• I wrote this over the week-end, and not altogether for Halloween. I’m not sure whether to call this done or a rough draft. I’ve taken some liberties with the meter and experimented with internal rhyme.

My skeleton and I go out for walks,
Although he mostly likes it in the closet.
I’ll hear him tap, tap, tapping
His skull for some conundrum; there are many.
It’s no small thing for any skeleton
To think. His skull’s a ruined house, its clasps
And door-locks long since gone.
························He teeters, grasps —
Ideas are fretful winds. They blow into
And through his vacant stare, emptily tumble;
Then out the way they came. He stands perplexed,
A sharp forefinger’s bone upraised, his jaw
Aslant — he’d almost had it.
························So it goes
It’s times like these that we go out. I keep
Our walks discreet though every now and then
We’ll meet a passerby (my skeleton
And theirs will pay no mind). We pass a cape,
A woodpile covered by a sheet of tin,
And laundry—skirts and sheets. They billow ghostlike
Above the ruined dooryard.
························He walks
With fingers laced behind his spine; looks
A little this way and a little that.
The dust recoils between his toes and smolders
At his heels. There’s nowhere he’ll stop
Unless it’s where there used to be a house,
Midfield, where now there’s just foundation stone.
He’ll gaze with longing and he’ll heave
And here and there a leaf snagged in his ribs
(And bones withal) will tumble down. They’ll scrape
And skitter through and in between until
He stands in them.
··················He lingers. He’d share
A secret he kept in life; that now,
In death, keeps him. I never asked and yet
One day he pointed where the house had been
With such a trembling grief
He might have been as likely reaching to touch
Another’s unseen fingertip.
························A gust

Took from the cellarhole a crackling smoke
Of leaves.·The sheets of the house nearby
Were chased into the field’s conflagration
Of nettle, thorn and thistle. Too late
They fled but couldn’t flee. The sudden gust
Confounded them — the mother and her child!
I saw them both. How like a mother’s hand,
And like the daughter’s where the small sheet clung
If only by a clothespin to the larger;
As if they’d change what was already done,
As if this time they’d reach his outstretched sorrow;
Undo, a hundred years gone by, the crows
That rise like startled ashes from the ruins—
Their screams dispersed into the neighboring hemlock
And birch.
······His lowering finger curls beneath
Their rake of knuckles. The sheets lay motionless
Under a settling soot of leaves and wildflowers charred
By frost.
······He never afterward did more
Than linger. I’ll not swear that what I saw
Was true, but then I can’t be sure that I
Won’t too, for guilt, regret, or for some sorrow
Dwell in your home.
······You’ll know me, if I’m there

My bones, a few remains, shelved in a poem;
Willing, if just for company, to share
Your walk and should you need me to — your pain.


November 3 2014 • by me, Patrick Gillespie

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
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
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.

The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter – II

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 71-106

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  • For readers who had been waiting for this final post, if any, sorry it took so long. The Let Poetry Die post just about buried me. For those to whom this post is new, this is the third and last entry annotating Robert Frost’s Home Burial. The first post is the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 1-18 .


“And I suppose I am a brute…”

Home Burial isn’t the only poem in which Frost explored grief and bereavement. Another famous poem is Out, out, which closes:

And they, since they
Were not the ones dead, turned to their affairs.

For many readers it’s a chilling close to a boy’s death. And I suspect that there was something like this in Frost himself – the hard pragmatism of the living. In a time when a day wasted could be a day without food, extended bereavement was an indulgence.

The quote which begins this section comes from a letter by Frost, in which he continues:

“And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies.” [Robert Pack, Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost p. 160]

The death of any child is a strain on any marriage; and the death of Frost’s first son was one that the poet took especially hard:

[Frost] blamed himself for not calling the doctor, who might have saved the boy’s life. We see this guilt refracted through the wife’s eyes in the poem, for she blames her husband for his detached self-reliance… [ Karen Kilcup, Robert Frost and Feminine Literary Tradition, p. 68]

Whether or not Elinor (Frost’s wife) blamed Frost for the death isn’t known (at least to me). It might have been enough that Frost blamed himself. The poet’s ability to convincingly portray the wife shows that he was fully aware of how he might be (or have been) perceived. This “hard pragmatism” which Frost both acknowledged and defended can also be found in the brief poem The Lesson for Today. As with the poem For Once, Then, Something, Frost seems to directly respond to his critics, readers and, perhaps, even to his closest friends and family – acquaintances who may have accused Frost, himself, of the hard callousness he portrays in Home Burial:

Major Themes of RFWe are all doomed to broken-off careers,
And so’s the nation, so’s the total race.
The earth itself is liable to that fate
Of meaninglessly being broken off.
(And hence so many literary tears
At which my inclination is to scoff.)
I may have wept that any should have died
Or missed their chance, or not have been their best,
Or been their riches, fame, or love denied;
On me as much as any is the jest.
I take my incompleteness with the rest.
God bless himself can no one else be blessed.

O hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

It’s a recurring theme and, frankly, one with which I’m sympathetic. In certain ways, one could almost insert this poem into Home Burial, rather than the husband’s less considered response. It’s doubtful the wife’s retort would have been changed by it. Frost’s emphasis on individuality, self-reliance and self-determination extended into politics, where he had little sympathy for FDR’s New Deal. In some ways, Home Burial could be read as symbolizing the perennial conflict described by cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics, George Lakoff. He divides the liberal and conservative impulse between the “nurturant parent model” and the “strict father model”. Wikipedia summarizes his relevant views as follows:

Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model that he calls the “strict father model” and has a family structured around a strong, dominant “father” (government), and assumes that the “children” (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible “adults” (morality, self-financing). Once the “children” are “adults”, though, the “father” should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the “nurturant parent model“, based on “nurturant values“, where both “mothers” and “fathers” work to keep the essentially good “children” away from “corrupting influences” (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.). Lakoff says that most people have a blend of both metaphors applied at different times, and that political speech works primarily by invoking these metaphors and urging the subscription of one over the other. [WikipeidaDecember 15, 2009]

The grief of the nurturant mother can hardly be assuaged by the authoritarian, pragmatic father. As Kilcup repeatedly points out, even though the husband seems to make concessions, such as offering to keep “hands off”, the power to make the offer and agreement is assumed to be his (and by implication the authority to revoke it remains his). The husband’s “offer”, according to Kilcup, hardly equalizes the power in their relationship.

“When he begs her not to go, he seems to Poirier “not without gentleness.” Yet the voice of power can afford to be gentle. If language and communication fail the couple in this poem, the poet’s language does not fail to communicate with the reader–not only the threat to masculinity engendered by the wife’s attitude but, as important, the damaging limitations imposed on her by patriarchal culture. [Kilcup p. 70]

Kilcup is insightfully sensitive to the politics of sexual persona in ways that other critics and readers have not been. She writes that “at first the female protagonist occupies a physically superior position, at the top of the stairs, but the husband soon remedies their inverted status, ‘advancing toward her,’ while she ‘sank upon her skirts'” [p. 68]. Reading Kilcup’s response to the poem, when compared to male critics, poets and readers, is to experience the poem’s sexual politics replayed in the writing of its male and female critics.

It is no wonder, rightly or wrongly, that some might have considered Frost “a brute”.

A Note on the Meter

Frost was always very proud of his skill as a traditional poet. While my scansions may not reflect how Frost himself would have imagined his poetry, my scansion is a poet’s scansion. (And I write my own poetry in the same spirit). For example, I disagree with poets and readers who scan “extra feet” into Frost’s lines. My feeling is that Frost took too much pride in his craftsmanship and knew too well how the Iambic Pentameter line could be varied without having to break the pattern. (Though, as a practical matter, an extra syllable is still an extra syllable no matter what it’s called.)

Besides that, the meter of traditional poetry grows out of a long convention – a convention many (if not most) modern poets are unaware of because they lack the training or even curiosity. They didn’t grow up with it the way Frost did. For instance, in the line that follows, many modern poets and readers might scan the line as follows:

I can |repeat |the ver|y words |you were |saying

Such a scansion “accurately” reflects how the line is spoken and where the ictus falls within each foot, but it ignores the tradition (or conventions) in which Frost was writing. The Iambic Pentameter line (Blank Verse) is defined as much by its five foot line as by its iambic feet. I find it much more likely that Frost imagined the line above as a five foot line, rather than as a clumsily written six foot line ending with two trochaic feet. I scanned it as follows:

I can |repeat |the ver|y words |you were saying

This makes the final foot a variant foot – an anapestic feminine ending. The feminine ending (the amphibrachic final foot) was a firmly established variant foot extending back to Shakespeare and Sidney. Until the moderns adopted a more Elizabethan sense of meter, poet’s rarely flirted with an anapestic final foot. Frost’s innovation was to not only deploy the anapest in the final foot, but to do so with a feminine ending (an extra unaccented syllable).


The husband’s angry statement:

And it’s come to this,
[70] A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.”

Is followed quickly by the wife’s first extended response. She answers scornfully:

"you had stood the spade"

[71]“You can’t because you don’t know how to speak.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand—how could you?—his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
[80]To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.”

“You don’t know how to speak…” she answers. But she’s speaking figuratively. What does she mean? Obviously, her husband knows how to “speak”. By what follows, we begin to get some sense of what she means. The speech she refers to is more than just words, but body language, demeanor – all the subtle cues that reveal us without words. The reader may be reminded of the poems beginning, of her sensitivity (perhaps over-sensitivity) to her husband’s body language. How she cowered under him as he “mounted” the stars – her expression of terror. (A feminist might counter that the wife isn’t “overly sensitive”, but that the husband lacks self-awareness. And there’s an argument to made for either.)

It isn’t until line 86 that she first mentions “talk” – speech in the sense that her husband understands. Most of the passage is a description of his actions – his body language. This is the speech that he has gotten all wrong – a language that he doesn’t know how to speak. While the husband gives primacy to words, the wife (in a way that certainly reflects broader gender differences) gives primacy to gestures. “If you had any feelings,” she asks, then stumbles, her words almost incapacitated by her grief and outrage: How could you make “the gravel leap and leap in air, leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly….” Her description is obsessive in its detail and repetitiveness. Her ability to use words, herself, is almost incapacitated by her obsessiveness with signs.

The passage is ripe for the semiotician – one who studies semiotics. The passage is nothing if not a conflict in sign processes, signification and communication.Wikipedia breaks Semiotics into three branches.

  • Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their denotata
  • Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures
  • Pragmatics: Relation between signs and their effects on those (people) who use them

I’m not a Semiotician, but I don’t think one has to be to imagine how each of these branches could be applied to the dispute between the husband and wife. The wife, after all, draws a relationship between her husband’s actions and what they denote that is very different than what the husband might imagine or might have intended. Is she right in doing so? There are surely as many different ways to experience grief as there are people.

In describing how he dug the grave, she might as well have been describing the murder of her child – as if each thrust of the spade had been the cut of a knife.

I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.

She asks the question as though symbol and intent were one and the same. As if to draw home the equation of her husband’s perceived thoughtlessness with a kind of murder, she says:

You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.”

I can’t help being reminded of Robert Frost’s poem Out, out and his allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!” “You could sit there,” she the wife in Frost’s drama, “with the stains on your shoes…” As if the stains were the blood of her murdered child. How could you not want to scrub the stain away, she seems to be asking, as though the stains somehow revealed a presumed guilt. How could he talk of “everyday concerns” and worst of all, how could he stand the spade, as though it were a murder weapon he should hide away, at the entryway for all to see? – and worst of all, where she could see it.

  • And don’t miss the nice metrical touch, the headless lines that parallel the accusatory emotional content(in which the first unstressed syllable is omitted creating a monosyllabic foot):

You | could sit | there with the stains on your shoes
You | had stood | the spade up against the wall

Randall Jarrell also senses the feeling of the judge and the judged (or the criminal):

–all these things give an awful finality to the judge’s summing up… the criminal’s matter-of-fact obliviousness has the perversity of absolute insensitivity: Judas sits under the cross matching pennies with the soldiers. The poem has brought to life an unthought-of literal meaning of its title: this is home burial with a vengeance, burial in the home…

  • Note: I haven’t been reading these other commentaries until I’ve written my own interpretation, so it’s interesting to see how my readings parallel those of other commentators.

