W.B. Yeats & Long Legged Fly: Meaning & Meter

Some Good References

I’ve been wanting to study some Yeats.

Many of his greatest poems are written using regular metrical patterns like blank verse, where the metrical pattern doesn’t vary from line to line, but many more aren’t. These poems are like Emily Dickinson’s – poems based on ballad meter. Ireland is famous for its ballads and folk songs and Yeats must have heard them frequently – if only on the evidence of the forms he used. Here is the poem before my own annotations. A scansion of the poem follows later.

That civilization may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.)

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

I’ve ordered a book by Helen Vendler, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form,  but haven’t recieved it yet. vendler-on-yeatsI’ll be interested in seeing what she says about Long Legged Fly. Her book has recieved some mixed reviews, some bad, one reviewer finding the book as “dry as chalkdust”, but she’s the only critics, to my knowledge, that has tackled Yeats’ use of form. John Unterecker’s A Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats is useless in regard to Yeats’ formal practice. His book is more of a biographical overview of the better poems – their inspiration, meaning and symbolism. A very good book if that’s what you’re looking for (if you can get past the god-awful cover – below left).

So… I’m going to take a stab at the form Yeats used in Long Legged Fly. If reading Vendler persuades me I have missed something or gotten something wrong, I’ll make a note of it.

On the Poem

The poem is written in three stanzas and the metrical form of each Stanza is cut from the same cloth –  though each is more freely varied than would have been acceptable by the generation of poets immediately preceeding Yeats (the Victorians).  While contempories were veering off into free verse, YUnterecker on Yeatseats was content to continue working flexibly within the varied forms he had inherited. It was said that he would sit and hum to himself as he shaped the meter and rhythm of his lines.

In each of the stanza, Yeats folds his poetry around the creative spark – the genius of  mind. In the first is Ceasar, in the second Helen, and the third Michelangelo. Interestingly, Yeats doesn’t confine himself to artists – Ceasar wasn’t; neither was Helen. In one sense, Yeats could be celebrating the genius creativity as being more than just the province of the artist. On the other hand, Yeats could also be suggesting that all human endeavors, whether Ceasar’s territorial, empire-building ambition which Yeats frames as “civilization” (perhaps man’s greatest collective accomplishment), or Helen’s physical grace and beauty, are expressions of artistic genius and creativity. The meaning could be either or could be both. Unlike some analysts, I like to think that the goal is not to guess at what Yeats intended,  but to offer the possibilities presented by the poem itself.

The dog and pony are tethered far from Caesar’s hearing. The work of man, and by extension mankind, will not tolerate the presence of animals. Helen, for her part, represents a nexus through which history will move because of her beauty and grace. Without her, history cannot act on human events and cannot inspire Homer, Virgil or Christopher Marlowe to write about them. With this in mind, it may be deliberate that Yeats paraphrases Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus.

FAUSTUS. Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless  towers of Ilium–
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.–
[Kisses her.]
Her lips suck forth my soul:  see, where it flies!–
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wertenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

Perhaps Yeats is suggesting that it is through her, symbolically a woman’s beauty, that art is made possible – that Marlowe’s lines were made possible. But, like Caesar, that creative act of her self-making, the making of her beauty,  cannot be disturbed – needs quiet, needs silence for her genius to express itself. But perhaps Yeats intends another sense too. Describing her as three-parts child, one part woman, Yeats describes her innocence. She thinks that nobody looks. Her creative act is pure, without guile, without knowledge of the lascivious observer. Like the long legged fly upon the stream, her mind moves upon silence.

The reference to her picking up  a tinker shuffle on the street, could be a reference to the poem itself – a poem based on ballad meter, one  that Yeats could have picked up on the street. In this sense, Yeats could be treating  Helen as the muse of poetry, shaping a simple rhythm into a poetry that will shape history and men’s thoughts. She becomes a sort of patron Saint of poetry.

In the final stanza Yeats suggests Michelangelo’s creation of David but is a reference to the supine, awakening Adam of the Sistine chapel. Michelangelo is the indisputably great artist – the only Artist of the three. But Yeats writes about more than Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s art will inspire a sexual awareness such that “the girls at puberty may find the first Adam in their thought”. It is, like the creative act of Caesar and Helen, a nexus of through which history will act, through which their will be further creation – procreation of the girls and their lovers – the single most profound and powerful act of creation which mankind is capable of.

So it is that Yeats moves from the creation of civilization through arms, the creation of art in symbolically graceful and beautiful Helen, to the great procreative act – the creation of ourselves. In this guise, perhaps, Yeats might have intended Michelangelo to symbolize God’s own creation of man, or better, man’s own re-creation of himself.

But keep the children out.

Curiously, Yeats must have known there would be no children in the Pope’s Chapel – no girls. I’m inclined to think that, by children, Yeats was referring to the Pope, (along with his attendant Bishops, etc…) This would imply a criticism of religion. The Pope and his attendants, the “children”, would presumably interfere with Michelangelo’s creative genius. That is, Michelangelo’s work was not meant for them, the unimaginative and spiritually naive “children” of the church, but for the pubescent girls – who would immediately, if instinctively, comprehend the meaning (the creative power and genius) of Michelangelo’s work. They, the girls, would understand what the children, the Pope and the Bishops, could not.

The supreme act of creation, the genius of mind, moves outside its own awareness – becomes like the long legged fly that moves upon the stream or the the source of being and mind. It must not be observed lest the mind too, become aware of itself, and so slip from the supple surface of its contemplation. The beautiful metaphor of the fly upon the stream is Yeats’ expression of true genius – the state in which great art is produced.  Though the maps are spread before him, Caesar gazes on nothing.

The Meter of the Poem

To me, the meter of the poem is the most interesting part of it. I love to study how poets vary their lines.

Here is a first scansion. This scansion guesses that Yeats was varying not just metrical feet, but their count within each line.

Anapests are in blue. Trochaic Feet are red. Feminine Endings are Green. Anapestic Feminine Endings (of which there are two) are marked with blue and green. Headless feet are orange. Phyric feet are yellow. (The color coding is my own scheme. As far as  Iknow, I’ m the first to ever try it. I think it helps readers to see how poets varied meter.)

Scansion: Long Legged Fly

Unless there’s some Regular Irish ballad meter I don’t know about (I’m hardly an expert on Irish literature) I would say that the form is Yeats’ own creation (though based on ballad meter). The first four lines are similar to ballad meter (as opposed to Common Meter – see my post on Dickinson). The syllabic count of Common Meter is strict 8/6/8/6 and Iambic . The rhyme scheme is ABAB. Ballad Meter is less strict. Syllables count less. What matters is the number of metrical feet per line 4/3/4/3 – generally Iambic Tetrameter alternating with Iambic Trimeter. Variant feet (anapests) are common in Ballad Meter and the rhyme scheme of Ballad Meter is also looser – ABXB (which is the rhyme scheme Yeats uses).

There are actually some recordings of Yeats reading his own poetry. Here’s one of him reading The Lake Isle of Innesfree.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear the water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

And here is Yeats defending his chant-like readings (for which he was sometimes criticized).

To be honest, I don’t know what Yeats intended. It was clear, however, that he took meter very seriously.  What’s hard is discerning, in the case of Long Legged Fly, which meter he was taking seriously. If he was hearing ballad meter (and varying the feet on that basis) then one ought to scan the lines as alternating between Tetrameter and Trimeter (rather than Dimeter) – since the number of metrical feet per line is what matters in Ballad Meter.

That civilization may not sink,
Its | great bat|tle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To | a dis|tant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where |the maps |are spread,
His |eyes fixed |upon no-thing,
A hand |un-der |his head.

(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

This scansion reads the variant lines as having headless lines, rather than anapests. The first foot of the respective lines would be interpreted as iambic feet missing an unstressed syllable (headless). The advantage to this reading is that it retains the underlying metrical alternation (between tetrameter and trimeter) of a recognized ballad meter (at least in the first four lines). The next four lines 4/3/3/3 before the refrain are of Yeats’ own creation. (The whole of it, in fact, is probably a nonce form – meaning that the form was created to suit the poem.) Still, there is an underlying pattern, and regularizing the number of metrical feet is a recognition of it. And there’s also Yeats’ rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme is typical of ballad meter, so why not the meter? All in all, the second scansion assumes a regular pattern from which Yeats varied. The readings regularizes the number of metrical feet per line. Here is the alternate scansion in whole:

Long Legged Fly - Ballad Meter Scansion

The metrical foot pattern of each stanza (as opposed to the syllabic count) is as follows:


Followed by the Refrain:


Note: I could also read the final line of the refrain as:

His | mind moves | upon si-lence

This, to me, stretches credibility. But then again, listening to Yeats read, it’s possible. He was nothing if not eccentric. It would make the refrain a 5/3 pattern, in keeping with the other Trimeter lines.

That said, the scansion is probably the least important element of this poem. Altering the scansion doesn’t alter the poems’s meaning but does alter the emphasis within the respective lines. Either way, Yeats’ modern sensibility, his willingness to flex regular metrical patterns almost beyond recognition, is apparent. His ear for the elegantly varied metrical line was part and parcel of his unique genius.

Be sure and comment if you found this interesting!

Keats’ Ode to Autumn

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About Keats’ Ode to Autumn

The Ode to Autumn was the last of the famous odes Keats wrote – and some would argue his greatest. Helen Vendler, a “close reader” who can turn limericks into three hundred page dissertations and the bar room drunks who wrote them into towering geniuses, wrote an exhaustive book on Keats’ odes. odes-of-john-keats1Even if two thirds of her analysis is sheer conjecture, her ebullience and knowledge makes her every sentence worthwhile. You may be no closer to knowing what Keats actually intended, but you can safely skip your MFA.

Vendler writes, for example, that Keats “must have” remembered Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight. Evidently she could find no correspondence suggesting this to be true but, who knows, maybe she’s right.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple trees, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in the silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet moon.

Vendler then proceeds from the conjectural “must have” to “Keats borrowed” in the next paragraph. So… without clearcut documentation, take what Vendler writes with a grain of salt. Whether or not Keats ever read or knew of Coleridge’s poem should remain conjecture. Nevertheless, what the similarities between these two passages tells us is that the Romantic Era had begun. This was the beginning of the age that emphasized the pastoral over and above the urban – an intuitive grasp of the world began to supercede the classical emphasis on reason. The world’s natural state was a central metaphor for the Romantics with its the inevitable cycle of creation and loss.

My main reason for mentioning Vendler, however, is her assertion that reaping serves Keats as a metaphor, throughout his poetry, for the act of writing:

As the act of conceiving poems is paralleled to natural fruitfulness, his books are the garners into which his grain is gathered. A teeming brain becomes a ripe field; the act of writing is the reaping of that field; to have written all the poems one has been born to write is to have gleaned the full harvest from that teeming brain; and to have compiled one’s poems in books is to have stored away riches.

She continues:

The ode To Autumn… contains Keats’ most reflective view of creativity and art… (p. 234)

Vendler’s entire chapter elaborates on this central premise. She may or may not be right about Keats’ intentions, but in this case at least, Keats’ own letters show that he liked to think along these lines. Vendler’s chapter is worth reading; and even if you don’t read Vendler, knowing this much might help you read the poem in a different light. Keats knows that autumn will inevitably destroy all that he’s found beautiful within the ode, but knows as well that Autumn has its music too – its song, its “wailful choir”, a part of its own dissolution and impossible without it. Autumn must achieve its fruition through its own dissolution. Bear in mind, as well, that Keats knew that he was likely to die when he wrote this poem. The symptoms of his tuberculosis were already underway. Keats once wrote that life was metaphor. Perhaps, with this ode, he is metaphorically describing his own dissolution and the harvesting of his mind – his poetry.

But there’s another possibility – one that possibly sends tenured professors, lit majors and the Helen Vendlers of the world into fits of apoplexy. And that’s that Keats may simply have been writing a beautiful poem. If there was any poet in the history of poetry who could write beautifully for the sake of writing beautifully, that was Keats. His skill with language and imagery rivaled Shakespeare’s. The writing of the “Ode to Autumn” may have given him a venue for an exquisite expression of poetic thought.

Indeed, in a letter to Reynolds written in September of 1819, Keats writes:

‘How beautiful the season is now–How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather–Dian skies–I never liked stubble-fields so much as now–Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm–in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.’

It’s thought that Keats was referring to his Ode to Autumn. He was communicating an ineffable experience through sheer poetic expression. That is, he was communicating an experience, not meaning. Don’t underestimate the genius required to pull this off. The possibility doesn’t diminish the poem one iota. There is not a poet alive today who could accomplish the same feat (though I hope one shows up). By way of analogy – not every line of music in a suite by Bach or  a concerto by Mozart conceals a subtext. It is music – meant to be enjoyed as music. Likewise. Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” may be a kind of music in words. The “point of the poem” is in the beauty of reading or reciting the poem – meant to be enjoyed as a poem. And this was, in fact, an aesthetic pursued by Keats – (see  critics like W.J. Bate and R.H. Fogle). (The poem, in its language and imagery, becomes the embodiment  of its own subject matter.)

It was also an aesthetic that Robert Frost referred to as “a revel in the felicities of language”. He used this phrase in reference to the late E.A. Robinson’s poetry, but it was a felicity he also claimed for himself. In my recent post on Interpreting Frost’s “Stopping by Woods”, I cover some of that ground. As it pertains to this post, the author Mark Richardson offers up  the most pertinent comment:

Frost directs our attention not to the poem’s [Stopping by Woods] theme or content but to its form: the interlocking rhyme among the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical or thematic readings of the poem: “If I were reading it for someone else, I’d begin to wonder what he’s up to. See. Not what he means but what he’s up to” (Cook 81). The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. [p. 191]

Although we have no comparable comment from Keats (to my knowledge) it probably wasn’t necessary for Keats to make it. The whole aesthetic of poetry was different. The successful poem was frequently the one that was aesthetically beautiful – in content and style. In other words, how the poem was written was the message and content. In the case of Ode to Autumn, what makes the poem is it’s style and expression.

Remember, when reading “close readers” like Vendler and others, that unless the interpretation comes from the poets themselves, any interpretive reading is outright conjecture. Period. There is no reason to think that Vendler, in any of her analysis, reflects what Keats actually intended. Vendler spends over 50 pages of prose to unfold a one page poem. There’s not a professor alive who can persuade me that Keats thought all the thoughts Vendler ascribes to him. Not every single line has to mean something.  But… there are other reasons to read Vendler’s book. You will learn a tremendous amount about the philosophical currents of Keats’s day,  what Keats thought along those lines, and how they may relate to his odes.

