Stone Whisperer: Poems • Hendrik D. Gideonse

an exception

In offering to do reviews, I haven’t wanted to review free verse poets. The free verse aesthetic dominates poetry and offers ample venues for its writers. Traditional poets, on the other hand, have far fewer choices (if only because editors and critics don’t know how to read or judge traditional poetry). I also, generally, don’t find free verse as interesting or compelling. Free verse is much easier to write than traditional poetry; and that ethos (of avoiding the hard work) generally carries over into all aspects of the form: in its avoidance of metaphor, rhyme, figurative language and, well, all the stuff that takes time, discipline and practice. But, in matters of art, no rule is worth having that can’t be broken. So the challenge is this: not whether Gideonse’s poetry is up to my standards, but whether I am up to his.

plausible deniability

The first feature the reader will notice in Gideonse’s book is not his poetry, but the brief notes that precede each poem. All the notes are explanatory but differ in content. Some are autobiographical, for example, while others offer brief commentaries on a poem’s form or subject matter. What I find so interesting about this experiment is that it raises a whole host of questions: are the poems sufficient without them, are the poems changed with them, are they now a part of the poem? Do the prefatory material and the poem, in effect, create a larger unified work? I suspect Gideonse would argue that the poems are poems and should be read as independent; but, for the first time reader, these poems and their intros will always be inextricably bound. The only question is how the poems will be effected – not whether.

Are the poems enlarged or diminished?

Poets are notoriously cagey about their own poems (knowing that suggestiveness, after all, is at the heart of great poetry). The best poems are a starting point for the imagination, not an end point (which is why political poetry has such a short shelf life). The greatest poems are as unique to each reader as the reader’s themselves – no two will walk off with the same meaning. For the poets themselves, a refusal to comment allows for plausible deniability. Robert Frost derided attempts to read his poem, Stopping by Woods, as a suicide note, but he never out and out denied the interpretation – plausible deniability. Does Gideonse fence in his poems? Each reader will decide for themselves. As for myself: I have always found that knowing something about the poet adds immeasurably to the poem. However, hearing it from the horse’s mouth takes some of the mystery out of it. After all, some of the fun in reading poetry is the riddle – something that the great poet Richard Wilbur puts to masterful use. Some peculiar moments occur, such as when Gideonse’s diminutive four line poem, Symmetry, is preceded by a sizable, 23 lines of explication. One wonders, humorously, if the poem shouldn’t have prefaced the preface.

Having written all that, it’s worth mentioning that some of Gideonse’s prefaces are less revealing than others.

what you will & won’t find

You won’t find much in the way of traditional techniques.

There is very little figurative language, the imagery is thin, and there is little metaphor. Rhyme, even internal rhyme, is scant. There is no rhetorical heightening (as the poet Richard Wilbur refers to it). In fact, there is little that distinguishes these poems from short paragraphs of prose. But these are all stylistic choices – and to point them out isn’t criticism so much as description.

The Press release for Stone Whisperer gives us some background:

Gideonse is the retired (1996) University Professor and Dean (1972-86) of the University of Cincinnati College of Education. He is the former Director of Planning and Evaluation for the U.S. Office of Education Bureau of Research (1965-71), was professional staff to Senator Abe Ribicoff (1971-72), and taught at Bowdoin College (1963-4). He turned his summer home into his fulltime residence in 1998 and thereafter began the transition from academic and policy scholarship to writing poetry. (….)

Then, in the next paragraph, some of Gideonse’s artistic philosophy is shared:

He strives to make his poetry accessible to listeners and readers using introductions, word choice, phrasing, as one reader put it, to avoid the poem becoming something of a NYTimes crossword. Gideonse says, for example, that he doesn’t try to get published in the New Yorker; he’d rather amuse, enlighten, challenge, or encourage recognition and a sense of commonality.

So, if you love your poetry like a NYTimes crossword, Gideonse is not for you. But who ever thought that anti-establishment poetry would be the poetry that amuses, enlightens and encourages recognition? (For sure, the New Yorker Poetry editors seem to covet what I like to call cosmopolitan kitsch – a sort of turtleneck urbanity. ) But that a poet should feel the need to “defend” the simplicity of his poetry says something. So… Gideonse invites us to judge his poetry not by the standards of the language poet, the surrealist or conceptual poet, but by the degree to which he amuses us, enlightens, challenges, and connects with us.

the poetry

Gideonse’s title poem comes first and, like Frost’s The Pasture, one senses that Gideonse favors this poem both as an introductory poem , an invitation, and as a philosophical summing up. In the poem’s prefatory material, he writes: “Balancing Stones is a relatively new pastime for me, yet it has been an ever-present, quasi-meditative endeavor for more than a decade. I had done it, large stones and small, over and over…

Just as with stones, Gideonse could be decribing the writing of his own poetry.

…she asked hiim
How he’d balanced all those hefty, jagged rocks
On their narrowest points,
To stand however briefly as silent sentinels on crag and ledge,
Full of stored energy subject to release by a breath of wind,
The brush of the herring gull’s wing…

Are we to think of his poems like those rocks, hefty and jagged, balanced on their narrowest points? And are his readers like the wind or the wing of the herring gull, momentary visistors who will release the stored energy within them?

Readers may find that Gideonse later poems don’t quite live up to the sentinel-like imagery of this first poem – the flinty, almost desolate imagery of crag and ledge. In truth, that first impression is very different from the quotidian subject matter of some of his poetry, such as Still Type A, a laundry list of mundane chores with a gently humorous punch line.

But Stone Whisperer nevertheless displays what Gideonse, at his best, is capable of – building a poem on a central metaphor, symbol or parable – the allegorical poem. Many of the greatest poems in the English language are allegorical poems (poems of allegory or parable), such as Frost’s Birches or Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci. It’s one of the few traditional techniques that modern poets haven’t completely discarded, but I still wouldn’t mind seeing more.

Another, in a similar vein, is the poem On a Twisted Sledge Norwottuck’s Called to Rest. Gideonse writes: “Senior year at Amherst I took my fiance for a hike and spring picnic… It was on that hike I saw the rusting sledge impaled by a heavy stand of laurel and set myself the challenge of writing a poem whose rhyme scheme evoked the timeless spirals of creation and decay.” It’s unclear whether this poem was written much later, remembering the hike and the sledge, or written while Gideonse was, presumably, in his twenties. In any case, the poem is one of the few in which Gideonse experiments with more traditional techniques. My own guess is that this is a youthful poem. One finds many of the mistakes associated with younger poets when they first try their hand at rhyme. Notice the grammatical inversion in the second line:

The earth calls back her own,
The straight now gray grain ages grown

The grammar, contorted for the sake of the rhymes own and grown, somewhat confuses the meaning of the line. Worse yet, two lines later one finds the sort of linguistic contrivance that makes more experienced poets cringe.

Iron bleeding into wood and ground
(How dragged here, left near this peak so deep.

And so the poem goes on. Gideonse’s traditional technique, at least in his youth, left something to be desired. In fairness to Gideonse (and to all of us and our youthful poems) I’m glad that he included it. Many poets relegate youthful folly to the oblivion of a shelf or desk drawer. For all its youthful eagerness (and I am assuming that this was a poem written in his youth) the poem shares the same love of detail that readers will find in his later poems (along with some of its drawbacks).

the imagery

Gideonse’s poems are rich with an eye for color, contrast shape, shade and detail.

These qualities are most effective in a poem like Come Spring…

Each year framed a perfect case
Of dandelion lawn in spring –
As Barbara D. would say,
Millions and millions of yellow dandellions –
A molten flow of sunny fire before the door
So solid each year it could only light the
Darker corners of any soul who saw it…

This is Gideonse at his best. The reader won’t find much in the way of extended metaphor, the poetic conceit, or any of the other more complex forms of imagery (such as one might find in Robert Frost’s poetry). The metaphorical description of dandelions in the “molten flow of sunny fire” is, to me at least, an all too rare occurrence. Gideonse’s feel for imagery is very matter-of-fact, unadorned, and almost entirely visual. If we separate imagery into Visual, Aural, Smell, Taste, and Touch, Gideonse is an almost exclusively visual poet. For instance, nowhere in this otherwise lovely poem, does Gideonse mention the smell of dandelions , the touch of them, their texture, moistness, or softness. There is nothing aural. We don’t hear, feel or taste the wind. But in this respect, Gideonse isn’t all that different from other poets I’ve reviewed – like Annie Finch.

That said, there are exceptions. Gideonse’s senses come to life in his erotic poetry. It’s not too hard to guess at what makes this poet’s heart race. The reader enters a different world. Consider Dandelion Seed Puffs:

The silky sepia tones of your skin,
Sensuous curve on curve,
So smooth, were my fingers tongues,
They would slide over you
As easily as an infant downs Junket.
When we held each other in late evening
And finally in early morning’s quiet and warmth,
We were two dandelion puffs
One interweaving with the other…

Or First Fruit:

Inclining lightly to my right
I turned your face toward me
And touched your yielding lips with mine.
An instant later I saw myself
Raising up my chin
Lest one ripe drop of liquid plum
Thus burst upon my mouth
Race down my neck untasted.

Or First Kisses

But of course!
Yet unlike any kiss I’d ever given
Or taken before,
They were a velvet hook,
A honeysuckle flute
Summoning the bee in me.

While the imagery is still primarily visual, Gideonse is engaged with more than the plain fact of what he sees. Some readers may wish for more poetry on the same sensual plane (I do), but the straightforwardness of Gideonse’s imagery is in keeping with his stated desire to offer a poetry that is, above all, ‘accessible and that ‘encourages recognition’. And if there’s any other flaw in Gideonse’s heavy reliance on one sense, it’s that so much visual detail and observation sometimes has a “grocery list” quality to it.

