Why do Poets write Iambic Pentameter?

  • May 14, 2009 Tweaked & corrected some typos.

mount-everest-colored-edgeBecause it wasn’t there.

During the sixteenth century, which culminated in poets like Drayton, Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, and Shakespeare, English was seen as common and vulgar – fit for record keeping. Latin was still considered, by many, to be the language of true literature. Latin was essentially the second language of every educated Elizabethan and many poets, even the much later Milton, wrote poetry in Latin rather than English.

Iambic Pentameter originated as an attempt to develop a meter for the English language legitimizing English as an alternative and equal to Latin (as a language also capable of great poetry and literature). Encyclopedia of Spenser - ExtractSince meter was a feature of all great Latin poetry, it was deemed essential that an equivalent be developed for the English Language. But poets couldn’t simply adopt Latin’s dactylic hexameter or dactylic pentameter lines. Latin uses quantitative meter, a meter based on  alternating long and short syllables. English, on the other hand, is an accentual language – meaning that words are “accented” or stressed while others are, in a relative sense, unstressed.  (There are no long or short syllables in English, comparable to Latin.)

False Starts

But this didn’t stop Elizabethan poets from trying. A circle of Elizabethan poets, including Sidney and Spenser, all tried to adapt quantitative meter to the English language. Here’s the problem. Even in their own day Latin and Classical Greek were dead languages – dead for a thousand years. Nobody knew what these languages really sounded like and we still don’t. Imagine if all memory of the French language vanished tomorrow (along with any recordings). French uses the same alphabet, but how would we know how to pronounce it? Americans would pronounce it like Americans, Germans would pronounce like Germans, etc… The French accent would be gone – forever. The same is true for Latin. So, while we may intellectually know that syllables were spoken as long or short, we have no idea how the language was actually pronounced. It’s tone and accent are gone. When the Elizabethans spoke Latin, they pronounced and accented Latin like Elizabethans. They assumed that this was how Latin had always been pronounced. For this reason, perhaps, Adopting the Dactylic hexameters of Latin didn’t seem so far-fetched.

The  Spenser Encyclopedia, from which I obtained the passage at right, includes the following “dazzling” example of quantitative meter in English:

Quantitative Verse (Sample from Spenser Encyclopedia)

The symbols used to scan the poem reflect Spenser’s attempt to imitate the long and short syllables of Latin. The experiments were lackluster. Spenser and Sidney moved on, giving up on the idea of reproducing long and short syllables. The development of Iambic Pentameter began in earnest. (Though Sidney continued to experiment with accentual hexameters – for more on this, check out my post on Sidney: His Meter & His Sonnets.)

Those were heady times. Iambic Pentameter was new and dynamic. Spenser adopted Iambic Pentameter with an unremitting determination. Anyone who has read the Faerie Queen knows just how determined. (That said, each Spenserian Stanza – as they came to be called – ended with an Alexandrine , an Iambic Hexameter line – as if Spenser couldn’t resist a reference to the Hexameters of Latin and Greek.)

Why the Drama?

Just as with Virgil and Homer for Epic Poetry, the Classical Latin and Greek cultures were admired for their Drama – Aeschylus, Terence, Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles. Classical drama was as admired as classical saga.

As Iambic Pentameter quickly began to be adopted by poets as an equivalent to the classical meters of Greek and Latin, dramatists recognized Iambic Pentameter as a way to legitimize their own efforts. In other words, they wanted to elevate their drama into the realm of serious, literary works – works of poetry meant to be held in the same esteem as the classical Greek and Latin dramas. Dramatists, especially during Shakespeare’s day, were held in ill-repute, to say the least. Their playhouses were invariably centers of theft, gambling, intoxication, and rampant prostitution. Dgorboduc-title-pageramatists themselves were considered nothing better than unprincipled purveyors of vulgarity – all too ready to serve up whatever dish the rabble wanted to gorge on.

There was some truth to that. The playhouses had to earn a living. The actors and dramatists, like Hollywood today, were more than willing to churn out the easy money-maker. Thomas Heywood, a dramatist and pamphleteer who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, claimed to have had “an entire hand or at least a main finger in two hundred and twenty plays”.

That said, aspirations of greatness were in the air. This was the Elizabethan Age – the small nation of England was coming into its own. The colonization of America was about to begin. The ships of England were establishing new trade routes. The Spanish dominance of the seas was giving way. England was ready to take its place in the world – first as a great nation, than as an empire. The poets and dramatists of the age were no less ambitious. Many wanted to equal the accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans – Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher, Middleton…

Ben Jonson, in his own lifetime, published a collection of his own works – plays and poetry. This was a man who took himself seriously. The Greeks and Romans wrote their Drama in verse, and so did he. The Romans and Greeks had quantitative meter, and now the Elizabethans had Iambic Pentameter – Blank Verse. Serious plays were written in verse, quick entertainments, plays meant to fill a week-end and turn a profit, were written in prose – The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Shakespeare, was written to entertain, was written quickly, and was written in prose.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Sackville and Norton were the first dramatists to write Drama, the play Gorboduc, using Iambic Pentameter or, as it came to be known, blank verse. For a brief sample of their verse you can check out my post on The Writing & Art of Iambic Pentameter.

Poets and Poet/Dramatists were quick to recognize the potential in blank verse. Early Dramatists like Greene, Peele and Kyd were quick to adopt it. Their efforts bequeathed poetry to the new verse form, but it was First Part Tamburlaine the Great & Christopher MarloweChristopher Marlowe who upped the ante by elevating not just the poetry but the verse form itself. Suddenly Iambic Pentameter was given a powerful new voice all of its own.

Hair standing on end, other poets soon referred to Marlowe’s blank verse as Marlowe’s Mighty Line. Reading Marlowe’s verse now, with 500 years of history between, the verse appears inflexible and monochromatic. It was Shakespeare who soon demonstrated to other poets the subtlety and flexibility that Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) was capable of. Shakespeare’s skill even influenced Marlowe (who had earlier influenced Shakespeare). Shakespeare’s influence is felt in Marlowe’s Faustus and Edward II, by which time Marlowe’s verse becomes more supple.

The passage above is spoken by Tamburlaine, who has been smitten by Zenocrate, “daughter to the Soldan of Egypt“. Up to meeting Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s sole ambition had been to conquer and ruthlessly expand his empire. He’s a soldier’s soldier. But his passion for Zenocrate embarrasses him. He feels, in his equally blinding passion for her, that he “harbors thoughts effeminate and faint”.

