This time of year

·

This time of year when I go out
Winter is like an inland sea—
Waves half way up the gutter spout
And ripples lapping at the tree.

You’d think the swelling tide of snow
Claimed memory of an ancient shore
And with a melting undertow
Would turn the stone to shells once more.

But only once when I’d come to
Half-wakened from a fitful dream
Did something like a tide slip through
The bedroom window’s broken seam.

The snow seemed finally come for good,
An icy shore beneath my bed,
And yet I think that if I’d stood
I would have stepped on sand instead.

The taste of salt was in the air
And though the frost had licked the hinge
I saw, at midnight, something there—
Sunlight skirting the doorway’s fringe.

I only had to go outside
To see the ocean at my sill—
I only had to—but that tide
Will come again. Someday I will—

This time of year

February 11, 2013 by me, Patrick Gillespie

A Concord River Romance

There’s bound to be poetic tradition, lost or otherwise, in many families. The back cover of a book I recently picked up, called Songs of Ourselves, offers the following:

In the years between 1880 and 1950, Americans recited poetry at family gatherings, school assemblies, church services, and civic affairs. As they did so, they invested poems–and the figure of the poet–with the beliefs, values, and emotions that they experienced in those settings.

Those days are long since passed. Yes, poems are still occasionally read at this or that gathering, but with nothing like the commonality, reverence and meaning of an age prior to Radio, Television, MP3s, YouTube, or the modern pop/music culture. If you want to know what I mean by “reverence and meaning”, then read Joan Rubin’s book. Nowadays, a lover is more likely to pick up a guitar than a quill.

Who knows how many books, over the years, have been inscribed with a poem. The poem below comes by way a General Contractor I work with, Brad Johnston. A recurring discussion—which he never tires of—is his relationship, by marriage, to Nathaniel Hawthorne through Sophia Peabody (at left). (Their fame is his fame.) Ashley Palmer How’s mother was the niece of Sophia Peabody.

A little ribbing aside, his ancestors interest in literature didn’t subside with Peabody or Hawthorne. What interests me about the Concord River Romance is that it was written by a Banker well grounded in the techniques of traditional poetry. His verse is written in open couplets and Iambic Tetrameter. He writes with freedom—headless lines, feminine endings, anapests. Modernism was in full swing, and though he was a rank amateur writing in a tradition readily being abandoned to free verse, his metrical writing is flexible and more modern than the tradition it springs from. He was surely well versed in Robert Frost’s poetry and was probably familiar Edna Vincent Millay.

Beyond that, the poetry is worth reading if only because it speaks to a poetic tradition other than that cultivated in anthologies, collected works or academia. This poem wasn’t written to speak to the world or for all time, but to a friend and lover. It’s a poetic genre that remains largely unknown if not, in many cases, lost. Ahsley’s poem is also a little special and unusual being so full and rich with history, some of which every American is familiar with. I’ve annotated the poem so you can get a little glimpse into the lost world he evokes.

Concord River Romance

To my dear wife Elizabeth for her Birthday August 1rst 1941

From memories of past glory
To the present wondrous story,
Stream of beauty ever flowing,
Renewing life and love ere growing,
Never ceasing in thy mission
Giving strength for life’s fruition;
As by meadows, hemlocks lapping,
While rugged rocks, grim, gray seem napping;
Battle Ground (1), so peaceful sure
Myriads of the clan doth lure,
Egg Rock (2) breathing Indian lore
Where Bartlett merriment (3) in full store
Gave warm welcome to a lad
Full heart warming, making glad.
Thus he met you for approval –
Never from long life’s removal –
By the tribe so stable, strong
Which never ventured toward a wrong.
Thence canoe on smooth stream gliding
Off by shade of trees abiding;
To Fairhaven(4), Conantum(5) too.
Clam Shell Bluff (6) of deep green hue,
To Davis Hill (7)– picnics galore,
Brewster’s (8) too. – to feast the more,
And all along what beauties greet,
Water lilies, scent so sweet;
Birds a carrolling in grass and trees,
Air refreshing, glorious breeze,
Picking berries, blue and black,
Days ever ending alas, alack;
Dear Concord River to you and me
Calls often with life’s ecstacy.
Let memories linger as years do grow
Bringing love’s full measure, heart’s overflow.

With treasured thoughts to strengthen
Each day’s horizon to lengthen,
Making happy days the longer
As our joys grow ever stronger.

Ashley

1.) Battle Ground: A reference to the grounds where the first battles of the American Revolutionary war occurred.

2.) Egg Rock: An inscription carved into a rock at the confluence of the Assabet and Sudbury rivers. The inscription was completed in 1885 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the 1635 founding of Concord.

3.) Bartlett Merriment: Ashley courted and married Elizabeth Bartlett, daughter of George Bradford Bartlett and the granddaughter of Dr. Josiah Bartlett (a practicing Doctor of some 52 years). Elizabeth’s family was well established and well-known in Concord. The following two paragraphs from Recreation on Concord’s rivers in the 19th Century by Leslie Perrin Wilson gives a sense for Elizabeth’s family, her roots in Concord, and the scenic atmosphere from which Ashley’s poem springs.

By the late 18th century, however, Concord people were starting to develop a less utilitarian approach to the landscape. Significantly, in 1895, George Bradford Bartlett—well-known in connection with the Manse boathouse—wrote of the cliffs near Fairhaven Bay on the Sudbury River: “For more than a hundred years these cliffs have been a favorite resort for the nature lover, and the climax of many a Sunday walk or autumnal holiday trip, as no better view can be had of the waving tree-tops and gentle river.”

One favorite summer activity was the “Moonlight Float.” People would gather together in their boats at a designated spot, arrange themselves from one bank of the river to the other several rows deep, tie their boats together, and drift downstream, singing all the way. George Bradford Bartlett frequently organized such floats. He also arranged picnics at the various scenic locations along the rivers. The area around the Leaning Hemlocks on the Assabet was a favorite picnic place, as was Martha’s Point, near Fairhaven Bay on the Sudbury River, which was named for Bartlett’s sister Martha. Egg Rock, at the confluence of the Sudbury and Assabet Rivers, was a preferred spot for summer holiday breakfasts.

Martha’s point was named after Elizabeth’s Bartlett’s Aunt. Ashley might have had such a “Moonlight float” in mind, or in memory, when he mentions a “canoe on smooth stream gliding” and “picnics galore” later in the poem.

Notice in the photo above, the C Bartlett house at the lower right (who was likely to have been a relation of Elizabeth Bartlett). Also, you can find Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house across the brook.

4.) Fairhaven: This refers to Fairhaven Bay, possibly the starting point for such a float.

Fairhaven Bay is just to the south of Concord. To see the entirety of this old Map, click here.

5.) Conantum: The history behind this name actually involves Henry David Thoreau. If you look closely at the map above, drawn in 1852, you will find a house belonging to E. Conant, E for Ebenezer. (Look under the III and you can also expand the image if you click on it.) I am told, by the research librarian at the Concord Library, that the name Conantum was a play on Contant’s last name by Thoreau, being that Conantum sounds both Latin and Indian. The area (including E. Contant’s house) offered cliffs and an overlook of Fairhaven Bay and became known to locals as Conantum.

Round about 1899 Herbert Wendall Gleason photographed the area (photo above right) and drew a map of the area as Henry David Thoreau conceived it. The map reflects local lore. You won’t find Conantum on any official map of Concord. You can match the map below to the one above.

 

6.) Clam Shell Bluff: Here’s a photo of Clamshell Bank which, being by Gleason, could well be another name for Clam Shell Bluff.

Interestingly, I found the following passage in Google Books:

“Now we are rounding Clamshell Bluff, and the children always like to hear of the old days when the Indians lived on the river banks, and left the great heaps of shells after their feasts on the fresh water clams. Clamshell Bluff is a great place for “buried treasure,” too, in the way of arrow-heads, spear-heads, bits of flint, etc., and the boys love to stop there occasionally and hunt for those old Indian relics, often finding prizes in the way of perfect implements. (…)

On, on we go, under the bridge, through the meadows by which Thoreau used to paddle, past the cliff where the harebells crow, and then we round the cool, dark point where we always look for cardinal flowers — scarce enough to make the sight of one a delightful surprise.

Where shall we land? Martha’s Point is voted for, and soon the Nina’s keel is grating on the tiny sandy beach at the foot of the high cliff. Martha’s point is a great picnic place, and we are almost afraid we shall find someone there before us. (…)

Later she writes:

Our dessert is to be berries; shall we pick them first, or start on the chowder? I had peeled and sliced the potatoes on the way up, dropping the peelings overboard to give the fishes a feast; so we decided, as things were ready, to make the berry trip. We have private wild berry patches in Mr. Conant’s field, which we pretend we own and visit each year.”

The snippet comes from an article in Country Life, May 1921! – twenty years before Ashley wrote his poem to Elizabeth. He could easily be remembering just such a trip, an afternoon’s outing that many local Concord residents made and enjoyed. Notice the reference to “Mr. Conant’s field”. Ashley also later mentions “picking berries, blue and black” and I wonder if he wasn’t referring to the same secret spot on Mr. Conant’s field.

7.) Davis Hill: This finds us suddenly quite a ways along the Concord River (and to the North of Concord). Google Map is to the right. You can see Fair Haven Bay at the lower left and you can follow the River upward until Davis Hill is reached. (Walden Pond is not labeled but is just above the word Sandy.) The “mountain”, as it is called by the locals, is still considered a scenic overlook and tourist attraction. I wasn’t able to find any photos of Davis Hill.

8.) Brewster’s: I haven’t found any references to Brewster’s, but it’s possible that Ashley was referring to family friends or to a locally popular restaurant known as Brewster’s (since he writes “to feast all the more”). However, if I were the betting kind, I would say Ashley was referring to Brewster’s Island at the entrance to Boston Harbor. Although the Concord River wouldn’t carry one to Brewster’s Island (rather to Plum Island just south of the New Hampshire state line), one can follow Ashley’s imagination from the smooth waters of the Concord River to the mouth of Boston Harbor, the last stop before the Atlantic Ocean. “Brewster’s too,” Ashley writes. Let’s make the day go on forever, he seems to say to his wife. Let’s not stop until we reach the Atlantic! Their last journey surely took them far beyond the shores of the Atlantic. Let’s hope they’re still in love, the breezes are as beautiful as ever, and that the berries are as black and sweeter. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little colorful glimpse into a distant love and way of life. Be sure to write your lover a poem to remember you by.

The facsimile below is a copy of a copy. It looks as though it was written with a quill.

If you have any old poems written by parents, grandparents or older, poems that would otherwise be lost in a book, send them along and I’ll post them. If it’s written in a language other than English, I’m still interested.

Ben Jonson ❧ Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes

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Jonson’s Ambition

No other Elizabethan poet was more cognizant of his legacy than Ben Jonson. Jonson’s rivals were not just his peers – Shakespeare, John Marston, Tho. Dekker, or Tho. Middleton –  but the great poets of ancient Rome – Seneca (4 BC-65 AD), Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 BC) and Martial (AD 40–103). In writing poetry and drama, Jonson adopted many of the tenets and poetic forms of these great classical poets.

After all, the English language of Jonson & Shakespeare had no literary past. With the exception of Chaucer and Gower (who few poets emulated), the great literature of the past was the great literature of the Romans and the Greeks. So it was that when other Elizabethan poets were enthusiastically adopting the new-fangled sonnet form – Spencer, Shakespeare, Sidney, and Daniel – Jonson adopted the epigram (the form that Catallus and Martial had developed and established over a thousand years before). What better way to establish yourself as the inheritor of a great tradition than to write within that tradition?

Jonson was the scholar among Elizabethan playwrights.

He was also a bricklayer’s son and because of it he was more sensitive to questions of class and status. In 1598, Jonson killed another actor, Gabriel Spencer, who (according to Jonson) had insulted both him and his dramaturgy. Jonson only saved his neck by pleading Benefit of Clergy (meaning he could read). Shakespeare's ShieldThe episode was a sign of things to come.

His rivalries, both literal and personal, became the stuff of legend. To my knowledge, The Poet’s War refers to only one thing: The rivalry between Jonson, on the one side, Marston, Dekker and eventually Shakespeare on the other. In fact, in one form or another, the rivalry eventually netted just about every poet and dramatist writing during the day. The rivalry appears to have been mostly good natured but, as with all such rivalries, there must have been some bloody noses too.

The theatergoers took tremendous pleasure in the jibes and taunts, and the plays of the time are full of references to the rivalry. Whole books have been devoted to it and it makes for very entertaining reading. No surprise, for instance, that Jonson endlessly ribbed Shakespeare for the latter’s gentlemanly pretensions. When Shakespeare finally obtained a coat of arms(the only extent sketch being above right 1), Jonson was quick to pull the rug out from under his rival – satirizing Shakespeare’s motto.

Here is how Katherine Duncan-Jones sums it up in her book Ungentle Shakespeare [p. 96]:

Ungentle Shakespeare

Duncan-Jones explanation of Jonson’s jibe, the joke behind mustard, is as convincing as any I’ve read. (No one really knows and there are different explanations). James Bednarz, in his book Shakespeare & The Poet’s War, (which I’m just reading) explains Shakespeare’s response in the following paragraph.