In the scansion below, I’ve left iambic feet unmarked. The colors of the scansion are as follows: Trochaic Feet are reddish, Spondaic Feet are purplish, Phyrric Feet are yellowish.

Keats: Ode to Autumn Scansion

On the Shape of the Poem

The first thing to notice, as to the form of the poem, is its division into three stanzas. These three stanzas, in turn, most likely find their inspiration in the Petrarachan Sonnet. John Keats - StatueKeats’ temperament (along with the temperament of the era) was ill-suited to the argumentative terseness which the Elizabethans preferred – most perfectly summarized in the Shakesperean Sonnet with the sting of its closing epigrammatic couplet. The Romantics were after a different aesthetic – one of intuition and, in some ways, gnosis.

The stanzas are almost like foreshortened Petrarchan Sonnets. Instead of two quatrains and a concluding sestet, Keats reduces two quatrains to one, and expands the sestet by one line – a septet. In the final stanza, there is even a kind of volta between the quatrain & the final septet, as though the whole of the poem were built on the Petrarchan model but in a much expended form.

The couplet isn’t held off to the end of the poem, as in a Shakespearean Sonnet, but is enclosed within the septet, discouraging the feel of discursiveness (the working out of an idea in the Shakespearean sense). The couplet nonetheless has the effect of subliminally grounding or halting each stanza before the final line. The whole of it produces a kind of nested, self-enclosed completeness – a calm and contemplative feel.

[I love the image at right – the statue of Keats. What a pity that he died so young!]

Writing the Ode to Autumn

The meter of the poem might seem conservative, but in Amy Lowell’s biography on Keats, she finds the following comment from one, Lord Houghton:

Uniformity of metre is so much the rule of English poetry, that, undoubtedly, the carefully varied harmonies of Keats’ verse were disagreeable, even to cultivated readers, often producing exactly the contrary impresssion from what he intended. (p. 500 – John Keats)

Lowell then discusses Keats’ compositional practice. I love it, being a poet. It’s an aspect of biography all too frequently overlooked by biographers who are not themselves (unlike Amy Lowell) poets.

In a letter to Taylor, a confidant of Keats, here is what Keats himself wrote about the composition of poetry:

In poetry I have a few axioms, and you will see how far I am from their centre.
1rst. I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity; it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
2nd. Its touches of beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless, instead of content. The rise, the progress, the setting of Imagery should, like the Sun, come natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight. But it is easier to think what poetry should be than to write it. And this leads me to
Another axiom – That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.

There you have it, advice from one of the language’s greates poetic geniuses.

Lowell then provides a description of how Keats first wrote the poem (p. 503). I’ve recreated what the manuscript might have looked like based on her description (I’ve marked additions in Italics):

Who hath not seen thee? For thy haunts are many oft amid thy stores?
Sometimes whoever seeks (for thee abroad) may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor
Thy hair soft lifted by the winnowing wind
While bright the sun slants through the bushy barn
Or sound asleep in a half-reaped field
Or on a half reap’d furrow sound asleep
Dosed with red poppies; while thy sleeping hook
Spares from some slumbrous
Spares some minutes while warm slumbers creep

At this point, Lowell tells us, Keats decides to rewrite what he’s already written:

Who hath not seen thee oft amid they stores?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad my find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor
They hair soft lifted by the winnowing wind
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep
Das’d with the fume of poppies while thy hook
Spares for some slumbrous minutes the next swath
Spares the next swath in all its twined flowers

This insight into Keats’ compositional practice probably won’t be of interest to anyone but other poets and even then, only to poets and readers interested in an older poetic style. One thing to notice is the italicized bushy in the 5th line of the first sketch. Apparently, or so Lowell tells us, Keats’ line read:

While bright the sun slants through the barn

But this line isn’t Iambic Pentameter. It’s missing one foot.It’s Iambic Tetrameter.

While bright | the sun | slants through | the barn

So Keats, almost casually, adds the word bushy before barn. It was a terrible addition and an anemic adjective. Fortunately Keats didn’t keep the line. However, it goes to show how meter can guide the language and subject of the poem in ways that the poetry of free verse does not. Meter frequently forces the poet to rethink first thoughts, to plumb a layer of ingenuity in a way that free verse poets rarely plumb.

Another aspect which Lowell stresses is how Keats plays with the sounds of a given line. She conjectures that the line that began with: Spares from some slumbrous, was to heavy with the consonant m in both some and slumbrous. You can see Keats, she conjectures, tinkering with the line as he tries to eliminate the heavy alliteration.

Reading the Meter

There are only a couple of lines that will trip up a modern reader unfamiliar with Iambic Pentameter:


Instead, the modern reader would probably be tempted to read the line as follows:

Where are | the songs | of Spring? | Ay, where | are they?

In the first foot, this puts the emphasis on Where rather than are. A trochee in the first foot is an acceptable variant, in Keats’ day, but I suspect Keats meant us to read the line as iambic. Emphasizing are in the last foot, making the last foot a trochee, is an out-and-out no-no – especially in poetry of this time. Keats would never have written a line like this. Just remember Houghton’s comment on Keats’ variants which, by our standards, are dazzlingly mild. A trochee in the final foot would have caused apoplexy. If we read the last foot as iambic, as it should be, then the first foot makes more sense if it is also read as iambic.


Because it’s a lovely use of meter.

The shift in emphasis (with the same word) between the first and last foot is a virtuosic use of meter and just what we would expect from a poet of Keats’ caliber.

The only line that might be a stumbling block for modern readers is the following:


Readers in Keats’ day would have automatically pronounced the –ed in barred – (even if they no longer pronounced the ending in common parlance). Four hundred years before the full pronunciation of –ed was actually a part of everyday speech. However, the extra syllable never stopped being useful to writers of metrical poetry – and so the full pronunciation of –ed continued as an artifact, a poetic convention, right up to the start of the 20th century.

One last thing I can’t help but notice, having just analyzed Milton’s versifying, is how Milton’s metrical habits seem to have brushed off on Keats. Keats, at different stages of his short career, idolized Milton’s verse. Keats, like Milton, mostly limits trochaic variant feet to the first feet of the lines. Keats, on the other hand, shows a greater willingnes to vary the Iambic Pentameter pattern with Spondaic feet and Phyrrics. This flexibility is probably what Lord Houghton meant when he referred to Keats’ varied harmonies. It’s probably impossible to imagine ourselves back in the day, reading Keats’ poetry the way his contemporaries read them.

Suffice it to say, though these days his verse may seem conventional and conservative, in his own day his metrical style was as unique and unconventional as the language of his poetry.

Write (G)reatly!


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

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

Erlkönigin - Page 1

Erlkönigin - Page 2

Erlkönigin - Page 3

Erlkönigin - Page 4

Erlkönigin - Page 5

Milton & Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter)

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  • Revised & improved April 12, 2009.

The Creation of Eve

Milton’s blank verse is exceedingly conservative and easy to scan. It’s a testament to Milton’s skill as a poet john-miltonthat his beautiful language and careful phrasing triumphs over his monotonous meter – in many cases subtly disrupting it without violating it. It’s a miracle, really. (For an example of a poet who didn’t pull it off, read Spencer’s Fairy Queen.) It was as if the experimentation of the Elizabethans, let alone the Jacobeans, had never occurred. Milton came of age in an exceedingly conservative era- poetically. Meter, in those days, was as dominant then as free verse now, and as unadventurous. Just the fact that Milton wrote blank verse (when everyone else was writing heroic couplets) was an act of defiance.

Most of the trouble surrounding Milton and scansion (for modern readers) comes down to differences in pronunciation – some of it has to do with historical changes; and some, if you’re American, has to do with differences in British and American pronunciation (especially problematic when reading Chaucer).

I cooked up a table that, with its “scientific” terminology, gives you an idea of Milton’s metrical habits and preferences. I haven’t gone line by line to exhaustively prove the accuracy of my table, but I can assert, for example, that Milton (despite claims to the contrary) never wrote a trochee in the final foot. Here’s an extract, to that effect, from my review of M.L. Harvey’s Book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning: A Study in Generative Metrics (Studies in Comparative Literature):

A more egregious example of misreading, due to changes in habits of pronunciation and even to present day differences between the continents, comes when Mr. Harvey examines Milton. Words like “contest” and “blasphemous” and “surface” (all taken from Paradise Lost) were still accented on the second syllable. “Which of us beholds the bright surface.” (P.L. 6.472 MacMillan. Roy Flannagan Editor.) Mr. Harvey, offering an example of a “very rare `inverted foot’” (the credit for its recognition he gives to Robert Bridges) gives the following line: “Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim Prostrate (P.L. 6.841) In fact, Robert Bridges and Mr. Harvey are both mistaken in reading the fifth foot as inverted and one need not be a seventeenth century scholar to recognize it. Webster’s International Dictionary: Second Edition, in fact, provides the following pronunciation key. (pros [stressed] trat [unstressed]; formerly, and still by some. Esp. Brit., pros [unstressed] trat [stressed]). Any laboratory of Americans, nearly without fail, would also misread this line, and so the danger of overwhelming empirical evidence!

On to my table… Each division represents an equivalent foot in an Iambic Pentameter line.

Milton's Metrics

The Scansion

Here is one of my favorite passages, already alluded to in a previous post – Iambic Pentameter Variants – I. To simplify matters, I haven’t marked any of the Iambic feet , I’ve only marked variant feet or feet that, for one reason another, might be read incorrectly.

Milton Scansion: Book 8


Elision, a standard practice in Milton’s day and more or less assumed whether marked or not, eliminates the vast majority of Milton’s “variant” feet.


Glorious, if treated as a three syllable word, would make the second foot Anapestic, not criminal,  but if you can elide, you  should.


This elision might make some metrists squirm. Given just how conservative metrical practice tended to be in Milton’s day, I would be inclined to elide these two vowels. Given how Milton can barely bring himself to so much as use a feminine ending in the final foot, I seriously doubt he expected readers to treat this foot as an anapest. My advice is to elide it.

The final example of elision, above, is the word Spirits. Interestingly, Milton seems to treat this word opportunistically. In line 466, for example, he treats spirits as a two syllable word. In other lines, throughout Paradise Lost and in the latter line, he treats the word as a monosyllabic word. This sort of inconsistency in pronunciation is found as far back as Chaucer, as with his pronunciation of the word sweete – sometimes one syllable, sometimes two. Such inconsistency is permitted once one has obtained a poetic license.

Reading with the Meter

Modern readers may sometimes be tempted to read as though they were reading prose. Sometimes, though, poets play the line against the meter, wanting us to emphasize certain words we might not otherwise. That’s the beauty of meter in poetry. Milton, as with all the great poets, was skilled at this sort of counterpoint:


In the line above, the modern reader might be tempted to stress the line as follows:

Mean, or in her summ’d up, in in her containd

This would be putting the emphasis on the words in. In free verse, ok, but not Iambic Pentameter and especially not with a metrically conservative poet like Milton. Milton wants us to put the emphasis on her. Maybe the line above doesn’t seem such a stretch? Try this one:


Any modern reader would put the emphasis on Bone and Flesh:

Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self

But they would be missing the point of Milton’s line – the closing my Self! That is, it’s not the Bone or Flesh that amazes Adam, it’s that the Bone and Flesh are of his Bone and of his Flesh. His Self! This contrapuntal exploitation of the meter is a master stroke and to miss it is to miss Milton’s genius. If it’s read in this light, stressing the prepositional of might not feel so strained or artificial.

Pentameter at all costs!

Milton’s obeisance to the demands of Iambic Pentameter aren’t always entirely successful.


This, to me, is a reach, but it’s probably what Milton intended and even how he pronounced it. Practice it with studied e-nunc-i-a-tion and the line may make a little more sense. An alternative is to read the line as Iambic Tetrameter.


Given Milton’s metrical squeamishness, I seriously doubt that, in the entirety of Paradise Lost, he decided, for just one moment, to write one Tetrameter line. There are other alternative Tetrameter readings, but they get uglier and uglier.

That said, ambiguities like these, along with the examples that follow, are what disrupt the seeming monotony of Milton’s meter. His use of them defines Milton’s skill as a poet. Roy Flannagan’s introduction to Paradise Lost (page 37) is worth quoting in this regard:

Milton writes lines of poetry that appear to be iambic pentameter if you count them regularly but really contain hidden reversed feet or elongated or truncated sounds that echo meaning and substance rather than a regular and hence monotonous beat. He builds his poetry on syllable count and on stress; William B. Hunter, following the analysis of Milton’s prosody by the poet Robert Bridges in 1921, counts lines that vary in the number of stresses from three all the way up to eight, but with the syllabic count remaining fixed almost always at ten (“The Sources” 198). Milton heavily favors ending his line on a masculine , accented syllable, with frequent enjambment or continuous rhythm from one line to the next… He avoids feminine feet or feet with final unstressed syllables at the ends of lines. He varies the caesura, or the definitive pause within the line, placing it more freely than any other dramatist or non-dramatic writer Hunter could locate (199). He controls elisions or the elided syllables in words most carefully, allowing the reader to choose between pronouncing a word like spirit as a monosyllable (and perhaps pronounced “sprite”) or disyllable, or Israel as a disyllable or trisyllable.

Extra Syllables: Milton’s Amphibrachs (Feminine Endings & Epic Caesuras)

The amphibrach is a metrical foot if three syllables – unstressed-stressed-unstressed. In poets prior to the 20th Century it is always associated with feminine endings or epic caesuras. In the passages above, Milton offers us two examples, one in the second foot (by far the norm) and one in the first foot.


This would be an epic caesura. The comma indicates a sort of midline break (a break in the syntactic sense or phrase). Amphibrach’s, at least in Milton, are always associated with this sort of syntactic pause or break. Epic Caesuras and Feminine Endings are easily the primary reason for extra syllables in Milton’s line. Anapests make up the rest, but they are far less frequent and can be frequently elided.


This would be a much rarer Epic Caesura in the first foot. Notice, once again, that the amphibrachic foot occurs with a syntactic break, the comma.

Differences in Pronunciation

If you just can’t make sense of the metrical flow, it might be because you aren’t pronouncing the words the same way Milton and his peers did.


Most modern readers would probably pronounce discourse and dis’course. However, in Milton’s day and among some modern British, it was and is pronounced discourse’.