Now they crouched together above the frame,
They seek to measure, fit, cut, raise,
and enclose in just one month.
One hand clasps tape,
a second the square,
a third holds post on beam,
a fourth scribes on the line
defined by the post’s edge… [Love Abuilding]

Leading used to be important to me.
Command was almost second nature,
Intelligence a knife,
Or sometimes glue,
Or leverage or spring a rusted thread,
Or move a boulder from here to there,
And words were Archimedean levers… [Pancake]

This former maker of rockets and stars;
A man of fancy;
A present-day gardener of rock,
Who cultivates his granite
And grows his obelisks and spires, his steps and pavers,
And schools still smaller stones to curves and spiral forms
That hold his flowers, squash, and more, tight to the living stone
And finds water for their lives in quarry filled;

Whose youngest child will etch and polish,
Or work with feathers, silver, shells and such…. [How Much More Do You Need to Know?]

They were finely calibrated sets
Of archeologically defined – and precisely recalled – strata.
The chairs cradled the lanky, solid frame
Whose life force smoldered for ideas and words,
And the worlds those words defined,
Or shook,
Or split,
Or built,
Or canted ever slightly out of whack,
Or blew to smithereens. [Tendrils]

It’s not that the individual poems don’t justify the writing, but the pattern reveals a habit of thought that will appear again and again. It’s the voice of the poet in intimate conversation, one who doesn’t feel compelled to finish the story, but relishes the journey and considers the evening young. I sometimes wish for the single, well-placed image – the image that startles and powerfully suggests – but I appreciate Gideonse’s obvious enjoyment in the richly superfluous.

poetic asides

And that brings me to the way these poems are written. If these were narrative poems, such piling on would sink them. A good narrative depends on momentum (especially poetry), and episodes of syndetic and asyndetic descriptiveness are the death of narrative flow. Gideonse’s poems aren’t narrative. They’re not confessional. Each one is more like an avuncular aside – one might call it Anecdotal Poetry. There is a thread of geniality and comfortable humor that strings these poems together, so much so that the entirety of the book has the feeling of a life told in anecdotes – accepting, unguarded and even intimate. Here is how defines the anecdote: A short account of a particular incident or event of an interesting or amusing nature, often biographical. And that simple, short definition, ably describes the majority of Gideonse’s poems.

Gideonse’s poetic aim is, I think, to engage without pretense.

The price paid for that lack of pretense? I can’t help notice, sometimes, the smarmy rhetorical flourishes, the gratuitously inverted grammar, the unambitious imagery and language, but it isn’t helpful to criticize the poet for what he or she doesn’t attempt. Better to ask if they’re true to their own standards. And to that extent, I think Gideonse accomplishes his goals. He speaks with clarity, honesty, and openness. His effort strikes me as that of a man who warmly invites the reader into his life and the inspiration drawn from it.

Gideonse doesn’t chase new ways to be new (as Frost put it). And his poetry is exactly the kind that editors, the self-appointed guardians of poetry’s quote unquote highest standards, summarily reject (preferring the unimpeachably generic). And it’s for poetry like Gideonse’s that self-publishing is essential and necessary for the health of modern poetry.

Shape Poetry

I’ve noticed that googlers frequently come to my blog expecting to find shape poems – could it be the name of my blog? It’s among the forms I haven’t properly discussed. Happily, Gideonse playfully offers a shape poem – humbly the first of its kind, I think.

Mycelium: My Town

I would harvest for the
people the outcomes of close attendance to the surround
and careful meditation thereon, but it’s like knowing there are mycelia
down there somewhere beneath the composting mulch of public
need and desire and
trying to guess when
caps will
first break
through, in what
shape, what color,
and where.

Stone Whisperer P·O·E·M·S
Hendrik D. Gideonse


The Gandalf Press
Available at

Shakespeare’s Other Plays

  • While sorting through information for my last post, I stumbled on a book by Jeffery Kahan • Shakespeare imitations, parodies and forgeries, 1710-1820. The book clocks in at 1188 pages (all three volumes combined). For the pleasure of its company, you can expect to pay $8.04 per page. And that’s marked down from the book’s original $9,999.00 price tag. That’s so stupidly high (and, no, Kahan’s commentary is not worth $9,900) that I have generously provided texts for all but two of the book’s plays. And, by the way, Kahan, like me, doesn’t find any evidence to support  Shakespeare’s hand in The Double Falsehood.

Volume 1

The Tragedy of Jane Shore Written in Imitation of Shakespear’s Style • Nicholas Rowe

The Revenge • Edward Young

The Double Falsehood • Lewis Theobald

The Miller of Mansfield • Robert Dodsley

Edward the Black Prince • William Shirley

Volume 2

The Earl of Essex. Written in Imitation of Shakespear’s Style (1753) Henry Jones

Douglas. Written in Imitation of Shakespeare’s Style (1756) John Home

Edgar and Emmeline. A Comedy in Two Acts (1761)  Dr John Hawkesworth

Falstaff’s Wedding, A Comedy in the imitation of Shakespere (1766) William Kenrick

The Earl of Warwick (1766) Dr Francklin

Henry II, or the Fall of Rosemond (1773)  Thomas Hull

Volume III

Vortigern, A Tragedy in Five Acts (1796)
Henry II, an Historical Drama (1796) William-Henry Ireland

De Monfort (1800) Joanne Baillie

Brutus; or The Fall of Tarquin (1818) John Howard Payne

Double Falsehood • Tho. Dekker & Tho. Middleton?

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  • April 30 2011: I posted one further and third update: Double Falsehood Revisited. See this for my final thoughts and why I’ve come round to Hammond’s opinion.
Since the previous post, I’ve done some targeted reading, lots of comparisons, and while I still see Middleton in the latter three acts, the evidence argues against a Middleton attribution in the first two acts – and I go where the evidence goes. (Ego be damned.) Where does it lead? At the moment, my  reading argues for Dekker as a more likely candidate/collaborator than Shakespeare. Middleton and Dekker were known to have collaborated and some of their mutually written plays survive. According to Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, their extent collaborations are:
  • News from Gravesend: Sent to Nobody
  • The Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinary; or, The Walk’s in Paul’s
  • The Whole Royal and Magnificent Entertainment of King James through the City of London
  • The Patient Man and the Honest Whore
  • The Bloody Banquet: A Tragedy (As if we hadn’t already guessed it was a tragedy.)
  • The Roaring Girl; or, Moll Cutpurse
  • The Spanish Gypsy
  • The Honest Whore Part 1

In fact, Middleton and Dekker were more than just professional associates, they were friends and were aligned against Ben Jonson during the Poet’s War. So, on those grounds at least, a collaboration between Middleton and Dekker is hardly news. (By the way, I’m very fond of Dekker.)

Curiously, I seem to be the only one who’s calling this for Middleton?

And it’s especially curious because Jonathan Hope’s own book, The authorship of Shakespeare’s Plays, makes a stronger case for Middleton than for Fletcher(?) Though he never seems to question the Fletcher attribution! Maybe Hope has other reasons but, if so, he never shares them. But rather than simply make the assertion, you can decide for yourself, I present the evidence.

Jonathan Hope’s inadvertent case for Dekker

Early Modern English (read Elizabethan English) was in flux. Not only was usage changing, but they were changing with a white heat. Hope reasoned that (depending on education, age, or region of birth) the careful reader should be able to detect noticeable and, theoretically, predictable differences in the use of the English language (socio-linquistics). He applied his thesis to six Elizabethan Dramatists: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Dekker, Fletcher, Middleton, and Massinger and characterized their differences through their use of pronouns like who, that, which, or zero (the absence of a pronoun).  Hope called them Relative Markers For example:

  • The man that I know.
  • The man who I know.
  • The man (0) I know.
  • The man which I know.

In Shakespeare’s day all four could be used regardless of the antecedent (human or inanimate). Hope reasoned that  as the decade progressed, the use of “that” and “which” would change in predictable ways. The use of relative markers didn’t confirm his thesis, but they did and do provide another useful tool for sorting out who wrote what. [The use of the auxiliary do form did, by the way, confirm Hope’s thesis, so all was not lost.) Here is what he discovered in reference to the six dramatists:

With the exclusion of Shakespeare (12 plays), Hopes averages are based on 3 plays for Marlowe, 10 plays for Fletcher, 3 for Marlowe, 4 for Dekker, 5 for Middleton and 5 for Massinger. Each of the bars above represents the average of all the plays. First, notice Fletcher’s almost complete avoidance of the pronoun ‘who’. Hope puts it bluntly: “the most striking feature of Fletcher’s relativisation choices… is his extreme avoidance of ‘who’.” In Fletcher’s contribution to The Woman’s Prize, the percentage appears to be less than 1% and never rises above 3%. Middleton’s percentage ranges from 4 t0 14%. But there’s something interesting about Dekker. Hope puts in this way:

It should be stressed immediately that Dekker seems to be unique in the degree to which his idiolectal usage of relative markers varies: other dramatists may vary in one play in one marker (for example The Comedy of Errors in the early Shakespeare sample), none vary in every play, for virtually every marker. This result does not therefore necessarily undermine the use of relativisation as socio-historical linguistic evidence: rather it stresses that relativisation may be greatly affected by generic or stylistic factors. In Dekker we apparently see a writer who uses relativisation as a stylistic strategy more than other early Modern dramatists, and who is capable of shifting his usage and maintaining that shift over the course of a whole play. [98-99]

Hope also offers collaborative authorship or textual (scribal) interference as possibilities. In either case, it’s safe to say that any average representation of Dekker’s practice is going to be misleading (in comparison to the other dramatists). Without reprinting every graph from Hope’s book, suffice it say: Dekker shows far more variability than any other dramatist. Here are Dekker’s usages on a play by play basis:

Now we get to the fun part. Here is Hope’s graph for Double Falsehood:

Hope points out, rightfully, that by Theobald’s day the usage of who had become much more standardized. When editing Shakespeare, Theobald would replace which with who. Hope gives an example:

Shakespeare (Richard II 5.0.1 62-63)