Shakespeare & The Poet's WarIndeed, this quip might have sparked Touchstone’s jest about a knight who did not lie when he swore that “pancakes” were “good” and “the mustard was naught,” although the pancakes were bad and the mustard good, because he swore “by his honor,” and “if you swear by that that is not, you are not forsworn” (1.2.63-77). Shakespeare’s joke about honor and mustard turns Jonson’s critique on its head and mocks the social pretension Shakespeare had been accused of exhibiting. [p. 113 ]

Not only that, but Bednarz goes on to detail his case for just how and when Shakespeare “purged” Jonson (which was apparently the beginning of the end of  the whole imbroglio). Shakespeare’s portrayal of Jonson as the slow-witted  Ajax in his play Troilus and Cressida (the name Ajax in Elizabethan times was a pun on latrine) must have brought the house down.  Many scholars consider Troilus and Cressida to be a “problem play”, but if it is read and understood as, perhaps, the final salvo in the poet’s war, the play makes a good deal more sense.

Anyway, this is going far afield.

There’s lots to say about Jonson. He was one of the most irascible, ambitious and colorful personalities in Elizabethan drama. And possibly because of his literary ambitions, Jonson’s love poems are few and far between. It’s likely that he didn’t consider them to be worthy of great poetry. So, instead of writing sonnets to real or imagined lovers, he resurrected the epigram. Encyclopedia Britannica writes that the epigram was…

…originally an inscription suitable for carving on a monument, but since the time of the Greek Anthology (q.v.) applied to any brief and pithy verse, particularly if astringent and purporting to point a moral. By extension the term is also applied to any striking sentence in a novel, play, poem, or conversation that appears to express a succinct truth, usually in the form of a generalization. Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 BC) originated the Latin epigram…

Jonson’s epigrams are full of pithy one liners, wicked satire, scathing quips and  pointed praise. The enjoyment of them  takes a certain kind of reader – one who enjoys the finely chiseled line for the sake of it and someone who has some knowledge of the Elizabethan period. Jonson is rarely rapturous or “romantic”. He’s Elizabethan through and through: intellectual, ambitious, and always ready to deploy reason, rhetoric and a stinging jest.

But when he lets his guard down, one senses tremendous tenderness and vulnerability. It’s in this light that I like to read his most famous poem – Drink to me, onely, with thine eyes… The poem has the feeling of a genuineness and immediacy that characterizes Elizabethan poetry at its very best. (To me, the later Romantic poets frequently fall short of the honesty and directness of which Elizabethans were capable.)

Of Fonts, Handwriting & Secretary Hand

The lines are simple and straightforward. For the fun of it (and since I’ve already gone so far afield) I’ve printed the poem using a brand new font – P22 Elizabethan. The font was created for a historical novel and reproduces a kind of script that was called Secretary Hand. All Elizabethans who could write, could write Secretary Hand. It was the formal hand of record keeping, the scribal book and court documents. Jonson would have been capable of Secretary Hand but, like most other Elizabethans, wrote a more italic style when writing informally. If this poem had appeared in a scribally published book, however, this is how it might have looked.

  • And what follows below is another poem by Ben Jonson as it appeared in a scribally published book, in actual Secretary Hand (but not Jonson’s handwriting). The image comes from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Digital Collection [MS V.b.43] and the entire page can be viewed in Christopher Ivic’s Essay: Ben Jonson & Manuscript Culture.

If it looks like I’m having fun with fonts, it’s because I am. The Folio Font can be found for free and is intended to mimic the typeset used in Shakespeare’s Folio, which was probably the same as that used in Jonson’s. Before I move on to Jonson’s Drinke to me, I want to have just a little more fun. Below is the handwriting of Shakespeare, John Donne, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.

  • The first image is of Shakespeare’s Sir Thomas More, or rather, his contribution to the play. The writing is believed to be the only extent sample of Shakespeare’s handwriting. His handwriting is considered to be old-fashioned (Tudor) and idiosyncratic – like his spelling. This undoubtedly reflects his schooling which, for one reason or another, was conservative and somewhat behind the times. It may also reflect the possibility that he  was privately tutored  or self-taught, but that is sheer speculation. If you want a closer look, you will have to do two things: First, click on the image, then enlarge it using the zoom feature in your browser (Firefox is CTRL + to enlarge CTRL- to diminish). Clicking on the image may also suffice.

  • Next is an example of Ben Jonson’s handwriting. Compared to Shakespeare’s, it’s almost legible. Notice also the italic style – which gradually all but replaced Secretary Hand.  The sample comes from an Epistle to his Masque of Queens. The image is one that I found on-line and mildy colorized. Here is what he wrote:

By the most true Admirer of your Highness’s virtues
And most hearty celebrator of them.   Ben Jonson

And if you want to see more from Jonson’s Epistle, click on the image and enlarge.

  • The next example is from Christopher Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris. It looks as though the foul paper (Marlowe’s handwritten text) doesn’t match the printed example I found on-line. It’s possible that the final version of the play is different – or I simply can’t read Marlowe’s handwriting. The sample comes by way of Wikimedia Commons – which itself comes from the Folger Shakespeare Library [MS. J.b.8].

  • The final sample is of John Donne. Donne’s handwriting is legible enough to not need a parallel text. Donne’s handwriting is thoroughly modern as compared to Shakespeare’s, reflecting a very different education. Not only did spelling vary from writer to writer, but handwriting as well. The English Lanaguage, in every conceivable way, was in flux.

This image also comes form the Folger Shakespeare Library [MSS L b 1712].

Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes

As I wrote earlier, Ben Jonson’s poem is a study in simplicity. It reminds me of Robert Frost’s best poems – simple and yet profoundly effective and affective. The poem is split into two octaves (eight lines each), and the octave are themselves, divided into two quatrains.

The lines alternate between Iambic Tetramater and Iambic Trimeter – a ballad meter known as Common Meter Double – though I’m not sure the form would have been known as such in Jonson’s day. (Jonson’s poem To Celiasee below – was made into a song by Alfonso Ferrabosco.) There are three trochaic feet and none of them are wasted. They nicely and appropriately stress words in a way that adds to the meaning of the poem – the mark of an experienced  and skilled poet.

Where the dilettante might let a variant metrical foot slip by without regard to its context, the great poets seem more concerned that the disruption of the meter coincide with the emotional and intellectual content of the poem – not always, but more so.

Why is this poem so famous? It appeals to our sensibility both by its simplicity and through the subliminal pattern of its rhyme and meter. The poem appeals to us for the same reason nursery rhymes appeal to children. But more so, consider the straightforwardness of the imagery – how original and evocative it is:

“leave a kiss in the cup”
“the soul doth rise, /Doth aske a drinke divine “
“I sent thee, late, a rosie wreath… But thou thereon did’st onely breath”

More so, consider that this little poem is really a narrative poem. It tells a story in a few quick, simple lines – and tells us all we need to know. (The poem, incidentally, exemplifies what Jonson prized in classical poetry – balance and unity of thought.)

There’s a lesson in this poem for the modern poet. A great poem can be the simplest poem, like Jonson’s Drinke to me or Robert Frost’s The Pasture. There’s a place and readership for the modern poem, but the supremely simple and masterfully written short poem of traditional poetry has been all but forgotten.

  • In the scansion below, all unmarked feet are Iambic.

Wines in Elizabethan England

The Elizabethans didn’t drink water the way we do. It was poison, in large part, unless you lived far from an urban center. The sewage system was above ground and every last drop of it flowed into the sludge of the Thames. A useful website containing, among other things, Elizabethan recipes (when British food could still be called food) had this to say about the wine Jonson might have been drinking:

Honey was used to make a sweet alcoholic drink called mead which was drunk by all classes. Wine was generally imported although some fruit wines were produced in England. A form of cider referred to as ‘Apple-wine’ was also produced. Ales were brewed with malt and water, while beer contained hops that held a bitter flavor.

Another site called simply, Elizabethan Recipes, offers among things: Fartes of Portingale – Spicy Muttonball Soup. (I wonder if they meant Tartes?)

And here’s a modern brew that claims to be as stout as the original Elizabethan ales. (If the link doesn’t work, let me know. They’ve been changing it around.) They write:

It is comparable in strength to the beer produced by Tudor brewers during the reign of Elizabeth I. It has won many prizes and, at the International Brewers’ Exhibition 1968, was awarded the Championship Gold Medal. Regular drinkers simply asked for a ‘Lizzie’.

The website Life in Elizabethan England, offers a description of the bread that might have accompanied Jonson’s wine. Of the wines, they write:

Most wines are sweet and rather heavy. They probably have to be strained before you want to drink them, and may still have solid matter floating in them.

What was Jove’s Nectar? The drink of the gods, by implication, unmatched by anything produced or consumed by mortals and yet, says Jonson, her prefers Celia’s mortal kiss to an immortal drink of Jove’s nectar. There may also be the hint of Ichor of which,  Wikipedia writes:

In Greek mythology, ichor (pronounced /ˈaɪkər/ or /ˈɪkər/; Greek ἰχώρ) is the ethereal fluid that is the Greek gods’ blood, sometimes said to have been present in ambrosia or nectar.

It’s worth mentioning that ichor was considered poisonous to mortals.

Jonson seems to say:

The soul thirsts for immortality, but I would change that immortality for a different kind of eternal joy – a kiss from Celia.

Roses were a symbol of love and Jonson sent not just a rose, but a wreath. Roses were also a symbol of a woman’s virginity (or maidenhead). I think it might be reading too much to read ribald connotations and double-entendres into the latter octave of the  poem (though one could easily do so). That said, Jonson’s intentions (in sending the wreath) involved far more than innocent love.

The poem strikes a nice balance between the romance of love and the desires of the lover.

It’s a small masterpiece.

Useful Links

More Poems by Rare Ben Jonson

  • To Celia

Come my Celia, let us prove,
While we may, the sports of love;
Time will not be ours, for ever:
He, at length, our good will sever.
Spend not then his guifts in vaine.
Sunnes, that set, may rise againe:
But if once we loose this light,
‘Tis, with us, perpetuall night.
Why should we deferre our joyes?
Fame, and rumor are but toyes.
Cannot we delude our eyes
Of a few poore household spyes?
Or his easier eares beguile,
So removed by our wile?
‘TIs no sinne, loves fruit to steale,
But the sweet theft to reveale:
To be taken, to be seene,
These have crimes accounted beene.

  • And lastly, Jonson’s translation of the Roman Poet Gaius Petronius. (The Elizabethans. Always delighting in both sides of the coin.)

“Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short”

by Gaius Petronius

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport:
Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,
Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:
For lust will languish, and that heat decay.
But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,
Let us together closely lie and kiss,
There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

1 Best, Michael. Shakespeare’s Life and Times. Internet Shakespeare Editions, University of Victoria: Victoria, BC, 2001-2005. Visited November 15 2009. (The image of Shakespeare’s Shield came with instructions on how to cite the page, so I couldn’t resist doing so officially.)

If you have enjoyed this post, be sure and let me know. :-)

❧ up in Vermont, November 17 2009

Doe but consider this small dust
that runneth in the glasse
by Autumnes mov’d
would you beleeve that it the body ere was
of one that lov’d
who in his M[ist]r[i]s flame playing like a Fly
burnt to Cinders by her eye,
Yes and in death as life vnblest
to have it exprest
Even ashes of lovers finde no rest.

Robert Frost’s “Out, Out”

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Buzz Saws and Saw Machines

When I first read this poem, barely a teenager, I got it into my head that Frost’s buzz saw was just another word for a chain saw. But chain saws, as we know them, didn’t make it to the general public until the mid 1920s. The types of saws Frost and New England farmer’s were familiar with are scattered throughout the post.

The saw at right is probably very close to kind of saw Frost was imagining – called a buzz saw. Here’s how it worked: The flat surface that looks like a table slid forward and back on the two rails. The farmer would put the log on the table and push it through the circular saw.

If you look closely, underneath the front left corner, you’ll see a small iron wheel that rides on the rail. Behind the table, another close look will reveal a another larger round metal wheel – the pulley. A belt went around this wheel and could be attached to any kind of motor: steam, gas, or even a horse. (By 1910, Ford was already producing and widely selling gas powered traction machines – later called tractors, that could be attached to a buzz saw.) But having both the buzz saw and the early tractor would have been an expensive proposition.

To get a better idea of how these saws worked, here’s an old gas driven rig, the kind that sawyers would have used (expensive in its own day).

Because I don’t see these rigs run anymore, even up here in Vermont, I joined an antique chainsaw forum to get my facts straight. Here’s what Tom Hawkins, a forum member to whom I’m most grateful, had to say:

[The video shows] a single cylinder (or one lunger) type gasoline engines, some of which are known as “Hit & Miss” or “Make & Break” engines. These terms refer to the engine ignition systems where the spark in constantly interrupted to maintain a set or governed engine speed. In some case it is not the spark, but rather the fuel charge that is temporarily interrupted, these are throttle governed engines. Those two engines pictured above are also hopper cooled type engines, where a large case iron tub filled with water surrounds the engines cylinder for cooling. Note it is not steam powered (…) but steam from the coolant that’s seen in the video. The stream is not uncommon for a working engine, and considered as a normal sign of proper engine operating temperatures, they run best when the stream is present.

