Emily Dickinson once famously remarked that if she felt as though the top of her head were taken off, she knew she was reading poetry. And who hasn’t read “It is a truth universally acknowledged, …” and felt our heads explode?
In my work as a poet, I’ve long been fascinated by memorable opening and closing lines in classic novels. I believe that the sentences we often know by heart are, in fact, short, unacknowledged poems that get lost in the sentences, paragraphs and chapters that follow.
So, I decided I would create a series of poems based on my favorite novel-openings, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice seemed a logical place to start. I soon realized that the first line’s fame has, in a way, cast a shadow over all the other chapters’ first lines.
I began to wonder if the 61 chapter-opening lines of Pride and Prejudice could, in fact, be the basis for a series of haiku. If each sentence was a kind of short poem, why couldn’t it be “translated” into that short, classic form of Japanese poetry? There is something wonderful and powerful in the format. Children study them their three-line format in grammar school (5 syllables / 7 syllables / 5 syllables) and, in my teaching experience, adults always seem to enjoy learning how to write them.
The classic haiku contains a duality of message (such as joy in the moment coupled with sadness at its transient nature), and attempts to answer three questions:
- What? (the object, the action, e.g., falling leaf or petal, sound of water)
- Where? (geography, e.g., house, garden, mountain)
- When? (seasonal reference, e.g., spring, summer, winter, fall)
In this book, I created a summarizing word-image haiku of each of the chapters in Pride and Prejudice. In so doing, I found that a somewhat ironic and unexpected voice emerging as each first sentence became a short poem. I began to hear what might be Austen’s acidic feminine wit blending with my 21st-century masculine sensibility — not surprising, given that I fell in love with Jane Austen when I first heard “It is a truth universally acknowledged …” and she and I have been in a committed relationship for more than 50 years now.
In the book, I replaced the haiku’s traditional duality of emotion with an ironic twist conveyed by the narrator, challenging the usual seriousness of literary criticism. But the haiku’s three situating questions remain in the background, and I’ve identified the primary (and motivating) answers to the What / Where / When as a different way of summarizing the novel’s action.
That’s how the book happened. I had no idea what I was going to do when I finished, but I had a strong sense that I was onto something interesting about Austen’s style and messaging. Isolating Austen’s chapter-opening sentences led to more than one surprise for me.
In writing this book, I had the pleasurable experience of encountering familiar text in a new way, resulting in unexpected discoveries. Among many, here are three of my favorites:
#1 Chapter 1 (Hunting season)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Everyone knows — all
rich unmarried men need wives —
Although I had known that the essential action of Pride and Prejudice happens over the course of a year, it wasn’t until I looked at all the “When?” answers throughout the novel that I understood that the book begins and ends in hunting season. Mr. Bingley arrives at Michaelmas (September 29) in search of birds to shoot, but he and Mr. Darcy are the real game. And the book ends, once again at the start of hunting season, with three of the Bingley sisters married. Only two more to go!
Chapter 61 (last chapter)
Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters.
Three down. Two to go.
Rich unmarried men need wives.
#2 Chapter 56 (Lady Catherine destroys the Longbourn lawn)
When I started analyzing the beginning of Chapter 56, I saw something I had never before seen:
One morning, about a week after Bingley’s engagement with Jane had been formed, as he and the females of the family were sitting together in the dining-room, their attention was suddenly drawn to the window, by the sound of a carriage; and they perceived a chaise and four driving up the lawn.
Until I paid attention to the “Where?” of the chapter’s opening line, I had never fully appreciated that Lady Catherine’s enormous carriage — powered by four horses carrying a groom, a driver, Lady Catherine and (probably) her daughter — arrives at Longbourn and drives up the lawn! Not the drive, but the lawn. The damage to the turf must have been extensive, and more than likely took out a Bennet chicken or two — but of no concern to Lady C. “Shades of the guillotine,” as one of my academic readers wryly remarked.
Here’s the haiku:
was unwelcome everywhere.
That never stopped her.
#3 Chapter 43 (Elizabeth goes into high flutter)
My new awareness wasn’t limited to Lady Catherine’s aristocratic behavior. I recently spoke at New York’s Fordham University (see image below right) — and the students were very interested in the first line of Chapter 43:
Elizabeth, as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation; and when at length they turned in at the lodge, her spirits were in a high flutter.
Prior to studying the first lines, I hadn’t really noticed the use of the word “flutter.” Elizabeth Bennet, as we all know, is really not a flutterer. So, why now? Why the use of a word more commonly associated with Regency heroines falling in love and teetering on the edge of a swoon?
The answer, I think, is that Austen is giving us exactly that clue: Elizabeth has fallen in love. With Darcy as he is represented by his estate, the beloved order-created-from-chaos so near and dear to the late 18-century English ideal. She does not fall in romantic love with Darcy because he is handsome (we don’t really know what he looks like) — she falls in love with him because he has purpose. And, of course, a sizeable estate, but that is really secondary — and the haiku reflects this interpretation:
a flutter effect. Could this
be real (-estate) love?
After the lecture, one young woman told me the Jane Austen we discussed was exactly the voice she needed guiding her love life — which confirms for me that, 200 years after her death, Austen continues to exert her subtle influence.
It’s my hope that readers will find themselves smiling knowingly from time to time as they travel in this redesigned Japanese vehicle across Austen’s familiar English landscape — and that they will forgive my star-struck attempt at what is essentially one long love-letter-poem written to the extraordinary woman who still speaks to us in such modern ways.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 61 Haiku (1,037 Syllables!)
by James W. Gaynor
Emily Dickinson once famously remarked that if she felt as though the top of her head were taken off, she knew she was reading poetry. And who among us did not read “It is a truth universally acknowledged, …” and feel our heads explode?
Pride and Prejudice’s opening sentence is also the perfect pick-up line. The narrator zeroes in on her reader and introduces herself with what has become one of English literature’s most quoted opening sentences.
Austen continues to flirt with her reader in the first sentences of each of the book’s 61 chapters. So, how better to acknowledge the power of her collective one-line poetry than by translating Pride and Prejudice’s opening-sentence poems into contemporary twists on the classic Japanese 17-syllable haiku?
And here you have it: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 61 Haiku (1,037 Syllables!).
It is my hope that readers will find themselves smiling knowingly from time to time as they travel in this redesigned Japanese vehicle across Austen’s familiar English landscape — and that they will forgive my star-struck attempt at this love-letter-poem tothe extraordinary woman who still speaks to us in ways that can blast off the top of our heads.
James W. Gaynor, author of Everything Becomes a Poem (Nemeton Press), is a poet, artist, editor, and writer. A graduate of Kenyon College, he lived for years in Paris, where he taught a course on Emily Dickinson at the University of Paris, studied the development of the psychological novel in 17th century France, and worked as a translator.
After returning to New York, Gaynor worked as an editor at Grosset & Dunlap, Cuisine magazine, Scriptwriter News and Forbes Publications. His articles, book reviews, poems and essays have appeared in The New York Observer, OTVmagazine.com, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, and Peeking Cat Poetry Magazine. Gaynor publishes a daily haiku (#HabitualHaiku) drawn from current newspaper headlines and is the creator of Can You Haiku? — a corporate communications workshop based on using 17th-century Japanese poetry techniques to improve effective use of today’s digital platforms. Gaynor recently retired as the Global Verbal Identity Leader for Ernst & Young LLP.
James’ website: Jameswgaynor.com
Read the interview with James in British Weekly by clicking the image below.