Iambic Pentameter’s “neutrality” & Annie Finch’s defense of non-Iambic Meters

double-troubleRecently, I got into an email discussion with the poet Annie Finch concerning my scansion of Robert Frost’s Birches. I added some of that conversation to the post itself simply because I thought it might be interesting to other readers. Unlike me, Annie Finch has actually made something of herself. She teaches in Maine and has published several books of poetry, one of which I reviewed here, and has also published a guide to poetry: A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry. She’s even earned her own entry in Wikipedia. The opening paragraph, as of December 2016, says of her: “Dictionary of Literary Biography names her ‘one of the central figures in contemporary American poetry’ for her role, as poet and critic, in the contemporary reclamation of poetic meter and form.”

So, she has some very definite opinions concerning meter and how poems should be scanned. And just as human beings can’t agree on so much as boiling eggs, we disagreed  on the scansion of Frost’s Birches.

But an interesting upshot of the conversation was her mention of an article she wrote for a book called After New Formalism: Poets on Form, Narrative, and Tradition, a compendium of essays she curated and edited. Her own essay is entitled “Metrical Diversity: A Defense of the Non-Iambic Meters”. What she’s “defending” non-iambic meters from is the generally accepted assertion that the cadence of the English language is predominantly, and in the most general sense, iambic, and that all non-Iambic meters are therefore ‘unnatural’ or counter to the prevailing cadence of English.

And I agree with this latter assertion.

I favor keeping things simple. Take any sentence in the English language in which there is only a monosyllabic subject and  verb and it will normally always be iambic.

I am. I think. I love. You drink. You ate. We sing. We dance.

Likewise, any  monosyllabic noun in combination with a definite article will normally always be iambic

The stick. The house. The beer. The hope. The dream.

Any combination of indefinite and definite article with a monosyllabic noun is assumed to be iambic.

My road. His house. Their beer. Our hope. Her dream.

Now combine these basic patterns, the most elemental building blocks of the English language, and you have a language that is, at root, naturally iambic.

I love my house. You drink a beer. We dance the dream.  I think therefore I am.

If one accepts that the grounding cadence of the English language is iambic, then all other accentual patterns can be understood as variations on that basic pattern.

I love my red house. You drink a warm beer. We dance a happy dream.

The anapest can be understood as fulfilling the iambic cadence with an extra syllable. The same can be said for the amphibrachic ‘I whittled’, in which the extra syllable follows the iamb. And though the absorption of French and Latin vocabulary added more variety in the cadence of our language—I contrived, she unraveled, they capitulated—the monosyllabic and iambic roots of English encourage us to hear the iambs in these combinations, rather than the trochees. We instinctively emphasize the second syllable in each verb, turning each example into an anapest or, as above, an iamb with extra syllables.

  • By contrast, in the Finnish language, words are normally accented on the first syllable  and so the writing of the Finnish Kalevala in a trochaic meter as as natural (or neutral) to their language as Paradise Lost’s blank verse is to English.

But watch what happens if I do this:

My road. His house. Their horse. Our hope. Her dream.

Suddenly the patten is no longer iambic but trochaic. At which point the devil’s advocate might interject: “Ah ha! You see! The iambic rhythm isn’t intrinsic, only contextual.”  However, the very fact that the articles need to be italicized (in order to be read as trochaic)  proves the rule, and that’s that the building blocks of all English sentences are iambic. One might endlessly quibble over trochaic, cretic and amphibrachic patterns, but the fact remains that the most basic syntactic units of the English language are far and away iambic and if they’re not iambic—emphatic formulations like Stop it! Hit me! Catch her !—they are emphatic precisely because they disrupt English’s normal iambic cadence. In short, anapests, trochees and amphibrachs are best understood as variations on an iambic ground. Even when reading non-iambic meters, the English speaking ear looks for iambs.

And this is why most audience members will listen to a recitation of Robert Frost’s Mending Wall and never realize that it’s relatively strict Iambic Pentameter. The basic building blocks of blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) and the English Language are one and the same, the ear finds nothing immediately unusual about Frost’s blank verse (the only meter that can pull this off). And setting aside differences in Elizabethan and Restoration English, the same can be said for Shakespeare and Milton’s iambic verse, or Keats or Wordsworth.

As Finch herself concedes, “all but a tiny portion of poetry in English has been written so far in iambic pentameter” [p. 117]. That’s not sheer coincidence. However, Finch immediately tries to reframe that inconvenient fact. She continues: “…it is important to recognize that the iambic pentameter is not a neutral or essentially ‘natural’ meter. It’s connotations are distinct and culturally defined.”

And with that assertion Finch apparently considers her work done. She provides no explanation as to what she means by “distinct and culturally defined”. Apparently the obviousness of her assertion doesn’t merit an explanation. And that academically imperious phrase, “it is important to recognize“, does nothing to lend validity.

For me, at last, the entirety of her essay falls apart with this assertion. One either accepts what she thinks the reader should recognize, or one doesn’t. And I don’t. I’m really not seeing any room for debate: the basic syntactic building blocks of the English language are iambic. Try it for yourself. See if you can come up with a monosyllabic subject/verb or definite article/noun combination that isn’t iambic.

Finch then goes on to observe that when iambic pentameter was first being established “it was characterized by no substitution at all, clumsy substitution, and ‘forcing’ the meter.” She asserts that “perhaps the early history of non-iambic meters is developing analogously with the early history of the iambic pentameter”.

What Finch fails to mention is that this early history of Iambic Pentameter barely lasted two decades—if that. Sackville and Norton’s Gorboduc, the poster child for stiff Iambic Pentameter, was written in 1561. Between 1582 and 1592, Kyde produced The Spanish Tragedy and modern blank verse was underway. By comparison, as Finch herself states, non-iambic verse has “only”, quote-unquote, had “the past two centuries” to become “a barely accepted presence in English-language written poetry”. In what world are two decades in Elizabethan England analogous to two centuries?—and counting? I think, rather, what this firmly argues, once again, is that non-iambic meters are not “neutral”. Secondly, the reason for iambic pentameter’s initial strictness wasn’t because the ear was unaccustomed to the meter but because there was no history of blank verse when Norton and Sackville, for example, were writing. They were making it up and so, naturally, wrote a strict meter. After two centuries (and three or four centuries of metrical poetry in general), the same argument can’t be made for non-iambic meters.

The more traditional argument against non-iambic meters being “neutral” is that non-iambic meters don’t fare well with “substitution” (and by substitution we mean variant feet). Finch writes:

“Of the many questions that have yet to be answered about the nature of non-iambic meters, perhaps the most essential is the question of their hospitiality to metrical substitution. The prosodist Martin Halpern formalized in 1962 the idea, now a truism, that iambic meter is different from all the other meters because it alone can absorb substitutions with varying degrees of stress.”

This simply means that introducing a variant foot in an iambic pentameter line is less disturbing to the meter than doing so in a trochaic or dactylic line. For example, a dactylic poem:

And | where’s there a | scene more de | lightfully seeming
To | eyes like to | mine that is | blinded wi love
Than | yon setting | sun on the | steeple point gleaming
And | blue mist deep | tinging the edge | of the grove.

~ Song by John Clare p. 87 from Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters

Now let’s put in some “substitutions” (italics) and see how it works:

And |where’s there a scene more delightfully seeming
To |eyes like both of mine each blinded wi love
Than yon setting sun on the |steeple point reflecting
And |blue mist deep |tinging the edge |of the grove.

So, how distracting were the substitutions in the rewrite? If you say very, and most do, that (in a nutshell) is the argument against non-iambic meters being “neutral”. Because blank verse is built on the same iambic building blocks as the English language, it’s rhythm isn’t quite so easily undermined by so many substitutions/variant feet (italics):

To be, or not to be- that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-

To read dactylic meter is a deliberate act in a way that reading blank verse isn’t. This is because no sustained dactylic meter is ever going to sound like normal speech and this is because dactylic meters aren’t “neutral”. The same is true for anapestic meters and trochaic meters. And contrary to Finch’s vague assertion, this isn’t just a matter of cultural distinctions and definitions. This is why readers, when confronted with more  ambiguous lines (than mine above) are tempted “to force the pronunciation of certain words to fit the meter”. For instance:

“All the wild-fowl sang them to him,
In the moorlands and the fen-lands,
In the melancholy marshes;
Chetowaik, the plover, sang them,
Mahng, the loon, the wild-goose, Wawa,
The blue heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
And the grouse, the Mushkodasa!”

~ The Song of Haiwatha [Italics mine.]

Finch writes:

“As Timothy Steele puts it, ‘trochaics and triple meters… haven’t the suppleness and the capacity for fluid modulation that iambic measures have, not do they tolerate the sorts of variations (e.g. inverted feet at line beginnings or after mid-line pauses) that the texture of iambic verse readily absorbs.’ Steele gives as an example a line from Longfellow: ‘The blue heron, the Shuh,shu-gah,’ and comments ‘it is unlikely that we would emphasize the two definite articles… but that is what Longfellow wishes us to do since he is writing in trochaic tetrameter.’ This line of reasoning constitutes a tautological trap in which to catch non-iambic meters; because the meter is trochaic, we assume the pronunciation is meant to be unnatural; then we damn the trochaic meter for forcing unnatural pronunciations. According to this common conception, “substitutions” in a non-iambic meter  do not substitute at all, but actually demand that we “force” the pronunciation of certain words to fit the meter. Non-iambic meters are held to be so overbearing that they can’t allow word-stresses an independent and counterpointing rhythm.” [pp. 119-120]

Once again Finch’s argument seems to fall apart. On what basis does a reader “assume” the pronunciation “is meant to be unnatural”? Before reading the poem? How would they know? And why would a reader “force the pronunciation” unless their assumption (if they made one) was confirmed?—in which case it’s no longer an assumption. The problem is in the way Finch frames the argument. She implies that the reader imposes the idea of “unnaturalness” on the meter. But since the reader normally has no way of knowing the meter before reading the poem, on what basis would a reader make such an assumption? The meter itself is what imposes expectations on the reader as they’re reading. This is Steele’s point. This isn’t about retrospectively “catching” non-iambic meters. This is a recognition that a trochaic meter, because it’s in tension with the English language’s normal iambic cadence, all the more forcefully shapes a reader’s expectations.

And as far as that goes, Steele is mistaken in asserting that “this is what Longfellow wishes us to do”. In fact, Steele has no idea. It’s quite likely, as Finch argues, that Longfellow didn’t intend us to read the lines as trochaic. But what Finch doesn’t acknowledge is that it’s the meter itself that creates this expectation (perhaps despite Longfellow’s intentions). That said, if the adjective “blue” and the first “shuh” is sufficiently demoted (un-stressed) I can almost hear the lines as trochaic. To be honest, the  first line of the extract troubles me more than the line quoted by Steele and FInch. The meter wants us to read it like this:

All the |wild-fowl |sang them| to him

I read it this way:

All the |wild fowl |sang them| to him

And if I’m trying to read the poem as trochaic, I definitely feel the variant feet much more so than if the line were iambic.

Lastly, Finch’s statement that “while some student poets write metrical poetry most easily and happily in iambs, and equal number (in my experience) write it most easily and happily in dactyls and trochees,” has nothing whatsoever to do with whether a non-iambic meter is “neutral”. With enough practice one may skillfully walk backwards, but no one would conclude that walking backwards is as natural as walking forwards. Our bodies have evolved to walk a certain direction and all the evidence thus far (including several centuries of metrical practice) argues the evolution of the English language has and continues to favor an iambic cadence.

But the most intriguing question, to me, is why Annie Finch is even making the argument?

Why does it matter, to her, that non-iambic meters be seen as neutral? Does she think students are discouraged from writing non-iambic meters? Does she think it will change how non-iambic meters are written? Is it because she thinks her own poetry, which is often non-iambic, suffers neglect?

One answer she herself gives:

“Prosodic systems which maintain that only iambs can form a metrical base for substitution deny these students who might enjoy non-iambic meters the chance to develop skill in modulating them.” [p. 121]

This reasoning, of course, reflects her belief that 600 years of metrical practice is solely due to connotations “that are distinct and culturally defined”. In other words, our favoring of iambics has nothing to do with the language but is solely arbitrary—nurture rather than nature. Given that set of beliefs, it’s no wonder she’d blame “prosodic systems” for discouraging metrical experimentation. I’m not buying it though.

I personally think there’s more promise in asking whether non-iambic meters have been, or ever were, in any sense subversive. One of the earliest and most famous examples of trochaic meter, interestingly enough, comes from Thomas Middleton’s addition (as modern Shakespearean scholars assert) to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The cant of the three witches:

1 WITCH.  Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.
2 WITCH.  Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin’d.
3 WITCH.  Harpier cries:—’tis time! ’tis time!
1 WITCH.  Round about the caldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot!
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH.  Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
3 WITCH.  Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf;
Witches’ mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark;
Root of hemlock digg’d i the dark;
Liver of blaspheming Jew;
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse;
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips;
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,—
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingrediants of our caldron.
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH.  Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

The whole archetype of the witch is nothing if not subversive—both in accusation and practice. And I think it’s cool as all get out that Shakespeare/Middleton flipped the meter. Is there another example like this in other plays of the era? Right now, I can’t think of any. And what’s really cool is that the witches continue to address Macbeth and Banquo in trochaics, and also later in Act 4.

But why would the playwrights continue to have them speak in trochaics?

The answer is that the meter was distinctive and immediately recognizable to Elizabethan audiences. Finch will write:

“Few if any poets in our own century have written non-iambic meters that are subtly modulated and meant to be read aloud with natural speech stress, according to our twentieth-century preference. The fact, however, does not necessarily mean it cannot be done.” [p. 118]

Despite the hedging and wishful “few”, we can safely say that no poets have done so. Either Finch knows of an example or she doesn’t. So while I would be hesitant to say it can’t be done, we do know that it hasn’t been done; and I would bet against it simply because the witches’ cant is just as startling, hair-raising, and memorable today as 400 years ago. Our perception of trochaic meter hasn’t changed.

Finch’s desire to make metrical substitutions in non-iambic verse “natural” is essentially an effort to normalize non-iambic meters. To which I say: Why? The beauty of trochaic verse, among other non-iambic meters, is precisely that it can’t be normalized, that it’s difficult to pull off, and that that’s what makes the meter immediately recognizable.

And I would think, given Finch’s use of non-iambic meters and her self-identification with Wiccan practices, she would want to explore their potential disruptiveness. Have non-Iambic meters ever been actively exploited politically? Has trochaic meter, beyond Shakespeare’s Macbeth, ever been purposefully identified with the ‘witch’, the magical being, the disruptive female?

I don’t know.

Interestingly, and as an aside perhaps, Longfellow wasn’t the first American poet to tell a story about native Americans using trochees. The poet Schoolcraft wrote a romantic poem called Alhalla, or the Lord of Talladega, also in trochaic tetrameter. In the preface:to the poem Schoolcraft wrote:

“The meter is thought to be not ill adapted to the Indian mode of enunciation. Nothing is more characteristic of their harangues and public speeches, than the vehement yet broken and continued strain of utterance, which would be subject to the charge of monotony, were it not varied by the extraordinary compass in the stress of voice, broken by the repetition of high and low accent, and often terminated with an exclamatory vigor, which is sometimes startling. It is not the less in accordance with these traits that nearly every initial syllable of the measure chosen is under accent. This at least may be affirmed, that it imparts a movement to the narrative, which, at the same time that it obviates languor, favors that repetitious rhythm, or pseudo-parallelism, which so strongly marks their highly compound lexicography.”

With Schoolcraft’s preface in mind, Longfellow was to write:

“Your article . . . needs only one paragraph more to make it complete, and that is the statement that parallelism belongs to Indian poetry as well to Finnish… And this is my justification for adapting it in Hiawatha.”

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

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

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
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

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
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

The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter – II

  • If you’re coming to this post after having gotten a notification — what a mess. WordPress initially insisted on dating it to 2012. Don’t know why. I copied the contents of the original into this new one, but parts of the post were missing (I soon discovered). I think it’s all in one piece now. If something looks like it’s missing, let me know. May 7 2013

In my last post on this subject, I wrote that at some point I would get around to poetizing the rest of North’s passage. This pot has been simmering on the back burner for over a year. I don’t know if my effort is helpful to others, but I enjoy the process. This post isn’t quite so detailed or methodical as the other, since there’s no point in altogether repeating what was said before. Nevertheless, I’ve followed much the same process. Here again, are the two relevant paragraphs from North’s Plutarch:

antony-and-cleopatra-1-largeTherefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters, both Antonius himself and also from his friends, she made light of it and mocked Antonius so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her.

Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids of the waters) and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderful passing sweet savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf’s side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people. Some of them followed the barge all alongst the river’s side; others also ran out of the city to see her coming in; so that in the end there ran such multitudes of people one after another to see her that Antonius was left post-alone in the market-place in his imperial seat to give audience.


As I wrote before, this choice piece of purple prose was written by Thomas North – a translation of a French work by Jacques Amyot which was itself a translation from Plutarch – a Greek historian who wrote while Nero was emperor of Rome. Plutarch was describing Cleopatra’s shrewd and calculating courtship of Antony. So, as before, I took the paragraph and lineated it. Voila! We now have free verse. See? The easiest verse form in the history of literature.

