of honey,
Angels’ harps her laugh.
Oh, lark, grant a sign if crook’d be Cupid’s shaft.
Hark! The lark! Her name it hath spake:

“Cecily” it discharges from twixt its wee beak.

Even really bad poetry has something to tell us about how poetry works. Because of these shared sounds and unnecessarily elevated language we automatically distinguish it from prose.

But all of these shared sounds are only partly complete. “Spake” grates with “beak” and the words “wee” and “beak” with their shared sounds are just too close to each other. The same thing happens with the one rhyme of “hark” and “lark.” They are just so close that instead of pulling the whole poem together through shared music, they break off little discrete portions that sound the same, but are nearly meaningless or trite.

It’s not just the sound that’s a problem. All of the figurative language is weak and a little unsettling. There’s something more horrifying than endearing about eyes that are “balls of honey,” and I don’t know about you, but I would rather that my name didn’t discharge from a birds beak. On top of all that, there’s the self-defeating possible meanings of the first line, which makes me wonder if Whedon’s read some early drafts of Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”

And there’s the haltering way that Marsters delivers it, perfectly blending sound and sense.

In some ways, it’s so bad it’s brilliant. It takes a lot of work to meticulously craft crap. And when we look at it with a critical eye and say why it isn’t very good, we discover even more about the nature of poetry.

Then, nearly two hundred years later, we get a different poem from William the Bloody.

This time, there’s a stanza structure with perfect rhyme instead of the near rhyme of his earlier poem. Even when the rhyme breaks down in the fourth stanza, shared sounds through the assonance between “sweet release” and the rhyme between “release” and “peace” hold the lines together. And when the speaker’s emotions swell, so does the use of rhyme in the sixth stanza. In this poem, William also makes use of a refrain and the anaphora of “Let me” beginning many lines.

Let’s take a closer look at the lines:

I died [Courtly love?]
So many years ago
But you can make me feel
Like it isn’t so
And why you come to be with me
I think I finally know
mmm-mmm [Hmmm, okay, maybe nothing special here, but it sounds good]

You’re scared
Ashamed of what you feel
And you can’t tell the ones you love
You know they couldn’t deal
Whisper in a dead man’s ear
It doesn’t make it real
That’s great

But I don’t wanna play
‘Cause being with you touches me
More than I can say
And since I’m only dead to you
I’m saying stay away and
Let me rest in peace

Let me rest in peace
Let me get some sleep
Let me take my love and bury it
In a hole 6-foot deep
I can lay my body down
But I can’t find my, sweet release
So let me rest in peace

You know,
You got a willing slave
And You just love to play the thought
That you might misbehave
But Till you do,
I’m telling you
Stop visiting my grave
Let me rest in peace

I know I should go
But I follow you like a man possessed
There’s a traitor here beneath my breast
And it hurts me more than you’ve ever guessed
If my heart could beat, it would break my chest
but I can see you’re unimpressed
So leave me be and

Let me rest in peace
Let me get some sleep
Let me take my love and bury it
In a hole 6-foot deep
I can lay my body down
But I can’t find my sweet release
Let me rest in peace
Why won’t you
Let me rest in peace?

Now I’m not saying that this is a great poem. It’s a fun rockabilly-esque song that tells us something about the speaker and engages verse techniques in a more adept way than the earlier poem. What I think is most important, though, is that this song is enjoyable and the earlier poem isn’t.

And that’s quite a big difference. William moves from an overly-wrought register, that on a formal level doesn’t have much going on, to a very regular poem in an informal register that is much more effective.  In the first one, he’s trying to convince someone of a feeling not felt, and it shows. In the second one, he’s expressing his own emotion mingled with insight into the beloved.

But there’s something more. Here’s another snippet of the bloody awful poetry from the late 19th century (oh and please don’t judge Victorian poetry by this caricature).

My heart expands
‘Tis grown a bulge in’t
Inspired by
Your beauty effulgent

Wow, that is really terrible with it’s random contractions and rhyming “bulge in it” with “effulgent.” But doesn’t the way the heart is presented here look just a little familiar?

I know I should go
But I follow you like a man possessed
There’s a traitor here beneath my breast
And it hurts me more than you’ve ever guessed
If my heart could beat, it would break my chest
But I can see you’re unimpressed
So leave me be and…

That’s the same moment. William’s heart is pained, especially by the emotional disconnect between himself and his beloved, but he’s had over a century to perfect his craft.

So what’s the takeaway to all of this? Your shit matters. A lot. And it’s always with you, hidden in your best work.

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5 thoughts on “Last Time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer…

  1. just about start the series once more from the beginning — and this is one of my favourite episodes. How Spike evolves from an overwrought poet to an overwrought vampire is fascinating – I totally agree with your analysis! Look forward to reading more.

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