The Art of Rhyme and Meter

The oral tradition of Poetry

Poetry began as an oral tradition. Homer’s Odyssey is probably far older than Homer and Odysseus’ sojourn, in one form or another, may have been handed down for centuries from one storyteller to the next.

Each storyteller probably added details and expanded the story until, by the time Homer learned it, the epic was a real feat of memorization. As every reader of Mother Goose knows, Homer's Odyssey Fragmenta ditty or poem that has a rhythm or rhyme is easier to remember than one that doesn’t.

The Dactylic Hexameters of Homer’s Odyssey, it’s meter, was the  rhythm that made the epic easier to remember. And a device used for the filling out of this meter was the  Homeric Epithet. These colorful descriptions (or epithets) might have also served as cues – much like stage directions.

Before Homer, the tightly wound relationship between dance, music, rhythm and sound was demonstrated by recently discovered poems from ancient Egypt. In a book called The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed, Moustafa Gadalla writes:

The Egyptians perceived language and music as two sides of the same coin. Spoken, written, and musical composition follow the same exact patterns. Both poetry and singing followed similar rules for musical composition. Poetry is written not only with a rhyme scheme, but also with a recurring pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Each syllable alternates between accented and unaccented, making a double/quadruple meter and several other varieties. Patterns of set rhythms or lengths of phrases of Ancient Egyptian poems, praises, hymns, and songs of all kinds, which are known to have been changed or performed with some musical accompaniment, were rhythmic with uniform meters and a structured rhyme. ¶ Ancient Egyptian texts show that Egyptians spoke and sang in musical patterns on all occasions and for all purposes–from the most sacred to the most mundane. [p. 155]

This oral tradition continued with the very first works of the Anglo Saxons, the alliteration of Beowulf, up until the start of the 20th Century, when poets like Frost, Cummings, and Yeats, continued to imbue their poetry with the sounds and rhythms of its oral, musical, lyrical and storytelling ancestry.In short, traditional poetry finds its roots in music.

Free Verse is a different Genre

This all ended with the 20th Century. The poetry of meter & rhyme, the techniques formed out of an oral past,  had become dogmatic and stylized. A new genre replaced the poetry that had been written for thousands of years – free verse.

Though it may seem controversial to suggest that free verse is a new genre (only tangentially related to the poetry of the previous 200o years), the assertion isn’t to the detriment of free verse. Free verse practitioners have themselves, to varying degrees, deliberately avoided the traditional rhythms of a regular meter; have eschewed rhyme; have avoided alliteration; and whole schools have rejected techniques like metaphor. All of these techniques grepower Plain Englishw out of an oral tradition – frequently, or so scholars think, as mnemonic aids or for the purposes of musical accompaniment.

Free verse is the child of the 20th Century printing press (which isn’t to say that free verse can’t be read aloud and enjoyed as such). And it’s not to say that free verse doesn’t borrow techniques from the oral tradition, but free verse doesn’t do so systemically. (Poets, like William Carlos Williams, studiously avoided anything short of what he considered plain speech or plain English and the avant-garde is premised on the avoidance of anything that smacks of traditional poetry.) It was the explosive availability of the printed word that made the visual cues of free verse possible. Aurally, there is frequently nothing that distinguishes free verse from prose.  Cleave Poetry, for example, is defined by its visual appearance  (rather than any aural cues).

In short, free verse didn’t evolve from the poetry of the oral tradition, it replaced it.

So what does this all have to with meter and rhyme? Just this. The near total dominance of free verse in print media and on store shelves (stores that bother with a significant collection) has left its mark on what readers consider a modern style. It makes writing meter and rhyme much more challenging but also more rewarding if done well.

Unlike metrical poetry prior to the 20th Century, the best modern metrical poetry does not draw attention to itself. The best metrical and rhyming poems make the reader feel as though they are reading modern English (without also feeling like free verse). The demands weed the men from the boys, the girls from the women. Robert Frost was a master of this illusion and so was Yeats and Stevens.

Grammatical Inversions & Rhyming: Subject • Verb • Object

When novice poets try to write meter, they frequently use what are called grammatical inversions. They can be effective or they can sound contrived but I suspect that few poets really understand the origin of these techniques, how they’ve  Shakespearean Sentencesbeen used, and why.

The best book on the subject is by John Porter Houston. If you’re a poet and you’re interested in this tradition as practiced by our greatest poet, then this is the book to read. I had a hard time finding it at Amazon but when I finally did I scanned in my own book for their image and added a short review. Here’s how Houston introduces the book.

The history of SOV word order (as, using a common abbreviation, I shall henceforth call the subjectdirect objectverb pattern) vanishes into the Indo-European mists, which has encouraged linguists to formulate various theories of its original importance or even of its former dominance. Be that as it may, the word order shows up historically in Greek, Latain, and Germanic, being associated in the latter especially with subordinate clauses. However, it seems unlikely that, in its English poetic form, SOV is so much an atavistic harkening back to primeval roots as it is a consequence of the adaptation to English of the Romance system of Riming verse. Verbs in Old French and Italian make handy rimes, and they make even better ones in English because so many English verbs are monosyllabic. The verse line or couplet containing a subject near the beginning and a verb at the end is a natural development. [p. 2]

The English language, descended from the Germanic languages, prefers the following pattern:

Subject | Verb | Object (SVO)

Subject | Verb | Object
The girls | play   | on the seesaw.

But poets, as Houston observed, found it convenient, for the sake of rhyme, to invert the grammar. They might write:

The girls on the seesaw play:
“Life goes up, life goes down
“You’ll have good luck another day!”

The first line would be an SOV construction:

Subject | Object | Verb
The girls |on the seesaw |play

This is a construction one sees very often among amateur poets writing rhyme. The only purpose for the grammatical inversion is to make the rhyme. It’s what free verse poets (more so than others I think) derisively call rhyme driven poetry. And it’s precisely this sort of writing that was acceptable right up until the start of the 20th century.

With this in mind, a somewhat peculiar commentary on  rhyme driven poetry can be found at the Poetry Foundation’s blog Harriet. The post is by Alicia Stallings. Alicia StallingsThe reason I say it’s peculiar is because, though she expresses exasperation at the criticism, she never offers an alternative. She begins her post by writing:

As a poet who works in form, I weary of seeing in critiques–either in on-line workshops or in published reviews–the complaint that a poem or phrase or line is “rhyme driven”. Of course rhyming poetry is rhyme driven. Rhyme is an engine of syntax.

But then Stallings immediately acknowledges what the criticism really means: that is, when itis obvious [that] the whole purpose of the line is to arrive at some obvious predestined chime, like the set-up of a punch line.” Stallings then offers some examples of why a poem might feel rhyme-driven, but she never offers a reason why the criticism shouldn’t be made. However, she does write:

But it seems to have become an immediate and unthinking response to lines that rhyme that are in any way out of the ordinary–particularly anything that has the slightest whiff of “inversion”–that is, out of “natural” English word order–which is often interpreted as the blandest, strictest of simple declarative sentences.

And this is to say that such criticism can be carried too far; but then inasmuch as any criticism can be carried too far, this doesn’t invalidate the original impulse. The bottom line is this: Stallings makes sure her rhymes don’t arrive like some “obvious predestined chime”. Rhyme might be the engine, but she makes sure (in her own poetry) that the engine isn’t heard. She’s an exceedingly skillful rhymer. So, the best advice, as regards Stallings, is to do as she does. Read her poetry. Make your rhymes feel accidental, as if they’re an inevitable accident of subject matter.

Robert Frost, on these very grounds, was deservedly proud of his poem “Stopping by Woods”.

Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” [Pritchard, Robert Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164]

If you want a model for how to rhyme, read Frost’s Stopping by Woods or The Road not Taken again and again. No one would accuse these poems of feeling rhyme driven although, as Stallings would point out, that’s precisely what they are – rhyme driven.

Again (and I don’t think beginning poets appreciate this enough) it’s not whether a poem is rhyme-driven, it’s whether it feels and reads rhyme driven. Are the rhymes determining the line and the subject matter, or is the subject matter determining the rhymes? In Frost’s poems, it’s hard to imagine how they could have been written any other way. The rhymes feel entirely accidental. The rhymes feel  driven by the subject matter; and this is the effect you are looking for.

For the record, I love the SOV construction – especially when done well. I don’t think I’ve ever used the syntax in my own poetry but I might, just for the enjoyment.

Shakespeare’s use of SOV wasn’t for the sake of a rhyme. Shakespeare used the reversal of normal English  (unusual even in Shakespeare’s day) to add metrical emphasis and elegance; to make a line more memorable; to add meaning; or to reveal character.

Here, for instance, is how Shakespeare reverses the normal syntax of English to convey and build suspense. Horatio is describing having seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father (I have included Houston’s explanatory comment):

william-shakespearethrice he walk’d
By their oppresss’d and fear-surprised eyes
Within his truncheon’s length, whilst they, distill’d
Almost to jelly with the act of fear,
Stand dumb and speak not to him. This to me
In dreadful secrecy impart they did,
And I wish them the third night kept the watch,
Where, as they had deliver’d, both in time,
Form of the thing, each word made true and good,
The apparition comes. (
Hamlet I, ii, 202-11)

Having devised a sentence in more or less normal word order in which the verbs have radically different positions, Shakespeare then resorts to inversion, and the OVSV clause contains, moreover, a peculiar reversal of impart and did. The next sentence places two circumstantial expressions between subject and verb, so that the latter, with its short object, seems curiously postponed, even though the number of intervening syllables is not great. Finally, in the concluding subordinate clause, both subject and verb are held off until the end. [p. 83]

Notice how Shakespeare holds off the apparition comes until the end of the line. Throughout the passage the inverted grammar underpins the feeling of terror and suspense, the feeling of a character whose own thoughts are disrupted and disturbed. (I think it’s worth commenting at this point, especially for readers new to Shakespeare, that this is poetry. Elizabethans did not talk like this. They spoke an English grammar more or less like ours. Shakespeare can be hard to read because he is a poet, not because he is Elizabethan.)

  • The tradition of altering grammar and syntax for the purposes of making language more memorable is a lovely one.
  • The tradition of altering grammar and syntax for the sake of rhyme is dubious.