Adam & EveThis one is trickier. In modern English, we pronounce attribute as att’ribute when used as a noun and attri’bute when used as a verb. Milton, in a rather Elizabethan twist, is using attributing in its nominal sense, rather than verbal sense. He therefore keeps the nominal pronunciation: att’tributing.

The arch-Angel says to Adam, as concerns Eve:

Dismiss not her…by attributing overmuch to things Less excellent…

It’s phenomenally good marital advice. In other words. Don’t dismiss her by just tallying up her negative attributes, to the exclusion of her positive attributes. There is more to any friendship, relationship, or marriage than the negative. Think on the positive.

Metrical Ambiguity

Some of Milton’s metrical feet are simply ambiguous – effectively breaking the monotony of the meter. In the example below, one could read the first foot as trochaic or as Iambic:


|Led by|


|Led by|?

I chose a trochaic foot – the first option. If this foot had been in the fifth foot (or the last foot of the line) I would have read it as Iambic. Milton doesn’t write trochaic feet in the fifth foot. In the first foot, however, trochaic feet aren’t uncommon and in this instant it seems to make sense. I don’t sense that there’s any crucial meaning lost by de-emphasizing by.  Perhaps the best answer, in cases of metrical ambiguity, is to consider at what point in the line the ambiguity is occuring.

Similarly, I read the following line as having a spondee in the fourth foot:


One could also read it as trochaic or iambic. Iambic, given the metrical practice of the day, is far more likely than a trochaic foot – especially, given Milton’s practice, this close to the final foot. I scanned the foot as spondaic. Spondaic feet, in Milton’s day, were considered the least disruptive variant foot and so were acceptable at just about any point of the line.

My Favorite Passages

The passages excerpted above just about cover every metrical exigency you will run into in reading Milton. The other reason I chose them is because they’re, well, juicy. I love them. I especially like the following lines for their sense of humor (and, yes, Milton does have a sense of humor).


What boyfriend or husband hasn’t had this experience? No matter how rational we think we are, all our intellectual bravado crumbles to folly – men are from Mars, women are from Venus.

Did Adam & Eve have sex? Why, yes, says Milton, but it wasn’t pornographic. That came after the fall:


Lastly, and most importantly, is there sex in heaven (or do we have to go to hell for that)? Milton gives us the answer:


If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, comment! Let me know. And if you have further questions or corrections, I appreciate those too.

Iambic Pentameter & Robert Frost’s Birches

  • February 22, 2009 – After reading this post, you might enjoy a colorcoded scansion of Birches included with a scansion of Frost’s Mending Wall.
  • April 25, 2009 – Added audio of Frost reciting Mending Wall.
  • May 9, 2009 – Added notes about the poem and discussed Frost’s erotic bent.


….the poem is more about striking a balance between getting “away from earth” and then coming “back to it” than it is about overcoming fear. He told his former student, John Bartlett: “It isn’t in man’s nature to live an isolated life. Freedom isn’t to be had that way. Going away and looking at a man in perspective ,and then coming back… that is what’s sane and good.” In one interview in 1931, he extolled the virtues of “striving to get the balance.” He added, “I should expect life to be back and forward–now more individual on the farm, now more social in the city,” reflecting the pattern of his own life. (Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetryp. 77)

So wrote Lea Newman in her introduction to Birches. The genius of the poem is in its beautiful and powerfully sustained use of a fairly straightforward extended metaphor – swinging birches as a metaphor for balance. Frost is careful not to over interpret that balance. It could be between earth and spirit, nature and civilization, childhood and manhood, love and loss. The reader will bring to the poem his or her own meaning – and it is this capacity of the poem that makes it a great poem, a work of genius.

You Decide

For most readers there’s no hidden subtext beyond what’s grasped intuitively.

But this hasn’t stopped some interpreters.  For instance, in Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self, Frank Lentricchia remarks:

Those “straighter, darker trees,” like the trees of “Into My Own” that “scarcely show the breeze,” stand ominously free from human manipulation, menacing in their irresponsiveness to acts of the will.

I’ve read Birches countless times, and the feeling of an ominous menace never once crossed my mind. To read this kind of interpretation into the imagery requires some kind of context and there simply is none – not in two lines. And referring to “Into my Own”, as though the two poems were somehow related or created the context for such an interpretation, is nonsensical. But the bottom line is that there doesn’t have to be a symbolic undercurrent (or double meaning) to every single word or image. Close readers and academics love nothing more than teasing out interpretations, but just because it can be done, doesn’t mean there’s any objective validity to the interpretation.  At some point, such exercises strike me as being more like parlor games.

Just because the other trees are darker doesn’t mean that they are ominous. Fact is, every single tree in the New England landscape is darker than the birch. And for the most part (and after a good ice storm) most other trees are, factually, straighter than birches. In The Wood Pile, Frost refers to the view as being “all in lines/Straight up and down of tall slim trees,” One need not read any more into Frost’s imagery than the simple fact of it.

But, naturally, if Lentricchia is going to invoke menace, he needs to explain why (to justify that interpretation). He writes that they are menacing in their “irresponsiveness to acts of human will”.  I just don’t buy it.

At best, one would need to make the assumption that Frost’s use of the word dark always constituted some kind of menace when used in reference to trees or the woods. But in his most famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Frost writes that “The woods are lovely, dark and deep”. Despite Frost’s use of the word lovely, this hasn’t stopped close readers from suggesting that Frost was contemplating suicide and that loveliness, far from being praise of the New England wood in winter,  was a contemplation of the lovely, dark and deep oblivion that is suicide (or so they interpret it). Richard Poirer is among those who have made this suggestion. By the absence of a comma between the word dark and the word and he concludes that the “loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous.” The italics are mine. But Poirier’s reading could hardly be called objective. There is, in fact, no way of knowing what significance such punctuation might have held for Frost. However, Frost did have a thing or two to say about ominous interpretations. William Pritchard writes, in  Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered:

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. 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.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]

All of which is to say, Frost had little patience for self-pity or, by extension, suicide. One need only read Out, Out to get a sense of Frost’s personality. In short, one can contemplate the soothing darkness and loveliness of the woods without contemplating suicide. But you decide.


Beyond the interpretation of individual words and lines, there is a larger philosophical debate within the poem that will flavor what readers bring to the poem. It happens in the opening lines:


But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that.
Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-coloured
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows–

The italicized lines bracket a digression that Frost characterizes as Truth. What does he mean? In fact, the differentiation Frost implies between Truth and his playful, imaginary fable of the boy climbing the birches, is central to the poem’s meaning. The world of Truth could be construed as the world of science and matter-of-factness – a world which circumscribes the imagination  or, more to the point, the poetic imagination, Poetry. The world of the poet is one of metaphor, symbolism, allegory and myth making. At its simplest, Frost is describing two worlds and telling which he prefers and how he values each. “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” And by that, he could almost be saying: One could do worse than be a poet.

The underlined passage “You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen”, has been nicely interpreted as a reference to Ptolemaic astronomy (which believed that the planets and stars  were surrounded by crystal spheres or domes). I like that interpretation and I can believe that Frost intended it. The inner dome and its shattered crystal shells like “heaps of broken glass” fit neatly within the allusion. But there is significance in the allusion. The Ptolemaic model of the universe was a poetic construct – a theory of the imagination rather than matter-of-factness. In this sense, Truth as Frost calls it (or modern science) has collapsed the inner dome of the poetic imagination and replaced it with something that doesn’t permit the poet’s entry. The shattered inner dome of the imagination (of the myth makers) has been replaced by fact – by science.

And in this light, the entirety of Frost’s description, climbing the birches, just so, and swinging back down, becomes a kind of description for the life which the poet seeks and values – the imaginative life of the poet:

…. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree….

The poet learns all there is to learn about “not launching out too soon”. He could be describing the art of poetry. You cannot swing from a birch without the right height. But if you also climb too high, if your ambitions exceed the matter of your poem, the birch will break . You must write your poetry, climbing carefully, with the “same care you use to fill a cup,/Up to the brim, and even above the brim.” But I don’t want to limit the poem’s meaning to just this. Frost is describing more than the poet, but a whole way of interpreting the world.

It’s the difference between the mind that seeks objective truths, irrespective of the observer, and the mind that perceives world as having symbolic, metaphorical and mythical significance. It’s the world of religion and spirituality. Its the world of signs and visions – events have meaning. In the scientific world view, nothing is of any significance to the observer: life is like a “pathless wood”, meaningless,  that randomly afflicts us with face burns, lashing us, leaving us weeping. The observer is irrelevant. In some ways, science is anathema to the poet’s way of understanding the world. It’s loveless. And that’s not the world Frost values. “Earth’s the right place for love,” he writes.  The woods that he values have a path and the birches are bent with purpose.

But having said all that, Frost also acknowledges a balance.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.

If we read him right, he seems to be saying that he prefers not to be too much in one world or the other. Let him climb toward heaven, both literally and figuratively, but let him also be returned to earth. Having written this much, Frank Lentricchia’s own interpretation of the poem’s divisions may be more easily understood:

….There is never any intention of competing with science, and therefore, there is no problem at all (as we generally sense with many modern poets and critics) of claiming a special cognitive value for poetry. In his playful and redemptive mode, Frost’s motive for poetry is not cognitive but psychological in the sense that he is willfully seeking to bathe his consciousness and, if the reader consents, his reader’s as well, in a free-floating, epistemologically unsanctioned vision of the world which, even as it is undermined by the very language in which it is anchored, brings a satisfaction of relief when contemplated…..

If I may be so bold as to interpret (and interpreting academese does take some boldness), what Lentricchia seems to be saying is that Frost’s philosophical stance does not arise from any direct experience (as stated in the poem). Direct experience would be “epistemologically sanctioned”. Epistemology, a word coddled and deployed by academics with fetishistic ardor, is the “branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” So, to interpret, Lentricchia appears to be saying that Frost’s “vision/philosophy” is not “epistemologically/experientially” “sanctioned/based“. In short, Frost’s experience (and that of the readers) is that of the poet and poetry – the purely subjective realm of imagination, story telling and myth making.

Interestingly, those who criticize the poem for being without basis in experience (Lentricchia is not one of them) seem blissfully unaware that this is precisely the kind of knowing that the poem itself is criticizing and examining. That is, the poem is its own example of myth-making — the transformative power of poetry. Yes, says Frost, there is the matter-of-fact (epistemologically sanctioned) world, but there is also the poetical world – the world of metaphor and myth that is like the slender birch (and the poem itself). It can be climbed but not too high. The matter-of-fact world is good to escape, but it is also good to come back to.

John C Kemp, in Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist, goes further in explaining what some readers consider the poem’s weaknesses.

“Mending Wall,” “After Apple-Picking,” and “The Wood-Pile” are centered on specific events that involve the speaker in dramatic conflicts and lead him to extraordinary perspectives. ¶ (….)however, “Birches” does not present a central dramatized event as a stimulus for the speaker’s utterance. Although the conclusion seems sincere, and although Frost created a persuasive metaphorical context for it, the final sentiments do not grow dramatically out of the experiences alluded to. (….) Frost’s confession that the poem was “two fragments soldered together” is revealing; the overt, affected capriciousness of the transitions between major sections of the poem (ll. 4-5, 21-22, and 41-42) indicates that instead of striving to establish the dynamics of dramatized experience, he felt he could rely on the force of his speaker’s personality and rural background. In early editions, a parenthetical question, “(Now am I free to be poetical?),” followed line 22, making the transition between the ice storm and the country youth even more arbitrary.

My own view is that rather than making the poem feel arbitrary, the question Now am I free to be poetical? makes Frost’s thematic concerns too explicit. The question too sharply defines the contrast between the matter-of-fact and the poetical. In short, Frost may have felt that the question overplayed his hand.  (Some critics read this question as an affectation. I don’t. I read it as signaling the poem’s intent, a “stage direction” that Frost later removed.)

Frost was striving for balance both in poem and subject matter — between the poetical and the matter-of-fact.

Another Interpretation

Some readers have interpreted the poem as being about masturbation. George Monteiro, Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance, alludes to this interpretation in the closing paragraphs of his own analysis. (And if you have searched on-line, then you have probably found the same interpretation in some haphazard discussions.) But here is what Monteiro (in full) has to say:

If physiologically there is some sort of pubescent sexuality taking place in the “swinging” of “birches,” it is not surprising, then, that the boy has “subdued his father’s trees” by “riding them down over and over again” until “not one was left for him to conquer” and that the orgasmic activity should be likened to “riding,” which despite the “conquering” can be done time and again. One need only note that the notion of “riding,” already figurative in “Birches,” reappears metaphorically in Frost’s conception of “Education by Poetry,” wherein he writes: “Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know . . . how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you.” And what is true for metaphor and poetry is true for love. Frost insisted that a poem “run . . . from delight to wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Then it is totally appropriate within the metaphor of “swinging birches” that even the storm-bent trees should look to the adult male like “girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” No wonder, then, and fully appropriate it is, that when the poet thinks that his wish to get away from earth might by some fate be misunderstood such that he be snatched away never to return, his thought is that “Earth’s the right place for love.” At some level of his consciousness the pleasurable activity of “swinging birches” has transformed itself into the more encompassing term “love.” One might say, within the logic of this reading of the poem, that “Earth’s the right place for [sexual] love,” including onanistic love. The same sexual metaphor runs through the final lines of the poem as the mature poet thinks of how he would like to go but only to come back.

It’s an intriguing interpretation, but I don’t buy it. Frost was capable of writing about sexual themes, but there’s no precedent, elsewhere in his poetry, for such a sleight of hand. Just as any number of critics can convince themselves that Shakespeare was a lawyer, a homosexual, Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, a woman, and even Queen Elizabeth, one can surely find evidence for just about any interpretive inference in just about any poem. Figurative language and metaphor, by definition, lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

The interpretation must remain, at best, purely speculative and very doubtful at that.

Then again, many modern critics and readers feel that the author’s intentions are irrelevant. Fortunately for the reader, the same rules apply to those critics and readers. Just because an interpretation can be made doesn’t mean they’re right or relevant. Again, you decide.

Robert Frost & the Blank Verse of Birches

I wanted to take a look at Robert Frost’s blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) and Birches is a beautiful example.  I understand that this won’t interest most readers and many may find it irrelevant. The rest of this post for those who enjoy studying how meter can be used to masterful effect. If you’re one of those, be sure to comment. I would enjoy hearing from you. In an effort to avoid a book-length post I’ll read the poem 10 lines at a time. But first, here is the poem in its entirety along with my scansion. If you are new to scansion then take a look at my post on the basics.

