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.

WB Yeats ❧ Byzantium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scansion

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

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

All that man is,
All mere complexities…

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

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

The First Stanza

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

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

How does this interpretation hold up in lieu of Byzantium?

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

Well.

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

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

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

What are we supposed to make of this place?

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

Synonyms:

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

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

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

In 1932, lecturing in America, Yeats elaborates:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Byzantium he writes:

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Stanza

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

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

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

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

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

Let that sink in.

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

Here we go:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viola!

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

And now, the next lines make perfect sense:

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Stanza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but now I will take off my body

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

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

But that’s just me.

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

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

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

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

1-sarcophagus-dolphins-rome-335x263

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

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

Other References:

September

 

I’ve gone to market
And danced in the square.
I’ve picked the grape
And drunk the wine without a care;

But I know too
The howl of the night
When the trees
Recoil in the moon’s cold light

I’ve gone out
With nowhere to go
But to lose
My footfall in a field of snow.

September comes
As though to stay awhile
But in the leaves
Are the colors of her guile.

Don’t be fooled.
Whatever else you do
Love and be loved
Before her last good-night beguiles you too.

~ September

September 16 2014 by me, Patrick Gillespie

This time of year

·

This time of year when I go out
Winter is like an inland sea—
Waves half way up the gutter spout
And ripples lapping at the tree.

You’d think the swelling tide of snow
Claimed memory of an ancient shore
And with a melting undertow
Would turn the stone to shells once more.

But only once when I’d come to
Half-wakened from a fitful dream
Did something like a tide slip through
The bedroom window’s broken seam.

The snow seemed finally come for good,
An icy shore beneath my bed,
And yet I think that if I’d stood
I would have stepped on sand instead.

The taste of salt was in the air
And though the frost had licked the hinge
I saw, at midnight, something there—
Sunlight skirting the doorway’s fringe.

I only had to go outside
To see the ocean at my sill—
I only had to—but that tide
Will come again. Someday, I will.

This time of year

February 11, 2013 by me, Patrick Gillespie

On Robert Frost’s After Apple-Picking

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

·

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

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

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

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

After Apple-Picking (Scansion)

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

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

One can see |what will trouble

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

One can see what will trouble

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

One can |see what |will trouble

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

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme Scheme)

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

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

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

Frost turns inward:

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

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

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

But I am done with apple-picking now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Apple-Picking (Overlap-2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme & Rhetoric)

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

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

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

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

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

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

       TOUCH/SENSATION/KINESTHETIC

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

       SOUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

aerusset

…every fleck of russet showing clear.

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

With the second quatrain of this third section:

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

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

Or just some human sleep.

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

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

On the subject of Rhyming

& Trophy Rhymes

I guess this post is going to fall under the rubric: me & my opinions. But here goes: I’ve always admired anyone who can do something I can’t do – artists, athletes, writers, poets, musicians, composers, etc… This is the reason why the majority of modern art and poetry does little to nothing for me.  As far as I’m concerned, “originality” is one of the 20th century’s greatest con jobs (and, ironically, it’s most “original” contribution to the history of art). Obviously, geniuses are few and far between. So, what’s a generation to do? Simple. Redefine artistic accomplishment and transcendence as “originality”. Suddenly, the 20th & 21rst centuries example more artistic geniuses than at any other time since God created Earth.

rhymesComposers like Bach and Mozart were not original in a modern sense. They refined and synthesized what they inherited until the sum exceeded the parts. Bach created no new musical forms and neither did Mozart. For that matter, neither did Beethoven. Shakespeare and Milton also didn’t invent any new forms or invent a new language. They did what everyone else was doing, but better; and the same for Keats, Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt. The difference between originality (as a goal in and of itself) and the originality of “genius” (a more organic byproduct of a powerfully creative mind) is a fine one. My opinion is that the difference is conveniently confused. There are a number of poets and artists whose works are undeniably “original” but which, despite being a flavor never concocted before, are not that good. I’ve already mentioned some of them in previous posts and time will tell whether I’m right. I might not be.

And this brings me to rhyme. The vast majority of 20th century poets don’t use rhyme. Even translators translating rhymed poems can’t be bothered. Part of the reason, possibly, is that rhyme is seen as “unoriginal” (which misses the point). It’s gotten to such an extreme that for some poets using a recognizable language —let alone English— is unoriginal. Literally. The result for me is that the vast majority of contemporary poems bore me to tears. I like to be wowed and impressed. All else being equal, free verse does neither. Rhyme (and meter) is to poetry what the half-pipe is to snowboarding. It turns snowboarding into an Olympic event. Without the half-pipe an amateur can look an awful lot like a pro. Frost’s quip concerning nets and tennis comes to mind. For example, Ted Kooser’s generic poems bore me to tears. They do nothing that the millionth paragraph doesn’t do, but I’ve read that this is exactly how Kooser wants them — as ordinary as doormats. He’s succeeded.

Among those poets who do write rhyme, however, there is also division. In my own poetry, the rhyming often isn’t very noisy. I once sent some of my poems to the poet Fred Chappell. He criticized the originality of my rhymes and I wrote back that I don’t write trophy rhymes (a term of my own coining and a lie). Back when  I wrote about Emily Dickinson, I summarized most of the rhymes available to poets (using rhymes from Emily Dickinson’s own poetry), but the one rhyme that I left out, because it’s not truly a unique kind of rhyme, is the trophy rhyme. The term can be dismissive (I can’t think of a lasting poem that has endured because of its novelty-rhymes), but can also signify the importance of the rhyme (because entire poems can be built on it). Fred Chappell’s short poems, which I enjoy reading, often have a tongue-in-cheek, sardonic or irreverent tone. The first poem from the book C makes a nice example:

1. POEM

In such a book as this,
The poet Martial says,
Some of the epigrams
Shall have seen better days,
And some are hit-or-miss;
But some — like telegrams —
Deliver intelligence
With such a sudden blaze
The shine can make us wince.

Did you see what happened there? The whole poem/joke was built around the trophy rhyme: epigrams and telegrams.  Limerick’s do the same thing. In Limericks, in fact, you will find some of the English language’s most successful trophy rhymes (which is, after all, the whole point of the limerick).

Said Edna St. Vincent Millay,
As she lay in the hay all asplay:
“If you make wine
From these grapes, I opine
We’ll stay in this barn until May

The New Limerick p. 27

In both the poems, the rhymes draw attention to themselves. The poem serves the rhyme. That’s okay if that’s the kind of poem one wants to write. Conversely, what makes trophy rhymes so useful in limericks, their cleverness and unexpectedness, is what can make them problematic in other kinds of poetry. My own approach to rhyme is a bit different from Chappell’s (and poets like him). For me, rhymes are not meant to be noticed. If they’re noticed, then I’ve done something wrong. If you don’t want rhymes to be noticed, it’s probably best to steer away from the “original” rhyme, the novelty rhyme or, as I call them, the trophy rhyme. My opinion is that too many poets (and teacher’s of poetry) put emphasis on the novelty of rhymes without really understanding the different effects rhyme is capable of (mostly because they’re not that familiar with the art).

So, if I don’t want rhymes to be noticed, why do I write them?

Because I prefer them to effect the reader or listener at a more subliminal level. I want the rhymes to feel organic. If you’ve listened to an unfamiliar poem, without knowing that it rhymes (and if it is well written) you might not have noticed the rhyming at first. You might have noticed a certain musicality to the poetry, only gradually realizing that the poem rhymed while eventually guessing at, or recognizing, the ending of lines and the actual rhyme-scheme. This kind of rhyme doesn’t draw attention to itself. At its best it serves to emphasize the poetic currents, emotion and thought driving the poem. The effect that rhyme has on thought process, mood and development can be discerned in the differing rhyme schemes of the Spenserian, Shakespearean, Petrarchan sonnets. The epigrammatic sting of the Shakespearean Sonnet’s closing couplets, for example, encourages an entirely different kind of mood and argument than the more self-enclosing rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet.

