Sidney’s Sonnets 1 & 2

  • sir-phillip-sidneyA reader recently asked me to compare Sidney’s Sonnets 1 & 2 as help for a school assignment. I wrote a brief email, let the email stew, and then decided it was a shame not to develop the ideas into a proper post. So, if on the short side, here it is. If you’re under the age of 18, be warned, Elizabethan ‘Love’ Poetry is commonly rated somewhere between R and XXX.

Sonnet 1

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That the dear She might take some pleasure in my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
····I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn’d brain.
····But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
····Biting my truand pen, beating myself for spite,
····“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write”.

The first item to notice is that the sonnet isn’t iambic pentameter, but iambic hexameter (a six foot iambic line):

Trochee|Iamb······|Iamb······|Iamb·····|Iamb·····|Iamb
/
········|·····/·····|······/···|···/····|·····/···|···/
“Loving | in truth, | and fain | in verse | my love | to show,”
1···········|2············|3············|4············|5···········|6

Sidney’s sonnets alternate between pentameter and hexameter and I’m not aware of any rock solid explanations for why he chose one meter for one sonnet and another for the next. My own guess, simply put, is that he was showing off. The only hint we have is from Sidney himself:

“The ancient marked the quantity of each syllable, and according to that framed his verse, the modern observing only number…. Now for the rhyme [modern accentual verse], though we do not observe quantity, yet we observe the accent very precisely, which other languages either cannot do, or will not do so absolutely. That caesura, or breathing place in the midst of the verse, neither Italian nor Spanish have, the French and we never almost fail of.”

This is from Sidney’s The Defense of Poesy. What it tells us is that Sidney was keenly interested in the poetry and metrical practices on other languages, ancient and modern. Why? Because Elizabethan poets were still in search of a “native meter”. (Except for three or four scholars, who were thought to be mad-hatters, no one recognized Chaucer’s verse as being Iambic Pentameter simply because they didn’t know how to pronounce middle English.) They tried importing classical quantitative meter into English (for that instant classical burnish) but the English language was having none of it. As Sidney argues, English observes “only number” or the accent. The French alexandrine on the other hand, the twelve syllable line, was something that could be imported into English. The thinking, I suppose, was that English, by dressing itself in the triumphal robes of other languages, might prove itself their equal. But English had to do its own way; and soon enough that would be iambic pentameter.

For Sidney, possibly, the future of English meter was undecided. It might be iambic pentameter or it might be iambic hexameter (an English Alexandrine).  I’m guessing he might have keen to display his, and the English language’s suitability and prowess in both meters; and in either case he may have wanted to set the example, himself the model of the multi-faceted and versatile Elizabethan.

  • The whole notion of falling in love, as a pre-requisite to marriage (and therefore sanctioned sex), would have been somewhat foreign to Elizabethans. Marriages in the upper classes were mostly social contracts. Besides that, the word Love didn’t carry the same full-throated romantic connotations. In fact, up until the start of the 20th century, love-making didn’t refer to sex but, innocently, to verbal expressions of tenderness. Sidney’s use of the word Love is likewise unlike modern usage. In sonnet 52 he’ll position Love and Virtue in opposition to one another, which might strike a modern reader as odd. But ‘Love’, for Sidney (or for Astrophil), means sex, the physical connection more than the modern emotional or romantic connection:

Well Love, since this demur our suit doth stay
····Let Virtue have that Stella’s self; yet thus,
····That Virtue but that body grant to us.

Worth also noticing is Sidney’s mention of the caesura typical of French poetry, probably his favored model . In hexameter lines, the midline pause can nicely divide the line into two 6 foot halves, and it’s possible that this symmetrical elegance appealed to Sidney more than asymmetric pauses usually typical of pentameter verse. One could split pantemater evenly, but one would be forced to divide the third in half, not uncommon but more typical of later and blank verse (as opposed to rhymed sonnets and the like). Sidney used his first sonnet to exploit that “breathing space”, or midline pause, for a flashy display of rhetoric and parallelism.

conduplicatio and diacope

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,

anadiplosis and isocolon [ ]

That the dear She [might take some pleasure] in my pain:
Pleasure [might cause her read,] reading [might make her know,]
Knowledge [might pity win,] and pity grace obtain…

Isocolon can produce especially powerful and memorable effects. What kind of effects depends on the context and the context, in this case, reinforces a methodically determined lover carefully laying out his seduction the way a military strategist might draw up a battle plan. In his own day, Sidney was known as the consummate courtier—a militant Protestant who would soon be killed on the battle field. Worth noting is that the hexameter gives Sidney greater scope for this sort of elaboration. As we’ll see, pentameter demands a pithier and more elliptical argument. There are 28 fewer syllables in a pentameter sonnet, almost three fewer lines. The whole of the quatrain is also an example of Gradatio. Joe Albernaz, “Fit Words to Paint”: The Rhetoric of Courtship and Courtiership in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella“, explaining the importance of the figure, quotes Sokol extensively:

“The uses in the first two sonnets of Astrophil and Stella of the figure gradatio are rhetorically “thick” in the sense that they speak not only on the level of syntax and surface semantics, but also on the level of poetic structures conveying tone.  This practice allows a profound engagement between verbal form and poetic purpose. ¶ These particular uses of gradatio involve play upon, and not only within, its rhetorical scheme.  Specifically, the start of Astrophil and Stella successively flaunts and then flouts the rigid form of gradatio.  Sidney’s purpose is to reference the distinctive shape of the scheme in service of an underlying expressive strategy.”

I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn’d brain.

The second quatrain continues the ABAB rhyme scheme of the first quatrain, but the argument and rhetoric changes. Worth noting is how Sidney makes use of the midline pause, nicely dividing the hexamater line in two (an effect we don’t find in Sidney’s Pentameter sonnets) :

Studying inventions fine || her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves || to see if thence would flow

Also worth mentioning is to what degree Shakespeare was influenced by Sidney, so much so that one might almost call a number of Shakespeare’s sonnets variations on Sidneys. Where Sidney will next complain that he lacks “Invention” (ideas):

But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,

  • “other’s feet” refers to the poetry (meter) of others.

So does Shakespeare:

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!

Sonnet 59

Or:

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?

Sonnet 76

Also, Sidney’s conceit of the “Nature’s child, [fleeing] step-dame Study’s blows” has always reminded me of  Shakespeare’s Sonnet 143, though in this case the resemblance is probably superficial.

Notice again the caesuras in the third quatrain:

But words came halting forth || wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child || fled step-dame Study’s blows…
Thus great with child to speak || and helpless in my throes,

So what we have is this: Sidney claims he lacks “Invention” all whilst displaying the very pinnacle of Elizabethan inventiveness. But Sindey has a great sense of humor (much ignored by other commentators). He himself recognizes the absurdity and self-contradictory posturing of his lines. The irony isn’t lost on him and becomes the butt of the joke. He skewers it all in the closing couplet:

Biting my truand pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write”.

The contrast is pointed. In other words: Stop your damned showing-off and simply tell her you love her. So his Muse isn’t saying: if you want to be inventive, write from the heart; but just the opposite: stop your damned intellectual preening (Invention) and be genuine (write from the heart). The joke is that Sidney’s Muse isn’t fooled by his rhetorical posturing, (though readers sometimes are).

But there’s another joke. If this were the only Sonnet that Sidney had written then we might easily read the last line at face value, as a quasi-romantic pledge to write from the heart, feelingly, instead of “rhetorically”. But Sidney was a young man and hot-blooded. Virtue, in Elizabethan times, meant different things for men and women. (Elizabethans were apparently untroubled by the contradictory rules that understood womanly virtue as chastity and manly virtue as the conquest of that same chastity.)

The second thing to consider is freedom of speech in Elizabethan England. It was emphatically not free. (Although if you didn’t mind your body parts being nailed to a wall, the sky was the limit.) Wanton, lewd, lascivious speech was dutifully and appropriately frowned on but immensely enjoyed. If you were a Shakespeare, knowing what the audience liked and knowing your play had to get past the “Office of the Revels”—whose job was to weed out profanity, heresy, or politics—then you made use of a sort of “thieves cant” that consisted of universally understood puns and allusions. And among the most common of these puns was the Hart (the stag) and the Hind—the male and female deer respectively. And do I really need to explain this any further? Heart and behind? And where, do we suppose, will we find a man’s “heart” when he’s in lust? And what of a woman’s anatomy does he especially pursue?

“If a hart do lack a hind, Let him seek out Rosalind.” As You Like It III.ii.99

Now, having been brought up to speed, what do you suppose an Elizabethan would have made of Sidney’s final line?

“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write”.

There’s a reason this is the first sonnet. It clues the reader into the sonnets that will follow. Yes, they’ll be romantic but you’re going to miss the fun if you don’t read between the lines. Don’t think that Sidney’s “heart” isn’t also a reference to his libido and that other part of his anatomy keenly interested in Stella’s seduction.


(c) National Trust, Knole; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) National Trust, Knole; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sonnet 2

Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot
····Love gave the wound, which while I breathe will bleed:
····But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.
I saw and liked, I liked but loved not,
····I loved, but straight did not what Love decreed:
····At length, to Love’s decrees, I forced, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.
····Now even that footstop of lost liberty
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite,
I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit,
····To make myself believe, that all is well,
····While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.

In the second sonnet, notice that there’s much less rhetorical embroidery. Sidney appears to use the shorter lines as a means to a tighter argument.  The whole sonnet, I think, could be construed as exploiting a single rhetorical figure: Correctio or Epanothorsis. The first quatrain sets up the context, and then each line, in effect, corrects the one before until Sidney lands himself in “my hell”. Is it really, though? Consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
···All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
···To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

I personally find it impossible not to think that Shakespeare knowingly rewrote Sidney’s sonnet (and improved it). But my reason for posting it is so that you’ll notice the last word—hell. Hell is the butt (literally) of the joke. There’s a reason that it’s the one word Shakespeare didn’t change. Why?

hell vagina In LrF IV.vi.124, the sexual parts arouse loathing ‘There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Etc. [Shakespeare’s Sexual Language: A Glossary]

hell, in Sonnet 144, ‘I guess one angel in another’s hell’ = I suspect that my good male friend (‘the better angel’) is copulating with ‘the worser spirit a woman colour’d ill’. Not impossibly, Shakespeare here alludes to the famous Bocaccio story of ‘putting the devil in hell’. [Shakespeare’s Bawdy]

Given the subject matter of both sonnets, I think anyone who argues against the pun is going to be on the losing end. But there’s more.

employ occupy sexually. In KJ I.i.96, ‘Your brother did employ my father much’ earns the quibbling response: ‘Your tale must be how he employed my mother.’ [Shakespeare’s Sexual Language: A Glossary]

And:

wit semen; pudendum? …A good example of wit-semen occurs in Rudyerd (1599) p. 43, on a lover’s entertaining his mistress, so ‘that once in three days he speak with some spice of Wit, and to the purpose twice every night if it be possible’. [Shakespeare Sexual Langauge: A Glossary]

wit | whit | white Puns on each other and on  genitals. Jonson, The Alchemist, II, iii: Mammon spies Dol Common (each part of her name means a mistress – F&H; P), a ‘brave piece’: ‘Is she no way accessible? no means/ No trick to give a man a taste of her — wit — / Or so?’ In archery, 15th c., the white or target was placed on a butt and was called a prick (LLL, iv.i.134: ‘let the mark have a prick in it’). ‘Prick’, like a whit, is a minute particle’ (OED) Etc. [A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance]

  • In Sonnet 4, Astrophil will write: “Virtue, alas, now let me take some rest./Thou set’st a bate between my will and wit.” If we take wit in its usual meaning, then the line is somewhat redundant, but if wit takes on its bawdy meaning, then its argument with will (angelic reason) makes more sense.

And:

Paint 1. Pander, Peindre (Cot), to paint. Dekker and Middleton, The Honest Whore I, n.i: ‘What you are old, and can well paynt  no more,/You Turne Baw’. Cosmetic paint or ‘fucus’ (Jonson, Cynthia’s Revels, v.ii) may have connoted ‘fucks’ (F&H; fottarie — F). Painted brothel panels (Dekker’s ‘painted cloth rhymes’ — CD) bore cheap sentiments: ‘traders in the flesh, set this in your painted cloths’ (TrCI, v.x.46) …. iv.ii.38 Pompey, ‘unlawul bawd’, tells Abhorsen, executioner, ‘Painting… is a mystery; and your whores… being members of my occupation, using painting, do prove my occupation a mystery…’ Painting is a MYSTERY (prostitution)…. [A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance]

And:

feel ‘Sampson. Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads; take it in which sense thou wilt. — Gregory. They must take it in sense that feel it. — Sampson. Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and ’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh’, R & J, I i 24-28. ¶ The same semantic idea—here again is Shakespeare the forerunner, perhaps the progenitor!—resides in the C.18 slang old hat, ‘prudend’ (because often felt), and the erotic stress stress on ‘feeling’, with the suggestive removal of the hyphen, in the C.20 fast girls’ recast of the proverbial saying, a fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind. ¶ The word has an Aryan base that = ‘to strike gently’.

And now consider the last three lines of Sidney’s sonnet:

And now employ the remnant of my wit,
····To make myself believe, that all is well,
····While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.

Now, if it were only one of these words, and if it weren’t in the context of a horny courtier who will write a sonnet sequence stuffed with double entendres and sexual puns (see Sexual Puns in Atrophil and Stella by Alan Sinfield), then one might reasonably dismiss this all. In discussing the word wit for example, Gordon Williams (Shakespeare’s Sexual Language) rightly points out that the word “occupied a much more central place in Elizabethan discourse than in ours; the word is used incessantly and with multiple colorings.” The point being that it becomes “almost impossible to tell when writers had been using wit ambiguously and when not.” Granted, but consider the context. As Sinfield writes in Sexual Puns:

“Even in recent critical studies and annotated editions, most of which have a lot to offer, commentators have been slow to appreciate, or to help the reader appreciate, the sexual inferences in the poems. I suggest that Astrophil’s consciousness of the sexual nature of his passion for Stella is more extensive and more important than is usually implied.” [Sexual Puns in Atrophil and Stella p. 1]

He will later add:

“I want to make two further claims: that sexual double-entendre is an important feature of Sidney’s verbal skill and, following this, that Astrophil’s love for Stella is sexual right from the beginning of the sequence.” [Ibid. p. 3]

Then suggests five criteria or discerning sexual puns:

“First, the interpretations proposed should use senses demonstrably current in the langauge; second, in their immediate context they should be consistent with each other and with other levels of meaning; third (in other than short poems) they should be appropriate to the theme and its treatment in the work as a whole; fourth, they should make the poetry appear better—more subtle, dense and interesting; and fifth, they should be compatible with the known practice of the poet and his contemporaries in that kind of poem.” [Ibid. p. 3]

The proposed double entendres of Sonnet 2 meets all those criteria. And if the last lines are read as the double entendres one can conclude that Astrophil, contrary to the entire history of critical interpretation, did in fact consummate his affair with Stella; and that the entire sequence is not an effort to obtain what he will never have, but to win back what he lost. The sequence can be read consistently either way. That said, one might point out that Atrophil, in Sonnet 78, asserts that Stella’s husband has not been cuckolded:

Is it not evil that such a devil wants [lacks] horns?

But there’s nothing saying the sequence doesn’t begin before she’s married. And consider further that most critics agree that Stella was inspired by Penelope Devereux (who would become Lady Rich, husband of Lord Rich).

“One of the most intense and ongoing scholarly debates regarding Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella is concerned with exactly how much, if any, of the sequence is autobiographical (such biographical criticism is not uncommon with regard to Elizabethan sonneteers; the degree of autobiography in Shakespeare’s sonnets is also thoroughly questioned and debated).  While proponents of the Sidney-as-Astrophil view point to the clever nominal puns (the most salient being Phil-Astrophil, and the numerous puns on the word “rich” – the married name of Penelope Devereux, a supposed love interest of Sidney’s) and apparent references to events in Sidney’s life, other critics have warned readers of Sidney to be cautious in such areas.” [Fit Words to Paint”: The Rhetoric of Courtship and Courtiership in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella]

And then there’s this:

Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence, assuming we can believe it, is from an account of Sidney’s death-bed confession recorded by George Gifford, one of the divines who attended him in his final illness: “There came to my remembrance a vanity wherein I had taken delight, whereof I had not rid myself. It was my Lady Rich. But I rid myself of it, and presently my joy and comfort returned with a new hours.” [Sir Phillip Sidney: Selected Writings edited by Richard Dutton p. 19]

If the confession is true, and if Astrophil and Stella is in any way biographical, then what to make of it? If we interpret “vanity” as Sidney confessing to having had an affair with Penelope Devereux, then how do we square that with “Atrophil’s” assertion that the husband was never cuckolded. The answer is that the dalliance occurred before she was married—and it is to this dalliance that Sonnet 2 confesses. Further, this might further explain Stella’s odd indulgence toward Astrophil (they have some history); but once she’s married, she cannot and will not be unfaithful.

Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot
····Love gave the wound, which while I breathe will bleed:

  • Astrophil “bleeds”, meaning that their meeting is the wound that won’t heal. He can’t forget her. dribbed: random

····But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.

  • Progressively, his platonic appreciation becomes an obsession beyond his control. The next several lines detail this “conquest” over him. in mine: by way of a mine (as in planting mines beneath a cities fortifications and thus undermining them); of time as in time’s mine: did [by way of time’s undermining] proceed

I saw and liked, I liked but loved not,
····I loved, but straight did not what Love decreed:

  • “did not what love decreed” Meaning that he did not actively court her.

····At length, to Love’s decrees, I forced, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.

[Eventually, he courts her, yet “repines” (is not content), with merely courting her (partial lot).]

····Now even that footstop of lost liberty
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite,
I call it praise to suffer tyranny;

  • And here is where interpreting the sonnet gets dicey. What does he mean by “even that footstop of lost liberty/ Is gone”? What has he done? How does one go beyond courting without consummating the courtship? The conventional interpretation is that whereas “courting” had been in his control (in the sense that he was the pursuer and could break off the courtship), he has now become slave to the pursuit. No other woman is a possibility.

And now employ the remnant of my wit,
····To make myself believe, that all is well,
····While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.

If we read the next three lines as double entendres, however, Astrophil tells us something else.

And now employ [sexually occupy] the remnant [remains] of my wit [semen],
····To make myself believe, that all is well,
····While with a feeling skill [removing her hymen/taking her virginity] I paint [fuck] my [his lover’s] hell [vagina].

If interpreted this way, then Sonnet 2 confesses what got Astrophil into this mess. I expect that most, if not all, scholars would object that this entirely disrupts and undercuts the Patrarchan (if not moral) underpinnings of the sonnet sequence, but that somewhat puts the cart before the horse—those moral and philosophical underpinnings are themselves matters of interpretation. Personally I find either scenario compelling, though if I had to choose I would probably go with the more conventional interpretation. The use of the word now suggests this isn’t a memory and if hell is really to be interpreted as Stella’s vagina, then it’s not his but Stella’s (enforced elsewhere in the sonnet sequence). Here’s a more likely interpretation, perhaps, that preserves the double entendres:

And now employ [sexually occupy/spend/masturbate] the remnant [remains] of my wit [semen],
····To make myself believe, that all is well,
····While with a feeling skill [the skill of the seducer] I paint [describe (the sequence being like “painted brothel panels”] my hell [the vagina he longs for].
·

This more closely conforms to Sidney’s usage of paint in Sonnet 1 “I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe”. The notion of Astrophil coming, masturbating, spending will appear later in Sonnet 18:
·

Unable quite to pay even Nature’s rent,
Which unto it by birthright I do owe:
And which is worse, no good excuse can show,
But that my wealth I have most idly spent.

To spend was a common euphemism for achieving orgasm. As Alan Sinfeld points out, Shakespeare (again, possibly inspired by Sidney) will use the same theme and imagery in his Sonnet 4:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And being frank, she lends to those are free.

