Robert Frost’s “The Subverted Flower”

·

She drew back; he was calm:
‘It is this that had the power.’
And he lashed his open palm
With the tender-headed flower.
He smiled for her to smile,
But she was either blind
Or willfully unkind.
He eyed her for a while
For a woman and a puzzle.
He flicked and flung the flower,
And another sort of smile
Caught up like fingertips
The corners of his lips
And cracked his ragged muzzle.
She was standing to the waist
In goldenrod and brake,
Her shining hair displaced.
He stretched her either arm
As if she made it ache
To clasp her – not to harm;
As if he could not spare
To touch her neck and hair.
‘If this has come to us
And not to me alone -‘
So she thought she heard him say;
Though with every word he spoke
His lips were sucked and blown
And the effort made him choke
Like a tiger at a bone.
She had to lean away.
She dared not stir a foot,
Lest movement should provoke
The demon of pursuit
That slumbers in a brute.
It was then her mother’s call
From inside the garden wall
Made her steal a look of fear
To see if he could hear
And would pounce to end it all
Before her mother came.
She looked and saw the shame:
A hand hung like a paw,
An arm worked like a saw
As if to be persuasive,
An ingratiating laugh
That cut the snout in half,
And eye become evasive.
A girl could only see
That a flower had marred a man,
But what she could not see
Was that the flower might be
Other than base and fetid:
That the flower had done but part,
And what the flower began
Her own too meager heart
Had terribly completed.
She looked and saw the worst.
And the dog or what it was,
Obeying bestial laws,
A coward save at night,
Turned from the place and ran.
She heard him stumble first
And use his hands in flight.
She heard him bark outright.
And oh, for one so young
The bitter words she spit
Like some tenacious bit
That will not leave the tongue.
She plucked her lips for it,
And still the horror clung.
Her mother wiped the foam
From her chin, picked up her comb,
And drew her backward home.

·

This poem puzzles me in a number of ways, and that’s probably because, as far as the poem goes, the reader isn’t quite sure what to make of either protagonist. On the one hand, the boy, or man, frostis transformed into a beast with a “ragged muzzle”, “a hand hung like a paw”, and “a coward save at night”. On the other, Frost goes on warn us that this is how the girl, or woman, sees him (and perhaps not how we should see him): “…what the flower began/ Her own too meager heart/ Had terribly completed. / She looked and saw the worst.”

On the subject of their age, I notice while reading what others have written, that the protagonists are frequently referred to as a man and a woman. Judith Oster, in her essay Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor, chooses to read the poem as an inexperienced girl and boy (seemingly ignoring the narrator’s own description of the “boy” as a “marred man”). Frost, though, makes a point of at least the girl’s youth, referring to her as “one so young”. I read that as meaning that she’s rightly called a girl. Usually when we refer to a teen-aged girl we refer to her as just that—a teen-aged girland not a teen-aged woman. So I’m going to refer to her as a girl, probably in her mid teens. Not too young for a boy or man’s (if we consider an eighteen or nineteen year old a man let’s say) amorous and physical affections.

Frost writes that “He eyed her for a while / For a woman”, but there’s hedging in that statement. “For a woman” suggests that maybe she really wasn’t. He wants to see her that way, he “eyed” her that way, but as the poem later suggests: she’s either not old enough to be eyed that way or she herself, if old enough, is too naive or immature. Both are suggested by the line: “A girl could only see/ That a flower had marred a man…” In other words, a woman might have understood, might have seen otherwise, but a girl could only see “a marred man”. So, my reading of their ages is that she’s probably younger than him in age, or at least younger than him in maturity and experience—or both.

  • Frost’s own statement concerning the poem suggests an autobiographical element. That doesn’t mean he was portraying himself and Elinor (his wife), only that the poem might have been inspired by something, at some time, in their relationship. However, if one is going to argue that the poem is strictly autobiographical (which I wouldn’t), then Elinor and Robert would have been the same age.

Another cautionary thought would be this: be careful not to anachronistically appraise their relationship (such as it was or wasn’t). Liaisons between, say, a twenty year old “man” and a teen-aged “girl” were not considered grounds for statutory rape. On the other hand, while courting at this age was permissible, it was strictly proscribed. There might have been petting, if the couple was discreet in the extreme, but anything more could lead to considerable scandal, pregnancy and a shotgun wedding. So, my point would be: Don’t assume that the man was looking for sex. At the time Frost wrote this, and from the “girl’s” point of view, simply expecting a kiss (and a copped feel) might have been tantamount to sex (by her standards). Bottom line: don’t assume that the man was trying to “rape” the girl. That interpretation is available, but I would be wary of making it.

And that brings me to Frost’s own comment on the poem. I don’t think he would have made it if he had thought of the man as a potential rapist. In a 1960 Paris Review Interview he had this to say:

INTERVIEWER

[….}Another neglected poem, and an especially good one, is “Putting In the Seed.”

FROST

That’s—sure. They leave that sort of thing out; they overlook that sort of thing with me. The only person ever noticed that was a hearty old friend of mine down at the University of Pennsylvania, Cornelius Weygandt*. He said, “I know what that’s about.”

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever read that poem in public?

FROST

No, I don’t bother with those. No, there are certain ones. I wouldn’t read “The Subverted Flower” to anybody outside. It isn’t that I’m afraid of them, but I don’t want them out. I’m shy about certain things in my books, they’re more—I’d rather they’d be read. A woman asked me, “What do you mean by that ‘subverted flower’?” I said, “Frigidity in women.” She left.

So, if the point of the poem was to portray the man as a predator and the girl as a victim of sexual predation, then it strikes me as very unlikely (to put it mildly) that Frost would have characterized the poem’s subject (and by extension the girl’s behavior) as “frigidity”.  Does this mean it’s all the girl’s fault?

Many readers have been content to perceive the man just as the girl perceives him—a depraved rapist in the making (seemingly ignoring the poem’s own warning). But the poem, like many of Frost’s best, is a Rorschach test. Readers tend to read it in their own image. For example, if you do a search for “Subverted Flower” on the internet, one of the links cited will be a Masters Degree thesis written in 1958 by a John Thomas Trahey. Interestingly, Trahey’s Master’s Thesis was written while Frost still lived and before Frost’s comment in the Paris Interview:

The poem “The Subverted Flower” is an instance of what Frost thinks of men who try to lead others into sexual sins. In the poem an adolescent boy tries to lead an adolescent girl into fornication. It is interesting to note that Frost keeps referring to the boy as if in his sexual habits he were a dog. It is evident Frost despises this sort of thing as fit only for brutes… [Trahey p. 32]

The PDF’s introductory notes reveal that Trahey attended St. Ingatius High School,  then went on to the Milford Novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Milford, Ohio, and then the Jesuit Philosophate at West Baden College. Notice a trend? Trahey was primed, by a rather religious environment, to read Frost’s poem as an indictment of “sexual sin”. Trahey was entirely wrong about “what Frost thinks” and utterly missed Frost’s warning, but it’s interesting in that it reflects a not uncommon reading of the poem.

But what about the opposite reading. Is it all the girl’s fault? It might be a little unfortunate that Frost commented on the poem. Yeats always refused to do so and Frost was normally cagey or took a mischievous delight in leading readers down the primrose path. I take Frost at his word though; but I’d assert that his comment doesn’t make the man any less ambiguous.  The girl may be frigid, but I don’t think Frost means us to discount her perception of the man as a kind of inarticulate brute.

Lines 1-4

She drew | back; he | was calm:
“It is this | that had | the power.”
And he lashed| his o|pen palm
With the ten| der-hea|ded flower.

The underlying meter of the poem is iambic trimeter though the opening quatrain isn’t regular enough to establish it. There are too many variant feet. I read the first two feet of the first line as spondees. The next three lines begin with anapests. The reader’s ear has nowhere to land. At this point in his career Frost had already proven that he could write perfect iambics and had shown a willingness to run the colloquial expression against the grain of the meter. The effect of the unsettled meter could also be understood as underscoring the unsettled drama and emotions that open the poem. That is, the reader finds themselves in the middle of something that is already underway.

