One of my favorite poems continued by ChatGPT

I love Swinburne because of his use of rhythm. I’m sure other poets have used rhythm as beautifully as Swinburne, but I can’t think of any. (If you can, by all means drop suggestions in the comments!)

I’m going to show you one entire poem. I would like to draw your attention to the use of vocabulary that is out of the common way, the use of alliteration, the use of slightly nonstandard punctuation, and most of all the use of rhythm in this poem. We can also notice the number of lines per stanza and the number of syllables per line. All this is before we consider meaning. Then we’ll see what ChatGPT does with this. The instruction for Chat GPT will be simple: Continue this poem. It got the whole thing prior to being given that instruction. I’m going to mark the place where Chat GPT takes over, though as you’ll see, there’s not the least need to do so.

A Forsaken Garden by ALGERNON CHARLES SWINBURNE

In a coign of the cliff between lowland and highland,

       At the sea-down’s edge between windward and lee,

Walled round with rocks as an inland island,

       The ghost of a garden fronts the sea.

A girdle of brushwood and thorn encloses

       The steep square slope of the blossomless bed

Where the weeds that grew green from the graves of its roses

               Now lie dead.

*

The fields fall southward, abrupt and broken,

       To the low last edge of the long lone land.

If a step should sound or a word be spoken,

       Would a ghost not rise at the strange guest’s hand?

So long have the grey bare walks lain guestless,

       Through branches and briars if a man make way,

He shall find no life but the sea-wind’s, restless

               Night and day.

*

The dense hard passage is blind and stifled

       That crawls by a track none turn to climb

To the strait waste place that the years have rifled

       Of all but the thorns that are touched not of time.

The thorns he spares when the rose is taken;

       The rocks are left when he wastes the plain.

The wind that wanders, the weeds wind-shaken,

               These remain.

*

Not a flower to be pressed of the foot that falls not;

       As the heart of a dead man the seed-plots are dry;

From the thicket of thorns whence the nightingale calls not,

       Could she call, there were never a rose to reply.

Over the meadows that blossom and wither

       Rings but the note of a sea-bird’s song;

Only the sun and the rain come hither

               All year long.

*

The sun burns sere and the rain dishevels

       One gaunt bleak blossom of scentless breath.

Only the wind here hovers and revels

       In a round where life seems barren as death.

Here there was laughing of old, there was weeping,

       Haply, of lovers none ever will know,

Whose eyes went seaward a hundred sleeping

               Years ago.

*

Heart handfast in heart as they stood, “Look thither,”

       Did he whisper? “look forth from the flowers to the sea;

For the foam-flowers endure when the rose-blossoms wither,

       And men that love lightly may die—but we?”

And the same wind sang and the same waves whitened,

       And or ever the garden’s last petals were shed,

In the lips that had whispered, the eyes that had lightened,

               Love was dead.

*

Or they loved their life through, and then went whither?

       And were one to the end—but what end who knows?

Love deep as the sea as a rose must wither,

       As the rose-red seaweed that mocks the rose.

Shall the dead take thought for the dead to love them?

       What love was ever as deep as a grave?

They are loveless now as the grass above them

               Or the wave.

*

All are at one now, roses and lovers,

       Not known of the cliffs and the fields and the sea.

Not a breath of the time that has been hovers

       In the air now soft with a summer to be.

Not a breath shall there sweeten the seasons hereafter

       Of the flowers or the lovers that laugh now or weep,

When as they that are free now of weeping and laughter

               We shall sleep.

*

Here death may deal not again for ever;

       Here change may come not till all change end.

From the graves they have made they shall rise up never,

       Who have left nought living to ravage and rend.

Earth, stones, and thorns of the wild ground growing,

       While the sun and the rain live, these shall be;

Till a last wind’s breath upon all these blowing

               Roll the sea.

*

Till the slow sea rise and the sheer cliff crumble,

       Till terrace and meadow the deep gulfs drink,

Till the strength of the waves of the high tides humble

       The fields that lessen, the rocks that shrink,

Here now in his triumph where all things falter,

       Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,

As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,

               Death lies dead.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

In that forsaken garden by the sea,

Where love and laughter used to roam so free,

Now lies a silence, deep and profound,

A stillness that wraps the desolate ground.

