I have a strong bent toward teaching poetry. And I notice that some readers have been searching for guidance. So, I don’t know how innovative my ideas are, but any ideas might be useful. So… I thought I’d write up some quick posts when the thought occurs to me.
The thing to remember, in teaching the sonnets, is that these are the works of a Dramatist. We tend to think of Shakespeare as a poet (when reading the sonnets) but Shakespeare’s foremost instincts were always that of a Dramatist. (By contrast, I would call Keats a poet first and an aspiring dramatist second.)
Think of each sonnet as a soliloquy or think of them as characters in a play responding to another character. Or, similarly, you could think of each sonnet as a letter written in response to a missing letter.
Consider having your students write the missing letters or write the missing speech to which the sonnets are responding. The advantage to teaching the sonnets in this light is that it enforces the perception that Shakespeare was not writing detached Romantic Poetry. This sort of poetic conception didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s day. The Elizabethans were trained rhetoricians who reveled in disputation, debate and wit. Nearly all of Elizabethan poetry is written to someone or in response to someone. They are meant to display wit, inventiveness and rhetorical prowess.
If you feel like challenging your students, have them write one heroic couplet, summing up the argument to which Shakespeare will respond. The exercise will help students think like Shakespeare and the Elizabethans.
August 26 2009: Added section recommending other websites.
The poem is perfect Iambic Tetrameter. And it’s one of the miracles of Frost’s genius that he could write a poem, without a single variant foot to break the metrical pattern, yet write one of the most memorable and memorized poems in the English language. Frost himself called this small poem “my best bid for remembrance” [Pritchard, A Literary Life Reconsidered, p. 164]. There are, after all, thousands of Victorian poems written in an equally perfect meter, but they are nothing if not forgettable. Since all the feet are iambic, I’ve only marked feet and one elision (which is unnecessary for most), but I’ve noticed many foreign language speakers reading this blog. Evening should be read as a bisylliabic, ev‘ning, rather than the trisyllabic ev-e-ning. Here it is:
Frost recites Stopping by Woods:
Note: Since I’ve begun paying attention, I notice that many versions of this poem put a period after “deep” on line 13. The edition I use, The Library of America, does not. Frost biographer Richard Poirier in his book “Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing“, also takes time out to comment on this discrepency. He writes:
…The woods are not, as the Lathem edition would have it (with its obtuse emendation of a comma after the second adjective in line 13), merely “lovely, dark, and deep.” Rather, as Frost in all the editions he supervised intended, they are “lovely, [i.e.], dark and deep,”; the loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous. The recognition of the power of nature, especially of snow, to obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being is, in large part, a function here of some furtive impulse toward extinction, and impulse no more predominate in Frost than it is in nature. [p. 181]
I’ll bet this emendation is off the radar for 99 out of a 100 readers, but Poirer’s comment shows just how much, interpretively, can be read into the difference between a comma and period. Imagine what it’s like for editors of Shakespeare – whose texts are anything but authoritative. In the big picture, editors tend to agree on Shakespeare’s punctuation, but the turf wars happen in the details. If you carefully compare different modern texts of Shakespeare, you will notice differences in punctuation and even words.
But… back to Robert Frost…
An Interpretive Tour
Rather than launch into my own interpretation of the poem, I thought it might be more interesting to sample what’s already out there (since it represents some of what I’d say anyway).
First to Poirer. His comments reflect one of the most common interpretations of this poem. Poirer writes:
The desire (which he openly reveals in certain letters to Louis Untermeyer) for peace and lostness, the desire to throw himself away, gets justified on occasions by his wondering if nature itself does not conspire with him by proposing that, at last, he “come in” to the dark woods. [p. 180]
Unfortunately, Poirer doesn’t reference any of these “certain letters”. Not that I disbelieve him, but if a biographer is going to cite an author’s texts to back up his argument, he ought to offer up a citation or two.
William Pritchard takes a different view. While he acknowledges the darker interpretations of this poem, and he acknowledges Frost’s own intimations from time to time, he also credits Frost’s statements to the contrary, something which Poirer does not do.
Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything siginificant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]
Pritchard then continues:
…he wanted to direct his readers away from solemnly debating them; instead he invited them simply to be pleased with how he had put it. He was to say later on about Edwin Arlington Robinson something which more naturally could have been said about himself – that his life as poet was “a revel in the felicities of language.” “Stopping By Woods…” can be appreciated only by removing it from its pedestal and noting how it is a miature revel in such felicities. [p. 165]
And these comments remind me of my post on John Keats “Ode to Autumn”, and Stillinger’s own comments concerning style. In sum, great poetry isn’t always about (G)reat content, but about common experience described (G)reatly. Great poetry, before free verse, had almost always been marked by the greatness of its expression. Shakespeare always drew on everyday proverbs and subject matter. The life he experienced was the same as ours. His observations are the same as ours. (And this is what makes Shakespeare universal.) What makes him great was, in large part, his ability to elevate the common through the transcendance of his language and imagery, in short, through his poetic thought. This, I have to say, has largely been abandoned by the free-versifiers of the 20th Century.
Anyway, it’s a view with which I’m sympathetic. Not everything in poetry has to mean something.
That said, Robert Pack in defiance of Frost and, perhaps, Pritchard, manages to “interpret” the shaken harness bells. He writes that “the “little horse” in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” shows an instinct to return home, not to remain in the dangerously enticing woods…” [Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, p. 147] Interestingly, Pack finds a metaphorical link between Stopping by Woods and another of Frost’s poems: The Draft Horse. Pack writes of the horse in The Draft Horse, that “if freedom has any reality at all [it] exists only in the attitude [taken] toward their fate.” In this light, the horse in Stopping by Woods, serves as a reminder that one should not be too enticed by the deep, dark woods.
Robert Bernard Hass, in his book Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science, picks up on the threat of suicide in Frost’s poem:
In a 1931 comment to Elizabeth Sergeant, Frost remarked that when other writers began calling themselves “Imagists or Vorticists,” he started calling himself a “synechdochist”. This term, ripe as it is with religious connotation, is an apt description of the way metaphor actually operates in Frost’s mature poetry. Although he often uses the word to mean comparison or correspondence (e.g. “every though is a feat of association”), Frost also suggests that the forms we carge out of nature ectend beyond simple figures and feats of association and, in some mysterious way, connect the whole of reality. [pp. 152-153]
From this, Hass makes the following assertion concerning “Stopping by Woods”:
Unfortunately, as Frost learned through his own trials by existence, there are moments when an individual becomes lost to large “excruciations,” when the material world reists the will and exerts counterforces that have profound effects on the quality of life. Sometimes these froces have a dangerous, seductive quality to them, and there are moments when Frost’s work reflects a strong desire to surrender to the brute forces of nature as one way of eliminating their threat. The alluring landscape of [“Stopping by Woods”], for example, presents us with a figure of the will confronting alien entanglements so large that they actually invite the poet to unlock their deepest secrets. [p. 153]
Among the most thorough considerations of the poem occurs in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost. Judith Oster, in her contributory essay called “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor”, summarizes and discusses these conflicting interpretations: “[The poem] has been read as “simply” a beautiful lyric, as a suicide poem, as recording a single autobiographical incident, and everything in between. Our is not to adjudicate, nor to “fix” a meaning, but to allow the poem its openness…” Oster then asks: “Why hasn’t it just been taken literally?”
