‘Don’t make him go.’ ‘I’m not.’ ‘He’s only just now Come in to play.’ ‘He’d rather be outside, ’ Said the boy’s father. ‘Let him go outside. He’s old enough to want to help.’ ‘Then next year,’ Said the boy’s mother. ‘Let him set the table That’s more a help than outside splitting wood.’ ‘Let Mary,’ said the father. ‘Mary? Set The table? Let her help with splitting wood!' The mother countered. ‘After all, she’s older. Why can’t your daughter?’ ‘She hasn’t asked me, has she?’ ‘And does she need to?’ ‘Jack did.’ ‘Why not ask her?’ ‘For God’s sake, let them both go,’ said their father. ‘They’re old enough.’ Just then the boy walked in Still in boots and a hooded jacket—somehow Nonetheless guessing at the argument. His glance raced from father to mother. ‘Can I?’ He asked. His mother paused. She’d carried in The plates and silverware and had begun To set them. ‘If you’re asking me, then no,’ She said. ‘You’re father thinks you’re old enough; I don’t.’ ‘I’m old enough,’ argued the boy. ‘Then go straight to Grandpa if you want to help And do exactly what he tells you. No hospitals Today. No little boys who’ve chopped their hands off.’ ‘Then I’ll tell Mary,’ said the father. The boy Ran out the door but never having seen His father run to do a chore, stopped, walked, Assumed an air of purpose. Snow was falling And had already fallen, not in gales But in that way November snowfalls shroud The yellowed grass and drape the Queen Anne’s lace Anew with shawls. The maple in the dooryard, Its leaves let down, let down no shadows, evening Descending overall but for the dooryard And lighted house behind the boy. The path To where the wood was split went first before The shed-roofed bays then out behind the barn where The log length wood was piled. The closest bay Stored their discarded toys. Among them were A tricycle, its rims half buried in The dirt floor’s ruin and the runner sleds That just a year ago already would have Skated November’s early snow—the lettering Faded and flaking from their slatted backs. The boy might yet have pulled them out but for A baby gate that sometime during the summer Was forced into the only narrow entry (As if to bar a child’s going in Or toys from coming out again). The snow Curled over the metal lip of roof Above the shed-bay’s open mouth and faded Into a ghostly exhalation. Drawing His hood tight as he walked, the boy half stumbled— A knee to snow. The middle bay was where His brother stored his car on blocks. The right Front block had sunk into the dirt so that The grill’s off-kilter grin would chase the boy In nightmares. The car still needed work— And every day less likely to be done. The doors, fenders and hood were primed With spray paint (underneath the priming gray The paint’s original red) but here and there The rust was rusting through. But mostly when His brother visited the car he’d take A girl along. The boy would want to follow But every time he’d asked them what they planned His brother laughed. ‘We’re going out to play A little hide & seek,’ he’d say. ‘You’re not Invited.’ Then the boy, being troubled by What kind of hide & seek there was to play Inside a car, made plans some night to follow And spy; and meant to soon. Sometimes they’d stay For just a little while and sometimes late Into the night. Returning then they’d kiss And laugh as though in seeking they had found A thousand hiding places. Another gust Of snow. The shrunken spines of black-eyed Susans— Their desiccated eyes were motionless And blind to what remained of autumn’s twilight Or the boy passing by. The furthest bay Was where his father kept the tractor—lights Lifted like attentive ears, hood tarped And cutter bar drawn up. Some days in summer The boy’s father might leave the tractor out Midfield, dusted with chaff. The boy might climb Into the seat as though he could ignite The tractor’s heart and bring the gulping lungs To life again. The metal’s heavy odor Of grease and oil clung to his clothes like The scissored grasses. He hardly knew the work Of tractors other than they worked the fields; And where he would have traveled had it rumbled To life meant less to him than understanding What force of architecture moved the steel, What housed explosions turned the giant wheels Imprinting the earth. ‘The cruel machine,’ His mother’d say, ‘That cuts the summer’s bloom— Too much to call it hate—but let the field For once run riot. We’ve no use for hay, And have no livestock. Let it go uncut Or cut it late and let the wildflowers route The grasses.’ ‘It’s for love of place I mow it,’ His father’d answer. ‘When has autumn ever spared A meadow? And there are other reasons Besides.’ If afterward he’d never give them He’d nonetheless bring back a mason jar So clumsily full of flowers they’d sometimes topple Over the kitchen table just as if A scythe had lain them down again. The boy hewed Close by the barn where jimsonweed had grown. He stepped over burst thorn-apples—their rictus Of seed and snow; and passing by he snagged The others in his mittens—thorny bulbs Still topping branches; tendrils spiraling upwards As if they were a final parting breath— The smoke of humid summer days turned brittle And motionless. Any other day He’d have taken the shortcut through the barn, A storehouse of forgotten generations Who owned the property a hundred years And more before the boy’s own family. Sometimes he’d spend the hours picking through The slow haphazard regolith of mice And straw to find a broken tool half buried: Old bottles, cut nails, rusted pliers, saw-blades And hammers missing handles; these he’d stockpile In crates he made himself—half a dozen He’d cobbled out of scavenged lumber ridden With nail holes. The boy had found foundations Grown through with ironwood—remains of buildings A farmer might take lumber from. He’d wonder What ghosts still searched the leaf-strewn cellar holes Looking for the long forgotten button That once had rolled between the rough-sawn floorboards— Themselves long since dissolved; and then he’d flee The ironwood thicket. If there’d ever been More than the lumber worth saving then either That too was lost or in the barn—the lumber, The tools, the parts (their use gone out of memory), And the machinery still following The beasts that drew them, wooden ligaments Consumed, their frames corroded and collapsing Into the sediment. And yet the boy Will mend their failing joints, imagines them— Painted and metal polished—renewed Behind a tractor’s thumping pulse. If not A tractor then he’d clear the cobwebbed arteries From the barn and there stable either ox Or horse; he’d load the hayloft with fresh hay And breathe the fumes of life into the farmyard Or so, at least, the boy imagined doing And more. He followed round the barn’s far corner, The muddy yard where log-length firewood Was piled—the time of year the yard Rolled seamlessly into the neighboring fields, Their hollow ribs no taller than the yard’s Own trampled grasses. Distantly, the ridge Of field that overlooked the barn and farmhouse Grew light with snow and darkened with the shadow Of early winter. The boy had often Come out this far and been distracted by The sloping fields, wondering at the world Beyond the world he saw. He dreamt an ocean Lay just beyond the distant ridge, and beds Of incandescent sands and whirlpools Of liquid vertebrae. He dreamt of whales Who glimmered with the giant eyes of angels; And waters trembling over them like outspread wings. Their contemplation wakened him; he feared The dark that sank his bed into their mystery; The turmoil of their wake. And though some nights, In a half-forgotten sleep, he rode The ocean’s slippery back from shore to shore, He’d waken to horizons nothing more Than his own room, the bed, the sheets wound round him, A cluttered floor. The path veered left between The logs and barn. The boy tugged at his hood As wind once more drew down a shroud of snow, Thrown from the metal roof. He dug his hands Into his jacket, hunched, and kept his eyes Half shut until the gust rose over top The roof again as though the barn itself Breathed forth the ghostly apparition, vanishing As fleetingly as it appeared. The boy Stopped. The steel of the splitting maul Gleamed in the icy mud; just by the maul A split wedge wedged in the wood. The boy’s grandfather Lay on his side, eyes open, the splitting maul’s handle Loosely in his hand. The old man’s scarf Rose up, half lifted by a sudden gust, Then fell again. The boy stepped backwards, stumbled, Stepped back again. A little further on The cattails in the farmyard’s pond had blown— And silence where the redwing blackbirds shrilled Before they’d flown. He gave a startled cry. His sister lightly cupped his shoulder, Then she stepped past him kneeling by their grandfather. She turned him gently to his back. She leaned As if unsure; then being sure, she closed His eyes. She gazed at him and neither she Nor the boy moved. 'Okay,' she finally said. She stood, went to the boy, and took his hand. 'Come on,' she said. And then said nothing more. Blackbirds By me, Patrick Gillespie | March 27, 2021Continue reading
More poems now that I have time. This poem, or dramatic monologue, was written for Harriet Whitbread, who performed my poem, Erlkönigin. I wrote it over the week-end, with Bicycles finally done, and wanted to write her something she could really have fun with—my way of thanking her. If you’ve never read Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess, then you should read that first or you’ll be apt to miss the humor and inside jokes. As usual, I enjoy writing pastiches like these that turn the originals a little upside down and a little inside out. As I see it, why let the men have all the fun? Enjoy.
