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.


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.


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.


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,

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.]


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)?


  • 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]
  • 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.


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:


Donne: His Sonnet V · Spank me, ô Lord

My New Favorite ‘Complete’

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

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

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

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

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

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

the Scansion (& my high horse)

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


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

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

Scansion of Sonnet V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Making of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Similar to my post on “Stopping by Woods”, I’ll take a look at how different authors have analyzed the poem (and mix in my own 2¢ along the way). We’ll also look at the history of the poem, how it arrived at its final form — a subject almost as interesting as the poem itself.

Nothing Golden Stays

The aspect of the poem that nearly all close readers and critics emphasize is Frost’s use of paradox and his reference to Adam & Eve – the Christian creation myth. The story of Adam & Eve is sprinkled throughout western art, literature and music and any artist who references the story also inherits a wealth of associations.

Aside: When I was a high school junior at Western Reserve Academy, my English teacher expressed the opinion that the story of Adam & Eve was a profoundly inspired story. I countered that the story was actually stock and trade, no more inspired than any other creation myth. If looks could kill. He chalked it up to teen-aged diffidence but my opinion hasn’t changed. He asked if I could name any other story that was so pervasive. Like in China? I countered. That ended the discussion. My 2¢? Take any fable, be it ever so humble, make it the centerpiece of your culture’s spiritual and religious identity for hundreds of years and watch it flourish. It’s the centuries of art and literature, like variations, that burnish the fable of Adam & Eve. Think of Beethoven’s Diabelli variations. There’s nothing special about Diabelli’s little theme. It’s Beethoven’s variations, based on the theme, that burnish the original.

But back to Robert Frost. Frost adds considerable depth by alluding to Adam & Eve. The subject matter of the poem is elevated from a wistful observation on the passage of time to a more universal comment encompassing time and creation itself. Such is the power of alluding to the myth. Alfred R. Ferguson, in an essay entitled “Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall“, begins the essay as follows: “Perhaps no single poem more fully embodies the ambiguous balance between paradisiac good and the paradoxically more fruitful human good than “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a poem in which the metaphors of Eden and the Fall cohere with the idea of felix culpa.”

And yet, for all this, the first version of the poem doesn’t include a reference to the Bible. The very first version was, in fact, nothing more than a wistful observation on the passage of time.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
Another golden flame
And yet it’s not the same
It[‘s] not as lovely quite
As that first golden light.

Here’s my theory on Frost’s thought process. The version above, the earliest, is also the most forgettable. The first five lines are clearly the strongest and he probably thought of them all in one sitting. After that, though he recognized their promise, he didn’t know where to go with them. The last five lines are anticlimactic. They don’t elevate the subject matter and present no new ideas.

For example: Gold appears in the first line only to be repeated twice (in lines 6 and 10) as a weaker adjective. Not only that but there’s really no difference between a “golden flame” and a “golden light“. Not knowing what he wants to say, Frost is merely killing space. Adjectives, in poetry, can easily indicate second rate thought, second rate poetry, and a second rate poet. Frost repeats ideas anti-climatically. By writing that autumn “achieves another golden flame” he’s already given away the game. By the time he calls nature’s first “gold” a “golden light” there’s no surprise or elevation in thought. There’s no epiphany or feeling of development. The phrase And yet it’s not the same adds nothing. It’s little more than rhetorical filler for the sake of rhyme.

But Frost wasn’t a second rate poet. He recognized the sententious weaknesses in this first version. He moved on. He revised.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
A still more golden blaze
But nothing golden stays.

[From Selections from American literature, edited by Leonidas Warren Payne p. 936]

This revision, this much of it, is a clear improvement. He’s gotten rid of the phrase And yet it’s not the same. He’s tightened the poem by reducing it from ten lines to eight. The final four lines become a mirror image of the first four. In effect, he’s created a volta such as you would find in a Sonnet – a turn or change in the subject, a movement from proposition to resolution.

But problems remain. Golden, as in the first version, is repeated twice, diminishing the epithet’s effectiveness. But that’s the least of it. Changing the noun gold into the adjectives golden remains the first sin. The problem is that the emphasis is on blaze and stays rather than gold. The image left in the readers mind is diffuse. What does a blaze look like?

However, this isn’t the end of the poem. Here is the earlier version of the poem in its entirety. This marks the first time this version has appeared anywhere on the world wide web. I don’t know why scholars (and if you’re a scholar I’m talking to you) can’t be bothered to print the entirety of the poem if you’re going to discuss it. I had to reconstruct this from snippets and fragments gleaned from deviously clever Google book searches. Here it is:

Nothing Golden Stays

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
A still more golden blaze
But nothing golden stays.

Of white, blue, gold and green,
The only colors seen
And thought of in the vast,
The gold is soonest past.
A moment it appears
At either end of years,
At either end of days.
But nothing golden stays.

In gold as it began
The world will end for man.
And some belief avow
The world is ending now.
The final age of gold
In what we now behold.
If so, we’d better gaze,
For nothing golden stays.

This isn’t bad, but it seems excessive for a wistful poem about the passage of time. The second stanza more or less elaborates on what was already implied by the first stanza. My guess is that Frost thought the poem would feel weightier having a tripartite form. The problem, as Shakespeare put it with characteristic genius, is that “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” There are more words than matter in this poem.