He shall thinke that thou which knowest the way
To plant unrightfull kings, wilt know againe

Theobald (Richard II, page 57)

And He shall think, that Thou, who knew’st the way
To plant unrightful Kings, wilt know again [p. 94]

So… Hope argues that we should expect to see an increases in who usage if Theobald had edited Fletcher and Shakespeare. In the graph above (and in Fletcher’s case) Theobald has presumably (and primarily) replaced the pronoun that with who. What troubles me is that if Hope is going to treat averages as representative stand-ins for what might have characterized the original Double Falsehood text, the alteration for Shakespeare is several times that of Fletcher. Are we to believe that Theobald edited a Shakespearean original differently than the Fletcharian portion? Remember, according to contemporary accounts, Theobald initially thought the entirety of the play was by Shakespeare. I find it hard to believe that Theobald would subconsciously revise Shakespeare in a completely different manner than Fletcher. In fact, many critics have professed perplexity at evidence which suggests that Theobald left the “Fletcharian” portions relatively unscathed while butchering Shakespeare. But perhaps this perplexity only arises if one clings (my loaded verb of choice) to the belief that Shakespeare authored the first two acts. And there’s another problem with the Shakespeare ascription:

One piece of relativisation evidence which is difficult to fit into an assumed Theobald adaptation of a Shakespeare and Fletcher collaboration is the low rate of ‘that’ relativisation in Double Falsehood: 39 per cent.This is lower than the rates for that in the collaborations, and in Theobald’s The Persian Princess. [p. 98-99]

In order to preserve the supposition that Shakespeare was the initial author, Hope theorizes that another editorial hand (like Davenant or other restoration meddlers) must have picked a fight with Shakespeare (but not Fletcher), thus “pre”-altering the first two acts before Theobald got his chance. Hope admits that this is sheer speculation. Without this hypothetical intermediate step, the evidence just doesn’t make sense. But wait a minute, what about Dekker? Lo and behold, in two of Dekker’s plays, the relativisation rates of that are less than 39% – they are 35% and 33%. Dekker is the only dramatist with rates that low. If you average Dekker’s relativisation rates in the four plays that Hope has tallied, it comes to 43.25%. Shakespeare’s average, among 11 plays, is 50.63%.  So… if Theobald had been editing Dekker, he would have reduced the number of that pronouns by roughly 4+ percent (if one treats Dekker’s averages as representative). When Theobald rewrote Richard II, according to Hope, the difference is more or less the same, 51% in Shakespeare’s original, to about +- 48% (Hope doesn’t give an exact percentage though he offers a graph). Interestingly, and predictably one might assert, the reduction in that relativisation is closer to what we would expect (and could accept) if Theobald had been editing Dekker. And given Dekker’s wide stylistic disparity, the odds of Dekker resulting in Double Falsehood’s relativisation  rates are surely better than Shakespeare.

(This is what I mean when I say that Hope is inadvertently arguing for Dekker rather than Shakespeare.)

And notice the radically increased appearance of the pronoun ‘who’ in Shakespeare’s portion, as compared to “Fletcher’s”. Is there another dramatist who, in any of his plays, comes close to the 30+ % found in Theobald’s Double Falsehood? Yes. Dekker. In his play If This Be Not  a Good Play the relativisation rate for who is 20%, outpacing any of the other dramatists Hope examined. One might argue that it’s unfair to single out Dekker’s individual plays, rather than an average, but remember that Dekker’s usage varies so widely from play to play that averages are misleading (much more so than his rivals). On those grounds, it’s far more likely (according to Hope’s methodology) that the original two acts of Double Falsehood are by Dekker. None of the relativisation rates are beyond the scope of Dekker’s practice, unlike the presumptive Shakespeare; and one doesn’t need to propose an intermediary restoration author.

The Imagery

eyes & their beams

Hope’s methodology contributes to identifying authorship, but can’t be the final word (as he himself would assert). There are other reasons for my thinking that Dekker is behind the first two acts. Consider beams. It was as commonplace during Elizabethan times, that the eyes saw by projecting beams. Poets were quick to make use of this conceit, except for Shakespeare. Only once, in his Sonnet 114, does Shakespeare play on this conceit. There are 25 usages of beams in his plays but not one of them is in the context of the eyes’ beams. The beams are always in reference to the sun, the moon, or candles – always in reference to an object that gives off light. By contrast, consider the following from Double Falsehood (Act I Scene i:

Eyes, that are nothing but continual Births
Of new Desires in Those that view their Beams.
You cannot have a Cause to doubt.

This flies against Shakespeare’s practice. (My theory is that Theobald probably would have kept the imagery of the original author, who I believe to be Dekker, while dolling it up with figurative language.) However, Dekker did make use of this conceit in his imagery (from The Shoemaker’s Holiday):

Why, tell me, Oateley : shines not Lacy’s name
As bright in the world’s eye as the gay beams
Of any citizen ?

The Honest Whore Part I:

If ever, whilst frail blood through my veins run,
On woman’s beams I throw affection,

the image cluster of heat, cold, the eye, frost, burning, kindling, thawing, sun/Hyperion.

Double Falsehood

Jul. I do not see that Fervour in the Maid,
Which Youth and Love should kindle.  She consents,
As ’twere to feed without an Appetite;
Tells me, She is content; and plays the Coy one,
Like Those that subtly make their Words their Ward,
Keeping Address at Distance.  This Affection
Is such a feign’d One, as will break untouch’d;
Dye frosty, e’er it can be thaw’d; while mine,
Like to a Clime beneath Hyperion’s Eye,
Burns with one constant Heat.  I’ll strait go to her;
Pray her to regard my Honour:  but She greets me.–

Now here is Dekker from Shoemaker’s Holiday:

And for she thinks me wanton, she denies
To cheer my cold heart with her sunny eyes.
How prettily she works, oh pretty hand!
Oh happy work! It doth me good to stand
Unseen to see her. Thus I oft have stood
In frosty evenings, a light burning by her,
Enduring biting cold, only to eye her.
One only look hath seem’d as rich to me
As a kings crown; such is loves lunacy.
Muffled He pass along, and by that try
Whether she know me.

of dew & flowers.

Double Falsehood:

O Kiss, sweet as the Odours of the Spring,
But cold as Dews that dwell on Morning Flow’rs!

When Shakespeare associates dew with flowers, it is refreshing and always life affirming. When searching through Fletcher’s plays, I notice that his imagery also revolves around dew’s restorative powers. Not so, Dekker. Dekker’s associations with Dew are cold and frequently associated with death and illness:

a sensible cold dew
Stood on thy cheeks, as if that death had wept
To see such beauty alter. [The Honest Whore Part 1]

women & light

Double Falsehood

Th’Obscureness of her Birth
Cannot eclipse the Lustre of her Eyes,
Which make her all One Light.

The Honest Whore Part 1

Those roses withered, that set out her cheeks:
That pair of stars that gave her body light…

Notice the appearance of eyes in both passages. In fact, the habit of thought is almost identical. In both cases, the eyes/that pair of stars give light/Light to her body.

Furthermore, if I search through a Shakespeare concordance, nowhere does Shakespeare equate a woman’s beauty (or body) with light. In fact, Shakespeare usually associates femininity and lightness with… well… being a light-brained wench. The imagery is much more typical of Dekker.

the opposing wind

Double Falsehood

Oh, the opposing Wind,
Should’ring the Tide, makes here a fearful Billow:
I needs must perish in it.

The Noble Spanish Soldier

What whirlwinds can we raise to blow this storm
Back in their faces who thus shoot at me?

The Honest Whore Part 2

He’s damned that raised this whirlwind, which hath blown
Into her eyes this jealousy :

Note: The use of wind occurs 198 times in Shakespeare. Of all my comparisons, this is the weakest. However, I  find it interesting that Double Falsehood and Dekker’s examples all contain the idea of the wind as being in opposition. The same can’t be said for Shakespeare’s usages, which are far more varied and don’t, at first glance (Harvard concordance), contain a single example of an oppositional wind. Shakespeare’s winds are fickle, rude, unruly, vexing, gamboling, etc… but never, strangely, oppositional.

swiftest wing

Consider this passage from Caroline Spurgeon’s Shakespeare’s Imagery:

We have seen that Dekker, alone of these five other dramatists, shows in his images something of Shakespeare’s sympathy with the poor and oppressed, especially with prisoners. There is one characteristic seen in another group of images altogether -that of birds- which I may just mention, as it emphasizes this point. This is the quite remarkably large number of images he has from ‘wings’: soaring and riding on wings, being transported on the wind’s swift wings, escaping by putting on ‘winged feet’, clapping on swift wings and the like… ¶ Next to those of Shakespeare, Dekker’s images… seem more alive and human, more charged with his personality and direct experience that those of any other of the dramatists here analysed… [p. 40]

Double Falsehood

Jul. Fear not, but I with swiftest Wing of Time
Will labor my Return…

the fox & her den

Spurgeon also points out that Dekker comes nearest to Shakespeare in his imagery of sport and game. Consider the following from Double Falsehood:

Cam. I profess, a Fox might earth in the Hollowness of your
Heart, Neighbour, and there’s an End.

(Notice the anthimeria of earth, probably an addition by Theobald.) None of Shakespeare’s fox imagery seems drawn from actual experience and none refer to the fox’s den or desire to hide. Shakespeare’s references to the fox are more symbolic. Dekker’s fox imagery, on the other hand, seems drawn from real experience:

The Honest Whore Part 1

Faugh, not I, makes your breath stink like the
piss of a fox.

The Honest Whore Part 2

But the old fox is so crafty, we shall hardly hunt
him out of his den.

The Noble Spanish Soldier

Young cub’s flayed, but the she-fox shifting her hole is fled. The
little jackanapes, the boy’s brained.

