About The Plains of Abraham

This epic poem turns its back on Virgilian epic, returning to the foundations of the genre laid by Homer in Greek and Vyasa in Sanskrit. It is not a twilight sigh of that tradition. It reaffirms that the human voice, not the written word, is the cornerstone of poetic truth.

Basically, this is to say that it is epic in performance. Structure, diction, form, content are all geared to affecting the audience. The epic genre is the genre of narrative verse, and The Plains of Abraham was composed with a view towards effective storytelling in realtime.

Scope and Structure

Two factors determine the structure of the poem: the scope of the events described, and the reality of audience expectations.

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In terms of scope, The Plains of Abraham, like the Iliad and the Mahabharata, deals with events of long ago (the Siege[s] of Quebec, 1759-60). Beginning in medias res on 12 September 1759 with the decision of Wolfe to gamble everything on an all-or-nothing night descent (about the riskiest operation in war), it follows the course of events leading to the deaths of Wolfe and Montcalm the following day. Along the way, however, past and future events are described or foreseen, from the French victories at Monongahela and Ticonderoga to the future Battle of Ste. Foi. The model for this is the Iliad, in which the narrated story occupies only a few days but, through various devices, looks both backward to the origins of the Trojan War and forwards to the death of Achilles.

As with the ancient epics, this telescoping of events into a single grand climactic episode results from the need to cater to audience interests: I found that episodes not directly connected to Montcalm and Wolfe had little interest for the audience, so they have become the vehicles for material from the wider history, and what was originally just the central episode (of six), the Battle of the Plains of Abraham itself, has absorbed the others.

Diction and Formulaic Language

The language of the poem is marked in two ways: it is slightly archaic, though never unintelligible or obscure, and it is strongly formulaic.

The archaism arises from occasional inversions of word-order ("then to the ships he came" instead of "then he came to the ships"), usually for metrical reasons, and from the occasional dropping of a non-colloquial word ("slain" instead of "killed," for instance). This latter type of archaism is meant to remove the action of the poem from our usual world; interestingly, audiences have asked if The Plains of Abraham is some "rediscovered" text contemporary with the events it describes! In fact, the language of the poem is far more direct than the ordinary (let alone poetic) speech of the 18th century, or even of the modern day: often an older word or phrase is used where we would tend to use some high-fallutin' Latinate polysyllable in our modern colloquial techno-babble.

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Occasional archaism aside, however, the language of the poem is also formulaic. What is a formula? Essentially, a formula is a Lego block of rhythmic language. It was by combining and recombining these Lego blocks (of various sizes) that pre-literate poets built the epics of antiquity: any casual reader of the Odyssey or Ramopakhyana recognises phrases like "the much-enduring godlike Odysseus" or "the dharma-inclined descendent of Raghu" as formulas. In fact, all of Homeric language is formulaic, though we may not recognise it as such immediately (especially in translation).

Formerly, scholars were inclined to write off formulaic verse as "the best the poet could do" given his illiteracy, or to ascribe the preservation of formulas (some as much as 3000 years old in Homer's own day) to the hard-headed conservatism of the Dark Ages. Happily, it is now understood that neither of these views is right. Rather, from the point of view of composition, the recombination of formulas in tale-telling was the epic poet's craft, appreciated as such, and thus conservative in effect rather than in purpose; while from the point of view of the audience, the deployment of hefty formulas allowed the listener's imagination to assimilate new information at a manageable rate instead of being overwhelmed by concise, compact detail.

English poetry has not been formulaic since the days of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that is for six hundred-odd years; so The Plains of Abraham creates its own formulas. Skilful recombination of formulas is thus not an appreciable characteristic of the composition, except insofar as the audience recognises repetitions ("upon the Plains of Abraham," "before impregnable Quebec," etc.) as a performance proceeds. But the second, audience-oriented aspect of the formula remains vital: thanks to the heftiness of these set phrases, the poem never gets ahead of itself or leaves the listening ear behind. And there is a third benefit: for me as for ancient oral poets, formulaic phrases in The Plains of Abraham allow for improvisation in performance - a useful tool when the going gets tough.

Rhythm and Meter

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The Plains of Abraham differs from most contemporary poetry in that it tells a story and achieves its effects in performance instead of on the printed page. Because of the emphasis on performance, it is also rather exceptional in embracing a key performance-related tool: regular rhythm and meter.

The effect of a large dose of regular meter on an audience is one of mild hypnosis. This effect should not be confused with "putting an audience to sleep." Rather, if the ear is guided along established cadences, boredom, the result of exhaustion, is counteracted. Though the audience may psychologically rebel against regular meter for the first five minutes or so, soon the listening ear accepts the framework and enters inside the rhythm - an experience familiar to anyone who has seen a good Shakespeare performance (that is, one that does not pretend Shakespeare's verse is prose) or even a jazz concert. Many listeners have remarked that time appears to stop during a performance of The Plains of Abraham. This is the effect of regular meter.

This Canadian epic is metrically innovative, however. The classic meter of English verse is iambic pentameter, whereas The Plains of Abraham uses iambic octameter, a significantly longer line. The difference is illustrated below. Also, The Plains of Abraham does not use rhyme. Both these features (a longer line and no rhyme) are inspired by the Greek and Sanskrit epic meters, hexameter and anustubh.