To choose just one of any possible starting points, the word “promises”. In this context the beautiful scene the word “pulls down” the experience from the merely aesthetic and sensual, but does so without diminishing that beauty or that feeling, without weighing down the poem. What results is a conflict between two undiminished forces: “promises” that would lead the speakers onward, and his desire to give in to his intoxication with the beauty and peacefulness of the woods. The pull between those alternatives can be seen as that between obligation and temptation, or most literally, between stopping and going on. ¶ If we decide to look at the situation literally, we would think about what staying might mean. Most obvious is simply that it’s too cold to stay there safely. The restfulness – the “ease” of “easy wind” and the “down” of “downy flake” begin to suggest an implicit metaphor, especially when combined with the “sleep” which must be postponed until promises are kept… Sleeping before stopping, then, adds to the notion of not-yet-doing the danger of no-longer-being. [pp. 161-162]
And finally, most importantly, she writes:
What can the poem mean? That is another issue: whatever those words in those combinations will allow without distorting their meanings, without introducing elements that cannot fit in the context of the poem as a whole… one could follow Frost’s advice to a graduate student to take his poetry “all the way.” Or one could feel chastised by Frost’s ridicule of those who say this is a “suicide poem.” Or one could ignore Frost altogether. [p. 162]
Another contributor to the Cambridge Companion offers up what is probably the most representative interpretation of the poem (if one accepts that the poem should be interpreted). John Cunningham writes:
The opposition between humanity (the owner of the woods whose “house is in the” village and who will not see the speaker, the absence of “a farmhouse near”) and the purposeless natural phenomena (descending snow and night, the woods, the frozen lake) Frost establishes early. Even the horse “must think it queer.” Three times the poet uses some form of stop. The setting is becoming blank, undifferentiated whiteness, a desert place on “the darkest evening of the year,” literally an overstatement but metaphorically not so to the speaker. For him movement forward ceases; his choice is between the “woods and frozen lake,” either offering only death to one who stops. In effect the horse asks “if there is some mistake.” To have so stopped could well prove to be such. The “sweep/ of easy wind,” free of the thousand mortal shocks that one is heir to, and the “downy flake,” like warm bedding, entice the speaker to give up his human errands and to sleep in the void of death. The woods are “dark and deep,” not promising words in Frost, deep as the final absence of death, and “lovely” only in the temptation to shuffle off that they offer. With “but I have promises to keep,” the speaker and the poem pivot, rejecting the temptation, affirming his promises, a word with human connotations of duty and presence, and accepting the “miles [that he must] go” before he sleeps this might and before he “sleep[s]” finally in death. [pp. 269-270]
Cunningham then goes on to interpret the repetition of the last two lines as “congruent with the stacked-up accents at the pivot above…” Quoi? This gets opaque. Do you get it? I don’t. However, if he’s going to run with this interpretation (which, as I wrote before, is the standard interpretation) I think he misses a golden, interpretive opportunity in the last two lines.
One could interpret the last two lines as follows:
And miles to go before I sleep
[I have miles to go before I’m home and in bed.]
And then, much more darkly and deeply he writes:
And miles to go before I sleep
[And many more “miles” to go before I go to die.]
However, I’m not convinced by Cunningham’s assertion that the descending snow is a “purposeless natural phenomena“. Frost doesn’t give us any indication, within the confines of the poem, that we should think so. No matter what thematic material you might find elsewhere in Frost’s poems, it doesn’t follow that Frost’s use of certain images and ideas is always one and the same. They aren’t. Bernard Hass, himself, makes this observation:
….[as] inviting [as] those secrets [the alien entanglements of nature] may be to one who has grown “overtired” of his struggle with nature, Frost is equally aware that natural imperatives can also be beneficial. Just as nature has an intrinsic capacity to increase entropy, it also has synthetic powers of regeneration and self-organization that, when left to their own creative devices, terminate in beautiful structures that are both pleasing and protective. [Going by Contraries, pp. 153-154]
In this light, it’s hard to see an “easy wind” and “downy flake” as mortal threats. They are more a recognition of aesthetic beauty. But of what kind? To this end, Cunningham reasons that the adjectives are to be construed as an act of seduction. That is, the “easy” winds are seductively easy, but deadly to one who tarries too long in their cold.
As far as this goes, I’m sympathetic with Cunningham’s interpretation; but I do not think that Frost is contemplating suicide. That’s over-interpreting the poem, in my view. I do think there is a recognition by Frost, in this poem at least, that there is something lovely in the contemplation of nature’s sleep – a recognition of its necessity and loveliness. But at no time does he actually claim to desire it. After all, he says, he has promises to keep. The last two lines withstand this interpretation. I have miles to go before I sleep tonight; and I have “miles” to go before my final sleep.
In reference to Frost’s poem as a suicide poem, Mark Richardson, author of The Ordeal of Robert Frost, observes Frost’s own irritation at the suggestion:
During Frost’s own lifetime… critics sometimes set [Frost’s] teeth on edge with intimations about personal themes in the poem, as if it expressed a wish quite literally for suicide… Louis Mertins quotes him in conversation:
“I suppose people think I lie awake nights worrying about what people like [John] Ciardi of the Saturday Review write and publish about me [ in 1958]… Now Ciardi is a nice fellow–one of those bold, brassy fellows who go ahead and sall sorts of things. He makes me “Stopping By Woods” out a death poem. Well, it would be like this if it were. I’d say, “This is all very lovely, but I must be getting on to heaven.” There’d be no absurdity in that. That’s all right, but it’s hardly a death poem. Just as if I should say here tonight, “This is all very well, but I msut be getting on to Pheonix, Arizona, to lecture there. ” (Mertins 371) [The Ordeal of Robert Frost, p. 190]
Typical of Frost however, he still leaves open the door, saying to Mertins later:
“If you feel it, let’s just exchange glances and not say anything about it. There are a lot of things between best friends that’re never said, and if you — if they’re brought out, right out, too baldly, something’s lost.” [Ibid]
Richardson writes that Frost’s “subtle caveat to Mertins is probably meant equally to validate Ciardi’s suggestion about “Stopping by Woods” and to lay a polite injunction against it.” Richardson then picks up on Pritchard’s observation concerning the “felicities of language”, even alluding to Frost’s comments on E.A. Robinson (later on the same page):
Frost directs our attention not to the poem’s theme or content but to its form: the interlocking rhyme among the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical or thematic readings of the poem: “If I were reading it for someone else, I’d begin to wonder what he’s up to. See. Not what he means but what he’s up to” (Cook 81). The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. [p. 191]
And again, we come back to the idea of expression, rather than content, being (if not the heart of poetry) an equal part. Richardson adds that by “empasizing the lyric’s form Frost really only defers the question of theme and content. It is not that the poem does not have a theme, or one worth a reader’s consideration; the form simply is the theme.” The same could be said for much of Keats’ poetry and his Ode to Autumn. Richardson quotes Poirier, in reference to Frost:
“If [a] poem expresses grief, it also expresses–as an act, as a composition, a performance, a ‘making,’ — the opposite of grief; it shows or expresses ‘what the hell of a good time I had writing it.” [p. 192]
Where does all of this lead? Here’s what I think: I read the poem as both an act and performance, to be enoyed as an act and performance, and as a meaningfully suggestive poem – an acknowledgement of the lovely, dark and deep thoughts that are never far from our every day thoughts and lives. Nature will bring to all of us the same sleep it brings to the dark woods, but first we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.
