Iambic Pentameter’s “neutrality” & Annie Finch’s defense of non-Iambic Meters

double-troubleRecently, I got into an email discussion with the poet Annie Finch concerning my scansion of Robert Frost’s Birches. I added some of that conversation to the post itself simply because I thought it might be interesting to other readers. Unlike me, Annie Finch has actually made something of herself. She teaches in Maine and has published several books of poetry, one of which I reviewed here, and has also published a guide to poetry: A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry. She’s even earned her own entry in Wikipedia. The opening paragraph, as of December 2016, says of her: “Dictionary of Literary Biography names her ‘one of the central figures in contemporary American poetry’ for her role, as poet and critic, in the contemporary reclamation of poetic meter and form.”

So, she has some very definite opinions concerning meter and how poems should be scanned. And just as human beings can’t agree on so much as boiling eggs, we disagreed  on the scansion of Frost’s Birches.

But an interesting upshot of the conversation was her mention of an article she wrote for a book called After New Formalism: Poets on Form, Narrative, and Tradition, a compendium of essays she curated and edited. Her own essay is entitled “Metrical Diversity: A Defense of the Non-Iambic Meters”. What she’s “defending” non-iambic meters from is the generally accepted assertion that the cadence of the English language is predominantly, and in the most general sense, iambic, and that all non-Iambic meters are therefore ‘unnatural’ or counter to the prevailing cadence of English.

And I agree with this latter assertion.

I favor keeping things simple. Take any sentence in the English language in which there is only a monosyllabic subject and  verb and it will normally always be iambic.

I am. I think. I love. You drink. You ate. We sing. We dance.

Likewise, any  monosyllabic noun in combination with a definite article will normally always be iambic

The stick. The house. The beer. The hope. The dream.

Any combination of indefinite and definite article with a monosyllabic noun is assumed to be iambic.

My road. His house. Their beer. Our hope. Her dream.

Now combine these basic patterns, the most elemental building blocks of the English language, and you have a language that is, at root, naturally iambic.

I love my house. You drink a beer. We dance the dream.  I think therefore I am.

If one accepts that the grounding cadence of the English language is iambic, then all other accentual patterns can be understood as variations on that basic pattern.

I love my red house. You drink a warm beer. We dance a happy dream.

The anapest can be understood as fulfilling the iambic cadence with an extra syllable. The same can be said for the amphibrachic ‘I whittled’, in which the extra syllable follows the iamb. And though the absorption of French and Latin vocabulary added more variety in the cadence of our language—I contrived, she unraveled, they capitulated—the monosyllabic and iambic roots of English encourage us to hear the iambs in these combinations, rather than the trochees. We instinctively emphasize the second syllable in each verb, turning each example into an anapest or, as above, an iamb with extra syllables.

  • By contrast, in the Finnish language, words are normally accented on the first syllable  and so the writing of the Finnish Kalevala in a trochaic meter as as natural (or neutral) to their language as Paradise Lost’s blank verse is to English.

But watch what happens if I do this:

My road. His house. Their horse. Our hope. Her dream.

Suddenly the patten is no longer iambic but trochaic. At which point the devil’s advocate might interject: “Ah ha! You see! The iambic rhythm isn’t intrinsic, only contextual.”  However, the very fact that the articles need to be italicized (in order to be read as trochaic)  proves the rule, and that’s that the building blocks of all English sentences are iambic. One might endlessly quibble over trochaic, cretic and amphibrachic patterns, but the fact remains that the most basic syntactic units of the English language are far and away iambic and if they’re not iambic—emphatic formulations like Stop it! Hit me! Catch her !—they are emphatic precisely because they disrupt English’s normal iambic cadence. In short, anapests, trochees and amphibrachs are best understood as variations on an iambic ground. Even when reading non-iambic meters, the English speaking ear looks for iambs.

And this is why most audience members will listen to a recitation of Robert Frost’s Mending Wall and never realize that it’s relatively strict Iambic Pentameter. The basic building blocks of blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) and the English Language are one and the same, the ear finds nothing immediately unusual about Frost’s blank verse (the only meter that can pull this off). And setting aside differences in Elizabethan and Restoration English, the same can be said for Shakespeare and Milton’s iambic verse, or Keats or Wordsworth.

As Finch herself concedes, “all but a tiny portion of poetry in English has been written so far in iambic pentameter” [p. 117]. That’s not sheer coincidence. However, Finch immediately tries to reframe that inconvenient fact. She continues: “…it is important to recognize that the iambic pentameter is not a neutral or essentially ‘natural’ meter. It’s connotations are distinct and culturally defined.”

And with that assertion Finch apparently considers her work done. She provides no explanation as to what she means by “distinct and culturally defined”. Apparently the obviousness of her assertion doesn’t merit an explanation. And that academically imperious phrase, “it is important to recognize“, does nothing to lend validity.

For me, at last, the entirety of her essay falls apart with this assertion. One either accepts what she thinks the reader should recognize, or one doesn’t. And I don’t. I’m really not seeing any room for debate: the basic syntactic building blocks of the English language are iambic. Try it for yourself. See if you can come up with a monosyllabic subject/verb or definite article/noun combination that isn’t iambic.

Finch then goes on to observe that when iambic pentameter was first being established “it was characterized by no substitution at all, clumsy substitution, and ‘forcing’ the meter.” She asserts that “perhaps the early history of non-iambic meters is developing analogously with the early history of the iambic pentameter”.

What Finch fails to mention is that this early history of Iambic Pentameter barely lasted two decades—if that. Sackville and Norton’s Gorboduc, the poster child for stiff Iambic Pentameter, was written in 1561. Between 1582 and 1592, Kyde produced The Spanish Tragedy and modern blank verse was underway. By comparison, as Finch herself states, non-iambic verse has “only”, quote-unquote, had “the past two centuries” to become “a barely accepted presence in English-language written poetry”. In what world are two decades in Elizabethan England analogous to two centuries?—and counting? I think, rather, what this firmly argues, once again, is that non-iambic meters are not “neutral”. Secondly, the reason for iambic pentameter’s initial strictness wasn’t because the ear was unaccustomed to the meter but because there was no history of blank verse when Norton and Sackville, for example, were writing. They were making it up and so, naturally, wrote a strict meter. After two centuries (and three or four centuries of metrical poetry in general), the same argument can’t be made for non-iambic meters.

The more traditional argument against non-iambic meters being “neutral” is that non-iambic meters don’t fare well with “substitution” (and by substitution we mean variant feet). Finch writes:

“Of the many questions that have yet to be answered about the nature of non-iambic meters, perhaps the most essential is the question of their hospitiality to metrical substitution. The prosodist Martin Halpern formalized in 1962 the idea, now a truism, that iambic meter is different from all the other meters because it alone can absorb substitutions with varying degrees of stress.”

This simply means that introducing a variant foot in an iambic pentameter line is less disturbing to the meter than doing so in a trochaic or dactylic line. For example, a dactylic poem:

And | where’s there a | scene more de | lightfully seeming
To | eyes like to | mine that is | blinded wi love
Than | yon setting | sun on the | steeple point gleaming
And | blue mist deep | tinging the edge | of the grove.

~ Song by John Clare p. 87 from Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters

Now let’s put in some “substitutions” (italics) and see how it works:

And |where’s there a scene more delightfully seeming
To |eyes like both of mine each blinded wi love
Than yon setting sun on the |steeple point reflecting
And |blue mist deep |tinging the edge |of the grove.

So, how distracting were the substitutions in the rewrite? If you say very, and most do, that (in a nutshell) is the argument against non-iambic meters being “neutral”. Because blank verse is built on the same iambic building blocks as the English language, it’s rhythm isn’t quite so easily undermined by so many substitutions/variant feet (italics):

To be, or not to be- that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-

To read dactylic meter is a deliberate act in a way that reading blank verse isn’t. This is because no sustained dactylic meter is ever going to sound like normal speech and this is because dactylic meters aren’t “neutral”. The same is true for anapestic meters and trochaic meters. And contrary to Finch’s vague assertion, this isn’t just a matter of cultural distinctions and definitions. This is why readers, when confronted with more  ambiguous lines (than mine above) are tempted “to force the pronunciation of certain words to fit the meter”. For instance:

“All the wild-fowl sang them to him,
In the moorlands and the fen-lands,
In the melancholy marshes;
Chetowaik, the plover, sang them,
Mahng, the loon, the wild-goose, Wawa,
The blue heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
And the grouse, the Mushkodasa!”

~ The Song of Haiwatha [Italics mine.]

Finch writes:

“As Timothy Steele puts it, ‘trochaics and triple meters… haven’t the suppleness and the capacity for fluid modulation that iambic measures have, not do they tolerate the sorts of variations (e.g. inverted feet at line beginnings or after mid-line pauses) that the texture of iambic verse readily absorbs.’ Steele gives as an example a line from Longfellow: ‘The blue heron, the Shuh,shu-gah,’ and comments ‘it is unlikely that we would emphasize the two definite articles… but that is what Longfellow wishes us to do since he is writing in trochaic tetrameter.’ This line of reasoning constitutes a tautological trap in which to catch non-iambic meters; because the meter is trochaic, we assume the pronunciation is meant to be unnatural; then we damn the trochaic meter for forcing unnatural pronunciations. According to this common conception, “substitutions” in a non-iambic meter  do not substitute at all, but actually demand that we “force” the pronunciation of certain words to fit the meter. Non-iambic meters are held to be so overbearing that they can’t allow word-stresses an independent and counterpointing rhythm.” [pp. 119-120]

Once again Finch’s argument seems to fall apart. On what basis does a reader “assume” the pronunciation “is meant to be unnatural”? Before reading the poem? How would they know? And why would a reader “force the pronunciation” unless their assumption (if they made one) was confirmed?—in which case it’s no longer an assumption. The problem is in the way Finch frames the argument. She implies that the reader imposes the idea of “unnaturalness” on the meter. But since the reader normally has no way of knowing the meter before reading the poem, on what basis would a reader make such an assumption? The meter itself is what imposes expectations on the reader as they’re reading. This is Steele’s point. This isn’t about retrospectively “catching” non-iambic meters. This is a recognition that a trochaic meter, because it’s in tension with the English language’s normal iambic cadence, all the more forcefully shapes a reader’s expectations.

And as far as that goes, Steele is mistaken in asserting that “this is what Longfellow wishes us to do”. In fact, Steele has no idea. It’s quite likely, as Finch argues, that Longfellow didn’t intend us to read the lines as trochaic. But what Finch doesn’t acknowledge is that it’s the meter itself that creates this expectation (perhaps despite Longfellow’s intentions). That said, if the adjective “blue” and the first “shuh” is sufficiently demoted (un-stressed) I can almost hear the lines as trochaic. To be honest, the  first line of the extract troubles me more than the line quoted by Steele and FInch. The meter wants us to read it like this:

All the |wild-fowl |sang them| to him

I read it this way:

All the |wild fowl |sang them| to him

And if I’m trying to read the poem as trochaic, I definitely feel the variant feet much more so than if the line were iambic.

Lastly, Finch’s statement that “while some student poets write metrical poetry most easily and happily in iambs, and equal number (in my experience) write it most easily and happily in dactyls and trochees,” has nothing whatsoever to do with whether a non-iambic meter is “neutral”. With enough practice one may skillfully walk backwards, but no one would conclude that walking backwards is as natural as walking forwards. Our bodies have evolved to walk a certain direction and all the evidence thus far (including several centuries of metrical practice) argues the evolution of the English language has and continues to favor an iambic cadence.

But the most intriguing question, to me, is why Annie Finch is even making the argument?

Why does it matter, to her, that non-iambic meters be seen as neutral? Does she think students are discouraged from writing non-iambic meters? Does she think it will change how non-iambic meters are written? Is it because she thinks her own poetry, which is often non-iambic, suffers neglect?

One answer she herself gives:

“Prosodic systems which maintain that only iambs can form a metrical base for substitution deny these students who might enjoy non-iambic meters the chance to develop skill in modulating them.” [p. 121]

This reasoning, of course, reflects her belief that 600 years of metrical practice is solely due to connotations “that are distinct and culturally defined”. In other words, our favoring of iambics has nothing to do with the language but is solely arbitrary—nurture rather than nature. Given that set of beliefs, it’s no wonder she’d blame “prosodic systems” for discouraging metrical experimentation. I’m not buying it though.

I personally think there’s more promise in asking whether non-iambic meters have been, or ever were, in any sense subversive. One of the earliest and most famous examples of trochaic meter, interestingly enough, comes from Thomas Middleton’s addition (as modern Shakespearean scholars assert) to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The cant of the three witches:

1 WITCH.  Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.
2 WITCH.  Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin’d.
3 WITCH.  Harpier cries:—’tis time! ’tis time!
1 WITCH.  Round about the caldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot!
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH.  Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
3 WITCH.  Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf;
Witches’ mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark;
Root of hemlock digg’d i the dark;
Liver of blaspheming Jew;
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse;
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips;
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,—
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingrediants of our caldron.
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH.  Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

The whole archetype of the witch is nothing if not subversive—both in accusation and practice. And I think it’s cool as all get out that Shakespeare/Middleton flipped the meter. Is there another example like this in other plays of the era? Right now, I can’t think of any. And what’s really cool is that the witches continue to address Macbeth and Banquo in trochaics, and also later in Act 4.

But why would the playwrights continue to have them speak in trochaics?

The answer is that the meter was distinctive and immediately recognizable to Elizabethan audiences. Finch will write:

“Few if any poets in our own century have written non-iambic meters that are subtly modulated and meant to be read aloud with natural speech stress, according to our twentieth-century preference. The fact, however, does not necessarily mean it cannot be done.” [p. 118]

Despite the hedging and wishful “few”, we can safely say that no poets have done so. Either Finch knows of an example or she doesn’t. So while I would be hesitant to say it can’t be done, we do know that it hasn’t been done; and I would bet against it simply because the witches’ cant is just as startling, hair-raising, and memorable today as 400 years ago. Our perception of trochaic meter hasn’t changed.

Finch’s desire to make metrical substitutions in non-iambic verse “natural” is essentially an effort to normalize non-iambic meters. To which I say: Why? The beauty of trochaic verse, among other non-iambic meters, is precisely that it can’t be normalized, that it’s difficult to pull off, and that that’s what makes the meter immediately recognizable.

And I would think, given Finch’s use of non-iambic meters and her self-identification with Wiccan practices, she would want to explore their potential disruptiveness. Have non-Iambic meters ever been actively exploited politically? Has trochaic meter, beyond Shakespeare’s Macbeth, ever been purposefully identified with the ‘witch’, the magical being, the disruptive female?

I don’t know.

Interestingly, and as an aside perhaps, Longfellow wasn’t the first American poet to tell a story about native Americans using trochees. The poet Schoolcraft wrote a romantic poem called Alhalla, or the Lord of Talladega, also in trochaic tetrameter. In the preface:to the poem Schoolcraft wrote:

“The meter is thought to be not ill adapted to the Indian mode of enunciation. Nothing is more characteristic of their harangues and public speeches, than the vehement yet broken and continued strain of utterance, which would be subject to the charge of monotony, were it not varied by the extraordinary compass in the stress of voice, broken by the repetition of high and low accent, and often terminated with an exclamatory vigor, which is sometimes startling. It is not the less in accordance with these traits that nearly every initial syllable of the measure chosen is under accent. This at least may be affirmed, that it imparts a movement to the narrative, which, at the same time that it obviates languor, favors that repetitious rhythm, or pseudo-parallelism, which so strongly marks their highly compound lexicography.”

With Schoolcraft’s preface in mind, Longfellow was to write:

“Your article . . . needs only one paragraph more to make it complete, and that is the statement that parallelism belongs to Indian poetry as well to Finnish… And this is my justification for adapting it in Hiawatha.”