Tamburlaine, with Marlowe’s inimitable poetry, readily rationalizes his “crush”. Utterly true to his character, he essentially reasons that beauty is a spoil rightly belonging to the valorous. He will subdue both (war and love), he pointedly remarks (rather than be subdued).  After all, says Tamburlaine in a fit of self-adulation, if beauty can seduce the gods, then why not Tamburlaine?  But make no mistake, it’s not that Tamburlaine has been subdued by love, no, he will “give the world note”, by the beauty of Zenocrate, that the “sum of glory” is “virtue”. In short, and in one of the most poetically transcendent passages in Elizabethan literature, Tamburlaine is the first to express the concept of a “trophy wife”.

Not to be missed is the Elizabethan sense of the word “virtue” – in reference to women, it meant modesty and chastity. Naturally enough, in men, it meant just the opposite – virility, potency, manhood, prowess. So, what Tamburlaine is saying is not that modesty and chastity are the “sum of glory”, but virility. The ‘taking’ of a beautiful women, in the martial, sexual and marital sense, fashions “men with true nobility”. It’s no mistake that Marlowe chose “virtue”, rather than love, when writing for Tamburlaine. Tamburlaine’s only mention of love is in reference to fame, valor and victory, not affection.

Anyway, I couldn’t resist interpreting the passage just a little. So many readers tend to read these passages at face value – which, with Elizabethan poets, frequently misses the boat.

As to the meter… Notice how the meaning sweeps from one line to the next. Most of the lines are syntactically unbroken, complete units. This is partly what poets were referring to when they described Marlowe’s lines as “mighty”.  what-you-doNotice also that that the whole of the speech can be read as unvarying Iambic Pentameter and probably should be.

By way of comparison, at right is how Shakespeare was writing toward the end of his career. The effect he produced is far different. The iambic pentameter (Blank Verse) doesn’t sweep from one line to the next. The most memorable and beautiful image in this passage is when Florizel wishes Perdita, when she dances, to be like “a wave o’the sea”. And any number of critics have seen, in this passage, a graceful equivalent in the ebb and flow of Shakespeare’s blank verse. The syntactic units halt, then resume, then halt again, variably across the surface of the Iambic Pentameter pattern. The overall effect creates one of the most beautiful passages in all of Shakespeare, and not just for its content and imagery, but also for its supple verse. The Elizabethans, in Shakespeare, bettered the Greek and Romans. In 1598, Francis Meres, fully understanding the tenor of the times, wrote:

“As the Greeke tongue is made famous and eloquent by Homer, Hesiod, Euripedes, Aeschilus, Sophocles, Pindarus, Phocylides and Aristophanes; and the Latine tongue by Virfill, Ovid, Horace, Silius Italicus, Lucanus, Lucretius, Ausonius, and Claudianus: so the English tongue is mightily enriched, and gorgeously invested in rare ornaments and respledent abiliments by Sir Philip Sidney, Spencer, Daniel, Drayton, Warner, Shakespeare, Marlow and Chapman

As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras : so the sweet wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honytongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private frinds, &c…

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines : so Shakespeare among y’ English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge’tleme’ of Verona, his Errors, his Love labors lost, his Love labours wonne, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.
As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin : so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.”

Finally, the English were creating their own literary heritage. Up to now, if the English wanted to read great literature, they read Latin and Greek.

But Not Latin Enough

The Elizabethans and Jocabeans firmly established Iambic Pentameter as the great Meter of the English language. But the youth of each generation wants to reject and improve on their elders. George ChapmanThe Elizabethans and Jacobeans were old news to the eighteen and twenty year old poets who would found the restoration. They wanted to prove not just that they could find an alternative to quantitative meter, they wanted to prove that they could write just as well as the great Latin poets – English verse could be as great as Latin verse and in the same way. And so English poetry entered the age of the Heroic Couplet.

Poets had written heroic couplets before, but they were primarily open heroic couplets. The restoration poets wanted to reproduce the Latin distich – a verse from in which every rhyming couplet is also a distinct syntactic unit. This meant writing closed heroic couplets. If you want a clearer understanding of what this means, try my post About Heroic Couplets.

Anyway, the meter is still Iambic Pentameter, though the verse form has changed (Heroic, when attached to couplets, means couplets written in Iambic Pentameter). In other words, it’s not Iambic Pentameter with which the restoration poets were dissatisfied, it was unrhymed Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) which  restoration poets found inadequate. Alexander PopeLike the Elizabethans, they wanted English literature to be the equal of Latin and Greek literature. Blank verse wasn’t enough.

One of the best ways, perhaps, to get a feel for what restoration poets were trying to accomplish is to compare similar passages from translations. Below are three translations. The first is by George Chapman (Chapman’s Homer), an Elizabethan Poet and Dramatist, contemporary of Shakespeare and, some say, a friend of Shakespeare. Chapman writes Open Heroic Couplets – a sort of cross between blank verse and closed heroic couplets. The second translation is by Alexander Pope, a contemporary of Dryden and, with Dryden, the greatest poet of the restoration. He writes closed heroic couplets.

odyssey-book-12-chapman-pope

And now compare Pope’s translation to Robert Fitzgerald’s modern translation (1963). Fitzgerald writes blank verse and his translation is considered, along with Lattimore’s, the finest 20th Century translation available. I personally prefer Fitzgerald, if only because I prefer blank verse. Lattimore’s translation is essentially lineated prose (or free verse).

odyssey-book-12-pope-fitzgerald

Which of these translations do you like best? Fitzgerald’s is probably the most accurate. Which comes closest to capturing the spirit of Homer’s original – the poetry? I don’t think that anyone knows (since no one speaks the language that Homer spoke).

All three of these translations are written in Iambic Pentameter but, as you can see, they are all vastly different: Open Heroic Couplets, Closed Heroic Couplets, and Blank Verse. The reasons for writing them in Iambic Pentameter, in each case, was the same – an effort to reproduce in English what it must have been like for the ancient Greeks to read Homer’s Dactylic Hexameters.  Additionally, in the case of Chapman and Pope, it was an effort to legitimize the English language, once and for all, as a language capable of great literature.

Enough with the Romans and Greeks

Toward the end of the restoration, Iambic Pentameter was no longer a novelty. The meter had become the standard meter of the English language. At this point one may wonder why. Why not Iambic Tetrameter, or Iambic Hexameter? Or why not Trochaic Tetrameter?

These are questions for linguists, neuro-linguists and psycho-linguists.  No one really knows why Iambic Pentameter appeals to English speakers. Iambic Tetrameter feels too short for longer poems while hexameters feel wordy and overlong. There’s something about the length of the Iambic Pentameter line that suits the English language. Theories have been put forward, none of them without controversy. Some say that the Iambic Pentameter line is roughly equivalent to a human breath. M.L. Harvey, in his book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning (if memory serves) offers up such a theory.

Interestingly, every language finds has found its own normative meter. For the French language, its hexameters (or Alexandrines), for Latin and Greek it was dactylic Hexameter and Pentameter). Just as in English, no one can say why certain metrical lengths seem to have become the norm in their respective languages. There’s probably something universal (since the line lengths of the various languages all seem similar and we are all human)  but also unique to the qualities of each language.

