The Animal Tales! • The Thirteenth of Several Fables

13. One Part Genius
A Fable that follows: Better Nothing for Thanks

The fox soon ate more chickens. The farmer could not bear it. “Genius is one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration!” he bellowed. “Then you shall sweat yourself out of all nine parts!” his wife shot back. “And we shall see!” answered the farmer. “I’ll have his skin and you shall make me a hat!” Then neither spoke again but ignored each other, like bad neighbors with a good fence.

That evening the farmer went to his neighbor. (If he couldn’t catch a fox, he’d fool his wife, at least.) The farmer thought he’d seen the neighbor’s nose before (a little long) but he said anyway: “I’ve come to buy a fox’s pelt from you.” “I just happen to have one!” answered the neighbor. “What will you want for it?” asked the farmer. “I wouldn’t mind if your wife cooked my six chickens.” “It’s a bargain!” said the farmer. The farmer put on the fox’s pelt and the neighbor took his chickens to be cooked by the farmer’s wife.

After the neighbor ate his chickens and was gone, the farmer burst in. He was sweating from head to foot and pale as a June tomato. “That was the fox you cooked for!” said the farmer. “And where have you been?” asked his wife. “Why I’ll tell you! Jack Smith’s been shooting at me this whole night!” “And why would he do that?” asked his wife. “‘Cause that fox stole Jack’s chickens!” “I swear!” his wife snorted. “And what were you dressed like a fox for?”

Then she said,

“Stupidity is nine parts perspiration and one part inspiration!”

Be it known that this fable is followed by: Better Idle

Rich in Invention

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

Frédéric François Chopin

200 Years Ago

Chopin’s 200th birthday was March 1rst, 2010.

And the most interesting (to me) facet of Chopin’s career was his aesthetic differences with Franz Liszt – the other great pianist of the era. Chopin, in matters of art, was a classicist and admired the aesthetics of predecessors like Mozart. He believed that greatness was less the product of inspiration (in the Romantic sense) than discipline.  Eugène Delocroix, in one of his last conversations with Chopin, related the following:

The science of a man like Chopin is art itself. Art is no longer what the masses believe it to be, that is to say a sort of inspiration which comes from no one quite knows where, which progresses by chance and only presents the external appearances of things. It is reason itself adorned by genius but following a necessary course and governed by superior laws. This brings me to the difference between Mozart and Beethoven. When Beethoven is obscure and seems to lack unity, he told me, it is not because of his much vaunted and rather untamed originality, it is because he turns his back on eternal principles. Mozart never does.”

Franz Liszt, his friend and rival, was just the opposite. He was the first great artist who, along with Wagner, came to embody the Romantic spirit. Liszt believed that the future of art didn’t reside in the formulations of previous generations but in entirely new forms and structures. In other words, where composers like Bach, Haydn and Mozart worked within and perfected inherited forms, Liszt felt that true innovation called for not just new notes but new forms and even new rules. Liszt came to embody  the Romantic ideal of genius – a notion that the children of the Romantics and Beethoven (the generations of the 20th century) fully absorbed.

In a nutshell, the differences between Chopin and Liszt (or later, Brahms and Wagner) symbolized a new definition of what it meant to innovate, to be great and to produce great art.

Rich in invention

If ever a composer showed polyphony in its greatest strength, it was certainly our late lamented Bach. If ever a musician employed the most hidden secrets of harmony with the most skilled artistry, it was certainly our Bach. No one ever showed so many ingenious and unusual ideas as he in elaborate pieces such as ordinarily seem dry exercises in craftsmanship. He needed only to have heard any theme to be aware—it seemed in the same instant—of almost every intricacy that artistry could produce in the treatment of it. He melodies were strange, but always varied, rich in invention, and resembling those of no other composer.

This was written by Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach, one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s composing sons. He was describing his father’s greatness. What CPE Bach found most praiseworthy was how his father perfected his art. JS Bach’s melodies may have been strange but they were always varied and ingenious, and he clarifies what he means by that. His musical art was “rich in invention”.

The goal was not, for Bach or for Chopin, to rewrite oneself and ones art from the ground up, but to bring to perfection (to put ones own unique stamp on) ones artistic inheritance. This concept of originality was inherited from Renaissance theories of rhetoric which were themselves developed from ancient Greek theories of rhetoric, debate and oratory. The means by which to develop ideas (with originality) were codified as The Topics of Invention. Naturally, the means by which a composer developed ideas was different than a poet, author or orator. Prior to the 20th century Rhetoric was rigorously taught from a very early age and, especially during the late 15th and early 16th century, ones ability to elaborate on a given subject, ones skill with Rhetoric, was considered the measure of artistic skill, uniqueness and even genius. So familiar were Elizabethan audiences with the Rhetoric that Ben Jonson, in Cynthia’s Revels, could safely turn its method into a humorous parlor game:

Phantaste. Nay, we have another sport afore this, of A thing done, and, & c.
Philautia. I, good Phantaste, let’s have that: Distribute the places.
Phantaste. Why, I imagine, A thing done; Hedon thinkes, Who did it; Moria, With what it was done; Anaides, Where it was done; Argurion, When it was done; Amorphus, For what cause it was done; you Philautia, What followed upon the doing of it; and this gentleman, Who would have done it better. What? is’t conceiv’d about?
All. Yes, yes.
Phantaste. Then speake you, sir. Who would have done it better?
[Each answers and then Phantaste begins to gather the answers together.]
Phantaste. Then, The thing does was, An oration was made. Rehearse. An oration was made.
Hedon. By a travailer.
Moria. With a glyster.
Anaides. In a paire of pain’d slops.
Philautia. A few heat drops, and a moneths mirth followed.
Phantaste. And, this silent gentleman would have done it better. (4·3·160-201)

[Sister Miriam Joseph: Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language pp. 91-92]

What composers and poets shared, in terms of ambition, was the desire to prove their genius within the framework of a preexisting aesthetic and to do so through a demonstration of inventive powers – inventive genius. To that extent, composers and poets each knew what the other was describing when they referred to invention. Almost every one of Shakespeare’s sonnets is a self-conscious demonstration of invention.

Sonnet 38

How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O, give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

Sonnet 59

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child.
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whe’er better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O, sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

In Sonnet 76

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

In each case, Shakespeare playfully complains that he lacks invention while, with ironic abandon, using that very complaint as a ground on which to invent – to spin off an entire sonnet. In the very act of writing that he lacks the genius to invent, he invents.

When Ben Jonson eulogized Shakespeare, he reflected the artistic values of his age when he wrote:

Nature her selfe was proud of his designes,

And joy’d to weare the dressing of his lines !
Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,
As, since, she will vouchsafe no other Wit.

The merry Greeke, tart Aristophanes,
Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please;
But antiquated, and deserted lye
As they were not of Natures family.
Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art,
My gentle
Shakespeare, must enjoy a part
For though the Poets matter, Nature be,
His Art doth give the fashion.

  • Jonson’s praise of Shakespeare was tinged with some jealousy. Jonson, in his own day, was frequently the butt of jokes due to his extraordinarily slow (by the standards of the day) production. When dramatists like Thomas Heywood were knocking out a play a month (and that doesn’t include collaborations) Jonson was producing, maybe, one or two a year. During the War of the Theatres some scholars believe that Shakespeare lampooned Jonson as the spectacularly dim and slow-witted Ajax. It’s with this in mind that Jonson’s later, more candid appraisal of Shakespeare’s natural abilities should be considered:

I REMEMBER the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any.

Nature & Art

Jonson makes a distinction between nature and art. What does he mean? George Puttenham, author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589), was the touchstone for this sort of distinction. He writes:

But for that in our maker or Poet which rests only in device and issues from an excellent sharp and quick invention, holpen by a clear and bright phantasie and imagination… even as nature herself working by her own peculiar virtue and proper instinct and not by example of meditation or exercise as all other artificers do, is then most admired when he is most natural and least artificial: and in the feats of his language and utterance, because they hold as well of nature to be suggested as by art to be polished and reformed. Therefore shall our Poet receive praise for both, but more knowing of his art than by unseasonable using it, and be more commended for his natural eloquence than for his artificial, and more for his artificial well dissembled than for the same overmuch affected and grossly or undiscreetly bewrayed, as mnay makers and Orators do.