On the durability of Imagery

I’m going to conjecture that if the original text had been Shakespeare’s or Dekker’s, some of their imagery would have survived. I’ve read and heard repeated assertions by various Shakespeare scholars that the first two acts of Double Falsehood might have been altered, not just be Theobald, but by the likes of Davenant (or any restoration reviser). They offer this possibility (and not without reason) as a rationalization for the wide discrepancies between what they should find, if there were Shakespeare, and what they do find (which is not Shakespeare). But if Hazelton Spencer’s book SHAKESPEARE improved is any guide, then my conjecture is a possibility. Some of Shakespeare’s (or Dekker’s) core imagery ought to have survived. The kinds of alterations Davenant made often retained Shakespeare’s core imagery (just as Theobald’s revisions of Richard II) :

From Richard II:


The which no balme can cure but his heart bloud
Which breathde this poyson


The which no Balm can cure, but his Heart’s Blood,
Who breath’d this Poison

From Hamlet:


“Shews sick and pale with Thought.”


“Is sicklied ore with the pale cast of thought.”

From Macbeth:


Better be with him
Whom we to gain the Crown, have sent to peace;
Then on the torture of the Mind to lye
In restless Agony. Duncan is dead;
He, after life’s short feavor, now sleeps; Well:
Treason has done it’s worst; nor Steel, nor Poyson,
No Ferreign force, nor yet Domestick Malice
Can touch him further.


Better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gayne our peace, have sent to peace,
Then on the torture of the Minde to lye
In restless extasie
Dancane is in his Grave:
After Life’s fitful Fever, he sleepes well,
Treason ha’s done his worst: nor Steele, nor Poyson,
Malice domestique, forraine Levie, nothing,
Can touch him further.

On the other hand, from Measure for Measure,  one finds examples of Davenant’s more destructive editing:


Oh Sister, ’tis to go we know not whither.
We lye in silent darkness, and we rot;
Where long our motion is not stopt, for though
In Graves none walk upright (proudly to face
The Stars) yet there we move again, when our
Courruption makes those worms in whom we crawl.
Perhaps the spirit (which is future life)
Dwells Salamander-like, unharmed in fire:
Or else with wand’ring winds is blown about
The world. But if condemn’d like those
Whome our incertain thought imagines howling;
Than the most loath’d and the most weary life
Which Age, or Ache, want, or imprisonment
Can lay on Nature, is a Paradise
To what we fear in death.


I, but to die, and go we know not where,
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot,
This sensible warme motion, to become
A kneaded clod; And the delighted spirit
To bath in fierie floods, or to recide
In thrilling Region of thicke-ribbed Ice,
To be imprison’d in the viewlesse windes
And blowne with restlesse violence round about
The pendant world: or to be worse then worst
Of those, that lawlesse and incertaine thought,
Imagine howling, ’tis too horrible.
The weariest, and most loathed worldly life
That Age, Ache, periury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a Paradise
To what we feare of death

So… while there are exceptions, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if echoes of an original author’s imagery might have survived in Double Falsehood. If  so, then I would argue that the core imagery suggests Dekker rather than Shakespeare. Not only that, but if one grants that  the original was Dekker, then there’s no need to posit a third hand besides Theobald’s. If the original was Dekker, then Dekker’s imagery survives under a layer of psuedo-Shakespearean additions (figurative language mostly characterized by anthimeria – a hallmark of Shakespare’s style and exactly what Theobald would have imitated).

Shakespeare’s imagery (his pattern of associations) aren’t to be found in lines like:  “Teach Sound to languish thro’ the Night’s dull Ear,/Till melancholy start from her lazy Couch,/And Carelessness grow Convert to Attention.” Shakespeare never used the word Laziness and according to OED, they find only three other uses during Shakespeare’s lifetime, one of which by Spenser (who Shakespeare might have read). Shakespeare used the word carelessness only once in all of his known works. Is it possible that Shakespeare used both these words at this particular moment? Yes. Is it likely? I say no, but decide for yourself.

All in all, the first two acts are surprisingly devoid of the imagery Shakespeare favored toward the end of his career. And even if I’m right in suspecting Dekker, Theobald has meddled to such a degree that Dekker’s voice has been completely erased.

If the original was Shakespeare’s, then there’s nothing left of him.

As for Arden, the book will probably sell well and that may be reason enough. I’ll purchase the book, though more to read the reasons for its inclusion in Shakespeare’s canon than to read the play.

The case for Middleton

Thanks to some digital tinkering, I was able to rearrange some of Hope’s graphs. Here are the results:

The graphs compared at right (comparing Middleton to Double Falsehood B – Acts III-V) are my own work. Hope states of the Fletcher/DF-B comparison:

…it will be seen that section B shows a strikingly good fit to the Fletcher comparison sample…

Now look at the comparison between Middleton and DFB. You decide. To me, the Middleton sample is an even better fit. And remember, many scholars have commented that Theobald seems to have left the last three acts relatively unmolested. At minimum, Hope’s own study cannot be used to favor Fletcher over Middleton. Even auxiliary “do” evidence meshes acceptably with a Dekker/Middleton collaboration.

Middleton’s Colloquial Contractions

Using MacDonald Jackson’s own criteria (so far as I know them) the evidence for a Middleton ascription is favored yet again. (Note: I found a copy of Jackson’s Studies in Attribution: Middleton and Shakespeare for a relatively (rolls eyes) cheap $54. It’s being shipped from Berlin, Germany (of all places) and if there’s anything that adds or detracts from my assertions, I’ll duly note them. (I should be getting the book within the next three months…)

E’en for even. This wouldn’t be typical for Theobald, but would be for Middleton.

Double Falsehood

Acts 1-2: 1
Acts 3-5: 2

Thomas Dekker

Middleton’s (Chaste Maid in Cheapside)


Fletcher (Philaster)


Fletcher (The Faithful Shepherdess)



Double Falsehood

Acts 1-2: 0
Acts 3-5: 4

Middleton’s (Chaste Maid in Cheapside)


Fletcher (Philaster)


Fletcher (The Faithful Shepherdess)



Double Falsehood

Acts 1-2: 1
Acts 3-5: 2

Middleton’s (Chaste Maid in Cheapside)


Fletcher (Philaster)


Fletcher (The Faithful Shepherdess)



Double Falsehood

Acts 1-2: 0
Acts 3-5: 1

Middleton’s (Chaste Maid in Cheapside)


Fletcher (Philaster)


Fletcher (The Faithful Shepherdess)



Double Falsehood

Acts 1-2: 1
Acts 3-5: 2

Middleton’s (Chaste Maid in Cheapside)


Fletcher (Philaster)


Fletcher (The Faithful Shepherdess)



Double Falsehood

Acts 1-2: 1
Acts 3-5: 3

Thomas Middleton

Middleton’s (Chaste Maid in Cheapside)


Fletcher (Philaster)


Fletcher (The Faithful Shepherdess)



Double Falsehood

Acts 1-2: 1
Acts 3-5: 5

Middleton’s (Chaste Maid in Cheapside)

64 (give or take 2)

Fletcher (Philaster)


Fletcher (The Faithful Shepherdess)



In every case, the use of such colloquial contractions increases in the portion usually ascribed to Fletcher. This makes no sense, but it does if the original author were Middleton. (Admittedly, my sampling is probably too small, but that Middleton favored such contractions in comparison to Fletcher is not in dispute). One has to suffer from willful denial not to see the correspondence. Admittedly, the number of contractions is much lower in Double Falsehood (than in Middleton’s unmolested works) but they are there and tellingly similar to what one finds in Timon of Athens (a collaboration between Shakespeare and Middleton). It’s possible that Theobald edited some of them out – but that’s speculation. On the other hand, I find that far more likely than the supposition that he added them.

There’s the evidence.

You decide.

I’m not going to pretend that I’ve made my case. Far from it. But, as a starting point, I don’t think this post is too shabby.

Ultimately, given that Double Falsehood‘s text has been edited and altered by Theobald (if one accepts an actual manuscript behind the play), I can’t see how any individual’s work will settle the matter. One can only offer likelihoods. It is more likely that Dekker wrote the portion ascribed to Shakespeare; and if that’s the case, then it is more likely that his collaborator would have been Middleton. There are no known collaborations between Dekker and Fletcher.

There is one certainty: Whether or not Shakespeare had anything to do with Cardenio, there is no Shakespeare in Double Falsehood.

Double Falsehood • It’s not Shakespeare

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“Double Falsehood”, said to be the remnants of a long lost collaboration between Fletcher & Shakespeare, is in the news again.

Arden's New Edition

The different write-ups, including by the New York Times, give the impression that this is a recent discovery, but it’s not. Double Falsehood has been considered and reconsidered again, again and again. The latest academic to throw his eggs into the Double Falsehood basket is Brean Hammond of Nottingham University. None of the articles go into any detail and many of them quote the same statement from Hammond:

In a statement, Mr. Hammond said “the early consensus” on “Double Falsehood” was “that Theobald had either forged it or passed it off as written by Shakespeare,” but more recently “a gradual trickle of belief” has “developed into an irresistible flood.”

It’s probably a flood of evidence eerily similar to another flood of circumstantial evidence that surrounded The Funeral Elegy. Donald Foster was the academic who claimed The Funeral Elegy as Shakespeare’s. Just like Arden, the publishers of the Norton Shakespeare decided to include the Funeral Elegy in their complete edition (fully annotated). Since then, Foster has slunk off to ignominy while his various fair-weather friends have been sadly afflicted with amnesia. Norton has quietly removed the Funeral Elegy. Expect the Arden editors to do the same with Double Falsehood.

By the way, way back when the Funeral Elegy was first claimed for Shakespeare, I might have been the very first to identify John Ford as the writer. Yes. Me. Somewhere, buried in Shaksper (I think), is proof. But that’s been a along time ago and my ambition has never been to be a Shakespeare scholar. I was kicked off Shaksper. Why? Because of my sense of humor. I enjoy the granular linguistic and stylistic analyses that prove and disprove authorship and that makes me a good counterfeiter. Back when I was still an upstanding member of Shaksper, I typed in a play called Dr. Dodypoll. No one had a copy of it (and it’s hard to find) but I found it at an obscure Boston library. There was much speculation that Shakespeare had had a hand in writing it (discovering new works of Shakespeare is a past-time for many in the field).