My Last Husband L.A. [Enter Madame de B. wearing a caftan and sipping a whisky sour.] That’s my last husband pictured on the wall Looking as if he were alive. The great Photographer Pierre Blanchet insisted— And spent the week-end taking photographs. No doubt he would have stayed a few weeks longer. I’ve since been told Pierre had fallen madly In love with him. It mattered neither men Nor women, everyone who met him loved him. Yet after all these years I’m not surprised You didn’t recognize him—being younger. Fame, as they say, is fleeting. Even so And only having seen his photograph, You’re not the first to ask me who he was— What with that jaw, that brow, that piercing gaze. And not for me. Oh no. No. All of that Was for Pierre or rather I should say His camera. Was I there? Oh yes, although You’d never guess. Before he was discovered He tended bars. He made me whiskey sours. That’s how he was. So thoughtful. Whisky sours For me and for Pierre a Cosmopolitan, A Mai Tai for the bellboy, Juleps for The scullery maid. They loved him. Everyone Adored him. Oh but they adored him. Why Any trifle batting eyes at him He’d treat as if he’d known them all their lives. A movie star! Imagine that! You’d think There was no point in living where we lived: This villa, planned by Lars van Alderhof; Its stunning view of the Pacific ocean; An architectural beacon! But I digress. As I was saying: Everyone who met him— Well, I was always being told how lucky I was. How fortunate. I was the envy Of womankind! Imagine being married, They’d say, to Jason of the Argonauts, To Robinhood, to Tamburlaine and Harry The goddamn Fifth! The day the photograph Was taken, on that very day, my agent Called to tell me I’d been chosen. Me! The starring role in La Belle Dame. I’m sure, Of course, you’ve heard of it. I won an Oscar. Alas but that my husband never knew. He knew that I would star. Was any man Supportive as he was? Was any wife So lucky? He at once made known to all That I, his unexampled wife, would star In La Belle Dame; then added sans merci. Indeed. The laughter was uproarious. Oh how They loved him. Sans merci. Indeed. I’m sure You know the story. Last that he was seen He’d driven off in his belovèd Aston Martin. Gone, but for this: his photograph; still smiling As if alive. Shall we repair to the salon? My agent will of course review the contract— I’m sure a mere formality considering Your studio’s well-known—munificence. Just follow me. And those? The magazines? I had the covers framed. Quite lovely. Taken Shortly after I had won the Oscar For La Belle Dame—and while touring Italy. The statue in the background overlooked A gorgeous cove and was quite famous. Sculpted By Hans of Strasbourg and entitled: Neptune Taming a seahorse. Tragically, there was An accident. The workmen who’d been hired To clean and renovate the statue must Have loosened here and there a bolt, forgetting To tighten them—a cable snipped?—who knows. (Whatever does a woman know about Such things.) But down went Neptune, down Into the waves with nothing whatsoever To brake his fall. The chariot was found But never Neptune—no doubt swept out To sea. As luck would have it though, just Neptune And nothing else. The seahorse, so it’s claimed, Still stands just as it was—and still untamed. [Exeunt Madame de B.] Dedicated Harriet Whitbread
Needless to say, and just like Browning’s poem, mine is based on true events.
Just as the Cosmos is remarkable In its homogeneity, so life Surprises not in its variety, But similarities—a living world May neither be too close nor orbiting Too distant from its sun, must be rocky, Have water and a molten core’s enveloping Magnetosphere. Consider living worlds Like organisms, each convergently Evolving oxygen, a temperate climate And life. And just as they're alike in their Constituent elements, the life arising Evolves alike—prokaryotic and Eukaryotic over billions of years Divided into plants and animals. The laws of evolution are not altered By time, locale or species. Anywhere There’s life there’s more that’s recognizable Than alien, more that universally Applies not just to life’s emergence but Also to sentience, intelligence And civilization, for in every world, Where though the sun is unfamiliar, Where night is visited by stranger tides And constellations, where though the byways And thoroughfares traverse implausible fields Under alien skies, you still will find The bicycle. There are an infinite number Among as many worlds. The universe Is everywhere replete with life, some worlds Awash in microscopic biomes While others teem with wilderness; but where Intelligence and sentience evolve So does the necessary wheel and means To turn the wheel: the chain, gears, frame and sprocket Both different and alike in their design— Blueprints of the physiology And minds inventing them. In any world Where there’s a child’s bicycle, there’s elsewhere In any quarter of the universe Another likewise trimmed with streamers, spangles And balanced on a kickstand. Were it possible To bridge the light years with a bicycle By pedaling or by a sail affixed To catch the winds of other Milky Ways; Or to visit on a summer’s day An undiscovered world; to gaze at nightfall At nebulae; and were there, anchored To every handlebar, a telescope To navigate the air (and wine and blankets In every basket); then bicycles Would populate the intervening skies, Would coast like comets through the scattered stars And glitter in the light. If on an evening You find a square of earth to unfold Your blanket and to gaze at constellations, You’ll see a thousand thousand worlds with life And yet see none. In every world you’ll see A thousand thousand bicycles and yet Not one. You’ll peer into another’s eyes, A billion intermittent years gone by, Whose gaze meets yours if only for an instant, Yet never know. Ride your bicycle The little while you can—and wait no more; Though a bicycle won’t ferry you Across the pathless oceans of the Cosmos, This poem has never only been about The bicycle—but our imagination. The Universe is full of bicyclists Who dream of navigating, just like you, The same intractable distances, To view, if for a day, another moon, Another sun—and you. So little Are our allotted days, so impossible— The grandeur, the sublimity, the Universe; Let your imagination be the bicycle And what before had been beyond your reach Will be the passage of an afternoon. Will be the nebulae that fade like leaves Among worlds moving darkly and unseen; Will be the radiant whirlwinds birthing stars And stars new worlds. There will be life and bicycles And for a little while—yours.