But why is Frost looking for a weightier poem and what’s the third stanza about? Tyler Hoffman, in his book Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry, explains (though, like other authors, he couldn’t be bothered to provide the entire poem):

…Frost is speaking out on international political affairs in his sly way, and it is important to remember that this poem is composed in 1920, just after World War I has ended. Feeling sure that “there are two or three more wars close at hand,” Frost expresses a fierce nationalism at this time and, with it, an isolationist political position (…) ” Nothing Gold Can Stay” tropes this position, suggesting through its isolation of syntactic units a refusal to become embroiled in global politics: just as Nature tries to resists the forces of change, so America must try to resist forces that would pull her beyond her borders, even if such resistance may be in vain. That the poem originally included lines that later became part of “It is Almost the Year 2000,” (…) points to another political meaning, as Frost jabs at 1930s liberals who believe that the millenium is upon us on the evidence of the terrible times. [pp. 162-163]

• Hoffman makes observations about the poem’s form that I don’t find persuasive. He remarks that “it is seemingly ironic that the boundaries of phrasal units and lines should match up so neatly in a poem about transition, the change from one season to another.”  Hoffman’s answer to this perceived conundrum is that “through tight closure, Frost is able to depict the effort on Nature’s part to ‘hold’ — to try to resist the forces of change that inevitably will overpower her.” He then goes on to note that the earlier version of the poem does not follow this  pattern. One would think this would fatally undercut Hoffman’s assertion, but he nicely pirouettes: “In this draft version, hard enjambment also is resisted, a formal condition that reads as an emblem of Frost’s political resistence to socialist utopian thought.”

Say what? Hoffman gives us no citation for these assertions. Did Frost, at some point, characterize his use of end-stopped lines and enjambment as political “emblems”? No. So, what we’re left with is Hoffman’s opinion as to what Frost was thinking. I don’t buy it. I’m not persuaded. If anything, this kind of analysis smacks of David Orr’s Enactment Fallacy. I’ve linked to Orr’s article a dozen times in other posts, but if you haven’t read it then it’s worth reading or reading again. Orr writes of the Enactment Fallacy:

Basically, this is the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess. For example, in an otherwise excellent discussion of Yeats’s use of ottava rima (a type of eight-line stanza), Vendler attributes great effect to “the pacing” allegedly created by “a fierce set of enjambments” followed by a “violent drop” in the fourth stanza of the poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.

Hoffman, like Vendler, is imposing meaning on poetic techniques. If one takes Hoffman at his word, are we then to conclude that every example of enjambment is politically emblematic? If not, then we’re cherry picking. Otherwise we must be willing to say that enjambment means X in this poem, but Y in that poem without any evidence whatsoever. Unless you’ve heard it from Frost, don’t be persuaded by assertions like these.

Getting back to the poem’s theme, I am persuaded by Hoffman’s thinking that the original impulse for “Nothing Gold Can Stay” developed into something political. This explains, perhaps, why Frost wanted a weightier poem in three parts. What may have began as a wistful nature poem began to be seen, by Frost, as a good metaphor for his disagreement with liberal politics (“some belief avow”), which he perceived as Utopian – hence golden.

With that in mind, we can discern the first appearance of Adam & Eve. “In gold as it began…” he writes. That is, mankind began in gold, in the Garden of Eden. If gold is then a euphemism for utopianism, then the Garden of Eden is the ultimate tale of liberal utopianism. I’ve read some other analyses of Nothing Gold Can Stay by other bloggers who see in Frost’s allusion a sympathetically Christian one; but, if anything, Frost’s initial allusion to the Garden of Eden is anything but sympathetic. His allusion almost drips with sarcasm. ‘You see how long that lasted,’ he seems to say. What makes you think this new Democratic and socialist utopianism is going to fair any better? If that’s what you think, he writes at the close of the poem, then you’d “better gaze [now], For nothing golden [Utopian] stays.”

He taunts liberals (and socialists) for their Utopian vision of society by bitingly comparing it to the Utopian vision of Christian Theology – the End Days, End Times or the Second Coming. He calls it the “final age of gold”. Is it accident that he uses the very phrase?

A moment it appears
At either end of years,
At either end of days.
But nothing golden stays.

Frost’s skepticism applies not just to the Garden of Eden, but to the reputed gold age that will come with Christ’s Second Coming. Just as in the first instance, he writes, it won’t stay.

So much for a wistful nature poem.

But there’s a reason why this earlier version is so hard to find. It’s not that good. As with all political poems, it comes stamped and dated. Political poems have short shelf lives. Without knowing the political impetus behind the original poem, the whole of it comes off sounding excessively verbose. Frost must have recognized the limitations of the poem and how his politics circumscribed the poem’s potential universality.

He went back to work. He revised.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

I  find the differing versions of this poem revealing as to Robert Frost’s personality. It’s easy to sense, in the earlier version, a side of Frost that was ill-humored, sarcastic, acerbic and dismissive. It’s a darker undercurrent that can be sensed in many of his poems and one, as revealed in many of his sketches, that he tempers. Nothing Gold Can Stay is a perfect example. The final version is deceptively straightforward, like many of Frost’s poems, but the tincture of Frost’s acerbic personality remains, adding depth and perspective to what, otherwise, might simply be mawkish.

Frost quickly dispenses with the second stanza. One might not think it at first glance, but it’s easy to read a dismissive tone into the first four lines of the second stanza:

Of white, blue, gold and green,
The only colors seen
And thought of in the vast,
The gold is soonest past.

There are other colors (politics) besides gold, but no one else “in the vast” seems to see them. Without the political impetus behind these lines, they have the potential to sound petty. The lines also state what is already understood. The subject of the poem, in a sense, pertains to what is golden. The fact that the other colors are overlooked is already implied.

The third stanza gets the ax because it threatens to come off as nothing more than derisive political posturing.

This brings Frost back to the first stanza. Eden is still buzzing in his brain. He realizes that this reference has the potential to expansively elevate the  subject matter – a facet missing in the earliest versions. Frost returns to the first four lines but this time changes flowers to the more universal flower. The singular flower carries a more symbolic feeling than flowers. Likewise, the change from hours to hour gives the word a more universal, symbolic flavor.

Frost alters his poem from naturalistic generality to symbol. A flower could be anything (whereas flowers will be more generally read as flowers). From there, and with Eden still in the back of his mind, he makes the leap to the next four lines:

Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Rather than use a euphemism, Frost simply writes Eden — Eden sank to grief. But a tone has been set. By Frost’s use of the singular flower, hour and leaf, the reference to Eden becomes a symbolic gesture which, because of its suggestive power, smoothly elevates the poem’s thought and philosophic reach. The idea of Eden burnishes the word dawn, imbuing it with a deeper symbolism. But there’s something more to this line, the idea that dawn goes down to day. More than one author and critic has sought explanation in the Latin phrase felix culpa or blessèd fall. This is the paradoxical concept that through diminution or decay comes increase and growth. The day is the apogee of sunlight and warmth, but to have that day, the beauty of dawn must go down. The dawn itself, like the first green of the early leaf is a kind of gold that must go down before the leaf can bear fruit. Nothing gold can stay. As King Midas learned, gold that stays makes for a lifeless world.

