A little something I wrote on the way to a longer poem—a Shakespearean Sonnet. It could also be called “a poet addresses her muse”.
- A recently discovered sonnet by Billy Shaksper. An annotation has been included to help English speakers with the Country Western dialect.
Baby, your eyes ain’t nothin’ like the sun;
My coon-dog’s tongue is redder than your lips;
One boob’s still ‘tryin’ but the other’s done;
Ain’t double-wides wreck traffic like your hips.
I seen the kinda’ gal that men call meek,
Well-mannered, mild, but you? Hell no you’re not.
Skunked beer spilled on a lime-green shag don’t reek
Near half so bad. Your breath? — like eau-de-rot.
But sugar-plum I’d sell my gun, I’d kick
The dog and turn my Mama out the door;
I swear, so help me, never drink a lick
‘Cause I got you and don’t need nothin’ more.
···Man never writ nor loved if this ain’t true:
···Ain’t been no man so lucky lovin’ you.
1. Baby dear, honey, lover , a term of endearment. The term was applied to both men and women during the country western era. Much scholarly debate has examined the infantilizing endearment in this highly paternalistic culture. 2. ain’t a contraction for am not, is not, are not, has not, and have not in the country western vernacular. This archaic but very common contraction could indicate both the singular or plural verb form (see ain’t). 3. coon-dog Coon dogs were bred to hunt raccoons and other small animals. These coon hounds were trained to chase animals up trees to ease hunting while drunk. A favorite companion for men known as “rednecks” (see CoonDawgs.com). 4. boob breast, female mammary gland. Most country western men were noted boob-men (see Dolly Parton). 5. double-wide There is some uncertainty surrounding this passage’s meaning. Some scholars suspect textual corruption. The Shaksperian scholar B. Vickers has offered the most convincing explanation: double-wide being a reference to the twin, “double”, gluteal muscles of a woman’s rear-end, the gluteal muscles being a group of three muscles which make up the buttocks: the gluteus maximus muscle, gluteus medius muscle and gluteus minimus muscle (see Cultural History of Buttocks: The female buttocks have been a symbol of fertility and beauty since early human history…). 6.Hell Believed by scholars to refer to an absence of beer, barbecued ribs and ESPN. 7. skunked beer spoiled beer having a sulfurous taste. Scholars debate the type of beer country westerners preferred, some finding evidence for Coors Lite, others Bud Lite. 8. lime green shag a type of thick wall-to-wall carpeting, often accompanied by faux wood paneling, The lime green color was preferred for its ability to blend well with any possible stain, including vomit and affairs with the neighbor’s wife (see rugstudio.com). 9. eau-de-rot an offensive perfume 10. I’d sell my gun a prized possession and status symbol among country westerners, often associated with the phrase: “my cold, dead fingers” 11. kick the dog the country western male’s love for his dog was second only to his gun 12. Mama mother, third in line after guns and dogs, though some scholars place country western Mamas after pick-up trucks, football and beer. 13. Ain’t been no man so lucky lovin’ you. The double negatives in the concluding couplet have frequently called the meaning of the final couplet into question. If what he says isn’t true, then no man ever ‘wrote’, and yet the assertion is a palpable falsehood. (See, Vendler, Sonnets.)
The authorship question: There are some who assert the Sonnet could not have been by the uneducated Billy Shaksper, but by Eddy Oxfrord, the son of a well-heeled rancher who matriculated from a local community college. Most Shakspereans reject the attribution out of hand, noting that Eddy Oxford died in a freak bowling accident some years before the sonnet was published. Eddy’s defenders claim the sonnet was actually written a decade earlier, and was only published when the risk of embarrassment to the Oxford family was minimal. Few, if any scholars take the Oxfordians seriously. Oxfordians respond by accusing Shaksperians of conspiring to conceal the truth in order to preserve their socio-academic status. Shakspereans respond by calling Oxdordians idiots and morons. The noted scholar Gary Taylor claims the sonnet is actually by Tommy Middletown and is said to have wept upon reading the poem. Donald W. Foster fed the sonnet to Shaxicon and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Other attributions include Franky Bacon, and Lizzy, the era’s most popular, country western stripper and drag-Queen, respectively.
—Was it for this,
The sun, the fair and golden orb, the fiery
And intermediate visitant between
The dawn and evening star – fair shepherdess
And lithesome light of that uncertain hour,
Fretful demesne, who navigates and steers
The brief, contiguous days and nights – benignant
Shone upon my face? For this, dids’t Thou,
O Moosilauke! surveyor of Vermont –
Though situate within New Hampshire – maintain
Thy place immovable through night and day—
Though nowhere near my beauteous birthplace—
Didst thou, host every season — spring and summer,
Autumn and winter – the days and weeks thereof
And hours—not one skipped—nor minute either
But every second each one antecedent
To that which followed after; didst thou
Compose my thoughts to more than pious poetry,
Bestowing, midst the unsuspecting dwellings
Of men, and seasonable women, thy dim
Implacable knowledge of mankind and Nature,
Of congress midst the hills and valleys,
Uplands and contrastive lowlands. When
Made visible above the slumbrous landscape,
Thy broad, immotive height observable—
A neighbor’s house, not mine, though oft half seen
Behind a cloud or two or sometimes more
Or not at all if rain fell bleakly earthward,
Or if by unintentioned choice I stood
With leafy branches of a Maple, Elm
Or Birch between myself and that same view—
Thou wast a Playmate. Oh! Many a time
Did I, a naked boy—not girl though oft
Accompanied by a naked girl— cavort
In sand, shallows and the swift, uproarious
Descent of waterfalls, made one long day
A lazing summer’s day with girls — plunged
And bask’d and plunged and bask’d again, first one
And then the other alternate all day
In one delightful Rill and then another,
Or cours’d their hillocks and their valleys, leaped
Into the groves of bushy groundsel; or
When visiting the lofty grounds of Dartmouth—
The radiant coeds bronzing on the Green.
Then stood I, hunter, on the Indian Plains
Alert, of stern determination, savage
Who aims his nocked and blading arrow midst
The buffalo. Was it for this?
