John Donne & the Meter of Death be not Proud…

84 responses

  1. Wow! I am an English major at UC Berkeley (a junior now) and I have to say that no professor here has made me appreciation meter in poetry as much as this single post has done. I originally found your blog because of something you had written about Frost and “Birches” (I was writing an essay on that same poem at the time). Spring break just having arrived, I wanted to check the site again to see what else I could find.

    I am very happy that I did.

    The blog that my name links to is used for some poems and other creative things, but it is all really childish stuff…. I definitely have a lot to learn!

  2. Thank you so much for the encouragement. If I weren’t sitting in my car, outside a library. I would write more! Hopefully I’ll get a replacement DSL modem today.

  3. Hi, I’m an Italian teacher of English who’s just come across your blog while surfing around to find the correct pronunciation of supposedly rhymed lines 6-8, and 22-24 in Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”:
    (…)
    No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move
    (…)
    To tell the laity our love

    (…)
    Though I must go, endure not yet
    (…)
    Like gold to airy thinness beat

    I’ve heard Burton’s recitation of this poem but he pronounces those endings using modern English phonetics, and therefore they do not rhyme. But shouldn’t they?

    Thanks for your help

    P.S. Excellent analyses and nice pseudo-Donne puns: “Donne wrong” “Donne right”

    • Hi Maurizio,

      The short answer is that no one knows exactly how the Elizabethans pronounced English. That accent or pronuncation, like Latin, is gone forever.

      The long answer is that we can make educated guesses. Some have made the argument, based on rhymes, puns and wordplay, that certain aspects of their pronunciation may have actually had more in common with some pockets of American English.

      If you go to the University of California website, you can hear a pronunciation of reason – which was closer to raisin. Since spelling wasn’t normalized during the Elizabethan period, many words were spelled the way they sounded. You will notice that beat uses the same vowel combination as reason. Odds are, yet and beat were both pronounced with something like a “long a” – something like yate/bate.

      Love was probably pronounced with something like a Beatle’s Liverpool accent, so that it sounded more like the double “o” sound in the verb look. I have searched for an actual reading but couldn’t find one. If you specifically ask me to, I would be willing to try a reading of it? – just to give you an idea.

      At the Renaissance Faire, you might find more guidance.

      Nowadays we tend the call these eye-rhymes.

      Anyway, as I say, if you want me to give this poem a try (to read it) let me know.

    • I would love it so much, and since you volunteer please give it a try (a reading). Thanks a lot

  4. Your posts really do interest me, and though you and I know that I do not write poetry by the book, or shall we say, how other people think I should write poetry, this does not mean that I dont enjoying reading posts/poetry like yours or alike.

    I have a new post up – my style ;)

  5. Thank your for your rigorous analysis of the meter in Donne’s “Holy Sonnet X”. These formal aspects are too often overlooked. Thanks for making the effort. Very stimulating. Bravo!

    -Vincent. (In answer to your one request: I study philosophy (maj), French lit (maj) and English lit (min) at Uni of Lausanne, Switzerland.

  6. Goode evening,
    Hope that you are having a good weekend.
    I wanted to thank you also for including my poem.
    Take care
    Stacey :D

    P.S…. I love the little green character, it’s so me ;D

  7. peace be upon you. I’m a studant in English Literature Department in K.S.A thank you very much for this explaination i’ve just read part of it and I’m raelly enjoyed it and i hope that i have planty of time to raed it all but i have an exam tomorrow and i should prepare well to make up the mid term exam. these information help me a lot. MAY GOD BLESS YOU

  8. Peace be upon you sir. thank you very much for this analysis. when I read it I realize how ignorant in poetry I am as we say in Arabic “More I learn, more I am an ignorant” I don’t know if i translate this line of verse properly but the meaning is we should not stop to learn. For this I would like to ask you a favor; first can I find an analysis for “Ballad Of Birmingham” and “God’s Will for You and Me” in this website. And the second can you tell me about any sources which help me to learn the basic principles of English poetry . I’m looking for your help with all my thanks. by the way excuse me if I made any mistake either grammatically or in spelling I’m just a learner

    • Hello Marvareid, I’m equally ignorant of Arabic poetry. If you ever want to translate and analyze your favorite Arabic poem, for inclusion on this website, let me know. I’d be glad to proof your English.

