Ruth Padel, “The Emerald Tablet”

You can link to Ruth Padel’s “The Emerald Tablet”  by clicking here.  The whole poem seems to me remarkably rich and beautiful but for the moment I just want to say a few things about the technical skill of the writing in the opening stanzas (down to “divine”).

One of the things this involves is a peculiar interplay between firmness and tentativeness in rhyme, rhythm and syntax.

Syntax first. These first two sentences are quite long and complex in structure. The only punctuation, apart from full stops and capital letters, is the white space at the end of lines and dividing a couple of them internally. Reading them, we have to feel our way through. This creates an impression of modesty and tentativeness qualifying the forthrightness of the statements, particularly on first reading, and of course means we have to read with particular attention. As we feel our way through them, however, we find that the sentences are well organized and paced and that the only guide we need is to treat each unbroken line as a unit of breath and sense. This produces little rushes through the longer unbroken lines and makes us slow down and pause in the short or broken ones. There’s a breathlessness to the utterance, a sense perhaps that the speaker is finding her thread as she goes, but the overall arc of thought is braced by a series of clear assertions: “This is to do with”, “It will be”, “it will contain”, “and will tell you”. At the same time, what comes between these firm statements is largely to do with lostness, uncertainty, and beliefs that most of Padel’s readers will surely regard as absurd. In fact it seems to me that in the first three stanzas as printed in the Kenyon Review the firmness of each of these statements only heightens the sense of falling into uncertainty in what follows.

In terms of rhythm, phrases where you can find a relatively firm metrical tread are intercut with phrases where the feet seem to falter or step sideways. The first seven lines can be seen as basically iambic but lines eight and nine certainly aren’t iambic and probably aren’t metrical at all. Even within the basically iambic lines the sense of a consistent pattern comes and goes because of variation in line length and the intrusion of extra unstressed syllables. As we read, in fact, the phrases seem to fall with the freedom of digressive, associatively musing prose.

Finally, rhyme is beautifully used by being used so sparingly but decisively. Apart from “find” and “kind” end-rhymes are so rare and faint as to be virtually absent till we get to


and will tell you that what is inward
……buried in earth       in flesh       and in your mind
is also the bright surface of the world outside
……and is divine.


Here, the full stop after “divine” gives the strong though not quite perfect rhyme with “mind” a conclusive emphasis in contrast with the way in which the earlier rhyme of “find” and “kind” seemed incidental, coming out of nowhere and going nowhere again. Picking up that earlier rhyme, though, it both takes impetus from it and seems to take it somewhere, to give it point.

This interplay between firmness and tentativeness seems to me fundamental to the meaning of the poem.

In the stanza I’ve just quoted, rhyme, rhythm, syntax, a gathering intensity in the metaphors and the confident, oracular phrasing all seem to come together in a resonant, inspiring, almost visionary declaration. What to my mind makes the moment so moving, though, is the realization that the intensity is not that of vision but that of our desire for it – a yearning that solaces itself in wishful thinking and absurd fantasies. Perhaps at another stage I’ll say something more about the thought content of this poem. For the moment I just want to express my joy in the fineness of the art with which Padel rides the two horses of yearning heart and skeptical head.


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