Alfred Furgeson, whose Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall I quoted earlier, nicely sums up the same ideas in his own way:

It is a felix culpa and light-bringing. Our whole human experience makes us aware that dawn is tentative, lovely, but incomplete and evanescent. Our expectation is that dawn does not “go down” to day, but comes up, as in Kipling’s famous phrase, “like thunder,” into the satisfying warmth of sunlight and full life. The hesitant perfections of gold, of flower, of Eden, and finally of dawn are linked to parallel terms which are set in verbal contexts of diminished value. Yet in each case the parallel term is potentially of larger worth. If the reader accepts green leaf and the full sunlight of day as finally more attractive than the transitory golden flower and the rose flush of a brief dawn, he must also accept the Edenic sinking into grief as a rise into a larger life. In each case the temporary and partial becomes more long-lived and complete; the natural cycle that turns from flower to leaf, from dawn to day, balances each loss by a real gain. Eden’s fall is a blessing in the same fashion, an entry into fuller life and greater light.

It’s worth pointing out, at this point, that the poem’s political implications were still probably present in Frost’s mind and in his later readings, but they no longer feel like the poem’s primary impetus. He accomplished this, in part, by his more symbolic use of language. The poem, if construed as political, is no longer an ascerbic dismissal of a political belief, but an elegant alternative to those beliefs. Rather than simply mock a system of beliefs he disagrees with, he offers an alternative. The decline (or failure) of utopianism is an inevitable outcome if the cycle of life is to be respected and appreciated.

This revision makes the poem interestingly and compellingly constructive rather than destructive. The necessary tension between creation and destruction is what makes the poem great. At the same time that we feel the loss of all that is gold, we also sense the necessity and blessèdness that comes from that loss.

The Poem’s Form

The poem is written in Iambic Trimeter. The only variant feet are a trochaic foot in the first line and a headless foot in the final line. The headless foot in the final line is especially effective. To my ears, it adds a succinct pithiness to the final line, like a sonnet’s epigrammatic close.

There’s another longer and more detailed (read deep) look at how this poem works at an aural/linguistic level by John A. Rea. The analysis can be found here. It’s a fascinating attempt to do what is nearly impossible – describe what is musical about the language in the poem. It’s almost like trying to describe the color red to a blind man. You can decide for yourself whether he succeeds or is even readable, but I admire and appreciate the attempt.


  • Curiously, a number of bloggers have posted a strange hybrid. You will sometimes find the following:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaves subside to leaves.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The problem is that the word leaves doesn’t rhyme with grief. That’s not anything Frost would have written. That’s just a mistake. You will also find the title, sometimes, mistakenly given as Nothing Golden Stays. This title, in fact, belongs to the earlier version.

WB Yeats ❧ Sailing to Byzantium

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


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


MS of Sailing to Byzantium

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


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


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

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

Two Minds

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

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

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

The First Stanza: Scansion


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

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

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

What’s it about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“mackerel-crowded seas…”

The poem already begins to feel laden with contradiction.

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

The Second Stanza: Scansion

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

What’s it about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In A Vision, Yeats describes the appeal of Byzantium:

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Stanza: Scansion

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

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

Although I scanned the second line as follows:

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

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

As in |the gold| mosaic |of a wall

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

The sixth line:

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

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

What’s it about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perne in a gyre…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really? Here are the notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you be the judge.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

And here are the definitions for pern:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, you be the judge.

Update December 2 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning and turning in the widening gyre…


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

…gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

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

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

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

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

The Fourth Stanza: Scansion

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

What’s it about?

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

Once out of nature…

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Yeats is referring to his art, his poetic passion, then the imagery is easier to swallow. Remember too, Yeats’ comment concerning the skills of Byzantine goldsmiths. Yeats glowingly comments that they can create “a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body”. Yeats, himself, doesn’t think of the goldsmith’s work as mechanical and lifeless, no,  just the opposite. The artifice is not mechanical but “flexible”, not lifeless, but like the “perfect human body”. Yeats is describing a spiritual/alchemical transmutation like a kind of miracle. In the poem Byzantium, he will write:

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

Yeats, in my opinion, is describing a personal, spiritual transformation as manifested through his art – his poetry. He is, in a sense, identifying himself as his poetry – which is all that will remain after he has died. In this guise, the gold bough is like the magnum opus of his poetry (his Collected Poems). His poetry, transfigured by his new found spirituality, will not speak to everyone, but only to those who have themselves been transfigured, who have sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium. (We will have left  behind that country of “the dying generations”.) We will  be the “lords and ladies of Byzantium”. We will be able to hear and understand his songs/poetry of “what is past. passing, or to come”.

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

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

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

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

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

The Lords and Ladies of Byzantium are us.


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

Yeats’ Two Byzantiums

A nice reading on Youtube, if a little depressing.

Final Thought:

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

The old man becomes the soul.

The world is too much with us ❧ William Wordsworth

This analysis is late in coming and is a request.

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

Full Disclosure

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

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

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

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


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

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

He changes:

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


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

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

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

The Sonnet

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

One among many Interpretations — My own

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The world is too much with us

Take the first line or phrase:

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

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

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

  • Late and soon

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

  • Nonsensical Punctuation (by modern standards)

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

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

Anyway… how to make sense of the punctuation?

Do we read it this way?

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

Or do we read it this way?

The world is too much with us.

