Robert Frost, Iambic Tetrameter & The Road Not Taken

  • 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!

The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Fifth Day

Told on the fifth day, after Ji-Yuan’s Story of the Fourth Day

“We should hear Lon Po’s tale next,” said P’ang Yün, “he has been whispering it to me since we’ve begun. He is like a mosquito in my ear.” The others readily agreed. Then one of the traders asked him: “What kind  of story is it, Master Lon Po?”

Lon Po’s Story

A tale for a good night’s sleep! It cannot wait another moment.

I am a fur trader, as you know, and on one my journeys I met another fur trader who told me about a white bear. I laughed at him. Polar Bear & Cubs‘No!’ he said, ‘he is white as white and lives where it always snows – that way he cannot be seen!’

‘In China there is no such place!’ I said to him.

‘North of the land you call Mongolia,’ he answered, ‘where the horses are like the wind. Where the women are as skillful as the men.’

‘But white bears?’ I asked.

‘The bear’s name was Ujin,’ he answered. ‘The very first white bear.’

Well, of course, I asked who Ujin was and he sat me down. Now, all of you know I am as long winded as a blacksmith’s bellows, so I will tell you his tale in three parts.

First I will tell you how Ujin caused the Chrysanthemum to grow — China’s autumn flower!

The Autumn Bear
Ujin & the Autumn Wind

In her tenth year Tien was given a bear cub. Her father had found it wrapped in birch and willow leaves. “He is an autumn cub,” her father said. “Never let him wander.” He gave her a tortoise shell comb inside of a lacquered chest. The girl called the cub Ujin. She often combed him and Ujin, who grew to love the girl, followed her where ever he could. Yet when she grew old enough, Tien’s father also gave her a horse and took her to hunt with him. Ujin saw less and less of her. Though Tien visited as often as she could, Ujin grew jealous thinking Tien preferred her horse and hunting with her father; and he unlocked the door of his cage one day to find her.

From the father’s tent in the middle, Ujin, one by one, peered into all the others. Yet without Tien, those whom he startled were soon chasing him from the settlement. Ujin might have perished had not Tien, her father, and the huntsman arrived. With her own bow still at her side, Tien leapt among the tribesmen. “He is mine,” she cried, “And I will punish him!” But Tien wept; and unseen, she broke her arrow’s tip. Ujin lay himself in nearby willow and birch leaves to hide himself. Then Tien nocked the arrow as quick as any of her father’s huntsman and let it fly.

Ujin wisely lay still. “Go far, dear friend,” she whispered, “do not think I did not love you.”

Tien’s sorrow haunted her. Though she was offered another cub it was not like Ujin. Then the autumn wind, knowing sorrow, sought out the flaws and cracks in the walls of her father’s tent. He found the girl and every night, as she slept, the wind kissed her until her face and lips were pale and her voice was weak. When the tribe’s doctor came to visit the girl the white-haired woman said there was no medicine for sorrow.

“Only this,” she said, “keep Tien from the night air.”

Ujin learned of Tien’s sorrow and because he still loved her he returned one evening when he could not be seen. Coming as close to the circle of tents as he dared, he turned his back to them and peered into the night. And he peered until a strange figure stood before him. The figure was the autumn wind. First he was a jester and danced but Ujin was not swayed. Then he vanished. He appeared again as a terrible swordsman but Ujin would not move and the wind’s sword passed through him as a wind through winter rushes. Then the wind came again as a poor farmer, agile as a leaf in moving water. He tried to creep past Ujin but the great bear caught him against the earth with his paw. The Autumn Wind struck but Ujin would not free him and finally the wind lay still. The bear, remembering that Tien had spared his life, spared the wind but drove him deep into the earth and covered him over. The wind did not climb out of the earth again except as a Chrysanthemum the following autumn and every autumn thereafter. Tien slept peacefully that night.

Here Lon Po pauses after the first part.

To be followed by the Second Part.

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Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Fourth Day

Told on the fourth day, after Liang-chieh’s Story of the Third Day

redbirdJi-Yuan’s Story

Another day in the high lands – nothing but moss, shrubs and cedar. The cedar are truly like tall sentinels. Perhaps they look after me for my wife! You ask what I mean? They remind me of my story.  I bring it from the temples in the Himalayan foothills. I spend many days there and often not a single word is spoken. However, there is one monk named Sanpud who loves to talk and loves to tell a story. He said to me: ‘Here is one that tells why certain trees, the evergreens, never lose their leaves in autumn.’