- This fragment of a later revision to The Prelude was recently discovered among the papers of a Mrs. M — who wishes to remain anonymous. The inks and papers have undergone rigorous testing and I am assured the fragment is not fraudulent but a heretofore unknown and final revision undertaken by the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth. I am pleased to offer the reading public a first glimpse of the sublime verse enclosed therein.
on humble submissions
About a month ago (an unforgivably long delay on my part) I received a little purple paperback with a handwritten letter enclosed.
This timely book, in the words of Artie Moffa, was humbly submitted. Future poets take note: When submitting books to me, remember to submit humbly. My importance to the world of poetry (let’s just call it The World) could not possibly be underestimated.
The letter was written in cursive.
Which brings me to my next invaluable observation: Who the heck writes cursive in 2010?
I used to think Richard Wilbur was quaint for corresponding with me on an Underwood (I presume), but Wilbur (are you reading this ?) has been outdone. A clean little introductory note written in cursive. Now that is class (of the poetic kind).
The opening pages of the Boys at PLAY do two things.
1.) It tells us that for every copy of the book sold, $1 will be donated to Amherst College (their alma mater). They write:
Amherst College is a small, private liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. It has as knack for producing more than its fair share of poets, including the authors and editor of this humble volume. Amherst provides generous financial aid to students of modest circumstances, and it rejects the rigid curricular requirements which prevail at many of its peer institutions.
Note the word humble again (one begins to sense a trap).
2.) After so much generous praise of Amherst College, one final word (before the poetry begins): Be it known that the Trustees of Amherst College have not endorsed this book, are not to be associated with this book, and will not be seen in its company.
So, lest there be any doubt, readers are given to know where the Trustees stand on the matter.
And I quote, “Ahem”.
The first poem, called N.D. Austin, begins rather curiously:
5 On Carrying Up Tea To the Terrace
5 Sorry, I Didn’t Recognize You with Your Clothes On
14 To All Of the People I Have Ever Made Out With Who Wanted To Move Further Faster Than I Did, and In My Experience That Has Been Most Of You:
15 Dear Son
15 Said Mrs. Robinson to Benjamin
20 A Conversation I Had In My Head Last Week With An Old Friend Who I Have Had A Crush On For Forever
The next poem (which, oddly, they name after themselves), is called Joshua Cohen, and continues to display their curious system of line numbering:
13 What Else Rhymes With Love
13 Dealing in Metaphors
18 Anything You Want
24 Maggie’s Song
28 Finale: The Fall of the Tower of Babel
The third poem, continuing their not-so-humble habit of naming poems after themselves, is called, Artie Moffa.
1 Avoid Again in Poetry
6 Stereo Sub
12 On Poetry and Publishing
12 What my Sister Would Probably Say About my Text Message Limericks
16 The Graduate
23 Pirate Apology
26 Sonnets for Daylight-Saving Time
So far, my impression is that the authors are engaged in some kind of Flarf experiment – avant-garde experimentalism.
Last comes a curiously title poem, Comics by Wing L. Mui
4 Seventh Draft!: Circumflex
17 Seventh Draft!: Poetry
22 Seventh Draft!: Web Comic
27 Meh: For the Ladies
40 Meh: Best Idea Ever!
49 Seventh Draft!: Adventure
after the introductory flarf
(or the rest of the book)
Artie Moffa opens the book with a stern remonstrance against the use of the word again. The essay is entitled Avoid Again in Poetry.
Avoid “again” in poetry.
It’s altogether much too hard
To use, for the unwary bard
Who hopes to try his hand at rhyme
Might choose it has a mate for “ten.”
But from the mouths of Southern men,
It comes out with a hint of “gin.”(….)
The beginning poet is urged to earnestly study and reread this cogent, hard-hitting poem. (It’s also a nice example of Rhyming Iambic Tetrameter — not much seen these days). But what truly impresses is the informative (and evidently well-researched) tone.
Some Appalachians I have heard
Put extra A’s inside the word.
“A-gay-an” is the sound they use.
One only wishes that the authors had provided more extensive footnotes describing their considerable field work.
Joshua Cohen follows this instructive essay with a heart-wrenching confessional poem with the elusive title Smart:
Infantile self-expression modalities never appealed to me.
I was employing the subjunctive mood before the age of three.
To read a book by Gide or Cooke was my idea of playing.
Which is all an obfuscating way of saying:
Off the chart.
I debate over Plato
And disprove Descartes.
The reader can’t help but be swept into emotional complexities. Expect to be wrung dry. More sensitive readers may be disturbed by the poet’s repeatedly end-stopped lines. However, my reading is that the abrupt, isolated lines represent the isolated cries of a poet in pain – isolated by his intelligence, brilliance and, in a word, genius. Notice how the long lines are reduced to short, sobbing, ejaculations. The effect is heart breaking. No reader will walk away from this poem without experiencing the loneliness of intelligence – the unenviably smart. Let us be grateful that so few continue to suffer from this affliction and that, as with so many diseases which have afflicted human kind, America leads the world in eradicating this insidious illness. The poem is cathartic.
Perhaps the most lyrical poem is N.D. Austin’s simply titled: To All Of the People I Have Ever Made Out With Who Wanted To Move Further Faster Than I Did, and In My Experience That Has Been Most Of You: No poem has been so shunned, has gone so unspoken, or has been so needed as this poem. Finally, we can dispel the cliché that oppresses all men, from the characterization of the sex addled adolescent to the dirty old man. This is the poem that speaks to the objectification of men.
Yes, I enjoyed getting hot and heavy with you, but why can’t we have more of the hot and less of the heavy?
Thinking about the possibility of doing something kinky is in my experience often more enjoyable than actually performing the act,
As in, yes, some sex is sexy, but have you tried whispering sweet nothings while awkwardly trying to position yourself between where the armrest and seatbelt buckle are digging[?](….)
What man hasn’t wished there was “more hot” and less “heavy”? What man hasn’t preferred the possibility of doing something rather than “actually performing? What man hasn’t wished they could whisper sweet nothings in comfort and safety? N.D. Austin has written what might well be the bravest poem of the new century.
Despite Austin’s taxing autobiography, the poet can nevertheless express a forgiving generosity. Consider the exquisitely balanced haiku, The Two-party System:
I let my girls choose between
Basement or attic.
Such heart-rending generosity stands testament to the healing power of art and poetry.