Frost on Stopping by Woods
Browsing through the used bookstore a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on a little book called Robert Frost an introduction: poems, reviews, criticism. I think it’s been out of print for a good many years, but it has some choice quotes concerning Stopping by Woods. All the quotes are apparently from Reginald L. Cook, “Robert Frost’s Asides on His Poetry”, “Frost on Frost: The Making of Poems” and “The Dimensions of Robert Frost”. Here they are:
…When he reads “Departmental,” which he once referred to as “my iridium poem; its hard and useful,” he says, ironically, that he intends sometime to write thirty pages of notes for the scholiasts. He once remarked that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was the kind of poem he’d like to print on one page, to be followed with “forty pages of footnotes.”
“Stopping by Woods” contains “all I ever knew”.
…”Stopping by Woods” is, he says, “a series of almost reckless commitments I feel good in having guarded it so. [It is] … my heavy duty poem to be examined for the rime pairs.” [Note how Frost, once again, praises the expression of the poem, it’s form, rather than it’s content.]
…”That one I’ve been more bothered with than anybody has ever been with any poem in just pressing it for more than it should be pressed for. It means enough without its being pressed.” And, in a biting tone, he adds, “I don’t say that somebody shouldn’t press it, but I don’t want to be there.” Often he has spoken out against the “pressers” and over-readers. “You don’t want the music outraged.” And of “Stopping by Woods” he says that all it means is “it’s all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home.” Yet no true reader leaves the discussion there. He knows as well as the poet does that what is important is how the poet played with “the constant symbol” implicit in the making of the poem. “Everything is hinting,” Frost reminds us.
… “Stopping by Woods” came to him after he had been working all night on his long poem entitled “New Hampshire.” He went outside to look at the sun and it came to him. “I always thought,” he explains, “it was the product of autointoxication coming from tiredness.”
The most ascerbic and closest-cropped expressions of his [Frost’s] wit are reserved for the analysts of literature who try to pick a poem clean and miss its intent. When a friendly critic asked if the last two lines in “Stopping by Woods” referred to going to Heaven, and, by implication, death, the poet replied, “No, all that means is to get the hell out of there.”
…Frost starts out perfectly free in his poem. “I can have my first line any way I please,” he says, and he is right, “But once I say a line I am committed. The first line is a commitment. Whose woods these are I think I know. Eight syllables, four beats- a line – we call it iambic. I’m not terribly committed there. I can do a great many things. I did choose the meter. What we have in English is mostly iambic anyway. When most of it is iambic, you just fall into that – a rhyme pair – I’d be in for it. I’d have to have couplets all the way. I was dancing still. I was free. Then I committed a stanza:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
He will not see me stopping here is uncommitted. For the three rhymes in the next stanza, I picked up the unrhymed line in the first stanza, and rhymed its end-rhyme “here” with “queer’, ‘near’ and ‘year,’ and for the third stanza I picked up ‘lake’ from the unrhymed line in the second stanza and rhymed it with ‘shake,’ ‘mistake’ and ‘flake.’ For the fourth stanza I picked up ‘sweep’ from the unrymed line in the third stanza, to rhyme with ‘deep’ and ‘sleep.’
“Every step you take is further commitment. It is like going to the North Pole. If you go, you have to bring back witnesses – some Eskimos! How was I going to get out of that stanza? It’s going to be like the Arabian Nights -one story after another. By the third stanza you have a sense of how long a poem is going to be. It’s ‘sweep’ I’m committed to:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
For my poem is a commitment to convention. That’s what it’s a symbol of . The form of regular verse – Greek, Latin, English – is a symbol of commitment.
“The interest is the quarrel with those commitments. When I read a poem, I ask myself: What is the main point in the argument? Where is the insincerity in the argument? Having comitted ourselves to go to the North Pole or to our love, we have to believe we have been to the North Pole or that we have been in love. The modern poet who uses free verse or new experiments quarrels with the commitment to convention. His revolt is based on that, that all life goes false by its commitments. Consequently, I look at a poem very examiningly, very suspiciously. I don’t want to think that the poem is a compromise with the rhyme.”
“What it [the repeat of the final line] does is save me from a third line promising another stanza …. I considered for a moment four of a kind in the last stanza but that would have made five including the third in the stanza before it. I considered for a moment winding up with a three line stanza. The repetend was the only logical way to end such a poem.”
And finally, here is Frost himself:
The Poem’s Form
Lawrence Buell, in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, calls the poem a Rondeau [p. 111]. Every definition I’ve read of Rondeau, including The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, offers up a definition that has nothing, whatsoever, to do with “Stopping by Woods”. It’s likely that Buell is being very liberal in his use of the word Rondeau. That is, Frost’s poem is a rondeau in the sense that there is a recurring rhyme scheme that takes as its rhyme the one unrhymed word of the stanza before. Most critics would probably call this a nonce poem – meaning that the rhyme scheme is unique to the poem.
Note: [May 29] I just received a comment from Gemma who points out the Frost’s Rhyme Scheme is the same as that found in Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Kyayy’ám’s Rubaiyat. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics calls it the Omar Kyayy’ám Quatrain. Since Fitzgerald’s translation was published in 1859 and quite famous in its day, it’s possible (if not likely) that Frost saw it at one time or another. I myself grew up with a copy in my grandmother’s house – the only book of poetry she owned! I still have it but haven’t looked at it in a long time. That said, Frost himself (from his own comments above) seems to imply that the rhyme scheme developed organically (was of his own making). For more details on the Rubaiyat, check out the link in Gemma’s comment.
At the beginning of the post, I asked how a poem so metrically regular could, nonetheless, feel so dynamic. Returning to The Cambridge Introduction to Robert Frost, Timothy Steele, in his essay entitled “Across Spaces of the Footed Line”: the Meter and Versification of Robert Frost, offers the most insightful analysis I have come across. He writes:
Because iambic structure often is compounded of non-iambic elements of English word-shape and phraseology, a poet like Frost can initiate, within the basic iambic rise-and-fall movement, all sorts of counter-currents to the prevailing rhythm. An exemplary instance of these modulatory West-Running Brooks occurs in stanza three of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’:
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
In the first two lines, Frost uses mainly monosyllabic words, and of the two two-syllable words, one is rear-stressed. As a result, divisions between feet and those between words largely coincide, and this in turn produces a strong sense of rising, iambic rhythm:
He gives || his har || ness bells || a shake
To ask || if there || is some || mistake.
In contrast, the remaining two lines feature four fore-stressed disyllabic words. Consequently, words more often cross foot divisions than end at them. Even as the iambic fluctuation continues, the lines have a falling, trochaic character, which in turn suggests the sweeping movement of wind and snow:
The on|| ly oth || er sound’s || the sweep
Of eas || y wind || and down || y flake.
Frost’s first version of the line about the wind and flake read, “Of easy wind and fall of flake.” He may have made the change not only because he wanted a more descriptive word for the snow, but also because he intuited that the rhythm would benefit from a more descending flow than “and fall of flake” could give. [pp. 133-134]
On to my own comments…
The other facet to consider is line length versus phrase length. Notice how the first two lines are also two succinct syntactic phrases. They are essentially each a complete sentence. Frost eases this confluence of line and phrase in the next two lines through enjambment – both lines comprise a single sentence. The first stanza’s confluence of line and thought mimic the poet’s own deliberation. He stops. He considers the land owner. He decides the land owner won’t know he’s “tresspassed”.