Frost recites Birches:

For the colorcoded version click here.


Robert Frost - Scansion of Birches

Lines 1-10


As with The Road Not Taken, the other Frost poem I looked at, I listened to Frost read the poem before I scanned it. I actually would have been tempted to scan it differently before listening. The first line for example, I might have scanned:

When I |see bir|ches bend |to left |and right

That is, I might have been tempted to put the emphasis on When instead of I. Critics sometimes accuse metrists of unnaturally fitting a poem’s language to a metrical pattern. Read anapests, they say, don’t elide the anapest to read as an Iamb. What they forget though, is that poets who right metrical poems are themselves metrists. That’s why, when I read a line like To be or not to be that (is) the question, I prefer to put the emphasis on is. (It’s in keeping with the Iambic Meter). Similarly, listening to Frost, one can clearly hear him reading the meter. When I, he writes and reads.

robert-frost-chair1Interestingly, Frost reads the fifth line as follows:

But swinging them doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do.

Instead of “Ice storms do that“. I like the printed version better because it varies the Iambic beat and makes the thought feel more like a colloquial aside. My guess is that Frost was reciting this from memory and that the Iambic alteration was easier to remember (which was partly blank verse’s advantage on the Elizabethan stage). The fifth line ends with an iambic feminine ending. And I just now noticed that I forget to mark morning, at the end of line 6 – corrected in the extract.

Up to this point, Frost has written an Iambic Pentameter that Shakespeare would have been recognized and accepted in Shakespeare’s day. The first four lines are strictly Iambic Pentameter. This has the effect of firmly establishing the meter of the poem. As long as Frost doesn’t vary too much, for this point on, the ear will register whatever he does as variations on an established Iambic Pentameter meter. I won’t say that Frost did this deliberately. In other poems, like The Road not Taken, he varies the metrical line from the outset. In this case, though, the effect is such that the lines stabilize the metrical pattern early on.

Ice-Storms and often (in line 6) are trochaic feet.

With line 7 one finds a nice metrical effect with As the |breeze ri|ses. The spondaic foot has the effect of reproducing the rising breeze – breeze being more emphasized than the, and ris-es being more emphasized than breeze. Unlike some, I won’t go so far as to say that Frost toiled for hours producing this effect, but he was probably aware that the natural progression of the language nicely fit the metrical pattern.


In his book on blank verse called Blank Verse (which I’ve been meaning to review) Robert B. Shaw provides his own scansion of this passage (or a part of it.)

Here it is:


blank-verseIt’s gratifying to see that we mostly agree. Where our scansion doesn’t match is probably because I’ve followed Frost’s own reading. For instance, Frost gives greater emphasis to the word shed than Shaw does and gives less emphasis to crust (in snow-crust) than Shaw. I wouldn’t call Shaw’s reading incorrect, simply different than Frost (because Shaw’s reading recognizes the overall iambic pattern – unlike the scansion of The Road Not Taken at Frostfriends.org – which I criticized elsewhere.

More to the point, the story which meter tells reinforces the content of the poem. The poem, which up to this point has been fairly standard iambic pentameter, disrupts the metrical flow just as the rising breezes disrupt the tree’s “crystal shells”. The dactylic first foot Shat-ter-ing – one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, upsets the ear’s expectation, disrupting the iambic flow. The final foot of this line  – |the snow-crust – is called a heavy feminine ending. Whereas the usual iambic feminine ending ends with an unstressed syllable, a heavy feminine ending ends with an intermediate or strongly stressed syllable. This variant foot was wildly popular in Jacobean theater. Frost probably could have avoided it; but the use of it serves to further disrupt the metrical pattern – further mirroring the disruption of the “crystal shells”. All of this is an effect that is hard, and in some ways impossible, to reproduce in Free Verse.

The next line is one of the more metrically interesting:


I can’t tell, but Shaw either has forgotten to mark the second syllable of heaven, or he has chosen to elide heaven such that it reads heav‘n – making it a one syllable word. Frost pronounces it fully as two syllables. So… what makes this final foot interesting is in what to call it. Strictly speaking, it’s a tertius paeon – two unstressed followed by a stressed and unstressed syllable. Another way to read the line would be as a long line or hexameter line.


Hexameter lines can be an acceptable variant with an Iambic Pentameter pattern, but with a pyrrhic (weak) fifth foot and a trochaic (inverted) final foot, the feet seem too weak to support a hexameter reading (the extra foot). My preference is to read a line as being pentameter (having five feet) unless a line’s “feet” are strong enough to support hexameter.

Frost’s metrical habit is to see anapestic feet as a perfectly acceptable variant to iambic feet – frequently calling them loose iambs. With that in mind, my own reading is that Frost has substituted an anapestic feminine ending for an iambic feminine ending. To my ear, it’s an elegant variation – and not one found prior to Frost (to my knowledge). Frost will use this foot again later in the poem.

hearing-the-measuresOf interest in the next two lines are the elision of They are to They’re. Some metrists, like George T. Wright, are criticized for too readily reducing anapests to iambs by the use of elision – as if he were philosophically opposed to anapests. If the poets had meant the lines to be read as iambs, the reasoning goes, they would have written them as iambs.  If you’ve read my previous posts on meter you’ll know that, if I can, I tend to elide anapests to read as iambs. I learned this technique by reading Wright’s books on meter.

I feel a little vindicated noticing that when Frost reads or recites Birches, he pronounces (elides) They are as They’re – despite the fact that he hasn’t marked them as such. (Mind you, his lines would be perfectly acceptable variants if read them as anapests.) So, I don’t make this stuff up.

A last observation on these ten lines. It is interesting to note that balance Frost establishes between standard Iambic Pentameter and variant lines. The seventh and eighth line from the extract above are varied with trochaic and anapestic feet, but notice how both these lines are balanced by perfect Iambic Pentameter lines.


More so than the meter, the next ten lines are interesting for their Frostian colloquialism. Before Frost, no 19th Century Poet (or earlier unless they were writing Drama) would have stopped the poem mid-breath to say something like: But I was going to say. Up to this point, the poem’s tone could be considered fairly traditional, but Frost, as interrupts the elevated tone with colloquial banter: broke in, all her matter-of-fact, I should prefer, fetch the cows.

  • Note: There’s no denying the eroticism, by today’s standards, in the lines: “Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair hair/ Before them over their heads…” I have a truffle pig’s nose for eroticism in poetry. Trust me. Read my analysis of Sidney and Dryden if you don’t believe me.  However, I think it’s reading too much into this imagery if one takes it as the starting point for an erotic subtext in the entirety of the poem. Several reasons:

1.) In 1913, when this poem was published, what was tolerated in terms of sexuality and eroticism was worlds apart from now (or the Elizabethan Age for that matter). There was erotic literature, but it was very underground. Women couldn’t vote. They couldn’t swim at the beach unless they were, practically speaking, fully clothed. Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, published just over twenty years later, wouldn’t be permitted on American shores for  another 50 years!  Doggy style was not the first thing to pop into  readers’ minds when they read this (or else the poem would have been banned). Pornographic language and imagery was practically non-existent in the public sphere.

2.) Frost himself was risk averse. He didn’t achieve any real recognition until he was in his mid-forties and he would not have risked his reputation if he had thought the image was too suggestive. He was nothing if not conscious if his own image as a sort of New England farmer/poet.  And there’s is simply no other precedent for this kind of suggestiveness in any of his other published poetry. There is some poetry that remained unpublished however – humorous and one step removed from bathroom graffiti. Here’s an example:


The symbol of the number ten–
The naught for girls, the one for men–
Defines how many times does one
In mathematics or in fun
Go as you might say into zero.
You ask the heroine and hero.

This was about as close as Frost got to anything “erotic”. He joked about sex, one notch above crude, or treated sexuality as a dark undertow in the lives of men and women, The Subverted Flower for example.

3.) It’s too obvious. Even in his unpublished pranks, he was indirect.  No where else is Frost ever so explicit about sexuality (if one insists on interpreting the line as such). Though some interpreters will probably still make the argument, I personally don’t buy it.


In terms of meter, only the very rare 19th century (or earlier) poet would have ended a line with a trochaic foot. Frost does so with baseball in the 5th line and will do so again  later in the poem. His willingness to extend variant feet into places where they hadn’t normally been helps lend his poetry a colloquial feel. Frost isn’t willing to robertfrost-at-batsacrifice the “sound of sense” for the sake of meter. But he also strikes a balance. Once again, notice that he brackets this line with perfectly Iambic Pentameter lines before and after.  In the 9th line, he substitues an anapestic final foot for an iambic foot – a much freer variation than used by any poet in the generation preceeding him.

I scanned Line 8 as a headless line (the initial unstressed syllable is omitted) and the third foot as anapestic – in keeping with his willingness to substitute iambs with anapests. However, one can also read the line as starting with two trochaic feet:


I’m not philosophically opposed to this reading. Two trochaic feet at the start of a line is perfectly acceptable. The reason I prefer my own reading, I suppose, is because I hear the phrasing, not as trochaic, but Iambic – One| by one | he sub-dued. This is where the art of scansion comes into play; and I’m not going to argue that my preferred reading is the right one (in this case).

Notice how Frost echoes one by one with over and over – it’s a nice touch and works within the metrical patterning he allows himself.

The next ten lines come with one metrically ambiguous line – the 6th line.


I scanned the line as follows:


This makes the line pentameter and my hunch is that this is the spirit in which Frost wrote it.I notice that in his reciting of the poem, he is careful to give carefully it’s full three syllables. However, were it not part of a well established Iambic Pentameter poem, I would be tempted to scan the line as follows:


Essentially trochaic tetrameter. Either way, the meter echoes the hesitant and careful climbing of the boy. This line, of all the lines, most threatens the Iambic Pattern and, in that respect, most draws attention to what the boy is doing – climb-ing care-fully.

  • Alternate Readings November 11th 2016: I’ve just been having an email exchange with the poet Annie Finch, one of the finest “formalist” poets currently writing. She has a Ph.D. and currently teaches poetry. She strongly takes issue with my reading of the line above (and the next one below) as headless (∧). For example, where I read:

(∧} And |not one |but hung limp,| not one |was left

She reads:

And not | one but | hung limp,| not one |was left

I’ve used gray-scale and italics to indicate the level  of stress she assigns to each word. So, “not one” receives more stress than “And”, but not as much as the bolded words.

As I mentioned above, I chose to scan the poem the way Frost read it. This is not the only way to scan the poem; but since we have his recitation I thought it might be interesting to scan it the way he imagined it . Even in that respect my scansion is open to differences of opinion: Did Frost really emphasize a word as much as I’ve marked? That’s all subjective. Annie Finch’s reading, on the other hand, disregards the way Frost reads his poem. That said, I think her reading is equally valid and undoubtedly reflects the way she reads the poem. She writes:

You mention that you based the scansion of the poem on Frost’s own recorded performance of it.  I honor your interest in respecting Frost’s voice here, but this is really not a viable way to scan (his pronunciation of poems is so subjective that if scansion were dependent on the way a poem is spoken, meter would have ceased to exist long ago).

I agree that Frost’s reading is subjective, but I’d assert that all readings are subjective and that meter has nevertheless survived, so why not inquire into Frost’s own metrical preferences? As regards that, though, Annie Finch stated her guiding principle at the outset of our exchange:

As you will see throughout A Poet’s Craft, the SIMPLEST SCANSION IS ALWAYS BEST…” [Uppercase is her own.]

The book she refers to is her own. Her assertion that the simplest scansion is always the best leads her to write that my own scansion “is absurdly and needlessly complex.” I disagree and I don’t agree with her assertion if treated as an invariable rule (though it’s certainly useful as a guiding principle). In the case of Frost’s poem we can, at minimum, say that her “rule” leads her to read the lines counter to the way Frost reads them. Does that make her scansion wrong? No. I would, however, say that this demonstrates how scansion is less science than art. Do you care about how a poet reads his or her work? Does it matter when scanning? Does it matter if your scansion agrees with the poet’s? These questions are themselves debatable, but that they’re debatable is worth emphasizing. I don’t and would not claim that my scansion is the “correct” scansion—just my own spin on the matter.  She adds:

I notice you have marked three headless lines.  I believe only one of these is a true headless line and should be scanned as such, the one that begins “one by one he subdued.” (and this also fits with the meaning of the poem at that moment–he is subduing the poem in this one act of great metrical defiance).  Any other scansion distorts the line’s connection to the underlying iambic pentameter pattern, and furthermore the headless scansion is the simplest scansion of this line (by which I mean the scansion that has the fewest variations from the completely regular underlying model of iambic pentameter). 
The other two lines you have marked as headless, the one beginning “and not one” and the one beginning “may no fate,” are not truly headless.  A headless scansion of these two lines introduces needless complications and unnecessary variations from the underlying iambic pentameter  pattern. In the “may no fate” line, the only justification I can see for your headless scansion is that it avoids a trochee in the third foot (“FULly”) but that trochee is not a problem that needs to be avoided, because there is a caesura immediately after it followed by a four-syllable word that creates two of the most unrelentingly iambic feet in the poem.  Furthermore, the trochee “fully” in my opinion deserves to be scanned as such because it is a beautifully expressive prosodic example of willfullness and Frost deserves full credit for this magnificent piece of metrical variation. And finally, I feel it should be scanned to show the trochee because the trochee is I believe one of only two trochees in the poem that does not occur at a line-beginning or after a very strong caesura–and both of these wrenching, challenging prosodic moments express powerful verbal meanings of imposing will and overcoming the restrictions of reality (the other is “over” in the third foot of the line beginning “by riding them down”).
I think the risk here is that she’s associating her own aesthetics with Frost’s. In other words: ‘My reading, not yours, is the one that credits his “magnificent piece of metrical variation”‘. The problem with this sort of assertion is that it’s a logical fallacy, somewhat like the “No True Scottsman” fallacy in the following sense: “No true appreciation of Frost’s metrical art would read these lines other than the way I’ve read them.” Needless to say, I disagree. I could just as easily make the same claims for my own readings, that they are necessary because they uniquely capture Frost’s “beautifully expressive” prosody, but that would be just as fallacious. Further, I certainly don’t think trochaic feet are to be avoided. My own reading, after all, includes a trochee. She writes in closing:
And once you admit the poem really is in iambic pentameter, then any scansion of any line in the poem needs to use that as a starting point.  The scansion needs to show how Frost was following, when he was following, the basic rules of iambic pentameter. If he wasn’t following them, then show that he wasn’t.  But that is only possible when the scansion itself can be trusted to follow the rules.
I would dispute her characterization of my reading as not showing how Frost follows the basic rules of Iambic Pentameter. A headless line is a variant foot and very much a normal variant among those “rules” that define Iambic Pentameter.
All that said, I include her comments to demonstrate how contentious these matters can be. (Admittedly, it’s a bit like arguing over how many grains of salt are in a teaspoon.) I also want to stress that I consider her reading equally valid. I’m of the belief that scansion, within limits, may be subject to interpretation. Just as there’s often no one way to interpret a poem, there is sometimes more than one way to scan a poem. But I invite readers to make up their own mind.

