the annotated “My Last Duchess”

the poem

Much is made of Edgar Allen Poe’s dark and chilling poem The Raven. Rightfully so, but to me, the most chilling, gothic, and horrific poem remains My Last Duchess by Robert Browning. If there was ever a surer portrayal of the sociopathic killer, I don’t know it. I’m reminded of the fabled Bluebeard when I read the poem. Here’s the poem in its entirety.

My Last Duchess
Ferrara

1….That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
…..Looking as if she were alive. I call
…..That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
…..Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
…..Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
…..‘Fra Pandolf’ by design, for never read
…..Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
…..The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
…..But to myself they turned (since none puts by
10 The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
…..And seemed they would ask me, if they durst,
…..How such a glance came there; so, not the first
…..Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
…..Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
…..Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
…..Frà Pandolf chanced to say ‘Her mantle laps
…..‘Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
…..‘Must never hope to reproduce the faint
…..‘Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
20 Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
…..For calling up that spot of joy. She had
…..A heart–how shall I say?–too soon made glad,
…..Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
…..She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
…..Sir, ‘t was all one! My favor at her breast,
…..The dropping of the daylight in the West,
…..The bough of cherries some officious fool
…..Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
…..She rode with round the terrace–all and each
30 Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
…..Or blush, at least. She thanked men,–good! but thanked
…..Somehow–I know not how–as if she ranked
…..My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
…..With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
…..This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
…..In speech–(which I have not)–to make your will
…..Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
…..‘Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
…..Or there exceed the mark’–and if she let
40 Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
…..Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse
…..–E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
…..Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt
…..Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
…..Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
…..Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
…..As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
…..The company below, then. I repeat
…..The Count your master’s known munificence
50 Is ample warrant that no just pretense
…..Of mine dowry will be disallowed
…..Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
…..At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
…..Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
…..Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
…..Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

the annotation: lines 1-3

Let’s jump right in.

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: (….)

The opening lines have a lot of history behind them, and speculation. As regards the poem’s greatness or meaning, none of it matters. It’s almost more of a parlor game — forensic poetry for literary scholars in need of an argument. But because inquiring minds like to know (including my own), here we go. An analysis found here places the setting for the poem “on the grand staircase of the ducal palace at Ferrara in northern Italy”. The writers don’t say how they know this but I think I may have found their source. In a fictional work by Elizabeth Lowry, the author closes with some recommended reading: My Last Duchess. In that section, she writes:

Browning drew on an actual episode in Tuscan history for his donnee, but the interpretation, and the glittering diction, are all his own. The scene is the grand staircase of the ducal palace in Ferrara, in northern Italy; time: the mid-1500s. The speaker is the lusty, avaricious Duke of Ferrara ,and as the poem opens he is brokering a marriage deal with the envoy of the the Count of Tyrol, whose daughter he intends to acquire as his second duchess–for Ferrara’s “last” ducess, we realize, is dead. [The Bellini Madonna: A Novel p. 343]

Lowry’s scholarship is as fictional as her novel. No scholar has ever asserted that Browning’s poem is based “on an actual episode”.  An actual duke? Maybe. An actual episode? No. And no reference was ever made to a grand staircase. This is nothing more than a fiction writer’s fiction.

Who was the actual duke and duchess? Some scholars might say that Browning had the Duke Alfonso II d’Este in mind. Yours truly has tried to get to the bottom of this – to sort out baseless assertions from fact. With a visit to Dartmouth, I was able to read an article by Louis S. Friedland, Studies in Philology Vol. 33,  No. 4 (Oct., 1936), pp. 656-684, called Ferrara and My Last Duchess. I was interested to read it because sometimes you will find statements like the following (both on the web and in text books):

“It is this Duke, Louis S. Friedland has shown, who is the Duke of My Last Duchess, as we shall see below. This means that the poem was written in the summer or early fall of 1842.” [A Browning Handbook William Clyde DeVane p. 108]

Or

“That these historical figures were the prototypes of Browning’s characters is convincingly established by Louis S. Friedland in ‘Ferrara and My Last Duchess,'”… [The Heath Reader Santi V. Buscemi p. 566]

Or

“Friedland conclusively proves, I think, that the person from whose character and career Browning’s duke is drawn is Alfonso II, Fifth Duke of Ferrara, and the duchess was Lucrezia de’ Medicia, who was fourteen years old at her marriage and died at seventeen…” [The Victorian Poets: A Guide to Research, Frederic Everett Faverty p. 81]

There are oodles and oodles of references to Friedland’s article, so I just had to read it. Here’s what I found out. First of all, contrary to Faverty or Devane’s claim, Friedland did not show (in the sense of prove) that Alfonso II d’Este was “the Duke of My Last Duchess”. He did not, contrary to Buscemi’s claim, convincingly establish the Duke’s identity. Don’t believe the hype. (After all, every day another scholar is “proving” that Queen Elizabeth or her poodle, the Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays.) Rather, Friedland’s article takes aim at another scholar who had the effrontery to identify the Duke as Vespasiano Gonzaga (which, in itself, tells you something). The rival scholar, Professor John D. Rea, also identified the Duchess as Diana, daughter of Don Antonio die Cardona and the Duke’s first wife. Friedland’s article is not a treatise on why Alfonso is the Duke, but only an argument for why Alfonso might be a better fit than Vespasiano. Here’s how Friedland puts it:

…the studies by Griffin and Minehin, W.C. DeVane, Brocher, Hovalque, and Stewart W. Holmes prove Browning’s familiarity with the early history of Ferrara. We know that after his trip to Italy in the summer of 1888, Browning altered his scheme for Sordello, which at first took no account of Ferrara; by 1840 Ferrara “became the scene of half his poems”. The new conception led him to read widely in the mediaeval history of Ferrara, and the authorities he consulted have been identified. [p. 666]

And that, for the most part, is as good as the case gets — circumstantial evidence. At  the outset, Friedland rhetorically states: “Hence we have every justification for assuming that Browning joined the word Ferrara to My Last Duchess by design and malice aforethought.”

The obvious rejoinder is: OK, then why didn’t Browning entitle the poem Ferrara from the get-go? Browning originally entitled the poem I. Italy, not My Last Duchess: Ferrara. We know that the Duke of Ferrara was hardly the only Renaissance grandee with a long-lived ego and short-lived wife. Friedland himself admits that a wife’s death, by treacherous means at the hands of a Duke is a “Renaissance commonplace of foul play and domestic murder.” If Browning was all that familiar with Alfonzo’s history, would he have known that Alfonzo’s young wife was thought to have died a natural death? Was he only aware of the rumors and gossip? Friedland himself writes that “Lucrezia suffered from chronic lung-trouble” and “that her father and her brother Francesco were kept constantly informed with regard to the progress of her last illness.” Friedland adds:

“In any event, it is difficult to believe that Alfonso was so rash as to poison the young daughter of the powerful Cosimo, his near neighbor and a man not to be trifled with.”