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Quick Read ❧ Sidney’s Sonnet 47

  • As always, any discussion of Elizabethan “love poetry” that isn’t Rated R (and sometimes X) has never been to Elizabethan England. Sidney’s Sonnets are the work of genius. They are verbally brilliant and filled with puns and sexual innuendos and they profoundly influenced dddddddddddddddddddddShakespeare’s sonnets. These aren’t just the sentimental pluckings of the love-lorn. Each sonnet is a brilliant, tour-de-force display of Elizabethan wit, argumentation and wordplay. You’ve been warned.

A while back, I did a quick read of Sidney’s Sonnet 64. This will be similar to that. A reader, Milly, requested that I take a look at this poem. She tells me she has an assignment coming up in a week. So, here goes.

As before, for a brief overview of Sidney’s metrical practice and the types of sonnets he wrote, visit Sir Philip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets. The present sonnet, which follows the same pattern as Sonnet 64, is a hybrid between (what would become) the Shakespearean Sonnet (with it’s closing epigrammatic couplet) and the Patrarchan sonnet. I’ve copied 47 from an edition of Sidney’s selected writings by Richard Dutton. First, in plain text:

 
     What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?
         Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
         In my free side? or am I born a slave,
4    Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?
     Or want I sense to feel my misery?
         Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have?
         Who for long faith, tho' daily help I crave,
8    May get no alms but scorn of beggary.
     Virtue awake, Beauty but beauty is,
     I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
     Leave following that which it is gain to miss.
12   Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to,
        Unkind, I love you not: O me, that eye
        Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.

I’ve taken my text from Richard Dutton’s edition of Sidney’s Writings, which are based on the 1598 Folio of Sidney’s works. I notice that most of the versions floating around include various exclamation points (which make sense) but they aren’t in the original. (I always prefer what the poet actually wrote.)

Sindey's Sonnet 47

  • Virtue could be pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, so I’ve read that foot as Iambic (though it’s possible to read it as trochaic).

For some background on the names Astrophil and Stella, Wikipedia is a good source:

“Probably composed in the 1580s, Philip Sidney‘s Astrophil and Stella is an English sonnet sequence containing 108 sonnets and 11 songs. The name derives from the two Greek words, ‘aster’ (star) and ‘phil’ (lover), and the Latin word ‘stella’ meaning star. Thus Astrophil is the star lover, and Stella is his star. Sidney partly nativized the key features of his Italian model Petrarch, including an ongoing but partly obscure narrative, the philosophical trappings of the poet in relation to love and desire, and musings on the art of poetic creation. Sidney also adopts the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, though he uses it with such freedom that fifteen variants are employed.” [Wikipedia ~ October 5th 2014]

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article adds the following (quoting the Oxford University Press edition of Sidney’s works):

“There is no evidence that the title is authorial. It derives from the first printed text, the unauthorized quarto edition published by Thomas Newman (1591). Newman may also have been responsible for the consistent practice in early printings of calling the lover persona ‘Astrophel’. Ringler emended to ‘Astrophil’ on the grounds of etymological correctness, since the name is presumably based on Greek aster philein, and means ‘lover of a star’ (with stella meaning ‘star’); the ‘phil’ element alluding also, no doubt, to Sidney’s Christian name.”

So, some interpreters might make hay out of the names Astrophil & Stella, but they may not even originate with Sidney. Caveat Empor. But, as with Sonnet 64, we’ll just go ahead and call Sidney’s real or imagined mistress Stella.

The Argument

What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?
   Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
   In my free side? or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?

The sonnet begins with a series of rhetorical questions. The Elizabethan poets prized wit, intelligence and rhetorical flair above all. But it’s the wit that the modern day reader can easily and especially miss. If you’re reading an Elizabethan sonnet sequence between lovers, expect obscene (albeit witty) sexual references to slip right under your radar. There are over 400 years that separate our vocabulary from theirs, and a good many words that look just the same today were very different animals back then.

Take the word liberty. Sidney isn’t just talking about freedom to read informative periodicals or to volunteer at the local SPCA. No. Not at all. If you were an Elizabethan, Sidney’s question is much more serious (especially if you were a young man of Sidney’s age and sex was as easy as the housemaid).

  • Liberty – Excessive freedom from restraint or temperance in sexual matters, gaming, drinking. See quotation at drabbing; cf. Othello, III iv 39. [Shakespeare’s Bawdy]

So, the dichotomy or, in plain English, his complaint is that his obsession with Stella has taken him out of circulation. Has he betrayed his “liberty”, his licentious freedom to go chasing other women, gaming and drink, for the sake of a lover who won’t even give him the time of day? Is he mad?

Sidney goes on:

Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
in my free side?

This reference might remind readers of Shakespeare’s “dark lady”. We know from Sidney’s 7th Sonnet that Stella’s eyes are black.

When Nature made her chief work, Stella’s eyes,
In color black why wrapp’d she beams so bright?

  • In the Renaissance, it was believed that the eye saw by emitting (presumably) invisible beams.

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Black was the color of sexuality, danger and mystery. It’s no coincidence that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, The expense of spirit in a waste of shame, was written to the dark lady, and it’s not entirely unreasonable to assert that Shakespeare was well aware of (and influenced by) Sidney’s own “dark lady”. In the case of Sidney, those black, smoldering eyes “engrave” his free side and free side hearkens back to liberty. In other words, not only does she rob him of his ability to chase other women, but her eyes mark him — they make his infatuation with Stella obvious to other women.

Or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes the yoke of tyranny?

This gets complicated only because we, in America, associate branding and slavery with African Americans. There was no such slave trade in England. Sidney is referring to something different. The condition (and number) of the poor during Elizabethan times was especially worrisome to the aristocracy. Here’s how the learning site sums up the treatment of the very poor — the itinerant beggars who the government found the most worrisome:

The third group were known as Rogues and Vagabonds. This was the group targeted by the government. These were people who could work but preferred to beg or steal. This group worried the government as it was the one most like to get into trouble. The government made begging illegal and anybody found begging was flogged until “his back was bloody”. If he was found begging outside of his parish, he would be beaten until he brand ironsgot to the parish stones that marked his parish boundary with the next parish. Those who were caught continually begging could be sent to prison and hanged. During the reign of Edward VI, caught vagabonds could have their tongue branded and kept as a slave for two years. [The Learning Site October 5th 2014]

Remember this, because this is what Sidney had in mind and why he will later refer to his being a beggar. And also of interest:

Different types of torture and punishments were used depending on the victim’s crime and social status. There were also different punishments and tortures used according to the customs of each country. The punishment was adopted in the Dark and Middle Ages by the Anglo-Saxons. In 1547 the Statute of Vagabonds ruled that vagabonds, gypsies and brawlers were ordered to be branded, the first two with a large V on the breast. the last with F for fighter (brawler). Slaves too who ran away were branded with S on cheek or forehead. This law was repealed in 1636. [Middle Ages October 5th 2014]

So, when Sidney refers to himself as being branded on his “free side”, this may possibly be a reference to his forehead. Indeed, the high forehead was considered an aristocratic fashion statement:

“High hairline, perfectly arched brows and bright eyes were also standards of Elizabethan beauty. Many plucked their eyebrows and their hairline back at least an inch to give that aristocratic look of the fashionable high forehead.” [Unusual Historicals October 5th 2014]

And it is precisely there that slaves might be branded. It’s also possible that Sidney was referring to his cheek, although that would beg the question: If there’s a free side, what’s the other side? Another possibility is that he’s referring to his tongue (which could also be branded). At first glance, this doesn’t seem to make sense: Why would her eyes brand his tongue? Is she always looking at his tongue? But if Sidney was making this comparison, then he might have been figuratively thinking of his poetry as his tongue. In other words, her eyes brand his tongue (meaning his poetry). This last possibility fits nicely with the idea of “engraving”. She engraves his tongue — his poetry — which is itself engraved in being written. She brands his poetry — his “free side”. At any rate, take your pick. And there may be other possibilities I haven’t thought of.

From there, he asks if he wasn’t “born a slave” whose neck “becomes” [is suited to] a yoke of tyranny.

Or want I sense to feel my misery?
   Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have?
   Who for long faith, tho' daily help I crave,
May get no alms but scorn of beggary.

Is he so addled that he wants [lacks] the sense to feel his misery? — Does he [lack] the sprite [intelligence, spirit, soul] to disdain her disdain?

  • Sprite • 1.) mood, occasional state of mind 2.) mind, soul 3.) any supernatural being [The Shakespeare Lexicon]

Who [in return for] for long [loyal] faith [fidelity], though daily help [sex] I crave [desire],
May get no [Will never get] alms [sexual favors] but [just] scorn for beggary.

  • Alms • what is given in charity [The Shakespeare Lexicon]

And what is “the scorn of beggary”? During Edward the VI’s reign, that scorn was the branding of the tongue. Remember that “those who were caught continually begging could be sent to prison and hanged [and that] during the reign of Edward VI, caught vagabonds could have their tongue branded and kept as a slave for two years.” Sidney was born the year after Edward’s death. This makes it very likely that he would have seen (or heard of) the branded tongues of beggars and vagabonds. So, given Sidney’s allusion to insistent begging, I’m more convinced that he was referring to his tongue (and by extension his poetry) when referring to his “free side”, a likely reference to himself as a poet (as opposed to a soldier perhaps).

The Volta

Virtue awake, Beauty but beauty is,
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that which it is gain to miss.
Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to,

Virtue is another one of those words that was nicely slippery during Elizabethan times.

  • Virtue • Famale chastity: King John, II i 98 (see at rape); Othello, IV i 8. Ex L. vir, ‘a man’: the L. virtus = manliness, courage [Shakespeare’s Bawdy]
  • Virtue • Chastity in women (p); but, not surprisingly, the opposite for men: potency, virility (L vir, a man) Vertue: manhood, prowess (Cot.) [A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance]

So, it’s all too easy to read this line with the complacency of our 21rst century vocabulary. Sidney was not talking about the kind of virtue you think he was. He’s saying that it’s time for him to get back in the game. Remember the first line? — Have I thus betrayed my liberty [to be read as excessive freedom from restraint or temperance in sexual matters, gaming, drinking.] His idea of virtue is the freedom to exercise his “liberty”, understood as masculine prowess in womanizing. gaming and drink. If you’re a girl, Sidney was there for you.

But there’s also the pun on a woman’s chastity. The line may be read two ways:

Virtue [referring to her frigidity] awake [wake up!], Beauty but beauty is, [you’re not going to be beautiful forever]

(Shakespeare picks up on this theme in his own sonnets, urging the young man to make hay while his beauty lasts.) Sidney, by referring to her as “Virtue”, is implying that she’s frigid and stuck up. Alternatively, the punning line is also a reference to himself:

Virtue [referring to his own masculine prowess] awake [wake up!], Beauty but beauty is, [all cat’s are gray at night]

I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that which it is gain to miss.

The hard driving Iambics of I may, I must, I can, etc… nicely enact Sidney’s clenched-teeth-determination to free himself from his infatuation. Why this emotional outburst? What exactly is it that’s got Sidney so worked up? The curiously impersonal phrase “Leave following that” answers the question — yet another of Sidney’s bawdy insinuations. He’s not referring to her, but to her vagina, pussy, twat (forgive me) or “that which it is gain to miss”. In Shakespeare’s plays, there are over a hundred different words for a woman’s vagina. The very title of one of his plays is specifically about the subject: “Much Ado about Nothing“. The word Nothing was a well known and well-used pun on a woman’s vagina. Don’t think it’s odd that I refer to Shakespeare’s vocabulary. Shakespeare used words and made puns which he knew the playgoers would understand — Sidney and Shakespeare were both steeped in the same stew.

“Gain to miss” is a beautiful pun. First there’s the obvious meaning: He has much to gain (in more successfully pursuing other women) if he misses [gives up on] Stella’s “sex”. There’s also the suggestion of “missing” as would a marksman — arrow, bow and shaft. That is, by giving up on her, he will have “missed” his “aim”. There is also the pun of gain [as in something – a penis] and miss [as in nothing – a vagina]. If you think this is far fetched, then you might want to try reading Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns. Even if you end up disagreeing with some of the book’s more outlandish assertions, it will nevertheless open the eyes to a more robust Elizabethan humor. It’s a different kind of wit and brilliance, but witty and brilliant nonetheless.

Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to,

As if recovering from his momentary madness, he corrects himself (and his objectification of her). Let her go, he says. These lines, metrically, are masterful. One might be inclined to read the line as follows:

Let her | go.

But the Iambic patten encourages us to emphasize her as well:

Let her | go. Soft,

So, we have two spondaic feet. He is talking to himself, once again, forcefully, emphasizing each word. The sonnet is written in the spirit of a monologue, a speech in a play — and one wonders whether Sidney might have written plays if he had lived long enough. On the other hand, Donne never wrote a play and his poetry is full of drama. The dramatic voice was in the air during that era.

The Epigrammatic Sting
Or the conclusion of the argument in the final couplet.

“Soft” he says. No sooner does he voice his intention to let her go, but he retreats. Soft [I must speak softly!], “but here she comes”. And then? “Go to!” Come on! Get real!

Go to, [Get real!]
Unkind [unkind woman], I love you not: O me [uh oh], that eye [the one that brands]

And here finally, in the last line, Sidney expressly refers to the tongue, further reinforcing the idea that he is recalling the branding of the itinerant beggar’s tongue.

Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.

hart_hind

I’ve read many interpretations of these sonnets that blandly refer to the heart as the heart, but, to quote Frankie Rubinstein, author of A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns, “‘heart’ is no sentimental metaphor”. In a sonnet sequence full of brilliant word play and sexual innuendo, it’s only the naive who don’t or won’t consider that “heart” was among the most punned on words in Elizabethan wordplay — “the hart/hind pun on the male and female deer”. In other words, the hart/heart was synonymous with the penis and the hind was synonymous with the woman’s “hind”, hind-end and vagina. Don’t believe me? It’s no coincidence that the King James translators of the Bible wrote:

“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart.” Jer 4:4

So, read the line literally but don’t miss Sidney’s brilliant bawdiness. On the one hand, the line can be read sentimentally:

Doth make my heart [love] give to my tongue [poetry] the lie [the mark of her branding].

And on the other:

Doth make my heart [my penis’s erection] give to my tongue [his prior words of rejection] the lie.

And that puts into perspective his previous admonition: Soft[possibly a pun on his erection], but here she comes.

It’s all there. If you need this analysis for your high school assignment, I recommend the sentimental interpretation. If you want some time off, being punished for the truth has and will always work.

❧ up in Vermont Oct. 5th 2014

Other Resources:

WB Yeats ❧ Byzantium

william_butler_yeats_2So, I’ve been reading more Yeats. In particular, I’ve been trying to get a foothold in Byzantium.  Whereas Sailing to Byzantium has the feeling of conviction, Byzantium reads more like a hoary Rand Mcnally triptych having no relevance to anyone but Yeats. In her book, Our Secret Discipline, Vendler spends 11 full pages explicating Byzantium without eliciting the least desire to read it. Thankfully, unlike  her analysis of Sailing to Byzantium, she seems to have gotten over her obsession with Yeats’ penis. She doesn’t write such chestnuts as “[Yeats] hopes to regain respect by emphasizing the power of the rigid Byzantine “monuments of unageing intellect. [p. 31]” (The italics are mine.) Which, when one thinks about it, is a little odd.

