The Sultan & Winter: The Fifth & Last of Several Parts

The Sultan & Winter: Continuing the Fourth of Several Parts

Morning came.  Haajj hurried to the top of the tower.  The painter was fast asleep.  Yet upon his canvass was the most beautiful woman imaginable.  Haajj stared at it wordlessly.  It bothered him.  He wanted to see summer himself.  Haajj nudged the painter with his foot.  The little man suddenly stirred to life.

King Winter“Forgive me!”  He shuffled to his hands and knees.  “My miserable talent offends you!”
“Tell me,” said Haajj, wishing to test the painter, “how do I know this is summer?”
“I have painted,” answered the little man, “she whom you have trapped in the room.”
“How is it,” asked Haajj, “that you can see her and I cannot?”

“You cannot see her, exalted Sultan, because you look for her.”
“Is this a riddle?” asked Haajj.  “I shall have you skewered!”
“I am the leg of a flea,” cried the poor painter.
“You will paint another picture,” said Haajj.  “Paint the blue rose.  Once you’ve painted it, cut it out.  And once you’ve cut it out, work with it.  Make it look real!  ”

Haajj left with the painting.  And he carried it with him through the palace, all the way to the throne room.  Winter was waiting.  Haajj seated himself.  He was careful to turn the painting away from sight.  He wanted to hear winter’s answers.

“Will you show me summer?” winter asked?
“What are your answers to my questions?” Haajj asked in return.
“My mother,” said winter, “is the shadow of the flying crow.”
“Your father?” asked Haajj.
“My father,” answered winter, “is the sound of the still wind.”
These were clever answers.  If the questions had been impossible to answer, winter had given answers impossible to question.  Haajj was intrigued.  He waited for winter to answer the third question.

“Will you show me summer?” asked winter.
“Where are you from?” Haajj asked.
‟I come from the leaf,” said winter, “floating in the blackened well.”
“What were you,” asked Haajj, “before there were wells?”
“I was the leaf,” winter replied, “and before the leaf I was the digger of the well.”

“So be it!” Haajj returned.  “You have answered my three  questions.  It is without doubt that you are winter. You shall have what you desire.”  Haajj turned the painting.  “You bid me show you summer.  Here is a painting for you to carry with you so you may gaze upon her to your heart’s content!”
“I will not cease,” said winter angrily, “until I have freed summer.”
“You have always done so,’ Haajj replied, ‘but I will not let you free her.”

Winter glowered.  He was not content to be outwitted by a Sultan.  He drew his long grew cloak tightly over his shoulders and left without a word.  Haajj gleefully stepped from his throne.  What would winter try next?  Almost in answer a bitter cold wind whistled through the palace and into the throne room!  The painting, which Haajj had offered winter, spun into the air, lifted in a great swirl, and was torn to shreds.  Haajj leapt aside.  Yet the wind as quickly circled him.  The remnants of the painting lashed at him as they spun.  Haajj covered his eyes.

At the instant he did so the wind vanished.  Where had it gone?  Haajj hurried out of the throne room.  Winter was after his key!  When Haajj reached his own vast room its double doors had been swung wide open.  He could almost see the wind.  Drawers were sucked open and all the things in them were lifted out, as though a tiny hurricane had filled the room.  Haajj leapt into its midst.  Its cold nipped and bit at him.  He reached to close one of the drawers the winter’s wind had opened.  A sword, one of the many hanging from the walls of Haajj’s room, sprang to life.  As if held by an invisible warrior, it danced between Haajj and the drawers.  When Haajj moved one way, the sword moved also.

“You will not find the key!” Haajj shouted.

He drew his own sword and leapt at the other.  Paper, clothes, sheets, pillows, and all things alike began to swirl swiftly about the room.  Metal rang out as sword met sword.  Haajj slashed at the wind and the sword fell.  Yet as it struck the floor, two, three, then four more swords sprang from the wall.  Held by nothing, they spiraled round till they surrounded him.  Haajj picked up the sword just fallen.  With a sword in each hand he cut at the four that swirled around him.  They jabbed at him, poked at him, and stabbed at him. All else in the room was caught up in wind as winter searched for the key.  Yet try is it might winter  could not find it.  Haajj roared with delight as one by one he cut down the four swords surrounding and dancing around him.

At the next moment the wind rushed out the window.  All the things  caught circling the room crashed to the floor.  Bits of paper trailed out the window and fluttered to the ground.  It was as though the leaves of a tree had all been shaken off at once.  Haajj stood in the middle, both swords in hand, gloating at his victory.  What would winter try next?  He hurried out of the room.

Afternoon became evening.  Winter did not return, yet Haajj knew he would.  He ordered all his servants – his cooks, his waiters, his waitresses – to prepare a grand feast.  There would be seats for his generals, his admirals, the bravest of his soldiers, and one seat at the end of the table, left empty, for winter.  The feast began.  No one asked for whom the empty seat was.  One does not question a Sultan.  Yet as the feast turned to a loud revelry a cold wind suddenly caused  all the candles round the room to flicker.  Like smoke pouring into a bottle, the wind poured into the chair.  Winter appeared.  All the guests became silent.  Haajj lifted his glass to figure at the far end of the table.

“A toast to winter!” Haajj pronounced.

Everyone silently raised their glasses.  Some stared at the apparition.  Some quietly slipped a hand to their knives or swords.  Some shook so from fright they could hardly keep from spilling what they held.  Winter looked at them all.

“Without winter,” said Haajj, “I would never have my summer!”

All drank the toast.  Winter sat motionless.  His hood half covered his face.  His thin fingers encircled the arms of his chair.  His gray cloak dipped into a small bundle at the floor.  Only his eyes showed the depth of his anger.  None dared to look into his eyes but Haajj.

“Have you given up?” Haajj asked.
“I have,” said winter.  “I admit defeat.”
“You lie!” said Haajj.  “But what does it matter?  I know you do.”
“You have outwitted me,” winter returned.

“You are winter?” asked one of the generals.
“I am.” said winter.
“It was in winter you took my first born child,” said the general.
“Your child,” said winter, “begged a kiss from me.”
“She had been a beautiful woman!” said the general.
“”Her heart was small,” said winter, “and the fever which burned in her was great and caused her much pain.  She desired the cold of my lips.  She lives.  She laughs.  She visits you often.  She is the breeze when you have played too much in the sun.  She is the frost on the window and the light in your room.  Would you have had her become a cripple?  She loves you more.”