Jarrell reads in the wife’s criticism the unstated vision of the husband as Judas. He adds:

That day of the funeral the grieving woman felt only misery and anguish, passive suffering; there was nobody to blame for it all except herself. . . . the woman’s feeling of guilt about other things is displaced onto the child’s death. Now when this woman sees her husband digging the grave (doing what seems to her, consciously, an intolerably insensitive thing; unconsciously, an indecent thing) she does have someone to blame, someone upon whom to shift her own guilt… as she blames the man’s greater guilt and wrongness her own lesser guilt can seem in comparison innocence and rightness…

In his book The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication, Mordecai Marcus focuses on the wife’s own failure to read her husband’s speech (though Marcus doesn’t explicitly express his ideas in these terms). She herself doesn’t “know how to speak”. She misreads the husband’s language of deed and gesture as indifference, even callousness. She cannot comprehend her husband’s grief if only because it’s not like her own. And in this sense, the wife’s accusations could as easily apply to herself. She is as blind to his language as he to hers.

Here she projects her own insistence on his unfeelingness onto images of his burial activities, not seeing that he buried the child himself to maintain his intimacy with it, to make it a part of his past, and to work out his own griefs. The spade and the stains on his shoes, which she took for signs of indifference, show his bond to the processes of life and death, just as his everyday talk after digging the grave was a way of holding back pain. But he is either incapable of an analytic answer or too stubbornly proud to offer one, so instead of protesting that she misunderstands, he can only toss out grimly oblique anger. She revels in the fact that everyone must die alone, and sets herself up as a philosopher, condemning humanity’s supposed insensitivity to everyone else’s grief and proposing the impossible task of changing the world.

Jospeh Brodsky, Homage to Robert Frost explicitly perceives the same connotations that I did:

I am afraid she sees a murder weapon: she sees a blade. The fresh earth stains either on the shoes or on his spade make the spade’s edge shine: make it into a blade. And does earth “stain,” however fresh? Her very choice of noun, denoting liquid, suggests—accuses—blood. What should our man have done? Should he have taken his shoes off before entering the house? Perhaps. Perhaps he should have left his spade outside, too. But he is a farmer, and acts like one—presumably out of fatigue. So he brings in his instrument—in her eyes, the instrument of death. And the same goes for his shoes, and it goes for the rest of the man. A gravedigger is equated here, if you will, with the reaper. And there are only the two of them in this house. [pp. 44-45]

The husband’s reply is one of helplessness. What can he or anyone do against a curse. A curse implies magic and magic implies the irrational.

“I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
[90]I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.”

Notice too, how the meter of the line echoes the wife’s (another headless line this time emphasizing I):

I | shall laugh | the worst laugh I ever laughed

His wife persists:

"in the darkened parlor"

“I can repeat the very words you were saying:
‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?
You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
[100]No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!”

  • “in the darkened parlor”: Until the invention of the funeral parlor, the Victorian parlor was the room in which the finest furniture was kept, social gatherings were held, and bodies lay in state before they were buried. In the parlor rooms of wealthier Victorian families, musical instruments, like pedal organs or spinets were frequently found. After the advent of the funeral parlor, the Victorian parlor room became the modern living room.

I can repeat the very words you were saying, she says, but she fails to read the language of her husband’s grief. She ridicules his talk of a birch fence concluding that “You couldn’t care!”

Is the husband really that callous? I don’t think Frost means us to think so. If anything, the husband’s talk of the rotting birch fence could have been an oblique reference to his own son. Three foggy mornings and one rainy day. How did his son die? Was it three feverish mornings and one deadly day? A man’s best efforts, the best home that he can build, can’t save his own son’s life. Karen Kilcup, Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition, also observes the irony in the wife’s accusation that the husband cannot speak:

…his language wounds powerfully, and, however unwittingly, he, not she, is the metaphor maker, the poet who speaks of fences when his heart aches. When the wife accuses, “‘You can’t because you don’t know how to speak,'” she is unable to hear the pain and beauty in his lament… [p. 71]

A farmer’s life is a constant communing with the earth. Perhaps the farmer wanted to bury his own son as a way to subconsciously grieve and acquiesce to the cycle of birth and death from which he makes his living. What good comes from the wife’s persistent denial of the world implicit in her phrase : “the world’s evil”. For the farmer, this is no way out of grief but he hasn’t the words to express himself.

Above all, the wife’s obsessive reading of gesture (the very opposite of a King Lear who fails to comprehend anything beyond words) is revealed in her description of “friends” who “make pretense”. She describes how they “follow to the grave”, but she doesn’t believe their sincerity. She doesn’t trust the world of symbol, sign or gesture. She both distrusts it and trusts it too much – perceiving manner and gesture as literally things. How dare anyone “make the best of their way back to life and living people”? As if her observations taught her that death was an indifference to all but her – that no one but her suffered or grieved and that the only way to grieve was to explicitly renounce the world. “I won’t have grief so,” she cries.

In the same letter alluded to at the beginning of this post, “And I suppose I am a brute,” Frost preceded this comment by describing his sister Jeanie’s reaction to the upheaval’s wrought by WWI:

She has always been antiphysical and a sensibilist. I must say she was pretty broken by the coarseness and brutality of the world before the war was thought of…. I really think she thought in her heart that nothing would do justice to the war but going insane over it. She was willing to go almost too far to show her feeling about it, the more so that she couldn’t find anyone who would go far enough. One half the world seemed unendurably bad and the other half unendurably indifferent. A mistake. I belong to the unendurably bad. ¶ And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies. As I get older, I find it easier to lie awake nights over other people’s troubles. But that’s as far as I go to date. In good time I will join them in death to show our common humanity. [Selected Letters of Robert Frost pp. 247-248]

The similarity between Frost’s portrayal of the wife, and his description of his sister, is hard to miss. Couple this with Lea Newman’s own observations from Robert Frost,The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry (unfortunately OP and ridiculously overpriced by resellers):

In a letter to another friend, J.J. Lankes, he revealed how differently Elinor reacted [to their son Elliot’s death]: “I refused to be bowed down as much as she was by other deaths.” In commenting on “Home Burial,” Frost credited the husband with being “more practical and matter-of-fact about death than the woman.” But the most convincing echo from Frost’s real-tragedy is his use of the phrase “the world’s evil.” The wife in the poem issues this blanket condemnation using exactly the same words Elinor did over and over again after Elliot’s death. [p. 80]

It’s no wonder Frost never, to my knowledge, read this poem in public or recorded it. Too much struck too close to home.

“There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won’t go now. You’re crying. Close the door.
[110]The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it up?
Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!”

The husband’s attempt at consolation sound wishful – almost desperate. But maybe he was right. Maybe the heart had gone out of it. But then, oblivious to the source of his his wife’s grief, he blurts: “Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!” At once, he betrays himself and recalls the world of gestures that she despises. She doesn’t want to be like those “friends” who “make pretense”. She won’t conceal her grief. She cries:

“You—oh, you think the talk is all. I must go—
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you——”

And we are back to the beginning of the poem. She won’t be the conduit of her husband’s progeny. The home burial of her son won’t also be her own home burial. Substituting home for bedroom, I could have easily written in the previous post:

The home is a place of necessity where she conceives and raises his progeny and where, in all likelihood, she and some of her progeny will die. The size of the bedroom and graveyard are comparable. The sleep of the bedroom and the graveyard darkly mirror each other. The birthing that happens in the one, is darkly reflected by death in the other. She wants no part of the coldly pragmatic, matter-of-fact world her husband seems to inhabit – a world described by simple necessity.

The end of the poem sheds light on the beginning. The world which the wife inhabits is one of “pretense” and she wants no part of it. She perceives the gesture of procreation in its most literal sense. The bedroom and the home threaten to bury her and her grief as they have buried her child. Procreation would be a pretense, a victory for the world’s evil and she won’t give it another chance. She will conquer the world’s pretenses, evil and indifference with, if nothing else, her grief.

Her husband tries to stop her:

“If—you—do!” She was opening the door wider.
“Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
[106] I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—”

  • Notice the metrical tour-de-force in line 104 (the spondaic feet couldn’t have the same disruptive effect in a free verse poem where there is no pattern to disrupt) :
Ifyou-| do!She |was o|pening the door wider

Karen L. Kilcup’s decidedly feminist reading of these closing lines is a dark one:

….The husband’s “sentence” that concludes the poem–“I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!”–represents both desperate plea and the final, overt expression of the menace that has underscored his speech throughout the poem. Structurally as well as semantically, the poem enacts the enclosure of the feminine self and feminine speech; to read this last line as merely desperate is seriously to underread the danger that the husband poses. Echoing the voice of cultural authority, he becomes both judge and author of his wife’s fate: house arrest. [Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition p. 72]

The problem I have with Kilcup’s reading is that while there may be truth to what she writes, her interpretation threatens to too narrowly define the poem (and Frost’s intentions), ironically, in the same way that the wife too narrowly defines her husband’s grief (or lack of grief). Yes, the husband’s gestures may appear threatening, but there is also the risk of seriously overreading “the danger that the husband poses” – of reading his gestures too literally. After all, Frost gives us no reason to think that the husband has ever, in actuality, physically abused his wife. If Kilcup wants to insinuate that the threat is serious and real, then she does so for reasons external to the poem. After all, are we to trust the wife’s interpretation of her husband’s “threatening” gestures while, at the same time, admitting (as Kilcup does) that she might not correctly interpret the language of his grief?

Kilcup’s closing interpretation also implies that the wife is the ultimate victim. I won’t dispute that this may have been true for women in Frost’s day, but this isn’t what Frost’s poem is about and undermines the balance Frost has tried to achieve. There is more than one victim in Home Burial.

By contrast, here is Robert Pack’s closing thoughts on Home Burial:

The failure to allow mourning to be transformed into catharsis leads not only to melancholy and gloom, but also, in Frost’s poem, to misanthropy. Indeed, the wife’s mourning, her faithfulness to death, exacerbates her hostility toward her husband and further perverts the sexual tension between them into a contagious hatred that seems likely to lead to overt aggression. This aggression is implicit in the husband’s final words… [Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost p. 104]

In Pack’s closing thoughts, we have two victims, not one. But even in Pack’s reading, he takes the threat of overt aggression to be a real one. But perhaps the most nuanced reading is Richard Poirier’s:

…her grievances are not and cannot be the equivalent of her grief, and so she necessarily rejects what to her cannot help but sound like condescension. Her movement out of the house, out of discord, and into a literal “extravagancy” on the road leads again to his assertion of masculine threat and will, though this is now so tempered by an evident love and toleration and concern that the threat sounds more like a plea and an admission of helplessness. [Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing p. 134]

If the poem had ended with an exclamation point , I will!, then I might be inclined to doubt Poirier’s reading, but it ends with a dash, I will!—

There is a lack of finality. If the threat of force were real, then why wait? The husband could easily bar his wife from leaving. But he doesn’t. Implicit in his “threat” to find her is the fact that he won’t prevent her from leaving. If he’s not going to use physical force then what does that leave him? Threats? Cajoling? Pleading? The implicit admission of helplessness? She has, as other readers have commented, unmanned him.

All he can do, as Randall Jarrell writes, his throw his weight around.

If anything, the poem ends in a kind of stranglehold in which both are each others’ victim.

❧ Up in Vermont • February 1 2010

the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 19-70

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One of the many books I have most frequently enjoyed is Lea Newman’s Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry. It looks like it might have gone out of print but is still available used. Higher priced “collectibles” are also being foisted on us. If the background to Frost’s poems interest, there is no better book than Newman’s. Go buy it. In her introduction to Home Burial, Newman considers the question many readers ask: How autobiographical is Frost’ poem? She writes:

It was inspired, he said, by the premature death of another child whose parents separated as a result of the grief that followed. Elinor’s older sister Leona and her husband Nathaniel Harvey lost their first-born child in 1895. Frost spent that summer in Ossipee Mountain Park in New Hampshire because of the domestic dispute that followed the child’s death. Leona left her husband and accepted a commission to paint portraits in the area, Elinor accompanied her, and Frost went along to be with Elinor. (The Harveys later reconciled and subsequently had three more children.) [p.80]

And though the inspiration may have been the Harveys, careful readers have noted autobiographical parallels and for good reason. Frost’s own 3 year old son died of cholera in 1900. And though the Frost’s marriage wasn’t threatened to the same degree, echoes of their own tragedy have been traced in the poem. Newman writes that “the most convincing echo from Frost’s real-life tragedy is his use of the phrase “the world’s evil.” The wife in the poem issues this blanket condemnation using exactly the same words Elinor did over and over again after Elliot’s death.” It’s little wonder Frost counted the poem is cutting a little too near to read it publicly.


Having set the scene in the first 18 lines, the narrative voice is set aside and read the poem as though we were reading a small play.