Anyway, what’s the point of Byzantium? Is it really just the description of souls arriving in some concocted city by a fevered poet drunk on his own “spiritualist” kool-aid? Is it just spiritualist naval gazing? Was Yeats really trying to communicate anything relevant? John Unterecker, in his Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats, has this to say about Byzantium’s inception:Yeats wrote “Byzantium” in Italy after his Malta Fever collapse. The first notes for the poem are recorded in his 1930 diary under the heading “Subject for a Poem” and are dated April 30:

Describe Byzantium as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian milliennium. A  walking mummy. Flames at the street corners where the soul is purefied, birds of hammered gold singing in the golden trees, in the harbor, offering their backs to the wailing dead that they may carry them to paradise. [p. 217]

And that’s that. It really does sound like the note taking of an aspiring tour guide. But Yeats must have had something more in mind. Unterecker mentions a letter from Sturge Moor, to Yeats:

“As Ursula Bridge notes, Yeats was almost certainly goaded into this stanza by Sturge Moore’s April 16, 1930, letter which had attacked the golden bird of “Sailing to Byzantium” as an essentially natural thing: “Your Sailing to Byzantium, magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as as man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or passing to to come to Lords and Ladies.”

And here’s the relevant exchange, from here, in its entirety:

[From T. Sturge Moore to Yeats, April 16, 1930] Have you read Santayana’s Platonism and the Spiritual Life? He thinks the Indian philosophers the most spiritual, but his arguments leave me skeptical as to whether mere liberation from existence has any value or probability as a consummation. I prefer with Wittgenstein, whom I don’t understand, to think that nothing at all can be said about ultimates, or reality in an ultimate sense. Anyway I can say nothing that approaches giving me satisfaction, nor am I satisfied by what others say. Your “Sailing to Byzantium,” magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or to come to Lords and Ladies.

[Yeats responds, October 4, 1930] My dear Sturge Moore,

Yes, I have decided to call the book Byzantium. I enclose the poem, from which the name is taken, hoping that it may suggest symbolism for the cover. The poem originates from a criticism of yours. You objected to the last verse of “Sailing to Byzantium” because a bird made by a goldsmith was just as natural as anything else. That showed me that the idea needed exposition.

Matthew Schultz, in his essay Aestheticism in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats: The Two Byzantium Poems, goes further , writing that the disagreement was “the point of departure for “Byzantium”. Yeats own words would seem to underscore this assertion. Was Yeats really so taken aback by Moore’s critique of a single image that he was prompted to write Byzantium — a kind of refutation? This suggests two thoughts: First, that the image of the golden bird is central to Sailing to Byzantium, and that this is the image/idea around which the second poem is constructed. So, let’s take a look at the poem. I’ve tried to type it in without typos and have used the Richard J. Finneran edition of Yeats’ poetry:

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Scansion

Yeats follows a fairly strict metrical pattern in the poem,  suggesting a more formal or serious tone. The underlying pattern is iambic and the underlying meter of the longer lines is iambic pentameter.2nd Byzantium 1rst Stanza

But for the first stanza, in which the sixth line is dimeter, the overall  pattern for the sixth and seventh lines are iambic trimeter, Any explanation for why Yeats chose this  pattern is going to be subjective (lest it come from Yeats). My own thought is that the short lines give the stanzas a sense of momentum and succinctness, especially where Yeats wants to focus the reader and listener on the content. That’s the way, at any rate, I myself tend to think of shorter lines, especially rhyming lines. Based on the rhyme scheme, one could think of the stanza as being comprised of two quatrains. The second quatrain is an Italian Quatrain, four lines that enclose a couplet. In this case, the couplet is:

All that man is,
All mere complexities…

The short lines combined in a couplet draw the reader’s mind to a central assertion: man is mere complexities. Yeats is already drawing a contrast between the temporary ambitions of man and the eternal artifice of Byzantium. Vendler states that the rhymes and rhythms of the poem change unpredictably. I’m not seeing it. Each of the stanzas follow the pattern established by the first. This is hardly unpredictable. The rhyme scheme remains the same from beginning to end. How is this unpredictable?  If she’s only going to consider the first stanza, then by that measure every poem is unpredictable until we read it.

The stanza’s that follow all follow the same pattern and so, if only to make less work for myself, I haven’t scanned them. Just ask, however, if you have any questions concerning the others.

The First Stanza

Byzantium is a sequel or continuation of Sailing to Byzantium and I don’t see how it’s possible to interpret Byzantium without reference to the first poem (though Vendler seem untroubled by such exigencies). Vendler tells us that “‘Byzantium’ gains by being read together with ‘Sailing to Byzantium’,” [p. 47] yet makes no effort to connect her interpretation of the first poem to the second. The first poem, she tells us, is an expression of Yeats’ “self-disgust” and his “exclusion—by reason of impotence—from the country of heterosexual intercourse” [p. 34]. By the second poem, Yeats is completely over it (or Vendler is). Surely, given that the two poems are so obviously connected, one would expect her to find evidence, or hints at least, of the same thematic material in both.  She doesn’t, not as far as Yeats’ “impotence” goes.

For my own part, I interpreted the first poem somewhat differently. To be brief, I interpreted Byzantium as Yeats’ argument for a new art. The poetry of youthful song and passion no longer captivated him. Such country is no place for old men. Instead, he turns his art to a more eternal kind—purified by the goldsmiths hammer—and for the spiritually transfigured reader, lords, ladies, Empress and Emperor (which I interpreted as meaning us). Byzantium isn’t so much a poem announcing Yeats’ departure from the world of “blood and mire”, but an invitation for readers to join him in his—a purified and eternal world.

How does this interpretation hold up in lieu of Byzantium?

Yeats doesn’t really describe Byzantium in Sailing to Byzantium. He suggests. He wants to be gathered into the artifice of eternity. Perhaps the atmosphere is suffused with god’s holy fire “as in the gold mosaic of a wall.” There will be a golden bough on which a bird, the artifice of Grecian goldsmiths, will sing to Lords and Ladies. The reader can easily be forgiven for imagining a stately, beautiful, and eternal city full of art and accomplishment.

Well.

You would be wrong. Yeats clears up that little misconception right from the get-go:

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;

Now, and this is the thing that gets me every time I read the poem: What in the hell are drunk soldiers doing at the gates of paradise—an eternal world of fixity? Obviously, the mistake is in thinking that Byzantium is meant to be interpreted as heaven or eternity. It is however, in Yeats’ imagination, a destination for the dead  (or souls), as well as the living. They arrive “astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood”. And what’s with dolphins? It only gets weirder from there. We have a moonlit dome that “disdains /all that man is,” (though apparently not the drunken soldiers tasked with guarding it — from what, we don’t know—and not that they could anyway, being drunk).  In the second stanza, Hades’ bobbin shows up, bound in mummy-cloth, and look, there goes Abbot and Costello, running for their lives, from the mummy and from the “miracle bird” that’s crowing like a cock out of Hell  (or Hades rather).

What are we supposed to make of this place?

Having read various interpretations on the web and in critical books, I have to say (and this is only my impression)  almost nobody has a clue. Vendler puts up a pretty good front, treating the poem with the utmost earnestness and seriousness, but I’m not convinced. To me, the one critic/reader who comes closest to teasing out what Yeats might have had in mind (and it’s not like I know) was William Empson. Empson’s article, in the critical  journal Grand Street, was published in 1982 and much of the “material” that follows is drawn from the article–but the observations are largely my own. In order to pull off his feat of Yeatsian-cryptography, Empson referred to Yeats’ drafts, along with letters. He states from the outset that it’s not something he usually approves of (and neither do I) but Yeats’ Byzantium calls for desperate measures. The first question to be dealt with is why Byzantium? Here’s a city that, far from being considered a mecca of culture and civilization, inspired the word Byzantine.

Synonyms:

Machiavellian, artful, balled up, calculating, canny, collusive,
complex, complicated, confounded, confused, connivent, conniving,
conspiring, contriving, convoluted, crabbed, crafty, cunning,
daedal, designing, devious, elaborate, embrangled, entangled,
fouled up, foxy, gordian, guileful, implicated, insidious,
intricate, intriguing, involuted, involved, knotted, knotty,
knowing, labyrinthian, labyrinthine, loused up, many-faceted,
matted, mazy, meandering, messed up, mixed up, mucked up,
multifarious, pawky, perplexed, plotting, ramified, roundabout,
scheming, screwed up, shrewd, slick, sly, snarled, sophisticated,
stratagemical, subtile, subtle, tangled, tangly, twisted, up to,
wily

At the height of its infamy, Byzantium was famed for political intrigue, decadence, corruption, despotism, assassination and unrivaled venality. And this is where Yeats wants to go? Yeats’s was obviously aware of history’s verdict (hence the drunk soldiers), but the city’s artistic legacy appears to have assumed, to him, mythical proportions.

“There is a record of a tree of gold with artificial birds which sang. The tree was somewhere in the Royal Palace of Byzantium. I use it as a symbol of the intellectual joy of eternity, as contrasted with the instinctive joy of human life.” [Yeats and Byzantium p. 69]

In 1932, lecturing in America, Yeats elaborates:

“Aristotle says that if you give a ball to a child, and if it was the best ball in the market, though it cost but sixpence, it is an example of magnificence; and style, whether in life or literature, comes, I think, from excess, from that something over and above utility which wrings the heart. In my later poems I have called it Byzantium, that city where the saints showed their wasted forms upon a background of gold mosaic, and an artificial bird sang upon a tree of gold in the presence of the emperor; and in one poem I have pictured the ghosts swimming, mounted upon dolphins, through the sensual seas, that they may dance upon its pavements.” [Ibid p. 70]

Empson then references a first draft but, for whatever reason, doesn’t follow up on the really (in my opinion) revealing “second stanza”.

Now the day is come I will speak on those
Loves I have had in play…That my soul loved
That I loved in my first youth
For many lovers have I taken off my clothes
For some I threw them off in haste, for some slowly and indifferently
and laid down on my bed that I might be…
but now I will take off my body

That they might be enfolded in that for which they had longed
I live on love
That which is myself alone
O let me be enfolded in my …
and how shall we ever grow every…

As Empson notes, the handwriting is hard to read.  What interests me is how Yeats draws a fascinating parallel between taking off his clothes to make love, and taking off his body for an unspecified (in this extract at least) spiritual union. In other words, Yeats is sexualizing the spiritual union. That is to say, the pleasurable, naked decadence Yeats experienced as a youth when making love is comparable to the pleasure of spiritual union in old age.  And to really drive home my point: Yeats’s longing for spiritual union isn’t that of the ascetic [rigid in self-denial and devotions; austere; severe] but that of the decadent, pleasure seeking lover. Now, you’re obviously asking yourself, where might Yeats find a place that represents both pleasure seeking decadence and transcendent spiritual art? Yeah. Byzantium.

So, with this mind, let’s revisit the first stanza. Once again, the opening lines:

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night’s resonance recedes; night walker’s song…

We now know that this Byzantium is not meant to be interpreted as a sexless, spiritually cleansed stand-in for paradise. Yeats liked women, liked sex, and liked sensuality. To him, it would seem, a spiritual realm without its own sexual and sensual parallels was decidedly not heaven.  And yes, this flatly contradicts Vendler’s suggestion that “there are no women in the heaven of sages,” (besides being contradicted by the mosaics of Sant’Apollinare).  Empson, having access to the drafts of Yeats’s Byzantium, reveals the extent to which Yeats originally wanted to emphasize the not-to-be-confused-with-Paradise nature of his Byzantium:

“…it turns out that the earlier drafts made the point much more strongly: “all that roaring route of rascals,” “the emperor’s brawling soldiers,” “the last benighted robber or assassin fled,” “the drunken harlot’s song.” Critics who still insist that this town is Paradise must be struggling to hush up a scandal.” [Ibid. p. 86]

So, the drunken harlot’s song became the nightwalker’s song. Not only is there beer and sex in Byzantium, but both are for sale. What’s not to love? And what does “The unpurged images” mean? One way to to understand this is by examining Yeats’s spiritual belief system (which I find tediously arcane and can’t be bothered with). The second is through the context of the poem.

Here’s how I interpret the matter. Yeats, when referring to life as we know it, uses words like complexity, and phrases like mire and blood ; the fury and the mire of human veins; complexities of mire or blood; complexities of fury.

  • Mire  1. To cause or permit to stick fast in mire; to plunge or fix in mud; as, to mire a horse or wagon. [1913 Webster] 2. Hence: To stick or entangle; to involve in difficulties — often used in the passive or predicate form; as, we got mired in bureaucratic red tape and it took years longer than planned.

So, given this not-so-subtly negative summation of life, it stands to reason that it’s these complexities which are to be purged. And what does he mean by complexities? We get some idea by the words and phrases he uses to describe the “opposite”. In Sailing to Byzantium, he writes: “…gather me Into the artifice of eternity”.

In Byzantium he writes:

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is

…bird or golden handiwork,
[Can] scorn…
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,

  • Aside: Just for a moment, I want to point out a sexual crosscurrent that may or may not be present in Yeats’s choice of imagery. While Yeats liked women, liked sex and liked sensuality, one might be forgiven for also pointing out that, like many men, Yeats may also have been conflicted. Use of words like blood, mire and complexity all suggest the female body, sex, and reproduction. It’s certainly not a stretch to suggest that a woman’s reproductive organs could be construed as “a mire” — a damp and heated swamp  Sex, menstruation, child-birth, all involve bodily fluids (and a variety of complexities) that might have alternately attracted and repelled Yeats. I wouldn’t call it misogyny, just “issues” (if you know what I mean). In that respect, it wouldn’t be a coincidence that Yeats uses the word “beget”. He is, after all, referring to physical life when he refers to “Those images”, and the necessity that it procreate/beget new life (fresh images) in the mire—the womans’ body—of her blood, fury and complexity. If this surmise is true, then it makes perfect sense that he would write (in an unpublished sketch): “now I will take off my body”. In other words, Yeats wants sex without the blood, mire and messiness of sex. Perhaps Byzantium reveals Yeats’ conflicted attraction and repulsion to sex and women (if subliminally), and not just his spiritual aspirations. It’s not that he wants to escape the pleasure of sexuality, it’s the blood and messiness that repels him. He wants an idealized world of sensuality that is “clean” and changeless.

So, getting back to purging, it stands to reason that purging involves cleansing the soul(?) of the mire and blood that is the transient body. What remains? Right. This is what every criticism and analysis of the poem merrily glosses over. Either that, or we are referred to Yeats’s ‘cones’ (which also  does nothing to explain what Yeats had in mind). Frankly, I don’t even think that Yeats knew. He may coyly distinguish an image from a shade, but that still doesn’t tell us what they are —a soul? – a speck of consciousness? – a disembodied body? What?  All we know is that whatever remains, once we are “purged”, is not mired in blood, fury or complexity. We are presumably “purified”. We exist (whatever that “we” is) in an Aristotelian(?) and sensual realm (art/artifice of eternity?) that is changeless, permanent and ‘not-complex’. If one thinks of it figuratively (which is much easier) then one might say that what remains (of Yeats for example) is to be found in the changeless perfection of his poetry. But Yeats took these matters literally and I doubt that immortality on a bookshelf was what he had in mind – even if he flirted with the notion in his poetry (see my previous post). And frankly, I don’t know that any of this matters. It may simply be enough to assert that Yeats is contrasting the ever-changing, transient realm of the furious physical with an idealized, unchanging, intellectual/sensual realm of art and artifice. In order to get there, you have to be purged. As in Sailing to Byzantium, this purgation involves acknowledging the purer, more permanent song of the miracle bird (hammered by the Emperor’s goldsmiths) and leaving behind the song of “The young/In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,/— Those dying generations”.

Think of it this way, perhaps: To be purged is to surrender the sensuality of the body to the sensuality of the mind.

So, getting all the way back to “unpurged images”. By images, Yeats is referring to physical/bodily life. They are unpurged because they still sport in the blood and mire that is bodily life, that is beer and paid sex.