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

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

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

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

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

  • Getting and spending.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d rather be a pagan…”

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

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

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

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

“Proteus rising from the sea…”

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

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

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


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

“old triton…”


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

In the fifth canto the ode continues:

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

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

The Scansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wordsworth at his best

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

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

John Donne & Batter my Heart: Editing Iambic Pentameter Then & Now

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I was looking for another poem to analyze. Since there’s been so much interest in my post on Donne’s Death Be Not Proud, I thought I would  look at another of his Holy Sonnets, the famous Batter My Heart. john donneThe first thing I did was to Google the sonnet. And here’s what I found out: All of the sites I have looked at so far, offer readers a “modernized” version of the sonnet. Not only is the spelling modernized, but also the punctuation.

This is a disaster.

Here’s why: The Elizabethans used spelling and punctuation as signposts (spelling hadn’t been standardized) indicating how their lines should be read. Unfortunately, modernizations of the sonnet overlook this, misunderstanding the reasons Elizabethans wrote and spelled the way they did. It wasn’t haphazard. The end result is that all the modernizations I’ve seen so far, completely and devastatingly erase the clues to Donne’s intentions.

So, I’ve used an Oxford edition of Donne’s Poetical Works which retains the original spellings and punctuation. It falls just short of being a facsimile edition. This is the version I’ve scanned and once we go through it together, it will all make sense.

  • Note: [June 4 2009 – As I sit at the Dartmouth Bookstore] Another edition which respects Donne’s punctuation and your ability to get it, is the Everyman Library’s edition of The Complete English Poems. Astonishingly, the Norton Critical Edition of John Donne’s Poetry does not. Dickson edits the poem inconsistently, choosing to note some of Donne’s markings while ignoring others, all while giving the reader no indication that he is doing so. I don’t recommend this edition and if instructors want you to buy it, point out the poor editing or point them to my website.

Note, if any of this terminology is unfamiliar to you, you might consider reading my post on Iambic Pentameter and the Basics, first. I’ve also spent aless time explaining the reasons why an Iambic Pentameter poem should be read as such. My previous posts, such as my previous post on Donne, go into more of the historical reasons for conservative readings of meter.


First, by way of comparison, here is the modernized version (as typically found on the web) side by side with the “facsimile”. I’ve highlighted the crucial punctuation, in the original, missing in the modernization.

Comparison of Modernized & Facsimile Sonnet XIV

In each of the highlights, the apostrophes indicate the use of Synalophea, a form of elision where, “at the juncture of two vowels one is elided” [Sister Miriam Joseph: Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 52]. Without these indications no modern reader of poetry, having grown up on free verse, would suspect that something was missing. They would simply read the lines as anapests, completely ignoring the meter and Donne’s intentions. So, they would read the third line as follows:

That I| may rise, |and stand, |o’erthrow |me, and bend

When it should read something like this:

That I| may rise, |and stand, |o’erthrow |me’nd bend

There’s room for debate as to whether this sort of slurring or elision works. There were readers in Donne’s own day who frequently scratched their heads. But what’s indisputable, is that Donne intended us to elide these words. He was writing Iambic Pentameter – still a new meter. So many anapests in the span of a single sonnet would have been derided as incompetent. In my last post on Donne, examining his other Holy Sonnet, Death be not Proud, you’ll find the following:

Ben Jonson was quoted as having said: “Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging.” Even two hundred years later, literary historian Henry Hallam considered Donne the “most inharmonius of our versifiers, if he can be said to have deserved such a name by lines too rugged to seem metre.” Right up to 1899, Francis Thompson was describing Donne’s poetry as “punget, clever, with metre like a rope all hanks and knots.”

Thomas Carew, a contemporary, wrote in his elegy to Donne:

Our stubborne language bends, made only fit
With her tough-thick-rib’d hoopes to gird about
Thy Giant phansie

Carew praised Donne’s meter for it’s “masculine expression”.  Dryden, on the other hand, wished that Donne “had taken care of his words, and of his numbers [numbers was a popular term for meter] eschewing in particular his habitual rough cadence. (For most of these quotes, I’m indebted to  C.A. Partrides Everyman’s Library introduction to Donne’s complete poems.)

The Holy Trinity Masaccio, 1426-27 Fresco, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.

The Holy Trinity Masaccio, 1426-27 Fresco, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.

In Donne’s 14th Holy Sonnet, “thick ribb’d”, spondaic lines like “but knocke, |breathe, shine”  or “to break, | blowe, burn” were  the lines that troubled readers the most. Yet lines like these are what Donne needed to convey the energetic emotional conviction behind his rhetoric – anger, contempt, desperation, etc…

Back to the differences between the old and new printings:

Notice how Donne spells usurped as  usurpt. This wasn’t because he didn’t know how to spell. He was telling us that the word was to be treated as bi-syllabic, not tri-syllabic. In other words, it shouldn’t be pronounced usurpèd.  He apostrophizes betroth’d for the same reason. He doesn’t want us to pronounce it as betrothèd. Now, you might object that since no one pronounces it like this anymore anyway, why preserve this spelling. The reason is that you will miss the words that he does want us to pronounce tri-syllabically – like “beloved fain”.

Yet dearely’I love you,’and would belov|èd faine,

So, it’s not that he remembered how to spell beloved, it’s that he wanted us to pronounce the -ed ending. And it’s the reason why “responsible” modern editions add the accent grave over the è when they modernize the rest of the spelling. Now, on to the sonnet. Here it is:

The Sonnet

John Donne: Sonnet XIV "Batter my heart" Scansion

The First Quatrain: Batter me!

As with modern day religious leaders, Donne’s carnality and spirituality were never far removed. Donne, at least, wasn’t hypocritical about it. He made great poetry out of the conflict.

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

battering ramThree-person’d God refers to the holy trinity. The battering ram was an old, if not ancient, weapon by the time Donne wrote his sonnet, but it was still a very effective and violent weapon – possibly the most terrifying weapon of its day. If the battering ram was out and it was battering your portcullis, and if you were out of hot oil, you were in a lot of trouble.  So, Donne’s battering was probably the most violent and terrifying weapon he could conjure. No battering ram, by the way, could be effectively used by one person. Donne remedies that by referring to God as three-personed. In the illustration at right, though the perspective is somewhat confused, you will notice that three soldiers are using the first of the battering rams.

