This living hand, now warm and capable

To give myself something to do while the temperatures dip to the teens below zero (Fahrenheit), I thought I might try to understand what it is about this little poem that makes it so famous. If Keats can turn a poem, a little eight line fragment, into a masterpiece, maybe you can too. Here’s the poem, in case you’ve never read it:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is —
I hold it towards you.

~ the Poems of John Keats, edited by Jack Stillinger (the hardcover) p. 503

Some History and Diversionary Thoughts

Now, curiously, the first thing I notice is that there’s a typo and, as it turns out, the typo is Keats’s. The verb tense in line 5 is incorrect. “Thou would” should read “Thou would’st”. I’m hardly the first to notice this, but it suggests a couple possibilities: that Keats wrote this hastily and/or Keatsthat the use, by then, of archaic thee/thou still wasn’t second nature. I lean more toward the first explanation, since Keats had already written most of his poetry using this poetic convention.

Keats took some heat for his use of archaic diction. When Wordsworth was writing the following:

“There will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction”.

Keats (?) was writing:

Edit: A reader asked if I could cite a source for this passage. I thought I had gotten it from my Riverside copy of Keats’s Poems and Letters, but can’t find it there (I normally cite most everything I can). Having searched the kindle edition of the Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends and not having found it, I’m going to err on the side caution. Unless another reader can provide a source, I’m thinking this quote is spurious. My apologies.

“As one’s environment is bound to mould one’s behaviour so is one’s writing likely to be influenced by what one reads. By this premise, to my mind, words such as “thou” and “thine”, though archaic in nature, would always justify their usage at least in poetic forms so long as the works of Shakespeare and those of the great poets of old remain relevant to the present and the succeeding ages. Therefore, if archaic words pervade my verse it is not out of a hope that taking recourse to such-like seeming affectations by themselves would lift my muse to sublime heights of the past; but, conversely, I poetise them mainly for reasons of effectual rhyming and in recognition of the fact that these discarded words had kept company with the best in literature. Furthermore, I feel secure in the knowledge that Spencer and Chaucer amongst many other of their ilk infused their inimitable writings with usage of archaic words; and therefore, I feel, by using any such words I am by no means committing any grave transgression which contemporary writing may find it difficult to digest.”

The conventional usage of poetic archaisms like thee and thou was still an acceptable one in Keats’ day (according to then prevalent aesthetics — and unlike now). Nevertheless, the first stirrings of a more “modern” poetic language were already to be found in some of his contemporaries.

The Cambridge Companion to Keats offers Keats poem this way:

This living hand, now wa[r]m and capable
Of ea[r]nest grasping, would, if it were cold
and in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
············································heat
That thou would wish thine own dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
and thou be conscience-calm’d — see here it is
I hold it towards you — [Facsimile edition, 258 from p. 116 of The Cambridge Companion]

I’ve looked but haven’t been able to google an image of the orginal MS. If someone else has any luck, comment or send me a link. See the link provided in the comment section below.

According to Stillinger, the poem was “written probably toward the end of 1819” and were “drafted or copied on the outside recto of a folded sheet on which, after turning it over and around, Keats drafted stanzas 45-51 of The Jealousies; they thus appear upside down…”

So, my own supposition, based on the misspellings and mistakes, is that this was not copied but was a quick draft. Keats apparently, and to judge by his writing of Otho the Great, could quickly and fluidly write competent verse (which by Keats’s standards is far and above the best verse of lesser talents). My hunch is that the lines occurred to him because of another prepossessing thought and quickly jotted them down to prevent them being lost. The idea, tone and imagery must have appealed to him as much as to us. He didn’t have a larger poem in which to place these lines and might have written something later. Perhaps Keats had been turning over these lines in response to another prompt. I’ve always felt that he had Fanny Brawne in mind, and I don’t have a clue as to why I think so. Maybe I read it somewhere, but I don’t think so. Did Keats write the lines in premonition of his own death by Tubercolosis? There’s a fascinating article here. Of concern to us is the following paragraph:

“On 3 February 1820, he traveled from town, sitting on the outside of the coach to save money, and, perhaps foolishly, he had left off his coat. He got off the coach at the top of Pond Street and stumbled into Wentworth Place at about 11:00 P.M. Brown did not like the look of him, thought that he might have been drinking, for he looked ill, and advised him to go to bed immediately. Brown went to Keats’s room with a glass of spirits, and, as he was getting into bed, Keats coughed and a small spot of blood appeared on the sheet. Brown heard him say, “That is blood from my mouth, bring me the candle Brown, let me see this blood.” And then, looking up at Brown, he said, “I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.” And, indeed, how accurate he was in diagnosis and prognosis, for he died in Rome just over a year later.”

This tells us that Keats wrote This Living Hand before he knew that he had Tuberculosis (and was going to die from it). That said, he apparently had been suffering bouts of ill health, including sore throats, during 1819. Having been trained as a physician, and living in a time and place where Tuberculosis was rampant and had killed his brother, it’s hardly a stretch to assert that he must have dreaded and feared the disease and was mordantly alert to its symptoms. It’s possible that these lines were written in response to that constant dread.

Interestingly, at around the same time, or possibly a little earlier in 1819, Keats was revising Hyperion, and wrote these lines:

Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had lov’d
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue,
Whether the dream now purposed to rehearse
Be poet’s or fanatic’s will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave (I.13-18 The Fall of Hyperion)

The final line bears more than a striking resemblance to “This Living hand…” Is there a connection? If chronologies are correct, then Keats wrote the line in Hyperion before writing “This Living hand…” Death was ever present. When thinking of his own art, he seemed to embody his craft and career in the metaphor of his hand, “this warm scribe”. The ‘I’ of the poem is a poet and I don’t think it’s far-fetched to imagine that Keats was largely projecting himself into the identity of the narrator.

  • In 1818, in a letter to his brother, Keats was to write: “Warm is the nerve of a welcoming hand…”

All this is a round-about leading to a conjecture. Some have suggested that Keats might have been jotting down ideas for a proposed verse drama (with his friend Brown) but if this were true then one would expect to find more ideas and jottings. I doubt he was directing the fragment to Fanny Brawne who was, after all, his fiancé. If only because of Hyperion, and the chronological proximity of the line in Hyperion to the fragment This Living Hand. Id argue that the poem is a reference to himself or more specifically, his art — the phrase “This living hand”, being a reference to his skill as poet. The poem, as I interpret it, is consciously or subconsciously a very personal cry of anger and terror. The you of the poem, addressed as thou, can be interpreted as you, me, fate, God, present and future readers, etc. His poetic art, embodied in his hand — his warm scribe — he holds out toward us and toward God. He writes, this is what you/we have to lose if my life is taken so soon. One could argue that Keats wouldn’t refer to God as wishing his heart “dry of blood”, but if understood metaphorically, then the threat is a way of communicating the magnitude of the injustice (rather than as anything literal).

It’s fair to counter that Keats didn’t write poems this way. Like Mozart, he always seemed to draw a veil between himself and his art. But this poetic fragment is unusual.

The Meter

First, the meter is blank-verse and so regular that I’ll forgo a full-blown scansion:

This liv|ing hand,| now warm| and ca|pable
Of earn|est gras|ping, would,| if it| were cold
And in |the i|cy si|lence of |the tomb,
So haunt |thy days |and chill| thy drea|ming nights
That thou |would wish| thine own |heart dry |of blood,
So in |my veins| red life |might stream| again,
And thou |be con|science-calm’d.| See, here |it is —
I hold |it towards |you.

Or the last line may alternately be read:

I hold| it to|wards you.

All of the feet are Iambic Pentamter. In other words, there are no variant feet. I bolded wish and own to show how the meter emphasizes the content of them. The last line is the most interesting though, and changes everything. Depending on what Keats wrote next, the words towards could have been either disyllabic or monosyllabic. For clues, we would have to see how Keats used the word elsewhere. Here are some examples (from An Electronic Concordance of Keats’ Poetry):

One, loveliest, holding her white hand to|ward Sleep and Poetry, Line 366
Might turn their steps to|wards the sober ring Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Book I, Line 356
And then, to|wards me, like a very maid, Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Book I, Line 634
Over the pathless waves to|wards him bows. Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, Line 96
Of the garden-terrace, towards or to|wards ? him they bent Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, Line 179
To spur three leagues to|wards the Apennine; Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, Line 186
A Cabinet, opening to|wards a Terrace. Otho the Great, Act V, SCENE IV, Setting
And |towards| her stept: she, like a moon in wane,
So saw he panting light, and |towards| it went Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Book II, Line 383
Walk’d |towards| the temple grove with this lament: Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Book IV, Line 926

To judge by these examples (and for the purposes of meter) Keats generally pronounced towards as having two syllables, pronounced to-wards. The last three examples show him opportunistically treating the towards as monosyllabic. What he never does (at least in his poetry) is to treat towards as a two syllable trochaic word, in other words — to|wards you. This would be perfectly acceptable, but based on precedence, he was probably treating towards monosyllabically:

towards| you

This puts the emphasis on towards rather than you. Too bad we don’t know. It would be interesting if he had intended on putting the emphasis on you. This would considerably change the emphasis of the poem, suggesting a much more personal addressee. It would also be the first  time, to my knowledge, that he treated towards as a trochaic word. Such are the subtleties of meter.

What’s also interesting is that he drops the archaic thou. For instance, he could have written:

I hold it towards thee.

Why drop the older address? Is it another sign of haste/hasty composition? — or does it possibly indicate a change of address and a more personal one? — encouraging us, in that case, to read the meter as emphasizing you.