Toward the end of the Houston’s introduction, he makes an interesting point. Although the use of the SOV construction continued into the 19th century (even with a poet like Keats who was consciously trying to shed the feeling of antiquated and archaic conventions), the general trend was toward a more natural speech. Houston writes:

The importance of SOV word order in subsequent English blank verse is worth noting. Although it is scarcely unexpected that Milton, with his latinizing tendencies, liked the device,its persistence in the romantics can be a trifle surprising. Keats slight use of SOV in The Fall of Hyperion is odd, given that there he supposedly tried to eliminate the Miltonisms of Hyperion to some extent; Hyperion, in fact, contains no SOVs. An example of two in Prometheus Unbound does not seem incongruous with the rest of the language, but finding SOV word order in The Prelude runs somewhat counter to our expectations of Wordsworth’s language.

but scarcely Spenser’s self
Could have more tranquil visions in his youth,
Or could more bright appearances create
Of human forms (VI, 89-92)

Examples are to be found in The Idylls of the King and seem almost inevitable by the stylistic conventions of the work, but the use of SOV in the nineteenth century is essentially sporadic, if interesting to observe because of the strong hold of tradition in English poetry. [p. 3-4]

The usage was ebbing. The result is that its use in rhyming poetry stood out (and stands out) all the more. And now, when the conventional stylistic aesthetic is that of free verse, SVO inversions stands out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, this short passage can’t possibly do justice to the rich tradition of grammatical inversion in English Poetry. Reading Houston’s book, if you’re interested, is a better start. The point of this post is to raise poets’ awareness of why they might be tempted to write like this; and to make them aware of what they’re hearing when they read poetry prior to the 20th century.

Other grammatical Inversions

There are other types of inversions besides Subject•Verb•Object . In a recent poem I examined by Sophie Jewett, you will find the following line:

I speak your name in alien ways, while yet
November smiles from under lashes wet.

The formulation lashes wet reverses the order of adjective and noun for the sake of rhyme. This sort of inversion is also common among inexperienced poets.

  • Avoid it at all costs.

Conveniently moving around parts of speech might have been acceptable in the Victorian era and before, but not now.

And here’s another form of grammatical inversion by Thomas Hardy from The Moth-Signal:

ThomasHardy“What are you still, still thinking,”
He asked in vague surmise,
That you stare at the wick unblinking
With those deep lost luminous eyes?”

Normally the present participal, unblinking, would follow the verb stare. This is the way grammar works in normal English sentences. However, for the sake of the rhyme, Hardy reversed the direct object, at the wick, with the past participal unblinking. The effect is curious. To what is unblinking referring? – one might ask. Is it the stare that is unblinking? – or the wick? Apologists meaning to rationalize this inversion might point out that the syntactic ambiguity is brilliantly deliberate. I don’t buy it; but they could be right.

  • Again, my advice would be to tread lightly with this sort of inversion. It smacks of expediency.

As I find other examples I will post them.

Ultimately, one of the most telling attributes of an experienced rhymer is the parts of speech he or she chooses to rhyme. A novice may primarily rhyme verbs or nouns. The novice’s rhymes will be end-stopped. In other words, the line and sentence will end with the rhyme. The rhymes of the more experienced poet will move like a snake through his verse. The rhymes will shift from verb, to noun, to adjective, to preposition, etc. They will fall unpredictably within the line’s syntax and meaning – as if they were an accident of thought.

In the spirit of put up or shut up, check out my poem All my Telling. Decide for yourself whether I practice what  I preach. And here is Alicia Stallings what what is, perhaps, the most succinct advice on rhyme that I have ever read – her Presto Manifesto. The most important statement from her manifesto, to me, is the following:

There are no tired rhymes. There are no forbidden rhymes. Rhymes are not predictable unless lines are. Death and breath, womb and tomb, love and of, moon, June, spoon, all still have great poems ahead of them.

You will frequently hear poets and critics remark that a given rhyme is tired or worn. As a counterexample they will themselves offer poems with rhymes that, to my ear, sound concocted and contrived. I call this sort of thing safari-rhyming – as if the poets had gone safari hunting, shot the rare rhyme, and proudly mounted it. The truth of the matter is this: the English vocabulary is finite. There are only so many rhymes. It’s not the rhymes themselves that are worn or trite, but the lines that are tired. Give an old rhyme a new context and magic happens. Robert Frost’s rhymes in Stopping by Woods are nothing if not tired; but the poem’s effortless progression of thought and idea means we don’t notice them. They become a kind of music rather than a distraction.

And this is what rhymes are meant to do. Ideally, they’re not meant to be noticed. This is why the novel rhyme can be as distracting as the line that is syntactically contorted for the sake of a rhyme. The best rhymes are like a subtle music. If, when reading a rhyming poem aloud, the listener doesn’t immediately discern the rhymes, take that as a good sign.

One last thought on rhymes from Stallings:

Translators who translate poems that rhyme into poems that don’t rhyme solely because they claim keeping the rhyme is impossible without doing violence to the poem have done violence to the poem. They are also lazy.

I agree.

On Keeping the Meter

This is the most difficult portion of the post to write because so much of what I write will be construed as a matter of taste; and the distinctions between mediocre meter and meter written well can be subtle. Readers will have to decide for themselves. Way back when, I wrote a post called Megan Grumbling and the Modern Formalists. The point of the post was to demonstrate how the stylistic conventions of free verse had influenced, adversely, the meter and blank verse of modern formalists. (This would seem to go against my earlier statement that poets writing meter can’t write the same way (as in the 19th century) since the advent of free verse. Not entirely. As with anything, there’s a balance to be struck. The best meter doesn’t draw attention to itself.) Feel free to read the whole post, but I’ll extract the most relevant part because I think it has some bearing on this post.

In the January 2006 issue of POETRY magazine, we find some beautiful poems by Megan Grumbling. But remember, this is mirror mirror world. Just as Dryden’s heroic couplets showed up, ghostlike, in his blank verse, free verse asserts itself, ghostlike, in modern formal verse.

“Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls
our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road
crosses the river that they call Great Woks.
The nearby fields so rich it’s hard to breathe–
the hay treacly with auburn, grasses bronzed–
we stop before a red farmhouse, just shy
of where the river runs, where maple trees
have laid the front lawns ravished with their loss.”

The enjambment of the first three lines has all the flavor of free-verse. There are no auditory clues (in the way of syntactical units) that might hint to a listener that these are lines of blank verse. One might as easily write the first sentence as follows:

Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road crosses the river that they call Great Woks.

The average reader would never suspect that this was blank verse. The reader might, in a moment of preternatural attentiveness, notice that the line is entirely iambic. That said, there is no indication that this sentence is Iambic Pentameter. Given Grumbling’s approach, one might as easily print her poem as follows:

Their stri|dent hold |upon |the back
roads pulls |our mor|ning drive, |out to
where Oak |Woods Road |crosses |the river
they call |Great Woks. |The near|by fields
so rich |it’s hard |to breathe– |the hay
treacly |with au|burn, grass|es bronzed–
we stop |before |a red |farmhouse,
just shy |of where |the ri|ver runs,
where ma|ple trees |have laid |the front
lawns ra|vished with |their loss.

This is perfectly acceptable iambic tetrameter, but for the short last line. I only had to remove the purely metric “that”. It might be argued that one could submit any iambic pentameter poem to the same exercise, but such an argument would only be partially true. One would find it exceedingly difficult to apply the same exercise to Shakespeare’s passage from Antony and Cleopatra. Or, more fairly, consider Frost’s An Encounter (more fairly because Grumbling’s poetry is clearly inspired by Frost.)

Once on the kind of day called “weather breeder,”
When the heat slowly hazes and the sun
By its own power seems to be undone,
I was half boring through, half climbing through
A swamp of cedar. Choked with oil of cedar
And scurf of plants, and weary and over-heated,
And sorry I ever left the road I knew,
I paused and rested on a sort of hook
That had me by the coat as good as seated…

And now for the tetrameter version:

Once on |the kind |of day |called “weather
breeder,” |When the |heat slow|ly hazes
and the |sun by |its own |power seems
to be |undone, |I was |half boring
through, half |climbing |through a swamp
of ce|dar. Choked |with oil |of cedar
And scurf |of plants, |and wear|y and
over-|heated, |And sor|ry I
ever |left the |road I |knew, I
paused and |rested |on a sort |of hook
That had |me by |the coat |as good
as seat|ed…

The latter isn’t a very passable version of iambic tatrameter. The third line is entirely trochaic and can only be “rescued” if we elide power to read pow’r or read the line as follows:

and the |sun by |its own pow|er seems

Though this too is unsatisfactory. The fifth line fails altogether. I picked Frost’s poem at random (lest the reader think I picked one poem especially antithetical to such treatment). What the poem illustrates is Frost’s skillful wedding of sense (grammatical & otherwise) to blank verse – Iambic Pentameter.

The same commitment is not sensed in Grumbling’s poem, skillful though it is. One might assert that Grumbling’s poem is primarily iambic and only secondarily pentameter. The ghostly influence of free-verse pervades her poem, just as the ghost of heroic couplets pervaded Dryden’s blank verse. One might say that she only grasps the surface of blank verse. But her choices might also be deliberate.

This is actually a good exercise.

If you can successfully convert your Iambic Pentameter to Iambic Tetrameter or even Iambic Trimeter, then you’re probably doing something wrong. If nothing else, your meter may be too regular or the joining of line and thought may be too slack. There’s an art to fitting thought, meaning and syntax to a metrical line. It’s subtle and difficult to describe but, if done well, line and meter are like hand in glove.

Not to pick on Timothy Steele but… Steele illustrates the opposite dilemma. There’s a stiffness to his meter that one can learn from. His poem, Sweet Peas, starts us off:

The season for sweet peas had long since passed,
And the white wall was bare where they’d been massed;
Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say
That she had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her…

In particular, compare the following:

Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say

Then one foggy Christmas Eve/ Santa came to say:

(The latter line is from the Christmas Carol Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer) The point of the comparison, cruel though it may be, is to demonstrate what they both have in common – a slavish devotion to an Iambic beat. In the case of the Christmas Carol, it’s necessary. The lyrics, after all, have to coincide with the rhythm of the carol. (You can’t have variant beats in Christmas Carols.) Steele doesn’t have that excuse. His line is full of metrical expediencies.

Normally, the average English speaker would say:

“Yet our neighbor phoned that night saying she had watched them…”

But that’s not Iambic Pentameter. Steele had to move things around. The first thing he does is to shift “that night”. That’s not ideal, but there’s some justification for it. Maybe he wants to emphasize that night? Curiously though, he doesn’t punctuate the clause – Yet when, that night, our neighbor phoned… One would think, if emphasis were the motive, he would want to add some punctuation. As it is, the odd placement has the feel of a metrical expediency. But the phrase phoned to say only makes it worse. The phrase is modern English but in this context it sounds entirely expedient, not just metrically but because it’s clearly thrust to the line’s end for the sake of a rhyme. (This is a rhyme driven line.)