Anyway, once Iambic Pentameter had been established, poets began to think that translating Homer and Virgil, yet again, was getting somewhat tiresome. English language Dramatists had already equaled and excelled the drama of the Romans and Greeks. The sonnet sequences of Drayton, Daniel, Shakespeare, Sidney and Spenser proved equal to the Italian Sonnets of Petrarch – in the minds of English poets at least. The restoration poets brought discursiveness to poetry. They used poetry to argue and debate. The one thing that was missing was an epic unique to the English language. Where was England’s Homer? – Virgil? Where was England’s Odyssey?

Enter Milton

Milton, at the outset, didn’t know he was going to write about Adam & Eve.

He was deeply familiar with Homer and Virgil.  He called Spenser his “original”, the first among English poets and a “better teacher than Aquinus“.  John MiltonBut Spenser’s Faerie Queen was written in the tradition of the English Romance. It lacked the elevated grandeur of a true epic and so Milton rejected it. He was also familiar with Dante’s Divine Comedy. But the reasons for Milton choosing the story of Adam & Eve are less important, in this post, than the verse form that he chose. At first, writing in the age of the heroic couplet, Milton’s intention was to use the verse of his peers.

But Milton was losing his eyesight. That and the constraints Heroic Couplets placed on narrative were too much for him. He chose Blank Verse. In the end, the genius of Milton’s prosody and narrative conferred on blank verse the status it needed.  Blank verse became the language of epic poetry – not heroic couplets; Milton’s blank verse was the standard against which the poetry of all other epic poems would be measured. From this point forward, later poets would primarily draw their inspiration from the English poets that had come before (not the poets of classical Greece or Rome).Paradise Lost Book 8 [Extract] Paradise Lost successfully rivaled the Odyssey and the Iliad.

The extract at right is from Book 8 of Paradise Lost. Adam, naturally enough, wants to know about the cosmos. Since reading up on Cosmology is one of my favorite pastimes, I’ve always liked this passage. The extract is just the beginning. Milton has an educated man’s knowledge of 17th Century Cosmology,  but must write as if he knows more than he does. In writing for Raphael however (the Angel who describes the Cosmos to Adam), Milton must  write as though Raphael admits less than he knows. The effect is curious. At the outset, Raphael says that the great Architect (God) wisely “concealed” the workings of the  Cosmos; that humanity, rather than trying to “scan” God’s secrets, “ought rather admire” the universe! This is a convenient dodge. Raphael then launches into a series of beautifully expressed rhetorical questions that neatly sum up Cosmological knowledge and ignorance in Milton’s day. It is a testament to the power of poetry & blank verse that such a thread-bare understanding of the universe can be made to sound so persuasively knowledgeable.  Great stuff.

With Milton, the English Language had all but established its own literature; and Iambic Pentameter, until the  20th Century, was the normative meter in which all English speaking poets would measure themselves.

The Novelty Wears Off

After the restoration poets, the focus of poets was less on meter than on subject matter. Poets didn’t write Iambic Pentameter because they were thirsting for a new expressive meter in their own language, but because it’s use was expected. Predictably, over the next century and a half, Iambic Pentameter became rigid and rule bound.  The meter was now a tradition which poets were expected to work within.

John Keats: The Fall of HyperionThis isn’t to say that great poetry wasn’t written during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Keats’ Hyperion, short as it was, equaled and exceeded the masterful Blank Verse of Milton (perhaps some of the most beautiful blank verse ever written) – but the beauty was in his phrasing, imagery and language, not in any novel use of Iambic Pentameter. Wordsworth wrote The Prelude and Browning wrote an entire novel, The Ring & the Book, using blank verse. There was Shelley and Tennyson, but none of them developed Iambic Pentameter beyond the first examples of the Elizabethans.

The Fall of Iambic Pentameter

By the end of the Victorian Era (1837-1901), and in the hands of the worst poets, Iambic Pentameter had become little more than an exercise in filling-in-the-blanks. The rules governing the meter were inflexible and predictable. It was time for a change. The poet most credited with making that change is Ezra Pound. Whether or not Pound was, himself, a great poet, remains debatable. Most would say that he was not. What is indisputable is his influence on and associations with poets who were great or nearly great: Yeats, T.S. Eliot (whose poetry he closely edited), Ezra PoundFrost, William Carlos Williams, Marriane Moore. It was Pound who forcefully rejected the all too predictable sing-song patterns of the worst Victorian verse, who helped initiate the writing of free verse among English speaking poets. And the free verse that Pound initiated has become the indisputably dominant verse form of the 20th century and 21st century, more pervasive and ubiquitous than any other verse form in the history of English Poetry – more so than all metrical poems combined. While succeeding generations during the last 100 years, in one way or another, have rejected almost every element of the prior generation’s poetics, none of them have meaningfully questioned their parents’ verse form. The ubiquity and predictability of free verse has become as stifling as Iambic Pentameter during the Victorian era.

But not all poets followed Pound’s lead.

A wonderful thing happened. With the collapse of the Victorian aesthetic, poets who still wrote traditional poetry were also freed to experiment. Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens: Idea of Order at Key WestWallace Stevens all infused Iambic Pentameter with fresh ideas and innovations. Stevens, Frost and Yeats stretched the meter in ways that it hadn’t been stretched since the days of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatists. Robert Frost’s genius for inflection in speech was greatly enhanced by his anapestic variant feet. His poems, The Road Not Taken, and Birches both exhibit his innovative use of anapests to lend his verse a more colloquial feel. The links are to two of my own posts.

T.S. Eliot interspersed passages of free verse with blank verse.

Wallace Stevens, like Thomas Middleton, pushed Iambic Pentameter to the point of dissolution. But Stevens’ most famous poem, The Idea of Order at Key West, is elegant blank verse – as skillfully written as any poem before it.

Yeats also enriched his meter with variant feet that no Victorian poet would have attempted. His great poem, Sailing to Byzantium, is written in blank verse, as is The Second Coming.

Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Pound all came of age during the closing years of the Victorian Era. They carry on the tradition of the last 500 years, informed by the innovations of their contemporaries. They were the last. Poets growing up after the moderns have grown up in a century of free verse. As with all great artistic movements, many practitioners of the new free-verse aesthetic were quick to rationalize their aesthetic by vilifying the practitioners of traditional poetry. Writers of metrical poetry were accused (and still are) of anti-Americanism (poetry written in meter and rhyme were seen as beholden to British poetry),  patriarchal oppression (on the baseless assertion that meter was a male paradigm),  of moral and ethical corruption. Hard to believe? The preface to Rebel Angels writes:

One of the most notorious attacks upon poets who have the affrontery to use rhyme and meter was Diane Wakoski’s essay, “The New Conservatism in American Poetry” (American Book Review, May-June 1986), which denounced poets as diverse as John Holander, Robert Pinsky, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost for using techniques Wakoski considered Eurocentric. She is particularly incensed with younger poets writing in measure.