While typing it in, I guessed that the real author was likely Robert Greene (who famously insulted Shakespeare as a plagiarist) or George Peele (I can’t remember now). I remember that the image clusters, if nothing else, were a dead giveaway. But I thought I’d have some fun, so I forged some Shakespeare. Can you find it? Here it is, for the first time in 15 or 20 years:

Leander. My Lord, he fears that you will be angry with him.
Alphonso. You play the villain: wherefore should he fear?
I only proved her virtues for his sake,
And now you talk of anger. Aye me wretch,
That ever I should live to be thus shamed!

Alberdure. Madame, I swear the Lady is my love;
Therefore your highness cannot charge my father
With any wrong to your high worth of her.
Constantine. Sister, you see we utterly mistake
The kind and princely dealing of the Duke:
Therefore without more ceremonious doubts
Lets reconfirm the contract and his love.

Katherine. I warrant you my Lord – the Duke – dissembles.
It is not love doth speak, for such strong terms
Hath ever love. Dear Sister, do but note
The fruit tree giveth not that is not pruned
For nature teacheth us th’extravagance
Of outward show doth sap the inward stock
In substance and of worth. It is love
That like the gentle drop of rain speaks not
Its name unto the earth yet calls from forth
The ground the weary seed. (Nor yet the voice
Of angels can amaze the knotted bud
As doth a single drop of rain from heaven.)
And so true love should do, for that speaks not
That does in deeds what words may never do.

Alphonso. Here on my knees, at the alter of those feet,
I offer up in pure and sacred breath
The true speech of my heart and heart itself.
Require no more if thou be princely born.
And not of rocks or ruthless tigers bred.

Katherine. My Lord, I kindly cry you mercy now,
Ashamed that you should injure your estate
To kneel to me; and vow before these Lords
To make you all amends you can desire.

Flores. Madame, in admiration of your grace
And princely wisdom, and to gratify
The long wished joy done to my Lord the Duke,
I here present your highness with this cup,
Wrought admirably by th’art of spirits,
Of substance fair, more rich than earthly gems,
Whose value no man’s judgment can esteem.

Alphonso. Flores, I’ll interrupt the Duchess thanks
And for the present thou hast given to her
To strengthen her consent to my desires,
I recompense thee with a free release
Of all offenses twixt thyself and me.

Flores. I humbly thank your excellence.
Katherine. But where is now unkind Earl Lassinbergh,
That injures his fair love and makes her wear
This worthless garland? Come, Sir, make amends,
Or we will here award you worthy penance.

Lassinbergh. Madame, since her departure I have done
More hearty penance than heart could wish,
And vow hereafter to live ever hers.

Katherine. Then let us cast aside these forlorn wreaths,
And with our better fortunes change our habits.

Sure enough, there were other academics on the mailing list who spotted the passage right away – only they thought it was by Shakespeare. The excitement was palpable. Because I wasn’t trying to embarrass anyone (I was just having fun) I told everyone about my forgery within the day – unprompted. They were not amused and I was blackballed. End of story.

The point is not that they were dupes (they had no reason to suspect a practical joke and I didn’t give them much time to consider) but that  Shakespeare can be faked and that we’re all guilty of seeing what we want to see. The right Shakespearean scholar would have quickly recognized my little passage as a forgery – if only because the grammar is anachronistic. And who are the right Shakespearean scholars? First and foremost is Brian Vickers, author of ‘Counterfeiting’ Shakespeare. He was among the first scholars who persuasively identified John Ford as the author of the Funeral Elegy. If Brian Vickers comes out in favor of Double Falsehood, then that is the time to sit up and take notice. However, I expect that Vickers is sharpening his pencil to a scalpel’s edge (as I write). Expect blood. Other scholars to look for: MM Mahood, author of Shakespeare’s Wordplay, Edward A. Armstrong, author of Shakespeare’s Imagination, and Marina Tarlinskaja, author of Shakespeare’s Verse: Iambic Pentameter and the Poet’s Idiosyncrasies, Ward Elliot (a Professor of Government) and Robert Valenza (a mathematician and statistician), along with MacDonald Jackson and David Lake. These latter scholars were part of the Shakespeare Authorship Clinic who studied the Funeral Elegy and were detailed in Vickers’ aforementioned book.

When any of these scholars come out in favor, then we’ll have something. As it is, the game is only just afoot.

  • One  thing to know: With the exception of the scholars I’ve provided above, Shakespeare Scholars aren’t necessarily good at recognizing Shakespeare! It takes a certain kind of talent and knowledge to recognize Shakespeare – some of it having nothing to do with a degree in literature. It’s 9 parts science and 1 part intuition. Here’s a beautiful example – Oxford by the Numbers (which includes a rejection of Double Falsehood). That’s why you will find a mathematician and statistician among the scholars who can sort out genuine Shakespeare from the Fletchers or the Theobalds.

Just last night, I found an online copy of Double Falsehood and reread it. I’ll format it and reprint it here for those who are curious (within the week). And having read it, I see lots of imitation, but no Shakespeare.  I may go into more detail with another post (because I really, really enjoy this kind of murder mystery) but for now, I’ll be brief. First, just because a play had Shakespeare’s name attached to it  (as with Cardenio – from which Double Falsehood is supposedly drawn) doesn’t mean Shakespeare actually had anything to do with it (let alone Fletcher). For example:

  • The First Part of Sir John Oldcastle, 1600, appeared in two editions bearing the words ‘Written by William Shakespeare.’
  • The Troublesome Reign of King John. The title-page of the edition of 1611 says: “Written by W. Sh.”
  • The First Part of the Contention betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of Yorke. These plays were reprinted in 1619. The title page claimed they were “written by William Shakespeare, Gent.”
  • The Merry Devil of Edmonton Printed as being by Shakespeare in 1653
  • The History of Cardenio ‘A Play by Mr. Fletcher and Shakespeare;’ entered Sept. 9. 1653. It has been suggested that this play is identical with Double Falsehood.
  • The Second Maiden’s Tragedy was attributed to Shakespeare by Warburton in the 19th Century (I think). Interestingly, The Second Maiden’s Tragedy was recently argued, by Charles Hamilton, to be the actual lost Cardenio. Hamilton’s assertion that the play was a collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher has been discounted, but the play may well have been the lost Cardenio  and is now generally thought to be a collaboration between Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher (or Middleton’s in its entirety).

This list, by the way, (which is only partial) along with some of the description, comes from The Shakespeare Apocrypha (lest I be accused of plagiarism!). The commentary on The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, properly called The Lady’s Tragedy, is my own. And notice that Cardenio (three manuscripts of which were reputedly in Theobald’s possession) wasn’t identified as Shakespeare’s until almost 4 decades after his death. Given the sheer number of plays whose authors were inadvertently (and deliberately) misidentified during these decades, there’s no reason to believe Cardenio was an exception. (And it wouldn’t be the first time Middleton’s verse was identified as Shakespeare’s or Fletcher’s.)

Shakespeare's Imagination by Edward A. Armstrong

Though Lewis Theobald claimed to have based Double Falsehood on manuscripts, within a week of having produced Double Falsehood, his play was called a hoax and poets like Pope challenged him to produce the manuscripts. Theobald never did. The obvious inference is that Theobald, who was known to have imitated Shakespeare, either never had the manuscripts or knew that the manuscripts would undercut his claim. What man would let his career go down in flames, would let his reputation be destroyed, if all he had to do was produce manuscripts reputedly in his possession? That hasn’t stopped scholars from rationalizing his behavior.

If Theobald did have manuscripts, but didn’t produce them, then it’s probably because he recognized that Fletcher’s collaborator (if we accept that the original was a collaboration and that Fletcher had a hand in the play) was not Shakespeare. Was it better to conceal the manuscripts (thus giving him plausible deniability – no proof of anything) or to reveal that he had forged Shakespeare? He probably decided the former was the lesser of two evils. It’s obvious to anyone that Theobald meddled with the text (imitating Shakespeare), and claiming that he did so to suit contemporary tastes is the charitable interpretation. It’s more likely, given his behavior, that the original manuscripts weren’t Shakespearean enough, that Theobald knew it, and altered the texts accordingly.

Who was the other collaborator  (or author of the entire play) if not Shakespeare? Assuming the manuscripts were real, I put my money on Middleton (Thomas Dekker, see my latest post). There are mannerisms in Double Falshood that could be construed as Fletcher’s (Acts III-V), mannerisms that Theobald probably wouldn’t have recognized (but they’re also similar to Middleton’s); and those mannerisms, interestingly, remain (an argument that Theobald really did have manuscripts). For instance, both Middleton and Fletcher used feminine endings (and heavy feminine endings) to a degree that Shakespeare did not. A small example comes from the start of Act III, Scene i.

Jul. Poor Leonora!  Treacherous, damn’d |Henriquez!
She bids me fill my Memory with her Danger;
I do, my Leonora; yes, I fill
The Region of my Thought with nothing else;
Lower, she tells me here, that this Affair
Shall yield a Testimony of her Love:
And prays, her Letter may come safe and sudden.
This Pray’r the Heav’ns have heard, and I beseech ’em,
To hear all Pray’rs she makes.

The formulation ’em for them (and as a feminine ending) is one that you will frequently find in Fletcher’s verse (and Middleton’s, though less so). Curiously, the passages which one might ascribe to Fletcher (if the play was a collaboration and if one grants that Theobald was working from manuscripts) remain relatively unmolested by Theobald. Either that or Theobald was better at forging Fletcher (or Middleton) than Shakespeare (though it’s unlikely that he would have been capable of such fine grained forgery). Also, the congenial metrical flow more nearly matches a Fletcher or Middleton than anything Shakespeare would have written so late in his career (the period when he was collaborating with Fletcher).