The line is just too obviously metrical.

Three of the four lines are end-stopped, negatively emphasizing the rhyme and meter. The third line is marginally end-stopped. All this combined with the fact there’s only two variant feet out of the first 20 makes for some very wooden meter.

Here’s the rest of that opening verse from Steele’s poem:

Steele_TimThe season for sweet peas had long since passed,
And the |white wall| was bare where they’d been massed;
Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say
That she had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her: it was plain
She struggled with the tumor in her brain
And, though confused and dying, wished to own
How much she’d liked the flowers I had grown;
And when she said, in bidding me good night,
She thought their colors now were at their height–
Indeed, they ne|ver had |looked lovelier–
The only kind response was to concur.

These lines are an object lesson in how not to write meter and rhyme. There are only three variant feet out of 60. All but one of the lines are strongly end-stopped. Steele’s use of contractions is a matter of expediency. For instance, in line 8, he contract’s she’d but doesn’t contract I had. It feels arbitrary. The effect is to highlight the obviousness of the metrical beat. The rhymes are mostly nominal or verbal and, because the lines are end-stopped, they land with hard thumps. A poet might be able to get away with any one of these features in isolation, but when thrown together, the poetry feels contrived. Just as an experiment, let’s see if we can turn this poem into an Iambic Tetrameter.

The season for sweet peas had long
Since passed, and the white wall was bare
Where they’d been massed; yet when that night
Our neighbor phoned to say that she
Had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her: it
Was plain she struggled with the tumor
In her brain and, though confused
And dying, wished to own how much
She’d liked the flowers I had grown;
And when she said, in bidding me
Good night, she thought their colors now
Were at their height– indeed, they never
Looked lovelier– the only kind
Response was to concur.

What do you think? I actually think it improves the poem. I only had to remove one word. The lines take on a certain sinuousness and flexibility that moderately makes up for their thumping iambics and subdues the cymbal crash of their end-stopped rhymes. They become internal rhymes – they are registered but no longer hit the reader over the head.

If you’re having trouble writing meter that isn’t end stopped (and if you’re not rhyming), remove two words from your first line and shift the rest accordingly. (And you can try removing other metrically expedient words along the way to really shake things up.)  I’ll demonstrate. Rather than pick on any more modern poets, here’s something from the first act of Gorboduc, the first English drama written in blank verse (and just as end-stopped and metrically conservative as some modern formalist poetry):

There resteth all, but if they fail thereof,
And if the end bring forth an evil success
On them and theirs the mischief shall befall,
And so I pray the Gods requite it them,
And so they will, for so is wont to be
When Lords and trusted Rulers under kings
To please the present fancy of the Prince,
With wrong transpose the course of governance
Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,
Or mutual treason, or a just revenge,
When right succeeding Line returns again
By Jove’s just Judgment and deserved wrath
Brings them to civil and reproachful death,
And roots their names and kindred’s from the earth.

So, let’s remove the word thereof, which is only there for the sake of meter (a metrical filler):

There resteth all, but if they fail, and if
The end bring forth an evil success on them
And theirs the mischief shall befall, and so
I pray the Gods requite it them, they will,
for so is wont to be when Lords and Rulers
To please the present fancy of the Prince,
With wrong transpose the course of governance
Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,
Or mutual treason, or revenge, when right
Succeeding Line returns again by Jove’s
Just Judgment and deservèd wrath brings them
To civil and reproachful death, and roots
Their names and kindred’s from the earth.(…)

Voila! What do you think? The lines take on greater flexibility and there are fewer end-stopped lines. Even though the overall pattern is just as relentlessly iambic, the effect is somewhat mitigated by the shift between line and thought. You can practice the same with your own poetry, even if its rhymed. You could even try writing Iambic Hexameter, then shifting all the lines so that they’re Iambic Pentameter.

Metrical Fillers

This, as it turns out, is the most contentious part.

I’m fairly hard-nosed about what are (in my view) egregious metrical fillers, but many formalist poets are equally pugnacious in protecting their turf.

The word at the top of my list is upon. While, no doubt, the words has its place, my irritation stems from its reflexive use as an all too convenient iambic substitute for on. Most formalist poets use it. They’re not apologetic. And I’m not apologetic when I call it lazy. The problem, in many cases, is that poets (even free-verse poets) misuse the word. Upon is not universally interchangeable with on. Also, my sense is that, in terms of everyday speech, on has more or less replaced upon. Upon has become a primarily literary usage and feels fusty to me.

But that’s only my opinion.

And it’s easy to get hung up on the word. The point is to avoid metrical fillers – words that are unnecessary to the sense of a line’s meaning (whose only purpose is to fill the meter). Here’s a sample I discussed in my earlier post on Megan Grumbling:

we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this field.

The word upon expediently substitutes for on.  The word “within” is metrical padding. How else does a bag hold anything but “within”?

Later in Grumbling’s poem, more metrical padding appears with “out to where the Oak Woods Road…” Using modern English, we say: “out where the Oak Woods Road…” A.E. Stallings indulges in the same sort of metrical expediency.

Sing before the king and queen,
Make the grave to grieve,
Till Persophone weeps kerosene
And wipes it on her sleeve. [Song for the Women Poets]

The added and unnecessary preposition (to) before (grieve) is nothing more than metrical filling. Here is another example from Stallings‘ The Dollhouse:

And later where my sister and I made
The towering grown-up hours to smile and pass:

Again, the effect is antiquated. The preposition (to) before (smile) is unnecessary – another metrical filler.

However, some of the most abused metrical fillers are adjectives, especially among poets first tackling meter. My advice to poets just starting out is to write meter without adjectives or write with a strict limit (maybe one for every ten lines). Whether writing meter or free verse, nothing can weaken a line like an adjective. Use them sparingly.

After so many examples of what not to do, I thought I’d close with a fine example of beautifully modulated meter and rhyme by Annie Finch (whose book I will be reviewing soon):

annie finchDo you | hear me, |Lycius? |Do you hear |these dreams
moving |like words |out of |the air, it seems?
You think you saw me thin into a ghost,
impaled |by his |old eyes, with |their shuddering boast
of pride |that kills |truth with | philosophy.
But you hear |this voice. It is a serpent’s, or
is it |a wom|an’s, this rich |emblazoned core
reaching |out loud for you, as I once reached
for you with clinging hands, and held you, and beseeched.  (…)

These are the opening lines to Lamia to Lycius, from Annie Finch’s new book Calendars. The poem is written in open heroic couplets, like Steele’s, but the difference is night and day. The thing to notice is that there are only two end-stopped lines in these first nine. The syntax and thought of the lines moves sinuously through the line ends, subduing the rhymes. The effect is to make the rhymes feel more organic, more like an outgrowth of the poem’s subject matter.   Notice also the rich use of variant feet balanced against more regular iambic feet and lines. (I’ve marked phyrric feet in grey.) Notice also the absence of metrical fillers. Finch isn’t determined to keep a strict count like other poets – Timothy Steele or Dana Gioia (the link is to my review of his poetry). The result is a far more varied and rich voice.

If this post has been helpful, let me know.

Whether it be rhyme, meter or both,

Critiquing the Critic: Is Meter Real?

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What’s this essay about?

In the course of writing another post, I stumbled across Dan Schneider’s essay Robinson Jeffers, & The Metric Fallacy. The  essay itself was so stuffed with ludicrous and fallacious arguments that I can’t help responding.

jeffersOstensibly, Schneider’s essay is a defense of Robinson Jeffers, but for the first 1867 words (counted by WordPerfect) Schneider only mentions Jeffers’ name twice, and this is in the last 75 words. So Schneider’s essay is really two essays, the first  being nothing less than a diatribe. And even after reading the essay as a whole, one isn’t quite sure how the diatribe is a defense of Jeffers. But it’s the first part of the essay I’ll be responding to.

Here’s how Schneider begins his essay:

What if someone actually said to you that all music was composed of just 2 notes? Or if someone claimed that there were just 2 colors in creation? Now, ponder if such a thing were true. Imagine the clunkiness & mechanicality of such music. Think of the visual arts devoid of not just color, but sepia tones, & even shades of gray.

Schneider immediately frames his argument as a choice between absurdity (metrists) and reason (Schneider). How absurd to think that music would be composed of two notes? Wouldn’t it be a fool’s errand to disagree with him? Schneider would like you to think so. This is called framing an argument. Politicians do it all the time. The Republicans are especially good at it. Who could argue with a Clear Skies Initiative or who could argue with the No Child Left Behind act?

But what metrist has ever asserted that meter is composed of just two discrete stresses and that, furthermore, these two stresses are precisely the same no matter the context? None, unless there’s some fusty nineteenth century pedant I’ve never heard of.  Even the fustiest recognized that the markings used in scanning poetry were a relative indication – symbols and nothing more.

But let’s examine how Schneider frames his diatribe by altering a couple of words:

What if someone actually said to you that all music was composed [of just 2 beats]?

Well, on the face of it, why not? Any piece of music in 2/4 time is written with 2 beats – a downbeat and an off-beat. Within that binary ground there is an infinite variety of shading. But, when it’s time to dance, everybody knows where the downbeat is. Period. If this weren’t the case, then there would be no such thing as dancing. What if Schneider said the following: No two beats of music are the same (no two are played with the same volume or emphasis), even in 2/4 time, therefore the whole concept of a time signature is absurd. To quote Schneider, to suggest such things to a musician or painter or photographer would most likely engender- if not outright laughter- some strange looks, indeed.

But this is precisely how he defines meter. He writes:

For the uninitiated meter is the theory (claiming origin by several cultures) that spoken language consists of 2 primary vocalizations of a sound- i.e.- stressed & unstressed.

First, Schneider’s definition of meter  is wrong. Period. Latin meter does not consist of stressed or unstressed “sounds”. Neither does meter in Chinese or Greek. Meter, to the initiated, is the means by which poets organize their respective languages  into predictable patterns. But anyway, the absurdity of Schneider’s assertion makes for an easy straw man .  He then states, as though he were the first one to realize it, that “in the context of spoken words, as well as those internal voicings, an absolute plenitude of stress levels ensnares one.”