  • All unmarked feet are Iambic (pr at least that’s how I read them).
  • Pyrrhic feet are Yellow, Trochaic feet are Red, Anapests are Blue, and feminine endings are Green. If you are not familiar with these terms, read my posts on Iambic Pentameter and the Basics.

About the Meter

The meter in Home Burial, as mentioned in the previous post, is blank verse. I have read other interpretations of the poem that imply extra-metrical (if that’s a word) departures from Iambic Pentameter, but Frost’s practice  is actually easily within conventions that any Elizabethan poet would have recognized and, perhaps grudgingly, accepted. The only innovation, and I think this might be unique to Frost, is that of the anapestic feminine ending. A feminine ending is an amphibrach that occurs at the end of a line in an Iambic Meter.

I must be wonted to it — that’s |the reas(on)

The final syllable of reason, in brackets, is unstressed, making the line eleven syllables rather than ten. It’s a standard variant foot. Frost’s innovation was to introduce the anapest feminine ending:

Two that don’t love can’t live togeth|(er) without (them)

The anapest consists of an extra unstressed syllable at the start of the foot, the –er of together. No Elizabethan (and very few  Romantics for that matter) introduced an anapest in the final foot (or at least I can’t think of any examples). Frost took the anapestic final foot a step further, by adding an extra unstressed syllable, them, after the ictus (the stress) – which is typical of a feminine ending – hence the anapestic feminine ending. If you enjoy the ins and outs of meter as much as I do, you will also find this innovative foot in Frost’s Birches (a color-coded scansion of Birches can be found in my post on Mending Wall).

The long and the short of it, for those of you who have in interest in these finer points, as that I’ve color-coded anapestic feminine endings as both blue and green.


“You don’t,” she challenged.  “Tell me what it is.”

[20] “The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it—that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill.  We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
[30] But the child’s mound——”

“What is it—what?” she said. He answers: “Just that I see.” This is the line that preceded the lines above. The wife’s angry question clearly goes beyond the mere fact of what the husband literally sees. And that’s the first hint we have as to the nature of their conflict and of their parts in it.

  • Before going into the content of the lines notice, in the scansion above, the repeated combination of pyrrhics followed by spondees . The variant feet mark Frost’s willingness to use colloquial rhythms that would have been avoided by earlier poets writing meter. Notice also, both by accident of language and choice, how the spondees emphasize the visual cues: three stones, sidehill, child’s mound. The variant feet highlight the poem’s subject matter, a sign of a skillful metrist and poet. Not all traditional poets were or are as careful in how they vary the metrical pattern. Consider Horace Smith’s version of Ozymandias, for example.

The wife’s challenge to her husband is loaded. Tell me what you see! – she demands, and her husband does just that. He describes the family burial plot visible through the stair or hall window.  And he makes some statements and comparisons  that oughtn’t to be missed. For instance, he calls the little burial plot the place “where all my people are”.

  • The picture at right is a of a little family plot just up the hill from my house. There are all of four little tombstones. It would easily fit within a windows frame if it were seen from a house and would probably look no larger than a bedroom. Such small burial plots are scattered throughout New England.

Jarrell characterizes the passage this way:

“The little graveyard where my people are!” we feel not only the triumph of the slow person at last comprehending, but also the tender, easy accustomedness of habit, of long use, of a kind of cozy social continuance—for him the graves are not the healed scars of old agonies, but are something as comfortable and accustomed as the photographs in the family album(…) “Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?”—an observation that appeals to her for agreement—carries this comfortable acceptance to a point at which it becomes intolerable: the only link between the bedroom and the graveyard is the child conceived in their bedroom and buried in that graveyard. The sentence comfortably establishes a connection which she cannot bear to admit the existence of—she tries to keep the two things permanently separated in her mind.”

Poirier finds that the husband’s descriptions carries undercurrents of sexual dissonance:

One of the husband’s initial mentions of the graveyard does betray a certain tactless predominance and possessiveness (“‘The little graveyard where my people are!”‘), but this is immediately followed by a metaphor of diminishment that somewhat restores a balance (“‘So small the window frames the whole of it”‘). However, this in turn gives way to yet another metaphor of dangerously thoughtless implication: “‘Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?”‘ In its very casualness, really a kind of stupidity, the husband’s comparison of the graveyard to a bedroom is a sign that, having been made so nervous about the inadequacy of his language, he has to double or triple his illustration of anything he wants to communicate. He seems unaware of his tastelessness, which is of course all the more reason to think that his bedroom metaphor reveals some of his deepest feelings about what has happened to their marriage. But if the bedroom is like a graveyard, the reason has as much to do with her excessive (possibly neurotic) sensibility as with the obvious deficiencies of his. [p. 128]

And Katherine Kearns, in her book Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite, makes explicit what is only suggested by Poirier.

The house itself, reduced to a narrow passageway between the bedroom and the threshold and triangulated to the graveyard, is a correlative for the sexual tension generated by the man’s preoccupation with his marital rights and the woman’s rejection of them. He offers to “give up being a man” by binding himself “to keep hands off,” but quite clearly their marriage is already sexually damaged and empty. That he makes this concession suggests that his wife has repulsed his sexual advances in the past: in this refusal she empowers herself, symbolically and literally rejecting the role as servant-wife by refusing to acknowledge the conjugal “rights” of the husband and by refusing to provide him with an heir. Her egress from the house will be symbolic verification of her husband’s impotence, and if she leaves it and does not come back, the house will rot like the best birch fence will rot. Unfilled, without a woman with child, it will fall into itself

The repeated usage of the word “see” in the opening of the poem begins to be understood as the core of the poem’s meaning. What does each mean by see? We soon learn the word can have very different meanings. What the husband sees is both literal and symbolic – but the poem gives the impression that  he is blithely (or cruelly some readers suggest) unaware of the symbolism with which he imbues his language. She is not. She perceives, rightly or wrongly, a world and meaning he does not.

Jarrell writes that “we feel… the triumph of the slow person at last comprehending.”

But I disagree.  My own reading, in fact, is just the opposite. The husband, in fact, does not see and this is what provokes his wife’s outcry:

“Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she cried.

Consciously, her husband sees the little graveyard, the place where his kin are buried, and describes the three stones and the size of it, but subconsciously the graveyard is the place that holds his ancestors and will, someday, hold his progeny. No larger than a bedroom, he says; but his wife doesn’t miss the underlying symbolism. The bedroom is a place of necessity where she conceives and raises his progeny and where, in all likelihood, she and some of her progeny will die. The size of the bedroom and graveyard are comparable. The sleep of the bedroom and the graveyard darkly mirror each other.  The birthing that happens in the one, is darkly reflected by death in the other. She wants no part of the coldly pragmatic, matter-of-fact  world her husband seems to inhabit – a world described by simple necessity. Don’t! she cries.


[30] “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she cried.

She withdrew, shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
“Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?”

“Not you!—Oh, where’s my hat?  Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here.  I must get air.—
I don’t know rightly whether any man can.”

“Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.
[40] Listen to me.  I won’t come down the stairs.”
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
“There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.”

“You don’t know how to ask it.”

“Help me, then.”

The wife’s reaction is telling. She must escape! Her husband only grasps the most obvious and does so to the exclusion of his wife. “Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?”  he asks, more concerned with himself than with his wife. In the very question itself, though, is the assumption that he understands the source of her grief – her child’s death. But it’s much more than that.

But why doesn’t she tell him? Why instead does she furiously retort that no man, least of all her husband, has the right to speak of his own child’s loss? And at this point we, as readers, are invited to make some deductions. This has been a “long-standing” grievance between the two – or at least from the time their child was buried. And it’s apparent that they have not communicated with each other and, as a result, they may be passed communicating. Their mutual grief has turned to grievances.

And why does she want to leave? Why must she get air? This isn’t the behavior of spouse invested in a relationship, let alone a marriage.  “She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see” She insures her prediction is self-fulfilled. Not only has he not truly seen, but her behavior is that of a person who prefers grief to resolution. She directs the pain of losing her child toward her husband, where it becomes anger and resentment. If she surrenders that anger and resentment, it would be like surrendering the pain of her child’s loss. She perceives pragmatic indifference in her husband, and so she clings to her grief all the more ferociously. One might speculate that she deliberately poisons their communication as a means of catharsis. She wants the relationship to end, though these were not times when couples were easily divorced.

Her husband begs him not to go. He sits with his “chin between his fists”, and there some readers who have attached no small meaning to this detail.

Of this moment Jarrell writes:

The poem’s next sentence, “He sat and fixed his chin between his fists”—period, end of line—with its four short i’s, its “fixed ” and “fists,” fixes him in baffled separateness; the sentence fits into the line as he fits into the isolated perplexity of his existence. Once more he makes a rhetorical announcement of what he is about to do, before he does it: “There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.” The sentence tiptoes in, gentle, almost abjectly mollifying, and ends with a reminding “dear”; it is an indirect rhetorical appeal that expects for an answer at least a grudging…

Karen Kilcup detects a more subconsciously threatening content behind the gesture:

…his words exhibit a wide veering fromhis behavior: “‘Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.’ / He sat and fixed his chin between his fists. / ‘There’s something I should like to ask you, dear”‘ (emphasis added). Throughout the poem a language of endearment masks and conventionalizes the subverbal menace emblematized in his physical gestures(….) If masculinity requires bodily supremacy, it also collides, however unwittingly, with psychological dominance. Yet the consequence of this dominance seems to be only greater alienation, sexual as well is emotional…. [T]he portrait of the husband on the verge of a violent brutishness both reflects and interrogates early-twentieth-century notions of muscular masculinity.

Faggan. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin, also reads Frost’s choice of description as a veiled reference to physical violence:

The narrator’s observation of the husband sitting with his “chin between his fists” calls attention ominously to physical force that might have been used in the past. Amy wants her husband to bend to her demands, but she may also want to be independent of him altogether. The husband feels the strain of meeting his wife’s demands of beauty, and, while he wants to please her, he also wants to remain true to his sense of self and purpose, which is inextricably bound up with his “being a man.”

All these readings may convey an element of truth. However, it’s worth mentioning that many men and women make fists without intending to inflict physical violence. The gesture is a very natural reaction to stress, much like frowning or hunching our shoulders. Once you’ve read the poem in its entirety, your knowledge of the poem is as complete as any critic’s; and you have as much right and authority to make inferences from words and passages. I’m not convinced that critics aren’t reading too much into the this gesture. On the other hand, marital violence has always been with us and the poem certainly serves as a springboard for that discussion. Robert Frost, the only man who could have told us the full significance of these, is gone. Don’t let the fact that someone has written a book on the subject persuade you that your own reading of a poem is necessarily wrong. Critics and close readers disagree with each other.

Here, for instance, is Tyler Hoffman’s response to Poirier’s analysis, quoted above:

To the husband’s plea, “Don’t go./ Don’t carry it to someone else this time,'” Richard Poirier responds, “if he [the husband] is insensitive, he is at least not without gentleness,” and further finds that “he is less peremptory than is she: “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried.” As Poirier believes, the husband’s “reasonable beseeching” is pitted against the wife’s “physical and spiritual lack of outgoingness, forthcomingness.” While I would agree with the view of the husband as “beseeching” and the wife as non-forthcoming, I can imagine hearing these words by husband and wife differently. In the two sentences that Poirier defines as “less peremptory” than the wife’s speech, I can also hear peremptoriness, frustration, pique (not again!). In the wife’s concatenation of “don’t”s I can pick up a highly pathetic beseeching; in fact, I am able to hear each “don’t”n a different tone as each registers a different agony. Frost once remarked that  “the  four ‘don’t’s were the supreme thing” in the poem, and they are if by that he means the height of ambiguity of expression. [Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry p. 107]

Hoffman’s response is interesting  because it reminds us to read the text as an actor would read it. An actor might try out a variety of different inflections when reading the repeated ‘don’t’s, each inflection conveying a different emotion. When you read a poem like this, especially written in dialog, imagine  the different voices in which the lines could be expressed. And blank verse adds another dimension. Strictly speaking, an actor trained in the reading of Shakespearean verse (the same verse as Home Burial) might find ways to slightly accent each second ‘don’t’ more than the preceding ‘don’t’.


“There’s something I should like to ask you, dear,” says the husband. His wife sharply retorts, “You don’t know how to ask it.” “Help me, then,” says he.

Home Burial continues:

[44] Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.

“My words are nearly always an offense.
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you.  But I might be taught,
I should suppose.  I can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man

[50] With womenfolk.  We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
Though I don’t like such things ‘twixt those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
But two that do can’t live together with them.”

