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.)

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:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Sonnet (Posted by Request)

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

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

About Rossetti and The House of Life

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

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

Schmidt closes the paragraph, however, by noting:

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

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

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

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

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

Rossetti’s Brotherhood

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

The Poem

A Scansion of Rosetti's A Sonnet

About the Scansion

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

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

About the Form of the Sonnet

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

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

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

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

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

The Sonnet and the Sonnet Sequence it Introduces

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

Corrected Companion to Victorian Poetry (extract)

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

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

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

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

What the Poem Means

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

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

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

Of the sestet, he writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now for the volta.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facsimile (Enlarged)

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

A Favorite Sonnet from The House of Life.

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


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

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

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

Guess which ships are promptly dispatched?

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Donne & Batter my Heart: Editing Iambic Pentameter Then & Now

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I was looking for another poem to analyze. Since there’s been so much interest in my post on Donne’s Death Be Not Proud, I thought I would  look at another of his Holy Sonnets, the famous Batter My Heart. john donneThe first thing I did was to Google the sonnet. And here’s what I found out: All of the sites I have looked at so far, offer readers a “modernized” version of the sonnet. Not only is the spelling modernized, but also the punctuation.

This is a disaster.

Here’s why: The Elizabethans used spelling and punctuation as signposts (spelling hadn’t been standardized) indicating how their lines should be read. Unfortunately, modernizations of the sonnet overlook this, misunderstanding the reasons Elizabethans wrote and spelled the way they did. It wasn’t haphazard. The end result is that all the modernizations I’ve seen so far, completely and devastatingly erase the clues to Donne’s intentions.

So, I’ve used an Oxford edition of Donne’s Poetical Works which retains the original spellings and punctuation. It falls just short of being a facsimile edition. This is the version I’ve scanned and once we go through it together, it will all make sense.

  • Note: [June 4 2009 – As I sit at the Dartmouth Bookstore] Another edition which respects Donne’s punctuation and your ability to get it, is the Everyman Library’s edition of The Complete English Poems. Astonishingly, the Norton Critical Edition of John Donne’s Poetry does not. Dickson edits the poem inconsistently, choosing to note some of Donne’s markings while ignoring others, all while giving the reader no indication that he is doing so. I don’t recommend this edition and if instructors want you to buy it, point out the poor editing or point them to my website.

Note, if any of this terminology is unfamiliar to you, you might consider reading my post on Iambic Pentameter and the Basics, first. I’ve also spent aless time explaining the reasons why an Iambic Pentameter poem should be read as such. My previous posts, such as my previous post on Donne, go into more of the historical reasons for conservative readings of meter.


First, by way of comparison, here is the modernized version (as typically found on the web) side by side with the “facsimile”. I’ve highlighted the crucial punctuation, in the original, missing in the modernization.

Comparison of Modernized & Facsimile Sonnet XIV

In each of the highlights, the apostrophes indicate the use of Synalophea, a form of elision where, “at the juncture of two vowels one is elided” [Sister Miriam Joseph: Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 52]. Without these indications no modern reader of poetry, having grown up on free verse, would suspect that something was missing. They would simply read the lines as anapests, completely ignoring the meter and Donne’s intentions. So, they would read the third line as follows:

That I| may rise, |and stand, |o’erthrow |me, and bend

When it should read something like this:

That I| may rise, |and stand, |o’erthrow |me’nd bend

There’s room for debate as to whether this sort of slurring or elision works. There were readers in Donne’s own day who frequently scratched their heads. But what’s indisputable, is that Donne intended us to elide these words. He was writing Iambic Pentameter – still a new meter. So many anapests in the span of a single sonnet would have been derided as incompetent. In my last post on Donne, examining his other Holy Sonnet, Death be not Proud, you’ll find the following:

Ben Jonson was quoted as having said: “Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging.” Even two hundred years later, literary historian Henry Hallam considered Donne the “most inharmonius of our versifiers, if he can be said to have deserved such a name by lines too rugged to seem metre.” Right up to 1899, Francis Thompson was describing Donne’s poetry as “punget, clever, with metre like a rope all hanks and knots.”

Thomas Carew, a contemporary, wrote in his elegy to Donne:

Our stubborne language bends, made only fit
With her tough-thick-rib’d hoopes to gird about
Thy Giant phansie

Carew praised Donne’s meter for it’s “masculine expression”.  Dryden, on the other hand, wished that Donne “had taken care of his words, and of his numbers [numbers was a popular term for meter] eschewing in particular his habitual rough cadence. (For most of these quotes, I’m indebted to  C.A. Partrides Everyman’s Library introduction to Donne’s complete poems.)

The Holy Trinity Masaccio, 1426-27 Fresco, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.

The Holy Trinity Masaccio, 1426-27 Fresco, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.

In Donne’s 14th Holy Sonnet, “thick ribb’d”, spondaic lines like “but knocke, |breathe, shine”  or “to break, | blowe, burn” were  the lines that troubled readers the most. Yet lines like these are what Donne needed to convey the energetic emotional conviction behind his rhetoric – anger, contempt, desperation, etc…

Back to the differences between the old and new printings:

Notice how Donne spells usurped as  usurpt. This wasn’t because he didn’t know how to spell. He was telling us that the word was to be treated as bi-syllabic, not tri-syllabic. In other words, it shouldn’t be pronounced usurpèd.  He apostrophizes betroth’d for the same reason. He doesn’t want us to pronounce it as betrothèd. Now, you might object that since no one pronounces it like this anymore anyway, why preserve this spelling. The reason is that you will miss the words that he does want us to pronounce tri-syllabically – like “beloved fain”.

Yet dearely’I love you,’and would belov|èd faine,

So, it’s not that he remembered how to spell beloved, it’s that he wanted us to pronounce the -ed ending. And it’s the reason why “responsible” modern editions add the accent grave over the è when they modernize the rest of the spelling. Now, on to the sonnet. Here it is:

The Sonnet

John Donne: Sonnet XIV "Batter my heart" Scansion

The First Quatrain: Batter me!

As with modern day religious leaders, Donne’s carnality and spirituality were never far removed. Donne, at least, wasn’t hypocritical about it. He made great poetry out of the conflict.

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

battering ramThree-person’d God refers to the holy trinity. The battering ram was an old, if not ancient, weapon by the time Donne wrote his sonnet, but it was still a very effective and violent weapon – possibly the most terrifying weapon of its day. If the battering ram was out and it was battering your portcullis, and if you were out of hot oil, you were in a lot of trouble.  So, Donne’s battering was probably the most violent and terrifying weapon he could conjure. No battering ram, by the way, could be effectively used by one person. Donne remedies that by referring to God as three-personed. In the illustration at right, though the perspective is somewhat confused, you will notice that three soldiers are using the first of the battering rams.

Batter me! – Donne cries to God. All you do is try to mend. Mend, in Donne’s day, had the sense “to repair from breach or decay: Like the mending of highways” [ Shakespeare-Lexicon: A Complete Dictionary of All the Works of the Poet. Schmidt.] It also, as today, has the sense of improving and making better. But it’s the first sense that Donne was playing on. He tells us that God is reparing the breach when he should be battering it down. In the first two lines Donne plays on paradoxical demands, subverting the reader’s usual expectations. Let God destroy; and by destroying, build. So that I can rise up and stand, says Donne, overthrow me, bend/use your force/your power, to break and blow (in the sense of a bomb or petar – used to blow up walls). Burn me (like the invader who burns down the besiged fortress) and rebuild me – make me new. This is an urgent sonnet.
Here’s how Bejamin Britten expressed the Sonnet in music:Death be not proud.... CD by Britten & Bostridge[Audio

Note: This, by the way, is directly related to the much misunderstood expression – “hoisted by one’s own petard”. A petard was like dynamite, a kind of bomb.

Let it work;
For ’tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petar; and ‘t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon.
[Shakespeare: Hamlet III, 4]

The Second Quatrain

The second quatrain continues the theme of the first, rounding off the Sonnet’s octave.

I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.