“You are a tyrant!” said a brave soldier.  “You take our food from us!.  You blast our regiments with a killing cold!  You bury us in ice!  You are a tyrant!”
“Do you think you alone suffer?” asked winter.  “You cut the earth.  Your hard boots trample her.  Your hunger ravishes her.  Your weapons puncture her.  Your anger steeps her in the tears of mothers.  Shall I not cover those wounds?  Shall I not soothe the broken field with snow?  Shall I not hide the tender grass and seedlings with snow?  Shall I not cover her aching brooks with ice and snow?  If you were kind, you would love the things that love you.”

“You are winter?” asked a young servant.
“I am,” said winter.
The servant knelt at winter’s side and kissed his hand.
“Why do you love winter?” Haajj asked the young boy.
“Every winter,” said the boy, “the river between my village and the village of my lover is turned to ice.  The river has drowned many men in summer.  It is white with anger then.  Yet when winter comes he stills her anger.  He teaches it to be silent.  And I, when night comes, can walk across it into the arms of my lover.”

“I wish to know,” winter said to Haajj, “where you keep the key.”

Haajj laughed.  “I wear it always.”  He tugged at a chain around his neck so all could see where the key hung.  “And so it shall remain until the day I perish.”

“Then summer is lost,” said winter.
“No,” said Haajj, “she is mine.”
“I ask one thing from you,” said winter.  “Give me a painting of yourself.”
“I have many,” said Haajj.  “Choose whichever you desire.”

“No,” said winter, “as you are now.”
“And you will never return?” asked Haajj.
“Never,” answered winter.
“So be it!” said Haajj.  “Summon the painter!”

And so, while all watched, the painter painted Haajj.  Winter knew well what he was doing.  None rivaled the painter.  There was nothing his eye missed.  His genius captured all in its perfection.  And this, in this little man, is exactly what winter wanted.  So soon as the portrait was finished, winter took it, held it closely, studied it, gazed at it without pause.  Haajj was pleased with himself, even flattered.  Yet he could not help but feel it had been too easy.

“You are a master,” said winter to the painter, “I shall reward you little man.”

Haajj, again, was flattered.  Yet he wondered what it was that winter gazed at so intently.  The ghostly figure finally stood.  He stood to his full height.  Satisfaction burned in his eyes.  He set the painting aside.  Haajj suddenly realized his mistake!  There, in the painting, was the key!  The little man had painted it perfectly!  Haajj stood in a rage.  What could he say?  Winter reached into a glass of water.  When he pulled his hand out, he held the key, made of ice!

“Stop him!” Haajj shouted.

Yet in an instant winter melted into a mist.  Haajj rushed out the banquet hall.  He crashed though doors, through hallways, through the rooms of the palace until he reached the tower.  He leapt up the steps two at a time.  Haajj was many things, but he was not as quick as winter.  Just as he reached the top, winter turned the key and opened the door which imprisoned summer.  A terrible wind rushed out, nearly throwing Haajj back down the steps.  Summer was free!

“You lied!” Haajj shouted at winter.
“I promised you I would never return,” said winter, “and I will not.”
“Haajj!”

Haajj turned.  Summer appeared.  She was radiant.  Her beauty shone like a summer’s day.  Yet there was no kindness in her eyes.  Her hair floated in the air like tiny bolts of lightning.

“Why did you trap me?” she demanded of Haajj.
“I loved you,” said Haajj.  “I desired you.”
“You shall have what you desire,” said summer.  “Your garden shall be ever green.  Keep all your possessions.

Your wealth shall be unsurpassed forevermore.  Yet if you, or anyone should leave, you will never again find your way back to this city.  Nor  shall any, who seek to find your city, be able to find it.  To the land that surrounds you, your summer shall be its curse.  Never speak my name again.”

“Give me the blue rose!” said Haajj.

But neither summer nor winter answered him.  Instead, summer gestured at the rose and the flower vanished in a white flame.  Then winter, and summer following, swirled into winds which spiraled out the eyes of the tower.  But Haajj had outwitted them.  He had hidden the real flower.  The flower consumed by the flame had been the painter’s.

The clever sultan was given much to think on.  Was it better to have your heart’s desire, or was it worse having none to show it to.  The land surrounding his city, under the angry summer’s sun, became the vast Sahara.  The city, always at the horizon, fooled traveler after traveler.  Though they tried, some desperately weary, none could ever reach it.  And the city, as if made with air, became a curse to the desert.  ‘Beware!’ said travelers, ‘of the Myrrha Haajj! ‘None have reached it! Beware of the Mirage!’  Haajj might have left and, if he did, he might even have found a way back.  The blue rose, it is said, was once seen in Cairo!

Rhyme & Meter Online: March 29 2009

  • Many discussions on various forums which, though interesting, are too changeable to reference.
  • If any readers would like to recommend sites or blogs please do! Feel free to recommend your own blog or poem if you like but please don’t post your poem in the comment field (provide a link and the first lines).
  • Search terms used to find these posts: Rhyme, Meter, Formal, Formalist, Poetry

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Newsweek

The End of Verse?

A recent NEA report finds fiction reading on the rise, while readership of poetry has dropped significantly. Is an art form dying?

In January, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report titled “Reading on the Rise,” announcing that the number of American adults reading fiction had increased for the first time since the NEA began tracking reading habits in 1982. According to the report, 50.2 percent of adults had read a work of fiction in the previous year, compared with just 46.7 percent in 2002. The results were greeted with a mixture of excitement and caution by education experts. Some saw them as the long-awaited reversal of the trend toward a dumber, TV-obsessed United States; others, more wary, called them a statistical blip. Almost as an afterthought, the report also noted that the number of adults reading poetry had continued to decline, bringing poetry’s readership to its lowest point in at least 16 years.


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PoemShape

Sir Phillip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets

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

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Poetic meter, rhythm and rhyme

Michael Hickey

Meter is a systematically arranged and measured rhythm pattern in a literary composition, such as poetry. The root meaning of the word comes from the Greek term for measure…. Meter is the linguistic sound pattern of verse. You can imagine it as being a kind of measured beat of a poem. The precise units of poetic meter will vary from language to language and involve the manner in which syllables are arranged in repeated patterns, called feet, within a line…

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Ezine Articles

Holly Bliss

Homer and Hesiod – Greek Poets and Their Poetry Forms

In ancient times, people “would sing the stories of the Trojan War and its Greek heroes; these songs would be the Greek equivalent of a mini-series, for the stories were so long that they would take days to complete. The Greeks believed that the greatest of these story-tellers was a blind man named Homer, and that he sung ten epic poems about the Trojan War, of which only two survived (although the Greeks seem to have known them). As a group these poems told the entire history of the Trojan War; each poem, however, only covered a small part of that history” (Hooker).