The part of the play, however, that is thought to be originally by Shakespeare, strikes me as having Middleton’s genetics with a heavy dose of pseudo-Shakespearean meddling (in Italics) by Theobald – from Act I Scene ii:

Jul. I do not see that Fervour in the Maid,
Which Youth and Love should kindle.  She consents,
As ’twere to feed without an Appetite;
Tells me, She is content; and plays the Coy one,
Like Those that subtly make their Words their Ward,
Keeping Address at Distance
.  This Affection
Is such a feign’d One, as will break untouch’d;
Dye frosty, e’er it can be thaw’d; while mine,
Like to a Clime beneath Hyperion’s Eye,
Burns with one constant Heat.  I’ll strait go to her;
Pray her to regard my Honour:  but She greets me.–

Enter Leonora, and Maid.

See, how her Beauty doth inrich the Place!
O, add the Musick of thy charming Tongue,
Sweet as the Lark that wakens up the Morn
And make me think it Paradise indeed.
I was about to seek thee, Leonora,
And chide thy Coldness, Love.

First of all, notice the repetition of Coy one and feigned One as if the poet were short of imaginative faculties (hung up on one aspect of Shakespeare’s style). In fact, similar “Shakespearean” formulations will show up again and again [Act 1 Scene iii]:

Th’ Obscureness of her Birth
Cannot eclipse the Lustre of her Eyes,
Which make her all One Light

The phrase Charming Tongue is not one that Shakespeare would have used so late in his career. This formulation only appears once in his entire output (in Titus Andronicus), “charming eyes”, and might well have been Robert Greene’s George Peele’s rather than Shakespeare’s.  However, the

Shakespeare's Verse by Marlina Tarlinskaja

phrase is all too typical of the kind of fluff that was being produced by poets in Theobald’s day. The phrase “wakens up the Morn” gives away Theobald’s hand. Why? The phrase never appears in Shakespeare because the formulation wake up is anachronistic. In short, the reputedly Shakespearean passages smack of 18th Century revisionism – what an 18th century poetaster would have thought that Shakespeare sounded like. The claim that some words are unique to Shakespeare is bogus. After all, what else(!) would one expect form an 18th century forger trying to imitate Shakespeare?

The real test is in the meter. That’s something Theobald did not have the wit to imitate. Granted, if Theobald was working from manuscripts, he’s altered the meter, but even so, it smacks of Middleton. Shakespeare’s late metrical and syntactic style is very different from Theobald’s passages (I’ll save that comparison for a later post). Bare in mind, too, that Middleton was himself a natural forger of Shakespeare! Middleton, when he made the effort, could write top-notch poetry in the Shakespearean vein. Middleton, who worked and collaborated with Shakespeare, was heavily influenced by and admired the elder poet – another reason for Shakespearean echoes. [Note: March 25, 2010: While my opinions concerning Middleton remain unchanged, I find that the evidence argues for his authorship of Acts III-V, and Thomas Dekker’s authorship of Acts I & 2]

Here is a passage of Middleton (The Widdow: Act 3 Scene 2):


I ha’ got myself unbound yet. Merciless villains!
I never felt such hardness since life dwelt in me.
‘Tis for my sins. That light in yonder window —
That was my only comfort in the woods,
Which oft the trembling of a leaf would lose me–
Has brought me thus far; yet I cannot hope
For succour in this plight: the world’s so pitiless,
And everyone will fear or doubt me now.
To knock will be too bold; I’ll to the gate
And listen if I can hear any stirring.

Enter Francisco [aloof]

Was ever man so crossed? — No, ’tis but sweat, sure,
Or the dew dropping from the leaves above me;
I thought ‘t’ad bled again. These wenching businesses
Are strange unlucky things and fatal fooleries;
No mar’l so many gallants die ere thirty.
‘Tis able to vex out a man’s heart in five year,
The crosses that belong to’t: first, arrested –
That set me back two mangy hours at least;
Yet that’s a thing my heat could have forgiv’n,
Because arresting, in what kind soever,
Is a most gentleman-like affliction.
But here, within a mile o’th’town, forsooth,
And two mile off this place, where a man’s oath
Might ha’ been taken for his own security,
And his thoughts brisk and set upon the business,
To light upon a roguy flight of thieves —
Pox on ’em! Here’s the length of one of their whittles.
But one of my dear rascals I pursued so
The jail has him, and he shall bring out’s fellows.
Had ever young man’s love such crooked fortune?

Did you notice Middleton’s echo of Romeo and Juliet – “That light in yonder window“? Compare “Dye frosty“, in Double Falsehood, with Middleton’s “roguy flight”. The trick of coining adjectives (and adverbs) by attaching the -y ending wasn’t a neologistic device that Shakespeare favored. That device grew in favor shortly after his death (adopted by the likes of Middleton). It later ruined scads and scads of 18th century poems and finally died a climactic and ugly death during the start of the 19th century. One should fully expect to see such language if Theobald were to revise Middleton (or Fletcher).

Here’s another interesting comparison (both passages that close scenes) [Double Falsehood: Act 1 Scene ii]:

What must I do? — But That’s not worth my Thought:
I will commend to Hazard all the Time
That I shall spend hereafter:  Farewel, my Father,
Whom I’ll no more offend:  and Men, adieu,
Whom I’ll no more believe:  and Maids, adieu,
Whom I’ll no longer shame.  The Way I go,
As yet I know not. —  Sorrow be my Guide.

Now compare this habit of thought to the following [The Life of Tymon of Athens: Scene 2]:

We make ourselves fools to disport ourselves,
Upon whose age we void it up again
With poisonous spite and envy.
Who lives that’s not depraved or depraves?
Who dies that bears not one spurn to their graves
Of their friend’s gift?
I should fear those that dance before me now
Would one day stamp upon me. ‘T’as been done.
Men shut their doors against a setting sun.

Timon is by Shakespeare, says you? No, it was a collaboration between Middleton and Shakespeare. The passage above is generally agreed to be by Middleton and can be found in Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works.

But, it’s just one comparison and if the case is going to be made for Middleton, it has to be one among many.

Anyway, these few examples don’t add up to an argument, but they give you an idea of the way Double Falsehood might be examined. If, in the long run, the conjecture is that the play was written by Fletcher and Middleton (a first for these two playwrights who were not known to have collaborated), you heard it here first (by gad). That said, it’s also possible that the entirety of the play was written by Fletcher alone, by Middleton alone [Edit: or, as the evidence now suggests, by Dekker and Middleton]. Other plays identified as being by Beaumont & Fletcher, for example, have since been attributed to Middleton. Along with Shakespeare, Fletcher might have had nothing to do with the play. [Edit: Also interesting to note, Dekker’s work has been misidentified as Shakespeare’s in other plays.]

In the meantime, I look forward to hearing from Brian Vickers.

Addendum: After posting this, I googled Dr. Dodypoll. Only to discover that my poetry was published eight years ago! (I wrote a note to the webmaster. I hope he keeps my forgery with an updated explanation, but if not, below is how it appeared – and may still.)

And to think, all this time I’ve been telling people that I’ve never been published. Turns out… I was published in 1600!


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what’s in it for me?

This is a question I have increasingly asked various leagues, guilds, associations, societies, state associations etc…

The silence has been deafening.

In  every case, membership requires my money and in every case these guilds, societies, leagues and associations already know what’s in it for themmy money. I’ll name names. Among others I have asked, at different times: The League of Vermont Writers, The Poetry Society of Vermont, The Authors Guild, The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, The Poetry Society of America, and The National Writer’s Union.

I’ve gotten no response.

It does not stand to reason that there is nothing to be gained by joining these organizations, but their lack of response is telling.  In some cases I requested specific information. For instance, many of these organizations (each in their individual states) offer classes, conferences and workshops if you’re willing to give them more of your money. But I’m not interested in taking classes, going to seminars, conferences or taking workshops. I am, however, interested in offering the same. I asked them: If I join your organization, how could I participate in offering classes, seminars or workshops? (I think I’ve got a lot to say about poetry.)

But again, in every instance, the silence was deafening.

Bare in mind, it’s not as if I was asking them to guarantee me a workshop.  I was asking for information. What could I expect in return for my money? And the answer, in every case, was definitely not money.

It’s very hard not to draw some conclusions.

One hard to avoid conjecture is that these associations are a revenue stream for their respective in-groups. (I suspect that if I had asked them where I should send my check, they would have told me within the hour.) All these organizations, to a greater or lesser degree, already have their favorites lined up. They’re not looking to share. However, if you’re looking for workshops and seminars, then these groups might be just the thing. I admit that not every member joins for the sake of their  bottom line (nor should they). I respect that. And I’m not surprised if some readers find my attitude crassly mercenary.

But I’m done with poetry costing me money.

of talent & encouragement

Art for art’s sake? Some of us want to know the return on our investment. And knowing the answer isn’t limited to clubs, associations or guilds. Every high school student who is considering a college writing program and every post graduate who is considering an MFA ought to start asking the same question. In the case of MFAs, no college or university, to my knowledge, offers an explanation for how their programs are going to translate into future income or employment (how are you going to earn back all that money you gave to some school and some other poet)?

Here is the Iowa Writer’s Workshop:

The Program in Creative Writing is known informally as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and these two titles suggest the duality of our purpose and function. As a “program” we offer the Master of Fine Arts in English, a terminal degree qualifying the holder to teach creative writing at the college level.

Did you know that an MFA “qualifies” one to “teach creative writing at the college level“? (That explains everything doesn’t it.) However,  they’re not making any promises because:

…we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught…

The “popular” insistence?  Popular? Are we talking about the unwashed masses? Why the qualification? And why the word “insistence“?  What? Is it like nagging? So… you may not learn how to write, but you’ll be qualified to teach writing at colleges. And that begs the question, just what will you be “qualified” to teach if you can’t write? But the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, sensing a dangerous cul-de-sac, goes on:

…we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed…

Phew. Are you relieved? But wait. Does that mean they can make you a good writer? Well… no.