  • Jonathan Smith, Professor of English at Hanover College, whose wonderful blog Blogging Sidney’s Sonnets  analyses all of Sidney’s Sonnets, doesn’t address the potential double entendres, but nevertheless offers a compelling interpretation:

“There are at least two distinct possibilities, and in this case I think we do well to accept both, and thus enrich the poem’s meaning through ambiguity; as Benedick says, “There’s a double meaning in that!” Duncan-Jones’s endnote opts for Hamlet’s understanding of “paint” as giving “a false colouring or complexion to,” or in the crude American political vernacular, “putting lipstick on a pig.” So in that sense, the speaker admits to using optimistic descriptions of a love relationship to “pretty up” what is really a hellish state he has gotten into. It could similarly be said that line 5 of Sonnet 1, “I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe” refers to putting false make-up on an ugly face (blackness being equated with ugliness in Renaissance-speak). But just as clearly, that line occurs in the midst of a description of the struggle to create art, so it carries the ambiguity of “paint” as “create art.” [Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 2]

So, perhaps all of that wets your appetite for Astrophil and Stella? If possible, I recommend Alan Sinfeld’s essay, Sexual Puns in Atrophil and Stella. Part I of this essay, Sidney and Astrophil is also worth reading. And for an analysis of all of Sidney’s Sonnets: Blogging Sidney’s Sonnets.

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Three Ways to Write a Poem

Of Plain Poems, Figurative Poems & Metaphoric Poems

Call this post a rough draft; and there are more than these three (like Allegorical Poems) but these are the three primary ways a poem is written, I think. On and off I get queries from poets who would like my opinion on their poems. In a very general way, I can break down their poems down into three main types — the Plain Poem, the Figurative Poem, and the Metaphoric Poem; though almost all the poetry sent me falls into the first two categories. I don’t know whether these categories are original to me. I doubt they are, and I may be using the terms differently (if they’re already out there). But so be it. There are poetic masterpieces in all three categories, so I’m not going to argue that one is superior to another, but of the three types of poetry — the Plain Poem and the Metaphoric Poem are the kind I admire most. But first things first:

The Plain Poem

plain-chant 002When I first began writing this, I called this kind of poem a ‘Literal Poem’; but I decided ‘Plain Poem’ is a more poetic description, and reminds me of plain chant. Plain Poem also allows for some variation, some touches of figurative language perhaps, whereas the term ‘Literal’ invites too strict an interpretation. I have no idea what percentage of contemporary poems are Plain Poems, possessing minimal figurative language, but my hunch is that they represent fewer than one might expect, maybe only single digits. They’re very difficult to write well (or memorably). Perhaps Edwin Arlington Robinson would be its finest exponent in traditional forms. The fact of his plainness may, in some measure, contribute to his relative neglect. (It’s ironic that Ezra Pound preached the gospel of “everyday language and materials”, as Christopher Clausen put it, only to write a massive book, “The Cantos”, that becomes progressively all but incomprehensible.)

Richard Cory
by EA Robinson

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

RobinsonSome readers might object that Robinson uses a smattering of figurative language, but they’re of the colloquial, ‘every day’ sort. We don’t need editorial footnotes to understand “from sole to crown” or “fluttered pulses” or “glittered when he walked”. This is truly the language of the every day and the reader would have to stretch, or be a Helen Vendler, to read more into it than is there. The power of the poem isn’t to be found in any sort of figurative or metaphorical elusiveness. As with the majority of Robinson’s poems, it is what it is, but beautifully so. Robinson uses meter and rhyme to lend the poem direction, succinctness and to make the poem memorable. Until the very end the rhymes seem innocuous enough, and then the rhyme of bread and “put a bullet through his head” strikes like a thunderclap. As with many good rhyming poems, the reader is likely to anticipate the final coup de grâce, which gives the narrative that extra kick.

  • I’ve ready many passages of free verse poets, especially, posturing over the predictability of rhymes, but this bespeaks an ignorance of what good rhyme do. There are times when the predictable is exactly what the poet wants.

Another good example might be William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

There is such a reflexive determination to think that a poem has to mean something more than what it says. I’m not sure how much sweat and blood has been spilled over what Williams really meant. And yet, the haiku-like sublimity of the poem is self-evident and probably instinctively grasped by anyone who reads it (and needs no explanation or rationalization). This poem, wc williamsquite simply, means what it says. But what makes it so memorable? There’s no rhyme or meter, so something else is at play. In part, it’s very much its similarity to the best haiku. There’s no discourse or disquisition. In other words, a narrator doesn’t thrust himself, nattering, between the reader and the poem (an intrusion into the conversation that Williams can rarely resist). We are permitted to consider the facts as they are and draw our own conclusion — and that is how a poem is like a haiku. The next facet is the imagery. Williams has carefully chosen what to emphasize — the contrast between the red of the wheelbarrow and the white of the chickens, for example. As an experiment, substitute blue for red, or brown for white.

Red is an impish color when you think about it. It attracts attention to itself; (there’s a reason we call red cars “cop magnets”). The poetic juxtaposition of a loud color like red on a humble wheelbarrow gives it a sort of underdog status — like a red Volkswagon beetle — and endears it to the reader (maybe not universally but as a generalization I think this is probably true). After all, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. What other color could it be? (Unfortunately, my own wheelbarrow is blue, but I’m going to spray paint it red.)

And then there are the chickens. What if they had been brown? Nah. The white chickens make the wheelbarrow all the redder. The contrast is easy to imagine. But what if Williams had written white horse or, white house, or white tractor? When the reader imagines the scene, the chickens will always be smaller than the wheelbarrow; and this has the effect of making the red wheelbarrow a little bigger, and a little more important, and a little more there, like an ever present, reassuring background to the lives of the chickens. If Williams had written ‘white horse’, then that might have diminished the importance of the wheelbarrow. The white chickens give us a contrast in color and in size.

But what about a white house or white tractor? These two would have diminished the wheelbarrow’s ‘scale’ (for lack of a better term). Not only that, but we can imagine the lives of the chickens being dependent on the wheelbarrow, but not an inanimate house or tractor. The wheelbarrow is larger than the chickens, and is brought into the living ecosystem of the barnyard by being beside the chickens. In a certain sense, it’s given life by giving life.

And glazed with rainwater? Why this detail? Well, what if it had been coated with dust? My own feeling is that a coat of dust implies disuse. There are certainly farm implements (and carpentry tools) that get dusty, but that coating is always disturbed by use. I think it’s safe to say that a well-used wheelbarrow would seldom be covered by dust. The word glazed is one most commonly used in reference to pottery. When we glaze a piece of pottery we are finishing it. We are, one might say, making it beautiful and, to a certain degree, transforming it into a finished work of art or, at minimum, a usable implement. Williams choice of word is probably no accident. There’s also the sense that o much depends on the wheelbarrow that it cannot be spared even in the rain. This is an indispensable presence in a living and working environment.

But this poem is lightning in a bottle. Williams only pulled it off twice, I think. With The Red Wheelbarrow and This Is Just to Say. These two poems are justly famous and plain poems. They are plain (or very literal), easy to grasp, but in their choice of observation, like the best haiku, they successfully evoke a world of emotional associations. And this, perhaps, is the trick to the greatest poems of this kind — the art of evocation.

  • I haven’t discussed haiku, but these deceptively simply poems (and carefully literal) are some of the most evocative poems in any language.

Another example of a plain poem would be Frost’s Stopping by Woods:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Many attempts have been made to read meaning into this poem, but it is what it is. It’s beautifully simple and, in that simplicity, is profoundly evocative. This is poetry that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself. The combination of rhyme and meter add to the memorability of the poem — a revelry in the “felicities of language” as Frost called it. William Pritchard had this to say:

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant… [Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164]

There’s a certain kind of reader for whom plain poems are anathema. One of the more common criticisms leveled at Frost was that his poetry was that of the “simple, farmer poet” — as if that were bad thing in and of itself. In truth, the plainly stated poem, done well or even greatly, is an exceedingly rare accomplishment. The criticism itself says vastly more about those making it. They seem to think that the only good poem is the “difficult” poem. The 20th century is nothing if not the pursuit of obscurity/difficulty as an end in itself, and not just any obscurity, but the kind meant to evoke layers of “meaning”, elusive and implying depth, brilliance and perhaps genius. As a rule of thumb, the more ambiguous — the more interpretations available to the poem — then the better it must be. And while that sort of writing may be candy to the critic and academic, the precipitous decline in modern poetry’s audience suggests that the average reader has better ways to spend their time (rather than sort out a poet’s “meaning”). “Make it plain”, a reader might say, and the modern poet hears: “Dumb it down”. But that’s not at all what the reader is saying.

Greatness in literature has nothing to do with how “difficult” it is.

And perhaps the most remarkable 20th century writer of Plain Poems was Charles Bukowski:

we had goldfish and they circled around and around
in the bowl on the table near the heavy drapes
covering the picture window and
my mother, always smiling, wanting us all
to be happy, told me, ‘be happy Henry!’
and she was right: it’s better to be happy if you
can
but my father continued to beat her and me several times a week while
raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn’t
understand what was attacking him from within.

my mother, poor fish,
wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a
week, telling me to be happy: ‘Henry, smile!
why don’t you ever smile?’

and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the
saddest smile I ever saw

one day the goldfish died, all five of them,
they floated on the water, on their sides, their
eyes still open,
and when my father got home he threw them to the cat
there on the kitchen floor and we watched as my mother
smiled

Charles-BukowskiIn the process of writing this post, I read through about two dozen poems by Bukowski, and if he ever wrote a simile, I haven’t yet found it. I would judge Bukowski’s favorite rhetorical device to be the analogy. In the poem above, for instance, Bukowski is essentially drawing an analogy between the goldfish and the suffering experienced by himself and mother. Even then, Bukowski’s use of analogy is sparing and far from obvious. A reader may read a Bukowski poem, read a scenario which he or she has never experienced, and yet feel a commonality because the subject is nevertheless analogous to his or her own experiences. This, I think, is at the root of Bukowski’s genius — his ability to provide a context for experiences that make them recognizable and universal. In the poem Bluebird, Bukowski is again essentially drawing an analogy between his suppressed empathy and compassion and a symbolic bluebird he keeps locked in his heart.

The Figurative Poem

By this, I mean poems that use figurative language but are otherwise (or mostly) plain in their meaning. In other words, I would consider calling a Figurative Poem a ‘Plain Poem’ that uses figurative language. Figurative Poems, as I use the term, probably represent the vast majority of poetry. Nearly all of free verse is of the figurative kind. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are all figurative poems. They are by far and away the most popular and have therefore accumulated an ocean of bad examples. The term figurative (or figurative language) refers to rhetorical figure (a figure understood as any rhetorical linguistic device). A linguistic device most commonly includes, for example the simile — the favorite rhetorical figure of twentieth and twenty-first century poetry. As soon as you see a simile, you know you’re dealing with figurative poetry. Additionally, and unfortunately, it’s nearly always a sign of second or third rate poetry — almost without fail (the exceptions prove the rule, perhaps).

I know I’ve mentioned the following passage before, but I’m offering more of it because it first got me thinking about this subject (many years ago):

“Shakespeare’s style, as everyone knows, is metaphorical to excess. His imagination is always active, but he seldom pauses to indulge it by lengthened description. I shall hereafter have occasion to direct your observation to the sobriety with which he preserves imagination in its proper station, as only the minister and interpreter of thought; but what I wish now to say is, that in him the two powers operate simultaneously. He goes on thinking vigorously, while his imagination scatters her inexhaustible treasures like flowers on the current of his meditations, His constant aim is the expression of facts, passions ,or opinions; and his intellect is constantly occupied in the investigation of such; but the mind acts with ease in its lofty vocation, and the beautiful and the grand rise up voluntarily to do him homage. he never indeed consents to express those poetical ideas by themselves; but he shows that he felt their import and their legitimate use, by wedding them to the thoughts in which they originated. The truths which he taught, received magnificence and amenity from the illustrative forms; and the poetical images were elevated into a higher sphere of associations by the dignity of the principles which they were applied to adorn. Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness. Nothing can be more different from this, or farther inferior to it, than the style of the poet who turns aside in search of description, and indulges in simile preferably to the brevity of metaphor, to whom perhaps a poetical picture originally suggested itself as the decoration of a striking thought, but who allowed himself to be captivated by the beauty of the suggested image, till he forgot the thought which had given it birth, and on its connexion with which its highest excellence depended. Such was Fletcher, whose style is poor in metaphor. [The New Shakespeare Society Publications, Series VIII Miscellanies Nos. 1-4 A Letter on Shakespeare’s Authorship of the drama entitled THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN, by William Spalding p. 16-17]

This was published in 1876, so the language is Victorian and convoluted, and Spalding didn’t quite have the tools to express his ideas. That was to come nearly three quarters of a century later with Wolfgang Clemens and The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery. Clemens showed how Shakespeare essentially absorbs the simile into a metaphorical language — the idea that Spalding is trying to express. (My dictionary calls metaphor a compressed simile, which is a good way to think about it.) For example, Clemens shows how in Shakespeare’s earliest poetry he hadn’t yet absorbed the simile:

The particles “as” and “like” not only make the image stand out from the text and isolate it in a certain way; they also show that the object to be compared and the comparison are felt as being something different and separate, that image and object are not yet viewed as an identity, but that the act of comparing intervenes. It would be false to exaggerate the importance of such a fact, because in Shakespeare’s let plays we also find many comparisons introduced with “like” or “as”. Nevertheless the frequency of such comparisons with “as” and “like” in Titus Andronicus is noteworthy, and this loose form of connection corresponds entirely to the real nature of these image4s. If we take, for example, passages such as these:

…then fresh tears
Stood on her cheeks, as doth the honey-dew
Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.

…that kiss is comfortless
As frozen water to a starved snake.

we see that these images are simply added on to the main sentence afterwards, dove-tailed into the context, appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration. They occurred to Shakespeare as an afterthought, as “illustration”, as “example”, but they were not there from the very beginning as simultaneous poetic conce3ption of subject and image. [The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery p. 22-23]

Compare this to The Winter’s Tale:

Later, in the same scene, Camillo asks him to be “cured of this diseased opinion” (I.ii. 297) and retorts to Leontes’ false assumption of his “infected” wife “who does infect her?” (I.ii. 307). The disease-imagery links up with the notion of taint and stinging things. Shortly after Camillo’s question Leontes speaks the following words which also contain dramatic irony:

Leon. Make that thy question, and go rot!
Dost think I am so muddy, so unsettled,
To appoint myself in this vexation, sully
the purity and whiteness of my sheets,
Which to preserve is sleep, which being spotted
Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps, (I.ii 325)

In the next scene this collocation of disease, of stinging and poison becomes more obvious. Note the following by Leontes:

There may be in the cup,
A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
The abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider (II. i 39)

The dramatic and structural significance of this image should be noted. For it is the first time Leontes builds up a full image, all the more striking as Leontes’ hasty diction does not usually allow of the elaboration of images. The directness and realism with which this image; of the spider in the cup is presented and the way Leontes turns it into a personal experience, expressed by the laconic ending “I have drunk, and seen the spider”, bring home to us the brutal and naked force of Leontes self-deceiving obsession… [p. 196-197]

shakespeareMost importantly, notice that Shakespeare never uses “as” or “like” in these two passages. The similes have been organically absorbed into the character’s “personal experience”, not tacked on as in Titus. It’s this difference that Spalding was trying to express almost a hundred years earlier. Shakespeare, in the course of his poetic development, learned to speak through metaphor rather than by the elaboration of similes (John Fletcher, not so much). It’s in this sense that Spalding delineated the difference between Shakespeare and Fletcher’s verse:

“Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness.”

  • A very simple example from Shakespeare: “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” In earlier days Shakespeare might have written: “He draweth out his argument like a spinner who draweth out his thread & etc.

The same criticism applies to all poets since Shakespeare, including the poetry of our current poet Laureate, Charles Wright (2014-). On a whim, and at random, I looked up his poetry at Poetry Foundation. The first to come up was Archeology. And what do we find?

The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods,
Hoping to find the radiant cell
That washed us, and caused our lives
…………………………….to glow in the dark like clock hands
Endlessly turning toward the future,
Tomorrow, day after tomorrow, the day after that,
………………………………………all golden, all in good time.

Just as with Shakespeare’s earlier efforts, or Fletcher, Wright tacks on the simile, “appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration”. Like will appear twice more in this short poem:

Gaze far out at the lake in sunflame,
Expecting our father at any moment, like Charon, to appear
Back out of the light from the other side,
…..low-gunwaled and loaded down with our slippery dreams.

Rather than compress the comparison of his father to Charon in the language of metaphor, Wright interrupts the narrative (amateurishly in my opinion) with the announcement of the simile, and then a little later:

Other incidents flicker like foxfire in the black

Nevertheless, at the poem’s conclusion, Wright demonstrates that he can write metaphorically (compress simile):

Sunlight flaps its enormous wings and lifts off from the back
….yard
The wind rattles its raw throat,
…………………………………but I still can’t go deep enough.

And if you ask me (and in terms of technique) this ‘compression’ of simile in the language of metaphor is the better way to write poetry (though there are obviously exceptions). Loading ones verse with similes strikes me too often as a kind of poetic shorthand — roughly equivalent to inserting a thee and a thou just because that’s what poetry is supposed to do — and frequently the simile adds little to the narrative. It’s more poetic flourish than necessity. Wright’s poem is an example of figurative poetry, though not a good one. Wright tells us what it’s about: “[digging] into our childhoods…” (so that it’s cousin to the plain poem) then uses the rhetorical figures of simile, metaphor, verbal metaphor, adjectival metaphor, etc…

But there are also beautiful examples of figurative poems that work. The Love Song of J. Afred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

ts eliotThe poem begins with the famous simile “Like a patient etherized upon a table”. “Muttering retreats” is both an adjectival metaphor and personification. “Like a tedious argument” is another simile describing the way streets “follow” — itself a verbal metaphor. And why do I like these similes, and not Wright’s? Because Eliots are wholly original. When before has an evening been compared to a patient “etherized upon a table”, as opposed to an evening boater to Charon? (I don’t hold a high opinion of Greek mythology’s appearance in modern poetry. It’s often plugged into a poem when having to do the work oneself would be much more difficult.) When has the layout of a city’s streets been compared to “a tedious argument”. Eliot’s simile’s are not only fresh, they add a subtext to the poem. Why the choice of etherized? What does this say about the narrator? Why compare streets to a tedious argument? — And how does this play into the narrator’s own avoidance of complications and explanations later in the poem?

The Silken Tent, by Robert Frost, is not only one sentence but is comprised, but for the first two words, of a single simile! The sonnet is the simile:

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.

She is like a silken tent, says Frost, and from there the sonnet elaborates. Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 116 would also fall into the category of the Figurative Poem:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
··If this be error and upon me proved,
··I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The whole of the poem is an example of personification, in which Love is endowed with personality, intent, and conviction. The figure itself is called prosopopia: “(Rhet.) A figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstract idea is represented as animated, or endowed with personality…” Shakespeare was extremely adept at using this figure (a common one during his era); and his skill, above and beyond that of his contemporaries, was surely attributable to his dramatic genius. In essence, the inanimate became characters. Take a look, for example, at the following brief passage from King John, at the way Shakespeare so beautifully personifies grief:

“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words,
Remembers me of his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form”

And this also reminds me of Richard Wilbur’s extraordinary poem Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, wherein the morning breezes are, in a sense, animated and endowed with the personality of angels. One might justifiably dispute whether this is really personification (since Wilbur never attributes the angel-like behavior to the breezes, but rather distinguishes the angels and air by saying that the “morning air is all awash with angels”) — perhaps more accurate to call the angel-like behavior of the breezes a poetic conceit (in the sense of an extended metaphor that nearly governs the whole poem).

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
··············Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

···Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

···Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
·······································The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
··············“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
··············keeping their difficult balance.”

richard-wilburThe poem, as I read it, comes very near to being what I would consider a Metaphoric Poem. I’d say it falls in the far spectrum of figurative poems, but still a Figurative Poem, because the poetic conceit of the angels is framed by the reality of eyes opening “to a cry of pulleys”. The conceit is framed by the reality of the “morning air” at the beginning and the thieves, lovers, and nuns at the close. It’s is brought ‘down from its ruddy gallows’, back into the difficult balance of the real world.

  • The conceit is itself considered a trope. The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms writes that “In general usage, most poets and critics use the term to indicate, as Coleridge proposed, any language that aspires toward the state of metaphor.”