Puttenham is defining “nature” as the poet’s innate ability, talent and genius – his “excellent sharp and quick invention”.

George Puttenham: The Arte of English Poesie

What Jonson means is that nature, defined as free from “meditation or exercise”, artifice, contrivance or rote practice, would have been proud of Shakespeare’s “designes” because Shakespeare’s verse was deemed to flow with an innate genius or effortless naturalness. This brings us back to Chopin’s statement that “simplicity is the final achievement”. Simplicity, in Chopin’s lexicon, was comparable to the Elizabethans’ sense of the natural.

And yet, Jonson, Puttenham, and Chopin each go one step further. It’s not enough to possess genius. Puttenham puts it this way: “…our Poet [shall] receive praise for both [nature and art], but [shall receive] more [for] knowing of his art than by unseasonable using it…” By unseasonable, Puttenham means too much in the sense of a dish overly seasoned with contrivance and artifice – when food is ruined by too much seasoning. Let the artist “know his art”, and by knowing, master the proper scope and use of it. Here’s how Chopin puts it:  “After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

Chopin and Puttenham are saying the same thing, so is Jonson: “Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art… must enjoy a part, for though the Poets matter [is] Nature… his Art doth give the fashion.” Great talent (nature), alone, cannot achieve greatness, but does so through artifice, through the inheritance of traditions, and by the transcendence of that same tradition. In other words, the great artist returns to nature through his mastery and transcendence of the rules of artifice. The mediocre poet, lacking “an excellent sharp and quick invention, [helped] by a clear and bright phantasie and imagination” will never obtain that “simplicity” that is a mark of innate or natural genius. That is, the mediocre artist lacks the innate genius to transcend artifice.

The importance of simplicity or naturalness to what was then considered great art can’t be overstated. Bach, though praised for his invention, was criticized by a former student, Johann Adolph Scheibe, for “conflicting with nature”. The reason for the criticism might have been sour grapes, but the criticism stung. Scheibe wrote that Bach was

in music what Mr. von Lohenstein was in poetry. Turgidity has led them both from the natural to the artificial, and from the lofty to the somber; and in both one admires the onerous labor and uncommon effort—which, however, are vainly employed, since they conflict with nature.

[The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents p. 338]

The majority of musicians and composers were quick to come to Bach’s defense. What’s so fascinating is that even in Bach’s day, direct parallels were being drawn, explicitly, between the arts of music and poetry. When Johann Abraham Birnbaum wrote an article in Bach’s defense, the comparisons between poetry and music continued (unfortunately not in defense of the poor poet Mr. von Lohenstein). Birnbaum wrote:

[Bach] is further accused of “taking away the natural element in his pieces by giving them a turgid and confused style.” This is as severe as it is obscure. What does “turgid” mean in music? Is it to be taken in that sense in which in rhetoric that style of writing is called turgid  in which the most splendid ornaments are lavished on matters of slight import, so that their worthlessness is only the more brought to light thereby[?] (….) …there is nothing either turgid or confused to be found in the works of [Bach], the natural element—that is the necessary agreeable melody and harmony—cannot be taken away from them by this means. Instead, the praiseworthy efforts of [Bach] are directed toward the end of presenting this natural element to the world, through his art, in its highest splendor. [Ibid 343 & 345] – Emphasis is my own.

What’s so interesting to note is that both sides are trying to define natural. Some one hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, in a different country, competing aesthetics were still fighting for legitimacy through competing definitions of nature and naturalness in great art. Those who defended Bach, at the time, triumphed, but Scheibe’s aesthetic presaged the future. Bach’s music would be forgotten and, indeed, considered too “turgid” or “baroque”. The art of polyphony would be abandoned by the generation of the Enlightenment in favor of the “singing melody”. How would they rationalize this new aesthetic? They would call it natural and contrast it with what they considered to be the unnatural artifice of the baroque era.

Invention versus Creativity

In terms of subject matter and the general spirit of the times, 19th literature and music evolved in tandem. The new Romanticism, rightly and wrongly, came to be exemplified by Beethoven. To Chopin (who was, surprisingly, a classicist at heart) Beethoven “[turned] his back on eternal principles”. But it was Beethoven, not Chopin, who exemplified (for future generations) the image of the lone genius who tore down and rebuilt art in his own image.

After Beethoven, invention was no longer enough. A new word entered the lexicon: creativity. The appearance of the word may or may not have had anything to do with the change in how art was understood. However, there’s ample evidence that the premium placed on inventiveness shifted to creativity (and did so as the ideals of Romanticism established themselves).  The first appearance of the word creative, according to the OED, was the early 19th century. Creativity was first recorded during the 1870’s – these words are distinct from create, for example, which goes back to the 16th century and earlier.

Well into the 21rst century, we no longer put a premium on invention or inventiveness (not in art). We hear the phrase, Creative Arts, but almost never Inventive Arts. And when we praise artists, we use the words creative or creativity, but  seldom or rarely, inventive.

As George Lakoff likes to remind us, words have consequences.

Inventiveness carries the implication that one is making something from the materials at hand. Creativity carries the implication that something is being created out of nothing. Creativity has become artistically paradigmatic. For instance (and without commenting on its validity) Creationism implies that God created something out of nothing. God creates. Man invents. (We would never think in terms of God inventing.) These usages reflect our understanding of the words. There’s also the phrase: inventing excuses. In this sense, the word invent has come to carry a negative connotation.

How does this apply to art? Think back to Liszt. Liszt was the quintessential Romantic artist who believed the future of art resided in discarding old forms and building new ones out of whole cloth. He felt that true innovation called for not just new notes but new forms and even new rules. In a sense, Liszt was the first self-consciously creative artist. If you were a poet or composer in the age of romanticism, like Mendelssohn, then you were considered “backward looking”. Mendelssohn continued to compose music using the traditional forms of the classical composers. At the heart of Romanticism is the primacy of the self, the vision of the self as God.

It was no longer enough to be inventive.  In the mid 1800’s, shortly before Bach’s death, another word made its first recorded appearance – originality.

Along with originality, there was another component, another word and paradigm popularized by the Romantics. The late 18th century, very early 19th century German philosopher Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) redefined Genius. Before Kant, genius had a more mundane meaning: a particular ability or talent for a given task. Kant changed that and his influence on the thinking of the early Romantics, Goethe among them, would be hard to overstate. Kant defined genius as “originality” and as “talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given”. [A Kant Dictionary: Howard Caygill p. 249] Kant’s conception of Genius entailed a whole way of thinking about the production of art, music or literature. He wrote that genius “gives the rule to art” (rather than the other way around). Gaygill characterizes Kant’s description of Genius and art as follows:

The ideal of the beautiful consists in the exemplary products of genius; the products of genius do not follow rules, but are nevertheless exemplary, self-sufficent archetypes. [Ibid. p. 239]

Creativity. Originality. Genius.

These became the Romantic ideal. To the extent that this ideal hasn’t change, we still, two hundred years later, live in the Romantic era. Modernism was just a continuing manifestation of ideals established by the Romantics.

Genius does not follow rules.

While the subject matter of the poets kept pace with the shift to Romanticism, Romantic poets were still using traditional poetic techniques established two hundreds before. They were still using meter, rhyme, and metaphor. That all changed with the advent of the 20th century.