One might be tempted to suggest that the use of thee and thou was a more formal address, but in some contexts it could also be more affectionate. Attempts have been made to discern if thou was normally one or the other but, at least based on studies of Shakespeare and Elizabethan usage, no hard and fast conclusion could be drawn. It all seems to boil down to context, which itself isn’t always reliable. How did Keats use it? That’s also hard to discern because his use, by this time, was a convention. He was imitating its use in poets like Shakespeare, Milton and his contemporaries, and probably was equally free with its connotations. Personally, in This Living Hand, I’m tempted to read the initial use as formal, and the final line, when he holds out his hand, as intentionally more personal. This means I’m also more inclined to put the metrical emphasis on you, (based on this shift of address), but this reading admittedly demands that we read Keats a little differently here than in any of his other preceding poems.

What’s the precedence? I notice that Keats will sometimes mix addresses, using Your when, by rights, he should use Thy. For instance, in King Stephen, Act I, sc. iv, Maud addresses Glouster as thou:

Not for the poor sake
Of regal pomp and a vainglorious hour,
As thou with wary speech…

But then a moment later she will say:

Your pardon, brother,
I would no more of that…

Rather than, more correctly, “Thy pardon, brother”. So, Keats didn’t always keep his forms of address straight, and it’s possible that these decisions were deliberate. Perhaps Maud’s change of address reflects a moment of affectionate politeness when asking for her brother’s “pardon”. This would suggest that Keats treats you and your as a more affectionate form of address and is suggestive when considering This living hand.

On the other hand, Keats makes a complete mess of pronouns in Ode on Melancholy:

NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globèd peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes…

Why? Your is the possessive form of Ye, but in this case I don’t think Keats intended the plural possessive pronoun of Ye when writing Your.  I would have to say it’s one of two possibilities and I lean toward the latter. The first is sheer sloppiness. Yes, I know he was a genius, but there’s no better way to put it. Keats was using a poetic convention and slipped up because the archaic address just wasn’t something he used in everyday speech.  The latter explanation is that he was more interested in sounds than correct grammar (the sound of your as opposed to thy). He was known to be very cognizant of the musicality of his lines. I lean toward the latter, but that’s speculation.

  • Interestingly,  an original sketch of the poem included these lines:

Though you should build a bark of dead men’s bones,
And rear a phantom gibbet for a mast,
Stitch creeds together for a sail, with groans
To fill it out, bloodstained and aghast;
Although your rudder be a Dragon’s tail,
Long sever’d, yet still hard with agony,
Your cordage large uprootings from the skull
Of bald Medusa; certes you would fail
To find the Melancholy, whether she
Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull.

As you can see, the form of address is the modern you. What this suggests is that Keats originally used the more modern form then, in the process of finalizing the poem, switched to the archaic thou, but only did so haphazardly or half heartedly (the original sketches of the poem apparently haven’t survived). At any rate, Keats appears never to have been fully satisfied with the Ode, and so it’s possible that the published version (despite being published) is really more of an abandoned sketch — let go because he was fed up with it. It’s known that unlike other poems, Keats continued to edit the fair copy of Ode to Melancholy, settling on the first stanza’s ‘drowsily’ after trying ‘heavily’ and ‘sleepily’.  He changed ‘Then feed thy sorrow on a morning rose / Or on the rainbow of the dashing waves’ to ‘Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, / Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave’.  By comparison, Keats does not, for example, confuse pronouns in Ode on a Grecian Urn.

What I can’t example (though I haven’t searched exhaustively) is a similar switch between thou and you within the space of a few lines or a single poem. So, in the case of This living hand, the whole matter remains open to conjecture. It also may shed some light on his use of would rather than wouldst. Possibly, his thinking was already two lines ahead when, knowing that he would switch to you, he absent-mindedly wrote would.

All these are questions that, to my knowledge, haven’t been dealt with by other critics or readers, but it does, I think, offer different ways of reading the poem.

What Does it Do?

What makes this poem work? Why do these eight lines stick with us the way ten thousand poems since, just as brief (and some book length) don’t? The answer is in the combination of its simple, concrete imagery and in the way Keats skillfully binds the whole around the central idea of blood as life force.

It works like this (red is life/blood and blue is cold/death):

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,

In the first six lines, Keats contrasts opposites:

living <> tomb
warm <> cold
earnest grasping <> icy silence

He doesn’t just contrast living with the word dead, he evokes death by reference to the tomb — a concrete image rather than the abstraction of death. And characteristic of Keats is the physical sensuousness of his imagery. From a prior post on imagery, the following:

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

Temperature|tactile “warm” “cold” “icy silence”
Motion|Kinesthetic “earnest grasping”
Auditory “icy silence

Icy silence is a synaesthetic image, my favorite kind, and one that especially suited Keats’ genius – giving a tactile sensation to silence. So, just as the hand feels it’s warmth, so too will it feel the icy silence of the tomb, but be incapable of earnest grasping, incapable of escape. What is especially powerful (and horrific) about this imagery is the subtle implication that there will still be consciousness in death — the consciousness and awareness of the tomb’s icy silence, but the inability to escape, the body having lost its warmth and ability to extricate itself.

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is —
I hold it towards you.

Once again, Keats hammers home the horror of the contrasting opposites.

dry of blood <> red life/stream
haunt/dreaming nights <> conscience-calmed

As if speaking from the tomb, he continues to evoke the breath of the tomb through words like haunt, chill and dreaming nights, as if describing the horror of the “living death” within the icy walls of a tomb — its endless “dreaming night” — suggesting that the addressee will be cursed by the same living death (even while still alive). The addressee — he or she — will wish themselves “dry of blood”. However, the astute reader will point out that being “dry of blood”, in the context of this poem, hardly allows one to escape the horror of an icy tomb and the consciousness of being dead (and icily unable to move from the tomb). But Keats suggests there’s a greater horror. What could be worse that a living death? — a tormented conscience. (Right, I know that the rest of you wouldn’t chose door number two, but this is the Romantic era and a guilty conscience was, I suppose, considered a fate worse than death.)

In terms of his use of imagery, Keats’ associative powers are the most like Shakespeare’s of any poet since Shakespeare — it’s little wonder that he’s considered, by most, our second greatest poet. After having written dry of blood, Keats’ imagination, in realizing opposites, quickly makes the association to a stream and streaming, the opposite of dry. The near-synaesthetic “red life” powerfully compresses color, blood, vitality and life into two short words. Compare this to the following concerning the Medieval French poet Villon:

Poetic shorthand was one of Villon’s strengths. Where contemporaries were sincere but long-winded he was sincere but succinct, stripping a thought to its essence. A typical example of this was how contemporaries expressed the idea of laughing through ones tears. Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote:

Je ris des yeulx, et mon coeur place
I laugh with eyes and my heart cries

Alain Chartier wrote:

le pleure ens, et me ry par dehors
crying within, and laughing outside

Jean Molinet wrote:

Ma bouche rie at mon povre cueur pleure
My mouth laughs and my poor heart cries

Villon wrote:

je rie en pleursI laugh in tears.

[danse Macabre: Francois Villon: Poetry & Murder in Medieval France p. 93-94]

In truth, I think that all great poets share that capacity for brilliant elision. “Red life” is worthy of Villon and Shakespeare. The phrase “so that red life might stream” gives to red life a kinesthetic energy, makes it concrete through the descriptive and living stream. Shelley, by contrast, might have been more apt to leave it as an abstraction.

  • Related to this is the following anecdote concerning the poet George Gordon Lord Byron who wrote that he didn’t understand Keats’  highly compressed metaphor from an An Ode to a Nightingale: “a beaker full of the warm south”. Byron, wrote Keats’ friend and supporter Leigh Hunt, was “not accustomed to these poetical concentrations.”

The fragment finishes as it began. In the first lines Keats suggestively uses the phrase “capable of earnest grasping”, then closes with “I hold it towards you”. Consciously or subconsciously, the reader will already have the image of “earnest grasping” in place, and will apply that image to the later image of Keats holding his hand towards the addressee.

The dramatic air of the poem hinges on its being, up to the last line, a single sentence. It unfolds its subjunctive proposition relentlessly, accusingly, baiting and defying the reader to escape before the final and thou be conscience-calm’d. It is a small tour de force of dramatic utterance and its no wonder some critics have speculated that the poem was intended for the stage — for a later play.

In The Cambridge Companion to Keats, the editor Susan J. Wolfson (when she’s not veering dangerously close to academese) nicely sums up this baiting of the reader:

“…the poem effectively works “for ever”: the poet ‘s hand has to be reanimated by the reader, revived as living and capable of writing “This living hand…,” and fated, in the sequence described, to write istelf back into the silence of the grave, thence to emerge again. The verse breaks off, suspended in mid-line, its last “heated” word, you, asking the reader to surrender to the writer in a charged economy of antagonisms — of friendship turned to haunting.” [p. 116]

Wolfson also suggests that it’s not clear, at the end, which hand the speaker is holding out — the “living hand”, or the cold and icy hand.

“The parting shot, “see here it is/I hold it towards you,” issues an invitation, but to what? Does it refer to a warm living hand or a cold dead one? The reader has to imagine the present as past, the sensation of earnest grasping as the chilling grip of a nightmare, the actual as spectral, and the spectral as actual.” [Ibid]

That all sounds compellingly Poe-ish, but I’m not buying it. Such confusion, in my view, requires, at worst, a willful misreading. Frankly, I think Wolfson has gone a bit overboard. At the outset the speaker makes it clear that his hand is now “warm and capable of earnest grasping”. The poem gives the reader no reason to think — in the course of the poem — that he has died, that his hand has turned cold and icy, and that he now reaches towards the addressee from the tomb. That’s just over-eager analysis. “It” is the earnest grasping of his hand. The speaker starts by saying that his hand is capable of earnest grasping, and closes saying “See, here it is –” In other words, his hand is capable of it and, at the close of the poem, does it. This isn’t as exciting as Wolfson’s phantasmagoria, but it’s what’s supported by the text.