Her ladies and gentlewomen also,
the fairest of them were apparelled like
the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids
of the waters) and like the Graces, some
steering the helm, others tending the tackle
and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came
a wonderful passing sweet savor of
perfumes, that perfumed the wharf’s side, pestered
with innumerable multitudes of people.
Some of them followed the barge all alongst
the river’s side; others also ran out
of the city to see her coming in;
so that in the end there ran such multitudes
of people one after another to see
her that Antonius was left post-alone
in the market-place in his imperial seat
to give audience.

I essentially limited each line to between 9 and 11 syllables. For some who are learning to write Iambic Pentameter, this can help make the transition manageable. Write out your poem as a paragraph, then break down the paragraph into lines having 9 to eleven syllables each. Don’t Cleopatra and Antony -Colored Pencil, Copyrightedworry about meter. (Interestingly, a strong Iambic rhythm was more typical of prose writers during the Elizabethan period. Some passages can be broken down into blank verse with very few changes.) Once this is done, you can think about each line rather than the paragraph as a whole. If you’re trying to write a sonnet, then something like this is more difficult. Not only do you have to think about rearranging the letters metrically, but you also have to rhyme without being obvious. Easier, if you’re first learning, to limit yourself to blank verse (unrhymed Iambic Pentameter).

For the next step, I rearranged the words in the lines so that they would fall into an Iambic pattern. Unlike last time, I didn’t try to write as strict an Iambic Pentameter line. For the most part, the trick is in weeding out the anapests. Anapests are a permitted and common variant foot in blank verse, but too many spoil the broth. I also wanted to limit them so that a reader can see how I re-arranged phrases to avoid them. I forcefully broke down the feet as though I were trying to read the lines as Iambic Pentameter (Tetrameter in some cases) — a little arbitrary. That shows me not only anapests but many trochaic feet. I ‘m going to have iron that all out.

Her lad|ies and gent|lewom|en also,
the fair|est of them|were appar|elled like
the nymphs |Nerei|des (which are| the mermaids
of the wat|ers) and like|the Grac|es, some
[5]steering |the helm, |others |tending |the tackle
and ropes |of the barge|, out of| the which| there came
a wond|erful |passing |sweet sa|vor of
perfumes, |that per|fumed the| wharf’s side, |pestered
with innum|erable mul|titudes| of people.
[10]Some of |them fol|lowed the barge| all alongst
the riv|er’s side; |others| also| ran out
of the cit|y to see |her com|ing in;
so that |in the end |there ran |such mul|titudes
of peop|le one af|ter ano|ther to see
[15]her that |Anton|ius |was left |post-alone
in the mark|et-place |in his |imper|ial seat
to give aud|ience.:


So it’s a mess. This is the way I see it after I’ve lineated it. Obviously, I’ve got my work cut out for me. So did Shakespeare. He saw the same prose that you do and went through a similar process. There’s going to be cutting, moving around, and rephrasing. Here’s how Shakespeare did it (though probably without having to think too much about it):

Enobarbus: Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ the eyes,
And made their bends adornings: at the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.

And here’s my first go. I made some interpretative changes for the fun of it but also left some of the lines relatively intact. I’ve also used a number of feminine endings (lines that end in an extra weak/unstressed syllable). So, I’ve given myself a little more freedom than last time.

Her ladies and her gentlewomen also,
The fairest were appareled like the nymphs —
The Nereides (which sailors call the mermaids) —
While others, like the Graces, steered the helm
Or moved like apparitions tending tackle
And rope. Out of the barge there came a savor
Of perfume, scenting the wharf, its byways pestered
With multitudes of people. Some of them
Followed the barge along the river’s side
While every street and alley multiplied
Their number such that in the end there ran
So great a crowd some claimed the dam was broken
And all the city’s tributaries emptied
To never be put back. Antonius
Was left to keep the marketplace alone
His vain imperial seat of no more use
Than were a galley in a sun-burnt desert
The tide that brought it there a whistling dust
And nothing more.

Her lad|ies and| her gent|lewom|en also,
The fair|est were |appar|elled like| the nymphs —
The Ner|eides |(which sail|ors call |the mermaids) —
cleopatraposter_thumbWhile o|thers, like| the Grac|es, steered |the helm
Or moved |like ap|pari|tions tend|ing tackle
And rope. |Out of| the barge| there came| a savor
Of per|fume, scen|ting the wharf, |its by|ways pestered
With mul|titudes |of peo|ple. Some| of them
Followed |the barge| along |the ri|ver’s side
While e|very street |and al|ley mul|tiplied
Their num|ber such |that in| the end| there ran
So great |a crowd |some claimed| a dam |was broken
And all | the ci|ty’s tri|butar|ies emp|tied
To ne|ver be| put back. |Anton|ius
Was left |to keep| the mar|ketplace| alone
His vain |imper|ial seat| of no| more use
Than were |a gal|ley in |a sun-|burnt desert,
The tide |that brought| it there| a whist|ling dust
And no|thing more.

That’s okay, but I think I can do better. I’m going to change, re-arrange and add to what I’ve already written. This time, I deliberately avoided looking at Shakespeare’s version (though it’s hard not to remember and I have given him a nod or two). Also, I’ve touched up the previous passage just a little. Modern purists might be outraged by the touch of elision in the final line. Call it my sense of humor. It makes (and made) blank verse so much easier to write. If you’re writing modern blank verse, don’t do it. You need an advanced poetic license for this kind of devilry.

Enobarbus: Anotonius, together with his friends,
Sent for her.
Agrippa: How did she answer?
Enobarbus: ····················She mocked them.
Agrippa: Mocked them?
Enobarbus: ············Made light of them. Disdained them.
Agrippa: ········································································How?
Enobarbus: She answered under purple sails – her barge
Put on the river. Flute, viol and cithern
Played, and the oars struck water to their rhythm.
The poop was gold; gold glittered in its wake
As though the sun strew petals after her.
As for the Queen herself, she lay bedecked
Like Aphrodite under cloth of gold
Of tissue; poor in clothing, profligate
Without, her artifice surfeiting most
Where she most starved. On either side stood boys,
Like love-struck Cupidons, fanning her
With multi-colored wings — or so it seemed
To the gathered at the water’s edge — their eager
And unschooled apprehension peopling the thin air
With giddy excess.
Agrippa: ··············Wonderful!
Enobarbus: ····························She mocked him.
Agrippa:·How so? She praised him.
·····································No, Agrippa. Mocked him—
As if a dish were set before the King
And to a man all cried: Long live the cook!
Agrippa: Poor Antony.
Enobarbus: But Cleopatra! Girls —
She chose the loveliest girls who by
Their jade and turquoise anklets, and the seashells
art.overview.437.jpgThat cupped their dainty breasts, were like the Nereidies —
Or mermaids. I, myself, could almost swear
A school of mermaids piloted the helm,
Who by the flourish of their supple fingers
Bewitched the Nile. Out of the barge there came
A savor — perfume — scenting all who crowded
The wharfs and harborage. The city spilled
Its multitudes. As many as there were
Still more came bursting from the streets and byways
Until the city’s tributaries emptied;
And there, there in the marketplace, there where
A city’s ticklish populace had thronged
There — ci-devant — sat Antony. His high
Imperial seat had shoaled her water —
A galleon in a sun-burnt desert, call her;
The tide that brought her there a whistling dust —
He baked i’th’ sun.


Donne: His Sonnet V · Spank me, ô Lord

My New Favorite ‘Complete’

This post was requested by Melissa. She asked me to provide a scansion, but I can’t just scan a poem and not talk about.

I’m sure a few upper lips in academe will be horrified by the title of my post but, let’s not kid ourselves, when we boil down Donne’s fifth Shawcross DonneHoly Sonnet, we get the anguished guilt-trip of a penitent. Such is the power of a great poet, and such was the power of King James English, that Donne could turn an ostensibly confessional poem into, if not a masterpiece, a compelling work of literature.

Anyway, I think this post was meant to be. While I was noodling around on Christmas Eve’s Eve at a Montpelier used book store, I discovered another complete collection of Donne’s poetry. Now I have three. This one comes from The Anchor Seventeenth-Century Series and is edited by John T. Shawcross. This particular edition, printed in 1967 (and in a becoming shade of pink) is now my favorite. It may be out of print. The reason it’s my favorite is because Shawcross  ‘gets’ the importance of spelling and punctuation in Elizabethan poetics.  H.J.C. Grierson, the editor of the two volume gold-gilt Oxford edition glosses over the punctuation in crucial places. Even my former favorite, the Everyman edition edited by C.A. Partrides, doesn’t quite get it right. The Norton “Critical” Edition (air quotes), is useless. Don’t get me started. Donne’s metrical practice isn’t all that difficult if we preserve the spelling and punctuation. Donne did not intend his poetry to be difficult. He gave us all sorts of clues. Here’s how Shawcross sums up his editorial practices in relation to the crucial question of Donne’s orthography.

[T]he danger of a plethora of so-called scholarly texts is present, but a revision of Grierson’s, eschewing certain misreadings which often seem to have arisen from delicacy and certain modernizations which obscure subtleties, has long been needed. (…) ¶ The practice of inserting an apostrophe to indicate elision has generally been followed. It is consistently followed in preterits and participles where “e” would create another syllable. 9e.g. “deliver’d,” (…) , in combinations of “the” and “to” where the vowel is not pronounced (e.g. “the’seaven,” (…), and to’advance,” (…), and in the coalescing of two contiguous vowels from two different words (e.g. “Vertue’attired,” (…), which is given three metrical beats.) In the latter case the vowels are really pronounced but within one beat, as in Italian. Where syncope is necessary for meter (e.g. in “discoverers,” (…) no elision is inidicated unless an apostrophe appears in the copy text. (The Complete Poetry of John Donne: Edited with an Introduction, Notes and Variants by John T. Shawcross p. xxii)

If Donne’s orthographic intentions matter to you, look no further. Without further ado, here is Donne’s Sonnet V as edited by Shawcross:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,
And burn me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

the Scansion (& my high horse)

Back on my post discussing Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, I covered the same issues that are relevant to this poem. So I’ll try not to repeat too much. As with Sonnet 14, Donne spells ‘er’ words, ‘re’, when he wants you to treat them monosyllabically. He spells power as powre, for example. When he doesn’t want you to pronounce the ‘e’ in ‘ed’ words, he apostrophizes them, e.g. drown’d. Most importantly, when Elizabethan poets wanted you to elide vowels, they used the apostrophe to show you which ones:


These days, by contrast, we write you’ve instead of ‘youhave’ and Ive instead of ‘Ihave’. It’s the same thing. Contractions weren’t normalized and besides that, Donne (like other poets) was willing to take liberties where necessary. In every on-line posting of this sonnet (admittedly not by professional editors) these little niceties are left out. A little more unforgivably, the circumflex above the o (ô) is also left out. If reading the poem the way Donne wrote it matters then, well, it matters. As for sonnets in print (and edited by the experts) all but one leave out the apostrophes between the words above. Goes to show that professionals are just amateurs with degrees.

None of this is really a problem until your instructor gives you this poem as a homework assignment. They probably recommended a book like the Norton “Critical” Edition (air-quotes) or provided a photocopy that entirely omits the original cues that would make scanning the work so much easier. If you had the edition by Shawcross, then you might come up with something like this:

Scansion of Sonnet V

So, the first thing to be said is that once historical concerns are out of the way, scansion isn’t an exact science. Where one person might read a pyrrhic foot, another might read an iamb, spondaic or trochaic foot (depending on the words and phrase). My own practice is not to scan it the way we would read it in the 21rst century, but how Donne might have imagined it or read it himself. With that in mind, I find Donne to be the most metrically inventive and resourceful poet in the English Language (and including Shakespeare) and the most enjoyable to scan. The way Donne plays meter against phrase and line is beautifully flexible and allows for a wide variety of shade and inflection. My own scansion reflects that. I made some choices that others are welcome to disagree with (offer your own). We’ll go by quatrains just to illustrate how important meter can be to a poem’s meaning.

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black |sinne hath| betraid to endlesse night
4. My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.

Line 1. I love this first line.
Line 2.
Angelike is read is angelic.
Line 3. Most modern readers would probably read the second foot as strictly trochaic. The meter, however, makes a spondaic reading possible. I decided to go for it because (according to my rule of thumb) if a foot can be read as an iamb (or more simply if we can emphasize the second syllable) then we probably should (at least to see what effect it has on the line). In this case, emphasizing hath emphasizes the betrayal, sort of like: “Oh no! What have you done?” or “O no! What hast thou wrought?” Remember, Donne was living in the midst of dramatists like Jonson, Shakespeare and Marlowe. One Sir Richard Baker said of Donne that he was “not dissolute, but very neat; a great visiter of Ladies, a great frequenter of Playes, a great writer of conceited Verse.” The playgoing rubbed off on him. The Elizabethan era was dramatic and Donne’s poems are like little speeches — little dramatic set pieces.

You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new | seas in mine eyes, that so I might
8. Drowne my | world with my weeping earnestly,

Line 5. Heaven was pronounced as a two syllable or one syllable word by various poets. The reasons seem to have involved dialect or bald poetic expediency. Shakespeare, for instance, seems to have pronounced it disyllabically. Donne, to judge by his poems, may have pronounced it quickly and as a monosyllabic word, heav’n (or at least that’s how he treated the word in his poems).
Line 7.  Once again, I opted to emphasize the second syllable. A trochaic first foot would hardly be unheard of in Donne’s day (though used conservatively). I think he would have expected his readers to keep the meter where such a thing is possible. In this case, it makes sense. In Life 6 both instances of “new” are in an unstressed position. In line seven, it makes dramatic sense that Donne would be asking God to make new seas.
Line 8. For the same reasons, I emphasized ‘my’ in the first foot of the eighth line. Donne, in the first line, calls himself a little world. It makes sense, to me, that Donne is emphasizing his world as opposed to God’s e.g. You have your world, and I have my world. Also, this pattern of emphasizing normally unstressed words  is a technique that one finds throughout Donne’s poetry. The trick is what makes Donne’s poetry so speech-like and declamatory (he was, after all, famed for his oratories at the pulpit).

Or wash |it if| it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
12. And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,

Line 9. Again, rather than read the second foot of this line as pyrrhic, I made it iambic. If one reads Donne the way I do, one can’t help detect a sense of humor. “Alright already,” he seems to say, “if you can’t drown the word again, then wash it. Fine.”

And burn |me ô| Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

Line 13. If there was any doubt as to Donne’s predilection for shifting stress in ways a modern reader might miss and dismiss, the second foot of this clearly puts that to rest. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the circumflex above ‘o’.

The circumflex has its origins in the polytonic orthography of Ancient Greek, where it marked long vowels that were pronounced with high and then falling pitch. In a similar vein, the circumflex is today used to mark tone contour in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

All educated Elizabethans were schooled in classical Greek and Latin (even if they didn’t remember it all). Donne, with the circumflex John Donneabove the expostulation ‘ô’, makes clear that ‘ô’ receives the stress, not ‘Lord’. One can read that ‘ô’ in a variety of ways. I personally read the ‘ô’ with, perhaps, grim humor instead of exhausted despair. Some scholars seem to think Donne lost his sense of humor with his later divine poems. I’m not so sure. A quirky sense of humor runs through almost all of Donne’s poetry. I’m not convinced his old age was as sour or strict as some scholars might have us think.

Here’s how I read (and hear) it — the humor. It took me about 20 times to get the tone roughly where I wanted it. See what you think. (I’ve had a bad cough, from whooping cough, for about three months now. Can you tell?):

As I’ve written before, a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. To me, the meter suggests a touch of wry humor that knocks the academic dust right out of it.

Spank me, ô Lord, for I’have been bad.

Unlike some of Donne’s other sonnets, the meaning, I think, is fairly straightforward. The point of the sonnet, in my opinion, is not to display metaphysical cunning (as in many of his other poems), but to create a mood, much like a small soliloquy. In my reading, I’ve chosen to interpret that mood as wry humor.

So, once again, let’s go quatrain by quatrain:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
4. My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.

1. Donne sets the stage by dividing himself into his corporeal body and his incorporeal soul. C.A. Partrides observes that “man was habitually said to be the microcosm or ‘abridgement’ of the universe’. (John Donne The Complete English Poems p. 437)2. The elements (the body) and an angelic sprite (the soul).
3. The overstatement (even for Donne I think) of this line and next partly invite me to read the sonnet with some humor.
4. The assertion that the soul “must die” was unorthodox (C.A. Partrides calls it “a potentially dangerous notion”) and, at the wrong place and time, flirted with heresy. If the sonnet was interpreted as an exercise in wry humor, the assertion probably felt less heretical if it was even an issue.

You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
8. Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly,

5. You refers to Christ. 7. Powre can be read in the sense of create.
7-8. Donne asks Christ to create oceans out of Donne’s tears so that he may drown himself in his “earnest weeping”.

Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
12. And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,

9. “be drown’d no more” This refers to God’s promise after Noah’s flood, symbolized by the rainbow, to never flood the world again. “neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.” Genesis 9.11
11. heretofore – hitherto
12. “let  their flames retire,” That is, let the fires of lust and envy retreat. Lust presumably refers to his youth and envy to Donne’s involvement on Church and Court politics. Lust and envy are among the seven deadly sins.

