A little something I wrote on the way to a longer poem—a Shakespearean Sonnet. It could also be called “a poet addresses her muse”.
“It’s Not Poetry if it Doesn’t Rhyme”
This is the title of a recent post I was reading, and it got me thinking. First of all, it’s a definition of poetry. It defines poetry as something that rhymes and if taken at face value, excludes almost all the works of Shakespeare and Milton. They mainly wrote blank verse. More usually, readers who say this are using “rhyme” figuratively. What they’re really saying is that poetry without form isn’t poetry. Form includes rhyme and meter. So, what they’re really saying is that free verse isn’t poetry. Apart from whether the definition is wrong or right, that led me to wonder why definitions are important.
Do definitions matter?
There’s no question that definitions change over time, but we nevertheless have them. Not too long ago, the definition of planets was revisited and Pluto was demoted to a proto-planet. There was disagreement, but not the kind we might have gotten had certain kinds of poetry or poems been demoted to proto-poems (though I think some should be).
But here’s why definitions matter: Without them, no one could excel. Mastery and achievement wouldn’t exist. For example, if not for definitions, sports wouldn’t exist (let alone the Olympics), hence the reason for Robert Frost’s famous quip: Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. Every rule, in a sport, is a definition that defines the sport. Baseball is defined by its number of outs, bases, players, etc… Once one begins fiddling with the rules that define baseball, then it ceases to be baseball. If there were no rules to baseball, tennis, or basketball, then anyone could play them and everyone could make up their own rules and everyone could be a Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan. For my own part, the first thing I would do is to lower the basket so I could dunk the ball. I’d also make the basket a lot bigger — but only for me. I know I’ll make any number of enemies by following this up with the obvious analogy: There’s no difference between lowering the basket (or the net) and writing without rhyme. There’s no difference between giving yourself 12 outs, instead of 3, and writing without meter. Writing poetry without rhyme and meter is vastly easier. So is dunking a basketball when the hoop is only six feet off the ground. The fact that the NBA would never change the rules for all the wannabes means that the rest of us get to see who the real pros are.
Does that make some kinds of poetry better than others?
Does that mean that some things that are called poems, really aren’t?
Yes and yes. Would you prefer watching basketball with or without rules? Having rules that defined poetry allowed a wide variety of poets to excel. Games are nothing more than a defined way of playing and kids love games. Why? Because games give kids a chance to be better than the next kid. Rules give kids a chance to be competitive, to excel, to accomplish and to master.
When I was growing up in the seventies, poetry was taught with a nebulousness that made clouds look decisive. Poetry was a feeling. There were no rules; and you can still find those Deep Thoughts right up to the present day. On About.Com, Mark Flanagan, apparently tasked with defining poetry, comes up with the following chestnut:
“…defining poetry is like grasping at the wind – once you catch it, it’s no longer wind.”
The end result of “deep thoughts” like these is that I lost interest in poetry. Who wants to play a game without rules? I decided that poetry was the dumbest art form on the planet. If I saw a game being played willy-nilly, I’d think the same thing. It’s a peculiar thing that the prior generation’s effort to make poetry something “anybody can do” ruined it for children like me. It was only when I began teaching myself about poetry that I learned the truth. There is a definition of poetry. It isn’t easy. You can’t neatly sum it up in a Miriam Webster’s entry, but there is a definition and there are rules. That’s when I got interested in poetry. First, I wanted to learn the rules. Next, I wanted play by the rules. I wanted to prove that I could do it. Next, I wanted to excel. I wanted to master the mystery. Even the seemingly diminutive haiku is defined by centuries of tradition.
Is a definition of poetry useful?
Some readers may object that poetry can’t be compared to sports. The point, however, is not to compare poetry to sports, but to compare a definition of poetry to the kinds of rules that define a sport, music, architecture or carpentry. If you don’t have a definition, then you don’t have a game. If you don’t have a game, then who’s going to watch or play?
Definitions, like rules, are useful because they give us a way to ascertain the skills of the players. They allow us to judge how the player is doing. One of the hallmarks of the contemporary poetry critic is his and her complete avoidance and non-discussion of the aesthetics or mechanics of poetry. The vast majority of contemporary criticism limits itself to the content of poetry. Why? Because, as with Flanagan’s quote above, contemporary critics and poets have convinced themselves that defining poetry, to quote Flanagan again, “kind of leaves you feeling cheap, dirty, all hollow and empty inside like Chinese food.” However, in order to critique the mechanics/stylistics of a poem, you have to have a definition of poetry. Can’t be any other way. And you have to have a definition of what constitutes mediocre or good writing.
During a dispute back in 2009, England’s Poetry Society offered the world this definition of poetry:
“There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.”
In other words, poetry is anything you want it to be, and they do mean anything. Poetry Magazine, for its part, has taken to publishing comic strips, among other things, and calling them poems. What all this means is that if everyone can make up their own rules/definitions, then there’s no way to judge the skills of the poet or the accomplishments of the poem. If there were no rules in Basketball, then a player like Michael Jordan could never emerge. Or how about gymnastics? We would have no means or vocabulary with which to contrast the poor gymnast with the great gymnast. No Tiger Woods could emerge because everyone would be a Tiger Woods. They’re all playing their own special game of golf and the critic has no way to compare or contrast.
Without a definition of poetry, you can’t have criticism of poetry. In truth, you can’t even have poetry because if poetry is anything, then it’s also nothing. Or, as Syndrome put it in the movie The Incredibles: “If everyone’s a super, then no one is a super.” Anyone who can’t define poetry certainly shouldn’t be teaching it. What exactly would they be teaching? A definition of poetry is not only useful, it’s crucial. Individuals and organizations who fail or refuse to address a definition of poetry do a disservice to the reader, to poetry, and to the next generation of poets. Out of curiosity, I googled the following: “definition of poetry” “Poetry Foundation”. I found nothing straightforward. The fact that the Poetry Foundation, the premier (and self-appointed) curator of American Poetry doesn’t offer a definition of poetry (or even a denial that a definition is possible) is a disgrace.
What about it then?
Where can you find a definition? There are all kinds of quips and one-offs by a variety of poets.
Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes. – Joseph Roux
Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to d o this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own. – Dylan Thomas
Poetry is, at bottom, a criticism of life. – Matthew Arnold
I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat. – A.E. Housman
Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. – William Hazlitt
Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before. – Audre Lorde
Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life. – William Hazlitt
A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep. – Salman Rushdie
Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of the joke, you’ve lost the whole thing. – W.S. Merwin
Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat. – Robert Frost
Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds. – Perrcy Bysshe Shelley
At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet. – Plato
Poetry is a search for ways of communication; it must be conducted with openness, flexibility, and a constant readiness to listen. – Fleur Adcock
Do you know how poetry started? I always think that it started when a cave boy came running back to the cave, through the tall grass, shouting as he ran, “Wolf, wolf,” and there was no wolf. His baboon-like parents, great sticklers for the truth, gave him a hiding, no doubt, but poetry had been born—the tall story had been born in the tall grass. – Vladimir Nabokov
Poetry is man’s rebellion against being what he is. – James Branch Cabell
Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity—it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance. – John Keats
All poetry is misrepresentation. – Jeremy Bentham
Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them. – Dennis Gabor
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. – T.S. Eliot
Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. – Percy Bysshe Shelley
Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation. – Robert Fitzgerald
The poem . . . is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see—and what we see is life. – Robert Penn Warren
You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick . . .. You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps . . . so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in. – Dylan Thomas
Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement . . . says heaven and earth in one word . . . speaks of himself and his predicament as though for the first time. – Christopher Fry
Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that. – Mary Oliver
Writing poetry is the hard manual labor of the imagination. – Ishmael Reed
Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people. – Adrian Mitchell
Prose—it might be speculated—is discourse; poetry ellipsis. Prose is spoken aloud; poetry overheard. The one is presumably articulate and social, a shared language, the voice of “communication”; the other is private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider’s delicate web, a kind of witchcraft unfathomable to ordinary minds. – Joyce Carol Oates
Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away. – Carl Sandburg
Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge. – William Wordsworth
Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary. – Kahlil Gibran
Poetry is like fish: if it’s fresh, it’s good; if it’s stale, it’s bad; and if you’re not certain, try it on the cat. – Osbert Sitwell
The essentials of poetry are rhythm, dance, and the human voice. – Earle Birney
Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn. – Thomas Gray
Poetry is ordinary language raised to the n th power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words. – Paul Engle
Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words. – Edgar Allan Poe
Poetry: the best words in the best order. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
And there are far more at goodreads. You might think there’s nothing very useful in all these quotes, just poets being cute and clever, but there is, actually, a subtle commonality that runs through some of them. “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.” What does Roux mean? That poetry isn’t just the clothes of the workaday, but language that is elevated whether through meter, rhyme or the figures and schema of rhetoric (and these include metaphor, simile, and all figurative language). Hazlitt, “…the universal language…”; Keats, “Poetry should surprise by a fine excess [and] strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts…”; Thomas, “You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words…“; Fry, “…the language in which man explores his own amazement…”; Oates, “…private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider’s delicate web…”; Sandburg, “…a search for syllables…”; Birney, “The essentials… are rhythm, dance…“; Engle, “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the n th power…”; Poe, “the rhythmical creation of beauty in words…”; Coleridge, “the best words in the best order…“; Frost, “what gets lost in translation…”
What all these have in common is the idea of poetry being defined as a way of using language. Poetry is an art that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself — its “music”: sounds, rhythms, onomatopoeia, assonance, alliteration, and rhymes . Rhyme and meter are the most extroverted expressions, a display of a languages ability to produce repeated sounds and rhythm while the many rhetorical figures, such as simile, hendiadys, anthimeria, puns and verbal metaphor (and figurative language in general) are a more introverted play with language – using words to express ideas that are unexpected and novel. Prose, inasmuch as it also uses these techniques, can be poetic, but the aesthetic aims of prose and poetry are different.
Think of Robert Frost’s final quote, which I deliberately put at the end: Poetry is what gets lost in translation. Because of poetry’s emphasis on linguistic play, poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. Something as basic as a pun, a staple of many haiku, is lost unless both languages are lucky enough to share puns. The wholesale disregard of rhymes, internal or otherwise, when translating into free verse is another example. Meter is much easier to reproduce, but does any English meter really reproduce the music of Chinese meter or Latin quantitative meter? How about onomatopoeia, alliteration or assonance? These are all essential to poetry, but are nearly impossible to capture, altogether, when moving from one language to another. Poetry truly is what gets lost in translation.
So many writers, poets and organizations seem pathologically afraid to exclude anyone. But rather than doing the art form a favor, their unwillingness to exclude so much as the ingredients list of Mac & Cheese has done and continues to denigrate the very art form they claim to cherish and encourage. I personally have no qualms drawing a line in the sand. If all a writer is doing is lineating prose, then it’s not poetry or, at best, it’s bad poetry. If the writer does nothing more with language than what I expect from an IRS instruction manual, then it’s not poetry. Content, in my view, is secondary; and that will probably rub a lot of poets and readers the wrong way but unlike, at least, the public stance of numerous poets and organizations, I think it’s worth having some idea, some rules, that define what poetry, and great poetry, truly is. It gives the next generation something to fight for or against.
To quote Salman Rushdie again:
“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.“
Take a position. Define poetry. Write by that definition. It doesn’t have to be mine. Don’t, whatever you do, buy into the bloodless notion that anything and everything is poetry. Poetry isn’t like the wind. As any Japanese poet will unhesitatingly tell you, the wind is like the wind.
Britannica and a definition of Poetry
There are a few sources which have tackled the definition of poetry. I’ve appended a definition provided by Poetry.Org. Their definition was originally copied from Wikipedia (since changed). Wikipedia’s current entry is less a definition than a historical overview. However, one of the more interesting entries is Britannica’s.
Britannica’s entry on poetry begins with a primal scream of terror presented with a stiff upper lip. Only the British can do it. The article’s author writes: “This article considers the difficulty or impossibility of defining poetry…” As anyone knows, there are two reactions when terrified—fight or flight. Britannica opts to fight. The editors begin their definition by roundly upbraiding the reader. Did you really come to Britannica expecting a definition?
“People’s reason for wanting a definition is to take care of the borderline case, and this is what a definition, as if by definition, will not do. That is, if a man asks for a definition of poetry, it will most certainly not be the case that he has never seen one of the objects called poems that are said to embody poetry; on the contrary, he is already tolerably certain what poetry in the main is, and his reason for wanting a definition is either that his certainty has been challenged by someone else or that he wants to take care of a possible or seeming exception to it: hence the perennial squabble about distinguishing poetry from prose, which is rather like distinguishing rain from snow—everyone is reasonably capable of doing so…”
Did you get that? Let me translate: “If you came to the Encyclopedia Britannica looking for a definition of poetry, it’s because you have an agenda and the august editors of Britannica will not, I say will not, be a party to your filthy crusade. So there.” Apparently, the author of the article never got the memo: Definitions are what Encyclopedia’s do. Encyclopedias aren’t supposed to cop attitudes when readers come looking for information.
Britannica next offers a rebuttal to Frost’s quip that poetry is what is lost in translation:
“And yet to even so acute a definition the obvious exception is a startling and a formidable one: some of the greatest poetry in the world is in the Authorized Version of the Bible, which is not only a translation but also, as to its appearance in print, identifiable neither with verse nor with prose in English but rather with a cadence owing something to both.”
So, after having informed the reader that no definition will be forthcoming, the editors (without a hint of irony) assert that the Bible (or an unspecified part therein) is poetry. All it takes, it seems, are a few thees and thous. What the editors apparently fail to consider is that the “poetry” of the King James Bible may not be the “poetry” of the original. The King James Version, in fact, was not a new translation done from scratch, but a revision of The Bishop’s Bible 1568 and the Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 among others. Besides that, there is considerable dispute as to the faithfulness of the King James Bible. It’s quite likely that the King James Bible is better and more poetic, written during the glory of Elizabethan poetry, than the original. It might be more accurate to call the King James Bible a transliteration rather than a translation. Bottom line: try translating the King James back into Greek and then we’ll talk.