But there is so much more:
If you can find someone to accompany you on the piano, you can look forward to such tenderly reminiscent lines as: “I hate June. The only seat on the C train faced a girl in a tube top made of chamois, Making out with a stud with a stud in his ear. And it can’t help remind me That you ran off to Miami” or the inspiringly hopeful “I pray for a break in the weather, Or at least for air condition to filter out other people’s pheromones…”
No poem reveals the writers’ roots in Amherst, or their love of academia, more than the lovely Sonnet Oblivio – a near perfect Shakespearean Sonnet (but for the second Italian quatrain). The inexperienced reader can be forgiven for thinking that this is nothing more than a love poem. But it’s more than that. This is a love poem to Rome.
The doctors who have made senility
Their subject say we pave a neural path
Anew when we recall a memory.
If this and genes are true, the awful wrath
Of plaques and proteins gathers in the gloam
And bides its time. Someday, should doctors care
To analyze my brain, they’ll notice where
You kissed me in my youth, and founded Rome.
When other memories are tattered cloths,
I’ll fold and keep the flag of that first kiss,
Defend it from old age, as Visigoths
Besiege my brain. All pathways lead to this
Physicians of my final days, note well:
She kissed me on the Seventh Hill.
· Rome fell.
Where a less experienced poet might have end-stopped his or her lines, the enjambment in both quatrains reveals a skill and broader conception sorely missing in modern poetry. The rhymes have the feeling of inevitability. The form feels organic. The volta, the turn between the octave and sestet, is elegantly unforced.
All roads lead to Rome.
This is a sonnet for every scholar who has ever fallen in love with the great city.
In an age of clueless critics and clueless poetry reviews, I can only hope that Poemshape sets a new standard.
I’m certain that these bright young poets, these young women of America’s most prestigious girl’s school, have a bright future ahead of them.
If you’ve lost your sense humor, this new one will only cost you $10.00.
My thanks to Miss Artie Moffa for submitting her collaborative nonpareil, Boys at PLAY.
- Another review of a book by a self-published poet.
A Sense of Humor
How refreshing to read a book by a poet with a sense of humor. I used to have a subscription to Poets & Writer’s Magazine and for twelve issues, for one full year, there was not one smile on the cover of its magazine. Every featured poet gazed from its covers with the heart-broken burden of their own genius – a gaze that only poets are capable of – a gaze of über-narcissism that would embarrass Narcissus himself.
I let the subscription expire.
For all the usefulness in the publication, I just could not handle one more angst-ridden cover.
You won’t find [G]reat poetry in Graber’s Plutonic Sonnets, but you will find poetry that is great fun to read and endlessly inventive. Don’t pick up Graber’s book if you’re in the mood for a Keatsian sonnet. Stick it in you backpack or oversized coat pocket. Wait until that moment when the thumb twiddling begins, then dig out Graber’s book and read one sonnet.
You might open the book to sonnet CXIII (Roman numerals are de rigueur):
Why do these eyes see anything save you,
And why is not your voice all I can hear?
Is touching you not all these hands should do,
This nose but draw your scents when you are near?
These lips of mine, that yet need common fare:
Can thus they use most of their pow’r to taste,
When they have savored lips beyond compare?
Why go these senses to such senseless waste?
Did I commit some heinous sin or crime
In this life, or in some life long before,
For which my senses now are serving time
To even up some hidden cosmic score?
Then comes redemption most magnificent:
Those sweet sensations for which they are meant!
The heinous sins and crimes of this sonnet are almost too numerous to detail. First, all but two of the lines are end-stopped (though this is surprisingly superior to many more serious and modern sonnets). Second, what modern poet would dare apostrophize a word like pow’r, especially for the sake of meter? – how quaint and 19th Century. Third, what modern poet would ever indulge in such archaic diction as: Why go these senses to such senseless waste? Fourth, what modern poet would succumb to such a grandiose (almost Miltonic) inversion as Then comes redemption most magnificent.
Robert Bates Graber would.
Graber makes no effort to hide his influences. From the opening sonnet, we know exactly what he’s been reading:
Bright Gem of the Aegean! Who will dare
To ope’ the treasure thou hast giv’n our kind,
To take its measure, so beyond compare,,
And tell what thou hast meant for human mind?
Graber never wholly leaves behind these 19th Century (and earlier) roots. And he’s not embarrassed by it.
And yet, despite his flagrant disregard for contemporary sensibilities (let alone Ezra Pound), there’s something engaging about his flagrancy. If I were the betting kind, I would bet that Graber is perfectly aware of his poetry’s obsolescences. He revels in it. And that carefree sensibility, to me, makes his poetry refreshingly engaging. Sonnet CXIII is a perfect Shakespearean Sonnet. But not content to simply imitate Shakespeare’s rhyme scheme, he imitates Shakespeare’s sensibility and wordplay – scents (with its pun on cents and common fare), senses and senseless – very Shakespearean. Is it a Masterpiece? No. Is it fun to read? Yes. A poet without pretension and with a sense of humor, I love it.
Can we please have just one more poem about Greek myths?
There are some modern poets who continue to draw “inspiration” from the Greek Myths, as though the 19th, 18th, 17th, 16th and 15th centuries never happened. They do, honestly, think they have something new and original to add, but Greek Mythology is truly the Hydra of modern poetry. All the pathos and vigor has long since been drained out of them. Allusions, let alone whole poems devoted to the myths, are as appealing, to me, as stale lettuce.
With that in mind, what a pleasure to read Graber’s Greek Mythology. He treats it with a tongue in cheek irreverence I can respect.
But now I fear some readers there must be
Whose criticism I cannot avoid;
For, knowing something of mythology,
They have been growing more and more annoyed.
Not me. In Sonnet CVIII, he ruins a perfectly good rape of Proserpina, turning it into a sweet consummation:
The couple were transported to a room,
A quiet chamber very near the top;
And there their love did sweetly consummate,
And afterward, a pomegranate ate.
Why would Graber sully Pluto’s reputation with the imputation of love? He answers that in CIX.
I know old masters model it their way:
A grabbing god, a goddess terrified…
To all of which I have but this to say:
All are agreed that Cupid’s aim was true;
And rape’s a thing true love could never do.