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OPTIONS Associates: For a Better World

Time to Rhyme

It’s been a while since I’ve let myself write poetry. My heart hasn’t been in it. Tonight in my Monday night Big Yellow writing group, I decided it’s about time. And not just poetry, but rhymes. I love rhyming, so that’s what I wrote about in poem # 2…

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Women on Top

The Poet Robert Frost

What I find interesting about Frost is that I’ve learned how little poetic license he does take. Frost’s style, or individual method and tone, I read repeatedly, trying to decipher and understand better. I often wonder if Frost was more a master of prose disguised in poetry, as his literary writings seem to me to vary in rhythm and often seem more like ordinary speech. He seems to me to be very much a master of free verse. Furthermore, I feel Frost often wrote allegories, or stories with an underlying meaning symbolized by his characters and their action…

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Stoning the Devil

Formalism and the Pleasure Principle

I make no claims to be an expert where poetic form is concerned, but I want to posit a new possibility that has not, to my knowledge, heretofore been posited. What if someone were to put together post-avant (as it exists now) and formalism? The experiments of poets like Aaron Belz, Kristy Odelius, Robert Archambeau, and other Chicago affiliated poets, have put a proverbial foot in the door, but the door still needs to be kicked open…

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Book reviews: Michael Donaghy

Reviews by JOHN BURNSIDE

Michael Donaghy was, in his quiet way, one of the former: sensing that the Modernist/Postmodern game had gone on for far too long – that the conductors of chaos had, quite simply, lost the plot – he set out on a quest for order in poetry, though it was an order that in no way resembled that of some of those self-proclaimed “new formalists” who, like their opponents in the ludic-but-meaningless camp, were never very good at distinguishing baby from bathwater… In this quest, of course, he was not alone, but he was, for any number of reasons, exemplary, both in his own work, and in his critical understanding of poetics. In his work, form is never less than organic, the artifice is always paradoxically natural. Not surprising, then, that he has been a significant influence on the work of many of our leading poets, both in their thinking about form, and in their work…

Sir Phillip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets

A New Form & a New Meter

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

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

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

The Variety of his Sonnets

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

Astrophil & Stella

Sidney Sonnet 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was Sidney’s aim in all of this?

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

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

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

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

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

Interpreting Sonnet 1

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

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

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

reading might make her know

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

Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain

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

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

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

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

On the Variety of his Sonnets

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

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

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

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

ABBA ABBA ABAB AB

Sonnet 89

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

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

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

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

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

The Sidneyan Sonnet

Sidney Sonnet 80

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

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

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

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

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

Intepreting Sonnet 80

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

Just which lip is he talking about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interpret that how you will.

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

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

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


The Sultan & Winter: Fourth of Several Parts

The Sultan & Winter: Continuing the Third of Several Parts

Haajj didn’t know the boy had been autumn.  He also didn’t know the girl had been spring.  Yet when winter came to visit the Sultan felt very ill at ease.  Winter was disquieting.  His skin was white as paper.  He was thin.  His fingers curled out from his hands like gnarled little branches.  King WinterHe walked slowly.  And, as though to protect him, he always kept a gray cloak wrapped tightly around him.  He never smiled.  Yet of his features, the strangest were his eyes.  If you were to look at him, you might imagine a terribly cruel man.  Yet his eyes were kind, and fragile, and beautiful!  And once you saw them you could never forget them.  If his body seemed ruined, his eyes burned with perfection.

It was long into night when winter came to Haajj.  He had only just celebrated one of his many feasts.  His guests were gone and he, finding himself alone, sat musing at the end of the banquet hall’s giant table.  It seemed, indeed, that he possessed anything a Sultan could want.  He twirled his knife idly in his hand.  Haajj was about to leave when one of the great oaken doors quietly opened and the tall pale figure of winter crept into the room.  Haajj quietly watched as the ghostly figure sat at the opposite end of the table.  It was almost difficult to see him.  Gold and silver candelabras spilled candle light in every direction.  And all the plates, bowls, glasses and bottles collected it.  Haajj peered through all the glitter.

“I have come,” said winter, “to see your most prized possession.”

“Does everyone have a key to my palace?”  asked Haajj.  “The evening is ended.  There is no more food.  We have drunk the wine.  The embers are gray in their beds.  Come back tomorrow.  Then I will grant you audience.”

“I will not go,” said winter, “until I have seen your most prized possession.”
“You will do as I say,” said Haajj, “if you ever wish to see the garden.”
“I do not wish to see the garden,” said winter quietly.  “I have come to see  summer.”
“Summer?”  Haajj felt suddenly ill at ease.  “Who are you?”

“I am nothing,” said winter.  “I am nobody.”

“Surely you would rather see my garden,” said Haajj.  “It is magnificent.  All the world’s flowers are there.  I’ll show you my favorite! – the tiger lily.  Or what about the fringed gentian?  What about the blue columbine?  Or have you seen the small-bracted dayflower?  See the garden!  I’ll show you a place to sleep under the sparkle berry tree.  And you can rub the catkins of the pussy willow against your skin.  You will never find a more beautiful place!”

“I want to know,” said winter quietly, “what does summer look like?”

Haajj was quiet.  He fidgeted.  He didn’t know what summer looked like.  It was the one thing he didn’t possess.  What could he say?  The strange visitor awaited his answer.  Haajj had none.  He needed more time.  He needed to think.  He slumped in his chair, then he straightened.  He rested both his elbows on the table, then he straightened again and rubbed his forehead.

“Come back tomorrow,” Haajj finally said, “if you want to see summer.”

“Very well,” winter said, almost whispering.  The narrow figure stood and walked slowly back to the oaken door.  Without turning, he closed the door behind him.  And Haajj, being sure he was alone, hurriedly left the banquet hall.  Whoever he was, Haajj decided, he were someone to be reckoned with.  He went straight to the tower.  Perhaps he could find a way to trick summer.  If he could entrap her, he could surely find a way to see her.

He climbed the long spiral stairs of the tower.  He peered into her room.  He could see nothing.  Haajj began to pace.  There was an artist, it was said, who could paint all things in their minutest details – nothing escaped his eye.  Perhaps Haajj could not see summer, but surely a great painter could.  He would have summer painted.  Perhaps the strange visitor would be satisfied by a painting.  Haajj at once ordered his guards to summon the painter.  The painting, he knew, would have to be finished by tomorrow.  So all was prepared.  The painter, once he arrived, was told to discern summer wherever she was.  And he was not to sleep until he had done so.

When Haajj awoke the next morning, he at once went to learn of the painter’s progress.  Yet, far from having painted summer, the poor little painter was beside himself with excitement.  He had done nothing.  “I shall have you strung up!” said Haajj furiously.  “Where is my painting of summer?  Did you sleep all night? You are worthless!”

