Where the Stress Falls

Ode on a Grecian Urn Tattoo
Ode on a Grecian Urn Tattoo

Ode on a Grecian Urn Tattoo

[quote]THOU still unravish’d bride of quietness, Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time -John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn[/quote]

Slow Time
I mentioned (here) that Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn figures heavily in my pantheon of influential works. The famous spondee “slow Time” remains one reason. As I said before, the line made Grace smile and giggle as a baby, which is partly what made me repeat over and over again her her, suturing it into my brain. It has a music to it. The line just skips up and down—thou foster child—then quiets with “silence” and brakes into “slow time.”

It is a moment in the poem before the ravishing of the following lines where Keats whispers a kind of invocation. A supplication to beauty, which for Keats is an apostrophe to truth.

Brain Stem
Audiologists know that spondees function differently on the brain and on hearing, that they hold special “spectral characteristics.” Because of the way the stress falls on a spondee, we tend to speak such words and phrases at the same volume and often at a similar frequency.

Ice Cream
If you get a hearing test where they test your “speech reception threshold” and your “speech discrimination” abilities, you’ll encounter nothing but spondees, words like pancake, cowboy, playground, sidewalk, ice cream.

Heart Break
“Heart Break,” another spondee.

Keats writes famously in the next stanza:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter;

perhaps his most famous lines. He continues as if aware of what the neurologists now know, he felt:

therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

We can hear spondess even when whispered because they reverberate with the special architecture of our ears and brains. They work at the level of biology or mystery, the spirit ditties of no tone….the ineffable beyond language.

Love Me
Spondees are the best words to whisper in the dark.

“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life,” says the man of Kane’s last word, despite the film’s insistence to the contrary.

Last night I awoke in the dark. I walked into each of my daughter’s rooms and stood over them in the darkness, listening to their breath, gently touching their heads with my lips. When I kiss Grace, she shifts slightly and mumbles her dreams softly. I stand in the dark, listening.

Her words tumble out inaudibly. I smile and go back to bed.

(with apologies to Susan Sontag for the title)