Britannica then follows this up with a curious revelation:
“When people are presented with a series of passages drawn indifferently from poems and stories but all printed as prose, they will show a dominant inclination to identify everything they possibly can as prose.”
How this is relevant to a definition of poetry isn’t exactly clear. For example, when people are presented with passages of iambic pentameter, they regularly misread it (see Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning), reading it like prose. Are we therefore to conclude that there’s no difference between blank verse and prose? Both studies probably say more about the “people” than about poetry or iambic pentameter.
Even so, despite the opening disclaimers, provisos and exculpatory cautions, Britannica sides with Justice Potter Stewart (Jacobellis v. Ohio), when it essentially uses the obscenity test (or was it pornography?) to define poetry. To whit: “We know it when we see it.” The editors of Britannica therewith offer up there choice piece of “pornography”:
“Happily, if poetry is almost impossible to define, it is extremely easy to recognize in experience; even untutored children are rarely in doubt about it when it appears:
Little Jack Jingle,
He used to live single,
But when he got tired of this kind of life,
He left off being single, and liv’d with his wife.”
“It might be objected that this little verse is not of sufficient import and weight to serve as an exemplar for poetry. It ought to be remembered, though, that it has given people pleasure so that they continued to say it until and after it was written down, nearly two centuries ago. The verse has survived, and its survival has something to do with pleasure, with delight; and while it still lives, how many more imposing works of language—epic poems, books of science, philosophy, theology—have gone down, deservedly or not, into dust and silence. It has, obviously, a form, an arrangement of sounds in relation to thoughts that somehow makes its agreeable nonsense closed, complete, and decisive. But this somewhat muddled matter of form deserves a heading and an instance all to itself.”
I couldn’t have said it better. Not only that, you might recognize a common theme: “It has, obviously, a form, an arrangement of sounds in relation to thoughts…” There it is again — language (and form too). This little ditty is a poem because of its language, because of the way it exploits language, not for its notional and semantic content (which is nonsensical), but for the language’s aesthetic properties — the rhyme (parallel sounds) and the meter (accentual). Poetry exploits the properties of language (independent of the poem’s content) to inform and elevate the semantic content. This is what distinguishes poetry from prose. This, traditionally, has been poetry’s reason for being. Prose may be poetic, and display some of the same techniques as poetry (though never end-rhyme or refrains), but that is not its aim or reason for being.
How much should we expect definitions to change?
My guess is that if any objection is to be made, it’s that definitions change. Get used to it. Okay, but then what is it now?
It used to be that if it didn’t rhyme, it wasn’t poetry. If rhyme is understood in its broadest figurative sense (in the sense of a work of literature concerned not just with the content but with the aesthetics of language itself), then I’m still inclined to agree. I’m not willing to concede that anything and everything is or can be a poem. Either that, or I’m content to call the uncooperative poem a bad poem or, if we want to be trendy, a proto-poem— a minor and lonely object that’s kind of interesting but didn’t quite have enough material to become a full blown poem. In fact, I’m really liking that term.
I think it’s okay that we hew to an understanding of poetry that has worked for hundreds and thousands of years, the nervous self-indulgence of the twentieth century notwithstanding. And we can change our definition of “rhyme”, in its figurative sense, to include the figurative language available to free verse — assonance, alliteration, and all the rhetoric that has always been more common to poetry than prose. The poetry of Allen Ginsberg is chock-full of rhetorical figures and schema, lest you think that rhetoric only applies to fusty medieval manuscripts (and Walt Whitman’s poetry too). I’d be willing to say that Ginsberg’s poetry, figuratively speaking, has got “rhyme”.
Anyway, the next time somebody is having their kumbaya moment, proclaiming that poetry is like the wind, or a butterfly or that a definition would crush the delicate flower that is poetry, you can come back to this post for a draught of bitter.
Poetry is hard as hell.
- If you’re coming to this post after having gotten a notification — what a mess. WordPress initially insisted on dating it to 2012. Don’t know why. I copied the contents of the original into this new one, but parts of the post were missing (I soon discovered). I think it’s all in one piece now. If something looks like it’s missing, let me know. May 7 2013
In my last post on this subject, I wrote that at some point I would get around to poetizing the rest of North’s passage. This pot has been simmering on the back burner for over a year. I don’t know if my effort is helpful to others, but I enjoy the process. This post isn’t quite so detailed or methodical as the other, since there’s no point in altogether repeating what was said before. Nevertheless, I’ve followed much the same process. Here again, are the two relevant paragraphs from North’s Plutarch:
Therefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters, both Antonius himself and also from his friends, she made light of it and mocked Antonius so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her.
Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids of the waters) and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderful passing sweet savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf’s side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people. Some of them followed the barge all alongst the river’s side; others also ran out of the city to see her coming in; so that in the end there ran such multitudes of people one after another to see her that Antonius was left post-alone in the market-place in his imperial seat to give audience.
As I wrote before, this choice piece of purple prose was written by Thomas North – a translation of a French work by Jacques Amyot which was itself a translation from Plutarch – a Greek historian who wrote while Nero was emperor of Rome. Plutarch was describing Cleopatra’s shrewd and calculating courtship of Antony. So, as before, I took the paragraph and lineated it. Voila! We now have free verse. See? The easiest verse form in the history of literature.
Her ladies and gentlewomen also,
the fairest of them were apparelled like
the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids
of the waters) and like the Graces, some
steering the helm, others tending the tackle
and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came
a wonderful passing sweet savor of
perfumes, that perfumed the wharf’s side, pestered
with innumerable multitudes of people.
Some of them followed the barge all alongst
the river’s side; others also ran out
of the city to see her coming in;
so that in the end there ran such multitudes
of people one after another to see
her that Antonius was left post-alone
in the market-place in his imperial seat
to give audience.
I essentially limited each line to between 9 and 11 syllables. For some who are learning to write Iambic Pentameter, this can help make the transition manageable. Write out your poem as a paragraph, then break down the paragraph into lines having 9 to eleven syllables each. Don’t worry about meter. (Interestingly, a strong Iambic rhythm was more typical of prose writers during the Elizabethan period. Some passages can be broken down into blank verse with very few changes.) Once this is done, you can think about each line rather than the paragraph as a whole. If you’re trying to write a sonnet, then something like this is more difficult. Not only do you have to think about rearranging the letters metrically, but you also have to rhyme without being obvious. Easier, if you’re first learning, to limit yourself to blank verse (unrhymed Iambic Pentameter).
For the next step, I rearranged the words in the lines so that they would fall into an Iambic pattern. Unlike last time, I didn’t try to write as strict an Iambic Pentameter line. For the most part, the trick is in weeding out the anapests. Anapests are a permitted and common variant foot in blank verse, but too many spoil the broth. I also wanted to limit them so that a reader can see how I re-arranged phrases to avoid them. I forcefully broke down the feet as though I were trying to read the lines as Iambic Pentameter (Tetrameter in some cases) — a little arbitrary. That shows me not only anapests but many trochaic feet. I ‘m going to have iron that all out.
Her lad|ies and gent|lewom|en also,
the fair|est of them|were appar|elled like
the nymphs |Nerei|des (which are| the mermaids
of the wat|ers) and like|the Grac|es, some
steering |the helm, |others |tending |the tackle
and ropes |of the barge|, out of| the which| there came
a wond|erful |passing |sweet sa|vor of
perfumes, |that per|fumed the| wharf’s side, |pestered
with innum|erable mul|titudes| of people.
Some of |them fol|lowed the barge| all alongst
the riv|er’s side; |others| also| ran out
of the cit|y to see |her com|ing in;
so that |in the end |there ran |such mul|titudes
of peop|le one af|ter ano|ther to see
her that |Anton|ius |was left |post-alone
in the mark|et-place |in his |imper|ial seat
to give aud|ience.:
So it’s a mess. This is the way I see it after I’ve lineated it. Obviously, I’ve got my work cut out for me. So did Shakespeare. He saw the same prose that you do and went through a similar process. There’s going to be cutting, moving around, and rephrasing. Here’s how Shakespeare did it (though probably without having to think too much about it):
Enobarbus: Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ the eyes,
And made their bends adornings: at the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.
And here’s my first go. I made some interpretative changes for the fun of it but also left some of the lines relatively intact. I’ve also used a number of feminine endings (lines that end in an extra weak/unstressed syllable). So, I’ve given myself a little more freedom than last time.
Her ladies and her gentlewomen also,
The fairest were appareled like the nymphs —
The Nereides (which sailors call the mermaids) —
While others, like the Graces, steered the helm
Or moved like apparitions tending tackle
And rope. Out of the barge there came a savor
Of perfume, scenting the wharf, its byways pestered
With multitudes of people. Some of them
Followed the barge along the river’s side
While every street and alley multiplied
Their number such that in the end there ran
So great a crowd some claimed the dam was broken
And all the city’s tributaries emptied
To never be put back. Antonius
Was left to keep the marketplace alone
His vain imperial seat of no more use
Than were a galley in a sun-burnt desert
The tide that brought it there a whistling dust
And nothing more.
Her lad|ies and| her gent|lewom|en also,
The fair|est were |appar|elled like| the nymphs —
The Ner|eides |(which sail|ors call |the mermaids) —
While o|thers, like| the Grac|es, steered |the helm
Or moved |like ap|pari|tions tend|ing tackle
And rope. |Out of| the barge| there came| a savor
Of per|fume, scen|ting the wharf, |its by|ways pestered
With mul|titudes |of peo|ple. Some| of them
Followed |the barge| along |the ri|ver’s side
While e|very street |and al|ley mul|tiplied
Their num|ber such |that in| the end| there ran
So great |a crowd |some claimed| a dam |was broken
And all | the ci|ty’s tri|butar|ies emp|tied
To ne|ver be| put back. |Anton|ius
Was left |to keep| the mar|ketplace| alone
His vain |imper|ial seat| of no| more use
Than were |a gal|ley in |a sun-|burnt desert,
The tide |that brought| it there| a whist|ling dust
And no|thing more.
That’s okay, but I think I can do better. I’m going to change, re-arrange and add to what I’ve already written. This time, I deliberately avoided looking at Shakespeare’s version (though it’s hard not to remember and I have given him a nod or two). Also, I’ve touched up the previous passage just a little. Modern purists might be outraged by the touch of elision in the final line. Call it my sense of humor. It makes (and made) blank verse so much easier to write. If you’re writing modern blank verse, don’t do it. You need an advanced poetic license for this kind of devilry.
Enobarbus: Anotonius, together with his friends,
Sent for her.
Agrippa: How did she answer?
Enobarbus: ····················She mocked them.
Agrippa: Mocked them?
Enobarbus: ············Made light of them. Disdained them.
Enobarbus: She answered under purple sails – her barge
Put on the river. Flute, viol and cithern
Played, and the oars struck water to their rhythm.
The poop was gold; gold glittered in its wake
As though the sun strew petals after her.
As for the Queen herself, she lay bedecked
Like Aphrodite under cloth of gold
Of tissue; poor in clothing, profligate
Without, her artifice surfeiting most
Where she most starved. On either side stood boys,
Like love-struck Cupidons, fanning her
With multi-colored wings — or so it seemed
To the gathered at the water’s edge — their eager
And unschooled apprehension peopling the thin air
With giddy excess.
Enobarbus: ····························She mocked him.
Agrippa:·How so? She praised him.
Enobarbus:·····································No, Agrippa. Mocked him—
As if a dish were set before the King
And to a man all cried: Long live the cook!
Agrippa: Poor Antony.
Enobarbus: But Cleopatra! Girls —
She chose the loveliest girls who by
Their jade and turquoise anklets, and the seashells
Cupping their dainty breasts, were like the Nereidies —
Or mermaids. I, myself, could almost swear
A school of mermaids piloted the helm,
Who by the flourish of their watery fingers
Bewitched the Nile. Out of the barge there came
A savor — perfume — scenting all who crowded
The wharfs and harborage. The city spilled
Its multitudes. As many as there were
Still more came bursting from the streets and byways
Until the city’s tributaries emptied;
And there, there in the marketplace, there where
A city’s ticklish populace had thronged
There — ci-devant — sat Antony. His high
Imperial seat had shoaled her water —
A galleon in a sun-burnt desert, call her;
The tide that brought her there a whistling dust —
He baked i’th’ sun.
- Sept 22, 2009 • Just learned that Jane Campion has made a movie “based” on the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. You can watch the trailer at the bottom of the post.
About the Poem
I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. – John Keats in a letter to Fanny Brawne
Bright Star is one of Keats’s earlier poems and I can’t help but detect the opening of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Shakespeare equates love to a star and this association was surely present in Keats’ mind from the time he first read Shakespeare’s Sonnet. That is, the star isn’t only a symbol of steadfastness and stability, but also love. And love, in Keats’s mind, is unchangeable and ever-fixèd (or else it isn’t love). Shakespeare’s Ever-fixèd turns into Keats’ steadfast. Shakespeare’s never shaken turns into Keats’s hung aloft the night and unchangeable. R.S. White, in his book Keats as a reader of Shakespeare, makes note of some other parallels as well:
…it is not possible to ignore a creative connection between Keats’s resonant line, “Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art–‘ and on the one hand the phrase of the undoubtedly ‘stedfast’ character, Helena,
‘Twere all one,
That I should love a bright particular star, (I.i.79-80)
and on the other, although the play is not marked, Julius Ceasar’s more ironic ‘But I am constant as the northern star’ (Julius Ceasar, III.i.60). Such echoes, whether intende, unconcious or even coincidental, display vividly the special compatibility between the language and thought of Keats and the parts of Shakespeare which he appreciated and assimilated so thoroughly. [p. 72]
White’s survey of Keats’ Shakespearean influence isn’t just guess work by the way. Keats’ copy of Shakespeare’s plays is still extent, along with his comments, underlinings and double-underlinings. White’s book is an interesting commentary on Keats’ reading of Shakespeare. White observes another interesting parallel between Shakespeare and Keats’ poetic thought:
[Keats] picks out one of the images in the [Midsummer Night’s Dream] to convey his enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s poetry of the sea, which he often equates with Shakespeare himself:
Which is the best of Shakespeare’s Plays? – I mean in what mood and with what accompaniment do you like the Sea best? It is very fine in the morning when the Sun
‘opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams
Turns into yellow gold his salt sea streams’
Keats seems to be trusting his memory for the quotation, for his ‘salt sea’ is actually ‘salt green (II.ii.329-3). By associating Shakespeare himself with the moods of the sea, Keats is perhaps conveying something of his notion of the dramatist’s developement, implying that after the morning of this play the sea will become rougher as the day goes on. Shakespeare’s sea-music informs Keats’s poetry as well, particularly in the sonnets ‘On the Sea’ and ‘Bright Star’. [p. 102]
What White doesn’t mention are the parallels between Keats’ Sonnet and Shakespeare’s. Notice how the sea makes it’s appearance in both sonnets.