The husband asks for help. His wife moves the latch for all reply, but she stays. She listens. He admits to her that his worlds “nearly always” give offense and offers to keep “hands off” anything she’s a-mind to name”. The meaning of this offer has been debated. Jarrell finds in it an awkward materiality.

He goes on: “We could have some arrangement [it has a hopeful, indefinite, slightly helter-skelter sound] / By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off “—the phrases “bind myself” and “keep hands off” have the primitive, awkward materiality of someone taking an oath in a bad saga; we expect the sentence to end in some awkwardly impressive climax, but get the almost ludicrous anticlimax of “Anything special you’re a-mind to name.”

Katherine Kearns reads something more:

He offers to “give up being a man” by binding himself “to keep hands off,” but quite clearly their marriage is already sexually damaged and empty. That he makes this concession suggests that his wife has repulsed his sexual advances in the past: in this refusal she empowers herself, symbolically and literally rejecting the role as servant-wife by refusing to acknowledge the conjugal “rights” of the husband and by refusing to provide him with an heir. Her egress from the house will be symbolic verification of her husband’s impotence, and if she leaves it and does not come back, the house will rot like the best birch fence will rot.

Kearns’ reading  falls well within the unspoken recesses of the poem and the husband is surely speaking figuratively -if, by “anything special”, he means sex. For modern readers though, it may be worth mentioning that the husband’s use of the word “special” is probably a colloquialism for especially or even a throwback to the older meaning of the word which was used in reference to something particular or peculiar. So, “anything special you’re a-mind to name,” probably should be read as:

I’ll keep hands off anything that especially bothers you


I’ll keep hands off anything that particularly bothers you

The husband isn’t referring to her special china plates. And the telling expression that he would “bind his hands” tells us what we need to know. Withholding his conjugal affections won’t be an easy thing for him or their relationship, but it seems this is what has happened or is happening already. And as soon as he’s said it, he almost regrets the offer, reasoning that “…I don’t like such things ‘twixt those that love,” but that “Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.” The reasoning seems to plod through its monosyllables, skirting redundancy. Even as he’s made the offer to abstain, he reasons that he shouldn’t have to and that two who love each other shouldn’t have to. Maybe he wanted her to reassure him that she does still love him, but she doesn’t. Her response is coldly hostile. I can’t help but feel a kind of desperation in his “thinking aloud “.

Among the interesting comments on this passage are those that observes the monosyllabic vocabulary of the husband, as though it were a sign of his “plodding banality”. But having compared his passages to the wife’s, I can’t say I see much difference in syllable length.I think that what some critics are responding to is the different ways in which the two characters inform and propel the poem. The husband’s is the voice that must explain the arguments. This is a tall order. He can’t be too persuasive. Frost wants to strike a balance in our sympathies and so he deliberately gives to the husband’s speech a searching, fumbling quality that strikes us as inept. The poet Randal Jarrell, incidentally, incorrectly identifies the line as have an extra foot. He writes:

Frost then makes him express his own feeling in a partially truthful but elephantine aphorism that lumbers through a queerly stressed line a foot too long…

Jarrell is correct in the effect he identifies, the extra-syllabic length does make it feel elephantine, but the effect is produced by a variant feet (an anapestic feminine ending) not an extra foot. As pointed out at the start of the post, it’s a variant foot Frost has used elsewhere (otherwise I might be inclined to agree with him).


My Door Latch

She moved the latch a little.  “Don’t—don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.
Let me into your grief.  I’m not so much

[60] Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out.  Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be satisfied——”

  • In the scansion, some may notice that I read lines 58 & 59 as follows:

Tell me|
Rather than: Tell me|

Let me|
Rather than: Let me|

Even though our desire is to stress Tell and Let, the meter wants us to stress me in both lines. Metrical conventions are sometimes overruled by the demands of language (which is what gives meter some of its power) but in this case I felt the context lent support to placing the ictus on me in both lines. After all, the husband is begging his wife not to carry it “somewhere else this time”. Tell me, he pleads. Let me into your grief, not someone else.

When his wife coldly moves the latch the husband echoes his wife’s ‘don’t’s with his own. “Don’t—don’t go.” he cries.

  • The door latch at right is an old New England Latch and lock from my own house. This probably isn’t the kind of doorlatch Frost is referring to, since the wife is heading out the door. The door latch at bottom left (not from my house) is probably nearer to the kind of “dooryard” latch Frost would have been familiar with.

The husband begs his wife not to go somewhere else or to someone else. But most importantly, he appeals to her to let him ‘into her grief‘. Having said that, his exasperation gets the best of him. He denigrates her grief saying “I do think, though, you overdo it a little…” And now we come to the heart of the dispute. He is torn between his desire to understand her grief but also fears its self-destructiveness and its threat to destroy their marriage, their home and future.

Robert Pack, in his book Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, neatly sums up the crux of this dispute. Her writes:

“[An] extreme example of the refusal to allow one’s grief to be mitigated by any of the ongoing claims of life and the living is to be found in Robert Frost’s “Home Burial.” In this poem a woman, resenting the necessity of her husband’s having to bury their child, castigates him for talking about everyday concerns, as if ongoing life should have no attraction for him. For her, it is as if the only suitable response to the death of a loved one is to die oneself, and her bitterness seems beyond relief or cure…” [ p. 103]

Jarrell detects, again, sexual undertones in the husband’s plea.

“Let me into your grief,” combines an underlying sexual metaphor with a child’s “Let me in! let me in!” This man who is so much a member of the human community feels a helpless bewilderment at being shut out of the little group of two of which he was once an anomalous half; the woman has put in the place of this group a group of herself-and-the-dead-child, and he begs or threatens—reasons with her as best he can—in his attempt to get her to restore the first group, so that there will be a man-and-wife grieving over their dead child.

Karen Kilcup reads darker sexual undertones in the husband’s plea:

In her pain and anger she threatens him with her physical absence (her emotional absence is only too evident), yet, when she makes this threat, his real fears of sexual inadequacy surface: “‘Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.'” What stands out for me at this moment–and elsewhere–is the duplicity of the language in which the husband couches his desire, for this line represents both plea and command. Furthermore, his words exhibit a wide veering from his behavior: “‘Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.’ [ Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradtion. p. 72]

Interestingly, Poirier’s reading is more sympathetic to the husband (and one begins to wonder if gender is at play). The women among the critics certainly (and intentionally) seem more sensitive to the threat of male violence and dominance:

But if the bedroom is like a graveyard, the reason has as much to do with her excessive (possibly neurotic) sensibility as with the obvious deficiencies of his. And if he is insensitive, he is at least not without gentleness. When he asks her ” ‘Don’t – Don’t go./ Don’t carry it to someone else this time”‘ (lines 56-57), he is less peremptory than is she: “‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t’ she cried”… [pp. 128-129]

Joseph Brodsky offers us what is, perhaps, the bleakest reading of these lines and also the most sympathetic to the husband. He writes:

For the more she is explicated, the more remote she gets the higher her pedestal grows (which is perhaps of specific importance to her now that she is downstairs). It’s not grief that drives her out of the house but the dread of being explicated, as well as of the explicator himself. She wants to stay impenetrable and won’t accept anything short of his complete surrender. And he is well on the way to it:

“Don’t—don’t go
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.”

The last is the most stunning, most tragic line, in my view, in the entire poem. It amounts practically to the heroine’s ultimate victory—i.e , to the aforementioned rational surrender on the part of the explicator. For all its colloquial air, it promotes her mental operations to supernatural status, thus acknowledging infinity—ushered into her mind by the child’s death—as his rival. Against this he is powerless, since her access to that infinity, her absorption by and commerce with it… [Homage to Robert Frost by Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcot pp. 37-38]

Worth remembering is the husband’s promise to not come down (line 40) the stairs and his later menacing threat to come down: “You make me angry.  I’ll come down to you./ God, what a woman!” (lines 68 & 69). His inability to communicate verbally wants to find masculine, physical expression, but he restrains himself. As he has said a moment before:   “A man must partly give up being a man / With womenfolk.” Not only does he feel unmanned sexually, but physically as well. Frost gives us no clue as to whether he has ever physically abused his wife, but a women need not be abused to be terrified by a man’s inability to communicate verbally – rightly or wrongly.

You think is memory might be satisfied,” he beings to say, but that is precisely what, in her view, can never be satisfied. Her reaction is visceral.


“There you go sneering now!”

“I’m not, I’m not!

“You make me angry.  I’ll come down to you.
God, what a woman!  And it’s come to this,

[70] A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.”

As Pack wrote ” it is as if the only suitable response to the death of a loved one is to die oneself, and her bitterness seems beyond relief or cure…” But, hearkening back to the beginning of this post, it’s my own view that it’s not just the grief from which she suffers. Frost, in the opening 19 lines, suggests something more. Her suffering arises from a simultaneous understanding of her husband’s pragmatic – matter of fact – reaction to their child’s death and how, she believes, his reaction reveals her place and role in his life. The graveyard has become too closely associated with the bedroom.

The husband thinks it’s come to this, that “A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead”, but his angry assertion brings us to the latter third of the poem and something for the third post – the wife’s response.

❧ Up in Vermont • December 6 2009

the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 1-18

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I’ve noticed a fair amount of interest in Home Burial and so I thought I would finally give it a good read . My technique for examining poems is evolving. If you compare my earliest posts with my later ones, you will hopefully see an improvement in presentation. Because of the length of Home Burial, I’m going to try a sort if annotated discussion and I’m going to split the post into three parts. So… let’s begin with first things first – lines 1-18.

  • If you want to see the original source for any photos included in this post, click on the image.


  • Note: Frost has split the last line (of this first part) between two speakers. In terms of meter, a split line is still considered one line.
  • Pyrrhic feet are Yellow, Trochaic feet are Red, Anapests are Blue, and feminine endings are Green. If you are not familiar with these terms, read my postson Iambic Pentameter and the Basics.

On the Meter

First, all unmarked feet are iambic.

The meter of the poem is Iambic Pentameter, and the genre is Blank Verse – unrhymed Iambic Pentameter, the meter of Shakespeare plays and Milton’s Paradise Lost. But for the Restoration Poets, blank verse has been, by far, the favored meter of narrative poetry prior to the 20th Century. Only a  2oth century poets have favored blank verse and Frost was one of them. After Frost, it’s this poet’s contention that the 20th Century’s best blank verse is to be found in modern translations of Virgil, Homer and Dante – Mandelbaum’s blank verse being some of the best . It’s interesting to note that the first appearance of blank verse occurred as a translation of Virgil by Henry Howard Earl of Surrey.

  • As of this writing, Wikipedia (in its usual referenceless fashion) states that “it would be safe to say that blank verse is as prominent now as it has been any time in the past three hundred years.” Why the past three hundred years? Why not the past 400? And what planet are they on? As a percentage of all the verse forms written,  blank verse represents a tiny fraction. To say that blank verse is as prominent now, as in the 19th century, is ludicrous.

Frost’s use of Blank Verse is freer than that of the 19th Century. The colloquial voice, the sound of sense as he called it, works against the regular iambic beat.  In the very first line the ear might not even detect the iambic beat. The two phyrrhic feet, second and fourth, reflect English as we speak, more than how poets might have written in the preceding century. A poet of the 19th Century might rewritten the line in order to avoid one or the other variant foot. It’s possible that Frost would have emphasized the preposition from, in “from the bottom of the stairs“, but, to my knowledge, no recording of this poem exists. I know from his other readings, that Frost does like to read the meter (putting a little extra emphasis on words that her in the stress position) even while his poetic practice tends to weaken those same stresses.


From "Dover Friends Meeting"

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him.  She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again.

Old New England staircases are steep. There wasn’t room; houses weren’t big enough for the much wider and deper staircases of the modern house. A modern staircase takes a considerable amount of square footage. So, when I imagine Frost’s staircase, something like the staircase at right is what I imagine. It’s steep. The stairs are shallow and there’s a window either next the stairs or at the very top.

Frost places the woman at the top and the man at the bottom. From this placement alone, many closer readers have drawn similar conclusions. The woman, at first, doesn’t so much as notice her husband. Her attention is elsewhere. Why is the husband on the ground floor and why is she upstairs? Frost doesn’t give us any explicit answers. In the next lines he advances toward her. The reader is given the impression that the husband hasn’t been sitting or, probably, waiting for her to come down the stairs.

He has been standing. Maybe he’s just come in from outside. A close reading might say that the first floor of the house is where the living happens. The kitchen is on the first floor; so are the doors in and out of the house The first floor is where the fire is built and is where a family normally gathers. The upstairs is, in some ways, where one retreats from life. In the old New England Capes, as in the picture below, the bedrooms are usually upstairs.

