WB Yeats ❧ Sailing to Byzantium

  • Updated Nov 8, 2010
  • Updated Dec 2, 2010
  • Updated January 22 2012 TYPO. Changed  “command all summer long” to “commend all summer long”
  • Updated September 29 2013 Updated definition of pern or perne.
  • Updated October 1 2013


That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
— Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.


MS of Sailing to Byzantium

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.


O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

[Sometime later today I’ll try my hand at reading this poem.]

Two Minds

I’m of two minds when it comes to Yeats. On the one hand, he’s an indisputably great poet, on the other, the universality of his greatness is, in my opinion, sometimes mitigated by his arcane and idiosyncratic spiritual beliefs. There was a time when I tried to grasp them but, frankly, I  find them arcane and unrewarding. Most critics, in my experience, more or less throw up their hands (gloss over) Yeats’ specific beliefs – as, for example, their explanations of Yeat’s gyres. I haven’t found any online resources that makes the subject interesting or straightforwardly comprehensible. The spiritual subject matter of  A Vision, Yeats’ collection of essays on “philosophical, historical, astrological, and poetic topics” (which deeply informed his later and greatest poems) bores me silly. If you want to know what, specifically, Yeats might have been thinking when he wrote his late poems, you can try YeatsVision.Com. However, my opinion is similar to that of John Unterecker’s who wrote in his Readers Guide to W.B. Yeats:

Though almost everything Yeats wrote after 1922 and a good deal that he wrote before that date is linked to A Vision, one can read the poems without knowing the system. “Leda and the Swan” makes a different kind of sense if one sees it as a poem that examines the beginnings of the cycle that preceded ours. Seen in this light it becomes a neat companion poem to “The Second Coming,” which examines the genesis of the cycle that will follow ours. But both it and “The Second Coming” can stand by themselves. [p. 29]

How they “stand by themselves” is how I read them. Would it be interesting to know what Yeats had in mind (when writing this or that poem) as it relates to his philosophy and spirituality? Possibly. Would it be meaningful to the reader? Possibly not.

The First Stanza: Scansion


The Form: First to be mentioned: All unmarked feet are Iambic. If these terms, or the terms that follow are unfamiliar to you, check out the post Iambic Pentameter: The Basics. The meter of the poem is Iambic Pentameter. The stanza, based on the rhyme scheme ABABABCC, is called ottava rima. The effect of the rhyme scheme is similar to that which closes the quatrain and couplet of a Shakespearean Sonnet. Interestingly, Yeasts uses the form to the same effect as the closing sestet of the Shakespearean Sonnet.. The first six lines set forth an argument and the closing heroic couplet arrives with an epigrammatic summation:

Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

It’s a very Elizabethan way of writing poetry and connects Yeats’ poetic thought with a much older tradition. It’s also interesting that Yeats is more conservative with this poem, metrically speaking.  By choosing ottava rima and a more conservative technique, Yeats may have wanted to concentrate the power and effectiveness of the poem’s argument through its meter and rhyme. Whether the rhymes are half rhymes or full rhymes doesn’t matter so much. Perhaps (in Yeats’ Irish accent) young and song were a much closer rhyme. Yeats’ style of reading was affected, to say the least. (For a taste, check out my post on Long Legged Fly. You will find a recording of him reciting The Lake Isle of Innesfree.) It could also be that Yeats was perfectly content with off- and  half-rhymes.

What’s it about?

The first thing to be said about Sailing to Byzantium is that it is considered one of Yeats’ greatest poems (and one of the greatest poems of the English language). The second is that few can agree on what Yeats meant by the poem. The poem can seem self-contradictory and many readers would not share Yeats’ desire (if we take him literally) to end up on an emperor’s night stand as a prophetically squawking parrot (bird), be it ever so golden and finely wrought. Reductio ad absurdum, I admit, but this is the symbolism with which Yeats glorifies his vision of the afterlife.

Yeats did not age gracefully. It seems that he idolized youth (and youthful beauty). The older he became, the more bitter he was — possibly aggravated by his marriage, at the age of 51, to Georgie Hyde-Lees, then 24 (Yeats may have suffered  from impotence). In the 1930’s Yeats was asked, on visiting a brothel, what the experience was like. He replied, ““It was terrible, like putting an oyster into a slot machine!”  But even if impotence was at the root of Yeats disgust with aging , he put his despair to the service of a larger spiritual argument.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
— Those dying generations — at their song,

The poem starts as though in mid-conversation, as though Yeats were in the midst of an argument. No! he says. No, that is no country for old men. The initial trochee effectively emphasizes the vehemence of his refutation. Other close readers will tell you that “that country” is Ireland (Yeats originally wrote this instead of that.) But it doesn’t matter except to those interested in Yeats’ biography. That is, he could have written Ireland but in choosing not to he deliberately left the matter to the reader. So forget I mentioned it and forget anyone else mentioned it. Yeats could be talking about your country. His descriptions are universal.

Birds in the trees” probably stems from the age-old proverb concerning birds and bees – though birds in the trees are also usually associated with spring and fecundity. What’s curious, however, is that Yeats then labels these very symbols of renewal and rebirth those dying generations. On the face of it, the appellation makes little sense. Is the emotion expressed due to bitterness and envy?

The most thorough analysis of this poem (that I know of) is by Helen Vendler, found in her book Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. She remarks that the comment is that of an impotent man, she calls the phrase “a sour note”. Possibly, but one needn’t be impotent or bitter to observe that the phrase is also true. The seemingly eternal youth celebrated “in one another’s arms” and by the “birds in the trees”  is only an illusion. In the very act of  pro-creativity are the seeds of decay and death. Vendler writes:

Frustrated by not being able to join in the secular choir of the pastoral “country” of the young, he has fled to the “holy city” of Byzantium (concealing his desperation by rendering his progress in stately and orotund iambics…” [p. 31]

That’s certainly one way to interpret the opening stanza (and not without reason). The interpretation threatens to reduce the entirety of the poem to the bitter sandbox-tantrum of an old man. If I can’t play then I’m going to Byzantum! So there! That said, I don’t get the sense (from the poem at least) that Yeats, if offered the opportunity, would return to the sensual abandonment of youthful flesh (which is what Vendler seems to suggest).


The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

The description of salmon and “mackerel-crowded seas” extends the imagery of life, fecundity and fertility. This is the world of “flesh”, of whatever “is begotten, born and dies”. This world, caught in the sensual music of procreation (read sex), will  care little and have little time for “monuments of unaging intellect”, be they literally monuments or, more figuratively, art, music or poetry. And yet…  isn’t that exactly where  poetry and music are most appealing? –  within the realms of passion and love? Vendler takes Yeats’ assertion at face value. Me? I’m not so sure. If, by monuments of unaging intellect, Yeats’ is figuratively referring to art, poetry or music, then (by implication) Yeats considers art (in all its forms) to be dry and lacking sensuality. In other words, it’s not something those generations”at their song” will heed (which makes one wonder what, exactly, Yeats thinks art, poetry or music are good for). Maybe Yeats means something else by “monuments of unaging intellect”? If so, then the phrase sounds dismissive if not outright contemptuous. Monuments aren’t normally meant to appeal to our sensual senses (no matter what their subject matter) and monuments of unaging intellect don’t sound fun at all.

  • The image at the upper right is of Atlantic Salmon. Every year they return from the ocean, swimming upstream to spawn (breed). They make a powerful image and represent nothing if not a “dying generation”. Not long after spawning (some Salmon climb over 7,000 feet, from sea level, to spawn) they will die – never returning to the ocean.)

“mackerel-crowded seas…”

The poem already begins to feel laden with contradiction.

If one reads Yeats’ references to youth as betraying bitterness (read envy), then he seems equally contemptuous of the alternative. In other words, why use the word monument? Among the meanings of monument are burial vault. Monuments don’t age because they are often associated with death.

The Second Stanza: Scansion

A modern (or inexperienced) reader might be tempted to read “aged” as a monosyllabic word. The meter, however, strongly favors a disyllabic reading: agèd. The blue in the final line indicates an anapestic foot – not unusual in Yeats’ practice, but the first in this poem. Notice the effect of the spondaic foot Soul clap. It’s a nice effect and typical of poets able to unite meaning and meter.

What’s it about?

Yeats separates each stanza with a Roman numeral. Why not simply publish the poem without them (separating each of the stanzas with a space instead)? Perhaps we’re not meant to read the poem as a continuous narrative but  as four (sort of) separate poems – different treatments on a common theme. (This is Vendler’s argument.) Nevertheless, the second stanza seems to proceed directly from the first. Having described “that country”, the second stanza describes “old men”.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick…

What does paltry mean? It means “not worth considering” or “contemptibly small in amount”. Since the old man is being compared to the young (who Yeats describes on the basis of their “sensual music” – their pro-creative song)  the implication is that an old man is paltry because he can no longer pro-create – he cannot partake in the “song” of the young. Since an old man may impregnate a young woman as effectively as a young man, impotence is again implied. If Yeats’ judges the value of a man to be a measure of his virility, then an impotent old man would indeed be a paltry thing. He would be a tattered coat upon a stick – the implication being that sticks are barren. (Having been cut or broken from the sap, no stick will leaf, blossom or fruit.) This is the usual way to read the opening of the poem – Yeats feels cast off, useless and paltry because of his age.

Who wouldn’t want to be young again? (Such is the assumed question behind many interpretations.) But maybe Yeats is who. In this sense, an old man is only a paltry thing if he attempts to remain in “that” country – the country of youthful lovers. In this way, the argumentative sound of the poem’s opening isn’t so much bitter as dismissive. Dismissive of the very assertion many interpreters bestow on Yeats.

In other words, try to imagine what Yeats might be responding to. Someone could have said to him: Just because you’re an old man doesn’t mean you can’t love as passionately as the young. ‘Hardly!’ says the imagined Yeats. ‘That is no country for old men and no country for me. Such an old man could only be a tattered coat upon a stick.’

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;

The song of the first stanza is illusory – the false song of a dying generation who is too “caught in the sensual music” of its love-making to recognize the ephemeral vanity of its sensual music. The song of the aged man should be the song of the soul. The song of the soul is unique to each soul. Hence, there is no “singing school”. In other words, Yeats’ assertion is a refutation of religion, religion being a “singing school”. (Part of Yeats’ spiritual belief was the notion that there is no single truth or spiritual truth. The soul must create its own truth.)