The preface goes on to note that Wakoski called Holander, “Satan”. No doubt, calling the use of Meter and Rhyme a “Conservative” movement (this at the height of Reaganism), was arguably the most insulting epithet Wakoski could hurl. So, religion, nationalism and politics were all martialed against meter and rhyme. The hegemony of free verse was and is hardly under threat. The vehemence of Wakoski’s attacks, anticipated and echoed by others, has the ring of an aging and resentful generation fearing (ironically) the demise of its own aesthetics at the hand of its children (which is why she was “particularly incensed with younger poets). How dare they reject us? Don’t they understand how important we are?

But such behavior is hardly limited to writers of free verse. The 18th century Restoration poets behaved just the same, questioning the character of any poet who didn’t write heroic couplets. Artistic movements throughout the ages have usually rationalized their own tastes at the expense of their forebears while, ironically, expecting and demanding that ensuing generations behave.

Poets who choose to write Iambic Pentameter after the moderns are swimming against a tidal wave of conformity – made additionally difficult because so many poets in and out of academia no longer comprehend the art of metrical poetry. In some halls, it’s a lost art.

blank-versePart of the cause is that poets of the generation immediately following the moderns “treated Iambic Pentameter more as a point of departure than as a form consistently sustained.” Robert B. Shaw, in his book, Blank Verse: A Guide to its History and Use, goes on to write, “the great volume and variety of their modernist-influenced experiments make this period a perplexing one for the young poet in search of models.” (p. 161)

Poets like Delmore Schwartz and Randall Jarrell were uneven poets – moving in and out of Iambic Pentameter. Their efforts aren’t compelling. Karl Shapiro brought far more knowledge to bear. Robert Shaw offers up a nice quote from Shapiro:

The absence of rhyme and stanza form invites prolixity and diffuseness–so easy is it to wander on and on. And blank verse [Iambic Pentameter] has to be handled in a skillful. ever-attentive way to compensate for such qualities as the musical, architectural, and emphatic properties of rhyme; for the sense of direction one feels within a well-turned stanza; and for the rests that come in stanzas. There are no helps. It is like going into a thick woods in unfamiliar acres. (p. 137)

And some poets like to go into thick woods and unfamiliar acres. (This is, after all, still a post on why poets write Iambic Pentameter. And here is one poet’s answer.) The writing of a metrical poem, Shapiro seems to be saying, forces one to navigate in ways that free verse poets don’t have to. The free verse poet must consider content as the first and foremost quality of his or her poem. For the poet writing meter and rhyme, Shapiro implies, there is a thicket of considerations that go beyond content.

There is also John Ciardi, Howard Nemerov and, perhaps the greatest of his generation, Richard Wilbur. Wilbur writes:

There are not so many basic rhythms for American and English poets, but the possibilities of varying these rhythms are infinite. One thing modern poets do not write, thank heaven, is virtuoso poems of near perfect conformity to basic rhythms as Byron, Swinburne, and Browning did in their worst moments. By good poets of any age, rhythm is generally varied cleverly and forcefully to abet the expressive purposes of the whole poem. (p. 189)

By rhythms, Wilbur is referring to meters. Wilbur is essentially stating that when the good poet chooses to write meter, (Iambic Pentameter let’s say), he sees the rhythm (the metrical pattern) as something which, when cleverly varied, “[abets] the expressive purposes of the whole poem”. It’s a poetic and linguistic tool unavailable to the free verse poet. Period.

Robert Frost, who lived into the latter half of the 20th Century, famously quipped in response to free-verse poet Carl Sandburg:

“Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Rebel AngelsAs free verse asserted an absolute domination over the poetic aesthetic, writing meter and rhyme increasingly became an act of non-conformity, even defiance. It’s in this spirit that a small group of poets, who ended up being called “New Formalists”, published a book called Rebel Angels in the mid 1990’s – the emphasis being on Rebel. The most recognizable names in the book were Dana Goioia, R.S. Gwynn,  and Timothy Steele. The preface, already quoted above, attempts to frame its poets as revolutionaries from word one:

Revolution, as the critic Monroe Spears has observed, is bred in the bone of the American character. That character has been manifest in modern American poetry in particular. So it is no surprise that the most significant development in recent American poetry has been a resurgence of meter and rhyme, as well as narrative, among large numbers of younger poets, after a period when these essential elements of verse had been surpressed.

The word “American” turns up in each of the three (first three) introductory sentences. Lest there be any mistake, the intent was to frame themselves not as Eurocentric poets beholden to an older European tradition, but as American Revolutionaries. So what does that make the poets and critics who criticize them? – un-American? -establishmentarian? – conformist? – royalist conservatives?

So it goes.

If the intent was to initiate a new movement, the movement landed with a thud. The book is out of print and, as far as  I know, few to none of the books by those “large numbers of younger poets” have actually made it onto bookshelves. The poems in the anthology are accomplished and competent, but not transcendent. None of the poets wrote anything for the ages.

The rebellion was short lived.

Modern Iambic Pentameter

Nowadays, I personally don’t notice the fierce partisanship of the previous decades. Most of the fiercest dialectic seems to be between the various schools of free verse poetics. Traditional poetry, the poetry of meter and rhyme, is all but irrelevant even as all the best selling poetry remains in meter and rhyme! – Robert Frost, Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Stevens, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Millay, Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose and the thousands of nursery rhymes that are sold to new parents.

The Green Gate: ExtractBut why do poets write Iambic Pentameter nowadays?

As far as I know, I am one of the few poets of my own generation (Generation X) writing in form, along with A.E. Stallings and Catherine Tufariello. And why do I write Iambic Pentameter? Because I like it and because I can produce effects that no poet can produce writing free verse. I’ve talked about some of those effects when analyzing poems by Shakespeare, his Sonnet 116, John Donne’s “Death be not Proud”, and Frost’s Birches. I use all of the techniques, found in these poems, in my own poetry.

I write about traditional poetry with the hope that an ostensibly lost art form can be fully enjoyed and  appreciated.

One of my favorite moments in the Star Wars series is when Ben Kenobi kills General Grievous with a blaster instead of a Light Saber. Kenobi tosses down the blaster saying: “So uncivilized.”  Blasters do the job. But it’s the Light Saber that makes the Jedi. There are just a few poets who really understand meter and rhyme.

But enough with delusions of grandeur. At right is an extract from one of my own poems. You can click on the image  to see the full poem. One of my latest poems, written in blank verse, is Erlkönigen.

To write poetry using meter or rhyme, these days, is to be a fringe poet – out of step and, in some cases, treated with disdain and contempt by poets writing in the dominant free verse  aesthetic.