Batter me! – Donne cries to God. All you do is try to mend. Mend, in Donne’s day, had the sense “to repair from breach or decay: Like the mending of highways” [ Shakespeare-Lexicon: A Complete Dictionary of All the Works of the Poet. Schmidt.] It also, as today, has the sense of improving and making better. But it’s the first sense that Donne was playing on. He tells us that God is reparing the breach when he should be battering it down. In the first two lines Donne plays on paradoxical demands, subverting the reader’s usual expectations. Let God destroy; and by destroying, build. So that I can rise up and stand, says Donne, overthrow me, bend/use your force/your power, to break and blow (in the sense of a bomb or petar – used to blow up walls). Burn me (like the invader who burns down the besiged fortress) and rebuild me – make me new. This is an urgent sonnet.
Here’s how Bejamin Britten expressed the Sonnet in music:Death be not proud.... CD by Britten & Bostridge[Audio https://poemshape.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/batter-my-heart.mp3%5D

Note: This, by the way, is directly related to the much misunderstood expression – “hoisted by one’s own petard”. A petard was like dynamite, a kind of bomb.

Let it work;
For ’tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petar; and ‘t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon.
[Shakespeare: Hamlet III, 4]

The Second Quatrain

The second quatrain continues the theme of the first, rounding off the Sonnet’s octave.

I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.

Donne compares himself to a “usurpt towne”. The word due, according to the Shakespeare Lexicon (the best dictionary for words in Shakespeare’s day), has as its second meaning “belonging” – to belong to someone. I am due to a woman [Err. III, 2, 81]. So, Donne is saying that he has been usurpt and now belongs to another (greed? carnality? temptation? we don’t really know yet…). And though he labors to admit God, his efforts are “to no end”.

Donne then characterizes Reason, his own reason, as God’s viceroy. A viceroy was understood as a substitute for the King. So, by this analogy, Donne sees himself as a city into which God has breathed reason – the (substitute or viceroy) of God (the King). But in Donne, God’s viceroy, who should defend Donne, is captive to another. He proves weak or untrue. In my scansion, I chose to emphasize the conjunction or.  In terms of meter, Donne has placed it in a position which is normally stressed (the second syllable of any iambic foot). As I’ve written before: If one can read a foot as Iambic in poetry prior to the 20th Century, one probably should. In this case, stressing or adds another layer of meaning reinforced by the content. That is, it’s one thing for Donne to suggest that his reason is weake, but entirely another to suggest that his reason is untrue – a traitor. Being convicted of treachery in Donne’s day was treated as an especially heinous offense. A death sentence was usually a sure bet. Dismemberment, including having your dismembered parts nailed up for public display, was de rigueur. If the sonnet were spoken like a monologue, I might expect the actor to hesitate at or. “My reason is too weake or… or untrue!”  – spoken as with a sense of self-discovery or even self-loathing.

Save me! – Donne cries.

The Sestet

Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

The structure of the sonnet is most like those of Sidney’s Sonnets. However, where there is usually a division between the third quatrain and a final epigrammatic couplet, Donne makes none. The final quatrain is enjambed. Its phrasing flows smoothly into the couplet. So, while I would normally treat the quatrain and couplet as discrete, I’ve reproduced the entire sestet as an indivisible whole. In this regard, the content of the sonnet more closely approximates that of a Patrarchan Sonnet.

Despite the possible betrayal of reason, God’s viceroy, Donne insists that, though he is “betrothed to God’s enemie, he “dearely” loves God and “would be loved faine” (faine means gladly). What’s interesting is that the analogy Donne uses to portray his relationship to God and his own will seems to change completely. No longer is he a city. He now compares himself to a desperate bridegroom – one who is betrothed to someone he does not wish to marry. Is this the volta? – a change of conceit?

C.A. Partride, in his notes to the Sonnet (The Complete English Poems), has this to say:

Man’s relations with God have been set forth in terms of marriage or adultery ever since the great Hebrew prophets, beginning with Hosea. It was within such a context that Donne described adultery as ‘every departing from that contract you made with God at your Baptisme… [p. 433]

Divorce mee! – Donne cries. “Untie or breake that knot again!” Recalling the martial analogies of octave, he cries: “Imprison me!” And now Donne revels in a sort of paradoxical delight. “Imprison me,” he cries, enthrall me (enslave me), and I “shall be free”!  “Ravish me!” – Donne cries. “And I shall be chaste!”

But ravish, in its Elizabethan sense, carried a more violent connotation than now, the first two definitions being: 1.) To rob, to carry away by force; 2.) to deflower by violence. We are reminded of the sonnet’s first line, but now the martial imagery assumes a very different meaning. The heart is the “seat of love and amorous desire” [Shakespeare Lexicon]. The soul is a feminine attribute [Shakespeare Lexicon p. 1090]. The battering ram is phallic.

The octave takes on a new layer of meaning.

In one sense, Donne, his body and soul are one and the same.

In another sense, they are not. Donne’s soul is trapped within the body (the usurpt town) – usurpt by reason.  And now we begin to comprehend the different characters in the sonnet:

Three person’d GodWhose overthrow Donne (or Donne’s Soul) desires.
ReasonGod’s viceroy, who has betrayed Donne.
The Towne – Which is Donne’s Physical Being. His body.
The Enemie – Fear. Or the fear of Death. Fear seeks to prevent God’s entry.
The Betrothed – Donne’s soul. The Bridegroom who seeks God rather than Fear.

So… Weake and untrue reason has captiv’d Donne; has betroth’d him to fear. Donne, in the sense of his phsycial being, fears the very thing his soul desires – Death.  The soul’s cry to God is a cry for death – freedom from her unwilling betrothal to the body. Do not mend but batter my heart! she cries. Free me from the body! – she cries. Donne gives voice to both characters – being both characters. The seeming violence of the soul’s rhetoric is best understood as expressing the immediacy of her desire  – for the chaste union, death, that promises her liberation. Death’s consummation is understood, by the soul (by her) as a kind of erotic and spiritual ecstasy. But before the soul can be enthralled and freed, the body must be overthrown and broken. The body must be divorced from its betrothal to fear.