Keats Grave

“This Grave
contains all that was Mortal
of a
Young English Poet
Whoon his Death Bed
in the Bitterness of his Heart
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies
Desired
these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone
Here lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water.”

It’s said that Keats only wanted the final words to appear on his tombstone: Here lies one whose name was writ in Water”. Joseph Severn and Charles Brown, Keats’ close friends, felt that Keats had been badly mistreated by the critics of the day and somewhat implicated them in Keats’ early death. Later, it’s said, both men regretted adding their words to the tombstone.

That said, it’s hardly unreasonable to conjecture that Keats was very unhappy at his critical reception and discussed the matter with both his friends — hence their angry and grief-stricken decision to add the commentary to Keats’ tombstone. Was Keats’ poem related to the sentiments expressed on his tombstone? Was there some truth in their description? — “the bitterness of his heart”? It’s hard to imagine that Severn and Brown entirely fabricated the sentiment expressed on the tombstone. I’m inclined to believe that, at the time, they thought they were — to some degree — expressing the sentiments of their lost friend. They were striking out at the conscience of Keats’ critics; and it’s entirely possible that Keats, in his poem, was striking out (as I described at the outset of the post) at the conscience of all those who denigrated his art or, as he might have symbolized it, his warm and capable hand.

The Imagery

An example to all poets. If you want your poetry to really grip the reader, communicate through all your senses, not just your sense of sight. These days, whole books of poetry are published (by experienced poets who should know better) in which the only sense every utilized is the visual sense. Keats’ poetry, above all, is famed for its physical sensuousness.

Visual (sight, then brightness, clarity, color, and motion)
Auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell)
Gustatory (taste)
Tactile (touch, then temperature, texture)
Organic (awareness of heartbeat, pulse, breathing, digestion)
Kinesthetic (awareness of muscle tension and movement).

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is —
I hold it towards you.

And that’s that. That’s all I can think to write at the moment.

Advertisements

The Senses & the Art of Imagery

What is Imagery?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is and isn’t…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Visual Auditory Image | Sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Visual Kinesthetic Image | Motion

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Visual Olfactory Image | Smell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Hyperion, I, 186-89)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Visual Tactile Image | Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Visual Gustatory Image | Taste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Visual Organic Image | Heart, Breath and Pulse

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

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

(Endymion, II. 376-383)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Art of Rhyme and Meter

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

The oral tradition of Poetry

Poetry began as an oral tradition. Homer’s Odyssey is probably far older than Homer and Odysseus’ sojourn, in one form or another, may have been handed down for centuries from one storyteller to the next.

Each storyteller probably added details and expanded the story until, by the time Homer learned it, the epic was a real feat of memorization. As every reader of Mother Goose knows, Homer's Odyssey Fragmenta ditty or poem that has a rhythm or rhyme is easier to remember than one that doesn’t.

The Dactylic Hexameters of Homer’s Odyssey, it’s meter, was the  rhythm that made the epic easier to remember. And a device used for the filling out of this meter was the  Homeric Epithet. These colorful descriptions (or epithets) might have also served as cues – much like stage directions.

Before Homer, the tightly wound relationship between dance, music, rhythm and sound was demonstrated by recently discovered poems from ancient Egypt. In a book called The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed, Moustafa Gadalla writes:

The Egyptians perceived language and music as two sides of the same coin. Spoken, written, and musical composition follow the same exact patterns. Both poetry and singing followed similar rules for musical composition. Poetry is written not only with a rhyme scheme, but also with a recurring pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Each syllable alternates between accented and unaccented, making a double/quadruple meter and several other varieties. Patterns of set rhythms or lengths of phrases of Ancient Egyptian poems, praises, hymns, and songs of all kinds, which are known to have been changed or performed with some musical accompaniment, were rhythmic with uniform meters and a structured rhyme. ¶ Ancient Egyptian texts show that Egyptians spoke and sang in musical patterns on all occasions and for all purposes–from the most sacred to the most mundane. [p. 155]

This oral tradition continued with the very first works of the Anglo Saxons, the alliteration of Beowulf, up until the start of the 20th Century, when poets like Frost, Cummings, and Yeats, continued to imbue their poetry with the sounds and rhythms of its oral, musical, lyrical and storytelling ancestry.In short, traditional poetry finds its roots in music.

Free Verse is a different Genre

This all ended with the 20th Century. The poetry of meter & rhyme, the techniques formed out of an oral past,  had become dogmatic and stylized. A new genre replaced the poetry that had been written for thousands of years – free verse.

Though it may seem controversial to suggest that free verse is a new genre (only tangentially related to the poetry of the previous 200o years), the assertion isn’t to the detriment of free verse. Free verse practitioners have themselves, to varying degrees, deliberately avoided the traditional rhythms of a regular meter; have eschewed rhyme; have avoided alliteration; and whole schools have rejected techniques like metaphor. All of these techniques grepower Plain Englishw out of an oral tradition – frequently, or so scholars think, as mnemonic aids or for the purposes of musical accompaniment.

Free verse is the child of the 20th Century printing press (which isn’t to say that free verse can’t be read aloud and enjoyed as such). And it’s not to say that free verse doesn’t borrow techniques from the oral tradition, but free verse doesn’t do so systemically. (Poets, like William Carlos Williams, studiously avoided anything short of what he considered plain speech or plain English and the avant-garde is premised on the avoidance of anything that smacks of traditional poetry.) It was the explosive availability of the printed word that made the visual cues of free verse possible. Aurally, there is frequently nothing that distinguishes free verse from prose.  Cleave Poetry, for example, is defined by its visual appearance  (rather than any aural cues).

In short, free verse didn’t evolve from the poetry of the oral tradition, it replaced it.

So what does this all have to with meter and rhyme? Just this. The near total dominance of free verse in print media and on store shelves (stores that bother with a significant collection) has left its mark on what readers consider a modern style. It makes writing meter and rhyme much more challenging but also more rewarding if done well.

Unlike metrical poetry prior to the 20th Century, the best modern metrical poetry does not draw attention to itself. The best metrical and rhyming poems make the reader feel as though they are reading modern English (without also feeling like free verse). The demands weed the men from the boys, the girls from the women. Robert Frost was a master of this illusion and so was Yeats and Stevens.

Grammatical Inversions & Rhyming: Subject • Verb • Object

When novice poets try to write meter, they frequently use what are called grammatical inversions. They can be effective or they can sound contrived but I suspect that few poets really understand the origin of these techniques, how they’ve  Shakespearean Sentencesbeen used, and why.

The best book on the subject is by John Porter Houston. If you’re a poet and you’re interested in this tradition as practiced by our greatest poet, then this is the book to read. I had a hard time finding it at Amazon but when I finally did I scanned in my own book for their image and added a short review. Here’s how Houston introduces the book.

The history of SOV word order (as, using a common abbreviation, I shall henceforth call the subjectdirect objectverb pattern) vanishes into the Indo-European mists, which has encouraged linguists to formulate various theories of its original importance or even of its former dominance. Be that as it may, the word order shows up historically in Greek, Latain, and Germanic, being associated in the latter especially with subordinate clauses. However, it seems unlikely that, in its English poetic form, SOV is so much an atavistic harkening back to primeval roots as it is a consequence of the adaptation to English of the Romance system of Riming verse. Verbs in Old French and Italian make handy rimes, and they make even better ones in English because so many English verbs are monosyllabic. The verse line or couplet containing a subject near the beginning and a verb at the end is a natural development. [p. 2]

The English language, descended from the Germanic languages, prefers the following pattern:

Subject | Verb | Object (SVO)

Subject | Verb | Object
The girls | play   | on the seesaw.

But poets, as Houston observed, found it convenient, for the sake of rhyme, to invert the grammar. They might write:

The girls on the seesaw play:
“Life goes up, life goes down
“You’ll have good luck another day!”

The first line would be an SOV construction:

Subject | Object | Verb
The girls |on the seesaw |play

This is a construction one sees very often among amateur poets writing rhyme. The only purpose for the grammatical inversion is to make the rhyme. It’s what free verse poets (more so than others I think) derisively call rhyme driven poetry. And it’s precisely this sort of writing that was acceptable right up until the start of the 20th century.

With this in mind, a somewhat peculiar commentary on  rhyme driven poetry can be found at the Poetry Foundation’s blog Harriet. The post is by Alicia Stallings. Alicia StallingsThe reason I say it’s peculiar is because, though she expresses exasperation at the criticism, she never offers an alternative. She begins her post by writing:

As a poet who works in form, I weary of seeing in critiques–either in on-line workshops or in published reviews–the complaint that a poem or phrase or line is “rhyme driven”. Of course rhyming poetry is rhyme driven. Rhyme is an engine of syntax.

But then Stallings immediately acknowledges what the criticism really means: that is, when itis obvious [that] the whole purpose of the line is to arrive at some obvious predestined chime, like the set-up of a punch line.” Stallings then offers some examples of why a poem might feel rhyme-driven, but she never offers a reason why the criticism shouldn’t be made. However, she does write:

But it seems to have become an immediate and unthinking response to lines that rhyme that are in any way out of the ordinary–particularly anything that has the slightest whiff of “inversion”–that is, out of “natural” English word order–which is often interpreted as the blandest, strictest of simple declarative sentences.