And burn me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

14. The last line is a reference to Psalm 69.9.For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up… When I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach.” Shawcross, in his notes to this sonnet, also sees a reference to the Eucharist. The blood and body of Christ constitutes his house and the eating of the wafer, Christ’s body, removes the sin of partaker. The final image is a compelling one. The image is that of God burning away (consuming), in a fiery conflagration, at least one part of Donne’s world — the part composed of the “Elements”. What will remain, presumably, is the Angelike spright.  However, this interpretation threatens to contradict Donne’s earlier assertion that both parts of his house must die. The question then pertains to what, exactly, will remain once God is done ‘consuming’ Donne with his purifying conflagration. What, exactly, will be “healed”? It’s a riddle unless we treat Donne’s first utterance as wry overstatement, and Donne’s conclusion as an implied admission that his soul is eternal and cannot be destroyed, only purified or healed.

And that’s that. I hope you enjoyed the post. Let me know. (Guess I’m making up for lost time.)

Subverting Early English Poetics

fig2-leninbedeThe title above belongs to a post by the blogger Harper Eliot of the blog (It Girl. Rag Doll). She’s written a beautiful little treatise on Old English poetics. She writes:

“When I was in the upper school I spent a month of each of my four years studying the history of literature. By looking at a variety of texts from Gilgamesh to Oedipus Rex to The Tempest to the Lyrical Ballads to Riddley Walker, I was able to gain a rather comprehensive overview of the evolution of literature, and one of the main things I remember from these classes is writing poetry. Whatever era or subject we were studying, we were encouraged to write poetry in a similar style. So I wrote sonnets and villanelles; I wrote in iambic pentameter and trochees; I wrote quatrains and free-verse; and I often enjoyed the freedom of subject juxtaposed with the structure of the form. I also very much liked the way in which I now, in a contemporary setting, I am free to pick and choose from past forms and find one that will fit whatever poem I would like to write.”

I highly recommend the post: informative and playful. Among other things, she tries her hand at old English verse. (If you need a refresher on the rules of alliterative verse, visit my post The Beautiful Changes.) She what you think. ! Be warned though, Harper’s blog contains erotic content and is intended for grown-ups. If you’re underage, behave yourself. !

On the subject of Rhyming

& Trophy Rhymes

I guess this post is going to fall under the rubric: me & my opinions. But here goes: I’ve always admired anyone who can do something I can’t do – artists, athletes, writers, poets, musicians, composers, etc… This is the reason why the majority of modern art and poetry does little to nothing for me.  As far as I’m concerned, “originality” is one of the 20th century’s greatest con jobs (and, ironically, it’s most “original” contribution to the history of art). Obviously, geniuses are few and far between. So, what’s a generation to do? Simple. Redefine artistic accomplishment and transcendence as “originality”. Suddenly, the 20th & 21rst centuries example more artistic geniuses than at any other time since God created Earth.

rhymesComposers like Bach and Mozart were not original in a modern sense. They refined and synthesized what they inherited until the sum exceeded the parts. Bach created no new musical forms and neither did Mozart. For that matter, neither did Beethoven. Shakespeare and Milton also didn’t invent any new forms or invent a new language. They did what everyone else was doing, but better; and the same for Keats, Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt. The difference between originality (as a goal in and of itself) and the originality of “genius” (a more organic byproduct of a powerfully creative mind) is a fine one. My opinion is that the difference is conveniently confused. There are a number of poets and artists whose works are undeniably “original” but which, despite being a flavor never concocted before, are not that good. I’ve already mentioned some of them in previous posts and time will tell whether I’m right. I might not be.

And this brings me to rhyme. The vast majority of 20th century poets don’t use rhyme. Even translators translating rhymed poems can’t be bothered. Part of the reason, possibly, is that rhyme is seen as “unoriginal” (which misses the point). It’s gotten to such an extreme that for some poets using a recognizable language —let alone English— is unoriginal. Literally. The result for me is that the vast majority of contemporary poems bore me to tears. I like to be wowed and impressed. All else being equal, free verse does neither. Rhyme (and meter) is to poetry what the half-pipe is to snowboarding. It turns snowboarding into an Olympic event. Without the half-pipe an amateur can look an awful lot like a pro. Frost’s quip concerning nets and tennis comes to mind. For example, Ted Kooser’s generic poems bore me to tears. They do nothing that the millionth paragraph doesn’t do, but I’ve read that this is exactly how Kooser wants them — as ordinary as doormats. He’s succeeded.

Among those poets who do write rhyme, however, there is also division. In my own poetry, the rhyming often isn’t very noisy. I once sent some of my poems to the poet Fred Chappell. He criticized the originality of my rhymes and I wrote back that I don’t write trophy rhymes (a term of my own coining and a lie). Back when  I wrote about Emily Dickinson, I summarized most of the rhymes available to poets (using rhymes from Emily Dickinson’s own poetry), but the one rhyme that I left out, because it’s not truly a unique kind of rhyme, is the trophy rhyme. The term can be dismissive (I can’t think of a lasting poem that has endured because of its novelty-rhymes), but can also signify the importance of the rhyme (because entire poems can be built on it). Fred Chappell’s short poems, which I enjoy reading, often have a tongue-in-cheek, sardonic or irreverent tone. The first poem from the book C makes a nice example:


In such a book as this,
The poet Martial says,
Some of the epigrams
Shall have seen better days,
And some are hit-or-miss;
But some — like telegrams —
Deliver intelligence
With such a sudden blaze
The shine can make us wince.

Did you see what happened there? The whole poem/joke was built around the trophy rhyme: epigrams and telegrams.  Limerick’s do the same thing. In Limericks, in fact, you will find some of the English language’s most successful trophy rhymes (which is, after all, the whole point of the limerick).

Said Edna St. Vincent Millay,
As she lay in the hay all asplay:
“If you make wine
From these grapes, I opine
We’ll stay in this barn until May

The New Limerick p. 27

In both the poems, the rhymes draw attention to themselves. The poem serves the rhyme. That’s okay if that’s the kind of poem one wants to write. Conversely, what makes trophy rhymes so useful in limericks, their cleverness and unexpectedness, is what can make them problematic in other kinds of poetry. My own approach to rhyme is a bit different from Chappell’s (and poets like him). For me, rhymes are not meant to be noticed. If they’re noticed, then I’ve done something wrong. If you don’t want rhymes to be noticed, it’s probably best to steer away from the “original” rhyme, the novelty rhyme or, as I call them, the trophy rhyme. My opinion is that too many poets (and teacher’s of poetry) put emphasis on the novelty of rhymes without really understanding the different effects rhyme is capable of (mostly because they’re not that familiar with the art).

So, if I don’t want rhymes to be noticed, why do I write them?

Because I prefer them to effect the reader or listener at a more subliminal level. I want the rhymes to feel organic. If you’ve listened to an unfamiliar poem, without knowing that it rhymes (and if it is well written) you might not have noticed the rhyming at first. You might have noticed a certain musicality to the poetry, only gradually realizing that the poem rhymed while eventually guessing at, or recognizing, the ending of lines and the actual rhyme-scheme. This kind of rhyme doesn’t draw attention to itself. At its best it serves to emphasize the poetic currents, emotion and thought driving the poem. The effect that rhyme has on thought process, mood and development can be discerned in the differing rhyme schemes of the Spenserian, Shakespearean, Petrarchan sonnets. The epigrammatic sting of the Shakespearean Sonnet’s closing couplets, for example, encourages an entirely different kind of mood and argument than the more self-enclosing rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet.

To a greater or lesser degree, and if the poem is written with skill, the rhymes will reinforce the current of thought and mood in much the same way that a skillful composer (or a band like the Beatles or Bob Dylan) will unite word, meaning and musical phrase (where less talented musicians and bands fail).

By way of example, consider Frost’s great poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:

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.

Not one of those rhymes is ‘original’. They’re as well-worn as an old saddle; and yet Frost managed to write one of the greatest, most beloved and memorized poems in the English language. What does that tell you about rhyming? Everything you need to know.

1.) The originality or novelty of rhymes is unimportant. No, really.

2.) English is a finite language. There are a finite number of rhymes.  Searching for the trophy rhyme can stilt ones poetry just as unnaturally as contorted syntax.

3.) A trophy rhyme is a prima donna. It’s always going shift the spotlight from the content of your poem to itself. Rappers count on this because the trophy rhyme is intrinsic to their art. The rhymes demonstrate their skill and prowess with the language. Likewise, in the right poem, a trophy rhyme can add a little sparkle.

4.) If someone tells you your rhymes are predictable, what they’re really saying (knowingly or not) is that your lines are predictable. There is no such thing as a predictable rhyme (inasmuch as all rhymes are predictable). What matters is the line. If you twist the grammar or otherwise contort your phrasing for the sake of rhyme, then the rhymes are going to feel predictable and “rhyme driven”. (Notice how many of the lines in Frost’s poem are not end-stopped but enjambed.) 

The trophy rhyme lends itself to satire, humor, wit, irreverence, sarcasm, the tongue-in-cheek, light-heartedness while, in a form like rap, it draws attention to itself by underscoring the importance of the relevant words. The poem Departmental, another poem by Frost, is a beautiful example of how trophy rhymes emphasize a poem’s satirical bent, humor and wit. Shell Silverstein regularly based his poems on a given trophy rhyme. In the following, it’s bear and frigidaire.

Bear In There by Shel Silverstein
There’s a Polar Bear
SsilversteinIn our Frigidaire–
He likes it ’cause it’s cold in there.
With his seat in the meat
And his face in the fish
And his big hairy paws
In the buttery dish,
He’s nibbling the noodles,
He’s munching the rice,
He’s slurping the soda,
He’s licking the ice.
And he lets out a roar
If you open the door.
And it gives me a scare
To know he’s in there–
That Polary Bear
In our Fridgitydaire.
As for myself, trophy rhymes were exactly what I needed in á la Maison:

a la Maison - Version 2So, if you’re going to rhyme, think about the kind of poem you want write. Don’t be bullied into novelty-rhymes for the sake of originality. Making a poem out of ordinary rhymes that is transcendent and unforgettable? Now that is originality. Making the extraordinary out of the  ordinary and the every day is, to me at least, the half-pipe of poetry.

For another nice take on rhyme, read A.E. Stallings razor sharp Presto Manifesto.

The Senses & the Art of Imagery

What is Imagery?

I’ve been editing a textbook for an educator who includes a section on the five senses and imagery, and this got me thinking. I questioned whether some of the examples were really evocative of the five senses and questioned whether some of the examples were even imagery (if they weren’t pictorial or visual). In the course of writing this post, I’ve hung myself out to dry. I’ve changed how I think about imagery and if my definition doesn’t suit you, feel free to ignore it.

If you go to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the entry under image begins like this:

“Image” and “imagery” are among the most widely used and poorly understood terms in poetic theory, occurring in so many different contexts that it may well be impossible to provide any 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.

And this is why Encyclopedia’s aren’t always the best place to go for definitions: they have to represent all the various constituencies. Along the way we get a gem like the following: “The concept of “poetic imagery” is thus a kind of oxymoron, installing an alien medium (painting, sculpture, visual art) at the heart of verbal expression”. Any newcomer to poetry, having read Princeton’s overview, will probably depart in greater confusion than they arrived. Next in line is the word Imagery. Princeton discusses Imagery for 7 single-spaced, double columned pages. Fascinating stuff, but not very concise. The third section of the article is called “Recent Developments” and begins like this:

More recently the literary study of imagery has become at once more advanced and more problematic. There are a plethora of studies in speculative and experimental psychology, involving phenomenology, epistemology, and cognitive psychology, looking very closely at the question of what exactly mental imagery is.

Whenever the epistemologists show up, if there isn’t a corpse already, there will be. Ultimately though, imagery is like pornography, everyone knows it when they see it. The morally righteous have no trouble identifying erotica (which doesn’t have a shred of actual pornography) as, well, pornography. They know that erotica, like the best poetry, is rich with imagery; and that the thought of what goes on in a reader’s imagination is immeasurably worse than anything on the page.

My two favorite (and most practical) definitions of imagery are from the The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms and The Poetry Dictionary. They are elegantly simple.

Image, Imagery A mental picture, a concrete representation of something; a likeness the senses can perceive. (…) Many images, such as a “bracelet in a wheel barrow,” appeal primarily to the sense of sight. But an image can invoke the other senses too, as in a “sniff of perfume,” a “jangling of banjoes,” a “scratchy blanket,” or a “tart cherry.” [from the The Poetry Dictionary]

Now isn’t that a breath of fresh air? And from the Longman Dictionary:

image a pictorial likeness, literal or figurative, that illustrates an idea, object, or action by appeal to the senses. (…) Generally, images are of two types: fixed image, in which the picture conveys a concrete and specific meaning throughout its various levels of interpretation, and free image, in which the image creates a general meaning to be subjectively interpreted in various ways by readers.

imagery the use of pictures, figures of speech, or description to evoke action, ideas, objects, or characters. The term ranges in meaning from the use of a single IMAGE or detail to the accumulative effect of a poem’s figurative devices that imply THEMATIC STRUCTURE.

Both entries define imagery as, in part, a “mental picture” or “pictorial likeness”. On the other hand, they also each state that an image is something that “the senses can perceive” or something that “appeals to the senses”. (Interestingly, all the examples given by The Poetry Dictionary are pictorial or visual “images” that evoke one of the senses.)  But if we limit imagery to the pictorial, what do we make of the following:

And like a rose in vermeil tint and shape,
In fragrance soft, and coolness to the eye…

(John Keats: Hyperion, I, 209-10)

The phrase, “fragrance soft” isn’t pictorial. It describes  the rose’s fragrance through the  tactile soft. Does this mean it’s not an image? We can’t picture a fragrance, but if it’s not an image, then what do we call it? My own habit is to apply Occam’s Razor to all things literary: keep it simple. The simplest thing is to recognize that Imagery is used figuratively when applied to poetry. We could  divide Imagery into Imagery/Visual, and Sense Imagery/Non-Visual, but this seems needless. I think it’s best to interpret Imagery, when applied to poetry, as any passage that evokes any of our senses: visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, organic, or kinesthetic.

Why was my first instinct to insist on imagery as strictly pictorial? It allowed me to talk about some beautiful and very rare imagery that poets are all too unaware of:  what I would have called an  “olfactory image“,  “auditory image“, “tactile image” or “gustatory image“.  I’m not referring to the “image” that only evokes the sense of touch (for example), but images that are pictorial/visual evocations of touch. Since I’m not going to divide imagery into imagery and sense imagery, it’s probably easiest to refer to this imagery as Synaesthetic Imagery.

What is and isn’t…

Interestingly, many poets who think they’re invoking one of the seven senses, actually aren’t. I remember reviewing Calendar by Annie Finch. She was genuinely surprised when I called nearly all of her imagery visual. But she’s not alone. The majority of poets, including me (though I try to be aware of it) hew almost exclusively to the sense of sight. Here’s what I mean. Take the example given by The Poetic Dictionary, “sniff of perfume”.

If the poet writes, “the dog sniffed behind her ear”, then the reader sees a visual image but the sense of smell is not invoked. This is strictly a visual image.

However, if the poet writes, “the dog found a sniff of perfume behind her ear”, then that is a visual image the also invokes our sense of smell. Why? Because a sniff of perfume describes what the dog is smelling (or found), whereas the first example does not describe the smell. Make sense? In order to invoke a sensation, you need to describe the sensation. It’s not enough to simply refer to someone smelling, touching, tasting or hearing. The imagery that invokes a sensation tells us something about the sensation.

  • As an interesting aside: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics posits seven senses:

Psychologists have identified seven kinds of mental images: visual (sight, then brightness, clarity, color, and motion), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste) tactile (touch, then temperature, texture), organic (awareness of heartbeat, pulse, breathing, digestion), and kinesthetic (awareness of muscle tension and movement).

Is there such a thing as a visual or pictorial auditory, olfactory or tactile image? Yes. And this imagery is some of the loveliest (and perhaps rarest) in all poetry. The only book, to my knowledge, that discusses this kind of imagery was one published in 1949 by Richard Harter Fogle called The Imagery of Keats and Shelley. If gaining real insight into the nature of imagery interests you, then this book is indispensable. It’s from Fogle’s book that I take the term: Synaesthetic Imagery. The first chapter, wherein he defines imagery somewhat differently than I do, is interesting (to me) but some will find it academic and abstruse. If you skip it, the rest of the book won’t suffer.  Interestingly, he too rejects the notion of the image as solely pictorial. At the outset, he writes:

Another source of possible misconception is the common identification of imagery with pictorial representation, which has misled many who have accepted the sensory view of imagery into overemphasizing the element and excluding other sensory factors. ¶ While giving due heed to those objections to the word, I nevertheless employ it here in default of a better. In this study “imagery” will be used broadly to signify the principle of “figurativeness”.

The Visual Auditory Image | Sound

So, how does one write a visual auditory image? Like this:

Thy visible music-blasts make deaf the sky,
They cymbals clang to fire the Occident,
Thou dost thy dying so triumphally:
I see the crimson blaring of they shawms!

