the annotated “My Last Duchess”

the poem

Much is made of Edgar Allen Poe’s dark and chilling poem The Raven. Rightfully so, but to me, the most chilling, gothic, and horrific poem remains My Last Duchess by Robert Browning. If there was ever a surer portrayal of the sociopathic killer, I don’t know it. I’m reminded of the fabled Bluebeard when I read the poem. Here’s the poem in its entirety.

My Last Duchess
Ferrara

1….That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
…..Looking as if she were alive. I call
…..That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
…..Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
…..Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
…..‘Fra Pandolf’ by design, for never read
…..Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
…..The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
…..But to myself they turned (since none puts by
10 The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
…..And seemed they would ask me, if they durst,
…..How such a glance came there; so, not the first
…..Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
…..Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
…..Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
…..Frà Pandolf chanced to say ‘Her mantle laps
…..‘Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
…..‘Must never hope to reproduce the faint
…..‘Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
20 Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
…..For calling up that spot of joy. She had
…..A heart–how shall I say?–too soon made glad,
…..Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
…..She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
…..Sir, ‘t was all one! My favor at her breast,
…..The dropping of the daylight in the West,
…..The bough of cherries some officious fool
…..Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
…..She rode with round the terrace–all and each
30 Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
…..Or blush, at least. She thanked men,–good! but thanked
…..Somehow–I know not how–as if she ranked
…..My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
…..With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
…..This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
…..In speech–(which I have not)–to make your will
…..Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
…..‘Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
…..Or there exceed the mark’–and if she let
40 Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
…..Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse
…..–E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
…..Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt
…..Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
…..Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
…..Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
…..As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
…..The company below, then. I repeat
…..The Count your master’s known munificence
50 Is ample warrant that no just pretense
…..Of mine dowry will be disallowed
…..Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
…..At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
…..Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
…..Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
…..Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

the annotation: lines 1-3

Let’s jump right in.

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: (….)

The opening lines have a lot of history behind them, and speculation. As regards the poem’s greatness or meaning, none of it matters. It’s almost more of a parlor game — forensic poetry for literary scholars in need of an argument. But because inquiring minds like to know (including my own), here we go. An analysis found here places the setting for the poem “on the grand staircase of the ducal palace at Ferrara in northern Italy”. The writers don’t say how they know this but I think I may have found their source. In a fictional work by Elizabeth Lowry, the author closes with some recommended reading: My Last Duchess. In that section, she writes:

Browning drew on an actual episode in Tuscan history for his donnee, but the interpretation, and the glittering diction, are all his own. The scene is the grand staircase of the ducal palace in Ferrara, in northern Italy; time: the mid-1500s. The speaker is the lusty, avaricious Duke of Ferrara ,and as the poem opens he is brokering a marriage deal with the envoy of the the Count of Tyrol, whose daughter he intends to acquire as his second duchess–for Ferrara’s “last” ducess, we realize, is dead. [The Bellini Madonna: A Novel p. 343]

Lowry’s scholarship is as fictional as her novel. No scholar has ever asserted that Browning’s poem is based “on an actual episode”.  An actual duke? Maybe. An actual episode? No. And no reference was ever made to a grand staircase. This is nothing more than a fiction writer’s fiction.

Who was the actual duke and duchess? Some scholars might say that Browning had the Duke Alfonso II d’Este in mind. Yours truly has tried to get to the bottom of this – to sort out baseless assertions from fact. With a visit to Dartmouth, I was able to read an article by Louis S. Friedland, Studies in Philology Vol. 33,  No. 4 (Oct., 1936), pp. 656-684, called Ferrara and My Last Duchess. I was interested to read it because sometimes you will find statements like the following (both on the web and in text books):

“It is this Duke, Louis S. Friedland has shown, who is the Duke of My Last Duchess, as we shall see below. This means that the poem was written in the summer or early fall of 1842.” [A Browning Handbook William Clyde DeVane p. 108]

Or

“That these historical figures were the prototypes of Browning’s characters is convincingly established by Louis S. Friedland in ‘Ferrara and My Last Duchess,'”… [The Heath Reader Santi V. Buscemi p. 566]

Or

“Friedland conclusively proves, I think, that the person from whose character and career Browning’s duke is drawn is Alfonso II, Fifth Duke of Ferrara, and the duchess was Lucrezia de’ Medicia, who was fourteen years old at her marriage and died at seventeen…” [The Victorian Poets: A Guide to Research, Frederic Everett Faverty p. 81]

There are oodles and oodles of references to Friedland’s article, so I just had to read it. Here’s what I found out. First of all, contrary to Faverty or Devane’s claim, Friedland did not show (in the sense of prove) that Alfonso II d’Este was “the Duke of My Last Duchess”. He did not, contrary to Buscemi’s claim, convincingly establish the Duke’s identity. Don’t believe the hype. (After all, every day another scholar is “proving” that Queen Elizabeth or her poodle, the Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays.) Rather, Friedland’s article takes aim at another scholar who had the effrontery to identify the Duke as Vespasiano Gonzaga (which, in itself, tells you something). The rival scholar, Professor John D. Rea, also identified the Duchess as Diana, daughter of Don Antonio die Cardona and the Duke’s first wife. Friedland’s article is not a treatise on why Alfonso is the Duke, but only an argument for why Alfonso might be a better fit than Vespasiano. Here’s how Friedland puts it:

…the studies by Griffin and Minehin, W.C. DeVane, Brocher, Hovalque, and Stewart W. Holmes prove Browning’s familiarity with the early history of Ferrara. We know that after his trip to Italy in the summer of 1888, Browning altered his scheme for Sordello, which at first took no account of Ferrara; by 1840 Ferrara “became the scene of half his poems”. The new conception led him to read widely in the mediaeval history of Ferrara, and the authorities he consulted have been identified. [p. 666]

And that, for the most part, is as good as the case gets — circumstantial evidence. At  the outset, Friedland rhetorically states: “Hence we have every justification for assuming that Browning joined the word Ferrara to My Last Duchess by design and malice aforethought.”

The obvious rejoinder is: OK, then why didn’t Browning entitle the poem Ferrara from the get-go? Browning originally entitled the poem I. Italy, not My Last Duchess: Ferrara. We know that the Duke of Ferrara was hardly the only Renaissance grandee with a long-lived ego and short-lived wife. Friedland himself admits that a wife’s death, by treacherous means at the hands of a Duke is a “Renaissance commonplace of foul play and domestic murder.” If Browning was all that familiar with Alfonzo’s history, would he have known that Alfonzo’s young wife was thought to have died a natural death? Was he only aware of the rumors and gossip? Friedland himself writes that “Lucrezia suffered from chronic lung-trouble” and “that her father and her brother Francesco were kept constantly informed with regard to the progress of her last illness.” Friedland adds:

“In any event, it is difficult to believe that Alfonso was so rash as to poison the young daughter of the powerful Cosimo, his near neighbor and a man not to be trifled with.”

On the other hand, historians can assert that Diana, Rea’s candidate for Duchess, was essentially forced to commit suicide by her husband, the Duke Vespasiano Gonzag, on suspicion of infidelity. If, in the history available to Browning, the scholarly consensus was against the rumored murder of Alfonso’s young wife, than that might explain why he didn’t initially title the poem Ferrara (if historical accuracy was all that important to him). Why base the poem on a Duke who might not have murdered his wife? There’s also this interesting tidbit of information, provided by Friedland.

“How was her death occasioned? The poem does not say. No other lines of the monologue have called forth the critical discussion that turns on the words: “I gave commands, etc.” An early reviewer maintained that the proper interpretation of the Duke’s statement was the sentence of death. Extremely loath to accept this view, Hiram Corson asked the poet for the true meaning of the lines. As usual, Browning’s answer was as cryptic as the passage that prompted the query. “He replied meditatively,” says Corson, “‘Yes, I meant that the commands were that she be put to death.’ Then, after a pause, he added, with a characteristic dash of expression, and as if the thought had just started in his mind. ‘Or he might have had her shut up in a convent.”  [Ferrera and "My Last Duchess" p.676]

If Browning based the poem on Alfonso and Lucrezia (and accepted the rumors of poison to be true) then why not say so in the poem? I think the anecdote says more about the critics Friedland and Corson, than Browning. Friedland, after pouncing on the fact that Browning renamed the poem Ferrara, downplays Browning’s own commentary (since it counters his argument) by calling Browning’s comment “cryptic”. Corson adds that “the thought had just started in [Browning's] mind”. (Corson, apparently, is not only a reader of poetry but a reader of poets’ minds.) Both critics have a dog in the hunt and downplay whatever counters their narratives.

I personally don’t see anything “cryptic” about Browning’s reply. It runs counter to the notion that Browning had a particular Duke in mind, but so what? It supports the notion that Browning was less interested in who the poem was about than the dramatic fiction. Browning won’t even commit to the notion that the Duchess was murdered! Remember, the Duke never says that the Duchess was murdered, only that (in the painting) she looks “as if she were alive”. In the elliptical poetic language of iambic pentameter, he might just as easily be saying that the painting is “lifelike” in how it captures her. I personally prefer the former interpretation (that she was murdered) because so much else about the Duke’s monologue is darkly suggestive, but that’s only an interpretation. She could have been hustled away to a convent with a bunch of unsmiling nuns – the Italian version of Stalin’s Siberia.  (I personally would prefer Siberia to nuns.)

Here’s how I read the the facts. The theme of the wife poisoned by the grandee, as Friedland wrote, was a commonplace of Renaissance gossip. Browning could easily have been inspired by any number of stories (think Bluebeard). Professor Rea gives just one example. In the case of Rea’s Duke – Vespasiano Gonzag – Friedland argues that  the “facts” of Browning’s poem (as if they even could be called facts) don’t fit Rea’s Duchess (married to Gonzag for eleven years). Friedland italicizes eleven as though this, in and of itself, were somehow proof that Rea was delusional; but he gives us no reason why the Last Duchess couldn’t have been married to the Duke for eleven years except that, in Friedland’s interpretative opinion, Browning’s Duchess just sounds young. And that’s that. That’s Friedland’s “evidence”. Here’s how he puts it:

Now, even if we grant Diana not more than nineteen years at the time of her marriage, she was thirty years old when she died, — a mature woman by Rennaisance standards. Eleven years is a long time to “cease all smiles.’ It is difficult to fit this situation into the framework of My Last Duchess. Browning’s Duchess has nothing in common with Diana; far from being gay or flirtatious, or worse, she is young, inexperienced, happy-natured, radiant; she has been married but a short time when death overtakes her. There is no foul stain upon her joyous expectancy of life, her love for all living things and all things of beauty. [pp. 661-662]

A portrait of Lucrezia that Browning never saw.

Fair enough. I’m inclined to read the Last Duchess the way Friedland does, but I’m also prepared to assert that Browning does not tell us that the Duchess has been “married but a short time” or even that she was young. Every statement that Friedland makes is a matter of self-serving interpretation, not fact. The facts could just as easily fit Professor Rea’s candidate. However, all of this, especially Friedland’s article, makes the assumption that Browning wasn’t fictionalizing (despite the fact that both Frà Pandolf and the sculptor Claus of Innsbruck are fictional). But just as Shakespeare changed history and character to suit dramatic ends, so could Browning. The assumption that Browning must have been tying events to real historical personages is, in and of itself, an unsubstantiated, circumstantial assumption. That he wasn’t inspired by Alfonso is suggested by the fact that he didn’t initially entitle the poem Ferrera. It’s also suggested by the fact that, when asked, he offered that the Last Duchess might not have been murdered, but sent to a convent.

  • Why was the painter a member of a religious order? Frà means Brother, as in Brother Pandalf. The likeliest reason is that Browning didn’t want the reader to wonder whether Lucrezia was having an affair with the painter. As will be seen below, the supposition did occur to contemporary readers of Browning’s poetry. Browning wants Lucrezia to be blameless and innocent — all the more vilifying the Duke’s behavior.

He probably wrote the poem with the general theme in mind  — self-aggrandizing Duke murders or exiles insufficiently appreciative wife. As he increasingly familiarized himself with the history of Ferrara (the place) in the course of writing other poems, he might have seen resemblances to real historical figures or, more likely, that the events of My Last Duchess could easily be imagined within such a culture.

In their book The Poetical Works of Robert Browning: Volume III: Bells and Pomegranates I-VI (including Pippa Passes and Dramatic Lyrics), the editors Ian Jack and Rowena Fowler offer a welcome moment of sanity. They write:

When the poem was first published Browning cannot have expected his readers to associate it with any particular Duke and Duchess, or with any particular city. Even when he named Ferrara, he can hardly have expected them to associate it with any particular episode. While Friedland may well be right in his conjectures, it is also possible that ‘Ferrara’ was simply added as a general stage-direction. [p. 185]

All this is to say: Take the identities of the Duke and Duchess with a walloping dose of skepticism. Don’t believe everything you read on the web, wikipedia, or even in “scholarly” publications. Alfonso II d’Este and Lucrezia have not been identified as the Duke and Duchess. They just happen to fit better, circumstantially, if one is willing to downplay a number of  historical inconveniences and the poet’s own comments.

: lines 3-13

………………..Frà Pandolf’s hands
…..Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
…..Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
…..‘Fra Pandolf’ by design, for never read
…..Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
…..The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
…..But to myself they turned (since none puts by
10 The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
…..And seemed they would ask me, if they durst,
…..How such a glance came there; so, not the first
…..Are you to turn and ask thus.

The old Ducal Palace. Browning never visited Ferrera.

The implication, in the poem itself, is that the Duke is speaking to an emissary (come to arrange or negotiate a marriage to another aristocrat’s daughter). The Duke instructs the emissary to be seated. “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” he asks.