…the guiding principle unifying Yeat’s spirituality is “the philosophia perennis” which “in all its branches holds that not matter but mind — consciousness — is the ground of reality as we experience it… [Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies, Volume XIII, 1995, Volume 13 by Richard J. Finneran p. 69]

In the world of what is begotten, born and dies, the old man can only be a tattered coat upon a stick. Let the old man rightly turn his intellect to “unaging intellect” (the work of eternity later symbolized in the artifice of Byzantium) and he will be transfigured.  The soul must study monuments of its own magnificence. This  modifies the “monuments of unaging intellect” from the previous stanza. The appellation magnificent adds a little more burnish to monument. What are the monuments of its own magnificence? This is less clear but will be suggested by Yeats’ vision of Byzantium – it’s culture, art and literature. The soul’s monuments to its own magnificence are the products of its intellect and artistic creativity. It’s a creativity of a different kind. In Yeats’ mind, it’s eternal, not like the dying procreativity of flesh.

In A Vision, Yeats describes the appeal of Byzantium:

I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I cold find some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even, for the pride of his delicate skill would make what was an instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body.

I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers — though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract — spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books. were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people. They could copy out of old Gospel books those pictures that seemed as sacred as the text, and yet weave all into a vast design, the work of many that seemed the work of one, that made building, picture, patterns, metal-work of rail and lamp, seem but a single image…

What’s most important in this description is his phrase “show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body”. This will be important when judging the final image of Sailing to Byzantium. Yeats was to further write of Sailing to Byzantium that “When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells and making the jewel-led croziers in the national museum Byzantium was the center of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy. I symbolized a search for spiritual life by a journey to that city.” This isn’t bitterness but a desire for a different kind of passion.

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

No longer capable of (or responsive to) the “sensual music” of the world (partaking in its song), he sails to Byzantium for a new kind of life and revelation.

The Third Stanza: Scansion

  • The following is only for the connoisseurs of metrical poetry:

The scansion of the third stanza reveals a 20th century poet writing traditional meter. No poet prior to the 2oth century would have written the second line of the stanza or the sixth line the way Yeats wrote them.

Although I scanned the second line as follows:

As in |the gold| mosa|ic of |a wall,

I only did so because Yeats was probably giving a nod to metrical regularity. One could read mosaic as a trisyllabic word and Yeats possibly did, but most readers (including myself) pronounce it as a  disyllabic word. That would make the line scan as follows:

As in |the gold| mosaic |of a wall

This makes the line Iambic Tatremater rather than Iambic Pentameter (four feet instead of five) and makes the final foot anapestic. This would make the line a variant line and is well within Yeats’ practice, but since mosaic can be pronounced as a three syllable word I’ve opted to scan it as an Iambic Pentameter line (given that Yeats has been fairly conservative in his other lines).

The sixth line:

And fast|ened to |a dy|ing an|imal

Would have been censured by readers and critiques prior to the 20th century. Few poets would have dared end an Iambic Pentameter line with a pyrrhic foot. It would have been considered inept and amateurish. In all of Milton’s Paradise (several thousand lines) there is not a single example (though some “scholars” have failed to take into account the changing pronunciation of words).

What’s it about?

Procession of saints: mosaic in the Basilica of San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall…

In the first stanza, Yeats defines the country which has rejected him (or he, it) and in the second stanza, Yeats describes the old man (himself or his art). In the third stanza he moves the reader to a new stage – Byzantium. Although he doesn’t tell us specifically, the reader can safely assume that he is standing before a mosaic. Helen Vendler suggests that Yeats drew his inspiration for this passage from mosaics he saw in Ravenna. The iconography of the gold background is meant to suggest God’s holy fire – a symbol of eternity.

Interestingly, and because so much of Vendler’s interpretation is predicated on Yeats’ sexual impotence (which is reasonably suspected but not a certainty) she goes on to make the following observation:

Yeats’ vision of joining the company of the sages is what we might call, in the larger Freudian sense, a homosocial and sublimated resolution to the speaker’s exclusion–by reason of impotence–from the country of heterosexual intercourse. There are no women in the heaven of sages. There is no time in the fiery eternity symbolized by the gold background of the mosaic. [Our Secret Discipline p. 34]

This is a curious assertion given the mosaic on Sant’Apollinare Nuoba’s North Wall.

The bottom row portrays a procession of female Saints. That’s right, women. Clearly, the Byzantine artists beg to differ. There are women in the “heaven of sages”.  Vendler got it wrong. The clerestory (middle row) depicts the prophets which, presumably, Yeats referred to as “sages”. Vendler’s reference to Yeats’ imagery as homosocial  leads me to think she’s much too wedded to the notion of impotence in Yeats’ poem. (Not everything in the poem need be read through the lens of impotence.) At worst, her reading threatens to somewhat diminish the sublimity of the poem – it goes from being the expression of spiritual desire to a reactionary and bitter rant.

However, what nevertheless remains true is that there will be no sex in Yeats’ heaven.

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Yeats’ plea is not for a restoration of his potency, just the opposite. If read literally, he wants to be liberated from the “sickness of desire”. He seeks liberation from the desires of flesh – “consume me heart away”. Liberate him from the dying animal (a phrase that hearkens back to the “dying generations” of the first stanza. Refine him. Let the sages be the singing-masters of his soul. Figuratively, the stanza bespeaks his readiness to turn from the song/poetry of flesh to the song/poetry of the soul – to the clarity of the soul’s intellect.

Perne in a gyre…

The phrase “perne in a gyre” is frequently “explained” but never convincingly.

Sept. 29 2013: Yeats’ own comment on the word pern was recently brought to my attention by an attentive reader. The Norton Critical Edition includes passages from Per Amica Silentia Lunae. In Part XXI of Anima Mundi (a part of Amica Silentia Lunae) begins (by Yeats):

“When I remember that Shelley calls our minds “mirrors of the fire for which all thirst,” I cannot but ask the question all have asked, “What or who has cracked the mirror?” I begin to study the only self that  I can know, myself, and to wind the thread upon the perne again.”

In the footnote to this passage, The Norton Critical Edition makes the following comment:

“Yeats recalled being told as a child that pern “was another name for the spool, as I was accustomed to call it, on which thread was wound.”

And here’s the full quote (from a different book):

“When I was a child at Sligo I could see above my grandfather’s trees a little column of smoke from “the pern mill,” and was told that “pern” was another name for the spool, as I was accustomed to call it, on which thread was wound. One could not see the chimney for the trees, and the smoke looked as if it came from the mountain, and one day a foreign see-captain asked me if that was a burning mountain. — 1919″ [Later Poems]

I wish that Norton (and other sources for that matter) had included this helpful footnote with the poem (page 80) rather than footnoting an essay that maybe three people will read (page 289).

‘Case closed’ say you? Well, here’s the same quote from four other sources:

“What or who has cracked the mirror?” I begin to study the only self that  I can know, myself, and to wind the thread upon the pern again.”

What do these sources all have in common? They all quote Yeats with the spelling pern, not perne — the latter being the spelling of the Norton “Critical” (air quotes) edition. Since I trust the Norton Critical Edition about as far as I can throw its editor, James Pethica, I’m thinking that Norton got the quote wrong. Interestingly, in Norton’s footnote, they quote Yeats as spelling it pern. So, where does this leave us? Read on.

In the poem, the “Shepherd and the Goatherd”, you will find the following lines:

Jaunting, journeying
to his own dayspring,
He unpacks his loaded pern
Of all ’twas pain or joy to learn,
Of all that he had made.

The idea here is of unwinding a spool. Here though, the spelling is also different: pern instead of perne and it’s not clear, in Byzantium, that Yeats is using the word in the same sense.

Caveat Empor: I remain baffled by why this quote from Yeats doesn’t footnote a poem like Byzantium in more collections of poetry and in a book like The Norton Critical Edition (whose editions I don’t hold in high esteem). Why does John Unterecker, author of A Reader’s Guide to Yeats (see immediately below) not even mention this quote as a possible explanation? My best guess is that Yeats spells the word differently in Byzantium than in Shepherd and the Goatherd, his explanatory note, and his essay (according to sources other than Norton), and perhaps this makes scholars think that Yeats intended a different meaning (or an altogether different word). So, I haven’t entirely removed the portion below, much of it may still pertain. Once again, you the reader now know as much as I do (and hopefully a little more).

Vendler writes that “a ‘perne’ is a cone-shaped bobbin”. Really? Says who? She doesn’t tell us. In truth, her off-the-cuff explanation is so uncharacteristically perfunctory (for a “close reader” who never misses a chance to extenuate) that I don’t think she knows. She probably isn’t sure of its meaning and so doesn’t spend any time on it.

Perne could also refer to a pern, another name for a honey-buzzard. This would make considerable, thematic sense. Yeats repeats themes, words and ideas throughout the poem, especially as regards birds and song. Also, consider the opening lines to Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The imagery of the falcon in the gyre isn’t far removed from the imagery of a pern in a gyre. Could Yeats have misspelled pern (spelling it perne)? If one thinks of the pern as a bird of prey, then Yeats’ might be comparing the sages to birds of prey. He is inviting them to descend in an ever-more focused, fiery gyre until they find and consume his heart, the heart of a dying animal. (The idea of the gyre is doubtless a reference to Yeats’ spiritual beliefs concerning the cyclic nature of human evolution – to which he devoted an entire book, A Vision. Feel free to read it.)

On the other hand, here’s another interpretation from the following site:

The phrase “perne in a gyre” refers to a spinning wheel such as those Yeats would have seen during his youth in Sligo. Yeats is referring to the movement of thread through bobbin and spool, a movement that is so fast that it is imperceptible to the naked eye. The point that Yeats is highlighting is that each individual strand of thread is submerged by speed into one continuous piece, similarly each successive human life is a mirror image of a previous one, but that taken together there is a continuation, a permanence.

This is a fabulously compelling interpretation. It sounds knowledgeable. It’s poetic. I love it. I want to believe it. (I notice that this interpretive nugget has been copied and pasted throughout the web.) But, thematically, it doesn’t fit. Logically, it doesn’t make sense. If the interpretation implies reincarnation, “successive human life”, then this is emphatically not what Yeats is proposing in Sailing to Byzantium or, for that matter,  in the later, companion poem Byzantium. If the interpretation is not a reference to reincarnation but, simply, successive human lives, then what do these successive lives have to do with the sages? They live in eternity (in the holy fire). “Come from the holy fire,” writes Yeats, and “perne in a gyre”. Why would he compare the sages (coming from eternity) to the movement of thread through bobbin and spool if, as the author suggests, the imagery is meant to suggest temporal and successive human life?