(The Imagery of Keats and Shelley, p. 103)

The extract is from Ode to the Setting Sun by Francis Thompson. And did you catch it? — the “crimson blaring”? This isn’t exactly what Fogle calls synaesthetic imagery, but it’s a nice term and I’m going to use it. The poet has used the sense of sight to describe a sound. This kind of thing is exceedingly rare and beautiful. The reason Fogle chose Keats and Shelley is that Shelley, to a certain degree, acts as a contrast and foil to Keats’ imagery. Shelley’s imagery is generally more abstract and “intellectual” whereas Keats’ imagery is more concrete and sensual. Naturally enough, some of the most beautiful Synaesthetic Imagery or Sense Imagery, is by Keats — well-known for the sensuality of his poetry.

Hyperion, leaving twilight in the rear,
Came slope upon the threshold of the west;
Then, as was wont, his palace-door flew ope
In smoothest silence, save what solemn tubes,
Blown by the serious Zephyrs, gave of sweet
And wandering sounds, slow-breathed melodies;
And like a rose in vermeil tint and shape,
In fragrance soft, and coolness to the eye,
That inlet to severe magnificence
Stood full blown, for the God to enter in.

(Ibid., p. 113: Hyperion, I, 209-10)

Here again, Keats blends sensations in the most beautiful way. When he describes how Hyperion’s palace doors open, a visual image, he creates a synaesthetic image of their sound — smoothest silence — a tactile description of an auditory “silence”. When the Zephyrs blow Keats first describes their noise as “wandering sounds” — a visual and arguably kinesthetic image — and then as slow-breathed melodies (an organic and visual description of the auditory “melody”).  Keats describes the palace door with the imagery of a vermeil rose “in fragrance soft, and coolness to the eye”.  Notice how fragrance is described synaesthetically by the tactile soft and how the vermiel color is described as having coolness to the eye. While these last examples aren’t really visual, I couldn’t resist pointing them out. They are equally rare and beautiful synaesthetic images.

You heard — the song the moth sings, the babble
Of falling snowflakes (in a language
No school has taught you), the scream
Of the reddening bud of the oak tree

As the bud bursts into the world’s brightness. (The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, p. 565)

In  Muted Music, Robert Penn Warren uses the synaesthetic image of reddenning oak buds screaming into the world’s brightness to powerfully close the poem. The synaesthesia creates a kind of crescendo only emphasized by the word scream.

Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off,
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’other.

Perhaps the most famous and powerful moment of synaesthetic imagery occurs in this passage from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Pity is compared to a wind which shall blow “the horrid deed” in everyone’s eye. It’s when Shakespeare combines this image with the visual imagery of the new-born babe striding the “trumpet-tongued” blast (both kinesthetic and auditory), that the imagery becomes brilliantly synaesthetic. The sound of the wind becomes the brilliant visual image of the new-born babe “horsed/Upon the sightless couriers of the air”. Herein lies the power of Shakespeare’s poetry – his sheer and unrivaled imagistic genius. To say that he was a Michelangelo of imagery might be apt.

The Visual Kinesthetic Image | Motion

At this, through all his bulk an agony
Crept gradual, from the feet unto the crown,
Like a lithe serpent vast and muscular
Making slow way, with head and neck convulsed
From over-strained might

(The Imagery of Keats and Shelley, p. 97: Hyperion, I, 259-63)

Remember that Princeton defines the kinesthetic sense as awareness of muscle tension and movement. Notice how beautifully Keats describes the kinesthetic feeling of exhaustion and muscular agony like a “lithe serpent… with head and neck convulsed from over-strained might”.  Clear cut examples from other poets are hard to find, but here’s a famous passage from Shakespeare that, while the imagery may not be strictly synaesthetic, deserves mentioning.

Aye, but to die, and go we know not where
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world…

(William Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, III, i. Claudio)

Shakespeare combines the tactile cold with the kinesthetic obstruction. Because Elizabethan English was constructed nominally rather than verbally, the reader or listener isn’t sure which is modifying which. Is it the obstruction that is cold, or the cold that is obstructing? Shakespeare, who always liked to think in opposites, proceeds to sensible warm motion“. The image combines the tactile warm with the kinesthetic motion. So far, we don’t really have anything visual, but Shakespeare goes one “opposite” further (as if such a thing were possible) and combines life and death in kneaded clod.  Kneaded is both tactile and kinesthetic. It implies the ability to feel and awareness. Clod is lifeless, immobile and visual. At last, we are given a pictorial image of the lifeless clod combined with the paradoxically tactile and kinesthetic kneaded. Shakespeare’s imagistic genius pictures death as both a lifeless inability to escape and as a paradoxical awareness of that lifeless inability to escape. While these opposites may not necessarily be synaesethetic in a Keatsian sense, I think they’re worth including.

The Visual Olfactory Image | Smell

How does one make scent visual? Here are two examples by Shelley once again drawn from Fogle:

And suddenly my brain became as sand
“Where the first wave had more than half erased
The track of deer on desert Labrador,
Whilst the fierce wolf from which they fled amazed
“Leaves his stamp visibly upon the shore
Until the second bursts –so on my sight
Burst a new Vision never seen before. —
“And the fair shape waned in the coming light
As veil by veil the silent splendour drops
From Lucifer, amid the chrysolite
“Of sunrise ere it strike the mountain tops —
And as the presence of that fairest planet
Although unseen is felt by one who hopes
“That his day’s path may end as he began it
In that star’s smile, whose light is like the scent
Of a jonquil when evening breezes fan it,
“Or the soft note in which his dear lament
The Brescian shepherd breathes, or the caress
That turned his weary slumber to content. —

(Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Trumph of Life, II. 405-423)

Where else have you heard light described as the scent of an evening jonquil? If you ever wonder how to characterize a scent, don’t let your imagination be limited by what you smell. Think of smell by what you see, or taste, or touch. At least twice in all his poetry, Keats is reminded of touch, of softness, when he thinks of fragrances.

And the hyacinth purple, and white, and blue,
Which flung from its bells a sweet peal anew
Of music so delicate, soft, and intense,
It was felt like an odour within the sense

(Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Sensitive Plant,I, 25-28)

I included this latter quote because, although it’s not a visual olfactory image, it nevertheless evokes an equally synaesthetic experience of smell — the flower’s odor as a sound, a sweet peal of music. The example that Fogle finds most compelling, however, comes, once again, from Keats’s Hyperion. He writes:

Taste-images occur with relative infrequency in Keats’s synaesthetic imagery, but such as appear are powerful and vivid. On one occasion he combines taste with smell to produce one of the strongest of all his sensory images:

Also, when he would taste the spicy wreaths
Of incense, breath’d aloft from sacred hills,
Instead of sweets, his ample palate took
Savour of poisonous brass and metal sick

(Hyperion, I, 186-89)

(The Imagery of Keats and Shelley, p. 117)

We not only taste the poisonous brass but we see it too, evoking warfare and bloodshed. We visually see the odor.

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

In T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, the tactile imagery of the sandy earth is transformed into a salt savor. This isn’t as strictly synaesthetic as Shelley’s imagery, but more like Keats’. Eliot was a keen reader of Shakespeare and Keats. It may be no coincidence that he used the same word, savour, as Keats. Eliot might well have been directly inspired by the passage for Keats’ Hyperion. Remember, it was T.S. Eliot who said that “good poets borrow, great poets steal”. If you’re looking for inspiration, don’t hesitate  to steal.

In your light, the head is speaking, It reads the book.
It becomes the scholar again, seeking celestial

Picking thin music on the rustiest string,
Squeezing the reddest fragrance from the stump
Of summer.

(Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry & Prose, Good is Good. It is a Beautiful Night, p. 255)

Stevens always like to stretch imagery creatively and powerfully. After he wrote “rustiest string”, the color of the rust must have led him to the next synaesthetic image: the reddest fragrance. Like Robert Penn Warren, Stevens saves the powerful synaesthetic image for the penultimate lines of the poem. It’s hard not to think that both poets were proud of these images and wanted them to crown the closing lines of their poems.

The Visual Tactile Image | Touch

This is much more difficult to example. The tactile and the visual generally go hand in hand — if anything, it’s the difference between writing she moved her fingers over the rough of his palms or her fingers tripped over his gravelled palms. Sometimes the tactile can be applied in the most unexpected ways. In Endymion, Keats writes:

Where had he been, from whose warm head out-flew
That sweetest of all songs, that ever new,
That aye refreshing, pure deliciousness,
Coming ever to bless
The wanderer by moonlight? to him bringing
Shapes from the invisible world, unearthly singing
From out the middle air, from flowery nests,
And from the pillowy silkiness that rests
Full in the speculation of the stars.

(John Keats, I stood tip-toe upon a little hill, 181-189)

Perhaps Keats was remembering nights with a silk pillow under his head as he gazed up at the stars. Whatever inspired him, the imagery creates a visual and tactile experience of viewing the stars.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening…

(T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

T.S. Eliot’s famous opening to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock beautifully combines the tactile and visual when describing the motion of the fog. Some readers may argue that this is kinesthetic, but I’ve always associate rubbing with the tactile.

Returning to Fogle, he picks out another image from Keats and takes particular relish in it beauty. He writes:

Of a like complexity is this startling synaesthetic image from Endymion:

….lost in pleasure at her feet he sinks,
Touching with dazzled lips her starlight hand. (Endymion, IV, 418-19)

The interplay of sight and touch is very swift. There is a trade of “wit,” of conscious ingenuity, which lends to the image a certain flavour of modernity. The lips of Endymion are “dazzled,” of course, because the hand which they touch is “starlight.” But there is more to the image than its sensory content. Endymion is dazzled because he is dreaming that he is among the Gods on Olympus, kneeling before Hebe: a situation in which some bedazzlement seems excusable. (The Imagery of Keats and Shelley, p. 112)

The Visual Gustatory Image | Taste

Perhaps the beset known passage typifying the synaesthetic fusion of taste and visual imagery comes, again, from Keats. Rather than steal Fogle’s thunder, we’ll let him introduce it:

The synaesthetic imagery of Keats reaches its highest level, however, in the complex fusion of sense, emotion, and concept in the second stanza of the Nightingale:

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth…

Keats has attained to the utmost degree of synthesizing compression in this passage, packing into a few lines what prose could not have expressed in many times the number of words he has emplyed. (Ibid., p. 120-121)

Only the very best wine-tasting critics could dream of aspiring to this kind synesthesia. For Keats, the taste of the vintage draught doesn’t evoke memories of other tastes, but of a whole world of sensation: the visual Flora and country green, the kinesthetic dance, the aural Provencal song, and the organic and tactile sunburnt mirth. Top that. Right? But Keats isn’t content to stop there, the beaker is full of the warm south. Woe to the recovering alcoholic who reads this poem. I”ve never had a vintage draught and I could take or leave most wines, but this makes my mouth water.

Other examples are hard to find, I’ve looked (though not exhaustively) through Eliot, Marriane Moore, Frost, Pen Warren, Mary Oliver, Stevens. Strongly imagistic poets like E.E. Cummings, Amy Clampitt and a sensualist like Pablo Neruda might be good places to look, but I only have so many hours in a day. I did find this from Galway Kinnell, perhaps the most organically aware poet (in the sense of bodily awareness) that I know of. In the  following passage, Galway turns the taste of blackberries into a melange of sounds, word-sounds, color — black — and the tactile cold. The italics are Kinnell’s.

…as  I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched or broughamed,
many-lettered, one syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry eating in late September.

(Blackberry Eating, from Three Books: Body Rags; Mortal Acts, Mortal Words; The Past p. 96)

The Visual Organic Image | Heart, Breath and Pulse

These images are more than exceedingly rare, Fogle offers the following from Endymion:

And down some swart abysm he had gone,
Had not a heavenly guide benignant led
To where thick myrtle branches, ’gainst his head
Brushing, awakened: then the sounds again
Went noiseless as a passing noontide rain
Over a bower, where little space he stood;
For as the sunset peeps into a wood
So saw he panting light…

(Endymion, II. 376-383)

In the poem There Are Things I Tell to No One, Galway Kinnell describes God’s “music of grace” as “notes”:

It speaks in notes struck
or caressed or blown or plucked
off our own bodies…

The image skirts the line. I’m not sure its really synaesthetic since Galway is comparing the body to a blown or plucked stringed instrument. He’s not really ascribing these qualities to the notes, per se; he’s telling where they come from. In the poem Voyages, Amy Clampitt creates a synaesthetic, visual image of breath:

Beside the Neva, Osip Mandelstam wrote of the cold,
the December fog-blurs of Leningrad. O to throw

open (he wrote) a window on the Adriatic! — a window
for the deprived of audience,  for the unfree
to breathe, to breathe even the bad air of Moscow.
Yet on the freezing pane of perpetuity,

that coruscating cold-frame fernery of breath,
harsh flowerbed of the unheated rooms of childhood,
even from the obscurity that sealed it off, his breath,
his warmth, he dared declare, had already setttled.

(The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt. p. 160)

This isn’t as immediately synaesthetic as “panting light”, but Clampitt describes theOrganic sensation of Mandelstam’s breath visually, coldly and chillingly.

If you can find other examples, feel free to add them.

All in all, the thing to remember is that this kind of synaesthetic imagery is the province of poetry. No other art form, be it music, painting, dance or any other similar art, can so unite the multifaceted synaesthetic experience of the world. If you’re going to write poetry, don’t let this kind of beautiful imagery slip through your fingers. If you’re only writing about what you see, omitting what you hear, smell, touch and taste, then you’re crippling yourself and poetry. If you’re not thinking about imagery, about the senses and communicating your experience of life and the world, then you aren’t writing poetry.

I had a little nut tree…

I had a little nut tree is easily one of my favorite nursery rhymes. There has always been something, to me, beautiful and mysterious about it. Of all the nursery rhymes, this is the only one that has ever had a touch of the profound and reminds me of the mystical poems one would otherwise expect from a poet like Rumi.

I had a little nut tree,
Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg,
And a golden pear;

The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me,
And all for the sake
Of my little nut tree.

Her dress was made of crimson,
Jet black was her hair,
She asked me for my nut tree
And my golden pear.

I said, “So fair a princess
Never did I see,
I’ll give you all the fruit
From my little nut tree.”

I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.

If any of you are already familiar with this rhyme, then I’m sure you’re probably aware that it has been associated with actual events in English history.The poem was first recorded in 1797, printed in London in the Newest Christmas Box. At a later date, the antiquarian James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (who devoted himself to antiquarian research, specifically English literature, and later to a Life of Shakespeare) asserted that the poem was much older. Halliwell-Phillips was a man who loved literature. More importantly, and judging by his later interest in Shakespeare, he was keenly interested in the history behind the literature. When he gave up textual criticism in the 1870’s, he devoted himself to piecing together the particulars of Shakespeare’s life. This revealing bent for biography and explication is important when considering his opinions on the origin of A Little Nut Tree. As concerns this rhyme, Halliwell-Phillips wrote [this first link will take you to Google books and a reprint, I think, of the actual book from which the quote comes]:

“The following perhaps refers to Joanna of Castile, who visited the court of Henry VII in the year 1506.

‘I had a little nut tree, nothing would it bear,
But a silver nutmeg and a golden pear;
The King of Spain’s daughter came to visit me,
And all was beacuse of my little nut tree.
I skipp’d over water, I danced over sea,
And all the birds in the air could not catch me.'”

[Notes and queries, Volume 72, by William White p. 521]

Because of my abiding interest in all things science, I’ve learned the value of skepticism. That extends to literary scholarship. Worth knowing is that Shakespeare scholarship was, and still is, rife with speculation, excess and outright fraud. I haven’t found anything to suggest that Halliwell-Phillips engaged in that sort of excess, but he was also a man of his times. If no information was forthcoming then speculation was fair game — the responsibility of the scholar, it seems, was often to speak even if there was nothing to be spoken of. This was a time when reputation often trumped the truth.

The first thing I wondered was whether the The Little Nut Tree was a fake. Don’t think it’s not possible. More than a few modern scholars speculate that some of the nursery rhymes in Mother Goose were cooked up. The 18th and 19th century was rife with forgers, the most famous being William Henry-Ireland. A recent book was written on Ireland called The Boy Who Would be Shakespeare. Or consider the struggling poet James Macpherson. He only gained real success when he fabricated the mythical Gaelic bard Ossian. He announced:

“Though the poems now published appear as detached pieces in this collection, there is ground to believe that most of them were originally episodes of a greater work … by a careful inquiry, many more remains of ancient genius, no less valuable than those now given to the world, might be found in the same country where these have been collected. In particular there is reason to hope that one work of considerable length, and which deserves to be styled an heroic poem, might be recovered and translated, if encouragement were given to such an undertaking.”

The English of the 18th and 19th century were besotted with their “newly” discovered literary past. The true genius of Shakespeare was just beginning to be appreciated and the corpus he left behind would have made any nation proud. The British, naturally, wanted more. They began looking in dusty pantries, the shelves of old libraries, and any other nook that might yield a new literary treasure (and fame). If it couldn’t be found, then arrangements could be made. To this day, scholars dispute the provenance of Double Falsehood. Just in the last decade, the Shakespearean scholar Brean Hammond made a name for himself by once again (just as the original scholar Lewis Theobald almost 300 years before) trying to link a forgery (at worst) to Shakespeare.