The concepts of nature versus art changed as well. Just as the generation of the Enlightenment would reject rule-bound geniuses like Bach and a thousand years of  polyphony, the generation of modernists would reject a millennia of song and tradition within poetry. History was strikingly repeated. As with the Enlightenment, 20th century poets claimed for themselves the mantel of natural. Like the critics of the Enlightenment, who self-servingly asserted that polyphony was artificial and contrived (simplicity meant just that, a simplistic harmonic and melodic language), early 20th century poets self-servingly proclaimed that meter was artificial, contrived and unnatural; and that poetry should be like spoken language. And that makes it exceedingly easy to write. Natural. The under riding assumption in both cases, in the mid 18th century and the early 20th century is that what is simple is natural and what is complex is artificial. In both cases, this redefinition of natural wouldn’t have been readily recognized or even, possibly, accepted by the prior generation. Few poets, today, would apply the word natural to Shakespeare’s style, but Jonson meant something very different when he used the word—something subtler and more complex.

The same with Chopin. Few modern listeners would think simplicity when listening to his music, but Chopin meant something much subtler by simplicity.

The Loss of Invention and the Cult of the New

Modern day students—writers, poets, composers and artists—are told, daily, by the generation preceding them that they mustn’t sound like, paint like or write like the artists before them. But such standards aren’t written in stone. They would have been ridiculed in a previous age. (Beethoven slavishly imitated Mozart, at the outset, but no one thinks any less of the music.) The current paradigms of originality, creativity and genius are of an age—they’re a construct that’s been handed down since the late 18th century and most artists would rather not question it. They would rather accept the paradigms as a given because it’s self-serving to do so. But for all that’s been gained, much has been lost.

In the name of originality, creativity and the vaporous pursuit of genius (understood not as the ability to synthesize and perfect but as the wholesale demolition of any antecedent) whole traditions have been wiped out. But mediocrity is as ubiquitous as ever. All that’s diminished has been in the ability and willingness to recognize mediocrity. When an artist, or poet or writer can set his or her own standards and assert that these standards are part and parcel of his or her art, on what does the critic hang his hat?

The poet can say that the critic doesn’t understand or appreciate the new aesthetic in which they are working—genius defined as the cult of the new. The modern poet creates from nothing The most admired (and often the most unread) poets are those who create utterly new aesthetics, forms and rules.  The “reputable” artists and poets are frequently exalted for their originality.

But if the aesthetic as defined by the poet or artist is a mediocre one (albeit original), then they’re art, music and poetry is only going to live up to those mediocre standards. (Fortunately for the poet, or unfortunately, it’s much easier to delude herself into thinking that she’s achieved some measure of mastery when she doesn’t have to measure herself against anyone’s standards but her own.)

Ask a poet to write to standards other than his own and you will get a good sense of his abilities.

There’s a place for invention in art — making, perfecting and synthesizing from the materials at hand or handed down. Perhaps its time to be open to an older understanding of genius, such as that applied to and understood by Bach, Mozart, Keats and Shakespeare. They were inventive. They were rich in invention. Neither created new forms. (One will frequently read the comments of historians, nose deep in the Romantic paradigm, who—as though explanation were needed—state that Bach and Mozart were great although or despite the fact that they didn’t create any new forms or advance music in the sense of a Beethoven, Liszt or Stravinsky—they didn’t innovate.) One might wonder why we consider them great? Shakespeare and Keats certainly didn’t create any new forms or genres. By the standards of our own day they were both backward looking; but they were rich in invention. They mastered, synthesized and perfected traditions that had been handed down to them and which they accepted. They impressed those traditions with their own unique stamp.

When I read and analyze the works of Robert Frost, I read the work of an artist in whom simplicity emerged “as the crowning reward of art”. It’s the same feeling I get when looking at a painting by Andrew Wyeth, another artist who continues to be denigrated by a generation steeped in a two hundred year old ethos.

There is nothing simple in nature.

The tree’s solution to the earth’s gravitational tug may be simple, but that simplicity reflects the complexities of hundreds of millions of years. If I were to explain what Jonson meant by nature and Chopin by simplicity, I would explain it by the tree. This was the kind of naturalness and simplicity that arose (as Puttenham put it, lacking the word for genius) from an  “excellent sharp and quick invention, holpen by a clear and bright phantasie and imagination…” This was genius that grew from the soil of its inheritance.

My advice to the future? Be rich in invention.

Let Poetry Die ❧ Redux


  • This is a rewrite of my earlier post Let Poetry Die. This version came about because I was asked to do a rewrite by the Wall Street Journal, who considered publishing the article in their essay section. Because their essays tend to be more informational than confrontational they ended up rejecting the rewrite (or that’s my theory). I re-submitted the essay to other publications including The Atlantic Monthly and Poetry Magazine. It was Andrew Sullivan, of the Atlantic Monthly, who first brought the post to “the world’s” attention, so I thought they might be interested in the rewrite. They weren’t.  So be it. Rather than let the rewrite burn a hole in my pocket, I’m posting it here. Enjoy, or refute, as the case may be.

On Nov. 5, 1913, Robert Frost wrote to John T. Bartlett, professing his ambition and, at the same time, defining what a poet’s ambition should be. “There is the kind of success called ‘of esteem’ and it butters no parsnips. It means success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands.”

Frost’s driving ambition was founded on the belief that the general reader was equal to his own ambitions. Frost could have been echoing Walt Whitman’s assertion that “to have great poets, there must be great audiences.” But the populism of Frost and Whitman was increasingly distrusted by poets and critics stung by public rejection. The answer was not that their own poetry and vision might be mediocre, but that the public’s demands were mediocre. The obvious answer was to create their own audience and that thesis was formulated by Harriet Monroe, the founder of the Poetry Foundation. In a 1922 editorial she implicitly condemned the corrupting influence of the general reader. She contemptuously referred to poems, daily published in newspapers, as “syndicated rhymes,” and equated the poets to “movie-producers” who had learned that it paid to “be good”. It paid to give “people the emotions of virtue, simplicity and goodness.” And she meant that contemptuously. In short, she was accusing poets of catering to the general reader. Poetry needed to be freed from the corrupting expectations of “people”.

History cherishes irony. Robert Frost’s tremendous success in courting the public made Monroe’s vision of the poet, so different from his own, not only possible but triumphant. It was Frost’s popularity that wakened colleges and universities to the lucrative possibilities of the poet-in-residence. After Frost, more and more academic institutions established a poet-in-residence, then creative writing programs, then MFAs. Even if modern poets largely disdain catering to the general reader, the colleges and universities, who bait their hooks with them, make catering a science. There is no MFA equivalent to organic chemistry – a trial by fire that thins the ranks of premedical talent. MFA programs glow with the radiance of a sabbatical. The University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the oldest in the country, gives the feeling of a vacation brochure. “Workshop alumni have won sixteen Pulitzer Prizes (most recently Philip Schultz in 2008), as well as numerous National Book Awards and other major literary honors.” They might as well be describing sixteen award winning slopes, well groomed and with powder. To paraphrase Harriet Monroe, it’s a program that “pays at the box office”, but empties your pockets. The program promises nothing other than that students will be comfortably acquainted with the expectations of “the critical few who are supposed to know”.

Harriet Monroe’s vision of the poet won the day. And the triumph of Monroe’s vision was never so spectacularly endorsed as when, in 2002, Ruth Lilly, the last surviving great-grandchild of the pharmaceuticals baron Eli Lilly, bequeathed roughly $200 million to Monroe’s Poetry Foundation. Monroe’s vision of the poet, insulated from the corrupting influence of the general reader, now extends to the Poetry Foundation itself. Flush with fantastic wealth, public appeal is no longer a matter of life and death; and that’s fortunate for the Poetry Foundation. Monroe correctly assumed that the “large public [would be] little interested” in what she had to offer. She wanted readers who were “primarily interested in poetry as an art” and those readers, predictably, turned out to be other poets, critics and aficionados. Whether the Poetry Foundation’s aesthetic genetics deserve to survive will never be known. Survival of the fittest has been thwarted. The foundation’s future influence on America’s poetry for good or ill will be unrivaled.