After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

The first of twelve strokes announces the window in which “images” may be purged. The dome, an image of changelessness and perfection (appealing to the sensuality of the mind), disdains the bodily, Like the miracle bird’s song, and like Yeats’s poetry, the bell is a call to purgation. Vendler very nicely describes what Yeats might intend with the dome:

“…the dome stands for that which is purged of such complexities, that which harbors within itself ideal images already purged and pure.” [Our Secret Discipline, p. 39]

The Second Stanza

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Now. Things are going to get really interesting because I’m going to shock the world (or get myself lynched) by proposing a way to interpret these lines that, to my knowledge, has never been offered before. Here’s the thing: Every critic and close reader who has read this poem (and not without good reason) assumes that Yeats, in the poem as it was finally published, was referring to a mummy (and that’s tied every last one of them into interpretative knots). Yeats himself, before he even began drafts of the poem, wrote:

“Describe Byzantium as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian milliennium. A  walking mummy. Flames at the street corners…” [the emphasis is my own]

However, I argue that Yeats changed his mind. As Empson himself stated, we must be wary when consulting a poet’s drafts and perhaps even avoid doing so. The reason is that the drafts not only give us clues to what the poet intended (in the course of working out the poem), but also reveal what he decided to change and leave out. I can’t stress that enough. Really. The ultimate arbiter of a poem’s meaning must remain the final, completed poem.

In Byzantium, in the poem as we have it, there is no mummy.

Let that sink in.

Every critic, Empson, Vendler, Bloom, Unterecker, et al… (because, in my opinion, of decades of misreading) have assumed that the mummy of the drafts made it into the final poem. They all read the poem the same way. However, the obvious observation is that Yeats’s final draft never actually states that the image/shade is a mummy. In fact, it’s possible to read these lines in a wholly different way and in a way that’s not self-contradictory.

Here we go:

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;

That’s a complete sentence and it ends in a semicolon. Even Yeats was aware that a mummy is not a man, no matter how beautiful the Pharaoh’s linens. A mummy is a skeleton encased by dessicated flesh. Yeats must also have realized the absurdity of his initial drafts.  He tried the following:

A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
(May better sommon me) Can merrily summon me
To adore…

But rejected them. Merrily? A Mummy? Even Empson found this imagery absurd, writing:

“Merrily” carries a strong suggestion that we have not heard the whole story. Even without this unnerving detail, it would be probable that if we had the science fiction long-short we would find the mummy at least giving some gruff directions to the poet. But, even so, it would be quite unsuitable, and extremely unlike what happens to Virgil…”  [Yeats and Byzantium, p. 88]

Clearly, this was going nowhere. My reading is that Yeats changed the mummy — the guide — to a shade, “shade more than man, more image than a shade”. He also, I think, realized that it made more sense for him to summon the guide, rather than the other way around. But, you protest, what about the next line?

For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;

Here’s the thing: Whose to say these lines are referring to the shade? I think this is fundamentally misreading the lines. It seems to me that Yeats liked the material but recognized the inherent contradictions (and absurdities). A better idea struck him. He didn’t spell it out in the drafts because he didn’t have to. That’s not what drafts are for. He used/reused the imagery of the mummy and the winding cloth to suggest a much cleverer association. What is a bobbin? A bobbin is like a spindle. And what did ancient Egyptians wrap around spindles? Papyrus and linen. And what did we end up with? Scrolls. And what might ancient Egyptians have been writing on a scroll? — that Yeats’ might have been very interested in?

“The Book of the Dead was most commonly written in hieroglyphic or hieratic script on a papyrus scroll, and often illustrated with vignettes depicting the deceased and their journey into the afterlife.” [Wikipedia, September 25th)

732px-Weighing_of_the_heart3“The Book of the Dead is an ancient Egyptian funerary text, used from the beginning of the New Kingdom (around 1550 BCE) to around 50 BCE.[1] The original Egyptian name for the text, transliterated rw nw prt m hrw[2] is translated as “Book of Coming Forth by Day”.[3] Another translation would be “Book of emerging forth into the Light”. Though, book is the closest term to describe the loose collection of texts[4] consisting of a number of magic spells intended to assist a dead person’s journey through the Duat, or underworld, and into the afterlife and written by many priests over a period of about 1000 years.” [Ibid.]

Viola!

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For [because] Hades’ bobbin [The Book of the Dead] bound in mummy-cloth [a scroll’s linen wrapping or book]
May unwind [like a scroll] the winding path [by summoning or by the knowledge contained therein]];
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath [the written word]
Breathless mouths [the man that is shade, more image than shade] may summon
I hail [summon] the superhuman [the man or shade];
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

This, readers, in my opinion, is Hades Bobbin. Hades Bobbin is not a mummy. “Hades Bobbin” is The Book of the Dead. Hades Bobbin is a scroll. There is no mummy in Byzantium.  Yeats came up with a much better idea and recycled/re-imagined the imagery of the drafts. Hades Bobbin, the scroll, literally and figuratively unwinds the winding path. Thousands of years later, what did this scroll become? A book. It was “bound”, possibly like the scroll itself, in mummy-cloth — the linen that covers the hard-cover of a book. Yeats uses the very word — bound — to describe it.  So, am I suggesting that every other critic and close reader might have missed the farm (maybe even got it wrong)?

Yes.

  • It’s also worth noting that scrolls were sometimes “bound” or wrapped in linen. Was this something Yeats would have known when writing Byzantium? I don’t know.

C heck out this website, where you will find this:

 “Robert Moss’s ambition to give us a Western Book of the Dead has been fully realized in this captivating and inspiring guide to the land of the dead.  Moss shocks and thrills by revealing the hidden truth — that the other world is in fact the famliar landscape of our dreams, where we go every night.  There we can, if we intend it, meet up with our lost loved ones and encounter the great mentors of the past.   His own mentor is the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats with whom he has involved and meaningful conversations.  Moss reminds us that by our night dreaming and waking dreams we prepare for the great journey of the world beyond the mists the Celts called the Blessed Isles. Our dreams are the measure of what we aspire for, and it is in this life, through practicing our imagination, that we can draw our roadmap and our destination. For a better death and life beyond death — but also for a better life in the world of the living — do not miss this classic from a true Western Master.”

And now, the next lines make perfect sense:

A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

What is a mouth that has no moisture and no breath? A scroll or a book — perhaps even a poem. With Hades Bobbin — the scroll or The Book of the Dead — Yeats is able to “hail”, summon, the superhuman — the man, the shade, the image — his guide. Readers and critics have always assumed that it was the “mummy”, the “shade” or the “guide” who was summoning Yeats, but this makes no sense. Yeats, or the speaker of the poem, is not a breathless mouth. As far as we know, he’s still alive. Furthermore, Yeats never actually writes that he (or the speaker of the poem) was summoned. That’s simply how readers have chosen to interpret the lines. (And if he was summoned, then it was the cathedral’s gong that summoned him.) If interpreted correctly (in my opinion) its the breathless mouth of a book, The Book of the Dead, that has summoned the breathless mouth of a guide or shade. Yeats calls this guide: death-in-life and life-in-death. Be cognizant, also, that The Book of the Dead is filled with spells, incantations and chants that probably appealed to Yeats’ imagination for their nearness to poetry. If my interpretation is correct then, in a sense, Yeats is all but stating that it’s poetry that summons the superhuman.

  • superhuman/ death-in-life and life-in-death This terminology has been subjected to hundreds of pages of scrutiny. I think most readers will instinctively grasp their meaning within the context of the poem (though possibly not, precisely, what Yeats had in mind). If you’re interested to know what exactly Yeats might have meant (and that means having a familiarity with A Vision and Yeats’s esoteric writing) then resources are available.  I say might because nobody knows for sure. To me, the summoning of the superhuman is analogous to the summoning of a poem or a great work of literature. An interpretation near to my own, by Richard Ellman, remains my favorite:

“Gradually the master-image of Byzantium must have assumed dominance of the scene. The completed poem has often been taken as a representation of the afterlife, and Yeats wished this interpretation to be possible; but to him, it seems safe to say, ‘Byzantium’ was primarily a description of the act of making a poem. The poet, who is imprecisely identified with the Byzantine emperor, takes the welter of images and masters them in an act of creation. This mastery is so astonishing to the poet himself that he calls the creation of his imagination superhuman. The image of the golden bird, ‘more miracle than bird or handiwork,’ may be understood to represent a poem; the bird sings, as do Yeats’s poems, either like the cocks of Hades of rebirth — the continuing cycle of reincarnating human life, or with greater glory of the eternal reality or beatitude which transcends the cycles ‘and all complexities of mire or blood.’ Never had he realized so completely the awesome drama of the creative act” (Richard Ellman. Yeats: The Man and the Masks 269).

So, in the first Stanza Yeats has arrived in Byzantium, and in the second stanza, as I read it, Yeats uses Hades Bobbin, the “bound” Book of the Dead, to summon a guide.

The Third Stanza

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

The guide, presumably, has taken Yeats to see the miracle bird — the “artificial bird [that sings] upon a tree of gold in the presence of the emperor”. Many critics assume that the guide is meant to take “Yeats” to the afterlife. Not so, in my opinion. Why would such a guide be merry (or be a Mummy)? I think it more likely that the guide is pleased because he has been summoned to take the poem’s narrator to something of profound beauty and elegance. Interpreting the poem this way clears up another conundrum that has troubled readers since the poem’s publication: Why does the narrator need two guides — the mummy and a miracle bird? The answer is that the conundrum  arises from misinterpretation — neither the guide nor the bird are meant to guide the narrator into the afterlife.

The third stanza, in the middle and heart of the poem, brings us back to the comment that apparently prompted Yeats to write Byzantium: “…a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or to come to Lords and Ladies.”

The first thing Yeats tries to clarify is that the bird isn’t just a “goldsmith’s bird”, but a miracle — a bird imbued with not just mechanical wonder but something akin to life and intelligence. In analyzing Sailing to Byzantium, I wrote:

If Yeats is referring to his art, his poetic passion, then the imagery is easier to swallow. Remember too, Yeats’ comment concerning the skills of Byzantine goldsmiths. Yeats glowingly comments that they can create “a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body”. Yeats, himself, doesn’t think of the goldsmith’s work as mechanical and lifeless, no,  just the opposite. The artifice is not mechanical but “flexible”, not lifeless, but like the “perfect human body”. Yeats is describing a spiritual/alchemical transmutation like a kind of miracle. (…) Yeats, in my opinion, is describing a personal, spiritual transformation as manifested through his art – his poetry. He is, in a sense, identifying himself as his poetry – which is all that will remain after he has died. In this guise, the gold bough is like the magnum opus of his poetry (his Collected Poems).
 ·
The miracle, perhaps, is in the bird’s (Yeats’s poetry) being able to continue speaking, intelligently voicing his dreams and visions. In this sense, and in keeping with Yeats’s own spiritual ideas, the guide is showing him both his future and his past. The bird speaks to the purged soul of all men and women — hence the miracle. The bird, embodying Yeats’ poetry, speaks to the undying truth of our natures. Admittedly, resting so much symbolism in a mechanical bird will probably strike readers as eccentric, and it is.
 ·
“It is hard to say just what “exposition” Yeats had given to the idea of the bird by writing the poem; perhaps he would answer that his treatment had brought out more of the inherent beauty of the “image,” and that anything so beautiful must adumbrate the truth .He was quite capable of teasing his correspondent with a mystery, in a grand manner, and it seems plain that could have chosen a more impressive example of the good which may be done by exalted works of art, if that was all he had required.” [Ibid. p. 81]
cage2705b_261x174q85
  • Note: Interestingly, Empson goes on to discuss what may have inspired Yeats’ golden bird. He remarks that mechanical, singing birds were, in fact, available and for sale during Yeats’ childhood and that his own (Empson’s) great-Aunt used to bring out “exquisitely preserved toys of an antiquity rivaling her own. Chief among them was the bird of Yeats in its great cage, wound up to sing by a massive key; a darkish green tree, as I remember, occupied most of the cage, and a quite small shimmering bird, whose beak would open and shut while the musical box in the basement was playing, perched carelessly on a branch on one side.” [Ibid. p. 83] Empson didn’t recall seeing a golden bough, but that’s surely Yeats’s imagination at work. [The image, above, is of an actual Victorian Mechanical bird with a music box. I couldn’t find a larger version of this image. It sold for $795 dollars. The attached audio file is of the singing bird — the very one pictured in the image.]

Nevertheless, Yeats tries to drive home the argument that this isn’t any ordinary bird or work of art. In can crow like the cocks of Hades and in “changeless metal [can scorn]/ Common bird or petal/And all complexities of mire or blood.” In other words, the mechanical bird is self aware; is alive, intelligent and changeless. When it is “embittered” by the changeless beauty of the moon, surpassing any transient work of man, it can add scorn to its song — something no, mere, mechanical bird can do.

 ·
hadesAnd what of the “cocks of hades” and their crowing? This may be a reference to iconography of Hades, which is often accompanied by a sheaf of wheat and/or the rooster/the cock (both of which were traditional sacrifices to Hades). What Yeats has in mind by this comparison isn’t clear to me. Possibly Yeats intends us to think that the cocks of Hades, having all been sacrifices, would (when crowing) possibly give voice to the desires of those who sacrificed them (presumably, the sacrifice was meant to appease and possibly to win favor or win “a favor”). In that sense, the golden bird on the bough, when crowing like the cocks of hell, would give voice to your innermost hopes and desires. The mechanical bird would speak your own truth (or hidden truths) back to you.
 ·
So, if we continue to follow Yeats’ narrative, it’s possible to read Yeat’s progress like that of Virgil’s. Yeats has been brought by his shade/image guide to the miracle bird which speaks to him of his innermost hopes, desires and truths.
 ·
  • Hades is also a god of fertility and wealth, including precious metals. Being that the miracle bird is beaten out of precious metal, this too effectively makes it Hades’ cock.
The Fourth Stanza
 ·
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
 ·
After the shade has shown the poem’s narrator the miracle bird, and once the narrator is presumably filled with that bird’s revelation (like the revelation of poetry) he is taken to the Emperor’s pavement where he himself is purged or, more certainly, he watches the “images” of others be purged. Why so hedging? The narrator/narration never states that the narrator was purged. Since one assumes that purging is reserved for the dead or dying, and since the poem never actually states that the  narrator is dead,  we can’t assume too much. The narrator might, like Virgil, just be visiting and witnessing. In this sense, the poem is more like Dante’s inferno — a Yeatsian version of it.
 ·
Vendler characterizes the narrator as “the mortally ill poet” [p, 44], but there’s nothing in either Sailing to Byzantium or Byzantium to suggest that she’s right, which is to say, her opinion doesn’t reflect anything intrinsic to the poems. I do read a narrator who is turning away from the trimmings and frolic of youth, but that hardly makes me leap to the conclusion that he’s mortally ill. I mean, for God’s sake, we can be fed up with the pastimes of youth — bodily, mentally and spiritually — without being mortally ill. In fact, putting such habits behind us usually tends to make us much healthier. I read Yeats as remaking himself. His journey to Byzantium is akin to an awakening — a spiritual journey that could be compared to the visions of the American Indians. He is en-souled.
 ·
It’s easy, I suppose to speculate on the deeper metaphysical implications of every line (you can read Vendler for this) but I think most readers will instinctively grasp the meaning of the fourth stanza. These aren’t actual flames, these are spiritual flames (the kind that “cannot singe sleeve”). The agony is not the agony of being burned alive, but the agony of purification, spiritual awakening (perhaps), of a new awareness, knowledge and attainment. These spiritual flames will purge the “blood-begotten spirits” of the complexities which are the ensnarement of blood and mire — lust, physical sexuality and life’s begetting of life. As mentioned earlier, what’s left behind after this purging isn’t exactly clear, but we know what it’s not. My interpretation? I think the Emperor’s pavement is like the page on which poetry is written — perhaps Yeats’ poetry. The flames “that no faggot feeds” are the flames of knowledge. Just as flames are “begotten of flame”, so too is knowledge begotten of knowledge. The inevitable turning from youthful pleasure to knowledge and wisdom is inevitably a kind of agony. In keeping with my reading of Sailing to Byzantium, I’m tempted to read this passage as symbolically describing our awakening to art, poetry, music and the timeless wisdom therein.
 ·
The Fifth Stanza
 ·
Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
 