The Metaphoric Poem

I’m trying to coin a new term and I’ve sweat over it. As far as I know, this type of poem hasn’t really been given a name. It’s not just poetry that uses metaphor, or a conceit, but a poem that, in its entirety, is a metaphor for something else. So, I settled on Metaphoric rather than Metaphorical. I’ve checked all my poetry dictionaries. I’ve Googled the term. I checked my Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry, and the term “Metaphoric Poetry” isn’t used in any specific way. So, I’m claiming it to mean something very specific. As I judge it, a poem may be metaphorical simply by using metaphor, but what distinguishes the Metaphoric Poem is that the poet doesn’t, or only in the most oblique way, give the reader any indication that the poem is really about something other than its apparent subject.

To me, the metaphoric poem is the pinnacle of poetic accomplishment. The poem can have the appearance of a Plain Poem or a Figurative Poem, but is really, in its entirety, a beautifully modulated, extended metaphor on what can be an altogether different subject. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, in fact, Robert Frost more or less invented and perfected this kind of poetry, though it’s tempting to go back in history, point to other poems, and say that this or that poem was never really about X, but about Y. We have become somewhat accustomed to this way of reading and critiquing poetry, but I’d assert that this way of thinking about poetry is really a very late development. For instance, I had a reader write the following after my post on Ann Bradstreet’s poem, Before the Birth of One of Her Children:

“…when Bradstreet writes about the dangers of childbirth in Before the Birth of One of Her Children, this could also be read as the dangers women face when publishing their work”

That’s reading Bradstreet’s poem as a Metaphoric Poem. My response was that this is probably anachronistic. Bradstreet was a contemporary of John Donne and near contemporary of Shakespeare. There’s no evidence (that I’ve ever found) that poets wrote or thought this way prior to the 20th century. In every poem that I’m aware of, the conceit, or metaphor, or analogy, is framed as a poetic construction within the poem. The reader is always made aware of the poet’s “misdirection”. In all of John Donne’s poems, for example, there’s no confusion as to what the poem is about (setting aside the usual interpretive challenges). He famously constructs elaborate conceits, but we always know that he knows that we know what the conceit is really about.

Not so with Robert Frost.

For years he was accused of being “a simple, farmer poet”. The accusation, as accusations usually do, revealed more about the critics. In short, despite considering Frost a 19th century hold-over, it was in fact the critics who were behaving like 19th century readers — reading all poems as Plain Poems or Figurative Poems. The day that readers and critics realized that Frost might have been fooling them all (all along) can actually be dated very precisely. While it’s not the birth of Metaphoric Poetry, it might be the birth of it’s broader awareness. It happened at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in 1959, on the evening of Frost’s 85th birthday. It happened when, to the shock and consternation of all those gathered, Lionel Trilling called Frost a “terrifying poet”. (Trilling, embarrassed by his own comment and worried that he’d insulted Frost, reportedly left the gathering early.)

Trilling opened the world’s eyes to the possibility that yes, all along, they’d been reading Frost with outdated expectations. As Frost said himself, as if to drive home the point that he wasn’t just writing about “nature”: “I am not a nature poet. There is almost always a person in my poems.”

Even when there isn’t.

As a nice essay at FrostFriends.Org puts it:

“Frost uses nature as metaphor. He observes something in nature and says this is like that. He leads you to make a connection, but never forces it on the reader. Read on a literal level, Frost’s poems always make perfect sense. His facts are correct, especially in botanical and biological terms. But he is not trying to tell nature stories nor animal stories. He is always using these metaphorically implying an analogy to some human concern.” [Frost and Nature ~ March 7 2015]

But then Frost had already been telling the world as much. In The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, Judith Ostler begins her contribution entitled “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor” with the following paragraph, quoting Frost at the outset:

“‘Metaphor is the whole of poetry.’ ‘Poetry is simply made of metaphor… Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing.’ Such are the burdens Robert Frost placed upon metaphor, and on himself as a poet. He went even further in his claiming that metaphor is the whole of thinking, and that, therefore, to be educated by poetry — note: by poetry — is to be taught to think.” [p. 155]

 Why did it take so long for readers to realize that Frost had been ‘fooling’ them? He was cagey in life, and cagey in his poetry.

A Drumlin Woodchuck

One thing has a shelving bank,
Another a rotting plank,
To give it cozier skies
And make up for its lack of size.

My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.

Robert-Frost-TFWith those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.

All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.

We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.

And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),

If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,

It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.

I hesitate to call this a Metaphoric poem, as the narrator gives away the game (if the joke wasn’t already painfully obvious) with a wink and a nod to “my dear”. You could read it as Frost’s commentary on his own art and persona with a sly pun on Thoreau in the closing rhyme of thorough/burrow. To read quite a good essay on the significance of the pun, visit Two Woodchucks,or Frost and Thoreau on the Art of the Burrow by Fritz Oehlschlaeger.

“Further suggestion that the woodchuck be seen as a poet figure can be found in the somewhat submerged tension between the poem’s playfulness and the seriousness of the matter at hand. The woodchuck’s jocularity nearly causes us to forget that his survival is at stake. While the burrow provides him a wonderful possibility for fanciful comparison to his counterpart at Walden, it also serves the mundane but equally important purpose of saving him from the hunters.” [p. 5]

And there’s more at stake than that. Who are the hunters? Could they be his critics? Think of Frost’s uncanny poem this way: The burrow as his poetry and the two entrances are two ways (among many more we suspect) to enter therein — a “two-door burrow”. As soon as you try to catch Frost by hunting down one crevice, he’s out the other. While pestilence and war rage, and notably “the loss of common sense”, Frost remains cagey enough not to be cornered. He won’t be caught up one side or t’other.

There are a good many of his poems that are ‘two-door burrows’. The most famous example might be “Stopping by Woods” and its many interpretations. At the two extremes are notions of the poem as a simple and beautiful lyric on the one hand and a suicide poem on the other. It may have seemed that Frost grew impatient with readers trying to identify the meaning of the poem, as if they all tried to come in at the same door, but he’d also never say what a poem wasn’t. Frost, in the end, always wanted to keep his burrow a “two-door” burrow

“Mending Wall” and “Birches” can both be read as Metaphoric Poems and I’ve offered a reading of Birches and Mending Wall suggesting how (though my interpretations may or may not reflect Frost’s thinking). The trick in Metaphoric Poetry is in knowing how to be understood or how not too be too obscure. The poet writes to be understood (unless you’re a John Ashbery).

WE make ourselves a place apart
··Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
··Till someone find us really out.

’Tis pity if the case require
··(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
··The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
··At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
··Must speak and tell us where they are.

‘Revelation’ is from Frost’s first book of poetry and reveals him, early on, searching out the balance between hiding “too well away” and having to “speak the literal to inspire”. Frost, much later in life, addresses this same question in the Metaphoric Poem For Once Then Something. In it, Frost cannily addresses the accusation that his poetry is shallow by using the very device, the Metaphoric Poem, that his critics stubbornly and shallowly misread. It’s an elaborately constructed tour-de-force, and perhaps a little too much so, not being among his better known or understood.

But now that I’ve made the argument that Frost was the first to deliberately write Metaphoric Poetry, there is a genre of poetry that anticipates Frost by several centuries (in some cases) — the nursery rhyme. Many of these poems mean something entirely other than their ostensible meaning. They were written in a time when speaking freely, and too freely, could be a life and death matter. “I Had a Little Nut Tree”, for instance, is speculated to be about the visit of Joanna of Castile to the court of Henry VII, though I happen to disagree with that 19th century assertion. “Little Boy Blue” is said to parody the life of Cardinal Wolsey. “Hey Diddle Diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle”, is thought to originate with Queen Elizabeth. The cat is Queen Elizabeth, who was known to greatly enjoy dancing to the fiddle at Whitehall Palace (throughout her reign). The moon is said to represent the Earl of Walsingham (who she skipped over, choosing to remain unmarried) and the dog was the Earl of Leicester (jeered in the poem as a laughing dog) because he “skulked at the Queen’s flirtatious behavior”, asking to leave the Court for France [Origins of Rhymes, Songs and Sayings, p. 157-159]. Nursery rhymes could be seen as related to the fable and apologue (being symbolic, metaphorical and archetypal in nature). The notion that Frost was the first to write metaphorically is not what I’d assert; but I think he was the first to make the poem the metaphor, as it were.

So, the next time you write or read a poem, these three categories might give you another way to approach it.

And that’s that.

up in Vermont: March 7 2015

On Robert Frost’s After Apple-Picking

      My long two pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
      Toward heaven still,
      And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
      Beside it, and there may be two or three
5     Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
      But I am done with apple-picking now.
      Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
      The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
      I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
10    I got from looking through a pane of glass
      I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
      And held against the world of hoary grass.
      It melted, and I let it fall and break.
      But I was well
15    Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
      And I could tell
      What form my dreaming was about to take.
      Magnified apples appear and disappear,
      Stem end and blossom end,
20    And every fleck of russet showing clear.
      My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
      It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
      I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
      And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
25    The rumbling sound
      Of load on load of apples coming in.
      For I have had too much
      Of apple-picking: I am overtired
      Of the great harvest I myself desired.
30    There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
      Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
      For all
      That struck the earth,
      No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
35    Went surely to the cider-apple heap
      As of no worth.
      One can see what will trouble
      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
      Or just some human sleep.
Frost reciting After Apple-Picking:

·

  • Interestingly, in Robert Frost’s reading (or memorization) of the poem, the line: “Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall…” is spoken as “Cherish in hand, let down, and not let fall.”

After Apple-Picking is one of Robert Frost’s great poems and among the greatest poems of the 20th century. The first thing I want to do is to revel in the structure and form of the poem. I’ve seen several references made to Rueben Brower’s analysis of the meter in this poem, and all the frostsources concur in calling Brower’s analysis a tour-de-force. I have not read Brower’s analysis and won’t until I’ve done my own. I love this sort of thing and don’t want my own observations being influenced. So, if there are any similarities, I encourage you to conclude that fools and great minds think alike. Here we go. First, T.S. Eliot:

“The most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. Is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse… We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.”

Eliot could have been describing Frosts’s After Apple-Picking (though he doesn’t say). Despite the appearance of free verse (which it is) Frost’s poetry moves toward and away from a regular meter, and into and out of rhyme, so that the arrhythmia of free verse  and the rhythm of meter co-exist and beautifully blend.

After Apple-Picking (Scansion)

  • Unmarked feet are iambic. Yellow is pyrrhic (which I will never learn to spell). Purple is spondaic. Red is trochaic. Green is an amphibrachic foot (called a feminine ending when closing the line).

Worth noting is that the poem is, allowing for the usual variant feet, as iambic (if not more so) than many of his more “regular poems”. The difference is in line length. The alternate lines are trimeter, dimeter and one monometrical line.  There are no alexandrines however. Frost seemed unwilling to extend the line beyond iambic pentameter. I listened to Frost’s own reading of the poem so that the scansion would more accurately reflect what he had in mind. Interesting to me is the fact that Frost, when he reads at least, prefers to emphasize the iambic lines. For instance, I was initially tempted to scan the following line as follows:

One can see |what will trouble

That’s two anapests, the second has a feminine ending. Frost, however, reads the first four syllables with an almost equal stress:

One can see what will trouble

This makes me more apt to scan the line as trimeter with two strong spondees:

One can |see what |will trouble

It may be reading too much into Frost’s performance (since he tends to emphasize the iambics in many of his poems) but the poems hard, driving iambics lend the poem an exhausted, relentless feel that well-suits the subject. There is no regular rhyme scheme, but there is a sort of elegant symmetry to the rhyming that’s easier to see with some color and some visual aids.

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme Scheme)

My own feeling is that one has to be careful when ascribing too much intentionality to the poet. How much of this rhyme scheme was the result of deliberate planning and how much arose naturally as the poem progressed? In other words, I grant that none of the rhymes are  accident, but I doubt that Frost sat down in advance to build his poem around a rhyme scheme. The poem has the feeling, especially given the shorter (almost opportunistic) line lengths, of a certain improvisation. When he needed to rhyme earth, he cut short a line (making it dimeter) to end up with “As of no worth”. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s coincidence that we find bough/now just after the start of the poem, and fall/all shortly before the poem finishes. In the middle, as though bracketed by these two couplets, is the triple rhyme well/fell/tell. The effect is to nicely divide the poem and give a certain symmetry.

The last element to include is the phrasing, something I haven’t done in other poems, but will try to elucidate in this one. Part of the art of poetry, too often overlooked, is the achievement of phrasing that, at its best, mimics human speech. We don’t tend to speak in one long sentence after another and we don’t favor an endless stream of short sentences (unless “dramatic” circumstances call for it). Not only was Frost keenly interested in the colloquial voice, but also understood the importance of phrasing, of the give and take of normal speech. A mistake that many beginning poets make, in their effort to so much as fit their ideas into the patterns of rhyme and meter, is to sacrifice a naturalness in their phrasing. A telltale feature of such writing is a poem dominated by end-stopped lines — syntax and phrasing that slavishly follows the line.After Apple-Picking (Phrasing)

So, what I’ve done is to color code what I perceive to be the rhetorical structure of the poem. I’m iffish on a couple details, but let’s get started. The fist five lines are a simple, declarative sentence. Frost (I’ll refer to the speaker as Frost) begins the poem with a scheme called the Italian Quatrain. This only means that the rhyme scheme follows an abba pattern one would find in Petrarchan sonnets. ( I don’t, for an instant, suggest that Frost was thinking to himself: I shall now write an “Italian Quatrain”.) I do mean to suggest that the quatrain has a certain closed feel to it. But the poem isn’t done and neither is the work of apple-picking. In the fifth line there are some apples “still upon some bough” and there is new rhyme, bough,  dangling like an unpicked apple.

Frost turns inward:

6  But I am done with apple-picking now.
   Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
   The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

The light green and “Dartmouth” green (couldn’t resist calling it that) signify the moments when Frost’s gaze turn inward. This happens four times in the poem.  Whereas the first five lines are comprised of syndetic clauses (clauses linked by the conjunctive and), the  second clause, the apple ladderturning inward from the orchard (which places the poem) to Frost’s exhaustion, is asyndetic. The first five lines, with their repeated and’s are the way we speak (and you’ll even notice it in children) when we want to express the idea of endlessness.  We might say: I have this and this and this and this to do. In a similar sense, Frost wants to communicate the endlessness of this chore. The first five lines are a rush of description.

When his gaze turns inward, to his own exhaustion, the lines become asyndetic. The fifth line, introducing a new rhyme, is complete in and of itself. The syntax, I think, mirrors Frost’s own exhaustion. The sentences are short. Clauses are no longer linked by conjunctions (they could be).

But I am done with apple-picking now.

By rights, one could pause after that line as though to catch one’s breath. The pause is reinforced when the line completes the rhyme of bough with now, as if Frost had picked the apple. In some ways, one could stop the poem here. The rhymes are complete. We have an Italian Quatrain followed by a concluding couplet. In a sense, the first six lines are the larger poem in miniature. “Essence of winter sleep,” not just the sleep of a night, already hints at a longer hibernation.  From there Frost sleepily stumbles onward and the rhymes, like unpicked apples, will draw him. The sentences become progressively shorter as though Frost’s ability to think and write were as curtailed as his wakefulness. The eighth line ends with the simple, declarative, “I am drowsing off.” There’s nothing poetic about such a line or statement; and that’s part of its beauty and memorableness.

  • An apple ladder is usually tapered, much narrower at the top than bottom. This makes pushing them up through the limbs much easier. Some are joined, like the ladder in the picture, while others are not. Frost’s ladder was “two pointed”, and so not joined at the top. The ladder going up to my daughter’s loft is an old apple ladder.

The next six lines, beginning with “Essence of winter sleep…” are another set of interlocking rhymes DEDFEF

7   Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
    The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
    I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
10  I got from looking through a pane of glass
    I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
    And held against the world of hoary grass.

The rhetorical course of the poem links lines 6-8 while the rhyme schemes of lines 1-6 and 7-12 are separate. There is an overlap between the subject matter (in green) and rhyme scheme (purple).

After Apple-Picking (Overlap)The overlap draws attention away from the rhyme scheme (at some level, I think, disorienting the reader). I know I’m flirting with Intention Fallacy, so I’ll try not to draw too many conclusions as to Frost’s intentions when writing a given rhyme scheme. However, whether he wrote these lines on purpose or instinctively, they produce a similar effect in this given poem. The poem’s rhetorical structure, which doesn’t always mirror the rhyme scheme, draws our attention away from the rhymes and may contribute to any number of the poem’s effect, including the feeling of exhaustion. At its simplest, the crosscurrents of rhetoric and rhyme, I think, help to create an organic feeling in the poem — the feeling that it’s not a series of stanzas knit together.

”Are you trying to tell me that I don’t know what I’m doing when I paint?” ”Well, not exactly . . . ,” I began. ”My God,” he roared, ”every time I put a brush to a canvas, I have an intention. And I damn well better know what it is, or else the painting ain’t gonna be any good.” He rolled his eyes. ”Intentional fallacy,” he muttered. Then with a weary sigh: ”What do these critics think art is? Monkeys dabbling? Art is nothing but decisions. Decisions, decisions, decisions.”

My response Ben Shahn’s outrage would be to point out that it’s all well and fine for the artist (or poet) to indignantly claim an intention behind every brush stroke, line break or stanza break. It’s another to expect the reader or critic to guess it right. This issue is what was behind the failure of Charles Hartman’s Free Verse, An Essay on Prosody. Hartman was essentially (in my opinion) trying to turn every line break into a prosody of free verse. The problem is that a prosody depends on the reader correctly guessing an author’s intention. Without that, all you’ve got is a game of Russian roulette called Intention Fallacy.

The rhyme scheme of DEDFEF forms a sexain, but Frost’s thoughts veer beyond it.

After Apple-Picking (Overlap-2)

Just as before, there is one line more than the rhyme can bear: “It melted, and I let it fall and break.” Once again, the analogy of the unpicked apple comes to mind. Is this the analogy Frost had in mind? To say so would be an Intention Fallacy, but I think the analogy works in the context of the poem. Anyway, we’re left with an unresolved rhyme.

But Frost has other matters to address. As if remembering the course of his poem after an aside (a wonderful and colloquial technique that appears in many of his poems – Birches) he seems to gather his resolve with three rhyming lines, short and quick.

   But I was well
15 Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
   And I could tell
   What form my dreaming was about to take.

Take resolves the hanging rhyme of break. For a moment, both the poem’s rhetorical course and the rhyme scheme meet. There is a moment of resolution before Frost’s dreaming overtakes the poem, and with it an interlocking set of rhymes that don’t find resolution until line 26.

 25 The rumbling sound
    Of load on load of apples coming in.

At this point, the poem will once again pivot. Here’s another image to help visualize what I’m describing.

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme & Rhetoric)

In terms of rhyme and rhetoric (in the sense of concluding thought and concluding rhyme) the poem could be divided into three parts. Until then, subject matter and rhyme overlap in a way that, to some extent, might subliminally propel the reader.

    Magnified apples appear and disappear,
    Stem end and blossom end,
 20 And every fleck of russet showing clear.
    My instep arch not only keeps the ache,

The word end like the stem end of an apple (or itself another unpicked apple) won’t find it’s blossom end until the next three lines that are (now this gets really cool) the only three lines where an identifiable rhyme scheme isn’t matched to subject matter. That’s to say, most of the other rhymes come in tercets and quatrains (look at the boxes surrounding them). It’s only in the weightless center of the poem where any sort of identifiable scheme more or less breaks down. There’s a kind weightlessness, right after the dreaming and at the center of the poem, seems almost meant to imitate the dreaming exhaustion of the poem itself. I would love to think he did this on purpose.

  • I’ve suggested that other poems by Frost can be understood, beneath their surface, as extended metaphors for the writing process. Some others are much more transparently about writing (as much as saying so), so I don’t think such speculation is without merit (though I realize I could be accused of playing the same ace of spades with each hand).  After Apple-Picking could easily be read as analogous to the writing process itself — apples being understood as poems. Frost, by this point in his career, may have been feeling like writing poetry was like picking apples. While Frost didn’t think much of Yeats’s description of writing as “all sweat and chewing pencils” he also stated that after getting paid for the first poem he found he couldn’t write one a day for an easy living: “It didn’t work out that way”. Poems were like apples, it turned out. One couldn’t just shake the tree and let them fall. Doing that would leave them “bruised or spiked with stubble”, which is another way, perhaps, of saying that the hurried poem would be the flawed poem. They had to be cherished. Writing the poem, imagining its landscape of imagery, perhaps was like looking through “a pane of glass… skimmed… from the drinking trough/And held against the world of hoary grass.” Looking at the world through a poem is, perhaps, a bit like looking at the world through ice, a distortion that is both familiar and strange.
21 My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
   It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
   I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

Ache remembers the rhyme of break and take, but is far removed and seems more like a reminder than part of any rhyme scheme. Round is new, and sends the ear forward with the expectation of a rhyme.  Bend turns the ear back, remembering end (is far removed as ache from take). The poem “sways”, in its center, like the ladder. The reader is never given the opportunity to truly settle in with any kind of expectation, but like the speaker of the poem, is drawn forward in search of a rhyme’s “blossom end” and, with the next line, is drawn back to a different rhyme’s “stem end”. Rhymes are magnified, appear, then disappear.