Since the machines were too expensive for most, farmers and landowners would cut and stack logs during the winter. Later in the spring and summer, (with the wood close to the homestead) the Sawyers could bring their rigs right into the dooryard and cut the wood into “stove length pieces”. These pieces would then have to be split for cook stoves. Once again, here’s Tom:

A farm family would cut down small sized trees (about 9″ at the butt), beginning in the late fall (after the crop harvest) though early spring, dragging the logs over the winters snow was easier than the bare ground. This work had to be completed before the farmers time would be consumed with the springtime task of cultivating his fields. ¶ The firewood was needed for the next winters home heating and cooking supply, the cleared land for expanding their field crops. ¶ The logs were piled close to the wood shed or home for cutting into stove length pieces, then stacked inside for dry storage and winter access. ¶ The farmers would then arrange a time when the sawyer would be available in his area, the sawyers travelled from homestead to homestead doing several cutting jobs before moving on. Many people did however cut their own firewood by hand with an axe and buck saw.

What is clear, in both Frost’s poem and the newspaper clipping that inspired it, is that the saw was machine powered. These are the kinds of machines New Englanders used before the advent of chainsaws. They could be easily moved by a team of oxen or horses wherever the cordwood needed to be bucked. And there was very little in the way of safety.

On the Writing of the Poem

The title of Frost’s poem will immediately remind knowledgeable readers of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The title echoes what are, perhaps, some of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

The feeling of exhaustion and surrender and life’s futility is palpable. And it warns, all too tragically, of the death (and its tenor) in Frost’s poem. Earlier in the play, and in keeping with Shakespeare’s habit of thought, the doubled combination of out appears in the character of Lady MacBeth.

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One–two—
why then ’tis time to do’t. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie!
A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it,
when none can call our power to account? Yet who would
have thought the old man to have had so much blood in
him?

Macbeth Act 5, scene 1, 26–40

Lady Macbeth’s utterance expresses abhorrence – abhorring a deed that cannot be undone, cannot be washed out or slighted. The blood of murder, the spot, has irrevocably stained her hand. Likewise, the boy’s hand, all but severed by the saw, cannot be redone or restored. There will be no backward step.

Shadow Newman on FrostIn her indispensable book on Frost’s most famous poems, Lea Newman observes that Frost based Out, Out on a real incident. She writes:

The March 31, 1910, edition of The Littleton Courier of Littleton, New Hampshire, carried the following story:

Raymond Tracy Fitzgerald, one of the twin sons of Michael G. And Margaret Fitzgerald of Bethlehem, died at his home Thursday afternoon, March 24, as a result of an accident by which one of his hands was badly hurt in a sawing machine. The young man was assisting in sawing up some wood in his own dooryard with a sawing machine and accidentally hit the loose pulley, causing the saw to descend upon his hand, cutting and lacerating it badly. Raymond was taken into the house and a physician was immediately summoned, but he died very suddenly from the effects of the shock, which produced heart failure… {March 31, 1910]

I can’t recommend Newman’s book enough. Clicking on the image will take you to Amazon.com and the book will take to her more detailed introduction. Buzzsaw & TractorBriefly, as part of her introduction, Newman mentions that Frost didn’t write Out, Out until his return from England, the summer of 1915. She writes that, “he bought a farm outside the village of Sugar Hill, near the Lynches, with a view overlooking the five peaks of the Franconia Range(…) It overlooked five mountain ranges to the west toward Vermont, the same view described in the poem.” He wrote the poem in 1916.

The newspaper clipping doesn’t call the saw a buzz saw but a saw machine. In 1910, the terms saw machine could refer to just about any saw (including circular saws).

Note: The tractor at left is a Farmall from the 1930s.The Howell Drag Saw Machine

However, I’ve noticed that a machine called a drag saw was almost always referred to as a saw machine (when circular saws sometimes weren’t).

The illustration at right comes from the Encyclopedia of American farm implements & antiques. The motor (which could have been just about anything – including an animal) driving the drag saw isn’t in the illustration. To truly appreciate how these machines worked, I’ve found a youtube video of a steam driven drag saw machine. Notice that the saw hangs from a pulley (as well as in the illustration). Now imagine if the pulley was hanging loose or unsecured (or the rope of the pulley) and that someone accidentally bumped the rope or pulley. The blade might suddenly release. If the machine was running, imagine the damage to ones hand.

The Scansion

Now to the poem. Without further ado, here is the poem and it’s scansion. All unmarked feet are Iambic. Pyrrhic feet are yellow. Trochaic feet are red. Spondaic feet are purple. Green indicates a feminine ending. Blue indicates an anapestic foot. The colorized scansion is my own invention and I try to keep the colors consistent throughout my scansions. As far as I know, this little innovation is all my own. The colors, to my eyes, help to quickly visualize the Frost’s metrical patterning, his use of variant feet. If scansion and its symbols are new to you, visit What is Iambic Pentameter (The Basics).

A scansion of Robert Frost's Out, Out

Meter and Meaning

The very first thing to note is that the poem is written in unrhymed Iambic Pentameter, otherwise known as blank verse.

The second thing to note is that the repetition of a Pyhrric foot followed by a Spondee is one of the more interesting patterns in this poem. While I don’t think repeating the figure is, in and of itself, significant, each individual occurrence nicely underpins the text of the poem. While it might be too much to say that every one of Frost’s variant feet are meaningful, he certainly was aware of when he was varying the iambic pattern and the effect it would have.

First Lines Metrical Example

These are strongly varied lines. The second of the three has only one Iambic Foot. All the rest are variant. Frost must have liked the effect of the trochaic dust in the first line. The snarling, rattling saw made dust (where the word dust disrupts the normal metrical pattern. This foot is followed by the spondaic dropped stove. Here too, the meter nicely emphasizes the dropping of the stove length sticks with two consecutively stressed syllables. Did Frost plan this all out? I don’t know, but in this line at least meaning and meter work well together.

Sears & Roebuck Circular Saw Machine Ad 1897I chose to read the first foot of the second line as spondaic. However, one could also read it as Iambic and I have a hunch that Frost read it this way. (Frost usually emphasized the iambic pattern of his poems when reading.) The second line would then read as follows:

Sweet-scen | ted stuff | when the | breeze drew | across it.

The real virtuoso display comes with the phrase “when the breeze drew across it“. To my ears, the pyrrhic foot followed by the spondaic “breeze drew” nicely mimics the rise and draw of a breeze followed by its “fall” in the feminine ending: across it. It’s a lovely touch and I suspect Frost was aware of the effect.

The third line could also be read as iambic pentameter, thus:

And from | there those | that lif | ted eyes | could count

I could imagine Frost reading it like this but I haven’t found a recording. It’s said that Frost rarely read it. I’m guessing that he felt the poem ought to be more private than public, having been based on real events. The next lines that give a nice metrical example also both demonstrate a repeated pattern of thought in this poem, the pyrrhic foot followed by a spondaic foot.

And the Saw Snarled - Metrical Example

Note: For those readers and poets who really enjoy understanding how the minds of poets (and by extension all of us) work, there’s a fascinating little book by Edward A. Armstrong called Shakespeare’s Imagination. Armstrong traces what he calls image clusters in the works of Shakespeare. Swing Saw AdvertIn other words, when a goose shows up in Shakespeare’s imagery, the bird is usually associated with disease, lechery and even the plague. Likewise, when Shakespeare is reminded of a violet, his thoughts almost invariably turn to breath, which becomes wind, sweet airs and even tempests. Not only Armstrong, but other Shakespearean authors have noticed, if in passing, these same habits of thought. Caroline Spurgeon, in Shakespeare’s Imagery, notes similar patterns, including Shakespeare’s negative association with dogs. M.M. Mahood, in Shakespeare’s Wordplay , observes patterns of wordplay. When one word shows up, another associated word will usually show up with it. The reason I mention it is because I’ve noticed similar habits in the writing of meter. In any given poem or stage in a poet’s career, certain variant feet will show up and in habitual combinations. Compare the hard Iambic regularity of Mending Wall with Birches. The varying use of meter in all these poems certainly reflects on the intent and mood of the poem, but I also wonder if it reflects on the poet’s state of mind.

Back to Out, Out. Everyone who has heard a chainsaw knows how the engine revs and rattles. The two lines above, to my ears, capture that sound. The pyrrhic foot followed by the doubly stressed spondaic foot and the amphibrach (feminine ending) all contribute to a kind of metrical onomatopoeia: and the saw snarledand rattled/ as it ran light. By no means does every variant foot feel so nicely wedded to meaning, but Frost, like all great metrical poets, knows how to take advantage of the art when the opportunity arises. Mediocre poets will frequently dilute the power of such variations by introducing them meaninglessly and even contrary to the textual meaning.

All spoiled

The disruptive spondee |Don’t let| disrupts the iambic pattern – a kind of shock and outcry both textually and metrically.

The hand was gone

With this line the blank verse pattern breaks down. There are two ways to scan this line. Above, I’ve scanned the line as an Iambic Tetrameter line with a spondaic first foot and a feminine ending. It’s a nice little trick of meter. The hand is missing and a metrical foot is missing. With an Iambic Tetrameter scansion, the meter neatly reinforces the meaning of the text. Something is missing. The experienced reader of metrical poetry may subliminally or consciously sense the missing foot in the poem. The effect can be powerful, causing both the reader and the listener to pause, to palpably sense an absence. The line is the turning point of the poem.

Another way to scan the line (and the two ways of scanning the line are not mutually exclusive, though that may sound odd) is to treat the first two syllables as monosyllabic feet.

The hand was gone (monosyllabic feet)

Many, if not most, poets and metrists claim that monosyllabic feet don’t exist. I don’t agree. Metrical Art with ShadowI go along with George T. Wright, author of Shakespeare’s Metrical Art. He writes:

Occasional lines appear to be missing an unstressed syllable in some other position than at line -beginning or after a midline break. Anomalous lines of this kind appear in some early plays, sometimes (as in the work of Shakespeare’s predecessors) without notable expressive effect. But as Shakespeare develops the technique in his middle and later plays, it becomes a deliberate device for conveying emotional excitement. All of the following lines appear to involve a foot-long monosyllable intended to be spoken with great force or weight [The following is the second of the two examples Wright offers p. 178]:

King Lear Monosyllabic Feet

In like manner, I’ve read Frost’s So and But as monosyllabic feet. (This makes the line a five foot line.) While the variant feet don’t convey emotional excitement, they do convey a profound emotional turning point in the poem. I imagine the intonation as profoundly sad – a kind of tragic acknowledgment. The words could be spoken slowly with a generous pause – a tragic acceptance (though there are other equally powerful ways to read the poem).

Whether one reads the line as Pentameter or Tetrameter, the effect of both scansions can be felt simultaneously. And this is partly what scansion can do. It demonstrates the different ways readers and poets are affected by speech stress and rhythm in language, and sometimes there is more than one way to scan a line.

The final lines worth considering is the following:

Little, less, nothing

It’s the second line that’s especially noteworthy – a trochaic foot (the heart skips a beat), a spondaic foot (the last two heartbeats) and a pyrrhic foot (then nothing, no stresses, no beats). The boy dies. …such is Frost’s mastery of meter. I give him this one. I think he knew very well how he was playing the meter with the meaning. It’s an effect free verse can approximate, but can’t equal.

The Storyteller

A comparison of the newspaper clipping with Frost’s poem shows a number of changes. He changed the young man to a boy; and Frost clearly means for us to think the boy is more child than man – calling him “a child at heart”. If only given the newspaper clipping, I think most readers would imagine someone in his early to mid teens, rather than a “boy”.

Frost doesn’t want the reader to think this was simply carelessness – a young man who should have known better.

This was a boy, a child at heart, who didn’t know better. Frost suggests where the real responsibility rested: Call it a day, I wish they might have said. They, presumably, are the boy’s elders. Some critics and readers have read, in the poem’s closing lines, a cold callousness. Homemade Swing Saw (Side View)But if the narrator is assumed to be Frost, then there is also compassion and empathy in these lines. Frost possessed strong political opinions. And though his poetry is not overtly political, his philosophical and political views inevitably informed his poetry. Artists can’t escape their personalities (or at least I’m not aware of any).

Note: The saw at left is called a swing saw or swing saw machine. The swing saw in the image is homemade but is representative of the kind of saw that turn-of-the-century word workers would have been familiar with. (Cross-cut saws and chop saws would eventually replace them.) Notice how the saw is hanging like a pendulum. The weight of the circular saw blade (and assembly) were usually counterbalanced by another weight – like the “window weights” in old double-hung windows. If the counterweight hung from a pulley and someone bumped the weight or pulley, the saw might descend on the users hand. However, these saws were primarily shop saws and wouldn’t have been used in a dooryard for bucking lumber. In my view, a swing saw is probably not what was being referred to as a saw machine.

Some readers and critics have taken Frost’s poem as a criticism of child labor laws. Frost had spent time as an educator and so one might expect his sympathies to be attuned to the young. When Frost wrote the poem child labor was still a pernicious practice. It wasn’t until 1938 that the Federal government regulated child labor in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Frost, by this point, was already in his early sixties.