The River Wife

Ti-Ling married to Tung-Po when she was only fourteen. Their love was never in doubt. Ti-Ling had wooed him with her flowers and Tung-Po wooed her with his poems. He wrote them on green paper. He nick-named his little wife the plum-blossom. He said the poems on the green paper were like leaves. “Flowers cannot blossom,” he said, “if they do not have enough leaves.” Ti-Ling put his poems in a cracked tea kettle. She sometimes threw tea leaves inside with the poetry. Her husband teased her. He said: “You are going to make tea out of my love.”  She answered: “It is so our love will not become bitter.”

The fame of Tung-Po’s poetry increased. “I must go,” he said one day, “there are great men in the city who wish to hear my poetry.” Next to their little house was the river Kiang and their boat which was their only other possession. Tung-Po climbed into the boat the next day. Ti-Ling gave him blue plums and boiled rice to take with him. Tung-Po said to her: “I will return before the leaves change their color.” Ti-Ling wept. She undid her beautiful black hair, letting it fall about her shoulders as a sign sorrow. When she returned to her house, she went to the tea kettle and took out the first poem she touched. She read it.

When I first learned to cut swords from bamboo
I did not want to play with you in your mother’s shadow pulling flowers.
If I am too old someday to even cut goose-foot for my cane
Who will still pull flowers for me but you?

Tung-Po returned before the changing of the leaves. There had been no rain. She said to him: “Our spring-bed is dry and lies in brown duck-weed.” “We have two pails,” Tung-Po answered, “and together we will take water from the river.” When they had watered their wheat and mulberries Tung-Po wrote her a new poem for her tea kettle. “I met a farmer,” he said to her as he wrote, “who said it is best not to let the seedlings shoot up too fast if you want good dumpling flour; we should let a sheep or cow graze in our wheat.” He put the new poem into her kettle and smiled saying: “But a cow and sheep is not what my poem is about.”

They might have lived happily on so little but one day he said again to his wife: “Great men wish to hear me read my poetry.” She answered: “Why should you go? At fourteen I mingled my life with yours forever. What is a great man to this?” But Tung-Po said to her: “I will return even while the leaves are still green.” “The moss will grow on the garden path,” she answered, “because two feet alone cannot keep a path.” Yet Tung-Po climbed into the boat the next day. Ti-Ling gave him rice and dried fish. “Tell me beforehand,” Ti-Ling said, “when you will return and I will pick jujubes for you.” She returned to her house when she could no longer see him past the narrows of the river. She took a new poem from her tea kettle. She read.

The spring’s dry bed is papered with cracked duckweed.
You and I must carry buckets from the river into the fields.
Will our souls also mingle like the water from our buckets
When we pour them out – you and I?

Ti-Ling wept when she read this. It was her favorite poem. She gathered the jujubes as they ripened, awaiting word from Tung-Po. When he did not return with the changing of the leaves she wrote him a letter though she did not know where to send it. ‘The rushes are dry,’ she wrote, ‘and sigh when the wind touches them.’ When winter passed, spring and then another summer, Ti-Ling cut her beautiful hair and would not let it grow back. She wrote him another letter: You said a plum blossom needs leaves if it hopes to bloom – have you forgotten?

When another autumn came Ti-Ling wrote: You said you would return while the leaves were green but how can I wait through another winter? She took the green slips of paper from her tea-kettle and tied them to the trees. And as the years passed she returned to the slips of paper she had already tied and cut them into needle-like slivers and tied the slivers to more trees until it seemed the trees were always green. When Ti-Ling was too old to see the slivers of paper, she lay down beneath one of the trees and did not waken. Yet the trees did not lose their leaves. They became the evergreens and still wait for Tung-Po.

Here Ends Ji-Yuan’s Tale

Followed by Lon Po’s Tale on the Fifth Day

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The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Third Day

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

Sun

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

Liang-chieh’s Story

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

The Monkey and the Crane

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

“Ha!”