Donne compares himself to a “usurpt towne”. The word due, according to the Shakespeare Lexicon (the best dictionary for words in Shakespeare’s day), has as its second meaning “belonging” – to belong to someone. I am due to a woman [Err. III, 2, 81]. So, Donne is saying that he has been usurpt and now belongs to another (greed? carnality? temptation? we don’t really know yet…). And though he labors to admit God, his efforts are “to no end”.

Donne then characterizes Reason, his own reason, as God’s viceroy. A viceroy was understood as a substitute for the King. So, by this analogy, Donne sees himself as a city into which God has breathed reason – the (substitute or viceroy) of God (the King). But in Donne, God’s viceroy, who should defend Donne, is captive to another. He proves weak or untrue. In my scansion, I chose to emphasize the conjunction or.  In terms of meter, Donne has placed it in a position which is normally stressed (the second syllable of any iambic foot). As I’ve written before: If one can read a foot as Iambic in poetry prior to the 20th Century, one probably should. In this case, stressing or adds another layer of meaning reinforced by the content. That is, it’s one thing for Donne to suggest that his reason is weake, but entirely another to suggest that his reason is untrue – a traitor. Being convicted of treachery in Donne’s day was treated as an especially heinous offense. A death sentence was usually a sure bet. Dismemberment, including having your dismembered parts nailed up for public display, was de rigueur. If the sonnet were spoken like a monologue, I might expect the actor to hesitate at or. “My reason is too weake or… or untrue!”  – spoken as with a sense of self-discovery or even self-loathing.

Save me! – Donne cries.

The Sestet

Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

The structure of the sonnet is most like those of Sidney’s Sonnets. However, where there is usually a division between the third quatrain and a final epigrammatic couplet, Donne makes none. The final quatrain is enjambed. Its phrasing flows smoothly into the couplet. So, while I would normally treat the quatrain and couplet as discrete, I’ve reproduced the entire sestet as an indivisible whole. In this regard, the content of the sonnet more closely approximates that of a Patrarchan Sonnet.

Despite the possible betrayal of reason, God’s viceroy, Donne insists that, though he is “betrothed to God’s enemie, he “dearely” loves God and “would be loved faine” (faine means gladly). What’s interesting is that the analogy Donne uses to portray his relationship to God and his own will seems to change completely. No longer is he a city. He now compares himself to a desperate bridegroom – one who is betrothed to someone he does not wish to marry. Is this the volta? – a change of conceit?

C.A. Partride, in his notes to the Sonnet (The Complete English Poems), has this to say:

Man’s relations with God have been set forth in terms of marriage or adultery ever since the great Hebrew prophets, beginning with Hosea. It was within such a context that Donne described adultery as ‘every departing from that contract you made with God at your Baptisme… [p. 433]

Divorce mee! – Donne cries. “Untie or breake that knot again!” Recalling the martial analogies of octave, he cries: “Imprison me!” And now Donne revels in a sort of paradoxical delight. “Imprison me,” he cries, enthrall me (enslave me), and I “shall be free”!  “Ravish me!” – Donne cries. “And I shall be chaste!”

But ravish, in its Elizabethan sense, carried a more violent connotation than now, the first two definitions being: 1.) To rob, to carry away by force; 2.) to deflower by violence. We are reminded of the sonnet’s first line, but now the martial imagery assumes a very different meaning. The heart is the “seat of love and amorous desire” [Shakespeare Lexicon]. The soul is a feminine attribute [Shakespeare Lexicon p. 1090]. The battering ram is phallic.

The octave takes on a new layer of meaning.

In one sense, Donne, his body and soul are one and the same.

In another sense, they are not. Donne’s soul is trapped within the body (the usurpt town) – usurpt by reason.  And now we begin to comprehend the different characters in the sonnet:

Three person’d GodWhose overthrow Donne (or Donne’s Soul) desires.
ReasonGod’s viceroy, who has betrayed Donne.
The Towne – Which is Donne’s Physical Being. His body.
The Enemie – Fear. Or the fear of Death. Fear seeks to prevent God’s entry.
The Betrothed – Donne’s soul. The Bridegroom who seeks God rather than Fear.

So… Weake and untrue reason has captiv’d Donne; has betroth’d him to fear. Donne, in the sense of his phsycial being, fears the very thing his soul desires – Death.  The soul’s cry to God is a cry for death – freedom from her unwilling betrothal to the body. Do not mend but batter my heart! she cries. Free me from the body! – she cries. Donne gives voice to both characters – being both characters. The seeming violence of the soul’s rhetoric is best understood as expressing the immediacy of her desire  – for the chaste union, death, that promises her liberation. Death’s consummation is understood, by the soul (by her) as a kind of erotic and spiritual ecstasy. But before the soul can be enthralled and freed, the body must be overthrown and broken. The body must be divorced from its betrothal to fear.

The sonnet, we realize,  begins with the same cry that ends it  – “ravish me”!

If you enjoyed this post, found it helpful or have more questions – please comment!

Sir Phillip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets

A New Form & a New Meter

I have noticed that readers of my previous post on Shakespearean, Spenserian, Petrarchan Sonnet Forms have occasionally searched for further information on Sidney’s Sonnets. sir-phillip-sidneyThe first thing to know about Sidney is that his Sonnets predated those of Shakespeare, Daniel, Drayton, Donne, or Spenser. Spenser published his sonnets, Amoretti,  in 1595, 9 years after Sidney’s death and four years after Sidney’s own Sonnets were posthumously published. Samuel Daniel’s Delia was published in 1592. Micheal Drayton’s Idea was published in 1594. Shakespeare’s Sonnet Sequence was published in 1609. My point in mentioning this is that Sidney’s Sonnets are written in a variety of rhyme schemes and his meter varies between Iambic Pentameter and Iambic Hexameter (also called Alexandrines). Shakespeare, Spenser, Daniel and Drayton all settle on a single Sonnet scheme. When Sidney was writing, the Sonnet was still an unestablished form.

The other aspect to consider is Sidney’s use of Meter. The works of Marlowe, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Chapman, Donne and others were still unpublished. Sidney wasn’t working with a pre-established meter. He was creating it in the act of writing it. What might appear to be eccentric or radical has more to do with his search for a form that satisfies his own aesthetics. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, the first play that demonstrated what blank verse  (iambic pentameter) was capable of, was performed a year after Sidney’s death.

If you want a brief but good introduction to Sidney (how to understand some of the themes central to his poetry and how they differ from modern day concerns) I strongly recommend Sir Philip Sidney. Brief Background. The Sonnet Tradition. Atrophil and Stella by Peter Sinclair. I just discovered his blog and think very highly of it. For a web site entirely dedicated to Sidney, try Sir Philip Sidney at Luminarium.Org. The latter website includes a variety of links to his works.

The Variety of his Sonnets

Rather than offer up an in-depth analysis of any one of his sonnets (as is my usual habit), I’ll offer up an example of the different types along with some brief commentary. (All unmarked feet are iambic.)

Astrophil & Stella

Sidney Sonnet 1

  • There seem to be two versions of this sonnet. The version most frequently printed (and the one you’ll find most often on the net), reads the second line as follows:

That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:

My source is Richard Dutton’s edition of Sidney’s Selected writings (which I own). Dutton writes:

Atrophil and Stella was first published in 1591 in two quarto editions which appear to have had no sanction from any of Sidney’s family or friends. I have followed recent editorial practice in preferring the text given in the 1598 Folio of Sidney’s works, which there is good reason for supposing was supervised by his sister, Mary, Countess of Pembroke. It is the fullest of the early texts and includes songs as they are given here (some texts have none, others only some), lyric embellishments on the narrative running through the sonnets.

The book appears to be out-of-print, or I would provide a link.

Shakespeare's Metrical ArtAnyway, this is Sidney’s first sonnet from his sequence Astrophil and Stella. I’ve scanned it the way George T. Wright, Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, scans Sidney. (He didn’t scan this poem, but I’ve used his “methodry”.) What Wright does is to treat certain phrases as a double foot. So, in the first line, a standard reading would read the line as Iambic Hexameter with a trochaic first foot:

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

This is well within the metrical practice of the day and so, at first glance, Wright’s method appears arbitrary (or at least it did to me).  In other words, if Wright is going to read the first four syllables as a double foot, why not read the next four syllables as a double foot, or why not apply the same standards to Shakespeare’s sonnets?