The painter at once fell to his hands and knees.  “O exalted Sultan,” begged the little painter.  “Forgive me!  Spare me!  I am a mere nothing!  I am the spit of a camel!  I am the belly of a lizard!  Spare me, O exalted Sultan!”

“Get up.”  Haajj stared at the empty canvass.  “Why have you done nothing.”
“Last night,” said the painter, still on his knees, “as I was readying myself to paint summer, a strange visitor came.  As I thought you had given explicit orders for no one to disturb me, I at once assumed you  had sent him.  How else should anyone come to the tower but by your permission?  I am miserable.”
“Go on,” said Haajj.
“He asked if I possessed a key to the door.”

“You do not,” said Haajj.
“I did not,” said the painter breathlessly.  “I told the visitor you kept the key hidden.  And that it was forbidden for anyone to inquire as to its hiding place.  Then, I witnessed it with my own eyes, he put his lips to the glass and summer came to him!  I am miserable!”
“Then what happened?” asked Haajj, very worried.

“O exalted Sultan!” cried the little painter, “I could do nothing to stop him!  I am miserable!”

“Yes, yes… miserable.”  Haajj gestured impatiently.  “Get on with it!  What happened?”
“Summer appeared,” said the painter, “and they kissed with the glass between them.  It was a beautiful kiss!  I have never seen anything like it!  When there lips parted, as if from both their mouths, a rose appeared! – a blue rose!  It was like a wisp of smoke at first, then summer touched it and it softened into a blue rose.  It is still in the room!”

Haajj looked.  In the center of the room lay the blue rose.  It lay as if it had just been picked.  It was the most beautiful flower he had ever seen.  Haajj rubbed his chin.
“What did he look like?” Haajj asked.
“He was a tall man,” said the painter.  “I could not see him well.  He wore a gray cloak.  I could only see his face.  I was afraid of him.  I am a painter.  I am miserable.  I am sure he could have crushed me like the snail beneath the Sultan’s exalted foot.”

“It is winter!” said Haajj, who was too clever not to know.  “So this is what happens when winter kisses summer!  We have flowers!  When summer kisses winter?” Haajj mused, “- perhaps snowflakes!”
“What is your will?” asked the painter, back to his hands and knees.  “I am your pathetic servant.”

“You will not leave here until you have painted summer,” said Haajj.  “You are miserable.  You are pathetic.  You are, of course, a genius.  It is said you are the greatest painter in any land.  The eyes of genius miss nothing.  Therefore summer cannot hide from you.  Do not allow yourself to be distracted again.”

Haajj walked slowly down the winding stairs of the great tower deep in thought.  He would need to be very careful.  He would, of course, have to be cleverer than winter.  And what of the blue rose?  Yet something more to torment him.  He wanted it.  Yet if he opened any window summer would be quick as lightning.  As he neared the throne room the Sultan put on his fabulous crown.  And as he walked into the throne room winter was waiting.

“I grant you audience,” said Haajj.  “What do you desire?”
“Will you show me summer?” winter asked.
“I will.”  Haajj seated himself upon his throne.  “Yet first you must tell me where you are from.  And you must also tell me who your parents are.”

Winter had never been asked these questions before.  The Sultan was a clever man.  One does not ask the river where it was  born nor who its parents are.  Winter mused.  The answer could not be careless.  It would not do to be outwitted by a Sultan.
“Will you show me summer when I have answered,” winter asked.
“I will,” said the emperor, “when you tell me where you are from and who your parents are.  If you cannot answer I you will not see summer.”
“I shall return in morning,” said winter, “with my answer.”

Rhyme & Meter Online: March 22, 2009

  • A belated post this week. Not as much but I’ll add more if I find more (or by your recommendations).
  • Many discussions on various forums which, though interesting, are too changeable to reference.
  • If any readers would like to recommend sites or blogs please do! Feel free to recommend your own blog or poem if you like but please don’t post your poem in the comment field (provide a link and the first lines).
  • Search terms used to find these posts: Rhyme, Meter, Formal, Formalist, Poetry

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BennyThomas’s Weblog


Pen portraits-14

GEOFFREY CHAUCER (British)  (1340  –  1400)
Poet.

He was the fist poet to write in modern English. “He found his native tongue a dialect and left it a language”.
Son of a well to do wine merchant, he lived in the troubled times. He served in the army for some time. He was taken prisoner by the French and released only after the peace of Bretigny was signed in May 1360. He served as one of the valets of the King’s chamber and went abroad on embassies and missions. In 1366 he married one who was closely connected with the court. In 1372 he visited Genoa, Pisa and Florence. In 1382 he was appointed as comptroller of the Petty Customs and shortly after he left London for Greenwich, where he spent most of his remaining years, until just before his death, when he took a house near the Chapel of St. Mary in Westminister. In 1386 he was elected as a Knight of the shire for Kent in the Parliament. By 1389 Richard II appointed him clerk of the King’s works at Westminister...

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8th Annual Pleasanton
Poetry, Prose & Arts Festival Overview

Dana Gioia is a poet, critic and best-selling anthologist. He recently served as Chair for the National Endowment for the Arts. He is one of America’s leading contemporary men of letters. Winner of the American Book Award, Gioia is internationally recognized for his role in reviving rhyme, meter and narrative in contemporary poetry. He combines populist ideals and high standards to bring poetry to a broader audience…

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Poetics and Ruminations

The Poetry of Black Power and Black Mountain

Langston Hughes (1902-67) was among the first American Blacks to make a living as a writer.  Although he was associated with the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s and ’30s, he lived into the 1960s, “The Decade of Protest.”  As Richard K. Barksdale showed in Langston Hughes and His Critics (1977), Hughes’ output was enormous, and it covered the field; he wrote drama, fiction, autobiography, libretti for musicals, opera, and a cantata — but it is as a poet that he stood as a model for post-Modernist Blacks such as Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks (see elsewhere on this blog), Amiri Baraka, and Don L. Lee. Although Hughes was accused of being the next thing to a member of the literary establishment and of not writing enough consciousness-raising material, he was in fact the first to write civil rights protest poetry that was identifiable as such, and he did it when it was quite dangerous to do so, long before it was fashionable.

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PoemShape

John Donne & the Meter of Death be not Proud…

At the Poetry Foundation I’ve been involved in an interesting discussion on John Donne’s Sonnet: Death be not proud… As part of the discussion I started searching the web to see what others had written. (I especially wanted to find readings and performances.) But, to my astonishment, I saw that everyone was misreading the poem!

As it turns out, this Sonnet (like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116) is one of the most misread sonnets in the English Language.