Anustubh meter consists of a sixteen-syllable line, broken into two eight-syllable half-lines by a break in the middle of the line (a "medial caesura"). Like ancient Greek, Sanskrit builds its verse from patterns of long and short syllables. (Most modern European languages, including English, no longer distinguish long and short syllables, classifying them instead as accented or unaccented). The pattern of long and short syllables in the anustubh meter is as follows:

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Here we see the break in the middle of the line, as well as the fact that the first half-line and the second-half line have different closing cadences (short-long-long-short for the first half-line, short-long-short-long for the second half-line). The difference between these closing cadences has an important effect: the audience is never left unsure of whether they are hearing the first half-line or the second half-line, even though both halves have the same number of syllables (eight).

Turning to the Greek hexameter, we find a similar (though more complicated) patterning of long and short syllables. We note here that the most common type of hexameter, the "two-part" type, has a single break in the middle of the verse (permitted in one of two places). This break divides this type of hexameter, like the anustubh, into two balanced halves:

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In addition to the two-part type of hexameter, however, there is also a three-part type. In this type there are two breaks, which divide the line into three parts:


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It is against the background of the hexameter and anustubh that The Plains of Abraham builds its meter in English.

The first question was: what rhythm should be used? Here the rhythm pretty much had to be iambic, that is, a series of iambic feet, since this is the basic rhythm of 90% of English poetry and speech. (An iambic foot consists of two syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed. To facilitate comparison with the ancient meters above, a stressed syllable is here indicated as a "long" syllable and an unstressed syllable as a "short" syllable.)

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Once the iambic rhythm was settled on, the next question was: how long should the line be? The great iambic meter in English is iambic pentameter, used by nearly everyone from Chaucer to Tennyson, and famous in the epic genre as the meter of Milton. But iambic pentameter is a much shorter meter than either the hexameter or the anustubh meter; inevitably, one half of every line of iambic pentameter does little more than "set up" the second half, and balance is accordingly achieved either through the use of couplets or through enjambment (the running of a sentence from one line to the next). These were two effects to be avoided, since internal balance is very important to a line of epic verse, simplifying narrative and keeping the pace of description steady over the long haul; while enjambment, if too prolific, forces the audience to concentrate too closely. In order to achieve the marvelous degree of internal balance displayed by the hexameter and the anustubh, it was necessary to find a meter of similar weight, capable of division without provoking continuous enjambment.

The result, developed with the help of my brother, David Mitchell, in January of 2000, was iambic octameter, or a sixteen-syllable line in iambic rhythm (alternating unstressed and stressed syllables). This is exactly the number of syllables in the anustubh meter, though without the short-long-long-short closing cadence of the first half-line (difficult to achieve in English). As with the anustubh, a break follows the eighth syllable; like the two-part hexameter, however, the break may come one syllable later, after the ninth (unstressed) syllable.

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The removal of the distinctive closing of the first half-line characteristic of the anustubh (which, as we have seen above, serves to distinguish the first half-line from the second) had a serious flaw, however: audiences were prone to confusing the first half-line with the second-half line, both usually of eight syllables and now undistinguished from one another. The solution was, first, the introduction of "song tones," a quasi-chanting of certain syllables in the line (in 2001): by "singing" the first, second, and fourth stressed syllables of the first half-line while "singing" the first, third, and fourth stressed syllables of the second half-line, the performer was now able to distinguish for the audience the first and second halves of the verse. These were eventually reduced to simply clearer and more emphatic pronunciation of those syllables, so that the structural role of the syllables persisted but the oddness of singing them was dropped.

For additional variety, in addition to this two-part line, a three-part line was now introduced (in the winter of 2001, following the first Rhapsodic Tour). In keeping with the three-part division of some hexameters (described above), the iambic octameter line could now be broken into three parts:

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(Note how the position of the marked [formerly "sung"] syllables also varies in this three-part format.) The three-part octameter began to be interspersed among the two-part lines, allowing for controlled rhythmic variety amid the larger poem and incidentally reminding the audience (aurally) that it takes sixteen syllables to make a line.

That is where the meter currently is: iambic octameter, in all its glory!


Speech and Story

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Like its two models, the Iliad and the Mahabharata, The Plains of Abraham consists of about equal parts narration (in which the action is described directly by the narrator) and speech (in which characters in the poem address one another). Some parts, such as the battles, are narration-heavy; other parts, such as councils and embassies, are speech-heavy. Still other segments involve narration within speech, as when the Battle of Ticonderoga s described by Montcalm. The combination of narration and speech provides variety; the two aspects are distinguished in performance by the absence of strongly pronounced rhythm in the speeches by characters. In the terminology of ancient criticism, such speeches are instances of mimesis, hypocrisis, or prosopographia.

In addition to narration and speeches, there is a third category: the similes. The mini-genre of these epic similes is borrowed directly from Homer; they are used as pacing devices, deployed to separate narrative episodes. They are drawn from nature, and relate incidents in the poem to the natural phenomena of the Canadian landscape. In a full performance of the poem, there are thirteen similes, each one pertaining to a different province or territory: mountain streams for BC; the Chinook for AB; prairie sunset for SK; Red River floods for MB; storm on Lake Superior for ON; ice storm for QC; Reversing Falls at St. John for NB; a dismasted frigate for NS; dewy grass for PEI; breakers for NL; mountain flowers for YT; a wolf pack for NT; a polar bear killing a seal for NU.

One point: in the telling of the story, care has been taken that the events described never contradict the historical record. In contrast to the ancient epics, where the gods interact with the human characters and interfere in the story, supernatural events have been greatly restricted; even when they do occur, they can be taken as the interpretation by contemporaries of natural events (as when the rain before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham is described as the Virgin's tears in heaven). The result of such a strictly historical emphasis seems to be that audiences are glad to take the poem as literally true, which is not quite right, but not far wrong.