The next stanza then relaxes just as the poet himself relaxes. The form and sensibility of the poem are in prefect congruity. All four lines of the stanza comprise a single sentence. The reader will, perhaps without explicitly observing this trick, subconsciously register the effect and the poet’s relaxation.
The third stanza doesn’t repeat the first two. (Each stanza is different.) The first two lines comprise one sentence while the closing two lines comprise another. The poet is divided, just as the stanza is divided between two sentences. The horse reminds the driver that their travel isn’t through, but the poet remains distracted by the easy wind and downy flake.
The syntax of the final stanza breaks each line into discreet phrases. The poet is matter of fact. First, and yes, the woods are love, dark and deep; but more importantly, I have promises to keep. The spell of the woods are broken. The speaker of the poem returns to miles he must travel before he sleeps.
The point in all this is to demonstrate that there are more ways to vary a metrical poem than through the varying of meter. Line lengh, phrase and syntactic sense, if well-played against and with each other, can have a powerful and dynamic effect on a poem.
Frost’s small poem is a masterpiece.
Anyway… if you enjoyed this post and have questions or suggestoins, please comment!
Further sources of information:
A new & recommended post that examines the poem as aesthetic statement. Fascinating.
Modern American Poetry • This is a collection of essays culled from various authors and critics, possibly the most helpful offering on the web – similar to my own approach but without the multimedia.
Clicking on the Image will take you to PBS.ORG where you can watch Frost read Stopping by Woods.
Answers.Com offers two interesting essays by authors who are not among the “big guns” of Frost criticism.
Sparknotes offers a brief little overview of the poem and a possible interpretation. These are followed by study notes if you’re in need of a kick start.
May 18 2009 – The explication of the sonnet, hopefully, has been tweaked and improved.
I was looking for another poem to analyze. Since there’s been so much interest in my post on Donne’s Death Be Not Proud, I thought I would look at another of his Holy Sonnets, the famous Batter My Heart. The first thing I did was to Google the sonnet. And here’s what I found out: All of the sites I have looked at so far, offer readers a “modernized” version of the sonnet. Not only is the spelling modernized, but also the punctuation.
This is a disaster.
Here’s why: The Elizabethans used spelling and punctuation as signposts (spelling hadn’t been standardized) indicating how their lines should be read. Unfortunately, modernizations of the sonnet overlook this, misunderstanding the reasons Elizabethans wrote and spelled the way they did. It wasn’t haphazard. The end result is that all the modernizations I’ve seen so far, completely and devastatingly erase the clues to Donne’s intentions.
So, I’ve used an Oxford edition of Donne’s Poetical Works which retains the original spellings and punctuation. It falls just short of being a facsimile edition. This is the version I’ve scanned and once we go through it together, it will all make sense.
Note: [June 4 2009 – As I sit at the Dartmouth Bookstore] Another edition which respects Donne’s punctuation and your ability to get it, is the Everyman Library’s edition of The Complete English Poems. Astonishingly, the Norton Critical Edition of John Donne’s Poetry does not. Dickson edits the poem inconsistently, choosing to note some of Donne’s markings while ignoring others, all while giving the reader no indication that he is doing so. I don’t recommend this edition and if instructors want you to buy it, point out the poor editing or point them to my website.
Note, if any of this terminology is unfamiliar to you, you might consider reading my post on Iambic Pentameter and the Basics, first. I’ve also spent aless time explaining the reasons why an Iambic Pentameter poem should be read as such. My previous posts, such as my previous post on Donne, go into more of the historical reasons for conservative readings of meter.
First, by way of comparison, here is the modernized version (as typically found on the web) side by side with the “facsimile”. I’ve highlighted the crucial punctuation, in the original, missing in the modernization.
In each of the highlights, the apostrophes indicate the use of Synalophea, a form of elision where, “at the juncture of two vowels one is elided” [Sister Miriam Joseph: Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Languagep. 52]. Without these indications no modern reader of poetry, having grown up on free verse, would suspect that something was missing. They would simply read the lines as anapests, completely ignoring the meter and Donne’s intentions. So, they would read the third line as follows:
That I| may rise, |and stand, |o’erthrow |me, and bend
When it should read something like this:
That I| may rise, |and stand, |o’erthrow |me’nd bend
There’s room for debate as to whether this sort of slurring or elision works. There were readers in Donne’s own day who frequently scratched their heads. But what’s indisputable, is that Donne intended us to elide these words. He was writing Iambic Pentameter – still a new meter. So many anapests in the span of a single sonnet would have been derided as incompetent. In my last post on Donne, examining his other Holy Sonnet, Death be not Proud, you’ll find the following:
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.)
The Holy Trinity Masaccio, 1426-27 Fresco, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.
In Donne’s 14th Holy Sonnet, “thick ribb’d”, spondaic lines like “but knocke, |breathe, shine” or “to break, | blowe, burn” were the lines that troubled readers the most. Yet lines like these are what Donne needed to convey the energetic emotional conviction behind his rhetoric – anger, contempt, desperation, etc…
Back to the differences between the old and new printings:
Notice how Donne spells usurped as usurpt. This wasn’t because he didn’t know how to spell. He was telling us that the word was to be treated as bi-syllabic, not tri-syllabic. In other words, it shouldn’t be pronounced usurpèd. He apostrophizes betroth’d for the same reason. He doesn’t want us to pronounce it as betrothèd. Now, you might object that since no one pronounces it like this anymore anyway, why preserve this spelling. The reason is that you will miss the words that he does want us to pronounce tri-syllabically – like “beloved fain”.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would belov|èd faine,
So, it’s not that he remembered how to spell beloved, it’s that he wanted us to pronounce the -ed ending. And it’s the reason why “responsible” modern editions add the accent grave over the è when they modernize the rest of the spelling. Now, on to the sonnet. Here it is:
The First Quatrain: Batter me!
As with modern day religious leaders, Donne’s carnality and spirituality were never far removed. Donne, at least, wasn’t hypocritical about it. He made great poetry out of the conflict.
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
Three-person’d God refers to the holy trinity. The battering ram was an old, if not ancient, weapon by the time Donne wrote his sonnet, but it was still a very effective and violent weapon – possibly the most terrifying weapon of its day. If the battering ram was out and it was battering your portcullis, and if you were out of hot oil, you were in a lot of trouble. So, Donne’s battering was probably the most violent and terrifying weapon he could conjure. No battering ram, by the way, could be effectively used by one person. Donne remedies that by referring to God as three-personed. In the illustration at right, though the perspective is somewhat confused, you will notice that three soldiers are using the first of the battering rams.
Batter me! – Donne cries to God. All you do is try to mend. Mend, in Donne’s day, had the sense “to repair from breach or decay: Like the mending of highways” [ Shakespeare-Lexicon: A Complete Dictionary of All the Works of the Poet. Schmidt.] It also, as today, has the sense of improving and making better. But it’s the first sense that Donne was playing on. He tells us that God is reparing the breach when he should be battering it down. In the first two lines Donne plays on paradoxical demands, subverting the reader’s usual expectations. Let God destroy; and by destroying, build. So that I can rise up and stand, says Donne, overthrow me, bend/use your force/your power, to break and blow (in the sense of a bomb or petar – used to blow up walls). Burn me (like the invader who burns down the besiged fortress) and rebuild me – make me new. This is an urgent sonnet.