Bicycles by Me, Patrick Gillespie | February 14th 2021Continue reading
- The poem that follows has spilled blood. I’ve put just about everything else aside to write it these last few months. It’s a refutation. I won’t tell you of who or which poet but any reader familiar with poetry will recognize its inspiration. I didn’t want it to just be a pastiche. That is, though it hews closely in form and rhetoric to its inspiration and though I’ve adopted the original poet’s way of thought, imagery and elusive argument (even his liking of antiquated words and syntax) I wanted the poem to be mine. That’s hard. Readers who remember my last poem will see that it still lingers with me in my final stanza. But. Done. You won’t find anything like this anywhere else. Enjoy. As for me: On to other poems that have waited patiently.
The apostasies of a woman’s lips
On an afternoon at the hotel.
The orange sun brings her colluding with
Persimmons on a Sunday beneath the palms
Of Santa Cruz. Upon a bed sheet lies
A dissolution of desires saying
There’s this and only this; and that if afterward
The waves confide in the brutal architecture
Of consummation there will still be evenings
Under the umbrellas of Capitola,
The large procession of its lighted buildings
Where women walk in splendor; evening colloquies
Of a green harbor and the dimming waves—
Dimmed for the contemplation of the women
And contemplating on the women walking.
Why should her beauty not be worldly?
What is to her the fixed divinity
Of the high, gold-enameled angel, wrought
In her own image, never rising nor
Descending? What to her her coterie
Of holy emblems? Shall she find no comfort
In earthly totems? Nothing is divine
And there is nothing that is not divine
Both in her and without her: autumn’s frail,
Confiding sky, the heart’s divide beholding
The sky; the uncharted snow’s descent, hers
Upon her lover’s bed. These are the measure—
Her soul creating and created by
The world: the pomegranate’s stain before
The blackbird’s consuetudinary cry.
Mary had her immaculate conception,
No lover bruised her thighs, nor any sweet
Soil lingered there; she moved with unstained feet
Among the winemakers—a miracle,
Walked among generations undisturbed,
In holy revelry, until our own
Discerning, unabashed, surmised descent—
The earth’s blood rendered with our own; where even
The priests discerned it in Galapagos.
Shall we be mute? When was it ever
Other but that a woman’s gait be broken
By the shapeful bounty of a man’s motion?
When was it ever other than that we
To each other are all the paradise
We’ll know, of love, of sorrow, consummation?
She says, “I am content he wakes me, questions
My sinews when the morning’s sun first salts
The odorous sheets. But in my lover’s absence
Shall swallows not contend?—the plum not taste
As sweet?—the berry?” Inasmuch as autumn
Exhausts the yielded fruits of summer,
The turmoil of the sun is unabated.
Even as lilacs cool beneath the moon
Desirous roots divide the earth, confound
And undermine. No edifice endures
As the body will endure—no cloister,
Cathedral, academe—as blood endures;
As the ecstatic foison of the sun
Abides within the lover and beloved,
Their impassioned breaths annealing their tongues.
“Becalmed,” she says, “and the body wearied,
I choose to contemplate the spiritual.”
From eros springs desire, being desire;
The mother of the sacred and profane—
She populates our dreams; proffers the apple
Flavoring lips and thighs, that although tasting
Of ecstasy, tastes too of bitterness,
And loss; yet nonetheless we eat: no fruit
Spits forth the seed until the flesh be parted;
Until the green calamity of April
Is reaped by August’s laboring sun. Late hour—
The women lie with men; eros spreads
The evening’s garment over them. If otherwise
The soul know no respite but this, though suffering,
Though weary, what more than to love—and be loved?
Is there desire in paradise? How else
Do lovers speak? How else if never thigh
To thigh; if mutual labor never dust
Their sun-regarded flanks? Is her apron
Forever burdened by the unbruised fruit
And his swagger never altered being
Perplexed by hers? What purpose to a man’s
Proportions or a woman’s where without death
They never need make love, give birth, or nurturance?—
Yet it was never us in paradise,
But paradise in us—in us the dreamt of
Elation of an ageless afternoon
Discovered in a kiss—nor the shores
Of an elysium but our perishing whispers
At midnight. Paradise is in desire.
Sinuous and orgiastic, the women
Wheel and cant devotion to the Earth
Not in dominion but as Earth might be,
Its curling waters thrumming in the heart,
Its seasons churning in the blood of hips
And groin. The moon descends among them, fierce,
Unveiled. They voice the cunning of the river
That kneads the dour root and rubs against
The skin of April’s melting, women not
As goddesses might be, but goddesses
Themselves in whom the summer’s revelations
Are consummated. Even afterward
Though autumn breaks the year end’s faltering gait
Their own describes the memory of the dew
That slaked their feet; the lilt of the summer’s liquor.
She hears, among the startled flight of thrushes,
Girls cry: ‘The porch of Ithaca is not
Our resting place, but ours are voices rising
From every shore.” The chaos of our being
Is all the world we know: not the sun,
The dinted summer fields, a midday’s rainfall
Or skimming swallows; not the course of autumn
Altering the braided grasses but they take
Their drink from us; berries their sweetness from
Our mouths; the wind that scuffs the evening’s waters
Our breath and longing. Where the starlings flock
Above a dangling moon—where black as words
They slip the knotted cords of verse, arising
Out of the discourse of desire—the mind
Arises and, containing them, is made whole.
February 2nd, 2019 by me, Patrick Gillespie
- The following was inspired by Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey. Specifically, read the closing paragraph in my previous post: Emily Wilson’s Odyssey. I did a few things differently with this poem. I roughed it out first, something I rarely do; then the blank verse revision. I’ve also been reading Shakespeare’s late plays, the romances, especially with a mind to his late style; and in combination with a book by Russ McDonald called Shakespeare’s Late Style. Historically, Shakespeare’s later verse has been considered problematic and was, by later poets like Pope, revised if not excised. Not to me. The syntactic “incoherence” of Shakespeare’s late verse is unmatchably beautiful. So, by writing the following, I wanted to learn from it. I combined the epithets found in Homer with the syntactic addition, divagation, delay, elision and suspension typical of Shakespeare’s late style. I know this isn’t any way to write in the 21st century, but me and my poetry have gone our own way.
Odysseus, wily navigator, you
Who have endured a thousand harborless sorrows,
I too have suffered.