…it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark…
Compared to Keats
…watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores…
And there are also some parallels in Keats’ letters that remind one of the Sonnet’s central themes. The most explicit, in terms of thematic content, comes from May 3, 1818, in a letter to his fiance Fanny Brawne.
“. . .I love you; all I can bring you is a swooning admiration of your Beauty. . . . You absorb me in spite of myself–you alone: for I look not forward with any pleasure to what is call’d being settled in the world; I tremble at domestic cares–yet for you I would meet them, though if it would leave you the happier I would rather die than do so. I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world: it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it. From no others would I take it. I am indeed astonish’d to find myself so careless of all charms but yours–remembering as I do the time when even a bit of ribband was a matter of interest with me. What softer words can I find for you after this–what it is I will not read. Nor will I say more here, but in a Postscript answer any thing else you may have mentioned in your Letter in so many words–for I am distracted with a thousand thoughts. I will imagine you Venus tonight and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Hethen.”
Love letters don’t get much better than this and Keats’ Sonnet is thought to be a love poem to Fanny Brawne – and Brawne herself treated it as such. She copied Bright Star into her “very dear gift” of Dante’s Inferno – along with its thematically related (but much less successful) companion sonnnet As Hermes once took his feathers light (see below). Anyway, worth noting is his comparison of Brawne to a star and his desire, as in the poem, to “swoon to death” or, as he puts it – “I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it.” The play of death and orgasm shouldn’t be overlooked in all this romantic swooning. The conceit is probably as old as sex and, Keats, if nothing else, was an über sensualist. If tuberculosis hand’t killed him, sex probably would have.
There are still some more interesting parallels. Amy Lowell, in her biography on Keats called John Keats, argues that during a visit to a Mrs. Bentley’s, Keats writes to George (his brother) that he ” put all the letters to and from you and poor Tom and me…” [Book II, p. 202] In one of these letters, which Lowell argues Keats must have reread, comes the following:
“We are now about seven miles from Rydale, and expect to see [Wordsworth] to-morrow. You shall hear all about our visit .
There are many disfigurements to this Lake — not in the way of land or Water. No; the two views we have had of it are of the most noble tenderness – they can never fade away – they make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches; and refine one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power…” [Book II, p. 22]
As Lowell points out, the parallels are too uncanny. It doesn’t take much to go from, a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power, to:
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
If Keats didn’t lift from having re-read an older letter, then the imagery linking the open lidded eye with the North Star, the one constant star of the sky, was certainly ever fixed in his mind. All poets, and this is something I would like to write more about, reveal a habit of thought, imagery and associations over the course of their careers. The great poets vary them, the competent poets don’t.
Yet another anecdote is related by another of Keats’s biographers, Aileen Ward. She notes that while writing a letter, Keats saw Venus rising outside his window. Ward says that at that moment all “doubt and distraction left him; it was only beauty, Fanny’s and the star’s, that mattered.”
The Sonnet and its Scansion
- Note! I notice that many internet versions of this poem (including the video below) have “To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,” instead of “To feel for ever its soft swell and fall“. This may be a viral mistake. One text was typed incorrectly and everyone else copied and pasted. On the other hand, I notice that a copy in The Oxford Book of Sonnets prints the former version. The version I use is from Jack Stillinger’s the Poems of John Keats, considered to be the most accurate textually. He states that his text is “from the extant holograph fair copy” [p. 327]. I put my money on Stillinger. However, there are metrical reasons why I consider Stillinger’s to be correct. More detail on that below.
The first thing to notice about the sonnet is that it’s a Shakespearean Sonnet. If you’re not sure what that entails then follow the link and you will find my post on Shakespearean, Petrarchan and Spenserian Sonnets. Also, if you’re not sure about scansion or how it’s done, take a look at my post on The Basics. Keats wrote Sonnets in a variety of forms. That he chose the Shakespearean Sonnet, I think, is telling. With all the other parallels, why not the structure of the sonnet?
The form allows Keats to gradually build the the sonnet toward the epigrammatic climax of the couplet:
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.
The second thing to notice is the meter itself. The first line of the first quatrain is, perhaps, the most easily misread, like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 or Donne’s Death Be Not Proud. We live in an age when Meter has become a art for fringe poets. As a result, many, if not most, modern poets and readers misread metrical poetry for lack of experience and knowledge. Most modern readers would probably read the line as follows:
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
This makes a hash of the meter, effectively reading the line as though it were free verse. But Keats was writing in a strong metrical tradition. As I’ve said in other posts, if one can read a foot as Iambic, then one probably should. So instead of reading the line like this:
We should probably read it like this:
Or we should read the final foot as an outright spondee (as I originally scanned it):
Fortunately, unlike my fruitless search for a good reading of Donne’s sonnet, I found a top notch reading of the poem on Youtube. Here it is:
To my ears, he reads the last foot as a spondee. None of these alternate last feet are iambs, by the way. When I say that a foot should be read as an Iamb if it can be, I mean that a foot should be read with a strong stress on the second syllable (an Iamb or Spondee), rather than a falling stress (a trochee). The other reason for emphasizing art is that it’s meant to rhyme with apart. If one de-emphasizises art with a trochaic reading, then we end up with a false rhyme. Two nearly unpardonable sins would have been committed by the standards of the day. A trochaic final foot in an Iambic Pentameter pattern (unheard of) and an amateurish false rhyme. Keats was aiming for greatness. We can be fairly sure that he didn’t intend a trochaic final foot.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite…
Other than that, the first quatrain is fairly straightforward. An eremite is a hermit. So, what Keats is saying works on two levels. He wants to be steadfast (and by implication her as well), like the North Star (Bright Star), but not in lone splendor – not in lonely contemplation. Keats isn’t wishing for the hermit’s patient search for enlightenment. Nor, importantly, is he wishing for the hermit’s asceticism – his denial of passion and earthly attachment – in a word, sex.
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors;
In the second quatrain Keats describes the star’s detachment, like the hermit’s, as one of unmoving observation and detachment. The star’s sleeplessness is beautiful and it’s contemplation holy – observing the water’s “priestlike task of pure ablution”. But such contemplation is, for Keats, an inhuman one. It’s no mistake that Keats refers to the shore’s as earth’s human shores – a place of impermanence, fault and failings in need of “pure ablution”. This the world the Keats inhabits. Up to this point, all of Keats’s imagery is observational. The only hint of something more is in the tactile “soft-fallen”. There is little sensual contact or life in these images; but the first two quatrains present a kind of still life – unchanging, holy, and permanent. That said, there’s the feeling that the “new soft-fallen mask/ Of snow upon the mountains” anticipates his lover’s breasts.
The sonnet now turns to toward life and, ironically, impermanence. Notice the nice metrical effect of spondaic first foot, it’s emphasis on the word No. One can produce a similar effect in free verse, but the abrupt reversal of the meter, also signaling the Sonnet’s volta, is unmatchable.
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Notice how the imagery changes. We are suddenly in a world of motion, touch, and feeling. No, says Keats, he wants the permanence of the star but also earth’s human shores. He wants to be forever “pillow’d upon [his] fair love’s ripening breast”. The anthimeria of pillow, using a noun as verb, sensually implies the softness and warmth of Fanny Brawne’s breasts. The next line gives life and breath to his imagery: He wants to feel her breasts “soft swell and fall” forever “in a sweet unrest”. The sonnet’s meter adds to the effect – the spondaic soft swell follows nicely on the phyrric foot that precedes it, reproducing, it its way, the rise and fall of her breasts. (Also, it’s worth noting that metrically, it makes more sense to have soft swell be a spondaic foot, rather than (as with some versions of the poem) soft fall. The meter, in a sense, swells with the intake of Fanny’s breath. ) Anyway, on earth’s human shores, there is nothing that is unchangeable and immutable. And Keats knows it. The irony of Keats’ desire for the immutable in a mutable world must find resolution – and there is only one:
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.
But what a way to die…
And this brings us to the erotic subtext of the poem. As I wrote earlier, the idea of orgasm, which the French nicely call the little death or la petite mort, is an ancient conceit (the photo at right, by the way, is called La petite mort, clicking on the image will take you to Kirilloff’s gallery). If we read Keats’ final words as a wry reference to the surrender of orgasm, then there’s a mischievous and wry smile in Keats’ final words. After all, how do readers interpret “swoon“? Webster’s tells us that to swoon is “to enter a state of hysterical rapture or ecstasy…” Hmmm…. It’s hard to know whether Keats had this in mind. He never wrote overtly sexual poetry, but there is frequently a strong erotic undercurrent to much of his poetry. He was, after all, a sensualist. (Many of the poets who came after him accused him of being an “unmanly” poet – of being too sensuous and effeminate. Keats’ eroticism runs more along the lines of what is considered a feminine sensuality of touch and feeling.)
Such overt suggestiveness might be a little out of character for Keats but, if it was intended, I think it adds a nice denouement to the sonnet. After all, what is a lust and passion but a “sweet unrest”? And what is the only release from that “sweet unrest” but a swoon to death? But in this “death”, life is renewed. Life is engendered, remade and made immutable through the lovers’ swoon or surrender to “death”. Keat’s paradoxical desire for the immutable is resolved. The pleasure of the mutable but sweet unrest of his lovers rising and falling breasts, is only mitigated by the even more pleasurable, eternizing and transcendent pleasure of “death’s swoon”.
Which does Keats prefer? The immutable pleasure implied by the analogy of the changeless star, or the swoon of death? Keats, perhaps, is ready to find pleasure in both. The sonnet is profoundly romantic but, in keeping with Keats’ character, wryly pragmatic.
But this interpretation is conjectural. To Amy Lowell, the final lines are characterized as ending in a “forlorn, majestic peace” and I think this is how the majority of readers read the poem. I, personally, can’t help but think that there was more to Keats’ desire than Romantic obsession. The sheer, physical sexuality of resting his cheek on his lover’s breasts is more than just Romantic boiler plate.
The First Version
And here’s something won’t see very often on the web – considered to be Keats’ first version of the Sonnet.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung amid the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s devout, sleepless Eremite,
The morning waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen masque
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Cheek-pillow’d on my Love’s white ripening breast,
Touch for ever, its warm sink and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
To hear, to feel her tender-taken breath,
Half passionless, and so swoon on to death.
To students of poetry, what is worth noting is how few changes made a moving but flawed sonnet into a work of genius. As I’ve said before , it’s not the content of poetry that makes it great, but the style – the language. The first version, in terms of content, is ostensibly the same as the second version.
- Changing amid to aloft gives the feeling of a star that is apart from the others, aloft, rather than amid.
- The adjective devout is simply descriptive – having little connotative power. But the adjective patience is attributive and gives the description the force of personality. It also plays against Keats’ sweet unrest, later in the sonnet. Patience, Keats tells us, is not an attribute he wants to mimic, only its steadfastness and unchangeableness.
- The change of morning to moving, again changes a simply descriptive adjective to an attributive adjective. Moving gives the waters motion and a kind of intent. It also avoids the conflict of the star having been hung aloft the night, but watching the morning waters.
- Keats’ initial choice of masque is curious and may be a misprint. A masque is a short, usually celebratory, one act play.
- “Cheek-pillow’d on my Love’s white ripening breast,” gives us more information than we need. We can already guess that it’s his cheek on her breasts because he uses the anthemeria pillow’d. What else do we put on our pillows but our cheeks? Her white breast is unnecessary. All but a handful of 19th Century English women had white breasts. Keats was just trying to fill out the meter with the adjective white. “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,” dispenses with both of the former redundancies. The word fair is there solely for the sake of the meter, but doesn’t feel as extraneous or contrived as white. It also allows the emphasis to turn to ripening, which is a beautifully erotic description of a young woman’s breast.
- “Touch for ever, its warm sink and swell,” The verb touch lacks the rich connotation of feel. After all, we might forensically touch a hot kettle, to find out if it’s too hot; but we wouldn’t feel it. Feeling things is a tactile, sensual act when we want to explore an object. Warm sink and swell is replaced by soft swell and fall. Once again, the adjective warm lacks the connotative sensation of soft. To know that something is warm, we don’t necessarily need to touch or feel it. But to know something is soft implies a more tactile and sensual exploration. The verb sink is a less neutral expression than fall. Boats sink. Rocks sink. Drowning swimmers sink. Most importantly, when objects sink, they tend not to rise again. Fall is a more neutral, less loaded description. It also rhymes better with unchangea(ble). Keats may have been uneasy with the rhyme between (ble) and swell.
- To hear, to feel is replaced by Still, still to hear. The latter phrase gives the final couplet a more dramatic, less literary feel. We can hear the wistfulness and expectation of an actual speaker in the disrupted meter – the epizeuxis of Still, still…
- The final line is the most dramatic alteration: “Half passionless, and so swoon on to death.” Half passionless undercuts the eroticism of the poem. Who is half-passionless? Keats? Brawne? What does that mean? The closing line appears to give the sonnet’s ending a more despondent tone, conflicting with the idea of a sweet unrest. Keats probably meant to imply that his ardor was both like the star’s, detached, and like attachment of a lover. But I suspect he sensed the contradiction in the description. It undercuts what had, until then, been a profoundly passionate poem. It also undercuts the erotic suggestiveness of a swooning death.
And here is the companion Sonnet Fanny Brawne wrote into her copy of Dante:
As Hermes once took to his feathers light,
When lulled Argus, baffled, swooned and slept,
So on a Delphic reed, my idle spright
So played, so charmed, so conquered, so bereft
The dragon-world of all its hundred eyes;
And seeing it asleep, so fled away,
Not to pure Ida with its snow-cold skies,
Nor unto Tempe, where Jove grieved a day;
But to that second circle of sad Hell,
Where in the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kissed, and fair the form
I floated with, about that melancholy storm.