  • Notice too how Frost divides the central portion of the poem into three of our five (or seven) senses.
       SIGHT
 What form my dreaming was about to take.
 Magnified apples appear and disappear,
 Stem end and blossom end,
 And every fleck of russet showing clear.

       TOUCH/SENSATION/KINESTHETIC

 My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
 It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
 I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

       SOUND

 And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
 The rumbling sound
 Of load on load of apples coming in.

Earlier, Frost touched on the sense of smell with the “scent of apples”. The point here is that part of what makes this poem so powerful are the concrete images and the evocation of our senses. Don’t ever forget this in your own poetry. I know I’ve written it before, but it bears repeating: remember each of your senses when you are writing poetry. Don’t just focus on sight (which the vast majority of poets do) but think about sound, smell, touch, movement, texture, etc… Notice too, how Frost turns the ordinary into some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. There are no similes to interrupt the narrative. There are no overdrawn metaphors. Frost makes poetry by simply describing and evoking the every day; and doing so in ordinary speech. The rhyme scheme knits the poem together in an organic whole. Think how much less impressive the poem would be if it were simply free verse, free verse as it’s written by the vast majority of contemporary poets.

Notice Frost’s thought-process. He muses over “what form” his dreams will take, then expands on it (in yellow). He mentioens the ache of his instep arch, then expands on that (in lavender), then describes what he hears from the cellar bin (in purple). It’s a nice way of writing that reminds me of the rhetorical figure Prolepsis (or Propositio) in Shakespeare’s To be or not to be….

With coming in we arrive at the third portion of the poem.

      For I have had too much
      Of apple-picking: I am overtired
      Of the great harvest I myself desired.
30    There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
      Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
      For all
--
      That struck the earth,
      No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
35    Went surely to the cider-apple heap
      As of no worth.
      One can see what will trouble
--
      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
--
      Or just some human sleep.

Frost turns inward again.The phrase, “I am overtired…” reminds us of his previous declarative statement “I am drowsing off”, inviting a sense of symmetry and closure. This time, though, Frost won’t digress. He is overtired of the great harvest. He will plainly say what exhausts him and why. The rhyming couplet fall/all adds to the sense of symmetry, hearkening back to the couplet bough/now. In both subject matter and form, Frost is recollecting himself. Again, it’s a similar structure to Birches — an assertion, a digression, and a concluding restatement of the original assertion.

aerusset

…every fleck of russet showing clear.

The closing rhyme scheme of lines 33-41 is essentially comprised of two Sicilian Quatrains, the same that characterize the Shakespearean sonnet. However, the first Quatrain is interrupted by heap. You can see it above in the overall rhyme scheme (at the beginning of the post), but also directly above. It’s as if the poem is coming out of a sort of fever, a confusion of consciousness, and back to order. The rhyme heap/sleep might have been the concluding couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet, but that kind of epigrammatic finality would have been out of place in a narrative poem like this. Instead, the word heap slips into the first quatrain, another new sound, and the ear perhaps subliminally or subconsciously looks for the rhyme, but it doesn’t come. We finish the first of the two quatrains without it.

With the second quatrain of this third section:

      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,

The speaker seems almost recovered from the confused reverie of the poem and once again the poem’s beautiful symmetry is upheld. The poem begins with a Sicilian quatrain and all but closes with a Sicilian quatrain. But there is still one loose-end, one apple that has not been picked. Frost metaphorically picks it in the last line.

Or just some human sleep.

It’s a beautiful moment. The line is short and simple. It’s shortness may remind the reader of the speaker’s own weariness. He doesn’t have it in him to compose a fully Iambic Pentameter line. His sleep may just be some human sleep, and nothing more.

  • Frost asks whether his sleep will be like that of the woodchuck’s. The comparison seems almost like a moment of levity after so much profundity. Some critics throw all their weight into these last 5 lines. Because sleep is repeated several time, Conder (as is the habit with some critics I have noticed), take this to mean that “sleep” must be central to the poem’s meaning and that all other considerations are mere trivialities. As example, consider John J. Conder’s analysis of After Apple-Picking. There, you can also find a collection of other essays on the poem.  Personally, Conder’s analysis makes my eyes badly cross. Almost every sentence seems like a Gordian Knot. Here’s an example:
But if the speaker’s dream and sleep exist in life, then to assert that, after his labors, the speaker “is now looking not into the world of effort but the world of dream, of the renewal,” is to oversimplify the poem. This view identifies the dream (interpreted as pleasurable) with the sleep (seen as a time for contemplation as well as renewal) and in the process limits both. Such a reading qualifies the word “trouble” into insignificance (to be troubled by a lovely dream is to be superior to the woodchuck, who cannot dream) and oversimplifies the speaker’s attitude toward his experience. Given the feats of association that he makes, given the fact that he speaks in contraries, the speaker’s attitude toward his sleep is far more complicated than at first seems clear, and his trouble far more real than might be supposed.
·
And here is Conder’s entire essay much simplified:
Conder AnalysisAnd now you don’t have to read the essay. (You can thank me by e-mail.) You’d think the poem should have been called: Before Going to Sleep.  My point, besides having a little fun at Conder’s expense, is to argue that it’s possible to read too much into Frost’s comparison of his sleepiness to that of the woodchuck’s. My own feeling is that he’s not suggesting a sweeping metaphor of man, sleep and nature, but that the analogy is what it is. He’s overtired. He’s almost feverish with exhaustion and speculates that the only sleep to recover from that kind of weariness (the weariness of a whole season of apple growing) might be a whole season of sleeping – the hibernating sleep of a woodchuck. It’s an earthy, slightly sardonic, reference in keeping with the colloquial tone of the poem.
·
I also resist the temptation to draw comparisons between apple-picking and the apple in the Garden of Eden. I won’t go so far as to say that close-readers who suggest this allusion are wrong, but where do we honestly draw the line? Is every single mention of an apple, in every work of literature, an allusion to Genesis? Really? Really? That just feels facile to me. In truth, the myth of the Garden of Eden could be suggested as “alluded to” in a disturbingly large portion of literature. But so be it. I’m not going to go there (if only to be contrary). There’s not one quote from Frost, that I’m aware of, that suggests any of these readers are correct, so just keep that in mind when making comparisons to Genesis.
·
Lastly, there’s no doubt that Frost delighted in the close readings his poems were subjected to (what poet wouldn’t be flattered), but we also know that he expressed more than a little frustration and exasperation. The usual defense (which I get a little tired of) is that Frost was a dark, disturbed, calculating and suicidal man. Ever since Lionel Trilling described Frost as a “terrifying poet”, critics (William Logan among others) have taken that as open season. There’s always the urge to look for the “darkness” in his poems. There is undoubtedly much darkness in Frost (as there is in all of us) but I think this too must be treated with moderation. It’s possible that a reference to a woodchuck is just  that — an old New Englander’s sardonic reference to a woodchuck — not the sleep of man-out-of-nature, nature-out-of-man, or the sleep of death.
·
In her (strongly to be recommended) book, Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind his New English Poetry, author Lea Newman has this to say:
·
“The reference to the woodchuck and his long sleep in the concluding lines of the poem has confused many readers. Frost probably found the idea of comparing humans to woodchucks in Emerson’s essay “Nature,” where readers are told, “let us be men instead of woodchucks.” A discussion of hibernation in another Emerson essay, “Fate,” may have been the source for the term “the long sleep”. In terms of the dream-ridden and exhausted speaker state of the speaker in Frost’s poem, he could be seeking the dreamless sleep of an animal or the month-long sleep of hibernation.”
·
My point is that you are free to interpret the poem how you will. No one but Frost knows what Frost meant.

WB Yeats ❧ Sailing to Byzantium

  • Updated Nov 8, 2010
  • Updated Dec 2, 2010
  • Updated January 22 2012 TYPO. Changed  “command all summer long” to “commend all summer long”
  • Updated September 29 2013 Updated definition of pern or perne.
  • Updated October 1 2013

I

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
— Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

II

MS of Sailing to Byzantium

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

III

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

IV

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

[Sometime later today I’ll try my hand at reading this poem.]

Two Minds

I’m of two minds when it comes to Yeats. On the one hand, he’s an indisputably great poet, on the other, the universality of his greatness is, in my opinion, sometimes mitigated by his arcane and idiosyncratic spiritual beliefs. There was a time when I tried to grasp them but, frankly, I  find them arcane and unrewarding. Most critics, in my experience, more or less throw up their hands (gloss over) Yeats’ specific beliefs – as, for example, their explanations of Yeat’s gyres. I haven’t found any online resources that makes the subject interesting or straightforwardly comprehensible. The spiritual subject matter of  A Vision, Yeats’ collection of essays on “philosophical, historical, astrological, and poetic topics” (which deeply informed his later and greatest poems) bores me silly. If you want to know what, specifically, Yeats might have been thinking when he wrote his late poems, you can try YeatsVision.Com. However, my opinion is similar to that of John Unterecker’s who wrote in his Readers Guide to W.B. Yeats:

Though almost everything Yeats wrote after 1922 and a good deal that he wrote before that date is linked to A Vision, one can read the poems without knowing the system. “Leda and the Swan” makes a different kind of sense if one sees it as a poem that examines the beginnings of the cycle that preceded ours. Seen in this light it becomes a neat companion poem to “The Second Coming,” which examines the genesis of the cycle that will follow ours. But both it and “The Second Coming” can stand by themselves. [p. 29]

How they “stand by themselves” is how I read them. Would it be interesting to know what Yeats had in mind (when writing this or that poem) as it relates to his philosophy and spirituality? Possibly. Would it be meaningful to the reader? Possibly not.

The First Stanza: Scansion

sailing-to-byzantium-first-stanza

The Form: First to be mentioned: All unmarked feet are Iambic. If these terms, or the terms that follow are unfamiliar to you, check out the post Iambic Pentameter: The Basics. The meter of the poem is Iambic Pentameter. The stanza, based on the rhyme scheme ABABABCC, is called ottava rima. The effect of the rhyme scheme is similar to that which closes the quatrain and couplet of a Shakespearean Sonnet. Interestingly, Yeasts uses the form to the same effect as the closing sestet of the Shakespearean Sonnet.. The first six lines set forth an argument and the closing heroic couplet arrives with an epigrammatic summation:

Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

It’s a very Elizabethan way of writing poetry and connects Yeats’ poetic thought with a much older tradition. It’s also interesting that Yeats is more conservative with this poem, metrically speaking.  By choosing ottava rima and a more conservative technique, Yeats may have wanted to concentrate the power and effectiveness of the poem’s argument through its meter and rhyme. Whether the rhymes are half rhymes or full rhymes doesn’t matter so much. Perhaps (in Yeats’ Irish accent) young and song were a much closer rhyme. Yeats’ style of reading was affected, to say the least. (For a taste, check out my post on Long Legged Fly. You will find a recording of him reciting The Lake Isle of Innesfree.) It could also be that Yeats was perfectly content with off- and  half-rhymes.

What’s it about?

The first thing to be said about Sailing to Byzantium is that it is considered one of Yeats’ greatest poems (and one of the greatest poems of the English language). The second is that few can agree on what Yeats meant by the poem. The poem can seem self-contradictory and many readers would not share Yeats’ desire (if we take him literally) to end up on an emperor’s night stand as a prophetically squawking parrot (bird), be it ever so golden and finely wrought. Reductio ad absurdum, I admit, but this is the symbolism with which Yeats glorifies his vision of the afterlife.

Yeats did not age gracefully. It seems that he idolized youth (and youthful beauty). The older he became, the more bitter he was — possibly aggravated by his marriage, at the age of 51, to Georgie Hyde-Lees, then 24 (Yeats may have suffered  from impotence). In the 1930’s Yeats was asked, on visiting a brothel, what the experience was like. He replied, ““It was terrible, like putting an oyster into a slot machine!”  But even if impotence was at the root of Yeats disgust with aging , he put his despair to the service of a larger spiritual argument.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
— Those dying generations — at their song,

The poem starts as though in mid-conversation, as though Yeats were in the midst of an argument. No! he says. No, that is no country for old men. The initial trochee effectively emphasizes the vehemence of his refutation. Other close readers will tell you that “that country” is Ireland (Yeats originally wrote this instead of that.) But it doesn’t matter except to those interested in Yeats’ biography. That is, he could have written Ireland but in choosing not to he deliberately left the matter to the reader. So forget I mentioned it and forget anyone else mentioned it. Yeats could be talking about your country. His descriptions are universal.

Birds in the trees” probably stems from the age-old proverb concerning birds and bees – though birds in the trees are also usually associated with spring and fecundity. What’s curious, however, is that Yeats then labels these very symbols of renewal and rebirth those dying generations. On the face of it, the appellation makes little sense. Is the emotion expressed due to bitterness and envy?

The most thorough analysis of this poem (that I know of) is by Helen Vendler, found in her book Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. She remarks that the comment is that of an impotent man, she calls the phrase “a sour note”. Possibly, but one needn’t be impotent or bitter to observe that the phrase is also true. The seemingly eternal youth celebrated “in one another’s arms” and by the “birds in the trees”  is only an illusion. In the very act of  pro-creativity are the seeds of decay and death. Vendler writes:

Frustrated by not being able to join in the secular choir of the pastoral “country” of the young, he has fled to the “holy city” of Byzantium (concealing his desperation by rendering his progress in stately and orotund iambics…” [p. 31]

That’s certainly one way to interpret the opening stanza (and not without reason). The interpretation threatens to reduce the entirety of the poem to the bitter sandbox-tantrum of an old man. If I can’t play then I’m going to Byzantum! So there! That said, I don’t get the sense (from the poem at least) that Yeats, if offered the opportunity, would return to the sensual abandonment of youthful flesh (which is what Vendler seems to suggest).

“salmon-falls…”

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

The description of salmon and “mackerel-crowded seas” extends the imagery of life, fecundity and fertility. This is the world of “flesh”, of whatever “is begotten, born and dies”. This world, caught in the sensual music of procreation (read sex), will  care little and have little time for “monuments of unaging intellect”, be they literally monuments or, more figuratively, art, music or poetry. And yet…  isn’t that exactly where  poetry and music are most appealing? –  within the realms of passion and love? Vendler takes Yeats’ assertion at face value. Me? I’m not so sure. If, by monuments of unaging intellect, Yeats’ is figuratively referring to art, poetry or music, then (by implication) Yeats considers art (in all its forms) to be dry and lacking sensuality. In other words, it’s not something those generations”at their song” will heed (which makes one wonder what, exactly, Yeats thinks art, poetry or music are good for). Maybe Yeats means something else by “monuments of unaging intellect”? If so, then the phrase sounds dismissive if not outright contemptuous. Monuments aren’t normally meant to appeal to our sensual senses (no matter what their subject matter) and monuments of unaging intellect don’t sound fun at all.

  • The image at the upper right is of Atlantic Salmon. Every year they return from the ocean, swimming upstream to spawn (breed). They make a powerful image and represent nothing if not a “dying generation”. Not long after spawning (some Salmon climb over 7,000 feet, from sea level, to spawn) they will die – never returning to the ocean.)

“mackerel-crowded seas…”

The poem already begins to feel laden with contradiction.

If one reads Yeats’ references to youth as betraying bitterness (read envy), then he seems equally contemptuous of the alternative. In other words, why use the word monument? Among the meanings of monument are burial vault. Monuments don’t age because they are often associated with death.

The Second Stanza: Scansion

A modern (or inexperienced) reader might be tempted to read “aged” as a monosyllabic word. The meter, however, strongly favors a disyllabic reading: agèd. The blue in the final line indicates an anapestic foot – not unusual in Yeats’ practice, but the first in this poem. Notice the effect of the spondaic foot Soul clap. It’s a nice effect and typical of poets able to unite meaning and meter.

What’s it about?

Yeats separates each stanza with a Roman numeral. Why not simply publish the poem without them (separating each of the stanzas with a space instead)? Perhaps we’re not meant to read the poem as a continuous narrative but  as four (sort of) separate poems – different treatments on a common theme. (This is Vendler’s argument.) Nevertheless, the second stanza seems to proceed directly from the first. Having described “that country”, the second stanza describes “old men”.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick…

What does paltry mean? It means “not worth considering” or “contemptibly small in amount”. Since the old man is being compared to the young (who Yeats describes on the basis of their “sensual music” – their pro-creative song)  the implication is that an old man is paltry because he can no longer pro-create – he cannot partake in the “song” of the young. Since an old man may impregnate a young woman as effectively as a young man, impotence is again implied. If Yeats’ judges the value of a man to be a measure of his virility, then an impotent old man would indeed be a paltry thing. He would be a tattered coat upon a stick – the implication being that sticks are barren. (Having been cut or broken from the sap, no stick will leaf, blossom or fruit.) This is the usual way to read the opening of the poem – Yeats feels cast off, useless and paltry because of his age.

Who wouldn’t want to be young again? (Such is the assumed question behind many interpretations.) But maybe Yeats is who. In this sense, an old man is only a paltry thing if he attempts to remain in “that” country – the country of youthful lovers. In this way, the argumentative sound of the poem’s opening isn’t so much bitter as dismissive. Dismissive of the very assertion many interpreters bestow on Yeats.

In other words, try to imagine what Yeats might be responding to. Someone could have said to him: Just because you’re an old man doesn’t mean you can’t love as passionately as the young. ‘Hardly!’ says the imagined Yeats. ‘That is no country for old men and no country for me. Such an old man could only be a tattered coat upon a stick.’

….unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;

The song of the first stanza is illusory – the false song of a dying generation who is too “caught in the sensual music” of its love-making to recognize the ephemeral vanity of its sensual music. The song of the aged man should be the song of the soul. The song of the soul is unique to each soul. Hence, there is no “singing school”. In other words, Yeats’ assertion is a refutation of religion, religion being a “singing school”. (Part of Yeats’ spiritual belief was the notion that there is no single truth or spiritual truth. The soul must create its own truth.)

…the guiding principle unifying Yeat’s spirituality is “the philosophia perennis” which “in all its branches holds that not matter but mind — consciousness — is the ground of reality as we experience it… [Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies, Volume XIII, 1995, Volume 13 by Richard J. Finneran p. 69]

In the world of what is begotten, born and dies, the old man can only be a tattered coat upon a stick. Let the old man rightly turn his intellect to “unaging intellect” (the work of eternity later symbolized in the artifice of Byzantium) and he will be transfigured.  The soul must study monuments of its own magnificence. This  modifies the “monuments of unaging intellect” from the previous stanza. The appellation magnificent adds a little more burnish to monument. What are the monuments of its own magnificence? This is less clear but will be suggested by Yeats’ vision of Byzantium – it’s culture, art and literature. The soul’s monuments to its own magnificence are the products of its intellect and artistic creativity. It’s a creativity of a different kind. In Yeats’ mind, it’s eternal, not like the dying procreativity of flesh.

In A Vision, Yeats describes the appeal of Byzantium:

I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I cold find some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even, for the pride of his delicate skill would make what was an instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body.

I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers — though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract — spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books. were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people. They could copy out of old Gospel books those pictures that seemed as sacred as the text, and yet weave all into a vast design, the work of many that seemed the work of one, that made building, picture, patterns, metal-work of rail and lamp, seem but a single image…

What’s most important in this description is his phrase “show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body”. This will be important when judging the final image of Sailing to Byzantium. Yeats was to further write of Sailing to Byzantium that “When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells and making the jewel-led croziers in the national museum Byzantium was the center of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy. I symbolized a search for spiritual life by a journey to that city.” This isn’t bitterness but a desire for a different kind of passion.

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

No longer capable of (or responsive to) the “sensual music” of the world (partaking in its song), he sails to Byzantium for a new kind of life and revelation.

