Thomas Moore’s “The Minstrel Boy”: An Analysis

Thomas Moore (1779-1852)In my A-Z Bookish Survey, I mentioned my current project of reading through Kathleen Hoagland’s anthology 1000 Years of Irish Poetry: The Gaelic and Anglo-Irish Poets from Pagan Times to the Present (Devin-Adair, 1947). Recently, I read through the book’s selection of Thomas Moore’s poetry, and though I had not heard the name, I discovered I was familiar with some his work. In popular culture, Moore’s most familiar piece is probably “Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms,” whose tune appears at the beginning of “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners and is part of a running gag used in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts.

However, I found myself more drawn to a different Moore poem, “The Minstrel Boy,” a ballad recounting a young musician’s death in battle. Let’s take a close look at it, shall we?

“The Minstrel Boy”

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him,
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him.
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell!—but the foeman’s chain
Could not bring that proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said, “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free,
They shall never sound in slavery!”

First, some context. Born in 1779, Thomas Moore came of age during a period of turmoil in Irish history. He was nineteen-years-old when the Irish Rebellion of 1798 broke out, and was friends with several prominent members of the Society of United Irishmen, such as Robert Emmet and Arthur O’Connor. Moore himself did not take part in the rebellion, instead focusing on his schooling and his literary pursuits.

However, as Kathleen Hoagland notes in the introduction to 1000 Years of Irish Poetry, “It has been the history of literature throughout the ages that in times of social, political, and national upheaval, of war and stress, new creative forces emerge” (p. xliii). Moore was no exception to this supposed trend, and in 1807—in the aftermath of the failed rebellion and the Acts of Union 1800, which brought Ireland into the United Kingdom—he began publishing his Irish Melodies, which, “in one respect at least, lifted the curtain of scorn by which all things native to Ireland were covered” (p. xliv).

“The Minstrel Boy” is one of those Irish Melodies, and it’s difficult not to see the lyrics as a response to the failed rebellion. The title figure calls his country “Land of Song,” which fits rather well with the conceit of Irish Melodies, and his primary instrument is a harp, which had long been a symbol of Ireland and was used in the United Irishmen’s iconography. That the minstrel boy destroys his harp before it falls into enemy hands is tragic, as it signifies a knowing surrender of Irish freedom, yet his final words to it are uplifting: that beautiful music so identified with his country “shall never sound in slavery.” Its return, the poem’s logic seems to imply, will signal the return of Irish liberty.

Granted, there is a metatextual irony here. The success of Moore’s lyrics meant that the music of Ireland, the sort the minstrel boy must mourn the loss of, gained its then-largest audience only after its homeland officially ceased to exist as an independent country. Perhaps we are better off seeing “The Minstrel Boy” as the voice of a subjugated people, rather than the clarion call of a nation. Or perhaps those final lines are not a statement of fact, but of intent—the people will make freedom theirs, and the harp shall be restored.

Beyond its stirring nationalist sentiment, I think “The Minstrel Boys” offers the reader some surprises in terms of form. Specifically, as the poem transitions from the first stanza to the second, it deviates from the established pattern of the ballad in some productive ways.

Now, in everyday usage, “ballad” generally refers to a melodic, slow-tempo song, usually about romantic love. (Back when I was an undergraduate instructor, this was the definition all my students immediately jumped to when I said the word.) However, in the context of literary history, a ballad is a narrative poem set to music, and often uses the structure of common meter: four-line stanzas (quatrains) that rhyme ABXB or ABAB and whose lines alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. For a concrete example, consider the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “[Because I could not stop for Death – ]”:

Because | I could | not stop | for Death 
He kind | ly stopped | for me
The Car | riage held | but just | Ourselves
And Im | mortal | ity.

In practice, ballads often stray from a strictly iambic rhythm, inserting extra unstressed syllables to give the piece a more galloping beat. However, the number of stresses in each line generally remains constant, which is why “common meter” is often called 4343. The first four lines of “The Minstrel Boy” demonstrate this nicely:

The min | strel boy | to the war | is gone,
In the ranks | of death | you’ll find | him,
His fath | er’s sword | he has gird | ed on,
And his wild | harp slung | behind | him.

Here we see that while Moore includes some anapests and weak endings, the total number of stresses follows that 4343 pattern. The one possible wobble is in line 4, as we would normally want to stress “harp,” but “wild” is easy enough to elide into one syllable, and so “harp” would be demoted to an unstressed syllable between “wild” and “slung.”

But in the second half of that first stanza, the meter gets trickier. Lines 5-6 scan normally, but lines 7-8 get complicated because of the typography. Without the italics, we’d scan those lines like so:

“One sword, | at least, | thy rights | shall guard,
One faith | ful harp | shall praise | thee!”

Indeed, Moore or his editors could have presented the lines with no annotations, and they’d be among the most regular lines in the poem. But the italics used for One at the start of each line require the reader to stress that word, which would bump the stress totals to 5 and 4, respectively. It might be possible, though unnatural, to demote “sword” to unstressed for purposes of scansion, but the polysyllabic “faithful” needs a stressed syllable, so line 8 is definitely overloaded.

