Memorizing Lepanto: Lines 1-6


Pay attention to three things when memorizing
a chunk of text: sound, rhythm, and meaning. In this video I will cover the sound, including
rhyme, rhythm, and meaning of the first six line chunk of Chesterton’s Lepanto. Getting to know these quite well is your first
step toward memorizing this chunk. The first stanza of Lepanto is fourteen lines
long, but for now we will focus on memorizing the first six lines. Here they are:
White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships. Let’s look at the sound patterns in these
lines. First and most obvious, we have the line ending
rhymes: sun-run, feared-beard, lips-ships. These make for easy memorization, but they
are not all we should notice about sound. There are also frequent hissing S-sounds:
fountS, courtS, Sun, that’s three in the first line alone. We also have a lot of F-sounds: Founts, Falling,
lauGHter, Fountains, Face. Noticing these can help you as you do your
repetitions. They can serve as landmarks on your way through
the text, and perhaps help you remember if you are ever half-doubtful about what comes
next: there are a lot of hissing S and F sounds in this first chunk. We also hear some repeated vowel sounds: long
I in the first and second lines, white and smiling, courts/forest in the first and fourth
lines, and face/shaken near the ends of lines three and six. Noticing these helps you get familiar with
the poem, and may give you an idea of why it is structured the way it is. Next, let’s take a look at the rhythm of
these lines. This time listen for the natural stresses
in my voice, and the stress and pause points suggested by the language itself. White founts falling in the courts of the
sun, And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as
they run; There is laughter like the fountains in that
face of all men feared, It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness
of his beard, It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent
of his lips, For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken
with his ships. The first thing I notice is the three stressed
beats at the start of line one: white founts falling. There seems to be no more natural stress on
any one of those syllables than on the other two. This reminds me of three regular beats on
a bass drum, commanding the listener’s attention: white founts falling. Let’s listen again to the rhythm of line
one: White founts falling in the courts of the
sun, Calling stressed syllables “strong” and
unstressed syllables “weak,” this is what I hear:
WHITE FOUNTS FALL-ing in the COURTS of the SUN
STRONG STRONG STRONG-weak weak weak STRONG weak weak STRONG
If we attach the –ing of “falling” on to the end of FALL, as a sort of half-syllable
afterthought, then we have three groups of three syllables here. The first is strong-strong-strong, and the
others weak-weak-strong, or anapests. We could break it up that way for easy memorization:
WHITE FOUNTS FALL(ing) / in the COURTS / of the SUN. STRONG-STRONG-STRONG(-weak) / weak-weak-STRONG
/ weak-weak-STRONG Let’s take a look at the second line with
the same strong/weak pattern in mind: And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as
they run; And the SOL-dan of by-ZAN-ti-um is SMIL-ing
as they RUN weak-weak-STRONG(-weak) / weak-weak-STRONG(-weak)
/ weak-weak-STRONG This continues the pattern from the end of
line one, this time with three anapests. (If you allow me to cheat a bit by counting
SOL-dan and SMIL-ing as one strong syllable plus a half-syllable.) I won’t map out the patterns in lines three
through six, but here are the stress points: laugh-foun-face-feared, stirs-dark-dark-beard,
curls-cre-cre-lips, in-earth-shak-ships. Finding these natural stress patterns can
help you pronounce the poem more meaningfully, and help you learn it well enough to recall
it at will. Lastly, let’s take a look at the meaning
of these six lines: what is happening here. We should understand the narrative of the
poem, and how these lines establish and advance it. The court of the sun, with its white fountains,
is the palace of the sultan Selim the second. The sultan, “soldan” in Chesterton’s
poetic expression, is smiling because he contemplates the defeat of the Christian naval forces and
the conquest of the Italian mainland. Chesterton dwells on the laughter in the Sultan’s
smiling face, and describes his lips as a crescent, bringing to mind the crescent symbol
of Islam. The reason for this smile is given in the
sixth line: his fleet dominates the Mediterranean (the inmost sea) and victory seems close. Knowing the meaning of these lines will help
with the transition to the next chunk. Line seven begins “They have dared…”;
“they” being the Sultan’s ships. The thought of the ships at the end of this
chunk should naturally bring to mind the description of the ships at the start of the next chunk. We will discuss the sound, rhythm, and meaning
of the next chunk of the first stanza of Lepanto in another video. Thanks for watching today; goodbye.

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