Thursday, July 17, 2008


I’ve been learning a poem over the last week or so called Curiosity, by Alistair Reid. I found it some time ago when I had a book of his out of the library. Previously I’d learnt another of his poems, Growing, Flying, Happening, and thought it was great. Curiosity also appealed to me, but as I tackled some of the lines today I found it quite odd rhythmically.

Here are the lines in question:

Face it. Curiosity
will not cause him to die --
only lack of it will.
Never to want to see
the other side of the hill,
or that improbable country
where living is an idyll
(although a probable hell)
would kill us all.

The succession of doubling ups of the letter, l, is okay, and the rhythm paces along quite comfortably until we get to the line with the word, idyll, in it.

Now, I’ve always pronounced this idyll to rhyme with riddle (as in Chesterton’s line: Hey diddle diddle will rank as an idyll, if I pronounce it chaste,’) and as far as I can tell that’s the general British pronunciation of it. (The Americans apparently rhyme it with the word, idle, but they’re prone to peculiar pronunciations.)

If no less an authority than Chesterton says the word is idyll, rhyming with riddle, then that’s good enough for me. But try saying that sort of idyll in the middle of this poem. It works in its own line, but it clashes oddly with all the hills, and wills and hells, and kills. I thought at first Reid might have had an odd notion to pronounce it i-dill, but it’s unlikely, since it throws the rhythm right out.

But pronouncing it idyll (rhyming with middle) is a riddle, because it gets no importance, and usually you’d think that idyll, because of its curious sound and comparative rarity, would get some room to breathe. Not in this poem.

Perhaps there’s a way to make it work. I haven’t quite found it yet.
Post a Comment