Playing around with Valiente’s Verse Charge

As part of my study on Craft lore, I’ve been examining some of Doreen Valiente’s more popular works, especially the “Charge of the Goddess.”  In particular, I’ve been lingering over her Verse charge, a version of which she published in her book The Rebirth of Witchcraft.  There are also versions published in other books, but many share similarities to that published in Raven Grimassi’s Encyclopedia of Wicca Witchcraft.

The thing I dislike about all these different versions of the Verse Charges, though, is that they’re really difficult to recite!  The basic meter starts out as catalectic trochaic tetrameter (BA-boom / BA-boom / BA-boom / BA), but by the end of the poem the lines are mixed with lines that have iambic feet (boom-BA) or are acatalectic trochaic tetrameter (BA-boom / BA-boom / BA-boom / BA-boom).

On the one hand, it kind of works.  The four-beat line in English is a really emphatic one, and it can sustain a sense of metrical coherence even when all manner of metrical feet are mixed into a stanza.  For example, witness the following short poem by John Keats:

Typing scansion is annoying, so I stole this example from Timothy Steele's site.

Typing scansion is annoying, so I stole this example from Timothy Steele’s site.

However, it is my opinion that catalectic trochaic tetrameter is a curiously special meter in English.  It sounds weird to our ears, which typically prefer iambic feet and the completeness of acatalectic lines.  It is a chanty meter, and more than a little ‘witchy.’  In fact, Shakespeare–who wrote his plays predominantly in iambic pentameter–only used catalectic trochaic tetrameter for speeches given by ‘otherwordly’ characters, namely the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the three witches in Macbeth.  In MacBeth, particularly, the witches and Hecate might speak to other characters in acatalectic trochaic tetrameter, but their charms and chants are exclusively catalectic:

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful* trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

*Powerful here pronounced with two syllables: Pow’rful.

Because of the extreme emphasis a four-metered line has in English and because our brains and tongues actively seek completion of the incomplete foot, we can positively fly through these lines in incredibly rapid, staccato speech.  You don’t even have to think about it.  But because of that, your tongue will almost certainly trip up when the meter does not flow.  Try, for example, reciting the following short poem by William Blake with a little speed and mark where you trip up (Note:  You’ll have to pronounce ‘symmetry’ not as ‘SIM-meh-TREE’ but as ‘SIM-muh-TRY’):

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

I bet you ‘screwed up’ something around lines 4, 10, 18, 20, and 24.  These are the acatalectic lines, and Blake purposefully uses the pauses they force upon your tongue to force your brain to stop and consider the content.  Each of those lines occurs at crucial moments where the speaker’s growing terror of the God that could create the fearsome tiger appreciably increases.  Line 10 is where the speaker, who started the poem as an innocent child’s rhyme, begins realizes that the God who could make the fearsome tiger must have a truly terrible imagination, the panic builds until it climaxes in line 18, and line 20 marks the mind-blowing realization that the this God with such a terrifying imagination is the same one responsible for the sweet and docile lamb–and that realization, perhaps, creates the spiritual dread that the Christian God is perhaps more like a combination of God and Satan than anyone dared to dream before.  The meter change in lines 4 and 24 highlights the specific word change of “could” into “dare”, a change which underscores the poem’s theme.

Unfortunately for the Verse Charge, its changes from the predominant catalectic trochaic tetrameter don’t seem to serve much of a purpose.  But because the Charge opens with so many catalectic lines, your brain wants that pattern all the way through and you get frustrated when it isn’t.  It just doesn’t “sound right.”

So, as a bit of a mental exercise, I went through the Verse Charge and standardized the lines to acatlectic trochaic tetrameter.  The results are below:

Charge Comparison

Actually, I’ve made a couple changes in my version. Now I say “Teach I secrets yet unknown” and “When thine troubles come to thee.”  I’ve also been playing with “Learn my secrets of rebirth”.

It certainly is a weird little poem.  If it weren’t for the very last stanza, I think the quintains would actually make more sense if the three rhymed lines were grouped together, with the fifth line becoming the third.  The last stanza is weird no matter what, since the entire poem has perfect rhyme right up until the slant rhyme of bow (like bough)/know/go.  (Well, technically magistry and sorcery are slant…but they’re so close it’s easy to overlook.)

Ignoring all that, I think my version hits the meter consistently.  I’m still a little shaky on the line “In a circle, wild and lone.”  If you say ‘a’ as “uh” instead of “ay”, I think the meter works.  The Goddess names do require a particular pronunciation:  “AH-fro-DEET-tay, AIR-en-ROD,” “DAN-eww, MOR-gan, AND nee-SEEN,” “DIE-ann, BRIDGE-it, MEL-ooh-SEEN,” “ARR-tem-ESS and KER-red-WHEN.”  Magistry should also be pronounced as MAGE-ess-TREE.

That reminds me:  “Magistry” deserves some special attention.  Many versions, such as the one Grimassi published, use “mystery” instead of Valiente’s less-familiar “magistry.” However, even though I made a lot of changes, I thought it very important to preserve this particular word word because Valiente specifically sites confusion over it and the Goddess names as her major reasons for writing the prose version.

In The Rebirth of Witchcraft Valiente says that the people in her coven “could not understand the word ‘magistry,’ which [she used] in the same sense as the famous writer of weird tales, Arthur Machen, used it” (62). That’s a very specific direction, so I looked Machen up.  I believe Valiente meant a use that occurred in a tale “A Fragment of Life” in Machen’s 1922 book The House of Souls.  At the conclusion of that tale, in which a mundane city clerk finds himself part of an ancient mythic history, Machen gives a poem purportedly written by that city clerk.  It is full of language that would not go amiss in Wiccan texts and ends with the sentence:

Ever the magic wine is poured,
Ever the Feast shines on the board,
Ever the song is borne on high
That chants the holy Magistry—
Etc. etc. etc.

In the context of this poem, magistry is sort of a combination of “majesty” and “magic.”  It hints at a sublime otherworld, or of the incomprehensible liturgy of an incomprehensible place.  However, even if we turn to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of the word, I think the sense of Valiente’s lines still holds.  An obsolete definition there is ‘an art, craft, or employment’, which fits the sense of Valiente’s line.  The OED also notes that magistry is also a term used in alchemy, where it is both a substance free of impurities or the result of an alchemical transmutation.  Obviously, both of these definitions give the word a magical connotation independent of Machen’s usage.

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