On the other hand, historians can assert that Diana, Rea’s candidate for Duchess, was essentially forced to commit suicide by her husband, the Duke Vespasiano Gonzag, on suspicion of infidelity. If, in the history available to Browning, the scholarly consensus was against the rumored murder of Alfonso’s young wife, than that might explain why he didn’t initially title the poem Ferrara (if historical accuracy was all that important to him). Why base the poem on a Duke who might not have murdered his wife? There’s also this interesting tidbit of information, provided by Friedland.

“How was her death occasioned? The poem does not say. No other lines of the monologue have called forth the critical discussion that turns on the words: “I gave commands, etc.” An early reviewer maintained that the proper interpretation of the Duke’s statement was the sentence of death. Extremely loath to accept this view, Hiram Corson asked the poet for the true meaning of the lines. As usual, Browning’s answer was as cryptic as the passage that prompted the query. “He replied meditatively,” says Corson, “‘Yes, I meant that the commands were that she be put to death.’ Then, after a pause, he added, with a characteristic dash of expression, and as if the thought had just started in his mind. ‘Or he might have had her shut up in a convent.”  [Ferrera and “My Last Duchess” p.676]

If Browning based the poem on Alfonso and Lucrezia (and accepted the rumors of poison to be true) then why not say so in the poem? I think the anecdote says more about the critics Friedland and Corson, than Browning. Friedland, after pouncing on the fact that Browning renamed the poem Ferrara, downplays Browning’s own commentary (since it counters his argument) by calling Browning’s comment “cryptic”. Corson adds that “the thought had just started in [Browning’s] mind”. (Corson, apparently, is not only a reader of poetry but a reader of poets’ minds.) Both critics have a dog in the hunt and downplay whatever counters their narratives.

I personally don’t see anything “cryptic” about Browning’s reply. It runs counter to the notion that Browning had a particular Duke in mind, but so what? It supports the notion that Browning was less interested in who the poem was about than the dramatic fiction. Browning won’t even commit to the notion that the Duchess was murdered! Remember, the Duke never says that the Duchess was murdered, only that (in the painting) she looks “as if she were alive”. In the elliptical poetic language of iambic pentameter, he might just as easily be saying that the painting is “lifelike” in how it captures her. I personally prefer the former interpretation (that she was murdered) because so much else about the Duke’s monologue is darkly suggestive, but that’s only an interpretation. She could have been hustled away to a convent with a bunch of unsmiling nuns – the Italian version of Stalin’s Siberia.  (I personally would prefer Siberia to nuns.)

Here’s how I read the the facts. The theme of the wife poisoned by the grandee, as Friedland wrote, was a commonplace of Renaissance gossip. Browning could easily have been inspired by any number of stories (think Bluebeard). Professor Rea gives just one example. In the case of Rea’s Duke – Vespasiano Gonzag – Friedland argues that  the “facts” of Browning’s poem (as if they even could be called facts) don’t fit Rea’s Duchess (married to Gonzag for eleven years). Friedland italicizes eleven as though this, in and of itself, were somehow proof that Rea was delusional; but he gives us no reason why the Last Duchess couldn’t have been married to the Duke for eleven years except that, in Friedland’s interpretative opinion, Browning’s Duchess just sounds young. And that’s that. That’s Friedland’s “evidence”. Here’s how he puts it:

Now, even if we grant Diana not more than nineteen years at the time of her marriage, she was thirty years old when she died, — a mature woman by Rennaisance standards. Eleven years is a long time to “cease all smiles.’ It is difficult to fit this situation into the framework of My Last Duchess. Browning’s Duchess has nothing in common with Diana; far from being gay or flirtatious, or worse, she is young, inexperienced, happy-natured, radiant; she has been married but a short time when death overtakes her. There is no foul stain upon her joyous expectancy of life, her love for all living things and all things of beauty. [pp. 661-662]

A portrait of Lucrezia that Browning never saw.

Fair enough. I’m inclined to read the Last Duchess the way Friedland does, but I’m also prepared to assert that Browning does not tell us that the Duchess has been “married but a short time” or even that she was young. Every statement that Friedland makes is a matter of self-serving interpretation, not fact. The facts could just as easily fit Professor Rea’s candidate. However, all of this, especially Friedland’s article, makes the assumption that Browning wasn’t fictionalizing (despite the fact that both Frà Pandolf and the sculptor Claus of Innsbruck are fictional). But just as Shakespeare changed history and character to suit dramatic ends, so could Browning. The assumption that Browning must have been tying events to real historical personages is, in and of itself, an unsubstantiated, circumstantial assumption. That he wasn’t inspired by Alfonso is suggested by the fact that he didn’t initially entitle the poem Ferrera. It’s also suggested by the fact that, when asked, he offered that the Last Duchess might not have been murdered, but sent to a convent.

  • Why was the painter a member of a religious order? Frà means Brother, as in Brother Pandalf. The likeliest reason is that Browning didn’t want the reader to wonder whether Lucrezia was having an affair with the painter. As will be seen below, the supposition did occur to contemporary readers of Browning’s poetry. Browning wants Lucrezia to be blameless and innocent — all the more vilifying the Duke’s behavior.

He probably wrote the poem with the general theme in mind  — self-aggrandizing Duke murders or exiles insufficiently appreciative wife. As he increasingly familiarized himself with the history of Ferrara (the place) in the course of writing other poems, he might have seen resemblances to real historical figures or, more likely, that the events of My Last Duchess could easily be imagined within such a culture.

In their book The Poetical Works of Robert Browning: Volume III: Bells and Pomegranates I-VI (including Pippa Passes and Dramatic Lyrics), the editors Ian Jack and Rowena Fowler offer a welcome moment of sanity. They write:

When the poem was first published Browning cannot have expected his readers to associate it with any particular Duke and Duchess, or with any particular city. Even when he named Ferrara, he can hardly have expected them to associate it with any particular episode. While Friedland may well be right in his conjectures, it is also possible that ‘Ferrara’ was simply added as a general stage-direction. [p. 185]

All this is to say: Take the identities of the Duke and Duchess with a walloping dose of skepticism. Don’t believe everything you read on the web, wikipedia, or even in “scholarly” publications. Alfonso II d’Este and Lucrezia have not been identified as the Duke and Duchess. They just happen to fit better, circumstantially, if one is willing to downplay a number of  historical inconveniences and the poet’s own comments.