And this is to say that such criticism can be carried too far; but then inasmuch as any criticism can be carried too far, this doesn’t invalidate the original impulse. The bottom line is this: Stallings makes sure her rhymes don’t arrive like some “obvious predestined chime”. Rhyme might be the engine, but she makes sure (in her own poetry) that the engine isn’t heard. She’s an exceedingly skillful rhymer. So, the best advice, as regards Stallings, is to do as she does. Read her poetry. Make your rhymes feel accidental, as if they’re an inevitable accident of subject matter.

Robert Frost, on these very grounds, was deservedly proud of his poem “Stopping by Woods”.

Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” [Pritchard, Robert Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164]

If you want a model for how to rhyme, read Frost’s Stopping by Woods or The Road not Taken again and again. No one would accuse these poems of feeling rhyme driven although, as Stallings would point out, that’s precisely what they are – rhyme driven.

Again (and I don’t think beginning poets appreciate this enough) it’s not whether a poem is rhyme-driven, it’s whether it feels and reads rhyme driven. Are the rhymes determining the line and the subject matter, or is the subject matter determining the rhymes? In Frost’s poems, it’s hard to imagine how they could have been written any other way. The rhymes feel entirely accidental. The rhymes feel  driven by the subject matter; and this is the effect you are looking for.

For the record, I love the SOV construction – especially when done well. I don’t think I’ve ever used the syntax in my own poetry but I might, just for the enjoyment.

Shakespeare’s use of SOV wasn’t for the sake of a rhyme. Shakespeare used the reversal of normal English  (unusual even in Shakespeare’s day) to add metrical emphasis and elegance; to make a line more memorable; to add meaning; or to reveal character.

Here, for instance, is how Shakespeare reverses the normal syntax of English to convey and build suspense. Horatio is describing having seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father (I have included Houston’s explanatory comment):

william-shakespearethrice he walk’d
By their oppresss’d and fear-surprised eyes
Within his truncheon’s length, whilst they, distill’d
Almost to jelly with the act of fear,
Stand dumb and speak not to him. This to me
In dreadful secrecy impart they did,
And I wish them the third night kept the watch,
Where, as they had deliver’d, both in time,
Form of the thing, each word made true and good,
The apparition comes. (
Hamlet I, ii, 202-11)

Having devised a sentence in more or less normal word order in which the verbs have radically different positions, Shakespeare then resorts to inversion, and the OVSV clause contains, moreover, a peculiar reversal of impart and did. The next sentence places two circumstantial expressions between subject and verb, so that the latter, with its short object, seems curiously postponed, even though the number of intervening syllables is not great. Finally, in the concluding subordinate clause, both subject and verb are held off until the end. [p. 83]

Notice how Shakespeare holds off the apparition comes until the end of the line. Throughout the passage the inverted grammar underpins the feeling of terror and suspense, the feeling of a character whose own thoughts are disrupted and disturbed. (I think it’s worth commenting at this point, especially for readers new to Shakespeare, that this is poetry. Elizabethans did not talk like this. They spoke an English grammar more or less like ours. Shakespeare can be hard to read because he is a poet, not because he is Elizabethan.)

  • The tradition of altering grammar and syntax for the purposes of making language more memorable is a lovely one.
  • The tradition of altering grammar and syntax for the sake of rhyme is dubious.

Toward the end of the Houston’s introduction, he makes an interesting point. Although the use of the SOV construction continued into the 19th century (even with a poet like Keats who was consciously trying to shed the feeling of antiquated and archaic conventions), the general trend was toward a more natural speech. Houston writes:

The importance of SOV word order in subsequent English blank verse is worth noting. Although it is scarcely unexpected that Milton, with his latinizing tendencies, liked the device,its persistence in the romantics can be a trifle surprising. Keats slight use of SOV in The Fall of Hyperion is odd, given that there he supposedly tried to eliminate the Miltonisms of Hyperion to some extent; Hyperion, in fact, contains no SOVs. An example of two in Prometheus Unbound does not seem incongruous with the rest of the language, but finding SOV word order in The Prelude runs somewhat counter to our expectations of Wordsworth’s language.

but scarcely Spenser’s self
Could have more tranquil visions in his youth,
Or could more bright appearances create
Of human forms (VI, 89-92)

Examples are to be found in The Idylls of the King and seem almost inevitable by the stylistic conventions of the work, but the use of SOV in the nineteenth century is essentially sporadic, if interesting to observe because of the strong hold of tradition in English poetry. [p. 3-4]

The usage was ebbing. The result is that its use in rhyming poetry stood out (and stands out) all the more. And now, when the conventional stylistic aesthetic is that of free verse, SVO inversions stands out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, this short passage can’t possibly do justice to the rich tradition of grammatical inversion in English Poetry. Reading Houston’s book, if you’re interested, is a better start. The point of this post is to raise poets’ awareness of why they might be tempted to write like this; and to make them aware of what they’re hearing when they read poetry prior to the 20th century.

Other grammatical Inversions

There are other types of inversions besides Subject•Verb•Object . In a recent poem I examined by Sophie Jewett, you will find the following line:

I speak your name in alien ways, while yet
November smiles from under lashes wet.

The formulation lashes wet reverses the order of adjective and noun for the sake of rhyme. This sort of inversion is also common among inexperienced poets.

  • Avoid it at all costs.

Conveniently moving around parts of speech might have been acceptable in the Victorian era and before, but not now.

And here’s another form of grammatical inversion by Thomas Hardy from The Moth-Signal:

ThomasHardy“What are you still, still thinking,”
He asked in vague surmise,
That you stare at the wick unblinking
With those deep lost luminous eyes?”

Normally the present participal, unblinking, would follow the verb stare. This is the way grammar works in normal English sentences. However, for the sake of the rhyme, Hardy reversed the direct object, at the wick, with the past participal unblinking. The effect is curious. To what is unblinking referring? – one might ask. Is it the stare that is unblinking? – or the wick? Apologists meaning to rationalize this inversion might point out that the syntactic ambiguity is brilliantly deliberate. I don’t buy it; but they could be right.

  • Again, my advice would be to tread lightly with this sort of inversion. It smacks of expediency.

As I find other examples I will post them.

Ultimately, one of the most telling attributes of an experienced rhymer is the parts of speech he or she chooses to rhyme. A novice may primarily rhyme verbs or nouns. The novice’s rhymes will be end-stopped. In other words, the line and sentence will end with the rhyme. The rhymes of the more experienced poet will move like a snake through his verse. The rhymes will shift from verb, to noun, to adjective, to preposition, etc. They will fall unpredictably within the line’s syntax and meaning – as if they were an accident of thought.

In the spirit of put up or shut up, check out my poem All my Telling. Decide for yourself whether I practice what  I preach. And here is Alicia Stallings what what is, perhaps, the most succinct advice on rhyme that I have ever read – her Presto Manifesto. The most important statement from her manifesto, to me, is the following:

There are no tired rhymes. There are no forbidden rhymes. Rhymes are not predictable unless lines are. Death and breath, womb and tomb, love and of, moon, June, spoon, all still have great poems ahead of them.

You will frequently hear poets and critics remark that a given rhyme is tired or worn. As a counterexample they will themselves offer poems with rhymes that, to my ear, sound concocted and contrived. I call this sort of thing safari-rhyming – as if the poets had gone safari hunting, shot the rare rhyme, and proudly mounted it. The truth of the matter is this: the English vocabulary is finite. There are only so many rhymes. It’s not the rhymes themselves that are worn or trite, but the lines that are tired. Give an old rhyme a new context and magic happens. Robert Frost’s rhymes in Stopping by Woods are nothing if not tired; but the poem’s effortless progression of thought and idea means we don’t notice them. They become a kind of music rather than a distraction.

And this is what rhymes are meant to do. Ideally, they’re not meant to be noticed. This is why the novel rhyme can be as distracting as the line that is syntactically contorted for the sake of a rhyme. The best rhymes are like a subtle music. If, when reading a rhyming poem aloud, the listener doesn’t immediately discern the rhymes, take that as a good sign.

One last thought on rhymes from Stallings:

Translators who translate poems that rhyme into poems that don’t rhyme solely because they claim keeping the rhyme is impossible without doing violence to the poem have done violence to the poem. They are also lazy.

I agree.

On Keeping the Meter

This is the most difficult portion of the post to write because so much of what I write will be construed as a matter of taste; and the distinctions between mediocre meter and meter written well can be subtle. Readers will have to decide for themselves. Way back when, I wrote a post called Megan Grumbling and the Modern Formalists. The point of the post was to demonstrate how the stylistic conventions of free verse had influenced, adversely, the meter and blank verse of modern formalists. (This would seem to go against my earlier statement that poets writing meter can’t write the same way (as in the 19th century) since the advent of free verse. Not entirely. As with anything, there’s a balance to be struck. The best meter doesn’t draw attention to itself.) Feel free to read the whole post, but I’ll extract the most relevant part because I think it has some bearing on this post.

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. The reader 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.

This is actually a good exercise.

If you can successfully convert your Iambic Pentameter to Iambic Tetrameter or even Iambic Trimeter, then you’re probably doing something wrong. If nothing else, your meter may be too regular or the joining of line and thought may be too slack. There’s an art to fitting thought, meaning and syntax to a metrical line. It’s subtle and difficult to describe but, if done well, line and meter are like hand in glove.

