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Patterns of rhyme, patterns of meter, and forms of speech contribute significantly to Noël Coward’s comic poem “Epitaph for an Elderly Actress.” All three elements contribute immediately to the comic effect of the poem’s opening lines:
She got in a rage
And retired in a huff from the stage (1-3)
The first line consists of five syllables, the second consists of only three, and then the third surprisingly consists of nine. These great fluctuations in line lengths – including both the extreme brevity of the second line and the great length of the third, with which the second line is juxtaposed – make the poem seem comically unpredictable. It is as if the poet is having fun with himself and with his readers, and the repeated whose of the same rhyme also seems funny, especially when it returns again in the final two lines of the stanza and then again later in the poem. It is almost as if Coward is writing a deliberately unconventional work, one designed to amuse and befuddle any readers with conventional expectations of what a proper poem should be. Contributing to the fun are such colloquial forms of speech as “in a huff” (4) and “got in a rage” (1, 6), which do nothing to contribute any high-toned dignity to the poem.
Other colloquial phrases that appear later in the poem include “burst into tears,” “got in a state,” “an incredible rate,” and “Put on weight.” All these phrases are the kind we might expect to hear in day-to-day conversation, not in a lofty poem – but that, of course, is precisely the point: Coward’s poem is not, and is not intended to be, lofty in tone.
Still other forms of speech add to the comedy of the poem, however, precisely because they are not colloquial but are anything but. Take, for instance, the somewhat bizarre comment that “Her colon she constantly sluiced,” or the funny repetition saying that she “reduced and reduced and reduced” (which is comic partly because it implies that her attempts to reduce were constant but unsuccessful), and the humorous alliteration of “she roared and she ranted and railed.” Much of the fun of this poem derives from its sound effects, and phrases such as two just quoted certainly contribute to the amusement the poem definitely provides.
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