Thursday

WASHINGTON CROSSING THE DELAWARE


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 general's star 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!


Reading this vivid poem, could anyone fail to feel the raw whipping of the winds, the violence of the waves, the threat of the oncoming Brits, the bravery of our valiant Johnnys . . . ?

Well, yes, I admit it's a little odd. Some lines, like the one about the redcoats, are a bit hard to parse. And does "anger" really rhyme with "danger"? Here and there, in fact, the poem seems somewhat forced. Still, its defects might be excused when you consider that David Shulman, its author, was working under duress when he wrote it. Like a poor soul penned in jail, he had to do without certain key resources. For instance, the letter u is utterly missing. It appears nowhere. As a matter of fact, it was the bard himself who barred it, and some other letters as well. You will search in vain for b, f, j, k, m, p, q, v, x, y and z. Indeed, what letters do appear in this poem, which was first published in 1936? The answer—and I hope this knocks your socks off—is: exactly the letters in the poem's title, and no others! Now, that is really crazy, is it not?

And yet, there is more. Notice that on every line there is a w. Or rather, two of them. Exactly two—count 'em. But why? Because there are exactly two w's in the title. And similarly, on every line there are exactly three a's—again, an inheritance from the title. And so forth. To summarize: in this fully metrical and rhyming sonnet, every single line is a perfect anagram of the title, and still the whole thing basically makes sense.

Douglas Hofstadter
The New York Times
March 10, 1996

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