The next two lines follow a more normative pattern with trochaic and anapestic variant feet.

The most elegantly metrical lines follow with the 9th & 10th line of the extract:

Then he  flungoutward, feet first, with a swish
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground

The spondee of flung out beautifully reinforces the image by disrupting the metrical pattern, as does feet first.  Kick-ing is further reinforced and emphasized by being a trochaic first foot. The word down, as Frost recites it, trochaically disrupts the meter again, more so than if it had been iambic.


At Frostfriends.org you will find the following:

Birches: “It’s when I’m weary of considerations.” This line is perfect iambic pentameter, with an extra metrical (feminine) ending.

Their statement is incorrect. This line is not perfect iambic pentameter. A perfectly iambic pentameter line would not have a feminine ending (an amphibrach) in the final foot. It would have an iambic foot (if it were “perfect” iambic pentameter). The correct thing to say would have been: This is a perfectly acceptable variant with an iambic pentameter pattern.

Notice the trochaic final foot in the 9th line – a thoroughly modern variant.

As with the other lines, I scanned the 10th line as headless to preserve an Iambic scansion and because I thought it most accurately reflected Frost’s own reading of the poem. (That is, the feeling is Iambic rather than trochaic. ) While scansion doesn’t, by in large, reflect phrasing, there is a certain balance to be struck; and I have tried to do so in these lines.


The fourth line is the most metrically divergent. I have scanned the line as Iambic Tetrameter with an anapestic feminine ending. The alternative would be to read it as follows:


If this is what Frost imagined, then my own feeling is that the scansion fails as such. The pyrrhic fourth foot is exceptionally weak, even for pyrrhic feet, while a trochaic final foot seems inadequate to restore the underlying Iambic Pentameter pattern after such a weak fourth foot. Given precedence for an anapestic feminine foot earlier in the poem, and in the final line, the line makes much more sense if read as Tetrameter with an anapestic feminine foot. I don’t see this as being outside the bounds of an acceptable variant. Interestingly, the line remains decasyllabic so that the ear doesn’t so much perceive a short line as a a variant line.

This line has been preceded by some richly varied lines. As is Frost’s habit, he grounds the meter with the iambically regular 6th and 7th line. To that end (in his recitation) Frost effectively reads Toward as a monosyllabic word, emphasizing the return to Iambic Pentameter.

The closing two lines are conservative in their variants. Frost has reaffirmed the Iambic Pentameter and he’s not going to disrupt it again. The message, at this point, is what matters. The meter reinforces the calm and measured summation. In the second to last line, the only variant is an anapestic fourth foot.

chapin-robert-frost-lrWith the last line, the temptation is to read the first foot as One could| do worse, but Frost, in reciting the poem, once again reaffirms the iambic meter by emphasizing could. This sort of metrical emphasis, emphasizing words that might not normally be emphasized while de-emphasizing others that are more normally emphasized, is a Frostian specialty made possible by his use of meter. Free Verse can’t reproduce it. The last line, as Frost reads it, is regularly iambic until the last foot, at which point he elegantly closes with an anapestic feminine ending.

The final foot, with its anapestic swing and feminine falling off, could almost be said to imitate the swinging of the birch.

Such is the genius of Robert Frost.

The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Third Day

Told on third day, after Pu-liang Yi’s Story of the Second Day


Said one trader to another: “Mistress Pu-liang Yi’s has left me as thoughtful as the nightingale that sings of nothing but thorns and roses. Let’s hear a fable of amusement!” Then the other traders agreed that they should hear Liang-chieh next.  “It has been good day for travel, let’s have a goodly fable to match it.

Liang-chieh’s Story

I cannot match Yün’s thoughtfulness and I do not have Mistress Yi’s depth of feeling. I am as shallow as a ditch. But you say I have humor and wit! Ha! Didn’t we see the sun until its very nose sunk into the southern plains and didn’t we see how the birds followed after it? When I was a child I wished to be a poet but my father said he would sooner clothe an ox in tailored silk than raise his son a poet. He made me a merchant, bless him. Here is my tale!

The Monkey and the Crane

“Ha!” said the Monkey. “Love is just a word!
“What good’s a thing that can’t be seen or heard?
“What use? You cannot shake it from a tree
“Or root it from the earth. What use to me
“Or anyone? The tiger still must hunt,
“And if you cry out “Love!” it will not blunt
“Her appetite. She’d eat me all the same
“And leave me no one but myself to blame!”


The Crane was next. She said: “I know
“That love will never melt midwinter snow.
“It is not rain to April buds or earth
“To summer growth. The measure of its worth
“Cannot be judged by any worldly art
“Yet love is life and summer to the heart.”


The Crane and Monkey were the last to speak,
Then Lao-tsu said: “I see that some are meek,
“The lion and tiger proud. The hummingbird
“Is quiet. The elephant is loud. A herd
“Of bison will uproot a field. A crow
“Will squat unnoticed even in the snow.
“As all of you must know I have two suns.
“When one is in my hat the other runs
“From east to west. When one sun sets I lay
“The other in the east to rise. This way
“The sun is out no matter what the hour.
“Yet I have had no time to pick a flower
“No time to rest beneath a shaded wood
“Or sleep. Sleep would be nice. So, if I could,
“I’d like to find out two from all of you
“To whom I’ll give my suns. Between the two
“The world should still have sunlight while I rest.
“I cannot say which one of you is best
“Yet given what each said on love I’ll choose
“The monkey and the crane—the two whose views
“Were most extreme. I find each sun a jewel
“And hope if either animal’s the fool
“The other may be wise. At least one sun,
“That way, remains—a better end than none.”


Though the other animals feared the worst
The Crane and Monkey stayed apart at first,
Just as the Monkey’s sun set in the west
The Crane was taking hers from out her nest.
By turns they kept the sunlight round the earth,
That was, until, the Monkey’s usual mirth
Made his sun seem the brighter one to him;
And so, one day, he swung from limb to limb
Until he found the jungle lake he knew
The Crane most liked. From there he climbed into
A nearby tree until she was in sight.


“Ha!” He cried. “Your sun is not so bright!
“I’ve seen mine up when yours is in your nest
“And even when mine’s setting in the west,
“Yours rising makes not half the fire of mine!
“This afternoon I’ll climb a mountain pine
“That’s stretched its limbs as far as heaven’s roof
“And there I’ll lift my sun to yours as proof
“That mine is like a plate of beaten gold
“And yours a tarnished copper dulled and old.”
“Oh!” the Crane replied. “I had not thought
“To set one sun against the other! Not
“Because I was afraid! It may be true
“That your sun’s brighter, just that I know too
“It is not light but warmth that brings forth life.
“Yet if it puts an end to any strife
“I’ll grant your sun’s the brighter of the two.”


The Monkey thought on this. “This will not do!”
He said at last. “It stands against all reason!
“As any fool knows well the hottest season
“Is when the sun is brightest in the sky.”
To which the Crane responded: “Then why not try
“Your sun against my own where all can see?
“The world be judge instead of you or me.”
“Agreed,” the Monkey said, “as long as they pick mine!”


Instead of finding out a mountain pine,
When it was next the Monkey’s turn to take
His sun, he put it back instead to make
It climb again (though now from west to east!);
And to be sure its backward motion had not ceased
He sat and watched until he saw each sun
Was climbing slowly toward the other one.
The animals had never seen them both
At once! The smallest hid in undergrowth
And those that couldn’t just as quickly ran
Into the jungle fearing the work of man.
The Monkey saw and jeered at every one.
“Ha!” He said. “I see that even tigers run!
“Why if I’d known it was so easy, I
“Would long ago have put them in the sky
“And left them there.” To which the Tiger said:
“You silly Monkey! Tell us why instead
“Of gloating, why you’ve put both suns together.”
“Simple!” said the Monkey. “Tell me whether
“My sun’s the brighter or the crane’s!” And when
The Crane came next the Tiger asked again
The reason but she said the same. ‘The two
‘Of us alone could not decide. We’ve come to you!’


Then all the animals began to talk
And there were some who even dared to walk
From underneath the jungle shade till one
By one the others came to pick a sun
Until, as with the Crane and Monkey, they
Were at a loss to choose and could not say
Which one was best. The Snake, the first to speak,
Said: “I’ve seen both already at their peak.
“If any one of you were made to crawl
“As I, you’d know the earth is cold. For all
“The light reflected in a field of snow
“There’s nothing lives for long where those winds blow—
“The earth is made no warmer by that light
“When even through the longest summer’s night
“It’s warm. I’ll take the moonlight in July
“To January’s sun!” The Owl said in reply
That she liked neither sun. She said:“I knew
The world without them, for then I flew
“And there was never sun to light my way.
“What needed I the sun to hunt my prey
“Who hears the fieldmouse toeing through the wheat?
“In the dead of night the tiger’s not so fleet
“As I! Let all this daylight be undone!”
To which the Tiger said: “I like the sun
“That burns the brightest burning like my heart.
“I like it glistering on the breath at start
“Of day or brightly watching like my eyes
“At evening from the fields before it lies
“In shadow. When it speckles through the tree
“Against the forest floor it looks to me
“As though a tiger left his paw prints there,
“Aglow, before returning to his lair.
“I like the sun that’s burning like my heart.”
The Elephant spoke next, saying: “I part
“With all of you in what you’ve said. Of all
“I can remember best and best recall
“A time when there was both a night and day.
“The dust I throw atop my back to stay
“The sun was what the night was to the earth,
“A cooling balm against that heat as great in worth
“As all the world’s waters. There is none
“Who live for long where there is only sun
“And wind. This world without the passing night
“Is like a desert, the sun like a blight
“And all reduced to dust. Surely we must drink
“To live, and sleep at night. I cannot think
“The world was always meant to have two suns.”


“Ha!” said the Monkey. “Where all this runs
“Is anybody’s guess. It should be plain
“By now the sun belonging to the Crane
“Is neither warm nor brighter than my own!”
To which the Crane replied: “I should have known.
“To teach a Monkey reason can’t be done!
“Why I could sooner teach a snail to run
“Or an ostrich to dance a roundelay!
“If nothing else this, at least, is plain as day!”


The Tiger interrupted both. He said:
“You’d better look into the sky instead
Where both your suns have nearly reached high noon!”
Then both the Crane and Monkey saw that soon
The suns would have to meet! As if to flee
The Monkey clamored to the nearest tree.
The Crane cried out and leapt into the air;
Both knew well there was little time to spare.
The Monkey climbed the limbs by twos until
The suns hung just beyond his outstretched hand;
And even when he did his best to stand,
His tail wrapped round the branches topmost stem,
He could not grapple either one of them.
The Crane, as quickly as she could, tried too
And strained against the winds until she flew
Beside the suns but then she could not choose.
She cried “I cannot tell whose sun is whose!”
And sure enough the Monkey could not say.
He pointed, scratched his chin, looked this way
Then that. And by the time they both decided
It came too late for next the suns collided!


So much light none had ever seen. And still
The sky grew brighter by the moment till
There came a sound as if two great bells
Had each been struck. Then like cockleshells,
Each thrown against the other mid-air,
The smaller of the two was shattered, there,
In countless pieces, scattered through the sky!
Not a creature dared to lift an eye
But stayed where each had fled and not a sound.
Just the Monkey who’d fallen to the ground —
Felled branch by branch until he’d struck the earth.
He checked if he was still his usual girth —
His head and then his bottom. All was there.
And looking he could do no more than stare.
His sun now glowed a thin and papery light —
A watery silver hardly half so bright
As what it was. He saw the sky aglow
As with a sparkling dust. It seemed as though
The brilliance of his sun was swept away
And all the pieces sprinkled through the half-lit day.
His fiery sun was gone.
And yet the Monkey thought he’d never known
A sight as beautiful as stars and moon,
And felt content to stare all afternoon.
“Ha!” That’s all the Monkey ever said.
Some held it came from landing on his head.
But others said they’d rather grasp the joke –
And though they tried the Monkey never spoke.
“Ha!” he said. That was all. The other sun,
Jolted from its westward course, had spun
Unbroken far into the southern sky.
Yet even so the Crane still flew close by
As if she feared to let it from her sight
Unless it whirl unwatched into the night


Lao-tsu didn’t see the suns collide
But napping in a meadow close beside
A brook he’d woken up to find a moon
And stars had splashed the fading afternoon
With light — some stars were falling from the sky
And some left sparkling trails where they passed by.
He rubbed his eyes before he looked again
And stared, his mouth agape, and knew by then
Some unknown mischief had unfixed the world.
It looked as if a giant’s rage had hurled
The sun as far as earth and sky still met.
He thought it seemed to topple there and yet
He still could see the crane against its light
Before it finally rolled into the night.
“Where are my suns?” he cried and rushed to where
He’d left them in the crane and monkey’s care,
Yet not a single animal would say.
The snake lodged underneath a rock to stay
Until the sun returned. The owl had flown.
The Tiger skulked the jungle’s dark alone.
The elephant recalled a darker night
Before the monkey’s sun had left its light
In splintered pieces. Alone among them all
The monkey sat absorbed by what he saw,
Unmoved from where he’d fallen from the tree.
He’d curled and propped his head against his knee
To watch the spinning stars. Lao-tsu cried:
“I see the crane fly south and thought she tried
“To catch the sun before it slipped away!
“I see, as with the remnants of the day,
“The night is dusted with a glittering light!
“I see a ghostly ball ascend the night
“As if it were the shadow of a sun!
“From this I cannot reason what you’ve done!”
The monkey only looked dissatisfied.
“Ha!” he said before he moved a branch aside.
Then Lao-tsu stared at him a little while
And could not say if it were simply guile
Or if the monkey also couldn’t reason why,
Till finally both sat gazing at the sky
Together with their backs against the tree.
There was a moon and countless stars to see.
Then he finally spoke once more that night,
He said: “The sky and earth will of themselves be right.”