The sonnet, we realize,  begins with the same cry that ends it  – “ravish me”!

If you enjoyed this post, found it helpful or have more questions – please comment!

John Donne & the Meter of Death be not Proud…

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  • April 23 2009: My One Request! I love comments. If you’re a student, just leave a comment with the name of your high school or college. It’s interesting to me to see where readers are coming from and why they are reading these posts. :-)

Donne Wrong

Great Poetry, to me, is like great wine. It takes a lot of wine-tastings to recognize, describe and appreciate great wine. There’s a whole vocabulary and I confess, I don’t know it. I wish I did. So, if someone wants to recommend a good blog or site for the art of wine tasting, let me know. This is my version of the same for poetry.

John DonneAt the Poetry Foundation I’ve been involved in an interesting discussion on John Donne’s Sonnet: Death be not proud… As part of the discussion I started searching the web to see what others had written. (I especially wanted to find readings and performances.) But, to my astonishment, I saw that everyone was misreading the poem!

As it turns out, this Sonnet (like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116) is one of the most misread sonnets in the English Language.

Julian Glover offers a (sort of) period performance in front of a suitably medieval fireplace. Glover was trained with the Royal Shakespeare Co. and, of all actors, should know how to perform Iambic Pentameter. But, astonishingly, Glover misreads it. He’s not alone. I couldn’t find a Youtube performance that reads the Sonnet correctly.

Audio recordings? I checked out the Gutenberg Project and Librivox. They misread it too!

What do they get wrong? Consider the first line:

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee….

They all pronounce the word called as monosyllabic. It’s not. It’s disyllabic – pronounced callèd. Death be not proud.... CD by Britten & BostridgeHere it is, performed correctly in  a composition by Benjamin Britten (who music’d all of Donne’s Holy Sonnets). The performance is by Ian Bostridge and clicking on the CD’s image will take you to Amazon:

However, if that’s not evidence enough, here’s something from a composer much closer to Donne’s lifetime – G.F. Handel:

…and His name shall be callèd Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God…

If you listen carefully, you will notice that Handel, and presumably his librettist Charles Jennens, treated callèd as a two syllable  word. While the pronunciation of the past tense èd was rapidly fading from common parlance, it was still alive and well in poetic convention even a hundred years after Donne’s career. In Donne’s own day, when language was much more in flux, this older pronunciation could be found in common parlance too. For this reason, since spelling had not been standardized in Elizabethan times, poets frequently, though not always, used spelling to indicate whether the –ed should be pronounced. In Donne’s case, rather than spelling called as call’d or calld, which was frequently done with other words, he left the e intact.

Here are some other examples from a facsimile addition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

Powre instead of Power
flowre instead of flower
alter’d instead of altered
conquerd instead of conquered
purposd instead of purposed

In all these examples, the e has either shifted position or has been removed and in all these examples, the e was not meant to be pronounced. On the other hand, consider the following:

Sonnet 116 ever-fixed mark
Sonnet 92 assured mine
Sonnet 81 entombed in men’s eyes
Sonnet 66 disabled

In all these examples, the e was left intact. Modern day editors, in an effort to make sure the words are pronounced correctly, write them as follows: ever-fixèd mark; assurèd mine; entombèd in men’s eyes; disablèd.

They also modernize the spellings of words like conquerd (since there’s no longer any risk that a reader will mispronounce  conquered as conquerèd). The end result is that reader’s aren’t exposed to the kinds of devices Shakespeare and others used to signal pronunciation.

Donne Right

Here is a scansion of Donne’s poem.  Purple indicates a spondaic foot. Red indicates a trochaic foot. These colors are my own invention. As far as I know, I’m the only one to use this sort of scheme.

Death be not proud - Color Coded Scansion

July 27 2009: Me reading the poem

I’ve had some requests to read this poem the way it might have sounded in Donne’s day. So.  Mea culpa. I apologize profusely to all actors who can wear an accent as though they were born to it.  And I apologize to every reader who speaks the Queen’s English. You must be horrified. I invite any of you to send me a proper MP3, and I will dutifully add it to this post.

I accept all criticism.

Here’s the reason for my effort.What may sound like slant rhymes in our day, eternally and die, were probably much closer, if not identical, in Donne’s day. While nobody can recreate the accents of the Elizabethans, we can make educated guesses based on the kinds of words they rhymed. According to what I’ve read, many scholars think that the London accent of Elizabethan times may have actually sounded just a touch more American than British –  think of the classic Pirate’s accent in movies. London was a sea-faring city.

I’m trying out my second recording. I tried too hard with some of the accent.  I think I’ll try again, maybe later today.

The First Line


So, let’s go line by line. The first line, like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, seems to give modern readers the most trouble – readers unaccustomed to reading Iambic Pentameter. Here is how many readers read it:


This makes the line Iambic Tetrameter with three variant feet: a headless first foot, an anapestic second foot, and a feminine ending. Historically, Donne would never have written a line like this as part of a sonnet, let alone as the first line. There is no Elizabethan who wrote anything like this in any of their sonnets. Just as in music, there were conventions and rules. Iambic Pentameter was still relatively new and poets wanted to master it, not break it. The reading above, a thoroughly modern reading, would have been scandalous and ridiculed.

Here is another version I have heard among modern readers:


This makes the line Pentameter, but not very Iambic. Every single foot is a variant foot: a headless first foot, trochaic second third and fourth, and a spondaic final foot. Donne would have been ridiculed as incompetent. Some readers, continue the trochaic reading through to the end (making the line Trochaic Pantemeter) :


No Elizabethan poet would have offered up a trochaic final foot – let alone a trochaic line within the span of a Sonnet. The trochaic final foot, with an Iambic Pentameter pattern, didn’t show up regularly until the start of the 20th Century. Between these three scansions there are variations but these examples cover most of them. Some of the misreadings occur because readers simply aren’t used to reading meter, and some because readers, misreading callèd, simply don’t know what to make of the line.