The Third Stanza: Scansion

  • The following is only for the connoisseurs of metrical poetry:

The scansion of the third stanza reveals a 20th century poet writing traditional meter. No poet prior to the 2oth century would have written the second line of the stanza or the sixth line the way Yeats wrote them.

Although I scanned the second line as follows:

As in |the gold| mosa|ic of |a wall,

I only did so because Yeats was probably giving a nod to metrical regularity. One could read mosaic as a trisyllabic word and Yeats possibly did, but most readers (including myself) pronounce it as a  disyllabic word. That would make the line scan as follows:

As in |the gold| mosaic |of a wall

This makes the line Iambic Tatremater rather than Iambic Pentameter (four feet instead of five) and makes the final foot anapestic. This would make the line a variant line and is well within Yeats’ practice, but since mosaic can be pronounced as a three syllable word I’ve opted to scan it as an Iambic Pentameter line (given that Yeats has been fairly conservative in his other lines).

The sixth line:

And fast|ened to |a dy|ing an|imal

Would have been censured by readers and critiques prior to the 20th century. Few poets would have dared end an Iambic Pentameter line with a pyrrhic foot. It would have been considered inept and amateurish. In all of Milton’s Paradise (several thousand lines) there is not a single example (though some “scholars” have failed to take into account the changing pronunciation of words).

What’s it about?

Procession of saints: mosaic in the Basilica of San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall…

In the first stanza, Yeats defines the country which has rejected him (or he, it) and in the second stanza, Yeats describes the old man (himself or his art). In the third stanza he moves the reader to a new stage – Byzantium. Although he doesn’t tell us specifically, the reader can safely assume that he is standing before a mosaic. Helen Vendler suggests that Yeats drew his inspiration for this passage from mosaics he saw in Ravenna. The iconography of the gold background is meant to suggest God’s holy fire – a symbol of eternity.

Interestingly, and because so much of Vendler’s interpretation is predicated on Yeats’ sexual impotence (which is reasonably suspected but not a certainty) she goes on to make the following observation:

Yeats’ vision of joining the company of the sages is what we might call, in the larger Freudian sense, a homosocial and sublimated resolution to the speaker’s exclusion–by reason of impotence–from the country of heterosexual intercourse. There are no women in the heaven of sages. There is no time in the fiery eternity symbolized by the gold background of the mosaic. [Our Secret Discipline p. 34]

This is a curious assertion given the mosaic on Sant’Apollinare Nuoba’s North Wall.

The bottom row portrays a procession of female Saints. That’s right, women. Clearly, the Byzantine artists beg to differ. There are women in the “heaven of sages”.  Vendler got it wrong. The clerestory (middle row) depicts the prophets which, presumably, Yeats referred to as “sages”. Vendler’s reference to Yeats’ imagery as homosocial  leads me to think she’s much too wedded to the notion of impotence in Yeats’ poem. (Not everything in the poem need be read through the lens of impotence.) At worst, her reading threatens to somewhat diminish the sublimity of the poem – it goes from being the expression of spiritual desire to a reactionary and bitter rant.

However, what nevertheless remains true is that there will be no sex in Yeats’ heaven.

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Yeats’ plea is not for a restoration of his potency, just the opposite. If read literally, he wants to be liberated from the “sickness of desire”. He seeks liberation from the desires of flesh – “consume me heart away”. Liberate him from the dying animal (a phrase that hearkens back to the “dying generations” of the first stanza. Refine him. Let the sages be the singing-masters of his soul. Figuratively, the stanza bespeaks his readiness to turn from the song/poetry of flesh to the song/poetry of the soul – to the clarity of the soul’s intellect.

Perne in a gyre…

The phrase “perne in a gyre” is frequently “explained” but never convincingly.

Sept. 29 2013: Yeats’ own comment on the word pern was recently brought to my attention by an attentive reader. The Norton Critical Edition includes passages from Per Amica Silentia Lunae. In Part XXI of Anima Mundi (a part of Amica Silentia Lunae) begins (by Yeats):

“When I remember that Shelley calls our minds “mirrors of the fire for which all thirst,” I cannot but ask the question all have asked, “What or who has cracked the mirror?” I begin to study the only self that  I can know, myself, and to wind the thread upon the perne again.”

In the footnote to this passage, The Norton Critical Edition makes the following comment:

“Yeats recalled being told as a child that pern “was another name for the spool, as I was accustomed to call it, on which thread was wound.”

And here’s the full quote (from a different book):

“When I was a child at Sligo I could see above my grandfather’s trees a little column of smoke from “the pern mill,” and was told that “pern” was another name for the spool, as I was accustomed to call it, on which thread was wound. One could not see the chimney for the trees, and the smoke looked as if it came from the mountain, and one day a foreign see-captain asked me if that was a burning mountain. — 1919″ [Later Poems]

I wish that Norton (and other sources for that matter) had included this helpful footnote with the poem (page 80) rather than footnoting an essay that maybe three people will read (page 289).

‘Case closed’ say you? Well, here’s the same quote from four other sources:

“What or who has cracked the mirror?” I begin to study the only self that  I can know, myself, and to wind the thread upon the pern again.”

What do these sources all have in common? They all quote Yeats with the spelling pern, not perne — the latter being the spelling of the Norton “Critical” (air quotes) edition. Since I trust the Norton Critical Edition about as far as I can throw its editor, James Pethica, I’m thinking that Norton got the quote wrong. Interestingly, in Norton’s footnote, they quote Yeats as spelling it pern. So, where does this leave us? Read on.

In the poem, the “Shepherd and the Goatherd”, you will find the following lines:

Jaunting, journeying
to his own dayspring,
He unpacks his loaded pern
Of all ’twas pain or joy to learn,
Of all that he had made.

The idea here is of unwinding a spool. Here though, the spelling is also different: pern instead of perne and it’s not clear, in Byzantium, that Yeats is using the word in the same sense.

Caveat Empor: I remain baffled by why this quote from Yeats doesn’t footnote a poem like Byzantium in more collections of poetry and in a book like The Norton Critical Edition (whose editions I don’t hold in high esteem). Why does John Unterecker, author of A Reader’s Guide to Yeats (see immediately below) not even mention this quote as a possible explanation? My best guess is that Yeats spells the word differently in Byzantium than in Shepherd and the Goatherd, his explanatory note, and his essay (according to sources other than Norton), and perhaps this makes scholars think that Yeats intended a different meaning (or an altogether different word). So, I haven’t entirely removed the portion below, much of it may still pertain. Once again, you the reader now know as much as I do (and hopefully a little more).

Vendler writes that “a ‘perne’ is a cone-shaped bobbin”. Really? Says who? She doesn’t tell us. In truth, her off-the-cuff explanation is so uncharacteristically perfunctory (for a “close reader” who never misses a chance to extenuate) that I don’t think she knows. She probably isn’t sure of its meaning and so doesn’t spend any time on it.

Perne could also refer to a pern, another name for a honey-buzzard. This would make considerable, thematic sense. Yeats repeats themes, words and ideas throughout the poem, especially as regards birds and song. Also, consider the opening lines to Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The imagery of the falcon in the gyre isn’t far removed from the imagery of a pern in a gyre. Could Yeats have misspelled pern (spelling it perne)? If one thinks of the pern as a bird of prey, then Yeats’ might be comparing the sages to birds of prey. He is inviting them to descend in an ever-more focused, fiery gyre until they find and consume his heart, the heart of a dying animal. (The idea of the gyre is doubtless a reference to Yeats’ spiritual beliefs concerning the cyclic nature of human evolution – to which he devoted an entire book, A Vision. Feel free to read it.)

On the other hand, here’s another interpretation from the following site:

The phrase “perne in a gyre” refers to a spinning wheel such as those Yeats would have seen during his youth in Sligo. Yeats is referring to the movement of thread through bobbin and spool, a movement that is so fast that it is imperceptible to the naked eye. The point that Yeats is highlighting is that each individual strand of thread is submerged by speed into one continuous piece, similarly each successive human life is a mirror image of a previous one, but that taken together there is a continuation, a permanence.

This is a fabulously compelling interpretation. It sounds knowledgeable. It’s poetic. I love it. I want to believe it. (I notice that this interpretive nugget has been copied and pasted throughout the web.) But, thematically, it doesn’t fit. Logically, it doesn’t make sense. If the interpretation implies reincarnation, “successive human life”, then this is emphatically not what Yeats is proposing in Sailing to Byzantium or, for that matter,  in the later, companion poem Byzantium. If the interpretation is not a reference to reincarnation but, simply, successive human lives, then what do these successive lives have to do with the sages? They live in eternity (in the holy fire). “Come from the holy fire,” writes Yeats, and “perne in a gyre”. Why would he compare the sages (coming from eternity) to the movement of thread through bobbin and spool if, as the author suggests, the imagery is meant to suggest temporal and successive human life?

And if perne is another name for a spinning wheel (like the kind Yeats would have seen in Sligo) why would he write (in effect):  come like a ‘”spinning wheel” in a gyre’? Images of the tornado in the Wizard of Oz spring to mind – a house, a witch and a spinning wheel. It would make more sense if perne referred to the yarn.  At least to me, the author’s analogy falls apart. Lastly, the author doesn’t give us any reason to believe him (or her). A perne is a “spinning wheel”? Says who? Where are the author’s footnotes? What about Vendler? She thinks its a bobbin. Clearly, the two of them don’t agree on what it is.

And did you read to the bottom of the Wikipedia article on Honey Buzzards? As of Nov 6, 2010, you will find the following:

An alternate name for the bird is the pern[1]. It has been argued by some (e.g., Smith[2] or [3]) that the lines “perne in a gyre” in William Butler Yeats poem Sailing to Byzantium have an alternate reading as referring to the circling flight of a honey buzzard. This conjecture is not supported by the Oxford English Dictionary which treats perne as a verb meaning “to spin”.[4]

Really? Here are the notes:

  1. ^Pern, Oxford English Dictionary
  2. ^ Stan Smith, W. B. Yeats, a Critical Introduction, Chapter 3.9, “The Gyres”, p. 205, Palgrave Macmillan, 1990; ISBN 033348066X
  3. ^[1]
  4. ^OED Online, s.v. pern, v. http://dictionary.oed.com/ Accessed 21 Oct 2008

As it happens, I own the Oxford English Dictionary and I’m not seeing it. What’s not supported is the word perne itself (let alone a definition). It doesn’t appear in the dictionary. Not only that, but there’s no reference to pern or perne as a verb meaning to spin. The word pern, as a reference to honey-buzzards, is in the OED. The Wikpideia footnote is either a complete fabrication or the  online edition of the OED is different than the hard copy. But you can verify this for yourself. There are editions of the OED available at Google Books. I searched through two different editions and they also don’t contain the word perne.

  • I can’t find the word perne in any dictionary.

Nevertheless, let’s say one accepts Wikipedia’s claim, then we now have a third definition of perne. 1.) It’s a cone-shaped bobbin (Vendler). 2.) It’s a spinning wheel (author unknown). 3.) It’s a verb meaning to spin,  which makes Yeats’ phrase clumsily tautological: spin in a spin.

Odd. A word with so many meanings and no dictionary knows about it…

Can all the definitions be right? Possibly. But I get the feeling each scholar is repeating variations on the same urban myth (each of them having heard it from each other). None of the scholars tell us where their information comes from and that, to me, doesn’t do them any favors.

For the record, John Unterecker, author of the aforementioned Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats, casts his lot with those who (like myself) think Yeats’ perne is actually a pern – a honey-buzzard.

There, flame-wrapped sages can (bird metaphor only modestly disguised) like immortal phoenixes rise from their holy fire, “pern in a gyre,” and — “singing masters” — consume his heart away as, returning to the fire, they gather him into “the artifice of eternity.” [p. 173]

But you be the judge.

If you’re Irish and you know what a perne is (and you know what Yeats meant) explain it to the rest of us and e-mail us a picture of a perne. (I’ll forward it to the editors of the OED for inspection.)

Update: I may have gotten to the root of the matter. This is from The composite voice: the role of W.B. Yeats in James Merrill’s poetry by Mark Bauer. Bauer writes:

Yeats likely chose the variant spelling “perne” for “pirn” to allow the allusion to a kind of hawk as well as the winding motion as of thread into a spool (or “pirn”), but the meaning that Kimon Friar emphasizes in his notes to this poem… is “to change” — “after Dr. Perne, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1554-8-, who changed his opinions adroitly” (Modern Poetry 555)… [p. 217]

We can now add a third possible meaning to perne (which would be spelled correctly). Here are the relevant definitions from the OED.

§

Pirn: Now Sc. and dial. Forms: 5-6 pirne, pyrne, 8 pyrn, 6 – pirn, (9 dial. pirm) 1.) A small cylinder on which thread or yarn is wound, formerly made of a hollow reed or quill, but now usually of turned wood or iron, with axial bore for mounting on a spindle when winding; a waever’s  bobbin, spool, or reel. [Several examples of usage are given, all with an –i rather than –e. 2.) transf. The yarn wound upon the pirn (ready for the shuttle); also, as much as a pirn holds, a pirnful. ? Obs. rare. 3.) Any device or machine resembling a reel, or used for winding; esp. a fishing-reel. 4.) An unevenness or ‘cockle’ in the surface of a piece of cloth, caused by difference in the yarn composing it. Obs. rare. 5.) attrib. and Comb., as pirn-winder, -winding; pirn-cage (see quot.) ; pirn-cap, a wooden bowl used by weavers to hold their quills (Jamieson); pirn-girnel, a box for holding pirns while they are being filled; pirn house, a weaving shed; pirn-stick, a wooden stick or spindle on which the quill (pirn) is placed while the yarn put on it in spinning is reeled off; pirn-wheel, a wheel for winding thread on bobbins; pirn-wife, a woman who fills pirns with yarn.

Pirn: sb. 3 dial. Also purn. A twitch for horses.

Pirn: Found only in ps. pple. and ps. ppl. adj. . Pirned interwoven with threads of different colors; striped; brocaded.

And here are the definitions for pern:

Pern: sb. [ad. mod. l. pernis (Cuvier 1817), an erroneous adaptation of Gr. (…) A bird of the genus Pernis; the Honey-Buzzard.

Pern: Also 6 Pearn. trans. To deal with after the manner of Dr. Perne. Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1554-80, who changed his opinions adroitly; to change (a profession, creed, etc.) for some ulterior end.

§

Now you know as much as I do and as much as the next scholar.

First, we know the following: Vendler engaged in some truthiness. A perne is not a cone-shaped bobbin. That’s what a pirn is (and even then there’s no mention that it need be “cone-shaped”). She neglected to mention that the two words are spelled quite differently and didn’t offer us a reason as to why we should adopt pirn as Yeats’ intended meaning. I can see substituting an -i for an -e, but what about the extra -e?

Second, we know that the unknown author who told us that a perne is a ‘spinning wheel’ was wrong. Interestingly, my speculation that his interpretation would have made more sense if ‘perne’ actually referred to yarn turns out to have been prescient. According to OED, one of the meanings of pirn is yarn (see above).

Third, the Wikipedia article which states that ‘perne‘ means to spin isn’t reflected by my hard copy of the OED.

The question remains, why pirn? Why are so many scholars married to the idea that perne might have been a mispelling for pirn.

I don’t have an answer. In fact, their interpretation seems arbitrary (or wishful thinking) but maybe more information will turn up? Why not a twitch for a horse? As it is, Yeats’ spelling is closer to pern than to pirn. The possibility that Yeats was referring to a hawk seems more likely both in its spelling and thematically.  Lastly, the only appearance of perne, with the extra -e, is in reference to the good Dr. Perne, but no scholars (I notice) are rushing to insert Dr. Perne into Sailing to Byzantium.

Again, you be the judge.

Update December 2 2010

The following is thanks to a conversation with Phyllis Katz, a classics professor at Dartmouth College.

Being a Latin scholar (which I am not), Mrs. Katz recognized another possibility for perne. It turns out that perne is the imperative singular of the latin verb perneo, declined: perneo, pernere, pernevi, pernetum; and means — to spin out, to spin to an end. The word was used in reference to the Fates by the Latin poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (known as Martial in English). The definition she provided comes from A Latin Dictionary rev. by T. Lewis 1879 (1996).

The possibility that Yeats was using the Latin imperative of the verb perneo is compelling because it would fit with the imperative tone of the verse.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.

All these verbs are imperatives. However, this fact alone doesn’t clinch the argument. Yeats might also have been using anthimeria to create a verb out of the noun Pern (for Honey-Buzzard). In this sense, it would be the equivalent of saying, for example: He hawks his prey. Hawk is normally a noun, but anthimeria (a favorite rhetorical figure of, among other poets, Shakespeare) transforms it into a verb.

The question that needs to be asked, if Yeats was hauling a Latin verb into English (neologizing), is whether there’s precedent elsewhere in his poetry. The answer is that I don’t know. I’m not a Yeatsian scholar. However, of all the poems I have read, I’ve never noticed such a neologism before. By comparison, the Elizabethan poets and dramatists (Shakespeare especially) were constantly coining new words based on Latin and Greek. We expect that sort of thing from the Elizabethans, but Yeats? It’s possible. Mrs. Katz provided the following in support of her own supposition:

art of the achievement of writers like Yeats and Joyce in their use of English lies in their appropriation of the Greek and Latin… One facet of Yeats’s imperial sway over the English language is to use with abandon words derived from Latin, words that tend to be long, abstract, and supposedly less expressive than their short, concrete Anglo-Saxon counter-parts. Yeats, however, moulds English so that these Latinisms are strong, powerful, imperious, suggesting both the old fact that the Romans ruled England and the new fact that an Irishman, from a country never ruled by the Romans, can reimpose Roman dominion over the language of his conqueror. Consider, for example, the violent Latin verb (which is framed by initial Greek and final Old English nouns) in “News for the Delphic Oracle”: “nymphs and satyrs copulate in the foam.” And so it happens, time and again: “the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”; “all that lamentation of the leaves”; “Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied”; “The wine-dark of the wood’s intricacies”; “And all complexities of mire or blood.”25 What is happening in Yeats, then, is that the Latin of the Irish hedge schools, of Hugh, Jimmy Jack, and the others, has now entered great poetry…  [The Role of Greek and Latin in Friel’s Translations p. 8]

The only point I would make is that these aren’t neologisms – these are recognized English words which are derived from Latin. They are no longer read or spoken as Latin words. This doesn’t mean that Yeats did not (in one poem and in the entirety of his career) take a verb straight from Latin, but it does make the argument less certain

More along these lines can be found in the article “Passionate Syntax: Style in the Poetry of Yeats“. Again, while Yeats’ use of Latin-derived words is pronounced, there’s no mention of Latin or Greek neologisms.

I had one more qualm about Mrs. Katz’s suggestion and that concerns the seeming redundancy of “perne in a gyre” (if Yeats intended the Latin verb). In effect, Yeats is saying: spin in a spin. However, Yeats seemed untroubled by such redundancies. In the opening to the Second Coming, he writes:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre…

So…

Will there be yet more to write about Perne? We’ll see.

…gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

The word artifice is curious. It means (dictionary.com):

  1. a clever trick or stratagem; a cunning, crafty device or expedient; wile.
  2. trickery; guile; craftiness.
  3. cunning; ingenuity; inventiveness: a drawing-room comedy crafted with artifice and elegance.
  4. a skillful or artful contrivance or expedient.

It’s an odd description of the mosaic if Yeats means to glorify it. Yeats was probably referring to the cunning and ingenuity of the artwork. Even so, the other meanings remain. The effect is to both praise the mosaic but to also acknowledge its artificiality. Yeats’ plea to be gathered up by the sages simultaneously acknowledges the impossibility. The sages are not going to be perne(ing) in a gyre; and the holy fire, the gold mosaic-work, is just that, mosaic-work. It’s artifice. It’s artificial. The line reveals something about Yeats that I like. He hasn’t drunk the kool-aide. He’s telling us, with a kind confidentiality, that he’s like us – he’s not portraying the afterlife as though his vision were an unquestioned truth. His plea is that of the suffering and doubting man, and that makes it all the more poignant. ‘Make the artifice true,’ he seems to plead. ‘Gather me into the beautiful illusion of great art, the soul’s intellection. The illusion of “the young in one another’s arms” has made me a paltry thing.’ His is the cry of a man who feels as though he is trapped in illusion but whose only refuge remains illusion.

But there’s another way to interpret his lines and that comes next.