Collecting old sayings and nursery rhymes was undoubtedly part of this general besottment with literary history. There’s no reason to exclude the possibility that there wasn’t a touch of fraud in that collecting as well. Scholarly fidelity was understood a little differently. If a little ditty could be passed off as original, then what harm in that? It’s not as if they were forging a Shakespeare play or a fifth biblical testament. The world could stand one more nursery rhyme and the perpetrator could go to his grave knowing, in some small anonymous way, that a piece of himself had attained literary immortality. Not all the Mother Goose rhymes may be original, but there’s no way to know.

Fortunately, the modern scholar can narrow down the odds. For a rhyme like Monday’s Child, one can find precedent going all the way back to the 1500’s (and before). There are parallels, and poems like Monday’s Child are mentioned, in passing, by writers during the 17th century. These sorts of clues suggest that Monday’s Child is probably not a fake and could date back hundreds of years before it was officially recorded in the 19th century.

There’s no similar precedent for Little Nut Tree, but we do get some verification. In the same passage already quoted above, William White mentions that one “Mr. C.W. Penny supplies from memory the same verses, which were taught him about 1842.” Reading between the lines, this tells me that the question of forgery must have occurred to others, and the fact that the poem was being passed on, orally, in 1842, seems to have argued in favor of the rhyme’s provenance (and sufficiently so for those concerned).

This brings us back to Halliwell-Phillips, On what basis does he assert that the rhyme may have stemmed from the visit of Joanna of Castile to the court of Henry VII?


Halliwell-Phillips provides no evidence to support his contention and he doesn’t claim to (which, to me, works in his favor). He writes: perhaps. When you read other analyses of this rhyme on the Internet and elsewhere, and when the analyses are written with an implied certainty, just remember this: It’s speculation. Just as Shakespearean “scholars”, in the past and present, have a rich history of fabricating biography (leading some on the “wild goose chase” of an Oxford, Bacon, or a Queen Elizabethan), Hallewill-Phillips was probably compelled, by the same urge, to speculate on the origins of A Little Nut Tree. (This kind of speculation, by the way, is no different than the speculation surrounding Browning’s My Last Duchess.) All of it makes for a good parlor game and keeps academics in business.

Wikipidia sums up the current thinking on A Little Nut Tree:

The characters in the nursery rhyme are believed to refer to the visit of the Royal House of Spain to King Henry VII’s English court in 1506. The ‘King of Spain’s daughter’ refers to the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. There were two daughters, Princess Juana and her sister Catherine of Aragon. The princess in the nursery rhyme is probably Catherine of Aragon who was betrothed to Prince Arthur, the heir to the throne of England. Arthur died and Catherine eventually married King Henry VIII. It was sad that “So fair a princess” had such a difficult life with Henry as she was the first of Henry’s six wives and discarded by the King to make way for Anne Boleyn. Queen Catherine was much loved by the British who were not fond of her replacement. The young, ‘King of Spain’s daughter’ relates to the young Catherine as a princess, and is immortalised in this old nursery rhyme.

Another site offers a variation on the same:

The characters in the nursery rhyme ‘I had a little nut tree’ are believed to refer to the visit of the Royal House of Spain to King Henry VII’s English court in 1506. The ‘King of Spain’s daughter’ refers to the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. There were two daughters, Princess Juana and her sister Katherine of Aragon. The princess in the nursery rhyme is probably Katherine of Aragon who was betrothed to Prince Arthur, the heir to the throne of England. Arthur died and Katherine eventually married King Henry VIII. It was sad that “So fair a princess” had such a difficult life with Henry as she was the first of Henry’s six wives and discarded by the King to make way for Anne Boleyn. Queen Katherine was much loved by the British people who hated her replacement, who they called ‘The Great Whore’. The young, beautiful princess relates to the young Katherine, as a princess and is immortalised in this old nursery rhyme.

The first question to ask is this: Why did Halliwell-Phillips suggest that Joanna of Castile (6 November 1479 – 12 April 1555) was the subject of the poem? No answer is forthcoming. There’s nothing in the poem to suggest Joanna of Castile but for the fact that the rhyme mentions “the King of Spain’s daughter”. (Joanna of Castile was briefly a guest of a younger Henry VIII due to a shipwreck.) This is probably why later scholars decided a more likely candidate would be Catherin of Aragon. (If we’re going to play this game, then the facts have to fit — at least a little.)

“I had a little nut tree…”

This is where interpretations of the poem remind me of Baconians or Oxfordians reading Shakespeare. It’s easy to read into poetry evidence that isn’t there and that’s because poetry is notoriously figurative and open to interpretation. (That’s largely what makes poetry so powerful.) So, if we want the poem to fit the facts, this is how we read the poem:

I had a little nut tree

This line refers to the genitals of Prince Arthur, Henry the VIII’s older brother. From there, we enter a hall of mirrors where speculation fits the poem to history and history to the poem.

Nothing would it bear

This is said to refer to either Arthur’s impotence or to infertility. (I personally think this is a peculiarly modern misinterpretation of the line.) Historians argue over whether Catherine and Arthur ever consummated their marriage. The matter was of paramount importance to Henry VIII (who later married her) and some  historians speculate that Catherine expediently lied, claiming that she and Arthur never consummated their marriage. On the other hand, Arthur was quoted as saying (the day after), that “Masters, it is good pastime to have a wife.” This sounds like a young husband who enjoyed himself. Then we enter into the hall of mirrors. Some scholars speculate that Arthur said this in order to cover up his impotence. Others counter that Catherine never raised the subject until Henry VIII evinced interest in marrying her. Worth keeping in mind is that nursery rhymes weren’t meant to be historically accurate. Indeed, if this poem really was inspired by the events surrounding Catherine and Arthur, it could have started out in the spirit of a modern day limerick — a jest and a way to explain occurrences that were steeped in gossip.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the poem’s meaning is quite straightforward. All boys are born with “a little nut tree” that, by itself, ‘bears nothing’. That brings us to the next two lines.

But a silver nutmeg,
And a golden pear;

Nutmeg was a very valuable and sought after commodity that can be dated back to the medieval cuisine. It was used both as a powder and (more importantly as concerns our rhyme) as an oil (expressed from the nut). Continuing with  our interpretation, it’s hardly a leap to interpret the “silver nutmeg” as a bawdy and humorous reference to Arthur’s semen (presumably “expressed” by Catherine). The pear has a long tradition in pre-Christian and Christian iconography. According to an article by Jules Janick, “The Pear in History, Literature, Popular Culture, and Art“,

The first mention of the pear is found in Homer’s (9th century BC) epic poem, The Odyssey, confirming that the pear was cultivated in Greece as early as three thousand years ago. The pear is included as one of the “gifts of the gods” which grew in the garden of Alcinöus, the King of the Phaeacians…

By this, we learn that the pear was associated with divinity and royalty. Janick adds that “the grouping of pear, apple, and fig would persist in early Christian iconography, probably as a metaphor for sacred trees.” The idea of royal lineage as a sacred tree was a common place. Now, mix this in with the English proclivity for bawdy humor (in just about anything) and we come to Shakespeare:

Your virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French withered pears, it looks ill, it eats drily; marry, ‘tis a withered pear; it was formerly better; marry yet ‘tis a withered pear. All’s Well that Ends Well i(1).

The comparison of a pear to a woman’s sex could have been original to Shakespeare, but I think it more likely that he was echoing common bawdy that equated the pear’s shape (just as we do today) to a woman’s belly and hips (pregnant or otherwise). What happens when we put all this together? The golden pear turns into an expansive pun and joke that combines the notion of Arthur’s lineage (the tree) and the golden pear (the royal womb). In other words, all that Arthur has to offer (and promise) is his semen, (the silver nutmeg), and an impregnated womb. The pear, or the womb, is gold because it will carry a royal child. (The mention of gold may additionally echo the gold of the crown.) “Nothing would it bear” can be understood, in the grammar of the day, not as meaning that Arthur is barren but that, because Arthur is a Prince, he can’t offer anything but the gold of his lineage. In other words, the Little Nut Tree, the prince’s genitalia, can produce nothing other than ‘silver’ semen and a ‘golden’ pear because of his royal lineage. Translation: The Little Nut Tree won’t settle for anything less than an equally royal womb. The Prince must wait for a Princess.

  • More grist for the mill: From A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance: Pear / pair, appear / a pair 1.) Testicles. Pear-tree (‘pyrie’ – TWR): penis, as in Chaucer’s, ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, where May, wanting ‘peres’, climbed up the tree to her waiting lover. 2.) Copulate (L copula, sexual union, from co(m)-, with apere, to fasten). Pair: a mated couple; to match, couple. Aperire: to open (F).

Knowing that the nut, then as now, was a pun on testicles, and knowing that Chaucer used the word pear as a pun for the penis, still more possible interpretations arise: Nutmeg = Testicle; Silver = Semen; Golden = Royal; and the Pear equals the Penis. If the rhyme originated during Elizabethan times, then we might well expect all these puns and connotations to have existed at once. I personally find it compelling that Chaucer was punning on pear as far back as the 12th century. This suggests that the provenance of the The Little Nut Tree may be far older than anyone has yet suggested – easily predating the events of Catherine and Arthur.

Lastly, Janick makes the observation that “In many parts of the world the pear symbolizes the human heart which it resembles.” It’s all there.

The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me,
And all for the sake
Of my little nut tree.

The king of Spain’s daughter is visiting in order to be impregnated – for the sake of his “little nut tree”, a euphemism for his royal lineage and its future.

Her dress was made of crimson,
Jet black was her hair,
She asked me for my nut tree
And my golden pear.

This is where the rhyme, as a history of Catherine and Arthur, runs aground. It was well-known during the time that Catherine was fair skinned, blue-eyed and red-haired – (nothing like the common Spanish caricatures). This is precisely the kind of gossip the people of Britain closely followed. Apologists will argue that the originator (or originators) of the rhyme probably had to conceal the true target of the poem but I find that a self-defeating argument. If it’s all but obvious to us, several hundred years later, who was targeted by the rhyme, then it would have been obvious to the court of Henry VIII. Would the change from red hair to “jet black” really have protected anyone? I doubt it. In fact, it might have been more insulting had Catherine’s appearance been described as jet black. This would  not have been considered praise.

I said, “So fair a princess
Never did I see,
I’ll give you all the fruit
From my little nut tree.”

This verse, given what has come before, is all but self-explanatory. Arthur will marry Catherine and they will ‘to bed’, where he will give her all the fruit of his “little nut tree”. Many versions of this poem end here. If this rhyme is truly about Arthur and Catherine, then it would imply that the poem was created before Arthur died.

I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.

This beautifully poetic stanza is probably best appreciated as describing the exhalation of lovemaking. A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance tells us the following:

  • Dance Fornicate (‘daunce’ — TWR). Dekker and Middleton, The Honest Whore I, III.ii: a reformed whore reviles her ex-bawd who ‘guard’st the dore/Whilst couples go to daunching’. Danser: to dance, leap (Cot). Leap: coit (C;P). Cf. R2, II.iv.12 ‘ruffians [pimps – OED] dance and leap’. De la panse vient la danse: “when the bellie is full, the breech would be figging’ (Cot.)

As I’ve written already, correspondences like this encourage me to think that the poem is as old or older than the events of Catherine and Arthur, though there’s no way of knowing.  But does all this sound convincing? The thing to remember is that this is all, every bit of it, hearsay and gossip based on speculation by a 19th century amateur, almost 400 years after the fact. I personally think it’s a shame that this lovely rhyme, the loveliest of all nursery rhymes in my opinion,  has been buttonholed as a reference to Catherine and Arthur. I was saddened to read a comment like the following:

“The rhyme is neither charming nor cute, but politically ironic in origin, like most nursery rhymes. This one refers to the arrangement to marry the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon (who was by no means mad) to Prince Arthur (the elder son of Henry VII) and his failure to perform in the marital bed. Other cutesy ‘nursery rhymes’ originating in the Tudor/Stuart period include ‘Four & Twenty Blackbirds’ (ref. the decapitation of Anne Boleyn)’Little Jack Horner’ (ref. a contemporary Fat Cat trying to cream off from the Dissolution of the Monasteries) and ‘Ring-a-Ring of Roses’ which references the Great Plague. Then there’s ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary ..’ – a snide Protestant reference to Catholic Mary Stuart ….. Not so beautiful, but life as it was: viz. people wanting to comment on the activities of their political masters but afraid to do so overtly. (So, whats new?)”

My own speculation (I can’t stress that enough) is as follows: The wordplay, if that is what it is, makes me think the origins of the rhyme are contemporaneous with or predate the events of Catherine and Arthur. The original poem probably was not exactly like the poem that came down to us. It’s possible that the rhyme was associated with the events of Joanna of Castile or Catherine of Aragon but there is no evidence to support this interpretation. (It’s up to you to decide whether you accept this interpretation.) It’s likely that the original ‘girl’ was not “The King of Spain’s Daughter”. This was probably an alteration meant to suit (what were then) current events or could have been for other reasons (which I’ll touch on). If one is going to take the phrase “The King of Spain’s Daughter” literally, as evidence that the poem was intended to describe either Joanna or Catherine, then it’s willfully capricious and arbitrary to then disregard the fact that the rhyme describes the princess as having jet black hair. If the appellation “King of Spain’s Daughter” strongly argues for Joanna or Catherine, then the princess’s jet black hair as forcefully argues against the claim. As I wrote before, it was widely known that both women were fair skinned, blue-eyed and red-haired – qualities that were considered attributes of beauty, not dark or “jet black” hair.

I do not think this rhyme is about Joanna or Catherine.

“jet black hair…”

My own theory as to the identity of the princess with the jet black hair is steeped in folklore and mythology. In 1959, Eric Berne wrote an article called The Mythology of Dark and Fair: Psychiatric Use of Folklore. In the article, discussing northern European mythology, he writes that  golden hair was an attribute of the pure and innocent maiden, while dark hair suggested the ardent, passionate, inexpressibly terrible temptress who offers the treasure trove of a great sin.” Dark hair and complexion was also seen, in a conventionally literary sense, as less desirable. It’s for this reason that Shakespeare could write his sonnets to the “Dark Lady” in the full knowledge that his audience would “get it”.

Sonnet 127

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

Shakespeare’s contemporary, the poet Sidney, also stews in the sexual promise of the dark haired girl (and black’s contrary associations with death and mourning):



When Nature made her chief work – STELLA’S eyes
In colour black why wrapt she beams so bright?
Would she in beamy black, like painter wise
Frame daintiest lustre, mixed of shades of light?
Or did she else that sober hue devise,
In object best to knit and strength our sight?
Lest if no veil these brave gleams did disguise,
They sun-like should more dazzle than delight.
Or would she her miraculous power show?
That whereas black seems beauty’s contrary
She, even in black, doth make all beauties flow!
But so and thus, she minding LOVE should be
Placed ever there, gave him this mourning weed;
To honour all their deaths, which for her bleed.

In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, the inviting dangers of the dark lady’s sexual excess are made explicit:

Sonnet 129

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, 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.

The point isn’t that Sidney or Shakespeare wrote the The Little Nut Tree, but that they wrote with the expectation that their audience understood the associations surrounding the dark haired girl and woman — that there is something of the forbidden and alluring about them: libidinous and desirable.

“the King of Spain…”

From what I can tell, the temptation has always been to assume that the “King of Spain” must be a literal historical figure. However, other features of the nursery rhyme don’t quite add up. My own hunch is that the “King of Spain” was more a symbolic reference than a literal one – like the King of the Elves.

If we think of the rhyme as having originated sometime between the 15th and 17th century, we find that relations between England and Spain could be surprisingly cordial and warm. Most importantly, Spain had discovered the Americas. Whole new trade routes were being explored. New and exotic products — herbs, spices and fabrics — were being exported to England, along with stories of fabulous wealth and strange peoples. For a period of time, the King of Spain must have seemed, indeed, like the King of a fabled magical horizon burgeoning with strange delights, untold riches and fantastic stories. (The newfound wealth and trade routes of the Spaniards would increasingly rankle the jealous British aristocracy.) My hunch is that the King of Spain, in The Little Nut Tree, is better  understood as a sort of mythical King in a land that allures with new and exotic wealth and strangeness.

In this light, the idea of the daughter with the jet black hair also makes more sense. She is the archetypal dark haired beauty who epitomizes the allure that is sexual, dangerous, promising, fecund, unknowable but desired. All of the previous analysis still stands, minus the intrusion of Catherine and Arthur. Not only that, but there’s an inner mystical beauty to the rhyme that makes itself felt – and may account for it’s survival.

I had a little nut tree,
Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg,
And a golden pear;

As before, the nursery rhyme can be read as a little fable — a foretelling of every child’s sexual awakening (and its necessity). The little nut tree is the boy and young man’s genitalia. “I have a little nut tree”, says the mother to the little boy (as though speaking for him) and “nothing would it bear”. It cannot and never will without union (remember the pun on pear and pair) with a girl or woman. He has nothing to offer but a silver nutmeg (his semen) and a golden pear. The golden pair serves as a pun on his penis and symbolizes the fruit of his lovemaking – the golden (their combined love) pear or the impregnated womb.