And if perne is another name for a spinning wheel (like the kind Yeats would have seen in Sligo) why would he write (in effect):  come like a ‘”spinning wheel” in a gyre’? Images of the tornado in the Wizard of Oz spring to mind – a house, a witch and a spinning wheel. It would make more sense if perne referred to the yarn.  At least to me, the author’s analogy falls apart. Lastly, the author doesn’t give us any reason to believe him (or her). A perne is a “spinning wheel”? Says who? Where are the author’s footnotes? What about Vendler? She thinks its a bobbin. Clearly, the two of them don’t agree on what it is.

And did you read to the bottom of the Wikipedia article on Honey Buzzards? As of Nov 6, 2010, you will find the following:

An alternate name for the bird is the pern[1]. It has been argued by some (e.g., Smith[2] or [3]) that the lines “perne in a gyre” in William Butler Yeats poem Sailing to Byzantium have an alternate reading as referring to the circling flight of a honey buzzard. This conjecture is not supported by the Oxford English Dictionary which treats perne as a verb meaning “to spin”.[4]

Really? Here are the notes:

  1. ^Pern, Oxford English Dictionary
  2. ^ Stan Smith, W. B. Yeats, a Critical Introduction, Chapter 3.9, “The Gyres”, p. 205, Palgrave Macmillan, 1990; ISBN 033348066X
  3. ^[1]
  4. ^OED Online, s.v. pern, v. http://dictionary.oed.com/ Accessed 21 Oct 2008

As it happens, I own the Oxford English Dictionary and I’m not seeing it. What’s not supported is the word perne itself (let alone a definition). It doesn’t appear in the dictionary. Not only that, but there’s no reference to pern or perne as a verb meaning to spin. The word pern, as a reference to honey-buzzards, is in the OED. The Wikpideia footnote is either a complete fabrication or the  online edition of the OED is different than the hard copy. But you can verify this for yourself. There are editions of the OED available at Google Books. I searched through two different editions and they also don’t contain the word perne.

  • I can’t find the word perne in any dictionary.

Nevertheless, let’s say one accepts Wikipedia’s claim, then we now have a third definition of perne. 1.) It’s a cone-shaped bobbin (Vendler). 2.) It’s a spinning wheel (author unknown). 3.) It’s a verb meaning to spin,  which makes Yeats’ phrase clumsily tautological: spin in a spin.

Odd. A word with so many meanings and no dictionary knows about it…

Can all the definitions be right? Possibly. But I get the feeling each scholar is repeating variations on the same urban myth (each of them having heard it from each other). None of the scholars tell us where their information comes from and that, to me, doesn’t do them any favors.

For the record, John Unterecker, author of the aforementioned Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats, casts his lot with those who (like myself) think Yeats’ perne is actually a pern – a honey-buzzard.

There, flame-wrapped sages can (bird metaphor only modestly disguised) like immortal phoenixes rise from their holy fire, “pern in a gyre,” and — “singing masters” — consume his heart away as, returning to the fire, they gather him into “the artifice of eternity.” [p. 173]

But you be the judge.

If you’re Irish and you know what a perne is (and you know what Yeats meant) explain it to the rest of us and e-mail us a picture of a perne. (I’ll forward it to the editors of the OED for inspection.)

Update: I may have gotten to the root of the matter. This is from The composite voice: the role of W.B. Yeats in James Merrill’s poetry by Mark Bauer. Bauer writes:

Yeats likely chose the variant spelling “perne” for “pirn” to allow the allusion to a kind of hawk as well as the winding motion as of thread into a spool (or “pirn”), but the meaning that Kimon Friar emphasizes in his notes to this poem… is “to change” — “after Dr. Perne, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1554-8-, who changed his opinions adroitly” (Modern Poetry 555)… [p. 217]

We can now add a third possible meaning to perne (which would be spelled correctly). Here are the relevant definitions from the OED.


Pirn: Now Sc. and dial. Forms: 5-6 pirne, pyrne, 8 pyrn, 6 – pirn, (9 dial. pirm) 1.) A small cylinder on which thread or yarn is wound, formerly made of a hollow reed or quill, but now usually of turned wood or iron, with axial bore for mounting on a spindle when winding; a waever’s  bobbin, spool, or reel. [Several examples of usage are given, all with an –i rather than –e. 2.) transf. The yarn wound upon the pirn (ready for the shuttle); also, as much as a pirn holds, a pirnful. ? Obs. rare. 3.) Any device or machine resembling a reel, or used for winding; esp. a fishing-reel. 4.) An unevenness or ‘cockle’ in the surface of a piece of cloth, caused by difference in the yarn composing it. Obs. rare. 5.) attrib. and Comb., as pirn-winder, -winding; pirn-cage (see quot.) ; pirn-cap, a wooden bowl used by weavers to hold their quills (Jamieson); pirn-girnel, a box for holding pirns while they are being filled; pirn house, a weaving shed; pirn-stick, a wooden stick or spindle on which the quill (pirn) is placed while the yarn put on it in spinning is reeled off; pirn-wheel, a wheel for winding thread on bobbins; pirn-wife, a woman who fills pirns with yarn.

Pirn: sb. 3 dial. Also purn. A twitch for horses.

Pirn: Found only in ps. pple. and ps. ppl. adj. . Pirned interwoven with threads of different colors; striped; brocaded.

And here are the definitions for pern:

Pern: sb. [ad. mod. l. pernis (Cuvier 1817), an erroneous adaptation of Gr. (…) A bird of the genus Pernis; the Honey-Buzzard.

Pern: Also 6 Pearn. trans. To deal with after the manner of Dr. Perne. Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1554-80, who changed his opinions adroitly; to change (a profession, creed, etc.) for some ulterior end.


Now you know as much as I do and as much as the next scholar.

First, we know the following: Vendler engaged in some truthiness. A perne is not a cone-shaped bobbin. That’s what a pirn is (and even then there’s no mention that it need be “cone-shaped”). She neglected to mention that the two words are spelled quite differently and didn’t offer us a reason as to why we should adopt pirn as Yeats’ intended meaning. I can see substituting an -i for an -e, but what about the extra -e?

Second, we know that the unknown author who told us that a perne is a ‘spinning wheel’ was wrong. Interestingly, my speculation that his interpretation would have made more sense if ‘perne’ actually referred to yarn turns out to have been prescient. According to OED, one of the meanings of pirn is yarn (see above).

Third, the Wikipedia article which states that ‘perne‘ means to spin isn’t reflected by my hard copy of the OED.

The question remains, why pirn? Why are so many scholars married to the idea that perne might have been a mispelling for pirn.

I don’t have an answer. In fact, their interpretation seems arbitrary (or wishful thinking) but maybe more information will turn up? Why not a twitch for a horse? As it is, Yeats’ spelling is closer to pern than to pirn. The possibility that Yeats was referring to a hawk seems more likely both in its spelling and thematically.  Lastly, the only appearance of perne, with the extra -e, is in reference to the good Dr. Perne, but no scholars (I notice) are rushing to insert Dr. Perne into Sailing to Byzantium.

Again, you be the judge.

Update December 2 2010

The following is thanks to a conversation with Phyllis Katz, a classics professor at Dartmouth College.

Being a Latin scholar (which I am not), Mrs. Katz recognized another possibility for perne. It turns out that perne is the imperative singular of the latin verb perneo, declined: perneo, pernere, pernevi, pernetum; and means — to spin out, to spin to an end. The word was used in reference to the Fates by the Latin poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (known as Martial in English). The definition she provided comes from A Latin Dictionary rev. by T. Lewis 1879 (1996).

The possibility that Yeats was using the Latin imperative of the verb perneo is compelling because it would fit with the imperative tone of the verse.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.

All these verbs are imperatives. However, this fact alone doesn’t clinch the argument. Yeats might also have been using anthimeria to create a verb out of the noun Pern (for Honey-Buzzard). In this sense, it would be the equivalent of saying, for example: He hawks his prey. Hawk is normally a noun, but anthimeria (a favorite rhetorical figure of, among other poets, Shakespeare) transforms it into a verb.

The question that needs to be asked, if Yeats was hauling a Latin verb into English (neologizing), is whether there’s precedent elsewhere in his poetry. The answer is that I don’t know. I’m not a Yeatsian scholar. However, of all the poems I have read, I’ve never noticed such a neologism before. By comparison, the Elizabethan poets and dramatists (Shakespeare especially) were constantly coining new words based on Latin and Greek. We expect that sort of thing from the Elizabethans, but Yeats? It’s possible. Mrs. Katz provided the following in support of her own supposition:

art of the achievement of writers like Yeats and Joyce in their use of English lies in their appropriation of the Greek and Latin… One facet of Yeats’s imperial sway over the English language is to use with abandon words derived from Latin, words that tend to be long, abstract, and supposedly less expressive than their short, concrete Anglo-Saxon counter-parts. Yeats, however, moulds English so that these Latinisms are strong, powerful, imperious, suggesting both the old fact that the Romans ruled England and the new fact that an Irishman, from a country never ruled by the Romans, can reimpose Roman dominion over the language of his conqueror. Consider, for example, the violent Latin verb (which is framed by initial Greek and final Old English nouns) in “News for the Delphic Oracle”: “nymphs and satyrs copulate in the foam.” And so it happens, time and again: “the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”; “all that lamentation of the leaves”; “Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied”; “The wine-dark of the wood’s intricacies”; “And all complexities of mire or blood.”25 What is happening in Yeats, then, is that the Latin of the Irish hedge schools, of Hugh, Jimmy Jack, and the others, has now entered great poetry…  [The Role of Greek and Latin in Friel’s Translations p. 8]

The only point I would make is that these aren’t neologisms – these are recognized English words which are derived from Latin. They are no longer read or spoken as Latin words. This doesn’t mean that Yeats did not (in one poem and in the entirety of his career) take a verb straight from Latin, but it does make the argument less certain

More along these lines can be found in the article “Passionate Syntax: Style in the Poetry of Yeats“. Again, while Yeats’ use of Latin-derived words is pronounced, there’s no mention of Latin or Greek neologisms.

I had one more qualm about Mrs. Katz’s suggestion and that concerns the seeming redundancy of “perne in a gyre” (if Yeats intended the Latin verb). In effect, Yeats is saying: spin in a spin. However, Yeats seemed untroubled by such redundancies. In the opening to the Second Coming, he writes:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre…


Will there be yet more to write about Perne? We’ll see.

…gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

The word artifice is curious. It means (dictionary.com):

  1. a clever trick or stratagem; a cunning, crafty device or expedient; wile.
  2. trickery; guile; craftiness.
  3. cunning; ingenuity; inventiveness: a drawing-room comedy crafted with artifice and elegance.
  4. a skillful or artful contrivance or expedient.