The young wife has been upstairs. She starts to come, back to the living in a sense, then hesitates and steps back up, her gaze drawn away from her husband and life. She can’t bring herself to walk down the stairs.

  • Notice the first trochaic foot of Looking |back o|ver. We’ll never know if this metrical touch (the backward trochaic foot that seems to mimic her backward look) was deliberate or an accident of language. At the very least, Frost wrote it and didn’t revise the variant feet. It’s a lovely touch.

Richard Poirier may sense this facet of the poem’s opening lines, though he doesn’t elaborate. He writes:

The remarkable achievement here is that the husband and wife have become so nearly inarticulate in their animosities that the feelings have been transferred to a vision of household arrangements and to their own bodily movements. They and the house conspire together to create an aura of suffocation. [Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing p. 125]

Randall Jarrell, in his essay, “Robert Frost’s ‘Home Burial'” from the The Third Book of Criticism (1962), presently available in No Other Book: Selected Essays, also makes the following observation:

The poem’s first sentence, “He saw her from the bottom of the stairs / Before she saw him,” implies what the poem very soon states: that, knowing herself seen, she would have acted differently—she has two sorts of behavior, behavior for him to observe and spontaneous immediate behavior…

What Jarrell reads is another separation between the husband and wife. Not only is the woman alone in her grief (the husband is downstairs while she has been upstairs) but Jarrell finds another theme. Not only, as I have pointed out, does the woman not want to be separated from her grief (her step downstairs was doubtful and she undid it) but Jarrell asserts that she doesn’t want her husband to observe her grief.

I’m not sure that I agree with how Jarrell frames his argument. My own reading is not that the wife doesn’t want to be observed by the husband or that she doesn’t want him to comprehend her grief (that she would have acted differently), it’s that  she doesn’t believe her husband is capable of comprehending her grief.


He spoke
Advancing toward her:  “What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.

The husband’s manner feels willful. In response to the husband’s  advance the woman sinks “upon her skirts”. Women wearing pants was exceedingly rare. The woman in his poem might have been expected to wear something like the skirt Frost’s wife wore in the photo at right. But there was another reason for this detail. Frost could easily have written:

She turned and sat upon the steps at that

The observation that she sinks upon her skirts works at two levels. First is the word sank. The verb connotes something very different that what I wrote.  There is a kind of implicit resignation and surrender in the use of the word  sank. Frost’s detail of the skirts serves to emphasize her femininity just at the moment when the husband’s questioning ‘advances’ with the feeling of an implacable and masculine will.

Karen L. Kilcup Karen, in her book, Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradtion, also reads in the husband’s words and actions the threat “of a violent brutishness”. She writes:

Throughout the poem a language of endearment masks and conventionalizes the subverbal menace emblematized in his physical gestures. Echoing an issue that emerges differently in poems like “The Housekeeper” and “The Fear,” Frost understands–only too well, perhaps– the psychic weight carried by the threat physical violence embodied here by the husband, and his is deeply sensitive to the wife’s vulnerability. If masculinity requires bodily supremacy, it also collides, however unwittingly, with psychological dominance. Yet the consequence of this dominance seems to be only greater alienation, sexual as well is emotional. . . . [T]he portrait of the husband on the verge of a violent brutishness both reflects and interrogates early-twentieth-century notions of muscular masculinity. [p. 72]

At his approach and question, the woman’s face changes from terrified to dull. Why? Of what was she initially terrified? And did this expression come before or while she was being questioned by her husband. Frost doesn’t tell us. The line could be interpreted in two ways.

1.) When she looked back over her shoulder, she was terrified by what she saw. When her husband distracted her from whatever he saw, her face changed from terrified to dull – dull because she had no faith in her husband’s ability to recognize the source of her grief.

2.) Her husband’s forceful questions and advance (a militaristic word) toward her, terrified her. When she saw that his aggression wasn’t aimed at her, her face changed from terrified to dull and for the same reasons as above . She had no faith in her husband’s ability to comprehend her grief. She feels futility.

Both meanings, I think, are plausible and may both be implied by the text. However, the finer points of close reading get very interesting because there are two versions of this text floating around. I have used the version from The Library of America. However, the other version is one that you will frequently, if not mostly, find online. First is the Library of America edition (based on Frost’s own and later emendations):

He spoke
Advancing toward her:  “What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time:  “What is it you see,”
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.

Next is the version you will frequently find in other publications and on-line. The differences are in red.

He spoke
Advancing toward her:  “What is it you see
From up there always?—for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time:  “What is it you see?
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help,
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.

Here is what Richard Poirier has to say in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing:

Lathem chose to make two emendations wholly on his own: he added a question mark after “always” in line 7, and he put a comma after “help” in line 13. He also arbitrarily chose to follow early editions by allowing a question mark at the end of line 10, though Frost had deleted it in all the editions he supervised after 1936, including the 1949 Complete Poems. These textual matters are worth considering, because while Lathem’s choices hurt the poem, they make us aware of punctuation in ways that considerably increase our appreciation of nuances which might otherwise go unremarked. We can note, for example, the scrupulous justice with which Frost tries to locate, even through the use of a comma, the sources of conflict in this “home.” There is a marvelously managed shifting in the apportionment of blame. Thus the man’s initial speech, while impatient, is meant to be more gentle than it is in the assertively interrogative form that Lathem’s question mark gives it. Without the question mark, there is the implication that the husband has learned, after many trying experiences, not to expect an answer to his questions. And the strength of her obstinacy with regard to him is then confirmed by the fact that instead, of showing fear at his “advancing on her,” her face, on his near approach, changes from “terrified to dull.” Nonetheless, the choice of “until” and “under” in the phrase “mounting until she cowered under him” suggests that there indeed is a calculated masculine imposition of will in the way he acts, though this possibility is as quickly muffled by his then speaking more gently still (“‘I will find out now – you must tell me, dear”‘) with its allowable lack of stress on the word “now” and the especially strong beat, after a comma, on the word “dear.” Frost did not choose to put a comma after the word “help” (“She, in her place, refused him any help / With the least stiffening of her neck and silence”), and its absence is crucial to our recognition of how perverse and stubbornly uncompliant she can be. With the comma added, the line suggests that her stiffness and silence merely accompanied her refusal to tell him what she had seen out the window; without the comma, we are allowed to infer that she would choose not to stiffen her neck lest she thereby give him any clue at all about what she has been staring at: “Sure that he wouldn’t see / Blind creature . . .” [p. 126]

  • Cheaper editions of Poirier’s book are available at Amazon – other than the link I provided.

In case you skimmed over the paragraph above, the key point to take away is the following:

…the man’s initial speech, while impatient, is meant to be more gentle than it is in the assertively interrogative form that Lathem’s question mark gives it.

So, if you read criticism that emphasizes the potential violence in the husband’s questions and actions, it may be worth considering what text the critic is using. I agree with Poirier’s belief that any physical threat from the husband shouldn’t be over interpreted.


He said to gain time:  “What is it you see,”
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.

The husband continues his questioning, wanting to know what she sees. Frost tells us that she’s afraid of his manner. She cowers under him. The impression one gets is of a large man and a physically frightened woman. And yet at the very moment the reader begins to wonder, Frost has the husband speak in terms of endearment, dear he says, reassuring the reader that even if there are intimations of physicality, the husband’s intentions spring from affection and a desire to communicate. Jarrell, a little differently, characterizes the husband’s advance and questioning as compulsive. Her writes:

…this heavy-willed compulsion changes into sheer appeal, into reasonable beseeching, in his next phrase: “you must tell me, dear.” The “dear” is affectionate intimacy, the “must” is the “must “of rational necessity; yet the underlying form of the sentence is that of compulsion.

I’m not sure that characterizing the husband’s actions as compulsive tells us much. The question, which the the rest of the poem will answer, is why? Why is the husband’s reaction, at first blush, so insistent? As becomes apparent, this isn’t the first time he has seen his wife’s behavior and there’s something more – she’s not communicating.


She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and awhile he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, “Oh,” and again, “Oh.”

“What is it—what?” she said.

“Just that I see.”

More questions arise: Why does she refuse him any help? Why does she stiffen when he’s no longer “threatening her”? Why is she so sure that he won’t see? Frost again underscores the sense that this is an ongoing dispute. When, finally, he murmers. “Oh,” and agian, Oh…” her retort sounds more scornful than helpful or hopeful. Notice how the husband’s term of endearment is met with her own contempt. Frost peers into her thoughts where she calls him a “blind creature”. Is this how she describes her husband when she has gone out (as we learn later in the poem) to “someone else”?

She offers him no help and one wonders if it’s not for spite. As Jarrell writes,  “she doesn’t say Yes, doesn’t say No, doesn’t say; her refusal of any answer is worse than almost any answer.” And we are left to wonder at the source of her angry silence – and at her scorn when the husband proclaims “that I see“. What does he see and is it what his wife sees? Frost deftly sets the scene in the first 18 lines.

❧ from up in Vermont December 3 · 2009

Robert Frost’s “Out, Out”

Buzz Saws and Saw Machines

When I first read this poem, barely a teenager, I got it into my head that Frost’s buzz saw was just another word for a chain saw. But chain saws, as we know them, didn’t make it to the general public until the mid 1920s. The types of saws Frost and New England farmer’s were familiar with are scattered throughout the post.

The saw at right is probably very close to the kind of saw Frost was imagining – called a buzz saw. Here’s how it worked: The flat surface that looks like a table slid forward and back on the two rails. The farmer would put the log on the table and push it through the circular saw.

If you look closely, underneath the front left corner, you’ll see a small iron wheel that rides on the rail. Behind the table, another close look will reveal another larger round metal wheel – the pulley. A belt went around this wheel and could be attached to any kind of motor: steam, gas, or even a horse. (By 1910, Ford was already producing and widely selling gas powered traction machines – later called tractors, that could be attached to a buzz saw.) But having both the buzz saw and the early tractor would have been an expensive proposition.

To get a better idea of how these saws worked, here’s an old gas driven rig, the kind that sawyers would have used (expensive in its own day).

Because I don’t see these rigs run anymore, even up here in Vermont, I joined an antique chainsaw forum to get my facts straight. Here’s what Tom Hawkins, a forum member to whom I’m most grateful, had to say:

[The video shows] a single cylinder (or one lunger) type gasoline engines, some of which are known as “Hit & Miss” or “Make & Break” engines. These terms refer to the engine ignition systems where the spark in constantly interrupted to maintain a set or governed engine speed. In some case it is not the spark, but rather the fuel charge that is temporarily interrupted, these are throttle governed engines. Those two engines pictured above are also hopper cooled type engines, where a large case iron tub filled with water surrounds the engines cylinder for cooling. Note it is not steam powered (…) but steam from the coolant that’s seen in the video. The stream is not uncommon for a working engine, and considered as a normal sign of proper engine operating temperatures, they run best when the stream is present.

Since the machines were too expensive for most, farmers and landowners would cut and stack logs during the winter. Later in the spring and summer, (with the wood close to the homestead) the Sawyers could bring their rigs right into the dooryard and cut the wood into “stove length pieces”. These pieces would then have to be split for cook stoves. Once again, here’s Tom:

A farm family would cut down small sized trees (about 9″ at the butt), beginning in the late fall (after the crop harvest) though early spring, dragging the logs over the winters snow was easier than the bare ground. This work had to be completed before the farmers time would be consumed with the springtime task of cultivating his fields. ¶ The firewood was needed for the next winters home heating and cooking supply, the cleared land for expanding their field crops. ¶ The logs were piled close to the wood shed or home for cutting into stove length pieces, then stacked inside for dry storage and winter access. ¶ The farmers would then arrange a time when the sawyer would be available in his area, the sawyers travelled from homestead to homestead doing several cutting jobs before moving on. Many people did however cut their own firewood by hand with an axe and buck saw.

What is clear, in both Frost’s poem and the newspaper clipping that inspired it, is that the saw was machine powered. These are the kinds of machines New Englanders used before the advent of chainsaws. They could be easily moved by a team of oxen or horses wherever the cordwood needed to be bucked. And there was very little in the way of safety.

On the Writing of the Poem

The title of Frost’s poem will immediately remind knowledgeable readers of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The title echoes what are, perhaps, some of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

The feeling of exhaustion and surrender and life’s futility is palpable. And it warns, all too tragically, of the death (and its tenor) in Frost’s poem. Earlier in the play, and in keeping with Shakespeare’s habit of thought, the doubled combination of out appears in the character of Lady MacBeth.