If this post was enjoyable or a help to you, please let me know! If you have questions, comments or suggestions. Comment. In the meantime, write (G)reatly!
Bright Star by Jane Campion
Don’t know much about the movie. But as with all movies like these, it may be based on a true story, but it remains a work of fiction. I can’t wait to see it.
- September 28 2011: Be sure and read the comment section, especially the comments by Richard Lawrence, who shares with us a seemingly lost verse from the original version of this poem.
- July 18, 2009: New Post – Robert Frost’s “Out, Out”
- June 6 2009: Tweaked and expanded.
About the Pasture
I’ve been following the lead of my readers, noting on the Stats page what searches you use to find my blog. The most popular poet remains Robert Frost. And I’ve noticed several searches for Frost’s “The Pasture”.
Robert Frost recites The Pasture
There are few poems in the English language that can compare. Right now? I can’t think of one. In terms of brevity and memorability, it’s unsurpassed. Why? Subject matter, rhyme and meter are perfectly suited to each other.
Robert Frost himself, according to Lea Newman (book at left), stated that it was “a poem about love that’s new in treatment and effect. You won’t find anything in the range of English poetry just like that.”
I have several books on Robert Frost and all of them only mention this poem in passing – giving it short shrift. Lea Newman’s book, in terms of the poems themselves, remains the best of any of them. Her opening paragraph describes some of the inspiration for the poem:
One spring evening in 1905, Frost took a walk over those fields with his wife, Elinor, and their six-year-old daughter, Lesley. According to the notebook Lesley kept as a child, she and her mother picked apple and strawberry blossoms while her father went down to the southwest corner of the big cow pasture to check on how much water was in the spring. In 1910, when Frost wrote “The Pasture” he used a walk to a spring in a cow pasture as its centerpiece. The experience was still a favorite memory thirty years after he wrote about it. In 1940 he reminisced, “I never had a greater pleasure that coming on a neglected spring in a pasture in the woods.
Newman’s introduction to the poem continues and I wholly recommend the book as a companion to his poems. But what does the poem mean? (It never seems enough to say that the poem means what it says.) It’s a poem of invitation first and foremost – Frost chose this poem as a sort of introduction and invitation to his collected poems. More than that, the poem typifies what many readers love the most about Frost: his connectedness with nature and the everyday; his contemplative ease; and, above all, the approachable content of his thought and poetry. Frost was a poet with whom most everyone felt a kinship and understanding. He was comprehensible during a time when poetry was becoming increasingly incomprehensible. Saying he won’t be gone long could summarize his craft. There are depths to his poetry, but they are such that the reader returns. He won’t go too far. He won’t be gone too long. You come too, he says to the reader and to anyone who wants to go with him.
Meter and Rhyme
The internal rhyme that contributes to the poems lyricism is the most important and also the most difficult to describe, but I’ll try. And it may seem like I’m making too much of vowel sounds, but sound is everything in poetry. Consider the following anecdote which occurred between Keats and Wordsworth (from John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics and After-Fame by Sidney Colvin pp. 401-402):
And here is another sample about Keats’s as related by his friend, Benjamin Bailey:
…one of Keats’ favorite topics of conversation was the principle of melody of verse, which he believed to consist in the adroit management in verse, which he believed to consist in the adroit management of open and close vowels. He had a theory that vowels could be as skillfully combined and interchanged as as differing notes of music, and that all sense of monotony was to be avoided, except when expressive of a special purpose. (Richard H. Fogle – The Imagery of Keats and Shelley, p. 63)
In point of a fact, I write my own poetry with the vowel sounds in mind. I hear words as music and tones, which makes me an “ear reader” rather than an “eye reader”, as Frost put it, and a very slow reader.
Keats was conscious of his choices, and Frost was too. (However, it’s definitely possible to read too much into “word sounds”, vowel sounds, percussive consonants and the like – I’ve seen it done by plenty of critics and analysts.) Such analytic overreaches are called Enactment Fallacies – a term I first came across in one of David Orr’s New York Times reviews. He defines it: in the following passage:
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.” Here’s the stanza in question:
Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
“With each new verbal or participial theater of action of the stanza, there arrives a new agent,” Vendler writes, “making the clauses scramble helter-skelter, one after the other. The headlong pace is crucial.” Since the stanza involves words like “dragon,” “nightmare,” “murdered,” “blood” and “fighting,” it’s easy to see what she’s thinking here. But to make a more modest use of Vendler’s rewriting trick above, what if we kept the same enjambments, syntax, rhyme scheme and basic rhythm — yet changed some of the words? We might get this (my words, with apologies to I. A. Richards for adapting one of his tactics):
Now days are slow and easy, the summer
Sighs into fall: a purring bumble-bee
Can leave the flower, softened to a blur,
To soak in the noon sun, and fly carefree;
The night can breathe with pleasure as once more
We weave our visions into poetry
And seek to bring our thoughts under a rule,
Who are the mindful servants of the soul.
Not so “helter-skelter” now, is it? In a book review or essay, committing this particular fallacy is a minor error. Most critics do it regularly (I certainly have). In a book that sets out to explain why a poet makes particular formal choices, however, the mistake is more serious, because it replaces the complex relationships among a poem’s elements with just-so stories in which it always turns out — surprise! — that meaning has been mirrored by shape and sound. Think of it this way: we don’t enjoy a bowl of gumbo because it “feels” exactly the way it “tastes”; rather, we find the combination of “taste” and “feel” pleasing. Similarly, a particular stanza arrangement can reinforce our experience of a poem, but only because that arrangement is working in harmony with the poem’s other aspects.
I quote the better part of the passage because I think it’s something every novice in poetry and poetry criticism should be aware of. Read all criticism and analysis with skepticism. Including, obviously, mine; though I try to be reasonable in my assertions.
Anyway, back to Frost and The Pasture. Whether intentional or not, the first line’s variety of vowel sounds is lovely – no two are repeated.
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
That in itself isn’t so remarkable, but what happens next, to me at least, beautifully sets off the first line.
I’ll only (stop) to rake the leaves (a) way
(And wait to (watch) the (wa)ter clear, I may) :
The two lines are rich with internal rhyme – the long A’s of rake, away, wait and may bracket the short, rhyming vowel sounds of stop, away, watch and water. The effect of these internal rhymes (interlocking in the second line and bracketed in the third) will be different for different readers, though I think all readers, but those with tin ears, will register them. To me the internal rhyming creates a sort of sing-song effect in perfect keeping with the light-hearted, carefree, teasing tone of the poem. And, again for me, the “long A” vowel sound has a sort of easy-going and open feel to it. There’s no way to know whether Frost had this in mind, but I’m sure that the music in the lines, however he interpreted their effect, was intended.
I sha’n’t be gone long. (You) come (too).
Up to this point, the lines have been Iambic Pentameter. But the fourth line (repeated in the second stanza) is Iambic Tetrameter. The effect is lovely and though it can be imitated in free verse, it can’t be reproduced.
The first three lines could be spoken to an unnamed companion or to oneself. We read the poem in the same manner that we read first person narratives (where our presence is irrelevant to the narrator). But then Frost does something magical. He talks explicitly to “you” and he does so in Iambic Tetrameter. “You come too”, he says, and the shortened tetrameter line has same effect as an aside in a play or drama – an effect of immediacy and personableness. Suddenly we find ourselves in the poem!
The internal rhyme of gone and long anticipate and are complimented by You and too. The musicality of the line heightens the feeling of intimacy, unselfconsciously inviting – the appeal of a close friend. And, as a final note, notice too how the Iambic pattern is broken in the last two feet (spondaic variant feet) of the Tetrameter line.
I sha’n’t |be gone |long. You |come too.
This too adds to the air of informality. The formal Iambic Pentameter is broken for the sake of a friendly aside. The ceasura (the break between the two sentences), occurs in the middle of the third foot, also disrupting the metrical pattern of the previous lines. It all contributes to the informal, intimate feel of the fourth line. Again, it’s an effect that free verse simply can’t equal.
One of Robert Frost’s most powerful poetic figures (as in a rhetorical figure or figure of speech – also called figurative language) is anthimeria. It’s also one of my favorites and one of the truly beautiful ornaments in the toolbox of poetry – adding vitality and rigorousness when done well. (Shakespeare was one of the greatest users of this figure.) In short, anthimeria is the substitution of one part of speech for another – “when adjectives are used as adverbs, prepositions as adjectives, adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives” (Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 63) . Turning nouns into adjectives is Frost’s favorite substitution and he does this because, interestingly, this form of grammatical substitution is typical of New England dialects. (For a more thorough treatment of colloquialism in poetry, see my post Vernacular Colloquial Common Dialectal.)
Instead of saying “I’m going out to clean the spring in the pasture”, he says “pasture spring”. Pasture, normally a noun, becomes an adjective modifying spring. Et viola! Anthimeria! If you read enough of Frost’s poetry you will see this figurative language recur again and again. And if you hang about Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine, and hear some old-timers, you will hear this same grammatical short-cut. I don’t know why it’s more prevalent in New England (more so than in other regions of the United States) but it may be a hold over from the speech patterns of a much older generation.
Anyway, Frost always keenly observed, recorded and remembered the speech habits of New Englanders and deliberately infused his own poetry with the patterns he heard. Techniques like anthimeria, the substitution of a noun for an adjective, helps give his poetry a dailectal and colloquial feel. In a similar vein, the contraction sha’n’t, for shall not, adds to the colloquial informality and intimacy of the poem. “I sha’n’t be gone long” is a style of speech that’s almost gone. Probably more typical of what was heard among an older generation of New Englanders if only because the region is where American English is the oldest.
I’m going out to fetch the little (calf)
That’s (stand)ing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I (sha’n’t) be gone long. You come too.
Again, I’ve tried to emphasize the play of internal rhyme – to make it visible. The short i sound of little is bolded. The short a sound of calf is italicized and (bracketed). The short u sound of young is underlined. I won’t belabor the same points I’ve already made discussing the previous stanza. The effects are the same. There are no internal rhymes within the first line of the stanza, as in the first line of the first stanza. The sing-song informality and intimacy created by the internal rhymes that occur in the lines that follow, once again, find completion and resolution in the final invitation:
You come too.
If this post has been helpful to you; if you enjoyed; if you have suggestions or questions; please comment!
While Robert Frost’s, For Once, Then, Something, isn’t the most memorable of his poems, it’s one of his most unique. It’s written, nominally, in hendecasyllabics. It’s also one of the most devilish to scan. Frost was imitating the Latin meter of Catullus – said to be one of his favorite Latin poets. What makes the poem difficult to scan is that the English language simply does not do what Latin did. English is not a quantitative language (meaning that syllables are long or short). English is an accentual language, meaning that words receive more or less stress dependent on their usage.
- I notice that Wikipedia makes much ado about the difference between Hendecasyllable and Hendecasyllabic, (Hendecasyllabic Verse or Hendecasyllabics). However, the author or authors of the Wikipedia article offer no citations to back up their assertions. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics makes no such distinction. Hendecasyllabic, according to Webster’s and to Princeton, is simply the adjectival form of Hendecasyllable (an eleven syllable line or word). On the other hand, a distinction can be made between Latin quantitative Hendecasyllabics and the accentual Hendecasyllabics of the later Romance Languages, but that appears unrelated to the whether the word is used as a noun or adjective.
The English language is a naturally Iambic and Anapestic language (meaning that the language prefers a rising stress). In nominal phrases, we don’t normally say the car, we say the car. (The former also makes sense, but the exception proves the rule.) By stressing the, we draw attention to the fact that the car is singular. We can do this because English is an accentual language. It is the car. Also, all of our prepositional phrases prefer a rising stress (iambic or anapestic). In a previous post, one commenter objected that I didn’t take into consideration regional or dialectal inflections. Not so. This feature of the language has nothing to do with regional or dialectal inflections. It is simply the way our language works. It’s the reason Iambic meters, rather than Trochaic meters, are the dominant meters of English poetry.
So, what does all this have to do with Frost’s poem?
The problem is that the hendecasyllabics of Catullus, when transliterated into English, make for a trochaic meter. Trochaic meters are extremely difficult to pull off in English. Few poets actually pull it off. No poet, to my knowledge, has succeeded through and through. What do I mean by this? I mean that, at the first chance, the reader will want to read a line as Iambic rather than trochaic. For example, if Frost’s poem were written in Latin, here is how we would unflinchingly scan the first line.
Others | taunt me with | having | knelt at | well-curbs
This is essentially Trochaic Pentameter with a variant dactylic second foot. If you were being asked to scan this poem for a class, then this is how the professor would probably expect the poem to be scanned (and I’ll provide this scansion), but as far as the English language goes. Here is how most of us will read the line:
Others | taunt me | with ha|ving knelt |at well-curbs
This is essentially Iambic Pentameter with two variant trochaic feet (the first and second foot) with a feminine ending. By modern standards, this would be a perfectly acceptable variant line within a larger Iambic Pentameter poem. And therein lies the rub. Being English speakers we prefer to hear Iambs rather than trochees. We naturally bias our readings toward Iambs. Here is another option:
Others taunt| me with hav|ing knelt | at well-crubs
This makes the meter tetrameter (four foot) rather than pentameter. The first foot is cretic, the second anapestic, the third Iambic and the last a feminine ending, or an amphibrach.
All the variations above are hendecasyllabic. The first two might be called a Pentameter Hendecasyllable and the last might be called a Tetrameter Hendecasyllable.
So, when scanning the poem, what do we do? Do we scan it according to the poet’s intentions, or how the lines actually work in the English language? Frost may have been imitating a Latin meter, but the language is English.
Here is the poem as Frost intended it:
Robert Frost reciting:
In the scansion above, I only marked the first line. All the following lines are the same except for the first foot of line 12. As you can hear, Frost reads this first foot as a spondee. Trochaic meters are less forgiving as far as variant feet go and if only for this reason, Frost departs from the hendecasyllabic meter only once. It’s probably the most metrically conservative poem Frost wrote after his first book of poetry.