*

No footfalls echo, no voices call,

Only the sea’s mournful, rhythmic sprawl.

The once vibrant blooms, now turned to dust,

Memories linger, but love is a must.

*

The thorny thickets guard secrets untold,

Of tales of passion, of hearts once bold.

Gone are the lovers, entwined in delight,

Lost to the ages, veiled in the night.

*

The wind whispers tales of love’s sweet refrain,

But the roses are gone, and only thorns remain.

A ghostly garden in the twilight’s gleam,

Haunting reminders of a faded dream.

*

The sun beats down, unrelenting and harsh,

On the barren earth, where love made its march.

The rain weeps softly, a tear-laden sigh,

For the love that flourished but could not defy.

*

As the waves crash against the rugged shore,

Time moves forward, and the echoes of yore

Fade into shadows, where memories are tossed,

In the garden of the forsaken, love was lost.

*

But beyond the veil of this desolate scene,

Where the sea and the cliffs stand guard, serene,

There lies a promise in the poet’s pen,

That love, once departed, may return again.

*

For in death’s dominion, where silence may reign,

There’s a paradox, a mystery to explain.

As the sea winds murmur, and the waves recede,

Even death lies dead, and love may succeed.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

This is an interesting result, don’t you think? Chat GPT appears to be absolutely certain that poems should be written in four-line stanzas and that the lines should all be of equal length. Oddly, it switched to AABB rhyme, when Swinburne was using ABAB rhyme. I don’t understand that. You’d think matching the rhyming pattern would be automatic.

Obviously the vocabulary and syntax becomes much more basic. The punctuation also becomes much more standard. The specific thing Swinburne did with punctuation in his poem, if you didn’t notice, is leave out the commas between adjectives of the same level. That is, if you write, “The big old dog,” there’s no need for a comma between the adjectives because “big” and “old” are different kinds of adjectives that can only be put in that order. It sounds wrong to write, “The old big dog,” because that isn’t the right order for adjectives in English. If you write “The unusual, lovely, startling blue flower,” then the first three adjectives are all at the same rank (opinion) and could all change places, and that’s why commas go between them. The final color adjective has to come after the three opinion adjectives and that’s why there’s no comma before “blue.” Leaving out the commas between same-rank adjectives, as in “steep square slope” is a poetic device and now I am wondering whether I used this device in The City in the Lake, which I did, because I felt this was a way of creating a poetic feel because of Swinburne? That could be! I have always loved this particular poem! I will never know whether my feeling that leaving out those commas IS poetic is because of this poem, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Meanwhile, what else?

It’s interesting that Chat GPT brings up the concept of paradox here. Other than that — actually, including that — the ideas expressed are wincingly trite and expressed in wincingly cliched phrases. “But love is a must,” ouch. That may be the worst phrase in the poem. Any high school freshman ought to be able to do better than that. Beyond that, it’s obvious that Swinburne’s poem is bleak. Chat GPT has apparently been fed enough non-bleak poetry that it doesn’t continue with unrelenting bleakness. Nope, once death lies dead, love may return — that’s Chat GPT’s final statement.

Overall conclusion: We should all pause to read a Swinburne poem now and then. Or some poem. Maybe there are calendars with monthly poems. You couldn’t fit A Forsaken Garden on a calendar page very easily, but hey, look, here’s a wall calendar with a haiku for every month. I’m amused, but I do suddenly feel that I have stumbled across an empty marketing niche. I would personally love a wall calendar that features a classic poem every month — not anything haiku length either, but something about as long as A Forsaken Garden.

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7 thoughts on “One of my favorite poems continued by ChatGPT”

  1. I disagree with your conclusion that we should all pause to read a Swinburne poem now and then. I’m not sure a poem a month is the best dosage. At the poetry foundation website you can receive a poem each day via email from an established, often dead even, poet. Poets.org allows you to sign up for a daily email featuring an unpublished or lightly published poem. Should you want to collaborate on a monthly calendar, please do reach out.