The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me,
And all for the sake
Of my little nut tree.

The King of Spain is every father and the Princess in the crimson dress and jet black hair is every daughter. The King of Spain is the mysterious, feared and powerful King whose alluring wealth is his mysterious and exotic daughter with the jet black hair. Someday, says the mother through the nursery rhyme, the King of Spain’s daughter will come to visit you all for the sake of your little nut tree.

Her dress was made of crimson,
Jet black was her hair,
She asked me for my nut tree
And my golden pear.

Crimson, as we all know, symbolizes passion and sexuality, but also suggests the blood of a woman’s virginity and her period – what she has to offer for the boy’s silver nutmeg. The daughter’s “jet black hair” (which is always symbolically jet black) symbolizes the daughter’s sexual allure, mystery and libido. She promises pleasure and wealth by asking for the boy’s golden pear (his penis). Their “pairing” (and his child in her womb) will make him a “King of Spain”.

I said, “So fair a princess
Never did I see,
I’ll give you all the fruit
From my little nut tree.”

…a dress made of crimson…

In these lines we can hear the mother, through the rhymes, instructing her son. She will be beautiful. Do not be afraid. Give her all the fruit of your little nut tree. Give her your silver nutmeg (your semen) and your golden pear.

I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.

In the closing stanza, without which (in my opinion) the poem is only half the poem it could be, the mother promises the boy the physical and spiritual ecstasy of sexual union, love and lovemaking (in terms he won’t yet understand). The mother could also be describing her own ecstasy, and that of his father’s, during the conception of their son. Read in this light, the poem is nothing if not a beautiful prompting and celebration of love and procreation.

Naturally, the bawdy and humorous elements are there; and the poem is enriched by them.

But there’s also a mystical undercurrent that captures my heart. We can read the little nut tree as our  soul. The King of Spain is the physical world and his daughter, the princess, is the gift he offers our soul — crimson, jet black, sexual and of the earth. The beautiful girl offers us both life and death. If we freely give to her all the fruit of our soul when she asks for it (both sexual and spiritual), the reward will be a physical and spiritual ecstasy — the golden pear. On that day we will dance o’er the water and dance o’er  the sea and not even the birds i’th’air will catch us.




I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.

Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody ❧ A Review

Free Verse: an essay on Prosody by Carles O. Hartman
March 9, 2012

First Things First: What is Prosody?

I remember, way back when, I knew a poet who favored free verse. As his writing developed, he struggled with a question that confronts many writers of free verse. Where does the poet break his or her lines? You can find this same question frequently posed on the internet. In traditional poetry, the line ends where the iambic pentameter ends, basta; but, as far as my friend knew, there was no such rule pertaining to line lengths in free verse. My friend declared that he was going to systematize lineation in free verse. I never heard back from him. His name was Jerry Lafemina and if any of you know him, have him send me a note. Anyway, what he was really saying was that he wanted to develop a Prosody, one that he and his readers could mutually understand.

So, when I discovered Hartman’s book, I was excited. Here was a book that tried to answer the question: Is there a prosody of free verse and, if so, what is it?

The definition of prosody (or at least the one with which this book is concerned) is as follows: A system of versification. This is problematic when applied to free verse. What this means (and what Hartman must argue) is that free verse isn’t free, but is a systematic form as rigorous as traditional verse. He must argue that once a reader understands that prosody, he can apply that knowledge to any free verse poem in the same way that a reader of traditional poetry applies the prosody of meter and rhyme to her reading of traditional poetry. Take Shakespeare’s famous line, To be or not to be, that is the question, as an example. If we read the line according to the prosody of traditional poetry, the verb is receives the stress, rather than that. That is, knowing the rules of meter, the line reads: To be or not to be, that is the question. We can assert the likelihood of this reading because the prosody of meter (and blank verse in particular) suggests it.

The first thing Hartman had to do, given that he’s writing a book on the prosody of free verse, is to re-define the word free. Clearly, if something is free, implying in this case that it lacks form (is not formal) then there can’t be, by definition, a prosody. One can’t go writing a book on the form of free verse when the free in free verse is understood as implying a lack of form!  Prosody implies a regular and recognizable system that is applicable to all poems (and that is more than a niggling problem for Hartman). He wastes no time explaining what we really mean by free in free verse (or prosody for that matter). First he defines prosody:

The prosody of a poem is the poet’s method of controlling the reader’s temporal experience of the poem, especially his attention to that experience. But how can the poet control the reader’s experience? How does the reader know what to pay attention to, among the many linguistic events the poem comprises? The prosody, to function as a prosody, must be shared. [p. 13]

The italics are the author’s. The underlining is mine. While Hartman emphasizes the intentions of the author with italics (which will be extremely important to his later arguments) the thing that makes prosody, well, a Prosody, is that it “must be shared” – a contrivance understood by both reader and writer. The poet can tell himself that he is controlling the “reader’s temporal experience” until the moon grows grass, but unless the poet’s methods are understood by the reader (unless it is shared) he might as well be writing letters to his dog.

The difference between Poetry & Prose

Anybody who follows my blog knows my opinion on free verse. I do think it’s much easier to write than traditional verse (which has led to its near total dominance), but that doesn’t mean free verse can’t be written with a greatness equal to traditional verse. The qualities of greatness are the same whether the poem is free verse or traditional. That said, traditional verse offers the poet effects that free verse doesn’t and never will. And so begins my many disagreements with Hartman.

At the outset, Hartman states what I have stated many times:

“…it has often been shown that any mode of organization found in any poem (except lineation) will also occur in some passages of prose – usually many, though rhyme, for instance, had a short and relatively disastrous career in English prose.”

The problem is that Hartman means this to include traditional verse, which I don’t. As Hartman himself states (curiously) rhyme’s appearance in prose was “short and relatively disastrous” (meaning that it didn’t work). That’s because internal rhyme isn’t the same as end rhyme. In other words, one can’t separate end rhyme (as it is practiced in the traditional poem) from lineation. And the combination of end rhyme, combined with meter, is also not the same as end-rhyme alone (and is not something that appears in prose). My point is that there is a continuum. As regards free verse, Hartman’s statement holds water. The only feature that separates free verse from prose is lineation. As regards traditional verse, Hartman’s statement doesn’t (as he himself unintentionally admits). Traditional verse adds extra layers to lineation. The metrical line and end-rhyme don’t and have never appeared in prose. For example, regular metrical feet may appear in prose, but a regular metrical line never has and never will.

It’s a curious facet of Hartman’s dialectic that he eagerly (and rightly I think) emphasizes the importance of lineation in free verse, but consistently downplays or fails to recognize the compounding effect of lineation when combined with meter and rhyme. He can’t have it both ways (though he tries) and that’s part of the problem.  Hartman wants to establish a prosody of free verse that is equal to traditional verse. That’s a mistake. He can’t do so without altogether disregarding the compounding effect of meter and end-rhyme.

He knows that. It’s the only direction his thesis can take him. That’s why, at the end of chapter three, he triumphantly announces that “what rhyme and meter can do, lineation alone can also do”. We’ll return to that. Yes, we will. By the time Hartman makes this pronouncement, a fairly simple word like rhythm has been turned inside out and upside down and many a reader (to judge by other reviews) becomes lost in the maze of his baroque re-definitions.

Of Rabbit Holes and Rhythm

Unfortunately for Hartman, the one word he fails to accurately define is rhythm. I’ve had this discussion elsewhere (on this blog) with readers who style themselves defenders or proponents of free verse. Most of us use rhythm in a literal and a figurative sense – but mixing these two uses in a book which professes to establish a prosody (and which takes great care to carefully define words like free and prosody) is a considerable oversight that undercuts the entire argument.

We regularly refer to random events or objects as having a rhythm. We can watch the wind on a wheat field and describe the rhythms of the wind – but these are random events. They’re not rhythmic. The human brain, as science has amply demonstrated, is designed, by default, to find rhythm and pattern where none exist. This is important because we also commonly refer to the rhythms of language when, in reality, we’re describing not the rhythms, but the arrhythmia of language. Likewise, listeners and poets will frequently refer to the rhythm of this or that free verse poem when what they’re really describing is the arryhthmia of the poem’s language (which isn’t to say that a free verse poet isn’t making conscious choices — only that the choices result in an irregularity that is unique to the poem).

Strictly speaking, arrhythmia is a medical term, but in this context it’s useful. Here’s how it’s defined by the Farlex Free Dictionary:

  • Adj.
    1.    arrhythmic – lacking a steady rhythm; “an arrhythmic heartbeat”
    jerking, jerky
    unsteady – subject to change or variation; “her unsteady walk”; “his hand was unsteady as he poured the wine”; “an unsteady voice”
    2.    arrhythmic – without regard for rhythm
    unrhythmic, unrhythmical – not rhythmic; irregular in beat or accent

The most useful meaning for our purpose is the idea that language is “irregular in beat” (though different languages are obviously irregular in unique ways). Language has no rhythm (in the literal sense of the word) because the rhythm of any given language isn’t regular. However, each language has a unique rhythm in the figurative sense if we understand that to mean arrhythmical —  uniquely irregular. Rhythm, on the other hand, means something regular, recurring, having a beat or pattern: “of, relating to, or characterized by rhythm, as in movement or sound; metrical, periodic, or regularly recurring“. Wikipedia makes the link between rhythm and pattern explicit:

Rhythm (from Greek ῥυθμόςrhythmos, “any regular recurring motion, symmetry[1]) may be generally defined as a “movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions.”[2] This general meaning of regular recurrence or pattern in time may be applied to a wide variety of cyclical natural phenomena having a periodicity or frequency of anything from microseconds to millions of years. [March 3rd, 2012]

So, when readers, and Hartman himself, refers to a free verse poem as having a rhythm, he’s using the term incorrectly. If a free verse poem has a “regularly, periodic and recurring pattern,” then it’s not free verse. As I’ve written many times before, if the verse isn’t free, then it’s not free verse (unless we change the definition of free).

Hartman’s failure to adequately define rhythm (or his misunderstanding of the word) sets him on the wrong course from the get-go.

What I have already said about the temporality of poems suggests that prosodic organization is rhythmic. Rhythm, in poetry, is the temporal distribution of the elements of language. According to this definition, all language unavoidably has rhythm. [p. 14]

The italics are Hartman’s. Temporal means “of or relating to or limited by time”, but not necessarily recurring or periodic. This is a nice dodge. Hartman himself realizes that this definition won’t do, but he fails, utterly, to acknowledge the importance of “pattern” to rhythm because he doesn’t want to. To do so would be to undercut his dependence on the word rhythm as it describes free verse later in the book. Instead he offers up an object lesson in tortured, baroque avoidance that leaves him right where he started. (Remember, he refuses to use or acknowledge the word pattern or recurrence.) He settles on the neutral word: organization. (You might object that he includes the word rhythmic in his definition, but remember that he’s just defined “rhythm in poetry” not as recurring or regular but as temporal.

This suggests a form of my definition of prosody that approximates and includes the traditional one: It is the system of rhythmic organization that governs the construction and reading of a poem. [ibid]

Now that he’s settled on the generic organization, he needs to define it:

“Organization” implies elements to be organized, and prosodic organization will employ the elements of speech: (1) timbre (in recurrences such as alliteration, assonance, and rhyme); (2) duration (which, when applied as it commonly is to syllables, is called quantity); (3) pitch or intonation; (4) intensity or volume (these two being distinguishable  acoustically but not psychologically, and so not prosodically); and (5) boundary. [ibid]

Nowhere does Hartman acknowledge the one thing that is part and parcel of rhythm — regularity, recurrence and pattern! In fact, nothing in Hartman’s further definition of prosody distinguishes it, in any way, from his first definition. That is, Rhythm, in poetry, is the temporal distribution of the elements of language. And, like he said, his definition of “rhythm in poetry” does not distinguish it in any way from “all language”. So why make it? All of the 5 elements he lists (as elements implied by “organization”) are occurring, right now, in this paragraph. Without the stipulation that rhythm implies a regular and recurring pattern, the word becomes figurative at best and meaningless and worst (to be applied to anything). That’s going to cause problems for Hartman, problems from which his argument can’t recover.

The first problem is that his definition of “rhythm in poetry” cannot account for meter. This is intentional but it’s still a problem. Since Hartman still has to account for meter, and since he rejects the word rhythm, he has to come up with an alternate that avoids being conflated with rhythm. He does so in spades:

The linguistic elements a poet organizes prosodically are largely chosen from him by the conventions of his language, but each poetic tradition also dictates, by establishing more-specific conventions of verse, what he does with those elements. In almost every case, this traditional mode of organization is or depends on a numerical rule. When this is the case, we call the prosody metrical. A meter is prosody whose mode of organization is numerical. [p. 17 – Hartman’s italics]

Numerical? This is so generic and bland as to be cynical. Hartman’s definition completely ignores the aural effect of meter and treats it (and poetry in general) like something that only happens on the silence of the page. (This, in fact, will be a tendency that appears elsewhere.) Hartman’s definition of meter fails on such a grand scale that refuting it is as simple as the humble limerick. I’ll explain what I mean shortly but first, we continue on our tour of Hartman’s  logic.

Now that Hartman thinks he has firmly excised rhythm from meter, he goes for the kill in one of the most confused and nonsensical paragraphs I have ever read. I’ll print it in full:

Crude as it is, scansion — the simple diagrammatic indication of stresses and slacks — tells us all we have to know about a poem’s meter. The meter itself, like the scansion, is an abstraction. It is the rule to which a line more or less conforms, and not the line itself. It is not rhythm, but a pattern imposed on rhythm. Not only the unmetered elements of language (such as timbre and quantity), but also the actual instances of the metered elements, the particular stresses and syllables of the line, continue in some sense to occupy the more general area of rhythm. “Rhythm is not metre,” Own Barfield remarks. “It is not another name for metre, but something far subtler. Rhythm is variable about its underlying regularity, whereas metre is invariable” (12,793). Meter is the “underlying regularity” played against by rhytyhm. These two maintain a continual and fructifying tension, like any actuality and the abstraction that shape it. [p. 22]

Where do I start? Let’s begin with the underlined sentence. This sentence is precisely where the previous 21 pages collapse: It is not rhythm, but a pattern imposed on rhythm. Hartman has so separated rhythm from its central meaning of recurrence, regularity and pattern, that he fails to see the absurdity of his statement. I’ll be blunt: A rhythm implies, by definition, a pattern! You cannot, quote-unquote, “impose” a pattern on a rhythm because a rhythm already implies a pattern! This is his attempt, I think, to fully separate rhythm from pattern (essential if he wants to divorce rhythm from meter and leave it nothing but the dry numerical) but the effort defies simple logic.

He follows this with a quote from Own Barfield meant to drive home his point: “Rhythm is not metre.” Barfield then explains this by implying that metre is something separate from language. He too makes the bizarre assertion, counter to every definition of rhythm, that rhythm is distinct from meter’s “underlying regularity”.   I just popped up Artha (my linux system’s dictionary) to drive home the point I’m making.


  1. the basic rhythmic unit in a piece of music
  2. recurring at regular intervals
  3. an interval during which a recurring sequence of events occurs
  4. the arrangement of spoken words alternating stressed and unstressed elements

So, if rhythm is defined as something that recurs “at regular intervals”, how on earth is this distinct from meter’s “underlying regularity”? Between Hartman and Barfield, if there was ever a textbook example of a distinction without a difference, this is it. The whole mess could easily have been avoided if Hartman had simply conceded that meter is, in fact, rhythm; that the link between music and meter is not isochrony but a recurring and regular pattern; and that if there is a distinction to be made, it is not between meter and rhythm but between the rhythm of metrical verse and the arrhythmia of non-metrical verse.

But the proof is in the pudding, and that brings me back to the humble limerick.

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were caught, so what could they do?
Said the fly, “Let us flee.”
“Let us fly,” said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

The meter of all limericks essentially alternates between anapestic trimeter and anapestic dimeter. It’s that simple. The whole reason limericks are so catchy is because of their rhythm, yes rhythm; and their end-rhymes. To call a limerick numeric is to be obtuse. Yes, it’s numeric, but limericks work not because you can count the stresses in their lines but because you can hear the rhythm created by the anapests.

What is Hartman’s answer to the limerick (or any of the hundreds of nursery rhymes)? He wants us to know that a limerick’s effects are “not a meter in the poetic sense”!

This prosody originates in music. It depends on a beat or pulse–not counting the accents, but equalizing the time between them: isochrony, it is called… But though it is a prosody–it controls the audience’s temporal experience more directly than most–it is not a meter in the poetic sense. It organizes rhythm not numerically but temporally. [p. 32]

Poems like limerick’s “organize rhythm not numerically but temporally“. This is the rabbit hole Hartman must navigate because of his refusal to recognize the standard definition of rhythm. Remember page 14? Here’s what Hartman wrote: “Rhythm, in poetry, is the temporal distribution of the elements of language.” He then adds that “according to this definition, all language unavoidably has rhythm.”  When you consider that Hartman is defining the effect of poems like limericks as temporally organized rhythm (and remember, he has already defined rhythm as “a temporal distribution”), then you must conclude (based on Hartman’s earlier definition of rhythm as, from what I can tell, the same thing) that there is no difference between a limerick and “all language” (since all language unavoidably has rhythm).  Did you get that? I’ll make it clear. According to Hartman:

  • Rhythm is  “the temporal distribution of the elements of language“.
  • Limericks and Nursery rhymes organize rhythm not numerically but temporally“.