And so Graber goes on his merry, end-stopped way – a narrative poem in linked sonnets! Over a course of several, he shamelessly rewrites the myth of Proserpina and Pluto. He’s not a poet for elaborate imagery or, really, imagery of any kind. Don’t come to his poetry expecting to be swept away by imagery, rhetorical complexity, or a melodiousness of line. If he does need to stretch a little, he unapologetically borrows or paraphrases (in this case from Shakespeare): “I love you,” Pluto murmured, “and my love/Is past all reason, and is past all rhyme;/’Tis such as dreams and myths are fashioned of…” But that’s not what Graber’s poetry is about. If anything, Graber’s poems could be characterized as little essays that just happen to be in Sonnet form – meter and all. Each one, like the Shakespearean Sonnets on which they’re based, are little arguments, sometimes conflicting, sometime with a twist, that find resolution in swift epigrammatic coupleta – a neat, rhetorical summing up.
Read Graber’s poetry for the almost Elizabethan joy he takes in the working out of ideas and narratives. That said, at times, Graber’s casual (but usually controlled) tongue-in-cheek tone veers dangerously close to self-parody and outright mediocrity.
“…And though my heart no longer lies below,
There’s this to think of, should we elsewhere roam:
Up here I don’t amount to anything;
Down there we’d share a throne, for I am King!”
The last two lines have none of the ring or pithiness of Milton’s: “It is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.” They sound altogether too quickly written. Even a little reflection and editing might have tightened them up. As it is, they typify a devil-may-care casualness that is sometimes carried too far by Graber. Even in humor, there’s a balance to be struck. And, to be fair, Graber does make fewer mistakes, like these, as the book progresses.
This, in my opinion, is the most enjoyable aspect of the book and the facet that most distinguishes and recommends it. Any reader who is a lover of science (and I am one of them) will enjoy Graber’s scientific sonneteering. My wife, who has taught the whole gamut of mathematics in high school, couldn’t help but crack a smile at some of Graber’s antics.
(To Isaac Newton)
A pebble: it is difficult to name
An object more conveniently discrete;
Yet “calculus” (or ‘pebble’) somehow came
To name the branch of math with which we treat
All nature’s deepest continuities…
Or if you favor cosmology:
If a mere golf ball represents the Sun
At Yankee Stadium’s home plate, we know
A trip to Neptune would take a home run;
And the next star would be in Chicago!
Such is the size and emptiness of space.
In search of something solid, shall we turn
To matter? Well, supposing we replace
Our Sun with golf-ball nucleus, we learn
That centered, its electrons, far afield,
Would haunt the stadium’s remote recesses….
Or if you favor Astronomy, Graber dedicates several sonnets to the Herschels and one sonnet-sized biography of John Flamsteed (Sonnet XLII):
They say your brewer father could not see
Just what on Earth your hobby could be for;
Yet in your youth your king called you to be
His Astronomical Observator.
And Tycho, whom you called “the noble Dane,”
Inspired you to chart the stars that clad
You can actually learn interesting facts and anecdotes about the various sciences and scientists you never knew. Addressing Dmitri Mendeleev (Sonnet LX), he informs us:
You wowed the world when you predicted three
New elements with your “periodic table.”
And though it sounds like something of a spoof,
You are the reason vodka’s 80 proof.
It’s too hard not to forgive a poet for his numerous excesses and stylistic frivolity when he is so engagingly self-effacing and humorous. The audience for this book of poetry will be the one who enjoys Graber’s playful references to Greek Mythology, his irreverent odes to the foibles of great scientists, and an ability to sum up scientific grandiosity within the space of a sonnet. Each sonnet is a teaspoon of sugar for the knowledgeable grown-up.
About Robert Graber
Because nothing is private on the Internet, I stumbled on this little piece of autobiography.
“I was born in 1950 in Lansing, Michigan, and grew up in northern Indiana. My father was a physician (obstetrics/gynecology), my mother a schoolteacher. We were Mennonites. Though we were not among the highly culturally-conservative ones, I was impressed by the church’s claims to ultimate significance and by the church/”world” dichotomy. Within months after leaving home at age 19, however, I became a devout agnostic. I was attracted to anthropology by the popular books by Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey. I got my bachelor’s at Indiana University in 1973, my masters (’76) and doctorate (’79) at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Victor Barnouw, who had been a student of Ruth Benedict, was my adviser. My dissertation was a comparative study of the schisms that have made Mennonites such a culturally variable group of sects. I published several papers in psychoanalytic anthropology, but have grown more and more preoccupied with quantitative theorizing about cultural evolution. My book in press is *A Scientific Model of Social and Cultural Evolution* (Thomas Jefferson University Press 1994) and I am writing an introduction to general anthropology for Harcourt Brace. I have a wonderful wife and two great daughters 13 and 11. I play classical guitar, golf, and chess (in order of declining proficiency), and drive a red ’72 Mustang (fastback) which still looks good if you don’t look too closely. I taught for two years at Millsaps College in Jackson, MS, before coming to Northeast Missouri State. I enjoy teaching anthropology as an integrative, “eye-opening” experience for students.”
In the meantime, Graber is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Truman State University, lives with his wife, Rose, in Kirksville, Missouri. He has published four other books besides Plutonic Sonnets (the book for which, he tells me, he is most passionate). Though the back matter of Plutonic Sonnets doesn’t name them, here are links to his other books, for those who might be interseted.
- “Robert Graber explores the historical, philosophical, and sociological origins and nature of liberal arts and sciences education and draws on anthropology to show us how much to value such ‘useless knowledge’.” • His book recieved 3 Five Star reviews at Amazon.
- “Making it fun (and even exciting), Robert Graber pursues here a very serious issue the coming of a world state and gives opposing sides of this debate fair and frequent airings. With his accustomed mathematical skill and ingenuity, he makes a case for the future unification of the world without the necessity of global war. Even the skeptics, and I’m one, hope he s right.” • Robert Carneiro, American Museum of Natural History
- This book, for which I couldn’t find a cover, is reviewed at Dannyreviews.com.
- “In Meeting Anthropology, the major phases through which our species has passed provide the structure for a truly coherent encounter with general anthropology — biological, archaeological, cultural, and linguistic.”
- Revised & improved April 12, 2009.