Not to pick on Timothy Steele but… Steele illustrates the opposite dilemma. There’s a stiffness to his meter that one can learn from. His poem, Sweet Peas, starts us off:

The season for sweet peas had long since passed,
And the white wall was bare where they’d been massed;
Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say
That she had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her…

In particular, compare the following:

Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say

Then one foggy Christmas Eve/ Santa came to say:

(The latter line is from the Christmas Carol Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer) The point of the comparison, cruel though it may be, is to demonstrate what they both have in common – a slavish devotion to an Iambic beat. In the case of the Christmas Carol, it’s necessary. The lyrics, after all, have to coincide with the rhythm of the carol. (You can’t have variant beats in Christmas Carols.) Steele doesn’t have that excuse. His line is full of metrical expediencies.

Normally, the average English speaker would say:

“Yet our neighbor phoned that night saying she had watched them…”

But that’s not Iambic Pentameter. Steele had to move things around. The first thing he does is to shift “that night”. That’s not ideal, but there’s some justification for it. Maybe he wants to emphasize that night? Curiously though, he doesn’t punctuate the clause – Yet when, that night, our neighbor phoned… One would think, if emphasis were the motive, he would want to add some punctuation. As it is, the odd placement has the feel of a metrical expediency. But the phrase phoned to say only makes it worse. The phrase is modern English but in this context it sounds entirely expedient, not just metrically but because it’s clearly thrust to the line’s end for the sake of a rhyme. (This is a rhyme driven line.)

The line is just too obviously metrical.

Three of the four lines are end-stopped, negatively emphasizing the rhyme and meter. The third line is marginally end-stopped. All this combined with the fact there’s only two variant feet out of the first 20 makes for some very wooden meter.

Here’s the rest of that opening verse from Steele’s poem:

Steele_TimThe season for sweet peas had long since passed,
And the |white wall| was bare where they’d been massed;
Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say
That she had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her: it was plain
She struggled with the tumor in her brain
And, though confused and dying, wished to own
How much she’d liked the flowers I had grown;
And when she said, in bidding me good night,
She thought their colors now were at their height–
Indeed, they ne|ver had |looked lovelier–
The only kind response was to concur.

These lines are an object lesson in how not to write meter and rhyme. There are only three variant feet out of 60. All but one of the lines are strongly end-stopped. Steele’s use of contractions is a matter of expediency. For instance, in line 8, he contract’s she’d but doesn’t contract I had. It feels arbitrary. The effect is to highlight the obviousness of the metrical beat. The rhymes are mostly nominal or verbal and, because the lines are end-stopped, they land with hard thumps. A poet might be able to get away with any one of these features in isolation, but when thrown together, the poetry feels contrived. Just as an experiment, let’s see if we can turn this poem into an Iambic Tetrameter.

The season for sweet peas had long
Since passed, and the white wall was bare
Where they’d been massed; yet when that night
Our neighbor phoned to say that she
Had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her: it
Was plain she struggled with the tumor
In her brain and, though confused
And dying, wished to own how much
She’d liked the flowers I had grown;
And when she said, in bidding me
Good night, she thought their colors now
Were at their height– indeed, they never
Looked lovelier– the only kind
Response was to concur.

What do you think? I actually think it improves the poem. I only had to remove one word. The lines take on a certain sinuousness and flexibility that moderately makes up for their thumping iambics and subdues the cymbal crash of their end-stopped rhymes. They become internal rhymes – they are registered but no longer hit the reader over the head.

If you’re having trouble writing meter that isn’t end stopped (and if you’re not rhyming), remove two words from your first line and shift the rest accordingly. (And you can try removing other metrically expedient words along the way to really shake things up.)  I’ll demonstrate. Rather than pick on any more modern poets, here’s something from the first act of Gorboduc, the first English drama written in blank verse (and just as end-stopped and metrically conservative as some modern formalist poetry):

There resteth all, but if they fail thereof,
And if the end bring forth an evil success
On them and theirs the mischief shall befall,
And so I pray the Gods requite it them,
And so they will, for so is wont to be
When Lords and trusted Rulers under kings
To please the present fancy of the Prince,
With wrong transpose the course of governance
Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,
Or mutual treason, or a just revenge,
When right succeeding Line returns again
By Jove’s just Judgment and deserved wrath
Brings them to civil and reproachful death,
And roots their names and kindred’s from the earth.

So, let’s remove the word thereof, which is only there for the sake of meter (a metrical filler):

There resteth all, but if they fail, and if
The end bring forth an evil success on them
And theirs the mischief shall befall, and so
I pray the Gods requite it them, they will,
for so is wont to be when Lords and Rulers
To please the present fancy of the Prince,
With wrong transpose the course of governance
Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,
Or mutual treason, or revenge, when right
Succeeding Line returns again by Jove’s
Just Judgment and deservèd wrath brings them
To civil and reproachful death, and roots
Their names and kindred’s from the earth.(…)

Voila! What do you think? The lines take on greater flexibility and there are fewer end-stopped lines. Even though the overall pattern is just as relentlessly iambic, the effect is somewhat mitigated by the shift between line and thought. You can practice the same with your own poetry, even if its rhymed. You could even try writing Iambic Hexameter, then shifting all the lines so that they’re Iambic Pentameter.

Metrical Fillers

This, as it turns out, is the most contentious part.

I’m fairly hard-nosed about what are (in my view) egregious metrical fillers, but many formalist poets are equally pugnacious in protecting their turf.

The word at the top of my list is upon. While, no doubt, the words has its place, my irritation stems from its reflexive use as an all too convenient iambic substitute for on. Most formalist poets use it. They’re not apologetic. And I’m not apologetic when I call it lazy. The problem, in many cases, is that poets (even free-verse poets) misuse the word. Upon is not universally interchangeable with on. Also, my sense is that, in terms of everyday speech, on has more or less replaced upon. Upon has become a primarily literary usage and feels fusty to me.

But that’s only my opinion.

And it’s easy to get hung up on the word. The point is to avoid metrical fillers – words that are unnecessary to the sense of a line’s meaning (whose only purpose is to fill the meter). Here’s a sample I discussed in my earlier post on Megan Grumbling:

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 upon expediently substitutes for on.  The word “within” is metrical padding. How else does a bag hold anything but “within”?

Later in Grumbling’s poem, more metrical padding appears with “out to where the Oak Woods Road…” Using modern English, we say: “out where the Oak Woods Road…” A.E. Stallings indulges in the same sort of metrical expediency.

Sing before the king and queen,
Make the grave to grieve,
Till Persophone weeps kerosene
And wipes it on her sleeve. [Song for the Women Poets]

The added and unnecessary preposition (to) before (grieve) is nothing more than metrical filling. Here is another example from Stallings‘ The Dollhouse:

And later where my sister and I made
The towering grown-up hours to smile and pass:

Again, the effect is antiquated. The preposition (to) before (smile) is unnecessary – another metrical filler.

However, some of the most abused metrical fillers are adjectives, especially among poets first tackling meter. My advice to poets just starting out is to write meter without adjectives or write with a strict limit (maybe one for every ten lines). Whether writing meter or free verse, nothing can weaken a line like an adjective. Use them sparingly.

After so many examples of what not to do, I thought I’d close with a fine example of beautifully modulated meter and rhyme by Annie Finch (whose book I will be reviewing soon):

annie finchDo you | hear me, |Lycius? |Do you hear |these dreams
moving |like words |out of |the air, it seems?
You think you saw me thin into a ghost,
impaled |by his |old eyes, with |their shuddering boast
of pride |that kills |truth with | philosophy.
But you hear |this voice. It is a serpent’s, or
is it |a wom|an’s, this rich |emblazoned core
reaching |out loud for you, as I once reached
for you with clinging hands, and held you, and beseeched.  (…)

These are the opening lines to Lamia to Lycius, from Annie Finch’s new book Calendars. The poem is written in open heroic couplets, like Steele’s, but the difference is night and day. The thing to notice is that there are only two end-stopped lines in these first nine. The syntax and thought of the lines moves sinuously through the line ends, subduing the rhymes. The effect is to make the rhymes feel more organic, more like an outgrowth of the poem’s subject matter.   Notice also the rich use of variant feet balanced against more regular iambic feet and lines. (I’ve marked phyrric feet in grey.) Notice also the absence of metrical fillers. Finch isn’t determined to keep a strict count like other poets – Timothy Steele or Dana Gioia (the link is to my review of his poetry). The result is a far more varied and rich voice.

If this post has been helpful, let me know.

Whether it be rhyme, meter or both,

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

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Something Different

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

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

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

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

What is it?

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

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

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

My Own Take

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Five Senses

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

Sensory Clusters

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

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

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

Verbal Imagery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

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

What’s Next

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

Bright Star by John Keats, His Sonnet

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

  • Sept 22, 2009 • Just learned that Jane Campion has made a movie “based” on the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. You can watch the trailer at the bottom of the post.