Nonetheless, the failure of Monroe’s vision, and the Poetry Foundation’s own inability (or refusal) to court a wider readership, was unwittingly confirmed by the Poetry Foundation’s own expression of gratitude to Lilly. “Thanks to Ms. Lilly’s munificence,” they write in an online article, In Memoriam: Ruth Lilly, 1915-2009, “the programs of the Poetry Foundation bring poems to 19 million Americans who would not otherwise read or hear them.” Without her they could not offer “the annual $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize”. Without her “millions of readers [might not discover] the great magic of poetry for generations to come.” And topping it with a cherry, the Poetry Foundation’s President, John Barr, stated that “poetry has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly.”

The question arises: if the magic of poetry is so great, why did it need $200 million? Apparently, it’s not the magic of poetry that will bring the thrill of poetry to millions but the magic of $200 million. And John Barr’s own revealing statement that Poetry “has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly” is a curious self-indictment. It should have millions of friends – none any more or less great than the other.

What has been lost with the triumph of Monroe’s vision? As far as Frost’s general reader is concerned, American Poetry died with the modernists and their contemporaries: Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, WB Yeats. No poets ever filled their shoes. Few passing pedestrians could readily name a poet from the last 50 to 60 years – let alone the title of a poem, let alone a first line. Yet ask the same general reader to name a favorite novelist, golfer, band, lyricist or rapper, and watch them light up.

By asserting that poets shouldn’t have to cater to the marketplace of common opinion, poets were given leave to write without consequence. And when any human being can act without consequence, the dogs of mediocrity, narcissism and hedonism will be let loose. The most recent example was Elizabeth Alexander’s reading at Obama’s inauguration. Her list of credentials and awards are show stopping. She is a poet, essayist, playwright, who has degrees from Yale University and Boston University, along with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She was the 2007 winner of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry and, to boot, was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the George Kent Award and a Guggenheim fellowship.

But on the day when she was exposed to the marketplace of common opinion as no other poet since Robert Frost’s own reading at the Kennedy inauguration, the consequences were final. Her talents, as revealed in her poem Praise Song for the Day, were judged to be those of a mediocre poet whose poetic reach was strained by a clichéd phrase like “glittering edifices” and whose stanzas were typified by breathtakingly bland and unimaginative language:

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

The public’s reception was captured on John Stuart’s Daily Show when her reading was juxtaposed with images of a rapidly dispersing crowd. At present, Amazon offers 31 copies of her chapbook, Praise Song for the Day, (a print run of 100,000) for 1 penny each. New copies have been marked down to yard sale prices: $1.52. The public has spoken. If the general reader was to blame for the mediocrity in Monroe’s morning paper, public reception was the choke collar that restrained it’s durability. If the worst poets were permitted 15 minutes of fame, the next 15 years were payback. Currently, given enough publications and enough awards, a poet, despite having little to no public appeal, can expect the esteem of his or her peers to confer lifelong job security. After all, who publishes their poetry and awards them but other poets, critics and aficionados? The estimation in which the last decade’s poets have been held hasn’t reflected public opinion but the poets’ opinions of themselves.

Monroe’s stance excludes the general public from the evolution of art, but as Walt Whitman wrote, great poetry isn’t possible without a great audience, and if the audience is excluded from the development of a given art form, then it will no longer reflect the audience’s innate greatness. Interest among the general public has predictably collapsed. In January of last year, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that while 50.2 percent of adults had read a work of fiction in 2008, as opposed to 46.7 in 2002 (an encouraging increase) poetry’s adult readership had declined to a 16 year low. The general reader no longer turns to contemporary poetry because they cease to find their greatness within it. When the poet August Kleinzahler stated that Garrison Keillor’s 2002 anthology of poems, Good Poems, “makes no demands on his audiences, none whatsoever,” he might have added, with equal conviction, that the “audience hasn’t been permitted to make any demands on poets, none whatsoever.”

It would be better if poets were fed to the lions of public opinion. Drive them out of the universities, if not literally then figuratively. Drown institutional benevolence in a barrel of water. When poets were required to make their living by writing for the public there was a give and take – a kind of death and rebirth in every public appraisal of their effort. Artists disputed but also encompassed their audience’s demands and tastes. There was a balance, perhaps imperfect but a balance nonetheless. The interaction produced our greatest works of art. Hamlet was a product of the public’s demand for revenge tragedy. Mozart’s Magic Flute, one of the greatest operas written, was a direct appeal, not to nobility, but to the Viennese public’s taste for Singspiels and fairy tale operas. Conversely, careers sometimes sputtered and artists starved. But that’s the way it should be. This is how art thrives and improves.

It is a supreme irony that Monroe’s vision of the independent artist has recreated the very system of patronage that the great poets, composers and artists of the 19th century were so determined to escape. They wanted to write for the public. And it’s a curious state of affairs when criticism of John Barr’s efforts to steer the Poetry Foundation toward a more populist direction can be paraphrased (by Dana Goodyear, in her New Yorker article, The Moneyed Muse) as “the encroachment of cultural conservatism, money, and vulgar money people on a precinct considered sacred, and safely forgotten.”

Those making the criticism, those who fancy themselves independent artists, are hardly independent. Beethoven, whose music inaugurated the age of the Romantics, disdained patronage. The very definition of the independent artist, exalted by the Romantics, rejected the social and political norms of the previous century, and that included its patronage system. Ironically, there is little difference between that patronage system and the patronage system of America’s wealthy academic institutions. There is little difference between the hundreds of forgettable court composers who dutifully scribbled ditties for their aristocratic employers and the hundreds of forgettable poets who dutifully compose poem after poem under the auspices of their respective institutions. (No academic institution is going to patronize a poet who doesn’t reflect well on them.) If anything typifies cultural conservatism, it is the poet safely ensconced in the court of academic institutions.

Poetry answerable to common opinion might, at the very least, prevent the public from being lectured by “the critical few who are supposed to know.” They will stop being told they are too vulgar to recognize which poets rightly deserve their admiration and attention. Instead, maybe your neighbor will tell you. Maybe you will hear a poet’s lines absently-mindedly chanted by the stranger next to you. No one knows what the next great poet will sound like. But it’s likely the public will recognize him or her before other poets, critics or editors do.

And surely, a great many poets who are currently the darlings of their generation will be toppled from their esteemed perches. But why not invite these poets to actually make a living from their poetry? If they can’t, then maybe their poetry isn’t all that good? On the other hand, maybe the public has spoken after all. If there’s not a single poet the public finds worth praising or remembering, then maybe the argument is already over. Robert Frost’s legacy lives on in his poetry. Monroe’s legacy lives on in $200 million.

Make poets work for their bread and butter by being poets. Make them, as Frost wrote, stand on their own legs. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets, has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry too shielded from the destructive and re-creative impulses of common opinion. When the ancient myth makers invented the phoenix, they created a myth far more captivating and compelling than deathless immortality. They recognized the vitality of death and rebirth. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then the public may begin to see great poetry again – the greatness that stems from the re-creative collaboration between audience and artist. Let poetry die.

❧ January 10 2011

The Making of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Similar to my post on “Stopping by Woods”, I’ll take a look at how different authors have analyzed the poem (and mix in my own 2¢ along the way). We’ll also look at the history of the poem, how it arrived at its final form — a subject almost as interesting as the poem itself.

Nothing Golden Stays

The aspect of the poem that nearly all close readers and critics emphasize is Frost’s use of paradox and his reference to Adam & Eve – the Christian creation myth. The story of Adam & Eve is sprinkled throughout western art, literature and music and any artist who references the story also inherits a wealth of associations.

Aside: When I was a high school junior at Western Reserve Academy, my English teacher expressed the opinion that the story of Adam & Eve was a profoundly inspired story. I countered that the story was actually stock and trade, no more inspired than any other creation myth. If looks could kill. He chalked it up to teen-aged diffidence but my opinion hasn’t changed. He asked if I could name any other story that was so pervasive. Like in China? I countered. That ended the discussion. My 2¢? Take any fable, be it ever so humble, make it the centerpiece of your culture’s spiritual and religious identity for hundreds of years and watch it flourish. It’s the centuries of art and literature, like variations, that burnish the fable of Adam & Eve. Think of Beethoven’s Diabelli variations. There’s nothing special about Diabelli’s little theme. It’s Beethoven’s variations, based on the theme, that burnish the original.