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One–two—
why then ’tis time to do’t. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie!
A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it,
when none can call our power to account? Yet who would
have thought the old man to have had so much blood in

Macbeth Act 5, scene 1, 26–40

Lady Macbeth’s utterance expresses abhorrence – abhorring a deed that cannot be undone, cannot be washed out or slighted. The blood of murder, the spot, has irrevocably stained her hand. Likewise, the boy’s hand, all but severed by the saw, cannot be redone or restored. There will be no backward step.

Shadow Newman on FrostIn her indispensable book on Frost’s most famous poems, Lea Newman observes that Frost based Out, Out on a real incident. She writes:

The March 31, 1910, edition of The Littleton Courier of Littleton, New Hampshire, carried the following story:

Raymond Tracy Fitzgerald, one of the twin sons of Michael G. And Margaret Fitzgerald of Bethlehem, died at his home Thursday afternoon, March 24, as a result of an accident by which one of his hands was badly hurt in a sawing machine. The young man was assisting in sawing up some wood in his own dooryard with a sawing machine and accidentally hit the loose pulley, causing the saw to descend upon his hand, cutting and lacerating it badly. Raymond was taken into the house and a physician was immediately summoned, but he died very suddenly from the effects of the shock, which produced heart failure… {March 31, 1910]

I can’t recommend Newman’s book enough. Clicking on the image will take you to and the book will take to her more detailed introduction. Buzzsaw & TractorBriefly, as part of her introduction, Newman mentions that Frost didn’t write Out, Out until his return from England, the summer of 1915. She writes that, “he bought a farm outside the village of Sugar Hill, near the Lynches, with a view overlooking the five peaks of the Franconia Range(…) It overlooked five mountain ranges to the west toward Vermont, the same view described in the poem.” He wrote the poem in 1916.

The newspaper clipping doesn’t call the saw a buzz saw but a saw machine. In 1910, the terms saw machine could refer to just about any saw (including circular saws).

Note: The tractor at left is a Farmall from the 1930s.The Howell Drag Saw Machine

However, I’ve noticed that a machine called a drag saw was almost always referred to as a saw machine (when circular saws sometimes weren’t).

The illustration at right comes from the Encyclopedia of American farm implements & antiques. The motor (which could have been just about anything – including an animal) driving the drag saw isn’t in the illustration. To truly appreciate how these machines worked, I’ve found a youtube video of a steam driven drag saw machine. Notice that the saw hangs from a pulley (as well as in the illustration). Now imagine if the pulley was hanging loose or unsecured (or the rope of the pulley) and that someone accidentally bumped the rope or pulley. The blade might suddenly release. If the machine was running, imagine the damage to ones hand.

The Scansion

Now to the poem. Without further ado, here is the poem and it’s scansion. All unmarked feet are Iambic. Pyrrhic feet are yellow. Trochaic feet are red. Spondaic feet are purple. Green indicates a feminine ending. Blue indicates an anapestic foot. The colorized scansion is my own invention and I try to keep the colors consistent throughout my scansions. As far as I know, this little innovation is all my own. The colors, to my eyes, help to quickly visualize the Frost’s metrical patterning, his use of variant feet. If scansion and its symbols are new to you, visit What is Iambic Pentameter (The Basics).

A scansion of Robert Frost's Out, Out

Meter and Meaning

The very first thing to note is that the poem is written in unrhymed Iambic Pentameter, otherwise known as blank verse.

The second thing to note is that the repetition of a Pyhrric foot followed by a Spondee is one of the more interesting patterns in this poem. While I don’t think repeating the figure is, in and of itself, significant, each individual occurrence nicely underpins the text of the poem. While it might be too much to say that every one of Frost’s variant feet are meaningful, he certainly was aware of when he was varying the iambic pattern and the effect it would have.

First Lines Metrical Example

These are strongly varied lines. The second of the three has only one Iambic Foot. All the rest are variant. Frost must have liked the effect of the trochaic dust in the first line. The snarling, rattling saw made dust (where the word dust disrupts the normal metrical pattern. This foot is followed by the spondaic dropped stove. Here too, the meter nicely emphasizes the dropping of the stove length sticks with two consecutively stressed syllables. Did Frost plan this all out? I don’t know, but in this line at least meaning and meter work well together.

Sears & Roebuck Circular Saw Machine Ad 1897I chose to read the first foot of the second line as spondaic. However, one could also read it as Iambic and I have a hunch that Frost read it this way. (Frost usually emphasized the iambic pattern of his poems when reading.) The second line would then read as follows:

Sweet-scen | ted stuff | when the | breeze drew | across it.

The real virtuoso display comes with the phrase “when the breeze drew across it“. To my ears, the pyrrhic foot followed by the spondaic “breeze drew” nicely mimics the rise and draw of a breeze followed by its “fall” in the feminine ending: across it. It’s a lovely touch and I suspect Frost was aware of the effect.

The third line could also be read as iambic pentameter, thus:

And from | there those | that lif | ted eyes | could count

I could imagine Frost reading it like this but I haven’t found a recording. It’s said that Frost rarely read it. I’m guessing that he felt the poem ought to be more private than public, having been based on real events. The next lines that give a nice metrical example also both demonstrate a repeated pattern of thought in this poem, the pyrrhic foot followed by a spondaic foot.

And the Saw Snarled - Metrical Example

Note: For those readers and poets who really enjoy understanding how the minds of poets (and by extension all of us) work, there’s a fascinating little book by Edward A. Armstrong called Shakespeare’s Imagination. Armstrong traces what he calls image clusters in the works of Shakespeare. Swing Saw AdvertIn other words, when a goose shows up in Shakespeare’s imagery, the bird is usually associated with disease, lechery and even the plague. Likewise, when Shakespeare is reminded of a violet, his thoughts almost invariably turn to breath, which becomes wind, sweet airs and even tempests. Not only Armstrong, but other Shakespearean authors have noticed, if in passing, these same habits of thought. Caroline Spurgeon, in Shakespeare’s Imagery, notes similar patterns, including Shakespeare’s negative association with dogs. M.M. Mahood, in Shakespeare’s Wordplay , observes patterns of wordplay. When one word shows up, another associated word will usually show up with it. The reason I mention it is because I’ve noticed similar habits in the writing of meter. In any given poem or stage in a poet’s career, certain variant feet will show up and in habitual combinations. Compare the hard Iambic regularity of Mending Wall with Birches. The varying use of meter in all these poems certainly reflects on the intent and mood of the poem, but I also wonder if it reflects on the poet’s state of mind.

Back to Out, Out. Everyone who has heard a chainsaw knows how the engine revs and rattles. The two lines above, to my ears, capture that sound. The pyrrhic foot followed by the doubly stressed spondaic foot and the amphibrach (feminine ending) all contribute to a kind of metrical onomatopoeia: and the saw snarledand rattled/ as it ran light. By no means does every variant foot feel so nicely wedded to meaning, but Frost, like all great metrical poets, knows how to take advantage of the art when the opportunity arises. Mediocre poets will frequently dilute the power of such variations by introducing them meaninglessly and even contrary to the textual meaning.

All spoiled

The disruptive spondee |Don’t let| disrupts the iambic pattern – a kind of shock and outcry both textually and metrically.

The hand was gone

With this line the blank verse pattern breaks down. There are two ways to scan this line. Above, I’ve scanned the line as an Iambic Tetrameter line with a spondaic first foot and a feminine ending. It’s a nice little trick of meter. The hand is missing and a metrical foot is missing. With an Iambic Tetrameter scansion, the meter neatly reinforces the meaning of the text. Something is missing. The experienced reader of metrical poetry may subliminally or consciously sense the missing foot in the poem. The effect can be powerful, causing both the reader and the listener to pause, to palpably sense an absence. The line is the turning point of the poem.

Another way to scan the line (and the two ways of scanning the line are not mutually exclusive, though that may sound odd) is to treat the first two syllables as monosyllabic feet.

The hand was gone (monosyllabic feet)

Many, if not most, poets and metrists claim that monosyllabic feet don’t exist. I don’t agree. Metrical Art with ShadowI go along with George T. Wright, author of Shakespeare’s Metrical Art. He writes:

Occasional lines appear to be missing an unstressed syllable in some other position than at line -beginning or after a midline break. Anomalous lines of this kind appear in some early plays, sometimes (as in the work of Shakespeare’s predecessors) without notable expressive effect. But as Shakespeare develops the technique in his middle and later plays, it becomes a deliberate device for conveying emotional excitement. All of the following lines appear to involve a foot-long monosyllable intended to be spoken with great force or weight [The following is the second of the two examples Wright offers p. 178]:

King Lear Monosyllabic Feet

In like manner, I’ve read Frost’s So and But as monosyllabic feet. (This makes the line a five foot line.) While the variant feet don’t convey emotional excitement, they do convey a profound emotional turning point in the poem. I imagine the intonation as profoundly sad – a kind of tragic acknowledgment. The words could be spoken slowly with a generous pause – a tragic acceptance (though there are other equally powerful ways to read the poem).

Whether one reads the line as Pentameter or Tetrameter, the effect of both scansions can be felt simultaneously. And this is partly what scansion can do. It demonstrates the different ways readers and poets are affected by speech stress and rhythm in language, and sometimes there is more than one way to scan a line.

The final lines worth considering is the following:

Little, less, nothing

It’s the second line that’s especially noteworthy – a trochaic foot (the heart skips a beat), a spondaic foot (the last two heartbeats) and a pyrrhic foot (then nothing, no stresses, no beats). The boy dies. …such is Frost’s mastery of meter. I give him this one. I think he knew very well how he was playing the meter with the meaning. It’s an effect free verse can approximate, but can’t equal.

The Storyteller

A comparison of the newspaper clipping with Frost’s poem shows a number of changes. He changed the young man to a boy; and Frost clearly means for us to think the boy is more child than man – calling him “a child at heart”. If only given the newspaper clipping, I think most readers would imagine someone in his early to mid teens, rather than a “boy”.

Frost doesn’t want the reader to think this was simply carelessness – a young man who should have known better.

This was a boy, a child at heart, who didn’t know better. Frost suggests where the real responsibility rested: Call it a day, I wish they might have said. They, presumably, are the boy’s elders. Some critics and readers have read, in the poem’s closing lines, a cold callousness. Homemade Swing Saw (Side View)But if the narrator is assumed to be Frost, then there is also compassion and empathy in these lines. Frost possessed strong political opinions. And though his poetry is not overtly political, his philosophical and political views inevitably informed his poetry. Artists can’t escape their personalities (or at least I’m not aware of any).

Note: The saw at left is called a swing saw or swing saw machine. The swing saw in the image is homemade but is representative of the kind of saw that turn-of-the-century word workers would have been familiar with. (Cross-cut saws and chop saws would eventually replace them.) Notice how the saw is hanging like a pendulum. The weight of the circular saw blade (and assembly) were usually counterbalanced by another weight – like the “window weights” in old double-hung windows. If the counterweight hung from a pulley and someone bumped the weight or pulley, the saw might descend on the users hand. However, these saws were primarily shop saws and wouldn’t have been used in a dooryard for bucking lumber. In my view, a swing saw is probably not what was being referred to as a saw machine.

Some readers and critics have taken Frost’s poem as a criticism of child labor laws. Frost had spent time as an educator and so one might expect his sympathies to be attuned to the young. When Frost wrote the poem child labor was still a pernicious practice. It wasn’t until 1938 that the Federal government regulated child labor in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Frost, by this point, was already in his early sixties.

The other change was from a sawing machine to a buzz saw. Saw machines (like the larger drag saws) were probably less apt to be operated by a single person. The newspaper clipping states that Fitzgerald was assisting someone else (or others). A buzz saw, on the other hand, could easily be used by one person handling smaller logs. The impression Frost gives is of a boy working alone (his sister has to come out to tell him supper is ready). A child working after hours and alone only adds to the feeling, not of carelessness, but of tragedy. Frost additionally resists blaming the boy. He writes that the saw leaped out at the boy’s hand, as if it knew what supper was. The modern reader might wonder how a buzz saw could leap, but here’s Tom Hawkins again:

Now I’ve run many a cordwood saws in my life, so I kinda understand that poem a bit. Those old one lunger type gasoline engines had counterweighted flywheels to keep up their momentum as they were running, this caused the saw rig to bounce somewhat. The engines also had a make and break ignition, spark on and off as engine needed to maintain it’s governed speed, so as a new charged fired the whole unit would jump. ¶ I remember that when were cutting real dried out Oak or more so Locust (very hard wood), a large cloud of sawdust would surround an encompass us. ¶ It’s very possible that the saw did leap right out and take the hand, these type of saws really do jump, especially when their slowing to a stop, which appear to be the case here. The jump or leaping is caused by those counterweighted flywheels rotating at lower than normal balance speed.