Reading Sidney’s sonnets as a whole, however, reveals the reasons. Sidney’s variant feet always seem to come in pairs while the lines (within which they occur) remain strongly iambic. In his later sonnets, double feet can consist of two trochees, for example, an effect that would all but disappear from shorter Elizabethan poems – treated as incompetent. Sidney must have been well aware of the trends – that poets, like Spenser, Daniel and Drayton were increasingly favoring a strong Iambic Pentameter line. Sidney’s metrical experiments were not born out of ignorance or newness to the form. Sidney, after all, was the first English poet/critic to write a critical essay on Poetry – his Defence of Poetry.

He was experimenting with meter in a way that later poets couldn’t (as accentual syllabic verse became established and regularized). He was writing a line that was more typical of French Poetry, the Alexadrine, and trying to naturalize it (if not reconcile it) with accentual syllabic verse more natural to the English language. In the French poetry of the time, the Alexandrine was not as patterned as it was to become at the hands of the 17th century French Dramatists. There was a certain regularity, but it was “intensified and regularized” [Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics p. 30] after Sidney’s lifetime.  So, the form of the Alexandrine with which Sidney was familiar, was a less patterned, syllabic line.  That he was familiar with the Alexandrine is apparent from his Defence of Poetry:

Now for the rhyme [modern accentual verse], though we do not observe quantity, yet we observe the accent very precisely, which other languages either cannot do, or will not do so absolutely. That caesura, or breathing place in the midst of the verse, neither Italian nor Spanish have, the French and we never almost fail of.

So, to Sidney, the French Alexandrine was syllabic and characterized by division into two hemistichs “making it an apt vehicle for polarization, paradox, parallelism and complementarity.” [Ibid. 30] Notice, in the first sonnet,  how many of his Alexandrines are broken, midline, by a caesura. For instance:

Pleasure might cause her read, || reading might make her know,

The line is also characterized by anadiplosis, the repetition of read at the end and beginning;  and the parallelism – all characteristics of the French Alexandrine (though equally characteristic of English poetry). And there is also the parallelism of meter – each having a double foot (trochee-iamb). Sidney seems to be combining syllabic (French Influence) with accentual syllabic (English Influence) verse in a strict dodecasyllabic line. He’s trying to anglicize the French Alexandrine – remake it into an English meter having characteristics of both the French and English verse.

What was Sidney’s aim in all of this?

The variant double feet seemed to give Sidney some flexibility in the patterning of his syntax. In the person of Astrophil, Sidney’s “cries, curses, prayers, and resolutions” [Wright: 73] are aptly expressed in the flexible meter of his double foot:

I sought fit words|
|ers in my way
less in my throes

Rather than reinvent the wheel,  I’ll let Wright sum up Sidney’s purposes, which he does well:

Through such arrangements of meter and phrasing, Sidney finds a convincing tonal correlative for the psychological states of the Petrarchan lover and opens up iambic pentameter to a whole new order of English Speech. Compared with the earlier uses of Iambic Pentameter for narrative, dramatic, and even lyric verse, Sidney’s discovery of the meter’s powers is revolutionary. The next step, as we can see in retrospect, will be taken by Shakespeare, who pours new life into the relatively inert dramatic poetry of his age by adapting and developing to a much finer pitch and for incomparably grander purposes Sidney’s art of expressive metrical speech. [Ibid. 74]

You might wonder why Wright is talking about Iambic Pentameter when the first of Sidney’s Sonnets is written in Alexandrines.  Of all Sidney’s sonnets, however, there are only five other examples (this combined with Shakespeare’s Iambic Tetrameter Sonnet, should all but dispel the myth that sonnets are, by definition, written in Iambic Pentameter). Sidney may have been dissatisfied with Alexandrines, or more attracted to the developing decasyllabic lines of Iambic Pentameter. The rest of his sonnets are decasyllabic. That said, he carries over the technique of the double foot into his decasyllabic sonnets. In our day, his decasyllabic sonnets would easily fall within the confines of Iambic Pentameter. That is, most would readily identify them as Iambic Pentameter.

Interpreting Sonnet 1

In his own day, though, his meter was much more experimental than that – miles apart from the sonnets Spenser was writing. I think it always helps to appreciate a poet (one that might seem staid by today’s standards) by trying to read them as their contemporaries read them. And speaking of which, I quick word on interpreting the sonnet:

That the dear She might take some pleasure of my pain:

Filthy ShakespeareThis line works on many levels because of the word pain. It means, in its least ribald sense, that Stella might take some platonic pleasure from the effort/pain of writing the sonnets. But Sidney’s intentions are hardly platonic. Pain was also a reference to orgasm (as it is now). So… Sidney is slyly suggesting that, if only his Sonnets achieve their aim, she might take some pleasure (her own orgasm) from his orgasm. If you think this far-featched, then I would recommend a book like Filthy Shakespeare. The Elizabethans saw life very differently than we do. Death and sex was ever present. Life, in all its glory and decay, was intimate. They weren’t nearly so prudish about the realities of life as we have become – which isn’t to say that prudishness didn’t exist. The Elizabethans were all too ready to find sly humor in the crudities of life – much to the dismay and denial of our more puritan contemporaries.

reading might make her know

And what does Sidney mean by know. Does he simply mean that she will know that he loves her? Hardly. The phrase to bibically know someone comes from this era. To know someone possessed the double sense of having sex, just as it does now. So…Sidney is saying that if she reads his sonnets, she might come to know him, have sex with him. He is continuing the playful double-entendre of the previous line.

Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain

The first quatrain closes, appropriately, with the attainment of grace. Grace continues Sidney’s double-meaning – grace as pity, beneficence, release from sin, sexual release, release from sexual obsession, lust and desire through the exercise of the same. It’s all there. From this point, Sidney plays on the conceit of his imagination/invention as a wayward student looking for inspiration in all the wrong places. Fool, says Sidney’s exasperated muse in the closing couplet, just shut-up and write from your heart.

As an aside, compare Sidney’s Sonnet to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76, ostensibly on the same conceit of “writer’s block”:

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

One gets the feeling that Shakespeare had read and re-read Sidney’s Sonnets, frequently inspired by many of Sidney’s own ideas.

On the Variety of his Sonnets

Lastly, worth noting is that although Sidney is writing in the Petrarchan tradition, he has already adopted and anticipated the much more Elizabethan, brilliantly argumentative, form that was to quickly evolve into the English/Shakespearean sonnet. The Elizabethans weren’t romantics. They reveled in the brilliantly turned argument, quick reparté, ingenius conceit, and wit. Every one of Sidney’s arguments are witty engagements with figurative language, simile, metaphor. Out of 108 poems, 93 of them are written with the closing, epigrammatic couplet typical of the English/Shakespearean Sonnet  – of these, all but 5 are decasyllabic (or a loose Iambic Pentameter). The dramatic sting of the couplet’s closing summation, toward which the argument of the entire sonnet drives, is clearly a form that appealed to Sidney, as to most of his contemporary Elizabethan poets. They loved nothing more than the display of wit in rhetoric and debate. Formally, though the meter of Sonnet 1 is written in Alexandrines, the closing couplet typifies the majority of his sonnets. All that changes, between these 83 sonnets, is the rhyme scheme leading up to the closing couplet.

Sonnet 1 – Three Interlocking Sicilian Quatrains: ABAB ABAB CDCD followed by a heroic Couplet EE.
Sonnet 2 – An Italian Octave made up of two Italian Quatrains ABBA ABBA followed by an interlocking Sicilian Quatrain CDCD and a heroic couplet EE.

These two variations comprise the lion’s share of the 93 Sonnets ending in a couplet. The rhyme scheme of Sonnet 1, as mentioned before, comes closest to the Shakespearean Sonnet, saving its epigrammatic couplet for the close of the sonnet. The whole of the sonnet feels driven toward the concluding couplet. Sonnet 2 is a sort of hybrid between Petrarchan and English Sonnets. The nested couplets in the first and second quatrain make the first octave feel more self-contained, more like a Petrarchan Sonnet. Whereas the sestet (CDCDEE) is a sort of English Sestet [my own coinage] to the Italian Octave, acting as a sort of counterpoise (an English Sonnet reduced to a sestet).