Here Ends Liang-chieh’s Tale

Followed by Ji-Yuan’s Story on the Fourth Day .


The Annotated “To be or not to be”

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150px-shakespeareAs far as this soliloquy goes, there’s a surplus of good online analysis. And if you’re a student or a reader then you probably have a book that already provides first-rate annotation. The only annotation I haven’t found (which is probably deemed unnecessary by most) is an analysis of the blank verse – a scansion – along with a look at its rhetorical structure. So, the post mostly reflects my own interests and observations – and isn’t meant to be a comprehensive analysis. If any of the symbols or terminology are unfamiliar to you check out my posts on the basics of Iambic Pentameter & scansion. Without further ado, here it is. (I’ve numbered the lines for the convenience of referencing.)


1.) The first line, in a single line, sums up the entirety of the soliloquy – as though Shakespeare were providing crib notes to his own soliloquy. There’s a reason. He wants to cleanly and clearly establish in the playgoers mind the subject of the speech. There will be no working out or self-discovery. Shakespeare is effectively communicating to us some of the reason for Hamlet’s hesitancy.  The speech, in effect, is the reverse of the Shakespearean Sonnet that saves its epigrammatic summing up for the last line. The Shakespearean Sonnet, as Shakespeare writes it, is the working out of a proposition or conflict that finds a kind of solution in the epigrammatic couplet at its close.

Metrically, the first line is possibly one of the most interesting and potentially ambiguous in the entire speech. I chose to scan the line as follows:

  • To be |or not |to be: |that is |the question
  • first-line-iambic

But if you google around, you may find the line more frequently scanned as follows:

  • To be |or not |to be: |that is|the question
  • first-line-trochaic

First to the disclaimer: There is no one way to scan a line but, as with performing music, there are historically informed ways to scan a poem. Shakespeare was writing within a tradition, was a genius, and knew perfectly well when he was or wasn’t varying from the Iambic Pentameter pattern of blank verse. To assume less is to assume that he was mindlessly writing a verse he either didn’t or couldn’t comprehend.

An actor has some latitude in how he or she wants to perform a line, but choosing to ignore the meter is akin to ignoring slurs or other markings composers provide in musical scores. Putting the emphasis on that subtly alters the meaning of the line. It sounds as though Hamlet were looking for the question, the conundrum, and once he has found it he says: Ah ha! That is the question. And this is how most modern readers read the line.

By putting the emphasis on is, in keeping with the Iambic Meter, the meaning of the line takes on a more subtle hue – as if Hamlet knew the question all along. He says: That is the question, isn’t it. The one question, the only question, ultimately, that everyone must answer. There’s a feeling of resignation and, perhaps, self-conscious humor in this metrical reading.

That said, William Baer, in his book Writing Metrical Poetry, typifies arguments in favor of emphasizing writing-metrical-poetrythat. He writes: “After the heavy caesura of the colon, Shakespeare alters the dominant meter of his line by emphasizing the word that over the subsequent word is. ” (Page 14)

How does Baer know Shakespeare’s intentions? How does he know that Shakespeare, in this one instance, means to subvert the iambic meter? He doesn’t tell us.  All he says is that “most readers will substitute a trochee after the first three iambs” – which hardly justifies the reading. Baer’s argument seems to be: Most modern readers will read the foot as a trochee, therefore Shakespeare must have written it as a trochee.

The word anachronistic comes to mind.

If one wants to emphasize that for interpretive reasons, who am I to quarrel? But the closest we have to Shakespeare’s opinion is what he wrote and the meter he wrote in. And that meter tells us that is receives the emphasis, not that.

Note: Baer later mis-attributes the witch’s chant in Macbeth (Page 25) as being by Shakespeare- an addition which most Shakespearean scholars recognize as being by Middleton. Not a big deal, but this stuff interests me.

Anyway, I prefer an iambic reading knowing that not everyone will.

The line closes with a feminine ending in the fifth foot. For this reason, the line  isn’t an Iambic Pentameter line but a variant within the larger Iambic Pentameter pattern. Compare the blank verse of Shakespeare to that of many modern Formalist poets. Shakespeare is frequently far more flexible but, importantly, flexes the pattern without disrupting it. Finding a balance between a  too-strict adherence to a metrical line and too-liberal variation from it is, among modern poets, devoutly to be wished for. But modern poets are hardly unique in this respect, compare this to Middleton’s blank verse (a contemporary who collaborated with Shakespeare.) Middleton stretches blank verse to such a degree that the overall pattern begins to dissolve. He is too liberal with his variants.

2-3.) Both lines close with a feminine ending. They elaborate on the first part of the question- To be. The elegance & genius of Shakespeare’s thought and method of working out ideas is beautifully demonstrated in this speech. The speech as a whole stands as a lovely example of Prolepsis or Propositio – when a speaker or writer makes a general statement, then particularizes it. Interestingly, I was going to provide a link for a definition of Prolepsis but every online source I’ve found (including Wikipedia and Brittanica!) fails to get it completely right. (So much for on-line research.)

OK. Digression. (And this will only appeal to linguists like me.) Here’s a typical definition of Prolepsis as found online:

  • A figure of speech in which a future event is referred to in anticipation.

This isn’t wrong, but it’s not the whole story. Whipping out my trusty Handbook to Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, we find the following:

  • Propositio
  • also known as prolepsis (not to be confused with praesumptio)
  • Susenbrotus ( 28 )
    Scheme. A general statement which preceedes the division of this general proposition into parts.

Praesumptio is the other meaning of Prolepsis, which is what you will find on-line. So, I guess you heard it here, and online, first. Prolepsis has two meanings.

Anyway, Shakespeare takes the general To be, and particularizes it, writing : Is it nobler “to be”, and to suffer the “slings and arrows” of life? The method of argumentation, known as a Topic of Invention, was drilled into Elizabethan school children from day one. All educated men in Shakespeare’s day were also highly trained rhetoricians – even if the vast majority forgot most of it. Shakespeare’s method of writing and thought didn’t come out of the blue. His habit of thought represents the education he and all his fellows received at grammar school.

4-5.) These two lines also close with feminine endings. Shakespeare, unlike earlier Renaissance dramatists, isn’t troubled by four such variants in a row. They elaborate on the second part of the of the question – not to be. Or is it better, Hamlet asks, to take arms and by opposing our troubles, end both them and ourselves? Is it better not to be?

6-9.) Up to this point, there has been a perfect symmetry in Shakespeare’s Prolepsis. He has particularized both to be and not to be. Now, his disquisition takes another turn. Shakespeare particularizes not to be (death) as being possibly both a dreamless sleep (lines 6 through 9) or a dream-filled sleep (lines 10 through 12). So, if I were to make a flowchart, it would look like this:


In line 7, natural should be elided to read  nat‘ral, otherwise the fifth foot will be an anapest. While some metrists insist that Shakespeare wrote numerous anapests, I don’t buy their arguments. Anapests were generally frowned on. Secondly, such metrists need to explain why anapests, such as those above, are nearly always “loose iambs”, as Frost called them – meaning that elipsis, synaloepha or syncope could easily make the given foot Iambic. Hard-core, incontestable anapests are actually very difficulty to find in Shakespeare’s verse. They are mitigated by elision, syncope or midline pauses (epic caesuras).

10-13.) Shakespeare now particularizes “not to be” (or death) as, perhaps, a dream filled state. This is the counterpart to lines 6-9 in this, so far, exquisitely balanced disquisition. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come – he asks.

14-27.) At this point, Shakespeare could have enumerated some of the fearful dreams attending death – a Dante-esque descent into fearful presentiments. But Shakespeare was ever the pragmatist – his feet firmly planted in the realities of life. He took a different tact. He offers us the penury, suffering and the daily indignities of life. We suffer them, despite their agonies, fearing worse from death. We bear the whips and scorns of time (aging and its indignities), the wrongs of oppressors (life under tyranny), the law’s delay, the spurns of office. Who, he asks, would suffer these indignities when he could end it all with an unsheathed dagger (a bare bodkin) to his heart or throat? – if it weren’t for the fear of what might greet them upon death? Those dreams must be horrible! And he leaves it to us to imagine them – our own private hells – rather than describe that hell himself – Shakespeare’s genius at work.

Line 15 presents us with a rhetorical figure Hendiadys. Interestingly, it’s in Hamlet that Shakespeare uses this figure the most:

  • For who would bear the whips and scorns of time?

The figure denotes the use of two nouns for a noun and its modifier. It’s a powerfully poetic technique in the right hands, and one that is almost unique to Shakespeare. Few poets were ever, afterward, as rhetorically inventive, adventurous or thorough in their understanding and use of rhetoric. It’s part and parcel of why we consider Shakespeare, not just a dramatic genius, but a poetic genius. He unified the arts of language into an expressive poetry that has never been equaled.

Line 16 presents us with some metrical niceties. I’ve chosen to use synaloepha to read The oppres|sor’s wrong as (Th’op)pres|sor’s wrong. I’m not wedded to that reading. One might also consider it a double onset or anacrusis (as some prefer to call it) – two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable in the first foot. Interestingly, metrists have historically preferred to consider this anapest a special variant and so don’t refer to it as an anapest. As a practical matter (considering how the line is likely to be spoken by an actor) I suspect that the first foot will sound more like an Iamb or a loose Iamb – which is why I scanned it the way I did. Line 16 closes with the word contumely. I think that nearly all modern readers would read this as con-tume-ly. A glance at Webster’s, however, reveals that the word can also be pronounced con-tume-ly. The difference probably reflects changes in pronunciation over time. In this case, it’s the meter that reveals this to us. An incontestable trochee in the final foot is extremely rare in Shakespeare, as with all poets  during that time. If you’re ever tempted to read a final foot as trochaic, go look up the word in a good dictionary.

In line 22 the under, in the third foot (under |a wear|y life), is nicely underscored by being a trochaic variant.

In line 25 the fourth foot echoes line 22 with the trochaic puzzles. This is a nice touch and makes me wonder if the reversal of the iambic foot with under and puzzles wasn’t deliberate – effectively puzzling the meter or, in the former, echoing the toil of a “weary life” and the “reversal” of expectations. But it’s also possible to read too much into these variants.

By my count, there are only 6 Iambic Pentameter lines out 13 or so lines (lines 14-27). The rest of the lines are disrupted by variant feet. That means that less than 50% of Shakespeare’s lines, out of this tiny sampling, are Iambic Pentameter. The Blank Verse of Shakespeare (an ostensibly Iambic Pentameter verse form) is far more flexible and varied than one might, at first, expect.

28-33.) These lines mark the true close of the soliloquy. “The native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” Fear of the dreams that may inhabit death makes cowards of us all. Some modern readers might be tempted to read line 28 as follows:

  • Thus con|science does |make co|wards of |us all

But the Iambic Pentameter pattern encourages us (when we can) to read feet as Iambic. In this case it makes more sense to emphasize does rather than make.

  • Thus con|science does |make co|wards of |us all

One thing worth noticing, and it’s my very favorite poetic technique and one that has been all but forgotten by modern poets, is anthimeria – the substitution of one part of speech for another.

arts-of-language-color-correctedThe native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought

Sickly is an adverb that Shakespeare uses as a verb. In Sister Miriam Jospeh’s book, Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, she writes: “More than any other figure of grammar, it gives vitality and power to Shakespeare’s language, through its packed meaning, liveliness and stir. ” She herself goes on to quote another writer, Alfred Hart:

Most Elizabethan and Jacobean authors use nouns freely as verbs, but they are not very venturesome…. The last plays of Shakespeare teem with daringly brilliant metaphors due solely to this use of nouns and adjectives as verbs…. they add vigor, vividness and imagination to the verse… almost every play affords examples of such happy valiancy of phrase.

Finally, notice the imagistic and syntactic parallelism in “the native hue of resolution” and “the pale cast of thought”. It’s a nice poetic touch that adds emphasis to Shakespeare’s closing argument – our fears dissuade us from enterprises “of great pith and moment”.

Interestingly, even as Hamlet’s dithering ends, he never truly decides whether “to be or not to be”.

If this has been helpful, let me know.

As on a sunny afternoon…

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As on a sunny afternoon

Shakespearean, Spenserian, & Petrarchan Sonnets

  • Updated and expanded March 25, 2009Miltonic Sonnet, Nonce Sonnet, Links to Various Sonnet Sequences and additional Sonnets.
  • After you’ve read up on Sonnets, take a look at some of my poetry. I’m not half-bad. One of the reasons I write these posts is so that a few readers, interested in meter and rhyme, might want to try out poetry. Check out Spider, Spider or, if you want modern Iambic Pentameter, try My Bridge is like a Rainbow or Come Out! Take a copy to class if you need an example of Modern Iambic Pentameter. Pass it around if you have friends or relatives interested in this kind of poetry.
  • April 23 2009: One Last Request! I love comments. If you’re a student, just leave a comment with the name of your high school or college. It’s interesting to me to see where readers are coming from and why they are reading these posts. :-)


The Shakespearean Sonnet: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

The word Sonnet originally meant Little Song.

Sonnets are one of my favorite verse forms after blank verse. And of all the sonnet forms, Shakespearean is my favorite – also known as the English Sonnet because this particular form of the sonnet was developed in England. The Shakespearean Sonnet is easily the most intellectual & dramatic of poetic forms and, when written well, is a showpiece not only of poetic prowess but intellectual prowess. The Shakespearean Sonnet weeds the men from the boys, the women from the girls. It’s the fugue,  the half-pipe of poetic forms. Many, many poets have written Shakespearean Sonnets, but few poets (in my opinion) have ever fully fused their voice with the  intellectual and poetic demands of the form. It ‘s not just a matter of getting the rhymes right, or the turn (the volta) after the second quatrain, or the meter, but of unifying the imagery, meter, rhyme and figurative language of the poem into an organic whole.

I am tempted to examine sonnets by poets other than Shakespeare or Spenser, the first masters of their respective forms, but I think it’s best (in this post at least) to take a look at how they did it, since they set the standard. The history of the Shakespearean Sonnet is less interesting to me than the form itself, but I’ll describe it briefly. Shakespeare didn’t publish his sonnets piecemeal over a period of time. They appeared all at once in 1609 published by Thomas Thorpe – a contemporary publisher of Shakespeare’s who had a reputation as “a publishing understrapper of piratical habits”.

Thank god for unethical publishers. If not for Thomas Thorpe, the sonnets would certainly be lost to the world.