      I haven’t analyzed “Ballad Of Birmingham”, but would be willing to do so. “God’s Will for You and Me”, if it’s the poem by anonymous, is straightforward. The meaning of the poem and its subject matter are one and the same. As I say, very straightforward:

      GOD’S WILL FOR YOU AND ME

      Just to be tender, just to be true,
      Just to be glad the whole day through,
      Just to be merciful, just to be mild,
      Just to be trustful as a child,
      Just to be gentle and kind and sweet,
      Just to be helpful with willing feet,
      Just to be cheery when things go wrong,
      Just to drive sadness away with a song,
      Whether the hour is dark or bright,
      Just to be loyal to God and right,
      Just to beleive that God knows best,
      Just in his promises ever to rest.
      Just to let love be our daily key,
      That is God’s will for you and me.

      The form is rhyming couplets (though these are not heroic couplets because they aren’t Iambic Pentameter) and the meter is accentual, as opposed to accentual syllabic. What this means is that the syllable count varies from line to line. (There is no regular syllabic count.) Some lines have eight syllables, some have ten. In accentual verse what matters is not how many syllables there are per line, but how many stresses or accents. In each line of the poem, there are four accented syllables. That means that four syllables receive a strong stress while the rest receive a weak stress. Most nursery rhymes, in English, are accentual. Most Rap (listen to Arabic rap) is accentual.

      If you have more questions, let me know. : )

      By the way, as to the basic principles of English Poetry, that’s an extremely broad question. You will have to be more specific. After all, the basic principles of English Poetry are probably universal – meaning that they are the same in Arabic as in English as in Chinese.

  9. Peace be upon you. thank you very much for this help I’m really appreciate your kindness and glad to find someone who can help me to learn more and more. About the translation of the Arabic poetry I think it’s something difficult for a beginner for it might spoil the meaning of the poem I need to be skilled in English language first and than to master poetry as Ben Jonson says and I hope to be able to do so in the future. I considered myself your student and it will be my pleasure if you accept me to be so. MAY GOD BLESS YOU

  10. Pingback: Death be not proud « bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

  11. Pingback: Ryme & Meter Written and Online • September 13 2009 « PoemShape

    • Cool. I’ve only driven through MN while on the way to Washington, State.

      Does this look familiar? It was about the only image I could find of the campus.

      Thanks for the comment. I wish more readers would say Hello. It’s a little like getting to travel.

  12. Actually, no I dont recognize that. It must be coming from an angle I never come from. Here’s a link to google images that has a bunch of pics:

    http://images.google.com/images?hl=en&rlz=1B3GGGL_enUS240US241&um=1&q=hamline+university&sa=N&start=0&ndsp=21

    Hamline is a pretty small, private school that I could never have afforded if it wasnt for scholarships. Nice place though, and they have a great English program.

    Thanks again, I have found myself coming back to this page again and again for help.

  13. Hello, Patrick,

    Very interesting and informative. Until you explained how it was to be heard, I hadn’t appreciated Donne’s spitting derision of death and consequently hadn’t appreciated the sonnet. You should be teaching. Sadly, a Ph.D. is required, while breadth of knowledge, love of subject matter and teaching ability are nice but not necessary.

    A typo you may want to fix, that proves you write by ear and not by eye (of course, you’re a poet): “I do know that he was working within the confines of an art form that was still fairly knew ….” And by you fairly known. Donne, well done, indeed!

  14. Great blog! I’m a high school lit. teacher in CA. I was searching for a place where I could check my Donne scansion in prep for my advanced group. If I didn’t have a worldwide web, I’d want to hang him too. No, I like his work. I really enjoyed your comments, but I loved your oral reading of the poem! I think my students will too.

    • I think you’re the first to comment on my reading. Thanks!

      I always wonder if folks just roll their eyes when they listen to it. Maybe I’ll try Donne’s other sonnet? I’m going to be in San Diego this spring, anywhere near there?