And here is yet another Sidneyan experiment – a sonnet composed in Identical Rhyme. It’s form is, outwardly, comparable to Sonnet 2, but the final couplet is altered in the name of Elizabethan wit.


Sonnet 89

Now that of absence the most irksome night
With darkest shade doth overcome my day;
Since Stella’s eyes, wont to give me my day,
Leaving my hemisphere, leave me in night;
Each day seems long, and longs for long-stayed night;
The night, as tedious, woos th’ approach of day:
Tired with the dusty toils of busy day,
Languished with horrors of the silent night,
Suffering the evils both of day and night,
While no night is more dark then is my day,
Nor no day hath less quiet then my night:
With such bad-mixture of my night and day,
That living thus in blackst winter night,
I feele the flames of hottest summer day.

And again, as an aside, compare this to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 28

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarr’d the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night, and night by day, oppress’d?
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me;
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day, to please them thou art bright
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven:
So flatter I the swart-complexion’d night,
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

(One gets the feeling that Shakespeare was measuring himself against Sidney.)

The second form, unfortunately in the minority, is typified by Sonnet 80.

The Sidneyan Sonnet

Sidney Sonnet 80

Sidney’s efforts to infuse his meter with the “expressive speech” (passion)  finds its way into his decasyllabic sonnets. I call them decasyllabic because it’s not clear that Sidney, himself, would have considered these sonnets as Iambic Pentameter. He was trying to do something different – at least if judged against his contemporaries. While they are well within the confines of modern Iambic Pentameter,  it would be several generations before so many variant feet would again occur in a single line within the space of a sonnet.  Only Donne would come close. Lines like:

Since best wits think || it wit || thee to admire
Nature’s praise, vir||tue’s stall; ||Cupid’s cold fire
Breather of life||, and fast||’ner of desire
Loathing all lies,|| doubting this flat||tery is

On the other hand, lines 1,4,5,8,9, 13, and 14 are firmly Iambic and Pentameter. So, while his sonnets might not have been considered Iambic Pentameter in his own day, Sidney was using Iambic Pentameter as a basic pattern from which to vary. As Wright points out, when Sidney returns to the normative meter, he does so firmly and unequivocally –  as though he were compensating for the variant patterns.

This sonnet form (the Sonnet above) was, to my knowledge, was first used by Sidney (probably created by him) and never used again. It’s every bit as interesting, to me, as the Shakespearean or Petrarchan form, and more interesting than the Spenserian Sonnet. It does something very unique. The couplet assumes the role of a sort of epigrammatic volta, the embodiment of the Petrarchan turn, neatly hinging the subject matter. This Sidneyan form clearly demarcates the sonnet into two parts – the Octave, a hinging heroic Couplet, and a summarizing quatrain.

The form is, perhaps, the most legal-like, attorney-esque form in all of poetry – perfectly suited to the Elizabethan temperament of discourse, reason, balance, thesis and antithesis. The heroic couplet aurally reinforces the turn in disquisition – subliminally. To my sensibility, it’s a beautiful effect. The Octave and final Quatrain’s envelope Quatrains (meaning they each envelope a heroic couplet) enforces the sense that they are self-contained arguments. The heroic couplet of the volta therefore feels less like a summation than a hinge between two distinct parts.

Intepreting Sonnet 80

Elizabethan CourtshipSonnet 80 stretches the notion of the conceit almost to the limit – verging on fetish (by modern standards). In the first line he is addressing Stella’s lip – the idealized woman’s lip. Swell with pride, he says. (The bawdy implication in these lines shouldn’t be overlooked.) The woman’s lip is a thing to be admired by “wits” (like himself). It is the praise of nature, virtue’s “stall” (in the Elizabethan sense being a seat of dignity – again, a certain bawdiness is hard to overlook). It is the place where heavenly graces “slide”.  The word slide was every bit as suggestive in Elizabethan days as now.

Just which lip is he talking about?

Slyly, Sidney doesn’t tell us. He both knowingly suggests and  deliberately misdirects. In the next quatrain the idealized woman’s lip is the new Parnasus, where the Muses (the Greek goddesses of art) bide; sweetener of music and wisdom’s beautifier. All fairly innocent stuff. But is it? Which muses? Then he knowingly suggests his real meaning.

Her lip is the “breather of life” – the entrance to the woman’s womb and the giver/breather of life. Her “lip” is the fastener of desire where beauty’s “blush” in Honour’s grain is dyed. Indeed. And don’t miss the  pun on dyed – or died – the woman’s sex being the place of death/orgasm.

I can imagine that some readers will strongly, if not vehemently object that I’m reading too much into this Octave. Possibly, but I don’t think so. 30 years of Elizabethan Drama followed these sonnets and the language in these plays is stuffed with innuendo, puns, and outright crudities, making it clear that this was a culture that reveled in bawdy sexual humor and full-blooded suggestiveness. Some things don’t change. Many of their puns are still alive and well in our own day, belted out by everyone from Madonna to, less subtly,  rappers. There was a reason the Puritans promptly shut down the stage some thirty years after Shakespeare’s death. Shakespeare, himself, was considered too sexually coarse by the restoration poets that followed (ironically – since many of them weren’t any less suggestive).

Anyway, Sidney, as if suspecting that he may be skirting obviousness – becomes somewhat more platonic with the Hinge Couplet:

This much my heart compell’d my mouth to say,
But now spite of my heart my mouth will stay…

Loathing lies, fearing/doubting that his sonnet would simply be interpreted as flattery, he seeks to discover the truth. His mouth won’t be satisfied (is resty or restive) to discover how far (whether or not) Sidney’s praise falls short. Sweet lip, he writes, you teach my mouth with one sweet kiss.

Interpret that how you will.

Again, compare Sidney’s Sonnet 80 to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 128 – I, for one, am hard pressed not to notice many parallels. Music appears in both sonnets while Shakespeare, like Sidney before him, delights in personifying the different parts of his own and his lover’s body. In Sidney, it’s the heart, the mouth, and lip. In Shakespeare, it’s the fingers, the hand and lips. Both sonnets end with a kiss.

Oft, when thou, my music, music play’st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more blest than living lips.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

To all and any… if this post was helpful, was enjoyable, or if you have further questions or suggestions, please comment!

Shakespearean, Spenserian, & Petrarchan Sonnets

  • Updated and expanded March 25, 2009Miltonic Sonnet, Nonce Sonnet, Links to Various Sonnet Sequences and additional Sonnets.
  • After you’ve read up on Sonnets, take a look at some of my poetry. I’m not half-bad. One of the reasons I write these posts is so that a few readers, interested in meter and rhyme, might want to try out poetry. Check out Spider, Spider or, if you want modern Iambic Pentameter, try My Bridge is like a Rainbow or Come Out! Take a copy to class if you need an example of Modern Iambic Pentameter. Pass it around if you have friends or relatives interested in this kind of poetry.
  • April 23 2009: One Last Request! I love comments. If you’re a student, just leave a comment with the name of your high school or college. It’s interesting to me to see where readers are coming from and why they are reading these posts. :-)


The Shakespearean Sonnet: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

The word Sonnet originally meant Little Song.

Sonnets are one of my favorite verse forms after blank verse. And of all the sonnet forms, Shakespearean is my favorite – also known as the English Sonnet because this particular form of the sonnet was developed in England. The Shakespearean Sonnet is easily the most intellectual & dramatic of poetic forms and, when written well, is a showpiece not only of poetic prowess but intellectual prowess. The Shakespearean Sonnet weeds the men from the boys, the women from the girls. It’s the fugue,  the half-pipe of poetic forms. Many, many poets have written Shakespearean Sonnets, but few poets (in my opinion) have ever fully fused their voice with the  intellectual and poetic demands of the form. It ‘s not just a matter of getting the rhymes right, or the turn (the volta) after the second quatrain, or the meter, but of unifying the imagery, meter, rhyme and figurative language of the poem into an organic whole.