Here’s how Bejamin Britten expressed the Sonnet in music:[Audio https://poemshape.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/batter-my-heart.mp3%5D
Note: This, by the way, is directly related to the much misunderstood expression – “hoisted by one’s own petard”. A petard was like dynamite, a kind of bomb.
Let it work;
For ’tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petar; and ‘t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon. [Shakespeare: Hamlet III, 4]
The Second Quatrain
The second quatrain continues the theme of the first, rounding off the Sonnet’s octave.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Donne compares himself to a “usurpt towne”. The word due, according to the Shakespeare Lexicon (the best dictionary for words in Shakespeare’s day), has as its second meaning “belonging” – to belong to someone. I am due to a woman [Err. III, 2, 81]. So, Donne is saying that he has been usurpt and now belongs to another (greed? carnality? temptation? we don’t really know yet…). And though he labors to admit God, his efforts are “to no end”.
Donne then characterizes Reason, his own reason, as God’s viceroy. A viceroy was understood as a substitute for the King. So, by this analogy, Donne sees himself as a city into which God has breathed reason – the (substitute or viceroy) of God (the King). But in Donne, God’s viceroy, who should defend Donne, is captive to another. He proves weak or untrue. In my scansion, I chose to emphasize the conjunction or. In terms of meter, Donne has placed it in a position which is normally stressed (the second syllable of any iambic foot). As I’ve written before: If one can read a foot as Iambic in poetry prior to the 20th Century, one probably should. In this case, stressing or adds another layer of meaning reinforced by the content. That is, it’s one thing for Donne to suggest that his reason is weake, but entirely another to suggest that his reason is untrue – a traitor. Being convicted of treachery in Donne’s day was treated as an especially heinous offense. A death sentence was usually a sure bet. Dismemberment, including having your dismembered parts nailed up for public display, was de rigueur. If the sonnet were spoken like a monologue, I might expect the actor to hesitate at or. “My reason is too weake or… oruntrue!” – spoken as with a sense of self-discovery or even self-loathing.
Save me! – Donne cries.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.
The structure of the sonnet is most like those of Sidney’s Sonnets. However, where there is usually a division between the third quatrain and a final epigrammatic couplet, Donne makes none. The final quatrain is enjambed. Its phrasing flows smoothly into the couplet. So, while I would normally treat the quatrain and couplet as discrete, I’ve reproduced the entire sestet as an indivisible whole. In this regard, the content of the sonnet more closely approximates that of a Patrarchan Sonnet.
Despite the possible betrayal of reason, God’s viceroy, Donne insists that, though he is “betrothed to God’s enemie, he “dearely” loves God and “would be loved faine” (faine means gladly). What’s interesting is that the analogy Donne uses to portray his relationship to God and his own will seems to change completely. No longer is he a city. He now compares himself to a desperate bridegroom – one who is betrothed to someone he does not wish to marry. Is this the volta? – a change of conceit?
C.A. Partride, in his notes to the Sonnet (The Complete English Poems), has this to say:
Man’s relations with God have been set forth in terms of marriage or adultery ever since the great Hebrew prophets, beginning with Hosea. It was within such a context that Donne described adultery as ‘every departing from that contract you made with God at your Baptisme… [p. 433]
Divorce mee! – Donne cries. “Untie or breake that knot again!” Recalling the martial analogies of octave, he cries: “Imprison me!” And now Donne revels in a sort of paradoxical delight. “Imprison me,” he cries, enthrall me (enslave me), and I “shall be free”! “Ravish me!” – Donne cries. “And I shall be chaste!”
But ravish, in its Elizabethan sense, carried a more violent connotation than now, the first two definitions being: 1.) To rob, to carry away by force; 2.) to deflower by violence. We are reminded of the sonnet’s first line, but now the martial imagery assumes a very different meaning. The heart is the “seat of love and amorous desire” [Shakespeare Lexicon]. The soul is a feminine attribute [Shakespeare Lexicon p. 1090]. The battering ram is phallic.
The octave takes on a new layer of meaning.
In one sense, Donne, his body and soul are one and the same.
In another sense, they are not. Donne’s soul is trapped within the body (the usurpt town) – usurpt by reason. And now we begin to comprehend the different characters in the sonnet:
Three person’d God – Whose overthrow Donne (orDonne’s Soul) desires. Reason – God’s viceroy, who has betrayed Donne. The Towne – Which is Donne’s Physical Being. His body. The Enemie – Fear. Or the fear of Death. Fear seeks to prevent God’s entry. The Betrothed – Donne’s soul. The Bridegroom who seeks God rather than Fear.
So… Weake and untrue reason has captiv’d Donne; has betroth’d him to fear. Donne, in the sense of his phsycial being, fears the very thing his soul desires – Death. The soul’s cry to God is a cry for death – freedom from her unwilling betrothal to the body. Do not mend but batter my heart! she cries. Free me from the body! – she cries. Donne gives voice to both characters – being both characters. The seeming violence of the soul’s rhetoric is best understood as expressing the immediacy of her desire – for the chaste union, death, that promises her liberation. Death’s consummation is understood, by the soul (by her) as a kind of erotic and spiritual ecstasy. But before the soul can be enthralled and freed, the body must be overthrown and broken. The body must be divorced from its betrothal to fear.
The sonnet, we realize, begins with the same cry that ends it – “ravish me”!
If you enjoyed this post, found it helpful or have more questions – please comment!
I keep the poetry of Anne Bradstreet close by. She is America’s first poet writing in English and she was the first to publish a book of poetry in America. I’ve read various dismissive comments directed at her poetry, but I don’t share those opinions. Her poetry may lack the clever cosmopolitan imagery, metaphor and conceit of other poets, but her peers weren’t living in the wilderness of Massachusetts. Her best poetry, her later poetry, is intensely direct, honest, heartfelt and tender in a way that none of her Jacobean peers, still in London, ever equaled. It’s tempting to say there’s something already uniquely American about her voice. With an ocean between her and Europe, her poetry and thoughts (initially written in the schoolish, conventional and literary mode of her peers and upbringing) turns to the every day fact of love, life, motherhood and family. Her thoughts turn from what she has left behind, to what she has created in her new world.
Adrienne Rich, in her introduction to Bradstreet’s works, states that she arrived in America in 1630. She was eighteen years old and had been married since sixteen. Rich writes:
Her father, Thomas Dudley, a man of education and worldly experience, had been steward to an earl; her mother, by Cotton Mather’s account, “a gentlewoman whose extraction and estates were considerable.” Her own education had been that of a clever girl in the cultivated seventeenth century house: an excellent library, worldly talk, the encouragement of a literate father who loved history. Her husband was a Cambridge man, a Nonconformist minister’s son. Her father, her husband, each was to serve as Governor of Massachusetts; she came to the wilderness as a woman of rank.” Younger, Anne Bradstreet had struggled with a “carnall heart.” Self-scrutiny, precisianism. were in any event expected of Puritan young people. But her doubts, her “sitting loose from God,” were underscored by uncommon intelligence and curiosity.