The girl draws back. The man lashes his open palm with the tender-headed flower. What has happened?

My own reading is that the girl has just given the flower to the man but something he’s done and/or said makes her ‘draw back’. We find ourselves in the middle of an argument. He says to her, as if in answer to a question or accusation: “It is this that had the power”. We can’t be certain that he’s referring to the flower, but it’s hard to not draw that conclusion.

What does he mean?

The use of the word power in reference to the flower (or any flower) is a strange collocation. The power of the flower is obviously symbolic.  One might imagine that the girl asked: “What changed you?” Her erstwhile harmless companion is unrecognizable. To which the man answers: “It is this that had the power”. The flower was a kind of invitation and, like the petals of the flower, suggested an opening and awakening. But it’s evident that he has entirely misread the girl’s intentions. She, like the flower, is tender-headed; and his all too masculine eagerness and impulsiveness is destructive. He lashes it in his open palm, a likely metaphor for the insensibility of his sexual impulses. In these four lines, then, the entirety of the poem is captured.

Lines 5-14

He smiled | for her | to smile,
But she | was ei|ther blind
Or will|fully |unkind.
He eyed |her for |a while
For a wo|man and |a puzzle.
He flicked |and flung |the flower,
And ano|ther sort |of smile
Caught up |like fing|ertips
The cor|ners of |his lips
And cracked |his rag|ged muzzle.

The next 10 lines reveal the man’s own confusion, then  a kind of resolve. A hostile confrontation isn’t what the man intended. He smiles for her to smile, but she is either blind or willfully unkind. The fault seems to lie with the girl. Or does it? I think the lines are best understood not as reflecting the narrator’s observations but those of the protagonist. It’s the man who is confused and concludes that she’s either ignorant (blind is an accusatory description—as though she ought to know) or malicious (willfully unkind). It doesn’t seem to occur to him that she might be too young or inexperienced, or that her interests might not be sexual. He eyes for a woman; and for that reason, perhaps, as a puzzle. In other words: What did she mean by giving him a flower if it wasn’t an overture? If a girl gives a man a flower, there’s no confusion, but if a woman does so?

He flicked and flung the flower,
And another sort of smile [caught up his lips]…

A decision is made. He might have apologized, but instead, as I read it, he concludes that she’s simply naive or innocent. He can forgive innocence. He doesn’t eye her as a woman any more, but as a girl. And he’ll explain himself. The narrator takes us in and out of both their perceptions. She sees his smile as one “caught up like fingertips”—false, deceptive and disingenuous—transformed into a ragged muzzle. He, on the other hand, sees her not as a woman, but as a girl:

She was stan|ding to| the waist
In gol|denrod |and brake,
Her shi|ning hair |displaced.

He sees in her the very picture of innocence. Only by her hair being “displaced”do we know that something is awry. This is not a perfect picture.

Lines 18-29

He stretched |her ei|ther arm
As if |she made |it ache
To clasp |her – not |to harm;
As if |he could |not spare
To touch |her neck |and hair.
“If this |has come| to us
And not |to me| alone -”
So she thought |she heard| him say;
Though with ev|ery word |he spoke
His lips |were sucked |and blown
And the ef|fort made| him choke
Like a ti|ger at |a bone.

He ‘stretches her either arm’, and by this I think the narrator means that he’s taken her hands in his (having just flicked the flower away). In a sense, he means to to trade one tender-headed flower for another, but the girl isn’t so tender-headed as to miss the meaning in the flicked and flung flower. She won’t be the next one flicked and flung aside. Her perception of the man continues to disfigure him. If the man’s intention is to awaken her (or possibly seduce) and by this means make of her a woman, the effort both succeeds and backfires. That is, the woman she’s becoming isn’t the woman he intended.

He holds her hands, stretching her arms, when what he really wants is “to touch her neck and hair”. He then makes the somewhat opaque comment: “If this has come to us/And not to me alone -” Which I read as meaning: ‘If our affection is mutual, and not mine alone -‘ But even here we can’t be sure: this is only what she thought ‘she heard him say’. The interaction falls further and further into ambiguity.  Her perception of him continues to transform him into a kind of Caliban-like beast, only half-capable of speech—an effort at dignity that makes him choke “like a tiger at a bone.”

Lines 30-34

She had| to lean| away.
She dared |not stir| a foot,
Lest move|ment should| provoke
The dem|on of |pursuit
That slum|bers in |a brute.

She freezes, and the psychological astuteness of Frost’s writing holds its own into the 21rst century. Consider the following Washington Post article:

…if the fear circuitry perceives escape as impossible and resistance as futile, then not fight or flight, but extreme survival reflexes (which scientists call “animal defense responses”) will take over. These can activate automatically when the body is in a predator’s grip – and when, as half of rape victims report, we fear death or serious injury. ¶ One such response is tonic immobility. In freezing, brain and body are primed for action. But in tonic immobility, the body is literally paralyzed by fear – unable to move, speak, or cry out.

What Frost is describing is a reaction that is pertinent to our modern day discussions of rape and sexual abuse. Again, none of this to say that Frost intended us to read the poem as attempted rape (or that the girl was truly in that kind of danger). It is to say, though, that this is how the girl felt; and that Frost beautifully captures it. She had to lean away, but she didn’t. She was too afraid.

Lines 35-40

It was then |her mo|ther’s call
From inside| the gar|den wall
Made her steal| a look| of fear
To see |if he| could hear
And would pounce| to end| it all
Before |her mo|ther came.

That her mother is so close by doesn’t mean she isn’t (or couldn’t be) in danger, but does suggest that her fears (and reaction) might be disproportionate. That her mother is calling also suggests her youth.

Lines 41-49

She looked| and saw| the shame:
A hand |hung like| a paw,
An arm |worked like |a saw
As if |to be| persuasive,
An ingra|tia|ting laugh
That cut |the snout| in half,
And eye| become |evasive.
A girl |could on|ly see
That a flower| had marred| a man,

These next lines place us fully in the girl’s realm of perception. “She looked and saw the shame”, but whether it’s really ‘shame’ or simply disappointment (or some other emotion) is left to the reader to decide. The poem is nothing if not a reenactment of wrong assessment, misreading and misunderstanding. Frost may let us into the minds of the protagonists, but only to reveal their mutual confusion. The girl, after all, has fully transmogrified the man. He’s a brute now—a beast whose hand hangs like a paw. The reference to his arm working like a saw is an unmistakable reference to masturbation. Is he really?  She may perceive it that way but I think it’s more likely gestures her to follow him. That said, her interpretation, and his ultimate intention, may not be that far from the mark. But what of it? I think it was Oscar Wilde who said: “There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who masturbate and those who lie about it.”

And what harm in sexual pleasure (which doesn’t have to imply intercourse)?  It’s at this juncture that Frost’s own comment on the poem is either considered or ignored. Contrary to John Trahey’s assertion, that the poem ” is an instance of what Frost thinks of men who try to lead others into sexual sins”, Frost’s own judgment is that she’s being “frigid”, defined as: “sexually unresponsive; “was cold to his advances”; “a frigid woman”. This would suggest that Frost (as opposed to the narrator) isn’t entirely sympathetic with the girl.

But setting Frost’s own comment aside, the line suggests that the girl herself isn’t unfamiliar with masturbation. Why else make the observation that his hand “worked like a saw”? She could have simply said that he gestured her to follow. She doesn’t. She seems to compare it to masturbation. A reader might fairly conclude she isn’t altogether as innocent as appearances suggest. If this adds another layer of confusion to the poem (and we, as readers, like to ultimately know one way or the other) so be it. Sometimes in sexual matters like these, there’s no pat answer. Is he/she right? Wrong? Who’s to blame? Maybe both. Maybe neither. Then as now, questions of rape, responsibility and consent remain difficult to sort out.