••••••••••••I, being sent to launder
Your mistress’s apparel in the river
Or often, by myself, to bring from orchards
A desired olive, fig or grape, was also
Betrayed by those you’ve slain—made by them
A slave to slaves—my vessel desecrated
My lading mired and diminished, sorted
With weeds and brackish waters—yet for that
••••••••••••Odysseus, ingenious King—
Tell him, your minstrel with the wine stained fingers
Who sings of wayward tides, of witches, Gods
And far-flung isles, that I was also lost
Longing for home who had no home to search for;
And tell your songster in your rage you snared
My sisters by one rope between a pillar
And dome; and that we were together lifted,
Each beside the other, nooses round
Our necks until our feet no longer touched
The earth—the knots tight as a luthier’s string.
Tell your songster, though he sings of you
To tell of the twelve girls who were like
Thrushes that spread their wings to fly at last
But could not. Though struggling, we only breathed
To take another dying breath—our agony
••••••••••••Tell him: ‘Sing of girls, of slaves
To slaves, who twitched a little while but not
For long; whose rags were left behind, bone broken
And creaking in the winds of Ithaca.”
Tell him that we waited to be lain
Among the corpses we ourselves had carried
From the blood-soaked hall.
••••••••••••So long as sings your minstrel,
Odysseus, so long will fly from us
The last syllable of our breath: that far
From Ithaca, cries of murder, bloodshed
And vengeance—where the grass at evening shivers
In sea-spray and the noiseless spider sifts
The wind—was seen a startled thrush that cried out,
Took flight above the drumming waters, even
Above the dissolution of the air,
Into the spreading fingers of the Milky Way.
March 12th 2018 by me, Patrick Gillespie
- I wrote this over the week-end, and not altogether for Halloween. I’m not sure whether to call this done or a rough draft. I’ve taken some liberties with the meter and experimented with internal rhyme.
My skeleton and I go out for walks,
Although he mostly likes it in the closet.
I’ll hear him tap, tap, tapping
His skull for some conundrum; there are many.
It’s no small thing for any skeleton
To think. His skull’s a ruined house, its clasps
And door-locks long since gone.
························He teeters, grasps —
Ideas are fretful winds. They blow into
And through his vacant stare, emptily tumble;
Then out the way they came. He stands perplexed,
A sharp forefinger’s bone upraised, his jaw
Aslant — he’d almost had it.
························So it goes
It’s times like these that we go out. I keep
Our walks discreet though every now and then
We’ll meet a passerby (my skeleton
And theirs will pay no mind). We pass a cape,
A woodpile covered by a sheet of tin,
And laundry—skirts and sheets. They billow ghostlike
Above the ruined dooryard.
With fingers laced behind his spine; looks
A little this way and a little that.
The dust recoils between his toes and smolders
At his heels. There’s nowhere he’ll stop
Unless it’s where there used to be a house,
Midfield, where now there’s just foundation stone.
He’ll gaze with longing and he’ll heave
And here and there a leaf snagged in his ribs
(And bones withal) will tumble down. They’ll scrape
And skitter through and in between until
He stands in them.
··················He lingers. He’d share
A secret he kept in life; that now,
In death, keeps him. I never asked and yet
One day he pointed where the house had been
With such a trembling grief
He might have been as likely reaching to touch
Another’s unseen fingertip.
Took from the cellarhole a crackling smoke
Of leaves.·The sheets of the house nearby
Were chased into the field’s conflagration
Of nettle, thorn and thistle. Too late
They fled but couldn’t flee. The sudden gust
Confounded them — the mother and her child!
I saw them both. How like a mother’s hand,
And like the daughter’s where the small sheet clung
If only by a clothespin to the larger;
As if they’d change what was already done,
As if this time they’d reach his outstretched sorrow;
Undo, a hundred years gone by, the crows
That rise like startled ashes from the ruins—
Their screams dispersed into the neighboring hemlock
······His lowering finger curls beneath
Their rake of knuckles. The sheets lay motionless
Under a settling soot of leaves and wildflowers charred
······He never afterward did more
Than linger. I’ll not swear that what I saw
Was true, but then I can’t be sure that I
Won’t too, for guilt, regret, or for some sorrow
Dwell in your home.
······You’ll know me, if I’m there—
My bones, a few remains, shelved in a poem;
Willing, if just for company, to share
Your walk and should you need me to — your pain.
November 3 2014 • by me, Patrick Gillespie
- 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.
- This poem is based on the Goethe’s famous poem – Erlkönig.
- Schubert wrote an equally famous song for piano and voice based on the poem. Here is an orchestrated version (not orchestrated by Schubert). For those who don’t speak German (I do, by the way) this comes with English subtitles.
- Here is an AMAZING animated excerpt. The complete video, for a price, can be found at http://www.theerlking.com/.
- And here it is sung by Jessye Norman.
- I just recently posted an astonishing new video based on Goethe’s poem, you can watch it here.
[Not a great reading of my poem – but here it is. There are a couple of mistakes and I may try it again when it’s not midnight.]
- Revised & improved April 12, 2009.
The Creation of Eve
Milton’s blank verse is exceedingly conservative and easy to scan. It’s a testament to Milton’s skill as a poet that his beautiful language and careful phrasing triumphs over his monotonous meter – in many cases subtly disrupting it without violating it. It’s a miracle, really. (For an example of a poet who didn’t pull it off, read Spencer’s Fairy Queen.) It was as if the experimentation of the Elizabethans, let alone the Jacobeans, had never occurred. Milton came of age in an exceedingly conservative era- poetically. Meter, in those days, was as dominant then as free verse now, and as unadventurous. Just the fact that Milton wrote blank verse (when everyone else was writing heroic couplets) was an act of defiance.
Most of the trouble surrounding Milton and scansion (for modern readers) comes down to differences in pronunciation – some of it has to do with historical changes; and some, if you’re American, has to do with differences in British and American pronunciation (especially problematic when reading Chaucer).
I cooked up a table that, with its “scientific” terminology, gives you an idea of Milton’s metrical habits and preferences. I haven’t gone line by line to exhaustively prove the accuracy of my table, but I can assert, for example, that Milton (despite claims to the contrary) never wrote a trochee in the final foot. Here’s an extract, to that effect, from my review of M.L. Harvey’s Book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning: A Study in Generative Metrics (Studies in Comparative Literature):
A more egregious example of misreading, due to changes in habits of pronunciation and even to present day differences between the continents, comes when Mr. Harvey examines Milton. Words like “contest” and “blasphemous” and “surface” (all taken from Paradise Lost) were still accented on the second syllable. “Which of us beholds the bright surface.” (P.L. 6.472 MacMillan. Roy Flannagan Editor.) Mr. Harvey, offering an example of a “very rare `inverted foot’” (the credit for its recognition he gives to Robert Bridges) gives the following line: “Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim Prostrate (P.L. 6.841) In fact, Robert Bridges and Mr. Harvey are both mistaken in reading the fifth foot as inverted and one need not be a seventeenth century scholar to recognize it. Webster’s International Dictionary: Second Edition, in fact, provides the following pronunciation key. (pros [stressed] trat [unstressed]; formerly, and still by some. Esp. Brit., pros [unstressed] trat [stressed]). Any laboratory of Americans, nearly without fail, would also misread this line, and so the danger of overwhelming empirical evidence!