The other change was from a sawing machine to a buzz saw. Saw machines (like the larger drag saws) were probably less apt to be operated by a single person. The newspaper clipping states that Fitzgerald was assisting someone else (or others). A buzz saw, on the other hand, could easily be used by one person handling smaller logs. The impression Frost gives is of a boy working alone (his sister has to come out to tell him supper is ready). A child working after hours and alone only adds to the feeling, not of carelessness, but of tragedy. Frost additionally resists blaming the boy. He writes that the saw leaped out at the boy’s hand, as if it knew what supper was. The modern reader might wonder how a buzz saw could leap, but here’s Tom Hawkins again:

Now I’ve run many a cordwood saws in my life, so I kinda understand that poem a bit. Those old one lunger type gasoline engines had counterweighted flywheels to keep up their momentum as they were running, this caused the saw rig to bounce somewhat. The engines also had a make and break ignition, spark on and off as engine needed to maintain it’s governed speed, so as a new charged fired the whole unit would jump. ¶ I remember that when were cutting real dried out Oak or more so Locust (very hard wood), a large cloud of sawdust would surround an encompass us. ¶ It’s very possible that the saw did leap right out and take the hand, these type of saws really do jump, especially when their slowing to a stop, which appear to be the case here. The jump or leaping is caused by those counterweighted flywheels rotating at lower than normal balance speed.

Was it the boy? Was it the saw? Did the “boy give the hand”? It was fate. These things simply happen. The effect is to express the inexplicable.

Frost and the Poem’s Reception

As I’ve mentioned already, many of Frost’s readers were perplexed by the seeming callousness and indifference of the poem. Consider, as well, the reference of the poem’s title.

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Is this how readers are to understand the boy’s death? – as signifying nothing? Other words and images occur in Frost’s poem that may or may not have their source in Shakespeare’s passage. Consider these lines:

all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

Then consider how dust appears within the first lines of Frost’s poem:

The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust…

And the saw does just that. The buzz saw turns the boy’s own life to dust. It makes dust both literally and symbolically. And the poem, like Shakespeare’s soliloquy, closes with the word nothing.

They listened at his heart.
Little — less — nothing!

Just as with the poor fool, the actor who frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more, so too is the boy’s heart “heard no more”.

Belief & UncertaintyRobert Pack, one of the only authors to offer a detailed analysis of the poem, writes in Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost:

The poem’s narrative arc is of dust returning to “dusty death” (Shakespeare’s phrase), although the narrator and reader are at first misled by the sweet-scented odor of the cut wood in the breeze. The narrator, along with those other would-be believers who have lifted eyes, appears to be enjoying a vision of great depth into nature itself — “the Five mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset, far into Vermont” — as if nature were beautiful and benign, a spectacle of Wordsworthian and biblical revelation. But the narrator will subsequently realize that he has had, rather, a vision of nature’s beautiful indifference. [p. 158-159]

Pack calls the poem a confrontation with nothingness. And the feeling of nothingness and utilitarian purpose is only emphasized by the choice of words that close the poem, “no more to build on there“. This was more than the loss of a child. The work of building, of preparing for the season, the next season and the years to come never stopped. Frost’s words are hard. What had to be considered was not just the loss of a child but what the child contributed. Life in New England, at the turn of the century, was not easy. The response to the poem, among some of Frost’s closest readers and associates, seems to have put Frost on the defensive. Pack quotes a passage from a letter that may capture some of that defensiveness:

“And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies.” [p. 160]

Though Pack calls this passage “revealing” he doesn’t indicate why (or if) he thinks Frost was referring specifically to Out, Out. This sort of “hard pragmatism” can also be found in Home Burial. But even more revealing than this brief passage is the poem The Lesson for Today. As with the poem For Once, Then, Something, Frost seems to be responding to his critics, readers and even, perhaps, to his closest friends and family – acquaintances who may have accused Frost, himself, of that same hard callousness.

Major Themes of RFWe are all doomed to broken-off careers,
And so’s the nation, so’s the total race.
The earth itself is liable to that fate
Of meaninglessly being broken off.
(And hence so many literary tears
At which my inclination is to scoff.)
I may have wept that any should have died
Or missed their chance, or not have been their best,
Or been their riches, fame, or love denied;
On me as much as any is the jest.
I take my incompleteness with the rest.
God bless himself can no one else be blessed.

O hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

Radcliffe Squires, who also noted the relationship between this poem and the poem Out, Out, comments:

What matters is that [Robert Frost] could hold together in one poem the two severe and mutually accusing ideas that one must be moved to pity and compassion and that one must coldly and sternly pursue the duty of endurance and survival.

The beauty of the poem, and it’s powerful effect on the reader, arises from the balance Frost obtains. The accident is both carelessness, “the boy gave the hand” and accident “the saw leaped”. The narrator is both compassionate, “call it a day I wish they might have said”, and coldly pragmatic, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs”. The narrator is almost like nature itself – the passionate and dispassionate observer – that leaves us, the readers, to wonder at its design and purpose. That’s the best kind of poetry.

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,

Interpreting Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods”

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The Poem

The poem is perfect Iambic Tetrameter. And it’s one of the miracles of Frost’s genius that he could write a poem, without a single variant foot to break the metrical pattern, yet write one of the most memorable and memorized poems in the English language. Frost himself called this small poem “my best bid for remembrance” [Pritchard, A Literary Life Reconsidered, p. 164]. There are, after all, thousands of Victorian poems written in an equally perfect meter, but they are nothing if not forgettable. Since all the feet are iambic, I’ve only marked feet and one elision (which is unnecessary for most), but I’ve noticed many foreign language speakers reading this blog. Evening should be read as a bisylliabic, ev‘ning, rather than the trisyllabic ev-e-ning. Here it is:

Stopping by Woods by Robert Frost: Scansion

  • Frost recites Stopping by Woods:

  • Note: Since I’ve begun paying attention, I notice that many versions of this poem put a period after “deep” on line 13. The edition I use, The Library of America, does not. Frost biographer Richard Poirier in his book “Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing“, also takes time out to comment on this discrepency. He writes:

Work of Knowing…The woods  are not, as the Lathem edition would have it (with its obtuse emendation of a comma after the second adjective in line 13), merely “lovely, dark, and deep.” Rather, as Frost in all the editions he supervised intended, they are “lovely, [i.e.], dark and deep,”; the loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous. The recognition of the power of nature, especially of snow, to obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being is, in large part, a function here of some furtive impulse toward extinction, and impulse no more predominate in Frost than it is in nature. [p. 181]

I’ll bet this emendation is off the radar for 99 out of a 100 readers, but Poirer’s comment shows just how much, interpretively, can be read into the difference between a comma and period. Imagine what it’s like for editors of Shakespeare – whose texts are anything but authoritative. In the big picture, editors tend to agree on Shakespeare’s punctuation, but the turf wars happen in the details. If you carefully compare different modern texts of Shakespeare, you will notice differences in punctuation and even words.

But… back to Robert Frost…

An Interpretive  Tour

Rather than launch into my own interpretation of the poem, I thought it might be more interesting to sample what’s already out there (since it represents some of what I’d say anyway).

First to Poirer. His comments reflect one of the most common interpretations of this poem. Poirer writes:

The desire (which he openly reveals in certain letters to Louis Untermeyer) for peace and lostness, the desire to throw himself away, gets justified on occasions by his wondering if nature itself does not conspire with him by proposing that, at last, he “come in” to the dark woods. [p. 180]

Unfortunately, Poirer doesn’t reference any of these “certain letters”. Not that I disbelieve him, but if a biographer is going to cite an author’s texts to back up his argument, he ought to offer up a citation or two.

William Pritchard takes a different view. While he acknowledges the darker interpretations of this poem, and he acknowledges Frost’s own intimations from time to time, he also credits Frost’s statements to the contrary, something which Poirer does not do.

Literary Life ReconsideredDiscussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. 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.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything siginificant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]

Pritchard then continues:

…he wanted to direct his readers away from solemnly debating them; instead he invited them simply to be pleased with how he had put it. He was to say later on about Edwin Arlington Robinson something which more naturally could have been said about himself – that his life as poet was “a revel in the felicities of language.” “Stopping By Woods…” can be appreciated only by removing it from its pedestal and noting how it is a miature revel in such felicities. [p. 165]

And these comments remind me of my post on John Keats “Ode to Autumn”, and Stillinger’s own comments concerning style. In sum, great poetry isn’t always about (G)reat content, but about common  experience described (G)reatly. Great poetry, before free verse, had almost always been marked by the greatness of its expression. Shakespeare always drew on  everyday proverbs and subject matter. The life he experienced was the same as ours. His observations are the same as ours. (And this is what makes Shakespeare universal.) What makes him great was, in large part, his ability to elevate the common through the transcendance of his language and imagery, in short, through his poetic thought. This, I have to say, has largely been abandoned by the free-versifiers of the 20th Century.

Anyway, it’s a view with which I’m sympathetic. Not everything in poetry has to mean something.

Belief and UncertaintyThat said, Robert Pack in defiance of Frost and, perhaps, Pritchard, manages to “interpret” the shaken harness bells. He writes that “the “little horse” in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” shows an instinct to return home, not to remain in the dangerously enticing woods…” [Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, p. 147] Interestingly, Pack  finds a metaphorical link between Stopping by Woods and another of Frost’s poems: The Draft Horse. Pack writes of the horse in The Draft Horse, that “if freedom has any reality at all [it] exists only in the attitude [taken] toward their fate.” In this light, the horse in Stopping by Woods, serves as a reminder that one should not be too enticed by the deep, dark woods.

Robert Bernard Hass,  in his book Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science, picks up on the threat of suicide in Frost’s poem:

Going by ContrariesIn a 1931 comment to Elizabeth Sergeant, Frost remarked that when other writers began calling themselves “Imagists or Vorticists,” he started calling himself a “synechdochist”. This term, ripe as it is with religious connotation, is an apt description of the way metaphor actually operates in Frost’s mature poetry. Although he often uses the word to mean comparison or correspondence (e.g. “every though is a feat of association”), Frost also suggests that the forms we carge out of nature ectend beyond simple figures and feats of association and, in some mysterious way, connect the whole of reality. [pp. 152-153]

From this, Hass makes the following assertion concerning “Stopping by Woods”:

Unfortunately, as Frost learned through his own trials by existence, there are moments when an individual becomes lost to large “excruciations,” when the material world reists the will and exerts counterforces that have profound effects on the quality of life. Sometimes these froces have a dangerous, seductive quality to them, and there are moments when Frost’s work reflects a strong desire to surrender to the brute forces of nature as one way of eliminating their threat. The alluring landscape of ["Stopping by Woods"], for example, presents us with a figure of the will confronting alien entanglements so large that they actually invite the poet to unlock their deepest secrets. [p. 153]

Among the most thorough considerations of the poem occurs in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost. Judith Oster, in her contributory essay calledCambridge Companion “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor”, summarizes and discusses these conflicting interpretations: “[The poem] has been read as “simply” a beautiful lyric, as a suicide poem, as recording a single autobiographical incident, and everything in between. Our is not to adjudicate, nor to “fix” a meaning, but to allow the poem its openness…” Oster then asks: “Why hasn’t it just been taken literally?”

She continues:

To choose just one of any possible starting points, the word “promises”. In this context the beautiful scene  the word “pulls down” the experience from the merely aesthetic and sensual, but does so without diminishing that beauty or that feeling, without weighing down the poem. What results is a conflict between two undiminished forces: “promises” that would lead the speakers onward, and his desire to give in to his intoxication with the beauty and peacefulness of the woods. The pull between those alternatives can be seen as that between obligation and temptation, or most literally, between stopping and going on. ¶ If we decide to look at the situation literally, we would think about what staying might mean. Most obvious is simply that it’s too cold to stay there safely. The restfulness – the “ease” of “easy wind” and the “down” of “downy flake” begin to suggest an implicit metaphor, especially when combined with the “sleep” which must be postponed until promises are kept… Sleeping before stopping, then, adds to the notion of not-yet-doing the danger of no-longer-being. [pp. 161-162]

And finally, most importantly, she writes:

What can the poem mean? That is another issue: whatever those words in those combinations will allow without distorting their meanings, without introducing elements that cannot fit in the context of the poem as a whole… one could follow Frost’s advice to a graduate student to take his poetry “all the way.” Or one could feel chastised by Frost’s ridicule of those who say this is a “suicide poem.” Or one could ignore Frost altogether. [p. 162]

Another contributor to the Cambridge Companion offers up what is probably the most representative interpretation of the poem (if one accepts that the poem should be interpreted). John Cunningham writes:

Stopping by Woods - DraftThe opposition between humanity (the owner of the woods whose “house is in the” village and who will not see the speaker, the absence of “a farmhouse near”) and the purposeless natural phenomena (descending snow and night, the woods, the frozen lake) Frost establishes early. Even the horse “must think it queer.” Three times the poet uses some form of stop. The setting is becoming blank, undifferentiated whiteness, a desert place on “the darkest evening of the year,” literally an overstatement but metaphorically not so to the speaker. For him movement forward ceases; his choice is between the “woods and frozen lake,” either offering only death to one who stops. In effect the horse asks “if there is some mistake.” To have so stopped could well prove to be such. The “sweep/ of easy wind,” free of the thousand mortal shocks that one is heir to, and the “downy flake,” like warm bedding, entice the speaker to give up his human errands and to sleep in the void of death. The woods are “dark and deep,” not promising words in Frost, deep as the final absence of death, and “lovely” only in the temptation to shuffle off that they offer. With “but I have promises to keep,” the speaker and the poem pivot, rejecting the temptation, affirming his promises, a word with human connotations of duty and presence, and accepting the “miles [that he must] go” before he sleeps this might and before he “sleep[s]” finally in death. [pp. 269-270]

Cunningham then goes on to interpret the repetition of the last two lines as “congruent with the stacked-up accents at the pivot above…” Quoi? This gets opaque. Do you get it? I don’t. However, if he’s going to run with this interpretation (which, as I wrote before, is the standard interpretation) I think he misses a golden, interpretive opportunity in the last two lines.