But back to Robert Frost. Frost adds considerable depth by alluding to Adam & Eve. The subject matter of the poem is elevated from a wistful observation on the passage of time to a more universal comment encompassing time and creation itself. Such is the power of alluding to the myth. Alfred R. Ferguson, in an essay entitled “Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall“, begins the essay as follows: “Perhaps no single poem more fully embodies the ambiguous balance between paradisiac good and the paradoxically more fruitful human good than “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a poem in which the metaphors of Eden and the Fall cohere with the idea of felix culpa.”

And yet, for all this, the first version of the poem doesn’t include a reference to the Bible. The very first version was, in fact, nothing more than a wistful observation on the passage of time.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
Another golden flame
And yet it’s not the same
It[‘s] not as lovely quite
As that first golden light.

Here’s my theory on Frost’s thought process. The version above, the earliest, is also the most forgettable. The first five lines are clearly the strongest and he probably thought of them all in one sitting. After that, though he recognized their promise, he didn’t know where to go with them. The last five lines are anticlimactic. They don’t elevate the subject matter and present no new ideas.

For example: Gold appears in the first line only to be repeated twice (in lines 6 and 10) as a weaker adjective. Not only that but there’s really no difference between a “golden flame” and a “golden light“. Not knowing what he wants to say, Frost is merely killing space. Adjectives, in poetry, can easily indicate second rate thought, second rate poetry, and a second rate poet. Frost repeats ideas anti-climatically. By writing that autumn “achieves another golden flame” he’s already given away the game. By the time he calls nature’s first “gold” a “golden light” there’s no surprise or elevation in thought. There’s no epiphany or feeling of development. The phrase And yet it’s not the same adds nothing. It’s little more than rhetorical filler for the sake of rhyme.

But Frost wasn’t a second rate poet. He recognized the sententious weaknesses in this first version. He moved on. He revised.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
A still more golden blaze
But nothing golden stays.

[From Selections from American literature, edited by Leonidas Warren Payne p. 936]

This revision, this much of it, is a clear improvement. He’s gotten rid of the phrase And yet it’s not the same. He’s tightened the poem by reducing it from ten lines to eight. The final four lines become a mirror image of the first four. In effect, he’s created a volta such as you would find in a Sonnet – a turn or change in the subject, a movement from proposition to resolution.

But problems remain. Golden, as in the first version, is repeated twice, diminishing the epithet’s effectiveness. But that’s the least of it. Changing the noun gold into the adjectives golden remains the first sin. The problem is that the emphasis is on blaze and stays rather than gold. The image left in the readers mind is diffuse. What does a blaze look like?

However, this isn’t the end of the poem. Here is the earlier version of the poem in its entirety. This marks the first time this version has appeared anywhere on the world wide web. I don’t know why scholars (and if you’re a scholar I’m talking to you) can’t be bothered to print the entirety of the poem if you’re going to discuss it. I had to reconstruct this from snippets and fragments gleaned from deviously clever Google book searches. Here it is:

Nothing Golden Stays

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
A still more golden blaze
But nothing golden stays.

Of white, blue, gold and green,
The only colors seen
And thought of in the vast,
The gold is soonest past.
A moment it appears
At either end of years,
At either end of days.
But nothing golden stays.

In gold as it began
The world will end for man.
And some belief avow
The world is ending now.
The final age of gold
In what we now behold.
If so, we’d better gaze,
For nothing golden stays.

This isn’t bad, but it seems excessive for a wistful poem about the passage of time. The second stanza more or less elaborates on what was already implied by the first stanza. My guess is that Frost thought the poem would feel weightier having a tripartite form. The problem, as Shakespeare put it with characteristic genius, is that “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” There are more words than matter in this poem.

But why is Frost looking for a weightier poem and what’s the third stanza about? Tyler Hoffman, in his book Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry, explains (though, like other authors, he couldn’t be bothered to provide the entire poem):

…Frost is speaking out on international political affairs in his sly way, and it is important to remember that this poem is composed in 1920, just after World War I has ended. Feeling sure that “there are two or three more wars close at hand,” Frost expresses a fierce nationalism at this time and, with it, an isolationist political position (…) ” Nothing Gold Can Stay” tropes this position, suggesting through its isolation of syntactic units a refusal to become embroiled in global politics: just as Nature tries to resists the forces of change, so America must try to resist forces that would pull her beyond her borders, even if such resistance may be in vain. That the poem originally included lines that later became part of “It is Almost the Year 2000,” (…) points to another political meaning, as Frost jabs at 1930s liberals who believe that the millenium is upon us on the evidence of the terrible times. [pp. 162-163]

• Hoffman makes observations about the poem’s form that I don’t find persuasive. He remarks that “it is seemingly ironic that the boundaries of phrasal units and lines should match up so neatly in a poem about transition, the change from one season to another.”  Hoffman’s answer to this perceived conundrum is that “through tight closure, Frost is able to depict the effort on Nature’s part to ‘hold’ — to try to resist the forces of change that inevitably will overpower her.” He then goes on to note that the earlier version of the poem does not follow this  pattern. One would think this would fatally undercut Hoffman’s assertion, but he nicely pirouettes: “In this draft version, hard enjambment also is resisted, a formal condition that reads as an emblem of Frost’s political resistence to socialist utopian thought.”

Say what? Hoffman gives us no citation for these assertions. Did Frost, at some point, characterize his use of end-stopped lines and enjambment as political “emblems”? No. So, what we’re left with is Hoffman’s opinion as to what Frost was thinking. I don’t buy it. I’m not persuaded. If anything, this kind of analysis smacks of David Orr’s Enactment Fallacy. I’ve linked to Orr’s article a dozen times in other posts, but if you haven’t read it then it’s worth reading or reading again. Orr writes of the Enactment Fallacy:

Basically, this is the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess. For example, in an otherwise excellent discussion of Yeats’s use of ottava rima (a type of eight-line stanza), Vendler attributes great effect to “the pacing” allegedly created by “a fierce set of enjambments” followed by a “violent drop” in the fourth stanza of the poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.

Hoffman, like Vendler, is imposing meaning on poetic techniques. If one takes Hoffman at his word, are we then to conclude that every example of enjambment is politically emblematic? If not, then we’re cherry picking. Otherwise we must be willing to say that enjambment means X in this poem, but Y in that poem without any evidence whatsoever. Unless you’ve heard it from Frost, don’t be persuaded by assertions like these.

Getting back to the poem’s theme, I am persuaded by Hoffman’s thinking that the original impulse for “Nothing Gold Can Stay” developed into something political. This explains, perhaps, why Frost wanted a weightier poem in three parts. What may have began as a wistful nature poem began to be seen, by Frost, as a good metaphor for his disagreement with liberal politics (“some belief avow”), which he perceived as Utopian – hence golden.

With that in mind, we can discern the first appearance of Adam & Eve. “In gold as it began…” he writes. That is, mankind began in gold, in the Garden of Eden. If gold is then a euphemism for utopianism, then the Garden of Eden is the ultimate tale of liberal utopianism. I’ve read some other analyses of Nothing Gold Can Stay by other bloggers who see in Frost’s allusion a sympathetically Christian one; but, if anything, Frost’s initial allusion to the Garden of Eden is anything but sympathetic. His allusion almost drips with sarcasm. ‘You see how long that lasted,’ he seems to say. What makes you think this new Democratic and socialist utopianism is going to fair any better? If that’s what you think, he writes at the close of the poem, then you’d “better gaze [now], For nothing golden [Utopian] stays.”

He taunts liberals (and socialists) for their Utopian vision of society by bitingly comparing it to the Utopian vision of Christian Theology – the End Days, End Times or the Second Coming. He calls it the “final age of gold”. Is it accident that he uses the very phrase?

A moment it appears
At either end of years,
At either end of days.
But nothing golden stays.