The next line is one that gives many readers trouble. When the Duke says: “I said “Frà Pandolf” by design…” What does he mean by this? My own interpretation is to read “said” as “I requested” or “I demanded”. To a man possessing the Duke’s obvious ego, his word is his command. One imagines the Duke’s internal conversation:

Question: Which painter did you request?

Answer: I said “Frà Pandolf”; and said so “by design”.

He chose the skill of Frà Pandolf “by design” knowing that no stranger would ever read “that pictured countenance” without wondering at the “depth and passion of [her] earnest glance” – something Frà Pandolf alone, it seems, was capable of. The Duke  knew, by design, that every stranger would ask him “if they durst,/ How such a glance came there’.

Interestingly, Browning himself was asked as to the meaning of the line. He answered: “To have some occasion for telling the story, and illustrating part of it…”

Much of the rest of the monologue, as far as the Duke is concerned, is the “illustration”  for why he chose Frà Pandolf. In the course of the illustration, he reveals much (whether intentionally or unintentionally is debated). My own feeling is that he knows exactly what he’s up to. As he says himself, he chose Frà Pandolf by design. My thinking is that he meant the painting to serve as a warning and since none but him will ever draw the curtain, the tour will be guided. In other words, he’s going to make certain that the moral of the painting is understood just as he “designed” it to be understood – a stern warning.

  • The “you” in the poem is said to be Nikolaus Mardruz, but this conjecture depends on ones agreeing that the Duke was Alfonso II d’Este. The evidence, as demonstrated above, is purely conjectural and is, in truth, irrelevant. Whether the speaker was this Duke or that Emissary, the poem’s meaning doesn’t change one whit.

: Line 13-21

……………………Sir, ‘t was not
…..Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
…..Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
…..Frà Pandolf chanced to say ‘Her mantle laps
…..‘Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
…..‘Must never hope to reproduce the faint
…..‘Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
20 Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
…..For calling up that spot of joy.

And now begins the Duke’s dark warning. Frà Pandolf has done his job. The emissary has presumably asked into the striking depth and passion of the portrait. “…so not the first/ Are you to turn and ask thus.” The Duke expounds: It wasn’t only her husband’s presence (his presence) that brought that “spot”, or flush of joy to the Duchess’s cheek. Browning’s usage of the Shakespearean word spot is telling — her blush is a flaw, a blemish. In the Duke’s opinion, her joys were trivial. Perhaps Brother Pandolf happened to say that the lady’s mantle lapped over her “wrist to much. She smiled or blushed with joy. Perhaps Brother Pandolf praised the “faint/ Half-flush that dies along her throat”. That was “cause enough” for producing that “spot of joy”.

  • The detail (it’s worth noting) of the half-flush “that dies” along her throat is an exceedingly sinister detail. I can’t help but wonder whether Browning (or the Duke) isn’t hinting at the method of her murder. Details like this are what compel me to think she was murdered rather than sent to a nunnery. Was she? There’s no right answer. That’s for every reader to interpret individually.

: Line 21-34

………………………………………….She had
…..A heart–how shall I say?–too soon made glad,
…..Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
…..She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
…..Sir, ‘t was all one! My favor at her breast,
…..The dropping of the daylight in the West,
…..The bough of cherries some officious fool
…..Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
…..She rode with round the terrace–all and each
30 Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
…..Or blush, at least. She thanked men,–good! but thanked
…..Somehow–I know not how–as if she ranked
…..My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
…..With anybody’s gift.

  • …my favor at her breast…” referred to a ribbon given, in this sense, as a sign of love (a love-favor). In the poem, however, one gets the sense that such a ribbon was intended less as a love-favor and more as an indication that she belonged to him. He had marked her with a ribbon.

The Duke gets to the “heart” of the matter. The woman was “too easily impressed”.  She liked “whate’er she looked on”. She ranked his gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with the cherries some “officious fool” gave her, or the white mule she liked to ride. Some of the more interesting commentary on this portion of the poem relates to Victorian attitudes toward gender and their effort to delimit female sexuality. Victorians and their attitudes toward gender are a big, big subject. I’m not going to attempt it, except to say that the topic fills books. The Duke’s desire to fix the behavior of his wives could be said to parallel Victorian society’s obsession with individual behavior and reputation. The Duke, in this sense, is possibly more typical of a Victorian aristocrat than any 16th century figure. But the absolute power of the 16th century nobleman allowed Browning to dramatize Victorian preoccupations carried to their dark extremes.

  • …and her looks went everywhere…” There’s no small symbolism in the fact that the Duke keeps her visage curtained. Her looks will no longer go anywhere without his permission.

But there’s a fascinating anecdote about the poem that nicely illustrates Victorian attitudes toward women. Although the anecdote is commonly referenced, I found a more complete account at Google books in a book published in 1890. I copied the dedicatory page on the left. Maybe because I just lost my dog, my companion of 14 years, I’m feeling a little tender when I read something that says “in memory of”, but notice how the book was given in 1899 by the class of 1890. Robert Browning died on 1889. This meant that Robert Browning was alive and well while the class members were enrolled. Many websites and scholars will refer to the anecdote, but they don’t do it justice. Here’s the full story:

In the early days of 1888 a club, styled “The Day’s End Club,” was formed in the city of Exeter, to study contemporary literature.

On February 18, 1889, a member read to the Club six of Robert Browning’s shorter poems. He had paraphrased some, and his reading and notes provoked much discussion. The Rev. Sackville A. Berkely, who had become acquainted with Browning at Oxford, offered to write to the poet, and state the difficulties of the members.

Queries

My Last Duchess

[Berkely] Was she in fact shallow and easily and equally well pleased with any favour: or did the Duke so describe her as a supercilious cover to real and well justified jealousy?

[Browning] As an excuse — mainly to himself — for taking revenge on one who had unwittingly wounded his absurdly pretentious vanity, by failing to recognise his superiority in even the most trifling matters.

[New poems: by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ed. Sir Frederic G. Kenyon p. 178]

What’s so interesting, to me, isn’t so much Browning’s answer, which is how most of us would probably interpret the poem, but the question! The question reveals much about Victorian attitudes. As I read it, the questioner is basically asking whether the Duchess deserved it! Berkely asks, was she really that shallow? In other words, Berkely, and presumably the members of the “The Day’s End Club”, concluded that if the Duke was telling the truth, that if she really was so shallow as to enjoy a bough of cherries as much as the Duke’s 900 year old name then… well… she must have been “in fact shallow and easily and equally well pleased with any favour.” Conclusion? She deserved it. We, in the 21rst century, whether the Duke is telling the truth or not, condemn the Duke’s behavior. Readers of the Victorian era? Not so. They need clarification. This is the society and attitudes in which Browning’s poem appeared.

We, like Friedland, consider the Duchess, whether the Duke exaggerated or not, a “happy-natured” and “radiant” woman, not shallow. It’s the Duke who is shallow and easily and equally well insulted by any triviality. But this interpretation doesn’t seem to occur to Exeter’s book club members. They want to know about the Duchess, not the Duke.

The second part of the question is equally damning! He asks, “did the Duke so describe her as a supercilious cover to real and well justified jealousy?” OK, let’s translate this. What the questioner is asking is this: Was the Duke correctly describing her (albeit superciliously) as shallow, or was she an adulterer? In other words, the poor Duchess’ reputation goes from the frying pan into the fire! Either she’s incredibly shallow or she’s a whore! (I don’t think I’ve ever used so many exclamation points in a post, but wow.) In any event, the question just enforces what Browning was up against. Browning’s reply is terse. If I were to read between the lines, I might call it exasperated. Browning squarely puts the blame where it belongs — on the Duke.

: Lines 34-43
·

"...exceed the mark..." When the arrow overshoots the target.

………………….Who’d stoop to blame
…..This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
…..In speech–(which I have not)–to make your will
…..Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
…..‘Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
…..Or there exceed the mark’–and if she let
40 Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
…..Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse
…..–E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
…..Never to stoop.

As if responding to a hint of incredulity on the emissary’s part, the Duke excuses his own behavior with breathtaking arrogance and entitlement. He couldn’t be bothered to blame, in the sense of correct, her behavior, by saying this “disgusts me” or “you miss,/ Or there exceed the mark'”. He then says, curiously, that he lacked the “skill/ In speech”. The Duke claims incompetence while defending himself in flawless iambic pentameter. Interestingly, even the Duke seems aware of the absurdity. As if responding to some subtlety in the emissary’s body language (or so I would have it if I were to stage the monologue), the Duke quickly corrects course. He says: “E’en then would be stooping; and I choose/ Never to stoop.” Translation: “Even if I had tried to correct her behavior I would have been, in effect, asking for or requesting something. A man in my position never stoops to request anything from anyone – let alone my wife!”

: Lines 43-47

…………………….Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt
…..Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
…..Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
…..Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
…..As if alive.

And there we have it. Whenever she saw him, she smiled. But the Duke considered that smile cheap currency. Her smile was indiscriminate, and that was intolerable to a man with a 900 year old namesake. He gave commands. All smiles stopped together. Did he have her murdered? Was it the half-flush that died along her throat? Or was she sent to a convent to live out the rest of her days with a gaggle of unsmiling nuns? You decide. And does it make a difference? Would the Duke’s behavior be any more forgivable if he exiled her to a convent? One or the other possibility seemed to satisfy Browning. I have always interpreted the lines as murder and the Duke as sociopathically evil. The beauty of the poem, if you can call it that, is how the Duke manages to (or wishes to) portray himself as the victim. This is classic sociopathy. His arrogant self-regard easily dismisses any suffering other than his own. On the other hand, maybe calling him a sociopath is to excuse him.

: Lines 47-56

………..Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
…..The company below, then. I repeat
…..The Count your master’s known munificence
50 Is ample warrant that no just pretense
…..Of mine dowry will be disallowed
…..Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
…..At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
…..Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
…..Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
…..Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

"...no just pretense Of mine dowry will be disallowed..."

The closing lines are lovely. In terms of their psychological portrayal, they are perfection. After displaying the portrait, the Duke gets down to business. That his former wife has been reduced to a curtained portrait is highly symbolic. No longer will she smile at anyone unless it’s by the Duke’s “design”. In other words, she will only smile with his permission (when he has pulled back the curtain). She has been reduced to just another artwork and possession at the service of his ego and reputation.

That said, and despite his protestations that he would never “stoop”, he will walk “together down” with the emissary when a dowry is at stake. With a kind of nervous obsequiousness, he “repeats” his statement (as though seeking reassurance) that the emissary’s master, the Count, won’t find any pretense to disallow (lessen or reject) the Duke’s dowry.  A dowry is the money or property brought by the woman into her husband’s marriage. The tradition is alive and well in many religiously and traditionally backward countries. And there’s no doubt that the Duke is alive and well in those traditions.  The Duke adds, almost as an embarrassed afterthought, that the Count’s “fair daughter” nevertheless remains his object. The Duke, apparently, will stoop for money and property.

"...Notice Neptune, though, Taming a sea-horse..."

Claus of Innsbruck is another fictional character. The statue at right is modern. You can own it for $89.99, just click on the image. I personally find it incredibly tacky; and I suspect that Browning did too. After all, despite the grandiloquence of the statue, a seahorse is a tiny little creature and if it needs to be tamed before it can be ridden, that doesn’t say much for the Neptune riding it. One of the all time great put-downs was when a character in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus  asks: “Hear you this Triton of the minnows?”

I can hardly think of a tackier or more trivial subject. Neptune taming a seahorse?

After all the Duke’s posturing over the triviality of the Duchess, we see that the Duchess, her white mule, her bough of cherries, the “dropping of the daylight in the west”, were more beautiful, significant and bountiful than the trivial stupidity of “a Neptune” taming a seahorse. The beauty of the moment is in Browning’s ability to confer on the Duke all the sins of triviality and superficiality he imposed on the Duchess. The art, of which the Duke is a patron and collector, appears to be of the most shallow and lifeless sort. If there were any Victorian questions as to whether great art could be a byproduct of such a corrupt culture, my feeling is that Browning puts that to rest.

  • “…thought a rarity…” Browning wants the reader to notice the Duke’s observation that the lifeless and tacky statue  is a “rarity”, whereas the “spot” of joy (the Duchess’s easy joy) was, in the Duke’s judgment, common and banal.

What are the final words of the Duke’s monologue?

…for me.

And that’s that. The Duke will have nothing in his life that is not “for me”.

The duke lives in a world dedicated to him, his position, his reputation. Any wife should expect to be nothing more than another accoutrement and adornment dedicated to his vanity. He’s managed to do just that with the Duchess. She has become nothing more than a portrait that smiles at his command and, as he stresses in the first lines, his alone.

His warning? The next Duchess can expect the same if she doesn’t appreciate the gift of his reputation.

The Scansion

In order to keep the scansion down to a manageable size, I tried something different. I didn’t add any scansion marks, using color coding instead. The key is as follows:

  • Trochaic Foot
  • Pyhrric Foot
  • Spondaic Foot

I use the same color code in all of my scansions. There’s nothing official about the colors. They’re just something I came up with to make scansions easier to read and far less “busy”. All unmarked feet are Iambic.