  15. Hello! I’m an undergrad English student from Oslo, Norway. I keep coming back to this website as it has the most comprehensive treatment of (selected items of) English poetry I have found anywhere online. I too wrote a paper on Frost’s “Birches” and found your scansion invaluable! Thank you so much for the insights and amazingly clear presentation. I’m now writing a paper on sonnets and yet again find myself gravitating back to your site. I really enjoyed your scansion of the “Death”-poem by Donne – it all makes sense to me now. ;-) Thank you so much!!! I really love this site. I had a very limited appreciation of poetry before I discovered your site, but this has changed now! :-D

    • Hi Leselykke! Glad you wrote. Comments like yours keep me motivated. I have one more book review to write, then I’ll return to Frost, some Shakespeare, maybe an unknown woman poet from the 19th Century, and so on. I can only ever hope to scratch the surface. And thanks for commenting on my reading! You’re the first.

    • I would love it if you’d do some Wordsworth. We have “The world is too much with us” on our assignment and I absolutely cannot get my head around the meter in that one; especially the first quatrain. And appearantly he’ve written hundreds of sonnets so there should be some to choose from. ;-) In your own time. I’ll keep coming back anyhow. :-)

    • I’ve got a book review to finish today, then I’ll write up the sonnet. I was wondering what poem to write about next. What’s your deadline?

    • Wow, that was quick! Uhm, my first draft is due on monday. A final version in some more weeks. Never mind that, you should not be doing my work for me. I’d love to see what you get out of the sonnet any time it suits YOU. :-) I will focus more on content than form in my essay, so a perfect scansion will hopefully not be required.

    • I can give you a helping hand with the meter, since I won’t be able to write anything up by Monday. I copied the poem off the internet, so I’m not sure all the punctuation is in place:

      The world | is too | much with | us; late |and soon,
      Getting |and spen|ding, we |lay waste |our powers;

      The word powers can be pronounced disyllabically or as a monosyllable. The first foot of the second line is Trochaic.

      Little |we see |in Na|ture that |is ours;
      We have given |our hearts |away, |a sor|did boon!

      The fourth line is tricky, it could be read as follows:

      We have |given |our hearts |away, |a sor|did boon!

      But that would make it an alexandrine and probably not a variant line Wordsworth would have been willing to write in the space of an Iambic Pentameter Sonnet.

      Here is what he probably had in mind (and what is confusing you):

      We’ve giv’n |our hearts |away, |a sor|did boon!

      Such elision was a commonplace in metrical poetry (or call it a trick). But this is what Wordsworth probably had in mind. This form of elision is called synaloepha, despite the aspirated ‘h’, in the first instance (We’ve), and syncope (giv’n) in the second instance. Both techniques go back to the Elizabethans and, while some purists may have frowned on them, were recognized ways to fit extra-syllabic words into an Iambic Pentameter line.

      This Sea |that bares| her bo|som to |the moon,
      The winds |that will|be how|ling at |all hours,
      And are |up-ga|thered now |like slee|ping flowers,
      For this, |for e|verything,| we are out |of tune;

      Speakers naturally elide every to read ev’ry – another example of syncope. The third foot |we are strong| could be considered either an anapestic foot (probably less likely), or an Iambic foot if the reader uses synaloepha to read we are as we’re.

      It moves |us not.|–Great God!| I’d ra|ther be
      A Pa|gan suc|kled in| a creed |outworn;
      So might |I, stan|ding on |this plea|sant lea,
      Have glimp|ses that |would make |me less |forlorn;

      Have sight |of Pro|teus ri|sing from |the sea;
      Or hear |old Tri|ton blow |his wrea|thed horn.

      The wreathed should be pronounced as a disyllabic word: wreath-ed.

      The form is Patrarchan.

      I’ll give it a proper write up sometime this week. :-)

  16. Oh, and I forgot to mention, I listened to your reading today and I enjoyed it! No need for excessive selfconsciousness! :-)

  17. Thank you so much!! :-D Almost speechless – I feel very priviliged for this personal favor. (Add “We’re not worthy”-pose from Wayne’s World movie here.) I will still be looking forward to you’re full treatment of it in a later post.