The Creation of Eve
Milton’s blank verse is exceedingly conservative and easy to scan. It’s a testament to Milton’s skill as a poet that his beautiful language and careful phrasing triumphs over his monotonous meter – in many cases subtly disrupting it without violating it. It’s a miracle, really. (For an example of a poet who didn’t pull it off, read Spencer’s Fairy Queen.) It was as if the experimentation of the Elizabethans, let alone the Jacobeans, had never occurred. Milton came of age in an exceedingly conservative era- poetically. Meter, in those days, was as dominant then as free verse now, and as unadventurous. Just the fact that Milton wrote blank verse (when everyone else was writing heroic couplets) was an act of defiance.
Most of the trouble surrounding Milton and scansion (for modern readers) comes down to differences in pronunciation – some of it has to do with historical changes; and some, if you’re American, has to do with differences in British and American pronunciation (especially problematic when reading Chaucer).
I cooked up a table that, with its “scientific” terminology, gives you an idea of Milton’s metrical habits and preferences. I haven’t gone line by line to exhaustively prove the accuracy of my table, but I can assert, for example, that Milton (despite claims to the contrary) never wrote a trochee in the final foot. Here’s an extract, to that effect, from my review of M.L. Harvey’s Book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning: A Study in Generative Metrics (Studies in Comparative Literature):
A more egregious example of misreading, due to changes in habits of pronunciation and even to present day differences between the continents, comes when Mr. Harvey examines Milton. Words like “contest” and “blasphemous” and “surface” (all taken from Paradise Lost) were still accented on the second syllable. “Which of us beholds the bright surface.” (P.L. 6.472 MacMillan. Roy Flannagan Editor.) Mr. Harvey, offering an example of a “very rare `inverted foot’” (the credit for its recognition he gives to Robert Bridges) gives the following line: “Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim Prostrate (P.L. 6.841) In fact, Robert Bridges and Mr. Harvey are both mistaken in reading the fifth foot as inverted and one need not be a seventeenth century scholar to recognize it. Webster’s International Dictionary: Second Edition, in fact, provides the following pronunciation key. (pros [stressed] trat [unstressed]; formerly, and still by some. Esp. Brit., pros [unstressed] trat [stressed]). Any laboratory of Americans, nearly without fail, would also misread this line, and so the danger of overwhelming empirical evidence!
On to my table… Each division represents an equivalent foot in an Iambic Pentameter line.
Here is one of my favorite passages, already alluded to in a previous post – Iambic Pentameter Variants – I. To simplify matters, I haven’t marked any of the Iambic feet , I’ve only marked variant feet or feet that, for one reason another, might be read incorrectly.
Elision, a standard practice in Milton’s day and more or less assumed whether marked or not, eliminates the vast majority of Milton’s “variant” feet.
Glorious, if treated as a three syllable word, would make the second foot Anapestic, not criminal, but if you can elide, you should.
This elision might make some metrists squirm. Given just how conservative metrical practice tended to be in Milton’s day, I would be inclined to elide these two vowels. Given how Milton can barely bring himself to so much as use a feminine ending in the final foot, I seriously doubt he expected readers to treat this foot as an anapest. My advice is to elide it.
The final example of elision, above, is the word Spirits. Interestingly, Milton seems to treat this word opportunistically. In line 466, for example, he treats spirits as a two syllable word. In other lines, throughout Paradise Lost and in the latter line, he treats the word as a monosyllabic word. This sort of inconsistency in pronunciation is found as far back as Chaucer, as with his pronunciation of the word sweete – sometimes one syllable, sometimes two. Such inconsistency is permitted once one has obtained a poetic license.
Reading with the Meter
Modern readers may sometimes be tempted to read as though they were reading prose. Sometimes, though, poets play the line against the meter, wanting us to emphasize certain words we might not otherwise. That’s the beauty of meter in poetry. Milton, as with all the great poets, was skilled at this sort of counterpoint:
In the line above, the modern reader might be tempted to stress the line as follows:
Mean, or in her summ’d up, in in her containd
This would be putting the emphasis on the words in. In free verse, ok, but not Iambic Pentameter and especially not with a metrically conservative poet like Milton. Milton wants us to put the emphasis on her. Maybe the line above doesn’t seem such a stretch? Try this one:
Any modern reader would put the emphasis on Bone and Flesh:
Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self
But they would be missing the point of Milton’s line – the closing my Self! That is, it’s not the Bone or Flesh that amazes Adam, it’s that the Bone and Flesh are of his Bone and of his Flesh. His Self! This contrapuntal exploitation of the meter is a master stroke and to miss it is to miss Milton’s genius. If it’s read in this light, stressing the prepositional of might not feel so strained or artificial.
Pentameter at all costs!
Milton’s obeisance to the demands of Iambic Pentameter aren’t always entirely successful.
This, to me, is a reach, but it’s probably what Milton intended and even how he pronounced it. Practice it with studied e-nunc-i-a-tion and the line may make a little more sense. An alternative is to read the line as Iambic Tetrameter.
Given Milton’s metrical squeamishness, I seriously doubt that, in the entirety of Paradise Lost, he decided, for just one moment, to write one Tetrameter line. There are other alternative Tetrameter readings, but they get uglier and uglier.
That said, ambiguities like these, along with the examples that follow, are what disrupt the seeming monotony of Milton’s meter. His use of them defines Milton’s skill as a poet. Roy Flannagan’s introduction to Paradise Lost (page 37) is worth quoting in this regard:
Milton writes lines of poetry that appear to be iambic pentameter if you count them regularly but really contain hidden reversed feet or elongated or truncated sounds that echo meaning and substance rather than a regular and hence monotonous beat. He builds his poetry on syllable count and on stress; William B. Hunter, following the analysis of Milton’s prosody by the poet Robert Bridges in 1921, counts lines that vary in the number of stresses from three all the way up to eight, but with the syllabic count remaining fixed almost always at ten (“The Sources” 198). Milton heavily favors ending his line on a masculine , accented syllable, with frequent enjambment or continuous rhythm from one line to the next… He avoids feminine feet or feet with final unstressed syllables at the ends of lines. He varies the caesura, or the definitive pause within the line, placing it more freely than any other dramatist or non-dramatic writer Hunter could locate (199). He controls elisions or the elided syllables in words most carefully, allowing the reader to choose between pronouncing a word like spirit as a monosyllable (and perhaps pronounced “sprite”) or disyllable, or Israel as a disyllable or trisyllable.