- Robert Pack, in his book Belief and uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, Page 30, incorrectly identifies this poem as a sonnet. He doesn’t do so elsewhere in the book which leads me to think this was a slip of the pen.
By way of comparison, here is the scansion of a hendecasyllabic line in Latin.
The example comes from a powerpoint document I found online (no author is given). Clicking on the link or image will download it – if you’re curious. The paper is intended for students studying Latin. While the symbols used are similar to those used for accentual-syllabic verse, the symbols mean something different. What Frost (and all English poets) have done is to substitute a stressed syllable for a Latin long syllable, and an unstressed syllable for a Latin short syllable. If you don’t want to download a Powerpoint presentation but are still curious, here’s another resource from the Iona School of Arts & Sciences:
Scanning it the way we read it
Dactylic feet are hard to pull off for the same reason that trochaic meters are hard to pull off. The English speaker’s ear will always want to turn a dactyl into a anapest.
So although Frost may have imagined the third line as follows:
Deeper | down in the |well than |where the |water
No reader, without a prior knowledge of the Latin verse Frost was transliterating, would ever scan it this way. Nearly all prepositional phrases are heard as anapestic (as a rising stress) by English speakers.
Deeper down |in the well |than where |the water
None of this is to say that there aren’t dactylic words or phrases, or that a dactylic meter can’t be written. Longfellow’s opening lines to Evangeline have a dactylic gait. But Longfellow isn’t assiduous in pursuing a dactylic meter for long:
THIS is the | forest pri|meval. The |murmuring |pines and the |hemlocks,
Bearded with |moss, and in |garments green, indistinct in the twilight…
The Dactylic gait is helped when the first word of each line receives the stress. Frost’s hendecasallabic line also places the stress on the first word of each line but the effect isn’t the same. The first foot isn’t dactylic but trochaic, so the ear isn’t primed for a dactylic reading as with Longfellow’s poem.
Furthermore, 9 out of the 15 “dactylic” feet are prepositional phrases, which strongly favor an anapestic reading.
to the light
in the well
in a shining…
in the summer
of a wreath
as I thought
of the depths
from a fern
So, after all that, how would I scan it? I opt for a tetrameter line.
- Once again, the scansion for each line, following the first line, is the same unless otherwise marked.
This scansion, I think, more accurately reflects how we read the poem and I like it because there’s a nifty symmetry. Where the first foot is cretic, or an amphimacer, the final foot is a sort of mirror image, an amphibrach (otherwise called a feminine ending). The second foot is anapestic and the third is iambic. Lastly, and best of all, the first foot of the twelfth line is a Molossus. A molossus is a metrical foot of three syllables with each syllable being stressed. Molossus. Good word. Good foot. Very rare.
So what’s it about?
Not a lot is written about this poem. Several Frost biographies fail to even mention the poem. But in certain ways, it’s his most revealing. He apparently wrote it in response to criticism (still made today) that his poetry is all shine and no depth. Two writers who discuss the poem are Tyler Hoffman, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry, and Robert Pack’s Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost.
The speaker of the poem is both the poet himself and his reader. The criticism he has received from critics and other poets, he characterizes and analogizes in the first six lines of the poem:
Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
My myself in the summer heaven, godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
“Others taunt me”, he writes, in reference to critics. He is accused of kneeling at well-curbs, “always wrong to the light” – where “light” could be understood as knowledge, poetic knowledge or understanding. The result? He never sees “deeper down in the well”. His poetry and meaning is shallow. His poetry is merely a “surface picture” lacking substance. Then, with some wry humor, he adds that, rather than perceiving the deeper currents of the well’s waters, he only sees himself in “heaven, godlike,/ Looking out of a wreath of fern…”. The sly reference to Apollo’s laurel’s, the Poet’s Laurels which Keats so desired, from which the term “Poet Laureate” comes, is unmistakable. In other words, he is accused of being little more than a vain, cracker-barrel philosopher suffering from delusions of grandeur. That view and criticism of Frost still holds up today – in some quarters.
From there Frost turns to more Philosophical matters – a defense.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths-and then I lost it.
Frost essentially rejects the notion that there is a truth, the truth, that can be perceived beneath the surface. Yes, he may have thought (in his youth) that there was something “beyond the picture” (that surface picture which, ultimately, is all we have) but whatever truth that was, he “lost it”. And in the losing of it, he rejects the notion that it can be known. He writes:
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.
Water creates the reflective surface upon which we perceive life and understand life. The surface of water, in this poem, is like Keats’ veil – it is everything that we see, but only the surface of what we see. The surface of the water is what we perceive as reality. And when we try to look beyond it, past the veil, one drop falls “from a fern”, almost teasingly, blurring and blotting out any deeper truth. We are not meant to know but to guess, Frost seems to be saying. But there may be another analogy at play. The surface of the water could also be seen as the textual surface of a poem. In this sense, the person peering into the well is transformed into the reader or critic reading one of Frost’s poems. Frost rejects certainties. He rejects the “too clear water” of other poets and rejects the critics’ call for it. When they look too closely, lo, “Water”/Frost “rebukes” them.
“What was that whiteness?” – Frost asks. “What was that whiteness?” -the critic asks.
Neither are meant to know with any certainty – only that, yes, there was and is “something”. Keep looking, says Frost. Keep looking.
By contrast, Tyler Hoffman takes a different set of concerns to the poem. Here is some of what he writes:
In “For Once, Then, Something” Frost depicts someone who tries to find a way to know (and know he has known) such a moral absolute as Truth. The speaker seems to be an object of ridicule for pursuing absolutes without a proper faith — a person blinded by egotistical concerns (“Others taunt me with having knelt at well curbs”). But that figure is not fully imagined; we do not receive a profile that would help us determine with certainty the attitudes and emotions behind his utterances. It us unclear how he feels about the taunting that he receives and how his search for “Something more of the depths” is shaped by it. The questions leading up to the phrase in its final appearance only muddy the water: “What was that whiteness? / Truth? A pebble of quartz?” How are we to hear these questions? Does he ask them in an agitated tone?… The epistemological problem that the poem presents — “How can we know the Truth if at all?” and “How do we know if we have known Truth?” – is never finally resolved. (Pages 113-114)
My own view on Hoffman’s comments is that he asks questions that Frost himself does not try to answer. This sort of analysis by rhetorical question gets mixed reviews from me. To me, at least, the trick is guessing at what questions Frost does ask, based on the poem which is, in and of itself, the answer.
Here is Robert Pack’s take:
…in “For Once, Then, Something,” in looking down into the bottom of a well to discern the identity of some object glittering there, Frost ironically speculates that it might be “Truth” or merely “A pebble of quartz.” Frost’s dismissal of the concept of truth as such is much like Stevens’s parodic line, “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.” In Stevens’s outrageous concluding line in “The Man on the Dump,” the word “truth” finally is replaced by the word “the,” suggesting ironically that “the” is the more specific and useful word. For Frost, the abstract idea that there is something we might call Truth goes beyond uncertainty into meaningless abstraction. Even when Frost uses “Truth” capitalized as a term as in “Birches,” he does so to make the distinction between his fancy that the birch trees have been permanently bent down by a boy’s swinging on them and the truthful “fact about the ice storm.” In other words, truth here is known in its specificity, as a phenomenon of nature. His dismissal of Truth in its abstract grandiosity is part of Frost’s anti-romantic strain, his worldliness, his suspicion of anything smacking of transcendence, as distinguished, say,. from Keats’s indentification of Beauty and Truth in both poetry and his lectures. (Pages 184-185)
Once again, I hope this post has been helpful. Let me know.
I love comments. If you’re a student, just drop a note with the name of your school. I’m always interested to know who’s reading and why.
- Missed last week. This one is a little delayed.
- Many discussions on various forums which, though interesting, are too changeable to reference.
- If any readers would like to recommend sites or blogs please do! Feel free to recommend your own blog or poem if you like but please don’t post your poem in the comment field (provide a link and the first lines).
- Search terms used to find these posts: Rhyme, Meter, Formal, Formalist, Poetry
If a bat becomes lost in your house, don’t cringe in a corner. Here’s something you might not know. If a bat can’t escape from a room after a certain period of time, it will indeed assume that it knows all the obstacles. It has memorized your room. It will stop echo locating and fly and fly and fly – no matter what windows you open. A memory is like an opinion. In a sense, the bat becomes trapped by its own opinion. The bat won’t falter. The bat/mind assumes that it has no need to explore. The most inflexible opinions are the loneliest ones and, as Wilbur tells us at the outset, the mind is like the bat that beats in its cavern all alone…
In our second hour today we’re talking with writer Jim Holt about learning poems by heart — and reciting them from memory. Who needs an iPod, he says, when you’ve got great verse running through your head! We’re hoping our listeners, on the air and online, will bring their own favorites to the party. If you have a great poem you want to recite, from memory (no cheating!), then let’s hear it — call in this morning between 11am and noon Eastern, at 1-800-423-8255, and we’ll try to get you on…
Some folks may scoff at the comparison of hip-hop to metaphysical poetry, but Bradley wouldn’t be among them. A literature professor at Claremont McKenna College with a doctorate in English from Harvard, he is keenly attuned to what he calls “the poetics of hip-hop,” the ways that rap both converges with and distinguishes itself from what we traditionally think of as poetry.
Here you’ll find Yeats and Frost alongside Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan, together forming a discussion on meter and accent, scansion and slant rhymes. More important, the old-timers and the new jacks seem to get along just fine: Book of Rhymes, MLA vocabulary or no, takes great joy in the written and the rapped word, and it will leave you listening to your favorite MCs with bigger and better ears than before…
“Do not say anything against rhyme! It is a mighty goddess indeed…
New York Times
“A Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” With this sentence the novelist E. M. Forster introduced the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy to the English-speaking world in 1919. Since then, Cavafy’s distinctive tone —wistfully elegiac but resolutely dry-eyed — has captivated English-language poets from W. H. Auden to James Merrill to Louise Glück. Auden maintained that Cavafy’s tone seems always to “survive translation,” and Daniel Mendelsohn’s new translations render that tone more pointedly than ever before. Together with “The Unfinished Poems” (the first English translation of poems Cavafy was still drafting when he died in 1933), this “Collected Poems” not only brings us closer to one of the great poets of the 20th century; it also reinvigorates our relationship to the English language…
I like so many different poets for different reasons, and I’m always discovering new ones (or old ones I never read deeply before). I go through phases, too. Lately I’m really into formalist poetry, sonnets, villanelles, rhymes and meter, so I’ve been reading Gwendolyn Brooks, Claude McKay, for their takes on old forms. I love Thom Gunn, who wrote formal, British- proper poetry about biker gangs and his gay lovers and the plague of AIDS in the ’80s. Annie Finch inspires me with her feminist formalist experiments…
Iambic Pentameter originated as an attempt to develop a meter for the English language legitimizing English as an alternative and equal to Latin (as a language also capable of great poetry and literature). Encyclopedia of Spenser – ExtractSince meter was a feature of all great Latin poetry, it was deemed essential that an equivalent be developed for the English Language. But poets couldn’t simply adopt Latin’s dactylic hexameter or dactylic pentameter lines. Latin uses quantitative meter, a meter based on the alternation of long and short syllables…
Battle of Wills [Extract]
Fighting the urge was becoming too strong,
It had only been days but seemed so long,
Temptation all around, pulling him in,
Would its magnetic power finally win?
Desparately trying to keep occupied,
Pushing the thought to the back of his mind,
But despite everything he tried to do,
A voice screamed ” go on you know you want to…
[Don’t know if this is recent – or just recently indexed – but an interesting post.]
The Politics of Meter: on Traditional Forms
by Catherine Wagner
For decades, traditional patterns have been distrusted by, for instance, the “organic form”/”projective verse” avant-garde, as well as by writers working with nontraditional word-patterns—the Language poets, Jackson Mac Low, Susan Howe, and others. The distrust of verse is widespread. Even my dad tells me he knows that poetry shouldn’t rhyme or be in regular meter anymore. And poets of all stripes still get suddenly bored or nervous when they detect traditional forms. Not very many years ago, some members of the Buffalo Poetics listserv were provoked to anger when Annie Finch joined the list to ask for input on the anthology of forms she was putting together. And after a reading I gave recently in England, a poet (a committed political activist and self-declared member of the avant-garde) congratulated me on my “anti-prosody.” She was certain that what she’d heard meant I was working in ironic opposition to traditional meter. Not so…
The Mechanics of Wilbur’s “Mind”
I’ve noticed several searches for this poem (off and on again) so I thought I’d take a look at it. The meter is Iambic Pentameter and the poem itself consists of three quatrains with an interlocking rhyme scheme. The first rhyme of the first quatrain is a slant rhyme – bat/wit. Other than that, everything else about the poem is conventional. There is nothing remarkable about Wilbur’s use of the meter. If I were to criticize the poem, I might call Wilbur’s use of meter perfunctory. Unlike Shakespeare or Donne’s inventive use of Iambic Pentameter, Wilbur’s meter only informs the poem in the most conventional ways. The poem’s three trochees are apt, putting the emphasis on Mind, Not, and Darkly, but the effect is hardly novel.
But metrical expressiveness is not Wilbur’s strong suit.
Rather, Wilbur’s use of meter adds elegance to his language – heightening and elevating his rhetoric. Whether one interprets that as a plus or minus depends on what one expects from metrical poetry. I’m content to accept Wilbur on his own terms, rather than criticize him for what he doesn’t attempt. His use of meter is elegant and accomplished. The “rhythm”, as Wilbur calls it, makes his poems memorable where other poems are less so.
Interpreting the Poem
In the third quatrain, Wilbur refers to his poem as a simile, and it surely is, but it is also a conceit. Wikipedia offers up the following definition of a conceit:
The term is generally associated with the 17th century metaphysical poets in contemporary usage. In the metaphysical conceit, metaphors have a much more purely conceptual, and thus tenuous, relationship between the things being compared. Helen Gardner observed that “a conceit is a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness” and that “a comparison becomes a conceit when we are made to concede likeness while being strongly conscious of unlikeness.”