  • The meter of the poem is Iambic Pentameter.
  • The rhyme scheme is that of open heroic couplets (as opposed to closed heroic couplets – a nicety that no other website, to my knowledge, has mentioned).
  • Notice how the Spondaic feet are beautifully placed in congruence with the Duke’s heightened emotions — esp. when he states his nine-hundred year namesake, when he says E’en then, and esp. when he says: Then all smiles stopped… You will never find a more perfect use of Spondaic feet, maybe the equal, but never better.
  • There are two examples of headless feet (lines missing the first syllable).
  • I’ve read some commentary on the placement of end-stopped verses enjambed lines, but my own feeling is that it’s all too easy to read more into such techniques (in this case) than the text warrants. One risks veering into Enactment Fallacy.
  • All in all, Browning’s verse is conservative but beautifully done.


Other Analyses

The best site that I’ve found is here: Representative Poetry Online

If I find another, or you can recommend one, I’ll post it. I hope y’all have found the post helpful and enjoyed it.

The Art of Rhyme and Meter

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The oral tradition of Poetry

Poetry began as an oral tradition. Homer’s Odyssey is probably far older than Homer and Odysseus’ sojourn, in one form or another, may have been handed down for centuries from one storyteller to the next.

Each storyteller probably added details and expanded the story until, by the time Homer learned it, the epic was a real feat of memorization. As every reader of Mother Goose knows, Homer's Odyssey Fragmenta ditty or poem that has a rhythm or rhyme is easier to remember than one that doesn’t.

The Dactylic Hexameters of Homer’s Odyssey, it’s meter, was the  rhythm that made the epic easier to remember. And a device used for the filling out of this meter was the  Homeric Epithet. These colorful descriptions (or epithets) might have also served as cues – much like stage directions.

Before Homer, the tightly wound relationship between dance, music, rhythm and sound was demonstrated by recently discovered poems from ancient Egypt. In a book called The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed, Moustafa Gadalla writes:

The Egyptians perceived language and music as two sides of the same coin. Spoken, written, and musical composition follow the same exact patterns. Both poetry and singing followed similar rules for musical composition. Poetry is written not only with a rhyme scheme, but also with a recurring pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Each syllable alternates between accented and unaccented, making a double/quadruple meter and several other varieties. Patterns of set rhythms or lengths of phrases of Ancient Egyptian poems, praises, hymns, and songs of all kinds, which are known to have been changed or performed with some musical accompaniment, were rhythmic with uniform meters and a structured rhyme. ¶ Ancient Egyptian texts show that Egyptians spoke and sang in musical patterns on all occasions and for all purposes–from the most sacred to the most mundane. [p. 155]

This oral tradition continued with the very first works of the Anglo Saxons, the alliteration of Beowulf, up until the start of the 20th Century, when poets like Frost, Cummings, and Yeats, continued to imbue their poetry with the sounds and rhythms of its oral, musical, lyrical and storytelling ancestry.In short, traditional poetry finds its roots in music.

Free Verse is a different Genre

This all ended with the 20th Century. The poetry of meter & rhyme, the techniques formed out of an oral past,  had become dogmatic and stylized. A new genre replaced the poetry that had been written for thousands of years – free verse.

Though it may seem controversial to suggest that free verse is a new genre (only tangentially related to the poetry of the previous 200o years), the assertion isn’t to the detriment of free verse. Free verse practitioners have themselves, to varying degrees, deliberately avoided the traditional rhythms of a regular meter; have eschewed rhyme; have avoided alliteration; and whole schools have rejected techniques like metaphor. All of these techniques grepower Plain Englishw out of an oral tradition – frequently, or so scholars think, as mnemonic aids or for the purposes of musical accompaniment.

Free verse is the child of the 20th Century printing press (which isn’t to say that free verse can’t be read aloud and enjoyed as such). And it’s not to say that free verse doesn’t borrow techniques from the oral tradition, but free verse doesn’t do so systemically. (Poets, like William Carlos Williams, studiously avoided anything short of what he considered plain speech or plain English and the avant-garde is premised on the avoidance of anything that smacks of traditional poetry.) It was the explosive availability of the printed word that made the visual cues of free verse possible. Aurally, there is frequently nothing that distinguishes free verse from prose.  Cleave Poetry, for example, is defined by its visual appearance  (rather than any aural cues).

In short, free verse didn’t evolve from the poetry of the oral tradition, it replaced it.

So what does this all have to with meter and rhyme? Just this. The near total dominance of free verse in print media and on store shelves (stores that bother with a significant collection) has left its mark on what readers consider a modern style. It makes writing meter and rhyme much more challenging but also more rewarding if done well.

Unlike metrical poetry prior to the 20th Century, the best modern metrical poetry does not draw attention to itself. The best metrical and rhyming poems make the reader feel as though they are reading modern English (without also feeling like free verse). The demands weed the men from the boys, the girls from the women. Robert Frost was a master of this illusion and so was Yeats and Stevens.

Grammatical Inversions & Rhyming: Subject • Verb • Object

When novice poets try to write meter, they frequently use what are called grammatical inversions. They can be effective or they can sound contrived but I suspect that few poets really understand the origin of these techniques, how they’ve  Shakespearean Sentencesbeen used, and why.

The best book on the subject is by John Porter Houston. If you’re a poet and you’re interested in this tradition as practiced by our greatest poet, then this is the book to read. I had a hard time finding it at Amazon but when I finally did I scanned in my own book for their image and added a short review. Here’s how Houston introduces the book.

The history of SOV word order (as, using a common abbreviation, I shall henceforth call the subjectdirect objectverb pattern) vanishes into the Indo-European mists, which has encouraged linguists to formulate various theories of its original importance or even of its former dominance. Be that as it may, the word order shows up historically in Greek, Latain, and Germanic, being associated in the latter especially with subordinate clauses. However, it seems unlikely that, in its English poetic form, SOV is so much an atavistic harkening back to primeval roots as it is a consequence of the adaptation to English of the Romance system of Riming verse. Verbs in Old French and Italian make handy rimes, and they make even better ones in English because so many English verbs are monosyllabic. The verse line or couplet containing a subject near the beginning and a verb at the end is a natural development. [p. 2]

The English language, descended from the Germanic languages, prefers the following pattern:

Subject | Verb | Object (SVO)

Subject | Verb | Object
The girls | play   | on the seesaw.

But poets, as Houston observed, found it convenient, for the sake of rhyme, to invert the grammar. They might write:

The girls on the seesaw play:
“Life goes up, life goes down
“You’ll have good luck another day!”

The first line would be an SOV construction:

Subject | Object | Verb
The girls |on the seesaw |play

This is a construction one sees very often among amateur poets writing rhyme. The only purpose for the grammatical inversion is to make the rhyme. It’s what free verse poets (more so than others I think) derisively call rhyme driven poetry. And it’s precisely this sort of writing that was acceptable right up until the start of the 20th century.

With this in mind, a somewhat peculiar commentary on  rhyme driven poetry can be found at the Poetry Foundation’s blog Harriet. The post is by Alicia Stallings. Alicia StallingsThe reason I say it’s peculiar is because, though she expresses exasperation at the criticism, she never offers an alternative. She begins her post by writing:

As a poet who works in form, I weary of seeing in critiques–either in on-line workshops or in published reviews–the complaint that a poem or phrase or line is “rhyme driven”. Of course rhyming poetry is rhyme driven. Rhyme is an engine of syntax.

But then Stallings immediately acknowledges what the criticism really means: that is, when itis obvious [that] the whole purpose of the line is to arrive at some obvious predestined chime, like the set-up of a punch line.” Stallings then offers some examples of why a poem might feel rhyme-driven, but she never offers a reason why the criticism shouldn’t be made. However, she does write:

But it seems to have become an immediate and unthinking response to lines that rhyme that are in any way out of the ordinary–particularly anything that has the slightest whiff of “inversion”–that is, out of “natural” English word order–which is often interpreted as the blandest, strictest of simple declarative sentences.

And this is to say that such criticism can be carried too far; but then inasmuch as any criticism can be carried too far, this doesn’t invalidate the original impulse. The bottom line is this: Stallings makes sure her rhymes don’t arrive like some “obvious predestined chime”. Rhyme might be the engine, but she makes sure (in her own poetry) that the engine isn’t heard. She’s an exceedingly skillful rhymer. So, the best advice, as regards Stallings, is to do as she does. Read her poetry. Make your rhymes feel accidental, as if they’re an inevitable accident of subject matter.

Robert Frost, on these very grounds, was deservedly proud of his poem “Stopping by Woods”.

Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” [Pritchard, Robert Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164]

If you want a model for how to rhyme, read Frost’s Stopping by Woods or The Road not Taken again and again. No one would accuse these poems of feeling rhyme driven although, as Stallings would point out, that’s precisely what they are – rhyme driven.

Again (and I don’t think beginning poets appreciate this enough) it’s not whether a poem is rhyme-driven, it’s whether it feels and reads rhyme driven. Are the rhymes determining the line and the subject matter, or is the subject matter determining the rhymes? In Frost’s poems, it’s hard to imagine how they could have been written any other way. The rhymes feel entirely accidental. The rhymes feel  driven by the subject matter; and this is the effect you are looking for.

For the record, I love the SOV construction – especially when done well. I don’t think I’ve ever used the syntax in my own poetry but I might, just for the enjoyment.

Shakespeare’s use of SOV wasn’t for the sake of a rhyme. Shakespeare used the reversal of normal English  (unusual even in Shakespeare’s day) to add metrical emphasis and elegance; to make a line more memorable; to add meaning; or to reveal character.

Here, for instance, is how Shakespeare reverses the normal syntax of English to convey and build suspense. Horatio is describing having seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father (I have included Houston’s explanatory comment):

william-shakespearethrice he walk’d
By their oppresss’d and fear-surprised eyes
Within his truncheon’s length, whilst they, distill’d
Almost to jelly with the act of fear,
Stand dumb and speak not to him. This to me
In dreadful secrecy impart they did,
And I wish them the third night kept the watch,
Where, as they had deliver’d, both in time,
Form of the thing, each word made true and good,
The apparition comes. (
Hamlet I, ii, 202-11)

Having devised a sentence in more or less normal word order in which the verbs have radically different positions, Shakespeare then resorts to inversion, and the OVSV clause contains, moreover, a peculiar reversal of impart and did. The next sentence places two circumstantial expressions between subject and verb, so that the latter, with its short object, seems curiously postponed, even though the number of intervening syllables is not great. Finally, in the concluding subordinate clause, both subject and verb are held off until the end. [p. 83]

Notice how Shakespeare holds off the apparition comes until the end of the line. Throughout the passage the inverted grammar underpins the feeling of terror and suspense, the feeling of a character whose own thoughts are disrupted and disturbed. (I think it’s worth commenting at this point, especially for readers new to Shakespeare, that this is poetry. Elizabethans did not talk like this. They spoke an English grammar more or less like ours. Shakespeare can be hard to read because he is a poet, not because he is Elizabethan.)

  • The tradition of altering grammar and syntax for the purposes of making language more memorable is a lovely one.
  • The tradition of altering grammar and syntax for the sake of rhyme is dubious.

Toward the end of the Houston’s introduction, he makes an interesting point. Although the use of the SOV construction continued into the 19th century (even with a poet like Keats who was consciously trying to shed the feeling of antiquated and archaic conventions), the general trend was toward a more natural speech. Houston writes:

The importance of SOV word order in subsequent English blank verse is worth noting. Although it is scarcely unexpected that Milton, with his latinizing tendencies, liked the device,its persistence in the romantics can be a trifle surprising. Keats slight use of SOV in The Fall of Hyperion is odd, given that there he supposedly tried to eliminate the Miltonisms of Hyperion to some extent; Hyperion, in fact, contains no SOVs. An example of two in Prometheus Unbound does not seem incongruous with the rest of the language, but finding SOV word order in The Prelude runs somewhat counter to our expectations of Wordsworth’s language.

but scarcely Spenser’s self
Could have more tranquil visions in his youth,
Or could more bright appearances create
Of human forms (VI, 89-92)

Examples are to be found in The Idylls of the King and seem almost inevitable by the stylistic conventions of the work, but the use of SOV in the nineteenth century is essentially sporadic, if interesting to observe because of the strong hold of tradition in English poetry. [p. 3-4]

The usage was ebbing. The result is that its use in rhyming poetry stood out (and stands out) all the more. And now, when the conventional stylistic aesthetic is that of free verse, SVO inversions stands out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, this short passage can’t possibly do justice to the rich tradition of grammatical inversion in English Poetry. Reading Houston’s book, if you’re interested, is a better start. The point of this post is to raise poets’ awareness of why they might be tempted to write like this; and to make them aware of what they’re hearing when they read poetry prior to the 20th century.

Other grammatical Inversions

There are other types of inversions besides Subject•Verb•Object . In a recent poem I examined by Sophie Jewett, you will find the following line:

I speak your name in alien ways, while yet
November smiles from under lashes wet.

The formulation lashes wet reverses the order of adjective and noun for the sake of rhyme. This sort of inversion is also common among inexperienced poets.

  • Avoid it at all costs.

Conveniently moving around parts of speech might have been acceptable in the Victorian era and before, but not now.

And here’s another form of grammatical inversion by Thomas Hardy from The Moth-Signal:

ThomasHardy“What are you still, still thinking,”
He asked in vague surmise,
That you stare at the wick unblinking
With those deep lost luminous eyes?”

Normally the present participal, unblinking, would follow the verb stare. This is the way grammar works in normal English sentences. However, for the sake of the rhyme, Hardy reversed the direct object, at the wick, with the past participal unblinking. The effect is curious. To what is unblinking referring? – one might ask. Is it the stare that is unblinking? – or the wick? Apologists meaning to rationalize this inversion might point out that the syntactic ambiguity is brilliantly deliberate. I don’t buy it; but they could be right.