Extra Syllables: Milton’s Amphibrachs (Feminine Endings & Epic Caesuras)
The amphibrach is a metrical foot if three syllables – unstressed-stressed-unstressed. In poets prior to the 20th Century it is always associated with feminine endings or epic caesuras. In the passages above, Milton offers us two examples, one in the second foot (by far the norm) and one in the first foot.
This would be an epic caesura. The comma indicates a sort of midline break (a break in the syntactic sense or phrase). Amphibrach’s, at least in Milton, are always associated with this sort of syntactic pause or break. Epic Caesuras and Feminine Endings are easily the primary reason for extra syllables in Milton’s line. Anapests make up the rest, but they are far less frequent and can be frequently elided.
This would be a much rarer Epic Caesura in the first foot. Notice, once again, that the amphibrachic foot occurs with a syntactic break, the comma.
Differences in Pronunciation
If you just can’t make sense of the metrical flow, it might be because you aren’t pronouncing the words the same way Milton and his peers did.
Most modern readers would probably pronounce discourse and dis’course. However, in Milton’s day and among some modern British, it was and is pronounced discourse’.
This one is trickier. In modern English, we pronounce attribute as att’ribute when used as a noun and attri’bute when used as a verb. Milton, in a rather Elizabethan twist, is using attributing in its nominal sense, rather than verbal sense. He therefore keeps the nominal pronunciation: att’tributing.
The arch-Angel says to Adam, as concerns Eve:
Dismiss not her…by attributing overmuch to things Less excellent…
It’s phenomenally good marital advice. In other words. Don’t dismiss her by just tallying up her negative attributes, to the exclusion of her positive attributes. There is more to any friendship, relationship, or marriage than the negative. Think on the positive.
Some of Milton’s metrical feet are simply ambiguous – effectively breaking the monotony of the meter. In the example below, one could read the first foot as trochaic or as Iambic:
I chose a trochaic foot – the first option. If this foot had been in the fifth foot (or the last foot of the line) I would have read it as Iambic. Milton doesn’t write trochaic feet in the fifth foot. In the first foot, however, trochaic feet aren’t uncommon and in this instant it seems to make sense. I don’t sense that there’s any crucial meaning lost by de-emphasizing by. Perhaps the best answer, in cases of metrical ambiguity, is to consider at what point in the line the ambiguity is occuring.
Similarly, I read the following line as having a spondee in the fourth foot:
One could also read it as trochaic or iambic. Iambic, given the metrical practice of the day, is far more likely than a trochaic foot – especially, given Milton’s practice, this close to the final foot. I scanned the foot as spondaic. Spondaic feet, in Milton’s day, were considered the least disruptive variant foot and so were acceptable at just about any point of the line.
My Favorite Passages
The passages excerpted above just about cover every metrical exigency you will run into in reading Milton. The other reason I chose them is because they’re, well, juicy. I love them. I especially like the following lines for their sense of humor (and, yes, Milton does have a sense of humor).
What boyfriend or husband hasn’t had this experience? No matter how rational we think we are, all our intellectual bravado crumbles to folly – men are from Mars, women are from Venus.
Did Adam & Eve have sex? Why, yes, says Milton, but it wasn’t pornographic. That came after the fall:
Lastly, and most importantly, is there sex in heaven (or do we have to go to hell for that)? Milton gives us the answer:
If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, comment! Let me know. And if you have further questions or corrections, I appreciate those too.
Told on third day, after Pu-liang Yi’s Story of the Second Day
Said one trader to another: “Mistress Pu-liang Yi’s has left me as thoughtful as the nightingale that sings of nothing but thorns and roses. Let’s hear a fable of amusement!” Then the other traders agreed that they should hear Liang-chieh next. “It has been good day for travel, let’s have a goodly fable to match it.
I cannot match Yün’s thoughtfulness and I do not have Mistress Yi’s depth of feeling. I am as shallow as a ditch. But you say I have humor and wit! Ha! Didn’t we see the sun until its very nose sunk into the southern plains and didn’t we see how the birds followed after it? When I was a child I wished to be a poet but my father said he would sooner clothe an ox in tailored silk than raise his son a poet. He made me a merchant, bless him. Here is my tale!
The Monkey and the Crane
“Ha!” said the Monkey. “Love is just a word!
“What good’s a thing that can’t be seen or heard?
“What use? You cannot shake it from a tree
“Or root it from the earth. What use to me
“Or anyone? The tiger still must hunt,
“And if you cry out “Love!” it will not blunt
“Her appetite. She’d eat me all the same
“And leave me no one but myself to blame!”
The Crane was next. She said: “I know
“That love will never melt midwinter snow.
“It is not rain to April buds or earth
“To summer growth. The measure of its worth
“Cannot be judged by any worldly art
“Yet love is life and summer to the heart.”
The Crane and Monkey were the last to speak,
Then Lao-tsu said: “I see that some are meek,
“The lion and tiger proud. The hummingbird
“Is quiet. The elephant is loud. A herd
“Of bison will uproot a field. A crow
“Will squat unnoticed even in the snow.
“As all of you must know I have two suns.
“When one is in my hat the other runs
“From east to west. When one sun sets I lay
“The other in the east to rise. This way
“The sun is out no matter what the hour.
“Yet I have had no time to pick a flower
“No time to rest beneath a shaded wood
“Or sleep. Sleep would be nice. So, if I could,
“I’d like to find out two from all of you
“To whom I’ll give my suns. Between the two
“The world should still have sunlight while I rest.
“I cannot say which one of you is best
“Yet given what each said on love I’ll choose
“The monkey and the crane—the two whose views
“Were most extreme. I find each sun a jewel
“And hope if either animal’s the fool
“The other may be wise. At least one sun,
“That way, remains—a better end than none.”
Though the other animals feared the worst
The Crane and Monkey stayed apart at first,
Just as the Monkey’s sun set in the west
The Crane was taking hers from out her nest.
By turns they kept the sunlight round the earth,
That was, until, the Monkey’s usual mirth
Made his sun seem the brighter one to him;
And so, one day, he swung from limb to limb
Until he found the jungle lake he knew
The Crane most liked. From there he climbed into
A nearby tree until she was in sight.