On to my table… Each division represents an equivalent foot in an Iambic Pentameter line.
Here is one of my favorite passages, already alluded to in a previous post – Iambic Pentameter Variants – I. To simplify matters, I haven’t marked any of the Iambic feet , I’ve only marked variant feet or feet that, for one reason another, might be read incorrectly.
Elision, a standard practice in Milton’s day and more or less assumed whether marked or not, eliminates the vast majority of Milton’s “variant” feet.
Glorious, if treated as a three syllable word, would make the second foot Anapestic, not criminal, but if you can elide, you should.
This elision might make some metrists squirm. Given just how conservative metrical practice tended to be in Milton’s day, I would be inclined to elide these two vowels. Given how Milton can barely bring himself to so much as use a feminine ending in the final foot, I seriously doubt he expected readers to treat this foot as an anapest. My advice is to elide it.
The final example of elision, above, is the word Spirits. Interestingly, Milton seems to treat this word opportunistically. In line 466, for example, he treats spirits as a two syllable word. In other lines, throughout Paradise Lost and in the latter line, he treats the word as a monosyllabic word. This sort of inconsistency in pronunciation is found as far back as Chaucer, as with his pronunciation of the word sweete – sometimes one syllable, sometimes two. Such inconsistency is permitted once one has obtained a poetic license.
Reading with the Meter
Modern readers may sometimes be tempted to read as though they were reading prose. Sometimes, though, poets play the line against the meter, wanting us to emphasize certain words we might not otherwise. That’s the beauty of meter in poetry. Milton, as with all the great poets, was skilled at this sort of counterpoint:
In the line above, the modern reader might be tempted to stress the line as follows:
Mean, or in her summ’d up, in in her containd
This would be putting the emphasis on the words in. In free verse, ok, but not Iambic Pentameter and especially not with a metrically conservative poet like Milton. Milton wants us to put the emphasis on her. Maybe the line above doesn’t seem such a stretch? Try this one:
Any modern reader would put the emphasis on Bone and Flesh:
Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self
But they would be missing the point of Milton’s line – the closing my Self! That is, it’s not the Bone or Flesh that amazes Adam, it’s that the Bone and Flesh are of his Bone and of his Flesh. His Self! This contrapuntal exploitation of the meter is a master stroke and to miss it is to miss Milton’s genius. If it’s read in this light, stressing the prepositional of might not feel so strained or artificial.
Pentameter at all costs!
Milton’s obeisance to the demands of Iambic Pentameter aren’t always entirely successful.
This, to me, is a reach, but it’s probably what Milton intended and even how he pronounced it. Practice it with studied e-nunc-i-a-tion and the line may make a little more sense. An alternative is to read the line as Iambic Tetrameter.
Given Milton’s metrical squeamishness, I seriously doubt that, in the entirety of Paradise Lost, he decided, for just one moment, to write one Tetrameter line. There are other alternative Tetrameter readings, but they get uglier and uglier.
That said, ambiguities like these, along with the examples that follow, are what disrupt the seeming monotony of Milton’s meter. His use of them defines Milton’s skill as a poet. Roy Flannagan’s introduction to Paradise Lost (page 37) is worth quoting in this regard:
Milton writes lines of poetry that appear to be iambic pentameter if you count them regularly but really contain hidden reversed feet or elongated or truncated sounds that echo meaning and substance rather than a regular and hence monotonous beat. He builds his poetry on syllable count and on stress; William B. Hunter, following the analysis of Milton’s prosody by the poet Robert Bridges in 1921, counts lines that vary in the number of stresses from three all the way up to eight, but with the syllabic count remaining fixed almost always at ten (“The Sources” 198). Milton heavily favors ending his line on a masculine , accented syllable, with frequent enjambment or continuous rhythm from one line to the next… He avoids feminine feet or feet with final unstressed syllables at the ends of lines. He varies the caesura, or the definitive pause within the line, placing it more freely than any other dramatist or non-dramatic writer Hunter could locate (199). He controls elisions or the elided syllables in words most carefully, allowing the reader to choose between pronouncing a word like spirit as a monosyllable (and perhaps pronounced “sprite”) or disyllable, or Israel as a disyllable or trisyllable.
Extra Syllables: Milton’s Amphibrachs (Feminine Endings & Epic Caesuras)
The amphibrach is a metrical foot if three syllables – unstressed-stressed-unstressed. In poets prior to the 20th Century it is always associated with feminine endings or epic caesuras. In the passages above, Milton offers us two examples, one in the second foot (by far the norm) and one in the first foot.
This would be an epic caesura. The comma indicates a sort of midline break (a break in the syntactic sense or phrase). Amphibrach’s, at least in Milton, are always associated with this sort of syntactic pause or break. Epic Caesuras and Feminine Endings are easily the primary reason for extra syllables in Milton’s line. Anapests make up the rest, but they are far less frequent and can be frequently elided.
This would be a much rarer Epic Caesura in the first foot. Notice, once again, that the amphibrachic foot occurs with a syntactic break, the comma.
Differences in Pronunciation
If you just can’t make sense of the metrical flow, it might be because you aren’t pronouncing the words the same way Milton and his peers did.
Most modern readers would probably pronounce discourse and dis’course. However, in Milton’s day and among some modern British, it was and is pronounced discourse’.
This one is trickier. In modern English, we pronounce attribute as att’ribute when used as a noun and attri’bute when used as a verb. Milton, in a rather Elizabethan twist, is using attributing in its nominal sense, rather than verbal sense. He therefore keeps the nominal pronunciation: att’tributing.
The arch-Angel says to Adam, as concerns Eve:
Dismiss not her…by attributing overmuch to things Less excellent…
It’s phenomenally good marital advice. In other words. Don’t dismiss her by just tallying up her negative attributes, to the exclusion of her positive attributes. There is more to any friendship, relationship, or marriage than the negative. Think on the positive.
Some of Milton’s metrical feet are simply ambiguous – effectively breaking the monotony of the meter. In the example below, one could read the first foot as trochaic or as Iambic:
I chose a trochaic foot – the first option. If this foot had been in the fifth foot (or the last foot of the line) I would have read it as Iambic. Milton doesn’t write trochaic feet in the fifth foot. In the first foot, however, trochaic feet aren’t uncommon and in this instant it seems to make sense. I don’t sense that there’s any crucial meaning lost by de-emphasizing by. Perhaps the best answer, in cases of metrical ambiguity, is to consider at what point in the line the ambiguity is occuring.