Before the Birth
In terms of meter, Bradstreet’s Iambic Pentameter is fairly strict. To be fair, the meter was still very new. Many among the generation who first established Iambic Pentameteras the standard meter of the English language were still alive. One wonders exactly which poets Bradstreet was exposed to. Shakespeare? Doubtful, since his most famous works of poetry, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, were both considered borderline erotica. Sidney? Possibly. Spenser. Very likely. John Donne?
The poem itself is written in open heroic couplets. I’ll point out some probable differences in pronunciation and some variant feet. Bradstreet was born and England and spoke with an English accent. Besides that, the American accent didn’t exist yet.) The first two lines that might trip up a modern reader are the following. The modern American might be tempted to read them as follows:
The sen|tence past |is most ir|re-vo |ca-ble, A com|mon thing, |yet oh, |in-ev |i-ta-ble.
Here’s how Bradstreet probably expected them to be read:
The sen|tence past |is most |irrev|ic’ble, A com|mon thing,| yet oh, | inev | it’ble.
The British, then as now, tend to clip irrevocable, putting the stress on the second syllable. Here are another two lines Americans might be tempted to misread – this being more out of a misunderstanding of meter.
We both |are ig|norant, |yet love | bids me These fare|well lines |to re|commend |to thee,
And here’s how Bradstreet intended them to be read:
We both |are ig|norant, |yet love |bids me These fare|well lines |to re|commend |to thee,
The emphasis is on me, not on bids. Similarly, another two lines are apt to be misread:
If an|y worth |or vir|tue were |in me, Let that |live fresh|ly in |thy mem|ory
And here’s what Bradstreet intended:
If an|y worth |or vir|tue were |in me,
Let that |live fresh|ly in |thy mem|ory
There are a couple of variant feet. Although it’s possible to read the first foot of the following line as Iambic, my feeling is that thefirst foot serves an expressive purpose in being read as a trochaic foot.Look, she cries, look to my children. There is no greater love than a mother’s for her child and it is the emotional zenith of the poem – her cry at the close of the poem: “if thou love thyself, or loved’st me” protect and love our children!
Look to| my little babes, my dear remains.
More metrical variants quickly follow, as if to express Bradstreet’s emotional terrain:
And if | change to |thine eyes |shall bring |this verse,
The nice touch here is that the pyrric first foot adds emphasis to the trochaic change – meter underscores the meaning and content of the poem.
The last line that might be misread is due to differences in pronunciation. Honour, in Bradstreet’s time, was still probably pronounced with a French inflection – empasizing the second syllable rather than the first. So it was probably read as follows:
With some |sad sighs |honour |my ab|sent hearse;
All the rest of the poem is standard Iambic Pentameter – which is to say, all the other feet are Iambic.
Most poems on childbirth, these days, are mawkish, sentimental verses. But childbirth, in the absence of modern medicine, was a frightening experience. It might promise new life, rebirth and joy; but it could also end in death – both the child’s and the mother’s. No poem, to my knowledge, captures both this mixture of fear, anticipation, and love for the children already birthed, as this poem. It is, in its way, the greatest and most memorable poem of its kind.
Before the Birth of One of her Children
All things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh, inevitable.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend,
We both are ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when that knot’s untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
And if I see not half my days that’s due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
That many faults that well you know I have
Let be interred in my oblivious grave;
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me
These O protect from step-dame’s injury.
And if change to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent hearse;
And kiss this paper for thy love’s dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last farewell did take.
For the complete works of Anne Broadstreet, if you’re curious, try The Works of Anne Bradstreet. I thought my edition was out of print, but I just found it (same title): The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Both come with Adrienne Rich’s introduction. At Amazon, at least, the editorial review for both books is the same. The newer issue, however, has more pages. Maybe the newer issue includes more of her prose? If I find out, I’ll add an addendum to this post.
For a website dedicated to Anne Bradstreet and her poetry, try AnneBradStreet.Com. However, detailed biographical information, on the web at least, seems to be sparse.
Perhaps Anne Bradstreet’s most famous poem is the following:
To My Dear and Loving Husband
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize they love more than whole mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere
That when we lifve no more, we may live ever.
“Sad!” said the duck to the cow, “a very sad story! Why, if we were pigs, we’d be living in mud!” They decided the pig deserved better, and so they pushed some apple crates together and made a little parlor. It was clean and tidy. They brought straw for bedding, made a pillow of leaves and decorated the walls with flowers. The animals congratulated themselves on their kindness and generosity.
The farmer and his wife returned from church. As soon as the mare was unhitched from the carriage and saw the pig’s new parlor she pricked her ears and stomped her hooves. “Why don’t we live in places like that?” she snorted. “All I have is a stall!” “Why should a pig? — a pig! — of all animals! — have its own house?” “You?” said the goose. “Why not me? Those are my feathers in the farmer’s pillow!” “Outrageous!” crowed the rooster. “Shouldn’t we all live like pigs!”
They marched that night into the farmer’s house. “What the heck!” the farmer cried and fired his gun. The animals fled but once they’d gathered their wits they went straight to the pig’s parlor. His straw was trampled, he had eaten the flowers and the leaves were scattered hither and anon. He had made his parlor into a pig’s sty. “Snort,” he said happily. Maybe the animals didn’t want to live like pigs after all. “You can take the pig out of the mud,” they all said, “but—”
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Shakespeare equates love to a star and this association was surely present in Keats’ mind from the time he first read Shakespeare’s Sonnet. That is, the star isn’t only a symbol of steadfastness and stability, but also love. And love, in Keats’s mind, is unchangeable and ever-fixèd (or else it isn’t love). Shakespeare’s Ever-fixèd turns into Keats’ steadfast. Shakespeare’s never shaken turns into Keats’s hung aloft the night and unchangeable. R.S. White, in his book Keats as a reader of Shakespeare, makes note of some other parallels as well:
…it is not possible to ignore a creative connection between Keats’s resonant line, “Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art–‘ and on the one hand the phrase of the undoubtedly ‘stedfast’ character, Helena,
‘Twere all one,
That I should love a bright particular star, (I.i.79-80)
and on the other, although the play is not marked, Julius Ceasar’s more ironic ‘But I am constant as the northern star’ (Julius Ceasar, III.i.60). Such echoes, whether intende, unconcious or even coincidental, display vividly the special compatibility between the language and thought of Keats and the parts of Shakespeare which he appreciated and assimilated so thoroughly. [p. 72]
White’s survey of Keats’ Shakespearean influence isn’t just guess work by the way. Keats’ copy of Shakespeare’s plays is still extent, along with his comments, underlinings and double-underlinings. White’s book is an interesting commentary on Keats’ reading of Shakespeare. White observes another interesting parallel between Shakespeare and Keats’ poetic thought:
[Keats] picks out one of the images in the [Midsummer Night’s Dream] to convey his enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s poetry of the sea, which he often equates with Shakespeare himself:
Which is the best of Shakespeare’s Plays? – I mean in what mood and with what accompaniment do you like the Sea best? It is very fine in the morning when the Sun
‘opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams
Turns into yellow gold his salt sea streams’
Keats seems to be trusting his memory for the quotation, for his ‘salt sea’ is actually ‘salt green (II.ii.329-3). By associating Shakespeare himself with the moods of the sea, Keats is perhaps conveying something of his notion of the dramatist’s developement, implying that after the morning of this play the sea will become rougher as the day goes on. Shakespeare’s sea-music informs Keats’s poetry as well, particularly in the sonnets ‘On the Sea’ and ‘Bright Star’. [p. 102]
What White doesn’t mention are the parallels between Keats’ Sonnet and Shakespeare’s. Notice how the sea makes it’s appearance in both sonnets.