: lines 3-13

………………..Frà Pandolf’s hands
…..Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
…..Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
…..‘Fra Pandolf’ by design, for never read
…..Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
…..The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
…..But to myself they turned (since none puts by
10 The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
…..And seemed they would ask me, if they durst,
…..How such a glance came there; so, not the first
…..Are you to turn and ask thus.

The old Ducal Palace. Browning never visited Ferrera.

The implication, in the poem itself, is that the Duke is speaking to an emissary (come to arrange or negotiate a marriage to another aristocrat’s daughter). The Duke instructs the emissary to be seated. “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” he asks.

The next line is one that gives many readers trouble. When the Duke says: “I said “Frà Pandolf” by design…” What does he mean by this? My own interpretation is to read “said” as “I requested” or “I demanded”. To a man possessing the Duke’s obvious ego, his word is his command. One imagines the Duke’s internal conversation:

Question: Which painter did you request?

Answer: I said “Frà Pandolf”; and said so “by design”.

He chose the skill of Frà Pandolf “by design” knowing that no stranger would ever read “that pictured countenance” without wondering at the “depth and passion of [her] earnest glance” – something Frà Pandolf alone, it seems, was capable of. The Duke  knew, by design, that every stranger would ask him “if they durst,/ How such a glance came there’.

Interestingly, Browning himself was asked as to the meaning of the line. He answered: “To have some occasion for telling the story, and illustrating part of it…”

Much of the rest of the monologue, as far as the Duke is concerned, is the “illustration”  for why he chose Frà Pandolf. In the course of the illustration, he reveals much (whether intentionally or unintentionally is debated). My own feeling is that he knows exactly what he’s up to. As he says himself, he chose Frà Pandolf by design. My thinking is that he meant the painting to serve as a warning and since none but him will ever draw the curtain, the tour will be guided. In other words, he’s going to make certain that the moral of the painting is understood just as he “designed” it to be understood – a stern warning.

  • The “you” in the poem is said to be Nikolaus Mardruz, but this conjecture depends on ones agreeing that the Duke was Alfonso II d’Este. The evidence, as demonstrated above, is purely conjectural and is, in truth, irrelevant. Whether the speaker was this Duke or that Emissary, the poem’s meaning doesn’t change one whit.

: Line 13-21

……………………Sir, ‘t was not
…..Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
…..Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
…..Frà Pandolf chanced to say ‘Her mantle laps
…..‘Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
…..‘Must never hope to reproduce the faint
…..‘Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
20 Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
…..For calling up that spot of joy.

And now begins the Duke’s dark warning. Frà Pandolf has done his job. The emissary has presumably asked into the striking depth and passion of the portrait. “…so not the first/ Are you to turn and ask thus.” The Duke expounds: It wasn’t only her husband’s presence (his presence) that brought that “spot”, or flush of joy to the Duchess’s cheek. Browning’s usage of the Shakespearean word spot is telling — her blush is a flaw, a blemish. In the Duke’s opinion, her joys were trivial. Perhaps Brother Pandolf happened to say that the lady’s mantle lapped over her “wrist to much. She smiled or blushed with joy. Perhaps Brother Pandolf praised the “faint/ Half-flush that dies along her throat”. That was “cause enough” for producing that “spot of joy”.

  • The detail (it’s worth noting) of the half-flush “that dies” along her throat is an exceedingly sinister detail. I can’t help but wonder whether Browning (or the Duke) isn’t hinting at the method of her murder. Details like this are what compel me to think she was murdered rather than sent to a nunnery. Was she? There’s no right answer. That’s for every reader to interpret individually.

: Line 21-34

………………………………………….She had
…..A heart–how shall I say?–too soon made glad,
…..Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
…..She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
…..Sir, ‘t was all one! My favor at her breast,
…..The dropping of the daylight in the West,
…..The bough of cherries some officious fool
…..Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
…..She rode with round the terrace–all and each
30 Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
…..Or blush, at least. She thanked men,–good! but thanked
…..Somehow–I know not how–as if she ranked
…..My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
…..With anybody’s gift.

  • …my favor at her breast…” referred to a ribbon given, in this sense, as a sign of love (a love-favor). In the poem, however, one gets the sense that such a ribbon was intended less as a love-favor and more as an indication that she belonged to him. He had marked her with a ribbon.

The Duke gets to the “heart” of the matter. The woman was “too easily impressed”.  She liked “whate’er she looked on”. She ranked his gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with the cherries some “officious fool” gave her, or the white mule she liked to ride. Some of the more interesting commentary on this portion of the poem relates to Victorian attitudes toward gender and their effort to delimit female sexuality. Victorians and their attitudes toward gender are a big, big subject. I’m not going to attempt it, except to say that the topic fills books. The Duke’s desire to fix the behavior of his wives could be said to parallel Victorian society’s obsession with individual behavior and reputation. The Duke, in this sense, is possibly more typical of a Victorian aristocrat than any 16th century figure. But the absolute power of the 16th century nobleman allowed Browning to dramatize Victorian preoccupations carried to their dark extremes.

  • …and her looks went everywhere…” There’s no small symbolism in the fact that the Duke keeps her visage curtained. Her looks will no longer go anywhere without his permission.

But there’s a fascinating anecdote about the poem that nicely illustrates Victorian attitudes toward women. Although the anecdote is commonly referenced, I found a more complete account at Google books in a book published in 1890. I copied the dedicatory page on the left. Maybe because I just lost my dog, my companion of 14 years, I’m feeling a little tender when I read something that says “in memory of”, but notice how the book was given in 1899 by the class of 1890. Robert Browning died on 1889. This meant that Robert Browning was alive and well while the class members were enrolled. Many websites and scholars will refer to the anecdote, but they don’t do it justice. Here’s the full story:

In the early days of 1888 a club, styled “The Day’s End Club,” was formed in the city of Exeter, to study contemporary literature.

On February 18, 1889, a member read to the Club six of Robert Browning’s shorter poems. He had paraphrased some, and his reading and notes provoked much discussion. The Rev. Sackville A. Berkely, who had become acquainted with Browning at Oxford, offered to write to the poet, and state the difficulties of the members.

Queries

My Last Duchess

[Berkely] Was she in fact shallow and easily and equally well pleased with any favour: or did the Duke so describe her as a supercilious cover to real and well justified jealousy?

[Browning] As an excuse — mainly to himself — for taking revenge on one who had unwittingly wounded his absurdly pretentious vanity, by failing to recognise his superiority in even the most trifling matters.