Was it the boy? Was it the saw? Did the “boy give the hand”? It was fate. These things simply happen. The effect is to express the inexplicable.

Frost and the Poem’s Reception

As I’ve mentioned already, many of Frost’s readers were perplexed by the seeming callousness and indifference of the poem. Consider, as well, the reference of the poem’s title.

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Is this how readers are to understand the boy’s death? – as signifying nothing? Other words and images occur in Frost’s poem that may or may not have their source in Shakespeare’s passage. Consider these lines:

all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

Then consider how dust appears within the first lines of Frost’s poem:

The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust…

And the saw does just that. The buzz saw turns the boy’s own life to dust. It makes dust both literally and symbolically. And the poem, like Shakespeare’s soliloquy, closes with the word nothing.

They listened at his heart.
Little — less — nothing!

Just as with the poor fool, the actor who frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more, so too is the boy’s heart “heard no more”.

Belief & UncertaintyRobert Pack, one of the only authors to offer a detailed analysis of the poem, writes in Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost:

The poem’s narrative arc is of dust returning to “dusty death” (Shakespeare’s phrase), although the narrator and reader are at first misled by the sweet-scented odor of the cut wood in the breeze. The narrator, along with those other would-be believers who have lifted eyes, appears to be enjoying a vision of great depth into nature itself — “the Five mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset, far into Vermont” — as if nature were beautiful and benign, a spectacle of Wordsworthian and biblical revelation. But the narrator will subsequently realize that he has had, rather, a vision of nature’s beautiful indifference. [p. 158-159]

Pack calls the poem a confrontation with nothingness. And the feeling of nothingness and utilitarian purpose is only emphasized by the choice of words that close the poem, “no more to build on there“. This was more than the loss of a child. The work of building, of preparing for the season, the next season and the years to come never stopped. Frost’s words are hard. What had to be considered was not just the loss of a child but what the child contributed. Life in New England, at the turn of the century, was not easy. The response to the poem, among some of Frost’s closest readers and associates, seems to have put Frost on the defensive. Pack quotes a passage from a letter that may capture some of that defensiveness:

“And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies.” [p. 160]

Though Pack calls this passage “revealing” he doesn’t indicate why (or if) he thinks Frost was referring specifically to Out, Out. This sort of “hard pragmatism” can also be found in Home Burial. But even more revealing than this brief passage is the poem The Lesson for Today. As with the poem For Once, Then, Something, Frost seems to be responding to his critics, readers and even, perhaps, to his closest friends and family – acquaintances who may have accused Frost, himself, of that same hard callousness.

Major Themes of RFWe are all doomed to broken-off careers,
And so’s the nation, so’s the total race.
The earth itself is liable to that fate
Of meaninglessly being broken off.
(And hence so many literary tears
At which my inclination is to scoff.)
I may have wept that any should have died
Or missed their chance, or not have been their best,
Or been their riches, fame, or love denied;
On me as much as any is the jest.
I take my incompleteness with the rest.
God bless himself can no one else be blessed.

O hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

Radcliffe Squires, who also noted the relationship between this poem and the poem Out, Out, comments:

What matters is that [Robert Frost] could hold together in one poem the two severe and mutually accusing ideas that one must be moved to pity and compassion and that one must coldly and sternly pursue the duty of endurance and survival.

The beauty of the poem, and it’s powerful effect on the reader, arises from the balance Frost obtains. The accident is both carelessness, “the boy gave the hand” and accident “the saw leaped”. The narrator is both compassionate, “call it a day I wish they might have said”, and coldly pragmatic, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs”. The narrator is almost like nature itself – the passionate and dispassionate observer – that leaves us, the readers, to wonder at its design and purpose. That’s the best kind of poetry.

Why do Poets write Iambic Pentameter?

  • May 14, 2009 Tweaked & corrected some typos.

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

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

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

False Starts

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

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

Quantitative Verse (Sample from Spenser Encyclopedia)

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

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

Why the Drama?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Not Latin Enough

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Enough with the Romans and Greeks

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

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

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

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

Enter Milton

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

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

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

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

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

The Novelty Wears Off

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

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

The Fall of Iambic Pentameter

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

But not all poets followed Pound’s lead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it goes.

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

The rebellion was short lived.

Modern Iambic Pentameter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Last Comparison

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


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

Afterthoughts • August 7 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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  • This poem is based on the Goethe’s famous poem – Erlkönig.
  • Schubert wrote an equally famous song for piano and voice based on the poem. Here is an orchestrated version (not orchestrated by Schubert). For those who don’t speak German (I do, by the way) this comes with English subtitles.
  • Here is an AMAZING animated excerpt. The complete video, for a price, can be found at
  • And here it is sung by Jessye Norman.
  • I just recently posted an astonishing new video based on Goethe’s poem, you can watch it here.

[Not a great reading of my poem – but here it is. There are a couple of mistakes and I may try it again when it’s not midnight.]

Erlkönigin - Page 1

Erlkönigin - Page 2

Erlkönigin - Page 3

Erlkönigin - Page 4

Erlkönigin - Page 5

Robert Frost, Iambic Pentameter & Mending Wall

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  • September 25, 2011. Further thoughts on interpreting Mending Wall.
  • June 26, 2009Major revision. Expansion of post with interpretive passage.
  • April 25th, 2009 –  Added audio of Robert Frost reciting Mending Wall.

About the Poem

Having noticed several searches on Frost’s Mending Wall (probably one of the most famous poems he wrote) I thought I would take a look at the poem.the-work-of-knowing1 I’ve looked at several of my books on Frost and none of them extensively analyze the poem. The archetypal meaning of the wall is straightfoward and expounded on by the speaker of the poem. Perhaps the most insightful comment was Richard Poirier’s in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Poirier makes the observation Frost’s “genius as a narrative poet is in part his capacity to sustain debates between people about the nature of the ‘homes’ which they very often occupy together.” Mending Wall is an ideal manifestation of that genius, just as Home Burial is.

As an aside, it is also worth noting how few poets take an interest in writing narratively or even in voices other than their own. In the most recent issue of Measure, a biannual journal that publishes “formal” poetry, I could only find one poem indisputably  written in a voice other than the poet’s – “Moliere’s Housekeeper”. The overwhelming majority were first person with the remaining few being second and third person. Not a single poem was written in the manner of a debate between two separate voices. Robert Frost is truly unique in this respect.

Having just analyzed Frost’s Birches, I was struck by the difference, in metrical style, between Birches and Mending Wall. My first thought was that Birches must have been written later (if not much later) than Mending Wall. Where Mending Wall is extremely conservative in its use of variant feet, Birches shows a much greater freedom and flexibility. As is the habit with most poets , when young they will try to master the game strictly by the rules – both to learn the rules and to prove to themselves and to others that they have the right stuff. Frost himself bragged that his first book, “A Boy’s Will”, proved that he could write  by the numbers. That done, he quickly learned how to bend the rules.

I still think that Birches must have come later but William Pritchard, Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, pritchard_frostrecounts that when Frost wrote to Bartlett (a publisher) in August of 1913 “about a book to be called, tentatively, New England Eclogues, made up of ‘stories’ form between one to two hundred lines, he sent along a list of eleven poems, one of which bore the title “Swinging Birches.” Pritchard, echoing another biographer (John Kemp) speculates that Frost didn’t include Birches in the first book because the tone, more philosophical “and sage”, would have set it (too much) apart from the other poems “rooted in the realism of experience”. Page 103.

So… I’ m left clinging to my theory on the basis of meter alone. Which isn’t a wholly reliable way to date poetry. But there you have it. One last interesting note. Lea Newman, who I mentioned in a previous post, writes in her book Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry,  of a children’s story Frost wrote for Carol and Lesley. In reference to elves and a spell, she quotes the following passage from the story:

Their backs were to the wall so that when a stone fell off it they were taken by surprise. They hardly turned in time to see two little heads pop out of sight on the pasture side. Carol saw them better than Lesley. “Faries!” he cried. Lesley said, “I can’t believe it.” “Fairies sure,” said Carol.

What Newman doesn’t observe is that even here, two voices (Frost’s children) are in debate. One sees fairies, the other doesn’t. Not only were the seeds of magic and elves present in this children’s story, but also the presence of two distinct voices in debate. It’s easy to imagine how, rightly or wrongly, these first thoughts gradually evolved into the famous poem. Newman mentions, additionally, that Frost himself never firmly identified himself with one speaker or the other. There was a little of both speakers in himself – and the poem could in some ways be taken as an internal debate.

Here is what Frost himself said, 1955, at Bread Loaf:

It’s about a spring occupation in my day. When I was farming seriously we had to set the wall up every year. You don’t do that any more. You run a strand of barbed wire along it and let it go at that. We used to set the wall up. If you see a wall well set up you know it’s owned by a lawyer in New York — not a real farmer. This is just about that spring occupation, but of course all sorts of things have been done with it and I’ve done something with it myself in self defense. I’ve gone it one better — more than once in different ways for the Ned of it — just for the foolishness of it. [The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost p. 231]

To show just how divergent the metrical usages are between the two poems, I’ve color coded the scansion of Mending Wall and Birches. Trochaic feet are in red, Spondees are purple, Anapests are blue, and Feminine Endings are green, Phyrric feet are yellowish.

Frost reciting Mending Wall:

Mending Wall

Mending Wall - Color Coded Scansion

The meter does little in terms of acting as counterpoint to the line. (The scansion, by the way, is based on Frost’s own reading of the poem.) One might conjecture that the regularity of the meter, if it wasn’t simply for the sake of writing Iambic Pentameter, was meant to echo the stepwise, regular, stone by stone mending of the wall.  After all, there is no flinging of feet from the topmost spindle of a birch. There is no avalanching or crazed ice. There are no girls on hands and knees throwing their hair before them over their heads to dry them. The work of mending wall is slow, methodical, hand roughening work. This, of itself, may explain the careful regularity of the meter.

There are some nice touches worth mentioning, touches that might  escape a reader unaccustomed to reading blank verse (Iambic Pentameter). First:


The temptation, including my own, is to read the first foot as Trochaic |But at|, but Frost clearly reads it Iambically. He reads the first foot quickly. It’s a craft that many “professional” metrists don’t take seriously enough – perhaps because they’re not poets themselves. The meter of poets who write metrically shouldn’t be taken for granted. All too often, it seems, metrists insist that the English language, as it is spoken on the street, trumps any given metrical pattern. Don’t believe them. A poet who writes metrically does so for a reason.

The sweetest metrical touch comes in the following line:


Most of us would read the third foot as |I could|, putting the emphasis on I, but Frost reads the foot Iambically and the pattern reinforces the reading. Putting the emphasis on could gives the line a much different feel, then if one emphasized I. To me, Frost’s reading sounds more mischeivious. Frost specialized in this sort of metrical subtletly, emphasizing words that might not normally recieve the ictus. It’s also a specially nice touch because just several lines before Frost used the word could as an unstressed syllable.


One could conceivably stress could in the line above, but that would be subverting the Iambic pattern.

Lastly, another effect of the regular iambic pattern is to  especially contrast the first trochaic foot in the poem’s seminal line:

Some-thing | there is | that does | n’t love | a wall

It’s an effect that subliminally draws attention to the eye, catching the ear. It’s a line that disrupts the normal “foot on foot”, “stone on stone” pattern of the poem. And it is doubly effective because the line occurs twice. If the effect wasn’t noticed the first time, it will be the second time.

The author Mark Richardson, in one of my favorite books on Frost, The Ordeal of Robert Frost, finds that the two trochees in this first line and in the four lines “contribute subtly to the theme of these lines”.

Something| there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes |gaps ev|en two can pass abreast.

“How much better”, he asks, “to describe a disordered wall than in lines themselves disordered.” To me, given that only 2 out of the 20 feet are variant metrical feet (and the spondee is really only marginal) I’m not persuaded that they’re all that disordered.  I’m more apt to apply that observation to the following lines:

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones |under |his pines, |I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make |good neighbors’.
Spring is |the mischief in me, and |I wonder

In these lines, 5 out of the feet are variant. Two trochaic feet and three feminine endings.  I think these lines make a stronger case for the juncture of meter and meaning. There is a sort of excitement and mischievousness in the tone of the speaker reflected, one could argue, in the disruption of the meter. As Frost reads it, these are the most irregular lines in the poems – the moment when the two men exchange words.