Now, since he’s already told us what rhythm is (according to him) let’s replace the word rhythm with the definition he provided:

  • Poems like limericks organize the “temporal distribution of the elements of language not numerically but temporally“.

Right, I’m not making this up. These are his own words. This is where Hartman’s baroque definition of rhythm (absent it’s dictionary definition of recurrence and pattern) lands him – in sheer tautological absurdity. He just can’t bring himself to admit to the rhythmic effect of meter. He can’t because he wants to reserve the word for his prosody of free verse. However, his gymnastics just don’t work. For all intents and purposes, he seems to deny that poems like limericks are written in meter or even exist! This is what allows him to say that line breaks can do anything that meter and rhyme can do. He has written off the very things that meter and rhyme do!

But enough argumentation. Let Hartman write a limerick that doesn’t use meter or rhyme — only line breaks.

Right. I didn’t think so.

Anyway, Hartman is now forced to distinguish between meter “in the poetic sense” and meter in the “temporal” sense. Does that mean, then, that any time one begins to hear the rhythm in meter that it’s not really “a meter in the poetic sense”? Then what does he make of the entirety of Spenser’s Fairy Queen? Here are just two of the hundreds of stanzas:


Now when that idle dream was to him brought,
Unto that Elfin knight he bad him fly,
Where he slept soundly void of evil thought,
And with false shows abuse his fantasy,
In sort as he him schoolèd privily:
And that new creature, borne without her dew,°
Full of the makers guile, with usage sly
He taught to imitate that Lady true,
Whose semblance she did carry under feignèd hew.


Thus well instructed to their work they haste,
And coming where the knight in slumber lay,
The one upon his hardy head him plac’d
And made him dream of loves and lustful play,
That nigh his manly hart did melt away,
Bathed in wanton bliss and wicked joy:
Then seemèd him his Lady by him lay,
And to him ‘plain’d, how that false wingèd boy,
Her chaste hart had subdued, to learn Dame Pleasure’s toy.

Anyone, and I do mean anyone, who actually sits down to read Spenser’s Fairy Queen, cannot fail to hear the steady, near incessant tum-te-tum-te-tum of Spenser’s iambic pentameter. According to Hartman (since it’s obviously rhythmic in every sense but his), this doesn’t count as meter “in the poetic sense”. How about Shakespeare’s blank verse? The meter’s rhythm is subtler, but it’s there. Ask anyone who can hear the difference between Shakespeare’s blank verse and his prose passages. They won’t answer that “the blank verse sounds organized numerically.” That’s just nonsense. They will answer that there’s a rhythm to the blank verse that isn’t heard in the prose passages.

Hartman’s description of meter, at the close of chapter one, comes as no surprise. He describes it as:

…an abstract pattern [the reader] can transfer in detail from poem to poem and codify in a formally closed, quasi-mathematical system that bears only incidentally on the experience of poetry. [p. 28]

Any reader who states that meter is a system “that bears only incidentally on the experience of poetry” doesn’t know how to read it. To Hartman’s credit, some 26 pages later however, he essentially contradicts himself when he writes that “in traditional verse the metrical determination of accent helps to control the interpretation of meaning…” How can meter help to determine the poem’s meaning and yet bear “only incidentally on the experience of poetry”? Hartman’s book is full of  contradictions like these, but then again, maybe he has re-defined the meaning of “experience” vis-a-vis poetry.

  • It’s worth mentioning, I think, that Hartman dismisses the one word that could have gotten him out of this whole quagmire – cadence.

All these theorists and theories tended to converge on the word cadence. The convergence was more lexical than semantic, since the word came to mean whatever a writer liked. [p. 46-47]

Ironic that he would write that, since this is precisely what he does to the word rhythm. Also ironic in that, by the time he’s done re-defining what he thinks rhythm should mean he’s all but re-defined it as cadence!

Rhythm, Symmetry, Counterpoint and the Free in Free Verse

Like I wrote earlier, one can’t go writing a book on the form of free verse when the free in free verse is understood as implying a lack of form. Hartman has to change the meaning of free. His first stab at this is to argue that we only think it’s free because we’re ignorant of its conventions.

In some sense any verse form is “free” with respect to any other, as the rhapalic line I invented is free if measured by the rules of iambic pentameter. It is “free” until its prosody is discovered. The reader easily discovers the prosody of a poem that belongs to his own tradition. But when the prosodic conventions on which a poem depends are alien to his experience, the poem will puzzle or completely mystify him. [p. 18]

At first glance this seems like a reasonable argument, but the argument is weirdly self-defeating. Hartman’s reasoning would seem to go like this: Poem X only looks like a free verse poem, but it’s not. In fact, once you closely examine it, you realize that it has a form. By way of example, Hartman gives us Marrianne Moore’s “Bird-Witted”. He points out that each stanza is “flawlessly divided” into syllables that count: 9,8,6,4,7,3,6,4,7,4. But what is he saying? Is he saying that Moore’s poem is still free verse, or is he saying that it’s not? If he’s saying it’s not, then what is the point of his argument? Is he saying that some free verse poems are free and some are not? Then what does free mean? What do we call these other “free verse poems”? He does, at least, have an answer to this last question. He divides free verse into vers libre and vers libéré.

On comparing French and English theories of verse, “we discover at once that French distinguish between vers libre and  vers libéré — verse which is born free and verse, so to say, which has been liberated from some pre-existing chains. We have not this distinction in English — party I suppose because the neat verbal antithesis between libre and libéré is not available in English language. J.V. Cunningham helpfully provides a full idea of the resources of what Hough calls verse libere: “in general, the lines of a poem [of this kind] will be partly in standard meter, at times parts of what would be a standard line, or they are felt to be equivalent in some aspect of sound or feeling to a standard line, or they exhibit some marked variation of a standard line, or some other principle of meter is used intermittently and supported and given authority by the presence and recurrence of standard lines.” [p. 113]

Even so, these distinctions seem tangential and unhelpful. What exactly is Hartman discussing? For that, we go back  a hundred pages:

“Free” is properly a synonym for “nonmetrical,” and it follows that the prosody of free verse is rhythmic organization  by other than numerical modes. [p. 24]

Ultimately, “free verse” is “free” only in a special sense. Poems are written in verse so that the rhythms of language can contribute to the whole meaning of the poem; and it is prosody of one kind or another that turns rhythm into meaning. [p. 27]

And in these definitions are the whole reason he tries to excise rhythm from meter. He wants, in effect, to co-opt rhythm as a free verse effect and not a metrical effect. He makes rhythm essential to his notion of a free verse that isn’t “free”. Curiously though, and typically, his definition implies that meter’s “numerical modes” are a species of rhythmic organization! Why else would he write “rhythmic organization by other than  numerical modes? (It seems that Hartman is, himself, either forgetful of, or confused by his own rhetoric of rhythm.) At this point, Hartman describes two “rhythmic” modes of organization that are nonmetrical — counterpoint and symmetry. The rest of the book, however, will primarily be concerned with counterpoint.
“I have implied that multiple rhythmic patterns–not all of them metrical and perhaps none–can coexist within a given passage of verse. These multiple patterns may reinforce each other, or they may stand in conflict. In the latter case, we can generally expect to perceive conflict on one level as meaning on another, as any paradox ultimately disproves (but does not deny) itself. This kind of significant conflict I will call counterpoint.” [p. 25]

“A second mode is symmetry. Free verse rarely uses a symmetrical prosody in a primary way. It would give the poem too tedious a stability. But when such elements as accent function at all prosodically in free verse (as they usually do, because of the nature of the langauge), they often adopt a symmetry that seems to arise out of the actual line, unlike an imposed numerical quota.” [ibid]

  • Once again you’ll notice that Hartman slips up by stating that meter is one of many “rhythmic patterns” – this after insisting that meter isn’t rhythm!

Chapter Four is called Counterpoint. Chapter 5 is called the Discovery of Form ( touches on Symmetry) and Chapter 6 is called the Discovery of Meter (this is where he makes the distinction between vers libre and vers libéré .

These three chapters are the heart of Hartman’s book, the chapters where he actually tries to establish and demonstrate a workable prosody. Of the three, the fourth chapter is the most interesting and the most useful to anyone who is writing free verse.  In my opinion, the book would have been much better if he had started with Chapter 4, resisting the Aristotelian reinvention of the wheel in the first three. I think I can briefly summarize the gist of the three chapters.

  • Chapter 4

Lineation allows the free verse poet to emphasize not just words (by choosing their placement at the ends of lines) but allows the poet to counterpoint linebreak with syntax. Where Hartman fails is in establishing counterpoint as a prosody. Remember that a prosody is something that “must be shared”. The principle error in these three chapters is a categorical one. Meter is numerical in the sense that one can objectively scan it and objectively observe where words are demoted or promoted. The meaning of a promoted word doesn’t necessary change from one poem to the next because syllabic emphasis is a part of our language. For example:

How did you do that?

How did you do that?

Depending on how these words appear in a metrical poem (one way or the other) their meaning subtly changes. Because meter is a prosody and because we all speak the same language, we will know which way to read the line based on its appearance within the metrical line. We can safely assume that the poet means us to read it one way or the other – and our interpretations of these lines will be more alike, than not. Hartman would have us believe that line breaks are no different. So, by contrast, here are the first lines of a poem he analyzes:

Shadows cast by the street light
·······under the stars
··············the head is tilted back,
the long shadow of the legs
·······presumes a world
··············taken for granted
on which the cricket trills.

Now what is the reader to make of these line breaks and indents? Hartman has an explanation and analysis for all of it, but all of it flirts too dangerously (when it doesn’t cross the line) with Intention Fallacy (in a limited sense) and Enactment Fallacy. Hartman must presume to know what the author intended when he used X number of syllables in a line, broke the line at this or that word or phrase, and indented. There’s no way around this.   There just isn’t. If Hartman can’t speak to the author’s intentions, then there’s no prosody, there’s no certainty that the poet and reader are sharing a common interpretation of the techniques used. (That is, there’s no common interpretation of the techniques being used.) If Hartman denies this, then his interpretations may or may not represent the intentions of the poet. That, in fact, is precisely what happens. Although Hartman’s interpretation of lineation in this or that poem is interesting, he offers no reason to think the poet actually intended any of it (other than Hartman’s say so).

Likewise, any poet who writes free verse may have her reasons for breaking a line where she does, but how is the reader to know whether to give all line breaks equal weight, some less, or some more. How is the reader to guess at the poet’s meaning? It’s extremely doubtful that any two readers would ever give the same weight or the same meaning to a given line break, let alone a poem. By contrast, the majority of readers will similarly interpret: How did you do that?

In this respect, Hartman’s “prosody” does not withstand comparison to the prosody of traditional poetry. In fact, Hartman’s arguments and assertions can become so diffuse as to be a kind of proto-academese:

“If one distinguishes the constant interval of time measuring each line from the variable pace within it, the relation between them itself appears as a kind of counterpoint. That relation, incidentally, resembles the one between meter and rhythm in accentual-syllabic verse, suggesting that the traditional meter, too, inherently involves counterpoint. But Williams’s poem derives much of its rhythmic interest from a more complex counterpoint, changing the relation between its isochronous lineation–comprising both interval and pace–and its syntax.” [p. 68]

But, as with the limerick, rather than speculate, there’s a concrete test for Hartman’s claims. Prosody has more than one definition. Here’s Wikipedia:

“Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order. The study of metres and forms of versification is known as prosody. (Within linguistics, “prosody” is used in a more general sense that includes not only poetical metre but also the rhythmic aspects of prose, whether formal or informal, which vary from language to language, and sometimes between poetic traditions.)” [March 9, 2012]

We’re going to use the first definition of prosody – the study of poetic meter. This is fair. Hartman himself invites the comparison. Throughout the book he compares his prosody the that of rhyme and meter (rather than to prose). At the end of Chapter 4, Hartman tells us the following:

“For an introductory course in modern poetry, I had typed out and mimeographed a set of free-verse poems as if they were prose. My purpose, of course, was not to pretend that the two forms are equivalent, but to broach the fundamental question of how free-verse lines are divided or determined. I asked the students to mark the line breaks. The only additional information I gave them about Auden’s poem [Museé Des Beaux Arts] was that it contains two stanzas of unequal length.”[p. 75]

The results, predictably enough, were nothing like Auden’s. What this proved, other than that the students aren’t as good at Auden’s poetry as Auden, is unclear, but Hartman has a method. He means to demonstrate that if the poem is written in any other way, the poem won’t carry the same meaning as that implied by Auden’s original lineation.

In several cases, Auden’s lineation generates quite specific effects which one might call semantic. Some of these depend on what I described in the last chapter as a principle of antithesis, that changing elements take stress and constant ones do not. The reverse applies as well: Where a word is unexpectedly stressed, it suggests the alternatives from among which it has been chosen. [p. 77]

So says Hartman. He may or may not be right in his interpretation of these typographical features. But then what does right mean in this context? There’s no way for him to know whether his thinking reflects Auden’s and what does it matter? It only matters if you’re claiming that your interpretation is based on a “shared” prosody of free verse. With that in mind, the larger purpose of his classroom experiment was, I think, to suggest that Auden’s poem obeyed certain recognizable principles. While I enjoyed Hartman’s detailed examination, it hardly added up to a prosody comparable to that of traditional poetry. I’m willing to offer the following test. If Hartman is so sure that his prosody is the equivalent of meter and rhyme, then I will remove the line breaks in any of Auden’s other poems (presumably one he’s not as familiar with) and let’s see if he can reconstruct it? Or how about William Carlos Williams or any of the other major free verse poets? I’ll bet he can’t reconstruct a single one of them. This tells me that his claims to a “shared” prosody of free verse don’t hold water.

On the other hand, he’s welcome to pick any passage from Milton, any Sonnet, any poem by Donne or even a passage from Shakespeare, and based on the prosody of traditional poetry I, the carpenter from up in Vermont, will reconstruct them exactly as the poet wrote them. Not only that, but give me a sonnet (one that I’m unfamiliar with) remove the line breaks and mix up the order of the lines. I’ll still reassemble the sonnet exactly as the poet wrote it.

I defy any one, using Hartman’s prosody, to reconstruct the randomly scrambled and de-lineated free verse poem. Again, what this tells us is that Hartman’s prosody fails the standard he, himself, set for it, that a prosody “must be shared”.

Hartman’s repeated claims to a free verse prosody (equivalent to that of traditional poetry) are baseless. He does his argument no favors by making such comparisons. Besides that, there’s no reason to. I just don’t see why he feels the need to constantly compare free verse to traditional poetry? Is the book nothing more than sibling rivalry? Why can’t a prosody of free verse be like a prosody of prose?

  • Chapter 5

Hartman describes how the subject of a poem, in this instance at the hands of William Carlos Williams, helps shape the poem itself (its counterpoint) — phrasing and lineation. The poet “discovers” the form of the poem as he writes it. This chapter is probably the weakest and least convincing of the three. Hartman, at the chapter’s outset, seems to anticipate this weakness:

Using free verse did not simply mean discarding metrical principles but substituting new ones. Often the conventions on which these new principles rest, such as lineation itself and its relation to syntactical rhythms, are at once less obvious (less explicitly systematic) and more fundamental that the special conventions of meters.  [p. 81]

And then later:

Meaning arises not from what the poems says, but from what it does and the doing that it represents. It cannot be reduced to either a content (a set of propositions) or a form, in the sense in which that word complements “content” — an achieved product, a static stature. Nor, indeed, can meaning be reduced to an accomplished combination or unity of form and content. We comprehend the poem only as a process, not as an object. [p. 85]

This gets to be so rarefied, and the air so thin, that some readers may need oxygen. One begins to notice with Hartman that there’s an inverse relationship between the thinness of the sand under his castle and the academese of his argument. By the time we get to the middle of the chapter, his attempt to describe anything like a prosody of “discovered form” has become so generic, general and diffuse as to be meaningless:

When rhythm renounces the support of abstract or independent systems — meter or isochrony — the basic principle of the line emerges and takes absolute control: Not time alone, nor accent alone, but a combination from among all the elements of sound and of sense must give the line some special twist to justify its individual existence. The details of its rhythm are discovered (by poet and reader) with what it says; they are “organically” united. [p. 92]

So, a combination of all the elements give the line some special twist? Hartman follows this up with the two short poems by William Carlos Williams. In both instances, Hartman’s observations are so specific to his own interpretation that it’s hard to see how any general prosodic conclusion can be drawn. Yes, we can go so far as to impute meaning in the symmetry or lack of symmetry between two scanned lines (which the poet may or may not have been aware of), but that’s nothing two readers are likely to agree on or even recognize.