Similarly, I read the following line as having a spondee in the fourth foot:
One could also read it as trochaic or iambic. Iambic, given the metrical practice of the day, is far more likely than a trochaic foot – especially, given Milton’s practice, this close to the final foot. I scanned the foot as spondaic. Spondaic feet, in Milton’s day, were considered the least disruptive variant foot and so were acceptable at just about any point of the line.
My Favorite Passages
The passages excerpted above just about cover every metrical exigency you will run into in reading Milton. The other reason I chose them is because they’re, well, juicy. I love them. I especially like the following lines for their sense of humor (and, yes, Milton does have a sense of humor).
What boyfriend or husband hasn’t had this experience? No matter how rational we think we are, all our intellectual bravado crumbles to folly – men are from Mars, women are from Venus.
Did Adam & Eve have sex? Why, yes, says Milton, but it wasn’t pornographic. That came after the fall:
Lastly, and most importantly, is there sex in heaven (or do we have to go to hell for that)? Milton gives us the answer:
If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, comment! Let me know. And if you have further questions or corrections, I appreciate those too.
- September 25, 2011. Further thoughts on interpreting Mending Wall.
- June 26, 2009 – Major revision. Expansion of post with interpretive passage.
- May 24 2009 – New Post Interpreting Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods”
- April 25th, 2009 – Added audio of Robert Frost reciting Mending Wall.
- April 26 2009: Robert Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something.”
About the Poem
Having noticed several searches on Frost’s Mending Wall (probably one of the most famous poems he wrote) I thought I would take a look at the poem. I’ve looked at several of my books on Frost and none of them extensively analyze the poem. The archetypal meaning of the wall is straightfoward and expounded on by the speaker of the poem. Perhaps the most insightful comment was Richard Poirier’s in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Poirier makes the observation Frost’s “genius as a narrative poet is in part his capacity to sustain debates between people about the nature of the ‘homes’ which they very often occupy together.” Mending Wall is an ideal manifestation of that genius, just as Home Burial is.
As an aside, it is also worth noting how few poets take an interest in writing narratively or even in voices other than their own. In the most recent issue of Measure, a biannual journal that publishes “formal” poetry, I could only find one poem indisputably written in a voice other than the poet’s – “Moliere’s Housekeeper”. The overwhelming majority were first person with the remaining few being second and third person. Not a single poem was written in the manner of a debate between two separate voices. Robert Frost is truly unique in this respect.
Having just analyzed Frost’s Birches, I was struck by the difference, in metrical style, between Birches and Mending Wall. My first thought was that Birches must have been written later (if not much later) than Mending Wall. Where Mending Wall is extremely conservative in its use of variant feet, Birches shows a much greater freedom and flexibility. As is the habit with most poets , when young they will try to master the game strictly by the rules – both to learn the rules and to prove to themselves and to others that they have the right stuff. Frost himself bragged that his first book, “A Boy’s Will”, proved that he could write by the numbers. That done, he quickly learned how to bend the rules.
I still think that Birches must have come later but William Pritchard, Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, recounts that when Frost wrote to Bartlett (a publisher) in August of 1913 “about a book to be called, tentatively, New England Eclogues, made up of ‘stories’ form between one to two hundred lines, he sent along a list of eleven poems, one of which bore the title “Swinging Birches.” Pritchard, echoing another biographer (John Kemp) speculates that Frost didn’t include Birches in the first book because the tone, more philosophical “and sage”, would have set it (too much) apart from the other poems “rooted in the realism of experience”. Page 103.
So… I’ m left clinging to my theory on the basis of meter alone. Which isn’t a wholly reliable way to date poetry. But there you have it. One last interesting note. Lea Newman, who I mentioned in a previous post, writes in her book Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry, of a children’s story Frost wrote for Carol and Lesley. In reference to elves and a spell, she quotes the following passage from the story:
Their backs were to the wall so that when a stone fell off it they were taken by surprise. They hardly turned in time to see two little heads pop out of sight on the pasture side. Carol saw them better than Lesley. “Faries!” he cried. Lesley said, “I can’t believe it.” “Fairies sure,” said Carol.
What Newman doesn’t observe is that even here, two voices (Frost’s children) are in debate. One sees fairies, the other doesn’t. Not only were the seeds of magic and elves present in this children’s story, but also the presence of two distinct voices in debate. It’s easy to imagine how, rightly or wrongly, these first thoughts gradually evolved into the famous poem. Newman mentions, additionally, that Frost himself never firmly identified himself with one speaker or the other. There was a little of both speakers in himself – and the poem could in some ways be taken as an internal debate.
Here is what Frost himself said, 1955, at Bread Loaf:
It’s about a spring occupation in my day. When I was farming seriously we had to set the wall up every year. You don’t do that any more. You run a strand of barbed wire along it and let it go at that. We used to set the wall up. If you see a wall well set up you know it’s owned by a lawyer in New York — not a real farmer. This is just about that spring occupation, but of course all sorts of things have been done with it and I’ve done something with it myself in self defense. I’ve gone it one better — more than once in different ways for the Ned of it — just for the foolishness of it. [The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost p. 231]
To show just how divergent the metrical usages are between the two poems, I’ve color coded the scansion of Mending Wall and Birches. Trochaic feet are in red, Spondees are purple, Anapests are blue, and Feminine Endings are green, Phyrric feet are yellowish.
Frost reciting Mending Wall:
The meter does little in terms of acting as counterpoint to the line. (The scansion, by the way, is based on Frost’s own reading of the poem.) One might conjecture that the regularity of the meter, if it wasn’t simply for the sake of writing Iambic Pentameter, was meant to echo the stepwise, regular, stone by stone mending of the wall. After all, there is no flinging of feet from the topmost spindle of a birch. There is no avalanching or crazed ice. There are no girls on hands and knees throwing their hair before them over their heads to dry them. The work of mending wall is slow, methodical, hand roughening work. This, of itself, may explain the careful regularity of the meter.
There are some nice touches worth mentioning, touches that might escape a reader unaccustomed to reading blank verse (Iambic Pentameter). First:
The temptation, including my own, is to read the first foot as Trochaic |But at|, but Frost clearly reads it Iambically. He reads the first foot quickly. It’s a craft that many “professional” metrists don’t take seriously enough – perhaps because they’re not poets themselves. The meter of poets who write metrically shouldn’t be taken for granted. All too often, it seems, metrists insist that the English language, as it is spoken on the street, trumps any given metrical pattern. Don’t believe them. A poet who writes metrically does so for a reason.
The sweetest metrical touch comes in the following line:
Most of us would read the third foot as |I could|, putting the emphasis on I, but Frost reads the foot Iambically and the pattern reinforces the reading. Putting the emphasis on could gives the line a much different feel, then if one emphasized I. To me, Frost’s reading sounds more mischeivious. Frost specialized in this sort of metrical subtletly, emphasizing words that might not normally recieve the ictus. It’s also a specially nice touch because just several lines before Frost used the word could as an unstressed syllable.