To a greater or lesser degree, and if the poem is written with skill, the rhymes will reinforce the current of thought and mood in much the same way that a skillful composer (or a band like the Beatles or Bob Dylan) will unite word, meaning and musical phrase (where less talented musicians and bands fail).

By way of example, consider Frost’s great poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
·
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
·
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
·
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Not one of those rhymes is ‘original’. They’re as well-worn as an old saddle; and yet Frost managed to write one of the greatest, most beloved and memorized poems in the English language. What does that tell you about rhyming? Everything you need to know.

1.) The originality or novelty of rhymes is unimportant. No, really.

2.) English is a finite language. There are a finite number of rhymes.  Searching for the trophy rhyme can stilt ones poetry just as unnaturally as contorted syntax.

3.) A trophy rhyme is a prima donna. It’s always going shift the spotlight from the content of your poem to itself. Rappers count on this because the trophy rhyme is intrinsic to their art. The rhymes demonstrate their skill and prowess with the language. Likewise, in the right poem, a trophy rhyme can add a little sparkle.

4.) If someone tells you your rhymes are predictable, what they’re really saying (knowingly or not) is that your lines are predictable. There is no such thing as a predictable rhyme (inasmuch as all rhymes are predictable). What matters is the line. If you twist the grammar or otherwise contort your phrasing for the sake of rhyme, then the rhymes are going to feel predictable and “rhyme driven”. (Notice how many of the lines in Frost’s poem are not end-stopped but enjambed.) 

The trophy rhyme lends itself to satire, humor, wit, irreverence, sarcasm, the tongue-in-cheek, light-heartedness while, in a form like rap, it draws attention to itself by underscoring the importance of the relevant words. The poem Departmental, another poem by Frost, is a beautiful example of how trophy rhymes emphasize a poem’s satirical bent, humor and wit. Shell Silverstein regularly based his poems on a given trophy rhyme. In the following, it’s bear and frigidaire.

Bear In There by Shel Silverstein
·
There’s a Polar Bear
SsilversteinIn our Frigidaire–
He likes it ’cause it’s cold in there.
With his seat in the meat
And his face in the fish
And his big hairy paws
In the buttery dish,
He’s nibbling the noodles,
He’s munching the rice,
He’s slurping the soda,
He’s licking the ice.
And he lets out a roar
If you open the door.
And it gives me a scare
To know he’s in there–
That Polary Bear
In our Fridgitydaire.
·
As for myself, trophy rhymes were exactly what I needed in á la Maison:

a la Maison - Version 2So, if you’re going to rhyme, think about the kind of poem you want write. Don’t be bullied into novelty-rhymes for the sake of originality. Making a poem out of ordinary rhymes that is transcendent and unforgettable? Now that is originality. Making the extraordinary out of the  ordinary and the every day is, to me at least, the half-pipe of poetry.

For another nice take on rhyme, read A.E. Stallings razor sharp Presto Manifesto.

When We Two Parted • George Gordon Lord Byron

Analyzing this poem is a request.

I’ve never been an ardent fan of Byron, even though my great grandfather, one generation removed from the Irish and Scotts, was apparently so moved by poetry and Byron in particular, that he named his son (my grandfather) Byron; and my grandfather, in his turn, named his son (my father) Gordon.

One of the reasons I don’t read more Byron is that I think of him as more of a novelist who happened to be expeditiously good at rhyme and meter, rather than as a poet. That’s absurd, of course, but you will rarely find in Byron the stunning imagery that makes you pause and linger. His imagery is, almost entirely, perfunctory and rudimentary. He uses stock phrases and poeticisms (whatever it takes to keep the narrative moving). You might as well read Jane Eyre if you’re looking for evocative imagery.

What Byron possessed was an unerring sense of phrasing, rhythm and rhyme. He was capable of using phrase and rhyme with a skewering and deadly precision. One never gets the sense that he was at a loss words. He almost never resorts to anything like metrical filler. His lines are (if there was ever a time to use the adjectives) rugged and masculine. There’s no prettiness to his poetry, but the lean, no nonsense, muscularity makes his poetry memorable and powerful. Byron is an object lesson in the sheer power of meter and rhyme, as distinct from the lineated prose of free verse or just plain prose. Great and memorable poetry doesn’t always need the unsurpassed imagery of a Wallace Stevens, Keats or Shakespeare.

When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken-hearted
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.

The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow–
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame:
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.

They name thee before me,
A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me–
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well: —
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.

In secret we met–
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.

The Scansion: No really, it gets interesting.

The “scansion” that follows departs from my usual method. Rather than use the standard accent marks, I’ve simply bolded the accented syllables. I thought this better represented what Byron was doing. The poem, as a whole, is accentual, meaning that Byron’s primary concern is with the number of accented syllables per line. The number of unaccented syllables varies from stanza to stanza. Interestingly though, if we go stanza by stanza, then one could call Byron’s verse “accentual syllabic”. (Iambic Pentameter is accentual syllabic meter because boththe number of accents and syllables is regular.) With the exception of the last stanza, Bryon maintains a regular number of accented and unaccented syllables.

The way I divided the feet isn’t cast in stone. There are different ways to do it. When I read the poem, I hear anapests, so that’s the way I scanned it. In this sense, the second foot of the first line |we two parted would be an anapestic foot with a feminine ending. The first foot with the word When would be a headless Iambic Foot, meaning that the first unaccented syllable is missing. So, but for two lines, the underlying accentual/syllabic meter of the poem is an Iambic foot followed by an anapestic foot, as follows:

  • The spiral is a high level metrical symbol. I would have to shoot you if I revealed its meaning.

Some of the anapestic feet are followed by an extra unstressed syllable, so I’m calling those feet anapestic feminine endings – something that doesn’t appear in Iambic Pentameter until Robert Frost (anapestic feminine foot in green):

One could | do worse | than be |a swing|er of birches

None of this is information you really need to know, but some of us enjoy these little niceties. There is one line in which knowing the meter helps us know how Byron probably imagined the poem. Knowing that each stanza is internally consistent and that the first stanza maintains two stressed syllables per line and an anapest, we won’t be tempted to read the third line as follows:

Half brok|enhearted

Or:

Half brok|enhearted

Most modern readers would probably be tempted to read the line in either of these two fashions and move on. The first reading changes the line into an iambic one, with an iambic feminine ending. We can eliminate this reading because it breaks the metrical pattern in the rest of the stanza. The second reading introduces three stressed syllables. We can eliminate that because it breaks the accentual pattern of the stanza. If we honor the pattern set by the rest of the poem, we put the emphasis on half.

Half |broken hearted

This is a very curious emphasis and, if it were to be acted, suggests a wee bit of a sneer. In other words, they weren’t broken-hearted. They were only, half broken-hearted.  As I like to say, a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. In this case, the meter is telling us this isn’t just another poem about heart break. There’s a touch of sarcasm, if not contempt and cynicism, that turns the meaning of the rest of the poem flatly on its head. I’ve seen readings of this poem on Youtube that play it straight, as a kind of self-pitying poem by the rejected lover, but when Byron was self-pitying, it was usually heavily seasoned with self-righteousness. The meter hints at something else. Once we learn some of the history behind the poem, we might find the opposite of what we expected.