    I will have to read this through some more times. Questions: Should “rising” in line 13 not have the stress on the first syllable as well? “Flowers” in line 7, monosyllabic?

    Is there anywhere on your site where you explain the synaloepha v. elision-thing? I’ve never come across the distinction anywhere else. (Not that I’m a very experienced poetry student, but everybody has to start somewhere, right?) :-)

    Thanks again, this was lovely! <3

    • I feel very priviliged for this personal favor…

      I feel privileged to have readers.

      Should “rising” in line 13 not have the stress on the first syllable as well?

      Yes. I just changed it. When I write these notes in the comment field, all I see is HTML (which makes it hard to catch mistakes like that).

      “Flowers” in line 7, monosyllabic?

      Yes, I would lean toward monosyllabic. Anyway, that’s the way just about all English speakers pronounce the word. I suppose there might be some overly fastidious linquists who insist on two syllables.

      synaloepha [the contraction into one syllable of two adjacent vowels, usually by elision (Ex.: th’ eagle for the eagle)]

      syncope[the dropping of sounds or letters from the middle of a word, as in (gläsʹtər) for Gloucester]

      :-)

  18. Pingback: “Just a Comma” « Not Quite Lit Theory

  19. I just stumbled across this website when trying to research a school assignment. This is awesome! I was having so much difficulty with Donne’s meter and this has helped greatly. Now I just have to learn to recite it with the perfect meter… Haha thankyou again!

    • Thanks for the comment, Aura. :-) You’re not the only one who has trouble with Donne’s meter. There are experienced poets and college level instructors who don’t understand meter – almost a lost art.

    • Thanks John, I’m flattered & Happy New Year!

      I don’t do chain letters any more (stopped a few years ago), but I accept your gesture with all the good will with which it was intended. :-) We should all do what we can to support each other.

  20. Thank you for an analysis that thoroughly covers much needed perspective while remaining accessible to those not as comfortable with poetic scansion. Your discussion increased the enjoyment of the poem and gave me something new to think about. I will be back to check out your other perspectives and observations.

    • Hey Windo, thanks for your comment. The accessibility of my posts is something that matters to me. Some analyses get so academic that they’re tougher to decipher than the poems.

  21. Hey Patrick, just want to say an enormous thank you for this assessment of Donne’s meter, as a first year uni student writing a critical essay on “Death be not Proud” I have found your writing an invaluable resource. I’m currently attending the University of New South Wales and I stumbled across this page by chance, but I am immensely glad that I did!!

  22. Thank you for your painstaking analysis. I thought it was very instructive. I have two questions: First, in the fourth line of the third quatrain, shouldn’t the word “then” be “than”? Second, does a manuscript of this sonnet survive? If so, is there a facsimile of it posted online somewhere?

    Many thanks,

    Derrick Robinson

    • I am referring to the first appearance of the word “then” in the fourth line of the third quatrain. Thanks again.

    • Hi Derrick, I’m tempted to agree with you, However, both the Oxford edition and Everyman’s Library Edition, edited by C.A. Patrides, print the sonnet with “then”. This doubtlessly reflects the earliest printing since Oxford’s Edition is based on that. In a footnote to the Sonnet, Patrides also suggests “than”, rather than “then”, so I think it’s safe to read it as “than”. Patrides, in the footnotes, offers alternative versions of the sonnet based on “MSS” (his word), so at least *some* manuscripts must survive but they don’t seem to be available online. I’ll look again. If you find something, let me know and I will link to it.

  23. Hello. I am a French student studying Philosophy, History, Literature, Ancient Greek, German and English. I have an oral examination next week, on this poem, which I must read and comment within the time limit of 30 minutes. I should never have checked the meter scheme online, really, because when I read it out loud myself, I just read it the modern way and it would have been much easier…
    So just to be sure, did I get this correctly?