…it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark…
Compared to Keats
…watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores…
And there are also some parallels in Keats’ letters that remind one of the Sonnet’s central themes. The most explicit, in terms of thematic content, comes from May 3, 1818, in a letter to his fiance Fanny Brawne.
“. . .I love you; all I can bring you is a swooning admiration of your Beauty. . . . You absorb me in spite of myself–you alone: for I look not forward with any pleasure to what is call’d being settled in the world; I tremble at domestic cares–yet for you I would meet them, though if it would leave you the happier I would rather die than do so. I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world: it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it. From no others would I take it. I am indeed astonish’d to find myself so careless of all charms but yours–remembering as I do the time when even a bit of ribband was a matter of interest with me. What softer words can I find for you after this–what it is I will not read. Nor will I say more here, but in a Postscript answer any thing else you may have mentioned in your Letter in so many words–for I am distracted with a thousand thoughts. I will imagine you Venus tonight and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Hethen.”
Love letters don’t get much better than this and Keats’ Sonnet is thought to be a love poem to Fanny Brawne – and Brawne herself treated it as such. She copied Bright Star into her “very dear gift” of Dante’s Inferno – along with its thematically related (but much less successful) companion sonnnet As Hermes once took his feathers light (see below). Anyway, worth noting is his comparison of Brawne to a star and his desire, as in the poem, to “swoon to death” or, as he puts it – “I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it.” The play of death and orgasm shouldn’t be overlooked in all this romantic swooning. The conceit is probably as old as sex and, Keats, if nothing else, was an über sensualist. If tuberculosis hand’t killed him, sex probably would have.
There are still some more interesting parallels. Amy Lowell, in her biography on Keats called John Keats, argues that during a visit to a Mrs. Bentley’s, Keats writes to George (his brother) that he ” put all the letters to and from you and poor Tom and me…” [Book II, p. 202] In one of these letters, which Lowell argues Keats must have reread, comes the following:
“We are now about seven miles from Rydale, and expect to see [Wordsworth] to-morrow. You shall hear all about our visit .
There are many disfigurements to this Lake — not in the way of land or Water. No; the two views we have had of it are of the most noble tenderness – they can never fade away – they make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches; and refine one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power…” [Book II, p. 22]
As Lowell points out, the parallels are too uncanny. It doesn’t take much to go from, a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power, to:
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
If Keats didn’t lift from having re-read an older letter, then the imagery linking the open lidded eye with the North Star, the one constant star of the sky, was certainly ever fixed in his mind. All poets, and this is something I would like to write more about, reveal a habit of thought, imagery and associations over the course of their careers. The great poets vary them, the competent poets don’t.
Yet another anecdote is related by another of Keats’s biographers, Aileen Ward. She notes that while writing a letter, Keats saw Venus rising outside his window. Ward says that at that moment all “doubt and distraction left him; it was only beauty, Fanny’s and the star’s, that mattered.”
The Sonnet and its Scansion
Note! I notice that many internet versions of this poem (including the video below) have “To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,” instead of “To feel for ever its soft swell and fall“. This may be a viral mistake. One text was typed incorrectly and everyone else copied and pasted. On the other hand, I notice that a copy in The Oxford Book of Sonnets prints the former version. The version I use is from Jack Stillinger’s the Poems of John Keats, considered to be the most accurate textually. He states that his text is “from the extant holograph fair copy” [p. 327]. I put my money on Stillinger. However, there are metrical reasons why I consider Stillinger’s to be correct. More detail on that below.
The first thing to notice about the sonnet is that it’s a Shakespearean Sonnet. If you’re not sure what that entails then follow the link and you will find my post on Shakespearean, Petrarchan and Spenserian Sonnets. Also, if you’re not sure about scansion or how it’s done, take a look at my post on The Basics. Keats wrote Sonnets in a variety of forms. That he chose the Shakespearean Sonnet, I think, is telling. With all the other parallels, why not the structure of the sonnet?
The form allows Keats to gradually build the the sonnet toward the epigrammatic climax of the couplet:
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.
The second thing to notice is the meter itself. The first line of the first quatrain is, perhaps, the most easily misread, like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 or Donne’s Death Be Not Proud. We live in an age when Meter has become a art for fringe poets. As a result, many, if not most, modern poets and readers misread metrical poetry for lack of experience and knowledge. Most modern readers would probably read the line as follows:
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
This makes a hash of the meter, effectively reading the line as though it were free verse. But Keats was writing in a strong metrical tradition. As I’ve said in other posts, if one can read a foot as Iambic, then one probably should. So instead of reading the line like this:
We should probably read it like this:
Or we should read the final foot as an outright spondee (as I originally scanned it):
Fortunately, unlike my fruitless search for a good reading of Donne’s sonnet, I found a top notch reading of the poem on Youtube. Here it is:
To my ears, he reads the last foot as a spondee. None of these alternate last feet are iambs, by the way. When I say that a foot should be read as an Iamb if it can be, I mean that a foot should be read with a strong stress on the second syllable (an Iamb or Spondee), rather than a falling stress (a trochee). The other reason for emphasizing art is that it’s meant to rhyme with apart. If one de-emphasizises art with a trochaic reading, then we end up with a false rhyme. Two nearly unpardonable sins would have been committed by the standards of the day. A trochaic final foot in an Iambic Pentameter pattern (unheard of) and an amateurish false rhyme. Keats was aiming for greatness. We can be fairly sure that he didn’t intend a trochaic final foot.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite…
Other than that, the first quatrain is fairly straightforward. An eremite is a hermit. So, what Keats is saying works on two levels. He wants to be steadfast (and by implication her as well), like the North Star (Bright Star), but not in lone splendor – not in lonely contemplation. Keats isn’t wishing for the hermit’s patient search for enlightenment. Nor, importantly, is he wishing for the hermit’s asceticism – his denial of passion and earthly attachment – in a word, sex.
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors;
In the second quatrain Keats describes the star’s detachment, like the hermit’s, as one of unmoving observation and detachment. The star’s sleeplessness is beautiful and it’s contemplation holy – observing the water’s “priestlike task of pure ablution”. But such contemplation is, for Keats, an inhuman one. It’s no mistake that Keats refers to the shore’s as earth’s human shores – a place of impermanence, fault and failings in need of “pure ablution”. This the world the Keats inhabits. Up to this point, all of Keats’s imagery is observational. The only hint of something more is in the tactile “soft-fallen”. There is little sensual contact or life in these images; but the first two quatrains present a kind of still life – unchanging, holy, and permanent. That said, there’s the feeling that the “new soft-fallen mask/ Of snow upon the mountains” anticipates his lover’s breasts.
The sonnet now turns to toward life and, ironically, impermanence. Notice the nice metrical effect of spondaic first foot, it’s emphasis on the word No. One can produce a similar effect in free verse, but the abrupt reversal of the meter, also signaling the Sonnet’s volta, is unmatchable.