So… what’s going on?

I’ve got two sources for the story behind this poem. They don’t agree. Sort of. The first thing to know is that the word scandalous is never far from Byron’s name. In Famous Poems and the Little Known Stories Behind Them, Ralph L Woods gets right down to business. He writes:

Admittedly Byron was arrogantly seflish and impulsively generous, aware of his rank and quick to abuse its priviledges. He bore the marks of his dissolute, unstable and spenthrift ancestry, and of a mother who alternated between tantrums and penitential calms. Given the restless age in which he lived, it is not suprising that the brilliant, undisciplined and strikingly handsome poet  with a clubfoot had numerous amours, some of the backstairs kind. [Famous Poems and the Little Known Stories Behind Them p. 21]

By backstairs, Woods is presumably referring to Byron’s alleged affair with his sister. According to Woods, the poem is about Lady Frances Annesley, the wife of James Wedderburn Webster. When Byron first met the newly wedded couple, he remarked that Lady Frances “is very pretty” but that she was already treating her husband with “conjugal contempt” and predicted she would betray him within three years. Woods goes on to write that Byron visited the couple two years later and wrote, initially at least, that he “behaved very well”. Later, though, when writing Lady Melbourne, he confessed that “I have made love [flirted amorously], and it is returned”. The expression “making love” didn’t mean sexual intercourse until early in the 20th century. Before then, it essentially meant flirtation and courtship. Byron also wrote that “he spared her.” “Poor thing–she is either the most artful of artless of her age I ever encountered.” Woods writes that Byron lost interest but that when, several years later, he heard of her affair with the Duke of Wellington, he recalled his former emotions in the, as Woods puts it, “tender yet cynical” poem When We Two Parted.

In another book, though, Byron and the Websters: The Letters and Entangled Lives of the Poet, Sir James Webster and Lady Frances Webster, John Stewart tells a fuller and slightly different story. He begins by quoting a letter Byron wrote on June 10, 1823:

As to yr. chevalier W Wne *** to be sure I learnt from himself all about his [?] surprise — but there is some little doubt of his accuracy. — At least it is very strange that he could never prove so public a voyage of discovery. — She– poor thing — has made a sad affair of it altogether. — I had the meloncholy task of prophesying as much many many years ago in some lines — of which the three or four stanzas only were printed — and of course without names — or allusions — and with a false date — I send you on the concluding stanza — which never was printed with the others. —

Then – fare thee well — Fanny —
Now doubly undone —
To prove false unto many —
As faithless to One —
Thou art past all recalling
Even would I recall —
For the woman once falling
Forever must fall. —

There’s morality and sintiment [sic] — for you in a [?] — but I was very tender hearted in those days. — If you want to know where the lines to which this stanza belongs –are — they are in I know not what volume — but somewhere (for I have no copy) but they begin with

When we two parted
In silence and tears
&c.&c.&c.

So here is a treasure for you in honour of our relationship — rhymes unpublished — and a secret into the bargain — which you wont keep –.

[Byron and the Websters p. 173]

As you can see, the final stanza, never included with the anthologized poem (and probably for the best) keeps the meter and rhyme of the others. With this scathing final stanza, the cynical emphasis on half-broken hearted begins to make more sense, while the line With silence and tears sounds more sarcastic and a little less tragic. There’s undoubtedly some tenderness in the lines, but also contempt. Stewart closes his brief two pages on Byron’s poem with a letter from Miss Frances Williams Wynn in her Diaries of a Lady of Quality (1864):

In England we are apt to exclaim with Byron, in his suppressed lines

Then, fare thee well, Fanny, thus doubly undone,
Thou frail to the many, and false to one.
Thou art past all recalling, e’en would I recall,
For the woman once fallen for ever must fall.

These lines about which frequent enquiry has been made, were given me by Scrope Davies. They originally formed the conclusion of a copy of verses addressed by Lord Byron to Lady Frances W W to whom he was devotedly attached until she threw him over for the Duke of Wellington, then in the full blaze of his Peninsular glory. ‘Byron,’ said Davies, ‘Came one morning to my lodgings in St James Street, in a towering passion, and standing by the fire, broke out, ‘D— all women, and d— that woman in particular.’ He tore from his watch-ribbon a seal she had given him, and dashed it into the grate. As soon as I left the room, I picked it up, and here it is.’ He showed it to me, and allowed me to take an impression of it, which I have still. It was a large seal, representing a ship in full sail, a star in the distance, with the motto, “Si je la perds, je suis perdu.” Two or three days afterwards his Lordship presented himself again with a copy of verses addressed to his fickle fair one, from which Davies with some difficulty induced him to omit the four concluding lines. [Byron and the Websters p. 174]

So, armed with this information, we can conclude that Byron didn’t write this poem in a fit of self-pitying dejection, but self-pitying rage; about a married woman who dared to dump him, not for her husband, but for another cad and aristocrat who was not Byron! Now that takes a very special kind of delusional self-righteousness. That and the fact that Miss Wynn, a quote-unquote “Lady of Quality”, was busily gossiping about the whole affair tells you just about everything you need to know about the era. If I were to sum up the tone of the poem, it would be the hypocritical rage of righteous self-pity. When Byron writes about “tears”, don’t be fooled. It’s one thing for Byron to gad about, but if a woman falls, she falls forever.

Well, maybe I’ve ruined the poem for some, but somehow I think the squalid truth makes it so much better, keener and cutting. When you see youtube videos characterizing the poem as one of “loss and longing”, you know they’ve missed the point. They haven’t read the poem all that carefully. This is the poem lovers write and read to one another when they should have known better but bear a grudge anyway.

Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame:
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.

For the philandering Byron to write that her “vows are all broken” is the pot calling the kettle black. And what is he crying about?  — Her? — Or is it all about him — that he must “share in its shame”?

They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well: —
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.

Does he rue because he longs for her? — because of his loss? — or does he rue that he met her in the first place, and now shares in her shame?

In secret we met–
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.

These last lines, and a line like Thy spirit deceive, are written in anger, not sorrow. The cutting rhymes and driving anapestic meter add to the poem’s succinctness, momentum and memorability in a way that free verse just can’t match, and in way that Byron mastered. (The line Long, long shall I rue thee is a master stroke of metrical gamesmanship. If not for the meter, we might be tempted to read the line Long, long shall I rue thee , but we know that Byron’s means us to only read two strong accents in the  line. Strongly emphasizing the second long, if done right, gives the line a little touch of disdain.) Fortunately, Byron was convinced to leave off the final stanza (the final twist of the knife) and so, to a certain degree, it remains just possible to read the poem as a heartrending expression of loss, longing and sorrow.

Here’s a good video that subtly hints at the petty anger behind the lines:

  • Note: For some reason, there appears to be a WordPress bug that insists on linking to Erlkonig. If you don’t see the right video, click here.

When things turn out badly, after having your affair with another man’s wife or another wife’s man, this is your go to  poem. If you manage to avoid that scandal, then enjoy the poem however you will.

from Up in Vermont on the Last Day of 2011

Quick Read ❧ Sidney’s Sonnet 64

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

Sonnet 64

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

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


A Note about the Scansion

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

I disagree with all of them.

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

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

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

Sidney’s Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…I would suffer for you…

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

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

…because you are everything to me…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is followed by an example from Shakespeare:

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

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

“And thou my virtue art…”

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

Puns on the hunt, marksmanship and male prowess abound.