I am tempted to examine sonnets by poets other than Shakespeare or Spenser, the first masters of their respective forms, but I think it’s best (in this post at least) to take a look at how they did it, since they set the standard. The history of the Shakespearean Sonnet is less interesting to me than the form itself, but I’ll describe it briefly. Shakespeare didn’t publish his sonnets piecemeal over a period of time. They appeared all at once in 1609 published by Thomas Thorpe – a contemporary publisher of Shakespeare’s who had a reputation as “a publishing understrapper of piratical habits”.

Thank god for unethical publishers. If not for Thomas Thorpe, the sonnets would certainly be lost to the world.

How did Thorpe get his hands on the sonnets? Apparently they were circulating in manuscript among acquaintances of Shakespeare, his friends and connoisseurs of his poetry. Whether there was more than one copy in circulation is unknowable. However, Shakespeare was well-known in London by this time, had already had considerable success on the stage, and was well-liked as a poet. Apparently, there was enough excitement and interest in his sonnets that Thorpe saw an opportunity to make some money. (Pirates steal treasure, after all, not dross.)

The implication is that the sonnets were printed without Shakespeare’s knowledge or permission, but no historian really knows. Nearly all scholars put 15 years between their publication and their composition. No one knows to whom the sonnets were dedicated (we only have the initials W.H.) and if it’s ever irrefutably discovered- reams of Shakespeare scholars will have to file for unemployment.

(Note: While I once entertained the notion that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays – no longer. At this point, having spent half my life studying Shakespeare, I find the whole idea utterly ludicrous. And I find debating the subject utterly ludicrous. But if readers want to believe Shakespeare was written by Oxford, or Queen Elizabeth, or Francis Bacon, etc., I couldn’t care less.)

Now, onto one of my favorite Shakespearean Sonnets – Sonnet 129.

sonnets-fronticpieceThe expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d 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.

While this sonnet isn’t as poetic, figurative or “lovely” as Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, it is written in a minor key, like Mozart’s 20th Piano Concerto, and beautifully displays the rigor and power of the Shakespearean Sonnet. Let’s have another look, this time fully annotated.


The Shakespearean Sonnet: Structure

First to the structure. Many Shakespearean Sonnets can be broken down, first, into two thematic parts (brackets on the left).  The first part is comprised of two quatrains, 8 lines, called the octave, after which there is sometimes a change of mood or thematic direction. This turn (or volta) is followed by the sestet, six lines comprised of the quatrain and couplet. However, this sonnet – Sonnet 129 – does not have that thematic turn. There are plenty of sonnets by Shakespeare which do not.

In my experience, many instructors and poets put too much emphasis on the volta as a “necessary” feature of Shakespearean sonnet form (and the Sonnet in general). It’s not . In fact, Shakespeare (along contemporaries like Sidney) conceived of the form in a way that frequently worked against the Petrarchan turn with it’s contemplative aesthetic. The Elizabethan poets were after a different effect – as Britannica puts it: an argumentative terseness with an epigrammatic sting.

My personal analogy in describing the Shakespearean Sonnet is that of the blacksmith who picks an ingot from the coals of his imagination. He puts it to the anvil, chooses his mallet and strikes and heats and strikes with every line. He works his idea, shapes and heats it until the iron is white hot. Then, when the working out is ready, he gives it one last blow – the final couplet. The couplet nearly always rings with finality, a truth or certainty – the completion of argument, an assertion, a refutation.

Every aspect of the form lends itself to this sort of argument and conclusion. The interlocking rhymes that propel the reader from one quatrain to the next only serve to reinforce the final couplet (where the rhymes finally meet line to line). It’s from the fusion of this structure with thematic development that the form becomes the most intellectually powerful of poetic forms.

I have read quasi-Shakespearean Sonnets by modern poets who use slant rhymes, or no rhymes at all, but to my ear they miss the point. Modern poets, used to writing free verse, find it easier to dispense with strict rhymes but again, and perhaps only to me,  it dilutes the very thing that gives the form its expressiveness and power. They’re like the fugues that Reicha wrote – who dispensed with the normally strict tonic/dominant key relationships. That made writing fugues much easier, but they lost much of their edge and pithiness.

And this brings me to another thought.

Rhyme, when well done, produces an effect that free verse simply does not match and cannot reproduce. Rhyme, in the hands of a master, isn’t just about being pretty, formal or graceful. It subliminally directs the reader’s ear and mind, reinforcing thought and thematic material. The whole of the Shakespearean rhyme scheme is hewed to his habit of thought and composition. The one informs the other. In my own poetry, my blank verse poem Come Out! for example, I’ve tried to exploit rhyme’s capacity to reinforce theme and sound. The free verse poet who abjures rhyme of any sort is missing out.

The Shakespearean Sonnet: Meter

As of writing this (Jan 10, 2009), Wikipedia states: “A Shakespearean sonnet consists of 14 lines, each line contains ten syllables, and each line is written in iambic pentameter in which a pattern of a non-emphasized syllable followed by an emphasized syllable is repeated five times.”

And Wikipedia is wrong.

Check out my post on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145. This is a sonnet, by Shakespeare, that contains 8 syllables per line, not ten. It is the only one (that we know of) but is nonetheless a Shakespearean Sonnet. The most important attribute of the Shakespearean Sonnet is it’s rhyme scheme, not its meter. Why? Because the essence of the Shakespearean Sonnet is in its sense of drama. (Shakespeare was nothing if not a dramatist.) The rhyme scheme, because of the way it directs the ear, reinforces the dramatic feel of the sonnet. This is what makes a sonnet Shakespearean. Before Shakespeare, there was Sidney, whose sonnets include many written in hexameters.

That said, the meter of Sonnet 129 is Iambic Pentameter. I have closely analyzed the meter in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, so I won’t go too far in depth with this one, except to point out some interesting twists.

As a practical matter, the first foot of the first line |The expense |should probably, in the reading, be elided to sound like |Th’expense|. This preserves the Iambic rhythm of the sonnet from the outset. Unless there is absolutely no way around it, an anapest in the first foot of the first line of a sonnet (in Shakespeare’s day) would be unheard of.

Lines 3 and 4, of the first quatrain, are hard driving, angry Iambs. Murderous in line 3 should be elided, in the reading, to sound like murd‘rous, but the word cruel, in line 4, produces an interesting effect. I have heard it pronounced as a two syllable word and, more commonly, as a monosyllabic word. Shakespeare could have chosen a clearly disyllabic word, but he didn’t. He chooses a word that, in name, fulfills the iambic patter, but in effect, disrupts it and works against it. Practically, the line is read as follows:


The trochaic foot produced by the word savage is, in and of itself, savage – savagely disrupting the iambic patter. Knowing that cruel works in a sort of metrical no man’s land, Shakespeare encourages the line to be read percussively. The third metrical foot is read as monosyllabic – angrily emphasizing the word cruel. The whole of it is a metrical tour de force that sets the dramatic, angry, sonnet on its way.

There are many rhetorical techniques Shakespeare uses as he builds the argument of his sonnet, many of them figures of repetition, such as Epanalepsis in line 1, Polyptoton, and anadiplosis (in the repetition of mad at the end and start of a phrase): “On purpose laid to make the taker mad;/Mad in pursuit”. But the most obvious and important is the syntactic parallelism that that propels the sonnet after the first quatrain. The technique furiously drives the thematic material forward, line by line, each emphasizing the one before – emphasizing Shakespeare’s angry, remorseful, disappointment in himself – the having and the having had. It all drives the sonnet forward like the blacksmith’s hammer blows on white hot iron.

And when the iron is hot, he strikes:

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The intellectual power displayed in the rhetorical construction of the sonnet finds its dramatic climax in the final couplet – the antimetabole of “well knows” and “knows well” mirrors the parallelism in the sonnet as a whole – succinctly. The midline break in the first line of the couplet is resolved by the forceful, unbroken final line. The effect is of forceful finality. This sonnet could have been a monologue drawn from one of Shakespeare’s plays. And this, this thematic, dramatic momentum that finds resolution in a final couplet is what most typifies the Shakespearean Sonnet. The form is a showpiece.