  • Again, my advice would be to tread lightly with this sort of inversion. It smacks of expediency.

As I find other examples I will post them.

Ultimately, one of the most telling attributes of an experienced rhymer is the parts of speech he or she chooses to rhyme. A novice may primarily rhyme verbs or nouns. The novice’s rhymes will be end-stopped. In other words, the line and sentence will end with the rhyme. The rhymes of the more experienced poet will move like a snake through his verse. The rhymes will shift from verb, to noun, to adjective, to preposition, etc. They will fall unpredictably within the line’s syntax and meaning – as if they were an accident of thought.

In the spirit of put up or shut up, check out my poem All my Telling. Decide for yourself whether I practice what  I preach. And here is Alicia Stallings what what is, perhaps, the most succinct advice on rhyme that I have ever read – her Presto Manifesto. The most important statement from her manifesto, to me, is the following:

There are no tired rhymes. There are no forbidden rhymes. Rhymes are not predictable unless lines are. Death and breath, womb and tomb, love and of, moon, June, spoon, all still have great poems ahead of them.

You will frequently hear poets and critics remark that a given rhyme is tired or worn. As a counterexample they will themselves offer poems with rhymes that, to my ear, sound concocted and contrived. I call this sort of thing safari-rhyming – as if the poets had gone safari hunting, shot the rare rhyme, and proudly mounted it. The truth of the matter is this: the English vocabulary is finite. There are only so many rhymes. It’s not the rhymes themselves that are worn or trite, but the lines that are tired. Give an old rhyme a new context and magic happens. Robert Frost’s rhymes in Stopping by Woods are nothing if not tired; but the poem’s effortless progression of thought and idea means we don’t notice them. They become a kind of music rather than a distraction.

And this is what rhymes are meant to do. Ideally, they’re not meant to be noticed. This is why the novel rhyme can be as distracting as the line that is syntactically contorted for the sake of a rhyme. The best rhymes are like a subtle music. If, when reading a rhyming poem aloud, the listener doesn’t immediately discern the rhymes, take that as a good sign.

One last thought on rhymes from Stallings:

Translators who translate poems that rhyme into poems that don’t rhyme solely because they claim keeping the rhyme is impossible without doing violence to the poem have done violence to the poem. They are also lazy.

I agree.

On Keeping the Meter

This is the most difficult portion of the post to write because so much of what I write will be construed as a matter of taste; and the distinctions between mediocre meter and meter written well can be subtle. Readers will have to decide for themselves. Way back when, I wrote a post called Megan Grumbling and the Modern Formalists. The point of the post was to demonstrate how the stylistic conventions of free verse had influenced, adversely, the meter and blank verse of modern formalists. (This would seem to go against my earlier statement that poets writing meter can’t write the same way (as in the 19th century) since the advent of free verse. Not entirely. As with anything, there’s a balance to be struck. The best meter doesn’t draw attention to itself.) Feel free to read the whole post, but I’ll extract the most relevant part because I think it has some bearing on this post.

In the January 2006 issue of POETRY magazine, we find some beautiful poems by Megan Grumbling. But remember, this is mirror mirror world. Just as Dryden’s heroic couplets showed up, ghostlike, in his blank verse, free verse asserts itself, ghostlike, in modern formal verse.

“Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls
our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road
crosses the river that they call Great Woks.
The nearby fields so rich it’s hard to breathe–
the hay treacly with auburn, grasses bronzed–
we stop before a red farmhouse, just shy
of where the river runs, where maple trees
have laid the front lawns ravished with their loss.”

The enjambment of the first three lines has all the flavor of free-verse. There are no auditory clues (in the way of syntactical units) that might hint to a listener that these are lines of blank verse. One might as easily write the first sentence as follows:

Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road crosses the river that they call Great Woks.

The average reader would never suspect that this was blank verse. The reader might, in a moment of preternatural attentiveness, notice that the line is entirely iambic. That said, there is no indication that this sentence is Iambic Pentameter. Given Grumbling’s approach, one might as easily print her poem as follows:

Their stri|dent hold |upon |the back
roads pulls |our mor|ning drive, |out to
where Oak |Woods Road |crosses |the river
they call |Great Woks. |The near|by fields
so rich |it’s hard |to breathe– |the hay
treacly |with au|burn, grass|es bronzed–
we stop |before |a red |farmhouse,
just shy |of where |the ri|ver runs,
where ma|ple trees |have laid |the front
lawns ra|vished with |their loss.

This is perfectly acceptable iambic tetrameter, but for the short last line. I only had to remove the purely metric “that”. It might be argued that one could submit any iambic pentameter poem to the same exercise, but such an argument would only be partially true. One would find it exceedingly difficult to apply the same exercise to Shakespeare’s passage from Antony and Cleopatra. Or, more fairly, consider Frost’s An Encounter (more fairly because Grumbling’s poetry is clearly inspired by Frost.)

Once on the kind of day called “weather breeder,”
When the heat slowly hazes and the sun
By its own power seems to be undone,
I was half boring through, half climbing through
A swamp of cedar. Choked with oil of cedar
And scurf of plants, and weary and over-heated,
And sorry I ever left the road I knew,
I paused and rested on a sort of hook
That had me by the coat as good as seated…

And now for the tetrameter version:

Once on |the kind |of day |called “weather
breeder,” |When the |heat slow|ly hazes
and the |sun by |its own |power seems
to be |undone, |I was |half boring
through, half |climbing |through a swamp
of ce|dar. Choked |with oil |of cedar
And scurf |of plants, |and wear|y and
over-|heated, |And sor|ry I
ever |left the |road I |knew, I
paused and |rested |on a sort |of hook
That had |me by |the coat |as good
as seat|ed…

The latter isn’t a very passable version of iambic tatrameter. The third line is entirely trochaic and can only be “rescued” if we elide power to read pow’r or read the line as follows:

and the |sun by |its own pow|er seems

Though this too is unsatisfactory. The fifth line fails altogether. I picked Frost’s poem at random (lest the reader think I picked one poem especially antithetical to such treatment). What the poem illustrates is Frost’s skillful wedding of sense (grammatical & otherwise) to blank verse – Iambic Pentameter.

The same commitment is not sensed in Grumbling’s poem, skillful though it is. One might assert that Grumbling’s poem is primarily iambic and only secondarily pentameter. The ghostly influence of free-verse pervades her poem, just as the ghost of heroic couplets pervaded Dryden’s blank verse. One might say that she only grasps the surface of blank verse. But her choices might also be deliberate.

This is actually a good exercise.

If you can successfully convert your Iambic Pentameter to Iambic Tetrameter or even Iambic Trimeter, then you’re probably doing something wrong. If nothing else, your meter may be too regular or the joining of line and thought may be too slack. There’s an art to fitting thought, meaning and syntax to a metrical line. It’s subtle and difficult to describe but, if done well, line and meter are like hand in glove.

Not to pick on Timothy Steele but… Steele illustrates the opposite dilemma. There’s a stiffness to his meter that one can learn from. His poem, Sweet Peas, starts us off:

The season for sweet peas had long since passed,
And the white wall was bare where they’d been massed;
Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say
That she had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her…

In particular, compare the following:

Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say

Then one foggy Christmas Eve/ Santa came to say:

(The latter line is from the Christmas Carol Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer) The point of the comparison, cruel though it may be, is to demonstrate what they both have in common – a slavish devotion to an Iambic beat. In the case of the Christmas Carol, it’s necessary. The lyrics, after all, have to coincide with the rhythm of the carol. (You can’t have variant beats in Christmas Carols.) Steele doesn’t have that excuse. His line is full of metrical expediencies.

Normally, the average English speaker would say:

“Yet our neighbor phoned that night saying she had watched them…”

But that’s not Iambic Pentameter. Steele had to move things around. The first thing he does is to shift “that night”. That’s not ideal, but there’s some justification for it. Maybe he wants to emphasize that night? Curiously though, he doesn’t punctuate the clause – Yet when, that night, our neighbor phoned… One would think, if emphasis were the motive, he would want to add some punctuation. As it is, the odd placement has the feel of a metrical expediency. But the phrase phoned to say only makes it worse. The phrase is modern English but in this context it sounds entirely expedient, not just metrically but because it’s clearly thrust to the line’s end for the sake of a rhyme. (This is a rhyme driven line.)

The line is just too obviously metrical.

Three of the four lines are end-stopped, negatively emphasizing the rhyme and meter. The third line is marginally end-stopped. All this combined with the fact there’s only two variant feet out of the first 20 makes for some very wooden meter.

Here’s the rest of that opening verse from Steele’s poem:

Steele_TimThe season for sweet peas had long since passed,
And the |white wall| was bare where they’d been massed;
Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say
That she had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her: it was plain
She struggled with the tumor in her brain
And, though confused and dying, wished to own
How much she’d liked the flowers I had grown;
And when she said, in bidding me good night,
She thought their colors now were at their height–
Indeed, they ne|ver had |looked lovelier–
The only kind response was to concur.

These lines are an object lesson in how not to write meter and rhyme. There are only three variant feet out of 60. All but one of the lines are strongly end-stopped. Steele’s use of contractions is a matter of expediency. For instance, in line 8, he contract’s she’d but doesn’t contract I had. It feels arbitrary. The effect is to highlight the obviousness of the metrical beat. The rhymes are mostly nominal or verbal and, because the lines are end-stopped, they land with hard thumps. A poet might be able to get away with any one of these features in isolation, but when thrown together, the poetry feels contrived. Just as an experiment, let’s see if we can turn this poem into an Iambic Tetrameter.

The season for sweet peas had long
Since passed, and the white wall was bare
Where they’d been massed; yet when that night
Our neighbor phoned to say that she
Had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her: it
Was plain she struggled with the tumor
In her brain and, though confused
And dying, wished to own how much
She’d liked the flowers I had grown;
And when she said, in bidding me
Good night, she thought their colors now
Were at their height– indeed, they never
Looked lovelier– the only kind
Response was to concur.

What do you think? I actually think it improves the poem. I only had to remove one word. The lines take on a certain sinuousness and flexibility that moderately makes up for their thumping iambics and subdues the cymbal crash of their end-stopped rhymes. They become internal rhymes – they are registered but no longer hit the reader over the head.

If you’re having trouble writing meter that isn’t end stopped (and if you’re not rhyming), remove two words from your first line and shift the rest accordingly. (And you can try removing other metrically expedient words along the way to really shake things up.)  I’ll demonstrate. Rather than pick on any more modern poets, here’s something from the first act of Gorboduc, the first English drama written in blank verse (and just as end-stopped and metrically conservative as some modern formalist poetry):

There resteth all, but if they fail thereof,
And if the end bring forth an evil success
On them and theirs the mischief shall befall,
And so I pray the Gods requite it them,
And so they will, for so is wont to be
When Lords and trusted Rulers under kings
To please the present fancy of the Prince,
With wrong transpose the course of governance
Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,
Or mutual treason, or a just revenge,
When right succeeding Line returns again
By Jove’s just Judgment and deserved wrath
Brings them to civil and reproachful death,
And roots their names and kindred’s from the earth.

So, let’s remove the word thereof, which is only there for the sake of meter (a metrical filler):

There resteth all, but if they fail, and if
The end bring forth an evil success on them
And theirs the mischief shall befall, and so
I pray the Gods requite it them, they will,
for so is wont to be when Lords and Rulers
To please the present fancy of the Prince,
With wrong transpose the course of governance
Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,
Or mutual treason, or revenge, when right
Succeeding Line returns again by Jove’s
Just Judgment and deservèd wrath brings them
To civil and reproachful death, and roots
Their names and kindred’s from the earth.(…)

Voila! What do you think? The lines take on greater flexibility and there are fewer end-stopped lines. Even though the overall pattern is just as relentlessly iambic, the effect is somewhat mitigated by the shift between line and thought. You can practice the same with your own poetry, even if its rhymed. You could even try writing Iambic Hexameter, then shifting all the lines so that they’re Iambic Pentameter.

Metrical Fillers

This, as it turns out, is the most contentious part.

I’m fairly hard-nosed about what are (in my view) egregious metrical fillers, but many formalist poets are equally pugnacious in protecting their turf.

The word at the top of my list is upon. While, no doubt, the words has its place, my irritation stems from its reflexive use as an all too convenient iambic substitute for on. Most formalist poets use it. They’re not apologetic. And I’m not apologetic when I call it lazy. The problem, in many cases, is that poets (even free-verse poets) misuse the word. Upon is not universally interchangeable with on. Also, my sense is that, in terms of everyday speech, on has more or less replaced upon. Upon has become a primarily literary usage and feels fusty to me.

But that’s only my opinion.

And it’s easy to get hung up on the word. The point is to avoid metrical fillers – words that are unnecessary to the sense of a line’s meaning (whose only purpose is to fill the meter). Here’s a sample I discussed in my earlier post on Megan Grumbling:

we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this field.

The word upon expediently substitutes for on.  The word “within” is metrical padding. How else does a bag hold anything but “within”?

Later in Grumbling’s poem, more metrical padding appears with “out to where the Oak Woods Road…” Using modern English, we say: “out where the Oak Woods Road…” A.E. Stallings indulges in the same sort of metrical expediency.

Sing before the king and queen,
Make the grave to grieve,
Till Persophone weeps kerosene
And wipes it on her sleeve. [Song for the Women Poets]

The added and unnecessary preposition (to) before (grieve) is nothing more than metrical filling. Here is another example from Stallings‘ The Dollhouse:

And later where my sister and I made
The towering grown-up hours to smile and pass:

Again, the effect is antiquated. The preposition (to) before (smile) is unnecessary – another metrical filler.