The Fourth Stanza: Scansion

The scansion is fairly straighforward. I chose to slur bodily and natural to read bod’ly and nat’ral. This keeps the meter fairly regular and reflects how most of us would read the line.

What’s it about?

Vendler considers the fourth stanza a refutation of the  third stanza. She writes that Yeats can’t be both absorbed by the golden eternity of the sages (which is timeless) and be the temporal contrivance of a secular Byzantine goldsmith (for a drowsy emperor) singing of the past, present and future. (There is no past, present or future in an eternal now.) But Vendler seems to overlook the word artifice. Yeats, himself, acknowledges the artificiality of his vision. It’s a symbolic, metaphorical, artistic (hence artifice) transfiguration.  So, I see the third and fourth stanza somewhat differently – the third flows smoothly into the fourth, not a contradiction but allowing for the possibility of the fourth stanza. In the third stanza, Yeats is pleading for a kind of symbolic rebirth where he will be freed from the illusory mire of fish, flesh and fowl. (Mire is the word he will later use in the poem Byzantium.)  Once he has been transfigured and transmuted (once the sages, like alchemists, have transmuted his being into the eternal gold of god’s holy fire) he will be ready for the artifice (the art work) of the Byzantine gold smith. The word gold will reappear again and again in the fourth stanza. (To me, the repetition sounds like the repeated hammer blows of the gold smith beating the gold into shape.) Bear in mind that gold is the only metal which does not corrode.

Once out of nature…

“Once my form has been transmuted by the alchemical transfiguration of the sages into the spiritually eternal gold of god’s fire…”

I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing…

Yeats rejects reincarnation. We might expect a sexually impotent man to desire a return to nature (if that’s truly his gripe), but Yeats’ doesn’t or doesn’t believe its possible. And this makes me think that the focus of so many analysts on sexual impotence is overcooked. Yeats impotence can be treated figuratively rather than literally. His impotence is of an artistic, spiritual and temperamental kind. He no longer emotionally responds to the passionate poems of youth, desire and sexuality; but finds himself drawn to a new kind of passion – eternal and spiritual. In this light, the poem can be read as a kind of artistic and poetic transmutation and manifesto. He is turning away from the poetry of his youth and past, having no more feeling for it (his impotence refers to the figurative loss of his interest and emotional response to youthful concerns). He’s not unhappy to see it go. As mentioned before, what many readers interpret as bitterness may be, to Yeats, anything but.   He’s not bitter. Rather, he’s  all too ready to be done with the illusory preoccupations of youth.

…But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Would any of us desire such an afterlife? – to be a mechanical bird?

Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

If Yeats is referring to his art, his poetic passion, then the imagery is easier to swallow. Remember too, Yeats’ comment concerning the skills of Byzantine goldsmiths. Yeats glowingly comments that they can create “a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body”. Yeats, himself, doesn’t think of the goldsmith’s work as mechanical and lifeless, no,  just the opposite. The artifice is not mechanical but “flexible”, not lifeless, but like the “perfect human body”. Yeats is describing a spiritual/alchemical transmutation like a kind of miracle. In the poem Byzantium, he will write:

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

Yeats, in my opinion, is describing a personal, spiritual transformation as manifested through his art – his poetry. He is, in a sense, identifying himself as his poetry – which is all that will remain after he has died. In this guise, the gold bough is like the magnum opus of his poetry (his Collected Poems). His poetry, transfigured by his new found spirituality, will not speak to everyone, but only to those who have themselves been transfigured, who have sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium. (We will have left  behind that country of “the dying generations”.) We will  be the “lords and ladies of Byzantium”. We will be able to hear and understand his songs/poetry of “what is past. passing, or to come”.

  • The image above right gives an idea of some of the beautiful and extraordinarily wrought Byzantine metalwork that might have inspired Yeats’ imagery.

Vendler interprets the drowsy emperor as symbolically representing Yeats’ desire to return to sensuality. She writes:

Something has indeed been lost to the human speaker in his reincarnation-within-artifice:the golden bird has no mate, and cannot sing “sensual music.” But the bird does have a bodily form (even if artificial) and continues to inhabit a profane heterosexual environment, while he chronicles in song — with an omniscient,, almost divine, view — the broad panoramas of time. As he sings to the Emperor, or to the lords and ladies, he will be Hellenic, not Hebraic. As the poem ends, he is back in a place where there is an imminent sensuality in the drowsy Emperor (there is an Empress as well as the Emperor in the worksheets, and “drowsy” is always, in Yeats, a sign of the sensual).

I’m not buying it, and I certainly don’t accept her contention that “drowsy” is always a sign of the sensual. If she is going to make such a sweeping generalization then she should back it up. She doesn’t. She puts it out there and, presumably, assumes the reader won’t question her. Me? I say, prove it. With that proviso aside, Vendler’s interpretation is interesting, valuable and allows the likes of me to bounce ideas off it.

However, I think she misses the forest for the trees. If one is drowsy, there’s nothing sensual about being kept awake. I interpret the Emperor and empress as being, like the lords and ladies, us. The Emperor of Byzantium is the spiritually transfigured soul/reader who uniquely hears Yeats and can see into the mystery of things. He (and she) is awakened from drowsiness because they recognize in Yeat’s song and poetry a kindred truth. The Emperor (and Empress of the rough draft) will want to be awake. This, I think, is what Yeats means. His new poetry will keep them (and you) awake. This, at least, is how I read the poem. Like Robert Frost’s “For Once Then Something‘, Yeats is characterizing his spiritual identity in his poetry. He is spiritually remaking himself in his poetry. The impotence isn’t sexual but imaginative. No longer aroused by the passions of youth, he renews his passions in the golden city of Byzantium.

The Lords and Ladies of Byzantium are us.

Resources:

(If you want  to learn more about how Yeats arrived at the final version, the New York times has provided an excellent video discussing the poem’s composition – as of writing this the video and article are  still free.)

Yeats’ Two Byzantiums

A nice reading on Youtube, if a little depressing.

Final Thought:

And that’s that there’s much that I didn’t discuss. One could almost write a book on the poem. Please comment and we’ll see what else comes up.

The old man becomes the soul.

The Poet’s Almanac ❧ Poetry’s Lumber Yard

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry

Week Two
Artful Language

Whenever a builder wants to build a house, the first thing he or she does is to visit the lumber yard. This is where we buy the raw goods to build with: the 2×4’s and 2×6’s, sheet rock, joint compound, electrical and plumbing supplies. During

Aristotle's Art of Rhetoric

the medieval  and Renaissance period, the field of rhetoric was the lumber yard of the practicing poet, pamphleteer, writer and orator. Before they put pen to paper, they drew on their education in rhetoric to organize their thoughts.

These days, only devoted scholars and academics study rhetoric.

The result is that modern poets never truly understand or appreciate how great poets did what they did. They blindly use rhetorical figures without the faintest knowledge they are doing so. They argue that they use rhetoric every day, why should they study it? But they use language the way an unexperienced fisherman casts a line. The beginner will go to the pond, brook or lake without thought to where the fish might be. The adept fisherman will consider the time of day, the season, the depth of the water, the temperature, whether it rains or shines. The adept fisherman will consider bait and lure. The adept fisherman will catch the fish he’s fishing for.

The study of rhetoric, up until the 19th century, was part and parcel of a child’s and young adult’s education. The intent was to treat children how to present and develop their thoughts persuasively and clearly. The study of rhetoric, after all, sprang from Greek oratory and debate. This was rhetoric’s purview, not philosophy’s. The closest modern school children come to rhetoric is the five paragraph essay, and even that has fallen by the wayside.

But if you truly want to understand what makes the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Keats and even Robert Frost and other modernist poets, great, then understanding rhetoric will go some way toward teaching you. If you want to absorb their art into your own poetry, then consider a passable familiarity with rhetoric a flashlight in a dark room.

As far as English poetry and rhetoric are concerned, the sixteenth century represents the flowering of both. The favored classical rhetorician was  Cicero. Other rhetoricians included Quintilian, Trapezuntius, Erasmus, Melancthon, and Diomedes. The effort of 16th Century rhetoricians wasn’t so much reinventing the wheel, but organizing, categorizing and expanding on the work already done. The most influential of  these was George Puttenham, who wrote The Arte of English Poesie. Most importantly, Puttenham’s book is a defense of the English language (the vernacular) and of poetry written in the English language (as opposed to Latin or French). He writes:

And if the art of Poesy be but skill appertaining to utterance why may not the same be with us as well as with them [classical poets], our language being no less copious pithy and significative than theirs, our conceits the same, and our wits no less apt to devise and imitate than theirs were? If again Art be but a certain order of rules prescribed by reason and gathered by experience, why should Poesy be a vulgar Art with us as well as with the Greeks and Latins, our language admitting no fewer rules and nice diversities than theirs?

This was the spirit in which Shakespeare came of age – when a poem was an act of linguistic patriotism. Inventiveness and wit in language were  valued not just in respect to the speaker or poet, but the language itself. When the Elizabethans established Iambic Pentameter as the meter of the English Language, they did so with a sense of pride. When Elizabethan poets sported their knowledge of rhetoric in poetry and drama, they were simultaneously asserting their pride in their nation. Of all our great poets, no reader can truly understand or appreciate Shakespeare’s art without appreciating his knowledge of rhetoric. The ease with which Shakespeare drew on this knowledge and displayed it in his poetry and drama is fully comparable to Johann Sebastian Bach’s profound knowledge and ease with the “rhetoric” of counterpoint. Just as counterpoint was considered the non plus ultra of baroque musical knowledge, a 16th century poet’s use of rhetoric was considered the highest statement of his art.

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.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38 is a playful and artful display of Ironia (the Greek term) or Illusio (the Latin term). In the sixteenth century Irony was more strictly defined as saying one thing while meaning another. While proclaiming the poverty of his sonnet’s rhetorical inventiveness he simultaneously promises that his efforts will “outlive long date” – that is, contrary to his assertions, his verse is in fact very clever and rhetorically inventive!

Shakespeare complains that his Muse wants subject to “invent“. Cicero’s most famous discourse on Rhetoric was called De Inventione. Invention, as Cicero defined it, was ‘the discovery of valid or seemingly valid arguments to render one’s case plausible’. From invention (the assertion of an idea) follows the argument (it’s working out). The phrase ‘eternal numbers’ is figurative (rhetorical) language for verse and meter (numbers eventually came to refer to meter). Shakespeare returns to this theme in Sonnet 76, when he writes:

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[?]

Invention, once again, refers to the rhetorical creativity of his ideas. The phrase noted weed refers the manner (in this case the sonnet) in which he clothes his ideas. (Weeds, in Elizabethan times, was another word for clothes.)

Elizabethan Dramatists and Poets assumed their audiences were equally familiar with rhetoric, all educated Elizabethans having been trained in the same grammar schools. Here’s Ben Jonson in the The Alchemist:

O, this’s no true Grammar,
And as ill Logick! You must render causes, child,
Your first, and second Intentions, know your canons,
And your divisions, moodes, degrees, and differences,
Your praedicaments, substance, and accident,
Series externe, and interne, with their causes
Efficient, materiall, formall, finall,
And ha’ your elements perfect. (4.2.21)

Each one of the italicized words refers to a figure of rhetoric which most educated Elizabethans would have recognized. It’s all but opaque to modern poets, let alone audiences.

Fortunately, if you’re curious and want to learn more, you don’t have to read Puttenham or Cicero, below are several of the best books on Rhetoric from the most general to the more detailed:

A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms

  • An alphabetical list of rhetorical figures with modern definitions.

A Handbook of Sixteenth Century Rhetoric

  • The above can be a hard to find book. It offers an alphabetical list of rhetorical figures but with examples and definitions from 16th Century rhetoricians.

Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language

  • A thorough book by Sister Miriam-Joseph. She gives examples of nearly every rhetorical figure as exploited by Shakespeare.


The Classical Rhetoric of English Poetry

  • This book isn’t a catalog of figures like the others. Vickers discusses the importance of classical rhetoric to English Poetry.

Renaissance Figures of Speech

  • A recent publication (2008). A thorough and categorical overview and discussion of rhetoric then and its abiding influence now.

Shakespeare’s Wordcraft

  • This last book may be, in some ways, the most easily enjoyed. The author, Scott Kaiser deliberately eschews the Latin and Greek terms historically used to classify figures of rhetoric. This is both good and bad. It’s good if you just want an  overview of rhetorical techniques (with examples from Shakespeare) and don’t need to know the names. It’s bad if you need to know the names. Maybe you want to look them up to find out how other poets used the same techniques? Kaiser’s book is useless in this regard.

AA for Poets

…and I don’t mean Alcoholics Anonymous


Though more than a few poets might benefit. The anonymous program I’d recommend would be Adjectives Anonymous.

Poets frequently send me their poems (which I enjoy) and the one flaw that seems almost universal is an addiction to adjectives. There are oodles and oodles of examples across the internet, much of it from beginning poets but plenty from older poets and poets who should know better. I won’t pick on any of the younger poets. Every poet deserves a break when they’re just starting out. I’ll do better. I’ll use myself as an example  – something from one of my very early poems.

Gone are the colorful breezes of summer
Tussling the green grasses thick in the field;
Gone is the orchard’s ample verdure
And the cherry-red ripeness of its yield;
Gone are the pinks of the water lily
Adoring the lake’s azure reflection;
Gone — the deep lucence of a turquoise sea —
Wistful memories to ease dejection.
.
Yellowed are the grasses and brown the trees,
Black are the fields and white the drifting snow;
Frosted are the lakes and ice-blue the seas,
Grey are the clouds and metallic their glow.
….The shadings are stark on a winter’s day,
….
Though budding colors are never far away.

Thomas Lux

This is the “sonnet” that I showed to the poet Thomas Lux. He wouldn’t let me study poetry with him (he was only teaching graduates), but told me one thing that made this poem the last of my juvenilia. He said: “There’s a difference between writing poetically and writing poetry.”

And that’s the best advice any poet can give an aspirant. When you can recognize the difference between writing poetically and writing poetry, you will begin writing your first poems.

Many of us, when we first begin writing poetry, believe that poetry differs from prose in its evocative power. That’s only partly true. Prose can be equally evocative. But there’s also an element of compression and in this respect the best poetry does differ from prose. The prose writer has time. The poet, generally, doesn’t. The best poets create a world with a handful of words.

What is the shortest route to descriptive evocation and compression? – the adjective. Beginning poets (and bad poets) use adjectives with a vengeance. Let’s look at my own poem:

Gone are the colorful breezes of summer
Tussling the green grasses thick in the field;
Gone is the orchard’s ample verdure
And the cherry-red ripeness of its yield;
Gone are the pinks of the water lily
Adoring the lake’s azure reflection;
Gone — the deep lucence of a turquoise sea —
Wistful memories to ease dejection.
….Yellowed are the grasses and brown the trees,
Black are the fields and white the drifting snow;
Frosted are the lakes and ice-blue the seas,
Grey are the clouds and metallic their glow.
….The shadings are stark on a winter’s day,
….Though budding colors are never far away.

11 adjectives (“winter’s day” would be a possessive adjective). The words in blue are complements (thinly veiled adjectives) [complement as opposed to compliment]. Throw this into the mix and there are, effectively 21 adjectives. That’s way too many. By comparison, here’s Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
..If this be error and upon me proved,
..I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

5 adjectives. Which is the better sonnet? Shakespeare’s sonnet is poetry. Mine is poetic. Notice how much Shakespeare accomplishes with a minimum of adjectives. He has something to say. (Not having anything to say sometimes leads to an over-reliance on adjectives.) The thing to notice is that Shakespeare’s sonnet is tremendously evocative through the use of figurative language – and that isn’t synonymous with adjectives. If you don’t know the difference, or haven’t thought about it, now’s the time.

Here are a few, among many, sites that describe Figurative Language:

Shakespeare’s genius resides in figurative language. Metaphor came easily to him; and he made extended use of personification. In fact, almost the entirety of Shakespeare’s sonnet rests on the personification of Love. Here’s a sonnet by Robert Frost:

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
..In the capriciousness of summer air
..Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.

Frost makes use of 10 adjectives. The difference is in their importance to the content of the poem. Take out the adjective silken and the poem is lost. But who camps in a silken tent? The whole notion of a silken tent is a poetic contrivance – and Frost means to play on that contrivance, analogy and metaphor. Sunny summer is a nice piece of alliteration (a facet of figurative language) that perfectly captures the bright ease and playfulness of the woman he is describing. In other words, these aren’t just adjectives for the sake of description. He takes the whole a bit further through alliteration – creating mood as well as description.

The phrase supporting central cedar slows us down, but meaningfully so. The alliteration echoes the ‘s’ of silken and the ‘s’ sounds of sunny summer. To my ears, I’m constantly reminded of the sound of silk brushing silk; and I don’t doubt that Frost was fully aware of this affect. Think about the other adjectives. They all begin with the sibilant sound of ‘s’. Countless begins with a hard ‘c’ but ends with less.

My point is that though the beginning poet may argue that Frost uses many adjectives, he uses them with tremendous skill and purpose. These words don’t just fill the meter. They don’t just describe for the sake of description. They serve a thematic purpose. By way of comparison, try the poem as follows:

She is as in a field a canvass tent
At midday when a cool refreshing breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its strong and anchored wooden pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any hempen cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By endless unseen ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
..In the capriciousness of summer air
..Is of the least bondage made aware.

But, more to the point, you don’t need adjectives to write great poetry. Here is some of the greatest poetry ever written.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

But what about Keats? Keats was my model in my early twenties. Here is one of his most famous sonnets:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,..
··
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,..
··
And so live ever-or else swoon to death.

15 adjectives. If Keats can do it, why can’t you? – you might ask. It’s not enough to say that Keats was a genius and you aren’t. Who knows, maybe you’re a genius too. Go for it. The point is that the artistry (the craft) of the great poets isn’t an ineffable mystery. You can parse it, examine it, and understand it.

Of all the poets (the great along with those of any talent) Keats made the most imaginative use of adjectives (and that’s good because adjectives were all the rage during this period).  (I’ve mentioned the following elsewhere but there’s no harm in repetition.) Keats was a tireless student of Shakespeare, and of all the techniques he appreciated, anthimeria topped the list. Anthimiria is the substitution of one part of speech for another. Sister Miriam Joseph, in her book Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, calls anthimeria a figure of grammar that, more than any other, “gives vitality and power to Shakespeare’s language, through its packed meaning, liveliness and stir.” (p. 62)

She goes on:

In the following examples, adjectives are used as adverbs, prepositions as adjectives, adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives, nouns as adverbs, verbs as nouns.

  • report That I am sudden sick. Quick and return! (A&C, 1.3.4)
  • shap’d out a man Whom this beneath world (Tim., 1.1.43)
  • All cruels else subscrib’d (Lear, 3.7.65)
  • his complexion is perfect gallows (Tem., 1.1.32)
  • Kingdom’d Achilles in commotion rages (T&C, 2.3.185)
  • It more imports me Than all the actions that I have foregone
    Or futurely can cope. (TNK, 1.1.172)
  • betwixt too early and too late (H8, 2.3.84)
  • goodness, growing to a plurisy,
    Dies in his own too-much. (Ham., 4.7.118)
  • And many such-like as’s of great charge (Ham., 5.2.43)
  • What you shall know meantime Of stirs abroad (A&C, 1.4.81)
  • To ransack Troy, within whose strong immures (T&C., Prol. 8)
  • I true? How now? What wicked deem is this? (T&C, 4.4.61)

Most striking are the verbs. As Alfred Hart, who recently made very careful and admirable studies of Shakespeare’s vocabulary, observes:

Most Elizabethan and Jacobean authors use nouns freely as verbs, but they are not very venturesome. . . . The last plays of Shakespeare teem with daringly brilliant metaphors due solely to his use of nouns and adjectives as verbs . . . . they add vigour, vividness and imagination to the  verse . . . almost every play affords examples of such happy valiancy of phrase.

Shakespeare uses prounouns, adjectives, and nouns as verbs.

  • If thou thou’st him some thrice, it shall not be amiss (TN, 3.2.48)
  • And that which most with you should safe my going,
    Is Fulvia’s death (A&C, 1.3.55)
  • Shall dizzy with more clamour Neptune’s ear (T&C, 5.2.174)
  • a hand that kings Have lipp’d (A&C, 2.5.29). . . . . . . . . . . (pp. 62-63)

And so on… check out the book if you want to see more examples. One of my favorites? This passage from Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4 Scene 12:

O sun, thy uprise shall I see no more:
Fortune and Antony part here; even here
Do we shake hands. All come to this? The hearts
That spaniel’d me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar; and this pine is bark’d,
That overtopp’d them all. Betray’d I am…

Does it get better than that? Maybe, but I haven’t read it. Modern poets could learn from this, but most have no clue. It isn’t the sort of thing that’s taught at MFA programs. But  this is the stuff that fired Keats’s imagination (along with Milton, Browning, Tennyson, Shelley and others).