  • Chapter 6

This chapter is stronger. As with the previous chapter, he argues that the poem’s subject can shape the use or absence of meter.  (This is the chapter where Hartman makes the useful distinction between vers libre and vers libéré.) Hartman focuses on vers libéré  — the way a free verse poet can fuse elements of traditional poetry with free verse. To me, the most interesting passages in the chapter are not those by Hartman (who like a nervous Putzfrau spends his time fussily  admonishing, correcting and revising the words and intent of deceased poets) but those of the deceased poets themselves, like 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. [p. 112]

This passage by Eliot is like a breath of fresh air compared to Hartman’s abstruse and byzantine argumentation. But Hartman just can’t leave it alone. He has to tweak it. He writes that “Eliot’s ‘simple form’ is a traditional metrical one. Thus it must precede the poem, and in this sense it is more accurate to say that the poet withdraws from it rather than that he approaches it.” Why Hartman felt compelled to make this completely gratuitous observation is beyond me. What does it matter if the poet is “approaching” or “withdrawing” from meter? My only guess is that Eliot’s description rattles Hartman’s preferred sobriquet of meter as a “received form”, a term he pointedly uses in the very next sentence. The terminology has always seemed like a political one, and one can’t help sensing a chip on Hartman’s shoulder whenever he writes about traditional poetry –but I could be wrong. One wonders what Eliot would say if he could be roused from his slumber.

More importantly, as with the preceding two chapters, Hartman is the least convincing when he tries to portray the use of meter (or its approximation) as something like a convention that can guide our reading and understanding of a poem. He can write for instance, that

“The end of the passage [Burnt Norton] shows how the metricality of the fragments can control meaning most directly. It is Eliot’s evocation of meter that makes us shift stresses in the repeated phrases of the final two lines.

will |not stay |in place,

Will not | stay still.

[And here is the larger portion from which these two lines are extracted:

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.]

In other words, Hartman is claiming that Eliot’s “evocation” of meter is somehow enough to cause readers to shift the emphasis from will in the first line, to not in the second line. At this point, I’m almost feeling like I should concede the argument out of apologetic generosity (because I’ve been so unconvinced elsewhere) but, in truth, I can see no reason why, at this particular moment, any reader should be compelled to suddenly invoke the prosody of traditional poetry. As for myself, I read the second Will as emphasized, just like in the first occurrence. What would T.S. Eliot say? Well, guess what(!), we have a recording of T.S. Eliot reading Burnt Norton.  I smell a smack down. I went looking for it as soon as I wrote this paragraph and after I had read it myself. Here it is:

T.S. Eliot begs to differ. He reads it the way I do, not the way Hartman does. (Or rather, I read Burnt Norton the way T.S. Eliot does.) Nothing so illustrates the limitations (if not failure) of Hartman’s prosody. Eliot’s evocation of meter makes us shift stresses? He states his prosodic opinion as though he spoke for all readers and as if his conclusion were self-evident (a habit of academics). He turns out to be wrong. (It’s one thing to speak for and correct poets who can’t talk back, but when they do talk back, it’s almost always trouble) If he can be wrong about this, then why are we to believe his assertions concerning Auden or WC Williams? We have no compelling reason because he has no established or compelling prosody (his authoritative tone notwithstanding).

An Unnecessary Distinction

Why does Hartman spend so much time trying to prove that free verse is the prosodic equal of traditional verse? The effort turns out to be wasted. Wouldn’t it have been better to discuss free verse on its own terms, without reference to traditional poetry and without attempting baroque redefinitions of rhythm and meter? The old prosodists were probably much better at it than Hartman.

The more obvious issue readers are likely to have with Hartman is the often near impenetrable opacity of his prose. He veers in and out of academese.

“A striving toward concreteness in language — the subordination of other linguistic processes to that of naming — is one corollary of the doctrine of the objective correlative. On the other hand, the poem’s method partly conflicts with the purpose of that doctrine, which is finally to facilitate communication between poet and reader by giving them a common ground. If sense in language inheres in the connections among units of sound, meaning inheres in the connections among units of perception, not simply in the units themselves. The poem’s linguistic fragmentation, besides emphasizing sound, tends also to atomize experience into isolated glimpses, and thus to fragment the meaning that the reader is asked to share.” [p. 154]

Right. One can only marvel at the irony of beginning this passage with the phrase “concreteness of language”. The first time you read this you need a Babel fish. As far as I’m concerned, it’s terrible writing. If an argument is clear and concise, then it will be made concisely and clearly. While Hartman makes some interesting and valid points concerning the uses of lineation in free verse, he fails to create the prosody he defined in the first pages of the book.

The Sheaves by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson

  • I have only one objection to free verse and that is that it seems to me to be a makeshift. About the best I can say is that the best free verse that I have seen contains subject matter for good poems. ~ EA Robinson

Before Frost brought a vernacular gait to Iambic Pentameter, Robinson was the first poet to bring a modern American diction to meter and form. Some readers might argue for Emily Dickinson, but Dickinson never ventured beyond the common meter of the hymn and ballad.  I also don’t feel a uniquely modern American diction in her poetry (as opposed to British). If we heard Emily Dickinson speak today, she would probably sound more British than American. (In the environs of Boston and Amherst the British accent was still studiously cultivated.)

  • I know that many of the new writers insist that it is harder to write good vers libre than to write good rhymed poetry. And judging from some of their results, I am inclined to agree with them. ~ EA Robinson

But where Robinson’s voice may sound modern, his heart remains with the classicists. Where modern poets write as though the poem were just another species of prose, poetry to Robinson is more than content. A poem is also an excursion into the felicities of language. The two go together. A good subject is heightened by the language’s expressiveness, and vice versa. I know I like to get my licks in when it comes to free verse (it’s like skeet shooting), but appreciation of Robinson’s poetry is heightened when a reader understands a little about his life.

  • Nine-tenths of poetry is how it’s done…. Ideas are, of course, inseparable from the medium, but much memorable poetry is not important for what is said. ~ EA Robinson

Until the very end of his life, Robinson was ignored. Times and poetic tastes were changing, and for good reason. As Robert Mezey points out in his introduction to The Poetry of E.A. Robinson, the luminaries of the times were writing chestnuts like the following:

What is a sonnet? ‘T is the tear that fell
From a great poet’s hidden ecstacy;
A two-edged sword, a star, a song–ah me!
Sometimes a heavy-tolling funeral bell.

And that little morsel was by Watson Gilder, the John Ashbery of his day, famous in his age and held in high esteem by his contemporaries. Every heard of him? Mezey provides another example:

Alone it stands in Poesy’s fair land,
A temple by the muses set apart;
A perfect structure of consummate art,
By artists builded and by genius planned.

The subject matter of these two extracts by no means typify every poem written at the end of the 19th century, but they do reflect what was popular and esteemed. Poetry by this point was so pleased with itself that poets could write swooning poems about poetry.

The only poet to survive the 1890’s was E.A. Robinson. When every other poet of his generation was writing forgettable metrical and rhyming poetry in a decidedly British tradition, Robinson’s survived by doing something none of the other poets did – appealing to readers in their own language.

  • I had no idea of establishing any new movement in poetry. As I look back I see that I wrote as I did without considering how much of the old poetical machinery I left behind. I see now that I have always disliked inversions as well as many other conventional solemnities which seem to have had their day. I could never, even as a child, see any good reason why the language of verse should be distorted almost out of recognition in order to be poetical.  ~ EA Robinson

Just as Robinson rejected the burgeoning age of free verse, he also rejected the excesses of traditional poetry. He represented the first among America’s rarest poets – those who could infuse traditional poetry with a the modern voice – something that a poet like the much younger Edna Saint Vincent Millay, for example, never really managed to do. Even in the 21rst century, the number of poets who can skillfully infuse traditional poetry with a modern, vernacular voice are few and far between.

  • My poetry is rat poison to editors, but here and there a Philistine seems to like it. ~ EA Robinson

Despite Robinson’s unique genius, he was ignored until the last decade of his life. He lived in boarding houses, with generous admirers and friends and skirted homelessness. He lived, at times, in abject poverty, drank whiskey to excess, depended on free lunches at saloons, and haunted taverns. He was the Charles Bukowski of his age and, in truth, his clear-eyed observation of fellow men put him in the same league as Bukowski. The two poets could have been friends in another era.

  • I’ve always rather liked the queer, odd sticks of men, that’s all. ~ EA Robinson

It’s hard to exaggerate the degree to which Robinson was ignored. Mezey, in his introduction, suggests that Robinson was a poor self-promoter. He kept to himself. He didn’t tour or give lectures. He preferred solitude. But luck and critical reception plays a part. Frost’s sudden success, for example, was more luck than design. Frost met Ezra Pound and was championed by the famous poet. As a result, American publishers, who had previously ignored Frost, took notice. Robinson, it seems, never enjoyed that kind of breakthrough until the very last decade of his life, when Tristram won the Pulitzer prize. A healthy income and fame finally caught up with him. That was in 1927. He died April 6th, 1935.

  • I think we must leave my contemporaries out of it. I don’t mind your saying, though, that I think a lot of Robert Frost’s work. ~ EA Robinson

Robinson continues to be overlooked. My own opinion is this: Robinson possessed a masterful ear for the colors of language, its rhythm and poetic form. What he lacked, perhaps, is a great poet’s gift for imagery. One will rarely find the ravishing sensuality of a Keats— sensitivity to touch, taste, smell and texture— or the arresting metaphor (or extended metaphor) of a Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot. Robinson’s plain style equally characterizes his poetic abilities. He seems, sometimes, almost embarrassed by the poetic image. He limits himself to only the most necessary description. In what some consider to be one of his greatest poems, Eros Turannos, the reader will be hard put to find anything that might be called simile, metaphor or imagery. A face is an “engaging mask”. We read of the “foamless weirs of age”, but the image is more like a still-life. Robinson frequently prefers the abstract to the concrete. We find collocations like “blurred sagacity” or “dirge of her illusions”, or “kindly veil”. These evoke nothing and range from the inventive to the mundane. They are intellectual abstractions. In his great poem For A Dead Lady, the reader will find abstractions like “overflowing light”, “eyes that now are faded”, “flowing wonder”, and the slightly more inventive “woman-hidden world”, but all these collocations are of the still-life variety, and some are just mundane, like “flowing wonder”. When Robinson does describe, his sense of imagery is mostly prosaic. We find “pounding waves” or “A sense of ocean and old trees”. Such descriptions are as typical of the novelist as of the poet. You will never find anything like Frost’s extended metaphor in Birches:

They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust–
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

You will only find, every now and then, the seeds and hints of something that might have more fully flourished in the hands of a poet with a more metaphorical bent. What Robinson excels at is the pithy line. There’s a tight, powerfully succinct, terse and epigrammatic feel to his lines that, to a reader who revels concision and eloquence, is a joy to read. Robinson’s style is compressed and elliptical – talents that naturally made him a master of the short poem. In truth, most modern poets (some of whom are widely read) have no more talent for simile or metaphor than Robinson, but lack Robinson’s powerful feel for language. The wonder is that Robinson isn’t more widely read. To some, probably, he reads like a watered-down Frost, to others, more used to the transparently straight forward voice of free verse, Robinson’s powerfully compressed lines can feel archly intellectual. Robinson ends up neither here nor there. But read him for the concision of his lines. Read Robinson for his ability to compress a whole story into the space of a few lines.

  • I am essentially a classicist in poetic composition, and I believe that the accepted media for the masters of the past will continue to be used in the future. There is, of course, room for infinite variety, manipulation and invention within the limits of traditional forms and meters, but any violent deviation from the classic mean may be a confession of inability to do the real thing, poetically speaking. ~ EA Robinson

What makes Robinson’s poem, The Sheaves, so unique among his poems is that it offers the reader both powerful concision and  an almost Keatsian (or Frostian) beauty of imagery and metaphor – the latter being more of a rarity. To me, who values both these elements, The Sheaves is his greatest, most perfect and most moving poem. Others, for other reasons, might choose other poems.

Here it is:

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as my some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly to gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

And here, for those who enjoy such things, is how I’ve scanned the poem:

What does it mean?

My first answer would be to say that it means what it says. Robinson called himself a classicist. What that means aesthetically, and from a poet’s perspective, is that the beauty of the great poem is both in what is said and how it’s said. Robinson’s quote: “Nine-tenths of poetry is how it’s done…. Ideas are, of course, inseparable from the medium, but much memorable poetry is not important for what is said.” To a classicist, a poem is a linguistic performance. (In that respect, rap has more in common with traditional poetry than with free verse.) Perhaps an apt analogy is to compare the classicist’s ideal oem to a statue by Michelangelo. We might ask how to interpret the Pietà: Why, for instance, did Michelangelo choose to omit signs of the passion when sculpting Christ? But no one would care if the sheer skill of its conception, in and of itself, weren’t a masterpiece of genius. In other words, we can appreciate the beauty of the statue without needing to interpret it or give it meaning. It’s meaning is, emphatically, not what makes the Pietà a masterpiece. Likewise, Robinson’s sonnet, The Sheaves, isn’t memorable for what it says (which is fairly mundane) but for how it’s said – the sheer skill of its conception. Robinson’s sonnet is, in a sense, like a sculpture. It’s an aesthetic, by the way, a way of writing poetry that is almost entirely absent in modern poetry. As I have writtene elsewhere, modern poets write at the alter of content. If we were to rewrite Robinson’s sonnet as  free verse, it would loose much of a power and beauty, and this isn’t necessarily to diminish free verse, in and of itself, but to distinguish between the different aesthetic approaches of a poet like Robinson and most modern poets.

  • Many causes prevent poetry from being correctly appraised in its own time. Any poetry that is marked by violence, that is conspicuous in color, that is sensationally odd, makes an immediate appeal. On the other hand, poetry that is not noticeably eccentric sometimes fails for years to attract any attention… More than ever before, oddity and violence are bringing into prominence poets who have little besides these two qualities to offer the world… ~ EA Robinson

The sonnet is a beautiful example of a Petrarchan Sonnet written in Iambic Pentameter. As far as metrical innovation goes, the sonnet has nothing out of the ordinary to offer. There is one interesting spondaic foot: |vast mag|ic. The spondee, I think, reinforces the sense of vastness. The effect probably wasn’t cultivated by Robinson but, in a metrical poem, the accentual nature of the language takes on a little added emphasis.

What is beautiful about the poem is an opening quatrain like the following:

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as my some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly to gold.

Robinson’s sonnet begins in a kind of darkness – the beautiful image ‘shadows of the wind’. From there, the sonnet’s world begins to grow into a beautiful golden brilliance: green wheat, as though by some vast magic, is turning “slowly into gold”. After the first quatrain, the second gives to an impersonal landscape, something like thought, shape and intent.

Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

What is the It that begins the second line of the quatrain? – body and mind. Robinson begins to shape the landscape into something human or divine (though the magic is undivined).  The reader is in a world of ambiguity, but Robinson has introduced all the elements of a metaphor that, like the landscape, will coalesce and beautifully take shape in the sonnet’s closing sestet (last six lines). What is the body? What is the mind? Does the mind of meaning or intent? He doesn’t yet tell us, only that it is like nothing that was ever bought or sold. It is without price or estimation. It cannot be constrained by any limitation but is free. And it’s meaning? Robinson is content with ambiguity. The read will ask, but Robinson will only answer that it is a “mighty meaning of a kind, That tells the more the more it is not told.” There is a power in these lines that is comparable to a zen koan. Lao Tse might have written such lines in his Tao Te Ching. To me, the simple, plain spoken mystery and truth in these two lines is equal to anything written by any other poet in any other language or  time. Such is the mystery of life that tells the more the more it is not told. The reader, the novitiate, seeking answers, must be silent. True knowledge does not come through the telling, and yet tells the more it is not told.

And now all the pieces of the metaphor will come together in one of the most beautiful images of all of poetry.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —

Robinson begins the patrarchan sestet with an almost off-handed tone, anticipating and equal to anything Robert Frost was to write in later years. We are back to the impersonal landscape of wind and shadow. Robinson writes, simply and matter-of-factly, that though all days are not fair, fair days went on until a thousand golden sheaves “were lying there”. The first three lines are all but a restatement of the sonnet’s opening octave. But Robinson has placed the elements of a greater “meaning”, a “meaning of a kind that tells the more it is not told” the will take life with “body and mind”. The leaves will lie there, shining and still, but not for long. They will wait there like nothing that was ever bought or sold, until one day, they will be embodied,

As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Body and mind coalesce. In these last two lines, with a power akin to the closing couplet of a Shakespearean Sonnet, body, mind and meaning take shape, become metaphor, embodied in the inexpressible will and beauty of a thousand girls, whose meaning is greatest if left, perhaps, “untold”.  They have slept but will arise out of the impersonal shadow of the wind, suddenly alive, willful, free, golden haired, light, and inexpressibly lovely. Their meaning is in a beauty that defies definition. Beauty is truth and truth is beauty, Robinson almost seems to say. But their beauty is fleeting. The arise. They do not come to us, speak to us, or explain. They will go way and that is all ye know and all ye need to know.

So will we all.

Can there be a more beautiful or profound way to express something so simple? I find this poem to be one of the greatest poems of the English language.

Other readers of Robinson: