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…


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:


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…”


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, 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.


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!


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.

The Annotated “To be or not to be”

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150px-shakespeareAs far as this soliloquy goes, there’s a surplus of good online analysis. And if you’re a student or a reader then you probably have a book that already provides first-rate annotation. The only annotation I haven’t found (which is probably deemed unnecessary by most) is an analysis of the blank verse – a scansion – along with a look at its rhetorical structure. So, the post mostly reflects my own interests and observations – and isn’t meant to be a comprehensive analysis. If any of the symbols or terminology are unfamiliar to you check out my posts on the basics of Iambic Pentameter & scansion. Without further ado, here it is. (I’ve numbered the lines for the convenience of referencing.)


1.) The first line, in a single line, sums up the entirety of the soliloquy – as though Shakespeare were providing crib notes to his own soliloquy. There’s a reason. He wants to cleanly and clearly establish in the playgoers mind the subject of the speech. There will be no working out or self-discovery. Shakespeare is effectively communicating to us some of the reason for Hamlet’s hesitancy.  The speech, in effect, is the reverse of the Shakespearean Sonnet that saves its epigrammatic summing up for the last line. The Shakespearean Sonnet, as Shakespeare writes it, is the working out of a proposition or conflict that finds a kind of solution in the epigrammatic couplet at its close.

Metrically, the first line is possibly one of the most interesting and potentially ambiguous in the entire speech. I chose to scan the line as follows:

  • To be |or not |to be: |that is |the question
  • first-line-iambic

But if you google around, you may find the line more frequently scanned as follows:

  • To be |or not |to be: |that is|the question
  • first-line-trochaic

First to the disclaimer: There is no one way to scan a line but, as with performing music, there are historically informed ways to scan a poem. Shakespeare was writing within a tradition, was a genius, and knew perfectly well when he was or wasn’t varying from the Iambic Pentameter pattern of blank verse. To assume less is to assume that he was mindlessly writing a verse he either didn’t or couldn’t comprehend.

An actor has some latitude in how he or she wants to perform a line, but choosing to ignore the meter is akin to ignoring slurs or other markings composers provide in musical scores. Putting the emphasis on that subtly alters the meaning of the line. It sounds as though Hamlet were looking for the question, the conundrum, and once he has found it he says: Ah ha! That is the question. And this is how most modern readers read the line.

By putting the emphasis on is, in keeping with the Iambic Meter, the meaning of the line takes on a more subtle hue – as if Hamlet knew the question all along. He says: That is the question, isn’t it. The one question, the only question, ultimately, that everyone must answer. There’s a feeling of resignation and, perhaps, self-conscious humor in this metrical reading.

That said, William Baer, in his book Writing Metrical Poetry, typifies arguments in favor of emphasizing writing-metrical-poetrythat. He writes: “After the heavy caesura of the colon, Shakespeare alters the dominant meter of his line by emphasizing the word that over the subsequent word is. ” (Page 14)

How does Baer know Shakespeare’s intentions? How does he know that Shakespeare, in this one instance, means to subvert the iambic meter? He doesn’t tell us.  All he says is that “most readers will substitute a trochee after the first three iambs” – which hardly justifies the reading. Baer’s argument seems to be: Most modern readers will read the foot as a trochee, therefore Shakespeare must have written it as a trochee.

The word anachronistic comes to mind.

If one wants to emphasize that for interpretive reasons, who am I to quarrel? But the closest we have to Shakespeare’s opinion is what he wrote and the meter he wrote in. And that meter tells us that is receives the emphasis, not that.

Note: Baer later mis-attributes the witch’s chant in Macbeth (Page 25) as being by Shakespeare- an addition which most Shakespearean scholars recognize as being by Middleton. Not a big deal, but this stuff interests me.

Anyway, I prefer an iambic reading knowing that not everyone will.

The line closes with a feminine ending in the fifth foot. For this reason, the line  isn’t an Iambic Pentameter line but a variant within the larger Iambic Pentameter pattern. Compare the blank verse of Shakespeare to that of many modern Formalist poets. Shakespeare is frequently far more flexible but, importantly, flexes the pattern without disrupting it. Finding a balance between a  too-strict adherence to a metrical line and too-liberal variation from it is, among modern poets, devoutly to be wished for. But modern poets are hardly unique in this respect, compare this to Middleton’s blank verse (a contemporary who collaborated with Shakespeare.) Middleton stretches blank verse to such a degree that the overall pattern begins to dissolve. He is too liberal with his variants.

2-3.) Both lines close with a feminine ending. They elaborate on the first part of the question- To be. The elegance & genius of Shakespeare’s thought and method of working out ideas is beautifully demonstrated in this speech. The speech as a whole stands as a lovely example of Prolepsis or Propositio – when a speaker or writer makes a general statement, then particularizes it. Interestingly, I was going to provide a link for a definition of Prolepsis but every online source I’ve found (including Wikipedia and Brittanica!) fails to get it completely right. (So much for on-line research.)

OK. Digression. (And this will only appeal to linguists like me.) Here’s a typical definition of Prolepsis as found online:

  • A figure of speech in which a future event is referred to in anticipation.

This isn’t wrong, but it’s not the whole story. Whipping out my trusty Handbook to Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, we find the following:

  • Propositio
  • also known as prolepsis (not to be confused with praesumptio)
  • Susenbrotus ( 28 )
    Scheme. A general statement which preceedes the division of this general proposition into parts.

Praesumptio is the other meaning of Prolepsis, which is what you will find on-line. So, I guess you heard it here, and online, first. Prolepsis has two meanings.

Anyway, Shakespeare takes the general To be, and particularizes it, writing : Is it nobler “to be”, and to suffer the “slings and arrows” of life? The method of argumentation, known as a Topic of Invention, was drilled into Elizabethan school children from day one. All educated men in Shakespeare’s day were also highly trained rhetoricians – even if the vast majority forgot most of it. Shakespeare’s method of writing and thought didn’t come out of the blue. His habit of thought represents the education he and all his fellows received at grammar school.

4-5.) These two lines also close with feminine endings. Shakespeare, unlike earlier Renaissance dramatists, isn’t troubled by four such variants in a row. They elaborate on the second part of the of the question – not to be. Or is it better, Hamlet asks, to take arms and by opposing our troubles, end both them and ourselves? Is it better not to be?

6-9.) Up to this point, there has been a perfect symmetry in Shakespeare’s Prolepsis. He has particularized both to be and not to be. Now, his disquisition takes another turn. Shakespeare particularizes not to be (death) as being possibly both a dreamless sleep (lines 6 through 9) or a dream-filled sleep (lines 10 through 12). So, if I were to make a flowchart, it would look like this:


In line 7, natural should be elided to read  nat‘ral, otherwise the fifth foot will be an anapest. While some metrists insist that Shakespeare wrote numerous anapests, I don’t buy their arguments. Anapests were generally frowned on. Secondly, such metrists need to explain why anapests, such as those above, are nearly always “loose iambs”, as Frost called them – meaning that elipsis, synaloepha or syncope could easily make the given foot Iambic. Hard-core, incontestable anapests are actually very difficulty to find in Shakespeare’s verse. They are mitigated by elision, syncope or midline pauses (epic caesuras).

10-13.) Shakespeare now particularizes “not to be” (or death) as, perhaps, a dream filled state. This is the counterpart to lines 6-9 in this, so far, exquisitely balanced disquisition. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come – he asks.

14-27.) At this point, Shakespeare could have enumerated some of the fearful dreams attending death – a Dante-esque descent into fearful presentiments. But Shakespeare was ever the pragmatist – his feet firmly planted in the realities of life. He took a different tact. He offers us the penury, suffering and the daily indignities of life. We suffer them, despite their agonies, fearing worse from death. We bear the whips and scorns of time (aging and its indignities), the wrongs of oppressors (life under tyranny), the law’s delay, the spurns of office. Who, he asks, would suffer these indignities when he could end it all with an unsheathed dagger (a bare bodkin) to his heart or throat? – if it weren’t for the fear of what might greet them upon death? Those dreams must be horrible! And he leaves it to us to imagine them – our own private hells – rather than describe that hell himself – Shakespeare’s genius at work.