It’s an odd description of the mosaic if Yeats means to glorify it. Yeats was probably referring to the cunning and ingenuity of the artwork. Even so, the other meanings remain. The effect is to both praise the mosaic but to also acknowledge its artificiality. Yeats’ plea to be gathered up by the sages simultaneously acknowledges the impossibility. The sages are not going to be perne(ing) in a gyre; and the holy fire, the gold mosaic-work, is just that, mosaic-work. It’s artifice. It’s artificial. The line reveals something about Yeats that I like. He hasn’t drunk the kool-aide. He’s telling us, with a kind confidentiality, that he’s like us – he’s not portraying the afterlife as though his vision were an unquestioned truth. His plea is that of the suffering and doubting man, and that makes it all the more poignant. ‘Make the artifice true,’ he seems to plead. ‘Gather me into the beautiful illusion of great art, the soul’s intellection. The illusion of “the young in one another’s arms” has made me a paltry thing.’ His is the cry of a man who feels as though he is trapped in illusion but whose only refuge remains illusion.

But there’s another way to interpret his lines and that comes next.

The Fourth Stanza: Scansion

The scansion is fairly straighforward. I chose to slur bodily and natural to read bod’ly and nat’ral. This keeps the meter fairly regular and reflects how most of us would read the line.

What’s it about?

Vendler considers the fourth stanza a refutation of the  third stanza. She writes that Yeats can’t be both absorbed by the golden eternity of the sages (which is timeless) and be the temporal contrivance of a secular Byzantine goldsmith (for a drowsy emperor) singing of the past, present and future. (There is no past, present or future in an eternal now.) But Vendler seems to overlook the word artifice. Yeats, himself, acknowledges the artificiality of his vision. It’s a symbolic, metaphorical, artistic (hence artifice) transfiguration.  So, I see the third and fourth stanza somewhat differently – the third flows smoothly into the fourth, not a contradiction but allowing for the possibility of the fourth stanza. In the third stanza, Yeats is pleading for a kind of symbolic rebirth where he will be freed from the illusory mire of fish, flesh and fowl. (Mire is the word he will later use in the poem Byzantium.)  Once he has been transfigured and transmuted (once the sages, like alchemists, have transmuted his being into the eternal gold of god’s holy fire) he will be ready for the artifice (the art work) of the Byzantine gold smith. The word gold will reappear again and again in the fourth stanza. (To me, the repetition sounds like the repeated hammer blows of the gold smith beating the gold into shape.) Bear in mind that gold is the only metal which does not corrode.

Once out of nature…

“Once my form has been transmuted by the alchemical transfiguration of the sages into the spiritually eternal gold of god’s fire…”

I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing…

Yeats rejects reincarnation. We might expect a sexually impotent man to desire a return to nature (if that’s truly his gripe), but Yeats’ doesn’t or doesn’t believe its possible. And this makes me think that the focus of so many analysts on sexual impotence is overcooked. Yeats impotence can be treated figuratively rather than literally. His impotence is of an artistic, spiritual and temperamental kind. He no longer emotionally responds to the passionate poems of youth, desire and sexuality; but finds himself drawn to a new kind of passion – eternal and spiritual. In this light, the poem can be read as a kind of artistic and poetic transmutation and manifesto. He is turning away from the poetry of his youth and past, having no more feeling for it (his impotence refers to the figurative loss of his interest and emotional response to youthful concerns). He’s not unhappy to see it go. As mentioned before, what many readers interpret as bitterness may be, to Yeats, anything but.   He’s not bitter. Rather, he’s  all too ready to be done with the illusory preoccupations of youth.

…But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Would any of us desire such an afterlife? – to be a mechanical bird?

Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

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. In the poem Byzantium, he will write:

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.

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). His poetry, transfigured by his new found spirituality, will not speak to everyone, but only to those who have themselves been transfigured, who have sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium. (We will have left  behind that country of “the dying generations”.) We will  be the “lords and ladies of Byzantium”. We will be able to hear and understand his songs/poetry of “what is past. passing, or to come”.

  • The image above right gives an idea of some of the beautiful and extraordinarily wrought Byzantine metalwork that might have inspired Yeats’ imagery.

Vendler interprets the drowsy emperor as symbolically representing Yeats’ desire to return to sensuality. She writes:

Something has indeed been lost to the human speaker in his reincarnation-within-artifice:the golden bird has no mate, and cannot sing “sensual music.” But the bird does have a bodily form (even if artificial) and continues to inhabit a profane heterosexual environment, while he chronicles in song — with an omniscient,, almost divine, view — the broad panoramas of time. As he sings to the Emperor, or to the lords and ladies, he will be Hellenic, not Hebraic. As the poem ends, he is back in a place where there is an imminent sensuality in the drowsy Emperor (there is an Empress as well as the Emperor in the worksheets, and “drowsy” is always, in Yeats, a sign of the sensual).

I’m not buying it, and I certainly don’t accept her contention that “drowsy” is always a sign of the sensual. If she is going to make such a sweeping generalization then she should back it up. She doesn’t. She puts it out there and, presumably, assumes the reader won’t question her. Me? I say, prove it. With that proviso aside, Vendler’s interpretation is interesting, valuable and allows the likes of me to bounce ideas off it.

However, I think she misses the forest for the trees. If one is drowsy, there’s nothing sensual about being kept awake. I interpret the Emperor and empress as being, like the lords and ladies, us. The Emperor of Byzantium is the spiritually transfigured soul/reader who uniquely hears Yeats and can see into the mystery of things. He (and she) is awakened from drowsiness because they recognize in Yeat’s song and poetry a kindred truth. The Emperor (and Empress of the rough draft) will want to be awake. This, I think, is what Yeats means. His new poetry will keep them (and you) awake. This, at least, is how I read the poem. Like Robert Frost’s “For Once Then Something‘, Yeats is characterizing his spiritual identity in his poetry. He is spiritually remaking himself in his poetry. The impotence isn’t sexual but imaginative. No longer aroused by the passions of youth, he renews his passions in the golden city of Byzantium.

The Lords and Ladies of Byzantium are us.


(If you want  to learn more about how Yeats arrived at the final version, the New York times has provided an excellent video discussing the poem’s composition – as of writing this the video and article are  still free.)

Yeats’ Two Byzantiums

A nice reading on Youtube, if a little depressing.

Final Thought:

And that’s that there’s much that I didn’t discuss. One could almost write a book on the poem. Please comment and we’ll see what else comes up.

The old man becomes the soul.

á la Maison ❧ un sonnet délicieux

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Do better? Read the poem. Send me a recording and I’ll post it here. I’d love to hear how others read it.

The world is too much with us ❧ William Wordsworth

This analysis is late in coming and is a request.

Work has picked up a bit. My three daughters each have baseball games. My wife just bought eight chicks. They’re in our claw foot bathtub (in a box), and I have about two or three weeks to build the chicken coop. (Maybe I’ll post some pictures of the coop).

Full Disclosure

William Wordsworth is not one of my favorite poets. In terms of his skills as a poet, his figurative language, descriptive language and meter sometimes feels too unimaginative or expedient. He wrote a tremendous quantity of poetry but  quality didn’t always keep pace. On the other hand, Wordsworth deliberately cultivated what he considered a low or plain style of diction closer to the parlance of everyday speech.

Reading his poetry after a century of free verse, which (in the hands of some poets) makes a concerted effort to sound as ‘mundane’ – as indistinguishable from every day talk – as possible, Wordworth’s poetry may sound as stiff and stilted as any other 19th century poet. But to the ears of his contemporaries, his poetry sounded markedly different. Part of Wordsworth’s frustration with the high style, as it was called, might stem from his unease with forms. His best poetry is found in blank verse, where he didn’t have to force phrase and thought into the constraints of a poetic structure. Milton, for much the same reasons, wrote Paradise Lost in blank verse rather than the, then standard, closed heroic couplets.

In his book Power, Plain English and the Rise of Modern Poetry, David Rosen finds an interesting example of Wordsworth’s struggle with formal demands – one passage from Juvenilia XVIa and another from Juvenilia XVIb. Respectively:

The road extended o’er the heath
Weary and bleak: no cottager had there
Won from the waste a rood of ground, no hearth
Of Traveller’s half-way house with its turf smoke
Scented the air through which the plover wings
His solitary flight.


No spade for leagues had won a rood of earth
From that bleak common, of all covert bare;
From traveller’s half-way house no genial hearth
Scented with its turf smoke the desart air,
Through which the plover wings his lonely course

If English isn’t your first language (and I get many non-English speaking readers) these two passages aren’t going to look (or sound) very different. But the first example has a much more colloquial feel to it. For instance: For the sake of rhyme, Wordsworth essentially compresses two lines into one line.

He changes:

The road extended o’er the heath
Weary and bleak: no cottager had there
Won from the waste a rood of ground…


No spade for leagues had won a rood of earth
From that bleak common

The first feels more descriptive and discursive. The second, with its figurative language (the metrically necessary and monosyllabic spade substitutes for cottager) gives the poetry a more heightened and literary feel. Instead of no hearth Wordsworth (in the rewrite) again needs to satisfy both rhyme and meter. He adds the unnecessary adjective genial (unnecessary because it’s already implied by the context). Solitary flight turns into the less evocative but more literary lonely course.

Wordsworth, at his best, is found in blank verse. He found blank verse to be far more congenial in terms of a plain-spoken aesthetic. That said, the requested sonnet is one of his Miscellaneous Sonnets, numbered 33.

The Sonnet

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending; we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. — Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

One among many Interpretations — My own

I’ve noticed a common theme in the interpretation of this sonnet – one which is heavily influenced by modern preoccupations. For instance, the following excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2 describes Wordsworth as “[contrasting] Nature with the world of materialism and ‘making it.'” Wikipedia, echoes this interpretation by writing that  “Wordsworth wrote several sonnets blasting what he perceived as ‘the decadent material cynicism of the time.’ The world is too much with us is one of those works. It reflects his philosophy that humanity must get in touch with nature in order to progress spiritually.”

The Wikipedia article (as of May 28th 2010) goes on to say that the “poem is a statement about conflict between nature and humanity; the innate romance of the wild, and the spiritually crushing realities of the industrialized world,” and that “Wordsworth longs for a much simpler time when the progress of humanity was tempered by the restrictions nature imposed.”

Sparknote writes that “on the whole, this sonnet offers an angry summation of the familiar Wordsworthian theme of communion with nature, and states precisely how far the early nineteenth century was from living out the Wordsworthian ideal.”