[New poems: by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ed. Sir Frederic G. Kenyon p. 178]

What’s so interesting, to me, isn’t so much Browning’s answer, which is how most of us would probably interpret the poem, but the question! The question reveals much about Victorian attitudes. As I read it, the questioner is basically asking whether the Duchess deserved it! Berkely asks, was she really that shallow? In other words, Berkely, and presumably the members of the “The Day’s End Club”, concluded that if the Duke was telling the truth, that if she really was so shallow as to enjoy a bough of cherries as much as the Duke’s 900 year old name then… well… she must have been “in fact shallow and easily and equally well pleased with any favour.” Conclusion? She deserved it. We, in the 21rst century, whether the Duke is telling the truth or not, condemn the Duke’s behavior. Readers of the Victorian era? Not so. They need clarification. This is the society and attitudes in which Browning’s poem appeared.

We, like Friedland, consider the Duchess, whether the Duke exaggerated or not, a “happy-natured” and “radiant” woman, not shallow. It’s the Duke who is shallow and easily and equally well insulted by any triviality. But this interpretation doesn’t seem to occur to Exeter’s book club members. They want to know about the Duchess, not the Duke.

The second part of the question is equally damning! He asks, “did the Duke so describe her as a supercilious cover to real and well justified jealousy?” OK, let’s translate this. What the questioner is asking is this: Was the Duke correctly describing her (albeit superciliously) as shallow, or was she an adulterer? In other words, the poor Duchess’ reputation goes from the frying pan into the fire! Either she’s incredibly shallow or she’s a whore! (I don’t think I’ve ever used so many exclamation points in a post, but wow.) In any event, the question just enforces what Browning was up against. Browning’s reply is terse. If I were to read between the lines, I might call it exasperated. Browning squarely puts the blame where it belongs — on the Duke.

: Lines 34-43
·

"...exceed the mark..." When the arrow overshoots the target.

………………….Who’d stoop to blame
…..This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
…..In speech–(which I have not)–to make your will
…..Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
…..‘Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
…..Or there exceed the mark’–and if she let
40 Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
…..Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse
…..–E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
…..Never to stoop.

As if responding to a hint of incredulity on the emissary’s part, the Duke excuses his own behavior with breathtaking arrogance and entitlement. He couldn’t be bothered to blame, in the sense of correct, her behavior, by saying this “disgusts me” or “you miss,/ Or there exceed the mark'”. He then says, curiously, that he lacked the “skill/ In speech”. The Duke claims incompetence while defending himself in flawless iambic pentameter. Interestingly, even the Duke seems aware of the absurdity. As if responding to some subtlety in the emissary’s body language (or so I would have it if I were to stage the monologue), the Duke quickly corrects course. He says: “E’en then would be stooping; and I choose/ Never to stoop.” Translation: “Even if I had tried to correct her behavior I would have been, in effect, asking for or requesting something. A man in my position never stoops to request anything from anyone – let alone my wife!”

: Lines 43-47

…………………….Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt
…..Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
…..Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
…..Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
…..As if alive.

And there we have it. Whenever she saw him, she smiled. But the Duke considered that smile cheap currency. Her smile was indiscriminate, and that was intolerable to a man with a 900 year old namesake. He gave commands. All smiles stopped together. Did he have her murdered? Was it the half-flush that died along her throat? Or was she sent to a convent to live out the rest of her days with a gaggle of unsmiling nuns? You decide. And does it make a difference? Would the Duke’s behavior be any more forgivable if he exiled her to a convent? One or the other possibility seemed to satisfy Browning. I have always interpreted the lines as murder and the Duke as sociopathically evil. The beauty of the poem, if you can call it that, is how the Duke manages to (or wishes to) portray himself as the victim. This is classic sociopathy. His arrogant self-regard easily dismisses any suffering other than his own. On the other hand, maybe calling him a sociopath is to excuse him.

: Lines 47-56

………..Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
…..The company below, then. I repeat
…..The Count your master’s known munificence
50 Is ample warrant that no just pretense
…..Of mine dowry will be disallowed
…..Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
…..At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
…..Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
…..Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
…..Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

"...no just pretense Of mine dowry will be disallowed..."

The closing lines are lovely. In terms of their psychological portrayal, they are perfection. After displaying the portrait, the Duke gets down to business. That his former wife has been reduced to a curtained portrait is highly symbolic. No longer will she smile at anyone unless it’s by the Duke’s “design”. In other words, she will only smile with his permission (when he has pulled back the curtain). She has been reduced to just another artwork and possession at the service of his ego and reputation.

That said, and despite his protestations that he would never “stoop”, he will walk “together down” with the emissary when a dowry is at stake. With a kind of nervous obsequiousness, he “repeats” his statement (as though seeking reassurance) that the emissary’s master, the Count, won’t find any pretense to disallow (lessen or reject) the Duke’s dowry.  A dowry is the money or property brought by the woman into her husband’s marriage. The tradition is alive and well in many religiously and traditionally backward countries. And there’s no doubt that the Duke is alive and well in those traditions.  The Duke adds, almost as an embarrassed afterthought, that the Count’s “fair daughter” nevertheless remains his object. The Duke, apparently, will stoop for money and property.

"...Notice Neptune, though, Taming a sea-horse..."

Claus of Innsbruck is another fictional character. The statue at right is modern. You can own it for $89.99, just click on the image. I personally find it incredibly tacky; and I suspect that Browning did too. After all, despite the grandiloquence of the statue, a seahorse is a tiny little creature and if it needs to be tamed before it can be ridden, that doesn’t say much for the Neptune riding it. One of the all time great put-downs was when a character in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus  asks: “Hear you this Triton of the minnows?”

I can hardly think of a tackier or more trivial subject. Neptune taming a seahorse?

After all the Duke’s posturing over the triviality of the Duchess, we see that the Duchess, her white mule, her bough of cherries, the “dropping of the daylight in the west”, were more beautiful, significant and bountiful than the trivial stupidity of “a Neptune” taming a seahorse. The beauty of the moment is in Browning’s ability to confer on the Duke all the sins of triviality and superficiality he imposed on the Duchess. The art, of which the Duke is a patron and collector, appears to be of the most shallow and lifeless sort. If there were any Victorian questions as to whether great art could be a byproduct of such a corrupt culture, my feeling is that Browning puts that to rest.

  • “…thought a rarity…” Browning wants the reader to notice the Duke’s observation that the lifeless and tacky statue  is a “rarity”, whereas the “spot” of joy (the Duchess’s easy joy) was, in the Duke’s judgment, common and banal.

What are the final words of the Duke’s monologue?

…for me.

And that’s that. The Duke will have nothing in his life that is not “for me”.