…and in conclusion

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

A Concord River Romance

There’s bound to be poetic tradition, lost or otherwise, in many families. The back cover of a book I recently picked up, called Songs of Ourselves, offers the following:

In the years between 1880 and 1950, Americans recited poetry at family gatherings, school assemblies, church services, and civic affairs. As they did so, they invested poems–and the figure of the poet–with the beliefs, values, and emotions that they experienced in those settings.

Those days are long since passed. Yes, poems are still occasionally read at this or that gathering, but with nothing like the commonality, reverence and meaning of an age prior to Radio, Television, MP3s, YouTube, or the modern pop/music culture. If you want to know what I mean by “reverence and meaning”, then read Joan Rubin’s book. Nowadays, a lover is more likely to pick up a guitar than a quill.

Who knows how many books, over the years, have been inscribed with a poem. The poem below comes by way a General Contractor I work with, Brad Johnston. A recurring discussion—which he never tires of—is his relationship, by marriage, to Nathaniel Hawthorne through Sophia Peabody (at left). (Their fame is his fame.) Ashley Palmer How’s mother was the niece of Sophia Peabody.

A little ribbing aside, his ancestors interest in literature didn’t subside with Peabody or Hawthorne. What interests me about the Concord River Romance is that it was written by a Banker well grounded in the techniques of traditional poetry. His verse is written in open couplets and Iambic Tetrameter. He writes with freedom—headless lines, feminine endings, anapests. Modernism was in full swing, and though he was a rank amateur writing in a tradition readily being abandoned to free verse, his metrical writing is flexible and more modern than the tradition it springs from. He was surely well versed in Robert Frost’s poetry and was probably familiar Edna Vincent Millay.

Beyond that, the poetry is worth reading if only because it speaks to a poetic tradition other than that cultivated in anthologies, collected works or academia. This poem wasn’t written to speak to the world or for all time, but to a friend and lover. It’s a poetic genre that remains largely unknown if not, in many cases, lost. Ahsley’s poem is also a little special and unusual being so full and rich with history, some of which every American is familiar with. I’ve annotated the poem so you can get a little glimpse into the lost world he evokes.

Concord River Romance

To my dear wife Elizabeth for her Birthday August 1rst 1941

From memories of past glory
To the present wondrous story,
Stream of beauty ever flowing,
Renewing life and love ere growing,
Never ceasing in thy mission
Giving strength for life’s fruition;
As by meadows, hemlocks lapping,
While rugged rocks, grim, gray seem napping;
Battle Ground (1), so peaceful sure
Myriads of the clan doth lure,
Egg Rock (2) breathing Indian lore
Where Bartlett merriment (3) in full store
Gave warm welcome to a lad
Full heart warming, making glad.
Thus he met you for approval —
Never from long life’s removal —
By the tribe so stable, strong
Which never ventured toward a wrong.
Thence canoe on smooth stream gliding
Off by shade of trees abiding;
To Fairhaven(4), Conantum(5) too.
Clam Shell Bluff (6) of deep green hue,
To Davis Hill (7)– picnics galore,
Brewster’s (8) too. – to feast the more,
And all along what beauties greet,
Water lilies, scent so sweet;
Birds a carrolling in grass and trees,
Air refreshing, glorious breeze,
Picking berries, blue and black,
Days ever ending alas, alack;
Dear Concord River to you and me
Calls often with life’s ecstacy.
Let memories linger as years do grow
Bringing love’s full measure, heart’s overflow.

With treasured thoughts to strengthen
Each day’s horizon to lengthen,
Making happy days the longer
As our joys grow ever stronger.

Ashley

1.) Battle Ground: A reference to the grounds where the first battles of the American Revolutionary war occurred.

2.) Egg Rock: An inscription carved into a rock at the confluence of the Assabet and Sudbury rivers. The inscription was completed in 1885 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the 1635 founding of Concord.

3.) Bartlett Merriment: Ashley courted and married Elizabeth Bartlett, daughter of George Bradford Bartlett and the granddaughter of Dr. Josiah Bartlett (a practicing Doctor of some 52 years). Elizabeth’s family was well established and well-known in Concord. The following two paragraphs from Recreation on Concord’s rivers in the 19th Century by Leslie Perrin Wilson gives a sense for Elizabeth’s family, her roots in Concord, and the scenic atmosphere from which Ashley’s poem springs.

By the late 18th century, however, Concord people were starting to develop a less utilitarian approach to the landscape. Significantly, in 1895, George Bradford Bartlett—well-known in connection with the Manse boathouse—wrote of the cliffs near Fairhaven Bay on the Sudbury River: “For more than a hundred years these cliffs have been a favorite resort for the nature lover, and the climax of many a Sunday walk or autumnal holiday trip, as no better view can be had of the waving tree-tops and gentle river.”

One favorite summer activity was the “Moonlight Float.” People would gather together in their boats at a designated spot, arrange themselves from one bank of the river to the other several rows deep, tie their boats together, and drift downstream, singing all the way. George Bradford Bartlett frequently organized such floats. He also arranged picnics at the various scenic locations along the rivers. The area around the Leaning Hemlocks on the Assabet was a favorite picnic place, as was Martha’s Point, near Fairhaven Bay on the Sudbury River, which was named for Bartlett’s sister Martha. Egg Rock, at the confluence of the Sudbury and Assabet Rivers, was a preferred spot for summer holiday breakfasts.

Martha’s point was named after Elizabeth’s Bartlett’s Aunt. Ashley might have had such a “Moonlight float” in mind, or in memory, when he mentions a “canoe on smooth stream gliding” and “picnics galore” later in the poem.

Notice in the photo above, the C Bartlett house at the lower right (who was likely to have been a relation of Elizabeth Bartlett). Also, you can find Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house across the brook.

4.) Fairhaven: This refers to Fairhaven Bay, possibly the starting point for such a float.

Fairhaven Bay is just to the south of Concord. To see the entirety of this old Map, click here.

5.) Conantum: The history behind this name actually involves Henry David Thoreau. If you look closely at the map above, drawn in 1852, you will find a house belonging to E. Conant, E for Ebenezer. (Look under the III and you can also expand the image if you click on it.) I am told, by the research librarian at the Concord Library, that the name Conantum was a play on Contant’s last name by Thoreau, being that Conantum sounds both Latin and Indian. The area (including E. Contant’s house) offered cliffs and an overlook of Fairhaven Bay and became known to locals as Conantum.

Round about 1899 Herbert Wendall Gleason photographed the area (photo above right) and drew a map of the area as Henry David Thoreau conceived it. The map reflects local lore. You won’t find Conantum on any official map of Concord. You can match the map below to the one above.

 

6.) Clam Shell Bluff: Here’s a photo of Clamshell Bank which, being by Gleason, could well be another name for Clam Shell Bluff.

Interestingly, I found the following passage in Google Books:

“Now we are rounding Clamshell Bluff, and the children always like to hear of the old days when the Indians lived on the river banks, and left the great heaps of shells after their feasts on the fresh water clams. Clamshell Bluff is a great place for “buried treasure,” too, in the way of arrow-heads, spear-heads, bits of flint, etc., and the boys love to stop there occasionally and hunt for those old Indian relics, often finding prizes in the way of perfect implements. (…)

On, on we go, under the bridge, through the meadows by which Thoreau used to paddle, past the cliff where the harebells crow, and then we round the cool, dark point where we always look for cardinal flowers — scarce enough to make the sight of one a delightful surprise.