A later analysis at ENotes, apparently written after this post appeared and answering the question “what is the theme?”, seems to continue this trend. The contributor, identifying his or herself as a college teacher, writes:

“Although the poem opens by stressing that humans are involved in the “world,” that word in this context refers to the world that humans have created for themselves – the artificial environment of civilization, especially cities, an environment that cuts us off from nature as God created it. The “world” Wordsworth implicitly condemns is a “world” in which making money and spending money are crucial values.”

All the analyses, almost as though they were borrowed from each other, use eerily similar phrasing to describe what they perceive as Wordsworth’s alienation with 19th Century industrialization and burgeoning materialism. My own reading, however, is very different. I think they miss the point. It seems to me that all the analyses (online at least) gloss over some of the difficulties in the lines, difficulties which, if read literally, seem to assert something very different.

  • The world is too much with us

Take the first line or phrase:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending;

What does he mean by The world is too much with us?  And what does Wordsworth mean by the world? He doesn’t write, for instance, our world. If he had written our world, one might assert that he was making a distinction between the world of man (our world) and nature. But he doesn’t seem to make that distinction. He simply writes The world and  surely this includes nature? Why would Wordsworth (of all poets the most attuned to nature) write that the world (or nature) is too much with us? Starting with this first line, my reading is almost the opposite of every interpretation I’ve read! As I read it, the sonnet isn’t so much a lament for the loss of nature (to the harsh realities of materialism and industrialization), but a lament for the loss of the imagination to the harsh realities of nature itself! That is, Wordsworth’s conception of nature, in this sonnet at least, is very different from our own.

By the start of the 19th century, nature was no longer the place of mystery it always had been, filled with man’s animistic impulses, but increasingly the province of science and physical laws – think Copernicus, Lamarck, Newton, and eventually Darwin. It wasn’t nature that Wordsworth loved (not as we understand it) but what nature symbolized. It was the 19th centuries redefinition of nature that Wordsworth resisted. Contrary to Wikipedia’s assertion that “Wordsworth longs for… the restrictions nature imposed,” my own reading is that  Wordsworth decries the restrictions increasingly imposed by nature (or the world).

  • Late and soon

The world is too much with us” he writes. We have plumbed too deeply into the mysteries of nature and have become enmeshed in its mechanistic laws. What does he mean by “late and soon“? For the non-English speaking readers, the expression is non-standard English (and even gives English speaking readers pause). The compressed figurative language permits Wordsworth to work his thoughts into the tightly knit Sonnet form but makes a precise understanding tricky. Late is probably best understood as “in recent times” or lately. Late also carries the connotation, recently deceased; but it’s hard to square this meaning with anything in the poem. Soon can be understood in two senses. First, in the sense of the near future, which is how all the interpretations (I’ve read online) construe the word. There’s another meaning though: My belovèd Shakespeare Lexicon points out that soon could also be construed as meaning easily, readily, or likely. So, Wordsworth may be suggesting that nature (or the world) is too much with us lately, and will be more so with all too much facility as man’s knowledge continues to unlock nature’s secrets.

  • Nonsensical Punctuation (by modern standards)

One of the most devilish aspects of this poem is the punctuation. I would love to see the original to know whether the punctuation is Wordsworth’s or the meddling of Oxford editors (I’ve copied my own rendition of the sonnet from the Oxford Standard Authors edition of Wordsworth’s complete poems).  No reader of poetry should ever take a poem’s punctuation for granted. In other words, don’t assume the punctuation represents the poet’s intentions. Far too often, the self-appointed (read editors) assume they know better (than you) what the poet intended and give us no indication that they’ve altered the poem. That kind of presumptuousness irritates the hell out of me; and it’s one of the reasons I don’t like Norton’s student editions.

You will find copies of this sonnet elsewhere on the net with differing punctuation. I don’t know which of these  renditions comes closest to the original. I’ve searched online using facsimile as a search term, and the closest I’ve come is here – the Library of the University of Toronto.

Anyway… how to make sense of the punctuation?

Do we read it this way?

The world is too much with us – late and soon,
Getting and spending.

Or do we read it this way?

The world is too much with us.

Late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

So on and so forth. I’m tempted to read the lines as follows (my own punctuation in red)?

The world is too much with us. Late and soon,
Getting and spending,
we lay waste our powers. (or : or )
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

As it is, the poem’s punctuation (by modern standards) doesn’t work. According to The Little, Brown Handbook, for example, the semicolon should not be used to link subordinate clauses or phrases to main clauses (or to introduce lists), and yet this is exactly what the poem does. Among other uses, semi-colons separate main clauses. Secondly, the poem’s use of a colon after powers also doesn’t make sense. A colon is used to “introduce summaries, explanations, series, appositive ending sentences, long or formal quotations, and statements introduced by the following or as follows.” A reader could, perhaps, construe Little we see in Nature that is ours as explaining the statement we lay waste our powers (hence the colon or dash), but the fourth line We have given our hearts away sounds more like a summation rather than an explanation.

Anyway, all this is to say that by modern standards the poem’s punctuation is nonsensical. None of my suggestions are offered as improvements, only as interpretive possibilities.

  • Getting and spending.

It’s this phrase that reminds us of Wordsworth’s distaste for materialism or commoditizing. Most interpretations read this as representing society’s (and his own) alienation from nature. My own reading is different. Keeping in mind the first line of the sonnet, The world is too much with us, Wordsworth seems to be saying that nature has betrayed us. That is, this isn’t a poem about Wordsworth yearning for a return to nature, but a  feeling that nature has betrayed him. After all, what *is* the world, if it isn’t nature? In this light the sarcasm and anger (heard by some readers) takes on a very different subtext. The anger is that of the betrayed. Nature is not the thing Wordsworth imagined it, but an indifferent world ruled by hard, fixed laws.

Think of it this way – nature isn’t what he imagined it was. It’s not a magical place imbued with sense and purpose. In this sense, the phrase Little we see in Nature that is ours makes more sense. Everything that we used to see in Nature — purpose, moral design, divinity  — are no longer there. Nature has become  an indifferent force. What the human mind superimposed on nature (that is ours) is gone. Such visions have turned out to be illusions. There is little in nature that has any connection to our humanity: our sense of purpose or destiny. Human beings are alone. Our imaginative lives mean nothing to nature. Our preconceptions and conceptions are irrelevant – and that is death to the poet.

Likewise, we are ourselves, creatures of nature, use nature indifferently. We get and spend. The word spend, having the sense of consuming, wasting, using up and exhausting. We acquire but we also dissipate in doing so. We have given our hearts away, Wordsworth laments. And by hearts, he means the soul and the mind (in general). The Shakespeare Lexicon tells us that the older meaning of the word included “the mind as the power of thinking”.

  • The Painting above and left is by Jean Neely. She hosts a blog called Faint Whisper: A Record of my Art. The painting is titled Fall Grasslands but could just as easily have been titled The Pleasant Lea –  lea refers to open land or grasslands. Neely’s paintings are beautiful. Take a look.

Wordsworth is warning us that by becoming too much like nature, we lose the very thing that makes us human – our capacity to moralize, find purpose, to imagine and imbue nature with more than is there. A reader at Helium writes:”They are not as close to nature as they should be.” I read just the opposite. Wordsworth is warning us that we are too close to Nature (or rather, what Nature has become). Nature (or the world), as the 19th century was beginning to unravel it, was robbing humanity of its poetry.

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.

Pay attention to how Wordsworth describes the Sea. She is a woman her bares her bosom to the moon. This is the poet’s Sea. This is what he means by seeing in Nature what is ours. The metaphor of the Sea as a woman baring her bosom, gives to the Sea a purpose, a vision, and moral that is human and ours. And this has nothing to do with Nature. It is uniquely ours. Likewise, the winds don’t blow but howl, and they are up-gathered — a verb that bestows a humanly imagined purpose and intent.

The Sea, the moon, and the winds are like magical beings, filled with intelligence.

“I’d rather be a pagan…”

But we are out of tune. The hard fact of Nature has robbed us of what makes us human – our imaginative faculties. We are out of tune. Nature instructs us to be coldly indifferent. The world/Nature is too much with us. Humanity needs to return to its imaginative/visionary realm. That is our humanity.

— Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Wordsworth’s cry, that he’d prefer to be a Pagan, is sometimes read as religious commentary (a critique of Christianity perhaps) but within the confines of the sonnet (as I read it at least) such a reading doesn’t make sense. Christianity was no friend of the burgeoning sciences – having nearly burned Galileo at the stake.  The materialism of science, if nothing else, relentlessly undermined the Christian worldview. At first glance, Wordsworth would have more reasons to prefer Christianity.

But as I read it, his cry is the extreme. He cries to God that he would rather surrender his soul, risk the eternal damnation of a heathen, than surrender his poet’s (and human) vision of Nature.

“Proteus rising from the sea…”

And it’s in this sense, to me, that the last lines make the most sense. The sight of Proteus rising from the sea is the vision of a poet and, by extension, symbolic of humankind’s ability (and need) to imbue Nature with what is ours. There’s another sense of the Pagan that might pertain. The Pagan’s view of the world was thought to be simple and naïve – an animistic view of the world that modern science was thoroughly and finally demolishing. In this wise, Wordsworth is asserting that he prefers a Nature that is ours, informed by the poet’s imagination, to Nature as it is (or as recognized by science and modernity). The vision of Proteus and Triton thus carries the sense of the poetic imagination and antiquity (ancient knowledge and ways of knowing).

The anthropomorphic/animistic/symbolic/archetypal universe of the poet/heathen makes Wordsworth feel less forlorn. To me, that this sonnet might not be an anti-industrial screed, but a cry to preserve the mystery of poetry within our world, makes the poem all the more tender.

All in all, it’s a recurring theme in Wordsworth’s poetry. Consider his Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. The ode begins:


There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

“old triton…”


The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

In the fifth canto the ode continues:

…The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

I think it’s in this sense that we are meant to understand the sonnet. Wordsworth is not calling for a return to Nature, but for a return to a visionary Nature that is distinct from the world and Nature. And that, I know, is very different from the usual interpretation of this sonnet.

The Scansion

  • All unmarked feet or Iambic. In the seventh line, I failed to mark are in |And are| as unstressed (though the pyrrhic color scheme – yellow – is correct).

Wordsworth’s metrical skills are more utilitarian than imaginative. He in no way compares to such Elizabethan masters as Donne, Jonson or Shakespeare. By the 19th century meter was simply the recognized scaffolding on which a line was fitted. Meter, as a living and developing facet of the poem’s art, was increasingly stultified (to be freed by the modernists at the start of the 20th century – poets like Frost and Stevens).