One could interpret the last two lines as follows:

And miles to go before I sleep
[I have miles to go before I'm home and in bed.]

And then, much more darkly and deeply he writes:

And miles to go before I sleep
[And many more "miles" to go before I go to die.]

However, I’m not convinced by Cunningham’s assertion that the descending snow is a “purposeless natural phenomena“. Frost doesn’t give us any indication, within the confines of the poem, that we should think so. No matter what thematic material you might find elsewhere in Frost’s poems, it doesn’t follow that Frost’s use of certain images and ideas is always one and the same. They aren’t. Bernard Hass, himself, makes this observation:

….[as] inviting [as] those secrets [the alien entanglements of nature] may be to one who has grown “overtired” of his struggle with nature, Frost is equally aware that natural imperatives can also be beneficial. Just  as nature has an intrinsic capacity to increase entropy, it also has synthetic powers of regeneration and self-organization that, when left to their own creative devices, terminate in beautiful structures that are both pleasing and protective. [Going by Contraries, pp. 153-154]

In this light, it’s hard to see an “easy wind” and “downy flake” as mortal threats. They are more a recognition of aesthetic beauty. But of what kind? To this end, Cunningham reasons that the adjectives are to be construed as an act of seduction. That is, the “easy” winds are seductively easy, but deadly to one who tarries too long in their cold.

As far as this goes, I’m sympathetic with Cunningham’s interpretation; but I do not think that Frost is contemplating suicide. That’s over-interpreting the poem, in my view. I do think there is a recognition by Frost, in this poem at least, that there is something lovely in the contemplation of nature’s sleep – a recognition of its necessity and loveliness. But at no time does he actually claim to desire it. After all, he says, he has promises to keep. The last two lines withstand this interpretation. I have miles to go before I sleep tonight; and I have “miles” to go before my final sleep.

The Ordeal of Robert FrostIn reference to Frost’s poem as a suicide poem, Mark Richardson, author of The Ordeal of Robert Frost, observes Frost’s own irritation at the suggestion:

During Frost’s own lifetime… critics sometimes set [Frost's] teeth on edge with intimations about personal themes in the poem, as if it expressed a wish quite literally for suicide… Louis Mertins quotes him in conversation:

“I suppose people think I lie awake nights worrying about what people like [John] Ciardi of the Saturday Review write and publish about me [ in 1958]… Now Ciardi is a nice fellow–one of those bold, brassy fellows who go ahead and sall sorts of things. He makes me “Stopping By Woods” out a death poem. Well, it would be like this if it were. I’d say, “This is all very lovely, but I must be getting on to heaven.” There’d be no absurdity in that. That’s all right, but it’s hardly a death poem. Just as if I should say here tonight, “This is all very well, but I msut be getting on to Pheonix, Arizona, to lecture there. ” (Mertins 371) [The Ordeal of Robert Frost, p. 190]

Typical of Frost however, he still leaves open the door, saying to Mertins later:

“If you feel it, let’s just exchange glances and not say anything about it. There are a lot of things between best friends that’re never said, and if you — if they’re brought out, right out, too baldly, something’s lost.” [Ibid]

Richardson writes that Frost’s “subtle caveat to Mertins is probably meant equally to validate Ciardi’s suggestion about “Stopping by Woods” and to lay a polite injunction against it.” Richardson then picks up on Pritchard’s observation concerning the “felicities of language”, even alluding to Frost’s comments on E.A. Robinson (later on the same page):

Frost directs our attention not to the poem’s theme or content but to its form: the interlocking rhyme among the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical or thematic readings of the poem: “If I were reading it for someone else, I’d begin to wonder what he’s up to. See. Not what he means but what he’s up to” (Cook 81). The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. [p. 191]

And again, we come back to the idea of expression, rather than content, being (if not the heart of poetry) an equal part. Richardson adds that by “empasizing the lyric’s form Frost really only defers the question of theme and content. It is not that the poem does not have a theme, or one worth a reader’s consideration; the form simply is the theme.” The same could be said for much of Keats’ poetry and his Ode to Autumn. Richardson quotes Poirier, in reference to Frost:

“If [a] poem expresses grief, it also expresses–as an act, as a composition, a performance, a ‘making,’ — the opposite of grief; it shows or expresses ‘what the hell of a good time I had writing it.” [p. 192]

Where does all of this lead? Here’s what I think: I read the poem as both an act and performance, to be enoyed as an act and performance, and as a meaningfully suggestive poem – an acknowledgement of the lovely, dark and deep thoughts that are never far from our every day thoughts and lives. Nature will bring to all of us the same sleep it brings to the dark woods, but first we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.

Frost on Stopping by Woods

Browsing through the used bookstore a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on a little book called Robert Frost an introduction: poems, reviews, criticism. I think it’s been out of print for a good many years, but it has some choice quotes concerning Stopping by Woods. All the quotes are apparently from Reginald L. Cook, “Robert Frost’s Asides on His Poetry”,  “Frost on Frost: The Making of Poems” and “The Dimensions of Robert Frost”. Here they are:

  • …When he reads “Departmental,” which he once referred to as “my iridium poem; its hard and useful,” he says, ironically, that he intends sometime to write thirty pages of notes for the scholiasts. He once remarked that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was the kind of poem he’d like to print on one page, to be followed with “forty pages of footnotes.”
  • “Stopping by Woods” contains “all I ever knew”.
  • …”Stopping by Woods” is, he says, “a series of almost reckless commitments I feel good in having guarded it so. [It is] … my heavy duty poem to be examined for the rime pairs.” [Note how Frost, once again, praises the expression of the poem, it's form, rather than it's content.]
  • …”That one I’ve been more bothered with than anybody has ever been with any poem in just pressing it for more than it should be pressed for. It means enough without its being pressed.” And, in a biting tone, he adds, “I don’t say that somebody shouldn’t press it, but I don’t want to be there.” Often he has spoken out against the “pressers” and over-readers. “You don’t want the music outraged.” And of “Stopping by Woods” he says that all it means is “it’s all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home.” Yet no true reader leaves the discussion there. He knows as well as the poet does that what is important is how the poet played with “the constant symbol” implicit in the making of the poem. “Everything is hinting,” Frost reminds us.
  • … “Stopping by Woods” came to him after he had been working all night on his long poem entitled “New Hampshire.” He went outside to look at the sun and it came to him. “I always thought,” he explains, “it was the product of autointoxication coming from tiredness.”
  • The most ascerbic and closest-cropped expressions of his [Frost's] wit are reserved for the analysts of literature who try to pick a poem clean and miss its intent. When a friendly critic asked if the last two lines in “Stopping by Woods” referred to going to Heaven, and, by implication, death, the poet replied, “No, all that means is to get the hell out of there.”
  • …Frost starts out perfectly free in his poem. “I can have my first line any way I please,” he says, and he is right, “But once I say a line I am committed. The first line is a commitment. Whose woods these are I think I know. Eight syllables, four beats- a line – we call it iambic. I’m not terribly committed there. I can do a great many things. I did choose the meter. What we have in English is mostly iambic anyway. When most of it is iambic, you just fall into that – a rhyme pair – I’d be in for it. I’d have to have couplets all the way. I was dancing still. I was free. Then I committed a stanza:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

He will not see me stopping here is uncommitted. For the three rhymes in the next stanza, I picked up the unrhymed line in the first stanza, and rhymed its end-rhyme “here” with “queer’, ‘near’ and ‘year,’ and for the third stanza I picked up ‘lake’ from the unrhymed line in the second stanza and rhymed it with ‘shake,’ ‘mistake’ and ‘flake.’ For the fourth stanza I picked up ‘sweep’ from the unrymed line in the third stanza, to rhyme with ‘deep’ and ‘sleep.’

“Every step you take is further commitment. It is like going to the North Pole. If you go, you have to bring back witnesses – some Eskimos! How was I going to get out of that stanza? It’s going to be like the Arabian Nights -one story after another. By the third stanza you have a sense of how long a poem is going to be. It’s ‘sweep’ I’m committed to:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

For my poem is a commitment to convention. That’s what it’s a symbol of . The form of regular verse – Greek, Latin, English – is a symbol of commitment.

“The interest is the quarrel with those commitments. When I read a poem, I ask myself: What is the main point in the argument? Where is the insincerity in the argument? Having comitted ourselves to go to the North Pole or to our love, we have to believe we have been to the North Pole or that we have been in love. The modern poet who uses free verse or new experiments quarrels with the commitment to convention. His revolt is based on that, that all life goes false by its commitments. Consequently, I look at a poem very examiningly, very suspiciously. I don’t want to think that the poem is a compromise with the rhyme.”

  • “What it [the repeat of the final line] does is save me from a third line promising another stanza …. I considered for a moment four of a kind in the last stanza but that would have made five including the third in the stanza before it. I considered for a moment winding up with a three line stanza. The repetend was the only logical way to end such a poem.”

And finally, here is Frost himself:

[Audio http://poemshape.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/53-stopping-explanation.mp3%5D

The Poem’s Form

Lawrence Buell, in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, calls the poem a Rondeau [p. 111]. Every definition I’ve read of Rondeau, including The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, offers up a definition that has nothing, whatsoever, to do with “Stopping by Woods”. It’s likely that Buell is being very liberal in his use of the word Rondeau. That is, Frost’s poem is a rondeau in the sense that there is a recurring rhyme scheme that takes as its rhyme the one unrhymed word of the stanza before. Most critics would probably call this a nonce poem – meaning that the rhyme scheme is unique to the poem.

  • Note: [May 29] I just received a comment from Gemma who points out the Frost’s Rhyme Scheme is the same as that found in Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Kyayy’ám’s Rubaiyat. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics calls it the Omar Kyayy’ám Quatrain. Since Fitzgerald’s translation was published in 1859 and quite famous in its day, it’s possible (if not likely) that Frost saw it at one time or another. I myself grew up with a copy in my grandmother’s house – the only book of poetry she owned! I still have it but haven’t looked at it in a long time. That said, Frost himself (from his own comments above) seems to imply that the rhyme scheme developed organically (was of his own making).  For more details on the Rubaiyat, check out the link in Gemma’s comment.

At the beginning of the post, I asked how a poem so metrically regular could, nonetheless, feel so dynamic. Returning to The Cambridge Introduction to Robert Frost, Timothy Steele, in his essay entitled “Across Spaces of the Footed Line”: the Meter and Versification of Robert Frost, offers the most insightful analysis I have come across. He writes:

Because iambic structure often is compounded of non-iambic elements of English word-shape and phraseology, a poet like Frost can initiate, within the basic iambic rise-and-fall movement, all sorts of counter-currents to the prevailing rhythm. An exemplary instance of these modulatory West-Running Brooks occurs in stanza three of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening':

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

In the first two lines, Frost uses mainly monosyllabic words, and of the two two-syllable words, one is rear-stressed. As a result, divisions between feet and those between words largely coincide, and this in turn produces a strong sense of rising, iambic rhythm:

He gives || his har || ness bells || a shake
To ask || if there || is some || mistake.

In contrast, the remaining two lines feature four fore-stressed disyllabic words. Consequently, words more often cross foot divisions than end at them. Even as the iambic fluctuation continues, the lines have a falling, trochaic character, which in turn suggests the sweeping movement of wind and snow:

The on|| ly oth || er sound’s || the sweep
Of eas || y wind || and down || y flake.

Frost’s first version of the line about the wind and flake read, “Of easy wind and fall of flake.” He may have made the change not only because he wanted a more descriptive word for the snow, but also because he intuited that the rhythm would benefit from a more descending flow than “and fall of flake” could give. [pp. 133-134]

On to my own comments…

The other facet to consider is line length versus phrase length. Notice how the first two lines are also two succinct syntactic phrases. They are essentially each a complete sentence. Frost eases this confluence of line and phrase in the next two lines through enjambment – Stopping by Woods: Manuscriptboth lines comprise a single sentence. The first stanza’s confluence of line and thought mimic the poet’s own deliberation. He stops. He considers the land owner. He decides the land owner won’t know he’s “tresspassed”.

The next stanza then relaxes just as the poet himself relaxes. The form and sensibility of the poem are in prefect congruity. All four lines of the stanza comprise a single sentence. The reader will, perhaps without explicitly observing this trick, subconsciously register the effect and the poet’s relaxation.

