Adventures with Iambic Pentameters ­ Articles ­ ISAA

. . . .

Adventures with Iambic Pentameters

Having formerly been a television documentary producer I am used to taking my brain into new territory. The diversity of ISAA’s membership allows me to continue doing this. Motivated in this way I have attended many ‘works-in-progress’ – which can be about anything. (I still remember one from many years ago on Fibonacci numbers.)

The most recent was Beverley Sherry’s ‘Lost and Regained through Translation: the Sound of Paradise Lost.

Now, I know nothing of John Milton and even less of Paradise Lost. As for poetry in general I am a little more informed. Jack and Jill is an all-time favourite and I can recite it in its entire length.

But that’s about it. I thought an iambic pentameter was a species of dinosaur, something like a pterodactyl.

Beverley’s intention was ‘to re-awaken our ears to the aural effects that are crucial to a poem’s meaning but which are lost in translation.’ To do this she read poetry in the original languages. Her reading of the last three lines of Dante’s Paradiso in Italian was beautiful to hear.

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle,

sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

l'amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

The literal English translation sounded less impressive.

But already was moving my desire and my will,

like a wheel that evenly is moved,

the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Beverley explained the three techniques of translation proposed by the poet John Dryden in the seventeenth century and still valid today:

• Metaphrase – A literal ‘word by word, line by line’ translation, e.g., the above translation of Dante

• Paraphrase – The thought is maintained but with some latitude of expression.

• Imitation – Translator goes own sweet way.

Beverley’s written material showed the difference between the original last five lines of Paradise Lost as Adam and Eve leave paradise. (The spelling is Milton’s):

Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;

The World was all before them, where to choose

Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:

They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitarie way.

and an adaptation into prose.

Adam and Eve wept some human tears, but soon they dried them. Before them stretched the whole world, where they must choose a place of rest, with Providence as their guide. Hand in hand through the land of Eden, with slow and wandering steps, they began their lonely journey.

To me the prose is easier to understand and read. But as far as drama and sound are concerned you can’t beat the original.

After the talk and ‘Q and A’ session, a lively conversation continued about rhythms and patterns in speech and poetry. Tales were told of experiences, both good and bad, of Bible translations and of performances of Shakespeare in foreign languages.

While waiting at bus stops or in supermarket queues I indulge my daydreams. A favourite daydream is fulfilled when I arrive at the most unknown of unknown places, the Hereafter: I will be allowed to return to earth for another trip as a reward for having made such a brilliant job of this one. As a bonus (so the daydream goes) I can choose where and when. I have considered joining Samuel Johnson and his circle for great conversations about all manner of things at meetings of ‘The Club’. I have also considered dining at the Algonquin ‘Round Table’ exchanging wisecracks and witticisms with Dorothy Parker and Harpo Marx. My favourite though is Paris in the 1920s and 30s, chatting at cafes with Hemingway and Picasso. In the meantime I enjoy the ideas, discussion and good humour of ISAA events. And thank Beverley Sherry for opening a new world to me in an informative and most enjoyable way.

It must be mentioned that friends of ISAA members are welcome at ‘Works in Progress.’ Beverley Sherry brought along an English friend and international scholar, Professor Hilary Gatti who lives in Tuscany. She was made most welcome. There is no such thing as a stranger at an ISAA meeting.

A free e-book copy of Paradise Lost can be downloaded from

A public reading can be accessed at:

Beverley Sherry spoke on a Radio National programme on Satan, which can be accessed at:

Her separate interview on Satan in Paradise Lost is added as the second extra audio.

Dr. Beverley Sherry is an Honorary associate, Department of English, University of Sydney. Email:


Brian Nicholls is a writer and former ABC TV producer and director.

Email: Website:


IMAGE CAPTION: Portrait of the poet John Milton in stained glass at St Andrew’s College, University of Sydney. Made by Lyon, Cottier & Co. (Sydney), 1876. Photograph by Douglass Baglin by kind permission of the Baglin estate.

Enter your comment below. Fields marked * are required. You must preview your comment before submitting it. You may edit your comment and preview it again as many times as you like before submitting.