However, some of the most abused metrical fillers are adjectives, especially among poets first tackling meter. My advice to poets just starting out is to write meter without adjectives or write with a strict limit (maybe one for every ten lines). Whether writing meter or free verse, nothing can weaken a line like an adjective. Use them sparingly.

After so many examples of what not to do, I thought I’d close with a fine example of beautifully modulated meter and rhyme by Annie Finch (whose book I will be reviewing soon):

annie finchDo you | hear me, |Lycius? |Do you hear |these dreams
moving |like words |out of |the air, it seems?
You think you saw me thin into a ghost,
impaled |by his |old eyes, with |their shuddering boast
of pride |that kills |truth with | philosophy.
But you hear |this voice. It is a serpent’s, or
is it |a wom|an’s, this rich |emblazoned core
reaching |out loud for you, as I once reached
for you with clinging hands, and held you, and beseeched.  (…)

These are the opening lines to Lamia to Lycius, from Annie Finch’s new book Calendars. The poem is written in open heroic couplets, like Steele’s, but the difference is night and day. The thing to notice is that there are only two end-stopped lines in these first nine. The syntax and thought of the lines moves sinuously through the line ends, subduing the rhymes. The effect is to make the rhymes feel more organic, more like an outgrowth of the poem’s subject matter.   Notice also the rich use of variant feet balanced against more regular iambic feet and lines. (I’ve marked phyrric feet in grey.) Notice also the absence of metrical fillers. Finch isn’t determined to keep a strict count like other poets – Timothy Steele or Dana Gioia (the link is to my review of his poetry). The result is a far more varied and rich voice.

If this post has been helpful, let me know.

Whether it be rhyme, meter or both,

Anne Bradstreet: Before the Birth of One of her Children

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A Quick Look

I keep the poetry of Anne Bradstreet close by. She is America’s first poet writing in English Bradstreet's First Editionand she was the first to publish a book of poetry in America. I’ve read various dismissive comments directed at her poetry, but I don’t share those opinions. Her poetry may lack the clever cosmopolitan  imagery, metaphor and conceit of other poets, but her peers weren’t living in the wilderness of Massachusetts. Her best poetry, her later poetry, is intensely direct, honest, heartfelt and tender in a way that none of her Jacobean peers, still in London, ever equaled. It’s tempting to say there’s something already uniquely American about her voice. With an ocean between her and Europe, her poetry and thoughts (initially written in the schoolish, conventional and literary mode of her peers and upbringing) turns to the every day fact of love, life, motherhood and family. Her thoughts turn from what she has left behind, to what she has created in her new world.

Adrienne Rich, in her introduction to Bradstreet’s works, states that she arrived in America in 1630. She was eighteen years old and had been married since sixteen. Rich writes:

Her father, Thomas Dudley, a man of education and worldly experience, had been steward to an earl; her mother, by Cotton Mather’s account, “a gentlewoman whose extraction and estates were considerable.” Her own education had been that of a clever girl in the cultivated seventeenth century house: an excellent library, worldly talk, the encouragement of a literate father who loved history. Her husband was a Cambridge man, a Nonconformist minister’s son. Her father, her husband, each was to serve as Governor of Massachusetts; she came to the wilderness as a woman of rank.” Younger, Anne Bradstreet had struggled with a “carnall heart.” Self-scrutiny, precisianism. were in any event expected of Puritan young people. But her doubts, her “sitting loose from God,” were underscored by uncommon intelligence and curiosity.

Before the Birth

In terms of meter, Bradstreet’s Iambic Pentameter is fairly strict. To be fair, the meter was still very new. Many among the generation who first established Iambic Pentameter as the standard meter of the English language were still  alive. One wonders exactly which poets Bradstreet was exposed to. Shakespeare? Doubtful, since his most famous works of poetry, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, were both considered borderline erotica. Sidney? Possibly. Spenser. Very likely. John Donne?

The poem itself is written in open heroic couplets. I’ll point out some probable differences in pronunciation and some variant feet. Bradstreet was born and England and spoke with an English accent. Besides that, the American accent didn’t exist yet.) The first two lines that might trip up a modern reader are the following. The modern American might be tempted to read them as follows:

The sen|tence past |is most ir|re-vo |ca-ble,
A com|mon thing, |yet oh, |in-ev |i-ta-ble.

Here’s how Bradstreet probably expected them to be read:

The sen|tence past |is most |irrev|ic’ble,
A com|mon thing,| yet oh, | inev | it’ble.

The British, then as now, tend to clip irrevocable, putting the stress on the second syllable. Here are another two lines Americans might be tempted to misread – this being more out of a misunderstanding of meter.

We both |are ig|norant, |yet love | bids me
These fare|well lines |to re|commend |to thee,

And here’s how Bradstreet intended them to be read:

We both |are ig|norant, |yet love |bids me
These fare|well lines |to re|commend |to thee,

The emphasis is on me, not on bids. Similarly, another two lines are apt to be misread:

If an|y worth |or vir|tue were |in me,
Let that |live fresh|ly in |thy mem|ory

And here’s what Bradstreet intended:

If an|y worth |or vir|tue were |in me,
Let that |live fresh|ly in |thy mem|ory

There are a couple of variant feet. Although it’s possible to read the first foot of the following line as Iambic, my feeling is that the first foot serves an expressive purpose in being read as a trochaic foot. Look, she cries, look to my children. There is no greater love than a mother’s for her child and it is the emotional zenith of the poem – her cry at the close of the poem: “if thou love thyself, or loved’st me”  protect and love our children!

Look to| my little babes, my dear remains.

More metrical variants quickly follow, as if to express Bradstreet’s emotional terrain:

And if | change to |thine eyes |shall bring |this verse,

And if change

The nice touch here is that the pyrric first foot adds emphasis to the trochaic change – meter underscores the meaning and content of the poem.

The last line that might be misread is due to differences in pronunciation. Honour, in Bradstreet’s time, was still probably pronounced with a French inflection – empasizing the second syllable rather than the first. So it was probably read as follows:

With some |sad sighs |honour |my ab|sent hearse;

All the rest of the poem is standard Iambic Pentameter – which is to say, all the other feet are Iambic.

The Poem

Most poems on childbirth, these days, are mawkish, sentimental verses. But childbirth, in the absence of modern medicine,  was a frightening experience. It might promise new life, rebirth and joy; but it could also end in death – both the child’s and the mother’s. No poem, to my knowledge, captures both this mixture of fear, anticipation, and love for the children already birthed, as this poem. It is, in its way, the greatest and most memorable poem of its kind.

Before the Birth of One of her Children

Anne_Bradstreet PortraitAll things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh, inevitable.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend,
We both are ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when that knot’s untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
And if I see not half my days that’s due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
That many faults that well you know I have
Let be interred in my oblivious grave;
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me
These O protect from step-dame’s injury.
And if change to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent hearse;
And kiss this paper for thy love’s dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last farewell did take.

bradstreetFor the complete works of Anne Broadstreet, if you’re curious, try The Works of Anne Bradstreet. I thought my edition was out of print, but I just found it (same title):  The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Both come with Adrienne Rich’s introduction. At Amazon, at least, the editorial review for both books is the same. The newer issue, however, has more pages. Maybe the newer issue includes more of her prose? If I find out, I’ll add an addendum to this post.

For a website dedicated to Anne Bradstreet and her poetry, try AnneBradStreet.Com. However, detailed biographical information, on the web at least, seems to be sparse.

Perhaps Anne Bradstreet’s most famous poem is the following:

To My Dear and Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize they love more than whole mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere
That when we lifve no more, we may live ever.

Sir Phillip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets

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  • June 26 2009: Cleaned up a whole slew of typos. There are probably more I missed. Added a link to Sidney’s Defense of Poetry.

A New Form & a New Meter

I have noticed that readers of my previous post on Shakespearean, Spenserian, Petrarchan Sonnet Forms have occasionally searched for further information on Sidney’s Sonnets. sir-phillip-sidneyThe first thing to know about Sidney is that his Sonnets predated those of Shakespeare, Daniel, Drayton, Donne, or Spenser. Spenser published his sonnets, Amoretti,  in 1595, 9 years after Sidney’s death and four years after Sidney’s own Sonnets were posthumously published. Samuel Daniel’s Delia was published in 1592. Micheal Drayton’s Idea was published in 1594. Shakespeare’s Sonnet Sequence was published in 1609. My point in mentioning this is that Sidney’s Sonnets are written in a variety of rhyme schemes and his meter varies between Iambic Pentameter and Iambic Hexameter (also called Alexandrines). Shakespeare, Spenser, Daniel and Drayton all settle on a single Sonnet scheme. When Sidney was writing, the Sonnet was still an unestablished form.

The other aspect to consider is Sidney’s use of Meter. The works of Marlowe, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Chapman, Donne and others were still unpublished. Sidney wasn’t working with a pre-established meter. He was creating it in the act of writing it. What might appear to be eccentric or radical has more to do with his search for a form that satisfies his own aesthetics. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, the first play that demonstrated what blank verse  (iambic pentameter) was capable of, was performed a year after Sidney’s death.

If you want a brief but good introduction to Sidney (how to understand some of the themes central to his poetry and how they differ from modern day concerns) I strongly recommend Sir Philip Sidney. Brief Background. The Sonnet Tradition. Atrophil and Stella by Peter Sinclair. I just discovered his blog and think very highly of it. For a web site entirely dedicated to Sidney, try Sir Philip Sidney at Luminarium.Org. The latter website includes a variety of links to his works.

The Variety of his Sonnets

Rather than offer up an in-depth analysis of any one of his sonnets (as is my usual habit), I’ll offer up an example of the different types along with some brief commentary. (All unmarked feet are iambic.)

Astrophil & Stella

Sidney Sonnet 1

  • There seem to be two versions of this sonnet. The version most frequently printed (and the one you’ll find most often on the net), reads the second line as follows:

That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:

My source is Richard Dutton’s edition of Sidney’s Selected writings (which I own). Dutton writes:

Atrophil and Stella was first published in 1591 in two quarto editions which appear to have had no sanction from any of Sidney’s family or friends. I have followed recent editorial practice in preferring the text given in the 1598 Folio of Sidney’s works, which there is good reason for supposing was supervised by his sister, Mary, Countess of Pembroke. It is the fullest of the early texts and includes songs as they are given here (some texts have none, others only some), lyric embellishments on the narrative running through the sonnets.

The book appears to be out-of-print, or I would provide a link.

Shakespeare's Metrical ArtAnyway, this is Sidney’s first sonnet from his sequence Astrophil and Stella. I’ve scanned it the way George T. Wright, Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, scans Sidney. (He didn’t scan this poem, but I’ve used his “methodry”.) What Wright does is to treat certain phrases as a double foot. So, in the first line, a standard reading would read the line as Iambic Hexameter with a trochaic first foot:

Loving | in truth, |and fain |in verse |my love |to show

This is well within the metrical practice of the day and so, at first glance, Wright’s method appears arbitrary (or at least it did to me).  In other words, if Wright is going to read the first four syllables as a double foot, why not read the next four syllables as a double foot, or why not apply the same standards to Shakespeare’s sonnets?

Reading Sidney’s sonnets as a whole, however, reveals the reasons. Sidney’s variant feet always seem to come in pairs while the lines (within which they occur) remain strongly iambic. In his later sonnets, double feet can consist of two trochees, for example, an effect that would all but disappear from shorter Elizabethan poems – treated as incompetent. Sidney must have been well aware of the trends – that poets, like Spenser, Daniel and Drayton were increasingly favoring a strong Iambic Pentameter line. Sidney’s metrical experiments were not born out of ignorance or newness to the form. Sidney, after all, was the first English poet/critic to write a critical essay on Poetry – his Defence of Poetry.

He was experimenting with meter in a way that later poets couldn’t (as accentual syllabic verse became established and regularized). He was writing a line that was more typical of French Poetry, the Alexadrine, and trying to naturalize it (if not reconcile it) with accentual syllabic verse more natural to the English language. In the French poetry of the time, the Alexandrine was not as patterned as it was to become at the hands of the 17th century French Dramatists. There was a certain regularity, but it was “intensified and regularized” [Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics p. 30] after Sidney’s lifetime.  So, the form of the Alexandrine with which Sidney was familiar, was a less patterned, syllabic line.  That he was familiar with the Alexandrine is apparent from his Defence of Poetry:

Now for the rhyme [modern accentual verse], though we do not observe quantity, yet we observe the accent very precisely, which other languages either cannot do, or will not do so absolutely. That caesura, or breathing place in the midst of the verse, neither Italian nor Spanish have, the French and we never almost fail of.

So, to Sidney, the French Alexandrine was syllabic and characterized by division into two hemistichs “making it an apt vehicle for polarization, paradox, parallelism and complementarity.” [Ibid. 30] Notice, in the first sonnet,  how many of his Alexandrines are broken, midline, by a caesura. For instance:

Pleasure might cause her read, || reading might make her know,

The line is also characterized by anadiplosis, the repetition of read at the end and beginning;  and the parallelism – all characteristics of the French Alexandrine (though equally characteristic of English poetry). And there is also the parallelism of meter – each having a double foot (trochee-iamb). Sidney seems to be combining syllabic (French Influence) with accentual syllabic (English Influence) verse in a strict dodecasyllabic line. He’s trying to anglicize the French Alexandrine – remake it into an English meter having characteristics of both the French and English verse.

What was Sidney’s aim in all of this?