Lastly, I myself have tried my hand at Shakespearean Sonnets. My best effort is “As on a sunny afternoon…”. Three more of my efforts can be found if you look at the top of the banner-  under Index: Opening Book (my favorite of the three being The Farmer Wife’s Complaint. I learned how to write poetry by writing Sonnets. I’ve written many others but their quality varies. I may eventually post them anyway.

spenser-dark-smThe Spenserian Sonnet: Spenser’s Sonnet 75

Spenser has to be the most doggedly Iambic of any poet – to a fault. Second only to his dogged metrical Iambs, is his rhyming. English isn’t the easiest language for rhyming (as compared to Japanese or Italian). Rhyming in English requires greater skill and finesse, testing a poet’s resourcefulness and imagination. Yet Spenser rhymed with the ease of a cook dicing carrots. Nothing stopped him. His sonnets reflect that capacity – differing from Shakespeare’s mainly in their rhyme scheme. Here is a favorite Sonnet (to me) his Sonnet 75 from Amoretti:


One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
··But came the waves and washed it away:
··Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
··A mortal thing so to immortalize,
··For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise
··To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
··My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.
··Where whenas Death shall all the world subdue,
··Our love shall live, and later life renew.

The Elizabethans were an intellectually rigorous bunch, which is one of the reasons I enjoy their poetry so much. They don’t slouch or wallow in listless confessionals. They were trained from childhood school days to reason and proceed after the best of the Renaissance  rhetoricians. Spenser, like Shakespeare, has an argument to make, but Spenser was less of a dramatist, and more of a lyricist and storyteller. His preference in Sonnet form reflects that. Here it is – the full monty:


The Spenserian Sonnet: Structure

The difference in temperament between Spenser and Shakespeare is revealed in the rhyme scheme each preferred. Spenser was a poet of elegance who looked back at other poets, Chaucer especially; and who wanted his readers to know that he was writing in the grand poetic tradition – whereas Shakespeare was impishly forward looking, a Dramatist first and a Poet second, who enjoyed turning tradition and expectation on its head, surprising his readers (as all Dramatists like to do) by turning Patrarchan expectations upside down. Spenser elegantly wrote within the Petrarchan tradition and wasn’t out to upset any apple carts. Even his choice of vocabulary, as with eek, was studiously archaic (even in his own day).

Spenser’s sonnet lacks the drama of Shakespeare’s. Rather than withholding the couplet until the end of the sonnet, lending a sort of climax or denouement to the form, Spencer dilutes the effect of the final couplet by introducing two internal couplets (smaller brackets on right)  prior to the final couplet. While Spencer’s syntactic and thematic development rarely emphasizes the internal couplets, they are registered by the ear and so blunt the effect of the concluding couplet.

There is also less variety of rhyming in the Spenserian Sonnet than in the Shakespearean Sonnet. The effect is of less rigor and momentum and greater lyricism, melodiousness and grace. The rhymes elegantly intertwine not only the quatrains but the octave and sestet (brackets on left). Without being Italian (Petrarchan) the effect which the Spencerian Sonnet produces is more Italian – or at minimum a sort of hybrid between Shakespeare’s English Sonnet and Pertrarch’s “Italian” model.

Spencer comes closest, in spirit, to anything like a Petrarchan Sonnet sequence in the English language.

The Spenserian Sonnet: Spenser’s Meter

As far as I know, Spenser wrote all of his sonnets in Iambic Pentameter. He takes fewer risks than Shakespeare, is less inclined to flex the meter the way Shakespeare does. For instance, in two of the three Shakespeare sonnets I have analyzed on this blog, Shakespeare is willing to have the reader treat heaven as a monosyllabic word (heav’n) (see my post on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145 for an  example of Shakespeare’s usage along with sonnet above).  Spencer treats heaven is disyllabic.  Their different treatment of the word might reflect a difference in their own dialects but I’m more inclined to think that Shakespeare took a more flexible approach to meter and pronunciation – less concerned than Spenser with metrical propriety. Shakespeare, in all things, was a pragmatist, Spenser, an idealist – at least in his poetry.

(Interesting note, Robert Frost referred to such metrical feet which could be anapestic or Iambic depending on the pronunciation, as “loose Iambs “. Such loose iambs would include Shakespeare’s sonnet where murderous could be pronounced murd’rous and The expense as Th’expense.)

There are two words which the modern reader might pronounce as monosyllabic – washed in line 2 and wiped in line 8. When reading Spenser, it’s best to assume that he meant his lines to be strongly regular. It is thoroughly in keeping with 15th & 16th century poetic practice (and with Spenser especially) to pronounce both words as disyllabic – washèd & wipèd. Spenser was a traditionalist.

I also wanted to briefly draw attention to the difference in Shakespeare and Spenser’s use of figurative language. Shakespeare was much more the intellectual. Nothing in Spenser’s sonnets compare to the brilliant rhetorical figures used by Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a virtuoso on many levels.

john-miltonThe Petrarchan Sonnet: John Milton

The Petrarchan Sonnet was the first Sonnet form to be written in the English Language – brought to the English language by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard Earl of Surrey (who was also the first to introduce blank verse to the English writing world). However, there is no great Petrarchan Sonnet sequence that left its mark on the form.  The Petrarchan model was quickly superseded by the English/Shakespearean Sonnet. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet Sequence (all Petrarchan Sonnets) is mixed with greatness but never influenced the form.  They were written toward the close of the form’s long history. For a link to her Sonnets, see below.

The search for the ideal representative, among English language poets, of the Petrarchan Sonnet is a search in vain.  Petrarchan Sonnets are scattered throughout the language by a number of great poets and poets, who if they weren’t “great”,  happened to write great Petrarchan Sonnets.

One thing I have failed to mention, up to now, is the thematic convention associated with the writing of Sonnets – idealized love. Both the Shakespearean and Spenserian Sonnet sequences play on that convention. The Petrarchan form, interestingly, was readily adopted for other ends. It was as if (since the English Sonnet took over the thematic convention of the Petrarchan sonnet) poets using the Petrarchan form were free to apply it elsewhere.

Since there is no one supreme representative Petrarchan Sonnet or poet, I’ll offer up John Milton’s effort in the form, since it was early on and typifies the sort of thematic freedom to which the Petrarchan form was adapted.

When I consider how my light is spent,
··Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
··And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
··My true account, lest He returning chide;
··“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

And here is the same Sonnet under the magnifying glass:


The Petrarchan Sonnet: Structure

My primary interest is in English language poets who have written in the Petrarchan form. However, for those who want a good site that examines Petrarchan Sonnets as written by Petrarch, I would strongly recommend Peter Sadlon’s site – he includes some examples in the Italian. He makes the point, for example, that Petrarch did not write Iambic Pentameter sonnets, since the meter is ill-suited to the Italian Language. More important is the observation that Petrarch himself varied the rhyme scheme of the sestet – cd cd cd (as in Milton’s Sonnet), cde ced, or cdcd ee.Petrarch’s freedom in the final sestet is carried over into the English form. You will know that you are reading a Petrarchan sonnet first, if it’s not Shakespearean or Spenserian, and second if the rhyme scheme favors the reading of an octave followed by a sestet. Identifying a Petrarchan sonnet sometimes isn’t an exact science. This beautiful sonnet form is less about the rhyme scheme and more about the tenor of expression.

Interestingly, even though Robert Frost’s famous sonnet “Silken Tent” is formally a Shakespearean Sonnet, it has the feel of a Petrarchan Sonnet.

As regards Milton, he wrote this sonnet as a response to his growing blindness. The sonnet has little to do with idealized love but its meditative and contemplative feel is very much in keeping with Petrarch’s own sonnets – contemplative and meditative poems on idealized love. The rhyme scheme reinforces the the sonnet’s introspection: enforcing the octave, the volta and the concluding sestet.

The internal couplets in the first and second quatrain (smaller brackets on right) give each quatrain and the octave as a whole a self-contained, self-sufficient feeling. The ear doesn’t register a step wise progression (a building of momentum) as it does in the Shakespearean & Spenserian models. The effect is to create a kind of two-stanza poem rather than the unified working-out of the English model.