The narrator remarks: “A girl could only see/That a flower had marred a man…” suggesting that a woman might have understood the gesture, might have seen otherwise. The lines also suggest that there was another way she might have “seen him”, as other than a “marred man”. The narrator continues:

Line 50-56

But what |she could| not see
Was that |the flower |might be
Other |than base |and fetid:
That the flower| had done| but part,
And what |the flower| began
Her own |too mea|ger heart
Had ter|ribly |completed.

The narrator suggests the girl had other options and by doing so the reader is invited to conclude that the misunderstanding (the fault) is the girl’s. A feminist critique might fairly argue that there’s implicit misogyny in that assertion, though misogyny might not be the right word. Entitlement? Why should the man be entitled to the girl’s sexual favors? Why shouldn’t it be within her rights to reject him? What other options did she have? Was there some middle ground?

Lines 57-68

She looked |and saw| the worst.
And the dog |or what| it was,
Obey|ing best|ial laws,
A cow|ard save| at night,
Turned from| the place| and ran.
She heard| him stum|ble first
And use |his hands| in flight.
She heard |him bark| outright.
And oh, |for one| so young
The bit|ter words |she spit
Like some| tena|cious bit
That will |not leave| the tongue.

All we know as that she looked and “saw the worst”. The man/dog, provoked by sexual interest is doing nothing more than “obeying bestial laws”. If there’s any autobiography in the poem, I find it here. If nothing else about the poem is autobiographical, the contemptuous accusation that a man’s interest in sex is nothing more than “obeying bestial laws” has the ring of truth, of a real accusation likely to be made when one partner’s sexual desire exceeds the others. After a time, the incessant demand for sex can feel like “pawing”.  We’ll never know, but it’s likely (in my opinion only) that Frost’s sexual appetite exceeded Elinor’s. And I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point she was fed up with him. To be fair there was the added complication of pregnancy. There weren’t birth control pills. Elinor had already had four children, wasn’t exactly living an easy life, and probably wasn’t game to risk another pregnancy for the sake of Mr. Robert Frost. More generally, the poem could also reflect a lifelong difference in their attitudes toward and desire for sex, beginning when they were first courting; and Frost may have vented some of that frustration in the poem. If so, was it fair to call her frigid? Maybe. Maybe not. If Elinor had written the poem though, the conclusion might have been a little different.

  • The likelihood that Frost’s sexual desires exceeded his wife’s finds some backing in the biography of Lawrence Thompson. In his book, Robert Frost Handbook, by Pittman B. Potter, Potter writes: “We should not be surprised to learn that the poem reflects an episode in Frost’s early courtship of Elinor White. Thompson has shown that their relationship was seriously disturbed by Elinor’s very shy reaction to Frost’s physical passion, and Frost’s resentment reflects itself in the subtle slanting here in the boy’s favor.” [p. 63]

The lines “obeying bestial laws,/ A coward save at night…” once again hints at masturbation and the girl’s own dark familiarity with it’s pleasures and its “cowardice”. And it’s at this turn that the girl’s own transformation begins, when she “for one so young” spits the words that will not “leave her tongue”. Like her suitor, she’s also transformed into a Caliban-like beast only half-able to speak. And it’s this moment that’s the most fascinating and revealing in the poem. Not only is he transformed into a beast by his misapprehension and herse, but the girl too. Her own sexual energy, like the flower, is subverted, channeled into divisiveness rather than union, contempt rather than acceptance, hatred rather than love. Subvert has the meaning: “To pervert, as the mind, and turn it from the truth; to corrupt; to confound.” The girl’s sexuality is turned upside down and made as bestial as his.

Line 69-73

She plucked| her lips |for it,
And still |the hor|ror clung.
Her mo|ther wiped| the foam
From her chin,| picked up| her comb,
And drew |her back|ward home.

Her mouth foams, and the reader might be reminded of a rabid dog. While one dog runs away, the other dog barks, foaming at the mouth. Both lovers are metamorphosed by the subversion of the flower. One might assert that because she refuses to be the flower, the man is transformed into a beast, but I think this ignores the girl’s own culpability and transformation. She may be young, but the narration more than suggests that she’s not entirely innocent.

And while all the lines offer moments of revelation, the last is the most suggestive. The girl must be drawn “backward” home. She doesn’t flee when given the chance. Her own sexuality, albeit subverted, is awakened and as engaged as the man’s, compelled by the same bestial laws and as drawn to the engagement (despite her foaming denial). Her mother’s forceful intervention draws her home but the girl won’t be disengaged. The flower’s “power”—sexual awakening—as inevitably draws and overwhelms the girl as it does the man.

“The mother’s call had issued from the safe domestic world—”From inside he garden wall”—and she is taken back out of threateningly sexualized nature and into that refuge at the poem’s end. [….] ¶ [But] to be drawn is not to be dragged, and yet “backward” shows no great willingness. The poem ends with a subtle variation on where it began: “She drew back; he was calm.” Now, she must be drawn back, and all sense of calm has gone, to be replaced by a fallen “comb” which is a symbol of the struggle.” [p. 373]

That the mother wipes the girl’s chin and picks up her comb suggests the mother’s infantilizing. The comb might be understood as the girl’s girlhood. The girl’s hair, that has been ‘displaced’ by her sexual encounter with the man, will be straightened. In other words, the infantilizing comb, which has been tellingly forgotten by the girl, will comb out and remove (presumably by the mother) any record of the encounter.

Fairly or unfairly, the narrator portrays the girl as not just condemning the man’s/boy’s sexual advances, but also condemning her own (this through her suggested knowledge of masturbation and sexual desire).  The tragedy is that rather than elevating them both, they’re both metamorphosed into something bestial—the subversion of what should be good and beautiful.

  • A note on the rhyme: I may return to this post to discuss the rhyme scheme, which isn’t regular but masterfully handled. The rhymes of puzzle and muzzle are beautifully handled in the sense that muzzle follows only after several lines. The reader subliminally waits and when muzzle does appear it’s all the more effective. Also worth noticing is the rhyme of the last three lines, a way to conclude the poem and bring it to a more final stop. (Elizabethan playwrights would sometimes use a concluding couplet to signal the end of a speech.) As in After Apple Picking, the rhyme scheme’s irregularity allows Frost to deploy them in a way that adds emphasis to the narration.  The meter, as mentioned above, is Iambic Trimeter varied, principally, by anapestic first feet and feminine endings.

And  that, for now, is that. Let me know if you enjoyed or have questions.

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the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 1-18

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

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

[1-18]

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

On the Meter

First, all unmarked feet are iambic.

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

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

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

[1-5]

From "Dover Friends Meeting"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5-9]

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

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

She turned and sat upon the steps at that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10-14]

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

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

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

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

[15-18]

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

“What is it—what?” she said.

“Just that I see.”

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

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

❧ from up in Vermont December 3 · 2009

Robert Frost’s “Out, Out”

Buzz Saws and Saw Machines

When I first read this poem, barely a teenager, I got it into my head that Frost’s buzz saw was just another word for a chain saw. But chain saws, as we know them, didn’t make it to the general public until the mid 1920s. The types of saws Frost and New England farmer’s were familiar with are scattered throughout the post.

The saw at right is probably very close to the kind of saw Frost was imagining – called a buzz saw. Here’s how it worked: The flat surface that looks like a table slid forward and back on the two rails. The farmer would put the log on the table and push it through the circular saw.

If you look closely, underneath the front left corner, you’ll see a small iron wheel that rides on the rail. Behind the table, another close look will reveal another larger round metal wheel – the pulley. A belt went around this wheel and could be attached to any kind of motor: steam, gas, or even a horse. (By 1910, Ford was already producing and widely selling gas powered traction machines – later called tractors, that could be attached to a buzz saw.) But having both the buzz saw and the early tractor would have been an expensive proposition.

To get a better idea of how these saws worked, here’s an old gas driven rig, the kind that sawyers would have used (expensive in its own day).