 ·
Whether the narrator turns, or his attention is turned by the guide, is left to the imagination. Yeats doesn’t say. Given my own interpretation of the second stanza, I like to think that the man, “shade more than man, more image than a shade” is still with Yeats and has turned his attention to the gong-tormented sea. There, the narrator sees spirit after spirit arriving in Byzantium. It’s my own opinion that these can be interpreted both literally and figuratively — as the recently dead or as the recently awakened. John Unterecker, in A Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats, writes:
 ·
“All spirits, in Yeats’s system, are of course purified before being reborn; but in “Byzantium” Yeats is offering the final purification by which the elemental patterns of the dancing floor “break” the cycle of birth and rebirth, the bitter compulsive necessity of the spirits to live their lives over and over, begetting image after image.” [p.219]
 ·
There you have the official, informed by Yeats’s Vision, interpretation of this stanza. Again, there’s no mention of what exactly, remains once all this has happened? — which is why I find this kind of explanation so unsatisfactory. What is left of us? What is left of the spirit? What are we once we’ve broken the cycle of birth and rebirth? The only hint that I’ve found so far is in the draft quoted by Empson:
 ·

but now I will take off my body

That they might be enfolded in that for which they had longed
I live on love
That which is myself alone…

Being the remnants of a draft, we can only guess at Yeats’s meaning, but perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking that just a little of that complexity, love, remains, just a little of that sensuality and yearning for pleasure. It’s this that makes me think we probably shouldn’t too closely apply Yeats’s Vision to any interpretation of the poem. That is, I think it’s a mistake to read either of the Byzantium poems as a footnote to the Vision. Though I can’t back up my assertion (and may well be wrong) I’m of the mind that Yeats the poet didn’t always jibe with Yeats the spiritualist. He was obviously a man of conflicting emotions and desires. In his own poetry, arguably the poetry of the Vision, we find a poetry of sensual beauty, words that physically delight in their melody and repetition, and a powerful intellectual complexity. Personally, this is what I really think Yeats imagines  as the outcome of the purgatorial dance. It’s a youthful desire for beauty, drama, and sensuality that is transformed by age and knowledge into a more awe-inspiring and en-souling beauty, drama and sensuality.

But that’s just me.

The golden smithies of the emperor — figuratively the poets, artists and musicians — await us at the shores of Byzantium, that crazy city of both decadence and enlightenment, ready to transform us, ready to “break the flood” of our arrival.

  • One of the questions lovingly discussed by close readers is this: What’s with the dolphins? If nothing else, the imagery is striking and dramatic, also beautiful. Vendler remarks  that  the dolphins are “symbols of resurrection on Roman sarcophagi” and I’m perfectly content to leave it at that. Makes sense to me.

The Marbles of the dancing floor, for some reason (and without reason) I’ve always imagined as being black and white. And this has always lead me to think that Yeats is alluding to the black and white appearance of words on the page; and this brings me back to my assertion that the “Emperor’s pavement” might be thought of as the page on which poems are printed. In other words, the  “blood-begotten spirits” (you and me) dance on the poet’s page (the Emperor’s pavement) where the black & white marbles (the black and white words on the page) “break bitter furies of complexity” (our confusion). We die in a dance (the act of reading), in a trance (the act of reflection), in the agony of flame (the poet’s imparted knowledge) that “cannot singe a sleeve”. See? This is purely interpretative and I make no claim that this was Yeats’ intention (though I know he would have enjoyed it). Take it or leave it.

  • I say I know that Yeats would have enjoyed it because, in correspondence, he stated that he resisted interpreting his own poems lest others be constrained.

1-sarcophagus-dolphins-rome-335x263

The poem’s final line: “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea” is among the most resonant in all poetry. Why is the sea “gong-tormented”? Other close readers have argued, and I’m inclined to agree, that the entirety of the poem takes place during the twelve peals of midnight. The “torment” is possibly a reference to the meaning of the peals. The great cathedral gong is a never-ending call and summoning. (It’s the cathedral gong that summons, not any mummy or miracle bird.) The cathedral gong, perhaps, can be understood as the voluble voice of Yeats’ vision, calling us to share in the awakening of his poetry. And it’s in this sense that my current interpretation, builds on my interpretation of Sailing to Byzantium.

The first poem declares his desire, the second is a Dante-esque vision of its fruition.

Other References:

This living hand, now warm and capable

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

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

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

Some History and Diversionary Thoughts

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

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

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

Keats (?) was writing:

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

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

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

The Cambridge Companion to Keats offers Keats poem this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Meter

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

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

Or the last line may alternately be read:

I hold| it to|wards you.

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

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

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

towards| you

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

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

I hold it towards thee.

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

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

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

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

But then a moment later she will say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does it Do?

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

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

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

In the first six lines, Keats contrasts opposites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alain Chartier wrote:

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

Jean Molinet wrote:

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

Villon wrote:

je rie en pleursI laugh in tears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keats Grave

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

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

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

The Imagery

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

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

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

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

On Robert Frost’s After Apple-Picking

      My long two pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
      Toward heaven still,
      And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
      Beside it, and there may be two or three
5     Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
      But I am done with apple-picking now.
      Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
      The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
      I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
10    I got from looking through a pane of glass
      I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
      And held against the world of hoary grass.
      It melted, and I let it fall and break.
      But I was well
15    Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
      And I could tell
      What form my dreaming was about to take.
      Magnified apples appear and disappear,
      Stem end and blossom end,
20    And every fleck of russet showing clear.
      My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
      It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
      I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
      And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
25    The rumbling sound
      Of load on load of apples coming in.
      For I have had too much
      Of apple-picking: I am overtired
      Of the great harvest I myself desired.
30    There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
      Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
      For all
      That struck the earth,
      No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
35    Went surely to the cider-apple heap
      As of no worth.
      One can see what will trouble
      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
      Or just some human sleep.
Frost reciting After Apple-Picking:

·

  • Interestingly, in Robert Frost’s reading (or memorization) of the poem, the line: “Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall…” is spoken as “Cherish in hand, let down, and not let fall.”

After Apple-Picking is one of Robert Frost’s great poems and among the greatest poems of the 20th century. The first thing I want to do is to revel in the structure and form of the poem. I’ve seen several references made to Rueben Brower’s analysis of the meter in this poem, and all the frostsources concur in calling Brower’s analysis a tour-de-force. I have not read Brower’s analysis and won’t until I’ve done my own. I love this sort of thing and don’t want my own observations being influenced. So, if there are any similarities, I encourage you to conclude that fools and great minds think alike. Here we go. First, T.S. Eliot:

“The most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. Is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse… We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.”

Eliot could have been describing Frosts’s After Apple-Picking (though he doesn’t say). Despite the appearance of free verse (which it is) Frost’s poetry moves toward and away from a regular meter, and into and out of rhyme, so that the arrhythmia of free verse  and the rhythm of meter co-exist and beautifully blend.

After Apple-Picking (Scansion)

  • Unmarked feet are iambic. Yellow is pyrrhic (which I will never learn to spell). Purple is spondaic. Red is trochaic. Green is an amphibrachic foot (called a feminine ending when closing the line).

Worth noting is that the poem is, allowing for the usual variant feet, as iambic (if not more so) than many of his more “regular poems”. The difference is in line length. The alternate lines are trimeter, dimeter and one monometrical line.  There are no alexandrines however. Frost seemed unwilling to extend the line beyond iambic pentameter. I listened to Frost’s own reading of the poem so that the scansion would more accurately reflect what he had in mind. Interesting to me is the fact that Frost, when he reads at least, prefers to emphasize the iambic lines. For instance, I was initially tempted to scan the following line as follows:

One can see |what will trouble

That’s two anapests, the second has a feminine ending. Frost, however, reads the first four syllables with an almost equal stress:

One can see what will trouble

This makes me more apt to scan the line as trimeter with two strong spondees:

One can |see what |will trouble

It may be reading too much into Frost’s performance (since he tends to emphasize the iambics in many of his poems) but the poems hard, driving iambics lend the poem an exhausted, relentless feel that well-suits the subject. There is no regular rhyme scheme, but there is a sort of elegant symmetry to the rhyming that’s easier to see with some color and some visual aids.

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme Scheme)

My own feeling is that one has to be careful when ascribing too much intentionality to the poet. How much of this rhyme scheme was the result of deliberate planning and how much arose naturally as the poem progressed? In other words, I grant that none of the rhymes are  accident, but I doubt that Frost sat down in advance to build his poem around a rhyme scheme. The poem has the feeling, especially given the shorter (almost opportunistic) line lengths, of a certain improvisation. When he needed to rhyme earth, he cut short a line (making it dimeter) to end up with “As of no worth”. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s coincidence that we find bough/now just after the start of the poem, and fall/all shortly before the poem finishes. In the middle, as though bracketed by these two couplets, is the triple rhyme well/fell/tell. The effect is to nicely divide the poem and give a certain symmetry.

The last element to include is the phrasing, something I haven’t done in other poems, but will try to elucidate in this one. Part of the art of poetry, too often overlooked, is the achievement of phrasing that, at its best, mimics human speech. We don’t tend to speak in one long sentence after another and we don’t favor an endless stream of short sentences (unless “dramatic” circumstances call for it). Not only was Frost keenly interested in the colloquial voice, but also understood the importance of phrasing, of the give and take of normal speech. A mistake that many beginning poets make, in their effort to so much as fit their ideas into the patterns of rhyme and meter, is to sacrifice a naturalness in their phrasing. A telltale feature of such writing is a poem dominated by end-stopped lines — syntax and phrasing that slavishly follows the line.After Apple-Picking (Phrasing)

So, what I’ve done is to color code what I perceive to be the rhetorical structure of the poem. I’m iffish on a couple details, but let’s get started. The fist five lines are a simple, declarative sentence. Frost (I’ll refer to the speaker as Frost) begins the poem with a scheme called the Italian Quatrain. This only means that the rhyme scheme follows an abba pattern one would find in Petrarchan sonnets. ( I don’t, for an instant, suggest that Frost was thinking to himself: I shall now write an “Italian Quatrain”.) I do mean to suggest that the quatrain has a certain closed feel to it. But the poem isn’t done and neither is the work of apple-picking. In the fifth line there are some apples “still upon some bough” and there is new rhyme, bough,  dangling like an unpicked apple.

Frost turns inward:

6  But I am done with apple-picking now.
   Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
   The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

The light green and “Dartmouth” green (couldn’t resist calling it that) signify the moments when Frost’s gaze turn inward. This happens four times in the poem.  Whereas the first five lines are comprised of syndetic clauses (clauses linked by the conjunctive and), the  second clause, the apple ladderturning inward from the orchard (which places the poem) to Frost’s exhaustion, is asyndetic. The first five lines, with their repeated and’s are the way we speak (and you’ll even notice it in children) when we want to express the idea of endlessness.  We might say: I have this and this and this and this to do. In a similar sense, Frost wants to communicate the endlessness of this chore. The first five lines are a rush of description.

When his gaze turns inward, to his own exhaustion, the lines become asyndetic. The fifth line, introducing a new rhyme, is complete in and of itself. The syntax, I think, mirrors Frost’s own exhaustion. The sentences are short. Clauses are no longer linked by conjunctions (they could be).

But I am done with apple-picking now.

By rights, one could pause after that line as though to catch one’s breath. The pause is reinforced when the line completes the rhyme of bough with now, as if Frost had picked the apple. In some ways, one could stop the poem here. The rhymes are complete. We have an Italian Quatrain followed by a concluding couplet. In a sense, the first six lines are the larger poem in miniature. “Essence of winter sleep,” not just the sleep of a night, already hints at a longer hibernation.  From there Frost sleepily stumbles onward and the rhymes, like unpicked apples, will draw him. The sentences become progressively shorter as though Frost’s ability to think and write were as curtailed as his wakefulness. The eighth line ends with the simple, declarative, “I am drowsing off.” There’s nothing poetic about such a line or statement; and that’s part of its beauty and memorableness.

  • An apple ladder is usually tapered, much narrower at the top than bottom. This makes pushing them up through the limbs much easier. Some are joined, like the ladder in the picture, while others are not. Frost’s ladder was “two pointed”, and so not joined at the top. The ladder going up to my daughter’s loft is an old apple ladder.

The next six lines, beginning with “Essence of winter sleep…” are another set of interlocking rhymes DEDFEF

7   Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
    The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
    I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
10  I got from looking through a pane of glass
    I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
    And held against the world of hoary grass.

The rhetorical course of the poem links lines 6-8 while the rhyme schemes of lines 1-6 and 7-12 are separate. There is an overlap between the subject matter (in green) and rhyme scheme (purple).

After Apple-Picking (Overlap)The overlap draws attention away from the rhyme scheme (at some level, I think, disorienting the reader). I know I’m flirting with Intention Fallacy, so I’ll try not to draw too many conclusions as to Frost’s intentions when writing a given rhyme scheme. However, whether he wrote these lines on purpose or instinctively, they produce a similar effect in this given poem. The poem’s rhetorical structure, which doesn’t always mirror the rhyme scheme, draws our attention away from the rhymes and may contribute to any number of the poem’s effect, including the feeling of exhaustion. At its simplest, the crosscurrents of rhetoric and rhyme, I think, help to create an organic feeling in the poem — the feeling that it’s not a series of stanzas knit together.

”Are you trying to tell me that I don’t know what I’m doing when I paint?” ”Well, not exactly . . . ,” I began. ”My God,” he roared, ”every time I put a brush to a canvas, I have an intention. And I damn well better know what it is, or else the painting ain’t gonna be any good.” He rolled his eyes. ”Intentional fallacy,” he muttered. Then with a weary sigh: ”What do these critics think art is? Monkeys dabbling? Art is nothing but decisions. Decisions, decisions, decisions.”

My response Ben Shahn’s outrage would be to point out that it’s all well and fine for the artist (or poet) to indignantly claim an intention behind every brush stroke, line break or stanza break. It’s another to expect the reader or critic to guess it right. This issue is what was behind the failure of Charles Hartman’s Free Verse, An Essay on Prosody. Hartman was essentially (in my opinion) trying to turn every line break into a prosody of free verse. The problem is that a prosody depends on the reader correctly guessing an author’s intention. Without that, all you’ve got is a game of Russian roulette called Intention Fallacy.

The rhyme scheme of DEDFEF forms a sexain, but Frost’s thoughts veer beyond it.

After Apple-Picking (Overlap-2)

Just as before, there is one line more than the rhyme can bear: “It melted, and I let it fall and break.” Once again, the analogy of the unpicked apple comes to mind. Is this the analogy Frost had in mind? To say so would be an Intention Fallacy, but I think the analogy works in the context of the poem. Anyway, we’re left with an unresolved rhyme.

But Frost has other matters to address. As if remembering the course of his poem after an aside (a wonderful and colloquial technique that appears in many of his poems – Birches) he seems to gather his resolve with three rhyming lines, short and quick.

   But I was well
15 Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
   And I could tell
   What form my dreaming was about to take.

Take resolves the hanging rhyme of break. For a moment, both the poem’s rhetorical course and the rhyme scheme meet. There is a moment of resolution before Frost’s dreaming overtakes the poem, and with it an interlocking set of rhymes that don’t find resolution until line 26.

 25 The rumbling sound
    Of load on load of apples coming in.

At this point, the poem will once again pivot. Here’s another image to help visualize what I’m describing.

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme & Rhetoric)

In terms of rhyme and rhetoric (in the sense of concluding thought and concluding rhyme) the poem could be divided into three parts. Until then, subject matter and rhyme overlap in a way that, to some extent, might subliminally propel the reader.