“Ha!” He cried. “Your sun is not so bright!
“I’ve seen mine up when yours is in your nest
“And even when mine’s setting in the west,
“Yours rising makes not half the fire of mine!
“This afternoon I’ll climb a mountain pine
“That’s stretched its limbs as far as heaven’s roof
“And there I’ll lift my sun to yours as proof
“That mine is like a plate of beaten gold
“And yours a tarnished copper dulled and old.”
“Oh!” the Crane replied. “I had not thought
“To set one sun against the other! Not
“Because I was afraid! It may be true
“That your sun’s brighter, just that I know too
“It is not light but warmth that brings forth life.
“Yet if it puts an end to any strife
“I’ll grant your sun’s the brighter of the two.”
The Monkey thought on this. “This will not do!”
He said at last. “It stands against all reason!
“As any fool knows well the hottest season
“Is when the sun is brightest in the sky.”
To which the Crane responded: “Then why not try
“Your sun against my own where all can see?
“The world be judge instead of you or me.”
“Agreed,” the Monkey said, “as long as they pick mine!”
Instead of finding out a mountain pine,
When it was next the Monkey’s turn to take
His sun, he put it back instead to make
It climb again (though now from west to east!);
And to be sure its backward motion had not ceased
He sat and watched until he saw each sun
Was climbing slowly toward the other one.
The animals had never seen them both
At once! The smallest hid in undergrowth
And those that couldn’t just as quickly ran
Into the jungle fearing the work of man.
The Monkey saw and jeered at every one.
“Ha!” He said. “I see that even tigers run!
“Why if I’d known it was so easy, I
“Would long ago have put them in the sky
“And left them there.” To which the Tiger said:
“You silly Monkey! Tell us why instead
“Of gloating, why you’ve put both suns together.”
“Simple!” said the Monkey. “Tell me whether
“My sun’s the brighter or the crane’s!” And when
The Crane came next the Tiger asked again
The reason but she said the same. ‘The two
‘Of us alone could not decide. We’ve come to you!’
Then all the animals began to talk
And there were some who even dared to walk
From underneath the jungle shade till one
By one the others came to pick a sun
Until, as with the Crane and Monkey, they
Were at a loss to choose and could not say
Which one was best. The Snake, the first to speak,
Said: “I’ve seen both already at their peak.
“If any one of you were made to crawl
“As I, you’d know the earth is cold. For all
“The light reflected in a field of snow
“There’s nothing lives for long where those winds blow—
“The earth is made no warmer by that light
“When even through the longest summer’s night
“It’s warm. I’ll take the moonlight in July
“To January’s sun!” The Owl said in reply
That she liked neither sun. She said:“I knew
The world without them, for then I flew
“And there was never sun to light my way.
“What needed I the sun to hunt my prey
“Who hears the fieldmouse toeing through the wheat?
“In the dead of night the tiger’s not so fleet
“As I! Let all this daylight be undone!”
To which the Tiger said: “I like the sun
“That burns the brightest burning like my heart.
“I like it glistering on the breath at start
“Of day or brightly watching like my eyes
“At evening from the fields before it lies
“In shadow. When it speckles through the tree
“Against the forest floor it looks to me
“As though a tiger left his paw prints there,
“Aglow, before returning to his lair.
“I like the sun that’s burning like my heart.”
The Elephant spoke next, saying: “I part
“With all of you in what you’ve said. Of all
“I can remember best and best recall
“A time when there was both a night and day.
“The dust I throw atop my back to stay
“The sun was what the night was to the earth,
“A cooling balm against that heat as great in worth
“As all the world’s waters. There is none
“Who live for long where there is only sun
“And wind. This world without the passing night
“Is like a desert, the sun like a blight
“And all reduced to dust. Surely we must drink
“To live, and sleep at night. I cannot think
“The world was always meant to have two suns.”
“Ha!” said the Monkey. “Where all this runs
“Is anybody’s guess. It should be plain
“By now the sun belonging to the Crane
“Is neither warm nor brighter than my own!”
To which the Crane replied: “I should have known.
“To teach a Monkey reason can’t be done!
“Why I could sooner teach a snail to run
“Or an ostrich to dance a roundelay!
“If nothing else this, at least, is plain as day!”
The Tiger interrupted both. He said:
“You’d better look into the sky instead
Where both your suns have nearly reached high noon!”
Then both the Crane and Monkey saw that soon
The suns would have to meet! As if to flee
The Monkey clamored to the nearest tree.
The Crane cried out and leapt into the air;
Both knew well there was little time to spare.
The Monkey climbed the limbs by twos until
The suns hung just beyond his outstretched hand;
And even when he did his best to stand,
His tail wrapped round the branches topmost stem,
He could not grapple either one of them.
The Crane, as quickly as she could, tried too
And strained against the winds until she flew
Beside the suns but then she could not choose.
She cried “I cannot tell whose sun is whose!”
And sure enough the Monkey could not say.
He pointed, scratched his chin, looked this way
Then that. And by the time they both decided
It came too late for next the suns collided!
So much light none had ever seen. And still
The sky grew brighter by the moment till
There came a sound as if two great bells
Had each been struck. Then like cockleshells,
Each thrown against the other mid-air,
The smaller of the two was shattered, there,
In countless pieces, scattered through the sky!
Not a creature dared to lift an eye
But stayed where each had fled and not a sound.
Just the Monkey who’d fallen to the ground —
Felled branch by branch until he’d struck the earth.
He checked if he was still his usual girth —
His head and then his bottom. All was there.
And looking he could do no more than stare.
His sun now glowed a thin and papery light —
A watery silver hardly half so bright
As what it was. He saw the sky aglow
As with a sparkling dust. It seemed as though
The brilliance of his sun was swept away
And all the pieces sprinkled through the half-lit day.
His fiery sun was gone.
And yet the Monkey thought he’d never known
A sight as beautiful as stars and moon,
And felt content to stare all afternoon.
“Ha!” That’s all the Monkey ever said.
Some held it came from landing on his head.
But others said they’d rather grasp the joke –
And though they tried the Monkey never spoke.
“Ha!” he said. That was all. The other sun,
Jolted from its westward course, had spun
Unbroken far into the southern sky.