About the Poem

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. – John Keats in a letter to Fanny Brawne

Bright Star is one of Keats’s earlier poems and I can’t help but detect the opening of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Shakespeare equates love to a star and this association was surely present in Keats’ mind from the time he first read Shakespeare’s Sonnet. That is, the star isn’t only a symbol of steadfastness and stability, but also love. And love, in Keats’s mind, is unchangeable and ever-fixèd (or else it isn’t love). Shakespeare’s Ever-fixèd turns into Keats’ steadfast. Shakespeare’s never shaken turns into Keats’s hung aloft the night and unchangeable. R.S. White, in his book Keats as a reader of Shakespeare, makes note of some other parallels as well:

…it is not possible to ignore a creative connection between Keats’s resonant line, “Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art–‘ and on the one hand the phrase of the undoubtedly ‘stedfast’ character, Helena,

‘Twere all one,
That I should love a bright particular star, (I.i.79-80)

and on the other, although the play is not marked, Julius Ceasar’s more ironic ‘But I am constant as the northern star’ (Julius Ceasar, III.i.60). Such echoes, whether intende, unconcious or even coincidental, display vividly the special compatibility between the language and thought of Keats and the parts of Shakespeare which he appreciated and assimilated so thoroughly. [p. 72]

White’s survey of Keats’ Shakespearean influence isn’t just guess work by the way. Keats’ copy of Shakespeare’s plays is still extent, along with his comments, underlinings and double-underlinings. White’s book is an interesting commentary on Keats’ reading of Shakespeare. White observes another interesting parallel between Shakespeare and Keats’ poetic thought:

[Keats] picks out one of the images in the [Midsummer Night’s Dream] to convey his enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s poetry of the sea, which he often equates with Shakespeare himself:

Which is the best of Shakespeare’s Plays? – I mean in what mood and with what accompaniment do you like the Sea best? It is very fine in the morning when the Sun

‘opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams
Turns into yellow gold his salt sea streams’

Keats seems to be trusting his memory for the quotation, for his ‘salt sea’ is actually ‘salt green (II.ii.329-3). By associating Shakespeare himself with the moods of the sea, Keats is perhaps conveying something of his notion of the dramatist’s developement, implying that after the morning of this play the sea will become rougher as the day goes on. Shakespeare’s sea-music informs Keats’s poetry as well, particularly in the sonnets ‘On the Sea’ and ‘Bright Star’. [p. 102]

What White doesn’t mention are the parallels between Keats’ Sonnet and Shakespeare’s. Notice how the sea makes it’s appearance in both sonnets.

…it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark…

Compared to Keats

…watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores…

And there are also some parallels in Keats’ letters that remind one of the Sonnet’s central themes. Fanny BrawneThe most explicit, in terms of thematic content, comes from May 3, 1818, in a letter to his fiance Fanny Brawne.

“. . .I love you; all I can bring you is a swooning admiration of your Beauty. . . . You absorb me in spite of myself–you alone: for I look not forward with any pleasure to what is call’d being settled in the world; I tremble at domestic cares–yet for you I would meet them, though if it would leave you the happier I would rather die than do so. I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world: it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it. From no others would I take it. I am indeed astonish’d to find myself so careless of all charms but yours–remembering as I do the time when even a bit of ribband was a matter of interest with me. What softer words can I find for you after this–what it is I will not read. Nor will I say more here, but in a Postscript answer any thing else you may have mentioned in your Letter in so many words–for I am distracted with a thousand thoughts. I will imagine you Venus tonight and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Hethen.”

Love letters don’t get much better than this and Keats’ Sonnet is thought to be a love poem to Fanny Brawne – and John Keats PortraitBrawne herself treated it as such. She copied Bright Star into her “very dear gift” of Dante’s Inferno – along with its thematically related (but much less successful) companion sonnnet As Hermes once took his feathers light (see below).  Anyway, worth noting is his comparison of Brawne to a star and his desire, as in the poem, to “swoon to death” or, as he puts it – “I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it.” The play of death and orgasm shouldn’t be overlooked in all this romantic swooning. The conceit is probably as old as sex and, Keats, if nothing else, was an über sensualist. If tuberculosis hand’t killed him, sex probably would have.

There are still some more interesting parallels. Amy Lowell, in her biography on Keats called John Keats, argues that during a visit to a Mrs. Bentley’s, Keats writes to George (his brother) that he ” put all the letters to and from you and poor Tom and me…” [Book II, p. 202] In one of these letters, which Lowell argues Keats must have reread, comes the following:

“We are now about seven miles from Rydale, and expect to see [Wordsworth] to-morrow. You shall hear all about our visit .
There are many disfigurements to this Lake — not in the way of land or Water. No; the two views we have had of it are of the most noble tenderness – they can never fade away – they make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches; and refine one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power…” [Book II, p. 22]

As Lowell points out, the parallels are too uncanny. It doesn’t take much to go from, a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power, to:

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–

If Keats didn’t lift from having re-read an older letter, then the imagery linking the open lidded eye with the North Star, the one constant star of the sky, was certainly ever fixed in his mind. All poets, and this is something I would like to write more about, reveal a habit of thought, imagery and associations over the course of their careers. The great poets vary them, the competent poets don’t.

Yet another anecdote is related by another of Keats’s biographers, Aileen Ward. She notes that while writing a letter, Keats saw Venus rising outside his window. Ward says that at that moment all “doubt and distraction left him; it was only beauty, Fanny’s and the star’s, that mattered.”

The Sonnet and its Scansion

  • Note! I notice that many internet versions of this poem (including the video below)  have “To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,” instead of “To feel for ever its soft swell and fall“. This may be a viral mistake. One text was typed incorrectly and everyone else copied and pasted. On the other hand, I notice that a copy in The Oxford Book of Sonnets prints the former version.  The version I use is from Jack Stillinger’s the Poems of John Keats, considered to be the most accurate textually. He states that his text is “from the extant holograph fair copy” [p. 327]. I put my money on Stillinger. However, there are metrical reasons why I consider Stillinger’s to be correct. More detail on that below.

Bright Star (Corrected) by John Keats Scansion

The first thing to notice about the sonnet is that it’s a Shakespearean Sonnet. If you’re not sure what that entails then follow the link and you will find my post on Shakespearean, Petrarchan and Spenserian Sonnets. Also, if you’re not sure about scansion or how it’s done, take a look at my post on The Basics. Keats wrote Sonnets in a variety of forms. That he chose the Shakespearean Sonnet, I think, is telling. With all the other parallels, why not the structure of the sonnet?

The form allows Keats to gradually build the the sonnet toward the epigrammatic climax of the couplet:

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.

The second thing to notice is the meter itself. The first line of the first quatrain is, perhaps, the most easily misread, like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 or Donne’s Death Be Not Proud. We live in an age when Meter has become a art for fringe poets. As a result, many, if not most, modern poets and readers misread metrical poetry for lack of experience and knowledge. Most modern readers would probably read the line as follows:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–

This makes a hash of the meter, effectively reading the line as though it were free verse. But Keats was writing in a strong metrical tradition. As I’ve said in other posts, if one can read a foot as Iambic, then one probably should. So instead of reading the line like this:

Bright Star Trochaic Reading

We should probably read it like this:

Bright Star Iambic Reading

Or we should read the final foot as an outright spondee (as I originally scanned it):

Bright Star Spondaic Reading

Fortunately, unlike my fruitless search for a good reading of Donne’s sonnet, I found a top notch reading of the poem on Youtube. Here it is:

To my ears, he reads the last foot as a spondee. None of these alternate last feet are iambs, by the way. When I say that a foot should be read as an Iamb if it can be, I mean that a foot should be read with a strong stress on the second syllable (an Iamb or Spondee), rather than a falling stress (a trochee). The other reason for emphasizing art is that it’s meant to rhyme with apart. If one de-emphasizises art with a  trochaic reading, then we end up with a false rhyme. Two nearly unpardonable sins would have been committed by the standards of the day.  A trochaic final foot in an Iambic Pentameter pattern (unheard of) and an amateurish false rhyme. Keats was aiming for greatness. We can be fairly sure that he didn’t intend a trochaic final foot.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite…

Other than that, the first quatrain is fairly straightforward. An eremite is a hermit. So, what Keats is saying works on two levels. He wants to be steadfast (and by implication her as well), like the North Star (Bright Star), but not in lone splendor – not in lonely contemplation. Keats isn’t wishing for the hermit’s patient search for enlightenment. Nor, importantly, is he wishing for the hermit’s asceticism – his denial of passion and earthly attachment – in a word, sex.

The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors;

In the second quatrain Keats describes the star’s detachment, like the hermit’s, as one of unmoving observation and detachment. The star’s sleeplessness is beautiful and it’s contemplation holy – observing the water’s “priestlike task of pure ablution”. But such contemplation is, for Keats, an inhuman one. It’s no mistake that Keats refers to the shore’s as earth’s human shores – a place of impermanence, fault and failings in need of “pure ablution”. This the world the Keats inhabits. Up to this point, all of Keats’s imagery is observational. The only hint of something more is in the tactile “soft-fallen”. There is little sensual contact or life in these images; but the first two quatrains present a kind of still life – unchanging, holy, and permanent. That said, there’s the feeling that the “new soft-fallen mask/ Of snow upon the mountains” anticipates his lover’s breasts.

The Volta

The sonnet now turns to toward life and, ironically, impermanence. Notice the nice metrical effect of spondaic first foot, it’s emphasis on the word No. One can produce a similar effect in free verse, but the abrupt reversal of the meter, also signaling the Sonnet’s volta, is unmatchable.

No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Notice how the imagery changes. We are suddenly in a world of motion, touch, and feeling. No, says Keats, he wants the permanence of the star but also earth’s human shores. He wants to be forever “pillow’d upon [his] fair love’s ripening breast”. The anthimeria of pillow, using a noun as verb, sensually implies the  softness and warmth of Fanny Brawne’s breasts. The next line gives life and breath to his imagery: He wants to feel her breasts “soft swell and fall” forever “in a sweet unrest”. The sonnet’s meter adds to the effect – the spondaic soft swell follows nicely on the phyrric foot that precedes it, reproducing, it its way, the rise and fall of her breasts. (Also, it’s worth noting that metrically, it makes more sense to have soft swell be a spondaic foot, rather than (as with some versions of the poem)  soft fall. The meter, in a sense, swells with the intake of Fanny’s breath. ) Anyway, on earth’s human shores, there is nothing that is unchangeable and immutable. And Keats knows it. The irony of Keats’ desire for the immutable in a mutable world must find resolution – and there is only one:

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.