Line 15 presents us with a rhetorical figure Hendiadys. Interestingly, it’s in Hamlet that Shakespeare uses this figure the most:

  • For who would bear the whips and scorns of time?

The figure denotes the use of two nouns for a noun and its modifier. It’s a powerfully poetic technique in the right hands, and one that is almost unique to Shakespeare. Few poets were ever, afterward, as rhetorically inventive, adventurous or thorough in their understanding and use of rhetoric. It’s part and parcel of why we consider Shakespeare, not just a dramatic genius, but a poetic genius. He unified the arts of language into an expressive poetry that has never been equaled.

Line 16 presents us with some metrical niceties. I’ve chosen to use synaloepha to read The oppres|sor’s wrong as (Th’op)pres|sor’s wrong. I’m not wedded to that reading. One might also consider it a double onset or anacrusis (as some prefer to call it) – two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable in the first foot. Interestingly, metrists have historically preferred to consider this anapest a special variant and so don’t refer to it as an anapest. As a practical matter (considering how the line is likely to be spoken by an actor) I suspect that the first foot will sound more like an Iamb or a loose Iamb – which is why I scanned it the way I did. Line 16 closes with the word contumely. I think that nearly all modern readers would read this as con-tume-ly. A glance at Webster’s, however, reveals that the word can also be pronounced con-tume-ly. The difference probably reflects changes in pronunciation over time. In this case, it’s the meter that reveals this to us. An incontestable trochee in the final foot is extremely rare in Shakespeare, as with all poets  during that time. If you’re ever tempted to read a final foot as trochaic, go look up the word in a good dictionary.

In line 22 the under, in the third foot (under |a wear|y life), is nicely underscored by being a trochaic variant.

In line 25 the fourth foot echoes line 22 with the trochaic puzzles. This is a nice touch and makes me wonder if the reversal of the iambic foot with under and puzzles wasn’t deliberate – effectively puzzling the meter or, in the former, echoing the toil of a “weary life” and the “reversal” of expectations. But it’s also possible to read too much into these variants.

By my count, there are only 6 Iambic Pentameter lines out 13 or so lines (lines 14-27). The rest of the lines are disrupted by variant feet. That means that less than 50% of Shakespeare’s lines, out of this tiny sampling, are Iambic Pentameter. The Blank Verse of Shakespeare (an ostensibly Iambic Pentameter verse form) is far more flexible and varied than one might, at first, expect.

28-33.) These lines mark the true close of the soliloquy. “The native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” Fear of the dreams that may inhabit death makes cowards of us all. Some modern readers might be tempted to read line 28 as follows:

  • Thus con|science does |make co|wards of |us all

But the Iambic Pentameter pattern encourages us (when we can) to read feet as Iambic. In this case it makes more sense to emphasize does rather than make.

  • Thus con|science does |make co|wards of |us all

One thing worth noticing, and it’s my very favorite poetic technique and one that has been all but forgotten by modern poets, is anthimeria – the substitution of one part of speech for another.

arts-of-language-color-correctedThe native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought

Sickly is an adverb that Shakespeare uses as a verb. In Sister Miriam Jospeh’s book, Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, she writes: “More than any other figure of grammar, it gives vitality and power to Shakespeare’s language, through its packed meaning, liveliness and stir. ” She herself goes on to quote another writer, Alfred Hart:

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 this use of nouns and adjectives as verbs…. they add vigor, vividness and imagination to the verse… almost every play affords examples of such happy valiancy of phrase.

Finally, notice the imagistic and syntactic parallelism in “the native hue of resolution” and “the pale cast of thought”. It’s a nice poetic touch that adds emphasis to Shakespeare’s closing argument – our fears dissuade us from enterprises “of great pith and moment”.

Interestingly, even as Hamlet’s dithering ends, he never truly decides whether “to be or not to be”.

If this has been helpful, let me know.