    – no one knows how this is supposed to be read and there are many discussions about it
    – this is both regular and irregular, because it respects the meter scheme of regular iambic pentameters but it has an “anapestic ring” to it?! (then how are we supposed to read it to render both aspects?)
    – no one knows how the two endings of the couplet are to be pronounce, whether they rhyme, or don’t. Perhaps they rhymed at the time, but we cannot be sure. So should I just read “eternallie” like “die” even though it sounds strange nowadays, and not comment at all on the rupture in the rhyme scheme at the end, because there isn’t one?
    – the “then” in line 13 doesn’t make much sense to usually we understand it as “than”, but it seems Donne wrote “then”, since even the Oxford edition based on the earliest printing kept it that way. Did Elizabethans spell then and than indifferently? Or are we supposed to try and understand the sentence with “then” and not “than”?

    I must say I am overly confused, and even if your post is great, it has wreaked havoc in my mind rather than made things limpid… I have no idea how I should read this poem, and so it is nearly impossible to use the meter scheme in my interpretation – which is absurd, because how can one comment a Sonnet without commenting its form, rhyme and meter schemes? But this poem is shrouded in such uncertainty I truly am at a loss as to what to do.

    • //- no one knows how this is supposed to be read and there are many discussions about it//

      There are two ways to answer this question. If you’re asking: Do we know how Donne read this poem? Then, no, we don’t know how, exactly, Donne pronounced certain words anymore than you would know how Francois Villon pronounced Medieval French. If, by “supposed”, you’re asking: Do we know how Donne intended this poem to be read? Then, yes, we know. In that sense, your assertion is incorrect. It’s not true to say “no on knows how this is supposed to be read”. In fact, we do know how this is supposed to be read because Iambic Pentameter was a firmly established meter by Donne’s time, and with known conventions. You can see those conventions reflected in the way he apostrophized words and the way contemporaries reacted to his poems.

      //- this is both regular and irregular, because it respects the meter scheme of regular iambic pentameters but it has an “anapestic ring” to it?! (then how are we supposed to read it to render both aspects?)//

      You shouldn’t really be concerned about rendering “both aspects”. That will take care of itself if you respect the meter. If the meter forces you to accent certain words (you might not have otherwise) then you should pay attention to that and try reading it that way. Concerning poems from this time period: If you can read a given metrical foot as an Iamb, then you probably should. As I’m sure you’re aware, English is an accentual language in a way that French isn’t. A little change in emphasis from one word to another can completely change the tone and meaning of a line. The problem is that the vast majority of modern English readers and poets have forgotten how to read Iambic Pentameter, and so utterly misread poems from this time period.

      //no one knows how the two endings of the couplet are to be pronounced,//

      True.

      //whether they rhyme, or don’t.//

      No, they rhymed. The only question is a matter of degree, not whether.

      //Perhaps they rhymed at the time, but we cannot be sure.//

      No, we can be sure that they rhymed. Again, at most, it was a matter of degree. Pronunciation changes over time and in given regions. To my knowledge, Donne (in his own day) was never accused of being a poor rhymer, only of writing difficult meter.

      //So should I just read “eternallie” like “die” even though it sounds strange nowadays, and not comment at all on the rupture in the rhyme scheme at the end, because there isn’t one?//

      I think that if you interpretively comment on the rhyme scheme as being “ruptured”, your conclusions will be misleadingly anachronistic.

      //the “then” in line 13 doesn’t make much sense to usually we understand it as “than”, but it seems Donne wrote “then”, since even the Oxford edition based on the earliest printing kept it that way. Did Elizabethans spell then and than indifferently? Or are we supposed to try and understand the sentence with “then” and not “than”?//

      Spelling had not been normalized during the Elizabethan era. All of their spellings, interestingly, reflect their own regional pronunciation. In other words, it’s not that Elizabethans were indifferent, it’s that they spelled words the way they heard and pronounced them. So… I think it’s safe to read “then” as “than”, while assuming that Donne himself probably pronounced our modern “than” more like “then”.

      Let me know if this helps. If not, keep asking questions.

  24. Check out the Broadway play turned HBO movie entitled “Wit” by Margaret Edson. Brilliant piece of literature. What do you think of the analyses presented there?