If he could, he would live ever so, but Keats knows the other resolution, the only resolution, must be death. La Petite Mort - by Dimitry Kirilloff Immutability, permanence and the unchangeable can only be found in death.

But what a way to die…

And this brings us to the erotic subtext of the poem. As I wrote earlier, the idea of orgasm, which the French nicely call  the little death or la petite mort, is an ancient conceit (the photo at right, by the way, is called La petite mort, clicking on the image will take you to Kirilloff’s gallery). If we read Keats’ final words as a wry reference to the surrender of orgasm, then there’s a mischievous  and wry smile in Keats’ final words. After all, how do readers interpret “swoon“? Webster’s tells us that to swoon is “to enter a state of hysterical rapture or ecstasy…” Hmmm…. It’s hard to know whether Keats had this in mind. He never wrote overtly sexual poetry, but there is frequently a strong erotic undercurrent to much of his poetry. He was, after all, a sensualist. (Many of the poets who came after him accused him of being an “unmanly” poet – of being too sensuous and effeminate. Keats’ eroticism runs more along the lines of what is considered a feminine  sensuality of touch and feeling.)

Such overt suggestiveness might be a little out of character for Keats but, if it was intended, I think it adds a nice denouement to the sonnet. After all, what is a lust and passion but a “sweet unrest”? And what is the only release from that “sweet unrest” but a swoon to death?  But in this “death”, life is renewed.  Life is engendered, remade and made immutable through the lovers’ swoon or surrender to “death”. Keat’s paradoxical desire for the immutable is resolved. The pleasure of the mutable but sweet unrest of his lovers rising and falling breasts, is only mitigated by the even more pleasurable, eternizing and transcendent pleasure of “death’s swoon”.

Which does Keats prefer? The immutable pleasure implied by the analogy of the changeless star, or the swoon of death? Keats, perhaps, is ready to find pleasure in both. The sonnet is profoundly romantic but, in keeping with Keats’ character, wryly pragmatic.

But this interpretation is conjectural. To Amy Lowell, the final lines are characterized as ending in a “forlorn, majestic peace” and I think this is how the majority of readers read the poem. I, personally, can’t help but think that there was more to Keats’ desire than Romantic obsession. The sheer, physical sexuality of resting his cheek on his lover’s breasts is more than just Romantic boiler plate.

The First Version

And here’s something won’t see very often on the web – considered to be Keats’ first version of the Sonnet.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung amid the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s devout, sleepless Eremite,
The morning waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen masque
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Cheek-pillow’d on my Love’s white ripening breast,
Touch for ever, its warm sink and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
To hear, to feel her tender-taken breath,
Half passionless, and so swoon on to death.

To students of poetry, what is worth noting is how few changes made a moving but flawed sonnet into a work of genius. As I’ve said before , it’s not the content of poetry that makes it great, but the style – the language.  The first version, in terms of content, is ostensibly the same as the second version.

  • Changing amid to aloft gives the feeling of a star that is apart from the others, aloft, rather than amid.
  • The adjective devout is simply descriptive – having little connotative power. But the adjective patience is attributive and gives the description the force of personality. It also plays against Keats’ sweet unrest, later in the sonnet. Patience, Keats tells us, is not an attribute he wants to mimic, only its steadfastness and unchangeableness.
  • The change of morning to moving, again changes a simply descriptive adjective to an attributive adjective. Moving gives the waters motion and a kind of intent. It also avoids the conflict of the star having been hung aloft the night, but watching the morning waters.
  • Keats’ initial choice of masque is curious and may be a misprint. A masque is a short, usually celebratory, one act play.
  • “Cheek-pillow’d on my Love’s white ripening breast,” gives us more information than we need. We can already guess that it’s his cheek on her breasts because he uses the anthemeria pillow’d. What else do we put on our pillows but our cheeks? Her white breast is unnecessary. All but a handful of 19th Century English women had white breasts. Keats was just trying to fill out the meter with the adjective white. “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,” dispenses with both of the former redundancies. The word fair is there solely for the sake of the meter, but doesn’t feel as extraneous or contrived as white. It also allows the emphasis to turn to ripening, which is a beautifully erotic description of a young woman’s breast.
  • “Touch for ever, its warm sink and swell,” The verb touch lacks the rich connotation of feel. After all, we might forensically touch a hot kettle, to find out if it’s too hot; but we wouldn’t feel it. Feeling things is a tactile, sensual act when we want to explore an object. Warm sink and swell is replaced by soft swell and fall. Once again, the adjective warm lacks the connotative sensation of soft. To know that something is warm, we don’t necessarily need to touch or feel it. But to know something is soft implies a more tactile and sensual exploration.  The verb sink is a less neutral expression than fall. Boats sink. Rocks sink. Drowning swimmers sink. Most importantly, when objects sink, they tend not to rise again. Fall is a more neutral, less loaded description. It also rhymes better with unchangea(ble). Keats may have been uneasy with the rhyme between (ble) and swell.
  • To hear, to feel is replaced by Still, still to hear. The latter phrase gives the final couplet a more dramatic, less literary feel. We can hear the wistfulness and expectation of an actual speaker in the disrupted meter – the epizeuxis of Still, still
  • The final line is the most dramatic alteration: “Half passionless, and so swoon on to death.” Half passionless undercuts the eroticism of the poem. Who is half-passionless? Keats? Brawne? What does that mean? The closing line appears to give the sonnet’s ending a more despondent tone, conflicting with the idea of a sweet unrest. Keats probably meant to imply that his ardor was both like the star’s, detached, and like attachment of a lover. But I suspect he sensed the contradiction in the description. It undercuts what had, until then, been a profoundly passionate poem. It also undercuts the erotic suggestiveness of a swooning death.

And here is the companion Sonnet Fanny Brawne wrote into her copy of Dante:

As Hermes once took to his feathers light,
When lulled Argus, baffled, swooned and slept,
So on a Delphic reed, my idle spright
So played, so charmed, so conquered, so bereft
The dragon-world of all its hundred eyes;
And seeing it asleep, so fled away,
Not to pure Ida with its snow-cold skies,
Nor unto Tempe, where Jove grieved a day;
But to that second circle of sad Hell,
Where in the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kissed, and fair the form
I floated with, about that melancholy storm.

If this post was enjoyable or a help to you, please let me know! If you have questions, comments or suggestions. Comment. In the meantime, write (G)reatly!

Bright Star by Jane Campion

Don’t know much about the movie. But as with all movies like these, it may be based on a true story, but it remains a work of fiction. I can’t wait to see it.

Keats’ Ode to Autumn

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

About Keats’ Ode to Autumn

The Ode to Autumn was the last of the famous odes Keats wrote – and some would argue his greatest. Helen Vendler, a “close reader” who can turn limericks into three hundred page dissertations and the bar room drunks who wrote them into towering geniuses, wrote an exhaustive book on Keats’ odes. odes-of-john-keats1Even if two thirds of her analysis is sheer conjecture, her ebullience and knowledge makes her every sentence worthwhile. You may be no closer to knowing what Keats actually intended, but you can safely skip your MFA.

Vendler writes, for example, that Keats “must have” remembered Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight. Evidently she could find no correspondence suggesting this to be true but, who knows, maybe she’s right.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple trees, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in the silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet moon.

Vendler then proceeds from the conjectural “must have” to “Keats borrowed” in the next paragraph. So… without clearcut documentation, take what Vendler writes with a grain of salt. Whether or not Keats ever read or knew of Coleridge’s poem should remain conjecture. Nevertheless, what the similarities between these two passages tells us is that the Romantic Era had begun. This was the beginning of the age that emphasized the pastoral over and above the urban – an intuitive grasp of the world began to supercede the classical emphasis on reason. The world’s natural state was a central metaphor for the Romantics with its the inevitable cycle of creation and loss.

My main reason for mentioning Vendler, however, is her assertion that reaping serves Keats as a metaphor, throughout his poetry, for the act of writing:

As the act of conceiving poems is paralleled to natural fruitfulness, his books are the garners into which his grain is gathered. A teeming brain becomes a ripe field; the act of writing is the reaping of that field; to have written all the poems one has been born to write is to have gleaned the full harvest from that teeming brain; and to have compiled one’s poems in books is to have stored away riches.

She continues:

The ode To Autumn… contains Keats’ most reflective view of creativity and art… (p. 234)

Vendler’s entire chapter elaborates on this central premise. She may or may not be right about Keats’ intentions, but in this case at least, Keats’ own letters show that he liked to think along these lines. Vendler’s chapter is worth reading; and even if you don’t read Vendler, knowing this much might help you read the poem in a different light. Keats knows that autumn will inevitably destroy all that he’s found beautiful within the ode, but knows as well that Autumn has its music too – its song, its “wailful choir”, a part of its own dissolution and impossible without it. Autumn must achieve its fruition through its own dissolution. Bear in mind, as well, that Keats knew that he was likely to die when he wrote this poem. The symptoms of his tuberculosis were already underway. Keats once wrote that life was metaphor. Perhaps, with this ode, he is metaphorically describing his own dissolution and the harvesting of his mind – his poetry.

But there’s another possibility – one that possibly sends tenured professors, lit majors and the Helen Vendlers of the world into fits of apoplexy. And that’s that Keats may simply have been writing a beautiful poem. If there was any poet in the history of poetry who could write beautifully for the sake of writing beautifully, that was Keats. His skill with language and imagery rivaled Shakespeare’s. The writing of the “Ode to Autumn” may have given him a venue for an exquisite expression of poetic thought.