I’ve written about this strategic over-stressing of lines before, when I analyzed Charlotte Smith’s “Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex,” but I think Moore’s poem offers an even more striking example of how it can be used effectively. Right as the speaker pledges his undying support for the cause, the line can no longer contain the emotion, and is instead overwhelmed with feeling.

And then—the come-down. The next stanza leaps, like all good ballads do, to the minstrel’s boys demise, and here the poem deviates from the established pattern in a different way. “The Minstrel fell” gets doubly punctuated, not only with an exclamation point, as might be expected, but also with a dash, which all but severs the line in two. It is the poem’s most dramatic pause, which only highlights the lack of a pause at the end of the line. Line 9 is the only instance of enjambment in “The Minstrel Boy,” the only place where the poem’s syntax overruns its lineation. As it happens, the image right before the line break is “the foeman’s chain,” which “Could not bring his proud soul under.” Forget about the minstrel’s soul—the oppressors can’t even hold down the verse!

What are your thoughts on Moore’s poem? Do you have any suggestions for other classic poems to tinker with? Let me know in the comments!

If you enjoyed this analysis of “The Minstrel Boy,” you may be interested in some of my other close readings. There’s the Charlotte Smith poem I linked above, or, for a slightly more recent post, a look at Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”

My Last Charles Village Festival

I shall be leaving Baltimore very shortly, and I can’t say that I’m especially nostalgic about that. I came here as a Johns Hopkins graduate student, so the university has been my community far more than the city has been. And even if that weren’t the case, I am at heart a homebody; getting out into the world, it just isn’t me.

In fact, I only know about this bit of local flavor because I happen to live literally across the street from it.

The Charles Village Festival is a two-day fair of sorts in Baltimore’s Wyman Park Dell, held on the first weekend of June every year. You’ll find more or less what you expect there: arts and crafts vendors, food stands, kids’ activities, a 5K race, and so forth. But for me, the big draw has always been the live music.

Although, my first summer in Baltimore, “the big draw” was more like “the big gripe.” See, the tunes at the festival get so loud that if I recognize a song, I can sing along to it from my fourth floor apartment. That’s admittedly nice every once in a while (who doesn’t want to shout the chorus to Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So”?), but I like peace and quiet, and after awhile even the crowd-pleasers wear out their welcome when heard through closed windows.

Of course, the festival wasn’t going anywhere, so eventually that weekend I set aside my annoyance and waltzed on down to the dell. And I had myself a good time, even though as a temporary resident of Charles Village I felt like an interloper. It was kind of crowded by then; I remember having to peer through some overlapping tree branches to see the main stage. But the tunes were lively throughout. I especially enjoyed hearing the U.S. Navy’s bluegrass band, which for the record exists. Their version of the country standard “Big Spike Hammer” ended up inspiring a poem for one of my MFA courses, so if nothing else, the festival gave me that.

And last year’s festival served as my indoctrination into the cult of Steely Dan, when local tribute act Technicolor Motor Home (taken from a line in “Kid Charlemagne”) closed out the proceedings. It was a weird experience, hearing a tribute band for a group I knew basically knew nothing about. Going in, I knew Steely Dan for “Do It Again,” and I’d probably heard “Reelin’ in the Years” without registering it, but beyond that, nothing. But the locals’ musicianship on the main stage enraptured me, and I’ve slowly been delving deeper into the Dan ever since.

(That recording is from several years prior, but “My Old School” was probably my favorite performance from last year’s set.)

But I think the musical highlight of festival tends to be the kids from The Music Workshop, a private music school in Baltimore. In various configurations, they play covers of popular rock songs between the main stage acts. (That cover of “Say It Ain’t So” I mentioned above? That’d be them.) It’s not they are the best at what they do, but they’re charmingly unpolished—like pint-sized Crazy Horses—and seeing kids bring some energy to yet another rendition of “I Won’t Back Down” or “Blitzkrieg Bop” always warms my heart. And gets my foot tapping.

The Pseudonyms
They’re called The Pseudonyms, and their front woman has some good stage banter.

Rain is threatening to hang over the entire weekend, so I don’t know how much more of the festival I’ll be able to see. (I sure hope it holds out late tomorrow: Technicolor Motor Home is supposed to wrap things up again.) Just in case that’s the last of it: I’m gonna miss you, Charles Village Festival.

No matter how loud you get on a Saturday morning.

Rhyme in Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately”

This week, I’d like to talk about one of my all-time favorite songs, Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” and about how it uses different kinds of rhyme to reinforce its meaning.

First released on Dylan’s 1965 masterpiece album Highway 61 Revisited, “Queen Jane Approximately” seems to have a very straightforward rhyme scheme. It’s composed of five stanzas, each following an abaBB pattern, where the capital letters represent the refrain line (“Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”). It’s a pattern only slightly removed from the classic ABXB pattern of the ballad, one of the fundamental forms in poetry and music.