    • I haven’t seen or read the play. However, I was exchanging E-Mail with someone who told me that the main character, evidently an expert on Donne, wasn’t enough of an expert to get the meter right. (!) The Donne “Professor” apparently gets the meter all wrong by reading “called” monosyllabicly. Oh well… it’s just a play, right? =)

  25. Hello :)
    I’m a second year student at University of British Columbia.
    I came across your post while doing research for my final paper and I can see that you have put in a lot of effort! I also must admit your pun was quite a rib-tickler.
    I really appreciate this post; it helped a lot! Thanks! :)

  26. This post would be much better if the recording of your proper reading of the poem was still accessible. Currently it is not. Beyond that, I found this to be the most useful post on the Internet on this subject. Thank you for your work.

    • Good Morning William & Merry Christmas. I have had problems with recordings on WordPress. They get silly finicky about whether HTML is capitalized, but I just checked it and it works. I suspect you may be script-blocking in one way or another? Check script-block, ghost script and adblock extensions (if you use them). Otherwise, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. :-) P.S. I got a click-jacking warning on Firefox [rolls eyes] when I tried the audio-link. I suspect your browser is blocking it for one reason or another.

  27. Thank you for your analysis. It was helpful for composition based on this text for two choirs, two soloists and two percussionists. It will be performed by the MDR Choir on April 29, 2013 in Leipzig. I also adopted the spelling which you used on the website. Could you please tell me the sourse of this version? I might have missed it somewhere on the site.

    Many Thanks
    Laurence Traiger, Composer
    Munich, Germany

    • Hi Laurence, congratulations. I’ve been to Leipzig. That was shortly before the wall fell. The musical scene was very different then (back when I was still composing). Do me a favor, put a rose on Bach for me. They had roped it off, but that didn’t stop me.

      Anyway, I used the Oxford edition, Donne’s Poetical Works, edited by H.J.C. Grierson. However, I don’t recommend you reference Grierson’s spelling. Since then, I’ve gotten a hold of John T. Shawcross’s edition, and it’s better than Grierson’s. He retains some punctuation that Grierson, oddly, doesn’t. Here is Shawcross’s reprinting (I’ve highlighted the important differences in red):

      Death be not proud, though some have called thee
      Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
      For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
      Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
      From rest and sleepe, which but they pictures bee,
      Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
      And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
      Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
      Thou’art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
      And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
      And poppie,’or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
      And better then thy stroake’ why swell’st thou then?
      One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
      And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

      This is from page 342. Double check me. The book is: The Complete Poetry of John Donne: Edited with an Introduction, Notes, and variants by John T. Shawcross. The Anchor Seventeenth-Century Series.

    • Thank you very much for that detailed reply! When I have a recording of the piece I would gladly share it with you. Interesting, that you also composed! Did you set the poetry of Donne to music? I will gladly pass the the rose to J.S.B for you.

    • I would love to hear a recording of the piece. If you liked it, I’d be happy to share it on my blog as well.

      I never put any of Donne’s poems to music. I did try putting some of Frost’s poems to music and very nearly ruined them for myself. I eventually decided I was much better at listening to music than composing. The one facet of composition that I was good at, was counterpoint. I taught myself how to write fugues and that’s what got me into a conservatory, but that small bit of musical talent only got me so far.

      If you would pass that rose to J.S.B., even if it’s in your thoughts only, that would greatly please me. I shed a tear for him while I was there. I’ve always had a very strong connection with Bach’s music and life, starting when I was hardly a year old.

  28. Hello,

    An Enormous Gratitude Of My Part For The Analysis of John Downe’s Sonnet, For This Must Truely Be The Work Of An Extraordinary Genius,

    I Am Still In High School, But I Do Indeed Look Forward To Better Understanding The Meter,

    *Thank You And GOD BLESS,

    • Nice to hear from you Gloribelle. :-) I’ve written more than a few posts on meter. You’re always welcome to read and ask questions.