Interpreting Mending Wall: (June 19 2009)

I’m adding this section because I should have written it from the beginning. But what prompted me to write it is the fascinating reading from an acquaintance of mine. He is the Director of a New England private school and in his most recent newsletter, he wrote the following about the poem:

The more I read and teach this poem. the more I find the speaker to be a condescending jerk. After inviting the neighbor to repair the wall, a tradition that clearly brings the speaker pleasure, he then makes fun of him for caring about the wall. First he assures his neighbor that his apples trees will not cross the wall to eat his pine cones. Then he imagines making an even more preposterous suggestion — that it is “elves” and not frost heaves that have toppled the wall — but decides not to mention it since his neighbor is not clever enough to come up with such an idea on his own… He ends the poem with an insult, confiding to us that the neighbor is “an old stone savage armed”.

The point being made is that the speaker’s humor comes at the expense of his neighbor. “Wall mending becomes an opportunity not to talk with his neighbor, but to sneer at him.” This is prejudice, he adds.

My own take is that there is certainly some humor at the neighbor’s expense, but the speaker of the poem gives the neighbor the final word. In other words, the poem doesn’t end with these words:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

It ends with the aphorism – Good fences make good neighbors. This is what the reader of the poem walks away with. There is a weight and seriousness in this last line, like the stones being placed back onto the wall, that undercuts the speaker’s glib humor.

Politics and Poetry - Robert FrostTyler Hoffman, in his book, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry (another one of my very favorite books on Robert Frost and dirt cheap at Amazon), actually acknowledges some of my acquaintances reservations concerning Mending Wall’s speaker. Hoffman’s observes that Frost’s own conception of the poem initially confirms the impression of the speaker’s dismissiveness. Hoffman writes:

In 1915, when the tone [of the neighbor’s aphorism] is fresher in his mind, Frost advses that this instance should be heard as expressing ‘Incredulity of the other’s dictum’ (CPPP 689). But how much sarcasm is entangled in the in the speaker’s quotation of his neighbor’s statement? The tone is held in suspension, allowing us to imagine it is said with either a shrug or a sneer.

Hoffman continues:

(…) none of the imaginable tones is flattering to the neighbor: when we hear it one way, we condemn him as smug and self-congratulatory; when we hear it another way, we write him off as a blockhead (“an old-stone savage armed”).

According to Hoffman, Frost’s acquaintance, Reginald Cook reported that Frost used to stress “I’d rather he said it for himself” in the lines:

I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself

There were evidently tonalities and “sentence sounds” that Frost lost track of as a result of repeated readings. Hoffman relates that Frost himself said (in reference to the poem’s central aphorism): “You know, I’ve read that so often I’ve sort of lost the right way to say, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ See. There’s a special way to say [it] I used to have in my imagination, and it seems to have gone down. You say it in two different ways there.”

What’s interesting about Frost’s statement is that it confirms what many readers probably sense (or may not), that there is a shift in tone from the start of the poem to the finish. The speaker’s own attitude toward his neighbor changes. Does the poem end sarcastically or does it only begin sarcastically and end with a different sort of respect. It seems that the speaker of the Mending Wall wants his neighbor to be more playful or more open to a kind of intentionality in the world’s workings. Human beings do more than build barriers. We cannot separate ourselves from the vagaries of life that, sometimes, seem almost mischievous, tearing down our most ingeniously devised walls.  The speaker wants his neighbor to say it for himself. But if one reads the poem in this sense, then it seems as though the neighbor really does move in a kind of darkness. He comes to represent that part in us that refuses to give ourselves up to a world we cannot, ultimately, control. It’s not exactly elves, but maybe something like elves. Call it impishness, perhaps.

But there’s another aspect to this poem, and that’s in knowing which character is really Robert Frost, if either. In the Road Not Taken, Frost describes the following experience:

I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home.

This sort of experience characterizes much of Frost’s poetry – Frost in conversation with himself, divided in his own beliefs and assertions. The Ordeal of Robert FrostMany of his poems are like argumentative engagements with himself. Frost himself said as much:

“I make it a rule not to take any ‘character’s side in anything I write” [RF & The Politics of Poetry p. 108]

It’s a theme that Mark Richardson recognizes in his book The Ordeal of Robert Frost. Mending Wall, he writes: “perfectly exhibits the balance he sought between dispositions  of conformity and formity. The speaker… allies himself with the insubordinate energies of spring…” Then Richardson adds:

…the association of the speaker with insubordinate natural forces should not be permitted to obscure an important fact, which has been often enough noticed: he, not the neighbor, initiates the yearly spring repair of the wall; moreover, it is again he, not the neighbor, who goes behind hunters who destroy the wall in other seasons and makes repairs. So, if the speaker is allied with the vernal mischief of spring and its insubordinations, he is nevertheless set against them in his efforts to make the stones of the wall balance and remain in place… [p. 141]

Driving the point home, Richardson closes his argument with the following:

The speaker of “Mending Wall” is obviously of two minds: at once wall-builder and wall-destroyer, at once abettor and antagonist of seasonal entropies…. The difference is that, unlike his benighted neighbor, the speaker of the poem does indeed go behind his own favored aphorism [Something there is that doesn’t love a wall] to play both sides of the fence. In short, the two opposed men in the poem fairly shape up into one, and his name is Robert Frost.

Here from The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, is Frost himself. Frost was responding to the president of Rollins College.

He took both my hands to tell me I had written a true international poem. And just to tease him I said: “How do you get that?” You know. I said I thought I’d been fair to both sides — both national [and international]. “Oh, no,” he said, “I could see what side you were on.” And I said: “The more I say I the more I always mean somebody else.” That’s objectivity, I told him. That’s the way we talked about it, kidding. That’s where the great fooling comes in. But my latest way out of it is to say: “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries. That’s man. [pp. 231-232]

George Monteiro, the essayists from whose article these quotes are taken, adds that Frost took Mending Wall “very much… as a fable.”

The Poet and his Poetry (September 25 2011)

Just as we change, the best poems change with us. When I return to Mending Wall, I read the poem in ways I didn’t before. I won’t claim that what follows represents Frost’s intentions,  just that it’s another possible way to understand it.

One of Frost’s most engaging traits, to me, was his way of putting the overly inquisitive off his trail. His metaphorical gifts were such that he could talk about himself and no listener would be the wiser. In many of his poems he slyly (and not so slyly) discusses himself, his poetry, his readers, his critics and the pushy. He merrily described this facility in his poem Woodchuck.

The Woodchuck

My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.
With those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.
All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.
We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.
And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),
If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,
It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.

It’s hard not to read Woodchuck as Frost’s sly confession regarding his attitude toward his poetry and the interpreting of it. All of his poems are like a two door borrow. He can pretend he and the world — his readers and critics — are friends, but get too close he’ll “dive down under the farm”. Don’t forget that Frost was at odds with a ‘world’ in which Free Verse was fast becoming the dominant verse form. Frost warily dodges the double-barreled blast of critics who suffer from “the loss of common sense”. Finally, we can read “crevice and burrow” as a sly reference to his poetry. He’s been instinctively thorough in his concealment and self-preservation.

Woodchuck isn’t the only poem to fit into this Frostian trick. If there was ever are more searing critique of modern verse than Etherealizing (and by extension Free Verse) then I don’t know it.

By Robert Frost

A theory if you hold it hard enough
And long enough gets rated as a creed:
Such as that flesh is something we can slough
So that the mind can be entirely freed.
Then when the arms and legs have atrophied,
And brain is all that’s left of mortal stuff,
We can lie on the beach with the seaweed
And take our daily tide baths smooth and rough.
There once we lay as blobs of jellyfish
At evolution’s opposite extreme.
But now as blobs of brain we’ll lie and dream,
With only one vestigial creature wish:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.

If you read theory as a sly reference to Pound’s preface to the anthology, “Some Imagist Poets” (as I do) then the entirety of the poem effortlessly falls in place. If modern poets hold a theory hard enough, such as the Pound’s dictums concerning poetry, then they’ll be rated a creed, in the sense of a  written body of teachings of a religious group generally accepted by that group — in a word: Dogma.

Continuing this interpretation, flesh, for Frost, is synonymous with meter and rhyme — the techniques of traditional poetry. Naturally our arms and legs will atrophy (our ability to write traditionally) and all that will be left of our poetry is “brain”. Frost’s prediction, in this respect, has proven true. Modern free verse poetry is seldom appraised for it’s skill in rhyme, meter or imagery, but largely its subject matter — in a word, brain. Two hundred years ago, a poorly written poem was readily dismissed no matter how elevated its content. Today, when the only thing that separates Free Verse from prose is ego, the poems of award winning poets are almost solely praised for their elevated and socially relevant content.

Frost compares such stuff to seaweed. With nothing left to the poetry but content (or brain) the daily tide (the vicissitudes of readers and critics) will hardly affect it whether the baths are smooth or rough. Frost is comparing free verse, and the subject matter of free free verse poets, to the amorphous jelly fish that moves whichever way the tide moves it. The jellyfish takes no stand, and can’t.

With one final kick in the rear, Frost compares the free verse poem to the blobs of brain who “lie and dream” with only “one vestigial creature wish”:

Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.

What other poems follow this pattern? Read A Considerable Speck, where the pursuit  of a mite is a droll reference to the creative process. It ends:

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Similarly, the poem For Once Then Something is Frost’s response to criticism (still made today) that his poetry is all shine and no depth. Click on the link of you want to read my interpretation. Frost’s poem Birches can also be read as an introspective consideration of the poet’s place in the modern world.  In short, there is good precedent for reading Frost’s poems as sly and subtle revelations, commentary almost, on his sense of self as poet, artist and critic. The poem Mending Wall can be read in that tradition.

To start with, remember Frost’s statement that “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries.” Read the poem as Frost in two guises, as wall builder and wall toppler.  Read the wall, perhaps, as a poem, not Mending Wall necessarily, but any poem.

Two sides of Frost, the poet, appear. There is the playful Frost, the one that wants to tease and reveal, and there is the coy Frost, the Woodchuck, who is instinctively thorough about his crevice and burrow. This is the Frost who wants to keep something out. He doesn’t know what, but something. Some kinds of poems, like walls, keep things out and keeps things in reserve and that is all the explanation needed. Nevertheless, there are readers who won’t be satisfied. They want Frost to tell them what his poems are really about. They want to take down the wall. They make “gaps even two can pass abreast”.

The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.

The hunter and critic, says the cagey Frost, leaves not one stone on a stone, but would have the rabbit, the poem’s meaning, out of hiding to please the yelping dogs — the too inquisitive public. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says the cagey Frost, but some things are better untold or hidden. He says, good fences make good neighbors and we could just as easily take that to mean that a good poem, if the poet doesn’t give too much away, makes good readers.

But Frost is of two minds and the poem stands between them. The best poem, like the best wall, is made by both Frosts (though the alliance isn’t easy). One Frost, in a sense, is all apple orchard (the brighter wood with its associations of food, family and public) and the other Frost is pine (a darker, pitchier wood that is reticent and unrevealing).

We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

The Frost that teases and revels in suggestion and misdirection will have his say — the Frost of the Apple Orchard.

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.

The public Frost, the mischievous trickster, suggests Elves. He wants to know what the other Frost is walling in or out. What is he afraid of? What is he hiding? What is he afraid to let out? But no answer comes. The cagey, darker Frost will keep his secrets. Revelation isn’t in his nature. As if commenting on the meaning of the poem itself, he answers simply but also evasively, “Good fences make good neighbors.

Read the poem this way and and we read a philosophy of poetry.

Read it like this and Frost is revealing something about himself. There are two sides and it’s in their uneasy truce that his poetry finds greatness. I don’t know if Frost was thinking along these lines when he wrote the poem, but he was a shrewd poet. This way of writing is something that shows up in his other poems.

A Comparison to Birches

In terms of the degree to which the meter differs between Mending Wall and Birches, I thought I’d post my scansion of Birches for comparison:


Birches - Color coded scansion

Something I mentioned in my previous post on Birches, is how the variant feet emphasize and reinforce the narrative of the poem. Having color coded the variant feet, Frost’s skillful use of meter is all the more visible.  The most concentrated metrical variation occurs where the narrative describes motion – movement and spectacle. This is no mistake. Poets learning to write metrically (and there must be a few of them in the world) would do well to study Frost carefully.

If you enjoyed this post or have further questions, please let me know.

It makes writing them worthwhile.