Yet even so the Crane still flew close by
As if she feared to let it from her sight
Unless it whirl unwatched into the night
Lao-tsu didn’t see the suns collide
But napping in a meadow close beside
A brook he’d woken up to find a moon
And stars had splashed the fading afternoon
With light — some stars were falling from the sky
And some left sparkling trails where they passed by.
He rubbed his eyes before he looked again
And stared, his mouth agape, and knew by then
Some unknown mischief had unfixed the world.
It looked as if a giant’s rage had hurled
The sun as far as earth and sky still met.
He thought it seemed to topple there and yet
He still could see the crane against its light
Before it finally rolled into the night.
“Where are my suns?” he cried and rushed to where
He’d left them in the crane and monkey’s care,
Yet not a single animal would say.
The snake lodged underneath a rock to stay
Until the sun returned. The owl had flown.
The Tiger skulked the jungle’s dark alone.
The elephant recalled a darker night
Before the monkey’s sun had left its light
In splintered pieces. Alone among them all
The monkey sat absorbed by what he saw,
Unmoved from where he’d fallen from the tree.
He’d curled and propped his head against his knee
To watch the spinning stars. Lao-tsu cried:
“I see the crane fly south and thought she tried
“To catch the sun before it slipped away!
“I see, as with the remnants of the day,
“The night is dusted with a glittering light!
“I see a ghostly ball ascend the night
“As if it were the shadow of a sun!
“From this I cannot reason what you’ve done!”
The monkey only looked dissatisfied.
“Ha!” he said before he moved a branch aside.
Then Lao-tsu stared at him a little while
And could not say if it were simply guile
Or if the monkey also couldn’t reason why,
Till finally both sat gazing at the sky
Together with their backs against the tree.
There was a moon and countless stars to see.
Then he finally spoke once more that night,
He said: “The sky and earth will of themselves be right.”
Here Ends Liang-chieh’s Tale
Followed by Ji-Yuan’s Story on the Fourth Day .
This is one of my favorite Sonnets by Shakespeare. And it is the one sonnet, of the 154, that some Shakespeare “scholars” consider to be apocryphal – which is to say, they think it isn’t by Shakespeare. I, drawing my line in the Vermont snow, say they are wrong. This sonnet, unless some letters are discovered, is as close as we may come to hearing Shakespeare’s unscripted voice.
Those lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’
To me that languish’d for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she alter’d with an end,
That follow’d it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
‘I hate’ from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying ‘not you.’
The figurative language is straightforward – the simplest of his sonnets. (Figurative language is any that uses metaphor, simile or any of the other rhetorical figures.) But what is most unique is it’s meter: Iambic Tetramater – the only one of Shakespeare’s sonnets not written in Iambic Pentameter. Some scholars say it must have been an early sonnet, which is possible. The supposition, I suppose, is that Iambic Tetrameter is a warm up to Iambic Pentameter or that a more youthful poem will be less figurative. These are all possibilities, but the humor and ease of the sonnet feels more assured to me. It’s a friendly joke. I like to imagine that it was written after a marital spat as a kind of humorous peace offering. In that respect, I like to think it’s the most personal of Shakespeare’s verses and offers a little glimpse into his home life and the kind of temperament he possessed.
One other note: This is among the first sonnets that I read by Shakespeare (when in highschool) and it was the first that I immediately understood. For me, it opened the door to all his other sonnets and made Shakespeare human.
The scansion of the sonnet is fairly straightforward, but I’ll go with the assumption that some readers are coming to this for the first time. The first four lines would be scanned as follows:
These lines are all solidly iambic and there is nothing figurative in any of them – I’m willing to assert that in no other Sonnet by Shakespeare are there four consecutive lines of unadorned English.
Shakespeare mixes it up a little. The first feet of the quatrain’s first two lines are trochaic (a Shakespearean sonnet is divided into three quatrains – each four lines – and a final couplet). What’s more interesting is Shakespeare’s use of personification – a Shakespearean specialty found throughout his sonnets and plays. He personifies the heart and tongue as though they were dramatic characters – the single most telling aspect, to me, that favors Shakespeare’s authorship. Mercy, like one of the virtues in an older miracle play, comes to his lover’s heart and the heart chides the tongue: be more sweet to your poor William!
The final quatrain is all very straightward in terms of its poetic language. It offers the entirely straightfoward and ordinary observation that the “day doth follow night”, then follows that with a sort of simile or analogy comparing the night to “a fiend (From heaven to hell” flown away). The image is all but hackneyed, even in Shakespeare’s day, but it’s hackneyed in an easy-going sort of way.
(Notice that I’ve scanned the last line of the quatrain so that the second foot reads as an anapest. One could read the line as follows:
With this scansion, the iambic rhythm is maintained – heaven reads more like heav’n. I know this reading gives some metrists heartburn, but that’s the way poets write. Heaven is one those words that Shakespeare might have treated as a compromise between an iambic foot and an anapest.)
This isn’t a virtuosic show-piece and it’s clearly not meant to be. I get the feeling that he jotted this quickly, unselfconsciously for his own pleasure and the pleasure of his lover. And who was she? The final couplet, interestingly, may hold a clue.
Notice the trochaic foot in the final line before the iamb ‘not you’. I can’t help but think this little metrical jest is deliberate. He could have written “she said ‘not you‘”, retaining the “proper” iambic rhythm, but instead deliberately employed the trochaic foot, adding emphasis to ‘not you‘! Shakespeare breaths a sigh of relief.
The contorted syntax and grammar of the second to last line is ‘a little’ unusual for Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s day people didn’t talk this way. It could be for the rhyme but this idea strikes me as overly awkward even for a young Shakespeare – the greatest literary genius of our language. He was more resourceful than that. Something is up.
There is speculation, and I agree with the speculation, that Shakespeare was emplying a pun. ‘I hate’ from hate away‘ could be read as ‘I hate’ from Hathaway ‘ or, to spell it out, ‘I hate from Anne Hathaway.’
And in case you don’t already know it, Anne Hathaway was Shakespeare’s wife.
If you enjoyed this and are looking for more information on meter, check out my Guides to Meter and another analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, Spenser’s Sonnet 75 and Milton’s Sonnet: When I consider….