There has never been a better time to be a fringe poet! It’s usually where the most innovative work is done.

  • Note: There are critics & poets who deny that meter “exists”. I tend to group them with flat-earthers and moon landing denialists. Dan Schneider, of Cosmoetica, is one of them. If you’re curious to read my response to some of his writing, read Critiquing the Critic: Is Meter Real.

One Last Comparison

Going back to Homer’s Odyssey. One of the genres in which iambic pentameter still flourishes is in translating, suitably enough, Latin and Greek epic poetry. Here is one more modern Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) translation by Allen Mandelbaum, compared to Robert Fitzgerald’s (which we’ve already seen above). Mandalbaum’s translation was completed in 1990 – Fitzgerald’s in 1963. Seeing the same passage and content treated by two different poets gives an idea of how differently Iambic Pentameter can be treated even in modern times. The tone and color of the verse, in the hands of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum, is completely different. I still can’t decide which I like better, though readers familiar with the original claim that Fitzgerald’s is more faithful to the tone of the original.

odyssey-book-12-fitzgerald-mandelbaum

  • Here’s a good article on blank verse, mostly because of it’s generous links: Absolute Astronomy.

Afterthoughts • August 7 2010

With some distance from this post, I realize that I never discussed meter’s origins. And it is this: Song. In every culture that I’ve explored (in terms of their oldest recorded poetry) all poems originated as lyrics to popular songs. Recently discovered Egyptian poems strongly suggest  that they originated as lyrics to songs. If you read Chinese poetry, you will discover (dependent on the translator’s willingness to note the fact)  that a great many of the poems were written to the tune of this or that well-known song. Likewise, the meter of ancient Greek poetry is also said to be based on popular song tunes. Many scholars believe that the Odyssey was originally chanted by story tellers though no one knows whether the recitation might have been accompanied.

The first poems from the English continent are Anglo-Saxon. The alliterative meter of these poems, as argued by some, are a reflection that they too were written to the tune of this or that song. The early 20th century critic William Ellery Leonard, for example, held “that our meter of “Sing a Song of Six-Pence” is directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon meter of Beowulf” [Creative Poetry: A Study of its Organic Principles p. 252]. Though none of his poetry survives, Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne (d. 709), is said to have performed his secular songs while accompanied on the harp. None of Aldhelm’s Anglo-Saxon poetry remains. What is known to us is related by the ancient English historian Willliam of Malmesbury.

In short, meter is the remnant of music’s time signature.

The roots of Iambic Pentameter are in song (just as meter in every language and culture appears to be rooted in song and music). And it’s for this reason that the twaddle of a Dan Schneider is so misleading. Likewise,  poets like Marriane Moore who postured over the artificiality of meter, were ignorant of meter’s origins. Arguments over the naturalness of meter are irrelevant. Iambic Pentameter is no more natural to the English language than the elaborate meter and rhyme of a rapper. It’s an art.

And it’s this that separates Free Verse from Traditional Poetry.

  • Image above right: Fragment of an ancient Greek song.

Conversely, free verse is not rooted in music but only imitates the typographical presentation (the lineation) of metrical poetry. Why make this distinction? Because it’s another reason why poets write Iambic Pentameter. Writing metrical poetry is an acknowledgement of poetry’s musical roots. Meter acknowledges our human capacity to find rhythm and pattern within language (as within all things). I won’t argue that it’s a better way to write poetry. However, I will argue that writing meter is to partake in a tradition of poetry that is ancient and innate.

The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter

The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter

There is no one way to learn how to write Iambic Pentameter. If you’re not certain what Iambic Pentameter is, then you should probably read my post on Iambic Pentameter and the Basics first. The post explains what it means, how to scan it, and provides an explanation of the some of the terminology surrounding the verse form.

How Not To

The art to writing Iambic Pentameter is partly in knowing when not to write it.

Chaucer was the first poet to write full length “poems” in Iambic Pentameter. But his language was middle English, not modern. The first drama (that we know about) written in Modern English and in Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) was Gorboduc not by one author, but two – Sackville and Norton. Since this was probably their first crack at Iambic Pentameter, and since they wanted to make a good impression, they didn’t vary the pattern one iota. In other words, they didn’t quite know when not to write it.

GorboducVidena: The silent night, that brings the quiet pause
From painful travails of the weary day,
Prolongs my careful thoughts, and makes me blame
The slow Aurore, that so, for love or shame,
Doth long delay to show her blushing face;
And now the day renews my griefful plaint.

Ferex My gracious lady and my mother dear,
Pardon my grief for your so grievèd mind
To ask what cause tormenteth so your heart.
Videna So great a wrong and so unjust despite.
Without all cause against all course of kind!

So it begins. So it goes. So it ends. Te-tum te-tum te-tum. Line after line after line. The only variant feet appear to be some first foot trochees, but even these are up for debate. The word Pardon, in the lines above, was probably pronounced after the French with the stress on the second syllable – Par(don). With a cursory glance, I could find only two feminine endings in the entire play. Here is one of them:

And eke |gain time, |whose on|ly help |sufficeth Act V.i. 105.

The verse of their play feels excessively formal and buttoned up. The vast majority of their lines are end-stopped – which is to say: each line ends with punctuation or a complete syntactic unit or phrase. In short, they wrote the way some of our modern Formalists write.

Don’t make that mistake.

Where To Start

JS BachWhen J.S. Bach used to teach harmony to his students, he would give them give chorales by Martin Luther – unharmonized single line melodies. That way they didn’t have to think about composing a melody. It was already there. All they had to do was to write the base and harmonize. His students would gradually progress from two, to three, to four part harmony.

Likewise, a cool method for learning to write Iambic Pentameter is by picking some prose to poetize. That way, all you have to think about are the mechanics of the meter. To that end, I have carefully selected some old fashioned prose some readers might recognize. Here it is:

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

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

This choice piece of purple prose was written by Thomas North – a translation of a French work by Jacques Amyot which Cleopatrawas itself a translation from Plutarch – a Greek historian who wrote while Nero was emperor of Rome. North was describing Cleopatra. The coin at right, recently discovered, is said to portray Cleopatra. We live in the 21rst Century and normally I wouldn’t pick some 500 year old snippet, but the beauty of this example as that , if you try your hand at it, you can compare your effort to the greatest poet of the English language.

Now, imagine you’re a playwright and you’ve been given an advance to write a play about Cleopatra. You only have a few weeks to write the play or the advances will stop. The drama is to be written in blank verse – the standard of the day. This is your chance to Wow! theatergoers not only with your dramatic powers but with the virtuosity of your blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) – a new and flourishing verse form. You decide to draw your material from North’s translation of Plutarch.

Free Verse First

Where do you start?