    All of that aside, it’s hard for me to understand how AI can be this bad at this particular task. Your inclusion of the haiku calendar makes me wonder what it might accomplish if tasked with matching Taniguchi Buson.

  2. I enjoyed reading the Swinburne poem. I do agree that AI was quite bad in this regard; the sudden switch to the four-line AABB rhyme is a huge indicator. When our girls were younger, we memorized one poem a week, and I believe that storing beautiful language in their memories helped them all to become proficient writers.

  3. Michelle, I memorized The Bells by Poe just because I loved the sound of it so much. At the time, I could recite the whole thing.

    And the people—ah, the people—
    They that dwell up in the steeple,
    All alone,
    And who tolling, tolling, tolling,
    In that muffled monotone,
    Feel a glory in so rolling
    On the human heart a stone—

    I guess I liked the bleak verse there as well!

  4. The first poem I memorized was Madeleine L’Engle’s rune in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which I read at age 6 because it had a pegasus on the cover (didn’t understand it, had no context for the characters, as I hadn’t the rest of the series at hand, but loved it nonetheless). I memorized Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet when young also because Susan Cooper used it to great effect in her book ‘King of Shadows’. I still love it. Ditto ‘The Highwayman’ and several other long ballad-poems, which I read when young and impressionable – I used to have them off by heart.
    All the poetry I have best memorized is set to music – I have hundreds of hymns and ballads that I sing while cleaning, on rotation. One of the reasons I love the Redwall books is because they have ballads and poems in them that I make up tunes for – that was half the fun of reading the latest one when I was younger, for me!
    I agree that everyone should read (and even memorize) a poem now and then, or even often, especially if they want to write good prose. ChatGPT isn’t going to succeed in poem-writing any time soon, by the looks of it!

  5. EC, I memorized some of the songs in TLotR — I put them to music and sang them — I’m thinking of the Lament for Boromir here.

    From the mouths of the sea the South Wind flies, from the sandhills and the stones;
    The wailing of the gulls it hears, and at the gate it moans.
    ‘What news from the South, O sighing wind, do you bring to me at eve?
    Where now is Boromir the fair? He tarries and I grieve!’
    ‘Ask me not of where he doth dwell—so many bones there lie
    On the white shores and the dark shores under the stormy sky;
    So many have passed down Anduin to find the flowing Sea.

    And the poem about the signs from Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising. There’s a filksong for that one. Let me see … oh right, Julia Ecklar. Here it is. Ecklar pulls together different poems from the series in this filksong. I never read Cooper’s King of Shadows.

    I love Loreena McKinnet’s version of The Lady of Shalot. I love The Highwayman too, but hate the ending. I can’t stand that the idiot male lead totally wasted Bess’ sacrifice. I keep wanting to rewrite that story.

  6. Ooh, yes, I definitely memorized the sign-poem from The Dark Is Rising. What a mesmerizing rhythm!
    “Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long; Wood from the burning, stone out of song . . .”

    King of Shadows is about a kid from . . . South Carolina, maybe? – who gets a chance to perform in the actual Globe Theater, but after getting a burning fever wakes up in Elizabethan England and meets the Bard himself.

    I admit, I can’t remember why I was so set on memorizing The Highwayman, because I despise senseless deaths and doomed, star-crossed lovers in stories and always have. I think it was the onomatopoeia of ‘tlot, tlot’ for the horse’s hooves, along with the descriptions, that captured my imagination.

    There’s a version of the Lament for Boromir which you can find on YouTube on . . . Helle Stenberg’s channel, I think? There’s also one by Clamavi De Profundis. The three videos on Stenberg’s channel are the Lament, “Ai! Laurie Lantar”, and Sam’s song in the orc tower. Of them all, Sam’s song is probably the one most accurate to what I imagine when I read the text, but Galadriel’s song is the one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever, though from Tolkien’s descriptions of her voice I imagine Galadriel’s voice would be a low alto or countertenor rather than a coloratura soprano.

  7. Oh, thanks for the pointers! I’ll look those up!
    And yes, I loved the poem from the beginning right until they shot him on the highway, down like a dog on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.

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