The duke lives in a world dedicated to him, his position, his reputation. Any wife should expect to be nothing more than another accoutrement and adornment dedicated to his vanity. He’s managed to do just that with the Duchess. She has become nothing more than a portrait that smiles at his command and, as he stresses in the first lines, his alone.

His warning? The next Duchess can expect the same if she doesn’t appreciate the gift of his reputation.

The Scansion

In order to keep the scansion down to a manageable size, I tried something different. I didn’t add any scansion marks, using color coding instead. The key is as follows:

  • Trochaic Foot
  • Pyhrric Foot
  • Spondaic Foot

I use the same color code in all of my scansions. There’s nothing official about the colors. They’re just something I came up with to make scansions easier to read and far less “busy”. All unmarked feet are Iambic.

  • The meter of the poem is Iambic Pentameter.
  • The rhyme scheme is that of open heroic couplets (as opposed to closed heroic couplets – a nicety that no other website, to my knowledge, has mentioned).
  • Notice how the Spondaic feet are beautifully placed in congruence with the Duke’s heightened emotions — esp. when he states his nine-hundred year namesake, when he says E’en then, and esp. when he says: Then all smiles stopped… You will never find a more perfect use of Spondaic feet, maybe the equal, but never better.
  • There are two examples of headless feet (lines missing the first syllable).
  • I’ve read some commentary on the placement of end-stopped verses enjambed lines, but my own feeling is that it’s all too easy to read more into such techniques (in this case) than the text warrants. One risks veering into Enactment Fallacy.
  • All in all, Browning’s verse is conservative but beautifully done.


Other Analyses

The best site that I’ve found is here: Representative Poetry Online

If I find another, or you can recommend one, I’ll post it. I hope y’all have found the post helpful and enjoyed it.

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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 .

[71-106]

“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).


[71-88]

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

Why do Poets write Iambic Pentameter?

  • May 14, 2009 Tweaked & corrected some typos.

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

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

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

False Starts

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

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

Quantitative Verse (Sample from Spenser Encyclopedia)

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

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

Why the Drama?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Not Latin Enough

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

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

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

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

odyssey-book-12-chapman-pope

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

odyssey-book-12-pope-fitzgerald

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

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

Enough with the Romans and Greeks

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

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

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

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

Enter Milton

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

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

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

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

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

The Novelty Wears Off

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

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

The Fall of Iambic Pentameter

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

But not all poets followed Pound’s lead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it goes.

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

The rebellion was short lived.

Modern Iambic Pentameter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Last Comparison

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

odyssey-book-12-fitzgerald-mandelbaum

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

Afterthoughts • August 7 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter

The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter

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

How Not To

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t make that mistake.

Where To Start

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Verse First

Where do you start?

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

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

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

Now Make it Iambic Pentameter

Therefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here it is in one piece.

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

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

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

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

She answered under Purple Sails

Plutarch & Gillespie

And here it is for easier reading:

She answered under purple sails...

She came from Egypt…

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

Plutarch & Dryden

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

The Chair she sat in…

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

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

The barge she sat in…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plutarch & Shakespeare

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

Agrippa: O, rare for Antony!

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

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

This is the legend.

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

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

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

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

Mecaenas: Now Antony must leave her utterly.

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

Give it a Try

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

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

Iambic Pentameter (Variants & Long Lines – II) or Tho. Middleton, his Variants, Departures & Hexameters

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This is the fourth and final post in a series on scanning Iambic Pentameter – a follow up to my first post on Iambic Pentameter Variants. This post is the deep end. It draws together what has already been discussed, shows how to apply it to some gnarly Iambic Pentameter (as tough as it gets), and adds some final variants, including Long Lines, which haven’t already been discussed. For a look at the other posts, click on the Categories Widget under About: Iambic Pentameter.

[January 11, 2009 – I did a little editing for the sake of clarity and I corrected some typos. If something seems confusing or wrong, let me know.]

This post takes a look at the first 75 lines of a play by Thomas Middleton, a contemporary and co-author of some of Shakespeare’s plays.   Middleton’s Blank Verse seems a good place to start if only because it demonstrates so many variants. I thought that showing how I read the verse (which is just my take on it) might be helpful to others.

complete-thomas-middleton

The material comes from Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. I opened the book at random to a play called Wit at Several Weapons. I had never heard of it (like much of the material in the book). Middleton is a fine dramatist (perhaps the greatest after Shakespeare) and while his gifts don’t compare to the sustained rhetoric and poetry of Shakespeare, Marlowe or even Webster, his poetry can strike like lightning – brief but brilliant.  From his most famous play, A Game at Chess, comes the lovely line: “I’m taken like a blackbird/ In the great snow.”

So far, Wit at Several Weapons is a bawdy, sexual, somewhat sinister play – not the kind of subject matter that lends itself to poetic transcendence. Describing women, Middleton (in the character of the Old Knight), writes: “They must be wooed a hundred several ways,/ Before you obtain the right way in a woman:/ ‘Tis an odd creature, full of creeks and windings,/ The serpent has not more.”

And that’s about as poetic as the play gets – the rest, poetically, is boiler plate at best.

What is more interesting, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, is just how free Middleton is with Iambic Pentameter. He was a Jacobean playwright and he, along with other Jacobean playwrights, took Iambic Pentameter to the breaking point (and beyond) – likewise Webster and Massinger. The rigor of blank verse as much as dissolves with these poets. The verse form wasn’t to see such experimentation again for almost 300 years – the 20th Century.

First, here is the opening of the play, uninterrupted. Or, you can skip this and get on with the analysis.

The First 75 Lines

thomas-middleton1WittyPate

Sir, I’m no boy, I’m deep in one-and-twenty,
The second year’s approaching.

Old Knight

A fine time
If e’er he mean to make account of any.

WittyPate

Wits, sir?

Old Knight

Ay, wits, sir; if it be so strange to thee
I’m sorry I spent that time to get a fool,
I might have employed my pains a great deal better.
Thou know’st all that I have I ha’ got by my wits,
And yet to see how urgent thou art too;
It grieves me thou art so degenerate
To trouble me for means; I never offered it
My parents from a schoolboy; past nineteen once
(See what these times are grown too!), before twenty
I rushed into the world, which is indeed
Much like the art of swimming; he that will attain to’t
Must fall plump, and duck himself at first,
And that will make him hardy and adventurous
And not stand putting in one foot, and shiver,
And then draw t’other after, like a quake-buttock;
Well he may make a paddler i’ the world,
From hand to mouth, but never a brave swimmer,
Borne up by th’ chin, as I bore up myself
With my strong industry that never failed me;
For he that lies borne up with patrimonies
Looks like a long great ass that swims with bladders:
Come but one prick of adverse fortune to him
He sinks, because he never tried to swim,
When wit plays with the billows that choked him.