    Magnified apples appear and disappear,
    Stem end and blossom end,
 20 And every fleck of russet showing clear.
    My instep arch not only keeps the ache,

The word end like the stem end of an apple (or itself another unpicked apple) won’t find it’s blossom end until the next three lines that are (now this gets really cool) the only three lines where an identifiable rhyme scheme isn’t matched to subject matter. That’s to say, most of the other rhymes come in tercets and quatrains (look at the boxes surrounding them). It’s only in the weightless center of the poem where any sort of identifiable scheme more or less breaks down. There’s a kind weightlessness, right after the dreaming and at the center of the poem, seems almost meant to imitate the dreaming exhaustion of the poem itself. I would love to think he did this on purpose.

  • I’ve suggested that other poems by Frost can be understood, beneath their surface, as extended metaphors for the writing process. Some others are much more transparently about writing (as much as saying so), so I don’t think such speculation is without merit (though I realize I could be accused of playing the same ace of spades with each hand).  After Apple-Picking could easily be read as analogous to the writing process itself — apples being understood as poems. Frost, by this point in his career, may have been feeling like writing poetry was like picking apples. While Frost didn’t think much of Yeats’s description of writing as “all sweat and chewing pencils” he also stated that after getting paid for the first poem he found he couldn’t write one a day for an easy living: “It didn’t work out that way”. Poems were like apples, it turned out. One couldn’t just shake the tree and let them fall. Doing that would leave them “bruised or spiked with stubble”, which is another way, perhaps, of saying that the hurried poem would be the flawed poem. They had to be cherished. Writing the poem, imagining its landscape of imagery, perhaps was like looking through “a pane of glass… skimmed… from the drinking trough/And held against the world of hoary grass.” Looking at the world through a poem is, perhaps, a bit like looking at the world through ice, a distortion that is both familiar and strange.
21 My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
   It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
   I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

Ache remembers the rhyme of break and take, but is far removed and seems more like a reminder than part of any rhyme scheme. Round is new, and sends the ear forward with the expectation of a rhyme.  Bend turns the ear back, remembering end (is far removed as ache from take). The poem “sways”, in its center, like the ladder. The reader is never given the opportunity to truly settle in with any kind of expectation, but like the speaker of the poem, is drawn forward in search of a rhyme’s “blossom end” and, with the next line, is drawn back to a different rhyme’s “stem end”. Rhymes are magnified, appear, then disappear.

  • Notice too how Frost divides the central portion of the poem into three of our five (or seven) senses.
       SIGHT
 What form my dreaming was about to take.
 Magnified apples appear and disappear,
 Stem end and blossom end,
 And every fleck of russet showing clear.

       TOUCH/SENSATION/KINESTHETIC

 My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
 It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
 I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

       SOUND

 And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
 The rumbling sound
 Of load on load of apples coming in.

Earlier, Frost touched on the sense of smell with the “scent of apples”. The point here is that part of what makes this poem so powerful are the concrete images and the evocation of our senses. Don’t ever forget this in your own poetry. I know I’ve written it before, but it bears repeating: remember each of your senses when you are writing poetry. Don’t just focus on sight (which the vast majority of poets do) but think about sound, smell, touch, movement, texture, etc… Notice too, how Frost turns the ordinary into some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. There are no similes to interrupt the narrative. There are no overdrawn metaphors. Frost makes poetry by simply describing and evoking the every day; and doing so in ordinary speech. The rhyme scheme knits the poem together in an organic whole. Think how much less impressive the poem would be if it were simply free verse, free verse as it’s written by the vast majority of contemporary poets.

Notice Frost’s thought-process. He muses over “what form” his dreams will take, then expands on it (in yellow). He mentioens the ache of his instep arch, then expands on that (in lavender), then describes what he hears from the cellar bin (in purple). It’s a nice way of writing that reminds me of the rhetorical figure Prolepsis (or Propositio) in Shakespeare’s To be or not to be….

With coming in we arrive at the third portion of the poem.

      For I have had too much
      Of apple-picking: I am overtired
      Of the great harvest I myself desired.
30    There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
      Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
      For all
--
      That struck the earth,
      No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
35    Went surely to the cider-apple heap
      As of no worth.
      One can see what will trouble
--
      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
--
      Or just some human sleep.

Frost turns inward again.The phrase, “I am overtired…” reminds us of his previous declarative statement “I am drowsing off”, inviting a sense of symmetry and closure. This time, though, Frost won’t digress. He is overtired of the great harvest. He will plainly say what exhausts him and why. The rhyming couplet fall/all adds to the sense of symmetry, hearkening back to the couplet bough/now. In both subject matter and form, Frost is recollecting himself. Again, it’s a similar structure to Birches — an assertion, a digression, and a concluding restatement of the original assertion.

aerusset

…every fleck of russet showing clear.

The closing rhyme scheme of lines 33-41 is essentially comprised of two Sicilian Quatrains, the same that characterize the Shakespearean sonnet. However, the first Quatrain is interrupted by heap. You can see it above in the overall rhyme scheme (at the beginning of the post), but also directly above. It’s as if the poem is coming out of a sort of fever, a confusion of consciousness, and back to order. The rhyme heap/sleep might have been the concluding couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet, but that kind of epigrammatic finality would have been out of place in a narrative poem like this. Instead, the word heap slips into the first quatrain, another new sound, and the ear perhaps subliminally or subconsciously looks for the rhyme, but it doesn’t come. We finish the first of the two quatrains without it.

With the second quatrain of this third section:

      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,

The speaker seems almost recovered from the confused reverie of the poem and once again the poem’s beautiful symmetry is upheld. The poem begins with a Sicilian quatrain and all but closes with a Sicilian quatrain. But there is still one loose-end, one apple that has not been picked. Frost metaphorically picks it in the last line.

Or just some human sleep.

It’s a beautiful moment. The line is short and simple. It’s shortness may remind the reader of the speaker’s own weariness. He doesn’t have it in him to compose a fully Iambic Pentameter line. His sleep may just be some human sleep, and nothing more.

  • Frost asks whether his sleep will be like that of the woodchuck’s. The comparison seems almost like a moment of levity after so much profundity. Some critics throw all their weight into these last 5 lines. Because sleep is repeated several time, Conder (as is the habit with some critics I have noticed), take this to mean that “sleep” must be central to the poem’s meaning and that all other considerations are mere trivialities. As example, consider John J. Conder’s analysis of After Apple-Picking. There, you can also find a collection of other essays on the poem.  Personally, Conder’s analysis makes my eyes badly cross. Almost every sentence seems like a Gordian Knot. Here’s an example:
But if the speaker’s dream and sleep exist in life, then to assert that, after his labors, the speaker “is now looking not into the world of effort but the world of dream, of the renewal,” is to oversimplify the poem. This view identifies the dream (interpreted as pleasurable) with the sleep (seen as a time for contemplation as well as renewal) and in the process limits both. Such a reading qualifies the word “trouble” into insignificance (to be troubled by a lovely dream is to be superior to the woodchuck, who cannot dream) and oversimplifies the speaker’s attitude toward his experience. Given the feats of association that he makes, given the fact that he speaks in contraries, the speaker’s attitude toward his sleep is far more complicated than at first seems clear, and his trouble far more real than might be supposed.
·
And here is Conder’s entire essay much simplified:
Conder AnalysisAnd now you don’t have to read the essay. (You can thank me by e-mail.) You’d think the poem should have been called: Before Going to Sleep.  My point, besides having a little fun at Conder’s expense, is to argue that it’s possible to read too much into Frost’s comparison of his sleepiness to that of the woodchuck’s. My own feeling is that he’s not suggesting a sweeping metaphor of man, sleep and nature, but that the analogy is what it is. He’s overtired. He’s almost feverish with exhaustion and speculates that the only sleep to recover from that kind of weariness (the weariness of a whole season of apple growing) might be a whole season of sleeping – the hibernating sleep of a woodchuck. It’s an earthy, slightly sardonic, reference in keeping with the colloquial tone of the poem.
·
I also resist the temptation to draw comparisons between apple-picking and the apple in the Garden of Eden. I won’t go so far as to say that close-readers who suggest this allusion are wrong, but where do we honestly draw the line? Is every single mention of an apple, in every work of literature, an allusion to Genesis? Really? Really? That just feels facile to me. In truth, the myth of the Garden of Eden could be suggested as “alluded to” in a disturbingly large portion of literature. But so be it. I’m not going to go there (if only to be contrary). There’s not one quote from Frost, that I’m aware of, that suggests any of these readers are correct, so just keep that in mind when making comparisons to Genesis.
·
Lastly, there’s no doubt that Frost delighted in the close readings his poems were subjected to (what poet wouldn’t be flattered), but we also know that he expressed more than a little frustration and exasperation. The usual defense (which I get a little tired of) is that Frost was a dark, disturbed, calculating and suicidal man. Ever since Lionel Trilling described Frost as a “terrifying poet”, critics (William Logan among others) have taken that as open season. There’s always the urge to look for the “darkness” in his poems. There is undoubtedly much darkness in Frost (as there is in all of us) but I think this too must be treated with moderation. It’s possible that a reference to a woodchuck is just  that — an old New Englander’s sardonic reference to a woodchuck — not the sleep of man-out-of-nature, nature-out-of-man, or the sleep of death.
·
In her (strongly to be recommended) book, Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind his New English Poetry, author Lea Newman has this to say:
·
“The reference to the woodchuck and his long sleep in the concluding lines of the poem has confused many readers. Frost probably found the idea of comparing humans to woodchucks in Emerson’s essay “Nature,” where readers are told, “let us be men instead of woodchucks.” A discussion of hibernation in another Emerson essay, “Fate,” may have been the source for the term “the long sleep”. In terms of the dream-ridden and exhausted speaker state of the speaker in Frost’s poem, he could be seeking the dreamless sleep of an animal or the month-long sleep of hibernation.”
·
My point is that you are free to interpret the poem how you will. No one but Frost knows what Frost meant.

The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter – II

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

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

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

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

acil_front_small

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

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

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

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

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

AC-Wordle-1024x549

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antony-and-Cleopatra-book-cover

Donne: His Sonnet V · Spank me, ô Lord

My New Favorite ‘Complete’

This post was requested by Melissa. She asked me to provide a scansion, but I can’t just scan a poem and not talk about.

I’m sure a few upper lips in academe will be horrified by the title of my post but, let’s not kid ourselves, when we boil down Donne’s fifth Shawcross DonneHoly Sonnet, we get the anguished guilt-trip of a penitent. Such is the power of a great poet, and such was the power of King James English, that Donne could turn an ostensibly confessional poem into, if not a masterpiece, a compelling work of literature.

Anyway, I think this post was meant to be. While I was noodling around on Christmas Eve’s Eve at a Montpelier used book store, I discovered another complete collection of Donne’s poetry. Now I have three. This one comes from The Anchor Seventeenth-Century Series and is edited by John T. Shawcross. This particular edition, printed in 1967 (and in a becoming shade of pink) is now my favorite. It may be out of print. The reason it’s my favorite is because Shawcross  ‘gets’ the importance of spelling and punctuation in Elizabethan poetics.  H.J.C. Grierson, the editor of the two volume gold-gilt Oxford edition glosses over the punctuation in crucial places. Even my former favorite, the Everyman edition edited by C.A. Partrides, doesn’t quite get it right. The Norton “Critical” Edition (air quotes), is useless. Don’t get me started. Donne’s metrical practice isn’t all that difficult if we preserve the spelling and punctuation. Donne did not intend his poetry to be difficult. He gave us all sorts of clues. Here’s how Shawcross sums up his editorial practices in relation to the crucial question of Donne’s orthography.

[T]he danger of a plethora of so-called scholarly texts is present, but a revision of Grierson’s, eschewing certain misreadings which often seem to have arisen from delicacy and certain modernizations which obscure subtleties, has long been needed. (…) ¶ The practice of inserting an apostrophe to indicate elision has generally been followed. It is consistently followed in preterits and participles where “e” would create another syllable. 9e.g. “deliver’d,” (…) , in combinations of “the” and “to” where the vowel is not pronounced (e.g. “the’seaven,” (…), and to’advance,” (…), and in the coalescing of two contiguous vowels from two different words (e.g. “Vertue’attired,” (…), which is given three metrical beats.) In the latter case the vowels are really pronounced but within one beat, as in Italian. Where syncope is necessary for meter (e.g. in “discoverers,” (…) no elision is inidicated unless an apostrophe appears in the copy text. (The Complete Poetry of John Donne: Edited with an Introduction, Notes and Variants by John T. Shawcross p. xxii)

If Donne’s orthographic intentions matter to you, look no further. Without further ado, here is Donne’s Sonnet V as edited by Shawcross:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,
And burn me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

the Scansion (& my high horse)

Back on my post discussing Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, I covered the same issues that are relevant to this poem. So I’ll try not to repeat too much. As with Sonnet 14, Donne spells ‘er’ words, ‘re’, when he wants you to treat them monosyllabically. He spells power as powre, for example. When he doesn’t want you to pronounce the ‘e’ in ‘ed’ words, he apostrophizes them, e.g. drown’d. Most importantly, when Elizabethan poets wanted you to elide vowels, they used the apostrophe to show you which ones:

enviehave
theeand

These days, by contrast, we write you’ve instead of ‘youhave’ and Ive instead of ‘Ihave’. It’s the same thing. Contractions weren’t normalized and besides that, Donne (like other poets) was willing to take liberties where necessary. In every on-line posting of this sonnet (admittedly not by professional editors) these little niceties are left out. A little more unforgivably, the circumflex above the o (ô) is also left out. If reading the poem the way Donne wrote it matters then, well, it matters. As for sonnets in print (and edited by the experts) all but one leave out the apostrophes between the words above. Goes to show that professionals are just amateurs with degrees.

None of this is really a problem until your instructor gives you this poem as a homework assignment. They probably recommended a book like the Norton “Critical” Edition (air-quotes) or provided a photocopy that entirely omits the original cues that would make scanning the work so much easier. If you had the edition by Shawcross, then you might come up with something like this:

Scansion of Sonnet V

So, the first thing to be said is that once historical concerns are out of the way, scansion isn’t an exact science. Where one person might read a pyrrhic foot, another might read an iamb, spondaic or trochaic foot (depending on the words and phrase). My own practice is not to scan it the way we would read it in the 21rst century, but how Donne might have imagined it or read it himself. With that in mind, I find Donne to be the most metrically inventive and resourceful poet in the English Language (and including Shakespeare) and the most enjoyable to scan. The way Donne plays meter against phrase and line is beautifully flexible and allows for a wide variety of shade and inflection. My own scansion reflects that. I made some choices that others are welcome to disagree with (offer your own). We’ll go by quatrains just to illustrate how important meter can be to a poem’s meaning.

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black |sinne hath| betraid to endlesse night
4. My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.

Line 1. I love this first line.
Line 2.
Angelike is read is angelic.
Line 3. Most modern readers would probably read the second foot as strictly trochaic. The meter, however, makes a spondaic reading possible. I decided to go for it because (according to my rule of thumb) if a foot can be read as an iamb (or more simply if we can emphasize the second syllable) then we probably should (at least to see what effect it has on the line). In this case, emphasizing hath emphasizes the betrayal, sort of like: “Oh no! What have you done?” or “O no! What hast thou wrought?” Remember, Donne was living in the midst of dramatists like Jonson, Shakespeare and Marlowe. One Sir Richard Baker said of Donne that he was “not dissolute, but very neat; a great visiter of Ladies, a great frequenter of Playes, a great writer of conceited Verse.” The playgoing rubbed off on him. The Elizabethan era was dramatic and Donne’s poems are like little speeches — little dramatic set pieces.