Here Ends Liang-chieh’s Tale

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

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Edna St Vincent Millay & Trochaic Tetrameter

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I saw a couple searches for this poem and its meter. Wondering what it was, I took a look. If this post was a help to you, please let me know. I like to hear from my readers.

Sorrow

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

millaySorrow like a ceaseless rain
Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain,—
Dawn will find them still again;
This has neither wax nor wane,
Neither stop nor start.

People dress and go to town;
I sit in my chair.
All my thoughts are slow and brown:
Standing up or sitting down
Little matters, or what gown
Or what shoes I wear.

The poem is short and powerful. I think the meter could be read in one of several ways. Here’s what I came up with initially:

Millay's Sorrow & Scansion

This scansion reads the meter as a headless Iambic Tetrameter alternating with a headless Iambic Trimeter. The reason I initially read the poem this way was because I liked the monosyllabic emphasis on words like Beats, Dawn, I, and All.

And here are a couple other alternative readings.

sorrow-alternate-scansions-updated

A.) This scansion would read the poem as Iambic Trimeter (3 metrical feet per line) alternating with Iambic Dimeter (2 metrical feet per line) – the first foot of each line would be cretic (stressed-unstressed-stressed). I personally don’t think this is how anyone would read it.

B.) This scansion is the reverse of B. The scansion is Trochaic Trimeter alternating with Trochaic Dimeter. The last foot of each line would be cretic. Again, I just don’t have the feeling that anyone would emphasize the phrasing quite like this. The relationship between a metrical foot and how one reads the line isn’t a direct one, but there is somewhatof a relationship.

However, I think the most persuasive reading would be Trochaic Tetrameter alternating with Trochaic Trimeter. The trochaic meter would serve to reinforce the intense downward beat of the poet’s depression – the reverse of the upward, forward momentum felt in iambic meter. Also, fittingly, the reading emphasizes the monosyllabic final foot of every line – words like: rain, heart, pain, gain, brown, down (of which there are more than in the initial feet if we read the lines as Iambic and Headless.  Here is how it looks:

sorrow-trochaic-reading-updated

This reading still allows one to emphasize the initial monosyllabic words like Beats, I, and All, while giving the final monosyllabic words the the hard, driving emphasis demanded by the content of the poem.  The world is upside down, the meter is backwards, downward and incessant. The final monosyllabic feet strike like the pulse and throb of a migraine. As I’ve written in my other posts: A masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. The meter of this poem reinforces the grinding torment of depression. (Technically, the final foot in each line is missing a final unstressed syllable. I could and probably should have marked the end of each line, as I did in the first feet of the first scansion, with a missing syllable.)

A couple subtleties worth observing: Most readers, without a knowledge of meter, would probably read the second line of the second stanza as follows:

I sit | in my chair

However, if one pauses to consider the metrical pattern Millay has created, then the stress (or ictus) wants to occur on I.

I sit | in my | chair

This lovely reading, revealed by the meter, puts the emphasis where it belongs. Whereas other people “dress and go to town” I sit in my chair. The latter implies a bitterness and resentfullness that’s missing in the former reading. She sits in her chair when others go out. Not only does she resent herself, her state, her helplessness by stressing the personal pronoun I, but stressing in implies a resentment of her immobility – as though she were trapped in her chair.

In the final lines the reader also has the option of stressing the conjunctions: or.

Or what gown/Or what shoes I wear.

The meter urges us toward this reading if we have an ear for it. The stress on the conjunctive or adds to the tone and voice of bitterness. For all it’s brevity, this is a metrically brilliant and masterful poem.

One final thought: The form which this poem reminds me of the most is the ballad meter used by Emily Dickinson. Like Millay’s poem, Dickinson’s ballad meters alternated between Iambic Tetrameter and Iambic Trimeter. Millay, if this is what she had in mind, varies the pattern and turns the conventional metrical pattern upside down. (For a closer look at Dickinson’s work, read my post on Dickinson and Iambics.)

The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Second Day

Told on the second day, after P’ang Yün’s Tale of the First Day.

Pu-liang Yi’s Story

I am an old lady and my back is weary already. I see, however, we have found a place where the trees have lain us a blanket of dry leaves. Friends, I traded in the walled city of Agra, where I met a dyer trading in silk and wool. His dyes astounded me: indigo, logwood, madder, cochineal, and Tyrian purple. I asked from whom he had learned to dye. He answered, having traveled to Hangchow, that he was inspired by the colors of our leaves in autumn. He is the story he told, explaining why leaves change their color.

