- September 10 2009 · New Post: Edna St Vincent Millay’s What lips my lips have kissed…
I saw a couple searches for this poem and its meter. Wondering what it was, I took a look. If this post was a help to you, please let me know. I like to hear from my readers.
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Sorrow like a ceaseless rain
Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain,—
Dawn will find them still again;
This has neither wax nor wane,
Neither stop nor start.
People dress and go to town;
I sit in my chair.
All my thoughts are slow and brown:
Standing up or sitting down
Little matters, or what gown
Or what shoes I wear.
The poem is short and powerful. I think the meter could be read in one of several ways. Here’s what I came up with initially:
This scansion reads the meter as a headless Iambic Tetrameter alternating with a headless Iambic Trimeter. The reason I initially read the poem this way was because I liked the monosyllabic emphasis on words like Beats, Dawn, I, and All.
And here are a couple other alternative readings.
A.) This scansion would read the poem as Iambic Trimeter (3 metrical feet per line) alternating with Iambic Dimeter (2 metrical feet per line) – the first foot of each line would be cretic (stressed-unstressed-stressed). I personally don’t think this is how anyone would read it.
B.) This scansion is the reverse of B. The scansion is Trochaic Trimeter alternating with Trochaic Dimeter. The last foot of each line would be cretic. Again, I just don’t have the feeling that anyone would emphasize the phrasing quite like this. The relationship between a metrical foot and how one reads the line isn’t a direct one, but there is somewhatof a relationship.
However, I think the most persuasive reading would be Trochaic Tetrameter alternating with Trochaic Trimeter. The trochaic meter would serve to reinforce the intense downward beat of the poet’s depression – the reverse of the upward, forward momentum felt in iambic meter. Also, fittingly, the reading emphasizes the monosyllabic final foot of every line – words like: rain, heart, pain, gain, brown, down (of which there are more than in the initial feet if we read the lines as Iambic and Headless. Here is how it looks:
This reading still allows one to emphasize the initial monosyllabic words like Beats, I, and All, while giving the final monosyllabic words the the hard, driving emphasis demanded by the content of the poem. The world is upside down, the meter is backwards, downward and incessant. The final monosyllabic feet strike like the pulse and throb of a migraine. As I’ve written in my other posts: A masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. The meter of this poem reinforces the grinding torment of depression. (Technically, the final foot in each line is missing a final unstressed syllable. I could and probably should have marked the end of each line, as I did in the first feet of the first scansion, with a missing syllable.)
A couple subtleties worth observing: Most readers, without a knowledge of meter, would probably read the second line of the second stanza as follows:
I sit | in my chair
However, if one pauses to consider the metrical pattern Millay has created, then the stress (or ictus) wants to occur on I.
I sit | in my | chair
This lovely reading, revealed by the meter, puts the emphasis where it belongs. Whereas other people “dress and go to town” I sit in my chair. The latter implies a bitterness and resentfullness that’s missing in the former reading. She sits in her chair when others go out. Not only does she resent herself, her state, her helplessness by stressing the personal pronoun I, but stressing in implies a resentment of her immobility – as though she were trapped in her chair.
In the final lines the reader also has the option of stressing the conjunctions: or.
Or what gown/Or what shoes I wear.
The meter urges us toward this reading if we have an ear for it. The stress on the conjunctive or adds to the tone and voice of bitterness. For all it’s brevity, this is a metrically brilliant and masterful poem.
One final thought: The form which this poem reminds me of the most is the ballad meter used by Emily Dickinson. Like Millay’s poem, Dickinson’s ballad meters alternated between Iambic Tetrameter and Iambic Trimeter. Millay, if this is what she had in mind, varies the pattern and turns the conventional metrical pattern upside down. (For a closer look at Dickinson’s work, read my post on Dickinson and Iambics.)