The Sultan & Winter: Third of Several Parts

The Sultan & Winter: Continuing the Second of Several Parts

A red carpet stretched the length of Haajj’s throne room.  It ran beneath towering marble arches, between long rows of glistening soldiers, until it ended at the feet of Haajj’s throne.  As always, he sat above any visitor, giving them only the briefest time.  King WinterHe was a Sultan with much on his mind.  And they, as always, came to see the garden.  It pleased Haajj.  It was his garden.  And his guests liked him for his garden.  Then, not long after the boy had come, a young girl came.  She was hardly what she seemed.  Her beauty astounded.  Her perfection enraptured.  She was love in the heart.  She robbed everyone of their selfishness.

She walked where she wished.  None questioned her.  The doors opened whichever way she chose.  She wore no shoes.  Her hair was white.  Her clothes were mixed with green and gold.  The sun danced through her legs and arms.  She was as a little princess. In her every movement she somehow summoned beauty.  Yet she glanced at all with a wary cleverness.  When she entered the throne room Haajj leaned forward to see better who it might be.  “Who are you?” he asked.  “You seem a child and yet I think you are older.”

“I am neither.”  The girl laughed sweetly.  “I have come to tell you a story.”
“Surely,” said the Sultan, “you would rather play in my garden.”
“Surely.”  The girl smiled.  “I have come to see you!”
“I am a busy man,” said Haajj.  “I am a Sultan!  What time do I have for your story?”
“You will listen.”  The girl shook a finger at him.  “I will speak to you and you will listen.  It is a long story.  It touches upon you.  You must listen to it all.”

Never before had anyone dared to speak to him so.  “Yes.”  He could think of nothing better to say.  “Yes.  You will tell me a story.  I command you to tell me a story.  You have traveled some distance to tell me a story, so it befits me to listen to your story.  I am listening.”

The girl sighed, stretched till she stood tip-toe, then relaxed.  “Once upon a time there was a poor plowman with barely enough land to feed him through the winter.  He had no children.  He had a poor little dog which always stayed by his side.  And he had a wife with whom he shared his few possessions.  He asked little from fate and fate answered with little.  Yet one winter came when even all his summer’s toil left not enough to spread across a dinner table.  The plowman felt his bitterness deeply.  His silence broke and  he angrily marched into the night.  He would finally speak with fate.

‘I am a poor plowman!’ he cried.  ‘Have I ever asked to be wealthy?  Have I envied my neighbor?  Have I stolen from my friend?  Have I ever desired more than what befit me?  Why must I suffer this daily sorrow?  All I ask is to reap what I sow!’

With these words a dark being appeared before him.  It seemed neither there nor absent.  ‘Poor plowman,’ it whispered, ‘since you ask I am come to answer.  You toil all your life and never asked for more than life.  Among the loved you are beloved especially.  I may grant you whatever you wish.  You have lived poor in body yet rich in soul.  You may still live so if you desire.  Though it is winter spring must follow.  Yet I may grant you more if you ask.’

‘I am old,’ said the plowman.  ‘My bones are brittle.  My wife cannot undo the knots she ties.  The cold has carved a place out of our spirit.  Even my poor dog cannot sleep at night for the bruising of his ribs.  What will you grant me?  I will live better if I may.’

‘So be it,’ the shadow answered.  ‘Take your baskets tonight, with which you collect your harvest, and hang them, as many as you have, from the pomegranate tree.  And, come morning, they will be filled with golden pomegranates.  Yet, be warned, let none of the golden fruit touch the earth so long as you possess it.’

The plowman at once hung all his baskets from his only pomegranate tree.  It being the depth of winter, and he being old and easily chilled, the plowman quickly went back to the warmth of his hut.  When he woke the next morning he indeed found the baskets full of golden pomegranates.  The poor plowman nearly danced for joy.  He carefully pulled each precious basket from each branch.  They were just what he needed.  He went, that day, and bought enough food to last through the winter.  All with one  golden pomegranate.

A month passed.  The plowman once again hung his baskets from the pomegranate tree.  When he gathered them the next morning, he was drunk with delight.  They were filled with twice as many golden pomegranates!  And so, by the end of the day, he’d bought a house and farm with cattle, sheep, and horses.  The old plowman relished his happiness.  Yet each day seemed to breed more and more of the little desires in him.  Soon, though his wife was content, he wanted just a little more.

And so, one day, he returned with his baskets fuller than ever.  The old plowman’s wife looked at him unhappily.  ‘I have never seen you walk so slowly,’ she sighed.

‘My load is heavy and I must not drop it,’ answered the old plowman.  ‘My baskets are each full of a hundred pomegranates with which I shall buy so many workers.’

‘Your back is bent and your steps grow weary,’ answered his wife.  ‘You do not dance as you once did, when you carried hundred pears in your sack.’

‘I shall buy a hundred workers,’ answered the old plowman, ‘and we shall dine upon pears, and we shall dance to music, night after night after night.
‘So many golden pomegranates will break your back,’ she answered.  ‘Give some to your friends so they may love you and help you bear your burdens.’

The old plowman, however, wouldn’t listen to his wife.  He was the wealthiest in all the country.  He soon forget he had ever been old or poor.  And soon he treated his friends with forgetfulness.  Yet he was noticed by the emperor.  When he learned that a plowman was richer than he, he at once set out to tax him until he, again, was the richer.  The plowman, knowing nothing of the emperor’s plans, could do little when the tax man came.  He was forced to give over most of his wealth.  The old man was filled with rage and anger.

The very next day he hung basket after basket from the branches of the tree.  The old man at once commanded his workers to carefully collect each one.  And during the weeks that followed he gathered together a tremendous army.  He meant to conquer the emperor.  He couldn’t brook being taxed.  He exercised his army day after day.  He bought them uniforms, guns, and canons.  He taught them how to quickly slay the enemy.  He became a severe and cruel general.

No one loved him.  Even the old man’s dog feared to walk beside him anymore.  And when the dog finally perished, his master never noticed.  In less than a year the plowman defeated the emperor and became, himself, the emperor.  Yet the old man remembered only that he had struggled lifelong.  He couldn’t remember the times he’d laughed or paused to play.  He remembered only that discipline had brought him wealth.  And so he robbed his country of any happiness.

‘Yet why must the people suffer?’ asked his wife.  ‘For whatever reason fate has brought you here, if it has been cruel to you it has been good as well.  Do not remember only the cruelty.  Be good to the people.  Be better than fate has been to you.  If you cannot love your past, do not despise their future, sweet husband.  Give them some joy.’

The old man brooded.  Fate had indeed been cruel to him.  He could not understand his wife’s words.  His unhappy thoughts left him alone among his people.  And when, one day, his wife would not come to him, then he was truly alone.  When people came to him, his unhappiness left him easily angered.  ‘If you are starving,’ he said to them, ‘then go back and scold the hands which idled in your pockets when it was time to sow!’  And the old man sent them away.