Because I don’t see these rigs run anymore, even up here in Vermont, I joined an antique chainsaw forum to get my facts straight. Here’s what Tom Hawkins, a forum member to whom I’m most grateful, had to say:

[The video shows] a single cylinder (or one lunger) type gasoline engines, some of which are known as “Hit & Miss” or “Make & Break” engines. These terms refer to the engine ignition systems where the spark in constantly interrupted to maintain a set or governed engine speed. In some case it is not the spark, but rather the fuel charge that is temporarily interrupted, these are throttle governed engines. Those two engines pictured above are also hopper cooled type engines, where a large case iron tub filled with water surrounds the engines cylinder for cooling. Note it is not steam powered (…) but steam from the coolant that’s seen in the video. The stream is not uncommon for a working engine, and considered as a normal sign of proper engine operating temperatures, they run best when the stream is present.

Since the machines were too expensive for most, farmers and landowners would cut and stack logs during the winter. Later in the spring and summer, (with the wood close to the homestead) the Sawyers could bring their rigs right into the dooryard and cut the wood into “stove length pieces”. These pieces would then have to be split for cook stoves. Once again, here’s Tom:

A farm family would cut down small sized trees (about 9″ at the butt), beginning in the late fall (after the crop harvest) though early spring, dragging the logs over the winters snow was easier than the bare ground. This work had to be completed before the farmers time would be consumed with the springtime task of cultivating his fields. ¶ The firewood was needed for the next winters home heating and cooking supply, the cleared land for expanding their field crops. ¶ The logs were piled close to the wood shed or home for cutting into stove length pieces, then stacked inside for dry storage and winter access. ¶ The farmers would then arrange a time when the sawyer would be available in his area, the sawyers travelled from homestead to homestead doing several cutting jobs before moving on. Many people did however cut their own firewood by hand with an axe and buck saw.

What is clear, in both Frost’s poem and the newspaper clipping that inspired it, is that the saw was machine powered. These are the kinds of machines New Englanders used before the advent of chainsaws. They could be easily moved by a team of oxen or horses wherever the cordwood needed to be bucked. And there was very little in the way of safety.

On the Writing of the Poem

The title of Frost’s poem will immediately remind knowledgeable readers of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The title echoes what are, perhaps, some of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

The feeling of exhaustion and surrender and life’s futility is palpable. And it warns, all too tragically, of the death (and its tenor) in Frost’s poem. Earlier in the play, and in keeping with Shakespeare’s habit of thought, the doubled combination of out appears in the character of Lady MacBeth.

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One–two—
why then ’tis time to do’t. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie!
A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it,
when none can call our power to account? Yet who would
have thought the old man to have had so much blood in
him?

Macbeth Act 5, scene 1, 26–40

Lady Macbeth’s utterance expresses abhorrence – abhorring a deed that cannot be undone, cannot be washed out or slighted. The blood of murder, the spot, has irrevocably stained her hand. Likewise, the boy’s hand, all but severed by the saw, cannot be redone or restored. There will be no backward step.

Shadow Newman on FrostIn her indispensable book on Frost’s most famous poems, Lea Newman observes that Frost based Out, Out on a real incident. She writes:

The March 31, 1910, edition of The Littleton Courier of Littleton, New Hampshire, carried the following story:

Raymond Tracy Fitzgerald, one of the twin sons of Michael G. And Margaret Fitzgerald of Bethlehem, died at his home Thursday afternoon, March 24, as a result of an accident by which one of his hands was badly hurt in a sawing machine. The young man was assisting in sawing up some wood in his own dooryard with a sawing machine and accidentally hit the loose pulley, causing the saw to descend upon his hand, cutting and lacerating it badly. Raymond was taken into the house and a physician was immediately summoned, but he died very suddenly from the effects of the shock, which produced heart failure… {March 31, 1910]

I can’t recommend Newman’s book enough. Clicking on the image will take you to Amazon.com and the book will take to her more detailed introduction. Buzzsaw & TractorBriefly, as part of her introduction, Newman mentions that Frost didn’t write Out, Out until his return from England, the summer of 1915. She writes that, “he bought a farm outside the village of Sugar Hill, near the Lynches, with a view overlooking the five peaks of the Franconia Range(…) It overlooked five mountain ranges to the west toward Vermont, the same view described in the poem.” He wrote the poem in 1916.

The newspaper clipping doesn’t call the saw a buzz saw but a saw machine. In 1910, the terms saw machine could refer to just about any saw (including circular saws).

Note: The tractor at left is a Farmall from the 1930s.The Howell Drag Saw Machine

However, I’ve noticed that a machine called a drag saw was almost always referred to as a saw machine (when circular saws sometimes weren’t).

The illustration at right comes from the Encyclopedia of American farm implements & antiques. The motor (which could have been just about anything – including an animal) driving the drag saw isn’t in the illustration. To truly appreciate how these machines worked, I’ve found a youtube video of a steam driven drag saw machine. Notice that the saw hangs from a pulley (as well as in the illustration). Now imagine if the pulley was hanging loose or unsecured (or the rope of the pulley) and that someone accidentally bumped the rope or pulley. The blade might suddenly release. If the machine was running, imagine the damage to ones hand.

The Scansion

Now to the poem. Without further ado, here is the poem and it’s scansion. All unmarked feet are Iambic. Pyrrhic feet are yellow. Trochaic feet are red. Spondaic feet are purple. Green indicates a feminine ending. Blue indicates an anapestic foot. The colorized scansion is my own invention and I try to keep the colors consistent throughout my scansions. As far as I know, this little innovation is all my own. The colors, to my eyes, help to quickly visualize the Frost’s metrical patterning, his use of variant feet. If scansion and its symbols are new to you, visit What is Iambic Pentameter (The Basics).

A scansion of Robert Frost's Out, Out

Meter and Meaning

The very first thing to note is that the poem is written in unrhymed Iambic Pentameter, otherwise known as blank verse.

The second thing to note is that the repetition of a Pyhrric foot followed by a Spondee is one of the more interesting patterns in this poem. While I don’t think repeating the figure is, in and of itself, significant, each individual occurrence nicely underpins the text of the poem. While it might be too much to say that every one of Frost’s variant feet are meaningful, he certainly was aware of when he was varying the iambic pattern and the effect it would have.

First Lines Metrical Example

These are strongly varied lines. The second of the three has only one Iambic Foot. All the rest are variant. Frost must have liked the effect of the trochaic dust in the first line. The snarling, rattling saw made dust (where the word dust disrupts the normal metrical pattern. This foot is followed by the spondaic dropped stove. Here too, the meter nicely emphasizes the dropping of the stove length sticks with two consecutively stressed syllables. Did Frost plan this all out? I don’t know, but in this line at least meaning and meter work well together.

Sears & Roebuck Circular Saw Machine Ad 1897I chose to read the first foot of the second line as spondaic. However, one could also read it as Iambic and I have a hunch that Frost read it this way. (Frost usually emphasized the iambic pattern of his poems when reading.) The second line would then read as follows:

Sweet-scen | ted stuff | when the | breeze drew | across it.

The real virtuoso display comes with the phrase “when the breeze drew across it“. To my ears, the pyrrhic foot followed by the spondaic “breeze drew” nicely mimics the rise and draw of a breeze followed by its “fall” in the feminine ending: across it. It’s a lovely touch and I suspect Frost was aware of the effect.

The third line could also be read as iambic pentameter, thus:

And from | there those | that lif | ted eyes | could count

I could imagine Frost reading it like this but I haven’t found a recording. It’s said that Frost rarely read it. I’m guessing that he felt the poem ought to be more private than public, having been based on real events. The next lines that give a nice metrical example also both demonstrate a repeated pattern of thought in this poem, the pyrrhic foot followed by a spondaic foot.

