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FIC: Poetic License (G)

Title: Poetic License
Type: Fic
Prompter: drinkingcocoa
Creator: delphipsmith
Rating: G
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): Pretentious swottiness.
(Highlight to View) Prompt: 1st-year genfic. Professor Snape receives a thank-you owl for the delightful logic puzzle. To show her gratitude, Hermione has rewritten his clue to make it a much better piece of verse, with earnest analyses of the flaws in his version and suggestions to help him improve as a poet.
Note: I'm sorry that this isn't longer, but even Hermione can only go on so long when she's got only sixteen lines to work with. I had no idea what trochaic heptameter was until she made me look it up; if there are any actual lit crit or poetry majors in the audience, I beg forgiveness for her entirely inadequate (and probably inaccurate) ripping-to-shreds of Sev's work.
Summary: Snape never claimed to be a poet. According to Hermione, that's just as well.



  1. Danger lies before you while safety lies behind,
  2. Two of us will help you, whichever you would find,
  3. One among us seven will let you move ahead,
  4. Another will transport the drinker back instead,
  5. Two among our number hold only nettle wine,
  6. Three of us are killers, waiting hidden in line.
  7. Choose, unless you wish to stay here forevermore,
  8. To help you in your choice, we give you these clues four:
  9. First, however slyly the poison tries to hide
  10. You will always find some on nettle wine's left side;
  11. Second, different are those who stand at either end,
  12. But if you would move onward, neither is your friend;
  13. Third, as you see clearly, all are different size,
  14. Neither dwarf nor giant holds death in their insides;
  15. Fourth, the second left and second on the right
  16. Are twins once you taste them, though different at first sight.1

Dear Professor Snape,

I know we haven't been on the best of terms, but I wanted to tell you how much I admired the logic puzzle that you set to help guard the Philosopher's Stone. At least, I assume you set it — a lot of the greatest wizards haven't got an ounce of logic but you seem to have the right sort of mind, plus it involved potions, so as I told Harry and Ron, it really can't have been anyone else. (Harry said it was Professor McGonagall who wrote the poem and you only did the potions, but I said that was just silly since Transfiguration doesn't have any logic to it all — I mean, ferroverto to change a raven into a glass goblet? The Latin would make you think it had something to do with green iron!) Logic is such an important skill, don't you think? Honestly, I don't understand why it isn't a required subject of study at Hogwart's, but then quite a lot of the curriculum is a bit simplistic, at least the First Year material. Don't you find?

It was quite clever of you to try to turn the clues into poetry, though I was a bit surprised that it was such a simple rhyme scheme. Knowing that this was your spell I would have expected a sonnet; it's a very precise form of poetry and Potions is rather a precise subject and you are a very precise sort of man. I expect you were in a hurry, though, and didn't have time for something more challenging. Sonnets do require quite a lot of time and skill (I know my first one took me simply ages to get just right), so it makes much more sense not to attempt it if one hasn't the time or inclination. (If you are interested, the Muggle playwright William Shakespeare is a good choice as a model, or perhaps John Donne.) The choice of trochaic heptameter rather than the more familiar iambic pentameter as a rhyming pattern was rather odd, though. Is it common in Wizarding literature? It's certainly uncommon in Muggle poetry. The heptameter part, I mean, not the trochees; those turn up all over the place (that poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for example, the one that begins, "By the shores of Gitchee-Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water..."). But seven is a powerful Wizarding number, isn't it? So probably that's why you chose it. The problem is that it's not a very natural sort of rhyme, meaning that it's very hard to get the rhythms just right. I'm sure you would have, if you'd had more time. Professor Dumbledore was probably in a hurry.

I did think that the opening line took a considerable amount of poetic license: "Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind..." I can assure you that none of us felt there was safety either before or behind. Behind us were a chess game complete with giant automatons and real weapons, dangerous vines that nearly strangled Ron, vicious flying bits of metal, and a three-headed dog. One would hardly call that safety. Now that I think about it, the "danger lies before you" wasn't right either. The danger was Professor Quirrel, possessed by Lord Voldemort — but at the time you and the other professors set up the guarding spells, he wasn't in there! So I do wonder what danger you might have been thinking of. Unless the point was simply to frighten off the person reading it? But really, if they weren't frightened by Fluffy and the chessmen, it isn't very logical to think they would be put off by the mere word "Danger." It would have been more accurate to say, "Mystery lies before you, danger lies behind." Perhaps it was just more poetic license. The problem is that if one takes too much poetic license, the poem just becomes meaningless.

But I'm sure you had your reasons.

I expect you made the rhymes a bit clumsy and awkward on purpose, as well, to distract anyone reading it and confuse their thoughts. I must say it nearly worked, but fortunately I was able to see past it and focus on the clues, as someone else might not have done. Professor Trelawney, for example, would probably have been driven to distraction by puzzling over the correct way to pronounce "transport" in line 4 in order to make it a precise rhythmic match for line 3 — that is, which syllable to emphasize, because that alters where one places the corresponding caesura. (Actually, much better phrasing in terms of metre and parallel structure would have been "Another of the seven will send you back instead," although "instead" really is redundant; I mean, obviously if it does something different, it's doing something "instead.")

I assume the mention of "these clues four" was also intended to mislead the careless reader, because actually there are nine clues!! The five bits of information in lines 2 through 6 are absolutely necessary (I did try solving the puzzle without them, just to satisfy my curiosity, and it isn't possible) so they're just as much clues as the four that are specifically enumerated. Although line 2 isn't strictly speaking necessary, since lines 3 and 4 give the exact same information in a slightly different way. Anyway, with those points included it would be more accurate to say "Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind / To help you in your quest, we give you these clues nine." Then of course that frees up line 8 to become something a bit more ominous (because really, the poem isn't terribly frightening, is it? Which does make one wonder whether it was meant to frighten at all, or simply to intrigue). Something like, "Choose, unless you wish to die a death of pain / one that leaves you tortured, dismembered or insane." That's quite a bit more vivid and terrifying, and it scans rather better, don't you think?

All things considered, and given the limitations of having to include very specific information, you shouldn't feel at all bad about the poem's flaws. After all, it's the logic that really mattered, and as we were able to solve the puzzle and move forward, clearly there were no flaws in that (apart, as I said, from the redundancy of line 2 and lines 3-4). I look forward to more such challenges in your Second Year Potions class.

Best regards —

Hermione Jean Granger

1Rowling, J. K. "Through the Trapdoor." Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997. 206-207. Print.
Tags: 2013 summer fanwork, fic
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