The Leaves of Fallen

birds-treeWhen the Emperor died his two sons fought for the realm. The land was littered with the dead of their armies. A girl named Ti, whose beauty was exceeded only by her gentleness, loved the younger prince, who was proud and arrogant and took no notice of her. The elder brother, who loved her, was rash and ill-tempered and easily frightened her.

The brothers battled. China was like the plains – without trees. In the valleys the rivers trembled. The grasses were trampled underfoot. The snow was shaken from the mountains and the maiden wept. None may ever know the number of fallen, only the girl, who after the armies separated, went alone among them.

She wove her clothes from paper, collecting scraps as though they were the precious silk of the silkworm. Her skill was marveled at. Yet when she stepped among the dead she tore her robes to scraps again, of every color—of orange and red and yellow hue—and wrote on them; and like little poems, she placed them on each child and man and kissed their eyes closed. She did so until she had lain a leaf of clothing on every soldier, and stood among them, often, without clothing.

She lay herself down to sleep and during the night the spirits of the soldiers grew into trees and stretched their limbs out above her. No rain, no wind, nor cold could touch her; and when morning came she lay covered by a canopy that the sun itself could not peer through. As one protected, she awoke; and the grasses had lain themselves over her.

Then the brothers battled again, their numbers greater than ever. Their spears punctured the clouds coming over the mountains. Their swords reflected a thousand reddening suns. Horses raised a yellow dust and thundered. The orange and brown capes of the armies met as if blown by winds or as though swept by terrible waters together into the valleys. The maiden Ti saw that both armies could not survive. She hid herself, could do nothing; and saw the younger brother whom she loved.

His soldiers fell back and the elder brother rose among them.  The younger brother fled. He fled between the hill’s great rocks and the girl, though her paper robes were torn by briars and thistles, followed him. When she saw that he had stopped she called out to him. He answered: Run from me! The horses of my enemy beat the earth! They will slay me and slay you if you are with me!

She would not go. She bared herself, offering him her clothes. He took them and fled. When the elder brother arrived she had already put on his younger brother’s clothes. The rash prince bellowed and his soldiers took her thinking she was his younger brother. Though it was ordered that she should be slain, she said nothing. Her love for the younger brother, whom she protected, kept her silent. She was slain and left among the fallen soldiers of her lover.

The elder prince led his army away; and night came. The rain followed the night. The days and nights of the season followed. And the girl turned to dust. Then the wind came. Her dust was lifted out of the valleys for there was nothing to cover her. No one closed her eyes. No one came to lay a poem on her brow. It was a bitter wind and when it laid her dust down again on the earth the forests grieved. Then they let their leaves fall—gold, yellow and red—just as she had done for them and she slept, at last, as one protected.

Every autumn they lay down their leaves again. No rain, wind, nor cold can touch her; and when winter comes she lies covered by leaves and not the sun itself can find her. As one protected, she sleeps. And the grasses lay themselves over her.

What of the younger prince? He fled in the clothes of a woman and weeps at his cowardice. Some say he is like the moon who wonders the fields and forests at night. He would return her clothes but will not find her. The elder prince, who loved the girl, learned that he had slain her. Where can he go? Some say he is like the sun, who gazes down upon the earth day after day to undo, somehow, what he has done; but he will also  never find her. She sleeps beneath the leaves.

Here Ends Pu-liang Yi’s Tale

Followed by another tale on The Third Day

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The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The First Day

These are a set of tales I have tried to publish over the years. They have been soundly rejected by every publisher I sent them to – over 30. None of them can decide whether they are really for children or really for adults. And, truth be told, I don’t know either. So I put them here for all to enjoy – I am a fabulist as well as a poet. There are seven tales, one of which is written in heroic couplets. I’ll post each individually. Please let me know if you enjoy these.

day-lilyThe Seven Tales of the India Traders

Meeting in Autumn

“Master Lon Po!”
“Wise Liang-chieh!
“At last we meet again!”

For hundreds of years traders journeyed between India and China. Seven traders made a promise that if they met at summer’s end, returning to China, they should each bring with them a new tale.