And the Saw Snarled - Metrical Example

Note: For those readers and poets who really enjoy understanding how the minds of poets (and by extension all of us) work, there’s a fascinating little book by Edward A. Armstrong called Shakespeare’s Imagination. Armstrong traces what he calls image clusters in the works of Shakespeare. Swing Saw AdvertIn other words, when a goose shows up in Shakespeare’s imagery, the bird is usually associated with disease, lechery and even the plague. Likewise, when Shakespeare is reminded of a violet, his thoughts almost invariably turn to breath, which becomes wind, sweet airs and even tempests. Not only Armstrong, but other Shakespearean authors have noticed, if in passing, these same habits of thought. Caroline Spurgeon, in Shakespeare’s Imagery, notes similar patterns, including Shakespeare’s negative association with dogs. M.M. Mahood, in Shakespeare’s Wordplay , observes patterns of wordplay. When one word shows up, another associated word will usually show up with it. The reason I mention it is because I’ve noticed similar habits in the writing of meter. In any given poem or stage in a poet’s career, certain variant feet will show up and in habitual combinations. Compare the hard Iambic regularity of Mending Wall with Birches. The varying use of meter in all these poems certainly reflects on the intent and mood of the poem, but I also wonder if it reflects on the poet’s state of mind.

Back to Out, Out. Everyone who has heard a chainsaw knows how the engine revs and rattles. The two lines above, to my ears, capture that sound. The pyrrhic foot followed by the doubly stressed spondaic foot and the amphibrach (feminine ending) all contribute to a kind of metrical onomatopoeia: and the saw snarledand rattled/ as it ran light. By no means does every variant foot feel so nicely wedded to meaning, but Frost, like all great metrical poets, knows how to take advantage of the art when the opportunity arises. Mediocre poets will frequently dilute the power of such variations by introducing them meaninglessly and even contrary to the textual meaning.

All spoiled

The disruptive spondee |Don’t let| disrupts the iambic pattern – a kind of shock and outcry both textually and metrically.

The hand was gone

With this line the blank verse pattern breaks down. There are two ways to scan this line. Above, I’ve scanned the line as an Iambic Tetrameter line with a spondaic first foot and a feminine ending. It’s a nice little trick of meter. The hand is missing and a metrical foot is missing. With an Iambic Tetrameter scansion, the meter neatly reinforces the meaning of the text. Something is missing. The experienced reader of metrical poetry may subliminally or consciously sense the missing foot in the poem. The effect can be powerful, causing both the reader and the listener to pause, to palpably sense an absence. The line is the turning point of the poem.

Another way to scan the line (and the two ways of scanning the line are not mutually exclusive, though that may sound odd) is to treat the first two syllables as monosyllabic feet.

The hand was gone (monosyllabic feet)

Many, if not most, poets and metrists claim that monosyllabic feet don’t exist. I don’t agree. Metrical Art with ShadowI go along with George T. Wright, author of Shakespeare’s Metrical Art. He writes:

Occasional lines appear to be missing an unstressed syllable in some other position than at line -beginning or after a midline break. Anomalous lines of this kind appear in some early plays, sometimes (as in the work of Shakespeare’s predecessors) without notable expressive effect. But as Shakespeare develops the technique in his middle and later plays, it becomes a deliberate device for conveying emotional excitement. All of the following lines appear to involve a foot-long monosyllable intended to be spoken with great force or weight [The following is the second of the two examples Wright offers p. 178]:

King Lear Monosyllabic Feet

In like manner, I’ve read Frost’s So and But as monosyllabic feet. (This makes the line a five foot line.) While the variant feet don’t convey emotional excitement, they do convey a profound emotional turning point in the poem. I imagine the intonation as profoundly sad – a kind of tragic acknowledgment. The words could be spoken slowly with a generous pause – a tragic acceptance (though there are other equally powerful ways to read the poem).

Whether one reads the line as Pentameter or Tetrameter, the effect of both scansions can be felt simultaneously. And this is partly what scansion can do. It demonstrates the different ways readers and poets are affected by speech stress and rhythm in language, and sometimes there is more than one way to scan a line.

The final lines worth considering is the following:

Little, less, nothing

It’s the second line that’s especially noteworthy – a trochaic foot (the heart skips a beat), a spondaic foot (the last two heartbeats) and a pyrrhic foot (then nothing, no stresses, no beats). The boy dies. …such is Frost’s mastery of meter. I give him this one. I think he knew very well how he was playing the meter with the meaning. It’s an effect free verse can approximate, but can’t equal.

The Storyteller

A comparison of the newspaper clipping with Frost’s poem shows a number of changes. He changed the young man to a boy; and Frost clearly means for us to think the boy is more child than man – calling him “a child at heart”. If only given the newspaper clipping, I think most readers would imagine someone in his early to mid teens, rather than a “boy”.

Frost doesn’t want the reader to think this was simply carelessness – a young man who should have known better.

This was a boy, a child at heart, who didn’t know better. Frost suggests where the real responsibility rested: Call it a day, I wish they might have said. They, presumably, are the boy’s elders. Some critics and readers have read, in the poem’s closing lines, a cold callousness. Homemade Swing Saw (Side View)But if the narrator is assumed to be Frost, then there is also compassion and empathy in these lines. Frost possessed strong political opinions. And though his poetry is not overtly political, his philosophical and political views inevitably informed his poetry. Artists can’t escape their personalities (or at least I’m not aware of any).

Note: The saw at left is called a swing saw or swing saw machine. The swing saw in the image is homemade but is representative of the kind of saw that turn-of-the-century word workers would have been familiar with. (Cross-cut saws and chop saws would eventually replace them.) Notice how the saw is hanging like a pendulum. The weight of the circular saw blade (and assembly) were usually counterbalanced by another weight – like the “window weights” in old double-hung windows. If the counterweight hung from a pulley and someone bumped the weight or pulley, the saw might descend on the users hand. However, these saws were primarily shop saws and wouldn’t have been used in a dooryard for bucking lumber. In my view, a swing saw is probably not what was being referred to as a saw machine.

Some readers and critics have taken Frost’s poem as a criticism of child labor laws. Frost had spent time as an educator and so one might expect his sympathies to be attuned to the young. When Frost wrote the poem child labor was still a pernicious practice. It wasn’t until 1938 that the Federal government regulated child labor in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Frost, by this point, was already in his early sixties.

The other change was from a sawing machine to a buzz saw. Saw machines (like the larger drag saws) were probably less apt to be operated by a single person. The newspaper clipping states that Fitzgerald was assisting someone else (or others). A buzz saw, on the other hand, could easily be used by one person handling smaller logs. The impression Frost gives is of a boy working alone (his sister has to come out to tell him supper is ready). A child working after hours and alone only adds to the feeling, not of carelessness, but of tragedy. Frost additionally resists blaming the boy. He writes that the saw leaped out at the boy’s hand, as if it knew what supper was. The modern reader might wonder how a buzz saw could leap, but here’s Tom Hawkins again:

Now I’ve run many a cordwood saws in my life, so I kinda understand that poem a bit. Those old one lunger type gasoline engines had counterweighted flywheels to keep up their momentum as they were running, this caused the saw rig to bounce somewhat. The engines also had a make and break ignition, spark on and off as engine needed to maintain it’s governed speed, so as a new charged fired the whole unit would jump. ¶ I remember that when were cutting real dried out Oak or more so Locust (very hard wood), a large cloud of sawdust would surround an encompass us. ¶ It’s very possible that the saw did leap right out and take the hand, these type of saws really do jump, especially when their slowing to a stop, which appear to be the case here. The jump or leaping is caused by those counterweighted flywheels rotating at lower than normal balance speed.

Was it the boy? Was it the saw? Did the “boy give the hand”? It was fate. These things simply happen. The effect is to express the inexplicable.

Frost and the Poem’s Reception

As I’ve mentioned already, many of Frost’s readers were perplexed by the seeming callousness and indifference of the poem. Consider, as well, the reference of the poem’s title.

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Is this how readers are to understand the boy’s death? – as signifying nothing? Other words and images occur in Frost’s poem that may or may not have their source in Shakespeare’s passage. Consider these lines:

all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

Then consider how dust appears within the first lines of Frost’s poem:

The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust…

And the saw does just that. The buzz saw turns the boy’s own life to dust. It makes dust both literally and symbolically. And the poem, like Shakespeare’s soliloquy, closes with the word nothing.

They listened at his heart.
Little — less — nothing!

Just as with the poor fool, the actor who frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more, so too is the boy’s heart “heard no more”.