How did Thorpe get his hands on the sonnets? Apparently they were circulating in manuscript among acquaintances of Shakespeare, his friends and connoisseurs of his poetry. Whether there was more than one copy in circulation is unknowable. However, Shakespeare was well-known in London by this time, had already had considerable success on the stage, and was well-liked as a poet. Apparently, there was enough excitement and interest in his sonnets that Thorpe saw an opportunity to make some money. (Pirates steal treasure, after all, not dross.)

The implication is that the sonnets were printed without Shakespeare’s knowledge or permission, but no historian really knows. Nearly all scholars put 15 years between their publication and their composition. No one knows to whom the sonnets were dedicated (we only have the initials W.H.) and if it’s ever irrefutably discovered- reams of Shakespeare scholars will have to file for unemployment.

(Note: While I once entertained the notion that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays – no longer. At this point, having spent half my life studying Shakespeare, I find the whole idea utterly ludicrous. And I find debating the subject utterly ludicrous. But if readers want to believe Shakespeare was written by Oxford, or Queen Elizabeth, or Francis Bacon, etc., I couldn’t care less.)

Now, onto one of my favorite Shakespearean Sonnets – Sonnet 129.

sonnets-fronticpieceThe expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
··All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
··To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

While this sonnet isn’t as poetic, figurative or “lovely” as Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, it is written in a minor key, like Mozart’s 20th Piano Concerto, and beautifully displays the rigor and power of the Shakespearean Sonnet. Let’s have another look, this time fully annotated.


The Shakespearean Sonnet: Structure

First to the structure. Many Shakespearean Sonnets can be broken down, first, into two thematic parts (brackets on the left).  The first part is comprised of two quatrains, 8 lines, called the octave, after which there is sometimes a change of mood or thematic direction. This turn (or volta) is followed by the sestet, six lines comprised of the quatrain and couplet. However, this sonnet – Sonnet 129 – does not have that thematic turn. There are plenty of sonnets by Shakespeare which do not.

In my experience, many instructors and poets put too much emphasis on the volta as a “necessary” feature of Shakespearean sonnet form (and the Sonnet in general). It’s not . In fact, Shakespeare (along contemporaries like Sidney) conceived of the form in a way that frequently worked against the Petrarchan turn with it’s contemplative aesthetic. The Elizabethan poets were after a different effect – as Britannica puts it: an argumentative terseness with an epigrammatic sting.

My personal analogy in describing the Shakespearean Sonnet is that of the blacksmith who picks an ingot from the coals of his imagination. He puts it to the anvil, chooses his mallet and strikes and heats and strikes with every line. He works his idea, shapes and heats it until the iron is white hot. Then, when the working out is ready, he gives it one last blow – the final couplet. The couplet nearly always rings with finality, a truth or certainty – the completion of argument, an assertion, a refutation.

Every aspect of the form lends itself to this sort of argument and conclusion. The interlocking rhymes that propel the reader from one quatrain to the next only serve to reinforce the final couplet (where the rhymes finally meet line to line). It’s from the fusion of this structure with thematic development that the form becomes the most intellectually powerful of poetic forms.

I have read quasi-Shakespearean Sonnets by modern poets who use slant rhymes, or no rhymes at all, but to my ear they miss the point. Modern poets, used to writing free verse, find it easier to dispense with strict rhymes but again, and perhaps only to me,  it dilutes the very thing that gives the form its expressiveness and power. They’re like the fugues that Reicha wrote – who dispensed with the normally strict tonic/dominant key relationships. That made writing fugues much easier, but they lost much of their edge and pithiness.

And this brings me to another thought.

Rhyme, when well done, produces an effect that free verse simply does not match and cannot reproduce. Rhyme, in the hands of a master, isn’t just about being pretty, formal or graceful. It subliminally directs the reader’s ear and mind, reinforcing thought and thematic material. The whole of the Shakespearean rhyme scheme is hewed to his habit of thought and composition. The one informs the other. In my own poetry, my blank verse poem Come Out! for example, I’ve tried to exploit rhyme’s capacity to reinforce theme and sound. The free verse poet who abjures rhyme of any sort is missing out.

The Shakespearean Sonnet: Meter

As of writing this (Jan 10, 2009), Wikipedia states: “A Shakespearean sonnet consists of 14 lines, each line contains ten syllables, and each line is written in iambic pentameter in which a pattern of a non-emphasized syllable followed by an emphasized syllable is repeated five times.”

And Wikipedia is wrong.

Check out my post on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145. This is a sonnet, by Shakespeare, that contains 8 syllables per line, not ten. It is the only one (that we know of) but is nonetheless a Shakespearean Sonnet. The most important attribute of the Shakespearean Sonnet is it’s rhyme scheme, not its meter. Why? Because the essence of the Shakespearean Sonnet is in its sense of drama. (Shakespeare was nothing if not a dramatist.) The rhyme scheme, because of the way it directs the ear, reinforces the dramatic feel of the sonnet. This is what makes a sonnet Shakespearean. Before Shakespeare, there was Sidney, whose sonnets include many written in hexameters.

That said, the meter of Sonnet 129 is Iambic Pentameter. I have closely analyzed the meter in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, so I won’t go too far in depth with this one, except to point out some interesting twists.

As a practical matter, the first foot of the first line |The expense |should probably, in the reading, be elided to sound like |Th’expense|. This preserves the Iambic rhythm of the sonnet from the outset. Unless there is absolutely no way around it, an anapest in the first foot of the first line of a sonnet (in Shakespeare’s day) would be unheard of.

Lines 3 and 4, of the first quatrain, are hard driving, angry Iambs. Murderous in line 3 should be elided, in the reading, to sound like murd‘rous, but the word cruel, in line 4, produces an interesting effect. I have heard it pronounced as a two syllable word and, more commonly, as a monosyllabic word. Shakespeare could have chosen a clearly disyllabic word, but he didn’t. He chooses a word that, in name, fulfills the iambic patter, but in effect, disrupts it and works against it. Practically, the line is read as follows:


The trochaic foot produced by the word savage is, in and of itself, savage – savagely disrupting the iambic patter. Knowing that cruel works in a sort of metrical no man’s land, Shakespeare encourages the line to be read percussively. The third metrical foot is read as monosyllabic – angrily emphasizing the word cruel. The whole of it is a metrical tour de force that sets the dramatic, angry, sonnet on its way.

There are many rhetorical techniques Shakespeare uses as he builds the argument of his sonnet, many of them figures of repetition, such as Epanalepsis in line 1, Polyptoton, and anadiplosis (in the repetition of mad at the end and start of a phrase): “On purpose laid to make the taker mad;/Mad in pursuit”. But the most obvious and important is the syntactic parallelism that that propels the sonnet after the first quatrain. The technique furiously drives the thematic material forward, line by line, each emphasizing the one before – emphasizing Shakespeare’s angry, remorseful, disappointment in himself – the having and the having had. It all drives the sonnet forward like the blacksmith’s hammer blows on white hot iron.

And when the iron is hot, he strikes:

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The intellectual power displayed in the rhetorical construction of the sonnet finds its dramatic climax in the final couplet – the antimetabole of “well knows” and “knows well” mirrors the parallelism in the sonnet as a whole – succinctly. The midline break in the first line of the couplet is resolved by the forceful, unbroken final line. The effect is of forceful finality. This sonnet could have been a monologue drawn from one of Shakespeare’s plays. And this, this thematic, dramatic momentum that finds resolution in a final couplet is what most typifies the Shakespearean Sonnet. The form is a showpiece.

Lastly, I myself have tried my hand at Shakespearean Sonnets. My best effort is “As on a sunny afternoon…”. Three more of my efforts can be found if you look at the top of the banner-  under Index: Opening Book (my favorite of the three being The Farmer Wife’s Complaint. I learned how to write poetry by writing Sonnets. I’ve written many others but their quality varies. I may eventually post them anyway.

spenser-dark-smThe Spenserian Sonnet: Spenser’s Sonnet 75

Spenser has to be the most doggedly Iambic of any poet – to a fault. Second only to his dogged metrical Iambs, is his rhyming. English isn’t the easiest language for rhyming (as compared to Japanese or Italian). Rhyming in English requires greater skill and finesse, testing a poet’s resourcefulness and imagination. Yet Spenser rhymed with the ease of a cook dicing carrots. Nothing stopped him. His sonnets reflect that capacity – differing from Shakespeare’s mainly in their rhyme scheme. Here is a favorite Sonnet (to me) his Sonnet 75 from Amoretti:


One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
··But came the waves and washed it away:
··Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
··A mortal thing so to immortalize,
··For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise
··To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
··My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.
··Where whenas Death shall all the world subdue,
··Our love shall live, and later life renew.

The Elizabethans were an intellectually rigorous bunch, which is one of the reasons I enjoy their poetry so much. They don’t slouch or wallow in listless confessionals. They were trained from childhood school days to reason and proceed after the best of the Renaissance  rhetoricians. Spenser, like Shakespeare, has an argument to make, but Spenser was less of a dramatist, and more of a lyricist and storyteller. His preference in Sonnet form reflects that. Here it is – the full monty:


The Spenserian Sonnet: Structure

The difference in temperament between Spenser and Shakespeare is revealed in the rhyme scheme each preferred. Spenser was a poet of elegance who looked back at other poets, Chaucer especially; and who wanted his readers to know that he was writing in the grand poetic tradition – whereas Shakespeare was impishly forward looking, a Dramatist first and a Poet second, who enjoyed turning tradition and expectation on its head, surprising his readers (as all Dramatists like to do) by turning Patrarchan expectations upside down. Spenser elegantly wrote within the Petrarchan tradition and wasn’t out to upset any apple carts. Even his choice of vocabulary, as with eek, was studiously archaic (even in his own day).

Spenser’s sonnet lacks the drama of Shakespeare’s. Rather than withholding the couplet until the end of the sonnet, lending a sort of climax or denouement to the form, Spencer dilutes the effect of the final couplet by introducing two internal couplets (smaller brackets on right)  prior to the final couplet. While Spencer’s syntactic and thematic development rarely emphasizes the internal couplets, they are registered by the ear and so blunt the effect of the concluding couplet.

There is also less variety of rhyming in the Spenserian Sonnet than in the Shakespearean Sonnet. The effect is of less rigor and momentum and greater lyricism, melodiousness and grace. The rhymes elegantly intertwine not only the quatrains but the octave and sestet (brackets on left). Without being Italian (Petrarchan) the effect which the Spencerian Sonnet produces is more Italian – or at minimum a sort of hybrid between Shakespeare’s English Sonnet and Pertrarch’s “Italian” model.

Spencer comes closest, in spirit, to anything like a Petrarchan Sonnet sequence in the English language.

The Spenserian Sonnet: Spenser’s Meter

As far as I know, Spenser wrote all of his sonnets in Iambic Pentameter. He takes fewer risks than Shakespeare, is less inclined to flex the meter the way Shakespeare does. For instance, in two of the three Shakespeare sonnets I have analyzed on this blog, Shakespeare is willing to have the reader treat heaven as a monosyllabic word (heav’n) (see my post on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145 for an  example of Shakespeare’s usage along with sonnet above).  Spencer treats heaven is disyllabic.  Their different treatment of the word might reflect a difference in their own dialects but I’m more inclined to think that Shakespeare took a more flexible approach to meter and pronunciation – less concerned than Spenser with metrical propriety. Shakespeare, in all things, was a pragmatist, Spenser, an idealist – at least in his poetry.

(Interesting note, Robert Frost referred to such metrical feet which could be anapestic or Iambic depending on the pronunciation, as “loose Iambs “. Such loose iambs would include Shakespeare’s sonnet where murderous could be pronounced murd’rous and The expense as Th’expense.)

There are two words which the modern reader might pronounce as monosyllabic – washed in line 2 and wiped in line 8. When reading Spenser, it’s best to assume that he meant his lines to be strongly regular. It is thoroughly in keeping with 15th & 16th century poetic practice (and with Spenser especially) to pronounce both words as disyllabic – washèd & wipèd. Spenser was a traditionalist.

I also wanted to briefly draw attention to the difference in Shakespeare and Spenser’s use of figurative language. Shakespeare was much more the intellectual. Nothing in Spenser’s sonnets compare to the brilliant rhetorical figures used by Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a virtuoso on many levels.

john-miltonThe Petrarchan Sonnet: John Milton

The Petrarchan Sonnet was the first Sonnet form to be written in the English Language – brought to the English language by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard Earl of Surrey (who was also the first to introduce blank verse to the English writing world). However, there is no great Petrarchan Sonnet sequence that left its mark on the form.  The Petrarchan model was quickly superseded by the English/Shakespearean Sonnet. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet Sequence (all Petrarchan Sonnets) is mixed with greatness but never influenced the form.  They were written toward the close of the form’s long history. For a link to her Sonnets, see below.

The search for the ideal representative, among English language poets, of the Petrarchan Sonnet is a search in vain.  Petrarchan Sonnets are scattered throughout the language by a number of great poets and poets, who if they weren’t “great”,  happened to write great Petrarchan Sonnets.

One thing I have failed to mention, up to now, is the thematic convention associated with the writing of Sonnets – idealized love. Both the Shakespearean and Spenserian Sonnet sequences play on that convention. The Petrarchan form, interestingly, was readily adopted for other ends. It was as if (since the English Sonnet took over the thematic convention of the Petrarchan sonnet) poets using the Petrarchan form were free to apply it elsewhere.

Since there is no one supreme representative Petrarchan Sonnet or poet, I’ll offer up John Milton’s effort in the form, since it was early on and typifies the sort of thematic freedom to which the Petrarchan form was adapted.

When I consider how my light is spent,
··Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
··And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
··My true account, lest He returning chide;
··“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

And here is the same Sonnet under the magnifying glass:


The Petrarchan Sonnet: Structure

My primary interest is in English language poets who have written in the Petrarchan form. However, for those who want a good site that examines Petrarchan Sonnets as written by Petrarch, I would strongly recommend Peter Sadlon’s site – he includes some examples in the Italian. He makes the point, for example, that Petrarch did not write Iambic Pentameter sonnets, since the meter is ill-suited to the Italian Language. More important is the observation that Petrarch himself varied the rhyme scheme of the sestet – cd cd cd (as in Milton’s Sonnet), cde ced, or cdcd ee.Petrarch’s freedom in the final sestet is carried over into the English form. You will know that you are reading a Petrarchan sonnet first, if it’s not Shakespearean or Spenserian, and second if the rhyme scheme favors the reading of an octave followed by a sestet. Identifying a Petrarchan sonnet sometimes isn’t an exact science. This beautiful sonnet form is less about the rhyme scheme and more about the tenor of expression.