The vigor of anthimeria is what Keats was aiming for when he deployed adjectives like “eternal lids“, “moving waters“, “priestlike task“, “soft-fallen mask“, “ripening breast”, “tender-taken breath”. Not all of these qualify as anthimeria and some are more novel (or original) than others, but Keats was striving for novel juxtapositions that would more powerfully suggest and evoke.

So, if you want to use Keats in defense of adjectives, then you’ll need to up your game. Make your adjectives sudden, quick and unexpected. Don’t write things like “clear, blue sky” or “white, puffy clouds”. These are extreme examples, I know, but as long as young poets are learning to write, they’ll show up.

Then again, maybe you should avoid adjectives altogether, at least for a time. Shortly after showing my sonnet to Thomas Lux he asked me to write a poem with no adjectives. That was when I wrote the poem The Evening Coming. A couple of adjectives snuck (I refuse to write sneaked) into the first stanza, but after that I was adjective free. When Lux first told me I ought to write a poem without adjectives, I was like a drunk being told to get off drink. I didn’t take it well. None of the poets with whom I’ve corresponded take it well. (I’m good at reading between the lines – it’s what I do.) That’s why there may be a place for intervention. To wit, here are the twelve steps of Adjectives Anonymous:

1. We admitted we were powerless over adjectives—that our poems had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore our poetry to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our poems over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless adjectival inventory of our poems.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our poetry’s wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove these defects.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove the adjectives.
8. Made a list of all persons we had poetically harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all (somehow).
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others (no throwing your poems, brick and apology attached, through the windows of your erstwhile readers).
10. Continued to take poetic inventory and when they were wrong promptly admitted it and corrected them.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry on without adjectives.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to adjectivolics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Try writing poetry with no adjectives, or try limiting your poetry to one or two adjectives per poem.

Bottom Line: If you can’t write poetry without adjectives, you might never learn to write poetry with adjectives.

  • After I wrote this post, I discovered this little gem by Richard Lawson. If you’ve read this far, you might enjoy it.

The world is too much with us ❧ William Wordsworth

This analysis is late in coming and is a request.

Work has picked up a bit. My three daughters each have baseball games. My wife just bought eight chicks. They’re in our claw foot bathtub (in a box), and I have about two or three weeks to build the chicken coop. (Maybe I’ll post some pictures of the coop).

Full Disclosure

William Wordsworth is not one of my favorite poets. In terms of his skills as a poet, his figurative language, descriptive language and meter sometimes feels too unimaginative or expedient. He wrote a tremendous quantity of poetry but  quality didn’t always keep pace. On the other hand, Wordsworth deliberately cultivated what he considered a low or plain style of diction closer to the parlance of everyday speech.

Reading his poetry after a century of free verse, which (in the hands of some poets) makes a concerted effort to sound as ‘mundane’ – as indistinguishable from every day talk – as possible, Wordworth’s poetry may sound as stiff and stilted as any other 19th century poet. But to the ears of his contemporaries, his poetry sounded markedly different. Part of Wordsworth’s frustration with the high style, as it was called, might stem from his unease with forms. His best poetry is found in blank verse, where he didn’t have to force phrase and thought into the constraints of a poetic structure. Milton, for much the same reasons, wrote Paradise Lost in blank verse rather than the, then standard, closed heroic couplets.

In his book Power, Plain English and the Rise of Modern Poetry, David Rosen finds an interesting example of Wordsworth’s struggle with formal demands – one passage from Juvenilia XVIa and another from Juvenilia XVIb. Respectively:

The road extended o’er the heath
Weary and bleak: no cottager had there
Won from the waste a rood of ground, no hearth
Of Traveller’s half-way house with its turf smoke
Scented the air through which the plover wings
His solitary flight.

§

No spade for leagues had won a rood of earth
From that bleak common, of all covert bare;
From traveller’s half-way house no genial hearth
Scented with its turf smoke the desart air,
Through which the plover wings his lonely course

If English isn’t your first language (and I get many non-English speaking readers) these two passages aren’t going to look (or sound) very different. But the first example has a much more colloquial feel to it. For instance: For the sake of rhyme, Wordsworth essentially compresses two lines into one line.

He changes:

The road extended o’er the heath
Weary and bleak: no cottager had there
Won from the waste a rood of ground…

Into

No spade for leagues had won a rood of earth
From that bleak common

The first feels more descriptive and discursive. The second, with its figurative language (the metrically necessary and monosyllabic spade substitutes for cottager) gives the poetry a more heightened and literary feel. Instead of no hearth Wordsworth (in the rewrite) again needs to satisfy both rhyme and meter. He adds the unnecessary adjective genial (unnecessary because it’s already implied by the context). Solitary flight turns into the less evocative but more literary lonely course.

Wordsworth, at his best, is found in blank verse. He found blank verse to be far more congenial in terms of a plain-spoken aesthetic. That said, the requested sonnet is one of his Miscellaneous Sonnets, numbered 33.


The Sonnet

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending; we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. — Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

One among many Interpretations — My own

I’ve noticed a common theme in the interpretation of this sonnet – one which is heavily influenced by modern preoccupations. For instance, the following excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2 describes Wordsworth as “[contrasting] Nature with the world of materialism and ‘making it.'” Wikipedia, echoes this interpretation by writing that  “Wordsworth wrote several sonnets blasting what he perceived as ‘the decadent material cynicism of the time.’ The world is too much with us is one of those works. It reflects his philosophy that humanity must get in touch with nature in order to progress spiritually.”

The Wikipedia article (as of May 28th 2010) goes on to say that the “poem is a statement about conflict between nature and humanity; the innate romance of the wild, and the spiritually crushing realities of the industrialized world,” and that “Wordsworth longs for a much simpler time when the progress of humanity was tempered by the restrictions nature imposed.”

Sparknote writes that “on the whole, this sonnet offers an angry summation of the familiar Wordsworthian theme of communion with nature, and states precisely how far the early nineteenth century was from living out the Wordsworthian ideal.”

A later analysis at ENotes, apparently written after this post appeared and answering the question “what is the theme?”, seems to continue this trend. The contributor, identifying his or herself as a college teacher, writes:

“Although the poem opens by stressing that humans are involved in the “world,” that word in this context refers to the world that humans have created for themselves – the artificial environment of civilization, especially cities, an environment that cuts us off from nature as God created it. The “world” Wordsworth implicitly condemns is a “world” in which making money and spending money are crucial values.”

All the analyses, almost as though they were borrowed from each other, use eerily similar phrasing to describe what they perceive as Wordsworth’s alienation with 19th Century industrialization and burgeoning materialism. My own reading, however, is very different. I think they miss the point. It seems to me that all the analyses (online at least) gloss over some of the difficulties in the lines, difficulties which, if read literally, seem to assert something very different.

  • The world is too much with us

Take the first line or phrase:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending;

What does he mean by The world is too much with us?  And what does Wordsworth mean by the world? He doesn’t write, for instance, our world. If he had written our world, one might assert that he was making a distinction between the world of man (our world) and nature. But he doesn’t seem to make that distinction. He simply writes The world and  surely this includes nature? Why would Wordsworth (of all poets the most attuned to nature) write that the world (or nature) is too much with us? Starting with this first line, my reading is almost the opposite of every interpretation I’ve read! As I read it, the sonnet isn’t so much a lament for the loss of nature (to the harsh realities of materialism and industrialization), but a lament for the loss of the imagination to the harsh realities of nature itself! That is, Wordsworth’s conception of nature, in this sonnet at least, is very different from our own.

By the start of the 19th century, nature was no longer the place of mystery it always had been, filled with man’s animistic impulses, but increasingly the province of science and physical laws – think Copernicus, Lamarck, Newton, and eventually Darwin. It wasn’t nature that Wordsworth loved (not as we understand it) but what nature symbolized. It was the 19th centuries redefinition of nature that Wordsworth resisted. Contrary to Wikipedia’s assertion that “Wordsworth longs for… the restrictions nature imposed,” my own reading is that  Wordsworth decries the restrictions increasingly imposed by nature (or the world).

  • Late and soon

The world is too much with us” he writes. We have plumbed too deeply into the mysteries of nature and have become enmeshed in its mechanistic laws. What does he mean by “late and soon“? For the non-English speaking readers, the expression is non-standard English (and even gives English speaking readers pause). The compressed figurative language permits Wordsworth to work his thoughts into the tightly knit Sonnet form but makes a precise understanding tricky. Late is probably best understood as “in recent times” or lately. Late also carries the connotation, recently deceased; but it’s hard to square this meaning with anything in the poem. Soon can be understood in two senses. First, in the sense of the near future, which is how all the interpretations (I’ve read online) construe the word. There’s another meaning though: My belovèd Shakespeare Lexicon points out that soon could also be construed as meaning easily, readily, or likely. So, Wordsworth may be suggesting that nature (or the world) is too much with us lately, and will be more so with all too much facility as man’s knowledge continues to unlock nature’s secrets.

  • Nonsensical Punctuation (by modern standards)

One of the most devilish aspects of this poem is the punctuation. I would love to see the original to know whether the punctuation is Wordsworth’s or the meddling of Oxford editors (I’ve copied my own rendition of the sonnet from the Oxford Standard Authors edition of Wordsworth’s complete poems).  No reader of poetry should ever take a poem’s punctuation for granted. In other words, don’t assume the punctuation represents the poet’s intentions. Far too often, the self-appointed (read editors) assume they know better (than you) what the poet intended and give us no indication that they’ve altered the poem. That kind of presumptuousness irritates the hell out of me; and it’s one of the reasons I don’t like Norton’s student editions.

You will find copies of this sonnet elsewhere on the net with differing punctuation. I don’t know which of these  renditions comes closest to the original. I’ve searched online using facsimile as a search term, and the closest I’ve come is here – the Library of the University of Toronto.

Anyway… how to make sense of the punctuation?

Do we read it this way?

The world is too much with us – late and soon,
Getting and spending.

Or do we read it this way?

The world is too much with us.

Late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

So on and so forth. I’m tempted to read the lines as follows (my own punctuation in red)?

The world is too much with us. Late and soon,
Getting and spending,
we lay waste our powers. (or : or )
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

As it is, the poem’s punctuation (by modern standards) doesn’t work. According to The Little, Brown Handbook, for example, the semicolon should not be used to link subordinate clauses or phrases to main clauses (or to introduce lists), and yet this is exactly what the poem does. Among other uses, semi-colons separate main clauses. Secondly, the poem’s use of a colon after powers also doesn’t make sense. A colon is used to “introduce summaries, explanations, series, appositive ending sentences, long or formal quotations, and statements introduced by the following or as follows.” A reader could, perhaps, construe Little we see in Nature that is ours as explaining the statement we lay waste our powers (hence the colon or dash), but the fourth line We have given our hearts away sounds more like a summation rather than an explanation.

Anyway, all this is to say that by modern standards the poem’s punctuation is nonsensical. None of my suggestions are offered as improvements, only as interpretive possibilities.

  • Getting and spending.

It’s this phrase that reminds us of Wordsworth’s distaste for materialism or commoditizing. Most interpretations read this as representing society’s (and his own) alienation from nature. My own reading is different. Keeping in mind the first line of the sonnet, The world is too much with us, Wordsworth seems to be saying that nature has betrayed us. That is, this isn’t a poem about Wordsworth yearning for a return to nature, but a  feeling that nature has betrayed him. After all, what *is* the world, if it isn’t nature? In this light the sarcasm and anger (heard by some readers) takes on a very different subtext. The anger is that of the betrayed. Nature is not the thing Wordsworth imagined it, but an indifferent world ruled by hard, fixed laws.

Think of it this way – nature isn’t what he imagined it was. It’s not a magical place imbued with sense and purpose. In this sense, the phrase Little we see in Nature that is ours makes more sense. Everything that we used to see in Nature — purpose, moral design, divinity  — are no longer there. Nature has become  an indifferent force. What the human mind superimposed on nature (that is ours) is gone. Such visions have turned out to be illusions. There is little in nature that has any connection to our humanity: our sense of purpose or destiny. Human beings are alone. Our imaginative lives mean nothing to nature. Our preconceptions and conceptions are irrelevant – and that is death to the poet.

Likewise, we are ourselves, creatures of nature, use nature indifferently. We get and spend. The word spend, having the sense of consuming, wasting, using up and exhausting. We acquire but we also dissipate in doing so. We have given our hearts away, Wordsworth laments. And by hearts, he means the soul and the mind (in general). The Shakespeare Lexicon tells us that the older meaning of the word included “the mind as the power of thinking”.

  • The Painting above and left is by Jean Neely. She hosts a blog called Faint Whisper: A Record of my Art. The painting is titled Fall Grasslands but could just as easily have been titled The Pleasant Lea –  lea refers to open land or grasslands. Neely’s paintings are beautiful. Take a look.

Wordsworth is warning us that by becoming too much like nature, we lose the very thing that makes us human – our capacity to moralize, find purpose, to imagine and imbue nature with more than is there. A reader at Helium writes:”They are not as close to nature as they should be.” I read just the opposite. Wordsworth is warning us that we are too close to Nature (or rather, what Nature has become). Nature (or the world), as the 19th century was beginning to unravel it, was robbing humanity of its poetry.

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.

Pay attention to how Wordsworth describes the Sea. She is a woman her bares her bosom to the moon. This is the poet’s Sea. This is what he means by seeing in Nature what is ours. The metaphor of the Sea as a woman baring her bosom, gives to the Sea a purpose, a vision, and moral that is human and ours. And this has nothing to do with Nature. It is uniquely ours. Likewise, the winds don’t blow but howl, and they are up-gathered — a verb that bestows a humanly imagined purpose and intent.

The Sea, the moon, and the winds are like magical beings, filled with intelligence.

“I’d rather be a pagan…”

But we are out of tune. The hard fact of Nature has robbed us of what makes us human – our imaginative faculties. We are out of tune. Nature instructs us to be coldly indifferent. The world/Nature is too much with us. Humanity needs to return to its imaginative/visionary realm. That is our humanity.

— Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Wordsworth’s cry, that he’d prefer to be a Pagan, is sometimes read as religious commentary (a critique of Christianity perhaps) but within the confines of the sonnet (as I read it at least) such a reading doesn’t make sense. Christianity was no friend of the burgeoning sciences – having nearly burned Galileo at the stake.  The materialism of science, if nothing else, relentlessly undermined the Christian worldview. At first glance, Wordsworth would have more reasons to prefer Christianity.

But as I read it, his cry is the extreme. He cries to God that he would rather surrender his soul, risk the eternal damnation of a heathen, than surrender his poet’s (and human) vision of Nature.

“Proteus rising from the sea…”

And it’s in this sense, to me, that the last lines make the most sense. The sight of Proteus rising from the sea is the vision of a poet and, by extension, symbolic of humankind’s ability (and need) to imbue Nature with what is ours. There’s another sense of the Pagan that might pertain. The Pagan’s view of the world was thought to be simple and naïve – an animistic view of the world that modern science was thoroughly and finally demolishing. In this wise, Wordsworth is asserting that he prefers a Nature that is ours, informed by the poet’s imagination, to Nature as it is (or as recognized by science and modernity). The vision of Proteus and Triton thus carries the sense of the poetic imagination and antiquity (ancient knowledge and ways of knowing).

The anthropomorphic/animistic/symbolic/archetypal universe of the poet/heathen makes Wordsworth feel less forlorn. To me, that this sonnet might not be an anti-industrial screed, but a cry to preserve the mystery of poetry within our world, makes the poem all the more tender.

All in all, it’s a recurring theme in Wordsworth’s poetry. Consider his Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. The ode begins:

I

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

“old triton…”

II

The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

In the fifth canto the ode continues:

…The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

I think it’s in this sense that we are meant to understand the sonnet. Wordsworth is not calling for a return to Nature, but for a return to a visionary Nature that is distinct from the world and Nature. And that, I know, is very different from the usual interpretation of this sonnet.

The Scansion

  • All unmarked feet or Iambic. In the seventh line, I failed to mark are in |And are| as unstressed (though the pyrrhic color scheme – yellow – is correct).

Wordsworth’s metrical skills are more utilitarian than imaginative. He in no way compares to such Elizabethan masters as Donne, Jonson or Shakespeare. By the 19th century meter was simply the recognized scaffolding on which a line was fitted. Meter, as a living and developing facet of the poem’s art, was increasingly stultified (to be freed by the modernists at the start of the 20th century – poets like Frost and Stevens).

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

The word powers can be pronounced disyllabically or as a monosyllable. The first foot of the second line is Trochaic. What is of more interest, perhaps, is how Wordsworth sometimes stretched (or chaffed against) the constraints of meter with his more colloquial diction.

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

That fourth line is tricky and could be read as an alexandrine (a 6 foot line):

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

This is probably not how Wordsworth would have scanned this line within  the space of an Iambic Pentameter Sonnet. Here is what he probably had in mind:

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

Such elision was a commonplace in metrical poetry (or call it a trick). But this is what Wordsworth probably intended. (As a general rule of thumb, if one can read a line as Iambic, then one probably should. Poets generally took pride in their ability to write metrical poetry, even while stretching the form.) This form of elision is called synaloepha in the first instance We’ve (despite the aspirated ‘h’), and syncope (giv’n) in the second instance. Both techniques go back to the Elizabethans and, while some purists may have (and still do) frown on such metrical cheats, they were recognized ways to fit extra-syllabic words into an Iambic Pentameter line. The line, in fact, is typical of Wordsworth’s flexible approach to meter and actually puts him closer to Robert Frost (who was born just 24 years after Wordsworth’s death) than to Keats or the later Victorians (who were much stricter metrists).

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

Speakers naturally elide every to read ev’ry – another example of syncope.  The third foot |we are strong| could be considered either an anapestic foot (probably less likely), or an Iambic foot if the reader uses synaloepha to read we are as we’re. Once again, Wordsworth lets the language bend the metrical pattern without, necessarily, breaking it.

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

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

The wreathed should be pronounced as a disyllabic word: wreathèd.

The Sonnet is Petrarchan in form – an Octave and Sestet separated, in this case, by a volta (a kind of thematic ‘turn’ or change in course). The Petrarchan form feels less like the working out of a argument or thesis than a Shakespearean Sonnet and lends Wordsworth’s sonnet a more contemplative closing (as opposed to the epigrammatic sting that characterizes the closing Shakespearean couplet). Where the Shakespearean Sonnet can be thought of as a argumentative tour de force , the Petrarchan Sonnet always feels more philosophical and contemplative – and certainly Wordsworth was more philosophical minded than Shakespeare – whose mind was agile and swift.

Wordsworth at his best

In the course of writing this post, I pulled out Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets just to reacquaint myself with Wordsworth’s life and reception. On page 373 Schmidt relays a passage from the Prelude, of which there are three versions and which many consider to be Wordsworth’s finest piece of sustained writing (generally the second version). The brief sample is truly Wordsworth at his finest.  He is remembering is youthful traversal of the Austrian and Italian Alps.

The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of water-falls,
And every where  along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds, and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.

Donne: His Sonnet IX • Forgive & Forget

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This post is a request, of sorts.

John Donne believed in God. But when you read John Donne, what editor do you believe in?

When I first began writing these posts, I would copy and paste poems straight from other web sites. I’m afraid to look Complete English Poemsback at those posts. In particular, I copied and pasted Robert Frost’s Birches, only to discover that the copy was missing several lines of the poem. I almost missed it.

Nowadays, I type in everything by hand. My source for Donne’s poetry is the Oxford edition, Donne’s Poetical Works, edited by H.J.C. Grierson. (The link is to a later edition of the book.) My own book is actually two books. The first is Donne’s poetry and the second is an Introduction and Commentary. Both books are hard bound and oxford blue. They date from 1963. I don’t know if the later edition (linked above) is of the same quality but, if so, then I strongly recommend it. If you can find the two volume edition, and if you really want a good copy of Donne’s poetry, this is the edition I would recommend. It represents the closest thing to an unfiltered copy of Donne’s works. All editorial alterations are explained and accounted for. Spelling and contractions aren’t modernized, which in Donne’s case, can be essential. For more discussion as to why, see my post: John Donne & Batter my Heart: Editing Iambic Pentameter Then & Now.

