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Noel Coward’s comic poem “Epitaph for an Aging Actress” has the following rhyme scheme, in which each letter stands for a different rhyme and in which slash marks indicate breaks between stanzas:
aaabbaa / cccddcc / eeeffee / aaaggaa / hhha
Even without knowing that Coward’s poem is comic, one might assume that it is simply from looking at this rhyme scheme. The heavy repetition of rhymes would be hard to pull off in a poem meant to be taken completely seriously, and the final return to “a” in the very last line, as well as the comparative brevity of the final stanza, help reinforce the poem’s clever, comic tone. It is as if Coward is playing games with rhyme in this poem, just as he is playing games in all kinds of other ways.
Similarly playful is the metrical structure of the poem. In the following list, each number corresponds to the number of syllables in each line:
Once again, even the pattern of syllables seems playful and witty. Rather than being consistent, with (perhaps) 10 syllables in each line, Coward varies the number of syllables considerably, especially to reinforce a contrast between the middle lines of the first four stanzas and the beginning and final lines. The sudden shift from nine syllables to only three (in the final two lines of each of the first four stanzas) has a definitely comic effect.
The same is true in the brief concluding stanza (another departure from serious regularity that helps give the poem a comic tone):
And she moaned and she wept and she wailed
And she roared and she ranted and railed
And retired, very heavily veiled,
From the stage.
Coward, in other words, has chosen strictly formal features for his poem that help reinforce its comic message and comic tone.
Who is the Elderly Actress in this poem?
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