One could conceivably stress could in the line above, but that would be subverting the Iambic pattern.
Lastly, another effect of the regular iambic pattern is to especially contrast the first trochaic foot in the poem’s seminal line:
Some-thing | there is | that does | n’t love | a wall
It’s an effect that subliminally draws attention to the eye, catching the ear. It’s a line that disrupts the normal “foot on foot”, “stone on stone” pattern of the poem. And it is doubly effective because the line occurs twice. If the effect wasn’t noticed the first time, it will be the second time.
The author Mark Richardson, in one of my favorite books on Frost, The Ordeal of Robert Frost, finds that the two trochees in this first line and in the four lines “contribute subtly to the theme of these lines”.
Something| there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes |gaps ev|en two can pass abreast.
“How much better”, he asks, “to describe a disordered wall than in lines themselves disordered.” To me, given that only 2 out of the 20 feet are variant metrical feet (and the spondee is really only marginal) I’m not persuaded that they’re all that disordered. I’m more apt to apply that observation to the following lines:
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones |under |his pines, |I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make |good neighbors’.
Spring is |the mischief in me, and |I wonder
In these lines, 5 out of the feet are variant. Two trochaic feet and three feminine endings. I think these lines make a stronger case for the juncture of meter and meaning. There is a sort of excitement and mischievousness in the tone of the speaker reflected, one could argue, in the disruption of the meter. As Frost reads it, these are the most irregular lines in the poems – the moment when the two men exchange words.
Interpreting Mending Wall: (June 19 2009)
I’m adding this section because I should have written it from the beginning. But what prompted me to write it is the fascinating reading from an acquaintance of mine. He is the Director of a New England private school and in his most recent newsletter, he wrote the following about the poem:
The more I read and teach this poem. the more I find the speaker to be a condescending jerk. After inviting the neighbor to repair the wall, a tradition that clearly brings the speaker pleasure, he then makes fun of him for caring about the wall. First he assures his neighbor that his apples trees will not cross the wall to eat his pine cones. Then he imagines making an even more preposterous suggestion — that it is “elves” and not frost heaves that have toppled the wall — but decides not to mention it since his neighbor is not clever enough to come up with such an idea on his own… He ends the poem with an insult, confiding to us that the neighbor is “an old stone savage armed”.
The point being made is that the speaker’s humor comes at the expense of his neighbor. “Wall mending becomes an opportunity not to talk with his neighbor, but to sneer at him.” This is prejudice, he adds.
My own take is that there is certainly some humor at the neighbor’s expense, but the speaker of the poem gives the neighbor the final word. In other words, the poem doesn’t end with these words:
He moves in darkness as it seems to me
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
It ends with the aphorism – Good fences make good neighbors. This is what the reader of the poem walks away with. There is a weight and seriousness in this last line, like the stones being placed back onto the wall, that undercuts the speaker’s glib humor.
Tyler Hoffman, in his book, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry (another one of my very favorite books on Robert Frost and dirt cheap at Amazon), actually acknowledges some of my acquaintances reservations concerning Mending Wall’s speaker. Hoffman’s observes that Frost’s own conception of the poem initially confirms the impression of the speaker’s dismissiveness. Hoffman writes:
In 1915, when the tone [of the neighbor’s aphorism] is fresher in his mind, Frost advses that this instance should be heard as expressing ‘Incredulity of the other’s dictum’ (CPPP 689). But how much sarcasm is entangled in the in the speaker’s quotation of his neighbor’s statement? The tone is held in suspension, allowing us to imagine it is said with either a shrug or a sneer.
(…) none of the imaginable tones is flattering to the neighbor: when we hear it one way, we condemn him as smug and self-congratulatory; when we hear it another way, we write him off as a blockhead (“an old-stone savage armed”).
According to Hoffman, Frost’s acquaintance, Reginald Cook reported that Frost used to stress “I’d rather he said it for himself” in the lines:
I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.
There were evidently tonalities and “sentence sounds” that Frost lost track of as a result of repeated readings. Hoffman relates that Frost himself said (in reference to the poem’s central aphorism): “You know, I’ve read that so often I’ve sort of lost the right way to say, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ See. There’s a special way to say [it] I used to have in my imagination, and it seems to have gone down. You say it in two different ways there.”
What’s interesting about Frost’s statement is that it confirms what many readers probably sense (or may not), that there is a shift in tone from the start of the poem to the finish. The speaker’s own attitude toward his neighbor changes. Does the poem end sarcastically or does it only begin sarcastically and end with a different sort of respect. It seems that the speaker of the Mending Wall wants his neighbor to be more playful or more open to a kind of intentionality in the world’s workings. Human beings do more than build barriers. We cannot separate ourselves from the vagaries of life that, sometimes, seem almost mischievous, tearing down our most ingeniously devised walls. The speaker wants his neighbor to say it for himself. But if one reads the poem in this sense, then it seems as though the neighbor really does move in a kind of darkness. He comes to represent that part in us that refuses to give ourselves up to a world we cannot, ultimately, control. It’s not exactly elves, but maybe something like elves. Call it impishness, perhaps.
But there’s another aspect to this poem, and that’s in knowing which character is really Robert Frost, if either. In the Road Not Taken, Frost describes the following experience:
I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home.
This sort of experience characterizes much of Frost’s poetry – Frost in conversation with himself, divided in his own beliefs and assertions. Many of his poems are like argumentative engagements with himself. Frost himself said as much:
“I make it a rule not to take any ‘character’s side in anything I write” [RF & The Politics of Poetry p. 108]
It’s a theme that Mark Richardson recognizes in his book The Ordeal of Robert Frost. Mending Wall, he writes: “perfectly exhibits the balance he sought between dispositions of conformity and formity. The speaker… allies himself with the insubordinate energies of spring…” Then Richardson adds:
…the association of the speaker with insubordinate natural forces should not be permitted to obscure an important fact, which has been often enough noticed: he, not the neighbor, initiates the yearly spring repair of the wall; moreover, it is again he, not the neighbor, who goes behind hunters who destroy the wall in other seasons and makes repairs. So, if the speaker is allied with the vernal mischief of spring and its insubordinations, he is nevertheless set against them in his efforts to make the stones of the wall balance and remain in place… [p. 141]
Driving the point home, Richardson closes his argument with the following:
The speaker of “Mending Wall” is obviously of two minds: at once wall-builder and wall-destroyer, at once abettor and antagonist of seasonal entropies…. The difference is that, unlike his benighted neighbor, the speaker of the poem does indeed go behind his own favored aphorism [Something there is that doesn’t love a wall] to play both sides of the fence. In short, the two opposed men in the poem fairly shape up into one, and his name is Robert Frost.
Here from The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, is Frost himself. Frost was responding to the president of Rollins College.
