Myth Trivia: A poetic tribute to wordsmithing

Whether you like rhyming iambic pentameter or free verse, anything in between or nothing about poetry at all, these clever little exercises in wordsmithing are nothing short of amazing.

Washington Crossing the Delaware -

CHARLOTTE, NC, September 13, 2017 – The day after last week’s trivia column about words that have come and gone from the English language, Paul Anthony Jones wrote a column for the Mental Floss website that had some fascinating wordplay involving poetry.

Whether you like rhyming iambic pentameter or free verse, anything in between or nothing about poetry at all, these clever little exercises in wordsmithing are nothing short of amazing.

1 — SQUARE POEM: Though Lewis Carroll is credited with this tiny poetic gem, it wasn’t until many years after his death that it appeared in print. Whether Carroll wrote it or not is of minor consequence although it does harken to his wild creativity and love affair with words.

“I Often Wondered When I Cursed” is only six lines long and only contains 36 words, making it a 6×6 box that does for words what Sudoku does for numbers.

The poem features six words that can be read the same either horizontally or vertically. In a sense it is similar to a palindrome which says the same thing when read in either direction such as: “Madam, I’m Adam.”

Following is the “Carroll” square poem:

“I often wondered when I cursed,
Often feared where I would be—
Wondered where she’d yield her love,
When I yield, so will she.
I would her will be pitied!
Cursed be love! She pitied me…”

2 — WASHINGTON CROSSING THE DELAWARE: At one time or another we have all seen the famous painting by Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze of George Washington standing in the bow of his boat in the dead of winter as his troops rowed him across the Delaware River.

That painting inspired American lexicographer David Shulman, who was just 23 at the time, to compose a 14-line sonnet. which is divided into three four line stanzas followed by a two-line rhyming couplet at the end.

Every two line cluster rhymes giving the poem a rhyme scheme of AABBCCDDEEFFGG.

So far, so good but what is so amazing about this sonnet, which notably does take its share of poetic license to accomplish its goal, is that every line of the poem is an anagram of the title!

In other words, every letter in the title is precisely re-used in a different order to complete the 14 lines of verse:

“A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
“How cold!” Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general’s action wish’d “Go!”
He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands—sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens—winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can’t lose war with’s hands in;
He’s astern—so go alight, crew, and win!”

Don’t believe it? You can spend the rest of day unscrambling the letters to prove it.

3 — A LOWLANDS HOLIDAY ENDS IN ENJOYABLE INACTIVITY:  The final contribution is a bit more cryptic but it is relatively recent having been composed by British humorist Miles Kington in 1988. The operative word here is “British” which means, as with American English puns, you must be willing to allow certain pronunciations and spellings to play out their role in the exercise.

The poem did not appear in print until 2003 but its brief two-line message explains much about how people hear and understand languages:
“In Ayrshire hill areas, a cruise, eh, lass?
Inertia, hilarious, accrues, helas!”

At first glance the poem likely makes no sense but what it demonstrates is how words can be spelled differently yet sound the same.
Anyone who has ever been to Scotland knows this all too well because even though you know your Scottish colleague is speaking English, his accent is so thick that you are fortunate if you comprehend every third word.

This is exactly what Kington’s poem demonstrates as both lines of his couplet are basically pronounced the same though the words themselves are entirely different.

The word Helas, by the way, is an exclamation of disappointment dating to the 15th century. It is similar in meaning to the more common modern day word “alas.”

Kington’s poem is an example of what is known as a holorirme whereby all the words in the first sentence sound like the words in the second sentence despite being different.

As an example from Kington’s poem “Ayreshire” is pronounced much the same as “inertia” and so on.

Paul Anthony Jones had two other amazing examples of poetic wordplay in his column, but honestly, ingenious as they were, the final two were well beyond every day comprehension.

About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (
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