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Notice how the imagery changes. We are suddenly in a world of motion, touch, and feeling. No, says Keats, he wants the permanence of the star but also earth’s human shores. He wants to be forever “pillow’d upon [his] fair love’s ripening breast”. The anthimeria of pillow, using a noun as verb, sensually implies the softness and warmth of Fanny Brawne’s breasts. The next line gives life and breath to his imagery: He wants to feel her breasts “soft swell and fall” forever “in a sweet unrest”. The sonnet’s meter adds to the effect – the spondaic soft swell follows nicely on the phyrric foot that precedes it, reproducing, it its way, the rise and fall of her breasts. (Also, it’s worth noting that metrically, it makes more sense to have soft swell be a spondaic foot, rather than (as with some versions of the poem) soft fall. The meter, in a sense, swells with the intake of Fanny’s breath. ) Anyway, on earth’s human shores, there is nothing that is unchangeable and immutable. And Keats knows it. The irony of Keats’ desire for the immutable in a mutable world must find resolution – and there is only one:
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.
If he could, he would live ever so, but Keats knows the other resolution, the only resolution, must be death. Immutability, permanence and the unchangeable can only be found in death.
But what a way to die…
And this brings us to the erotic subtext of the poem. As I wrote earlier, the idea of orgasm, which the French nicely call the little death or la petite mort, is an ancient conceit (the photo at right, by the way, is called La petite mort, clicking on the image will take you to Kirilloff’s gallery). If we read Keats’ final words as a wry reference to the surrender of orgasm, then there’s a mischievous and wry smile in Keats’ final words. After all, how do readers interpret “swoon“? Webster’s tells us that to swoon is “to enter a state of hysterical rapture or ecstasy…” Hmmm…. It’s hard to know whether Keats had this in mind. He never wrote overtly sexual poetry, but there is frequently a strong erotic undercurrent to much of his poetry. He was, after all, a sensualist. (Many of the poets who came after him accused him of being an “unmanly” poet – of being too sensuous and effeminate. Keats’ eroticism runs more along the lines of what is considered a feminine sensuality of touch and feeling.)
Such overt suggestiveness might be a little out of character for Keats but, if it was intended, I think it adds a nice denouement to the sonnet.After all, what is a lust and passion but a “sweet unrest”? And what is the only release from that “sweet unrest” but a swoon to death? But in this “death”, life is renewed. Life is engendered, remade and made immutable through the lovers’ swoon or surrender to “death”. Keat’s paradoxical desire for the immutable is resolved. The pleasure of the mutable but sweet unrest of his lovers rising and falling breasts, is only mitigated by the even more pleasurable, eternizing and transcendent pleasure of “death’s swoon”.
Which does Keats prefer? The immutable pleasure implied by the analogy of the changeless star, or the swoon of death? Keats, perhaps, is ready to find pleasure in both. The sonnet is profoundly romantic but, in keeping with Keats’ character, wryly pragmatic.
But this interpretation is conjectural. To Amy Lowell, the final lines are characterized as ending in a “forlorn, majestic peace” and I think this is how the majority of readers read the poem. I, personally, can’t help but think that there was more to Keats’ desire than Romantic obsession. The sheer, physical sexuality of resting his cheek on his lover’s breasts is more than just Romantic boiler plate.
The First Version
And here’s something won’t see very often on the web – considered to be Keats’ first version of the Sonnet.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung amid the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s devout, sleepless Eremite,
The morning waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen masque
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable, Cheek-pillow’d on my Love’s white ripening breast, Touch for ever, its warm sink and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest, To hear, to feel her tender-taken breath, Half passionless, and so swoon on to death.
To students of poetry, what is worth noting is how few changes made a moving but flawed sonnet into a work of genius. As I’ve said before , it’s not the content of poetry that makes it great, but the style – the language. The first version, in terms of content, is ostensibly the same as the second version.
Changing amid to aloft gives the feeling of a star that is apart from the others, aloft, rather than amid.
The adjective devout is simply descriptive – having little connotative power. But the adjective patience is attributive and gives the description the force of personality. It also plays against Keats’ sweet unrest, later in the sonnet. Patience, Keats tells us, is not an attribute he wants to mimic, only its steadfastness and unchangeableness.
The change of morning to moving, again changes a simply descriptive adjective to an attributive adjective. Moving gives the waters motion and a kind of intent. It also avoids the conflict of the star having been hung aloft the night, but watching the morning waters.
Keats’ initial choice of masque is curious and may be a misprint. A masque is a short, usually celebratory, one act play.
“Cheek-pillow’d on my Love’s white ripening breast,” gives us more information than we need. We can already guess that it’s his cheek on her breasts because he uses the anthemeria pillow’d. What else do we put on our pillows but our cheeks? Her white breast is unnecessary. All but a handful of 19th Century English women had white breasts. Keats was just trying to fill out the meter with the adjective white. “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,” dispenses with both of the former redundancies. The word fair is there solely for the sake of the meter, but doesn’t feel as extraneous or contrived as white. It also allows the emphasis to turn to ripening, which is a beautifully erotic description of a young woman’s breast.
“Touch for ever, its warm sink and swell,” The verb touch lacks the rich connotation of feel. After all, we might forensically touch a hot kettle, to find out if it’s too hot; but we wouldn’t feel it. Feeling things is a tactile, sensual act when we want to explore an object. Warm sink and swell is replaced by soft swell and fall. Once again, the adjective warm lacks the connotative sensation of soft. To know that something is warm, we don’t necessarily need to touch or feel it. But to know something is soft implies a more tactile and sensual exploration. The verb sink is a less neutral expression than fall. Boats sink. Rocks sink. Drowning swimmers sink. Most importantly, when objects sink, they tend not to rise again. Fall is a more neutral, less loaded description. It also rhymes better with unchangea(ble). Keats may have been uneasy with the rhyme between (ble) and swell.
To hear, to feel is replaced by Still, still to hear. The latter phrase gives the final couplet a more dramatic, less literary feel. We can hear the wistfulness and expectation of an actual speaker in the disrupted meter – the epizeuxis of Still, still…
The final line is the most dramatic alteration: “Half passionless, and so swoon on to death.” Half passionless undercuts the eroticism of the poem. Who is half-passionless? Keats? Brawne? What does that mean? The closing line appears to give the sonnet’s ending a more despondent tone, conflicting with the idea of a sweet unrest. Keats probably meant to imply that his ardor was both like the star’s, detached, and like attachment of a lover. But I suspect he sensed the contradiction in the description. It undercuts what had, until then, been a profoundly passionate poem. It also undercuts the erotic suggestiveness of a swooning death.
And here is the companion Sonnet Fanny Brawne wrote into her copy of Dante:
As Hermes once took to his feathers light,
When lulled Argus, baffled, swooned and slept,
So on a Delphic reed, my idle spright
So played, so charmed, so conquered, so bereft
The dragon-world of all its hundred eyes;
And seeing it asleep, so fled away,
Not to pure Ida with its snow-cold skies,
Nor unto Tempe, where Jove grieved a day;
But to that second circle of sad Hell,
Where in the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kissed, and fair the form
I floated with, about that melancholy storm.
If this post was enjoyable or a help to you, please let me know! If you have questions, comments or suggestions. Comment. In the meantime, write (G)reatly!
Bright Star by Jane Campion
Don’t know much about the movie. But as with all movies like these, it may be based on a true story, but it remains a work of fiction. I can’t wait to see it.