Finally, his unhappiness all but consumed him.  He had everything he had ever dreamed of, yet no one to share it with.  He taught his people by hardship, as he had taught himself.  And he believed it was the best way to live happily.  Yet none of these things brought any happiness.  Each day left him lonelier than the day before.  Each night he slept less.  His mind grew thick with heaviness. His old heart grew small and weary with sorrow.  At last he could bear no more.  He returned to find the spirit which had granted him so many wishes.

‘Where are you spirit?’ he cried.  ‘I’m tired!  I’m old!  I have a winter inside me so cold!  And I… I can find no fire to warm it!  Help me!  Come out, spirit!’
‘I’ve come.’  The strange figure appeared before him again.  ‘What is it, poor plowman?’

‘You must help me!’  The old plowman fell, weeping, to his hands and knees.  ‘When I was poor, I had a wife!  She loved me!  If it were cold outside, then how gladly she loved me!  If it were her moments of grace, the soft look of her eyes, or the sorrows of her changing face, I loved her nonetheless.  She has fled!  Spirit! – I do not want to be hated by all!  I have been cruel!  She has fled!  Spirit! – I would give all to have her back!’

‘Kindness,’ answered the shadow, ‘cannot be given.  It can only be offered.’
‘Giving?  Offering?’ cried the old man.  ‘They are the same!’
‘How can you know what another loves?’ asked the shadow.  ‘Offer – and what is loved will be taken.  Give – and what is given may not be loved.’
‘I desire only the happiness of my people!’  cried the old plowman.

‘And your happiness?’ asked the shadow.  ‘Tell me where you have lost it, old plowman.  You did not teach each plant how to bear its seed.  You did not instruct each how to unfurl its leaves, nor how many leaves should be borne by each branch, nor how, in what way, nor in which direction each plant should spread itself over the earth.  You loved each as it was and each, as it was, gave to you the fruit which nourished you.  The good emperor is the good farmer.  Do this and find happiness.  If you do not, though you be surrounded by a summer of wealth, the winter which is in you shall freeze your heart till it stop with ice.’

‘I ask only to create happiness,’ wept the plowman.
‘Poor plowman,’ whispered the shadow, ‘would you control destiny?’

The old man clamored to his feet but the shadow melted away.  Still he was resolute.  If he could rule a land, he could command the world.  He made his wish and hung his baskets from  the tree.  Yet he forgot the warning he’d first been given.  No golden pomegranate could touch the earth.  Yet to wish the world, a thing infinite in price, is to wish what created it.  The golden pomegranates might have reaached into the sky but the little tree shuddered and, one by one, the baskets each slipped off their branches.  Nothing could bear so much weight.  The pomegranates turned to rock as they struck the earth, and the plowman’s wealth crumbled with it.  The next morning, his empire was no more.  The people turned against him.  And his name was forever forgotten.”

“I like it not,” said Haajj to the little girl.  “A plowman an emperor?  Never!  I like it not!  It is too fanciful – too long!  You spend too much time in the detail – too many words!”

“Alas,” said the girl, “which words would you have me take out?  You have not listened to my story.  And ’tis a thousand pities.”

Continued: The Fourth of Several Parts

John Donne & the Meter of Death be not Proud…

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  • April 23 2009: My One 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. :-)

Donne Wrong

Great Poetry, to me, is like great wine. It takes a lot of wine-tastings to recognize, describe and appreciate great wine. There’s a whole vocabulary and I confess, I don’t know it. I wish I did. So, if someone wants to recommend a good blog or site for the art of wine tasting, let me know. This is my version of the same for poetry.

John DonneAt the Poetry Foundation I’ve been involved in an interesting discussion on John Donne’s Sonnet: Death be not proud… As part of the discussion I started searching the web to see what others had written. (I especially wanted to find readings and performances.) But, to my astonishment, I saw that everyone was misreading the poem!

As it turns out, this Sonnet (like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116) is one of the most misread sonnets in the English Language.

Julian Glover offers a (sort of) period performance in front of a suitably medieval fireplace. Glover was trained with the Royal Shakespeare Co. and, of all actors, should know how to perform Iambic Pentameter. But, astonishingly, Glover misreads it. He’s not alone. I couldn’t find a Youtube performance that reads the Sonnet correctly.

Audio recordings? I checked out the Gutenberg Project and Librivox. They misread it too!

What do they get wrong? Consider the first line:

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee….

They all pronounce the word called as monosyllabic. It’s not. It’s disyllabic – pronounced callèd. Death be not proud.... CD by Britten & BostridgeHere it is, performed correctly in  a composition by Benjamin Britten (who music’d all of Donne’s Holy Sonnets). The performance is by Ian Bostridge and clicking on the CD’s image will take you to Amazon:

However, if that’s not evidence enough, here’s something from a composer much closer to Donne’s lifetime – G.F. Handel:

…and His name shall be callèd Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God…

If you listen carefully, you will notice that Handel, and presumably his librettist Charles Jennens, treated callèd as a two syllable  word. While the pronunciation of the past tense èd was rapidly fading from common parlance, it was still alive and well in poetic convention even a hundred years after Donne’s career. In Donne’s own day, when language was much more in flux, this older pronunciation could be found in common parlance too. For this reason, since spelling had not been standardized in Elizabethan times, poets frequently, though not always, used spelling to indicate whether the –ed should be pronounced. In Donne’s case, rather than spelling called as call’d or calld, which was frequently done with other words, he left the e intact.

Here are some other examples from a facsimile addition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

Powre instead of Power
flowre instead of flower
alter’d instead of altered
conquerd instead of conquered
purposd instead of purposed

In all these examples, the e has either shifted position or has been removed and in all these examples, the e was not meant to be pronounced. On the other hand, consider the following:

Sonnet 116 ever-fixed mark
Sonnet 92 assured mine
Sonnet 81 entombed in men’s eyes
Sonnet 66 disabled

In all these examples, the e was left intact. Modern day editors, in an effort to make sure the words are pronounced correctly, write them as follows: ever-fixèd mark; assurèd mine; entombèd in men’s eyes; disablèd.

They also modernize the spellings of words like conquerd (since there’s no longer any risk that a reader will mispronounce  conquered as conquerèd). The end result is that reader’s aren’t exposed to the kinds of devices Shakespeare and others used to signal pronunciation.

Donne Right

Here is a scansion of Donne’s poem.  Purple indicates a spondaic foot. Red indicates a trochaic foot. These colors are my own invention. As far as I know, I’m the only one to use this sort of scheme.

Death be not proud - Color Coded Scansion

July 27 2009: Me reading the poem

I’ve had some requests to read this poem the way it might have sounded in Donne’s day. So.  Mea culpa. I apologize profusely to all actors who can wear an accent as though they were born to it.  And I apologize to every reader who speaks the Queen’s English. You must be horrified. I invite any of you to send me a proper MP3, and I will dutifully add it to this post.