Yes, and there are an absolute plenitude of stress levels when performing rhythm in music. This doesn’t mean that a time signature doesn’t exist. Meter is nothing more than a kind of time signature. Any Iambic meter could be thought of as a 2/44/4etc. time signature. It is a binary, Iambic, time signature. A Dactylic meter could be treated as having a 3/4, 6/8, 9/4, etc. time signature.

Think of meter as a time signature and you will avoid the same cognitive trap that Schneider falls into.

Schneider continues:

In fact the dualistic notion of mere stressed & unstressed sounds is- in practice by its many proponents- almost always so loose as to be meaningless anyway, as metrics should really redefine its definitions as greater & lower stress(es) (with a plenum of in-betweens), since (obviously) a truly unstressed syllable would be silent. But even that is far too inadequate, for even if you would read this essay aloud to this point-   you would, if to tape it on any recorder, really hear at least a dozen stress levels- if not several dozen, were your ear fine-tuned enough.

Having set up and burned down his straw man, Schneider then engages in nothing less than reductio ad absurdum.His argument? Since stressed and unstressed syllables can be read with almost infinite gradation, there is no such thing as stressed and unstressed. But this argument is a red herring. No one denies that stress is subject to infinite variation. No metrist is arguing for fixed stress, but only relative stress.  Try auditioning for Hamlet speaking your lines like this:

To be or not to be: that is the question.

You would get some strange looks from all those musicians, artists and photographers. Or try declaiming the line with no stress at all.

But if you read the line the way Shakespeare meant it:

To be or not to be, that is the question

To be or Not to be (Iambic Scansion)

It makes sense. The symbols don’t mean that each stress is of a fixed pitch. No, this line could be spoken in an infinite variety of ways – but in all those ways, the syllables would always be stressed and unstressed in relation to each other. This is the way the English language works. What if the actor wanted to emphasize that instead of is in the fourth foot? Then he would speak it this way:

To be or not to be, |that is| the question

To be or Not to be (Trochaic Scansion)

If Schneider is to be believed, such a feat wouldn’t be possible. But it is. And it is because English speakers use relative stress (strongly stressing one syllable while weakly stressing another) to indicate focus.

In English, all syllables are relatively stressed or unstressed in relation to each other. Setting aside poetry and metrists, there is a whole field called Stress Linguistics dedicated to the very real and serious understanding of this facet of language. Maybe Schneider would like to argue that Stress Linguistics is a sham? Try teaching a computer how to speak English. The study of stress in language allows the computer to corrrectly identify which words receive stress and which don’t, otherwise they sound monotone and even incomprehensible.

In English, stress is most dramatically realized on focused or accented words. For instance, consider the dialog

“Is it brunch tomorrow?”
“No, it’s dinner tomorrow.”

In it, the stress-related acoustic differences between the syllables of “tomorrow” would be small compared to the differences between the syllables of “dinner“, the emphasized word. In these emphasized words, stressed syllables such as “din” in “dinner” are louder and longer.[1][2][3] They may also have a different fundamental frequency, or other properties. Unstressed syllables typically have a vowel, which is closer to a neutral position (the schwa), while stressed vowels are more fully realized. [Wikipedia]

What’s important to understand is that these stresses (unstressed and stressed) can be objectively measured and that the stress is relative. All that meter does is to organize these relative stresses into a pattern: Iambic Pentameter, Tetrameter and Trimeter; Anapestic Pentameter or Tetrameter; Dactylic Trimeter. This is what nursery rhymes do.

From this unpromising beginning, Schneider delves into some real gobbledygook. He places the invention of meter at the feet of “Classical Society’s need for reductivist explanations to fit into their simplistic cosmological view”. The absurdity of this statement is in the implication that “classical society” was responsible for the invention of meter. But meter isn’t limited to the English language. It’s also a feature of ancient Latin and Greek epic poetry. It’s also a feature of recently discovered ancient Egyptian poetry – poetry written long before such a thing as “classical society”. Maybe Schneider wants to argue that meter is a product of a “classical society” within ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt too?

Schneider then compares the English language to the gallop of a horse which, when caught on film, turns out to be far more complex that artists previously thought. But Schneider is merely dismantling an argument no one but he, himself, has made. No metrist or Stress Linguist would assert that English is ruled by two discrete stresses. All stress is relative. A true analogy would be to assert that scanning metrical poetry is, in fact, more like the horse’s known gait while Schneider’s characterization of meter is more like the naive artist’s before film was invented.

Scheider’s fundamental ignorance of the artistry behind the writing of meter is revealed when he touts variant feet as proof that meter is invalid.

Therefore iambic pentameter- easily the most common meter is 5 iambs- or 10 syllables- although an elided final stressed syllable or unvoiced extra syllable often occur, & are allowed. Yet these oft-recurrent exceptions (& tacit admissions of the theory’s invalidity) have not seemed to vitiate the metric rules its adherents cling to. Similarly anapestic trimeter is 3 anapests or 9 syllables. Yet with the same exceptions allowed as in iambs one might confuse the 2 meters quite often- especially when they often flout their own prerogatives.

Why a variant foot is a “tacit admission of the theory’s invalidity” goes unexplained. What does Schneider mean by theory? He doesn’t tell us. And that’s because…

There is no theory. Poets, during different periods, might have prided themselves in their ability to produce strict, unvarying metrical lines, but  all the greatest poets recognized that metrical inflexibility produced monotony. The effect was unnatural. Schneider seems to interpret this as meaning that meter is therefore unnatural and invalid, but the interpretation is absurd. Just because unvarying meter produces monotony doesn’t mean that relative stress doesn’t exist. On the contrary, it proves that it does! And it proves that the best way to reduce the monotony of a too-regular metrical pattern is to introduce variant feet. Also, whether or not one “confuses” meters has no bearing on whether relative stress can produce meter.

Schneider then introduces what, to him, is his killer piece of evidence – the word generation.

A nice 4-syllabled word. The dictionary had it diacritically marked as  ge¢ ne ra¢ tions, or (stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed). But really listen: if you say the word over & over; just this word, mind you, free of context & naked upon the table- generations, generations, generations….it should become clear that there are 4 distinct stress levels.

Once again, Schneider seems to have discovered (all on his own) what the rest of the poetical world has known for thousands of years. Stress is relative. Regardless of whether there are 4 distinct stress levels, the second and fourth syllables will always receive less stress than the first and second syllable. This is what scansion indicates – relative stress. (And I can’t stress that enough.)

But Schneider has more to say:

But here is another truism, long hidden by the Classicist bent- music in language, or poetry, has almost nothing to do with the individual stresses of syllables.

And, actually, I’m not troubled by this assertion. Schneider says “almost nothing”. Depending on how he defines “music in language”, he could be right, somewhere in between, or maybe wrong. But he doesn’t tell us what it means to him. He only tells us that this “music” has “almost nothing to do” with individual stresses. OK, but what does almost mean? Again, he doesn’t tell us. All we know is that stress does have something to do with the music in language but not everything.

From this point Schneider offers an alternative to understanding the “music of words” in lines.  They rest on “rime (in all its varied form & types), alliteration, assonance, enjambment, & in the overall tropes of lines in accordance with the lines directly before & after it.” But what is striking is that Schneider essentially rediscovers (perhaps without realizing it) Robert Frost’s principle of the “sound of sense“. Schneider goes on to described  “sharply-sounded lines” and states that “the digression- say, to some warm memory of love- may necessitate or facilitate the abrupt switch in line sound”.  In a nutshell:

Simply put, music in verse- or language- depends on the congruence of syllable with syllable, word with word, line with line, stanza with stanza, etc.- as well as each of those congruent units’ emotional/intellectual congress with sound & meaning.

And here is Robert Frost (From a Letter to John Bartlett, 4 July 1913):

(…) I am possibly the only person going who works on any but a worn out theory (principle I had better say) of versification. You see the great successes in recent poetry have been made on the assumption that the music of words was a matter of harmonised vowels and consonants. Both Swinburne and Tennyson arrived largely at effects in assonation. But they were on the wrong track or at any rate on a short track…

(…) Those sounds are summoned by the audial imagination and they must be positive, strong, and definitely and unmistakeably indicated by the context. The reader must be at no loss to give his voice the posture proper to the sentence.

The parallels and the extent to which Schneider reinvents Frost’s sense of sound is striking. This whole principle of music in sentence sounds, first elucidated by Frost, is profound, but it’s not the either/or situation that Schneider makes it. It’s not either the “sound of sense” or meter. This is an absurd dichotomy dispelled by none other than Frost himself – who was able to combine sentence sounds and meter. The two facets of language work at different levels. Schneider is right to the extent that meter is not, in and of itself, the source of “music” in poetry. When it is used, it is only a part of the whole.

Where Schneider really veers into the demonstrably nonsensical is with the following:

The answer returns us to the very root of why metrics is such a ballocksed concept. Human beings simply DO NOT think, speak, or even hear things in a rhythmic fashion. There is no innate rhythm to human speech.

Humans do think and hear things in a rhythmic fashion. The unmitigated absurdity of Schneider’s comment is demonstrated by Rap, the Beatles, Schubert and Bach. It’s been demonstrated for thousands of years by every composer who has put music to words. Schneider tells us that the whole idea of a strong and week stress is rubbish, and yet musicians unfailingly match the strongly stressed syllables with the downbeat and the weakly stressed syllables with the off-beat. German is a stressed language like English and Bach was known to rewrite the lyrics of his Cantatas so that the stress patterns (the meter) coincided with the time signature of his music.

But what does Schneider make of rappers? Is he going to tell us that they, of all poets, musicians and artists, “don’t think, speak, or even hear things in a rhythmic fashion”? eminem-aliveRap is nothing if not a thumping example of accentual and accentual syllabic verse. Anyone who has seen 8 Mile by eminem knows that rappers have no trouble finding the “innate rhythm” in human speech. And what about all those children who can pick out the rhythms in Mother Goose – repeating its nursery rhymes over and over and over?

Moreover, if you don’t want to take my word for it, then consider the science. In an essay called “Perceptual biases for rhythm: The Mismatch Negativity latency indexes the privileged status of binary vs non-binary interval ratios” scientists have demonstrated “that the privileged perceptual status of binary rhythmical intervals is already present in the sensory representations found in echoic memory at an early, automatic, pre-perceptual and pre-motor level.” And here’s another study which refutes Schneider’s baseless assertion.