Note: Perhaps a useful way to think of the difference between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean Sonnets is to think of the Petrarchan form as a sonnet of statement and the Shakespearean form as a sonnet of argument. Be forewarned, though, this is just a generalization with all its inherent limitations and exceptions.

The volta or turn comes thematically with God’s implied answer to Milton’s questioning. The lack of the concluding couplet makes the completion of the poem less epigrammatic, less dramatic and more considered. The whole is a sort of perfectly contained question and answer.

The Petrarchan Sonnet: Milton’s Meter

This sonnet was written prior to Paradise Lost and, to my ear, shows a slightly more adventurous metric. The first departure from the iambic rhythm comes in the first foot of line  4 with Lodged. This is the sort variation that perfectly exploits the expectations established by a metrical pattern. That is, the word works on two levels, “lodged” thematically and trochaic-ally within the iambic meter- not a brilliant variant but an effective one.

In line 5 I read the fourth foot as being pyrric, but one can also give the word and an intermediate stress: To serve therewith my Maker, and present.

It’s not until line 11 that things get interesting. Most modern readers would probably read the first two feet of the line as follows:

Bear His |mild yoke, |they serve Him best. His state

But the line can be read another way – iambically. And in poetry of this period, if we can, then we should.

Bear His |mild yoke, |they serve Him best. His state

What’s lovely about this reading, which is what’s lovely about meter, is that the inflection and meaning of the line changes. Notice also how His is emphasized in the first foot, but isn’t in the fourth and fifth:

Bear His |mild yoke, |they serve |Him best. |His state

In this wise, the emphasis is first on God, then on serving him. It is a thematically natural progression.

The last feature to notice is that the final line, line 14, retains a little of the pithy epigrammatic quality of the typical English or Shakespearean Sonnet. No form or genre is completely isolated from another. The Petrarchan mode can be felt in the Shakespearean Sonnet and the Shakespearean model can be felt in the Petrarchan model.

The Miltonic Sonnet

The Miltonic Sonnet is a Petrarchan Sonnet without a volta. Although Milton was hardly the first to write sonnets in English without a volta, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 being a case in point, Milton made that absence standard practice; and so, this variation on the Petrarchan Sonnet is called a Miltonic Sonnet.

On the Importance of Naming Things

Not only are there names for the different sonnets, which is forgivable, but there also names for the different quatrains and octaves in all these sonnets because human beings like nothing more than to classify. God’s first request to Adam & Eve was to name… everything. (What interests me more is puzzling out the aesthetic effects these different rhyme schemes produce.)   But, because knowing the name of things always sounds impressive – here they are.


The Petrarchan Sonnet can be said to be written with two Italian Quatrains (abbaabba) which together are called an Italian Octave.

The Italian Octave can be followed by an Italian Sestet (cdecde) or a Sicilian Sestet (cdcdcd)

The Envelope Sonnet, which is a variation on the Petrarchan Sonnet, rhymes abbacddc efgefg or efefef.


The Shakespearean Sonnet is written with three Sicilian Quatrains: (abab cdcd efef) followed by a heroic couplet. Note, the word heroic refers to Iambic Pentameter. Heroic couplets are therefore Iambic Pentameter Couplets. However, not all Elizabethan Sonnets are written in Iambic Pentameter.


The Spenserian Sonnet is written with three interlocking Sicilian Quatrains: (abab bcbc cdcd) followed by a heroic couplet.
  • Note: I have found no references which reveal when these terms first came into use. I doubt that the terms Sicilian or Italian Quatrain existed in Elizabethan times.  Spenser didn’t sit down and say to himself: Today, I shall write interlocking sicilian quatrains. I think it more likely that these poets chose a given rhyme scheme because they were influenced by others or because the rhyme scheme was most suitable to their aesthetic temperament.
  • Note: It bears repeating that many books on form will state that all these sonnets are characterized by voltas. They are, emphatically, not. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 (above) would be an example.
Sidneyan Sonnet
For more on Sidney’s Sonnets, see post on Sidney: his Meter and Sonnets.

Other Petrarchan Sonnets

Since the Petrarchan Sonnet is so varied in the English Language tradition, I thought I would post a few more examples. I have divided the quatrains, octaves and sestets to better show their structure. I’ll probably come back to this post and include more as I find them. (For the most part, a couplet in the closing sestet seems, usually, to be avoided by most poets.)

John Keats

Rhyme Scheme:

ABBA ABBA CDCDCD (The same as Milton’s)

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

keatsMuch have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

William Wordsworth

Rhyme Scheme:


wordsworthSurprised by joy — impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport–Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind–
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind

To my most grievous loss?–That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Rhyme Scheme:


shelley1I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

For a closer look at this sonnet, take a look at my post: Shelley’s Sonnet: Ozymandias

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Rhyme Scheme:


millayWhat lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Rhyme Scheme:


eb-browningHow do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Other Sonnets:

  • Sir Philip Sidney Astrophel and StellaSidney’s sonnets are a kind of hybrid between the Shakespearean and Petrarchan mode. The Octave of his sonnets alternate between the Petrarchan Octave and the interlocking Sicilian Quatrains of the English Sonnets. His Sestets alternate between one of his own devising and the Shakespearean model. For more on this: visit my post Sidney: His Meter and Sonnets.
  • John Donne Holy Sonnets These sonnets are like Sidney’s – having qualities of both the Shakespearean and Petrarchan form.
  • And then there are sonnets of varying rhyme schemes – Nonce Sonnets. The word Nonce simply means that a given form is unique to the poem. Keats’ If by dull rhymes would be a Nonce Sonnet – and written specifically about the making of a new rhyme scheme.

John Keats

Rhyme Scheme:


If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;

Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d
By ear industrious, and attention meet:
Misers of sound and syllable, no less

Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.

Iambic Pentameter & Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

  • January 10 2011 Updated Scansion.
  • March 19 2009 John Donne & his Sonnet Death be not proud… . [This sonnet is so misread by contemporary readers that it might as well be a companion to this post on Shakespeare’s sonnet.]
  • A companion guide to this one is the Annotated To be or Not to be. Don’t forget to check out some of my poetry while you’re picking my brains – I do write some good stuff. And let me know if this was helpful or if, especially, there’s a question you would like answered. I have written other posts on Iambic Pentameter including guides to the scansion of Iambic Pentameter (with more examples  from Shakespeare) and a look at Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter. I just completed a guide to Shakespearean, Petrarchan and Spenserian Sonnets. I’ve also written a detailed guide to Haiku (if you’re interested). (Further links on other Sonnets are at the bottom of this post.) According to my Stats page, this has become one of my most popular posts; and no one is commenting! Just say hello or thanks – I like hearing from readers.
  • February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost, you might like reading Birches along with a color coded scansion of Birches included in my post on Frost’s Mending Wall. To find all the posts I’ve written on Robert Frost, click here.
  • April 23 2009: One Last Request! I love comments. If you’re a student, just leave a comment with the name of your high school or college. It’s interesting to me to see where readers are coming from and why they are reading these posts. :-)

william-shakespeareWhat possible use could scansion be?

A masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. In Shakespeare’s hands, the meter tells us about the writer, the speaker of the sonnet – something we might easily miss.

Meter is of no use to free verse poets or reader’s of free verse. But to poet’s writing meter, it provides a tool, an extra layer of meaning, counterpoint and play. And to readers of metered poetry, knowing that there’s an underlying pattern informs the language and meaning of the poem. In the hands of a skilled poet (Shakespeare, Keats, Wilbur, Frost, Browning), the tension between language and meter is an art form.

I’ll look at other poets and poems, because it’s fun to do, like sleuthing, but I wanted to start with Sonnet 116 because it’s so famous and so frequently misread. These days, I suspect most readers, without a knowledge of meter, would read the poem as follows:


This reading would be acceptable if this were a free verse poem. Since there’s no metrical pattern in free verse one is free to put the emphasis (ictus) wherever one wishes (within reason) , depending on ones subjective interpretation of the poem. But, in Shakespeare’s day, so many variants in so short a space would have landed him in critical hot water with his contemporaries and with the reading public. (In his shorter poems, at least, Shakespeare was much more conservative, leaving the more daring flights of metrical variation to his contemporary, John Donne – who was, regularly, skewered for his turgid meter and blank verse.)  But the first line’s two trochaic feet (Let me | not to ) would have been daring even for Donne – (trochaic feet are the reverse of iambic feet in that the stressed syllable is first and the unstressed second). Two such variant feet at the start of a sonnet was practically unheard of. Only one of John Donne’s Sonnets, the most controversial metrist of the day, could be construed to begin with two trochaic feet.