WittyPate

Why, is it not a fashion for a father, sir,
Out of his yearly thousands to allow
His only son a competent brace of hundreds,
Or such a toy?

the-witch-by-middleton

Yes, if he mean to spoil him
Or mar his wits he may, but never I.
This is my humour, sir, which you’ll find constant;
I love wit so well, because I live by’t,
That I’ll give no man power out of my means to hurt it,
And that’s a kind of gratitude to my raiser,
Which great ones oft forget. I admire much
This age’s dullness. When I scarce writ man,
The first degree that e’er I took  in thriving,
I lay intelligencer close for wenching,
Could give this lord or knight a true certificate
Of all the maidenheads extant; how many lay
‘Mongst chambermaids, how many ‘mongst Exchange wenches
(Though never many there, I must confess,
They have a trick to utter ware so fast);
I knew which lady had a mind to fall,
Which gentlewoman new divorced, which tradesman breaking,
The price of every sinner to a hair
And where to raise each price; which were the termers
That would give velvet petticoats, tissue gowns,
Which pieces, angels, suppers, and half-crowns:
I knew how to match and make my market,
Could give intelligence where the pox lay ledger,
And then to see the lechers shift a point,
‘Twas sport and profit too; how they would shun
Their adored mistress’ chambers, and run fearfully
Like rats from burning houses! So brought I
My clients o’ the game still safe together,
And noble gamesters loved me, and I felt it:
Give me a man that lives by his wits, say I,
And never left a groat, there’s the true gallant.
When I grew somewhat pursy, I grew then
In men’s opinions too, and confidences;
They put things called executorships upon me,
The charge of orphans, little senseless creatures,
Whom in their childhoods I bound forth to feltmakers,
To make ’em lose and work away their gentry,
Disguise their tender nature with hard custom,
So wrought ’em out in time: there I risse ungently;
Nor do I fear to discourse this unto thee,
I’m armed at all points against treachery.
I hold my humour firm; if I can see thee thrive by thy wits while I live, I shall have the more courage to trust thee with my lands when I die; if not, the next best wit I can hear of carries ’em: for since in my time and knowledge so many rich children of the City conclude in beggary, I’d rather make a wise stranger my executor than a foolish son my heir, and to have my lands called after my wit, thou after my name; and that’s my nature.

The First 75 Lines & Patrick Gillespie: His Interjections

Couple things needing to be said: I wasn’t alive 400 years ago. I don’t know how actors actually spoke their lines or how the Dramatists actually conceived of meter. Nobody has to agree with me. This is just how I have learned to read blank verse, both by reading other scholars on the subject and my own efforts to master the form. Also, I don’t want to give the impression that iambic pentameter overrules any other consideration. Not everything should or needs to be fitted to the iambic pattern. It’s art and instinct.   

WittyPate

Sir, I’m no boy, I’m deep in one-and-twenty,
The second year’s approaching.

Old Knight

A fine time

So far, the lines are easily identifiable as Iambic Pentameter. The first line is 11 syllables, ending with a feminine ending (a very common variant), the second is divided at the fourth foot between the two speakers: The second year’s approaching / A fine time. But the next line seems to out & out break with the Iambic Pentameter pattern:

For a youth to live by his wits, then, I should think,

This is a 12 syllable line; but is it hexameter and is it iambic hexameter? Hexameter lines, or long lines, are infrequent but accepted departures from the iambic pentameter pattern in blank verse. They can be found in Shakespeare & become more frequent after him. However, one way to tell if one is dealing with a hexameter line is to count metrical feet. If one simply counts off a foot at every two syllables, then one ends up with this:

for-a-youth-to-live-by-his-wits-trochaic

This would be a Hexameter line, but with too many variant feet to be called Iambic; and would break completely with the Iambic Pentameter pattern of blank verse. The scansion would be very doubtful given the expectations of the time. The division of the feet also works against the phrasing – and this is where scansion is part art and part science. As I mentioned in my previous post, especially as concerns anapests, one sometimes allows the phrasing to define the metrical foot. So, with that in mind, we end up with:

for-a-youth-to-live-by-his-wits-anapestic

This variation is not inconceivable in Jacobean Blank Verse, as far as variants go, but two anapests in a single line is unlikely. One of the advantages to the regularity of Iambic Pentameter, in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, is that it made the script easier for actors to remember. And that was important. They were frequently acting several different plays during a given week. So, while the line above doesn’t bare the mark of Elision or Eclipsis (as it might have just ten years earlier) it’s a safe bet that the line was probably pronounced as though the anapests were elided.

for-a-youth-to-live-by-his-wits-iambic

In this case, the line is felt, rhythmically, like Iambic Pentameter. The phrase For a is spoken quickly, the a almost disappearing. In the third foot, by his, becomes  by’s wits. The whole line, in this wise, has the effect of being spoken quickly or trippingly, as Shakespeare might have said. That said, the line will still have an anapestic ring to it. Poets from this period were content to introduce anapests that could be elided. The effect is a kind of grey area. They were paying lip service to the iambic pattern without being slavish. In the hands of the Jacobean poets, though, such grey areas were frequently overplayed, as in the line above.


If e’er he mean to make account of any.

Notice that ever is elided to read e’er through syncope (the removal of a letter or syllable from the middle of a word) [Sister Miriam Joseph: Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 52]. In this case, either the copyist or Middleton chose to deliberately spell out the elision and, by extension,  his concern that the Iambic rhythm be maintained.  (And this is the curious feature of this and the play in general. There’s a kind of schizophrenic  attentiveness to the meter. On the one hand, as with the line before this one, Middleton or the copyist doesn’t seem concerned with the meter or with indicating where the actors should elide words. Should we care about the meter? Then, with the very next line, Middleton or the copyist elides ever. Does he or doesn’t he care? Here’s my theory:

The iambic meter mattered.

However, Middleton and his contemporaries were frequently writing with great haste and they weren’t thinking of their works as poems to be read by the public. 1.) These plays were to be performed by actors drenched in the practice of performing blank verse – some having performed for and with Shakespeare and Marlowe. Middleton probably didn’t find it necessary to spell out every instance of elision, knowing the actors would “normalize” the lines. 2.) He may have simply overlooked such indications in the haste of writing. 3.) Few plays from this period survive in the author’s original hand. Texts were frequently altered by copyists if only because they couldn’t read the Dramatist’s hand writing.

All these may sound like rationalizations, but the play to remember is Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. This play electrified the public and other Dramatists not just for its subject matter – the drama – but for the genius of its blank verse. The verse form was part and parcel of the drama and dramatists were, in part, appraised by their use of it. These were heady times for the English language.