I accept all criticism.

Here’s the reason for my effort.What may sound like slant rhymes in our day, eternally and die, were probably much closer, if not identical, in Donne’s day. While nobody can recreate the accents of the Elizabethans, we can make educated guesses based on the kinds of words they rhymed. According to what I’ve read, many scholars think that the London accent of Elizabethan times may have actually sounded just a touch more American than British –  think of the classic Pirate’s accent in movies. London was a sea-faring city.

I’m trying out my second recording. I tried too hard with some of the accent.  I think I’ll try again, maybe later today.

The First Line

line-1

So, let’s go line by line. The first line, like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, seems to give modern readers the most trouble – readers unaccustomed to reading Iambic Pentameter. Here is how many readers read it:

tetrameter-reading

This makes the line Iambic Tetrameter with three variant feet: a headless first foot, an anapestic second foot, and a feminine ending. Historically, Donne would never have written a line like this as part of a sonnet, let alone as the first line. There is no Elizabethan who wrote anything like this in any of their sonnets. Just as in music, there were conventions and rules. Iambic Pentameter was still relatively new and poets wanted to master it, not break it. The reading above, a thoroughly modern reading, would have been scandalous and ridiculed.

Here is another version I have heard among modern readers:

modern-pentameter-reading

This makes the line Pentameter, but not very Iambic. Every single foot is a variant foot: a headless first foot, trochaic second third and fourth, and a spondaic final foot. Donne would have been ridiculed as incompetent. Some readers, continue the trochaic reading through to the end (making the line Trochaic Pantemeter) :

modern-pentameter-reading-trochaic-ending

No Elizabethan poet would have offered up a trochaic final foot – let alone a trochaic line within the span of a Sonnet. The trochaic final foot, with an Iambic Pentameter pattern, didn’t show up regularly until the start of the 20th Century. Between these three scansions there are variations but these examples cover most of them. Some of the misreadings occur because readers simply aren’t used to reading meter, and some because readers, misreading callèd, simply don’t know what to make of the line.

What is worth noticing in all these readings is that DEATH receives the stress. As modern readers, we want to read the sonnet as though Donne were addressing a character on stage. Hey, Death! But that’s not the story meter tells.

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 tells us that the subject of Donne’s sonnet is Death’s Pride. it’s the verb be that receives the iambic stress, not DEATH (though DEATH should still receive more emphasis than otherwise). The reason be receives the stress is because this is a sonnet about DEATH’s disposition, his pride, his state of being.

DEATH be | not proud, | though some | have call|ed thee

Recognizing called as disyllabic allows us to read the line iambically – more easily making sense of the first two feet.

The Second Line

line-2

The second line is still problematic for modern readers:

Mighty |and dread|full, for, |thou art | not so,

The stumbling block is usually the fourth and fifth foot, which readers are apt to read as:

Mighty |and dread|full, for,| (thou art |not so),

And this precisely how Glover reads the line. No, no, no,no… One might concede the trochaic fourth foot as a matter of interpretation, but never a trochaic final foot, not in Elizabethan times – not even Milton, in the entirety of Paradise lost, writes a single trochaic final foot (unless we anachronistically pronounce the word).

In poetry of this period, if one can read a foot as Iambic, then one probably should. Even though it’s possible that Donne read the fourth foot as trochaic, all we know for certain is that he was writing Iambic Pentameter and that the verb art is in a (stress) position. Besides stress, Glover’s reading misses Donne’s argument. Placing stress on the verb art echoes the first line’s be. There is a parallelism at work, a kind of Epanalepsis wherein a word or phrase at the start of a sentence is repeated  at the end of the same or adjoining sentence:

DEATH | be |not |proud
Thou      |art |not |so

In both cases, the verb “to be” receives the emphasis. Donne is addressing Death’s being which, he will argue, is a non-being. The play on the verb “to be” and being may or may not be a part of Donne’s intentions, but the idea is present in the poem and, perhaps, gains some credence by Donne’s stressing of the verb “to be” in both the first and second line – which, besides the meter, is another reason I choose to stress the verb be over the inactive noun DEATH.

The Third Line

line-3

This line offers up another curve ball for modern readers. Many will read it as a  Tetrameter line (see the Youtube videos):

line-3-tetrameter-reading

Green, as with all my scansions, represents an anapestic foot.

So, with many modern readers (including Glover again), we’ve already introduced two tetrameter lines within the first three lines. No metrical pattern is established and Donne’s Sonnet is effectively remade as a rhyming free verse poem.

Again, if you were scanning this poem, warning flags should be flying. No Elizabethan poet, within the confines of Sonnet, ever varied the number of feet from one line to the next. Never.

A masterfully written metrical poem tells us two stories: If we read the third line as Iambic Pentameter, the meter begins to tell us something. This isn’t a sonnet to be recited, meditatively, in front of a fireplace. This is a sonnet, god damn-it, of vehemence – an argument asserted forcefully. The Elizabethans were a fierce and gameful bunch and Donne was famed for his sermons.

For, those | whom thou | thinks’t, thou | dost o | verthrow

There is derision and defiace in those words!  This is a sonnet of defiance. Consider the first two lines in light of the what the meter is telling us:

DEATH be |not proud, |though some |have call|ed thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, |thou art |not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,

Observe the repeated thou’s. Donne is almost spitting the personal pronoun. You think you’re so great? Is that what you think?

The Fourth Line

line-4

donne-shroud-monumentThis line is perhaps the least problematic of the first quatrain, but the fourth foot is still apt to trip up modern readers. Readers may want to read it as follows:

1                 2                      3                4                        5

Die not,| poor death, |nor yet |canst thou |kill me

We know already that the trochaic fifth foot can’t be right. If one reads the fourth foot as trochaic, then the reader is not only subverting the meter of the poem, but the tale the meter is telling us, the vehemence and defiance of them. Yet again, Donne throws defiance in DEATH’s face with another thou.

DEATH be |not proud, |though some |have call|ed thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, |thou art |not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not,| poor death, |nor yet |canst thou |kill me

After the third stressed thou, I find it hard not to read derision in Donne’s verse. This is no fireside chat. This is a sonnet by a man obsessed with death; who, several weeks before his death, posed in his own death shroud for the making of his final monument.

The Second Quatrain

second-quatrain

The second quatrain is the least problematic for modern readers. One could read the third foot of the third line as spondaic – both best and men receiving, essentially, the same stress.