The third stanza doesn’t repeat the first two. (Each stanza is different.) The first two lines comprise one sentence while the closing two lines comprise another. The poet is divided, just as the stanza is divided between two sentences. The horse reminds the driver that their travel isn’t through, but the poet remains distracted by the easy wind and downy flake.

The syntax of the final stanza breaks each line into discreet phrases. The poet is matter of fact. First, and yes, the woods are love, dark and deep; but more importantly, I have promises to keep. The spell of the woods are broken. The speaker of the poem returns to miles he must travel before he sleeps.

The point in all this is to demonstrate that there are more ways to vary a metrical poem than through the varying of meter. Line lengh, phrase and syntactic sense, if well-played against and with each other, can have a powerful and dynamic effect on a poem.

Frost’s small poem is a masterpiece.

Anyway… if you enjoyed this post and have questions or suggestoins, please comment!

Further sources of information:

  • A new & recommended post that examines the poem as aesthetic statement. Fascinating.

  • Modern American Poetry • This is a collection of essays culled from various authors and critics, possibly the most helpful offering on the web – similar to my own approach but without the multimedia.

Poetry Everywhere

  • Clicking on the Image will take you to PBS.ORG where you can watch Frost read Stopping by Woods.
  • Answers.Com offers two interesting essays by authors who are not among the “big guns” of Frost criticism.
  • Sparknotes offers a brief  little overview of the poem and a possible interpretation. These are followed by study notes if you’re in need of a kick start.

Robert Frost’s “The Pasture”

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  • September 28 2011: Be sure and read the comment section, especially the comments by Richard Lawrence, who shares with us a seemingly lost verse from the original version of this poem.
  • July 18, 2009: New PostRobert Frost’s “Out, Out”
  • June 6 2009: Tweaked and expanded.

About the Pasture

I’ve been following the lead of my readers, noting on the Stats page what searches you use to find my blog. The most popular poet remains Robert Frost. And I’ve noticed several searches for Frost’s “The Pasture”.

Robert Frost's: The Pasture

Robert Frost recites The Pasture

There are few poems in the English language that can compare. Right now? I can’t think of one. In terms of brevity and memorability, it’s unsurpassed. Why? Subject matter, rhyme and meter are perfectly suited to each other.

Frost-NewmanRobert Frost himself, according to Lea Newman (book at left), stated that it was “a poem about love that’s new in treatment and effect. You won’t find anything in the range of English poetry just like that.”

I have several books on Robert Frost and all of them only mention this poem in passing – giving it short shrift. Lean Newman’s book, in terms of the poems themselves, remains the best of any of them. Her opening paragraph describes some of the inspiration for the poem:

One spring evening in 1905, Frost took a walk over those fields with his wife, Elinor, and their six-year-old daughter, Lesley. According to the notebook Lesley kept as a child, she and her mother picked apple and strawberry blossoms while her father went down to the southwest corner of the big cow pasture to check on how much water was in the spring. In 1910, when Frost wrote “The Pasture” he used a walk to a spring in a cow pasture as its centerpiece. The experience was still a favorite memory thirty years after he wrote about it. In 1940 he reminisced, “I never had a greater pleasure that coming on a neglected spring in a pasture in the woods.

Newman’s introduction to the poem continues and I wholly recommend the book as a companion to his poems. But what does the poem mean? (It never seems enough to say that the poem means what it says.) It’s a poem of invitation first and foremost – Frost chose this poem as a sort of introduction and invitation to his collected poems.  More than that, the poem typifies what many readers love the most about Frost: his connectedness with nature and the everyday; his contemplative ease; and, above all, the approachable  content of his thought and poetry. Frost was a poet with whom most everyone felt a kinship and understanding. He was comprehensible during a time when poetry was becoming increasingly incomprehensible. Saying he won’t be gone long could summarize his craft. There are depths to his poetry, but they are such that the reader returns. He won’t go too far. He won’t be gone too long. You come too, he says to the reader and to anyone who wants to go with him.

Meter and Rhyme

The internal rhyme that contributes to the poems lyricism is the most important and also the most difficult to describe, but I’ll try. And it may seem like  I’m making too much of vowel sounds, but sound is everything in poetry. Consider the following anecdote which occurred between Keats and Wordsworth (from John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics and After-Fame by Sidney Colvin pp. 401-402):

keats-wordsworth-discuss-vowels

And here is another sample about Keats’s as related by his friend, Benjamin Bailey:

…one of Keats’ favorite topics of conversation was the principle of melody of verse, which he believed to consist in the adroit management in verse, which he believed to consist in the adroit management of open and close vowels. He had a theory that vowels could be as skillfully combined and interchanged as as differing notes of music, and that all sense of monotony was to be avoided, except when expressive of a special purpose. (Richard H. Fogle – The Imagery of Keats and Shelley, p. 63)

In point of a fact, I write my own poetry with the vowel sounds in mind. I hear words as music and tones, which makes me an “ear reader” rather than an “eye reader”, as Frost put it, and a very slow reader.

Keats was conscious of his choices, and Frost was too. (However, it’s definitely possible to read too much into “word sounds”, vowel sounds, percussive consonants and the like  – I’ve seen it done by plenty of critics and analysts.)  Such analytic overreaches are called Enactment Fallacies – a term I first came across in one of David Orr’s New York Times reviews. He defines it:  in the following passage:

Basically, this is the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess. For example, in an otherwise excellent discussion of Yeats’s use of ottava rima (a type of eight-line stanza), Vendler attributes great effect to “the pacing” allegedly created by “a fierce set of enjambments” followed by a “violent drop” in the fourth stanza of the poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” Here’s the stanza in question:

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

“With each new verbal or participial theater of action of the stanza, there arrives a new agent,” Vendler writes, “making the clauses scramble helter-skelter, one after the other. The headlong pace is crucial.” Since the stanza involves words like “dragon,” “nightmare,” “murdered,” “blood” and “fighting,” it’s easy to see what she’s thinking here. But to make a more modest use of Vendler’s rewriting trick above, what if we kept the same enjambments, syntax, rhyme scheme and basic rhythm — yet changed some of the words? We might get this (my words, with apologies to I. A. Richards for adapting one of his tactics):

Now days are slow and easy, the summer
Sighs into fall: a purring bumble-bee
Can leave the flower, softened to a blur,
To soak in the noon sun, and fly carefree;
The night can breathe with pleasure as once more
We weave our visions into poetry
And seek to bring our thoughts under a rule,
Who are the mindful servants of the soul.

Not so “helter-skelter” now, is it? In a book review or essay, committing this particular fallacy is a minor error. Most critics do it regularly (I certainly have). In a book that sets out to explain why a poet makes particular formal choices, however, the mistake is more serious, because it replaces the complex relationships among a poem’s elements with just-so stories in which it always turns out — surprise! — that meaning has been mirrored by shape and sound. Think of it this way: we don’t enjoy a bowl of gumbo because it “feels” exactly the way it “tastes”; rather, we find the combination of “taste” and “feel” pleasing. Similarly, a particular stanza arrangement can reinforce our experience of a poem, but only because that arrangement is working in harmony with the poem’s other aspects.

I quote the better part of the passage because I think it’s something every novice in poetry and poetry criticism should be aware of. Read all criticism and analysis with skepticism. Including, obviously, mine; though I try to be reasonable in my assertions.

Anyway, back to Frost and The Pasture. Whether intentional or not, the first line’s variety of vowel sounds is lovely – no two are repeated.

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;

That in itself isn’t so remarkable, but what happens next, to me at least, beautifully sets off the first line.

I’ll only (stop) to rake the leaves (a) way
(And wait to (watch) the (wa)ter clear, I may) :

The two lines are rich with internal rhyme – the long A’s of rake, away, wait and may bracket the short, rhyming  vowel sounds of stop, away, watch and water. The Pasture - Manuscript Robert FrostThe effect of these internal rhymes (interlocking in the second line and bracketed in the third) will be different for different readers, though I think all readers, but those with tin ears, will register them. To me the internal rhyming creates a sort of sing-song effect in perfect keeping with the light-hearted, carefree, teasing tone of the poem. And, again for me, the “long A” vowel sound has a sort of easy-going and open feel to it. There’s no way to know whether Frost had this in mind, but I’m sure that the music in the lines, however he interpreted their effect, was intended.

I sha’n’t be gone long. (You) come (too).

Up to this point, the lines have been Iambic Pentameter. But the fourth line (repeated in the second stanza) is Iambic Tetrameter. The effect is lovely and though it can be imitated in free verse, it can’t be reproduced.

The first three lines could be spoken to an unnamed companion or to oneself. We read the poem in the same manner that we read first person narratives (where our presence is irrelevant to the narrator). But then Frost does something  magical. He talks explicitly to “you” and he does so in Iambic Tetrameter. “You come too”, he says, and the shortened tetrameter line has same effect as an aside in a play or drama – an effect of immediacy and personableness. Suddenly we find ourselves in the poem!

The internal rhyme of gone and long anticipate and are complimented by You and too. The musicality of the line heightens the feeling of intimacy, unselfconsciously inviting – the appeal of a close friend. And, as a final note, notice too how the Iambic pattern is broken in the last two feet (spondaic variant feet) of the Tetrameter line.

I sha’n’t |be gone |long. You |come too.

This too adds to the air of informality. The formal Iambic Pentameter is broken for the sake of a friendly aside. The ceasura (the break between the two sentences), occurs in the middle of the third foot, also disrupting the metrical pattern of the previous lines. It all contributes to the informal, intimate feel of the fourth line. Again, it’s an effect that free verse simply can’t equal.

Frost’s Colloquialisms

robert_frostOne of Robert Frost’s most powerful poetic figures (as in a rhetorical figure or figure of speech – also called figurative language) is anthimeria. It’s also one of my favorites and one of the truly beautiful ornaments in the toolbox of poetry – adding vitality and rigorousness when done well. (Shakespeare was one of the greatest users of this figure.) In short, anthimeria is the substitution of one part of speech for another – “when adjectives are used as adverbs, prepositions as adjectives, adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives” (Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 63) . Turning nouns into adjectives is Frost’s favorite substitution and he does this because, interestingly, this form of grammatical substitution is typical of New England dialects. (For a more thorough treatment of colloquialism in poetry, see my post Vernacular Colloquial Common Dialectal.)

So…

Instead of saying “I’m going out to clean the spring in the pasture”, he says “pasture spring”. Pasture, normally a noun, becomes an adjective modifying spring. Et viola! Anthimeria! If you read enough of Frost’s poetry you will see this figurative language recur again and again. And if you hang about Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine, and hear some old-timers, you will hear this same grammatical short-cut. I don’t know why it’s more prevalent in New England (more so than in other regions of the United States) but it may be a hold over from the speech patterns of a much older generation.

Anyway, Frost always keenly observed, recorded and remembered the speech habits of New Englanders and deliberately infused his own poetry with the patterns he heard. Techniques like anthimeria, the substitution of a noun for an adjective, helps give his poetry a dailectal and colloquial feel. In a similar vein, the contraction sha’n’t, for shall not, adds to the colloquial informality and intimacy of the poem. “I sha’n’t be gone long” is a style of speech that’s almost gone. Probably more typical of what was heard among an older generation of New Englanders if only because the region is where American English is the oldest.

I’m going out to fetch the little (calf)
That’s (stand)ing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I (sha’n’t) be gone long. You come too.

Again, I’ve tried to emphasize the play of internal rhyme – to make it visible. The short i sound of little is bolded. The short a sound of calf is italicized and (bracketed). The short u sound of young is underlined. I won’t belabor the same points I’ve already made discussing the previous stanza. The effects are the same. There are no internal rhymes within the first line of the stanza, as in the first line of the first stanza. The sing-song informality and intimacy created by the internal rhymes that occur in the lines that follow, once again, find completion and resolution in the final invitation:

You come too.

If this post has been helpful to you; if you enjoyed; if you have suggestions or questions; please comment!

W.B. Yeats & Long Legged Fly: Meaning & Meter

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Some Good References

I’ve been wanting to study some Yeats.

Many of his greatest poems are written using regular metrical patterns like blank verse, where the metrical pattern doesn’t vary from line to line, but many more aren’t. These poems are like Emily Dickinson’s – poems based on ballad meter. Ireland is famous for its ballads and folk songs and Yeats must have heard them frequently – if only on the evidence of the forms he used. Here is the poem before my own annotations. A scansion of the poem follows later.

That civilization may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.)

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

I’ve ordered a book by Helen Vendler, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form,  but haven’t recieved it yet. vendler-on-yeatsI’ll be interested in seeing what she says about Long Legged Fly. Her book has recieved some mixed reviews, some bad, one reviewer finding the book as “dry as chalkdust”, but she’s the only critics, to my knowledge, that has tackled Yeats’ use of form. John Unterecker’s A Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats is useless in regard to Yeats’ formal practice. His book is more of a biographical overview of the better poems – their inspiration, meaning and symbolism. A very good book if that’s what you’re looking for (if you can get past the god-awful cover – below left).

So… I’m going to take a stab at the form Yeats used in Long Legged Fly. If reading Vendler persuades me I have missed something or gotten something wrong, I’ll make a note of it.