You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new | seas in mine eyes, that so I might
8. Drowne my | world with my weeping earnestly,

Line 5. Heaven was pronounced as a two syllable or one syllable word by various poets. The reasons seem to have involved dialect or bald poetic expediency. Shakespeare, for instance, seems to have pronounced it disyllabically. Donne, to judge by his poems, may have pronounced it quickly and as a monosyllabic word, heav’n (or at least that’s how he treated the word in his poems).
Line 7.  Once again, I opted to emphasize the second syllable. A trochaic first foot would hardly be unheard of in Donne’s day (though used conservatively). I think he would have expected his readers to keep the meter where such a thing is possible. In this case, it makes sense. In Life 6 both instances of “new” are in an unstressed position. In line seven, it makes dramatic sense that Donne would be asking God to make new seas.
Line 8. For the same reasons, I emphasized ‘my’ in the first foot of the eighth line. Donne, in the first line, calls himself a little world. It makes sense, to me, that Donne is emphasizing his world as opposed to God’s e.g. You have your world, and I have my world. Also, this pattern of emphasizing normally unstressed words  is a technique that one finds throughout Donne’s poetry. The trick is what makes Donne’s poetry so speech-like and declamatory (he was, after all, famed for his oratories at the pulpit).

Or wash |it if| it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
12. And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,

Line 9. Again, rather than read the second foot of this line as pyrrhic, I made it iambic. If one reads Donne the way I do, one can’t help detect a sense of humor. “Alright already,” he seems to say, “if you can’t drown the word again, then wash it. Fine.”

And burn |me ô| Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

Line 13. If there was any doubt as to Donne’s predilection for shifting stress in ways a modern reader might miss and dismiss, the second foot of this clearly puts that to rest. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the circumflex above ‘o’.

The circumflex has its origins in the polytonic orthography of Ancient Greek, where it marked long vowels that were pronounced with high and then falling pitch. In a similar vein, the circumflex is today used to mark tone contour in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

All educated Elizabethans were schooled in classical Greek and Latin (even if they didn’t remember it all). Donne, with the circumflex John Donneabove the expostulation ‘ô’, makes clear that ‘ô’ receives the stress, not ‘Lord’. One can read that ‘ô’ in a variety of ways. I personally read the ‘ô’ with, perhaps, grim humor instead of exhausted despair. Some scholars seem to think Donne lost his sense of humor with his later divine poems. I’m not so sure. A quirky sense of humor runs through almost all of Donne’s poetry. I’m not convinced his old age was as sour or strict as some scholars might have us think.

Here’s how I read (and hear) it — the humor. It took me about 20 times to get the tone roughly where I wanted it. See what you think. (I’ve had a bad cough, from whooping cough, for about three months now. Can you tell?):

As I’ve written before, a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. To me, the meter suggests a touch of wry humor that knocks the academic dust right out of it.

Spank me, ô Lord, for I’have been bad.

Unlike some of Donne’s other sonnets, the meaning, I think, is fairly straightforward. The point of the sonnet, in my opinion, is not to display metaphysical cunning (as in many of his other poems), but to create a mood, much like a small soliloquy. In my reading, I’ve chosen to interpret that mood as wry humor.

So, once again, let’s go quatrain by quatrain:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
4. My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.

1. Donne sets the stage by dividing himself into his corporeal body and his incorporeal soul. C.A. Partrides observes that “man was habitually said to be the microcosm or ‘abridgement’ of the universe’. (John Donne The Complete English Poems p. 437)2. The elements (the body) and an angelic sprite (the soul).
3. The overstatement (even for Donne I think) of this line and next partly invite me to read the sonnet with some humor.
4. The assertion that the soul “must die” was unorthodox (C.A. Partrides calls it “a potentially dangerous notion”) and, at the wrong place and time, flirted with heresy. If the sonnet was interpreted as an exercise in wry humor, the assertion probably felt less heretical if it was even an issue.

You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
8. Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly,

5. You refers to Christ. 7. Powre can be read in the sense of create.
7-8. Donne asks Christ to create oceans out of Donne’s tears so that he may drown himself in his “earnest weeping”.

Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
12. And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,

9. “be drown’d no more” This refers to God’s promise after Noah’s flood, symbolized by the rainbow, to never flood the world again. “neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.” Genesis 9.11
11. heretofore – hitherto
12. “let  their flames retire,” That is, let the fires of lust and envy retreat. Lust presumably refers to his youth and envy to Donne’s involvement on Church and Court politics. Lust and envy are among the seven deadly sins.

And burn me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

14. The last line is a reference to Psalm 69.9.For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up… When I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach.” Shawcross, in his notes to this sonnet, also sees a reference to the Eucharist. The blood and body of Christ constitutes his house and the eating of the wafer, Christ’s body, removes the sin of partaker. The final image is a compelling one. The image is that of God burning away (consuming), in a fiery conflagration, at least one part of Donne’s world — the part composed of the “Elements”. What will remain, presumably, is the Angelike spright.  However, this interpretation threatens to contradict Donne’s earlier assertion that both parts of his house must die. The question then pertains to what, exactly, will remain once God is done ‘consuming’ Donne with his purifying conflagration. What, exactly, will be “healed”? It’s a riddle unless we treat Donne’s first utterance as wry overstatement, and Donne’s conclusion as an implied admission that his soul is eternal and cannot be destroyed, only purified or healed.

And that’s that. I hope you enjoyed the post. Let me know. (Guess I’m making up for lost time.)

Quick Read ❧ Sidney’s Sonnet 64

This post is a request. Since the sonnet is relatively straightforward, thought I might be able to squeeze in a “quick read”.For a brief overview of Sidney’s metrical practice and the types of sonnets he wrote, you can try my earlier post: Sir Philip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets. The present sonnet is a kind of hybrid between what would become the Shakespearean Sonnet (with it’s closing epigrammatic couplet) and the Patrarchan sonnet, with its less argumentative closing sestet. As to Sonnet 64, I’ve copied it from an edition of Sidney’s selected writings by Richard Dutton. First, in plain text:

Sonnet 64

No more, my dear, no more these counsels try,
··O give my passions leave to run their race:
··Let Fortune lay on me her worst disgrace,
Let folk orecharg’d with brain against me cry.
Let clouds bedim my face, break in mine eye,
··Let me no steps but of lost labour trace,
··Let all the earth with scorn recount my case,
But do not will me from my love to fly.
··I do not envy Aristotle’s wit,
Nor do I aspire to Caesar’s bleeding fame,
Nor aught do care, though some above me sit,
Nor hope, nor wish another course to frame,
··But that which once may win thy cruel heart,
··Thou art my wit, and thou my virtue art.

Next, the scansion. The lines are space so that I can insert scansion markings. All unmarked feet are iambic. If you’re unsure of scansion, my post on Iambic Pentameter (The Basics) might help you.


A Note about the Scansion

There are modern readers and poets who make the argument that meter doesn’t exist. Then there are others who grudgingly admit that English is an accentual language (sort of like admitting the earth is round) but that scansion is arbitrary. And then there are readers and scholars who argue that we should scan poems the way we read them, now, without regard to the poet’s intentions or how language was spoken in the poet’s day.

I disagree with all of them.

In the scansion above, I try to take into consideration the era in which Sidney was writing. Iambic Pentameter was brand-spanking new, Elizabethan poets were excited to have a meter comparable to that of the Lain poets. Poets weren’t yet interested in how they could break the rules. They were still making the rules. With that in mind, I’ve scanned the sonnet with the assumption that Sidney intended his poem to be Iambic Pentameter throughout.  In the first foot of the third quatrain, one can easily read |Nor do I| as an Iambic foot if one slurs the vowels. This, in fact, was standard practice in the day and is reflected in the punctuation of a poet like Donne (when modern editors don’t blithely edit it out). So, Sidney probably would have read the first foot: (Nor d’I). Modern speakers of English do the same thing on a daily basis. We slur our words when it suits us.

  • The poet Sydney Lea (and my state’s Poet Laureate) rightly points out (in my Guest Book) that Chaucer wrote Iambic Pentameter. As a historical matter, Iambic Pentameter was not new to the English language. However, Chaucer’s innovations were not adopted by the poets immediately following him or in the centuries that followed. By the  time Sidney and his circle settled on Iambic Pentameter, their experimentation shows little, if any, of Chaucer’s influence. Iambic Pentameter was essentially new to the Elizabethans.  They rediscovered it, in a sense, and reinvented it, making it the verse form that we are now familiar with. As to the Elizabethans’ opinion of Chaucer, Donald R. Howard writes:
Between Chaucer’s time and Shakespeare’s, the pronunciation of English changed, so much so that Chaucer’s poems no longer sounded right. He was admired for his rhetoric and his “philosophy,” his skill as a storyteller, and as the “first finder of our fair language,” but his rhythms were a puzzle and his rhymes did not sound true. People tolerated Chaucer’s “rough” verse and assumed he had a tin ear. Henry Peacham, writing in 1622, found “under a bitter and rough rind,” a kernel of “conceit and sweet invention.” Dryden said there was in his verse “the rude sweetness of a Scotch tune” — “natural and pleasing, though not perfect.” (p. 513Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World)

On the other hand, in the first line line of the closing couplet, I’ve read cruel is disyllabic: cru|el. I can’t swear that Elizabethans, normally, pronounced this word disyllabically, but even among modern speakers of English, we sometimes can hear two syllables in the word. What is certain is that Sidney, knowing full well how to write an Iambic Pentameter line when he wanted to, was treating cruel as a conventionally poetic, two syllable word.

Sidney’s Argument

Nearly all Elizabethan sonnets were displays of argumentation and Sidney’s, earliest among them, are a prime example. Addressed to Stella, his imaginary mistress, they try to cajole, persuade, dissuade, convince, argue, concede, and manipulate with all the rhetorical cleverness and inventiveness expected from a brilliant Elizabethan soldier and lover..

No more, my dear, no more these counsels try,
··O give my passions leave to run their race:
··Let Fortune lay on me her worst disgrace,
Let folk orecharg’d with brain against me cry.

Sidney may be playing on the sense of a lawyer, a counsel, who pleads a case. In Sidney’s day, the word could mean, advice, consultation, deliberation, one’s secret and inmost thoughts or to one who gives counsel in law. Sidney is saying, enough with your arguments. There’s a sense, possibly, that he’s personifying the woman’s arguments as if they were, themselves, like lawyers attempting to persuade his better nature. If you’ve seen the old cartoons, think of an angel on Sidney’s right shoulder, a devil on the left, and the woman’s “counsel” attempting to persuade them. Sidney won’t have it. Try no more counsels (lawyers), my mind is made up. The devil has decided.

Let my passions run their race, he says. Putting it politely, that translates into: Let me make love to you! Damn the consequences. If “fortune” (reputation) disgrace me, then so be it.  The fourth line, “Let folk orecharg’d with brain” refers to the Elizabethan commonplace contrasting the corrupting lusts and passions of the body with the ennobling pursuits of the mind. He says, let those orecharg’d with “high-brow” self-regard (in the sense of an explosive being “too charged” with powder) cry against him. Sidney was the Elizabethan ideal – the nobleman of good birth who is both brilliant (he was an accomplished man of culture) and an accomplished soldier.

This stuff was in the air. The protestants had redefined the meaning of chastity, making it no less upright than celibacy.

In this light, a man or woman could still claim chastity so long as sexual intercourse occurred within the sanctity of marriage. (Catholics considered chastity to be lesser than celibacy.) The essence of chastity pertained to the purity of mind and body, and the absence of carnality. The above quote comes from Society and religion in Elizabethan England by Richard L. Greaves. Greaves continues:

Chastity was not associated with sexual abstinence, but the suppression of sexual lut, unnatural sexual desires… and sexual affections for someone other than one’s spouse. To be chaste, a single person must not burn with sexual desires, engage in sexual relations, or sexually abuse his mind or body. pp. 122-123

And all this is the background to the fourth line of the first quatrain and to the entirety of the sonnet in general. The argument of Sidney’s sonnet is a refutation of chastity.

  • Just a few years later (perhaps less), Shakespeare would write a play poking fun at the pretensions of noblemen who pompously agree to forgo the company of women for the sake of “higher” pursuits: Love’s Labour’s Lost.  Did I mention that the play is a comedy? Here’s how Wikipedia sums up the plot: “The play opens with the King of Navarre and three noble companions, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville, taking an oath to devote themselves to three years of study, promising not to give in to the company of women – Berowne somewhat more hesitantly than the others. Berowne reminds the king that the princess and her three ladies are coming to the kingdom and it would be suicidal for the King to agree to this law.

Naturally, rejecting chastity was ruinous to ones reputation. Sidney acknowledges this, and this gives more force to his plea. Reputation was everything to a well-heeled Elizabethan man. The Earl of Oxford (erroneously claimed to be the author of Shakepseare’s plays by “Oxfordians”) reportedly bowed to Queen Elizabeth and cut a fart that must have brought down the house and has survived the ages. Oxford was apparently so humiliated by the episode that he promptly exiled himself from the entire island nation known as England. These were a people who took reputation seriously. Here’s how the 17th historian John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, tells the story:

“The Earl of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to travel, seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home and said, ‘My Lord, I had forgot the Fart.'”

It’s no small matter that Sidney is claiming he “doesn’t care” what others think. Obviously he does, or he wouldn’t claim that he didn’t.

…I would suffer for you…

Let clouds bedim my face, break in mine eye,
··Let me no steps but of lost labour trace,
··Let all the earth with scorn recount my case,
But do not will me from my love to fly.

In the second quatrain, Sidney offers up boilerplate proofs of his love. Let clouds bedim his face or, as Shakespeare would later write, let him suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Clouds, akin to weather, is offered as a metaphor for life in general. Let life’s misfortunes (like a storm) break “in mine eye”. (Break in the sense of a storm cloud finally releasing its rain.) In other words, let me see (mine eye) nothing but misfortune; let all my labour (efforts and undertakings) be “lost labour” (counterproductive); let the earth, the world’s population, recount my story with scorn. So long as you do not will me (demand me) to fly (to leave) I will willingly suffer all these misfortunes.

…because you are everything to me…

I do not envy Aristotle’s wit,
Nor do I aspire to Caesar’s bleeding fame,
Nor aught do care, though some above me sit,
Nor hope, nor wish another course to frame,

  • Aristotle’s wit • Aristotle was considered the exemplar of reason and the rational.  Aristotle’s “wit”, in this case, refers to the “charge” of a his brain but, as Sidney closes his sonnet, his take on “wit”, will take a bawdy turn.
  • Caesar’s bleeding fame • refers to Caesar’s reputation as a great military leader of a great empire (not an insignificant reference in a country itself on the cusp of empire). But matters didn’t end well for Caesar. He was murdered by Brutus in a conspiracy that involved nearly the entire Roman Senate (painting below). Brutus accused Caesar of being too ambitious and of being a threat to representative governance. Caesar was stabbed 23 times.
  • some above me sit • Sidney doesn’t care that others may have a higher station and rank.
  • nor wish another course to frame  • He has no desire to reconsider (to re-frame) the object of his ambition. “Give my passions leave to run their race…”

··But that which once may win thy cruel heart,
··Thou art my wit, and thou my virtue art.

If you read the last line of this poem and think to yourself, what a sweet thing to say, then the joke’s on you.

The last line, in fact, is more like the punchline of a joke (and the whole sonnet has set up). This gets good. Let’s begin with the word heart and a visit to A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance.  To quote the editor, Frankie Rubinstein,  “heart is no sentimental metaphor”. There’s a pun at work having to do with the Hart and the Hind. A Hart was a male deer and a Hind was a female deer. The joke, in Elizabethan times, was on both words.  The word heart became a pun on hart and all that the male deer signifies — fertility, erection, etc… The word “hind”, which was too close to “behind” (read arse or ass) for poets (especially Shakespeare) to pass up, evolved into a pun on a woman’s behind along with all that that signifies — fecundity, her womb, and chastity.  As the pun evolved, a “woman’s heart” could be understood as a pun on her hind (read hind-end), womb and chastity.