The first thing you might do is to lineate the prose. A skilled poet will do this *and* produce Iambic Pentameter but I’ll break down the thought process. And (so that this post isn’t a book length post) we’ll only poetize the first of North’s two paragraphs

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

Ta da! We now have a free verse poem. And this is probably where 99 out of 100 modern poets stop. Free verse is the easiest and least demanding literary form ever created. But for those who like to juggle with more than one ball, let’s try two. The next step is to transform this passage into Iambic Pentameter. Again, if you’re not sure what Iambic Pentameter is (but have dared to read this post nonetheless) take a look my Guide to the Basics. This will explain just *what* Iambic Pentameter is. Now on to Plutarch. Since we don’t live in the 16th Century, no need to keep the archaisms.

Now Make it Iambic Pentameter

Therefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters,

When she |was sent |for by |An-to|ni-us

both Antonius himself and also from his friends,
she made light of it and mocked Antonius

And by |his friends, |by var|ious let|ters – she
Made light |of them |and mocked |An-to|ni-us

so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise
but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus,

Disdai|ning but |to an|swer with |a barge

the poop whereof was of gold, the sails
of purple, and the oars of silver, which

The poop |was gold, |the sa|ils pur|ple and
The sil|ver oars |kept rhy|thm to |the mu-sic

kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music
of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such

Of o|boes, flutes, |viols |and ci|therns – such
And more |as can |be played |upon |a barge.

other instruments as they played upon in the barge.
And now for the person of herself:
she was laid under a pavilion

As to |her per|son: She |was laid |beneath
A cloth |of gold |of tis|sue – her |pa-vil-ion –

of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled
and attired like the goddess Venus commonly
drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand

At-ti|red like |the god|dess Ve|nus just
As she |is drawn |in pic|tures; next |to her
On ei|ther hand |were Cupidonpret|ty boys |ap-par-eled

of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters
do set forth god Cupid, with little fans
in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her.

As if |they each |were Cu|pid, fan|ning her
To keep |the wind |up-on | her.

And here it is in one piece.

When she was sent for by Antonius
(And by his friends, by various letters) she
Made light of them and mocked Antonius
Disdaining but to answer with a barge –
The poop was gold, the sails purple and
The silver oars kept rhythm to the music
Of oboes, flutes, viols and citherns – such
And more as can be played upon a barge.
As to her person: She was laid beneath
A cloth of gold of tissue – her pavilion –
Attired like the goddess Venus just
As she is drawn in pictures; next to her
On either hand were pretty boys appareled
As if they each were Cupid, fanning her
To keep the wind upon her.

When she | was sent |for by |An-ton|i-us
(And by |his friends, |by var | ious let|ters) she
Made light |of them |and mocked |An-ton| i-us
Dis-dai|ning but |to an|swer with |a barge –
The poop |was gold,| the sa|ils pur|ple and
The sil|ver oars |kept rhy|thm to |the mu-sic
Of o|boes, flutes, |vi-ols |and ci|therns – such
And more |as can |be played |up-on |a barge.
As to |her per|son: She |was laid |be-neath
A cloth |of gold |of tis|sue – her |pa-vil-ion –
At-tir|ed like |the god|dess Ve|nus just
As she |is drawn |in pict|ures; next |to her
On ei|ther hand |were pret|ty boys |ap-par-eled
As if |they each |were Cu|pid, fan|ning her
To keep |the wind |up-on |her.

This is juggling two balls. In altering the verse from free-verse to blank verse, I was careful to keep a strict Iambic Pentameter meter – the only variants being feminine endings. Notice that I’ve had to move some words around. (If I had really wanted to be conservative, I could have end-stopped every line.)

The blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) is competent and passable poetry. And  this is where many poets stop (those who write meter). Now let’s do some real juggling. Let’s vary the meter; give it some life. And since we’re writing verse drama, I’ll add some characters: Enobarbus and Agrippa. Just for the fun of it, I’ve thrown in some Shakespearean touches to give the passage a more conversational feel. I also split up the lines for visual effect, but if you put them back together, they will all be Iambic Pentameter (some with various variant feet). At some later date, I’ll poetize the second paragraph because, well,  it’s fun to do (or at least I think so). Done. Visit The Writing & Art of Iambic Pantemeter II if you want  to read my try at the whole passage.

She answered under Purple Sails

Plutarch & Gillespie

And here it is for easier reading:

She answered under purple sails...

She came from Egypt…

And here’s another juggler – one of our greatest Poets and Dramatists – John Dryden. Not who you were expecting? This is from his play All for Love; or, The World Well Lost Act III Line 180.  The Literary Encyclopedia offers a good article on the play, but you have to be willing to pay for it after the first 600 words.

Plutarch & Dryden

John DrydenAnt. … she came from Egypt.
Her Gally down the Silver Cydnos row’d
The Tacking Silk, the Streamers wav’d with Gold.
The gentle Winds were lodg’d in Purple Sails:
Her Nymphs, like Nereids, round her Couth, were plac’d;
Where she, another Sea-born Venus lay.
Dolla. No more: I would not hear it.
Ant. O, you must!
She lay, and leant her Cheek upon her Hand,
And cast a Look so languishingly sweet,
As if, secure of all Beholders Hearts,
Neglecting she could take ‘em: Boys, like Cupids,
Stood fanning, with their painted Wings, the Winds
That played about her Face: But if she smil’d,
A darting Glory seem’d to blaze abroad:
That Men’s desiring Eyes were never waery’d;
But hung upon the Object: To soft Flutes
The silver Oars kept Time; and while they played,
The Hearing gave new Pleasure to the Sight;
And both to Thought: ‘twas Heav’n or somewhat more;
For she so charm’d all Hearts, that gazing crowds
Stood panting on the shore, and wanted Breath
To give their welcome Voice.

The Chair she sat in…

And here’s another juggler! This poet’s name is T.S. Eliot. Not who you were expecting? This is from the second part of The Waste Land: A Game of Chess. Eliot doesn’t hue to Plutarch’s text. That’s not what he’s about in in this rendition, but notice how some of North’s words show up in different contexts and how the general  tone and progress imitates North’s narrative.

TS EliotThe Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,
From satin cases poured in rich profusion.
In vials of ivory and colored glass,
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid–troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odors; stirred by the air
That freshened from the window, these ascended
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.
Huge sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,
In which sad light a carved dolphin swam.
Above the antique mantle was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.

The barge she sat in…

And here are some of the greatest lines ever written by the greatest poet of the English language – 150px-shakespeareWilliam Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s version (on which I based my own) Enobarbus describes what he has seen. This comes from Antony and Cleopatra Act II Sc. II 230. You can hear it read on YouTube.