On the Poem

The poem is written in three stanzas and the metrical form of each Stanza is cut from the same cloth –  though each is more freely varied than would have been acceptable by the generation of poets immediately preceeding Yeats (the Victorians).  While contempories were veering off into free verse, YUnterecker on Yeatseats was content to continue working flexibly within the varied forms he had inherited. It was said that he would sit and hum to himself as he shaped the meter and rhythm of his lines.

In each of the stanza, Yeats folds his poetry around the creative spark – the genius of  mind. In the first is Ceasar, in the second Helen, and the third Michelangelo. Interestingly, Yeats doesn’t confine himself to artists – Ceasar wasn’t; neither was Helen. In one sense, Yeats could be celebrating the genius creativity as being more than just the province of the artist. On the other hand, Yeats could also be suggesting that all human endeavors, whether Ceasar’s territorial, empire-building ambition which Yeats frames as “civilization” (perhaps man’s greatest collective accomplishment), or Helen’s physical grace and beauty, are expressions of artistic genius and creativity. The meaning could be either or could be both. Unlike some analysts, I like to think that the goal is not to guess at what Yeats intended,  but to offer the possibilities presented by the poem itself.

The dog and pony are tethered far from Caesar’s hearing. The work of man, and by extension mankind, will not tolerate the presence of animals. Helen, for her part, represents a nexus through which history will move because of her beauty and grace. Without her, history cannot act on human events and cannot inspire Homer, Virgil or Christopher Marlowe to write about them. With this in mind, it may be deliberate that Yeats paraphrases Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus.

FAUSTUS. Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless  towers of Ilium–
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.–
[Kisses her.]
Her lips suck forth my soul:  see, where it flies!–
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wertenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

Perhaps Yeats is suggesting that it is through her, symbolically a woman’s beauty, that art is made possible – that Marlowe’s lines were made possible. But, like Caesar, that creative act of her self-making, the making of her beauty,  cannot be disturbed – needs quiet, needs silence for her genius to express itself. But perhaps Yeats intends another sense too. Describing her as three-parts child, one part woman, Yeats describes her innocence. She thinks that nobody looks. Her creative act is pure, without guile, without knowledge of the lascivious observer. Like the long legged fly upon the stream, her mind moves upon silence.

The reference to her picking up  a tinker shuffle on the street, could be a reference to the poem itself – a poem based on ballad meter, one  that Yeats could have picked up on the street. In this sense, Yeats could be treating  Helen as the muse of poetry, shaping a simple rhythm into a poetry that will shape history and men’s thoughts. She becomes a sort of patron Saint of poetry.

In the final stanza Yeats suggests Michelangelo’s creation of David. Michelangelo is the indisputably great artist – the only Artist of the three. But Yeats writes about more than Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s art will inspire a sexual awareness such that ” “the girls at puberty may find the first Adam in their thought”. It is, like the creative act of Caesar and Helen, a nexus of through which history will act, through which their will be further creation – procreation of the girls and their lovers – the single most profound and powerful act of creation which mankind is capable of.

So it is that Yeats moves from the creation of civilization through arms, the creation of art in symbolically graceful and beautiful Helen, to the great procreative act – the creation of ourselves. In this guise, perhaps, Yeats might have intended Michelangelo to symbolize God’s own creation of man, or better, man’s own re-creation of himself.

But keep the children out.

Curiously, Yeats must have known there would be no children in the Pope’s Chapel – no girls. I’m inclined to think that, by children, Yeats was referring to the Pope, (along with his attendant Bishops, etc…) This would imply a criticism of religion. The Pope and his attendants, the “children”, would presumably interfere with Michelangelo’s creative genius. That is, Michelangelo’s work was not meant for them, the unimaginative and spiritually naive “children” of the church, but for the pubescent girls – who would immediately, if instinctively, comprehend the meaning (the creative power and genius) of Michelangelo’s work. They, the girls, would understand what the children, the Pope and the Bishops, could not.

The supreme act of creation, the genius of mind, moves outside its own awareness – becomes like the long legged fly that moves upon the stream or the the source of being and mind. It must not be observed lest the mind too, become aware of itself, and so slip from the supple surface of its contemplation. The beautiful metaphor of the fly upon the stream is Yeats’ expression of true genius – the state in which great art is produced.  Though the maps are spread before him, Caesar gazes on nothing.

The Meter of the Poem

To me, the meter of the poem is the most interesting part of it. I love to study how poets vary their lines.

Here is a first scansion. This scansion guesses that Yeats was varying not just metrical feet, but their count within each line.

Anapests are in blue. Trochaic Feet are red. Feminine Endings are Green. Anapestic Feminine Endings (of which there are two) are marked with blue and green. Headless feet are orange. Phyric feet are yellow. (The color coding is my own scheme. As far as  Iknow, I’ m the first to ever try it. I think it helps readers to see how poets varied meter.)

Scansion: Long Legged Fly


Unless there’s some Regular Irish ballad meter I don’t know about (I’m hardly an expert on Irish literature) I would say that the form is Yeats’ own creation (though based on ballad meter). The first four lines are similar to ballad meter (as opposed to Common Meter – see my post on Dickinson). The syllabic count of Common Meter is strict 8/6/8/6 and Iambic . The rhyme scheme is ABAB. Ballad Meter is less strict. Syllables count less. What matters is the number of metrical feet per line 4/3/4/3 – generally Iambic Tetrameter alternating with Iambic Trimeter. Variant feet (anapests) are common in Ballad Meter and the rhyme scheme of Ballad Meter is also looser – ABXB (which is the rhyme scheme Yeats uses).

There are actually some recordings of Yeats reading his own poetry. Here’s one of him reading The Lake Isle of Innesfree.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear the water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

And here is Yeats defending his chant-like readings (for which he was sometimes criticized).

To be honest, I don’t know what Yeats intended. It was clear, however, that he took meter very seriously.  What’s hard is discerning, in the case of Long Legged Fly, which meter he was taking seriously. If he was hearing ballad meter (and varying the feet on that basis) then one ought to scan the lines as alternating between Tetrameter and Trimeter (rather than Dimeter) – since the number of metrical feet per line is what matters in Ballad Meter.

That civilization may not sink,
Its | great bat|tle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To | a dis|tant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where |the maps |are spread,
His |eyes fixed |upon no-thing,
A hand |un-der |his head.

(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

This scansion reads the variant lines as having headless lines, rather than anapests. The first foot of the respective lines would be interpreted as iambic feet missing an unstressed syllable (headless). The advantage to this reading is that it retains the underlying metrical alternation (between tetrameter and trimeter) of a recognized ballad meter (at least in the first four lines). The next four lines 4/3/3/3 before the refrain are of Yeats’ own creation. (The whole of it, in fact, is probably a nonce form – meaning that the form was created to suit the poem.) Still, there is an underlying pattern, and regularizing the number of metrical feet is a recognition of it. And there’s also Yeats’ rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme is typical of ballad meter, so why not the meter? All in all, the second scansion assumes a regular pattern from which Yeats varied. The readings regularizes the number of metrical feet per line. Here is the alternate scansion in whole:

Long Legged Fly - Ballad Meter Scansion

The metrical foot pattern of each stanza (as opposed to the syllabic count) is as follows:

4/3/4/3/4/3/3/3

Followed by the Refrain:

5/2

Note: I could also read the final line of the refrain as:

His | mind moves | upon si-lence

This, to me, stretches credibility. But then again, listening to Yeats read, it’s possible. He was nothing if not eccentric. It would make the refrain a 5/3 pattern, in keeping with the other Trimeter lines.

That said, the scansion is probably the least important element of this poem. Altering the scansion doesn’t alter the poems’s meaning but does alter the emphasis within the respective lines. Either way, Yeats’ modern sensibility, his willingness to flex regular metrical patterns almost beyond recognition, is apparent. His ear for the elegantly varied metrical line was part and parcel of his unique genius.

Be sure and comment if you found this interesting!

Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry Issue-1 2008

Measure 2008Here is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while – recommend Measure and a couple of poets within.

Measure is one of the few journals devoted to publishing poetry in meter and rhyme – published by the University of Evansville Press. In the name of supporting the journal, I’ve included address, subscription info and submission guidelines at the bottom.

The poetry, by the way, isn’t as fraught as their cover art. “Fraught” cover art seems to be all the rage among poetry journals these days – at least the ones I”m familiar with. I let a subscription to Poets & Writers Magazine expire when, for a year, every single cover had a distressed, pensive, burdened-by-the-weight-of-their-own-profundity, poet on it. Seriously.

Anyway.

All of the poets in Measure possess an enjoyable gift for language, can write elegantly, skillfully and succinctly within a form, but some of the poets offer more than a melodious line and exposition.

Some Poets to Watch

Peter Swanson: A Distant Figure P. 128

The poem is written in 5  sextains. Swanson uses off-rhyme which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t – being the nature of off-rhyme. (The rhyme scheme fades in and out.) Dickinson’s poems feel this way to me too.

The meter of the poem is Iambic Tetrameter – on the conservative side with just a handful of variant feet. No complaint – just observing. In addition to his skillful use of meter and phrasing, his poetry offers fresh imagery and figurative language.

Love this image:

…in her wake
The light, a thousand nickles, fall
As though each wheeling stroke unfurls
A broken sun upon the lake.

Swanson falls back on the all too metrically convenient upon – a usage I’ve criticized in Stallings’ poetry. It’s an antiquated word and, besides that, Swanson uses the word incorrectly (as many metrical poets do). On and Upon are not always interchangeable. “To indicate a relation between two things, however, instead of between an action and an end point, upon cannot always be used: Hand me the book on (not upon) the table.” – Random House Dictionary. I’ve probably been guilty of it myself at some point.

Here’s some nice figurative language:

So many girls like her…
…clambered up
Into the coddling air…

Coddling air is a nice example of catachresis and personification.

But it’s the aptness of his imagery I enjoy the most. This is a poet who thinks deeply about analogy, simile and metaphor. He doesn’t settle for just any metpahor, but the metaphors he chooses inform the matter of his poetry. There are other examples, but here is the final stanza of his poem in full.

That rock, he knows, will outlast us,
Will feel another century
Of girls declare its back their bed
On summer days. That rock will see
Them burn away to rainbow dust,
Like dragonflies, by winter dead.

The skill of the imagery reminds me of Richard Wilbur, though Swanson’s phrasing is rougher. Setting off rainbow dust with the simile, like dragonflies, by winter dead is a master stroke, capturing the brilliant and moist (rainbow’s are a result of water droplets) beauty of the girl along with the inevitable transient dessication of her beauty. That’s the beauty of a masterful metaphor. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a good metaphor can launch a thousand pictures.

Caki Wilkinson: Two Lullabies Page 150

Wilkinson offers up a pair of poems in ballad meter, two lullabies, one for the “precious child” and one for the “ugly child”. While the poems don’t plumb the depths of human existence, I was tweaked by her imaginitive imagery and acerbic wit. She writes of the precious child:

Tonight you’ll dream of open doors
and scoops of sherbet skies
while schooners sail from distant shores
led by your violet eyes

The imagery in the rest of this first poem to the precious child is comparatively conventional, but these four lines are imaginitive and wild. I liked them. This is a poet with an imagist’s bent. In the Lullaby for the Ugly Child she shows the same imaginative reach, she writes:

she’ll watch the nursury shadows bloom
as auspices of crows.

Dead Matter Page 152

A second poem by Wilkinson, a Shakespearean Sonnet, delights again.

…sycamores unroll their yellow sleeves,
when rust moves through the maple’s palmate veins…

or

…fruits of labor steep in garbage bags
cooked by the very juices of their birth…

My 0nly complaint, as concerns Wilkinson’s sonnet, is that all but one of her lines are end-stopped. The sonnet gives the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that it was studiously written line by line.

A.M. Juster: No Page 79

This sonnet was the winner of the 2007 Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award.

Of all the sonnets this one was the most expository.

There is no figurative language, no imagery or metaphor. (That the judges chose this sonnet over the others naturally reveals their own predilections.) But the sonnet is masterfully crafted. What I liked most was Justin’s flexible use of enjambment. When reading many poets who write formally, one gets the sense that they write line by line, foot by foot, rhyme by rhyme, until they’ve studiously erected their poem – as if they were painting by numbers. Juster’s thoughts move over the line and through them, and the rhymes give the illusion of sheer happenstance.

Pray. Comfort those
he lacerated. Keep him in your heart,
but use that grief to teach. When you compose
a line, it is a message, not just art.

Alan Sullivan: The Blighted Tree Page 89

This is a lovely sonnet marred only by the end-stopping of all its lines. Where Sullivan’s line lacks flexibility, however, the sonnet’s colorful and straightforward imagery recommends it:

I spare the tree to bear its sweetest fruit -
the last apples, stunted for want of sap,
their savor wrung from dying bough and root.

The Frostian language closes with a lovely couplet:

year after, I shall not tend trees at all
I too have fruit to bear before the fall.

The observation and careful detail make me curious to read other poems by Sullivan.

Info on Measure

Editorial Office

Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry
Department of English
University of Evansville
1800 Lincoln Avenue
Evansville, IN 47722

Publication

Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry is published in the spring and fall of each year.