From this, Sidney proceeds to the inevitable pun: “Thou art my wit,” he writes. The word wit was a pun on genitalia — his and hers.Here is how Rubinstein defines the pun:

Wit/whit/white Puns on each other and on genitals. Jonson, The Alchemist, ii, iii: Mammon spies Dol Common (each part of her name means a mistress – F&H; P), a ‘brave piece’: ‘Is she no way accessible? no means/No trick to give a man a taste of her — wit — /Or so?’ In archery, 15th cent., the white or target was placed on a butt and was called the prick (LLL, iv.i.134: ‘let the mark have a prick in it’).

This is followed by an example from Shakespeare:

RJ, I.i.215 With reference to hitting the ‘mark’ (vulva – C; P). Romeo says Rosaline will ‘not be hit/ With Cupid’s arrow; she hath Dian’s wit’ — the wit or chaste white mark of the goddess of moon and chastity cannot be with/ wit (K) the arrow (‘the dribbling dart of love’- MM, I.iii.2).

So, Sidney’s puns work at various levels. Stella is a cruel heart — pun on arse. This is followed by a pun on wit. She is his white mark, ‘his wit’, the thing that he aims at (vulva) with his ‘wit’, his erection. In this sense, she is both his target and his erection.  “Thou art my erection,” and “thou art the wit I aim at”. The pun also works because it stands in contrast to his earlier assertion that he does not envy “Aristotle’s wit”. That is to say, Aristotle’s wit is that of the “orecharg’d brain”. That’s not the “wit” he wants.

“And thou my virtue art…”

Here too, Sidney plays on meanings. As I’ve written elsewhere, in discussing Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, virtue had a double meaning. For women, virtue referred to chastity. In men, predictably enough, virtue meant the opposite: potency, virility, manhood and prowess (again from A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns). So which meaning, exactly, is Sidney using when he states that Stella is his “virtue”? To the gullible reader, she is everything that is good in him; but, to the Elizabethan reader, she is also everything he claims to give up earlier in the sonnet – his potency, virility, manhood and prowess. By gaining her, he gives up nothing. He looses nothing. This is both the pinnacle of flattery and the height of seduction. She glorifies him, not the other way around.

Puns on the hunt, marksmanship and male prowess abound.

…and in conclusion

Anyone who reads Sidney’s Sonnets as platonic and ethereal professions of love is being played for a fool. The Elizabethans weren’t a sentimental crew and Sidney’s sonnets are full of double meanings. They loved language and prided themselves on their “wit”, in every sense of the word. Sidney’s sonnets are, addressed to Stella, full of sly and lascivious subterfuge. This was expected and enjoyed by an Elizabethan audience who lived in an age of spies, subterfuge, deceit  and intrigue – political and sexual.  If you detect a sly and not-to-be-trusted subtext in Elizabethan poetry, trust your instincts. The fun in Sidney’s sonnets is in reading between the lines. Read them in the spirit with which they were written, not as distant and fusty works of dry and elevated ambition. They are full of brilliant wit and sparkling jest.

The Sheaves by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson

  • I have only one objection to free verse and that is that it seems to me to be a makeshift. About the best I can say is that the best free verse that I have seen contains subject matter for good poems. ~ EA Robinson

Before Frost brought a vernacular gait to Iambic Pentameter, Robinson was the first poet to bring a modern American diction to meter and form. Some readers might argue for Emily Dickinson, but Dickinson never ventured beyond the common meter of the hymn and ballad.  I also don’t feel a uniquely modern American diction in her poetry (as opposed to British). If we heard Emily Dickinson speak today, she would probably sound more British than American. (In the environs of Boston and Amherst the British accent was still studiously cultivated.)

  • I know that many of the new writers insist that it is harder to write good vers libre than to write good rhymed poetry. And judging from some of their results, I am inclined to agree with them. ~ EA Robinson

But where Robinson’s voice may sound modern, his heart remains with the classicists. Where modern poets write as though the poem were just another species of prose, poetry to Robinson is more than content. A poem is also an excursion into the felicities of language. The two go together. A good subject is heightened by the language’s expressiveness, and vice versa. I know I like to get my licks in when it comes to free verse (it’s like skeet shooting), but appreciation of Robinson’s poetry is heightened when a reader understands a little about his life.

  • Nine-tenths of poetry is how it’s done…. Ideas are, of course, inseparable from the medium, but much memorable poetry is not important for what is said. ~ EA Robinson

Until the very end of his life, Robinson was ignored. Times and poetic tastes were changing, and for good reason. As Robert Mezey points out in his introduction to The Poetry of E.A. Robinson, the luminaries of the times were writing chestnuts like the following:

What is a sonnet? ‘T is the tear that fell
From a great poet’s hidden ecstacy;
A two-edged sword, a star, a song–ah me!
Sometimes a heavy-tolling funeral bell.

And that little morsel was by Watson Gilder, the John Ashbery of his day, famous in his age and held in high esteem by his contemporaries. Every heard of him? Mezey provides another example:

Alone it stands in Poesy’s fair land,
A temple by the muses set apart;
A perfect structure of consummate art,
By artists builded and by genius planned.

The subject matter of these two extracts by no means typify every poem written at the end of the 19th century, but they do reflect what was popular and esteemed. Poetry by this point was so pleased with itself that poets could write swooning poems about poetry.

The only poet to survive the 1890’s was E.A. Robinson. When every other poet of his generation was writing forgettable metrical and rhyming poetry in a decidedly British tradition, Robinson’s survived by doing something none of the other poets did – appealing to readers in their own language.

  • I had no idea of establishing any new movement in poetry. As I look back I see that I wrote as I did without considering how much of the old poetical machinery I left behind. I see now that I have always disliked inversions as well as many other conventional solemnities which seem to have had their day. I could never, even as a child, see any good reason why the language of verse should be distorted almost out of recognition in order to be poetical.  ~ EA Robinson

Just as Robinson rejected the burgeoning age of free verse, he also rejected the excesses of traditional poetry. He represented the first among America’s rarest poets – those who could infuse traditional poetry with a the modern voice – something that a poet like the much younger Edna Saint Vincent Millay, for example, never really managed to do. Even in the 21rst century, the number of poets who can skillfully infuse traditional poetry with a modern, vernacular voice are few and far between.

  • My poetry is rat poison to editors, but here and there a Philistine seems to like it. ~ EA Robinson

Despite Robinson’s unique genius, he was ignored until the last decade of his life. He lived in boarding houses, with generous admirers and friends and skirted homelessness. He lived, at times, in abject poverty, drank whiskey to excess, depended on free lunches at saloons, and haunted taverns. He was the Charles Bukowski of his age and, in truth, his clear-eyed observation of fellow men put him in the same league as Bukowski. The two poets could have been friends in another era.

  • I’ve always rather liked the queer, odd sticks of men, that’s all. ~ EA Robinson

It’s hard to exaggerate the degree to which Robinson was ignored. Mezey, in his introduction, suggests that Robinson was a poor self-promoter. He kept to himself. He didn’t tour or give lectures. He preferred solitude. But luck and critical reception plays a part. Frost’s sudden success, for example, was more luck than design. Frost met Ezra Pound and was championed by the famous poet. As a result, American publishers, who had previously ignored Frost, took notice. Robinson, it seems, never enjoyed that kind of breakthrough until the very last decade of his life, when Tristram won the Pulitzer prize. A healthy income and fame finally caught up with him. That was in 1927. He died April 6th, 1935.

  • I think we must leave my contemporaries out of it. I don’t mind your saying, though, that I think a lot of Robert Frost’s work. ~ EA Robinson

Robinson continues to be overlooked. My own opinion is this: Robinson possessed a masterful ear for the colors of language, its rhythm and poetic form. What he lacked, perhaps, is a great poet’s gift for imagery. One will rarely find the ravishing sensuality of a Keats— sensitivity to touch, taste, smell and texture— or the arresting metaphor (or extended metaphor) of a Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot. Robinson’s plain style equally characterizes his poetic abilities. He seems, sometimes, almost embarrassed by the poetic image. He limits himself to only the most necessary description. In what some consider to be one of his greatest poems, Eros Turannos, the reader will be hard put to find anything that might be called simile, metaphor or imagery. A face is an “engaging mask”. We read of the “foamless weirs of age”, but the image is more like a still-life. Robinson frequently prefers the abstract to the concrete. We find collocations like “blurred sagacity” or “dirge of her illusions”, or “kindly veil”. These evoke nothing and range from the inventive to the mundane. They are intellectual abstractions. In his great poem For A Dead Lady, the reader will find abstractions like “overflowing light”, “eyes that now are faded”, “flowing wonder”, and the slightly more inventive “woman-hidden world”, but all these collocations are of the still-life variety, and some are just mundane, like “flowing wonder”. When Robinson does describe, his sense of imagery is mostly prosaic. We find “pounding waves” or “A sense of ocean and old trees”. Such descriptions are as typical of the novelist as of the poet. You will never find anything like Frost’s extended metaphor in Birches:

They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust–
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

You will only find, every now and then, the seeds and hints of something that might have more fully flourished in the hands of a poet with a more metaphorical bent. What Robinson excels at is the pithy line. There’s a tight, powerfully succinct, terse and epigrammatic feel to his lines that, to a reader who revels concision and eloquence, is a joy to read. Robinson’s style is compressed and elliptical – talents that naturally made him a master of the short poem. In truth, most modern poets (some of whom are widely read) have no more talent for simile or metaphor than Robinson, but lack Robinson’s powerful feel for language. The wonder is that Robinson isn’t more widely read. To some, probably, he reads like a watered-down Frost, to others, more used to the transparently straight forward voice of free verse, Robinson’s powerfully compressed lines can feel archly intellectual. Robinson ends up neither here nor there. But read him for the concision of his lines. Read Robinson for his ability to compress a whole story into the space of a few lines.

  • I am essentially a classicist in poetic composition, and I believe that the accepted media for the masters of the past will continue to be used in the future. There is, of course, room for infinite variety, manipulation and invention within the limits of traditional forms and meters, but any violent deviation from the classic mean may be a confession of inability to do the real thing, poetically speaking. ~ EA Robinson

What makes Robinson’s poem, The Sheaves, so unique among his poems is that it offers the reader both powerful concision and  an almost Keatsian (or Frostian) beauty of imagery and metaphor – the latter being more of a rarity. To me, who values both these elements, The Sheaves is his greatest, most perfect and most moving poem. Others, for other reasons, might choose other poems.

Here it is:

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as my some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly to gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

And here, for those who enjoy such things, is how I’ve scanned the poem:

What does it mean?

My first answer would be to say that it means what it says. Robinson called himself a classicist. What that means aesthetically, and from a poet’s perspective, is that the beauty of the great poem is both in what is said and how it’s said. Robinson’s quote: “Nine-tenths of poetry is how it’s done…. Ideas are, of course, inseparable from the medium, but much memorable poetry is not important for what is said.” To a classicist, a poem is a linguistic performance. (In that respect, rap has more in common with traditional poetry than with free verse.) Perhaps an apt analogy is to compare the classicist’s ideal oem to a statue by Michelangelo. We might ask how to interpret the Pietà: Why, for instance, did Michelangelo choose to omit signs of the passion when sculpting Christ? But no one would care if the sheer skill of its conception, in and of itself, weren’t a masterpiece of genius. In other words, we can appreciate the beauty of the statue without needing to interpret it or give it meaning. It’s meaning is, emphatically, not what makes the Pietà a masterpiece. Likewise, Robinson’s sonnet, The Sheaves, isn’t memorable for what it says (which is fairly mundane) but for how it’s said – the sheer skill of its conception. Robinson’s sonnet is, in a sense, like a sculpture. It’s an aesthetic, by the way, a way of writing poetry that is almost entirely absent in modern poetry. As I have writtene elsewhere, modern poets write at the alter of content. If we were to rewrite Robinson’s sonnet as  free verse, it would loose much of a power and beauty, and this isn’t necessarily to diminish free verse, in and of itself, but to distinguish between the different aesthetic approaches of a poet like Robinson and most modern poets.

  • Many causes prevent poetry from being correctly appraised in its own time. Any poetry that is marked by violence, that is conspicuous in color, that is sensationally odd, makes an immediate appeal. On the other hand, poetry that is not noticeably eccentric sometimes fails for years to attract any attention… More than ever before, oddity and violence are bringing into prominence poets who have little besides these two qualities to offer the world… ~ EA Robinson

The sonnet is a beautiful example of a Petrarchan Sonnet written in Iambic Pentameter. As far as metrical innovation goes, the sonnet has nothing out of the ordinary to offer. There is one interesting spondaic foot: |vast mag|ic. The spondee, I think, reinforces the sense of vastness. The effect probably wasn’t cultivated by Robinson but, in a metrical poem, the accentual nature of the language takes on a little added emphasis.

What is beautiful about the poem is an opening quatrain like the following:

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as my some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly to gold.

Robinson’s sonnet begins in a kind of darkness – the beautiful image ‘shadows of the wind’. From there, the sonnet’s world begins to grow into a beautiful golden brilliance: green wheat, as though by some vast magic, is turning “slowly into gold”. After the first quatrain, the second gives to an impersonal landscape, something like thought, shape and intent.

Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

What is the It that begins the second line of the quatrain? – body and mind. Robinson begins to shape the landscape into something human or divine (though the magic is undivined).  The reader is in a world of ambiguity, but Robinson has introduced all the elements of a metaphor that, like the landscape, will coalesce and beautifully take shape in the sonnet’s closing sestet (last six lines). What is the body? What is the mind? Does the mind of meaning or intent? He doesn’t yet tell us, only that it is like nothing that was ever bought or sold. It is without price or estimation. It cannot be constrained by any limitation but is free. And it’s meaning? Robinson is content with ambiguity. The read will ask, but Robinson will only answer that it is a “mighty meaning of a kind, That tells the more the more it is not told.” There is a power in these lines that is comparable to a zen koan. Lao Tse might have written such lines in his Tao Te Ching. To me, the simple, plain spoken mystery and truth in these two lines is equal to anything written by any other poet in any other language or  time. Such is the mystery of life that tells the more the more it is not told. The reader, the novitiate, seeking answers, must be silent. True knowledge does not come through the telling, and yet tells the more it is not told.

And now all the pieces of the metaphor will come together in one of the most beautiful images of all of poetry.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —

Robinson begins the patrarchan sestet with an almost off-handed tone, anticipating and equal to anything Robert Frost was to write in later years. We are back to the impersonal landscape of wind and shadow. Robinson writes, simply and matter-of-factly, that though all days are not fair, fair days went on until a thousand golden sheaves “were lying there”. The first three lines are all but a restatement of the sonnet’s opening octave. But Robinson has placed the elements of a greater “meaning”, a “meaning of a kind that tells the more it is not told” the will take life with “body and mind”. The leaves will lie there, shining and still, but not for long. They will wait there like nothing that was ever bought or sold, until one day, they will be embodied,

As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Body and mind coalesce. In these last two lines, with a power akin to the closing couplet of a Shakespearean Sonnet, body, mind and meaning take shape, become metaphor, embodied in the inexpressible will and beauty of a thousand girls, whose meaning is greatest if left, perhaps, “untold”.  They have slept but will arise out of the impersonal shadow of the wind, suddenly alive, willful, free, golden haired, light, and inexpressibly lovely. Their meaning is in a beauty that defies definition. Beauty is truth and truth is beauty, Robinson almost seems to say. But their beauty is fleeting. The arise. They do not come to us, speak to us, or explain. They will go way and that is all ye know and all ye need to know.

So will we all.

Can there be a more beautiful or profound way to express something so simple? I find this poem to be one of the greatest poems of the English language.

Other readers of Robinson:

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.