…no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.

I see. No, in fact, they guarantee nothing. In fact, they only guarantee success if you’re already talented enough to be successful. Which begs the question: Then why go there if you’re talented? Am I being snarky? Here is the program’s answer:

….Accordingly, the fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us.

OK. Here’s the same sentence shorn of its excess:

Accordingly, [success], we believe, [is] more the result of what they brought… than… what they gained from us.

Right. You can’t make this stuff up. And now for the piece of resistance:

We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught…(!)

And all this happens in the space of a single paragraph! This is how the Iowa Writer’s Workshop sells itself? You would think that the nation’s finest writing program (reputedly) could write a better paragraph. And here’s how the whole train wreck ends:

…but [we believe] that writers can be encouraged.

And how much(!) are you going to pay for that “encouragement”?  And encouraged to do what? Write when you’re not working 50 hour weeks to pay back your student loans? – just after your 2 year old has gone to bed? – until your Iowa Poet-in-Residence releases his death grip on that plumb job (just it time for you to take his place and croak of a heart attack)? Here is another MFA program offered by New England College:

More than a graduate course of study, the New England College MFA program strives to teach its students how to become better poets by providing a transformative experience in the study of creative writing and poetry that will enhance their professional goals.

More than a graduate course? Meaning what? In fact, this entire sentence is a beautiful example of saying nothing – otherwise known as resumé-speak. Just what is a “graduate course of study”? What do they mean by the vacuous catch-phrase “transformative experience”? And how much more imprecise can you get than “enhance professional goals”? What goals? Doesn’t the school know?

…the program is designed to help students develop strong poetic and critical skills, as well as to take bold risks in their writing.

Seems to me, the boldest risk is in not paying tens of thousands of dollars – but in striking out on ones own.

Debt free.

For what do these organizations exist but their own self-perpetuation?

what’s in it for you?

If you’re going to fork over money to an association, organization, guild, or academic institution, etc., then you have a right to ask some questions. What are you going to get besides a bi-annual glossy peddling another poet? – not you. What besides three new letters behind your name – M.F.A? What besides an annual request to buy a new membership – and a membership to what, for what and how does it benefit you? What besides more ways to support other poets – besides you?

I don’t belong to any associations, guilds or societies.

It doesn’t mean I never will, but none have offered a compelling reason to buy a membership.

And if you’re going to “study” poetry in college or get an MFA, ask what’s in it for you? Otherwise, as the Iowa Writer’s Workshop unwittingly admits, you will be bringing them more ($) than what you “gain from [them]”. Some might say it’s not their job to answer that question (or that it’s crass) but, it seems to me, if they’re going to charge thousands and thousands of dollars they damned well ought to have an answer. You’re not getting a medical degree. You’re getting an MFA and what good is it going to do you?

And if no else has an answer, answer the question yourself.

If you can’t, then stop writing checks and get back to writing poetry.

Stop sending checks to this or that Association of Self-Perpetuation, and get back to sending poetry to readers – that is the best kind of mutually beneficial relationship.

Boys at PLAY (poetic wit and whimsy) • Austin, Cohen, Moffa, Mui

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on humble submissions

About a month ago (an unforgivably long delay on my part) I received a little purple paperback with a handwritten letter enclosed.

This timely book, in the words of Artie Moffa, was humbly submitted. Future poets take note: When submitting books to me, remember to submit humbly. My importance to the world of poetry (let’s just call it The World) could not possibly be underestimated.

The letter was written in cursive.

Which brings me to my next invaluable observation: Who the heck writes cursive in 2010?

I used to think Richard Wilbur was quaint for corresponding with me on an Underwood (I presume), but Wilbur (are you reading this ?) has been outdone. A clean little introductory note written in cursive. Now that is class (of the poetic kind).

The opening pages of the Boys at PLAY do two things.

1.) It tells us that for every copy of the book sold, $1 will be donated to Amherst College (their alma mater). They write:

Amherst College is a small, private liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. It has as knack for producing more than its fair share of poets, including the authors and editor of this humble volume. Amherst provides generous financial aid to students of modest circumstances, and it rejects the rigid curricular requirements which prevail at many of its peer institutions.

Note the word humble again (one begins to sense a trap).

2.) After so much generous praise of Amherst College, one final word (before the poetry begins): Be it known that the Trustees of Amherst College have not endorsed this book, are not to be associated with this book, and will not be seen in its company.

So, lest there be any doubt, readers are given to know where the Trustees stand on the matter.

And I quote, “Ahem”.


The first poem, called N.D. Austin, begins rather curiously:

5 On Carrying Up Tea To the Terrace
5 Sorry, I Didn’t Recognize You with Your Clothes On
14 To All Of the People I Have Ever Made Out With Who Wanted To Move Further Faster Than I Did, and In My Experience That Has Been Most Of You:
15 Dear Son
15 Said Mrs. Robinson to Benjamin
20 A Conversation I Had In My Head Last Week With An Old Friend Who I Have Had A Crush On For Forever


The next poem (which, oddly, they name after themselves), is called Joshua Cohen, and continues to display their curious system of line numbering:

2 Smart
13 What Else Rhymes With Love
13 Dealing in Metaphors
18 Anything You Want
24 Maggie’s Song
28 Finale: The Fall of the Tower of Babel


The third poem, continuing their not-so-humble habit of naming poems after themselves, is called, Artie Moffa.

1 Avoid Again in Poetry
6 Stereo Sub
12 On Poetry and Publishing
12 What my Sister Would Probably Say About my Text Message Limericks
16 The Graduate
23 Pirate Apology
26 Sonnets for Daylight-Saving Time


So far, my impression is that the authors are engaged in some kind of Flarf experiment – avant-garde experimentalism.

Last comes a curiously title poem, Comics by Wing L. Mui

4 Seventh Draft!: Circumflex
17 Seventh Draft!: Poetry
22 Seventh Draft!: Web Comic
27 Meh: For the Ladies
40 Meh: Best Idea Ever!
49 Seventh Draft!: Adventure


after the introductory flarf
(or the rest of the book)

I should at least mention the rest of the book.

Artie Moffa opens the book with a stern remonstrance against the use of the word again. The essay is entitled Avoid Again in Poetry.

Avoid “again” in poetry.
It’s altogether much too hard
To use, for the unwary bard
Who hopes to try his hand at rhyme
Might choose it has a mate for “ten.”
But from the mouths of Southern men,
It comes out with a hint of “gin.”(….)

The beginning poet is urged to earnestly study and reread this cogent, hard-hitting poem. (It’s also a nice example of Rhyming Iambic Tetrameter — not much seen these days). But what truly impresses is the informative (and evidently well-researched) tone.

Some Appalachians I have heard
Put extra A’s inside the word.
“A-gay-an” is the sound they use.

One only wishes that the authors had provided more extensive footnotes describing their considerable field work.

Joshua Cohen follows this instructive essay with a heart-wrenching confessional poem with the elusive title Smart:

Infantile self-expression modalities never appealed to me.
I was employing the subjunctive mood before the age of three.
To read a book by Gide or Cooke was my idea of playing.
Which is all an obfuscating way of saying:

I’m smart.
Off the chart.
I debate over Plato
And disprove Descartes.

The reader can’t help but be swept into emotional complexities. Expect to be wrung dry. More sensitive readers may be disturbed by the poet’s repeatedly end-stopped lines. However, my reading is that the abrupt, isolated lines represent the isolated cries of a poet in pain – isolated by his intelligence, brilliance and, in a word, genius. Notice how the long lines are reduced to short, sobbing, ejaculations. The effect is heart breaking. No reader will walk away from this poem without experiencing the loneliness of intelligence – the unenviably smart. Let us be grateful that so few continue to suffer from this affliction and that, as with so many diseases which have afflicted human kind, America leads the world in eradicating this insidious illness. The poem is cathartic.

Perhaps the most lyrical poem is N.D. Austin’s simply titled: To All Of the People I Have Ever Made Out With Who Wanted To Move Further Faster Than I Did, and In My Experience That Has Been Most Of You: No poem has been so shunned, has gone so unspoken, or has been so needed as this poem. Finally, we can dispel the cliché that oppresses all men, from the characterization of the sex addled adolescent to the dirty old man. This is the poem that speaks to the objectification of men.

Yes, I enjoyed getting hot and heavy with you, but why can’t we have more of the hot and less of the heavy?
Thinking about the possibility of doing something kinky is in my experience often more enjoyable than actually performing the act,
As in, yes, some sex is sexy, but have you tried whispering sweet nothings while awkwardly trying to position yourself between where the armrest and seatbelt buckle are digging[?](….)

What man hasn’t wished there was “more hot” and less “heavy”? What man hasn’t preferred the possibility of doing something rather than “actually performing? What man hasn’t wished they could whisper sweet nothings in comfort and safety? N.D. Austin has written what might well be the bravest poem of the new century.

Despite Austin’s taxing autobiography, the poet can nevertheless express a forgiving generosity. Consider the exquisitely balanced haiku, The Two-party System:

I’m democratic!
I let my girls choose between
Basement or attic.

Such heart-rending generosity stands testament to the healing power of art and poetry.

But there is so much more:

If you can find someone to accompany you on the piano, you can look forward to such tenderly reminiscent lines as: “I hate June. The only seat on the C train faced a girl in a tube top made of chamois, Making out with a stud with a stud in his ear. And it can’t help remind me That you ran off to Miami” or the inspiringly hopeful “I pray for a break in the weather, Or at least for air condition to filter out other people’s pheromones…”

No poem reveals the writers’ roots in Amherst, or their love of academia, more than the lovely Sonnet Oblivio – a near perfect Shakespearean Sonnet (but for the second Italian quatrain). The inexperienced reader can be forgiven for thinking that this is nothing more than a love poem. But it’s more than that. This is a love poem to Rome.