Frost’s skepticism applies not just to the Garden of Eden, but to the reputed gold age that will come with Christ’s Second Coming. Just as in the first instance, he writes, it won’t stay.

So much for a wistful nature poem.

But there’s a reason why this earlier version is so hard to find. It’s not that good. As with all political poems, it comes stamped and dated. Political poems have short shelf lives. Without knowing the political impetus behind the original poem, the whole of it comes off sounding excessively verbose. Frost must have recognized the limitations of the poem and how his politics circumscribed the poem’s potential universality.

He went back to work. He revised.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

I  find the differing versions of this poem revealing as to Robert Frost’s personality. It’s easy to sense, in the earlier version, a side of Frost that was ill-humored, sarcastic, acerbic and dismissive. It’s a darker undercurrent that can be sensed in many of his poems and one, as revealed in many of his sketches, that he tempers. Nothing Gold Can Stay is a perfect example. The final version is deceptively straightforward, like many of Frost’s poems, but the tincture of Frost’s acerbic personality remains, adding depth and perspective to what, otherwise, might simply be mawkish.

Frost quickly dispenses with the second stanza. One might not think it at first glance, but it’s easy to read a dismissive tone into the first four lines of the second stanza:

Of white, blue, gold and green,
The only colors seen
And thought of in the vast,
The gold is soonest past.

There are other colors (politics) besides gold, but no one else “in the vast” seems to see them. Without the political impetus behind these lines, they have the potential to sound petty. The lines also state what is already understood. The subject of the poem, in a sense, pertains to what is golden. The fact that the other colors are overlooked is already implied.

The third stanza gets the ax because it threatens to come off as nothing more than derisive political posturing.

This brings Frost back to the first stanza. Eden is still buzzing in his brain. He realizes that this reference has the potential to expansively elevate the  subject matter – a facet missing in the earliest versions. Frost returns to the first four lines but this time changes flowers to the more universal flower. The singular flower carries a more symbolic feeling than flowers. Likewise, the change from hours to hour gives the word a more universal, symbolic flavor.

Frost alters his poem from naturalistic generality to symbol. A flower could be anything (whereas flowers will be more generally read as flowers). From there, and with Eden still in the back of his mind, he makes the leap to the next four lines:

Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Rather than use a euphemism, Frost simply writes Eden — Eden sank to grief. But a tone has been set. By Frost’s use of the singular flower, hour and leaf, the reference to Eden becomes a symbolic gesture which, because of its suggestive power, smoothly elevates the poem’s thought and philosophic reach. The idea of Eden burnishes the word dawn, imbuing it with a deeper symbolism. But there’s something more to this line, the idea that dawn goes down to day. More than one author and critic has sought explanation in the Latin phrase felix culpa or blessèd fall. This is the paradoxical concept that through diminution or decay comes increase and growth. The day is the apogee of sunlight and warmth, but to have that day, the beauty of dawn must go down. The dawn itself, like the first green of the early leaf is a kind of gold that must go down before the leaf can bear fruit. Nothing gold can stay. As King Midas learned, gold that stays makes for a lifeless world.

Alfred Furgeson, whose Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall I quoted earlier, nicely sums up the same ideas in his own way:

It is a felix culpa and light-bringing. Our whole human experience makes us aware that dawn is tentative, lovely, but incomplete and evanescent. Our expectation is that dawn does not “go down” to day, but comes up, as in Kipling’s famous phrase, “like thunder,” into the satisfying warmth of sunlight and full life. The hesitant perfections of gold, of flower, of Eden, and finally of dawn are linked to parallel terms which are set in verbal contexts of diminished value. Yet in each case the parallel term is potentially of larger worth. If the reader accepts green leaf and the full sunlight of day as finally more attractive than the transitory golden flower and the rose flush of a brief dawn, he must also accept the Edenic sinking into grief as a rise into a larger life. In each case the temporary and partial becomes more long-lived and complete; the natural cycle that turns from flower to leaf, from dawn to day, balances each loss by a real gain. Eden’s fall is a blessing in the same fashion, an entry into fuller life and greater light.

It’s worth pointing out, at this point, that the poem’s political implications were still probably present in Frost’s mind and in his later readings, but they no longer feel like the poem’s primary impetus. He accomplished this, in part, by his more symbolic use of language. The poem, if construed as political, is no longer an ascerbic dismissal of a political belief, but an elegant alternative to those beliefs. Rather than simply mock a system of beliefs he disagrees with, he offers an alternative. The decline (or failure) of utopianism is an inevitable outcome if the cycle of life is to be respected and appreciated.

This revision makes the poem interestingly and compellingly constructive rather than destructive. The necessary tension between creation and destruction is what makes the poem great. At the same time that we feel the loss of all that is gold, we also sense the necessity and blessèdness that comes from that loss.

The Poem’s Form

The poem is written in Iambic Trimeter. The only variant feet are a trochaic foot in the first line and a headless foot in the final line. The headless foot in the final line is especially effective. To my ears, it adds a succinct pithiness to the final line, like a sonnet’s epigrammatic close.

There’s another longer and more detailed (read deep) look at how this poem works at an aural/linguistic level by John A. Rea. The analysis can be found here. It’s a fascinating attempt to do what is nearly impossible – describe what is musical about the language in the poem. It’s almost like trying to describe the color red to a blind man. You can decide for yourself whether he succeeds or is even readable, but I admire and appreciate the attempt.


  • Curiously, a number of bloggers have posted a strange hybrid. You will sometimes find the following:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaves subside to leaves.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The problem is that the word leaves doesn’t rhyme with grief. That’s not anything Frost would have written. That’s just a mistake. You will also find the title, sometimes, mistakenly given as Nothing Golden Stays. This title, in fact, belongs to the earlier version.

Monday’s Child is Fair of Face

Illustration by Blanche Fisher Wright

  • As of today, Sept. 21 2013 and the first full day of autumn, this post has been viewed over 50,000 times. :-) Also, if you enjoy this post, you might also like the discussion of Mother Goose’s: I had a little nut tree…

I just picked up a used book A Child’s Anthology of Poetry, which I’ll talk more about in a later post. Suffice it to say, I like it very much.

After writing analyses of serious poems by serious poets, I wanted to try something different: a well-known nursery rhyme by Mother Goose, which isn’t to say that a nursery rhyme can’t be taken seriously. One of the most interesting facets to Mother Goose’ nursery rhymes is how amazingly interesting they really are! I suspect that most of us, when we first read them, think of them as nothing more than cute doggerel. (Modern poets have tried to write nursery rhymes with the flavor of the originals but, at least for me, there’s always the feeling that they’ve been contrived.) In fact, almost every one of Mother Goose’s rhymes has a rich history behind it. To demonstrate, I’ve picked out Monday’s Child. As of this sentence, I don’t know anything more about the poem than you do (and probably less). To me, it’s just a cute rhyme. But let’s see what we turn up.

Here’s the rhyme. Most of you know it well.

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

So, being methodical as ever, let’s go from the most to the least. The most being this: Who was “Mother Goose”? Seems that scholars are mostly in agreement: She’s a mythical personage whose name most probably derived from the title of Charles Perrault’s collection of fairy tales, “Contes de ma mère l’oye” or “Tales of Mother Goose”. The collection was published in 1697. Britannica states that “Mother Goose” is derived from a French expression that roughly translates as “old wives’ tales” [“Mother Goose.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Deluxe Edition.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010].

Both Britannica and Wikipedia mention the claims made for the true life Bostonian Elizabeth Goose. The claim that Elizabeth Goose was the origination of Mother Goose, though charming, is flatly and sadly dismissed by Britannica.

The persistent legend that Mother Goose was an actual Boston woman, Elizabeth Goose (Vergoose, or Vertigoose), whose grave in Boston’s Old Granary Burying Ground is still a tourist attraction, is false. No evidence of the book of rhymes she supposedly wrote in 1719 has ever been found. The first U.S. edition of Mother Goose rhymes was a reprint of the Newbery edition published by Isaiah Thomas in 1785. [Ibid]

If you’re curious to read more about this “persistent” urban myth, Wikipedia offers a bit more information.