The world | is too | much with | us; late |and soon,
Getting |and spen|ding, we |lay waste |our powers;

The word powers can be pronounced disyllabically or as a monosyllable. The first foot of the second line is Trochaic. What is of more interest, perhaps, is how Wordsworth sometimes stretched (or chaffed against) the constraints of meter with his more colloquial diction.

Little |we see |in Na|ture that |is ours;
We have given |our hearts |away, |a sor|did boon!

That fourth line is tricky and could be read as an alexandrine (a 6 foot line):

We have |given |our hearts |away, |a sor|did boon!

This is probably not how Wordsworth would have scanned this line within  the space of an Iambic Pentameter Sonnet. Here is what he probably had in mind:

We’ve giv’n |our hearts |away, |a sor|did boon!

Such elision was a commonplace in metrical poetry (or call it a trick). But this is what Wordsworth probably intended. (As a general rule of thumb, if one can read a line as Iambic, then one probably should. Poets generally took pride in their ability to write metrical poetry, even while stretching the form.) This form of elision is called synaloepha in the first instance We’ve (despite the aspirated ‘h’), and syncope (giv’n) in the second instance. Both techniques go back to the Elizabethans and, while some purists may have (and still do) frown on such metrical cheats, they were recognized ways to fit extra-syllabic words into an Iambic Pentameter line. The line, in fact, is typical of Wordsworth’s flexible approach to meter and actually puts him closer to Robert Frost (who was born just 24 years after Wordsworth’s death) than to Keats or the later Victorians (who were much stricter metrists).

This Sea |that bares| her bo|som to |the moon,
The winds |that will|be how|ling at |all hours,
And are |up-ga|thered now |like slee|ping flowers,
For this, |for e|verything,| we are out |of tune;

Speakers naturally elide every to read ev’ry – another example of syncope.  The third foot |we are strong| could be considered either an anapestic foot (probably less likely), or an Iambic foot if the reader uses synaloepha to read we are as we’re. Once again, Wordsworth lets the language bend the metrical pattern without, necessarily, breaking it.

It moves |us not.|–Great God!| I’d ra|ther be
A Pa|gan suc|kled in| a creed |outworn;
So might |I, stan|ding on |this plea|sant lea,
Have glimp|ses that |would make |me less |forlorn;

Have sight |of Pro|teus ri|sing from |the sea;
Or hear |old Tri|ton blow |his wrea|thed horn.

The wreathed should be pronounced as a disyllabic word: wreathèd.

The Sonnet is Petrarchan in form – an Octave and Sestet separated, in this case, by a volta (a kind of thematic ‘turn’ or change in course). The Petrarchan form feels less like the working out of a argument or thesis than a Shakespearean Sonnet and lends Wordsworth’s sonnet a more contemplative closing (as opposed to the epigrammatic sting that characterizes the closing Shakespearean couplet). Where the Shakespearean Sonnet can be thought of as a argumentative tour de force , the Petrarchan Sonnet always feels more philosophical and contemplative – and certainly Wordsworth was more philosophical minded than Shakespeare – whose mind was agile and swift.

Wordsworth at his best

In the course of writing this post, I pulled out Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets just to reacquaint myself with Wordsworth’s life and reception. On page 373 Schmidt relays a passage from the Prelude, of which there are three versions and which many consider to be Wordsworth’s finest piece of sustained writing (generally the second version). The brief sample is truly Wordsworth at his finest.  He is remembering is youthful traversal of the Austrian and Italian Alps.

The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of water-falls,
And every where  along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds, and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.

❧ Another god-damn Villanelle


Guess what! This was translated into French (unbenownst to me). How apropos. Now this vile poem can afflict the selfsame nation that afflicted us with the Villanelle. You can see the original here. Or click below:

Continue reading

the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 71-106


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


“And I suppose I am a brute…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Note on the Meter

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

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

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

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

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

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


The husband’s angry statement:

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

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

“you had stood the spade”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I | shall laugh | the worst laugh I ever laughed

His wife persists:

“in the darkened parlor”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her husband tries to stop her:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

❧ Up in Vermont • February 1 2010

the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 19-70

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

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

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


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

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

About the Meter

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Jarrell characterizes the passage this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

“You don’t know how to ask it.”

“Help me, then.”

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

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

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

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

Of this moment Jarrell writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Home Burial continues:

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine Kearns reads something more:

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

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

I’ll keep hands off anything that especially bothers you


I’ll keep hands off anything that particularly bothers you

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

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

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

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


My Door Latch

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

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

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

Tell me|
Rather than: Tell me|

Let me|
Rather than: Let me|

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“There you go sneering now!”

“I’m not, I’m not!

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

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

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

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

❧ Up in Vermont • December 6 2009

the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 1-18

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

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


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

On the Meter

First, all unmarked feet are iambic.

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

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

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


From “Dover Friends Meeting”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

She turned and sat upon the steps at that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

“What is it—what?” she said.

“Just that I see.”

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

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

❧ from up in Vermont December 3 · 2009

Donne: His Sonnet IX • Forgive & Forget

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This post is a request, of sorts.

John Donne believed in God. But when you read John Donne, what editor do you believe in?

When I first began writing these posts, I would copy and paste poems straight from other web sites. I’m afraid to look Complete English Poemsback at those posts. In particular, I copied and pasted Robert Frost’s Birches, only to discover that the copy was missing several lines of the poem. I almost missed it.

Nowadays, I type in everything by hand. My source for Donne’s poetry is the Oxford edition, Donne’s Poetical Works, edited by H.J.C. Grierson. (The link is to a later edition of the book.) My own book is actually two books. The first is Donne’s poetry and the second is an Introduction and Commentary. Both books are hard bound and oxford blue. They date from 1963. I don’t know if the later edition (linked above) is of the same quality but, if so, then I strongly recommend it. If you can find the two volume edition, and if you really want a good copy of Donne’s poetry, this is the edition I would recommend. It represents the closest thing to an unfiltered copy of Donne’s works. All editorial alterations are explained and accounted for. Spelling and contractions aren’t modernized, which in Donne’s case, can be essential. For more discussion as to why, see my post: John Donne & Batter my Heart: Editing Iambic Pentameter Then & Now.

Second best, for a complete edition, would be C.A. Partrides Everyman’s Library edition. The Songs and Sonnets of John DonnePartride is faithful to Donne’s spelling and punctuation. I do not like the Norton Critical Editions issue of Donne’s Poetry. For a book that touts itself as a “critical edition”, the spelling and punctuation of Donne’s poems are frequently altered without explanation or even indication that they have done so. The way Norton prints the poems is out and out misleading.

Another book, which has recently been reissued, is Theodore Redpath’s The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne. This is a really, really good book. It’s not complete. It doesn’t have Donne’s Holy Sonnets, but the footnotes to all the poems are fascinating, enjoyable and thorough.

Anyway, as I look more deeply into these older poems (when the authority of a given text was anything but authoritative) the decisions editors make in how they punctuate poems (and sometimes alter words) has become increasingly interesting to me. I’ll talk about some of that and why I find it so compelling. Here’s the sonnet, straight from Grierson’s edition. The only thing I’ve changed is the (f) to an s. WordPress doesn’t offer a true Elizabethan S.

Divine Poems: Sonnet IX

If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortall us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn’d; Alas, why should I be?
Why should intent or reason, borne in me,
Make sinnes, else equall, in mee more heinous?
And mercy being easie, and glorious
To God; in his sterne wrath, why threatens hee?
But who am I, that dare dispute with thee
O God? Oh! of thine onely worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drowne in it my sinnes blacke memorie;
That thou remember them, some claime as debt,
I thinke it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

And now to the scansion:

First, let me say that the sixth line really stumped me. How does one scan:

Make sinnes, else equall, in mee more heinous?

Here is how, I think, most modern readers would scan it:

Make sinnes, |else e|quall, in mee |more heinous?

This makes the line Iambic Tetrameter, sort of. There would be two variant feet. The third foot would be an anapest and the final foot would be a femine ending. This is bad. Remember, the rest of the sonnet is Iambic Pentameter, (as were most sonnets during the Elizabethan era). An Iambic Tetrameter line would have been considered amateurish for a poet of Donne’s genius and would have been unprecedented (even by his standards). What was worse, though, is that this scansion would mean that Donne’s rhyme was a false rhyme (or a wrenched rhyme). Such a rhyme would not have been considered innovative but incompetent. Messy meter along with a false rhyme just seemed too hard to swallow, even for Donne.

The rhymes of envious and glorious hinted that heinous should be treated as a trisyllabic word, rather than disyllabic. I started looking through concordances, seeing how other Elizabethan poets treated the word. Shakespeare, among others, treats heinous as a disyllabic word throughout his plays. Then I found the following from An Etymological Dictionary of the English Langauge:

An Etymological DictionaryHEINOUS, hateful, atrocious, (F. — O. L.G.) Properly trisyllabic. M.E. heinous, hainous; Chaucer, Troilus, ii. 1617. — O.F. haïnos, odious; formed with suffix –os (=Lat. osus, mod. F. –eux) from the sb. haïne, hate. — O.F. haïr, to hate. From an O. Low G. form, well exemplified in Goth. hatyan or hatjan (=hatian), to hate; not from teh cognate O.H.G. hazzon. See Hate. Der. heinous-ly, heinous-ness.

So, apparently, the pronunciation of the word heinous was still in flux during Elizabethan times. Chaucer, as the dictionary notes, treated the word trisyllabically:

So he|ynous, | that men | mighte on | it spete ~ [Troilus, ii. 1617]

In Elizabethan times, one still apparently heard heinous as hay-e-nous . Originally, when I published this post, I thought that the alternate pronunciation might be hay-ne-ous, like the -ion sound in the word onion. I thought this because I reasoned that Donne was trying to rhyme with envious and glorious, but based on the Etymological Dictionary’s pronunciation key, I’ve changed my mind. Also, my original thought ignores the rhyme immortal us – with which he-i-nous would rhyme. As it stands, heinous was apparently treated as a disyllabic or trisyllabic word depending on the needs of the poet. Shakespeare seems to have pronounced it as we do, and so treated it as a disyllabic word. Such a difference from Donne might reflect a difference in dialects?

The bottom line is that treating heinous as a trisyllabic word makes metrical sense:

Make sinnes, |else e|quall, in mee |more he|inous?