Indeed, in a letter to Reynolds written in September of 1819, Keats writes:

‘How beautiful the season is now–How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather–Dian skies–I never liked stubble-fields so much as now–Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm–in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.’

It’s thought that Keats was referring to his Ode to Autumn. He was communicating an ineffable experience through sheer poetic expression. That is, he was communicating an experience, not meaning. Don’t underestimate the genius required to pull this off. The possibility doesn’t diminish the poem one iota. There is not a poet alive today who could accomplish the same feat (though I hope one shows up). By way of analogy – not every line of music in a suite by Bach or  a concerto by Mozart conceals a subtext. It is music – meant to be enjoyed as music. Likewise. Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” may be a kind of music in words. The “point of the poem” is in the beauty of reading or reciting the poem – meant to be enjoyed as a poem. And this was, in fact, an aesthetic pursued by Keats – (see  critics like W.J. Bate and R.H. Fogle). (The poem, in its language and imagery, becomes the embodiment  of its own subject matter.)

It was also an aesthetic that Robert Frost referred to as “a revel in the felicities of language”. He used this phrase in reference to the late E.A. Robinson’s poetry, but it was a felicity he also claimed for himself. In my recent post on Interpreting Frost’s “Stopping by Woods”, I cover some of that ground. As it pertains to this post, the author Mark Richardson offers up  the most pertinent comment:

Frost directs our attention not to the poem’s [Stopping by Woods] theme or content but to its form: the interlocking rhyme among the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical or thematic readings of the poem: “If I were reading it for someone else, I’d begin to wonder what he’s up to. See. Not what he means but what he’s up to” (Cook 81). The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. [p. 191]

Although we have no comparable comment from Keats (to my knowledge) it probably wasn’t necessary for Keats to make it. The whole aesthetic of poetry was different. The successful poem was frequently the one that was aesthetically beautiful – in content and style. In other words, how the poem was written was the message and content. In the case of Ode to Autumn, what makes the poem is it’s style and expression.

Remember, when reading “close readers” like Vendler and others, that unless the interpretation comes from the poets themselves, any interpretive reading is outright conjecture. Period. There is no reason to think that Vendler, in any of her analysis, reflects what Keats actually intended. Vendler spends over 50 pages of prose to unfold a one page poem. There’s not a professor alive who can persuade me that Keats thought all the thoughts Vendler ascribes to him. Not every single line has to mean something.  But… there are other reasons to read Vendler’s book. You will learn a tremendous amount about the philosophical currents of Keats’s day,  what Keats thought along those lines, and how they may relate to his odes.

In the scansion below, I’ve left iambic feet unmarked. The colors of the scansion are as follows: Trochaic Feet are reddish, Spondaic Feet are purplish, Phyrric Feet are yellowish.


Keats: Ode to Autumn Scansion

On the Shape of the Poem

The first thing to notice, as to the form of the poem, is its division into three stanzas. These three stanzas, in turn, most likely find their inspiration in the Petrarachan Sonnet. John Keats - StatueKeats’ temperament (along with the temperament of the era) was ill-suited to the argumentative terseness which the Elizabethans preferred – most perfectly summarized in the Shakesperean Sonnet with the sting of its closing epigrammatic couplet. The Romantics were after a different aesthetic – one of intuition and, in some ways, gnosis.

The stanzas are almost like foreshortened Petrarchan Sonnets. Instead of two quatrains and a concluding sestet, Keats reduces two quatrains to one, and expands the sestet by one line – a septet. In the final stanza, there is even a kind of volta between the quatrain & the final septet, as though the whole of the poem were built on the Petrarchan model but in a much expended form.

The couplet isn’t held off to the end of the poem, as in a Shakespearean Sonnet, but is enclosed within the septet, discouraging the feel of discursiveness (the working out of an idea in the Shakespearean sense). The couplet nonetheless has the effect of subliminally grounding or halting each stanza before the final line. The whole of it produces a kind of nested, self-enclosed completeness – a calm and contemplative feel.

[I love the image at right – the statue of Keats. What a pity that he died so young!]

Writing the Ode to Autumn

The meter of the poem might seem conservative, but in Amy Lowell’s biography on Keats, she finds the following comment from one, Lord Houghton:

Uniformity of metre is so much the rule of English poetry, that, undoubtedly, the carefully varied harmonies of Keats’ verse were disagreeable, even to cultivated readers, often producing exactly the contrary impresssion from what he intended. (p. 500 – John Keats)

Lowell then discusses Keats’ compositional practice. I love it, being a poet. It’s an aspect of biography all too frequently overlooked by biographers who are not themselves (unlike Amy Lowell) poets.

In a letter to Taylor, a confidant of Keats, here is what Keats himself wrote about the composition of poetry:

In poetry I have a few axioms, and you will see how far I am from their centre.
1rst. I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity; it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
2nd. Its touches of beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless, instead of content. The rise, the progress, the setting of Imagery should, like the Sun, come natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight. But it is easier to think what poetry should be than to write it. And this leads me to
Another axiom – That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.

There you have it, advice from one of the language’s greates poetic geniuses.

Lowell then provides a description of how Keats first wrote the poem (p. 503). I’ve recreated what the manuscript might have looked like based on her description (I’ve marked additions in Italics):

Who hath not seen thee? For thy haunts are many oft amid thy stores?
Sometimes whoever seeks (for thee abroad) may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor
Thy hair soft lifted by the winnowing wind
While bright the sun slants through the bushy barn
Or sound asleep in a half-reaped field
Or on a half reap’d furrow sound asleep
Dosed with red poppies; while thy sleeping hook
Spares from some slumbrous
Spares some minutes while warm slumbers creep

At this point, Lowell tells us, Keats decides to rewrite what he’s already written:

Who hath not seen thee oft amid they stores?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad my find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor
They hair soft lifted by the winnowing wind
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep
Das’d with the fume of poppies while thy hook
Spares for some slumbrous minutes the next swath
Spares the next swath in all its twined flowers

This insight into Keats’ compositional practice probably won’t be of interest to anyone but other poets and even then, only to poets and readers interested in an older poetic style. One thing to notice is the italicized bushy in the 5th line of the first sketch. Apparently, or so Lowell tells us, Keats’ line read:

While bright the sun slants through the barn

But this line isn’t Iambic Pentameter. It’s missing one foot.It’s Iambic Tetrameter.

While bright | the sun | slants through | the barn

So Keats, almost casually, adds the word bushy before barn. It was a terrible addition and an anemic adjective. Fortunately Keats didn’t keep the line. However, it goes to show how meter can guide the language and subject of the poem in ways that the poetry of free verse does not. Meter frequently forces the poet to rethink first thoughts, to plumb a layer of ingenuity in a way that free verse poets rarely plumb.

Another aspect which Lowell stresses is how Keats plays with the sounds of a given line. She conjectures that the line that began with: Spares from some slumbrous, was to heavy with the consonant m in both some and slumbrous. You can see Keats, she conjectures, tinkering with the line as he tries to eliminate the heavy alliteration.

Reading the Meter

There are only a couple of lines that will trip up a modern reader unfamiliar with Iambic Pentameter:

the-songs-of-spring

Instead, the modern reader would probably be tempted to read the line as follows:

Where are | the songs | of Spring? | Ay, where | are they?

In the first foot, this puts the emphasis on Where rather than are. A trochee in the first foot is an acceptable variant, in Keats’ day, but I suspect Keats meant us to read the line as iambic. Emphasizing are in the last foot, making the last foot a trochee, is an out-and-out no-no – especially in poetry of this time. Keats would never have written a line like this. Just remember Houghton’s comment on Keats’ variants which, by our standards, are dazzlingly mild. A trochee in the final foot would have caused apoplexy. If we read the last foot as iambic, as it should be, then the first foot makes more sense if it is also read as iambic.

Why?

Because it’s a lovely use of meter.

The shift in emphasis (with the same word) between the first and last foot is a virtuosic use of meter and just what we would expect from a poet of Keats’ caliber.

The only line that might be a stumbling block for modern readers is the following:

while-barred-clouds

Readers in Keats’ day would have automatically pronounced the –ed in barred – (even if they no longer pronounced the ending in common parlance). Four hundred years before the full pronunciation of –ed was actually a part of everyday speech. However, the extra syllable never stopped being useful to writers of metrical poetry – and so the full pronunciation of –ed continued as an artifact, a poetic convention, right up to the start of the 20th century.

One last thing I can’t help but notice, having just analyzed Milton’s versifying, is how Milton’s metrical habits seem to have brushed off on Keats. Keats, at different stages of his short career, idolized Milton’s verse. Keats, like Milton, mostly limits trochaic variant feet to the first feet of the lines. Keats, on the other hand, shows a greater willingnes to vary the Iambic Pentameter pattern with Spondaic feet and Phyrrics. This flexibility is probably what Lord Houghton meant when he referred to Keats’ varied harmonies. It’s probably impossible to imagine ourselves back in the day, reading Keats’ poetry the way his contemporaries read them.

Suffice it to say, though these days his verse may seem conventional and conservative, in his own day his metrical style was as unique and unconventional as the language of his poetry.

Write (G)reatly!

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. :-)

150px-shakespeare

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.

sonnet-129

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:

savage

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:

spensers-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:

spensers-sonnet-75

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:

miltons-sonnet

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.

Petrarchan

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.

Shakespearean

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.

Spenserian

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:

ABBA ACCA DEDEDE

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:

ABAB ACDC EDEFEF

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:

ABBA ABBA CDEDCE

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:

ABBA ABBA CDCDCD

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:

ABCADE CADC EFEF

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.