The variant double feet seemed to give Sidney some flexibility in the patterning of his syntax. In the person of Astrophil, Sidney’s “cries, curses, prayers, and resolutions” [Wright: 73] are aptly expressed in the flexible meter of his double foot:

I sought fit words|
strang
|ers in my way
help|
less in my throes

Rather than reinvent the wheel,  I’ll let Wright sum up Sidney’s purposes, which he does well:

Through such arrangements of meter and phrasing, Sidney finds a convincing tonal correlative for the psychological states of the Petrarchan lover and opens up iambic pentameter to a whole new order of English Speech. Compared with the earlier uses of Iambic Pentameter for narrative, dramatic, and even lyric verse, Sidney’s discovery of the meter’s powers is revolutionary. The next step, as we can see in retrospect, will be taken by Shakespeare, who pours new life into the relatively inert dramatic poetry of his age by adapting and developing to a much finer pitch and for incomparably grander purposes Sidney’s art of expressive metrical speech. [Ibid. 74]

You might wonder why Wright is talking about Iambic Pentameter when the first of Sidney’s Sonnets is written in Alexandrines.  Of all Sidney’s sonnets, however, there are only five other examples (this combined with Shakespeare’s Iambic Tetrameter Sonnet, should all but dispel the myth that sonnets are, by definition, written in Iambic Pentameter). Sidney may have been dissatisfied with Alexandrines, or more attracted to the developing decasyllabic lines of Iambic Pentameter. The rest of his sonnets are decasyllabic. That said, he carries over the technique of the double foot into his decasyllabic sonnets. In our day, his decasyllabic sonnets would easily fall within the confines of Iambic Pentameter. That is, most would readily identify them as Iambic Pentameter.

Interpreting Sonnet 1

In his own day, though, his meter was much more experimental than that – miles apart from the sonnets Spenser was writing. I think it always helps to appreciate a poet (one that might seem staid by today’s standards) by trying to read them as their contemporaries read them. And speaking of which, I quick word on interpreting the sonnet:

That the dear She might take some pleasure of my pain:

Filthy ShakespeareThis line works on many levels because of the word pain. It means, in its least ribald sense, that Stella might take some platonic pleasure from the effort/pain of writing the sonnets. But Sidney’s intentions are hardly platonic. Pain was also a reference to orgasm (as it is now). So… Sidney is slyly suggesting that, if only his Sonnets achieve their aim, she might take some pleasure (her own orgasm) from his orgasm. If you think this far-featched, then I would recommend a book like Filthy Shakespeare. The Elizabethans saw life very differently than we do. Death and sex was ever present. Life, in all its glory and decay, was intimate. They weren’t nearly so prudish about the realities of life as we have become – which isn’t to say that prudishness didn’t exist. The Elizabethans were all too ready to find sly humor in the crudities of life – much to the dismay and denial of our more puritan contemporaries.

reading might make her know

And what does Sidney mean by know. Does he simply mean that she will know that he loves her? Hardly. The phrase to bibically know someone comes from this era. To know someone possessed the double sense of having sex, just as it does now. So…Sidney is saying that if she reads his sonnets, she might come to know him, have sex with him. He is continuing the playful double-entendre of the previous line.

Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain

The first quatrain closes, appropriately, with the attainment of grace. Grace continues Sidney’s double-meaning – grace as pity, beneficence, release from sin, sexual release, release from sexual obsession, lust and desire through the exercise of the same. It’s all there. From this point, Sidney plays on the conceit of his imagination/invention as a wayward student looking for inspiration in all the wrong places. Fool, says Sidney’s exasperated muse in the closing couplet, just shut-up and write from your heart.

As an aside, compare Sidney’s Sonnet to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76, ostensibly on the same conceit of “writer’s block”:

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

One gets the feeling that Shakespeare had read and re-read Sidney’s Sonnets, frequently inspired by many of Sidney’s own ideas.

On the Variety of his Sonnets

Lastly, worth noting is that although Sidney is writing in the Petrarchan tradition, he has already adopted and anticipated the much more Elizabethan, brilliantly argumentative, form that was to quickly evolve into the English/Shakespearean sonnet. The Elizabethans weren’t romantics. They reveled in the brilliantly turned argument, quick reparté, ingenius conceit, and wit. Every one of Sidney’s arguments are witty engagements with figurative language, simile, metaphor. Out of 108 poems, 93 of them are written with the closing, epigrammatic couplet typical of the English/Shakespearean Sonnet  – of these, all but 5 are decasyllabic (or a loose Iambic Pentameter). The dramatic sting of the couplet’s closing summation, toward which the argument of the entire sonnet drives, is clearly a form that appealed to Sidney, as to most of his contemporary Elizabethan poets. They loved nothing more than the display of wit in rhetoric and debate. Formally, though the meter of Sonnet 1 is written in Alexandrines, the closing couplet typifies the majority of his sonnets. All that changes, between these 83 sonnets, is the rhyme scheme leading up to the closing couplet.

Sonnet 1 – Three Interlocking Sicilian Quatrains: ABAB ABAB CDCD followed by a heroic Couplet EE.
Sonnet 2 – An Italian Octave made up of two Italian Quatrains ABBA ABBA followed by an interlocking Sicilian Quatrain CDCD and a heroic couplet EE.

These two variations comprise the lion’s share of the 93 Sonnets ending in a couplet. The rhyme scheme of Sonnet 1, as mentioned before, comes closest to the Shakespearean Sonnet, saving its epigrammatic couplet for the close of the sonnet. The whole of the sonnet feels driven toward the concluding couplet. Sonnet 2 is a sort of hybrid between Petrarchan and English Sonnets. The nested couplets in the first and second quatrain make the first octave feel more self-contained, more like a Petrarchan Sonnet. Whereas the sestet (CDCDEE) is a sort of English Sestet [my own coinage] to the Italian Octave, acting as a sort of counterpoise (an English Sonnet reduced to a sestet).

And here is yet another Sidneyan experiment – a sonnet composed in Identical Rhyme. It’s form is, outwardly, comparable to Sonnet 2, but the final couplet is altered in the name of Elizabethan wit.

ABBA ABBA ABAB AB

Sonnet 89

Now that of absence the most irksome night
With darkest shade doth overcome my day;
Since Stella’s eyes, wont to give me my day,
Leaving my hemisphere, leave me in night;
Each day seems long, and longs for long-stayed night;
The night, as tedious, woos th’ approach of day:
Tired with the dusty toils of busy day,
Languished with horrors of the silent night,
Suffering the evils both of day and night,
While no night is more dark then is my day,
Nor no day hath less quiet then my night:
With such bad-mixture of my night and day,
That living thus in blackst winter night,
I feele the flames of hottest summer day.

And again, as an aside, compare this to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 28

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarr’d the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night, and night by day, oppress’d?
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me;
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day, to please them thou art bright
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven:
So flatter I the swart-complexion’d night,
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

(One gets the feeling that Shakespeare was measuring himself against Sidney.)

The second form, unfortunately in the minority, is typified by Sonnet 80.

The Sidneyan Sonnet

Sidney Sonnet 80

Sidney’s efforts to infuse his meter with the “expressive speech” (passion)  finds its way into his decasyllabic sonnets. I call them decasyllabic because it’s not clear that Sidney, himself, would have considered these sonnets as Iambic Pentameter. He was trying to do something different – at least if judged against his contemporaries. While they are well within the confines of modern Iambic Pentameter,  it would be several generations before so many variant feet would again occur in a single line within the space of a sonnet.  Only Donne would come close. Lines like:

Since best wits think || it wit || thee to admire
Nature’s praise, vir||tue’s stall; ||Cupid’s cold fire
Breather of life||, and fast||’ner of desire
Loathing all lies,|| doubting this flat||tery is

On the other hand, lines 1,4,5,8,9, 13, and 14 are firmly Iambic and Pentameter. So, while his sonnets might not have been considered Iambic Pentameter in his own day, Sidney was using Iambic Pentameter as a basic pattern from which to vary. As Wright points out, when Sidney returns to the normative meter, he does so firmly and unequivocally –  as though he were compensating for the variant patterns.

This sonnet form (the Sonnet above) was, to my knowledge, was first used by Sidney (probably created by him) and never used again. It’s every bit as interesting, to me, as the Shakespearean or Petrarchan form, and more interesting than the Spenserian Sonnet. It does something very unique. The couplet assumes the role of a sort of epigrammatic volta, the embodiment of the Petrarchan turn, neatly hinging the subject matter. This Sidneyan form clearly demarcates the sonnet into two parts – the Octave, a hinging heroic Couplet, and a summarizing quatrain.

The form is, perhaps, the most legal-like, attorney-esque form in all of poetry – perfectly suited to the Elizabethan temperament of discourse, reason, balance, thesis and antithesis. The heroic couplet aurally reinforces the turn in disquisition – subliminally. To my sensibility, it’s a beautiful effect. The Octave and final Quatrain’s envelope Quatrains (meaning they each envelope a heroic couplet) enforces the sense that they are self-contained arguments. The heroic couplet of the volta therefore feels less like a summation than a hinge between two distinct parts.

Intepreting Sonnet 80

Elizabethan CourtshipSonnet 80 stretches the notion of the conceit almost to the limit – verging on fetish (by modern standards). In the first line he is addressing Stella’s lip – the idealized woman’s lip. Swell with pride, he says. (The bawdy implication in these lines shouldn’t be overlooked.) The woman’s lip is a thing to be admired by “wits” (like himself). It is the praise of nature, virtue’s “stall” (in the Elizabethan sense being a seat of dignity – again, a certain bawdiness is hard to overlook). It is the place where heavenly graces “slide”.  The word slide was every bit as suggestive in Elizabethan days as now.

Just which lip is he talking about?

Slyly, Sidney doesn’t tell us. He both knowingly suggests and  deliberately misdirects. In the next quatrain the idealized woman’s lip is the new Parnasus, where the Muses (the Greek goddesses of art) bide; sweetener of music and wisdom’s beautifier. All fairly innocent stuff. But is it? Which muses? Then he knowingly suggests his real meaning.

Her lip is the “breather of life” – the entrance to the woman’s womb and the giver/breather of life. Her “lip” is the fastener of desire where beauty’s “blush” in Honour’s grain is dyed. Indeed. And don’t miss the  pun on dyed – or died – the woman’s sex being the place of death/orgasm.

I can imagine that some readers will strongly, if not vehemently object that I’m reading too much into this Octave. Possibly, but I don’t think so. 30 years of Elizabethan Drama followed these sonnets and the language in these plays is stuffed with innuendo, puns, and outright crudities, making it clear that this was a culture that reveled in bawdy sexual humor and full-blooded suggestiveness. Some things don’t change. Many of their puns are still alive and well in our own day, belted out by everyone from Madonna to, less subtly,  rappers. There was a reason the Puritans promptly shut down the stage some thirty years after Shakespeare’s death. Shakespeare, himself, was considered too sexually coarse by the restoration poets that followed (ironically – since many of them weren’t any less suggestive).

Anyway, Sidney, as if suspecting that he may be skirting obviousness – becomes somewhat more platonic with the Hinge Couplet:

This much my heart compell’d my mouth to say,
But now spite of my heart my mouth will stay…

Loathing lies, fearing/doubting that his sonnet would simply be interpreted as flattery, he seeks to discover the truth. His mouth won’t be satisfied (is resty or restive) to discover how far (whether or not) Sidney’s praise falls short. Sweet lip, he writes, you teach my mouth with one sweet kiss.

Interpret that how you will.

Again, compare Sidney’s Sonnet 80 to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 128 – I, for one, am hard pressed not to notice many parallels. Music appears in both sonnets while Shakespeare, like Sidney before him, delights in personifying the different parts of his own and his lover’s body. In Sidney, it’s the heart, the mouth, and lip. In Shakespeare, it’s the fingers, the hand and lips. Both sonnets end with a kiss.

Oft, when thou, my music, music play’st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more blest than living lips.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

To all and any… if this post was helpful, was enjoyable, or if you have further questions or suggestions, please comment!


The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Third Day

Told on third day, after Pu-liang Yi’s Story of the Second Day

Sun

Said one trader to another: “Mistress Pu-liang Yi’s has left me as thoughtful as the nightingale that sings of nothing but thorns and roses. Let’s hear a fable of amusement!” Then the other traders agreed that they should hear Liang-chieh next.  “It has been good day for travel, let’s have a goodly fable to match it.

Liang-chieh’s Story

I cannot match Yün’s thoughtfulness and I do not have Mistress Yi’s depth of feeling. I am as shallow as a ditch. But you say I have humor and wit! Ha! Didn’t we see the sun until its very nose sunk into the southern plains and didn’t we see how the birds followed after it? When I was a child I wished to be a poet but my father said he would sooner clothe an ox in tailored silk than raise his son a poet. He made me a merchant, bless him. Here is my tale!

The Monkey and the Crane

“Ha!” said the Monkey. “Love is just a word!
“What good’s a thing that can’t be seen or heard?
“What use? You cannot shake it from a tree
“Or root it from the earth. What use to me
“Or anyone? The tiger still must hunt,
“And if you cry out “Love!” it will not blunt
“Her appetite. She’d eat me all the same
“And leave me no one but myself to blame!”

*

The Crane was next. She said: “I know
“That love will never melt midwinter snow.
“It is not rain to April buds or earth
“To summer growth. The measure of its worth
“Cannot be judged by any worldly art
“Yet love is life and summer to the heart.”