Yet even here, knowing that Donne was a skillful master of diction and meter, one could consider an alternate reading (and one should, whenever diction appears to run against a meter’s pattern):


Stressing the preposition of isn’t as awkward as it might seem. Even in modern speech we sometimes stress the preposition of – as in: Well, you know, part of the fun is getting drunk. It’s a sort of sly tone of voice which, in the case of Donne’s sonnet, fits with his argument. It’s a tone of voice Donne could be angling for, made possible only if one considers the meter. The same can be said of the second line. The temptation is to read Son as strongly stressed and Thy as weakly stressed. But in keeping with the tone of the first line, putting the stress on Thy reinforces that Donne is addressing “Father” and doing so with a direct, knowing tone of voice. There is no way to know whether this is actually what Donne intended, but the reading is reinforced by the poem’s Iambic pattern.

Likewise, there’s a tone to Shakespeare’s sonnet that we miss if we fail to take the meter into account. Here is how Shakespeare most likely expected his sonnet to be read.

  • January 10, 2011: I decided to bring this scansion “up to date”.  As opposed to before, I’ve left all Iambic feet unmarked so the scansion is less cluttered. I’ve chosen to mark the “weak” Iambic feet, marked in yellow with weak stresses, as Pyrrhic feet, although others might be inclined to mark them as Iambic. The two feminine endings, ne|ver shaken and be taken are marked green. The Spondaic feet are purple.

The sonnet takes on a different tone and, to a certain extent, meaning. Where the first scansion has a sort of elegiac sound to it – a sort of contemplation on love – the second reading gives it a more inflected sound, as if the poet were writing with an unspoken agenda – (Shakespeare was nothing if not a dramatist).

For example, in the iambic version, the line sounds almost defensive: Let me not admit impediments – as if he were responding to some sort of accusation. Don’t accuse me of denying true love. Here is what I believe. In this wise, taking into account the pull of the iambic meter, we are already starting with a very different tone to the sonnet – in keeping with the other sonnets of his collection. They are all written as though in conversation – as though the speaker of the poet were responding to another speaker, or character, whose statements we can only hear through Shakespeare’s responses. Each one is like a monologue in a play.

Consider the change in line two:




The first is how a modern reader usually reads the close of the second line. The second reading follows the Iambic pattern of the sonnet. The second reading, putting stress on the verb – isadds emphasis to Shakespeare’s argument, emphasis which a modern reading lacks.

At the start of the third line we have another choice:




While a pyrrhic foot isn’t unheard of in sonnets of the time, the iambic reading adds emphasis to the argument of the sonnet. Love doesn’t alter when it alteration finds. The emphasis almost lends a tone of sarcasm or perhaps scorn. Again, the iambic pentameter acts as a sort of prompter, hinting at how the sonnet should be read, in what tone and inflection.

Line five tends to be misread by inexperienced readers, especially when reading unaccented versions of the poem, which frequently print the word fixéd as fixed:

O no, it is an ever fixed mark.


The accented é indicates that the -éd of fixéd makes the word two syllables rather than one. Even in an unmarked edition, however, experienced readers of Iambic Pentameter, simply through familiarity with metrical poems, will quickly hear the missing syllable and instinctively read fixéd as two syllables.


The seventh line is the next that typically diverges between modern readers and the iambic pattern. The iambic reading renders that line as follows:


Notice that, once again, the verb is is accented. While modern readers might read this first foot as being pyrrhic (two unaccented syllables), accenting the verb adds emphasis to Shakespeare’s argument. No, he seems to be saying, it is the ever fixéd mark, it is the star. It almost feels as though he is disagreeing with someone who claims that love isn’t any of these things. And notice too, the -ery of every is elided, making it a two syllable word -though most modern readers would read it this way.

The eleventh line is the next where the emphasis differs between the iambic line and modern readers. Notice the emphasis on his implied by the iambic meter.


It’s the equivalent of saying: His brief hours and weeks won’t alter love! Once again, it’s a difference of emphasis. The iambic reading is more emphatic and more dynamic. Immediately following is a line that most would read as a variant iambic line – reading even as two syllables. Although Shakespeare doesn’t use syncope to change even to e’en, the tradition of eliding these words is well-enough established, especially in poetry of this period, that we can safely do so.


If a line can be read so that it conforms to an iambic pentameter reading, especially in poetry during this period (and for the two centuries following too) then it probably should be read that way. (Note: Robert Frost took to calling these feet loose iambs, by which he meant that a foot could conform to an iambic rhythm depending on pronunciation.  It’s a useful term and reflects a convention that metrical poets have known about for hundreds of years.) Anyway, the elision of words in metrical poems is like the performance of trills in baroque and classical music. It was simply assumed that the reader (or performer in the case of music) understood the conventions of the day. Those conventions didn’t need to be spelled out. That was a long time ago, though. Nowadays, those conventions need to be relearned if one wants to read a poem the way it was read in its day. In a similar vein, and during the last thirty years, old conventional practices were relearned and rediscovered in classical music performance. These days, such performances are called Historically Informed Performances. Likewise, reading a Sonnet or Blank Verse passage with an awareness of the metrical pattern underlying it, might as well be called Historically Informed Readings.

[Just as an aside. Tooting my own horn. Helen Vendler states the following: “No reader, to my knowledge, has seen Let me not to the marriage of true minds as a coherent refutation of the extended implied argument of an opponent, and this represents an astonishing history of critical oversight.” Well, I’ve been reading this sonnet (most of them for that matter)  in just this fashion for over 20 years. Her book was published in 1997. So, Helen, if you should read this blog, take comfort. You weren’t the first.]

So far,  the rhymes have alternated ABAB, CDCD, EFEF. Now comes the final couplet, GG – a Shakespearean Sonnet. Shakespearean Sonnets heat the metal through the first 12 lines then, when the working out of the argument is white hot, he lays it to the anvil and strikes:

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

My intention hasn’t been to interpret the poem, though some interpretation arises simply by reading it through the lense of meter. Many critics are troubled by the series of negatives in this poem and in its last line – never, nor, no. I’m not as trouble by the negatives. Shakespeare’s last line is almost a dare. I dare you to prove me wrong! Even in offering the possibility that he could be proved in error, he (almost sarcastically) refutes the possibility by offering the impossible retort that proving such an error would mean he never writ and that no man ever loved. Since we know already that he wrote and that men have loved, Shakespeare urges us toward the inevitable conclusion that he will never be proven in error.

The one metrical nicety to notice is in the final line. An iambic reading urges the following:


Notice the iambic emphasis on no. The modern reader might be tempted to gloss over the third foot as pyrrhic (see the “modern” scansion above), putting the emphasis on man. The iambic reading gives extra force to no, lending to the poet’s voice a kind of anger – as if both daring to be proven wrong and contemptuously dismissive of any effort to try. Go ahead, he seems to say, try! Prove me wrong! If you do, then no man ever loved! The equanimity of a modern reading, of an innocent love poem, vanishes. This is a sonnet with a transcendent axe to grind.

Reading the poem by the meter, we discover a very different kind of poem – one of refutation, of a speaker refuting an unspoken argument, not of impersonal definition. In this third post on Iambic Pentameter, I wanted to demonstrate just how powerfully a knowledge of scansion can inform and alter a poem’s meaning. If you have any questions or comments, please post.

February 4rth 2013: I was asked if I could read 116. What follows is about my 21rst try.  I wanted to communicate the sense that this is half of an argument, like a speech in one of Shakespeare’s plays. See what you think:

I’ll be examining more poems as time permits – especially Robert Frost.

Follow up posts:

Thomas Middleton’s Blank Verse

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter

Shakespeare & his Sonnet 145

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

Spenser’s Sonnet 75

John Milton’s Sonnet: When I consider…


Check it out…