But what brings me to the science is an article I read several years ago. Humans are predisposed to hear rhythm even where there is none! For instance, humans will hear the tick-tock of clocks as being composed of a strong and weak ticking  even when scientists calibrate the ticking mechanism to produce exactly the same tick! Humans, contrary to Schneider’s ludicrous pronouncement, have been programmed by nature to hear rhythm even where rhythm doesn’t exist!

What is Schneider’s alternative. He writes: “Humans speak & even think punctually.”

This may or may not be true. However, this has nothing to do with humanity’s ability to find rhythm in language. Schneider creates another false dichotomy.

But around this time, Schneider begins writing the second part of his essay, his defense of Jeffers.

But if the manifest denuding of this fallacy (& the others detailed) by this essay is not enough to get the Established doggerelists to finally drop their theoretically based & politically motivated vendetta against him & re-recognize Jeffers’ towering mastery, then surely the greatness of his verse should be allowed to stake that claim.

But what Schneider’s diatribe against meter has to do with defending Jeffers is muddled. If, as Schneider seems to imply, Jeffers reputation is being discounted because he didn’t use or couldn’t master meter, then the better approach is to question the legitimacy of his critics’ aesthetics. In other words, is a poem or poet’s greatness truly contingent on his or her use of meter? I say no. Great poetry can be and is written without meter or rhyme; but I say so without making the ridiculous counterclaim that metrical poetry is a sham.

In the one, perhaps, revealing portion of Schneider’s essay, he writes:

Jeffers was originally a mediocre formalist. His earliest published poems & books are forced, clunky, & melodramatic- in the worst sense. (…) I, too, have gone through that process- although every artist of excellence progresses at their own pace, & in their own way. Like Jeffers I too studied hard (he in college, me on my own) syntax, grammar, metrics, etc. to such a degree that I became an incredibly proficient mediocrity.

Is this the reason for Schneider’s hostility toward and denial of rhythm in language?  – because he was a mediocre formalist? When I sit down to draw or paint a landscape, I am a phenomenally mediocre artist, but I don’t launch into a diatribe against perspective, denying its existence and railing against any artist who thinks he or she can perceive it.

The practice of writing meter and the symbols poets use to scan it represent relative stresses and nothing more.  Other languages have produced their own meters – such as the quantitative meters of classical Latin and Greek. It symbolizes the fundamental human desire for rhythm even at its most subtle. While it’s not the only source for “music” in language, it is very real and plays a very real part.

Dan Schneider responds:

To be honest, my first reaction is to be flattered.

That said, I still find his initial essay ludicrous and stuffed with fallacious arguments.  He made many points in response to my own assertions, but most of them are tangential to a definition of meter.  For example, he points out that I got the title of his essay wrong, true, and that there are typos in my posts, also true.  He accuses me of writing him a possibly virus ridden hate-E-Mail which I don’t remember and which he, conveniently, can’t produce. (I’m calling that one, false.) He also takes issue with how I characterized his arguments. I don’t blame him, but I stand by those characterizations. However, none of this has anything to do with meter itself.

On to his assertions concerning meter.

In the entirety of his response, he provides only two (2) specimens to support his arguments.

In answer to my rhetorical question, ‘…what metrist has ever asserted that meter is composed of just two discrete stresses and that, furthermore, these two stresses are precisely the same no matter the context?’, Dan writes the following:

I will now disprove such by using two definitive texts. The first is from Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary (1964). In reference to meter (meaning poetic metrics, no other usages of the term):

1.      (a) rhythm in verse; measured, patterned arrangement of syllables, primarily according to stress and length; (b) the specific rhythm as determined by the prevailing foot and the number of feet in the line; as iambic meter; (c) the specific rhythmic pattern of a stanza as determined by the kind and number of lines.

I don’t see how Webster’s helps Dan’s case. Notice that Webster’s does not assert that meter is composed of two discrete stresses or that they are the same no matter the context.  Dan’s original assertion was that:

“meter is the theory (claiming origin by several cultures) that spoken language consists of 2 primary vocalizations of a sound- i.e.- stressed & unstressed.”

And this definition, as a very general one, isn’t necessarily wrong. But he then calls that definition into question by writing that:

In fact the dualistic notion of mere stressed & unstressed sounds is- in practice by its many proponents- almost always so loose as to be meaningless anyway, as metrics should really redefine its definitions as greater & lower stress(es) (with a plenum of in-betweens), since (obviously) a truly unstressed syllable would be silent.

In other words, (according to Dan) the  “plenum” of stresses available in an accentual language contradicts the notion of “2 primary vocalizations”. But it only contradicts if one assumes that the “2 primary vocalizations” can’t be relative (or widely vary in relation to each other). Schneider’s argument only holds water if the “2 primary vocalizations” are discrete and always the same. But, as I wrote, no metrist, to my knowledge, has ever asserted the same (only, ironically, Dan Schneider). All “theories” of meter recognize that stress is relative and therefore recognize a “plenum” of stresses. They recognize that English is an accentual language, and that within the language’s “plenum” of stresses, one stress will always be relatively strong and one will always be relatively weak.

Webster’s definition in no way bolsters Dan’s contention that meter doesn’t exist. Nowhere does Webster’s definition limit meter to two discrete stresses which are always the same. The Webster’s definition  rightly asserts  that meter is a pattern of stresses (English for example) or lengths (Latin for example).

What is especially curious about Dan’s example is that Webster’s defines meter the way I do(!) and, most importantly, doesn’t question its very existence.

On to Schneider’s next example:

The oldest and most important device of Verse form, meter selects one phonological feature of lang. (stress, pitch, length) and reduces it several levels or degrees in ordinary speech (3 or 4 levels of stress; high, mid, and low pitch; various durations) to a simple binary opposition (‘stress’ vs. ‘unstress’; ‘level’ vs. ‘inflected’ pitch; ‘long’ vs. ‘short’) which may be generalized as ‘marked’ vs. ‘unmarked’.

This is from the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Dan rightly mentions that Princeton’s overview covers several pages. However, he glosses over the implications of this concession by writing:

This is very important to note, because from the start of my essay through its end, I am the person arguing that meter is a reductio ad absurdum, it is not real, and it reduces human speech to a false binary opposition. Princeton proves I’m right on that score, and says so in black and white.

(Never mind that Dan’s own example from Webster’s contradicts his claim that meter is “a reductio ad absurdum” – which is to say, it doesn’t exist.) Well, OK Dan, but, as you intimated, Princeton says a lot more in black and white. It also writes:

The traditional view had always been that m. is an arbitrary pattern imposed on words — that, as Gurney put it, “metrical rhythm is imposed upon, not latent in, sppech” (1880). It seems indubitable that meter is in some sense a filter or grid superimposed on langauge. But 20th century linguistics has shown convincingly that many aspects of poetic form are merely extensions of natural processes already at work in language itself.

One page later, and after much exegesis to support this contention, Princeton closes the section by writing:

But modern metrics also holds that strong syllables outside ictus are “demoted” and weaker syllables under ictus “promoted” under the influence of the meter. Promotion of weak syllables under non-ictus weights and slows the line, adding power. Demotion of stresses under ictus gives a quicker and lighter line. This is not a purely metrical mechanism, it shadows normal phonological process by which alternation of weak and stress, and strong and stronger, is effected atomically in polysyllables.

Apparently Dan either couldn’t be bothered to read this far or conveniently chose to ignore this portion. Princeton, in fact, not only disagrees with Dan but recognizes the binary stress pattern of the English language as a “normal phonological process”. And, by the way, did I mention it does so in black and white? Not only that, but Princeton rightly points out, as I have, that 20th Century linguistics has shown convincingly that many aspects of poetry are “extensions of natural processes already at work in language itself.” The next time Dan claims to be a man of science, take it with a grain of salt.

Dan then goes on, at some length, railing at my characterizations of his argument. None of which, curiously, supports his claim that meter doesn’t exist. He repeatedly refers back to  Websters and Princeton, neither of which support his argument.  Among other things, he writes:

This is really amazing. First, VP spends the bulk of his essay claiming that my claim that meter is a fallacy is wrong, then he cites a study (naturally, the links do not work)…

I just checked the links. They work.

Without, apparently, reading them, he both dismisses and reinterprets the science (which, did I mention, he didn’t read).

More importantly, Dan never counters the example of an artist like Eminem. As I wrote above, Rap is “thumping example” of accentual and accentual syllabic verse.

Dan quotes Princeton out of context, ignores science, and glosses over 8 Mile. He then closes:

As I implied in the piece VP quotes, I was a mediocre formalist. Note the past tense. I am a great poet, formally and in free verse. There are poems of mine that scan perfectly, according to metric nonsense, but not because I was following metric dictates, but because any well musicked poem will, given the reductive aims of meter, scan well. It’s what is in them that matters.

So, according to Dan, meter doesn’t exist but, by gosh(!), when he wants to, he writes meter with genius!

Not that all meter isn’t “nonsense” (but his poem scans perfectly). He’s not following metrical dictates  (it’s just that a “well musicked poem” does the same thing), and not that it’s not nonsense (but it scans well). Never in the annals of “seminal” essays has a more self-contradictory paragraph been written.


I guess that’s what happens when you try to have your cake and eat it too. At the very least, readers shouldn’t be taking advice from a man who claims meter doesn’t exist, then hurriedly, as an afterthought, asserts that he nevertheless writes meter with genius. Makes you wonder who the idiot really is, doesn’t it?

By the way Dan, I prefer – Fool.

In a play like King Lear, he’s the only one who lives.


We Will Never ForgetIt’s hard for me to think about poetry. I know that I’ve had 39 readers from Iran during the last three months and I can’t help thinking about them and the Iranian people.

When I was living in Berlin, Germany I was a close friend of an Iranian woman when the American Navy shot down Iran Air Flight 655. I can’t forget how generous she was. She and the other Iranians I knew were generous, kind and profoundly thoughtful.

All I can say is that the world knows what is being done to you.  I am reading and I am watching. Despite the efforts to silence you, your voices are being heard around the world. June 22 2009: With so many millions of others, I have seen the death of Neda. As I wrote in my comment, words fail me… my heart breaks.

The Animal Tales! • The Sixth of Several Fables

6. Greener Grass

A fable that follows: The Best Advice

“I’ve had enough of that bull’s temper!” said the farmer. “What will you do?” his wife asked. “I’ll buy an ox,” the farmer answered.  Sprouts Adjusted (Cropped)“Maybe an ox’s good temper will rub off on that bull.” And so that day he went to a neighbor’s auction and bought the sweetest tempered ox he could find.

Once home, the farmer pastured the ox in the field next to the bull’s. The bull paced back and forth, back and forth. ‘The grass is greener in that field!’ the old bull thought to himself. Why should he get the greener grass? By the end of the week he was stomping, snorting and pawing the ground. Still the ox paid no attention to the bull, making the old bull hotter and hotter.

All the while, with all his stomping on the grass, the old bull’s field was getting thinner and thinner. And having nothing to eat, the old bull himself grew as thin as his field. There was almost nothing left to him as well! “Well now,” said the farmer to the bony old bull, “you don’t look so mean any more. I’ll tell you the moral to this story!” he said. “No matter how green the grass next door,

“Envy won’t make your own grass grow.”

Be it known that this fable is followed by: Cooked Goose: The Seventh of Several Fables!

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Sonnet (Posted by Request)

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For my reader, Aranza, who posted a request for this over at Sidney’s Sonnets.

  • June 16, 2009: Corrected link to Google’s “A Companion to Victorian Poetry”. Also corrected extract. Added extracts from Christina Rossetti’s little piece of righteous vengeance called The Ballad of Boding.

About Rossetti and The House of Life

Here’s what I’ve found. Rossetti’s Sonnet is the first sonnet, an introductory sonnet, to his sonnet cycle, The House of Life. The cycle is considered, in its day, to be the Victorian Era’s most famous sonnet cycle.  Whether that makes it the greatest is, perhaps, a different question. No critic or biographer appears to make that argument. In fact, the first thing I did was to look up DG Rossetti in the book, lives-of-the-poetsLives of the Poets, by Michael Schmidt.  Schmidt devotes several pages to Rossetti’s sister, Christina Rossetti, but only a single paragraph to Dante Rossetti, curiously and dismissively referring to him as “her brother”. He writes:

Her brother, Dante Gabriel (1828-82), has been eclipsed even as her star has risen. Only his most famous poems, “The Woodspurge” and “The Blessed Damozel,” are tenuously held in popular memory. The whole Pre-Raphaelite thing, at the hub of which he stands, with its attitudinizing, its excesses, its wild and sometimes lunatic palette, is less popular in literature than in the galleries. His poems do not partake of the charged excess of the paintings…

Schmidt closes the paragraph, however, by noting:

…in sonnets and narratives and inventive lyrics, he is a master — of enjambment, of cunning irregularity in prosody — who approaches “voice” with a diction remarkably unliterary and uncluttered for a man of his coterie. [p. 480]

The history of the sonnet cycle has to be one of the most bizarre in all of literature. My sense is that The House of Life was written as a meditation on and exaltation of his marriage to Rossetti's Beatabeatrix 1863Elizabeth Siddal – a woman who inspired many Pre-Raphaelite painters besides Rossetti.

[For a brief biography on Rossetti, visit Victorian Web.]

But Rossetti and Siddal’s affection for each other,  while it inspired Rossetti’s most intense and productive period of poetry, was not ideal. Siddal came from a lower class family and Rossetti’s sisters harshly disapproved of the relationship. Rossetti himself, sensitive to such criticism, hesitated to formally introduce Siddal  to his family and was privately criticized for it by the Art critic John Ruskin. Several years were to pass before they married. Siddal, apparently predisposed to depression (and already ill when the couple finally married) never fully recovered. Though their marriage included a period of intense and secluded contentment, Rossetti’s affections waned.  Siddal’s depression worsened along with her addiction to Laudanum.

When the couple’s first daughter was stillborn, the blow may have been too much. After becoming pregnant a second time, Rossetti would discover Siddal unconscious and dying from an overdose of Laudenum. Some have suggested that a suicide note was discovered and that Ford Maddox Brown, given the stigma and scandal still attached to suicide, strongly urged Rossetti to destroy the note. In any event, Rossetti seems to have blamed himself for his wife’s dissolution. His guilt led him to bury his poetry, including The House of Life, with the remains of his wife at Highgate Cemetery. Seven years would pass before, at the urging of his friends, the collection of poetry was exhumed and published in 1870. Talk about Gothic…

Rossetti’s Brotherhood

A key, perhaps, to understanding some of the imagery in the sonnet, is a knowledge of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – a group which Rossetti founded. Yale Fair CopyI’ve linked to Britannica rather than Wikipedia. The part that Britannica leaves out, and the part for which Wikipedia provides misleading information, is the group’s rejection of materialism. Wikipedia links to an article on materialism which, I think, over complicates the issues the Brotherhood objected to. Essentially, their understanding of materialism meant placing too much emphasis on physical well-being and worldly possessions. They considered materialism to be an over attachment with worldly concerns. This, I think, is the central tenant Rossetti carries over from painting into poetry. More on that later.

The Poem

A Scansion of Rosetti's A Sonnet

About the Scansion

All unmarked feet are Iambic. If these terms and scansion are new to you, visit Iambic Pentameter and the Basics. Trochaic Feet are red. Pyrrhic feet are yellow. Spondaic feet are purple.  The slurs, as I call them, indicate that the words should be pronounced monosyllabically rather than disyllabically (or as one syllable rather than two).

The brackets at left indicate the usual pattern in Petrarchan sonnets – the octave followed by the sestet (both divided by the volta). For more of an explanation of these terms, visit the link to Shakespearean, Spenserian and Petrarchan Sonnets . The brackets at right indicate the three quatrains and closing couplet more typical of the Shakespearean form.

About the Form of the Sonnet

The Sonnet is a kind of hybrid between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean mode, but is a form that was first pioneered in Sidney’s Sonnets. Dante Gabriel RossettiWhen Sidney used this form, the Sonnet and Iambic Pentamter (in which Rossetti’s Sonnet is written) were both brand-spanking new. Sidney’s aim was probably an homage to the Patrarchan Form, which was the form in which the Sonnet first reached the English shores, with a nod to the more rigorous and intellectual English Sonnet (Shakespearean Sonnet), then rapidly becoming a favorite form among Elizabethan poets. That is, the English Sonnet appealed to Sidney because he was an Elizabethan. He was trained to think rigorously and rhetorically. The homage to the Petrarchan form (in the first octave) was possibly a concession to legitimacy. In other words, Sidney was saying: This is a real sonnet, I’m just tweaking the form.

Rosetti may or may not have been familiar with Sidney’s Sonnets. (My guess is that he was.) But beyond sharing a rhyme scheme, Rossetti’s sonnets bare little resemblance to Sidney’s. Rossetti had his own reasons for combining the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet forms. The nesting quatrains, called Italian Quatrains, which enclose heroic couplets are suited to the more contemplative style of the Petrarchan Sonnet. They encourage the sense of a self contained form – a self-contained octave and sestet. The Petrarchan Sonnet is not a sonnet that is racing vigorously toward an epigrammatic conclusion in the form of a final couplet. The Petrarchan Sonnet’s rhyme scheme emphasizes two, more or sometimes less, discrete ideas at play with one another. The self-contained rhyme scheme emphasizes the volta, the intellectual and thematic turn that characterizes Petrarchan Sonnets; and that frequently distinguishes them from Shakespearean Sonnets (whose sonnets just as frequently dispense with the Volta).

So, the octave of Rossetti’s sonnet (the first two quatrains) are written in the manner of a Petrarchan Sonnet. Rossetti intends the Octave to be a sort of self-contained setting out of an idea or theme. We aren’t meant to rush over it, the way we might when reading a Shakespearean Sonnet. We are meant, in a way, to savor the octave. The octave is as a sort of contemplation.

But Rossetti also desired the concision of the Shakespearean form. In the final Sestet, we find ourselves in a very different world. The rhyme scheme is that of the Shakespearean Sonnet. The interlocking rhyme scheme of the sicilian quatrain doesn’t encourage a pause. Where the Petrarchan rhyme scheme introduces a couplet, encouraging, perhaps,  the ear to subliminally linger over the rhyme (or at least I find myself doing so) the Shakespearean form separates the rhyme, encouraging us to read headlong until the sonnet comes to a final thematic closure of the couplet.

If one thinks of Petrarchan Sonnets as contemplative statement and Shakespearean Sonnets as argument, then one might also treat Rossetti’s octave as statement and the closing sestet as argument. This is a generalization, and has its limits, but may be helpful toward understanding the reasons Rossetti chose the conflicting rhyme schemes.

The Sonnet and the Sonnet Sequence it Introduces

One of the most useful explications of this sonnet can be found here at Google Books, beginning on Page 103 (first paragraph below). Alison Chapman notes that the whole of Rossetti’s sonnet sequence is built on ideas of duality.  She writes:

Corrected Companion to Victorian Poetry (extract)

She goes on to make the argument that Rossetti’s sonnet sequence, in general, deals in dualities : love and loss, eroticism and religious asceticism, the physical and the spiritual. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence

What is “The House of Life” about? In his book, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence (the book at Google), John Holmes writes:

In The house of Life Gabriel employs sacramental imagery to blend Christian worship and sexual love, evoking an ecstatic sacramental imagery to blend Christian worship and sexual love, evoking an ecstatic passion before calling into question belief in both Love and God. This fusion — central to what many, following Frederic Myers (1883), have seen as Rosetti’s ‘Religion of Beauty’ — is intesified in the finished text of The House of Life. [p. 49]

On the next page, Holmes adds: “Rossetti elevates bodily love to the level of the divine.” This is the material to which “A Sonnet” serves as an introduction.

What the Poem Means

Another website offers a reading of this poem line by line: A Reading of D. G. Rossetti’s “The Sonnet” by D. F. Felluga.  I recommend the site with trepidation. Felluga indulges in such statements as the following:

“The sequence of ‘m’s and ‘n’s also forces us to take special notice of the prominent ‘s’ that precedes and follows this sequence, suggesting (once again both orally and orthagraphically) a special connection between “Sonnet” and “Soul,” an alignment even further underlined by capitalizing both of these words.”

This comes too near, for my comfort, to David Orr’s Enactment Fallacy. For more on this, read my post on Robert Frost’s The Pasture. Also see David Orr’s New York Times article. Orr writes: “Basically, this is the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess.” Felluga, in my opinion, packs his analysis with this sort of fallacy. One gets the impression that every line break, comma, and letter means something. I don’t buy it. I think it’s reading far too much to assert that the s’ in the opening lines “suggest” a connection between Sonnet and Soul. I also somewhat disagree with Felluga’s interpretation of the sestet.

Of the sestet, he writes:

[It] concerns itself not with self-sufficiency but with the “Power” to which the sonnet owes its “due.” Indeed, the first “Power” could be read precisely as the “appeals” of a public that demanded that poetry, like the novel, serve the concerns of politics, reform, and quotidian life generally.

This reading ignores Rossetti’s use of the word august in reference to life, which means “inspiring reverence or admiration; of supreme dignity or grandeur; majestic.”  Hardly quotidian. It also ignores Rossetti’s elevation of bodily love to the level of the divine. The physical expression of love is nothing if not a celebration of life. After all, this is what the ensuing sonnet sequence is all about – an august celebration of life! Rossetti may have reviled the public’s quotidian materialism but, in the sonnet at least, this isn’t what he was talking about.

But anyway, if you maintain a skeptical reading, Felluga has much to say.

A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,–
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour.

Rossetti’s comparison of a sonnet to monument is apropos. The sonnet itself serves as a marker, or monument, to the sequence as a whole. It stands at the entryway to the “House of Life”. The sense of the sonnet and the cycle as a whole, as a memorial to his deceased wife, is also implied I think. Although the poem was written before his wife’s death, the fact of its having been buried with his wife’s remains  for seven years lends a much more gothic (if unintended by Rossetti) layer of meaning to the sonnet as a memorial! The spondaic variant foot of |Dead death| is a nice metrical stroke.

To one |dead death|less hour. | Look that | it be

The effect is to aurally slow the reader. It’s a beautiful touch, really; and reminds one of Donne, who regularly used spondaic variant feet to the dismay of his peers. It is a touch available to free verse poets, but not with the same power or effect as when the repeated hard accents disrupt a regular Iambic pattern. Consider also the paradox in moment’s monument and dead deathless. This theme of contrast, duality and paradox will be continued in the sonnet sequence. A monument is usually for all time, and yet Rossetti acknowledges the timeliness of poetry which is a product of its age and depends, in part, on that context to be understood. Think of how frequently Donne’s sonnets are misread because readers no longer understand meter and how poets wrote for it. These poems are a monument, but they are also momentary. We say that Love is eternal, but we know that our loves are mortal. The hour in which the sonnet is written will be dead. The age in which the sonnet is written will be dead; but the sonnet itself, Rossetti tells us, is deathless.

Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own intricate fulness reverent:

In a structure similar to Shakespeare’s soliloquy To be or not to be, Rossetti engages in Prolepsis or Propositio. Rosetti makes a general statement, then particularizes it. In the lines above, Rossetti particularizes the idea of the sonnet as moment’s monument. A monument will outlast the age in which it was created. But in order for the monument to have meaning to later ages, it must be “of its own intricate fulness reverent”.  The word reverent has religious connotations, but in this context it’s understood as referring to something “entitled to high respect , venerable” [Shakespeare Lexicon]. Rossetti is advising the reader and poet that the true sonnet is respectful of its capacity as a monument, whether for lustral rite or dire portent, by its “intricate fullness”. This brings us back to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their emphasis on having “genuine ideas to express”, to respect what is direct, serious and heartfelt in previous art, and to “produce good pictures and statues”. Rossetti is defining what produces a good sonnet. The impulse in poetry, for Rossetti, was the same as his impulse in art. In order for the monument to outlast the moment, it’s meaning must be self-sufficient.

Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night prevail; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

Rossetti now particularizes the idea of the Sonnet as one dead, deathless hour. The ink and paper of the printed sonnet is fleeting,"House of Life" by V Williams but carve it in ivory or ebony and the sonnet, through the skill of the artists, attains permanence.  Rossetti appears to link ivory with day and ebony with night. The idea being, perhaps, that the artist’s responsibility is to suit the medium (the materials used) to the subject matter (day or night). Rossetti’s theoretical concerns, poetry and art, intermingle. One might also argue, and safely I think , that artistic medium serves as a Metaphor for form in poetry. In this light, Rossetti might be arguing that a given form is equivalent to an artist’s choice between ivory and ebony, between a Petrarchan Sonnet and a Shakespearean Sonnet (or the combination of the two). Let Time, and by Time he means posterity, judge the resultant work. Felluga makes the observation that orient is a reference to the rising sun (which rises in the East – or the orient). Felluga argues that Rossetti is playing on the idea of oppositions, that this is an ephemeral phenomena, as opposed to the permanence of something impearled. On the other hand, it’s worth mentioning that sunrise doesn’t happen only once. The phenomena is one of endless renewal (and will keep occurring long after our planet has turned into a charred cinder block).  In this sense, Rossetti could be implying that the great work of art constantly renews itself with every new generation. I prefer this latter interpretation.

And now for the volta.

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The soul,–its converse, to what Power ’tis due:–
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue
It serve; or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

Note: For foreign language readers. Don’t confuse the word august with the name of the month – August. The former is accented on the second syllable. The latter is accented on the first syllable. The word august has the meaning: “inspiring reverence or admiration; of supreme dignity or grandeur; majestic”.

And a note on the Meter: When scanning the poem, I used Synaloapha to elide “the august” to read “th’august”. If one doesn’t elide these words, then we are left with an anapestic variant foot, thus:

Whether |for tri|bute to |the august |appeals

Given Rossetti’s fairly conservative prosody, a more likely reading , in keeping with traditional expectations surrounding Iambic Pentameter, would be:

Whether | for tri|bute to |th’august|appeals

Also, and for similar reasons (an anapest in the final foot of the closing couplet would have been very unusual), I’ve opted to read the 13th line as follows:

It serve; |or, ‘mid |the dark |wharf’s cav’|rnous breath,

Think of the octave as a statement explaining how the form is made to transcend time. Think of the sestet as an argument establishing the Sonnet’s purpose. A sonnet is a coin, he tells us. Harkening back to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, here again we see Rossetti’s principles at work – his distaste for Victorian Materialism. Fellugi, in his online reading, especially emphasizes this aspect of the sonnet. My own reading is as follows: true monetary value is in the intellect, art and the spirit. Ones ability to express oneself artistically is the true currency of ones life: to the poet, poetry is his or her coinage;’ and will be posterity’s true inheritance and wealth.

To the extent that a poet’s art represents his or her coinage, it represents what they bequeath – their legacy. And their legacy will define their spiritual “worth”. It will define to what “power [their work is] due”. The poet’s legacy might be a celebration of life. It might serve as dower to Love. Websters defines a dower as ” the part of or interest in the real estate of a deceased husband given by law to his widow during her life”. Again, in this sense, Rossetti plays on the idea of art as legacy to be bequeathed. The closing, epigrammatic couplet, the summation of the sestet’s argument, warns that the poet’s misspent genius may end,

‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

The final couplet effectively adds emphasis to the warning. The mispent coin  (the mispent wealth of an artist’s or poet’s genius) will end in oblivion “‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath.” No mistake that the Sonnet’s last word is Death. This is the other side of the coin. The artist who wastes his talents will surrender his legacy to oblivion, to “Charon’s palm” in toll to death.

So it is. The sonnet frames Rossetti’s elevation of bodily love as an august celebration of life. And it frames the sonnet sequence, The House of Life, as a dower to love’s high retinue.

All the while, the sonnet also manages to express some of Rossetti’s most cherished principles on the creation of a lasting art.

Facsimile (Enlarged)

  • The original source for this reproduction can be found here. The link, though, is unreliable. It comes and goes. Maybe they’re having trouble with their server?

A Favorite Sonnet from The House of Life.

Because I’m a bit like Rossetti when it comes to celebrating bodily love , I can’t resist offering the following sonnet from the sequence. It was, so I’ve read, the most controversial (horrifying Dante’s prim and buttoned-up sister Christina Rossetti). Why? It celebrates, in a nutshell, post-coital bliss. Long live D.G. Rossetti!


At length their long kiss severed, with sweet smart:
And as the last slow sudden drops are shed
From sparkling eaves when all the storm has fled,
So singly flagged the pulses of each heart.
Their bosoms sundered, with the opening start
Of married flowers to either side outspread
From the knit stem; yet still their mouths, burnt red,
Fawned on each other where they lay apart.

Sleep sank them lower than the tide of dreams,
And their dreams watched them sink, and slid away.
Slowly their souls swam up again, through gleams
Of watered light and dull drowned waifs of day;
Till from some wonder of new woods and streams
He woke, and wondered more: for there she lay.

Apparently, Christina Rossetti was so nettled by her brother’s attitude toward, gasp, sex (or the “spiritualism of sexual love”) , that she promptly wrote an allegory in which three ships sail forth on broad, calm seas – a piece of righteous vengeance called The Ballad of Boding. (Apparently no one pointed out the pun on boating). Anyway, three ships set off: the first ship is packed with “merry lovers”; the second ship is packed with pride, envy and avarice (read Wall Street Brokers); and the third ship is manned by, you guessed it, the poor and hungry “toiling at their oars”. Cue violin. All three ships are attacked by a Demonic Monster (read Christina Rossetti).

Guess which ships are promptly dispatched?

Here is how Christina Rossetti sent her decadent brother straight to the bottom of the ocean:

There was sorrow on the sea and sorrow on the land
When Love ship went down by the bottomless quicksand
To its grave in the bitter wave.
There was sorrow on the sea and sorrow on the land
When Worm-ship went to pieces on the rock-bound strand,
And the bitter wave was its grave.

And it’s no accident that the Love Boat was the first ship  sunk. What happened to the poor and hungry?

…the third ship crossed the bar
Where whirls and breakers are,
And steered into the splendours of the sky;

Victorian Poetry isn’t for sissies. Presumably, Christina was seated primly in the third ship. For more details on the sinking of the “Love Ship“, look here! You will find that this isn’t the only poem she wrote.

  • And, finally, for a nice collection of D.G. Rossetti’s poetry and paintings, visit here.

Sophie Jewett: I Speak your Name

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A Quick Look

19th Century American Women PoetsI’ve been leafing through an anthology of Nineteenth Century American Women Poets. While none of them equal  Emily Dickinson, there are some truly beautiful gems and lovely passages. Perhaps one of my favorite poets is Sophie Jewett. There is something wistful, haunting, otherworldly and almost faery-like about her poetry – like a Midsummer Night’s Dream. She possessed a lightness of touch and, at her best, a haunting ear for the music of language.

The brief introduction offered by the anthology tells a sad childhood.

Her mother, Ellen Ransom Burroughs, died of acute neuralgia of the heart when Sophie was seven. Together with her three silbings, Sophie was awakened from sleep to witness her mother’s death agony, an event whose impress remained with her all her life. Charles Jewett died two years later when Sophie was nine. After his death, the children moved to Buffalo, where they resided with their uncle and grandmother, both of whom died while Jewett was still in her teens.

The Poems of Sophie JewettJewett’s father was apparently aware that his own life was slipping away. In the introduction to the The Poems of Sophie Jewett (cover at right), [Incidentally, this book has long since gone into the public domain. You can download Google’s digital copy, a PDF document, by clicking here.] the unidentified author of the introduction (written in 1910) writes:

Dr. Jewett, feeling life slipping from him while his children were very young, too every care to impress upon them not only high ideals of conduct for their future guidance, but also the value and the beauty of intellectual pursuits, holding up as a model to his little daughters, after she was gone, their lovely and gifted young mother.

This, at least, tells us that her mother and father must have been caring and protective. One last observation, as far as biographical material goes, The Paula Bennet, the editor of the anthology, also makes a point which will be instrumental in understanding I Speak Your Name. She writes that Jewett is a “transitional poet, opening the way for the more self-conscious work that would be the burden and pleasure of modernist lesbian women to produce.”

The Poem

I Speak Your Name (w Portrait)

What it Means

Or I should write, what it might mean. The images and ideas in this poem are, to me, suggestively elusive. Sometimes I look for other interpretations, just so I don’t embarrass myself. Portrait of Sophie JewettOther times I throw caution to the wind. This time, I thought I’d thread the needle. I looked for interpretations, but was determined not read any until I had written my own. I couldn’t find any. So. I’m winging it. If any readers want to offer other interpretations, changes or improvements, please do so.

I speak your name in alien ways,

This first line is why I fell in love with the poem and it’s also the most elusive of any of the lines. It may or may not be autobiographical. But here are some clues. In the introduction to the 1910 edition of her poems, we find the following:

Much inspiration and counsel came to her from her minister, Dr. Walcott Calkins, whose home in Buffalo, and later in Newton, MA, she called her “second home.” She was the constant comrade of his daughter from the time they met as little girls, and their companioning became a lifelong friendship. In the minister’s study, the two children discussed grave mysteries or bent together over books in strange tongues… [Introduction viii-ix]

Then later:

The friends of her girlhood she steadfastly cherished when time brought the separations constraining them “to go diverging ways.” She was little more than twenty when first she journeyed to England and Italy, an experience which gave new incentive to study and filled her beauty-loving soul with new visions. [Introduction ix]

Although I don’t know, I wonder if Jewett isn’t addressing her childhood friend? The introductory material doesn’t give us a name, but Jewett does – Margaret. Is Margaret her childhood friend? One wonders if Jewett wrote this poem overseas? The poem has an epistolatory feel to it if only because she addresses the poem to you who, in the final lines, becomes Maragert.   At it’s most straightforward, Sophie is saying that she is speaking her friend’s name in an alien tongue – perhaps in Italy. I am talking about you, she seems to say, I can’t stop thinking of you.

[To read some of Jewett’s Sonnets.]

But there’s an elusiveness to the line that I can’t shake and there’s a reason (which I’ll get to later in the poem). Alien had another meaning – in the sense of belonging to someone else. This is an older meaning, one that you will find in the Shakespeare Lexicon, but Jewett was an English scholar (a professor of Anglo Saxon), a student of poetry and (one assumes) Shakespeare, and would surely have been familiar with the subtler, if not older, meaning of words.

[Read some praise by a reader of Jewett, check out Imaginative Women: Lesbian Fiction and Real Lez Life]

Imagine that Jewett has fallen in love with (or has always loved) Margaret, but that Margaret doesn’t reciprocate her love, or rather, another woman’s love.  Margaret has given her name (her last name) to a man. Margaret’s name belongs to another. And so Sophie must speak her lover’s name in an alien way. There is a double in this poem.

Sophie Jewett (by Kimberly Coles)…while yet
November smiles from under lashes wet.

The choice of month and season isn’t haphazard, or least I don’t think so. November, in the northern hemisphere (I say that for my reader from Australia), is the onset of winter, of loss, barrenness, darkness and cold. There is always a lonely feel to November, a turning inward – at least to me. But there is not complete loss. November smile. What does Jewett mean by this?

[The eery and beautiful snippet at right is by Kimberly Coles. To see the entire illustration and to read an extract from Jewett’s “The Pearl”, visit her site by clicking on the image or her name. The latter link, to The Pearl, is to Gutenberg.Org.]

My feeling is that November refers to both the time of year and to herself. The image could signify a dreary day in November, where there are nevertheless a few remaining embers from summer – a few late flowers or leaves perhaps. Not all the memories of summer are gone, not all its warmth and youthfulness. And November could be Jewett herself, her lashes wet with tears but smiling at the memory of her friend.

In the November light I see you stand
Who love the fading woods and withered land,
Where Peace may walk, and Death, but not Regret.

I don’t interpret this as meaning that Jewett literally sees her friend. She imagines her friend, much as we might say, nowadays, I can just see her there. These are the woods her friend loved. There is the suggestion that her lover enjoyed and accepted autumn’s endings – its fading woods and withered land. There is no regret. I read Peace as meaning acceptance. Death refers not just to the season, but perhaps to the possibility of a greater love – a love between two women. But there is no regret and Jewitt doesn’t tell us to whom she is referring. There is no regret (perhaps not hers) and none, perhaps, on the part of her lover. These are the qualities of the woods they both love.

The year is slow to alter or forget;
June’s glow and autumn’s tenderness are met,
Across the months by this swift sunlight spanned.
I speak your name.

[LibriVox offers an audio recording of Jewett’s God’s Troubadour, The Story of St. Francis of Assisi.]

The year is slow… Whatever memories she has shared, of friendship or love, keep their warmth and glow even across the months. In referring to autumn’s tenderness, the feeling isn’t of barrenness or desolation, but of acceptance and sorrow – her wet lashes;  mixed with joy – her smile.  Perhaps, if her friend cannot reciprocate Sophie’s love, their friendship survives and continues – an autumn that tenderly closes a summer’s joy.

Because I loved your golden hair, God set
His sea between our eyes.

The meaning of these lines is truly elusive. Why would God set a sea between the friends, perhaps lovers, because Jewett loved her golden hair? In these lines, just for a moment, the surface of the poem is disturbed. Is this an outcry? If we read these lines literally, was Jewett sent overseas, to Italy perhaps? Was her travel a kind of self-exile? – her sapphic love having been forbidden? If her friend, Margaret, was the friend of her childhood, then perhaps ‘God” is a reference to her friend’s father.

Yet one doesn’t get the sense, in reading biographical material, that there was every any disharmony between Sophie Jewett and the Minister, Dr. Walcott Calkins. The 1910 biography does say, however,  that she frequently received much counsel from him.

[Archive.Org offers an audiobook of Armistice.]

Perhaps she discussed her preference for women?  Or perhaps her feelings were obvious? If the subject was ever broached, I can easily imagine the Minister’s kind but stern admonishment that love between women was counter to God’s intentions. The true meaning of these lines may have to remain beyond our reach, but Jewett’s phrase, because I loved your golden hair, carries with it a tender connotation that is hard to misconstrue.

Nude by Helen GotlibPerhaps the meaning of the line is figurative. This would be in keeping with the first line, if we interpret alien as meaning that her friend’s name now belongs to another. If her friend has been married, then it is understood that only God can marry a man and woman and only God can sunder them. Perhaps this is what Jewett means when she states that God has set his sea, the bond of marriage between a man and woman, between the eyes of Jewett and her lover, Margaret. But this doesn’t answer why God would have done this because she loved Margaret’s golden hair. Was Margaret married, if she was, to avoid a scandal? The line remains elusive.

[The image at right is by Helen Gotlib. Check out more of her beatuiful drawings by clicking on the image.]

Perhaps both meanings are at play. One feels, perhaps, a subversive double-meaning to the whole of the poem.

…I may not fret,
For, sure and strong, to meet my soul’s demand,
Comes your soul’s truth, more near than hand in hand;

And perhaps, in these lines, we come to understand November’s smiles in the second line. If the lovers’ relationship was ended prematurely for the sake of societal propriety, then perhaps Margaret did reciprocate Jewett’s love. But Margaret married. This is what was expected at the end of the 19th Century. Perhaps this is what they both accept. (There is no regret.) Jewett does not condemn her for it. And perhaps Margaret, though her name now belongs to another, and though there is “a sea” between them, still confesses her love for Jewett. There is still that smile beneath November’s wet lashes. Both joy and sorrow. The sorrow that their love cannot be enacted, but the joy that a different kind of love continues more near than hand in hand. It is her, Sophie Jewett, that Margaret still loves, this is her soul’s truth. Jewett will not fret. Though their love cannot be consummated, there is another kind of love that binds them. Jewett speaks her lovers name in alien ways, while yet November smiles from under lashes wet.

And low to God, who listens, Margaret,
I speak your name.

She knows. I’ll let these last line speak for themselves.

If Sophie Jewett is new to you;  if you have enjoyed this post, let me know…

The Animal Tales! • The Fifth of Several Fables

5. The Best Advice

A fable that follows: A Pig out of Mud!

Woodcut Full Fox Print (Color Corrected)The farmer was plum out of ideas. He needed advice as to how to catch a fox. “And who will you ask?” his wife demanded. “It won’t be you!” answered the farmer irritably. “Sure as I know a thing or two,” she said, “an ounce of doing cures a pound of talk. You’ll see how far advice gets you!” “And I will!” retorted the farmer. Off he went! One neighbor told him one way, another neighbor told him another. And some said the opposite.

Late afternoon the farmer met a neighbor with a very long snout. “I know just how to catch a fox!” said this neighbor. “And how would that be?” asked the farmer. “I will tell you for the price of a chicken,” said the neighbor. So the farmer gave his long-snouted neighbor one chicken. That night the farmer tied some twine to a chicken’s toe and the other end to his own toe. That way, the neighbor had told him, you will know when the fox is stealing the chickens.

In the middle of the night, the fox retied that twine round a sleeping bull’s tale and bit the bull darn hard on its behind. Off the charged the bull and out came the farmer, bed and all, dragged behind him by the big toe! When the bedraggled farmer finally returned, days later, his wife said sweetly: “You know…”

“The best advice comes with no strings attached.”

Be it known that this fable is followed by: Greener Grass: The Sixth of Several Fables!