And soon|est our |best men |with thee |doe goe,

More to the point is the change in tone from the first quatrain. There is less a feeling of derision and more a tone of confidence and certainty. The meter, accordingly, is smoother and confidently asserts itself. It’s hard to read the four lines as anything but Iambic Pentameter. The first foot in the second line, which I’ve marked as being spondaic, could also be read iambically. There us an almost jubilant certainty in content and meter.

In terms of content. A common conceit was to consider sleep a kind of death. This is what Donne means when he refers to rest and sleep as death’s “pictures”. Sleep and rest are false “pictures” of death, imitations. Sleep and rest were considered healing and restorative. So, says Donne, if sleep and death are but an imitation (a picture) of death, then death itself must be all the more healing and restorative. Much pleasure, he writes in the wise, must flow from death, “much more” than the false pictures of rest and sleep. Brave men must go with death, but it is their soul’s delivery.

The Third Quatrain

the-third-quatrain1

The third quatrain illustrates what made Donne’s meter  rough and inelegant to his contemporaries. Ben Jonson was quoted as having said: “Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging.” Even two hundred years later, literary historian Henry Hallam considered Donne the “most inharmonius of our versifiers, if he can be said to have deserved such a name by lines too rugged to seem metre.” Right up to 1899, Francis Thompson was describing Donne’s poetry as “punget, clever, with metre like a rope all hanks and knots.”

Thomas Carew, a contemporary, wrote in his elegy to Donne:

Our stubborne language bends, made only fit
With her tough-thick-rib’d hoopes to gird about
Thy Giant phansie

Carew praised Donne’s meter for it’s “masculine expression”.  Dryden, on the other hand, wished that Donne “had taken care of his words, and of his numbers [numbers was a popular term for meter] eschewing in particular his habitual rough cadence. (For most of these quotes, I’m indebted to  C.A. Partrides Everyman’s Library introduction to Donne’s complete poems.) It was lines like the following that they were referring to:

Th’art slave to FateChance, kings, and desperate men

The very lines that we, as modern readers, relish and enjoy.

In his own day and for generations afterward, these lines were idiosyncratic departures.  I scanned it the way Donne’s contemporaries would have tried to read it – which is possibly the way Donne himself imagined it. I do know that he was working within the confines of an art form that was still fairly new and that too much departure from metrical pattern wasn’t seen is innovative but as incompetent. Anapestic variant feet, within the confines of a sonnet, were  rare. To have three anapestic feet within one quatrain would have been extremely unlikely.

The first line is the easiest to read as Iambic:

Th’art slave | to Fate, | Chance, kings, |and des|p’rate men

Since most of us pronounce desperate as disyllabic (desp’rate), reading the last foot as Iambic (rather than anapestic) probably isn’t a stretch.

If the elision of thou art to th’art seems farfetched, here’s some precedent by Donne’s contemporary Shakespeare:

Hamlet V. ii

As th’art a man,
Give me the cup. Let go! By heaven, I’ll ha’t.

Taming of the Shrew I. ii

And yet I’ll promise thee she shall be rich,
And very rich; but th’art too much my friend,
And I’ll not wish thee to her.

Taming of the Shrew IV. iv

Th’art a tall fellow; hold thee that to drink.
Here comes Baptista. Set your countenance, sir.

One might object that Donne hasn’t elided Thou art and therefore means for us to read the first foot as anapestic, but this doesn’t acknowledge poetic practice during his own day. (It’s also possible that he did, but that the printer didn’t correctly reproduce Donne’s text.) In the first line, when Donne didn’t accent callèd, he omitted the accent  first, because they didn’t use the grave accent, and secondly, because it was assumed that readers would properly read the word. The Elizabethan audience knew how to read Iambic Pentameter. And since literacy was limited to a fairly limited and educated class, this was a safe assumption. Likewise, and given the strong (and new) expectations surrounding Iambic Pentameter, it was assumed that the reader would elide Thou art to read Th’art. Generally, if a first word ends with a vowel and the second begins with a vowel, and if an Anapest can be reduced to an Iamb by doing so, one probably should.  These were the poetic conventions of the day. Poets expected their readers to understand them. Even modern speakers naturally elide such words without a second thought.

And pop|pie’r charmes | can make |us sleepe |as well,

This reading may seem controversial but it’s not so farfetched. Say “poppy or charms” over and over to yourself and you will find that you naturally elide the vowels. It’s simply the way the English langauge is spoken. Donne takes advantage of this to fit extra words into his meter.

I’m not trying to regularize Donne’s meter.

  • The point of studying meter, to me, isn’t to fit the poetry to the meter, but to see how understanding meter can teach us something about the poem and how the poet might have exploited it.

Even if we elide all the feet as I have suggested, Donne’s practice still stretches the conventions of his own day. His lines still have an anapestic ring to them. The elision can’t make the extra syllable wholly disappear. He still doesn’t quite keep the accent and still, as Jonson said, deserves hanging. My reason for scanning it this way is to give modern readers an idea of how Donne probably imagined the sonnet.

And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;

Ostensibly, the word swell refers to DEATH’s pride, but Donne also plays on the image of the bloated corpse, a common site in Donne’s plague-ridden day.

The Final Couplet

the-final-couplet

The final couplet offers a few more opportunities for tripping up. Modern readers are apt to read the lines as follows:

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

This reading, though, misses the emphasis of Donne’s closing and triumphant argument. If read with the meter, watch what happens:

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Donne’s emphasis is on short. This is not an eternal sleep that awaits us but a short one before we wake eternally. But it’s in the second line that the importance of the meter really makes itself felt. Donne reminds us of the opening lines, of his emphasis on the verb to be:

DEATH | be |not |proud
Thou      |art |not |so

And he adds:

DEATH | be |not |proud
Thou      |art |not |so
shall       | be | no  | more

Donne defies Death’s being, making him no more – a no being. It’s not me who will die, says Donne to DEATH, but thou. Thou shalt die!

A Note on the Structure

The structure of the poem is probably most closely related to Sidney’s Sonnets, in terms of Rhyme Scheme, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets (or the English Sonnet) in that 3 quatrains lead to a final, epigrammatic couplet. With typical Elizabethan rigorousness, Donne hammers out his argument. The effect is a little different though. Each of the quatrians encloses its own couplet (see the brackets). The effect subliminally dilutes the power of the final couplet while strengthening (to me) the unity of the sonnet. The rhyme scheme, which limits itself to only 4 distinct rhymes, as opposed to Shakespeare’s 7, also lends to the poem a feeling of organic wholeness and clarity. One can only speculate why Donne chose this rhyme scheme, unique among all the other sonnets being written during his day. For a look at the other sonnets being written in his day, see my post on Shakespeare, Spenserian and Petrarchan Sonnets.

If you enjoyed this post, found it helpful, or have a question, please comment!