What is worth noticing in all these readings is that DEATH receives the stress. As modern readers, we want to read the sonnet as though Donne were addressing a character on stage. Hey, Death! But that’s not the story meter tells.

As I’ve written elsewhere: A masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. The meter tells us that the subject of Donne’s sonnet is Death’s Pride. it’s the verb be that receives the iambic stress, not DEATH (though DEATH should still receive more emphasis than otherwise). The reason be receives the stress is because this is a sonnet about DEATH’s disposition, his pride, his state of being.

DEATH be | not proud, | though some | have call|ed thee

Recognizing called as disyllabic allows us to read the line iambically – more easily making sense of the first two feet.

The Second Line


The second line is still problematic for modern readers:

Mighty |and dread|full, for, |thou art | not so,

The stumbling block is usually the fourth and fifth foot, which readers are apt to read as:

Mighty |and dread|full, for,| (thou art |not so),

And this precisely how Glover reads the line. No, no, no,no… One might concede the trochaic fourth foot as a matter of interpretation, but never a trochaic final foot, not in Elizabethan times – not even Milton, in the entirety of Paradise lost, writes a single trochaic final foot (unless we anachronistically pronounce the word).

In poetry of this period, if one can read a foot as Iambic, then one probably should. Even though it’s possible that Donne read the fourth foot as trochaic, all we know for certain is that he was writing Iambic Pentameter and that the verb art is in a (stress) position. Besides stress, Glover’s reading misses Donne’s argument. Placing stress on the verb art echoes the first line’s be. There is a parallelism at work, a kind of Epanalepsis wherein a word or phrase at the start of a sentence is repeated  at the end of the same or adjoining sentence:

DEATH | be |not |proud
Thou      |art |not |so

In both cases, the verb “to be” receives the emphasis. Donne is addressing Death’s being which, he will argue, is a non-being. The play on the verb “to be” and being may or may not be a part of Donne’s intentions, but the idea is present in the poem and, perhaps, gains some credence by Donne’s stressing of the verb “to be” in both the first and second line – which, besides the meter, is another reason I choose to stress the verb be over the inactive noun DEATH.

The Third Line


This line offers up another curve ball for modern readers. Many will read it as a  Tetrameter line (see the Youtube videos):


Green, as with all my scansions, represents an anapestic foot.

So, with many modern readers (including Glover again), we’ve already introduced two tetrameter lines within the first three lines. No metrical pattern is established and Donne’s Sonnet is effectively remade as a rhyming free verse poem.

Again, if you were scanning this poem, warning flags should be flying. No Elizabethan poet, within the confines of Sonnet, ever varied the number of feet from one line to the next. Never.

A masterfully written metrical poem tells us two stories: If we read the third line as Iambic Pentameter, the meter begins to tell us something. This isn’t a sonnet to be recited, meditatively, in front of a fireplace. This is a sonnet, god damn-it, of vehemence – an argument asserted forcefully. The Elizabethans were a fierce and gameful bunch and Donne was famed for his sermons.

For, those | whom thou | thinks’t, thou | dost o | verthrow

There is derision and defiace in those words!  This is a sonnet of defiance. Consider the first two lines in light of the what the meter is telling us:

DEATH be |not proud, |though some |have call|ed thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, |thou art |not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,

Observe the repeated thou’s. Donne is almost spitting the personal pronoun. You think you’re so great? Is that what you think?

The Fourth Line


donne-shroud-monumentThis line is perhaps the least problematic of the first quatrain, but the fourth foot is still apt to trip up modern readers. Readers may want to read it as follows:

1                 2                      3                4                        5

Die not,| poor death, |nor yet |canst thou |kill me

We know already that the trochaic fifth foot can’t be right. If one reads the fourth foot as trochaic, then the reader is not only subverting the meter of the poem, but the tale the meter is telling us, the vehemence and defiance of them. Yet again, Donne throws defiance in DEATH’s face with another thou.

DEATH be |not proud, |though some |have call|ed thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, |thou art |not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not,| poor death, |nor yet |canst thou |kill me

After the third stressed thou, I find it hard not to read derision in Donne’s verse. This is no fireside chat. This is a sonnet by a man obsessed with death; who, several weeks before his death, posed in his own death shroud for the making of his final monument.

The Second Quatrain


The second quatrain is the least problematic for modern readers. One could read the third foot of the third line as spondaic – both best and men receiving, essentially, the same stress.

And soon|est our |best men |with thee |doe goe,

More to the point is the change in tone from the first quatrain. There is less a feeling of derision and more a tone of confidence and certainty. The meter, accordingly, is smoother and confidently asserts itself. It’s hard to read the four lines as anything but Iambic Pentameter. The first foot in the second line, which I’ve marked as being spondaic, could also be read iambically. There us an almost jubilant certainty in content and meter.

In terms of content. A common conceit was to consider sleep a kind of death. This is what Donne means when he refers to rest and sleep as death’s “pictures”. Sleep and rest are false “pictures” of death, imitations. Sleep and rest were considered healing and restorative. So, says Donne, if sleep and death are but an imitation (a picture) of death, then death itself must be all the more healing and restorative. Much pleasure, he writes in the wise, must flow from death, “much more” than the false pictures of rest and sleep. Brave men must go with death, but it is their soul’s delivery.

The Third Quatrain


The third quatrain illustrates what made Donne’s meter  rough and inelegant to his contemporaries. Ben Jonson was quoted as having said: “Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging.” Even two hundred years later, literary historian Henry Hallam considered Donne the “most inharmonius of our versifiers, if he can be said to have deserved such a name by lines too rugged to seem metre.” Right up to 1899, Francis Thompson was describing Donne’s poetry as “punget, clever, with metre like a rope all hanks and knots.”