Belief & UncertaintyRobert Pack, one of the only authors to offer a detailed analysis of the poem, writes in Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost:

The poem’s narrative arc is of dust returning to “dusty death” (Shakespeare’s phrase), although the narrator and reader are at first misled by the sweet-scented odor of the cut wood in the breeze. The narrator, along with those other would-be believers who have lifted eyes, appears to be enjoying a vision of great depth into nature itself — “the Five mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset, far into Vermont” — as if nature were beautiful and benign, a spectacle of Wordsworthian and biblical revelation. But the narrator will subsequently realize that he has had, rather, a vision of nature’s beautiful indifference. [p. 158-159]

Pack calls the poem a confrontation with nothingness. And the feeling of nothingness and utilitarian purpose is only emphasized by the choice of words that close the poem, “no more to build on there“. This was more than the loss of a child. The work of building, of preparing for the season, the next season and the years to come never stopped. Frost’s words are hard. What had to be considered was not just the loss of a child but what the child contributed. Life in New England, at the turn of the century, was not easy. The response to the poem, among some of Frost’s closest readers and associates, seems to have put Frost on the defensive. Pack quotes a passage from a letter that may capture some of that defensiveness:

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

Though Pack calls this passage “revealing” he doesn’t indicate why (or if) he thinks Frost was referring specifically to Out, Out. This sort of “hard pragmatism” can also be found in Home Burial. But even more revealing than this brief passage is the poem The Lesson for Today. As with the poem For Once, Then, Something, Frost seems to be responding to his critics, readers and even, perhaps, to his closest friends and family – acquaintances who may have accused Frost, himself, of that same hard callousness.

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

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

Radcliffe Squires, who also noted the relationship between this poem and the poem Out, Out, comments:

What matters is that [Robert Frost] could hold together in one poem the two severe and mutually accusing ideas that one must be moved to pity and compassion and that one must coldly and sternly pursue the duty of endurance and survival.

The beauty of the poem, and it’s powerful effect on the reader, arises from the balance Frost obtains. The accident is both carelessness, “the boy gave the hand” and accident “the saw leaped”. The narrator is both compassionate, “call it a day I wish they might have said”, and coldly pragmatic, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs”. The narrator is almost like nature itself – the passionate and dispassionate observer – that leaves us, the readers, to wonder at its design and purpose. That’s the best kind of poetry.

Why do Poets write Iambic Pentameter?

  • May 14, 2009 Tweaked & corrected some typos.

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

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

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

False Starts

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

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

Quantitative Verse (Sample from Spenser Encyclopedia)

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

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

Why the Drama?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Not Latin Enough

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

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

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

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

odyssey-book-12-chapman-pope

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

odyssey-book-12-pope-fitzgerald

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

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

Enough with the Romans and Greeks

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

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

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

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

Enter Milton

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

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

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

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

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

The Novelty Wears Off

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

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

The Fall of Iambic Pentameter

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

But not all poets followed Pound’s lead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it goes.

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

The rebellion was short lived.

Modern Iambic Pentameter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Last Comparison

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

odyssey-book-12-fitzgerald-mandelbaum

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

Afterthoughts • August 7 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erlkönigin

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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

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.

still-glorious

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

body-enjoyest

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:

mean-or-in-her

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:

bone-of-my-bone

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.

amiable

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.

tetrameter-amiable

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.

second-foot-amphibrach

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.

first-foot-amphibrach

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.

pronuncation-1

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’.

pronuncation-2

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:

ambiguous-feet

|Led by|

or

|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:

ambiguous-feet-2

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).

like-folly1

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:

pure-love

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

angels-and-sex

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.

Robert Frost, Iambic Pentameter & Mending Wall

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  • September 25, 2011. Further thoughts on interpreting Mending Wall.
  • June 26, 2009Major revision. Expansion of post with interpretive passage.
  • April 25th, 2009 –  Added audio of Robert Frost reciting Mending Wall.

About the Poem

Having noticed several searches on Frost’s Mending Wall (probably one of the most famous poems he wrote) I thought I would take a look at the poem.the-work-of-knowing1 I’ve looked at several of my books on Frost and none of them extensively analyze the poem. The archetypal meaning of the wall is straightfoward and expounded on by the speaker of the poem. Perhaps the most insightful comment was Richard Poirier’s in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Poirier makes the observation Frost’s “genius as a narrative poet is in part his capacity to sustain debates between people about the nature of the ‘homes’ which they very often occupy together.” Mending Wall is an ideal manifestation of that genius, just as Home Burial is.

As an aside, it is also worth noting how few poets take an interest in writing narratively or even in voices other than their own. In the most recent issue of Measure, a biannual journal that publishes “formal” poetry, I could only find one poem indisputably  written in a voice other than the poet’s – “Moliere’s Housekeeper”. The overwhelming majority were first person with the remaining few being second and third person. Not a single poem was written in the manner of a debate between two separate voices. Robert Frost is truly unique in this respect.

Having just analyzed Frost’s Birches, I was struck by the difference, in metrical style, between Birches and Mending Wall. My first thought was that Birches must have been written later (if not much later) than Mending Wall. Where Mending Wall is extremely conservative in its use of variant feet, Birches shows a much greater freedom and flexibility. As is the habit with most poets , when young they will try to master the game strictly by the rules – both to learn the rules and to prove to themselves and to others that they have the right stuff. Frost himself bragged that his first book, “A Boy’s Will”, proved that he could write  by the numbers. That done, he quickly learned how to bend the rules.

I still think that Birches must have come later but William Pritchard, Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, pritchard_frostrecounts that when Frost wrote to Bartlett (a publisher) in August of 1913 “about a book to be called, tentatively, New England Eclogues, made up of ‘stories’ form between one to two hundred lines, he sent along a list of eleven poems, one of which bore the title “Swinging Birches.” Pritchard, echoing another biographer (John Kemp) speculates that Frost didn’t include Birches in the first book because the tone, more philosophical “and sage”, would have set it (too much) apart from the other poems “rooted in the realism of experience”. Page 103.

So… I’ m left clinging to my theory on the basis of meter alone. Which isn’t a wholly reliable way to date poetry. But there you have it. One last interesting note. Lea Newman, who I mentioned in a previous post, writes in her book Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry,  of a children’s story Frost wrote for Carol and Lesley. In reference to elves and a spell, she quotes the following passage from the story:

Their backs were to the wall so that when a stone fell off it they were taken by surprise. They hardly turned in time to see two little heads pop out of sight on the pasture side. Carol saw them better than Lesley. “Faries!” he cried. Lesley said, “I can’t believe it.” “Fairies sure,” said Carol.

What Newman doesn’t observe is that even here, two voices (Frost’s children) are in debate. One sees fairies, the other doesn’t. Not only were the seeds of magic and elves present in this children’s story, but also the presence of two distinct voices in debate. It’s easy to imagine how, rightly or wrongly, these first thoughts gradually evolved into the famous poem. Newman mentions, additionally, that Frost himself never firmly identified himself with one speaker or the other. There was a little of both speakers in himself – and the poem could in some ways be taken as an internal debate.

Here is what Frost himself said, 1955, at Bread Loaf:

It’s about a spring occupation in my day. When I was farming seriously we had to set the wall up every year. You don’t do that any more. You run a strand of barbed wire along it and let it go at that. We used to set the wall up. If you see a wall well set up you know it’s owned by a lawyer in New York — not a real farmer. This is just about that spring occupation, but of course all sorts of things have been done with it and I’ve done something with it myself in self defense. I’ve gone it one better — more than once in different ways for the Ned of it — just for the foolishness of it. [The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost p. 231]

To show just how divergent the metrical usages are between the two poems, I’ve color coded the scansion of Mending Wall and Birches. Trochaic feet are in red, Spondees are purple, Anapests are blue, and Feminine Endings are green, Phyrric feet are yellowish.