And here’s the thing to know. What make’s this passage great is what makes poetry great. It’s not content. This is what novels do. There are many great and profound passages of prose. What makes poetry great is something else: style—ordinary content made into something extraordinary. Every woman, with a touch of Cleopatra, knows that by a turn of hair, the cut of her skirt, the shade of her lips and eyebrows—small and poetic touches—her beauty is transformed into something that makes the heart skip.

And this is what’s missing in so much contemporary and free verse poetry.

If you want to be a truly great poet, learn what little touches make a woman into a beauty. Study closely how little additions and adornments turn ordinary prose into poetry. It’s not the content that makes the poem. Shakespeare’s every addition plays on the idea of Cleopatra’s sexual seductiveness. North’s passage is merely description. Shakespeare gives description suggestiveness, underscoring the psychology of the character who speaks the lines – an essential part of Shakespeare’s dramatic genius. Shakespeare’s use of imagery always underscores his character’s psychological state. When you write your own poetry, remember this. There is not a single 21rst century poet, to my knowledge, who gets it. The winds are “love-sick”. The silver oars make “the water which they beat follow faster, amorous of their strokes”.

Don’t miss the erotic double-entendre in the phrase “amorous of their strokes”.

With the image, amorous strokes, still fresh in his mind, Shakespeare then adds that the wind “did seem to glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool”.  NShakespeare's Wordplayo image is separate or divided from the image before. Shakespeare’s imagery is of a piece. This subtle linkage between images, frequently through wordplay, is a habit of his thought that allows Shakespeare to unify acts and entire plays through the linkage of word and image. In Shakespeare’s hands, imagery can be like a leitmotif. If you really want to understand how Shakespeare did it, M.M. Mahood’s book “Shakespeare’s Wordplay“, is worth every penny. Compare Dryden’s effort to Shakespeare. Interestingly, Dryden was trying to imitate Shakespeare. The entirety of Dryden’s play was written in blank verse. This was a considerable departure for Dryden who, along with his contemporaries, wrote nearly all their poetry in heroic couplets.

In the next passage, the silken tackle “swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands”. All in all, Shakespeare’s additions to North’s passage reach a kind of subliminal sexual crescendo. Enobarbus is not just smitten by the extravagance of Cleopatra’s excess, not just reporting on what he has seen, the undercurrent of his imagery reveals him to be smitten by the sexuality of her excess.

Plutarch & Shakespeare

Enobarbus: I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion–cloth-of-gold of tissue–
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

Agrippa: O, rare for Antony!

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

Upon hearing this report, Mecaenas realizes that Mark Antony, who had been the most admired soldier in all of Rome, is quickly becoming nothing more than Cleopatra’s playboy. Legend has it that when Cleopatra initially saw that she was going to be defeated by Caesar, she ordered that she be rolled inside a carpet. The carpet was to be presented to Caesar as a gift. When Ceasar unrolled it, Cleopatra unrolled with it, naked, nubile and young. The rest is history.

This is the legend.

Here is the story as presented at the United Nations of Roma Victrix website:

Cleopatra was rowed in a small rowboat by a single Sicilian, by name of Apollodorus. Upon reaching the palace area, the only way to enter Caesar’s presence was to conceal herself in such a manner without arousing suspicion of her brother’s men. The story of Cleopatra being rolled in a carpet, while false, is still true in essence. She was slipped into some bed coverings and presented to Caesar as a gift. Though little is known of the actual meeting, it’s quite clear that the young queen made an enormous impression on the great Roman. Though her ‘beauty’ is disputed, (at worst probably plain of appearance) Cleopatra was young and virile. She was elegant and charismatic, but most of all, she had power and money, and Caesar probably supposed she was susceptible to manipulation. Caesar, at 52 years old and 35 years her elder, was easily seduced, or perhaps even seduced her, as Caesar’s affairs were legendary anyway. Cleopatra was politically brilliant and secured Caesar’s loyalty, certainly not only through sexual pleasure, but through manipulation of her own. She was, and Caesar was well aware, the key to controlling the vast wealth of Egypt. Caesar was, and she was well aware, the key to securing her place as Queen, and perhaps even Pharaoh, and the power of the gods.

At the close of Enobarbus’ description, Enobarbus plainly knows that Antony will never escape the whiles of Cleopatra. The image of Cleopatra, at right, was created for a BBC documetary. It is a reconstruction of what Cleopatra might have looked like based on coinage, description, artifacts, etc…

cleopatra-reconstructedEnobarbus: I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breathe forth.

Mecaenas: Now Antony must leave her utterly.

Enobarbus: Never; he will not:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

Give it a Try

If you decide to give North’s passage a try, measuring yourself against Shakespeare, be sure and post it in the comment section!

In any case, if this post has been helpful or has inspired you, let me know.

All for Love & the Modern Formalists – Megan Grumbling

  • January 28 2010: Slightly edited.

The peculiarity of modern formalist poetry is that the poetry’s effect is frequently that of free verse, as though the poets were either embarrassed to be writing formally or unable to shake its ghost from their ears.

Old habits die hard.

The symptoms are similar to those of Restoration Poets who tried to write blank verse. John Dryden’s play “All for Love or, The World Well Lost”, was printed in 1692. This play, another dramatization of Anthony and Cleopatra, was expressly “Written in Imitation of Shakespeare’s Stile”. However, by the time Dryden published his play, blank verse had long since been abandoned in favor of heroic couplets (iambic pentameter written in rhyming couplets).

Restoration Poets found blank verse too licentious. Even anapests were sometimes considered politically subversive and aesthetically scandalous. The Restoration was the age of heroic couplets in the same sense that the “Modern Age” is the age of Free Verse. For a taste of heroic couplets, here’s a prologue written by Dryden from “The Conquest of Granada”. (For all the propriety of his age, Dryden had a healthy sense of humor when it came to sex.) Note the rhyming couplets:

They who write Ill, and they who ne’r durst write,
Turn Critiques, out of mere Revenge and Spight…

…Some wiser Poet now would leave Fame first:
But elder wits are like old Lovers, curst;
Who, when the vigor of their youth is spent,
Still grow more fond as they grow impotent.
This, some years hence, our Poets case may prove;
But, yet, he hopes, he’s young enough to love.

But in return for propriety, the restoration poets gave up the flexibility and malleability of blank verse. And since there were no towering geniuses during this period, heroic couplets never equaled the blank verse of the previous age. (Fortunately Milton, in writing Paradise Lost, dispensed with heroic couplets.) One of the salient features of the period’s heroic couplets is in their frequently end-stopped lines – an imitation of the Latin poetry they were emulating. Restoration poets learned to tailor their thoughts and phrases to coincide with every couplet. In the brief excerpts above, there is not a single example of enjambment. Every thought or phrase ends with every line. Dryden’s lines fall neatly into syntactical units that end, elegantly, with each line.

And when it came time for Dryden to imitate Shakespeare, the force of compositional habit imprinted itself, ghostlike, in every passage of “All for Love”.