Subscription

One-year subscriptions (2 issues) are $18, two-year subscriptions (4 issues) are $34, and three-year subscriptions (6 issues) are $50. Please add $6 per year for all subscriptions outside the US. Current and back issues are availalbe for $10 each.

Submissions

Manuscripts must be accompanied by an appropriately-stamped return envelope. Please see our website for complete submission guidelines.

Robert Frost, Iambic Tetrameter & The Road Not Taken

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  • If scansion is new to you, check out my post on the basics.
  • February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost, you might like reading Birches along with a color coded scansion of Birches included in my post on Frost’s Mending Wall. To find all the posts I’ve written on Robert Frost, click here.
  • After you’ve read up on Robert Frost, take a look at some of my poetry. I’m not half-bad. One of the reasons I write these posts is so that a few readers, interested in meter and rhyme, might want to try out my poetry. Check out Spider, Spider or, if you want modern Iambic Pentameter, try My Bridge is like a Rainbow or Come Out! Take a copy to class if you need an example of Modern Iambic Pentameter. Pass it around if you have friends or relatives interested in this kind of poetry.
  • April 23 2009: One Last Request! I love comments. If you’re a student, just leave a comment with the name of your high school or college. It’s interesting to me to see where readers are coming from and why they are reading these posts.
  • April 25 2009: Audio of Robert Frost added.

The Road Not Taken

One of the loveliest poems in the English language is Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Part of the magic is in how Frost loosens meter to obtain a more colloquial tone. In one of the most enjoyable books I own (among books on Frost) Lea Newman relates that according to a survey of 18,000 written, recorded Frost-Newman and videotaped responses, this poem (along with Robert Frost) is America’s most popular poem – a probably more accurate poll than the self-selected poll done by poets.org. Lea also writes that Frost’s intent, in writing the poem, was to satirize his friend, Edward Thomas, who would frequently dither over which road he and Frost should walk. (Edward Thomas was an English poet who Frost befriended while living in England). Frost completed and sent the poem to Thomas only after he had returned to New Hampshire. Thomas, however, didn’t read the poem as satire and neither have other readers coming to the poem for the first time.

I personally have a hard time taking Frost’s claims at face value.

But here he is saying so himself:

  • If you don’t see a play button below, just copy and paste the URL and you will be able to hear the recording.

More to the point, the provenance of the poem seems to be in New England – prior to Frost’s friendship with Thomas. Newman references a letter that Frost wrote to Susan Hayes Ward in Plymouth, New Hampshire, February 10, 1912:

Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn’t go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall.  Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made out. I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity.

[My thanks to Heather Grace Stewart, over at Where the Butterflies Go, for the entire quote.]

About the Poem

The poem is written, nominally, in Iambic Tetrameter. Nominally because Frost elegantly varies the meter to such a degree that readers may only glancingly hear the imposition of a metrical pattern – the effect is one of both metrical freedom and form. I have based my scansion, by the way, on Frost’s own reading of the poem. I suppose that might be considered cheating, but Frost’s own conception of the poem interests me.

  • March 28 2011 • Given some time and a conversation with a reader and poet Steven Withrow (see the comments) I’ve changed the scansion of the last stanza to reflect the way Frost probably would have scanned the poem (rather than how he read it). The new scansion, immediately below, retains the tetrameter meter throughout (more on how later).  You can still find my old scansion at the bottom of the post. Decide for yourself which scansion makes more sense. As for myself, I lean toward the new scansion. All unmarked feet are iambic and all feet in blue are anapests.

Frost recites The Road not Taken:

The first element to notice is the rhyme scheme and overall structure of the poem. The poem is really four stanzas, quintains, each having the same rhyme scheme – ABAAB. The nested couplets within the stanzas subliminally focus the ear, while resolution to the pattern is found in the final rhyme. The overall effect of the rhyme scheme is analogous to that of the Petrarchan Sonnet. That is, rather than springing forward, the internal couplets produce the effect of rounded thought and reflection – a rhyme scheme suited to Frost’s deliberative intellect.

The same point I made in my post on Sonnet forms, I’ll make here. In the hands of a skilled poet, rhyming isn’t about being pretty or formal. It’s a powerful technique that can, when well done, subliminally direct the listener or reader’s ear toward patterns of thought and development- reinforcing thought and thematic material. In my own poetry, my blank verse poem Come Out! for example, I’ve tried to exploit rhyme’s capacity to reinforce theme and sound. The free verse poet who abjures rhyme of any sort is missing out.

robert-frost-youngThe first three lines, metrically, are alike. They seem to establish a metrical pattern of two iambic feet, a third anapestic foot, followed by another iambic foot.

Two roads |diverged |in a yel|low wood

The use of the singular wood, instead of woods, is a more dialectal inflection, setting the tone for the poem with the first line. The third foot surrounded by strong iambs, takes on the flavor of an iambic variant foot.

After the first two lines, the third line could almost be read as strictly Iambic.

and-be-one-traveller

This would be an example of what Frost would consider a loose Iamb. If read one way, it’s an anapest, if the word is elided – trav‘ler – it creates an Iambic foot. Although I don’t think it’s deliberate (Frost didn’t go searching for a word that could create a loose Iamb) but the ambiguity subliminally encourages the ear to hear the more normative meter of Iambic Tetremater. Frost will play against and with this ambiguity throughout the poem.

Note: I just found that Frostfriends.org scanned the line as follows:

 - ! ! - - - ! - !
And be / one trav el / er long / I stood .........4 feet
(iambic) (dactyl) (iambic) (iambic)

Converting their symbols - it would look like this:

frost-friends-scansionThis is not an unreasonable way to scan the poem – but it ignores how Frost himself read it. And in that respect, and only in that respect, their scansion is wrong. Furthermore, even without Frost’s authority, their reading ignores Iambic meter. Frost puts the emphasis on trav-eler and so does the meter. Their reading also ignores or fails to observe the potential for elision in trav‘ler which, to be honest, is how most of us pronounce the word. A dactyllic reading is a stretch. I think, at best, one might make an argument for the following:

frost-friends-scansion-alternate

If one is going to put the emphasis on one, choosing to ignore the metrical pattern (which one can do), then it seems arbitrary to insist on reading traveler as a three syllable word. If one is going to put a modern interpretive spin on the poem, then I would opt for a trochaic second foot and elide traveler so that the line reads the way most of us would read it.

In the fourth line of the first quintain, Frost allows an anapest in the final foot, offsetting the pattern established in the first two lines. Curiously (and because the other feet are Iambic) the effect is to reinforce the Iambic Tetrameter patter. There is only one line that might be read as Iambic, but because the other feet, when they aren’t variant anapests, are Iambic, Frost establishes Iambic Tetrameter as the basic pattern. The final line of the quintain returns the anapestic variant foot but, by now, Frost has varied the lines enough so that we don’t hear this as a consistent pattern.

and-looked-down

It’s worth noting that, if Frost had wanted to, he could have regularized the lines.

And looked |down one |far as |I could
To where |it bent |in un|dergrowth

Compare the sound of these regularized lines to what Frost wrote and you might begin to sense how the variant feet contribute to the colloquial tone of the poem. Regularizing the lines, to my ear, takes some of the color from the poem. The anapests encourage the reader to pause and consider, reinforcing the deliberative tone of the poem – much as the rhyme scheme. It’s the play against the more regularized meter that makes this poem work. As I’ve written elsewhere, a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. The meter of The Road Not Taken tells a story of pause and consideration. Its an effect that free verse poetry can approximate but can’t reproduce, having no meter to play against.

robert-frostThe second quintain’s line continues the metrical pattern of the first lines but soon veers away. In the second and third line of the quintain, the anapest variant foot occurs in the second  foot. The fourth line is one of only three lines that is unambiguously Iambic Tetrameter. Interestingly, this strongly regular line comes immediately after a line containing two anapestic variant feet. One could speculate that after varying the meter with two anapestic feet, Frost wanted to firmly re-establish the basic Iambic Tetrameter pattern from which the overal meter springs and varies.

second-quintain

What’s worth noting, as well, is how beautifully Frost manages a colloquial expressiveness in this poem with expressions like having perhaps,  Though as for that, really about. After setting the location in the first quintain, the self-reflective expressions, new to poetry up to this point, create a feeling of shifting ideas and thought, of re-consideration within the poem itself – as if the speaker were in conversation with himself and another. Colloquial, in fact, is “considered to be characteristic of or only appropriate for casual, ordinary, familiar, or informal conversation rather than formal speech or writing.” It’s an effect that has been touched on by other poets, but never with such mastery or understanding as Frost demonstrates.  Expressions like better claim , wanted wear and the passing there add a New England dialectal feel to the lines.

Again, it’s worth noting the Frost probably could have regularized the lines, but he might have had to sacrifice some of the colloquial feel reinforced by the variant anapestic feet that give pause to the march of an iambic line.

Then took |the o|ther road |as fair,
Having |perhaps |the bet|ter claim,
Because |of grass |and wan|ting wear;
Though as |for that |the pas|sing there
Had worn |them just |about |the same.

Notice how, at least to my ear, this metrically regularized version looses much of its colloquial tone.

On the other hand, here’s a free verse, rhyming version:

Then I took the other as being just as fair,
And as maybe having a better claim,
Because it was overgrown with grass and wanted wear;
But the passing there
Had really worn them just about the same.

Curiously, even though this is closer to spoken English (or how we might expect the average person to deliberate) the poem loses some of its pungent colloquial effect. And here it is without the rhyme:

Then I decided the other road was just as nice
And was maybe even better
Because it was overgrown with grass and needed
to be walked on; but other people
Had just about worn them the same.

And this, ultimately, is modern English. This is the speech of real people. But there’s something missing – at least to my ear. Free verse poets, historically, have claimed that only free verse can capture the language of the times. I don’t buy it. To me, this last version sounds less colloquial and speech-like than Frost’s version. My own philosophy is that great art mimics nature through artifice, or as Shakespeare put it in Winter’s Tale:

Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

In the third quatrain, the first line can be read as a loose Iamb if we elide equally to read equ‘ly – making the line Iambic Tetrameter while the second is solidly so.

third-quintain

After two more regular lines, Frost once again diverges from the pattern. The third and fifth lines are pentasyllabic though still tetrameter, each line having two anapests. Interestingly, as with the second quintain, Frost never seems to vary too far from the pattern without reaffirming the basic meter either before or after the variant lines.  The interjection Oh is entirely unnecessary strictly in terms of the poem’s subject matter. Lesser poets writing meter might have omitted this as an unnecessary variant, but the word heightens the colloquial feel of the poem and is very much in keeping with the poem’s overall tone and them – echoed in the first line of the final quintain – a sigh.

fourth-quintain

The second and fourth lines are actually Iambic Trimeter, but once again Frost reaffirms the meter from which they vary by placing a solidly Iambic Tetrameter line between them (the fourth line).

  • March 28 2011 • The reading above is my original scansion. This scansion was based on the way Frost read it. The problem with scanning it that way is twofold: First, it breaks the tetrameter pattern, which isn’t unheard of, but very unusual for Frost; Second, it means the rhyme between hence and difference is what’s called an imperfect rhyme. An imperfect rhyme is when the syllables are nominally the same but one syllable is stressed and the other is unstressed. In the scansion above, hence is stressed and the -ence ending of diff‘rence is un-stressed. Emily Dickinson lovedthis kind of rhyme but Frost, rarely if ever. The problem is that Frost wants his cake and eats it too. To my ear, when I listen to him read the poem, he reads the last rhyme as an off-rhyme. But, like the Elizabethans, he probably would have scanned it as below:

Two things to notice: In the second line I’ve read the first foot as headless. This is a standard variant foot that can be found with the Elizabethans. Some call it anacrusis. A headless foot means that the first syllable of the foot is missing. Second, the last line is changed so that difference, at least on paper, is pronounced trisyllabically as diff/er/ence, rather than diff’rence. This makes the line tetrameter and makes the final rhyme a perfect rhyme.

Frost sometimes took criticism from more strictly “Formalist” poets (including his students) who felt that his variants went too far and were too frequent. In either case, whether you can it the way Frost read it or according to the underlying meter and rhyme scheme, Frost’s metrical genius lay preciely in his willingness to play against regularity. Many of his more striking colloquial and dailectal effects rely on it.

  • Below is the original scansion: Anapests are blueish and feminine endings are green.

roadlesstravelled-scansion-color-coded

  • If you prefer this scansion (I no longer do), then not only does Frost vary the metrical foot but the entire line. Even so, the two Iambic Trimeter lines (the second and last lines of the quintain) are octasyllabic. No matter how they’re scanned, they don’t vary from the octasyllablic Iambic Tetrameter as they might. The anapests elegantly vary the final lines, reinforcing the colloquial tone – even without dialectal or colloquial phrasing.

Newman quotes Frost, saying:

“You can go along over these rhymes just as if you didn’t know that they were there.” This was a poem “that talks past the rhymes,” he said, and he took it as a compliment when his readers told him they could hear him talking in it.

What Newman and Frost neglect to mention is how the meter of the poem amplifies the sense of “talking”. Frost’s use of meter was part and parcel of his genius – and the greatness of his poetry.

If this was helpful and if you enjoyed the post, let me know. Comment!

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