Thomas Carew, a contemporary, wrote in his elegy to Donne:

Our stubborne language bends, made only fit
With her tough-thick-rib’d hoopes to gird about
Thy Giant phansie

Carew praised Donne’s meter for it’s “masculine expression”.  Dryden, on the other hand, wished that Donne “had taken care of his words, and of his numbers [numbers was a popular term for meter] eschewing in particular his habitual rough cadence. (For most of these quotes, I’m indebted to  C.A. Partrides Everyman’s Library introduction to Donne’s complete poems.) It was lines like the following that they were referring to:

Th’art slave to FateChance, kings, and desperate men

The very lines that we, as modern readers, relish and enjoy.

In his own day and for generations afterward, these lines were idiosyncratic departures.  I scanned it the way Donne’s contemporaries would have tried to read it – which is possibly the way Donne himself imagined it. I do know that he was working within the confines of an art form that was still fairly new and that too much departure from metrical pattern wasn’t seen is innovative but as incompetent. Anapestic variant feet, within the confines of a sonnet, were  rare. To have three anapestic feet within one quatrain would have been extremely unlikely.

The first line is the easiest to read as Iambic:

Th’art slave | to Fate, | Chance, kings, |and des|p’rate men

Since most of us pronounce desperate as disyllabic (desp’rate), reading the last foot as Iambic (rather than anapestic) probably isn’t a stretch.

If the elision of thou art to th’art seems farfetched, here’s some precedent by Donne’s contemporary Shakespeare:

Hamlet V. ii

As th’art a man,
Give me the cup. Let go! By heaven, I’ll ha’t.

Taming of the Shrew I. ii

And yet I’ll promise thee she shall be rich,
And very rich; but th’art too much my friend,
And I’ll not wish thee to her.

Taming of the Shrew IV. iv

Th’art a tall fellow; hold thee that to drink.
Here comes Baptista. Set your countenance, sir.

One might object that Donne hasn’t elided Thou art and therefore means for us to read the first foot as anapestic, but this doesn’t acknowledge poetic practice during his own day. (It’s also possible that he did, but that the printer didn’t correctly reproduce Donne’s text.) In the first line, when Donne didn’t accent callèd, he omitted the accent  first, because they didn’t use the grave accent, and secondly, because it was assumed that readers would properly read the word. The Elizabethan audience knew how to read Iambic Pentameter. And since literacy was limited to a fairly limited and educated class, this was a safe assumption. Likewise, and given the strong (and new) expectations surrounding Iambic Pentameter, it was assumed that the reader would elide Thou art to read Th’art. Generally, if a first word ends with a vowel and the second begins with a vowel, and if an Anapest can be reduced to an Iamb by doing so, one probably should.  These were the poetic conventions of the day. Poets expected their readers to understand them. Even modern speakers naturally elide such words without a second thought.

And pop|pie’r charmes | can make |us sleepe |as well,

This reading may seem controversial but it’s not so farfetched. Say “poppy or charms” over and over to yourself and you will find that you naturally elide the vowels. It’s simply the way the English langauge is spoken. Donne takes advantage of this to fit extra words into his meter.

I’m not trying to regularize Donne’s meter.

  • The point of studying meter, to me, isn’t to fit the poetry to the meter, but to see how understanding meter can teach us something about the poem and how the poet might have exploited it.

Even if we elide all the feet as I have suggested, Donne’s practice still stretches the conventions of his own day. His lines still have an anapestic ring to them. The elision can’t make the extra syllable wholly disappear. He still doesn’t quite keep the accent and still, as Jonson said, deserves hanging. My reason for scanning it this way is to give modern readers an idea of how Donne probably imagined the sonnet.

And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;

Ostensibly, the word swell refers to DEATH’s pride, but Donne also plays on the image of the bloated corpse, a common site in Donne’s plague-ridden day.

The Final Couplet


The final couplet offers a few more opportunities for tripping up. Modern readers are apt to read the lines as follows:

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

This reading, though, misses the emphasis of Donne’s closing and triumphant argument. If read with the meter, watch what happens:

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Donne’s emphasis is on short. This is not an eternal sleep that awaits us but a short one before we wake eternally. But it’s in the second line that the importance of the meter really makes itself felt. Donne reminds us of the opening lines, of his emphasis on the verb to be:

DEATH | be |not |proud
Thou      |art |not |so

And he adds:

DEATH | be |not |proud
Thou      |art |not |so
shall       | be | no  | more

Donne defies Death’s being, making him no more – a no being. It’s not me who will die, says Donne to DEATH, but thou. Thou shalt die!

A Note on the Structure

The structure of the poem is probably most closely related to Sidney’s Sonnets, in terms of Rhyme Scheme, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets (or the English Sonnet) in that 3 quatrains lead to a final, epigrammatic couplet. With typical Elizabethan rigorousness, Donne hammers out his argument. The effect is a little different though. Each of the quatrians encloses its own couplet (see the brackets). The effect subliminally dilutes the power of the final couplet while strengthening (to me) the unity of the sonnet. The rhyme scheme, which limits itself to only 4 distinct rhymes, as opposed to Shakespeare’s 7, also lends to the poem a feeling of organic wholeness and clarity. One can only speculate why Donne chose this rhyme scheme, unique among all the other sonnets being written during his day. For a look at the other sonnets being written in his day, see my post on Shakespeare, Spenserian and Petrarchan Sonnets.

If you enjoyed this post, found it helpful, or have a question, please comment!


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

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

Erlkönigin - Page 1

Erlkönigin - Page 2

Erlkönigin - Page 3

Erlkönigin - Page 4

Erlkönigin - Page 5

Milton & Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter)

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  • Revised & improved April 12, 2009.

The Creation of Eve

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

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

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

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

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

Milton's Metrics

The Scansion

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

Milton Scansion: Book 8


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


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


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

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

Reading with the Meter

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Pentameter at all costs!

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Differences in Pronunciation

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


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


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

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

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

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

Metrical Ambiguity

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


|Led by|


|Led by|?

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

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


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

My Favorite Passages

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


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

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


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


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