The doctors who have made senility
Their subject say we pave a neural path
Anew when we recall a memory.
If this and genes are true, the awful wrath

Of plaques and proteins gathers in the gloam
And bides its time. Someday, should doctors care
To analyze my brain, they’ll notice where
You kissed me in my youth, and founded Rome.

When other memories are tattered cloths,
I’ll fold and keep the flag of that first kiss,
Defend it from old age, as Visigoths
Besiege my brain. All pathways lead to this

Physicians of my final days, note well:
She kissed me on the Seventh Hill.
·     Rome fell.

Where a less experienced poet might have end-stopped his or her lines, the enjambment in both quatrains reveals a skill and broader conception sorely missing in modern poetry. The rhymes have the feeling of inevitability. The form feels organic. The volta, the turn between the octave and sestet, is elegantly unforced.

All roads lead to Rome.

This is a sonnet for every scholar who has ever fallen in love with the great city.


In an age of clueless critics and clueless poetry reviews, I can only hope that Poemshape sets a new standard.

I’m certain that these bright young poets, these young women of America’s most prestigious girl’s school, have a bright future ahead of them.

If you’ve lost your sense humor, this new one will only cost you $10.00.

My thanks to Miss Artie Moffa for submitting her collaborative nonpareil, Boys at PLAY.

An addition: Iambic Pentameter & Robert Frost’s Birches


For most readers Frost’s Birches offers no hidden subtext beyond what’s grasped intuitively.

But this hasn’t stopped some interpreters.  For instance, in Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self, Frank Lentricchia remarks:

Those “straighter, darker trees,” like the trees of “Into My Own” that “scarcely show the breeze,” stand ominously free from human manipulation, menacing in their irresponsiveness to acts of the will.

I’ve read Birches countless times, and the feeling of an ominous menace never once crossed my mind. To read this kind of interpretation into the imagery requires some kind of context and there simply is none – not in two lines. And referring to “Into my Own”, as though the two poems were somehow related or created the context for such an interpretation, is nonsensical. But the bottom line is that there doesn’t have to be a symbolic undercurrent (or double meaning) to every single word or image. Close readers and academics love nothing more than teasing out interpretations, but just because it can be done, doesn’t mean there’s any objective validity to the interpretation.  At some point, such exercises strike me as being more like parlor games.

Just because the other trees are darker doesn’t mean that they are ominous. Fact is, every single tree in the New England landscape is darker than the birch. And for the most part (and after a good ice storm) most other trees are, factually, straighter than birches. In The Wood Pile, Frost refers to the view as being “all in lines/Straight up and down of tall slim trees,” One need not read any more into Frost’s imagery than the simple fact of it.

But, naturally, if Lentricchia is going to invoke menace, he needs to explain why (to justify that interpretation). He writes that they are menacing in their “irresponsiveness to acts of human will”.  I just don’t buy it.

At best, one would need to make the assumption that Frost’s use of the word dark always constituted some kind of menace when used in reference to trees or the woods. But in his most famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Frost writes that “The woods are lovely, dark and deep”. Despite Frost’s use of the word lovely, this hasn’t stopped close readers from suggesting that Frost was contemplating suicide and that loveliness, far from being praise of the New England wood in winter,  was a contemplation of the lovely, dark and deep oblivion that is suicide (or so they interpret it). Richard Poirer is among those who have made this suggestion. By the absence of a comma between the word dark and the word and he concludes that the “loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous.” The italics are mine. But Poirier’s reading could hardly be called objective. There is, in fact, no way of knowing what significance such punctuation might have held for Frost. However, Frost did have a thing or two to say about ominous interpretations. William Pritchard writes, in  Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered:

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]

All of which is to say, Frost had little patience for self-pity or, by extension, suicide. One need only read Out, Out to get a sense of Frost’s personality. In short, one can contemplate the soothing darkness and loveliness of the woods without contemplating suicide. But you decide.

Beyond the interpretation of individual words and lines, there is a larger philosophical debate within the poem that will flavor what readers bring to the poem. It happens in the opening lines:


But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that.
Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows–

The italicized lines bracket a digression that Frost characterizes as Truth. What does he mean? In fact, the differentiation Frost implies between Truth and his playful, imaginary fable of the boy climbing the birches, is central to the poem’s meaning. The world of Truth could be construed as the world of science and matter-of-factness – a world which circumscribes the imagination  or, more to the point, the poetic imagination, Poetry. The world of the poet is one of metaphor, symbolism, allegory and myth making. At its simplest, Frost is describing two worlds and telling which he prefers and how he values each. “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” And by that, he could almost be saying: One could do worse than be a poet.

The underlined passage “You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen”, has been nicely interpreted as a reference to Ptolemaic astronomy (which believed that the planets and stars were surrounded by crystal spheres or domes). I like that interpretation and I can believe that Frost intended it. The inner dome and its shattered crystal shells like “heaps of broken glass” fit neatly within the allusion. But there is significance in the allusion. The Ptolemaic model of the universe was a poetic construct – a theory of the imagination rather than matter-of-factness. In this sense, Truth as Frost calls it (or modern science) has collapsed the inner dome of the poetic imagination and replaced it with something that doesn’t permit the poet’s entry. The shattered inner dome of the imagination (of the myth makers) has been replaced by fact – by science.

And in this light, the entirety of Frost’s description, climbing the birches, just so, and swinging back down, becomes a kind of description for the life which the poet seeks and values – the imaginative life of the poet:

…. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree….

The poet learns all there is to learn about “not launching out too soon”. He could be describing the art of poetry. You cannot swing from a birch without the right height. But if you also climb too high, if your ambitions exceed the matter of your poem, the birch will break . You must write your poetry, climbing carefully, with the “same care you use to fill a cup,/Up to the brim, and even above the brim.” But I don’t want to limit the poem’s meaning to just this. Frost is describing more than the poet, but a whole way of interpreting the world.

It’s the difference between the mind that seeks objective truths, irrespective of the observer, and the mind that perceives world as having symbolic, metaphorical and mythical significance. It’s the world of religion and spirituality. Its the world of signs and visions – events have meaning. In the scientific world view, nothing is of any significance to the observer: life is like a “pathless wood”, meaningless,  that randomly afflicts us with face burns, lashing us, leaving us weeping. The observer is irrelevant. In some ways, science is anathema to the poet’s way of understanding the world. It’s loveless. And that’s not the world Frost values. “Earth’s the right place for love,” he writes.  The woods that he values have a path and the birches are bent with purpose.

But having said all that, Frost also acknowledges a balance.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.

If we read him right, he seems to be saying that he prefers not to be too much in one world or the other. Let him climb toward heaven, both literally and figuratively, but let him also be returned to earth. Having written this much, Frank Lentricchia’s own interpretation of the poem’s divisions may be more easily understood:

….There is never any intention of competing with science, and therefore, there is no problem at all (as we generally sense with many modern poets and critics) of claiming a special cognitive value for poetry. In his playful and redemptive mode, Frost’s motive for poetry is not cognitive but psychological in the sense that he is willfully seeking to bathe his consciousness and, if the reader consents, his reader’s as well, in a free-floating, epistemologically unsanctioned vision of the world which, even as it is undermined by the very language in which it is anchored, brings a satisfaction of relief when contemplated…..

If I may be so bold as to interpret (and interpreting academese does take some boldness), what Lentricchia seems to be saying is that Frost’s philosophical stance does not arise from any direct experience (as stated in the poem). Direct experience would be “epistemologically sanctioned”. Epistemology, a word coddled and deployed by academics with fetishistic ardor, is the “branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” So, to interpret, Lentricchia appears to be saying that Frost’s “vision/philosophy” is not “epistemologically/experientially” “sanctioned/based“. In short, Frost’s experience (and that of the readers) is that of the poet and poetry – the purely subjective realm of imagination, story telling and myth making.

Interestingly, those who criticize the poem for being without basis in experience (Lentricchia is not one of them) seem blissfully unaware that this is precisely the kind of knowing that the poem itself is criticizing and examining. That is, the poem is its own example of myth-making — the transformative power of poetry. Yes, says Frost, there is the matter-of-fact (epistemologically sanctioned) world, but there is also the poetical world – the world of metaphor and myth that is like the slender birch (and the poem itself). It can be climbed but not too high. The matter-of-fact world is good to escape, but it is also good to come back to.

John C Kemp, in Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist, goes further in explaining what some readers consider the poem’s weaknesses.

“Mending Wall,” “After Apple-Picking,” and “The Wood-Pile” are centered on specific events that involve the speaker in dramatic conflicts and lead him to extraordinary perspectives. ¶ (….)however, “Birches” does not present a central dramatized event as a stimulus for the speaker’s utterance. Although the conclusion seems sincere, and although Frost created a persuasive metaphorical context for it, the final sentiments do not grow dramatically out of the experiences alluded to. (….) Frost’s confession that the poem was “two fragments soldered together” is revealing; the overt, affected capriciousness of the transitions between major sections of the poem (ll. 4-5, 21-22, and 41-42) indicates that instead of striving to establish the dynamics of dramatized experience, he felt he could rely on the force of his speaker’s personality and rural background. In early editions, a parenthetical question, “(Now am I free to be poetical?),” followed line 22, making the transition between the ice storm and the country youth even more arbitrary.

My own view is that rather than making the poem feel arbitrary, the question Now am I free to be poetical? makes Frost’s thematic concerns too explicit. The question too sharply defines the contrast between the matter-of-fact and the poetical. In short, Frost may have felt that the question overplayed his hand.  (Some critics read this question as an affectation. I don’t. I read it as signaling the poem’s intent, a “stage direction” that Frost later removed.)

Frost was striving for balance both in poem and subject matter — between the poetical and the matter-of-fact.