*

The Crane and Monkey were the last to speak,
Then Lao-tsu said: “I see that some are meek,
“The lion and tiger proud. The hummingbird
“Is quiet. The elephant is loud. A herd
“Of bison will uproot a field. A crow
“Will squat unnoticed even in the snow.
“As all of you must know I have two suns.
“When one is in my hat the other runs
“From east to west. When one sun sets I lay
“The other in the east to rise. This way
“The sun is out no matter what the hour.
“Yet I have had no time to pick a flower
“No time to rest beneath a shaded wood
“Or sleep. Sleep would be nice. So, if I could,
“I’d like to find out two from all of you
“To whom I’ll give my suns. Between the two
“The world should still have sunlight while I rest.
“I cannot say which one of you is best
“Yet given what each said on love I’ll choose
“The monkey and the crane—the two whose views
“Were most extreme. I find each sun a jewel
“And hope if either animal’s the fool
“The other may be wise. At least one sun,
“That way, remains—a better end than none.”

*

Though the other animals feared the worst
The Crane and Monkey stayed apart at first,
Just as the Monkey’s sun set in the west
The Crane was taking hers from out her nest.
By turns they kept the sunlight round the earth,
That was, until, the Monkey’s usual mirth
Made his sun seem the brighter one to him;
And so, one day, he swung from limb to limb
Until he found the jungle lake he knew
The Crane most liked. From there he climbed into
A nearby tree until she was in sight.

*

“Ha!” He cried. “Your sun is not so bright!
“I’ve seen mine up when yours is in your nest
“And even when mine’s setting in the west,
“Yours rising makes not half the fire of mine!
“This afternoon I’ll climb a mountain pine
“That’s stretched its limbs as far as heaven’s roof
“And there I’ll lift my sun to yours as proof
“That mine is like a plate of beaten gold
“And yours a tarnished copper dulled and old.”
“Oh!” the Crane replied. “I had not thought
“To set one sun against the other! Not
“Because I was afraid! It may be true
“That your sun’s brighter, just that I know too
“It is not light but warmth that brings forth life.
“Yet if it puts an end to any strife
“I’ll grant your sun’s the brighter of the two.”

*

The Monkey thought on this. “This will not do!”
He said at last. “It stands against all reason!
“As any fool knows well the hottest season
“Is when the sun is brightest in the sky.”
To which the Crane responded: “Then why not try
“Your sun against my own where all can see?
“The world be judge instead of you or me.”
“Agreed,” the Monkey said, “as long as they pick mine!”

*

Instead of finding out a mountain pine,
When it was next the Monkey’s turn to take
His sun, he put it back instead to make
It climb again (though now from west to east!);
And to be sure its backward motion had not ceased
He sat and watched until he saw each sun
Was climbing slowly toward the other one.
The animals had never seen them both
At once! The smallest hid in undergrowth
And those that couldn’t just as quickly ran
Into the jungle fearing the work of man.
The Monkey saw and jeered at every one.
“Ha!” He said. “I see that even tigers run!
“Why if I’d known it was so easy, I
“Would long ago have put them in the sky
“And left them there.” To which the Tiger said:
“You silly Monkey! Tell us why instead
“Of gloating, why you’ve put both suns together.”
“Simple!” said the Monkey. “Tell me whether
“My sun’s the brighter or the crane’s!” And when
The Crane came next the Tiger asked again
The reason but she said the same. ‘The two
‘Of us alone could not decide. We’ve come to you!’

*

Then all the animals began to talk
And there were some who even dared to walk
From underneath the jungle shade till one
By one the others came to pick a sun
Until, as with the Crane and Monkey, they
Were at a loss to choose and could not say
Which one was best. The Snake, the first to speak,
Said: “I’ve seen both already at their peak.
“If any one of you were made to crawl
“As I, you’d know the earth is cold. For all
“The light reflected in a field of snow
“There’s nothing lives for long where those winds blow—
“The earth is made no warmer by that light
“When even through the longest summer’s night
“It’s warm. I’ll take the moonlight in July
“To January’s sun!” The Owl said in reply
That she liked neither sun. She said:“I knew
The world without them, for then I flew
“And there was never sun to light my way.
“What needed I the sun to hunt my prey
“Who hears the fieldmouse toeing through the wheat?
“In the dead of night the tiger’s not so fleet
“As I! Let all this daylight be undone!”
To which the Tiger said: “I like the sun
“That burns the brightest burning like my heart.
“I like it glistering on the breath at start
“Of day or brightly watching like my eyes
“At evening from the fields before it lies
“In shadow. When it speckles through the tree
“Against the forest floor it looks to me
“As though a tiger left his paw prints there,
“Aglow, before returning to his lair.
“I like the sun that’s burning like my heart.”
The Elephant spoke next, saying: “I part
“With all of you in what you’ve said. Of all
“I can remember best and best recall
“A time when there was both a night and day.
“The dust I throw atop my back to stay
“The sun was what the night was to the earth,
“A cooling balm against that heat as great in worth
“As all the world’s waters. There is none
“Who live for long where there is only sun
“And wind. This world without the passing night
“Is like a desert, the sun like a blight
“And all reduced to dust. Surely we must drink
“To live, and sleep at night. I cannot think
“The world was always meant to have two suns.”

*

“Ha!” said the Monkey. “Where all this runs
“Is anybody’s guess. It should be plain
“By now the sun belonging to the Crane
“Is neither warm nor brighter than my own!”
To which the Crane replied: “I should have known.
“To teach a Monkey reason can’t be done!
“Why I could sooner teach a snail to run
“Or an ostrich to dance a roundelay!
“If nothing else this, at least, is plain as day!”

*

The Tiger interrupted both. He said:
“You’d better look into the sky instead
Where both your suns have nearly reached high noon!”
Then both the Crane and Monkey saw that soon
The suns would have to meet! As if to flee
The Monkey clamored to the nearest tree.
The Crane cried out and leapt into the air;
Both knew well there was little time to spare.
The Monkey climbed the limbs by twos until
The suns hung just beyond his outstretched hand;
And even when he did his best to stand,
His tail wrapped round the branches topmost stem,
He could not grapple either one of them.
The Crane, as quickly as she could, tried too
And strained against the winds until she flew
Beside the suns but then she could not choose.
She cried “I cannot tell whose sun is whose!”
And sure enough the Monkey could not say.
He pointed, scratched his chin, looked this way
Then that. And by the time they both decided
It came too late for next the suns collided!

*

So much light none had ever seen. And still
The sky grew brighter by the moment till
There came a sound as if two great bells
Had each been struck. Then like cockleshells,
Each thrown against the other mid-air,
The smaller of the two was shattered, there,
In countless pieces, scattered through the sky!
Not a creature dared to lift an eye
But stayed where each had fled and not a sound.
Just the Monkey who’d fallen to the ground —
Felled branch by branch until he’d struck the earth.
He checked if he was still his usual girth —
His head and then his bottom. All was there.
And looking he could do no more than stare.
His sun now glowed a thin and papery light —
A watery silver hardly half so bright
As what it was. He saw the sky aglow
As with a sparkling dust. It seemed as though
The brilliance of his sun was swept away
And all the pieces sprinkled through the half-lit day.
His fiery sun was gone.
And yet the Monkey thought he’d never known
A sight as beautiful as stars and moon,
And felt content to stare all afternoon.
“Ha!” That’s all the Monkey ever said.
Some held it came from landing on his head.
But others said they’d rather grasp the joke -
And though they tried the Monkey never spoke.
“Ha!” he said. That was all. The other sun,
Jolted from its westward course, had spun
Unbroken far into the southern sky.
Yet even so the Crane still flew close by
As if she feared to let it from her sight
Unless it whirl unwatched into the night

*

Lao-tsu didn’t see the suns collide
But napping in a meadow close beside
A brook he’d woken up to find a moon
And stars had splashed the fading afternoon
With light — some stars were falling from the sky
And some left sparkling trails where they passed by.
He rubbed his eyes before he looked again
And stared, his mouth agape, and knew by then
Some unknown mischief had unfixed the world.
It looked as if a giant’s rage had hurled
The sun as far as earth and sky still met.
He thought it seemed to topple there and yet
He still could see the crane against its light
Before it finally rolled into the night.
“Where are my suns?” he cried and rushed to where
He’d left them in the crane and monkey’s care,
Yet not a single animal would say.
The snake lodged underneath a rock to stay
Until the sun returned. The owl had flown.
The Tiger skulked the jungle’s dark alone.
The elephant recalled a darker night
Before the monkey’s sun had left its light
In splintered pieces. Alone among them all
The monkey sat absorbed by what he saw,
Unmoved from where he’d fallen from the tree.
He’d curled and propped his head against his knee
To watch the spinning stars. Lao-tsu cried:
“I see the crane fly south and thought she tried
“To catch the sun before it slipped away!
“I see, as with the remnants of the day,
“The night is dusted with a glittering light!
“I see a ghostly ball ascend the night
“As if it were the shadow of a sun!
“From this I cannot reason what you’ve done!”
The monkey only looked dissatisfied.
“Ha!” he said before he moved a branch aside.
Then Lao-tsu stared at him a little while
And could not say if it were simply guile
Or if the monkey also couldn’t reason why,
Till finally both sat gazing at the sky
Together with their backs against the tree.
There was a moon and countless stars to see.
Then he finally spoke once more that night,
He said: “The sky and earth will of themselves be right.”

“Ha!”

Here Ends Liang-chieh’s Tale

Followed by Ji-Yuan’s Story on the Fourth Day .

stamp-copyright-2009

Iambic Pentameter & Chaucer

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In my post on Shakespeare I wrote that a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. With the Prologue, meter tells us the story of Chaucer’s language and how he spoke it.

Iambic Pentameter  & Blank Verse

In my previous post on Iambic Pentameter (The Basics), I quoted the opening to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, saying I would take a look at it in a later post. This is the later post.  And here are the opening lines, once again.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
geoffrey-chaucerThe droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

There are some sites that credit Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, with first introducing Iambic Pentameter to the English Language. The confusion seems to stem from the difference between Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter. Chaucer did not write Blank Verse. All of Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter is rhymed – using a form called Open Heroic Couplets or Riding Rhymes. Judging by the literature left to us, Henry Howard was indeed the first to introduce Iambic Pentameter Blank Verse to English literature, but he wasn’t the first to introduce Iambic Pentameter. The first record we have of Iambic Pentameter is in Chaucer’s verse.

The trick to recognizing Chaucer’s use of Iambic Pentameter is in knowing how to pronounce the words. The first key is in recognizing that English is a Germanic language and that in Chaucer’s day the split between English and proto-German was still relatively fresh. Why is that important? Because in German all vowels are pronounced.  There is no silent -e as in the English word Rose (as in the flower).  The German word for  Rose is die Rose.  The word is the same in English and German. However, in German, it is pronounced something like  Ros-uh (having two syllables). And in Chaucer’s day, this pronunciation still held sway in many English words. The other key is a familiarity with the Iambic Pentameter pattern. Knowing that Chaucer was writing Iambic Pentameter helps us to know which -e was silent, in which word, and which -e was not. (Note: Some modern editions appear to only include the -e in words in which it was pronounced.)

Also, this post isn’t about translating the text into modern English. The Gypsy Scholar provides a good translation and I’m all for supporting another scholarly blogger!

Now to the Scansion

From the very first line of the Canterbury tales, Chaucer shows us that he’s not going to be hide-bound in his use of Iambic Pentameter. His first line is a headless line with a feminine ending. (Now, having said that, there are some scholars who insist that aprill was originally spelled aprille and should be three syllables. I don’t buy it. But I’ve thrown in an interesting discussion at the bottom of the post to show to what degree scholars will debate such matters – and how it is only through meter that we have a clue.)Whan that...

You might ask how a reader should know whether the final word soote is one or two syllables. Scansion doesn’t help us because we could just as easily read the word as being one syllable. (Pronouncing the e was not a hard and fast rule – as with droughte – some editions, I notice, omit the e in this word.) In the case of soote, the only reason we know is that Chaucer uses the word, midline, later in The Second Nun’s Tale: “The soote savour, lilie was hir name.” In this line, if we don’t pronounce soote as two syllables soot-uh, the iambic pattern will be broken.

the Droghte

Notice that perced should be pronounced percèd. In textual parlance, it shouldn’t be clipped. If we clip the pronunciation, the Iambic pattern will be broken. The tradition of pronouncing -ed words continued well into the Victorian Era.

and bathed

Once again, bathed should be pronounced bathèd. Just as in modern english, we want the strong stress (or ictus) to be on the first syllable of every. Unless we pronounce bathed with two syllables, the iambic pattern will be broken. Every is also elided to read as two syllables, just as in modern English. Note also that we don’t pronounce the e at the end of veyne. If you did, you would introduce an anapestic foot into the line (two unstressed syllables before a stressed syllable) and Chaucer simply does not write anapests – which is helpful to know. (If someone does find one, I’m ready to stand corrected.)

of which virtu

The only real stickler is the word virtu which can be safely understood as virtue in modern English. In modern English however, it’s the first syllable which is stressed, not the second. An expertise on Latin and French is pushing the limits of my knowledge (I’m a carpenter for a living) but a little research shows us two things: the word comes from the Latin virtus (stress on the first syllable); but also that the Anglo-Saxons absorbed the word from the Normans (middle-French) and that even the proto-French had to do everything differently. That is, they accented the second syllable of the word, pronouncing it vertu. Because trochaic feet are very rare in Chaucer, and because we know the English language absorbed an astonishing number of French words (80% of our vocabulary) as a result of the Norman invasion (just a couple hundred years prior to Chaucer), we can safely say that the Iambic Foot is retained. When reading Chaucer, and when in doubt, always read it iambically.