Where shall we land? Martha’s Point is voted for, and soon the Nina’s keel is grating on the tiny sandy beach at the foot of the high cliff. Martha’s point is a great picnic place, and we are almost afraid we shall find someone there before us. (…)

Later she writes:

Our dessert is to be berries; shall we pick them first, or start on the chowder? I had peeled and sliced the potatoes on the way up, dropping the peelings overboard to give the fishes a feast; so we decided, as things were ready, to make the berry trip. We have private wild berry patches in Mr. Conant’s field, which we pretend we own and visit each year.”

The snippet comes from an article in Country Life, May 1921! – twenty years before Ashley wrote his poem to Elizabeth. He could easily be remembering just such a trip, an afternoon’s outing that many local Concord residents made and enjoyed. Notice the reference to “Mr. Conant’s field”. Ashley also later mentions “picking berries, blue and black” and I wonder if he wasn’t referring to the same secret spot on Mr. Conant’s field.

7.) Davis Hill: This finds us suddenly quite a ways along the Concord River (and to the North of Concord). Google Map is to the right. You can see Fair Haven Bay at the lower left and you can follow the River upward until Davis Hill is reached. (Walden Pond is not labeled but is just above the word Sandy.) The “mountain”, as it is called by the locals, is still considered a scenic overlook and tourist attraction. I wasn’t able to find any photos of Davis Hill.

8.) Brewster’s: I haven’t found any references to Brewster’s, but it’s possible that Ashley was referring to family friends or to a locally popular restaurant known as Brewster’s (since he writes “to feast all the more”). However, if I were the betting kind, I would say Ashley was referring to Brewster’s Island at the entrance to Boston Harbor. Although the Concord River wouldn’t carry one to Brewster’s Island (rather to Plum Island just south of the New Hampshire state line), one can follow Ashley’s imagination from the smooth waters of the Concord River to the mouth of Boston Harbor, the last stop before the Atlantic Ocean. “Brewster’s too,” Ashley writes. Let’s make the day go on forever, he seems to say to his wife. Let’s not stop until we reach the Atlantic! Their last journey surely took them far beyond the shores of the Atlantic. Let’s hope they’re still in love, the breezes are as beautiful as ever, and that the berries are as black and sweeter. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little colorful glimpse into a distant love and way of life. Be sure to write your lover a poem to remember you by.

The facsimile below is a copy of a copy. It looks as though it was written with a quill.

If you have any old poems written by parents, grandparents or older, poems that would otherwise be lost in a book, send them along and I’ll post them. If it’s written in a language other than English, I’m still interested.

the annotated “My Last Duchess”

the poem

Much is made of Edgar Allen Poe’s dark and chilling poem The Raven. Rightfully so, but to me, the most chilling, gothic, and horrific poem remains My Last Duchess by Robert Browning. If there was ever a surer portrayal of the sociopathic killer, I don’t know it. I’m reminded of the fabled Bluebeard when I read the poem. Here’s the poem in its entirety.

My Last Duchess
Ferrara

1….That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
…..Looking as if she were alive. I call
…..That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
…..Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
…..Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
…..‘Fra Pandolf’ by design, for never read
…..Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
…..The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
…..But to myself they turned (since none puts by
10 The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
…..And seemed they would ask me, if they durst,
…..How such a glance came there; so, not the first
…..Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
…..Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
…..Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
…..Frà Pandolf chanced to say ‘Her mantle laps
…..‘Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
…..‘Must never hope to reproduce the faint
…..‘Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
20 Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
…..For calling up that spot of joy. She had
…..A heart–how shall I say?–too soon made glad,
…..Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
…..She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
…..Sir, ‘t was all one! My favor at her breast,
…..The dropping of the daylight in the West,
…..The bough of cherries some officious fool
…..Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
…..She rode with round the terrace–all and each
30 Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
…..Or blush, at least. She thanked men,–good! but thanked
…..Somehow–I know not how–as if she ranked
…..My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
…..With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
…..This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
…..In speech–(which I have not)–to make your will
…..Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
…..‘Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
…..Or there exceed the mark’–and if she let
40 Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
…..Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse
…..–E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
…..Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt
…..Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
…..Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
…..Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
…..As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
…..The company below, then. I repeat
…..The Count your master’s known munificence
50 Is ample warrant that no just pretense
…..Of mine dowry will be disallowed
…..Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
…..At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
…..Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
…..Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
…..Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

the annotation: lines 1-3

Let’s jump right in.

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: (….)

The opening lines have a lot of history behind them, and speculation. As regards the poem’s greatness or meaning, none of it matters. It’s almost more of a parlor game — forensic poetry for literary scholars in need of an argument. But because inquiring minds like to know (including my own), here we go. An analysis found here places the setting for the poem “on the grand staircase of the ducal palace at Ferrara in northern Italy”. The writers don’t say how they know this but I think I may have found their source. In a fictional work by Elizabeth Lowry, the author closes with some recommended reading: My Last Duchess. In that section, she writes:

Browning drew on an actual episode in Tuscan history for his donnee, but the interpretation, and the glittering diction, are all his own. The scene is the grand staircase of the ducal palace in Ferrara, in northern Italy; time: the mid-1500s. The speaker is the lusty, avaricious Duke of Ferrara ,and as the poem opens he is brokering a marriage deal with the envoy of the the Count of Tyrol, whose daughter he intends to acquire as his second duchess–for Ferrara’s “last” ducess, we realize, is dead. [The Bellini Madonna: A Novel p. 343]

Lowry’s scholarship is as fictional as her novel. No scholar has ever asserted that Browning’s poem is based “on an actual episode”.  An actual duke? Maybe. An actual episode? No. And no reference was ever made to a grand staircase. This is nothing more than a fiction writer’s fiction.

Who was the actual duke and duchess? Some scholars might say that Browning had the Duke Alfonso II d’Este in mind. Yours truly has tried to get to the bottom of this – to sort out baseless assertions from fact. With a visit to Dartmouth, I was able to read an article by Louis S. Friedland, Studies in Philology Vol. 33,  No. 4 (Oct., 1936), pp. 656-684, called Ferrara and My Last Duchess. I was interested to read it because sometimes you will find statements like the following (both on the web and in text books):

“It is this Duke, Louis S. Friedland has shown, who is the Duke of My Last Duchess, as we shall see below. This means that the poem was written in the summer or early fall of 1842.” [A Browning Handbook William Clyde DeVane p. 108]

Or

“That these historical figures were the prototypes of Browning’s characters is convincingly established by Louis S. Friedland in ‘Ferrara and My Last Duchess,'”… [The Heath Reader Santi V. Buscemi p. 566]

Or

“Friedland conclusively proves, I think, that the person from whose character and career Browning’s duke is drawn is Alfonso II, Fifth Duke of Ferrara, and the duchess was Lucrezia de’ Medicia, who was fourteen years old at her marriage and died at seventeen…” [The Victorian Poets: A Guide to Research, Frederic Everett Faverty p. 81]

There are oodles and oodles of references to Friedland’s article, so I just had to read it. Here’s what I found out. First of all, contrary to Faverty or Devane’s claim, Friedland did not show (in the sense of prove) that Alfonso II d’Este was “the Duke of My Last Duchess”. He did not, contrary to Buscemi’s claim, convincingly establish the Duke’s identity. Don’t believe the hype. (After all, every day another scholar is “proving” that Queen Elizabeth or her poodle, the Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays.) Rather, Friedland’s article takes aim at another scholar who had the effrontery to identify the Duke as Vespasiano Gonzaga (which, in itself, tells you something). The rival scholar, Professor John D. Rea, also identified the Duchess as Diana, daughter of Don Antonio die Cardona and the Duke’s first wife. Friedland’s article is not a treatise on why Alfonso is the Duke, but only an argument for why Alfonso might be a better fit than Vespasiano. Here’s how Friedland puts it:

…the studies by Griffin and Minehin, W.C. DeVane, Brocher, Hovalque, and Stewart W. Holmes prove Browning’s familiarity with the early history of Ferrara. We know that after his trip to Italy in the summer of 1888, Browning altered his scheme for Sordello, which at first took no account of Ferrara; by 1840 Ferrara “became the scene of half his poems”. The new conception led him to read widely in the mediaeval history of Ferrara, and the authorities he consulted have been identified. [p. 666]

And that, for the most part, is as good as the case gets — circumstantial evidence. At  the outset, Friedland rhetorically states: “Hence we have every justification for assuming that Browning joined the word Ferrara to My Last Duchess by design and malice aforethought.”