This makes the line Iambic Pentameter with a variant third foot – an anapest. Anapests, in the space of a sonnet, were rare. It’s more likely (and there is ample precedent among Donne’s other sonnets) that he expected readers to use synaloepha to elide the third foot. It would read as follows:

Make sinnes, |else e|quall’n mee |more he|inous?

This makes the line fully Iambic Pentameter. None of this is to say that Elizabethan readers might not have scratched their heads when reading this line, but probably would not have done so for as long as a modern reader (like me). At any rate, this is how I scanned it.

Sonnet IX Scansion with Color & Rhyme Scheme (Final)

The Annotations

If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortall us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn’d; Alas, why should I be?

In this sonnet, more than the others, Donne’s disputatious relationship with God come to the fore. Donne gives a list of maleficent items and ingredients worthy to be damned. PInterior of an Apothecary's Shopoisons were frequently associated with serpents, though in this case Donne first jumps to minerals. (Through the process of association, however, the serpent shows up in line three – the poet’s mind at work.) Similar image clusters occur in Shakespeare’s works.

In the case of poisonous minerals, Donne might have been referring to the many “medicines” that were prevalent during the Elizabethan era, medicines which were poisons in their own right (the reasoning being that one poison would drive out another – namely the disease. The theme of drugs being worse than the disease they cured is a frequent one in Shakespeare.

Sonnet 118

The ills that were not, grew to faults assured
And brought to medicine a healthful state
Which, rank of goodness, would by ill be cured:
But thence I learn, and find the lesson true,
Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you.

Romeo & Juliet

Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die. [Act I.ii 319]

All Elizabethans at one time or another, must have had first hand experience with the cures that “cured by killing”. According to the Shakespeare Lexicon mineral had the meaning: a fossil body used as a poisonous ingredient. And so we find in Othello [Act I.ii 282]:

That thou hast practised on her with foul charms,
Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals
That weaken motion

At his website Sarcoidosis.com.au, the sometime poet Dr. Roger K.A. Allen drives home the association between medicine and poison, revealing what all Elizabethans (having studied Latin and Greek from childhood) must have known:

Classical cognoscenti know that the Greek word for drug, pharmakon, means both ‘medicine’ and ‘poison’, and that iatros means ‘doctor’. As they had no Pensioner Benefit Scheme or Adverse Drug Advisory Committee, the Greeks knew that all drugs could be potentially lethal as Socrates no doubt could attest from the Underworld.

And notice how drugs are associated with minerals in Shakespeare’s mind. I suspect the same was true for Donne.Their attitude toward drugs (medicines) were probably summed up by the expression: With friends like Cranach's Adam & Evethose, who needs enemies? Is there a touch of humor in Donne’s damnation of poysonous mineralls? Possibly. And I prefer to think so. To my reading, a dry wit runs through all of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. (The Elizabethans were always quick to skewer pomposity, especially in themselves. )

“That tree whose fruits drew death” is, of course, the tree in the garden of eden. Donne fairly asks, you threw us out of the garden, so why not the damned tree?

Goats were associated with lechery and having already mentioned poison (poison being associated with serpents), the associative leap to  “serpent envious” was already in place. These abstract personifications may be inspired by the medieval morality plays that, even in Donne’s day, were still being staged (though quickly fading). Certainly, in any morality play featuring the garden of eden, the audience could expect to see the “lecherous goat” and the “envious serpent” personified.

But the most interesting, to me, aspect of the first quatrain, comes in Donne’s questoin: Alas, why should I be? As I’ve written elsewhere,  a good metrical poem has two stories to tell, one in its words, the other in its meter. The modern reader will surely be tempted to read the question as follows:

Alas,minstrels why should I be?

But reading it this way is to read it in opposition to the iambic pentameter meter. If we read the question with the meter, then it should be stressed as follows:

Alas, why should I be?

At first, this may seem completely counterintuitive and against the grain of common English (let alone modern English), but look at the next line of the second quatrain:

Why should intent or reason, borne in me,
Make sinnes, else equall, in mee more heinous?
And mercy being easie, and glorious
To God; in his sterne wrath, why threatens hee?

Donne has asked the same question again, as if to emphasize, and the word should is once again in the stress position. This is no mistake and asking the question again seems to emphasize the word should. If you’re still having trouble with this, imagine the following:

Mother: Eat your vegetables!
Child: Why should I?

Now use that same inflection when rereading Donne’s question: Why should I be?

The effect is almost one of petualance.

Why should I be? / Why should intent or reason, borne in me, / Make sinnes, else equall, in mee more heinous?

The meter tells us that Donne’s question isn’t a whiney sort of  – Why me? Why should I be?  – but is more argumentative and disputatious. Why should I? If we don’t read it with the meter, then not only do we miss the tone and inflection of Donne’s poem, but we also ruin the rhyme scheme. The word be would be unstressed. This would make it a wenched rhyme (a false rhyme). All the other –e rhymes  – tree, me, hee, thee and momorie – are stressed.

Donne is disputatious. If mercy is so easy and glorious to God, why am I being damned? Why is he threatening me? Britannica, in their entry on Donne, nicely describes this quality in his poetry:

Donne’s poetry is marked by strikingly original departures from the conventions of 16th-century English verse, particularly that of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser.(…) Donne replaced their mellifluous lines with a speaking voice whose vocabulary and syntax reflect the emotional intensity of a confrontation and whose metrics and verbal music conform to the needs of a particular dramatic situation. One consequence of this is a directness of language that electrifies his mature poetry. “For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love,” begins his love poem “The Canonization,” plunging the reader into the midst of an encounter between the speaker and an unidentified listener. Holy Sonnet XI opens with an imaginative confrontation wherein Donne, not Jesus, suffers indignities on the cross: “Spit in my face yee Jewes, and pierce my side…”

And if you’re still not sure of Donne’s argumentative tone, he himself makes this clear:

But who am I, that dare dispute with thee
O God? Oh! of thine onely worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drowne in it my sinnes blacke memorie;

Who am I, he asks, that dare dispute?

And since I don’t think the horse is dead, I’m going to keep beating it. This is yet another example of what free verse just can not do. This isn’t to denigrate free verse, but traditional poetry and free verse are, in some ways, very different art forms. Men and women are different. Traditional Poetry and Free Verse are different. Something was lost when free verse became the dominant verse form of the last century and (apparently) the first decade of this one. Free verse didn’t just adapt traditional poetry and reshape it, it entirely replaced it. I’m not arguing that free verse posts should get back to writing traditional poetry, but only for an acknowledgment of what has been lost.

And now we get into the niceties of modern day editing. Here is Sonnet IX as it first appeared (to the left) and how (in Donne’s lifetimes) it later appeared in the Westmorland Edition (from the Variorum  Edition of John Donne’s Poetry):

Original & Westmorland

Notice the differences between the two and specifically, the difference in the 10th line:

  • O God, o of thy only worthy bloud
  • O God? O of thine only worthy blood

Which version is the correct version? Which do you believe? Here’s what Grierson writes:

I have followed here the punctuation of IV, which takes ‘O God’ in close connexion with the preceding line; the vocative case seems to be needed since God has not been directly addressed until l. 9. The punctuation of D, H49, which has often determined that of 1633, is not really different from that of W:

But who am I that dare dispute with thee?
O God, Oh! &c.

(which modern editors have followed), make ‘O God, Oh!’ a hurried series of exclamations introducing the prayer which follows. This suits the style of these abrupt, passionate poems. But it leaves the question without an address to point it; and to my own mind the hurried, feverous effect of ‘O God, Oh!’ is more than compensated for by the weight which is thrown, by the punctuation adopted , upon the second ‘Oh’, — a sigh drawn from the very depths of the heart,

so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
And end his being.

The job of editing Elizabethan poets, when spelling wasn’t standardized and printing was idiosyncratic, is to objectively and subjectively present to the modern reader what might come closest to the poet’s intentions. It’s what I try to do when analyzing these poems.

I agree with Grierson. I think the exclamation, Oh God, finishes the prior line. The line, in effect, signals the volta, or the turn of the sonnet, wherein Donne moves from disputation to prayer:

Oh! of thine onely worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drowne in it my sinnes blacke memorie

He asks that Christ’s blood, which onely (or alone) is worthy, be mixed with his tears. The River Lethe, one of the rivers of Hades, was said to erase the memory of souls before they reincarnated. Mixing Christian and Greek mythology, Donne is asking that the black sins of his past be forgotten and erased. Let both the forgiveness of Christ’s blood erase his sins, and the waters of the River Lethe further drive them from memory.


The River Lethe and Elysion by John Stanhope

That thou remember them, some claime as debt,
I thinke it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

The final lines are pregnant with emotion. Is it anger? resignation? weariness? maybe a little humor? a return to disputation? I’m not sure. I think a good reader or a fine actor could find all those senses in the final couplet.

The Form of the Sonnet

The structure of the sonnet combines elements of the Petrarchan and Shakespearean (English) Sonnet sensibility. It’s closest antecedent may be Sidney’s Sonnets, whose sonnets Donne was probably familiar – (as were most Elizabethan poets). While the octave (the first eight lines) are typical of the Petrarchan Sonnet, the brilliant argumentative style favored by the Elizabethans asserts itself in the final sestet. The sestet is divided into a third quatrain and a final couplet, much like Shakespeare’s sonnets. Though the sonnet lacks the brilliant rhetorical drive toward a closing epigrammatic sting (typical of Shakespeare’s sonnets) the elements of that same Elizabethan love of dispute, debate  and resolution remain. Donne has a point to make and he drives it home in the  final couplet.

That thou remember them, some claime as debt,
I thinke it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

  • If this post has been useful, let me know. I love helpful comments.

Millay’s Sonnet 42 • What lips my lips have kissed

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Sonnet 42

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning, but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay, for a great many poets and critics, challenges notions of greatness. What defines a great poet? – What in her person and what in her poetry?  One almost wishes photographs of Millay had never been taken or never survived. In her New York Review of Books review of Millay and Millay’s reviewers,  Lorrie Moore quotes some of Daniel Mark Epstein’s (What Lips My Lips Have Kissed) more lascivious biography:

Epstein Book Cover[Epstein] is a little startling, for example, on the subject of Millay’s naked breasts, about which he exults–photographs of which he has apparently poured over in the files of the Library of Congress (which cannot authorize their release and reproduction until the year 2010).  When he gives us his own feverish descriptions, readers may become a little frightened, but eventually he moves on, and I do believe everyone recovers. Such an instance does not , however, prevent him from other periodic overheatings (“Her coloring, the contrast between her white skin and the red integuments, lips, tongue, and more secret circles and folds her lovers would cherish, had become spectacular after the girl turned twenty.)