He took both my hands to tell me I had written a true international poem. And just to tease him I said: “How do you get that?” You know. I said I thought I’d been fair to both sides — both national [and international]. “Oh, no,” he said, “I could see what side you were on.” And I said: “The more I say I the more I always mean somebody else.” That’s objectivity, I told him. That’s the way we talked about it, kidding. That’s where the great fooling comes in. But my latest way out of it is to say: “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries. That’s man. [pp. 231-232]
George Monteiro, the essayists from whose article these quotes are taken, adds that Frost took Mending Wall “very much… as a fable.”
The Poet and his Poetry (September 25 2011)
Just as we change, the best poems change with us. When I return to Mending Wall, I read the poem in ways I didn’t before. I won’t claim that what follows represents Frost’s intentions, just that it’s another possible way to understand it.
One of Frost’s most engaging traits, to me, was his way of putting the overly inquisitive off his trail. His metaphorical gifts were such that he could talk about himself and no listener would be the wiser. In many of his poems he slyly (and not so slyly) discusses himself, his poetry, his readers, his critics and the pushy. He merrily described this facility in his poem Woodchuck.
My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.
With those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.
All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.
We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.
And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),
If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,
It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.
It’s hard not to read Woodchuck as Frost’s sly confession regarding his attitude toward his poetry and the interpreting of it. All of his poems are like a two door borrow. He can pretend he and the world — his readers and critics — are friends, but get too close he’ll “dive down under the farm”. Don’t forget that Frost was at odds with a ‘world’ in which Free Verse was fast becoming the dominant verse form. Frost warily dodges the double-barreled blast of critics who suffer from “the loss of common sense”. Finally, we can read “crevice and burrow” as a sly reference to his poetry. He’s been instinctively thorough in his concealment and self-preservation.
Woodchuck isn’t the only poem to fit into this Frostian trick. If there was ever are more searing critique of modern verse than Etherealizing (and by extension Free Verse) then I don’t know it.
By Robert Frost
A theory if you hold it hard enough
And long enough gets rated as a creed:
Such as that flesh is something we can slough
So that the mind can be entirely freed.
Then when the arms and legs have atrophied,
And brain is all that’s left of mortal stuff,
We can lie on the beach with the seaweed
And take our daily tide baths smooth and rough.
There once we lay as blobs of jellyfish
At evolution’s opposite extreme.
But now as blobs of brain we’ll lie and dream,
With only one vestigial creature wish:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.
If you read theory as a sly reference to Pound’s preface to the anthology, “Some Imagist Poets” (as I do) then the entirety of the poem effortlessly falls in place. If modern poets hold a theory hard enough, such as the Pound’s dictums concerning poetry, then they’ll be rated a creed, in the sense of a written body of teachings of a religious group generally accepted by that group — in a word: Dogma.
Continuing this interpretation, flesh, for Frost, is synonymous with meter and rhyme — the techniques of traditional poetry. Naturally our arms and legs will atrophy (our ability to write traditionally) and all that will be left of our poetry is “brain”. Frost’s prediction, in this respect, has proven true. Modern free verse poetry is seldom appraised for it’s skill in rhyme, meter or imagery, but largely its subject matter — in a word, brain. Two hundred years ago, a poorly written poem was readily dismissed no matter how elevated its content. Today, when the only thing that separates Free Verse from prose is ego, the poems of award winning poets are almost solely praised for their elevated and socially relevant content.
Frost compares such stuff to seaweed. With nothing left to the poetry but content (or brain) the daily tide (the vicissitudes of readers and critics) will hardly affect it whether the baths are smooth or rough. Frost is comparing free verse, and the subject matter of free free verse poets, to the amorphous jelly fish that moves whichever way the tide moves it. The jellyfish takes no stand, and can’t.
With one final kick in the rear, Frost compares the free verse poem to the blobs of brain who “lie and dream” with only “one vestigial creature wish”:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.
What other poems follow this pattern? Read A Considerable Speck, where the pursuit of a mite is a droll reference to the creative process. It ends:
I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.
Similarly, the poem For Once Then Something is Frost’s response to criticism (still made today) that his poetry is all shine and no depth. Click on the link of you want to read my interpretation. Frost’s poem Birches can also be read as an introspective consideration of the poet’s place in the modern world. In short, there is good precedent for reading Frost’s poems as sly and subtle revelations, commentary almost, on his sense of self as poet, artist and critic. The poem Mending Wall can be read in that tradition.
To start with, remember Frost’s statement that “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries.” Read the poem as Frost in two guises, as wall builder and wall toppler. Read the wall, perhaps, as a poem, not Mending Wall necessarily, but any poem.
Two sides of Frost, the poet, appear. There is the playful Frost, the one that wants to tease and reveal, and there is the coy Frost, the Woodchuck, who is instinctively thorough about his crevice and burrow. This is the Frost who wants to keep something out. He doesn’t know what, but something. Some kinds of poems, like walls, keep things out and keeps things in reserve and that is all the explanation needed. Nevertheless, there are readers who won’t be satisfied. They want Frost to tell them what his poems are really about. They want to take down the wall. They make “gaps even two can pass abreast”.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.
The hunter and critic, says the cagey Frost, leaves not one stone on a stone, but would have the rabbit, the poem’s meaning, out of hiding to please the yelping dogs — the too inquisitive public. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says the cagey Frost, but some things are better untold or hidden. He says, good fences make good neighbors and we could just as easily take that to mean that a good poem, if the poet doesn’t give too much away, makes good readers.
But Frost is of two minds and the poem stands between them. The best poem, like the best wall, is made by both Frosts (though the alliance isn’t easy). One Frost, in a sense, is all apple orchard (the brighter wood with its associations of food, family and public) and the other Frost is pine (a darker, pitchier wood that is reticent and unrevealing).
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
The Frost that teases and revels in suggestion and misdirection will have his say — the Frost of the Apple Orchard.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.
The public Frost, the mischievous trickster, suggests Elves. He wants to know what the other Frost is walling in or out. What is he afraid of? What is he hiding? What is he afraid to let out? But no answer comes. The cagey, darker Frost will keep his secrets. Revelation isn’t in his nature. As if commenting on the meaning of the poem itself, he answers simply but also evasively, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Read the poem this way and and we read a philosophy of poetry.
Read it like this and Frost is revealing something about himself. There are two sides and it’s in their uneasy truce that his poetry finds greatness. I don’t know if Frost was thinking along these lines when he wrote the poem, but he was a shrewd poet. This way of writing is something that shows up in his other poems.
A Comparison to Birches
In terms of the degree to which the meter differs between Mending Wall and Birches, I thought I’d post my scansion of Birches for comparison:
Something I mentioned in my previous post on Birches, is how the variant feet emphasize and reinforce the narrative of the poem. Having color coded the variant feet, Frost’s skillful use of meter is all the more visible. The most concentrated metrical variation occurs where the narrative describes motion – movement and spectacle. This is no mistake. Poets learning to write metrically (and there must be a few of them in the world) would do well to study Frost carefully.
If you enjoyed this post or have further questions, please let me know.
It makes writing them worthwhile.