The obvious rejoinder is: OK, then why didn’t Browning entitle the poem Ferrara from the get-go? Browning originally entitled the poem I. Italy, not My Last Duchess: Ferrara. We know that the Duke of Ferrara was hardly the only Renaissance grandee with a long-lived ego and short-lived wife. Friedland himself admits that a wife’s death, by treacherous means at the hands of a Duke is a “Renaissance commonplace of foul play and domestic murder.” If Browning was all that familiar with Alfonzo’s history, would he have known that Alfonzo’s young wife was thought to have died a natural death? Was he only aware of the rumors and gossip? Friedland himself writes that “Lucrezia suffered from chronic lung-trouble” and “that her father and her brother Francesco were kept constantly informed with regard to the progress of her last illness.” Friedland adds:

“In any event, it is difficult to believe that Alfonso was so rash as to poison the young daughter of the powerful Cosimo, his near neighbor and a man not to be trifled with.”

On the other hand, historians can assert that Diana, Rea’s candidate for Duchess, was essentially forced to commit suicide by her husband, the Duke Vespasiano Gonzag, on suspicion of infidelity. If, in the history available to Browning, the scholarly consensus was against the rumored murder of Alfonso’s young wife, than that might explain why he didn’t initially title the poem Ferrara (if historical accuracy was all that important to him). Why base the poem on a Duke who might not have murdered his wife? There’s also this interesting tidbit of information, provided by Friedland.

“How was her death occasioned? The poem does not say. No other lines of the monologue have called forth the critical discussion that turns on the words: “I gave commands, etc.” An early reviewer maintained that the proper interpretation of the Duke’s statement was the sentence of death. Extremely loath to accept this view, Hiram Corson asked the poet for the true meaning of the lines. As usual, Browning’s answer was as cryptic as the passage that prompted the query. “He replied meditatively,” says Corson, “‘Yes, I meant that the commands were that she be put to death.’ Then, after a pause, he added, with a characteristic dash of expression, and as if the thought had just started in his mind. ‘Or he might have had her shut up in a convent.”  [Ferrera and “My Last Duchess” p.676]

If Browning based the poem on Alfonso and Lucrezia (and accepted the rumors of poison to be true) then why not say so in the poem? I think the anecdote says more about the critics Friedland and Corson, than Browning. Friedland, after pouncing on the fact that Browning renamed the poem Ferrara, downplays Browning’s own commentary (since it counters his argument) by calling Browning’s comment “cryptic”. Corson adds that “the thought had just started in [Browning’s] mind”. (Corson, apparently, is not only a reader of poetry but a reader of poets’ minds.) Both critics have a dog in the hunt and downplay whatever counters their narratives.

I personally don’t see anything “cryptic” about Browning’s reply. It runs counter to the notion that Browning had a particular Duke in mind, but so what? It supports the notion that Browning was less interested in who the poem was about than the dramatic fiction. Browning won’t even commit to the notion that the Duchess was murdered! Remember, the Duke never says that the Duchess was murdered, only that (in the painting) she looks “as if she were alive”. In the elliptical poetic language of iambic pentameter, he might just as easily be saying that the painting is “lifelike” in how it captures her. I personally prefer the former interpretation (that she was murdered) because so much else about the Duke’s monologue is darkly suggestive, but that’s only an interpretation. She could have been hustled away to a convent with a bunch of unsmiling nuns – the Italian version of Stalin’s Siberia.  (I personally would prefer Siberia to nuns.)

Here’s how I read the the facts. The theme of the wife poisoned by the grandee, as Friedland wrote, was a commonplace of Renaissance gossip. Browning could easily have been inspired by any number of stories (think Bluebeard). Professor Rea gives just one example. In the case of Rea’s Duke – Vespasiano Gonzag – Friedland argues that  the “facts” of Browning’s poem (as if they even could be called facts) don’t fit Rea’s Duchess (married to Gonzag for eleven years). Friedland italicizes eleven as though this, in and of itself, were somehow proof that Rea was delusional; but he gives us no reason why the Last Duchess couldn’t have been married to the Duke for eleven years except that, in Friedland’s interpretative opinion, Browning’s Duchess just sounds young. And that’s that. That’s Friedland’s “evidence”. Here’s how he puts it:

Now, even if we grant Diana not more than nineteen years at the time of her marriage, she was thirty years old when she died, — a mature woman by Rennaisance standards. Eleven years is a long time to “cease all smiles.’ It is difficult to fit this situation into the framework of My Last Duchess. Browning’s Duchess has nothing in common with Diana; far from being gay or flirtatious, or worse, she is young, inexperienced, happy-natured, radiant; she has been married but a short time when death overtakes her. There is no foul stain upon her joyous expectancy of life, her love for all living things and all things of beauty. [pp. 661-662]

A portrait of Lucrezia that Browning never saw.

Fair enough. I’m inclined to read the Last Duchess the way Friedland does, but I’m also prepared to assert that Browning does not tell us that the Duchess has been “married but a short time” or even that she was young. Every statement that Friedland makes is a matter of self-serving interpretation, not fact. The facts could just as easily fit Professor Rea’s candidate. However, all of this, especially Friedland’s article, makes the assumption that Browning wasn’t fictionalizing (despite the fact that both Frà Pandolf and the sculptor Claus of Innsbruck are fictional). But just as Shakespeare changed history and character to suit dramatic ends, so could Browning. The assumption that Browning must have been tying events to real historical personages is, in and of itself, an unsubstantiated, circumstantial assumption. That he wasn’t inspired by Alfonso is suggested by the fact that he didn’t initially entitle the poem Ferrera. It’s also suggested by the fact that, when asked, he offered that the Last Duchess might not have been murdered, but sent to a convent.

  • Why was the painter a member of a religious order? Frà means Brother, as in Brother Pandalf. The likeliest reason is that Browning didn’t want the reader to wonder whether Lucrezia was having an affair with the painter. As will be seen below, the supposition did occur to contemporary readers of Browning’s poetry. Browning wants Lucrezia to be blameless and innocent — all the more vilifying the Duke’s behavior.

He probably wrote the poem with the general theme in mind  — self-aggrandizing Duke murders or exiles insufficiently appreciative wife. As he increasingly familiarized himself with the history of Ferrara (the place) in the course of writing other poems, he might have seen resemblances to real historical figures or, more likely, that the events of My Last Duchess could easily be imagined within such a culture.

In their book The Poetical Works of Robert Browning: Volume III: Bells and Pomegranates I-VI (including Pippa Passes and Dramatic Lyrics), the editors Ian Jack and Rowena Fowler offer a welcome moment of sanity. They write:

When the poem was first published Browning cannot have expected his readers to associate it with any particular Duke and Duchess, or with any particular city. Even when he named Ferrara, he can hardly have expected them to associate it with any particular episode. While Friedland may well be right in his conjectures, it is also possible that ‘Ferrara’ was simply added as a general stage-direction. [p. 185]

All this is to say: Take the identities of the Duke and Duchess with a walloping dose of skepticism. Don’t believe everything you read on the web, wikipedia, or even in “scholarly” publications. Alfonso II d’Este and Lucrezia have not been identified as the Duke and Duchess. They just happen to fit better, circumstantially, if one is willing to downplay a number of  historical inconveniences and the poet’s own comments.