These first four lines cover just about every exigency you will find in Chaucer’s verse.

When Zephirus ii

The first of the four lines is interesting in that one might be tempted to scan it as a tetramter line, thus:

whan-zephirus-elided

This would make the line, in effect, octasyllabic – an iambic tetrameter line. 400 years later this might be an acceptable iambic variant, but not in Chaucer’s day. The second interesting question is how to pronounce sweete – one or two syllables. Here are two possiblities if we pronounce sweete with two syllables:

whan-zephirus-alternate-readings

In the first instance, the first foot is an amphibrach. This might go in Modern English, but an amphibrach is an all but unacceptable iambic variant in Chaucer’s day. If you read an amphibrach in Chaucer, you should find probably find another way to pronounce the word. In fact, in Chaucer’s day, Zephirus was pronounced with a long i – Zeph-i-rus. The second reading retains this pronunciation but gives us two inverted feet – two trochaic feet – in the first and second foot. All this to grant sweete two syllables. Since two consecutive trochaic feet just don’t happen in Chaucer’s meter, and since iambic feet are the rule – the first reading is most likely the way Chaucer heard the line – a headless line.

Interestingly, Chaucer seems to have pronounced sweete with either one or two syllables, depending on what he needed for the sake of the meter. In the Miller’s Tale one reads the two pronunciations even in the same sentence:

What do ye, hony-comb, (sweete) Al-i-soun,
My fair-e bryd, my (sweet-e) cy-na-mome?

In the first line, sweete is pronounced with one syllable, in the second, with two. So, like every poet after him, Chaucer wasn’t above inconsistency for the sake of meter. I personally like the effect that changing the pronunciation produces. It gives the speaker a sort of sly ingratiating tone as he flatters the girl – some things never change.

In the lines above, croppes and yonge are pronounced with two syllables to retain the meter. The line containing the words is headless. Sonne was probably pronounced with two syllables, making the ending a feminine ending. I say probably, because in other lines where the word sonne is in the middle, Chaucer treats it as a two syllable word: Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe.

and smalle foweles

Corages and pilgrimages both end the lines with feminine endings. The only word that is likely trip up a modern reader, trying to read according to Chaucer’s meter, is nature. As with virtu, nature is pronounced na-ture, the stress on the second syllable. If you check Webster’s, you will find that the etymology of the word places it with middle english and middle french – and as with virtu, middle french (as with modern French) tends to stress the second syllable in words like these. At the end of this post, I have provided a link to a performance of the prologue. Notice how the reader pronounces nature.

and palmeres

You can see that Chaucer’s lines are carefully iambic. For instance, you might have been tempted to pronounce the -e at the end of kowthe, but knowing that Chaucer was careful to preserve the meter you might rightly guess that the -e remained silent. The rest is fairly self-explanatory. The only word which might trip you up is Canterbury. Nowadays, in America at least, we pronounce the word as having four full syllables. But in Chaucer’s day (and the meter is our only clue) the word was apparently pronounced with three syllables – Cant-er-b’ry. Listen to the linked reading  below. It’s somewhat similar to the modern day difference in the American and English pronunciation of secretary. Americans give it four syllables – se-cre-tar-y, the Brits give it three – se-cre-t’ry. Several of the lines end with feminine endings, a favorite iambic variant in Chaucer’s metrical toolkit, along with headless lines (though some don’t believe Chaucer didn’t write headless lines – see the note below).

Anyway, if I think of something I left out, I’ll add it.

If this post was helpful, let me know.

Now listen to it read. The wave file is linked from the following site which offers a pronunciation guide. Once Iambic Pentameter becomes second nature, though, you may find you no longer need pronunciation guides to the same extent. Enjoy.

averylle

Opening Book: Prologue to a Play by Thomas Holcroft Page 31-32

[The title says it all. I was invited to write this prologue for a performance by the director and lead actor of Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery. I no longer remember the actor's name. I wish I did. If memory serves, the play was not written in heroic couplets or any kind of verse, but I thought writing the prologue this way would set it apart. Much of the subject matter, and even the wording, comes straight from a book on the history of Salem during this period. (I don't remember the name of the book but found it locally.)

All I did was to versify the book's prose (changing the prose to rhyming iambic pentameter). Shakespeare used to do this with his own plays - the most famous examples being from Antony & Cleopatra - in which he versified whole passages from Plutarch. If I had it to do again, I probably wouldn't put this in my book. The couplet: "I only tell it now because it's sad/ To see what's good so easily go bad" is execrable. If spoken the way it should be (the actor reading the prologue was the villain of the play), the couplet might come off as humorously trite and mean-spirited - the way it was meant to be.  ]

page-31-prologue-to-a-play-by-thomas-holcroft1page-32-prologue-to-a-play-by-thomas-holcroft1

All for Love & the Modern Formalists – Megan Grumbling

  • January 28 2010: Slightly edited.

The peculiarity of modern formalist poetry is that the poetry’s effect is frequently that of free verse, as though the poets were either embarrassed to be writing formally or unable to shake its ghost from their ears.

Old habits die hard.

The symptoms are similar to those of Restoration Poets who tried to write blank verse. John Dryden’s play “All for Love or, The World Well Lost”, was printed in 1692. This play, another dramatization of Anthony and Cleopatra, was expressly “Written in Imitation of Shakespeare’s Stile”. However, by the time Dryden published his play, blank verse had long since been abandoned in favor of heroic couplets (iambic pentameter written in rhyming couplets).

Restoration Poets found blank verse too licentious. Even anapests were sometimes considered politically subversive and aesthetically scandalous. The Restoration was the age of heroic couplets in the same sense that the “Modern Age” is the age of Free Verse. For a taste of heroic couplets, here’s a prologue written by Dryden from “The Conquest of Granada”. (For all the propriety of his age, Dryden had a healthy sense of humor when it came to sex.) Note the rhyming couplets:

They who write Ill, and they who ne’r durst write,
Turn Critiques, out of mere Revenge and Spight…

…Some wiser Poet now would leave Fame first:
But elder wits are like old Lovers, curst;
Who, when the vigor of their youth is spent,
Still grow more fond as they grow impotent.
This, some years hence, our Poets case may prove;
But, yet, he hopes, he’s young enough to love.

But in return for propriety, the restoration poets gave up the flexibility and malleability of blank verse. And since there were no towering geniuses during this period, heroic couplets never equaled the blank verse of the previous age. (Fortunately Milton, in writing Paradise Lost, dispensed with heroic couplets.) One of the salient features of the period’s heroic couplets is in their frequently end-stopped lines – an imitation of the Latin poetry they were emulating. Restoration poets learned to tailor their thoughts and phrases to coincide with every couplet. In the brief excerpts above, there is not a single example of enjambment. Every thought or phrase ends with every line. Dryden’s lines fall neatly into syntactical units that end, elegantly, with each line.

And when it came time for Dryden to imitate Shakespeare, the force of compositional habit imprinted itself, ghostlike, in every passage of “All for Love”.

I pity Dollabella; but she’s dangerous:
Her eyes have pow’r beyond Thessalian Charms
To draw the Moon from Heav’n; for Eloquence,
The Sea-green Syrens taught her Voice their flatt’ry;
And, while she speaks, Night steals upon the Day,
Unmark’d of those that hear; Then she’s so charming,
Age buds at sight of her, and swells to youth:
The holy Priests gaze on her when she smiles;
And with heav’d hands forgetting Gravity,
They bless her wanton Eyes: Even I who hate her,
With a malignant joy behold such Beauty… [IV: 264]

Compared with Shakespeare’s equivalent passage:

I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breath forth.

….Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy preists
Bless her when she is riggish. [II, ii, 239]

In Dryden’s passage, though he is writing blank verse, his meaning falls into the ghostly pattern of heroic couplets:

A- Her eyes have pow’r beyond Thessalian Charms
A- To draw the Moon from Heav’n; for Eloquence,

B – The Sea-green Syrens taught her Voice their flatt’ry;
B – And, while she speaks, Night steals upon the Day…

C – …Then she’s so charming,
C – Age buds at sight of her, and swells to youth:

The line endings still mostly break with their syntactical units. In Dryden’s passage there is only one example of enjambment, and weak at that. In Shakespeare’s passage there are seven instances of enjambment.

And now we return to the twenty-first century.

Instead of Restoration propriety, free verse dominates. If Dryden and his ilk were to step into our modern colleges, he might think he had stepped into a sort of “mirror-mirror” world. He would learn that some modern poets considered iambic pentameter to be a politically corrupt form, so much so that formalism is seen as subversive (patriarchal). He would struggle to find employment in any college writing program. Dryden – a strict formalist, intellectual, white and distinctly British – might find employment as a plumber.

Even so, one is increasingly finding blank verse and some formality. In the January 2006 issue of POETRY magazine, we find some beautiful poems by Megan Grumbling. But remember, this is mirror mirror world. Just as Dryden’s heroic couplets showed up, ghostlike, in his blank verse, free verse asserts itself, ghostlike, in modern formal verse.

“Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls
our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road
crosses the river that they call Great Woks.
The nearby fields so rich it’s hard to breathe–
the hay treacly with auburn, grasses bronzed–
we stop before a red farmhouse, just shy
of where the river runs, where maple trees
have laid the front lawns ravished with their loss.”

The enjambment of the first three lines has all the flavor of free-verse. There are no auditory clues (in the way of syntactical units) that might hint to a listener that these are lines of blank verse. One might as easily write the first sentence as follows:

Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road crosses the river that they call Great Woks.

The average reader would never suspect that this was blank verse. He or she might, in a moment of preternatural attentiveness, notice that the line is entirely iambic. That said, there is no indication that this sentence is Iambic Pentameter. Given Grumbling’s approach, one might as easily print her poem as follows:

Their stri|dent hold |upon |the back
roads pulls |our mor|ning drive, |out to
where Oak |Woods Road |crosses |the river
they call |Great Woks. |The near|by fields
so rich |it’s hard |to breathe– |the hay
treacly |with au|burn, grass|es bronzed–
we stop |before |a red |farmhouse,
just shy |of where |the ri|ver runs,
where ma|ple trees |have laid |the front
lawns ra|vished with |their loss.

This is perfectly acceptable iambic tetrameter, but for the short last line. I only had to remove the purely metric “that”. It might be argued that one could submit any iambic pentameter poem to the same exercise, but such an argument would only be partially true. One would find it exceedingly difficult to apply the same exercise to Shakespeare’s passage from Antony and Cleopatra. Or, more fairly, consider Frost’s An Encounter. (More fairly because Grumbling’s poetry is clearly inspired by Frost.)

Once on the kind of day called “weather breeder,”
When the heat slowly hazes and the sun
By its own power seems to be undone,
I was half boring through, half climbing through
A swamp of cedar. Choked with oil of cedar
And scurf of plants, and weary and over-heated,
And sorry I ever left the road I knew,
I paused and rested on a sort of hook
That had me by the coat as good as seated…

And now for the tetrameter version:

Once on |the kind |of day |called “weather
breeder,” |When the |heat slow|ly hazes
and the |sun by |its own |power seems
to be |undone, |I was |half boring
through, half |climbing |through a swamp
of ce|dar. Choked |with oil |of cedar
And scurf |of plants, |and wear|y and
over-|heated, |And sor|ry I
ever |left the |road I |knew, I
paused and |rested |on a sort |of hook
That had |me by |the coat |as good
as seat|ed…

The latter isn’t a very passable version of iambic tatrameter. The third line is entirely trochaic and can only be “rescued” if we elide power to read pow’r; or read the line as follows:

and the |sun by |its own pow|er seems

Though this too is unsatisfactory. The fifth line fails altogether. I picked Frost’s poem at random (lest the reader think I picked one poem especially antithetical to such treatment). What the poem illustrates is Frost’s skillful wedding of sense(grammatical & otherwise) to blank verse – Iambic Pentameter.

The same commitment is not sensed in Grumbling’s poem, skillful though it is. One might assert that Grumbling’s poem is primarily iambic and only secondarily pentameter. The ghostly influence of free-verse pervades her poem, just as the ghost of heroic couplets pervaded Dryden’s blank verse. One might say that she only grasps the surface of blank verse. But her choices might also be deliberate.

More to the point, while she is not the worst offender, her verse is harmed by metrical expediency. One of the first words that need to be banished from the Formalist’s dictionary is “upon”.  It’s appearance in modern poetry is primarily due to formalist poets . They use it because it is a ready made iamb. Grumbling wastes no time falling upon its tempting ictus.

we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this field.

The word “within” is metrical padding. How else does a bag hold anything but “within”? The word “upon” appears again,

More metrical padding appears with “out to where the Oak Woods Road…” Using modern English, we say: “out where the Oak Woods Road…” The unnecessary “to” reminds me of “for to”, as in, “I picked my roses for to kiss my love…” Happily, this archaism died from sheer embarrassment at the end of the 16th century. Who knows, its ghost might live on in some Amish communities…

However, in fairness to Grumbling, the promise of her poetry far outweighs the learning pangs.

As autumn and the Great Works trickle by,
we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this fields.
October’s task has raked the colors high.

These are beautiful lines of poetry. They show a willingness to learn from the old masters (an especially subversive and ridiculed practice in some modern circles). She has a sense for the music of language, like Frost, and is richly visual (perhaps at the expense of her other senses).

The aging oaks have puckered, mollusk-like,
to clutch and hold the sun-blanched, rain-run board,
and all its ancient measurements, in place…

From Measures – Poetry Magazine January 2006.

I can’t wait to see more from her. I can’t wait to see how she develops and how her mastery of metrical verse progresses.

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