I pity Dollabella; but she’s dangerous:
Her eyes have pow’r beyond Thessalian Charms
To draw the Moon from Heav’n; for Eloquence,
The Sea-green Syrens taught her Voice their flatt’ry;
And, while she speaks, Night steals upon the Day,
Unmark’d of those that hear; Then she’s so charming,
Age buds at sight of her, and swells to youth:
The holy Priests gaze on her when she smiles;
And with heav’d hands forgetting Gravity,
They bless her wanton Eyes: Even I who hate her,
With a malignant joy behold such Beauty… [IV: 264]

Compared with Shakespeare’s equivalent passage:

I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breath forth.

….Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy preists
Bless her when she is riggish. [II, ii, 239]

In Dryden’s passage, though he is writing blank verse, his meaning falls into the ghostly pattern of heroic couplets:

A– Her eyes have pow’r beyond Thessalian Charms
A– To draw the Moon from Heav’n; for Eloquence,

B – The Sea-green Syrens taught her Voice their flatt’ry;
B – And, while she speaks, Night steals upon the Day…

C – …Then she’s so charming,
C – Age buds at sight of her, and swells to youth:

The line endings still mostly break with their syntactical units. In Dryden’s passage there is only one example of enjambment, and weak at that. In Shakespeare’s passage there are seven instances of enjambment.

And now we return to the twenty-first century.

Instead of Restoration propriety, free verse dominates. If Dryden and his ilk were to step into our modern colleges, he might think he had stepped into a sort of “mirror-mirror” world. He would learn that some modern poets considered iambic pentameter to be a politically corrupt form, so much so that formalism is seen as subversive (patriarchal). He would struggle to find employment in any college writing program. Dryden – a strict formalist, intellectual, white and distinctly British – might find employment as a plumber.

Even so, one is increasingly finding blank verse and some formality. In the January 2006 issue of POETRY magazine, we find some beautiful poems by Megan Grumbling. But remember, this is mirror mirror world. Just as Dryden’s heroic couplets showed up, ghostlike, in his blank verse, free verse asserts itself, ghostlike, in modern formal verse.

“Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls
our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road
crosses the river that they call Great Woks.
The nearby fields so rich it’s hard to breathe–
the hay treacly with auburn, grasses bronzed–
we stop before a red farmhouse, just shy
of where the river runs, where maple trees
have laid the front lawns ravished with their loss.”

The enjambment of the first three lines has all the flavor of free-verse. There are no auditory clues (in the way of syntactical units) that might hint to a listener that these are lines of blank verse. One might as easily write the first sentence as follows:

Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road crosses the river that they call Great Woks.

The average reader would never suspect that this was blank verse. He or she might, in a moment of preternatural attentiveness, notice that the line is entirely iambic. That said, there is no indication that this sentence is Iambic Pentameter. Given Grumbling’s approach, one might as easily print her poem as follows:

Their stri|dent hold |upon |the back
roads pulls |our mor|ning drive, |out to
where Oak |Woods Road |crosses |the river
they call |Great Woks. |The near|by fields
so rich |it’s hard |to breathe– |the hay
treacly |with au|burn, grass|es bronzed–
we stop |before |a red |farmhouse,
just shy |of where |the ri|ver runs,
where ma|ple trees |have laid |the front
lawns ra|vished with |their loss.

This is perfectly acceptable iambic tetrameter, but for the short last line. I only had to remove the purely metric “that”. It might be argued that one could submit any iambic pentameter poem to the same exercise, but such an argument would only be partially true. One would find it exceedingly difficult to apply the same exercise to Shakespeare’s passage from Antony and Cleopatra. Or, more fairly, consider Frost’s An Encounter. (More fairly because Grumbling’s poetry is clearly inspired by Frost.)

Once on the kind of day called “weather breeder,”
When the heat slowly hazes and the sun
By its own power seems to be undone,
I was half boring through, half climbing through
A swamp of cedar. Choked with oil of cedar
And scurf of plants, and weary and over-heated,
And sorry I ever left the road I knew,
I paused and rested on a sort of hook
That had me by the coat as good as seated…

And now for the tetrameter version:

Once on |the kind |of day |called “weather
breeder,” |When the |heat slow|ly hazes
and the |sun by |its own |power seems
to be |undone, |I was |half boring
through, half |climbing |through a swamp
of ce|dar. Choked |with oil |of cedar
And scurf |of plants, |and wear|y and
over-|heated, |And sor|ry I
ever |left the |road I |knew, I
paused and |rested |on a sort |of hook
That had |me by |the coat |as good
as seat|ed…

The latter isn’t a very passable version of iambic tatrameter. The third line is entirely trochaic and can only be “rescued” if we elide power to read pow’r; or read the line as follows:

and the |sun by |its own pow|er seems

Though this too is unsatisfactory. The fifth line fails altogether. I picked Frost’s poem at random (lest the reader think I picked one poem especially antithetical to such treatment). What the poem illustrates is Frost’s skillful wedding of sense(grammatical & otherwise) to blank verse – Iambic Pentameter.

The same commitment is not sensed in Grumbling’s poem, skillful though it is. One might assert that Grumbling’s poem is primarily iambic and only secondarily pentameter. The ghostly influence of free-verse pervades her poem, just as the ghost of heroic couplets pervaded Dryden’s blank verse. One might say that she only grasps the surface of blank verse. But her choices might also be deliberate.

More to the point, while she is not the worst offender, her verse is harmed by metrical expediency. One of the first words that need to be banished from the Formalist’s dictionary is “upon”.  It’s appearance in modern poetry is primarily due to formalist poets . They use it because it is a ready made iamb. Grumbling wastes no time falling upon its tempting ictus.

we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this field.

The word “within” is metrical padding. How else does a bag hold anything but “within”? The word “upon” appears again,

More metrical padding appears with “out to where the Oak Woods Road…” Using modern English, we say: “out where the Oak Woods Road…” The unnecessary “to” reminds me of “for to”, as in, “I picked my roses for to kiss my love…” Happily, this archaism died from sheer embarrassment at the end of the 16th century. Who knows, its ghost might live on in some Amish communities…

However, in fairness to Grumbling, the promise of her poetry far outweighs the learning pangs.

As autumn and the Great Works trickle by,
we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this fields.
October’s task has raked the colors high.

These are beautiful lines of poetry. They show a willingness to learn from the old masters (an especially subversive and ridiculed practice in some modern circles). She has a sense for the music of language, like Frost, and is richly visual (perhaps at the expense of her other senses).

The aging oaks have puckered, mollusk-like,
to clutch and hold the sun-blanched, rain-run board,
and all its ancient measurements, in place…

From Measures – Poetry Magazine January 2006.

I can’t wait to see more from her. I can’t wait to see how she develops and how her mastery of metrical verse progresses.