The Poem

The poem, like many if not most nursery rhymes, is accentual. A poem written in meter, like Iambic Pentameter, would be called an accentual syllabic poem. This means that the accents (stressed syllables) are the same (or mostly) in each line and that the number of syllables in each line are the same (or mostly). In the case of Iambic Pentameter, there are mostly 10 syllables per line and of those 10 syllables 5 are almost always accented.

  • What does “fair of face mean“? I’ve seen this query several times in my dashboard. Seems like this is a good place to answer the question. Fair has the meaning: beautiful, but also auspicious and fortunate. So, Monday’s child, in a fortune-telling sense, means that Monday’s child is not only beautiful, but promises good things and a fortunate life.

In accentual poetry, the poet is only counting the number of accents per line, not syllables but only stressed syllables. So, Mother Goose’s little ditty would look like this:

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

Four stressed syllables per line. What does this tell us?  Britannica tells us the following:

The oldest extant copy dates from 1791, but it is thought that an edition appeared, or was planned, as early as 1765, and it is likely that it was edited by Oliver Goldsmith, who may also have composed some of the verses. [Ibid]

First, we know that accentual/syllabic meter (Iambic Pentameter for example) was only firmly established between the 1570’s and 1590’s. Chaucer had written Iambic Pentameter (not blank verse) but his innovations were largely forgotten until the Elizabethan era rediscovered the meter. We also have reason to believe that many of the poems in Mother Goose were probably poems passed from generation to generation by memory. One of the poems, I had a little nut tree, is thought to stem from the visit of Katherine of Aragon to England in 1506 – Katherine was betrothed to Prince Arthur and later married King Henry VIII when Prince Arthur  died.

So, given those two pieces of information, it makes sense that these nursery rhymes would be largely accentual. They reflect an earlier poetic tradition dating as far back, possibly, as Anglo-Saxon song and language. These nursery rhymes are old poems and even if we grant that Goldsmith may have penned some of the verses, he seems to have imitated the accentual language of the originals.

The poem Monday’s Child, interestingly, was not in the original edition but was first recorded in 1838, in A. E. Bray’s Traditions of Devonshire (Volume II, pp.287-288). This doesn’t mean that Monday’s child is a contrivance of 1838. As we’ll find out, the tradition (from which this proverbial poem springs) can be dated back, at least, to the 1570’s.

Fortune Tellers

If the tradition of this poem can be dated back to the 1570’s, then it surely predates the 1570’s. And what was that tradition? Fortune telling. I’ve read some commentary on this poem portraying it as no more than a mnemonic aid to help children remember the days of the week, but I think the poem is much more interesting than that. Turns out, the poem springs from a tradition of fortune telling proverbs. Human beings have always wanted a way to foresee future events and we’ve always been suckers for predictions. In his book, Oral and literate culture in England, 1500-1700, author Adam Fox provides us the following:

The Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe remembered how, as a boy growing up at Lowestoft, Suffolk, in the 1570s, he had been spellbound by the faiths and fables which the old women had solemnly handed down around the home fire.

I haue heard aged mumping beldams as they stay warming their knees ouer a coale scratch ouer the argument verie curiously, and they would bid yong folks beware on what day they par’d their nayles, tell what luck euerie one should haue by the day of the weeke he was borne on; show how many yeares a man should liue by the number wrinkles on his forhead, and stand descanting not a litle of the difference in fortune when they are turned vpward, and when they are bent downward; him that had a wart on his chin, they would confidently assertaine he should haue no need anie of kin: marry, they would likewise distinguish betweene the standing of the wart on the right side and on the left. When I was a little childe, I was a great auditor of theirs, and had all their witchcrafts at my fingers endes, as perfit as good morrow and good euen. (*)

So it was, according to the old wive’s catechism, that Friday was the unluckiest day. ‘Now Friday came, your old wives say, of all the week’s unluckiest day.’ Despite this, however, every milkmaid knew that a dream on Friday night was sure to come true. [Page 182]

(*) John Melton, Astrologaster, or, The Figure-Caster (London, 1620), 53, and see 45-7, 67,69,71; Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night (1594), in The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. McKerrow and Wilson, i. 369.

Is that a smoking gun or what? There’s ample reason to believe that Monday’s Child is much older than it’s first printed appearance in 1838. And what’s also worth noting is Nashe’s emphasis on old women ( the old wife or Mother Goose as the French might have called her). Women were the culture’s poetic memory and story tellers. In fact, there seems to have been a cottage industry in fortune telling by rhyme. Monday’s Child has some siblings.

Sunday’s child is full of grace
Monday’s child is full in the face
Tuesday’s child is solemn and sad
Wednesday’s child is merry and glad
Thursday’s child is inclined and thieving
Friday’s child is free in giving
Saturday’s child works hard for a living

Born on Monday, fair of face;
Born on Tuesday, full of grace;
Born on Wednesday, merry and glad;
Born on Thursday, wise and sad;
Born on Friday, Godly given;
Born on Saturday, earn a good living;
Born on Sunday, blithe and gay

Sunday’s child is full of grace,
Monday’s child is fair of face;
Tuesday’s child loves to race,
Wednesday’s child is kind of heart;
Thursday’s child is very smart,
Friday’s child will never part;
Saturday’s child is good of heart. [Page 105]

In the book, Baby Lore: Superstitions and Old Wives Tales from the World Over Related to Pregnancy, Birth and Babycare, the author Rosalind Franklin ascribes these variants, respectively, to the West Country of the UK, to Scotland and to the United States. If there was one thing that characterized the early United States it was the sense of optimism and hope typified by its immigrants. I don’t think it’s random that the variant found in the US is the most optimistic and hopeful (although the Scottish variant isn’t far behind  and many American immigrants were Scottish). The most pessimistic of the variants belong to the UK.

But there are more rhymes of the fortune telling kind. G.F. Northall, author of English folk-rhymes; a collection of traditional verses relating to places and persons, customs, superstitions, etc (evidently, collectors of really, really short poems like really, really long titles) found two more variants:

Born of a Monday,
·Fair in face;
Born on a Tuesday,
·Full of God’s grace;
Born of a Wednesday,
·Merry and glad;
Born of a Thursday,
·Sour and sad;
Born of a Friday,
·Godly given;
Born of a Saturday,
·Work for your living;
Born of a Sunday.
·Never shall we want;
·So there ends the week,
·And there’s an end on’t.

Born of a Monday,
·Fair in face;
Born on a Tuesday,
·Full of God’s grace;
Born on Wednesday,
·Sour and sad;
Born on Thursday,
·Merry and glad;
Born on a Friday,
·Worthily given;
Born on Saturday,
·Work hard for your living;
Born on Sunday,
·You will never know want. [Page 161]

But what if you need to know what day of the week to marry? In the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 25, we find the following:

Monday for health, Tuesday for wealth,
Wednesday the best day of all,
Thursday for losses, Friday for crosses,
Saturday no day at all.

Or, if you prefer:

Monday for wealth;
Tuesday for health;
Wednesday the best day of all;
Thursday for crosses;
Friday for losses;
Saturday no luck at all. [Page 160]

What’s the best day to sneeze?

Sneeze on a Monday, you sneeze for danger;
Sneeze on a Tuesday, you kiss a stranger;
Sneeze on a Wednesday, you receive a letter;
Sneeze on a Thursday, you’ll get something better;
Sneeze on a Friday, expect great sorrow;
Sneeze on a Saturday, meet a sweetheart to-morrow;
Sneeze on a Sunday, your safety seek,
·The devil will chase you the whole of the week. [Page 167]

And remember Thomas Nashe? He wrote that the aged mumping beldam “would bid yong folks beware on what day they par’d their nayles”?