Frost reciting Mending Wall:

Mending Wall

Mending Wall - Color Coded Scansion

The meter does little in terms of acting as counterpoint to the line. (The scansion, by the way, is based on Frost’s own reading of the poem.) One might conjecture that the regularity of the meter, if it wasn’t simply for the sake of writing Iambic Pentameter, was meant to echo the stepwise, regular, stone by stone mending of the wall.  After all, there is no flinging of feet from the topmost spindle of a birch. There is no avalanching or crazed ice. There are no girls on hands and knees throwing their hair before them over their heads to dry them. The work of mending wall is slow, methodical, hand roughening work. This, of itself, may explain the careful regularity of the meter.

There are some nice touches worth mentioning, touches that might  escape a reader unaccustomed to reading blank verse (Iambic Pentameter). First:

but-at1

The temptation, including my own, is to read the first foot as Trochaic |But at|, but Frost clearly reads it Iambically. He reads the first foot quickly. It’s a craft that many “professional” metrists don’t take seriously enough – perhaps because they’re not poets themselves. The meter of poets who write metrically shouldn’t be taken for granted. All too often, it seems, metrists insist that the English language, as it is spoken on the street, trumps any given metrical pattern. Don’t believe them. A poet who writes metrically does so for a reason.

The sweetest metrical touch comes in the following line:

i-could-say-elves

Most of us would read the third foot as |I could|, putting the emphasis on I, but Frost reads the foot Iambically and the pattern reinforces the reading. Putting the emphasis on could gives the line a much different feel, then if one emphasized I. To me, Frost’s reading sounds more mischeivious. Frost specialized in this sort of metrical subtletly, emphasizing words that might not normally recieve the ictus. It’s also a specially nice touch because just several lines before Frost used the word could as an unstressed syllable.

could-put-a-notion

One could conceivably stress could in the line above, but that would be subverting the Iambic pattern.

Lastly, another effect of the regular iambic pattern is to  especially contrast the first trochaic foot in the poem’s seminal line:

Some-thing | there is | that does | n’t love | a wall

It’s an effect that subliminally draws attention to the eye, catching the ear. It’s a line that disrupts the normal “foot on foot”, “stone on stone” pattern of the poem. And it is doubly effective because the line occurs twice. If the effect wasn’t noticed the first time, it will be the second time.

The author Mark Richardson, in one of my favorite books on Frost, The Ordeal of Robert Frost, finds that the two trochees in this first line and in the four lines “contribute subtly to the theme of these lines”.

Something| there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes |gaps ev|en two can pass abreast.

“How much better”, he asks, “to describe a disordered wall than in lines themselves disordered.” To me, given that only 2 out of the 20 feet are variant metrical feet (and the spondee is really only marginal) I’m not persuaded that they’re all that disordered.  I’m more apt to apply that observation to the following lines:

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones |under |his pines, |I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make |good neighbors’.
Spring is |the mischief in me, and |I wonder

In these lines, 5 out of the feet are variant. Two trochaic feet and three feminine endings.  I think these lines make a stronger case for the juncture of meter and meaning. There is a sort of excitement and mischievousness in the tone of the speaker reflected, one could argue, in the disruption of the meter. As Frost reads it, these are the most irregular lines in the poems – the moment when the two men exchange words.

Interpreting Mending Wall: (June 19 2009)

I’m adding this section because I should have written it from the beginning. But what prompted me to write it is the fascinating reading from an acquaintance of mine. He is the Director of a New England private school and in his most recent newsletter, he wrote the following about the poem:

The more I read and teach this poem. the more I find the speaker to be a condescending jerk. After inviting the neighbor to repair the wall, a tradition that clearly brings the speaker pleasure, he then makes fun of him for caring about the wall. First he assures his neighbor that his apples trees will not cross the wall to eat his pine cones. Then he imagines making an even more preposterous suggestion — that it is “elves” and not frost heaves that have toppled the wall — but decides not to mention it since his neighbor is not clever enough to come up with such an idea on his own… He ends the poem with an insult, confiding to us that the neighbor is “an old stone savage armed”.

The point being made is that the speaker’s humor comes at the expense of his neighbor. “Wall mending becomes an opportunity not to talk with his neighbor, but to sneer at him.” This is prejudice, he adds.

My own take is that there is certainly some humor at the neighbor’s expense, but the speaker of the poem gives the neighbor the final word. In other words, the poem doesn’t end with these words:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

It ends with the aphorism – Good fences make good neighbors. This is what the reader of the poem walks away with. There is a weight and seriousness in this last line, like the stones being placed back onto the wall, that undercuts the speaker’s glib humor.

Politics and Poetry - Robert FrostTyler Hoffman, in his book, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry (another one of my very favorite books on Robert Frost and dirt cheap at Amazon), actually acknowledges some of my acquaintances reservations concerning Mending Wall’s speaker. Hoffman’s observes that Frost’s own conception of the poem initially confirms the impression of the speaker’s dismissiveness. Hoffman writes:

In 1915, when the tone [of the neighbor’s aphorism] is fresher in his mind, Frost advses that this instance should be heard as expressing ‘Incredulity of the other’s dictum’ (CPPP 689). But how much sarcasm is entangled in the in the speaker’s quotation of his neighbor’s statement? The tone is held in suspension, allowing us to imagine it is said with either a shrug or a sneer.

Hoffman continues:

(…) none of the imaginable tones is flattering to the neighbor: when we hear it one way, we condemn him as smug and self-congratulatory; when we hear it another way, we write him off as a blockhead (“an old-stone savage armed”).

According to Hoffman, Frost’s acquaintance, Reginald Cook reported that Frost used to stress “I’d rather he said it for himself” in the lines:

I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself
.

There were evidently tonalities and “sentence sounds” that Frost lost track of as a result of repeated readings. Hoffman relates that Frost himself said (in reference to the poem’s central aphorism): “You know, I’ve read that so often I’ve sort of lost the right way to say, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ See. There’s a special way to say [it] I used to have in my imagination, and it seems to have gone down. You say it in two different ways there.”

What’s interesting about Frost’s statement is that it confirms what many readers probably sense (or may not), that there is a shift in tone from the start of the poem to the finish. The speaker’s own attitude toward his neighbor changes. Does the poem end sarcastically or does it only begin sarcastically and end with a different sort of respect. It seems that the speaker of the Mending Wall wants his neighbor to be more playful or more open to a kind of intentionality in the world’s workings. Human beings do more than build barriers. We cannot separate ourselves from the vagaries of life that, sometimes, seem almost mischievous, tearing down our most ingeniously devised walls.  The speaker wants his neighbor to say it for himself. But if one reads the poem in this sense, then it seems as though the neighbor really does move in a kind of darkness. He comes to represent that part in us that refuses to give ourselves up to a world we cannot, ultimately, control. It’s not exactly elves, but maybe something like elves. Call it impishness, perhaps.

But there’s another aspect to this poem, and that’s in knowing which character is really Robert Frost, if either. In the Road Not Taken, Frost describes the following experience:

I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home.

This sort of experience characterizes much of Frost’s poetry – Frost in conversation with himself, divided in his own beliefs and assertions. The Ordeal of Robert FrostMany of his poems are like argumentative engagements with himself. Frost himself said as much:

“I make it a rule not to take any ‘character’s side in anything I write” [RF & The Politics of Poetry p. 108]

It’s a theme that Mark Richardson recognizes in his book The Ordeal of Robert Frost. Mending Wall, he writes: “perfectly exhibits the balance he sought between dispositions  of conformity and formity. The speaker… allies himself with the insubordinate energies of spring…” Then Richardson adds:

…the association of the speaker with insubordinate natural forces should not be permitted to obscure an important fact, which has been often enough noticed: he, not the neighbor, initiates the yearly spring repair of the wall; moreover, it is again he, not the neighbor, who goes behind hunters who destroy the wall in other seasons and makes repairs. So, if the speaker is allied with the vernal mischief of spring and its insubordinations, he is nevertheless set against them in his efforts to make the stones of the wall balance and remain in place… [p. 141]

Driving the point home, Richardson closes his argument with the following:

The speaker of “Mending Wall” is obviously of two minds: at once wall-builder and wall-destroyer, at once abettor and antagonist of seasonal entropies…. The difference is that, unlike his benighted neighbor, the speaker of the poem does indeed go behind his own favored aphorism [Something there is that doesn’t love a wall] to play both sides of the fence. In short, the two opposed men in the poem fairly shape up into one, and his name is Robert Frost.