WittyPate

Wits, sir?

Old Knight

Ay, wits, sir; if it be so strange to thee
I’m sorry I spent that time to get a fool,

The phrase sorry I spent can be elided so that the y and I combine if spoken quickly, somewhat maintaining the Iambic beat.

I might have employed my pains a great deal better.

This line can be elided to read something like: I might ha’employed my pains… (You might think this is a stretch, but Middleton employs this very elision in the next line.)

Thou know’st all that I have I ha’ got by my wits,

This is a deceptively difficult line to scan because of our modern habits of speech. In this case, the subject matter of the Old Knight’s speech gives us a clue. Namely, he’s talking about himself. So, the line could be scanned as follows:

all-that-i-have

George Wright calls this a heavy feminine ending (the final extra syllable in the fifth foot being an intermediate or strong stress). I would be more apt to call it a double closing, (which would then relate it to the double onset – which is what Wright calls an anapestic first foot or anacrusis). But calling the fifth foot in the line above a heavy feminine ending makes sense too (and in the end, it just doesn’t matter). Middleton and other Jacobean poets were  increasingly fond of the heavy feminine ending while Shakespeare used it with considerable restraint. The ending allows for greater flexibility but also threatens the rhythm of blank verse. It’s one of the reasons the verse of the Jacobean theater sounds more diffuse, less disciplined and memorable than the earlier verse – (though perhaps only in my opinion).


And yet to see how urgent thou art too;
It grieves me thou art so degenerate

These two lines firmly reestablish the Iambic Pentameter pattern by precluding the need for elipsis. So far, it has been possible to read most of the lines within an iambic and pentameter pattern . But now comes the next line.


To trouble me for means; I never offered it

This is the first line which seems to defy elision. Using syncope, one might be able to elide never to ne’er, but that creates an anapest.

to-trouble-anapestic

This is an acceptable variant and an acceptable scansion, but I’m more inclined to think that we have our first hexameter line.

to-trouble-hexameter

In this case, knowing to what degree anapests were avoided, it makes more sense to me that Middleton would opt to preserve the iambic rhythm – though it makes the line Iambic Hexameter rather than Iambic Pentameter.

My parents from a schoolboy; past nineteen once

I read the line above is an eleven syllable line with a heavy feminine ending.

(See what these times are grown too!), before twenty
I rushed into the world, which is indeed
Much like the art of swimming; he that will attain to’t

And this line beginning Much like is an archly variant line. When I first read it I was completely baffled. I think, though, that it is still an acceptable variant within the larger Iambic Pentameter passage – if only by the slimmest of margins and only on a – once every hundred lines – basis. But that’s just my aesthetic opinion. The verdict? I think it’s a hexameter line with a heavy feminine ending. Middleton can get away with it, perhaps, because the hexameter line is an accepted variant (to judge by the writing of contemporaneous playwrights) and because the heavy feminine ending was, by that time, accepted. Here is how I scan it.

hexameter reading of attain to't

Notice the elision of to it to to’t, as if Middleton knew he was getting away with something. Now this is stretching the limits – expecting an ostensibly 14 syllable line to be an acceptable deviation from a 10 syllable iambic pentameter pattern! Yet, there you have it. The great master himself, William Shakespeare, sometimes peppered his blank verse with hexameter lines. Here is the precedent (taken from Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, Page 147).

How dares thy harsh rude tongue sound this unpleasing news? (Richard II, 3.4.74)

Fleeter than arrows, bullets, wind, thought, swifter things (Love’s Labor’s Lost 5.2.261)

It’s worth stressing that not all metrists accept Hexameter lines as an allowable variant. Some metrists try to regularize all lines so that they fit the iambic pentameter grid. But I don’t see how it can be done in all cases and I tend not to be dogmatic but pragmatic. I can’t see how any metrist could possibly regularize Middleton’s line. I find it easier to believe, given the practice of their day, that hexameters were understood as a “legal” variant.

Must fall plump, and duck himself at first,

The line above is missing an unstressed syllable in the first foot – commonly called a headless line.

headless-line

And that will make him hardy and adventurous
And not stand putting in one foot, and shiver,

The two lines above both end with feminine endings.


And then draw t’other after, like a quake-buttock;

This is another odd line. The iambic pentameter of the blank verse is at the breaking point. I read the line as having a heavy feminine ending – buttock was probably pronounced like butt’ck, syncope reducing a two syllable word to, essentially, one.


Well he may make a paddler i’ the world,
From hand to mouth, but never a brave swimmer,

The line above works as long as one doesn’t put too much stress on brave. The fourth foot would be phyrric and the last foot another feminine ending. Thus:

never-a-brave-swimmer

The two lines, more firmly iambic pentameter, help re-establish the, up to now, heavily varying meter.


Borne up by th’ chin, as I bore up myself

The line above is firmly iambic with the elision of by th’chin to b’th’chin. If you think this is extreme, compare it to Shakespeare: I had rather be set quick i’th’earth. Such elision was normal practice at the time and reflects a syllabic ambiguity which poets of the day seemed to take for granted. Many hypermetrical syllables can be elided in this fashion and apparently were.

With my strong industry that never failed me;
For he that lies borne up with patrimonies
Looks like a long great ass that swims with bladders:
Come but one prick of adverse fortune to him

All the lines above are firmly iambic with feminine endings.

He sinks, because he never tried to swim,
When wit plays with the billows that choked him.

I read the last line as having a phyrric in the fourth foot and a spondaic in the fifth. All in all, these last six lines have re-established the iambic pentameter pattern.

WittyPate

Why, is it not a fashion for a father, sir,

I read this line as having what is called a triple ending – when two unstressesed syllables follow the final stressed syllable of the fifth foot: essentially a feminine ending with an extra unstressed syllable. Thus:

triple-ending

There are also examples of triple endings in Shakespeare.

Out of his yearly thousands to allow
His only son a competent brace of hundreds,

In the line above, syncope reduces competent to comp’tent, mainting a strong iambic rhythm.

Or such a toy?

Old Knight

Yes, if he mean to spoil him
Or mar his wits he may, but never I.
This is my humour, sir, which you’ll find constant;
I love wit so well, because I live by’t,

I read the line above as being headless with a strong feminine ending. An acceptable variant after four strongly iambic pentameter lines.