So… Wilbur is being a little disingenuous in referring to his poem as a simile. That said, the whole of the poem is really no more than the working out of Wilbur’s initial simile, The Mind is like a bat – a genuine tour-de-force. Wilbur’s skillful use of the extended metaphor is the mark of his uniqueness (his particular gift) among nearly all other 20th and 21rst century poets.
Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.
The first quatrain is, on the surface, very straight forward. However, the only element of the simile that is spelled out is the bat. The bat is like the mind. The mind is like the bat. After that, the more one tries to discern the different elements of Wilbur’s “simile”, the more one wonders exactly what each element is like. Besides having a predilection for simile, metaphor and analogy, Wilbur is also unique among modern poets for his delight in riddles. If memory serves, the oldest surviving poem in the English language is a riddle. I doubt anyone would claim that all English poetry is descended from a riddle, but there is an element to the riddle in all poetry – and I’ve always noticed that strains prevalence in Wilbur’s poetry. What are the caverns?
- Is the cavern like consciousness? – If so, then the mind is like the bat and the bat is like the cavern. The whole of it becomes an insoluble hall of mirrors.
- Does the cavern represent uncertainty? – spiritual uncertainty? – Wilbur dispels this possibility in the next quatrain by writing: “[The bat] has no need to falter or explore”. Whatever else the cavern is, the bat is not uncertain about its contours.
- Are the caverns “life”? – Possibly, but would anyone really accept Wilbur’s assertion that the mind has no need to falter or explore?
All that Wilbur gives us, by way of a hint, is “senseless wit”. In this quatrain, at least, Wilbur appears to be describing instinct. Or… there’s another possibility, but let’s see what he writes in the next quatrain.
It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.
Again, the poem has more and more the feel of a riddle. There are apt words, but one gets the feeling that there’s a double meaning at work – Darkly, obstacles, weave, flitter, perfect courses, blackest air.
In the final quatrain, Wilbur will ask: “has this simile a like perfection?” I can’t help but notice a teasing, impish tone to this question. There’s something sly about it. In fact, the simile isn’t perfect at all. Bats don’t “know” where obstacles are. Their “wit” isn’t “senseless”. They echo-locate, constantly…
If a bat becomes lost in your house, don’t cringe in a corner. Here’s something you might not know. If a bat can’t escape from a room after a certain period of time, it will indeed assume that it knows all the obstacles. It has memorized your room. It will stop echo-locating and fly and fly and fly – no matter what windows you open. A memory is like an opinion. In a sense, the bat becomes trapped by its own opinion. The bat won’t falter. The bat/mind assumes that it has no need to explore. The most inflexible opinions are the loneliest ones and, as Wilbur tells us at the outset, the mind is like the bat that beats in its cavern all alone. The bat or the mind’s wit seems more senseless than wit.
Darkly it knows.
That is, the mind remains in the dark of ignorance. Obstacles are perceived through ignorance. And yet, in the ruff of its opinion, the mind weaves its “perfect courses” through the blackest air. How does one interpret blackest air? I can’t help but read irony in these lines. We all know that the mind isn’t perfect. It is subject to any variety of ailments, the worst of them being self-delusion – the blackest air. (After all, the double meaning of air is when one puts on airs.)
And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat.
The word perfect shows up again. What is Wilbur really asking? If one reads a certain impishness in this question, then the word perfection takes on a very different tone. In case the reader missed it the first time, it mocks the perfection of the bat or the mind’s perfect courses.
If, having read this far, I’ve spoiled the poem for you, consider this: The most famous analogy in all of Western Literature is that of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Given Wilbur’s erudition, I find it hard to believe he didn’t have this in the back of his mind. The Allegory of the Cave is all about the human mind so confined within the cave of its opinion that it ceases to consider other possibilities or realities. The denizens of Plato’s cave never faltered in their beliefs and never felt the need to explore. The denizens darkly understand what they perceive to be reality. Their wits are senseless in that they lack the one sense only appreciated by leaving the cave.
Consider the double meaning hidden in the word conclude – line 4 of the 1rst Quatrain. It was precisely by looking against a wall of stone that the denizens of Plato’s gave drew their conclusions. And they were wrong. They contrive with a “senseless” wit not to “conclude” against a wall of stone, and yet this is precisely what the human mind does in the act of contrivance.
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.
The simile is “perfect”, except for the happiest (which also means fortunate) intellection (or perception). A graceful error “may correct the cave.” Though Plato, speaking through Socrates, doesn’t reveal how one of the trapped men came to be released from his cave, the moment might be described as fortunate and a moment of grace – perhaps, even, a grace–full error. Whatever the reason, the moment of happy intellection, of grace, of graceful error, “corrects the cave”.
Note: I just recently reviewed a collection of poetry by Robert Bagg, his book Horsegod. As it turns out, Bagg knows Wilbur and is presently writing a critical biography on the poet. I was pleased that he approved of my interpretation and also pleased by his suggesting a facet I had missed. The “graceful error”, he suggested, refers to Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. And it is through this error that “we are offered an even better garden than Eden”. This is a convincing interpretation. To paraphrase Bagg, Wilbur has “fused” the concerns of Plato and Paradise Lost.
I think it’s no accident that Wilbur closes with the word cave, rather than cavern.
If my interpretation is correct, then the final word is also our final hint as to the true meaning of the poem – the poem itself is like the cave, waiting to be corrected by the happiest intellection of the reader. The graceful error of the perfect simile will be corrected.
Or, in the case of the bat, if you open the window, the bat will be freed to correct its false conclusions.
Then again, Richard Wilbur is still alive, migrating seasonally between Massachusetts and Florida. Send him a letter and ask him what he meant!
If you enjoyed this post, let me know!
- May 14, 2009 Tweaked & corrected some typos.
During the sixteenth century, which culminated in poets like Drayton, Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, and Shakespeare, English was seen as common and vulgar – fit for record keeping. Latin was still considered, by many, to be the language of true literature. Latin was essentially the second language of every educated Elizabethan and many poets, even the much later Milton, wrote poetry in Latin rather than English.
Iambic Pentameter originated as an attempt to develop a meter for the English language legitimizing English as an alternative and equal to Latin (as a language also capable of great poetry and literature). Since meter was a feature of all great Latin poetry, it was deemed essential that an equivalent be developed for the English Language. But poets couldn’t simply adopt Latin’s dactylic hexameter or dactylic pentameter lines. Latin uses quantitative meter, a meter based on alternating long and short syllables. English, on the other hand, is an accentual language – meaning that words are “accented” or stressed while others are, in a relative sense, unstressed. (There are no long or short syllables in English, comparable to Latin.)
But this didn’t stop Elizabethan poets from trying. A circle of Elizabethan poets, including Sidney and Spenser, all tried to adapt quantitative meter to the English language. Here’s the problem. Even in their own day Latin and Classical Greek were dead languages – dead for a thousand years. Nobody knew what these languages really sounded like and we still don’t. Imagine if all memory of the French language vanished tomorrow (along with any recordings). French uses the same alphabet, but how would we know how to pronounce it? Americans would pronounce it like Americans, Germans would pronounce like Germans, etc… The French accent would be gone – forever. The same is true for Latin. So, while we may intellectually know that syllables were spoken as long or short, we have no idea how the language was actually pronounced. It’s tone and accent are gone. When the Elizabethans spoke Latin, they pronounced and accented Latin like Elizabethans. They assumed that this was how Latin had always been pronounced. For this reason, perhaps, Adopting the Dactylic hexameters of Latin didn’t seem so far-fetched.
The Spenser Encyclopedia, from which I obtained the passage at right, includes the following “dazzling” example of quantitative meter in English:
The symbols used to scan the poem reflect Spenser’s attempt to imitate the long and short syllables of Latin. The experiments were lackluster. Spenser and Sidney moved on, giving up on the idea of reproducing long and short syllables. The development of Iambic Pentameter began in earnest. (Though Sidney continued to experiment with accentual hexameters – for more on this, check out my post on Sidney: His Meter & His Sonnets.)
Those were heady times. Iambic Pentameter was new and dynamic. Spenser adopted Iambic Pentameter with an unremitting determination. Anyone who has read the Faerie Queen knows just how determined. (That said, each Spenserian Stanza – as they came to be called – ended with an Alexandrine , an Iambic Hexameter line – as if Spenser couldn’t resist a reference to the Hexameters of Latin and Greek.)
Why the Drama?
Just as with Virgil and Homer for Epic Poetry, the Classical Latin and Greek cultures were admired for their Drama – Aeschylus, Terence, Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles. Classical drama was as admired as classical saga.
As Iambic Pentameter quickly began to be adopted by poets as an equivalent to the classical meters of Greek and Latin, dramatists recognized Iambic Pentameter as a way to legitimize their own efforts. In other words, they wanted to elevate their drama into the realm of serious, literary works – works of poetry meant to be held in the same esteem as the classical Greek and Latin dramas. Dramatists, especially during Shakespeare’s day, were held in ill-repute, to say the least. Their playhouses were invariably centers of theft, gambling, intoxication, and rampant prostitution. Dramatists themselves were considered nothing better than unprincipled purveyors of vulgarity – all too ready to serve up whatever dish the rabble wanted to gorge on.
There was some truth to that. The playhouses had to earn a living. The actors and dramatists, like Hollywood today, were more than willing to churn out the easy money-maker. Thomas Heywood, a dramatist and pamphleteer who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, claimed to have had “an entire hand or at least a main finger in two hundred and twenty plays”.
That said, aspirations of greatness were in the air. This was the Elizabethan Age – the small nation of England was coming into its own. The colonization of America was about to begin. The ships of England were establishing new trade routes. The Spanish dominance of the seas was giving way. England was ready to take its place in the world – first as a great nation, than as an empire. The poets and dramatists of the age were no less ambitious. Many wanted to equal the accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans – Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher, Middleton…
Ben Jonson, in his own lifetime, published a collection of his own works – plays and poetry. This was a man who took himself seriously. The Greeks and Romans wrote their Drama in verse, and so did he. The Romans and Greeks had quantitative meter, and now the Elizabethans had Iambic Pentameter – Blank Verse. Serious plays were written in verse, quick entertainments, plays meant to fill a week-end and turn a profit, were written in prose – The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Shakespeare, was written to entertain, was written quickly, and was written in prose.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Sackville and Norton were the first dramatists to write Drama, the play Gorboduc, using Iambic Pentameter or, as it came to be known, blank verse. For a brief sample of their verse you can check out my post on The Writing & Art of Iambic Pentameter.
Poets and Poet/Dramatists were quick to recognize the potential in blank verse. Early Dramatists like Greene, Peele and Kyd were quick to adopt it. Their efforts bequeathed poetry to the new verse form, but it was Christopher Marlowe who upped the ante by elevating not just the poetry but the verse form itself. Suddenly Iambic Pentameter was given a powerful new voice all of its own.
Hair standing on end, other poets soon referred to Marlowe’s blank verse as Marlowe’s Mighty Line. Reading Marlowe’s verse now, with 500 years of history between, the verse appears inflexible and monochromatic. It was Shakespeare who soon demonstrated to other poets the subtlety and flexibility that Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) was capable of. Shakespeare’s skill even influenced Marlowe (who had earlier influenced Shakespeare). Shakespeare’s influence is felt in Marlowe’s Faustus and Edward II, by which time Marlowe’s verse becomes more supple.
The passage above is spoken by Tamburlaine, who has been smitten by Zenocrate, “daughter to the Soldan of Egypt“. Up to meeting Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s sole ambition had been to conquer and ruthlessly expand his empire. He’s a soldier’s soldier. But his passion for Zenocrate embarrasses him. He feels, in his equally blinding passion for her, that he “harbors thoughts effeminate and faint”.
Tamburlaine, with Marlowe’s inimitable poetry, readily rationalizes his “crush”. Utterly true to his character, he essentially reasons that beauty is a spoil rightly belonging to the valorous. He will subdue both (war and love), he pointedly remarks (rather than be subdued). After all, says Tamburlaine in a fit of self-adulation, if beauty can seduce the gods, then why not Tamburlaine? But make no mistake, it’s not that Tamburlaine has been subdued by love, no, he will “give the world note”, by the beauty of Zenocrate, that the “sum of glory” is “virtue”. In short, and in one of the most poetically transcendent passages in Elizabethan literature, Tamburlaine is the first to express the concept of a “trophy wife”.
Not to be missed is the Elizabethan sense of the word “virtue” – in reference to women, it meant modesty and chastity. Naturally enough, in men, it meant just the opposite – virility, potency, manhood, prowess. So, what Tamburlaine is saying is not that modesty and chastity are the “sum of glory”, but virility. The ‘taking’ of a beautiful women, in the martial, sexual and marital sense, fashions “men with true nobility”. It’s no mistake that Marlowe chose “virtue”, rather than love, when writing for Tamburlaine. Tamburlaine’s only mention of love is in reference to fame, valor and victory, not affection.
Anyway, I couldn’t resist interpreting the passage just a little. So many readers tend to read these passages at face value – which, with Elizabethan poets, frequently misses the boat.
As to the meter… Notice how the meaning sweeps from one line to the next. Most of the lines are syntactically unbroken, complete units. This is partly what poets were referring to when they described Marlowe’s lines as “mighty”. Notice also that that the whole of the speech can be read as unvarying Iambic Pentameter and probably should be.
By way of comparison, at right is how Shakespeare was writing toward the end of his career. The effect he produced is far different. The iambic pentameter (Blank Verse) doesn’t sweep from one line to the next. The most memorable and beautiful image in this passage is when Florizel wishes Perdita, when she dances, to be like “a wave o’the sea”. And any number of critics have seen, in this passage, a graceful equivalent in the ebb and flow of Shakespeare’s blank verse. The syntactic units halt, then resume, then halt again, variably across the surface of the Iambic Pentameter pattern. The overall effect creates one of the most beautiful passages in all of Shakespeare, and not just for its content and imagery, but also for its supple verse. The Elizabethans, in Shakespeare, bettered the Greek and Romans. In 1598, Francis Meres, fully understanding the tenor of the times, wrote:
“As the Greeke tongue is made famous and eloquent by Homer, Hesiod, Euripedes, Aeschilus, Sophocles, Pindarus, Phocylides and Aristophanes; and the Latine tongue by Virfill, Ovid, Horace, Silius Italicus, Lucanus, Lucretius, Ausonius, and Claudianus: so the English tongue is mightily enriched, and gorgeously invested in rare ornaments and respledent abiliments by Sir Philip Sidney, Spencer, Daniel, Drayton, Warner, Shakespeare, Marlow and Chapman…
As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras : so the sweet wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honytongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private frinds, &c…
As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines : so Shakespeare among y’ English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge’tleme’ of Verona, his Errors, his Love labors lost, his Love labours wonne, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.