Here from The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, is Frost himself. Frost was responding to the president of Rollins College.

He took both my hands to tell me I had written a true international poem. And just to tease him I said: “How do you get that?” You know. I said I thought I’d been fair to both sides — both national [and international]. “Oh, no,” he said, “I could see what side you were on.” And I said: “The more I say I the more I always mean somebody else.” That’s objectivity, I told him. That’s the way we talked about it, kidding. That’s where the great fooling comes in. But my latest way out of it is to say: “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries. That’s man. [pp. 231-232]

George Monteiro, the essayists from whose article these quotes are taken, adds that Frost took Mending Wall “very much… as a fable.”

The Poet and his Poetry (September 25 2011)

Just as we change, the best poems change with us. When I return to Mending Wall, I read the poem in ways I didn’t before. I won’t claim that what follows represents Frost’s intentions,  just that it’s another possible way to understand it.

One of Frost’s most engaging traits, to me, was his way of putting the overly inquisitive off his trail. His metaphorical gifts were such that he could talk about himself and no listener would be the wiser. In many of his poems he slyly (and not so slyly) discusses himself, his poetry, his readers, his critics and the pushy. He merrily described this facility in his poem Woodchuck.

The Woodchuck

My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.
With those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.
All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.
We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.
And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),
If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,
It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.

It’s hard not to read Woodchuck as Frost’s sly confession regarding his attitude toward his poetry and the interpreting of it. All of his poems are like a two door borrow. He can pretend he and the world — his readers and critics — are friends, but get too close he’ll “dive down under the farm”. Don’t forget that Frost was at odds with a ‘world’ in which Free Verse was fast becoming the dominant verse form. Frost warily dodges the double-barreled blast of critics who suffer from “the loss of common sense”. Finally, we can read “crevice and burrow” as a sly reference to his poetry. He’s been instinctively thorough in his concealment and self-preservation.

Woodchuck isn’t the only poem to fit into this Frostian trick. If there was ever are more searing critique of modern verse than Etherealizing (and by extension Free Verse) then I don’t know it.

Etherealizing
By Robert Frost

A theory if you hold it hard enough
And long enough gets rated as a creed:
Such as that flesh is something we can slough
So that the mind can be entirely freed.
Then when the arms and legs have atrophied,
And brain is all that’s left of mortal stuff,
We can lie on the beach with the seaweed
And take our daily tide baths smooth and rough.
There once we lay as blobs of jellyfish
At evolution’s opposite extreme.
But now as blobs of brain we’ll lie and dream,
With only one vestigial creature wish:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.

If you read theory as a sly reference to Pound’s preface to the anthology, “Some Imagist Poets” (as I do) then the entirety of the poem effortlessly falls in place. If modern poets hold a theory hard enough, such as the Pound’s dictums concerning poetry, then they’ll be rated a creed, in the sense of a  written body of teachings of a religious group generally accepted by that group — in a word: Dogma.

Continuing this interpretation, flesh, for Frost, is synonymous with meter and rhyme — the techniques of traditional poetry. Naturally our arms and legs will atrophy (our ability to write traditionally) and all that will be left of our poetry is “brain”. Frost’s prediction, in this respect, has proven true. Modern free verse poetry is seldom appraised for it’s skill in rhyme, meter or imagery, but largely its subject matter — in a word, brain. Two hundred years ago, a poorly written poem was readily dismissed no matter how elevated its content. Today, when the only thing that separates Free Verse from prose is ego, the poems of award winning poets are almost solely praised for their elevated and socially relevant content.

Frost compares such stuff to seaweed. With nothing left to the poetry but content (or brain) the daily tide (the vicissitudes of readers and critics) will hardly affect it whether the baths are smooth or rough. Frost is comparing free verse, and the subject matter of free free verse poets, to the amorphous jelly fish that moves whichever way the tide moves it. The jellyfish takes no stand, and can’t.

With one final kick in the rear, Frost compares the free verse poem to the blobs of brain who “lie and dream” with only “one vestigial creature wish”:

Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.

What other poems follow this pattern? Read A Considerable Speck, where the pursuit  of a mite is a droll reference to the creative process. It ends:

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Similarly, the poem For Once Then Something is Frost’s response to criticism (still made today) that his poetry is all shine and no depth. Click on the link of you want to read my interpretation. Frost’s poem Birches can also be read as an introspective consideration of the poet’s place in the modern world.  In short, there is good precedent for reading Frost’s poems as sly and subtle revelations, commentary almost, on his sense of self as poet, artist and critic. The poem Mending Wall can be read in that tradition.

To start with, remember Frost’s statement that “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries.” Read the poem as Frost in two guises, as wall builder and wall toppler.  Read the wall, perhaps, as a poem, not Mending Wall necessarily, but any poem.

Two sides of Frost, the poet, appear. There is the playful Frost, the one that wants to tease and reveal, and there is the coy Frost, the Woodchuck, who is instinctively thorough about his crevice and burrow. This is the Frost who wants to keep something out. He doesn’t know what, but something. Some kinds of poems, like walls, keep things out and keeps things in reserve and that is all the explanation needed. Nevertheless, there are readers who won’t be satisfied. They want Frost to tell them what his poems are really about. They want to take down the wall. They make “gaps even two can pass abreast”.

The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.

The hunter and critic, says the cagey Frost, leaves not one stone on a stone, but would have the rabbit, the poem’s meaning, out of hiding to please the yelping dogs — the too inquisitive public. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says the cagey Frost, but some things are better untold or hidden. He says, good fences make good neighbors and we could just as easily take that to mean that a good poem, if the poet doesn’t give too much away, makes good readers.

But Frost is of two minds and the poem stands between them. The best poem, like the best wall, is made by both Frosts (though the alliance isn’t easy). One Frost, in a sense, is all apple orchard (the brighter wood with its associations of food, family and public) and the other Frost is pine (a darker, pitchier wood that is reticent and unrevealing).

We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

The Frost that teases and revels in suggestion and misdirection will have his say — the Frost of the Apple Orchard.

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.

The public Frost, the mischievous trickster, suggests Elves. He wants to know what the other Frost is walling in or out. What is he afraid of? What is he hiding? What is he afraid to let out? But no answer comes. The cagey, darker Frost will keep his secrets. Revelation isn’t in his nature. As if commenting on the meaning of the poem itself, he answers simply but also evasively, “Good fences make good neighbors.

Read the poem this way and and we read a philosophy of poetry.

Read it like this and Frost is revealing something about himself. There are two sides and it’s in their uneasy truce that his poetry finds greatness. I don’t know if Frost was thinking along these lines when he wrote the poem, but he was a shrewd poet. This way of writing is something that shows up in his other poems.

A Comparison to Birches

In terms of the degree to which the meter differs between Mending Wall and Birches, I thought I’d post my scansion of Birches for comparison:

Birches

Birches - Color coded scansion

Something I mentioned in my previous post on Birches, is how the variant feet emphasize and reinforce the narrative of the poem. Having color coded the variant feet, Frost’s skillful use of meter is all the more visible.  The most concentrated metrical variation occurs where the narrative describes motion – movement and spectacle. This is no mistake. Poets learning to write metrically (and there must be a few of them in the world) would do well to study Frost carefully.

If you enjoyed this post or have further questions, please let me know.

It makes writing them worthwhile.

The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Third Day

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

Sun

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.”

“Ha!”

Here Ends Liang-chieh’s Tale

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

stamp-copyright-2009

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:

whan-zephirus-elided

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:

whan-zephirus-alternate-readings

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.

averylle

Opening Book: All Hallows’ Eve Page 52-61 (Post 2 of 3)

Continuing Part I.

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End of Part II

Continue Part III