Second best, for a complete edition, would be C.A. Partrides Everyman’s Library edition. The Songs and Sonnets of John DonnePartride is faithful to Donne’s spelling and punctuation. I do not like the Norton Critical Editions issue of Donne’s Poetry. For a book that touts itself as a “critical edition”, the spelling and punctuation of Donne’s poems are frequently altered without explanation or even indication that they have done so. The way Norton prints the poems is out and out misleading.

Another book, which has recently been reissued, is Theodore Redpath’s The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne. This is a really, really good book. It’s not complete. It doesn’t have Donne’s Holy Sonnets, but the footnotes to all the poems are fascinating, enjoyable and thorough.

Anyway, as I look more deeply into these older poems (when the authority of a given text was anything but authoritative) the decisions editors make in how they punctuate poems (and sometimes alter words) has become increasingly interesting to me. I’ll talk about some of that and why I find it so compelling. Here’s the sonnet, straight from Grierson’s edition. The only thing I’ve changed is the (f) to an s. WordPress doesn’t offer a true Elizabethan S.

Divine Poems: Sonnet IX

If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortall us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn’d; Alas, why should I be?
Why should intent or reason, borne in me,
Make sinnes, else equall, in mee more heinous?
And mercy being easie, and glorious
To God; in his sterne wrath, why threatens hee?
But who am I, that dare dispute with thee
O God? Oh! of thine onely worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drowne in it my sinnes blacke memorie;
That thou remember them, some claime as debt,
I thinke it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

And now to the scansion:

First, let me say that the sixth line really stumped me. How does one scan:

Make sinnes, else equall, in mee more heinous?

Here is how, I think, most modern readers would scan it:

Make sinnes, |else e|quall, in mee |more heinous?

This makes the line Iambic Tetrameter, sort of. There would be two variant feet. The third foot would be an anapest and the final foot would be a femine ending. This is bad. Remember, the rest of the sonnet is Iambic Pentameter, (as were most sonnets during the Elizabethan era). An Iambic Tetrameter line would have been considered amateurish for a poet of Donne’s genius and would have been unprecedented (even by his standards). What was worse, though, is that this scansion would mean that Donne’s rhyme was a false rhyme (or a wrenched rhyme). Such a rhyme would not have been considered innovative but incompetent. Messy meter along with a false rhyme just seemed too hard to swallow, even for Donne.

The rhymes of envious and glorious hinted that heinous should be treated as a trisyllabic word, rather than disyllabic. I started looking through concordances, seeing how other Elizabethan poets treated the word. Shakespeare, among others, treats heinous as a disyllabic word throughout his plays. Then I found the following from An Etymological Dictionary of the English Langauge:

An Etymological DictionaryHEINOUS, hateful, atrocious, (F. — O. L.G.) Properly trisyllabic. M.E. heinous, hainous; Chaucer, Troilus, ii. 1617. — O.F. haïnos, odious; formed with suffix –os (=Lat. osus, mod. F. –eux) from the sb. haïne, hate. — O.F. haïr, to hate. From an O. Low G. form, well exemplified in Goth. hatyan or hatjan (=hatian), to hate; not from teh cognate O.H.G. hazzon. See Hate. Der. heinous-ly, heinous-ness.

So, apparently, the pronunciation of the word heinous was still in flux during Elizabethan times. Chaucer, as the dictionary notes, treated the word trisyllabically:

So he|ynous, | that men | mighte on | it spete ~ [Troilus, ii. 1617]

In Elizabethan times, one still apparently heard heinous as hay-e-nous . Originally, when I published this post, I thought that the alternate pronunciation might be hay-ne-ous, like the -ion sound in the word onion. I thought this because I reasoned that Donne was trying to rhyme with envious and glorious, but based on the Etymological Dictionary’s pronunciation key, I’ve changed my mind. Also, my original thought ignores the rhyme immortal us – with which he-i-nous would rhyme. As it stands, heinous was apparently treated as a disyllabic or trisyllabic word depending on the needs of the poet. Shakespeare seems to have pronounced it as we do, and so treated it as a disyllabic word. Such a difference from Donne might reflect a difference in dialects?

The bottom line is that treating heinous as a trisyllabic word makes metrical sense:

Make sinnes, |else e|quall, in mee |more he|inous?

This makes the line Iambic Pentameter with a variant third foot – an anapest. Anapests, in the space of a sonnet, were rare. It’s more likely (and there is ample precedent among Donne’s other sonnets) that he expected readers to use synaloepha to elide the third foot. It would read as follows:

Make sinnes, |else e|quall’n mee |more he|inous?

This makes the line fully Iambic Pentameter. None of this is to say that Elizabethan readers might not have scratched their heads when reading this line, but probably would not have done so for as long as a modern reader (like me). At any rate, this is how I scanned it.

Sonnet IX Scansion with Color & Rhyme Scheme (Final)

The Annotations

If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortall us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn’d; Alas, why should I be?

In this sonnet, more than the others, Donne’s disputatious relationship with God come to the fore. Donne gives a list of maleficent items and ingredients worthy to be damned. PInterior of an Apothecary's Shopoisons were frequently associated with serpents, though in this case Donne first jumps to minerals. (Through the process of association, however, the serpent shows up in line three – the poet’s mind at work.) Similar image clusters occur in Shakespeare’s works.

In the case of poisonous minerals, Donne might have been referring to the many “medicines” that were prevalent during the Elizabethan era, medicines which were poisons in their own right (the reasoning being that one poison would drive out another – namely the disease. The theme of drugs being worse than the disease they cured is a frequent one in Shakespeare.

Sonnet 118

The ills that were not, grew to faults assured
And brought to medicine a healthful state
Which, rank of goodness, would by ill be cured:
But thence I learn, and find the lesson true,
Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you.

Romeo & Juliet

Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die. [Act I.ii 319]

All Elizabethans at one time or another, must have had first hand experience with the cures that “cured by killing”. According to the Shakespeare Lexicon mineral had the meaning: a fossil body used as a poisonous ingredient. And so we find in Othello [Act I.ii 282]:

That thou hast practised on her with foul charms,
Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals
That weaken motion

At his website Sarcoidosis.com.au, the sometime poet Dr. Roger K.A. Allen drives home the association between medicine and poison, revealing what all Elizabethans (having studied Latin and Greek from childhood) must have known:

Classical cognoscenti know that the Greek word for drug, pharmakon, means both ‘medicine’ and ‘poison’, and that iatros means ‘doctor’. As they had no Pensioner Benefit Scheme or Adverse Drug Advisory Committee, the Greeks knew that all drugs could be potentially lethal as Socrates no doubt could attest from the Underworld.

And notice how drugs are associated with minerals in Shakespeare’s mind. I suspect the same was true for Donne.Their attitude toward drugs (medicines) were probably summed up by the expression: With friends like Cranach's Adam & Evethose, who needs enemies? Is there a touch of humor in Donne’s damnation of poysonous mineralls? Possibly. And I prefer to think so. To my reading, a dry wit runs through all of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. (The Elizabethans were always quick to skewer pomposity, especially in themselves. )

“That tree whose fruits drew death” is, of course, the tree in the garden of eden. Donne fairly asks, you threw us out of the garden, so why not the damned tree?

Goats were associated with lechery and having already mentioned poison (poison being associated with serpents), the associative leap to  “serpent envious” was already in place. These abstract personifications may be inspired by the medieval morality plays that, even in Donne’s day, were still being staged (though quickly fading). Certainly, in any morality play featuring the garden of eden, the audience could expect to see the “lecherous goat” and the “envious serpent” personified.

But the most interesting, to me, aspect of the first quatrain, comes in Donne’s questoin: Alas, why should I be? As I’ve written elsewhere,  a good metrical poem has two stories to tell, one in its words, the other in its meter. The modern reader will surely be tempted to read the question as follows:

Alas,minstrels why should I be?

But reading it this way is to read it in opposition to the iambic pentameter meter. If we read the question with the meter, then it should be stressed as follows:

Alas, why should I be?

At first, this may seem completely counterintuitive and against the grain of common English (let alone modern English), but look at the next line of the second quatrain:

Why should intent or reason, borne in me,
Make sinnes, else equall, in mee more heinous?
And mercy being easie, and glorious
To God; in his sterne wrath, why threatens hee?

Donne has asked the same question again, as if to emphasize, and the word should is once again in the stress position. This is no mistake and asking the question again seems to emphasize the word should. If you’re still having trouble with this, imagine the following:

Mother: Eat your vegetables!
Child: Why should I?

Now use that same inflection when rereading Donne’s question: Why should I be?

The effect is almost one of petualance.

Why should I be? / Why should intent or reason, borne in me, / Make sinnes, else equall, in mee more heinous?

The meter tells us that Donne’s question isn’t a whiney sort of  – Why me? Why should I be?  – but is more argumentative and disputatious. Why should I? If we don’t read it with the meter, then not only do we miss the tone and inflection of Donne’s poem, but we also ruin the rhyme scheme. The word be would be unstressed. This would make it a wenched rhyme (a false rhyme). All the other –e rhymes  – tree, me, hee, thee and momorie – are stressed.

Donne is disputatious. If mercy is so easy and glorious to God, why am I being damned? Why is he threatening me? Britannica, in their entry on Donne, nicely describes this quality in his poetry:

Donne’s poetry is marked by strikingly original departures from the conventions of 16th-century English verse, particularly that of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser.(…) Donne replaced their mellifluous lines with a speaking voice whose vocabulary and syntax reflect the emotional intensity of a confrontation and whose metrics and verbal music conform to the needs of a particular dramatic situation. One consequence of this is a directness of language that electrifies his mature poetry. “For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love,” begins his love poem “The Canonization,” plunging the reader into the midst of an encounter between the speaker and an unidentified listener. Holy Sonnet XI opens with an imaginative confrontation wherein Donne, not Jesus, suffers indignities on the cross: “Spit in my face yee Jewes, and pierce my side…”

And if you’re still not sure of Donne’s argumentative tone, he himself makes this clear:

But who am I, that dare dispute with thee
O God? Oh! of thine onely worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drowne in it my sinnes blacke memorie;

Who am I, he asks, that dare dispute?

And since I don’t think the horse is dead, I’m going to keep beating it. This is yet another example of what free verse just can not do. This isn’t to denigrate free verse, but traditional poetry and free verse are, in some ways, very different art forms. Men and women are different. Traditional Poetry and Free Verse are different. Something was lost when free verse became the dominant verse form of the last century and (apparently) the first decade of this one. Free verse didn’t just adapt traditional poetry and reshape it, it entirely replaced it. I’m not arguing that free verse posts should get back to writing traditional poetry, but only for an acknowledgment of what has been lost.

And now we get into the niceties of modern day editing. Here is Sonnet IX as it first appeared (to the left) and how (in Donne’s lifetimes) it later appeared in the Westmorland Edition (from the Variorum  Edition of John Donne’s Poetry):

Original & Westmorland

Notice the differences between the two and specifically, the difference in the 10th line:

  • O God, o of thy only worthy bloud
  • O God? O of thine only worthy blood

Which version is the correct version? Which do you believe? Here’s what Grierson writes:

I have followed here the punctuation of IV, which takes ‘O God’ in close connexion with the preceding line; the vocative case seems to be needed since God has not been directly addressed until l. 9. The punctuation of D, H49, which has often determined that of 1633, is not really different from that of W:

But who am I that dare dispute with thee?
O God, Oh! &c.

(which modern editors have followed), make ‘O God, Oh!’ a hurried series of exclamations introducing the prayer which follows. This suits the style of these abrupt, passionate poems. But it leaves the question without an address to point it; and to my own mind the hurried, feverous effect of ‘O God, Oh!’ is more than compensated for by the weight which is thrown, by the punctuation adopted , upon the second ‘Oh’, — a sigh drawn from the very depths of the heart,

so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
And end his being.

The job of editing Elizabethan poets, when spelling wasn’t standardized and printing was idiosyncratic, is to objectively and subjectively present to the modern reader what might come closest to the poet’s intentions. It’s what I try to do when analyzing these poems.

I agree with Grierson. I think the exclamation, Oh God, finishes the prior line. The line, in effect, signals the volta, or the turn of the sonnet, wherein Donne moves from disputation to prayer:

Oh! of thine onely worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drowne in it my sinnes blacke memorie

He asks that Christ’s blood, which onely (or alone) is worthy, be mixed with his tears. The River Lethe, one of the rivers of Hades, was said to erase the memory of souls before they reincarnated. Mixing Christian and Greek mythology, Donne is asking that the black sins of his past be forgotten and erased. Let both the forgiveness of Christ’s blood erase his sins, and the waters of the River Lethe further drive them from memory.

LetheElysionJohnStanhope

The River Lethe and Elysion by John Stanhope

That thou remember them, some claime as debt,
I thinke it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

The final lines are pregnant with emotion. Is it anger? resignation? weariness? maybe a little humor? a return to disputation? I’m not sure. I think a good reader or a fine actor could find all those senses in the final couplet.

The Form of the Sonnet

The structure of the sonnet combines elements of the Petrarchan and Shakespearean (English) Sonnet sensibility. It’s closest antecedent may be Sidney’s Sonnets, whose sonnets Donne was probably familiar – (as were most Elizabethan poets). While the octave (the first eight lines) are typical of the Petrarchan Sonnet, the brilliant argumentative style favored by the Elizabethans asserts itself in the final sestet. The sestet is divided into a third quatrain and a final couplet, much like Shakespeare’s sonnets. Though the sonnet lacks the brilliant rhetorical drive toward a closing epigrammatic sting (typical of Shakespeare’s sonnets) the elements of that same Elizabethan love of dispute, debate  and resolution remain. Donne has a point to make and he drives it home in the  final couplet.

That thou remember them, some claime as debt,
I thinke it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

  • If this post has been useful, let me know. I love helpful comments.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Sonnet (Posted by Request)

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

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

About Rossetti and The House of Life

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

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

Schmidt closes the paragraph, however, by noting:

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

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

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

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

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

Rossetti’s Brotherhood

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

The Poem

A Scansion of Rosetti's A Sonnet

About the Scansion

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

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

About the Form of the Sonnet

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

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

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

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

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

The Sonnet and the Sonnet Sequence it Introduces

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

Corrected Companion to Victorian Poetry (extract)

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

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

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

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

What the Poem Means

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

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

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

Of the sestet, he writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now for the volta.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facsimile (Enlarged)

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

A Favorite Sonnet from The House of Life.

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

NUPTIAL SLEEP

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

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

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

Guess which ships are promptly dispatched?

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Imagery & Poetry: Ode to Autumn & the Five Senses

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Something Different

I’ve been writing a fair amount of analysis centered on meter. So I thought I’d take some time to focus on imagery, how it has been used during different times, what it tells us about poets, which poets use imagery well, which don’t… Etc.

I’ve been tempted to enter into some of the theoretical conversation surrounding current trends in poetry: poetry in academia; the various schools and their aesthetics; theories of composition, schools of criticism, etc… But, there are many other blogs devoted to these matters and, to be honest, the subject matter bores me. The posts that interest me the most are those that help me write better poems.

At the end of the day, all the chatter about schools, aesthetics and criticism will be relegated to graduate programs, as always. What’s left behind and what matters, to the rest of the world, is the poetry itself. Learn to write well and you will be remembered.

Anyway… somewhat like my first post on Iambic Pentameter, this ought to be a post on the basics of imagery.

What is it?

I’m sure, if you search thoroughly, you can find dazzlingly complex and arcane definitions of what does and doesn’t constitute poetic imagery. princeton-encyclopediaRather than begin this post with an exhaustive retrospective of what this or that critic, poet, dictionary, or encyclopedia considers imagery, I’ll limit myself to just one “official” source, then dandle with imagery on my own. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics starts with Image, then proceeds to Imagery – almost ten pages of double-column, small type explication. The subject deserves it and it’s worth reading. I’ll just offer up the first paragraph:

Image and Imagery are among the most widely used and poorly understood terms in the poetic theory, occuring in so many different contexts that it may well be impossible to provide rational, systematic account of their usage.  A poetic image is, variously, a metaphor, simile, or figure of speech; a concrete verbal reference; a recurrent motif; a psychological event in the reader’s mind; the vehicle or second term of a metaphor; a symbol or symbolic pattern; or the global impression of a poem as a unified structure.

The Encyclopedia then goes on to explain how imagery was used and understood from the Elizabethans through moderns. Good stuff.

My Own Take

I’m not sure how I’ll develop these posts, but the following seems like a good place to start:

  • At its most basic level, an Image is anything that evokes any of the fives senses:

Visual (Sight)
Aural (Sound)
Smell
Taste
Sensation (Touch)

If you are writing poetry, keep this list next to you. Princeton states that “although imagery has come to be regarded as an essentially poetic device, many good poems contain little or no imagery.” [p. 564] Note that Princeton does not say “many great poems”. All poems that have withstood the test of time, that are now universally read and considered to be great poems, are distinguished, in part, by the genius of their imagery. John Keats - StatueThe centrality of imagery to poetry’s power is not unique. Great novelists are also distinguished by their evocative prose .

While I don’t suggest you compulsively stuff your poem with one each of the five senses, keep the list next to you. Think about what senses you are evoking in your poetry. The vast majority of poets, especially those lacking practice and experience, will usually limit themselves to the visual.

Perhaps the greatest poet, in this regard, was Keats. He was keenly aware of the world: its sounds, tastes, texture and smells. His sensitivity and the delicacy of his imagery is part and parcel of his genius. I’ve color coded one of his most famous poems, the Ode to Autumn, to help readers visually appreciate his use of imagery. (I’ve already analyzed the poem for its meaning and meter in a previous post.) Considered among the greatest poems of the English language, it’s rich and evocative imagery is essential to its reputation.

All Five Senses

Notice how Keats touches on all five senses. The poet fully engages us in the experience of autumn. There’s nothing that will add more power to your poetry than inviting the reader into your sensory world. The range of Keats’s imagery adds immediacy. Without it, the poem would have the feel of an intellectual exercise – an essay.

Sensory Clusters

Notice too, by the color coding, that you can see Keats’s mind works. There are image clusters. The first stanza is primarily visual. Sight is our pre-emininent sensory experience, Keats knows it, and so the first stanza creates the poem’s setting. But before the close of the first stanza, he dwells on sensation (touch): the warmth of the day, the clammy cells, the soft-lifted hair. I’ve tentatively included the winnowing wind as a sensation since we can both see and feel the wind .

The second moves us back to the visual experience of autumn. The fume of poppies engages our sense of smell – which scientists claim to be our most associative sense.  But notice what happens in the third stanza. With a kind of deliberateness, Keats’s verse o’erbrims with aural imagery. Keats’s visual terrain is filled with sound: the wailful choirs of mourning gnats, the lambs loud bleating, the singing of the crickets, the treble-soft whistles of the redbreast as the swallows twitter.

The cluster of aural imagery is deliberate. Beginning with the wailful choirs and mourning gnats, they effectively communicate a sense of autumnal loss that would have been more difficult to communicate solely through visual imagery.

Verbal Imagery

Keats’s use of verbal imagery (and his use of anthimeria) is also worth considering. Consider the first stanza:

The use of swell and plump are visual cues, as is  the adverbial budding more. O’erbrimmed is a lovely example of anthimeria “when adjectives are used as adverbs, prepositions as adjectives, adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives” (Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 63) . O’erbrimmed is also an example of verbal metaphor – in that summer is “like” a cup that is overfull (though the words like or as are omitted).

The use of “verbal imagery” adds vitality and dynamism to the mostly nominal and static imagery. It is also among the most difficult of poetic techniques to master. Keats learned the technique from Shakespeare who, more than any poet before or since, could  brilliantly and ingeniously coin new words and put old words to new grammatical uses. When poets do it well, we see the world in new ways.

Visual(Sight)
Aural (Sound)
Smell
Taste
Sensation (
Touch)

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think
warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,

Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the
soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft,
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud
bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

What’s Next

Examing more poems! I still haven’t decided on the next poet or poem , but the best imagery leads on to metaphor. And limiting myself to imagery means I can look at free verse poets too. So, if this has been interesting to you, helpful, or if you have questions or suggestions, please comment.