On the one had, one might argue that Epstein is writing about Millay’s Loves and Love Poems and so is entitled to this sort of fetishistic “field research”, but one has to wonder whether Epstein would apply the same zeal to the skin color and “secret folds” of Robert Frost or E.E. Cummings were he to write a book about their love poetry.

What a writer like Epstein conveys, wittingly or unwittingly, is the bewitching effect Millay’s self-evident beauty had on both men and women (who were also among her lovers). Would her poetry have received the same attention if she had looked like Tina Fey on one of her comedic bad days? Would estimation and discussion of her poetry’s greatness (which some refute) be any different?

As it is, discussions of her poetry almost always includes discussions of her personality, beauty, and love affairs (including this post). And, to be fair, Millay’s life and poetry are intricately intertwined in a way that is not as evident with other poets. One always gets the sense that her poetry is mischievously auto-biographical. She writes about herself. And the best poets, in my opinion, are frequently the ones with skeletons in their closets. In Millay’s case, the plush carpet between her bed and closet is well worn. If I had been around during Millay’s youth, I probably would have been just as smitten as the rest of them (and hanging in her closet).

Moore, at the start of her NY Review of Books article, writes:

She was petite, in-tense, bright, witty, romantic, freckled, auburn-haired, self-dramatizing and beautiful. (As a poet friend recently remarked to me, “Why has Judy Davis not yet played her in the movie?”) At one time arguably the most famous living poet in the world, her work lauded by Thomas Hardy, Elinor Wylie, Edmund Wilson, Sarah Teasdale, and Louse Bogan, Millay lived stormily and wrote unevenly, so that her place in American letters was in descent even in her lifetime. In her day she was hailed as a feminist, lyric voice of the Jazz Age, yet she went largely unclaimed by the feminism of subsequent decades. She owned, perhaps, too many evening gowns. And her poems may have had an excess of voiceless golden birds (she did not strain her metaphors… Her work could be occasionally modernist, but only occasionally, and so was not taken up by the champions of modernism…

But Millay has her champions and continues to have her admirers. Deservedly so. She lived life large. She was unapologetic about her proclivities and a fiercely independent woman when, in many ways, women were still treated like guileless children.  She was the poet’s poet. She spoke directly and truthfully in her poetry, anticipating the women poets of the later 20th century.

Millay’s Legacy

This is my third go around with this section. I think, like many other readers, poets and critics, I ask myself: Why am I reading her? Is she a great poet who wrote mediocre poems, or was she a mediocre poet who manged to write some great poems?

Now that I’m rewriting this for the third time, I think I’ve got a fix on all of this. Lorrie Moore, in her NY Review of Books article, refers to Millay as a “skilled formalist”. Skilled is  probably a good adjective. Micheal Haydn (the composer and brother of the genius Joseph Haydn) and JC Bach (the son of the great JS Bach) were both skilled composers. They both wrote some incredibly catchy and occasionally, deeply expressive music, but neither was a genius and neither will ever be counted among the greats. Not familiar with classical music? Take REM. REM is a skilled rock band. They may have written one or two great songs, but nobody, fifty years from now, will include them among the great bands. And I’m not the only one who holds that opinion.

Millay with FlowersSo, skilled is a measured way to describe Millay’s formalist abilities.

She could write the perfect sonnet. She was an avowed master, and I do mean master, of the rhyming couplet, most typically in the form of the epigrammatic sting that frequent and succinctly closes her Shakespearean Sonnets.  No other 20th Century poet even distantly approaches the sly and witty ferocity of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s rhymes. But her skill as a formalist only went so far.

She rarely modulates her formalism to suit the subject matter. One gets the feeling that she paid more attention to the prettiness of the line, than to its aptness. Despite the mood, whether it was rage, sorrow, delight, or fear, there is a sameness of voice to all of her poems. By way of comparison, compare Robert Frost’s Mending Wall to Birches. While there is a certain sameness to every poet’s output, some poets are able to master a greater technical range than others. Birches and Mending Wall both sound like Frost, but both show a distinctly different approach in imagery and, more specifically, formal devices. When at his best, Frost modulated his voice to suit the subject matter.

One doesn’t get the same sense from Millay.

And that has a curious effect, at least to me. The skilled and elevated diction of her formalism makes her trivial poems  seem better than they are, and her more profound gestures feel less profound.  So, in my own appraisal of Millay, I would consider her  a major poet, though not great. She was a skilled formalist, but possessed a very limited range.

And it’s in that respect that I disagree with criticism that calls her style anachronistic. Returning to Moore’s NY Review of Books article, she writes:

A gifted formalist and prolific sonneteer, a literary heir to Donne, Wordsworth, Byron, and, well, Christina Rossetti, Millay today has been admired only slightly or reluctantly, if at all, her poetry viewed, sometimes by its detractors as well as its devotees, as anachronistic, unreconstructedly Victorian, sentimental, recycled. Even the critic Colin Falck, who writes in his ardent introduction to her Selected Poems that the “occulting of Millay’s reputation has been one of the literary scandals of the twentieth century,” nonetheless finds only a quarter of her poems worthy enough “to entitle her to consideration as one of the major poets of the country.”

Millay was born in 1892 which means, like other poets of her generation, she grew up with the poetry of the great Victorians ringing in her ears. Tennyson died the same year she was born. Robert Browning had only been dead three years. Christina Rossetti lived until 1894. Their legacy and presence was still profoundly felt. In short, when Millay began writing, the 19th century’s aesthetic was not anachronistic.

Millay’s shortcoming was not that she was writing formal poetry when the vast majority of her generation (and later) had adopted free verse. Her shortcoming was that her formalism defined her voice, rather than her voice defining her formalism. It can be difficult to discern which of Millay’s poems are her mature poems and which are the poems of her youth.

The Scansion

As is my habit, all unmarked feet are Iambic. The color coding is a visual aid, meant to help you quickly see how the poet has varied the given meter (in this case, Iambic Pentameter).

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed by Millay - Scansion

About the Meter and Structure of the Poem

Millay’s sonnet is firmly in the tradition of the Petrarchan Sonnet. The Sonnet is split into the Octave (the first 8 lines) and the Sestet (the last 6), both “halves” of the sonnet characterizing the traditional volta or turn of the Patrarchan Sonnet. The Petrarchan form is well suited to the contemplative subject matter. There is no argument. There is no epigrammatic summing up or sting (such as we find in a Shakespearean Sonnet).

The sestet deliberately avoids close rhymes creating, to my ear, a diffuse music that nicely matches the poems’ tone. The final rhyme more feels like a distant echo of before, like the echoes of her lovers. The more diffuse rhyme scheme also serves to further differentiate the sestet from the octave. The octave speaks to the loss of lovers. The sestet speaks to a deeper loss – her fading memory of them. “I cannot say what loves have come and gone…” she writes. The diffuseness of her memory is nicely echoed by the rhyme scheme (intentioned or otherwise).

The metrical style is characteristic of Millay. There are only three definite variant feet in the entirety of the poem. The first variant foot, which I marked as |I have| could also be read as an Iambic foot |I have|. I’ve searched for a recording of Millay reading this sonnet  but haven’t found any. I have a hunch she would have read that first foot as an iamb. She was very conservative in her metrical daring.

In that respect her temperament is entirely that of a late Victorian, rather than that of an Elizabethan (with whom the sonnet form originated). The Elizabethans were always restlessly stretching and violating forms. They were the great explorers, both at sea and in literature – in just about everything they did. In that respect, Millay’s sonnet has almost nothing in common with them but a rhyme scheme.

And it’s in this respect that some critics wish Millay had stretched herself. I suspect she could have but preferred the contemplation and quiet dignity of an uninterrupted iambic line. Her rhyming is equally conservative, especially in light of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The eye rhyme pain/again was probably pronounced as a full rhyme when Millay read the poem. (She was nothing if not affected when she read her poetry.) I considered reading this poem myself but I just can’t get beyond the absurdity of a man’s voice behind her words.

Here is Millay reading Sonnet 121:

Oh Sleep forever in the Latmian cave,
Mortal Endymion, darling of the Moon!
Her silver garments by the senseless wave
Shouldered and dropped and on the shingle strewn,
Her fluttering hand against her forehead pressed,
Her scattered looks that trouble all the sky,
Her rapid footsteps running down the west-
Of all her altered state, oblivious lie!
Whom earthen you, by deathless lips adored,
Wild-eyed and stammering to the grasses thrust,
And deep into her crystal body poured
The hot and sorrowful sweetness of the dust:
Whereof she wanders mad, being all unfit
For mortal love, that might not die of it.


What does the poem mean?

The poem is beautiful in its simplicity – an effect that is surprisingly difficult to master.

But, having said that, I can’t help but wonder at another meaning. I’m not sure at what point in her career she wrote this sonnet, but I wonder if she’s not also describing her poetry. Think of the lads as poems and kisses as the act of writing the poems. If one reads the poem this way, she writes as poet who feels her powers waning.

Read in this light, the final sestet feels especially poignant. Millay stands as the tree in whom poetry used to flourish, but whose birds have flown, one by one. She can’t even remember what loves have come and gone. The inspiration of her youth fails her. The poems that used to come budding to her lips have all but vanished. She writes: “I only know that summer sang in me / A little while, that in me sings no more.”

The Sonnet Before the Sonnet

And now for some of that unmatched ferocity that Millay could summon up. When reading Sonnet 42 (when lost to its wistful beauty)  it’s best to keep in mind the Sonnet that immediately preceded it. Which is the real Millay? Both, no doubt. In real life, biographers tell us that 41 would have come after 42.

Sonnet 41

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, — let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

An Interesting Video Inspired by the Sonnet

The Art of Rhyme and Meter

The oral tradition of Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Verse is a different Genre

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grammatical Inversions & Rhyming: Subject • Verb • Object

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

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

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

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

Subject | Verb | Object (SVO)

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

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

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

The first line would be an SOV construction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other grammatical Inversions

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

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

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

  • Avoid it at all costs.

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

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

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

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

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

As I find other examples I will post them.

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

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

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

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

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

One last thought on rhymes from Stallings:

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

I agree.

On Keeping the Meter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now for the tetrameter version:

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

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

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

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

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

This is actually a good exercise.

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

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

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

In particular, compare the following:

Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say

Then one foggy Christmas Eve/ Santa came to say:

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

Normally, the average English speaker would say:

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

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

The line is just too obviously metrical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metrical Fillers

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

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

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

But that’s only my opinion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If this post has been helpful, let me know.

Whether it be rhyme, meter or both,