As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin : so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.”
Finally, the English were creating their own literary heritage. Up to now, if the English wanted to read great literature, they read Latin and Greek.
But Not Latin Enough
The Elizabethans and Jocabeans firmly established Iambic Pentameter as the great Meter of the English language. But the youth of each generation wants to reject and improve on their elders. The Elizabethans and Jacobeans were old news to the eighteen and twenty year old poets who would found the restoration. They wanted to prove not just that they could find an alternative to quantitative meter, they wanted to prove that they could write just as well as the great Latin poets – English verse could be as great as Latin verse and in the same way. And so English poetry entered the age of the Heroic Couplet.
Poets had written heroic couplets before, but they were primarily open heroic couplets. The restoration poets wanted to reproduce the Latin distich – a verse from in which every rhyming couplet is also a distinct syntactic unit. This meant writing closed heroic couplets. If you want a clearer understanding of what this means, try my post About Heroic Couplets.
Anyway, the meter is still Iambic Pentameter, though the verse form has changed (Heroic, when attached to couplets, means couplets written in Iambic Pentameter). In other words, it’s not Iambic Pentameter with which the restoration poets were dissatisfied, it was unrhymed Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) which restoration poets found inadequate. Like the Elizabethans, they wanted English literature to be the equal of Latin and Greek literature. Blank verse wasn’t enough.
One of the best ways, perhaps, to get a feel for what restoration poets were trying to accomplish is to compare similar passages from translations. Below are three translations. The first is by George Chapman (Chapman’s Homer), an Elizabethan Poet and Dramatist, contemporary of Shakespeare and, some say, a friend of Shakespeare. Chapman writes Open Heroic Couplets – a sort of cross between blank verse and closed heroic couplets. The second translation is by Alexander Pope, a contemporary of Dryden and, with Dryden, the greatest poet of the restoration. He writes closed heroic couplets.
And now compare Pope’s translation to Robert Fitzgerald’s modern translation (1963). Fitzgerald writes blank verse and his translation is considered, along with Lattimore’s, the finest 20th Century translation available. I personally prefer Fitzgerald, if only because I prefer blank verse. Lattimore’s translation is essentially lineated prose (or free verse).
Which of these translations do you like best? Fitzgerald’s is probably the most accurate. Which comes closest to capturing the spirit of Homer’s original – the poetry? I don’t think that anyone knows (since no one speaks the language that Homer spoke).
All three of these translations are written in Iambic Pentameter but, as you can see, they are all vastly different: Open Heroic Couplets, Closed Heroic Couplets, and Blank Verse. The reasons for writing them in Iambic Pentameter, in each case, was the same – an effort to reproduce in English what it must have been like for the ancient Greeks to read Homer’s Dactylic Hexameters. Additionally, in the case of Chapman and Pope, it was an effort to legitimize the English language, once and for all, as a language capable of great literature.
Enough with the Romans and Greeks
Toward the end of the restoration, Iambic Pentameter was no longer a novelty. The meter had become the standard meter of the English language. At this point one may wonder why. Why not Iambic Tetrameter, or Iambic Hexameter? Or why not Trochaic Tetrameter?
These are questions for linguists, neuro-linguists and psycho-linguists. No one really knows why Iambic Pentameter appeals to English speakers. Iambic Tetrameter feels too short for longer poems while hexameters feel wordy and overlong. There’s something about the length of the Iambic Pentameter line that suits the English language. Theories have been put forward, none of them without controversy. Some say that the Iambic Pentameter line is roughly equivalent to a human breath. M.L. Harvey, in his book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning (if memory serves) offers up such a theory.
Interestingly, every language finds has found its own normative meter. For the French language, its hexameters (or Alexandrines), for Latin and Greek it was dactylic Hexameter and Pentameter). Just as in English, no one can say why certain metrical lengths seem to have become the norm in their respective languages. There’s probably something universal (since the line lengths of the various languages all seem similar and we are all human) but also unique to the qualities of each language.
Anyway, once Iambic Pentameter had been established, poets began to think that translating Homer and Virgil, yet again, was getting somewhat tiresome. English language Dramatists had already equaled and excelled the drama of the Romans and Greeks. The sonnet sequences of Drayton, Daniel, Shakespeare, Sidney and Spenser proved equal to the Italian Sonnets of Petrarch – in the minds of English poets at least. The restoration poets brought discursiveness to poetry. They used poetry to argue and debate. The one thing that was missing was an epic unique to the English language. Where was England’s Homer? – Virgil? Where was England’s Odyssey?
Milton, at the outset, didn’t know he was going to write about Adam & Eve.
He was deeply familiar with Homer and Virgil. He called Spenser his “original”, the first among English poets and a “better teacher than Aquinus“. But Spenser’s Faerie Queen was written in the tradition of the English Romance. It lacked the elevated grandeur of a true epic and so Milton rejected it. He was also familiar with Dante’s Divine Comedy. But the reasons for Milton choosing the story of Adam & Eve are less important, in this post, than the verse form that he chose. At first, writing in the age of the heroic couplet, Milton’s intention was to use the verse of his peers.
But Milton was losing his eyesight. That and the constraints Heroic Couplets placed on narrative were too much for him. He chose Blank Verse. In the end, the genius of Milton’s prosody and narrative conferred on blank verse the status it needed. Blank verse became the language of epic poetry – not heroic couplets; Milton’s blank verse was the standard against which the poetry of all other epic poems would be measured. From this point forward, later poets would primarily draw their inspiration from the English poets that had come before (not the poets of classical Greece or Rome). Paradise Lost successfully rivaled the Odyssey and the Iliad.
The extract at right is from Book 8 of Paradise Lost. Adam, naturally enough, wants to know about the cosmos. Since reading up on Cosmology is one of my favorite pastimes, I’ve always liked this passage. The extract is just the beginning. Milton has an educated man’s knowledge of 17th Century Cosmology, but must write as if he knows more than he does. In writing for Raphael however (the Angel who describes the Cosmos to Adam), Milton must write as though Raphael admits less than he knows. The effect is curious. At the outset, Raphael says that the great Architect (God) wisely “concealed” the workings of the Cosmos; that humanity, rather than trying to “scan” God’s secrets, “ought rather admire” the universe! This is a convenient dodge. Raphael then launches into a series of beautifully expressed rhetorical questions that neatly sum up Cosmological knowledge and ignorance in Milton’s day. It is a testament to the power of poetry & blank verse that such a thread-bare understanding of the universe can be made to sound so persuasively knowledgeable. Great stuff.
With Milton, the English Language had all but established its own literature; and Iambic Pentameter, until the 20th Century, was the normative meter in which all English speaking poets would measure themselves.
The Novelty Wears Off
After the restoration poets, the focus of poets was less on meter than on subject matter. Poets didn’t write Iambic Pentameter because they were thirsting for a new expressive meter in their own language, but because it’s use was expected. Predictably, over the next century and a half, Iambic Pentameter became rigid and rule bound. The meter was now a tradition which poets were expected to work within.
This isn’t to say that great poetry wasn’t written during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Keats’ Hyperion, short as it was, equaled and exceeded the masterful Blank Verse of Milton (perhaps some of the most beautiful blank verse ever written) – but the beauty was in his phrasing, imagery and language, not in any novel use of Iambic Pentameter. Wordsworth wrote The Prelude and Browning wrote an entire novel, The Ring & the Book, using blank verse. There was Shelley and Tennyson, but none of them developed Iambic Pentameter beyond the first examples of the Elizabethans.
The Fall of Iambic Pentameter
By the end of the Victorian Era (1837-1901), and in the hands of the worst poets, Iambic Pentameter had become little more than an exercise in filling-in-the-blanks. The rules governing the meter were inflexible and predictable. It was time for a change. The poet most credited with making that change is Ezra Pound. Whether or not Pound was, himself, a great poet, remains debatable. Most would say that he was not. What is indisputable is his influence on and associations with poets who were great or nearly great: Yeats, T.S. Eliot (whose poetry he closely edited), Frost, William Carlos Williams, Marriane Moore. It was Pound who forcefully rejected the all too predictable sing-song patterns of the worst Victorian verse, who helped initiate the writing of free verse among English speaking poets. And the free verse that Pound initiated has become the indisputably dominant verse form of the 20th century and 21st century, more pervasive and ubiquitous than any other verse form in the history of English Poetry – more so than all metrical poems combined. While succeeding generations during the last 100 years, in one way or another, have rejected almost every element of the prior generation’s poetics, none of them have meaningfully questioned their parents’ verse form. The ubiquity and predictability of free verse has become as stifling as Iambic Pentameter during the Victorian era.
But not all poets followed Pound’s lead.
A wonderful thing happened. With the collapse of the Victorian aesthetic, poets who still wrote traditional poetry were also freed to experiment. Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens all infused Iambic Pentameter with fresh ideas and innovations. Stevens, Frost and Yeats stretched the meter in ways that it hadn’t been stretched since the days of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatists. Robert Frost’s genius for inflection in speech was greatly enhanced by his anapestic variant feet. His poems, The Road Not Taken, and Birches both exhibit his innovative use of anapests to lend his verse a more colloquial feel. The links are to two of my own posts.
T.S. Eliot interspersed passages of free verse with blank verse.
Wallace Stevens, like Thomas Middleton, pushed Iambic Pentameter to the point of dissolution. But Stevens’ most famous poem, The Idea of Order at Key West, is elegant blank verse – as skillfully written as any poem before it.
Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Pound all came of age during the closing years of the Victorian Era. They carry on the tradition of the last 500 years, informed by the innovations of their contemporaries. They were the last. Poets growing up after the moderns have grown up in a century of free verse. As with all great artistic movements, many practitioners of the new free-verse aesthetic were quick to rationalize their aesthetic by vilifying the practitioners of traditional poetry. Writers of metrical poetry were accused (and still are) of anti-Americanism (poetry written in meter and rhyme were seen as beholden to British poetry), patriarchal oppression (on the baseless assertion that meter was a male paradigm), of moral and ethical corruption. Hard to believe? The preface to Rebel Angels writes:
One of the most notorious attacks upon poets who have the affrontery to use rhyme and meter was Diane Wakoski’s essay, “The New Conservatism in American Poetry” (American Book Review, May-June 1986), which denounced poets as diverse as John Holander, Robert Pinsky, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost for using techniques Wakoski considered Eurocentric. She is particularly incensed with younger poets writing in measure.
The preface goes on to note that Wakoski called Holander, “Satan”. No doubt, calling the use of Meter and Rhyme a “Conservative” movement (this at the height of Reaganism), was arguably the most insulting epithet Wakoski could hurl. So, religion, nationalism and politics were all martialed against meter and rhyme. The hegemony of free verse was and is hardly under threat. The vehemence of Wakoski’s attacks, anticipated and echoed by others, has the ring of an aging and resentful generation fearing (ironically) the demise of its own aesthetics at the hand of its children (which is why she was “particularly incensed with younger poets). How dare they reject us? Don’t they understand how important we are?
But such behavior is hardly limited to writers of free verse. The 18th century Restoration poets behaved just the same, questioning the character of any poet who didn’t write heroic couplets. Artistic movements throughout the ages have usually rationalized their own tastes at the expense of their forebears while, ironically, expecting and demanding that ensuing generations behave.
Poets who choose to write Iambic Pentameter after the moderns are swimming against a tidal wave of conformity – made additionally difficult because so many poets in and out of academia no longer comprehend the art of metrical poetry. In some halls, it’s a lost art.
Part of the cause is that poets of the generation immediately following the moderns “treated Iambic Pentameter more as a point of departure than as a form consistently sustained.” Robert B. Shaw, in his book, Blank Verse: A Guide to its History and Use, goes on to write, “the great volume and variety of their modernist-influenced experiments make this period a perplexing one for the young poet in search of models.” (p. 161)
Poets like Delmore Schwartz and Randall Jarrell were uneven poets – moving in and out of Iambic Pentameter. Their efforts aren’t compelling. Karl Shapiro brought far more knowledge to bear. Robert Shaw offers up a nice quote from Shapiro:
The absence of rhyme and stanza form invites prolixity and diffuseness–so easy is it to wander on and on. And blank verse [Iambic Pentameter] has to be handled in a skillful. ever-attentive way to compensate for such qualities as the musical, architectural, and emphatic properties of rhyme; for the sense of direction one feels within a well-turned stanza; and for the rests that come in stanzas. There are no helps. It is like going into a thick woods in unfamiliar acres. (p. 137)
And some poets like to go into thick woods and unfamiliar acres. (This is, after all, still a post on why poets write Iambic Pentameter. And here is one poet’s answer.) The writing of a metrical poem, Shapiro seems to be saying, forces one to navigate in ways that free verse poets don’t have to. The free verse poet must consider content as the first and foremost quality of his or her poem. For the poet writing meter and rhyme, Shapiro implies, there is a thicket of considerations that go beyond content.
There is also John Ciardi, Howard Nemerov and, perhaps the greatest of his generation, Richard Wilbur. Wilbur writes:
There are not so many basic rhythms for American and English poets, but the possibilities of varying these rhythms are infinite. One thing modern poets do not write, thank heaven, is virtuoso poems of near perfect conformity to basic rhythms as Byron, Swinburne, and Browning did in their worst moments. By good poets of any age, rhythm is generally varied cleverly and forcefully to abet the expressive purposes of the whole poem. (p. 189)
By rhythms, Wilbur is referring to meters. Wilbur is essentially stating that when the good poet chooses to write meter, (Iambic Pentameter let’s say), he sees the rhythm (the metrical pattern) as something which, when cleverly varied, “[abets] the expressive purposes of the whole poem”. It’s a poetic and linguistic tool unavailable to the free verse poet. Period.