They also decided, because of the season, that their stories should be about autumn. And so with the blessing of fortune, they met that autumn at the foot of the great Himalayan mountains.

They threw sticks and by these means decided who should tell the first tale. It was P’ang Yün. This delighted the other traders for they all agreed he was the most thoughtful among them and his sentiments the most agreeable. Pang Yün began his story.

P’ang Yün’s Story

My beloved friends, I have traded in the arid city of Rajputana, where the great ball of the sun kneels at nightfall to kiss the red earth. I met an ancient trading in Byssus—a cloth that is like the color of sand. He showed me his cloth and said: Is not as soft as a woman’s touch? Then I asked him, is not one still softer than the other? He smiled then and said: “I will tell you a story.”

The Naked Crane

There was a man who lived by himself. The sands of a desert reached behind him while a sea stretched before him. His only visitors were cranes who came in spring and autumn and their beauty astounded him. They were like the brilliant whites of the waves on a summer’s day. He thought the  water’s foam had given birth to them.
He lived in a hovel with one door and a window. There was one crane that peered, sometimes, at its reflection in the window. This happened every spring and autumn. Then one autumn the crane did not leave with the others but stayed before the window even as autumn grew colder. Though he was happy to see her, the man was puzzled by the crane.

She did not see him behind the window. The crane saw only her reflection, without knowing it was her own. Each day she begged the crane in the window to follow her. The wind, driving the sun southward, would soon make winter of what remained. She mistook the reflection for one whom she loved. And though she knew frost must soon come, she would not leave. There is warmth, she said, a great river where papyrus grows, where winter does not come. But her lover, though doing exactly as she did, made no sound nor ever came out from behind the window.

Then Frost came, through hundreds of leagues of sea, touching every living thing with tiny spears of ice. He moved quickly and surely, for his legs, arms and fingers were narrow and impossibly long. He paused when he saw the crane. It was not often that he came upon such a creature. Why hasn’t the north wind driven you south to Aegyptys? he asked. I await my lover, answered the crane. Do not cover the window with your ice or we will no longer see one another.

Then Frost saw that she had mistaken her reflection for another crane. He said nothing of her mistake but grinned to himself. He said that he would only spare the window if she gave him a feather. She readily agreed, for a crane may spare a single feather. Yet each evening Frost returned and each time asked for another feather. She grew cold and yet, she thought to herself, a crane may spare a few feathers for love.

As the crane peered at the window the man gradually came to imagine it was himself she peered at. Her beauty entranced him. He took a candle and placed it in the window so the crane would have light as the nights grew longer. But when the crane saw the flame burning in the breast of her own reflection she cried out. She thought she beheld her lover’s soul. Surely, she said, if your soul shines so brilliantly, you are not long for the world.

Then she wept.

Each day, as Frost took another feather, her form changed. She became more like a woman. Her wings became slender arms and her legs took the shape of a woman’s until she was left naked. Then the wind chilled her bitterly and she lay down as if to sleep. The man saw that she had changed and, as if awakened from a spell, he went out, took her into his arms and brought her into his hut.

Frost had taken her feathers and could fly. He soared into the clouds. At his touch, the world saw snow for the first time. All who beheld it were astonished. So great was Frost’s joy that soon the earth lay under a blanket of snow. Then he finally remembered the crane. He returned to the shore but saw no sign of her. He wept at what he had done and searched a day and night before he finally peered into the man’s window. There she lay. She was more beautiful than ever before. Frost fell in love with her.

The crane, no longer a crane but a woman, awoke gazing into the man’s eyes. He held her and kept her folded in blankets. He fed her a broth simmering over a small kitchen flame. When she gazed at him, though she was surprised, she also saw something familiar. Always, behind the reflection she had loved, she had also unknowingly peered at him. Now it was his gaze that held her. She did not look away.

Frost often returned and with his sharp fingers traced feathers on the glass  to remind her of who she had been. By this he meant, he would return her feathers. Yet when she saw the feathers of ice spiraling on the glass she breathed on them and melted them away with a wipe of her hand. She loved the man, held him as he had held her, and soon had children by him. She remembered the great river beyond the desert, where there was always warmth, and one day led her husband and children out of the hovel to never return.

Here Ends P’ang Yün’s Tale

Followed by another tale on the The Second Day

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