Ariel's Song

27 May 2024 by Jian Zhi Qiu

Quote from Dear Su Yen pp. 21-25

I wasn't sure that my language skills were good enough to understand English poetry, but Roy said poetry was a very good way to understand English culture. He said words in poetry mean so much more than the same words in ordinary writing, or prose. This is because poetry has rhythm, like music, and music seems to have meaning, even without words. 'I'm not sure I know what rhythm in poetry is.' He began to speak slowly, using some words that were strange to me:

Full fathom five thy father lies.

'That sounds very beautiful. Why is it beautiful?'

'This is beautiful because it is soothing; and it is soothing because of the repeating of those soft 'f' sounds, four times. There are no hard or sharp sounds. And because of the rhythm.'

"What is the rhythm?'

'It's like the beat in music,' he explained.

I could understand that because I like to play the piano. My father had to make me learn to play, but I'm glad about that now because it gives me much pleasure.

I learned that the way a poem is constructed is called its metre, and the rhythm is the musical effect this produces. In that one line of poetry, for example, there are eight bits, called syllables, like this:


When we say the words, we ever so slightly say each second syllable a little more strongly (but not too strongly) like this:


Just like music. I realised that this rhythm comes quite naturally; the pattern of the poetry cleverly uses the way we speak; well, the way English people speak. I've discovered it's very important to emphasise the correct syllable if you want to be understood in English.

The four pairs of syllables in the poem sort of balance each other so that the line feels complete and at rest and there is no tension left at the end. Another part of the complete pattern is how the fourth syllable, 'five,' has the same 'i' sound as the eighth, 'lies'. I learned that when two words have a similar sound we call that rhyme, which is not the same as rhythm. In fact this one line is really two short lines which rhyme, which is why the whole line seems balanced.

There was more, but first I asked him, 'What does "fathom" mean, doesn't it mean, "to think"?'

He explained it also meant a length, about one and a half metres, and generally it was only used at sea, so we know straightaway that this man has been drowned.

'And "thy"? I've never seen that word.'

Roy explained that it is just an old-fashioned word meaning 'your'. He said that, of course, when everyone spoke like that, poets naturally wrote in the same way, so even though we don't use those words these days some people still think they sound 'poetic'.

"But the words are all in the wrong order,' I argued, 'we were taught to put the subject at the beginning.'

'The order is changed to make the rhythm, and the rhyme,' he pointed out. 'In ordinary writing we might say,

"Your father is drowned at sea, seven and a half metres down". But that's not beautiful is it?'

'No. Is there more?'

He started again.


Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are corals made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange:

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell. 


    Hark! Now I hear them,

                     Ding-dong bell!


As he said each line, he quickly wrote it down and then gave me the piece of paper.

I read the poem slowly. There were still many words which I didn't know, but I could feel their music. 'It's sad,' I said, 'But it's beautiful too. Beautifully sad, or sadly beautiful: which? When you say, "Your father is drowned at sea," and so on, it might be sad for his son, but not really for anyone else. But somehow the poem makes it sad for everyone; but it's beautiful too, so it's sort of happy as well.'

I think Roy liked my ideas. 'You thought you couldn't understand English poetry,' he said, 'But already it speaks to you.

'Yes! And, "Of his bones are corals made," has a rhythm, but, "Corals are made of his bones" doesn't'.

'That's right, though it's a little bit different than the one in the first line. There are many different rhythms used in poetry.'

That night, as I thought about my first English poem, I was wondering why the man had been drowned, and who was supposed to be speaking those lovely words.


Dear Su Yen

I said I would send you the story of the poem about the drowned man. First of all I should say it's by William Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest English poet. He lived in the sixteenth century when Elizabeth I was Queen of England. I'm sure you have heard of him already.

The poem is from a play called The Tempest. A king, his son and their friends are shipwrecked on an enchanted island. The young prince is very sad because his father has been drowned. A kindly, although invisible, spirit called Ariel sings this sad but beautiful song to comfort him, which it does. His father is not gone: 'Nothing of him that doth (does) fade'; but he 'suffers' (that is, he experiences) 'a sea-change, into something rich and strange,' of corals and pearls.

However, it turns out that his father, the king, has not drowned; but he has in fact undergone a deep change, for although many years ago he did a very evil thing to the owner of the enchanted island, now the king is truly sorry, and the two men have become good friends again. Perhaps that is more beautiful and strange than being made into pearls and corals.

The stories, or plots, of Shakespeare's plays are famous, but I think his greatest genius was in his interesting and beautiful use of words.