However, the abaBB pattern only tells part of the story. The rhymes all have stress placed on the second-to-last syllable, while the b rhymes have stress placed on the last syllable. For an example, let’s consider the first stanza:

When your mother sends back all your invitations
And your father to your sister he explains
That you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane? (lines 1-5)

As you can see, Dylan alternates between these two kinds of rhymes, poly- and mono-syllabic. But what good does knowing that do us when it comes to analyzing the song?

To see how the rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” reinforces the meaning, I’m going to consider two ways of conceptualizing these sorts of rhymes. The first way is to think about them is in terms of the masculine/feminine distinction.

Masculine rhyme, in traditional English-language poetics, refers to a rhyme in which the stress falls on the last syllable. All monosyllabic rhyme pairs (e.g., “dog” / “blog”) are examples of masculine rhyme, but so are polysyllabic rhyme pairs like “deny” / “reply“—effectively, the actual rhyme there is “-ny” / “-ply.”

Feminine rhyme, on the other hand, refers to a rhyme in which the last syllable is unstressed, but the second-to-last syllable is stressed. The classic example is “sharing” / “caring.” (Note that something like “sharing” / “sing” would not be a true rhyme, because the stress patterns don’t match up: the former ends unstressed, the latter stressed.)

Now, the masculine/feminine distinction plays into a restrictive view of gender norms, in which masculinity is coded as strong and femininity as weak, which is why the terms are (slowly) falling out of favor. Yet that wouldn’t necessarily prevent the distinction from providing a useful framework for approaching the song. Indeed, I can imagine a song that alternates between feminine and masculine rhymes, as Dylan’s does, in order to encode the text of the poem as a dialogue: the “female” voice speaks, then the “male,” and so forth.

Alas, such dialogue encoding doesn’t really apply to “Queen Jane Approximately.” To start with the obvious: the song is wholly in the voice of the speaker, with Queen Jane as the addressee. In fact, Queen Jane doesn’t even have much of a voice in the speaker’s description of her. She is spoken to (“…all the bandits that you turn your other cheek to / All lay down their bandanas and complain” [16-17]) and she is spoken of (“…your father to your sister he explains / That you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations” [2-3]). But she doesn’t speak much herself, and when she does try to communicate with others, she is ignored (“…your mother sends back all your invitations” [1]).

You might argue that, by systematically inserting feminine rhymes into the song, Dylan can still imply a conversation between Queen Jane and the speaker. But it’s hardly clear that either Queen Jane or the speaker even wants to be part of a conversation. After all, in the final stanza the speaker pitches himself as “somebody you don’t have to speak to” (23). If Queen Jane and speaker ever get together, it will take the form of a one-way lecture—in other words, the exact thing they’re doing now.

Granted, this line of inquiry has helped to shed some light on the song, but only in how proposed framework doesn’t fit the situation. So rather than using the masculine/ feminine distinction, I would suggest we approach the rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” with a rising/falling framework instead.

At first, this proposal seems like a mere relabeling of terms: all masculine rhymes are rising rhymes (the meter of a line “rises” when it ends with a stressed syllable), and all feminine rhymes are falling rhymes (the meter “falls” with an unstressed syllable). However, these different terms have different implications. No longer are we think of the rhymes in terms of gender, and therefore people. Rather, we can think of the rhymes in terms of “direction,” where rising is positive and falling is negative.

Note that each stanza of “Queen Jane Approximately” follows the same, two-part syntactic structure: “1) When [X], 2) won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” The first part describes a series of conditions, and the second suggests a course of action in response to them. Let’s consider the both parts of that structure in turn.

When the speaker lists off the background conditions of Queen Jane’s life, it sounds thoroughly unpleasant. Given that she is always referred to as “Queen Jane,” we can safely say that she holds (or at least, believes that she holds) a high station in the world, yet she is being subjected to constant torment. This has all the makings of a declension story. When even “the flower ladies want back what they have lent you,” you have fallen from the heights (6).

As it happens, every stanza’s “when” clause contains both of its falling rhyme words. Queen Jane’s world is dominated by these weak, unstressed endings, which match her apparent fall. It is true that each “when” clause also contains a rising rhyme word, which could somewhat dampen that effect. But Dylan tends to pick words with negative connotations for that position (“vain,” “pain,” “complain”), so the semantics tend to drown out the sound.

But while Queen Jane, literally and aurally, spends most of each stanza in descent, the refrain offers the prospect of restoration. The line “Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” not only proposes a solution, it also ends emphatically: “Queen Jane” easily scans as a spondee (two stressed syllables). The refrain not only ends with a rising meter, it seemingly compensates for her previous declines.

Viewed in this light, “Queen Jane Approximately” is not merely another classic Dylan sneer-song, à la “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Positively 4th Street.” It becomes comforting, albeit a bit patronizing. No matter how far one falls, it’s still possible to rise for a strong finish.