Ionic columns are the second main order of column, appearing first around the 5th century BC. The Ionic columns are the thinnest and smallest columns out of the three main columnic orders. The Ionic capital is characterised by the use of volutes, which look like small rolled scrolled sitting on top of the column shaft. When crafted well, the paper looks inviting, as if it could be unrolled and read. But you cannot unroll and read the top of an Ionic column, since it is stone. Besides, it is not for you. Inside there is a secret poem you would not understand.
Some poems are very much like columns. Dante’s Divina Commedia, for example, is written in three canticles which each consist of 33 cantos. These cantos are hendecasyllabic stretches written in the verse scheme terza rhyma. The lines form neat leapfrogging tercets which, on the page, look something like roughly hewn columns.
You could make the argument that most poems look like columns, but you would only be half right. Shakespeare can appear columnic, but even he has prose stretches, for instance in Merry Wives of Windsor. Also, he came after Dante, and so would only be applying the Italian’s architecture. Before Dante, things are also largely uneven. Homer wrote in Greek, with his lines ostensibly in even hexameter. There are, however, frequent metrical inconsistencies in his verse, leading his prints, if not standardised, to appear unlike columns on the page.
Also, Homeric Greek is rarely read today, and so we rely on translations such as Chapman’s English versification. Chapman evens things into columns, but this is cheating, and we should not regard it as valid. Dante’s Italian is still read, largely because of the quality of his poems. In three canticles, almost one hundred cantos, he has barely a syllable out of line.
Australian academic Prue Shaw says that Dante is all about movement, and that his construction has a inescapable, inevitable flow to it. Largely, she attributes this to the Italian language, which gives carrying rhythm through its easy rhymes. The lines of the column bounce down ahead of themselves, so that the poem moves even when it doesn’t. When Dante ends his Paradiso the reader barely realises, and keeps looking down the page.
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 line is all extrapolated from these last rhymes. Like the Ionic column, the perfect start is a rolled scroll. But in the end the perfect base is no base at all.
Words and Art by Harry Peter Sanderson