Cut your nails Monday, you cut them for news;
Cut them on Tuesday, a pair of new shoes;
Cut them on Wednesday, you cut them for health;
Cut them on Thursday, ’twill add to your wealth;
Cut them on Friday, you cut them for woe;
Cut them on Saturday, a journey you’ll go;
Cut them on Sunday, you cut them for evil,
·All the week long you’ll be ruled by the devil. [Page 167-168]

So, all this is to say the Monday’s Child springs from a rich tradition of prognosticating rhymes and proverbial lore. In fact, our language is full of them.

A red sky in the morning is the sailor’s warning.
A red sky at night is the sailor’s delight.

Or the way I heard the rhyme from my grandmother was:

Red sky at morn, sailors forlorn.
Red sky at night, sailors delight.

Poems like these are a poetic undercurrent deeply imbedded in our language and culture but which, like the beldams, are all too frequently treated with condescension or overlooked. These women, mothers and grandmothers, entertained raised and taught the children of every generation and their music, poetry and stories are the great building blocks of all great literature. Theirs is a realm of literature which even self-professed feminists overlook in their efforts to recognize their more “literary” sisters. Shakespeare would be half the poet if it weren’t for his astounding knowledge and memory for proverbs. His poetry is literally stuffed with proverbial lore. Where Ben Jonson understood human nature through its humors, Shakespeare teased forth human nature from our proverbs.  I personally think it’s no mistake that one of the most realistic characters in all of his plays is the Nurse (the old beldam) in Romeo and Juliet. I don’t doubt that Shakespeare, in his youth, was just as enthralled by his own Mother Goose as Thomas Nashe, his contemporary. Whole books are dedicated to the proverbs he must have remembered from his childhood. Here is just one example:

The proverb fair and foolish, black and proud, long and lazy, little and loud, is at root, predictive, just like Monday’s Child. The proverb becomes a series of stinging jests in the dangerously scheming mind of Iago:

Iago I am bout it, but indeed my invention
Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frieze —
It plucks out brains and all. But my muse labours,
And thus is she delivered:
If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit,
The one’s for use, the other useth it.

Desdemona Well praised! How if she be black and witty?

Iago If she be black and thereto have a wit
She’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit.

Desdomona Worse and worse.

Emelia How if fair and foolish?

Iago She never yet was foolish that was fair,
For even her folly helped her to an heir.

Desdemona These are old fond paradoxes, to make fools laugh i’th’alehouse.
What miserable praise hast thou for her
That’s foul and foolish?

Iago There’s none so foul and foolish thereunto,
But does foul pranks which fair and wise ones do.

  • Note: Black, in Elizabethan times, didn’t have the same connotations as now. Although Iago makes a sexual dig at Desdemona saying that she will find a white (her womb) “that shall her blackness fit” (Othello’s penis), the appellation black generally referred to any European (including the English) who were darker complexioned, like the Italians and some of the Scottish, noted for their dark hair and eyes. The beautiful Emilia Lanier, for example, is sometimes identified as the “dark lady” in Shakespeare’s sonnets, claimed to be his lover, and was known to be a “dark” complexioned Italian. She was a musician, feminist and poet of considerable talent.

The proverb itself is a bit of fortune telling, much like Monday’s Child, and may have arisen from just such a rhyme (each of the lines in Monday’s Child is essentially a bit of proverbial lore).

At this point I can’t help inserting my usual jab at free verse. Ask yourself: Doesn’t a rhyming prophecy lend itself to the memory? I can think of nothing duller than a free verse prophecy. If nothing else, all of these poems bespeak the richness and joy taken in the sounds of our language. Modern poets lost much when they turned away from the music of language (one of which was book sales). Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes still vastly outsell any modern free verse poet (much to their annoyance whenever I mention it).

The Days of the Week

So what’s with the days of the week. Why is Monday characterized one way and Tuesday another?

Is there rhyme or reason?

The likeliest answer is the former. The characterizations probably reflect nothing more than the convenience of rhyme. What rhymes with face but grace? On the other hand, many of Mother Goose’s seemingly nonsensical and innocuous poems refer to real historical events (and frequently events that didn’t end well). Goosey Goosey Gander was a warning not to harbor Catholic Priests. During the Tudor era, when the Protestant religion was on the rise, harboring Catholic priests (who said they’re prayers in Latin) was punishable by death. Did that threat of execution extend to the children of the family? Possibly.

Goosey Goosey Gander is, in a certain way, similar to the political and propagandist poems children chant in North Korea and used to chant in the Soviet Union (though Goosey Goosey is not so ham-fisted or, at least, has been mellowed by age).

Rosalind Franklin’s book, Baby Lore, mentioned above, provides a nice summary of what varying cultures have associated with the days of the week. One is quickly reminded of astrology. No one, if read the personality traits of the different days, could consistently identify their own day. Descriptions frequently contradict each other and, if you’re a fortune teller, this is a good thing. This is what you want. Cover all your bases.

Suffice it to say, Sunday is the Sabbath day and no God-fearing Christian is going to associate negativity with the Sabbath day. The wise (Christian) child will always choose to be born on Sunday. Friday, on the other hand, was the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Children born on Friday are treated well, but  if you sneeze or cut your nails on Friday you will get what you deserve. Friday is for losses and crosses.

Here are some abridged (by me) Proverbs, Sentences and Proverbial Phrases from the book Proverbs, Sentences and Proverbial Phrases: From English Writings mainly Before 1500. These are the kinds of proverbs that would make their way into the rhymes and stories of beldams at whose feet sat the likes of Shakespeare and Nashe.

M618 Black Monday

1359 Gild of St. Nicholas in English gilds, ed. Toulmin Smith: The secunde (mornspeche) shal be onblake monunday. 1435 Chronicles of London Wherefore, unto this day yt ys callyd blak Monday, and wholle be longe tyme here affter. c1443 Chronicles of London Wherfore unto this day manye men callen it the blake Monday.

M619 A Monday’s handsel (gift) is great pain to children. c1475 Rawlinson A monday-ys hansell ys grete pane to chyddryn.

T280 Thursday and Sunday are cousins 1483 Caxton Golden Legende And therefore comenly the proverbe was, that the thursday and the sonday were cosyns. For thene that one was as solemne as that other.

F621 Now Friday shines and now it rains fast c1385 Chaucer: Right as the Friday, soothly for to telle, Now it shyneth, now it reyneth faste.

F622 Sled is the Friday all the week alike c1385 Chaucer: Sele is the Friday all the wowke ylike.

F623 To have fele (many) Fridays in one’s forehead c1475 Prohemy of a Marriage: In the forehed fele fridayes this no fage. (Fage, I think, means flattery.)

S907 He that hangs himself on Sunday shall still hang on Monday. 1546 Heywood: Well, he that hangth him selfe a sondaie (said hee) Shall hang still uncut downe a mondaie for mee.

Here, by contrast, are American proverbs from the Dictionary of American Proverbs.


  1. Monday is the key of the week.
  2. Monday religion is better than Sunday procession.
  3. So goes Monday, so goes all the week.


  1. Every day is not Friday; there is also Thursday.
  2. Friday and the week are seldom alike. (Notice how this proverb survived the centuries!)
  3. Friday begun, never done.
  4. a. Friday is the fairest or foulest day. b.Friday is the fairest or foulest day of the week.
  5. Never start anything important on Friday.
  6. a. Thank God it’s Friday. b. Friday night begins the weekend.


  1. Saturday begun is never done.
  2. Saturday’s cleaning will not last through Sunday, but Sunday’s will last all week./Saturday’s flitting is short sitting.


  1. Sunday oils the wheels of the week.

I find it curious that neither book of proverbs include the proverbial lore of Mother Goose’s Monday’s Child. I think it’s an oversight on the part of the authors, but typical.

Anyway, I could go into the meaning behind the names of the days of the week but that’s getting far afield and I doubt such knowledge was common among the generations who handed down Mother Goose. I doubt there was any thought put into the origin of the word Wednesday and that Wednesday’s child is “full of woe”. In another version of the poem, after all, Wednesday’s child is “merry and glad”.

But there you have it. You know as much as I do and, still, probably more.