      P.S. I assume you’re referring to my analysis as a work of extraordinary genius. ;-)

  29. My name is Samantha. I attend UTEP (University of Texas at El Paso). I’m a sophomore & English Major and I was supposed to write a written response for some of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. Including how rhythm and meter play into the poem and its meaning for one of them from my textbook. I only just learned meter this past week (they didn’t teach it to me in high school like I believe they should’ve) and Donne isn’t the easiest 17th century poet to scan for beginners. Thank you so much! This helped me a lot =)

    • Hi Samantha, glad the post helped you. I agree that meter is scanted by nearly all teachers and modern poets, and I think it’s largely because they don’t understand meter, how it’s used, and its importance (to the poets at the time). I guess that’s the niche this blog is trying to fill. :-)

  30. I’m a chaplain at the University of Toronto (Canada) and came across your site when I was preparing for a viewing and discussion, with a group of graduate students, of HBO / Emma Thompson’s film version of Edson’s “Wit,” cited in an earlier comment. The play, incidentally, won a Pulitzer Prize and if you haven’t watched the film yet I would recommend that you do. While you will certainly disagree with some of the interpretation and oral rendering of the poem (I know I do, now that I’ve read your post!), I think you might appreciate the professor’s emphatic insistence that getting the punctuation (and one might infer meter) correct is fundamental to a proper understanding of the poet’s meaning. This point (or rather, comma, as it happens) becomes the vehicle for conveying the elder scholar’s main message about the poem, which in turn provides the central thread of the whole play/film. It was, in fact, exactly that focus on punctuation that sent me on the internet search that turned up your website, and I have now recommended this article to the students who will be watching the film, should they be inspired to explore the poem more deeply. I may even attempt a reading before we watch the film.

    It’s been a long time – at least since my undergrad days studying English Lit – since I’ve delved so deeply into a piece of poetry and I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis. Though we certainly looked at meter, and especially Iambic pentameter, in Shakespeare, Chaucer, etc., I don’t recall ever giving it the kind of significance you rightly do here. I’m also curious, now, to go back and read the essay I wrote on Donne’s sermons, having been not nearly brave enough to tackle his poems. Neither your article nor, indeed, the internet existed at the time, but had they, I might have been inspired to press on more boldly. Now I find myself wondering how I might contrive to spend some more time with the Holy Sonnets.

    Your reading did remind me, fondly, of a rare but memorable rendition of the first few stanzas of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales that my elderly Scottish professor gave us one day, lending the accent of his (once suppressed) mother tongue to an interpretation of how the Middle English might have sounded. I can still recite it to this day. That was his area of scholarly expertise, and I’ve always wished that he had read to us more. I would love to know what he would have done with Donne.

    Thanks again for your article. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    • Chaplain at University of Toronto, eh? When living in Olympia, Washington, I struck up a friendship with a/the(?) Chaplain of the Royal Canadian Navy (whose ship was briefly moored in Olympia). He might have told me he was the presiding Chaplain, but I can’t swear to it. (I shared my table with him when he had nowhere to sit.) After about an hour or so of talking on spiritual matters (having greatly enjoyed our conversation) he made me Assistant Lay Chaplain to the Royal Canadian Navy! A title which, I assume, I hold in perpetuity? Me, of all people. He invited me aboard ship and gave me a tour. The sailors looked like they would have been just as thrilled to keel-haul me. I wish, for the life of me, I could remember his name, but that would have been around 1996.

      So, you just reminded me of all that! How happy I am to hear from one of my brethren. :-)

      You know, I still haven’t seen that movie, though I feel like I have. I’ve discussed it enough (after having written this post) that I think the whole thing would just irk me to no end. And about Chaucer: The interesting thing about Chaucer is that the Elizabethans didn’t know what to make of him. They didn’t recognize that he was actually writing Iambic Pentameter, not knowing how to read middle English. They re-discovered and re-invented Iambic Pentameter without reference to Chaucer. He was a great poet, they decided, but a poor and rough metrist.

      Let me know, if you feel like it, how your students react to the post and the movie.

  31. Thank you, found this very interesting. I’m singing Britten’s setting of this poem next week as part of a presentation of art songs from World War II. Because Britten was a genius for vocal writing the poetic analysis is basically done for me, but it’s good to set the music aside for a few minutes and really look at the poetry. ~Music Major: History Concentration

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