Interestingly, even though Robert Frost’s famous sonnet “Silken Tent” is formally a Shakespearean Sonnet, it has the feel of a Petrarchan Sonnet.

As regards Milton, he wrote this sonnet as a response to his growing blindness. The sonnet has little to do with idealized love but its meditative and contemplative feel is very much in keeping with Petrarch’s own sonnets – contemplative and meditative poems on idealized love. The rhyme scheme reinforces the the sonnet’s introspection: enforcing the octave, the volta and the concluding sestet.

The internal couplets in the first and second quatrain (smaller brackets on right) give each quatrain and the octave as a whole a self-contained, self-sufficient feeling. The ear doesn’t register a step wise progression (a building of momentum) as it does in the Shakespearean & Spenserian models. The effect is to create a kind of two-stanza poem rather than the unified working-out of the English model.

Note: Perhaps a useful way to think of the difference between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean Sonnets is to think of the Petrarchan form as a sonnet of statement and the Shakespearean form as a sonnet of argument. Be forewarned, though, this is just a generalization with all its inherent limitations and exceptions.

The volta or turn comes thematically with God’s implied answer to Milton’s questioning. The lack of the concluding couplet makes the completion of the poem less epigrammatic, less dramatic and more considered. The whole is a sort of perfectly contained question and answer.

The Petrarchan Sonnet: Milton’s Meter

This sonnet was written prior to Paradise Lost and, to my ear, shows a slightly more adventurous metric. The first departure from the iambic rhythm comes in the first foot of line  4 with Lodged. This is the sort variation that perfectly exploits the expectations established by a metrical pattern. That is, the word works on two levels, “lodged” thematically and trochaic-ally within the iambic meter- not a brilliant variant but an effective one.

In line 5 I read the fourth foot as being pyrric, but one can also give the word and an intermediate stress: To serve therewith my Maker, and present.

It’s not until line 11 that things get interesting. Most modern readers would probably read the first two feet of the line as follows:

Bear His |mild yoke, |they serve Him best. His state

But the line can be read another way – iambically. And in poetry of this period, if we can, then we should.

Bear His |mild yoke, |they serve Him best. His state

What’s lovely about this reading, which is what’s lovely about meter, is that the inflection and meaning of the line changes. Notice also how His is emphasized in the first foot, but isn’t in the fourth and fifth:

Bear His |mild yoke, |they serve |Him best. |His state

In this wise, the emphasis is first on God, then on serving him. It is a thematically natural progression.

The last feature to notice is that the final line, line 14, retains a little of the pithy epigrammatic quality of the typical English or Shakespearean Sonnet. No form or genre is completely isolated from another. The Petrarchan mode can be felt in the Shakespearean Sonnet and the Shakespearean model can be felt in the Petrarchan model.

The Miltonic Sonnet

The Miltonic Sonnet is a Petrarchan Sonnet without a volta. Although Milton was hardly the first to write sonnets in English without a volta, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 being a case in point, Milton made that absence standard practice; and so, this variation on the Petrarchan Sonnet is called a Miltonic Sonnet.

On the Importance of Naming Things

Not only are there names for the different sonnets, which is forgivable, but there also names for the different quatrains and octaves in all these sonnets because human beings like nothing more than to classify. God’s first request to Adam & Eve was to name… everything. (What interests me more is puzzling out the aesthetic effects these different rhyme schemes produce.)   But, because knowing the name of things always sounds impressive – here they are.


The Petrarchan Sonnet can be said to be written with two Italian Quatrains (abbaabba) which together are called an Italian Octave.

The Italian Octave can be followed by an Italian Sestet (cdecde) or a Sicilian Sestet (cdcdcd)

The Envelope Sonnet, which is a variation on the Petrarchan Sonnet, rhymes abbacddc efgefg or efefef.


The Shakespearean Sonnet is written with three Sicilian Quatrains: (abab cdcd efef) followed by a heroic couplet. Note, the word heroic refers to Iambic Pentameter. Heroic couplets are therefore Iambic Pentameter Couplets. However, not all Elizabethan Sonnets are written in Iambic Pentameter.


The Spenserian Sonnet is written with three interlocking Sicilian Quatrains: (abab bcbc cdcd) followed by a heroic couplet.
  • Note: I have found no references which reveal when these terms first came into use. I doubt that the terms Sicilian or Italian Quatrain existed in Elizabethan times.  Spenser didn’t sit down and say to himself: Today, I shall write interlocking sicilian quatrains. I think it more likely that these poets chose a given rhyme scheme because they were influenced by others or because the rhyme scheme was most suitable to their aesthetic temperament.
  • Note: It bears repeating that many books on form will state that all these sonnets are characterized by voltas. They are, emphatically, not. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 (above) would be an example.
Sidneyan Sonnet
For more on Sidney’s Sonnets, see post on Sidney: his Meter and Sonnets.

Other Petrarchan Sonnets

Since the Petrarchan Sonnet is so varied in the English Language tradition, I thought I would post a few more examples. I have divided the quatrains, octaves and sestets to better show their structure. I’ll probably come back to this post and include more as I find them. (For the most part, a couplet in the closing sestet seems, usually, to be avoided by most poets.)

John Keats

Rhyme Scheme:

ABBA ABBA CDCDCD (The same as Milton’s)

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

keatsMuch have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

William Wordsworth

Rhyme Scheme:


wordsworthSurprised by joy — impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport–Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind–
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind

To my most grievous loss?–That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Rhyme Scheme:


shelley1I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

For a closer look at this sonnet, take a look at my post: Shelley’s Sonnet: Ozymandias

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Rhyme Scheme:


millayWhat 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 in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in 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.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Rhyme Scheme:


eb-browningHow do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Other Sonnets:

  • Sir Philip Sidney Astrophel and StellaSidney’s sonnets are a kind of hybrid between the Shakespearean and Petrarchan mode. The Octave of his sonnets alternate between the Petrarchan Octave and the interlocking Sicilian Quatrains of the English Sonnets. His Sestets alternate between one of his own devising and the Shakespearean model. For more on this: visit my post Sidney: His Meter and Sonnets.
  • John Donne Holy Sonnets These sonnets are like Sidney’s – having qualities of both the Shakespearean and Petrarchan form.
  • And then there are sonnets of varying rhyme schemes – Nonce Sonnets. The word Nonce simply means that a given form is unique to the poem. Keats’ If by dull rhymes would be a Nonce Sonnet – and written specifically about the making of a new rhyme scheme.

John Keats

Rhyme Scheme:


If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;

Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d
By ear industrious, and attention meet:
Misers of sound and syllable, no less

Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.

Iambic Pentameter & Chaucer

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In my post on Shakespeare I wrote that a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. With the Prologue, meter tells us the story of Chaucer’s language and how he spoke it.

Iambic Pentameter  & Blank Verse

In my previous post on Iambic Pentameter (The Basics), I quoted the opening to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, saying I would take a look at it in a later post. This is the later post.  And here are the opening lines, once again.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
geoffrey-chaucerThe droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

There are some sites that credit Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, with first introducing Iambic Pentameter to the English Language. The confusion seems to stem from the difference between Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter. Chaucer did not write Blank Verse. All of Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter is rhymed – using a form called Open Heroic Couplets or Riding Rhymes. Judging by the literature left to us, Henry Howard was indeed the first to introduce Iambic Pentameter Blank Verse to English literature, but he wasn’t the first to introduce Iambic Pentameter. The first record we have of Iambic Pentameter is in Chaucer’s verse.

The trick to recognizing Chaucer’s use of Iambic Pentameter is in knowing how to pronounce the words. The first key is in recognizing that English is a Germanic language and that in Chaucer’s day the split between English and proto-German was still relatively fresh. Why is that important? Because in German all vowels are pronounced.  There is no silent e as in the English word Rose (as in the flower).  The German word for  Rose is die Rose.  The word is the same in English and German. However, in German, it is pronounced something like  Ros-uh (having two syllables). And in Chaucer’s day, this pronunciation still held sway in many English words. The other key is a familiarity with the Iambic Pentameter pattern. Knowing that Chaucer was writing Iambic Pentameter helps us to know which –e was silent, in which word, and which –e was not. (Note: Some modern editions appear to only include the -e in words in which it was pronounced.)

Also, this post isn’t about translating the text into modern English. The Gypsy Scholar provides a good translation and I’m all for supporting another scholarly blogger!

Now to the Scansion

From the very first line of the Canterbury tales, Chaucer shows us that he’s not going to be hide-bound in his use of Iambic Pentameter. His first line is a headless line with a feminine ending. (Now, having said that, there are some scholars who insist that aprill was originally spelled aprille and should be three syllables. I don’t buy it. But I’ve thrown in an interesting discussion at the bottom of the post to show to what degree scholars will debate such matters – and how it is only through meter that we have a clue.)Whan that...

You might ask how a reader should know whether the final word soote is one or two syllables. Scansion doesn’t help us because we could just as easily read the word as being one syllable. (Pronouncing the e was not a hard and fast rule – as with droughte – some editions, I notice, omit the e in this word.) In the case of soote, the only reason we know is that Chaucer uses the word, midline, later in The Second Nun’s Tale: “The soote savour, lilie was hir name.” In this line, if we don’t pronounce soote as two syllables soot-uh, the iambic pattern will be broken.

the Droghte

Notice that perced should be pronounced percèd. In textual parlance, it shouldn’t be clipped. If we clip the pronunciation, the Iambic pattern will be broken. The tradition of pronouncing -ed words continued well into the Victorian Era.

and bathed

Once again, bathed should be pronounced bathèd. Just as in modern english, we want the strong stress (or ictus) to be on the first syllable of every. Unless we pronounce bathed with two syllables, the iambic pattern will be broken. Every is also elided to read as two syllables, just as in modern English. Note also that we don’t pronounce the e at the end of veyne. If you did, you would introduce an anapestic foot into the line (two unstressed syllables before a stressed syllable) and Chaucer simply does not write anapests – which is helpful to know. (If someone does find one, I’m ready to stand corrected.)

of which virtu

The only real stickler is the word virtu which can be safely understood as virtue in modern English. In modern English however, it’s the first syllable which is stressed, not the second. An expertise on Latin and French is pushing the limits of my knowledge (I’m a carpenter for a living) but a little research shows us two things: the word comes from the Latin virtus (stress on the first syllable); but also that the Anglo-Saxons absorbed the word from the Normans (middle-French) and that even the proto-French had to do everything differently. That is, they accented the second syllable of the word, pronouncing it vertu. Because trochaic feet are very rare in Chaucer, and because we know the English language absorbed an astonishing number of French words (80% of our vocabulary) as a result of the Norman invasion (just a couple hundred years prior to Chaucer), we can safely say that the Iambic Foot is retained. When reading Chaucer, and when in doubt, always read it iambically.

These first four lines cover just about every exigency you will find in Chaucer’s verse.

When Zephirus ii

The first of the four lines is interesting in that one might be tempted to scan it as a tetramter line, thus:


This would make the line, in effect, octasyllabic – an iambic tetrameter line. 400 years later this might be an acceptable iambic variant, but not in Chaucer’s day. The second interesting question is how to pronounce sweete – one or two syllables. Here are two possiblities if we pronounce sweete with two syllables:


In the first instance, the first foot is an amphibrach. This might go in Modern English, but an amphibrach is an all but unacceptable iambic variant in Chaucer’s day. If you read an amphibrach in Chaucer, you should find probably find another way to pronounce the word. In fact, in Chaucer’s day, Zephirus was pronounced with a long i – Zeph-irus. The second reading retains this pronunciation but gives us two inverted feet – two trochaic feet – in the first and second foot. All this to grant sweete two syllables. Since two consecutive trochaic feet just don’t happen in Chaucer’s meter, and since iambic feet are the rule – the first reading is most likely the way Chaucer heard the line – a headless line.

Interestingly, Chaucer seems to have pronounced sweete with either one or two syllables, depending on what he needed for the sake of the meter. In the Miller’s Tale one reads the two pronunciations even in the same sentence:

What do ye, hony-comb, (sweete) Al-i-soun,
My fair-e bryd, my (sweet-e) cy-na-mome?

In the first line, sweete is pronounced with one syllable, in the second, with two. So, like every poet after him, Chaucer wasn’t above inconsistency for the sake of meter. I personally like the effect that changing the pronunciation produces. It gives the speaker a sort of sly ingratiating tone as he flatters the girl – some things never change.

In the lines above, croppes and yonge are pronounced with two syllables to retain the meter. The line containing the words is headless. Sonne was probably pronounced with two syllables, making the ending a feminine ending. I say probably, because in other lines where the word sonne is in the middle, Chaucer treats it as a two syllable word: Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe.

and smalle foweles

Corages and pilgrimages both end the lines with feminine endings. The only word that is likely trip up a modern reader, trying to read according to Chaucer’s meter, is nature. As with virtu, nature is pronounced na-ture, the stress on the second syllable. If you check Webster’s, you will find that the etymology of the word places it with middle english and middle french – and as with virtu, middle french (as with modern French) tends to stress the second syllable in words like these. At the end of this post, I have provided a link to a performance of the prologue. Notice how the reader pronounces nature.

and palmeres

You can see that Chaucer’s lines are carefully iambic. For instance, you might have been tempted to pronounce the -e at the end of kowthe, but knowing that Chaucer was careful to preserve the meter you might rightly guess that the -e remained silent. The rest is fairly self-explanatory. The only word which might trip you up is Canterbury. Nowadays, in America at least, we pronounce the word as having four full syllables. But in Chaucer’s day (and the meter is our only clue) the word was apparently pronounced with three syllables – Cant-er-b’ry. Listen to the linked reading  below. It’s somewhat similar to the modern day difference in the American and English pronunciation of secretary. Americans give it four syllables – se-cre-tar-y, the Brits give it three – se-cre-t’ry. Several of the lines end with feminine endings, a favorite iambic variant in Chaucer’s metrical toolkit, along with headless lines (though some don’t believe Chaucer didn’t write headless lines – see the note below).

Anyway, if I think of something I left out, I’ll add it.

If this post was helpful, let me know.

Now listen to it read. The wave file is linked from the following site which offers a pronunciation guide. Once Iambic Pentameter becomes second nature, though, you may find you no longer need pronunciation guides to the same extent. Enjoy.