That I’ll give no man power out of my means to hurt it,

The line above reads like a 14 syllable line by modern standards! However, according to the practice of the day, power can be read (as now) as having one syllable, while out of my could be elided to something like out’o’my means. This would make the line standard iambic pentameter with a feminine ending. It might scan as follows:

out-of-my-means-iambic-reading

Another possibility would be to give power two syllables, making the line hexameter with a feminine ending. I personally find this latter reading more believable:

out-of-my-means-hexameter-reading

This elides of my to o’my – such that the preposition of almost disappears. This is more easily within the practicable elision of the day.

And that’s a kind of gratitude to my raiser,

Gratitude was probably pronounced grat’tude, maintaing the iambic meter with a feminine ending.


Which great ones oft forget. I admire much
This age’s dullness. When I scarce writ man,
The first degree that e’er I took  in thriving,
I lay intelligencer close for wenching,
Could give this lord or knight a true certificate

Certificate can be read as certif’cate, making the ending feminine, or the line can be treated as having a triple ending. So far, though, another long stretch of Iambic Pentameter.

Of all the maidenheads extant; how many lay

To me, the line above is most easily read as a Hexameter line.

Mongst chambermaids, how many ‘mongst Exchange wenches

I read the line above as another line with a triple ending. Thus:

exchange-wenches-triple-ending

(Though never many there, I must confess,
They have a trick to utter ware so fast);
I knew which lady had a mind to fall,

The three lines above, perfectly iambic, reestablish the meter.


Which gentlewoman new divorced, which tradesman breaking,

This is an interesting line. It’s probably easiest read as another Hexameter (with a feminine ending). If one is determined to regularize the line, one might use sycnope to quickly slur the last three syllables of gentlewomen (such that, in effect, the word is reduced to two syllables).

The price of every sinner to a hair
And where to raise each price; which were the termers
That would give velvet petticoats, tissue gowns,

Petticoats was probably pronounced Pett’coats, maintaining the Iambic rhythm.

Which pieces, angels, suppers, and half-crowns:
I knew how to match and make my market,

The line above is headless, the stress on I. (Remember, the Old Knight is bragging about himself.) Thus:

i-knew-how-headless-reading

Understanding the rules and standards of the day, the reading above is far more likely than an anapestic reading:

i-knew-how-anapestic-reading

Such a reading as above would be to bring a 21rst Century sensibility to a 17th Century aesthetic.

Could give intelligence where the pox lay ledger,

Intelligence was most likely pronounced intell’gence, again maintaining the iambic line.

And then to see the lechers shift a point,
‘Twas sport and profit too; how they would shun
Their adored mistress’ chambers, and run fearfully

Fearfully could be read as fearf’lly, a feminine ending, or as a triple ending. Either would be acceptable. Frequent triple  endings were certainly more frequent among Jacobean playwrights.

Like rats from burning houses! So brought I
My clients o’ the game still safe together,
And noble gamesters loved me, and I felt it:
Give me a man that lives by his wits, say I,

By his wits was probably elided to read by’s wits – maintaining the iambic pattern.

And never left a groat, there’s the true gallant.
When I grew somewhat pursy, I grew then
In men’s opinions too, and confidences;
They put things called executorships upon me,

Executorships was probably pronounced exec’torships, making the line iambic pentameter with a feminine ending.

The charge of orphans, little senseless creatures,
Whom in their childhoods I bound forth to feltmakers,

Reading the line above as an Iambic Pentameter line with a triple ending.

To make ’em lose and work away their gentry,
Disguise their tender nature with hard custom,
So wrought ’em out in time: there I risse ungently;

Risse means rose. The line is hard to read. Most likely, there I can be elided:

there-i-risse-elision

Another possibility is to treat the colon as a midline break (which is what it is in either case) and the phrase there I risse as being a kind of double onset for the next phrase (there I being two unstressed syllables before risse). Remember, a double onset is when an iambic pentameter line begins with an extra unstressed syllable: Not a word, a word, we stand upon our manners (Wright P. 170). This would be, in effect, a reverse of the Epic Caesuras, a very common feature in Shakespeare’s works. For example:

seven-ages-epic-caesuras

This is from As You Like It 2.7.43. Notice the extra unstressed syllable at the midline break.

Nor do I fear to discourse this unto thee,
I’m armed at all points against treachery.

It’s hard to regularize these last two lines. Even in Jacobean England, I doubt that they would have acted the lines as follows:

final-couplet

I’ll be blunt. They’re clumsy. They’re bad lines. The second line could be read as having two anapests – at all points | against treach |. But this isn’t any less clumsy by the standards of blank verse.  The lines were ultimately written for the rhyme of thee and treachery. It was traditional, sometimes, to signal the end of a soliloquy or extended speech with a rhyming couplet, but the rhyme, in this case, is poorly executed and not a true rhyme. This may not be a sign of Middleton’s incompetence. It may simply be haste. (Dramatists in these days weren’t writing for posterity but for money – and new plays were needed fast, fast, fast!)

middleton-textual-companionThe clumsy meter and rhyme could also reflect on the character of the Knight (although I always doubt these sorts of readings; but it’s possible). After all, the Old Knight is a blow hard and just as he speaks these last two lines he collapses into prose – a curious effect and not often seen mid-speech in the theater of the day. It were as if the old blowhard simply gave up on the pretense of blank verse, exhausted by it, falling into the matter-of-fact discourse of prose – (similar to the rapid fire list of side-effects at the end of a drug commercial).

All in all, I would have to say that Middleton’s blank verse, at least in this opening act,  is only just passable. The frequent variants and long lines weaken the overall pattern, sapping it of its vigor and rigorousness.  The enjambment and end-stopping is varied, more so than with many of our modern “formalist” poets, but the effect is diluted by the frequent feminine and triple endings. It’s not good blank verse but it’s blank verse as the Jacobeans practiced it.

The passage demonstrates the wild side of Jacobean Blank Verse.

Opening Book: Come Out! Page 41-42

  • I changed a line in this poem:

From: From off the floor where still its veins had bled.
To: Off the floor where still its veins bled through.

  • I think this was my twentieth try at reading this. What I would really love is for an actress or another reader, a woman preferably, to give it a try. If there are any takers, and if you like the poem enough, let me know.

Page 41 Come Out!

Page 42 Come Out!


Opening Book: My Bridge is like a Rainbow Page 34-38

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Page 34 My Bridge is like a Rainbow
Page 35 My Bridge is like a Rainbow

Page 36 My Bridge is like a Rainbow

Page 37 My Bridge is like a Rainbow

Page 38 My Bridge is like a Rainbow

All for Love & the Modern Formalists – Megan Grumbling

  • January 28 2010: Slightly edited.

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

Old habits die hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compared with Shakespeare’s equivalent passage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we return to the twenty-first century.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now for the tetrameter version:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Measures – Poetry Magazine January 2006.

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