: lines 3-13

………………..Frà Pandolf’s hands
…..Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
…..Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
…..‘Fra Pandolf’ by design, for never read
…..Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
…..The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
…..But to myself they turned (since none puts by
10 The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
…..And seemed they would ask me, if they durst,
…..How such a glance came there; so, not the first
…..Are you to turn and ask thus.

The old Ducal Palace. Browning never visited Ferrera.

The implication, in the poem itself, is that the Duke is speaking to an emissary (come to arrange or negotiate a marriage to another aristocrat’s daughter). The Duke instructs the emissary to be seated. “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” he asks.

The next line is one that gives many readers trouble. When the Duke says: “I said “Frà Pandolf” by design…” What does he mean by this? My own interpretation is to read “said” as “I requested” or “I demanded”. To a man possessing the Duke’s obvious ego, his word is his command. One imagines the Duke’s internal conversation:

Question: Which painter did you request?

Answer: I said “Frà Pandolf”; and said so “by design”.

He chose the skill of Frà Pandolf “by design” knowing that no stranger would ever read “that pictured countenance” without wondering at the “depth and passion of [her] earnest glance” – something Frà Pandolf alone, it seems, was capable of. The Duke  knew, by design, that every stranger would ask him “if they durst,/ How such a glance came there’.

Interestingly, Browning himself was asked as to the meaning of the line. He answered: “To have some occasion for telling the story, and illustrating part of it…”

Much of the rest of the monologue, as far as the Duke is concerned, is the “illustration”  for why he chose Frà Pandolf. In the course of the illustration, he reveals much (whether intentionally or unintentionally is debated). My own feeling is that he knows exactly what he’s up to. As he says himself, he chose Frà Pandolf by design. My thinking is that he meant the painting to serve as a warning and since none but him will ever draw the curtain, the tour will be guided. In other words, he’s going to make certain that the moral of the painting is understood just as he “designed” it to be understood – a stern warning.

  • The “you” in the poem is said to be Nikolaus Mardruz, but this conjecture depends on ones agreeing that the Duke was Alfonso II d’Este. The evidence, as demonstrated above, is purely conjectural and is, in truth, irrelevant. Whether the speaker was this Duke or that Emissary, the poem’s meaning doesn’t change one whit.

: Line 13-21

……………………Sir, ‘t was not
…..Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
…..Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
…..Frà Pandolf chanced to say ‘Her mantle laps
…..‘Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
…..‘Must never hope to reproduce the faint
…..‘Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
20 Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
…..For calling up that spot of joy.

And now begins the Duke’s dark warning. Frà Pandolf has done his job. The emissary has presumably asked into the striking depth and passion of the portrait. “…so not the first/ Are you to turn and ask thus.” The Duke expounds: It wasn’t only her husband’s presence (his presence) that brought that “spot”, or flush of joy to the Duchess’s cheek. Browning’s usage of the Shakespearean word spot is telling — her blush is a flaw, a blemish. In the Duke’s opinion, her joys were trivial. Perhaps Brother Pandolf happened to say that the lady’s mantle lapped over her “wrist to much. She smiled or blushed with joy. Perhaps Brother Pandolf praised the “faint/ Half-flush that dies along her throat”. That was “cause enough” for producing that “spot of joy”.

  • The detail (it’s worth noting) of the half-flush “that dies” along her throat is an exceedingly sinister detail. I can’t help but wonder whether Browning (or the Duke) isn’t hinting at the method of her murder. Details like this are what compel me to think she was murdered rather than sent to a nunnery. Was she? There’s no right answer. That’s for every reader to interpret individually.

: Line 21-34

………………………………………….She had
…..A heart–how shall I say?–too soon made glad,
…..Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
…..She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
…..Sir, ‘t was all one! My favor at her breast,
…..The dropping of the daylight in the West,
…..The bough of cherries some officious fool
…..Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
…..She rode with round the terrace–all and each
30 Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
…..Or blush, at least. She thanked men,–good! but thanked
…..Somehow–I know not how–as if she ranked
…..My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
…..With anybody’s gift.

  • …my favor at her breast…” referred to a ribbon given, in this sense, as a sign of love (a love-favor). In the poem, however, one gets the sense that such a ribbon was intended less as a love-favor and more as an indication that she belonged to him. He had marked her with a ribbon.

The Duke gets to the “heart” of the matter. The woman was “too easily impressed”.  She liked “whate’er she looked on”. She ranked his gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with the cherries some “officious fool” gave her, or the white mule she liked to ride. Some of the more interesting commentary on this portion of the poem relates to Victorian attitudes toward gender and their effort to delimit female sexuality. Victorians and their attitudes toward gender are a big, big subject. I’m not going to attempt it, except to say that the topic fills books. The Duke’s desire to fix the behavior of his wives could be said to parallel Victorian society’s obsession with individual behavior and reputation. The Duke, in this sense, is possibly more typical of a Victorian aristocrat than any 16th century figure. But the absolute power of the 16th century nobleman allowed Browning to dramatize Victorian preoccupations carried to their dark extremes.

  • …and her looks went everywhere…” There’s no small symbolism in the fact that the Duke keeps her visage curtained. Her looks will no longer go anywhere without his permission.

But there’s a fascinating anecdote about the poem that nicely illustrates Victorian attitudes toward women. Although the anecdote is commonly referenced, I found a more complete account at Google books in a book published in 1890. I copied the dedicatory page on the left. Maybe because I just lost my dog, my companion of 14 years, I’m feeling a little tender when I read something that says “in memory of”, but notice how the book was given in 1899 by the class of 1890. Robert Browning died on 1889. This meant that Robert Browning was alive and well while the class members were enrolled. Many websites and scholars will refer to the anecdote, but they don’t do it justice. Here’s the full story:

In the early days of 1888 a club, styled “The Day’s End Club,” was formed in the city of Exeter, to study contemporary literature.

On February 18, 1889, a member read to the Club six of Robert Browning’s shorter poems. He had paraphrased some, and his reading and notes provoked much discussion. The Rev. Sackville A. Berkely, who had become acquainted with Browning at Oxford, offered to write to the poet, and state the difficulties of the members.

Queries

My Last Duchess

[Berkely] Was she in fact shallow and easily and equally well pleased with any favour: or did the Duke so describe her as a supercilious cover to real and well justified jealousy?

[Browning] As an excuse — mainly to himself — for taking revenge on one who had unwittingly wounded his absurdly pretentious vanity, by failing to recognise his superiority in even the most trifling matters.

[New poems: by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ed. Sir Frederic G. Kenyon p. 178]

What’s so interesting, to me, isn’t so much Browning’s answer, which is how most of us would probably interpret the poem, but the question! The question reveals much about Victorian attitudes. As I read it, the questioner is basically asking whether the Duchess deserved it! Berkely asks, was she really that shallow? In other words, Berkely, and presumably the members of the “The Day’s End Club”, concluded that if the Duke was telling the truth, that if she really was so shallow as to enjoy a bough of cherries as much as the Duke’s 900 year old name then… well… she must have been “in fact shallow and easily and equally well pleased with any favour.” Conclusion? She deserved it. We, in the 21rst century, whether the Duke is telling the truth or not, condemn the Duke’s behavior. Readers of the Victorian era? Not so. They need clarification. This is the society and attitudes in which Browning’s poem appeared.