Robert Frost, who lived into the latter half of the 20th Century, famously quipped in response to free-verse poet Carl Sandburg:
“Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”
As free verse asserted an absolute domination over the poetic aesthetic, writing meter and rhyme increasingly became an act of non-conformity, even defiance. It’s in this spirit that a small group of poets, who ended up being called “New Formalists”, published a book called Rebel Angels in the mid 1990’s – the emphasis being on Rebel. The most recognizable names in the book were Dana Goioia, R.S. Gwynn, and Timothy Steele. The preface, already quoted above, attempts to frame its poets as revolutionaries from word one:
Revolution, as the critic Monroe Spears has observed, is bred in the bone of the American character. That character has been manifest in modern American poetry in particular. So it is no surprise that the most significant development in recent American poetry has been a resurgence of meter and rhyme, as well as narrative, among large numbers of younger poets, after a period when these essential elements of verse had been surpressed.
The word “American” turns up in each of the three (first three) introductory sentences. Lest there be any mistake, the intent was to frame themselves not as Eurocentric poets beholden to an older European tradition, but as American Revolutionaries. So what does that make the poets and critics who criticize them? – un-American? -establishmentarian? – conformist? – royalist conservatives?
So it goes.
If the intent was to initiate a new movement, the movement landed with a thud. The book is out of print and, as far as I know, few to none of the books by those “large numbers of younger poets” have actually made it onto bookshelves. The poems in the anthology are accomplished and competent, but not transcendent. None of the poets wrote anything for the ages.
The rebellion was short lived.
Modern Iambic Pentameter
Nowadays, I personally don’t notice the fierce partisanship of the previous decades. Most of the fiercest dialectic seems to be between the various schools of free verse poetics. Traditional poetry, the poetry of meter and rhyme, is all but irrelevant even as all the best selling poetry remains in meter and rhyme! – Robert Frost, Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Stevens, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Millay, Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose and the thousands of nursery rhymes that are sold to new parents.
As far as I know, I am one of the few poets of my own generation (Generation X) writing in form, along with A.E. Stallings and Catherine Tufariello. And why do I write Iambic Pentameter? Because I like it and because I can produce effects that no poet can produce writing free verse. I’ve talked about some of those effects when analyzing poems by Shakespeare, his Sonnet 116, John Donne’s “Death be not Proud”, and Frost’s Birches. I use all of the techniques, found in these poems, in my own poetry.
I write about traditional poetry with the hope that an ostensibly lost art form can be fully enjoyed and appreciated.
One of my favorite moments in the Star Wars series is when Ben Kenobi kills General Grievous with a blaster instead of a Light Saber. Kenobi tosses down the blaster saying: “So uncivilized.” Blasters do the job. But it’s the Light Saber that makes the Jedi. There are just a few poets who really understand meter and rhyme.
But enough with delusions of grandeur. At right is an extract from one of my own poems. You can click on the image to see the full poem. One of my latest poems, written in blank verse, is Erlkönigen.
To write poetry using meter or rhyme, these days, is to be a fringe poet – out of step and, in some cases, treated with disdain and contempt by poets writing in the dominant free verse aesthetic.
There has never been a better time to be a fringe poet! It’s usually where the most innovative work is done.
- Note: There are critics & poets who deny that meter “exists”. I tend to group them with flat-earthers and moon landing denialists. Dan Schneider, of Cosmoetica, is one of them. If you’re curious to read my response to some of his writing, read Critiquing the Critic: Is Meter Real.
One Last Comparison
Going back to Homer’s Odyssey. One of the genres in which iambic pentameter still flourishes is in translating, suitably enough, Latin and Greek epic poetry. Here is one more modern Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) translation by Allen Mandelbaum, compared to Robert Fitzgerald’s (which we’ve already seen above). Mandalbaum’s translation was completed in 1990 – Fitzgerald’s in 1963. Seeing the same passage and content treated by two different poets gives an idea of how differently Iambic Pentameter can be treated even in modern times. The tone and color of the verse, in the hands of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum, is completely different. I still can’t decide which I like better, though readers familiar with the original claim that Fitzgerald’s is more faithful to the tone of the original.
- Here’s a good article on blank verse, mostly because of it’s generous links: Absolute Astronomy.
Afterthoughts • August 7 2010
With some distance from this post, I realize that I never discussed meter’s origins. And it is this: Song. In every culture that I’ve explored (in terms of their oldest recorded poetry) all poems originated as lyrics to popular songs. Recently discovered Egyptian poems strongly suggest that they originated as lyrics to songs. If you read Chinese poetry, you will discover (dependent on the translator’s willingness to note the fact) that a great many of the poems were written to the tune of this or that well-known song. Likewise, the meter of ancient Greek poetry is also said to be based on popular song tunes. Many scholars believe that the Odyssey was originally chanted by story tellers though no one knows whether the recitation might have been accompanied.
The first poems from the English continent are Anglo-Saxon. The alliterative meter of these poems, as argued by some, are a reflection that they too were written to the tune of this or that song. The early 20th century critic William Ellery Leonard, for example, held “that our meter of “Sing a Song of Six-Pence” is directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon meter of Beowulf” [Creative Poetry: A Study of its Organic Principles p. 252]. Though none of his poetry survives, Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne (d. 709), is said to have performed his secular songs while accompanied on the harp. None of Aldhelm’s Anglo-Saxon poetry remains. What is known to us is related by the ancient English historian Willliam of Malmesbury.
The roots of Iambic Pentameter are in song (just as meter in every language and culture appears to be rooted in song and music). And it’s for this reason that the twaddle of a Dan Schneider is so misleading. Likewise, poets like Marriane Moore who postured over the artificiality of meter, were ignorant of meter’s origins. Arguments over the naturalness of meter are irrelevant. Iambic Pentameter is no more natural to the English language than the elaborate meter and rhyme of a rapper. It’s an art.
And it’s this that separates Free Verse from Traditional Poetry.
- Image above right: Fragment of an ancient Greek song.
Conversely, free verse is not rooted in music but only imitates the typographical presentation (the lineation) of metrical poetry. Why make this distinction? Because it’s another reason why poets write Iambic Pentameter. Writing metrical poetry is an acknowledgement of poetry’s musical roots. Meter acknowledges our human capacity to find rhythm and pattern within language (as within all things). I won’t argue that it’s a better way to write poetry. However, I will argue that writing meter is to partake in a tradition of poetry that is ancient and innate.
- Many discussions on various forums which, though interesting, are too changeable to reference.
- If any readers would like to recommend sites or blogs please do! Feel free to recommend your own blog or poem if you like but please don’t post your poem in the comment field (provide a link and the first lines).
- Search terms used to find these posts: Rhyme, Meter, Formal, Formalist, Poetry
A few years ago, I started learning poetry by heart on a daily basis. I’ve now memorized about a hundred poems, some of them quite long — more than 2,000 lines in all, not including limericks and Bob Dylan lyrics. I recite them to myself while jogging along the Hudson River, quite loudly if no other joggers are within earshot. I do the same, but more quietly, while walking around Manhattan on errands — just another guy on an invisible cellphone…
A poem is a creation of English language , a result of learning poem foundation,
It is a creation of imagination, of memory’s recall and retention of education,
Of alphabet’s vowels, a,e,i,o,u, and any consonants combination,
Of b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, and z that make syllable formation,
Of their dissimilar, multiple mixed natures that become all word creation,
Words are but syllables, but vowels and consonants made arrangement,
All are made definition in any dictionary and an exact denotation,
Sometimes also explained in varied ways within any connotation.
I wrote this today actually and I am so proud of myself. Not the subject of the poem, but myself. The poem itself is going to make me look badly I’m afraid, but then I wouldn’t be a very honest person if I were unwilling to show my flaws. This is a rather profound piece on my part really. It says a lot about myself and my own conception of morality, of right and wrong. I enjoy my random moments of self-discovery and introspection. I like epiphanies and it is nice to have one now and again even if they are about myself and not some other problem with society or something more important. I hope all of you enjoy my poem even if it doesn’t make complete sense to you.
So… Sidney is slyly suggesting that, if only his Sonnets achieve their aim, she might take some pleasure (her own orgasm) from his orgasm. If you think this far-fetched, then I would recommend a book like Filthy Shakespeare. The Elizabethans saw life very differently than we do. Death and sex was ever present. Life, in all its glory and decay, was intimate. They weren’t nearly so prudish about the realities of life as we have become – which isn’t to say that prudishness didn’t exist. The Elizabethans were all too ready to find sly humor in the crudities of life – much to the dismay and denial of our more puritan contemporaries.
solar poetry contest [Only open to University of Arizona Students and Staff]
This spring the Poetry Center is partnering with the Arizona Research Institute for Solar Energy (AzRISE) to present a university-wide Solar Poetry Contest. The contest is presented in celebration of the University of Arizona’s upcoming participation in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, an international student competition to build a house fully powered by the sun.
The final judge for the contest will be UA Creative Writing Professor Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of Science and Other Poems and numerous essay collections about the role of literature in our natural world. Deadline for submission (one poem per entry) is May 15, 2009. Winners will be announced in August 2009 and will have the opportunity to read their work at the public viewing of the solar house on August 28….
- I’m not sure if this was posted during the last week. Google states it was posted Mar 29, 2009. The information is interesting enough to merit a link.
Teaching Form Poetry
by Yvonne Blomer
Although modern poetry tends to favour what we call “free verse,” lately there seems to be a revival of “form poetry,” or poems that make use of traditional structures, such as the sonnet, pantoum, glossa and ghazal. For many, writing in form is a way to create a framework in which to work. For others it feels like a constraint. W.H. Auden went as far as to say that “The poet who works in free verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry, and darning himself.”
As Auden suggests in this quote, free verse is formless. Though that can be argued, it can also be said that free verse does not contain many of the constraints or rules that apply to poetry in form. Formal poetry contains lines that are broken into a pattern of stress, often iambic pentameter. It follows a rhyme scheme. Though in contemporary poetry, even formal poems break many of the rules of the traditional form, the poems still contain within them the essence of the original, a framework within which to write. Based on the Auden quote above, this framework does some of the work for the poet. The difference between free verse and traditional forms, as well as modern takes on traditional forms, are important distinctions for students to note.
Why Does He Hear Singing Now?
Welcome to “The Gods Are Bored!” Today we add a new hero to our Pantheon of Special Mortals. He is Walt Whitman.
I think Walt Whitman must have been very brave to pen the poetry he did in an era so dedicated to rhyme and meter. His courage certainly bore fruit. Who among us does not love the guy? ….
Shelley’s Sonnet Ozymandias
It is the heart – the synechdocic figure of the human soul, compassion, and capacity to empathize – that is at the heart of the sonnet and that is alive within the sculptor. The heart is what fed the hand – the hand that mocked and gave life to lifelessness through compassion and morality – through art. It is because of the human heart that anything at all survived and continues to survive. And perhaps Shelley means to instruct us that art is the highest and most durable manifestation of the human heart.
Steve Donoghue: The Aeneid of Vergil
translated by Sarah Ruden
Yale University Press, 2008
Virgil took the assignment and went to ground, laboring for ten years (sometimes, if legend is to be believed, at the rate of only a line or two a day). There were work-in-progress readings given to friends and colleagues (who assured those not present that a great work was being born), and we may presume that when Augustus met with Virgil in Athens in 40 B.C. the emperor inquired after more than the weather. But even after ten years, there was no finished epic. Virgil grew sick during a trip to the East, gave the standard poet-deathbed instructions to destroy his work, then promptly expired, leaving behind literature’s single most impressive fragment, which, of course, Augustus ordered preserved….
Animal Flower Cave Sonnet
The following poem was almost submitted to H&H for review, but I considered it a waste of an effort so snatched it from the queue to place here as the early start of National Poetry Month. “Animal Flower Cave” is one of a few recent attempts to compose a contemporary sonnet. I won’t bore readers with the source of inspiration, but I will admit it has been too long since I’ve done a strict meter and rhyme verse. My hope is that anyone reading it won’t judge it or the poet too harshly. This may be my last sonnet, unless the ghost of Shakespeare inhabits my body, which is very unlikely.
Without further ado about nothing:
Animal Flower Cave Sonnet
Your parting lips that touch the brazen sun,
also graze my tongue – suddenly struck dumb.
The thought of our sex under a sea bed,
and Barrett Browning swimming in my head…
- In case you need a rhyme for velocity…
“Having climbed to the summit and started to cross it, he
rolls down the side with increasing velocity.”
What! We’re already up to G20 Summit and they still haven’t sorted it out?? Well – Obama’s here now. Really. He’s here in London. Everything’ll be fine. Michelle came off the plane and onto the front pages in a wonderful yellow statement dress & hopefully London will bask in the glow, rather than being smashed up by a crowd of idiots as predicted.
Girls come in assorted sizes,
Predictable, and sans surprises.
But there’s one who breaks the quota:
The guys all call her Rear-Meat Rhoda.
Rhoda has a rounded bottom
(Not too many females got ’em).
Men who pass say “Get a loada
That caboose!” when they see Rhoda…
But then I find these poets coming from very different places who are both speaking directly, in very different ways, getting it on with language, and I am moved to write of them, and share. Is that not a call to action if nothing else? And actions are many, some of them more meditative than others, as with Johnson: “our text today is the heliotrope/swiveling its holy troupe.” We are down in the violet bed oh, natural poets, we are down in “hoar” and our tongues a “fovent choir” (10). How unhip the language: “vulgate,” “spinal block” and “womb,” not the province of language poetry, far too sincere and bodily, far too rhythmic, but more unwieldly than the formalists. What would Heaney think? What would Silliman say? Can one have an opinion?…
As an experiment I have opened to a random page in Sylvia Plath’s The Collected Poems (New York: Harper’s and Row, 1981). The volume encompasses four collections of poetry: The Colossus, Ariel, Crossing the Water, and Winter Trees (all copyright dates 1960, 1965, 1971, 1981). She died in 1963 at the age of 30. Four of the poems in the collection originally appeared in The American Poetry Review and four in The New York Times Book Review. I opened randomly to page 162, poem numbered 143: “I Am Vertical” (28 March 1961)…