We, like Friedland, consider the Duchess, whether the Duke exaggerated or not, a “happy-natured” and “radiant” woman, not shallow. It’s the Duke who is shallow and easily and equally well insulted by any triviality. But this interpretation doesn’t seem to occur to Exeter’s book club members. They want to know about the Duchess, not the Duke.

The second part of the question is equally damning! He asks, “did the Duke so describe her as a supercilious cover to real and well justified jealousy?” OK, let’s translate this. What the questioner is asking is this: Was the Duke correctly describing her (albeit superciliously) as shallow, or was she an adulterer? In other words, the poor Duchess’ reputation goes from the frying pan into the fire! Either she’s incredibly shallow or she’s a whore! (I don’t think I’ve ever used so many exclamation points in a post, but wow.) In any event, the question just enforces what Browning was up against. Browning’s reply is terse. If I were to read between the lines, I might call it exasperated. Browning squarely puts the blame where it belongs — on the Duke.

: Lines 34-43
·

"...exceed the mark..." When the arrow overshoots the target.

………………….Who’d stoop to blame
…..This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
…..In speech–(which I have not)–to make your will
…..Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
…..‘Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
…..Or there exceed the mark’–and if she let
40 Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
…..Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse
…..–E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
…..Never to stoop.

As if responding to a hint of incredulity on the emissary’s part, the Duke excuses his own behavior with breathtaking arrogance and entitlement. He couldn’t be bothered to blame, in the sense of correct, her behavior, by saying this “disgusts me” or “you miss,/ Or there exceed the mark'”. He then says, curiously, that he lacked the “skill/ In speech”. The Duke claims incompetence while defending himself in flawless iambic pentameter. Interestingly, even the Duke seems aware of the absurdity. As if responding to some subtlety in the emissary’s body language (or so I would have it if I were to stage the monologue), the Duke quickly corrects course. He says: “E’en then would be stooping; and I choose/ Never to stoop.” Translation: “Even if I had tried to correct her behavior I would have been, in effect, asking for or requesting something. A man in my position never stoops to request anything from anyone – let alone my wife!”

: Lines 43-47

…………………….Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt
…..Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
…..Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
…..Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
…..As if alive.

And there we have it. Whenever she saw him, she smiled. But the Duke considered that smile cheap currency. Her smile was indiscriminate, and that was intolerable to a man with a 900 year old namesake. He gave commands. All smiles stopped together. Did he have her murdered? Was it the half-flush that died along her throat? Or was she sent to a convent to live out the rest of her days with a gaggle of unsmiling nuns? You decide. And does it make a difference? Would the Duke’s behavior be any more forgivable if he exiled her to a convent? One or the other possibility seemed to satisfy Browning. I have always interpreted the lines as murder and the Duke as sociopathically evil. The beauty of the poem, if you can call it that, is how the Duke manages to (or wishes to) portray himself as the victim. This is classic sociopathy. His arrogant self-regard easily dismisses any suffering other than his own. On the other hand, maybe calling him a sociopath is to excuse him.

: Lines 47-56

………..Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
…..The company below, then. I repeat
…..The Count your master’s known munificence
50 Is ample warrant that no just pretense
…..Of mine dowry will be disallowed
…..Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
…..At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
…..Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
…..Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
…..Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

"...no just pretense Of mine dowry will be disallowed..."

The closing lines are lovely. In terms of their psychological portrayal, they are perfection. After displaying the portrait, the Duke gets down to business. That his former wife has been reduced to a curtained portrait is highly symbolic. No longer will she smile at anyone unless it’s by the Duke’s “design”. In other words, she will only smile with his permission (when he has pulled back the curtain). She has been reduced to just another artwork and possession at the service of his ego and reputation.

That said, and despite his protestations that he would never “stoop”, he will walk “together down” with the emissary when a dowry is at stake. With a kind of nervous obsequiousness, he “repeats” his statement (as though seeking reassurance) that the emissary’s master, the Count, won’t find any pretense to disallow (lessen or reject) the Duke’s dowry.  A dowry is the money or property brought by the woman into her husband’s marriage. The tradition is alive and well in many religiously and traditionally backward countries. And there’s no doubt that the Duke is alive and well in those traditions.  The Duke adds, almost as an embarrassed afterthought, that the Count’s “fair daughter” nevertheless remains his object. The Duke, apparently, will stoop for money and property.

"...Notice Neptune, though, Taming a sea-horse..."

Claus of Innsbruck is another fictional character. The statue at right is modern. You can own it for $89.99, just click on the image. I personally find it incredibly tacky; and I suspect that Browning did too. After all, despite the grandiloquence of the statue, a seahorse is a tiny little creature and if it needs to be tamed before it can be ridden, that doesn’t say much for the Neptune riding it. One of the all time great put-downs was when a character in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus  asks: “Hear you this Triton of the minnows?”

I can hardly think of a tackier or more trivial subject. Neptune taming a seahorse?

After all the Duke’s posturing over the triviality of the Duchess, we see that the Duchess, her white mule, her bough of cherries, the “dropping of the daylight in the west”, were more beautiful, significant and bountiful than the trivial stupidity of “a Neptune” taming a seahorse. The beauty of the moment is in Browning’s ability to confer on the Duke all the sins of triviality and superficiality he imposed on the Duchess. The art, of which the Duke is a patron and collector, appears to be of the most shallow and lifeless sort. If there were any Victorian questions as to whether great art could be a byproduct of such a corrupt culture, my feeling is that Browning puts that to rest.

  • “…thought a rarity…” Browning wants the reader to notice the Duke’s observation that the lifeless and tacky statue  is a “rarity”, whereas the “spot” of joy (the Duchess’s easy joy) was, in the Duke’s judgment, common and banal.

What are the final words of the Duke’s monologue?

…for me.

And that’s that. The Duke will have nothing in his life that is not “for me”.

The duke lives in a world dedicated to him, his position, his reputation. Any wife should expect to be nothing more than another accoutrement and adornment dedicated to his vanity. He’s managed to do just that with the Duchess. She has become nothing more than a portrait that smiles at his command and, as he stresses in the first lines, his alone.

His warning? The next Duchess can expect the same if she doesn’t appreciate the gift of his reputation.

The Scansion

In order to keep the scansion down to a manageable size, I tried something different. I didn’t add any scansion marks, using color coding instead. The key is as follows:

  • Trochaic Foot
  • Pyhrric Foot
  • Spondaic Foot

I use the same color code in all of my scansions. There’s nothing official about the colors. They’re just something I came up with to make scansions easier to read and far less “busy”. All unmarked feet are Iambic.

  • The meter of the poem is Iambic Pentameter.
  • The rhyme scheme is that of open heroic couplets (as opposed to closed heroic couplets – a nicety that no other website, to my knowledge, has mentioned).
  • Notice how the Spondaic feet are beautifully placed in congruence with the Duke’s heightened emotions — esp. when he states his nine-hundred year namesake, when he says E’en then, and esp. when he says: Then all smiles stopped… You will never find a more perfect use of Spondaic feet, maybe the equal, but never better.
  • There are two examples of headless feet (lines missing the first syllable).
  • I’ve read some commentary on the placement of end-stopped verses enjambed lines, but my own feeling is that it’s all too easy to read more into such techniques (in this case) than the text warrants. One risks veering into Enactment Fallacy.
  • All in all, Browning’s verse is conservative but beautifully done.


Other Analyses

The best site that I’ve found is here: Representative Poetry Online

If I find another, or you can recommend one, I’ll post it. I hope y’all have found the post helpful and enjoyed it.