Sophie Jewett: I Speak your Name

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A Quick Look

19th Century American Women PoetsI’ve been leafing through an anthology of Nineteenth Century American Women Poets. While none of them equal  Emily Dickinson, there are some truly beautiful gems and lovely passages. Perhaps one of my favorite poets is Sophie Jewett. There is something wistful, haunting, otherworldly and almost faery-like about her poetry – like a Midsummer Night’s Dream. She possessed a lightness of touch and, at her best, a haunting ear for the music of language.

The brief introduction offered by the anthology tells a sad childhood.

Her mother, Ellen Ransom Burroughs, died of acute neuralgia of the heart when Sophie was seven. Together with her three silbings, Sophie was awakened from sleep to witness her mother’s death agony, an event whose impress remained with her all her life. Charles Jewett died two years later when Sophie was nine. After his death, the children moved to Buffalo, where they resided with their uncle and grandmother, both of whom died while Jewett was still in her teens.

The Poems of Sophie JewettJewett’s father was apparently aware that his own life was slipping away. In the introduction to the The Poems of Sophie Jewett (cover at right), [Incidentally, this book has long since gone into the public domain. You can download Google’s digital copy, a PDF document, by clicking here.] the unidentified author of the introduction (written in 1910) writes:

Dr. Jewett, feeling life slipping from him while his children were very young, too every care to impress upon them not only high ideals of conduct for their future guidance, but also the value and the beauty of intellectual pursuits, holding up as a model to his little daughters, after she was gone, their lovely and gifted young mother.

This, at least, tells us that her mother and father must have been caring and protective. One last observation, as far as biographical material goes, The Paula Bennet, the editor of the anthology, also makes a point which will be instrumental in understanding I Speak Your Name. She writes that Jewett is a “transitional poet, opening the way for the more self-conscious work that would be the burden and pleasure of modernist lesbian women to produce.”

The Poem

I Speak Your Name (w Portrait)

What it Means

Or I should write, what it might mean. The images and ideas in this poem are, to me, suggestively elusive. Sometimes I look for other interpretations, just so I don’t embarrass myself. Portrait of Sophie JewettOther times I throw caution to the wind. This time, I thought I’d thread the needle. I looked for interpretations, but was determined not read any until I had written my own. I couldn’t find any. So. I’m winging it. If any readers want to offer other interpretations, changes or improvements, please do so.

I speak your name in alien ways,

This first line is why I fell in love with the poem and it’s also the most elusive of any of the lines. It may or may not be autobiographical. But here are some clues. In the introduction to the 1910 edition of her poems, we find the following:

Much inspiration and counsel came to her from her minister, Dr. Walcott Calkins, whose home in Buffalo, and later in Newton, MA, she called her “second home.” She was the constant comrade of his daughter from the time they met as little girls, and their companioning became a lifelong friendship. In the minister’s study, the two children discussed grave mysteries or bent together over books in strange tongues… [Introduction viii-ix]

Then later:

The friends of her girlhood she steadfastly cherished when time brought the separations constraining them “to go diverging ways.” She was little more than twenty when first she journeyed to England and Italy, an experience which gave new incentive to study and filled her beauty-loving soul with new visions. [Introduction ix]

Although I don’t know, I wonder if Jewett isn’t addressing her childhood friend? The introductory material doesn’t give us a name, but Jewett does – Margaret. Is Margaret her childhood friend? One wonders if Jewett wrote this poem overseas? The poem has an epistolatory feel to it if only because she addresses the poem to you who, in the final lines, becomes Maragert.   At it’s most straightforward, Sophie is saying that she is speaking her friend’s name in an alien tongue – perhaps in Italy. I am talking about you, she seems to say, I can’t stop thinking of you.

[To read some of Jewett’s Sonnets.]

But there’s an elusiveness to the line that I can’t shake and there’s a reason (which I’ll get to later in the poem). Alien had another meaning – in the sense of belonging to someone else. This is an older meaning, one that you will find in the Shakespeare Lexicon, but Jewett was an English scholar (a professor of Anglo Saxon), a student of poetry and (one assumes) Shakespeare, and would surely have been familiar with the subtler, if not older, meaning of words.

[Read some praise by a reader of Jewett, check out Imaginative Women: Lesbian Fiction and Real Lez Life]

Imagine that Jewett has fallen in love with (or has always loved) Margaret, but that Margaret doesn’t reciprocate her love, or rather, another woman’s love.  Margaret has given her name (her last name) to a man. Margaret’s name belongs to another. And so Sophie must speak her lover’s name in an alien way. There is a double in this poem.

Sophie Jewett (by Kimberly Coles)…while yet
November smiles from under lashes wet.

The choice of month and season isn’t haphazard, or least I don’t think so. November, in the northern hemisphere (I say that for my reader from Australia), is the onset of winter, of loss, barrenness, darkness and cold. There is always a lonely feel to November, a turning inward – at least to me. But there is not complete loss. November smile. What does Jewett mean by this?

[The eery and beautiful snippet at right is by Kimberly Coles. To see the entire illustration and to read an extract from Jewett’s “The Pearl”, visit her site by clicking on the image or her name. The latter link, to The Pearl, is to Gutenberg.Org.]

My feeling is that November refers to both the time of year and to herself. The image could signify a dreary day in November, where there are nevertheless a few remaining embers from summer – a few late flowers or leaves perhaps. Not all the memories of summer are gone, not all its warmth and youthfulness. And November could be Jewett herself, her lashes wet with tears but smiling at the memory of her friend.

In the November light I see you stand
Who love the fading woods and withered land,
Where Peace may walk, and Death, but not Regret.

I don’t interpret this as meaning that Jewett literally sees her friend. She imagines her friend, much as we might say, nowadays, I can just see her there. These are the woods her friend loved. There is the suggestion that her lover enjoyed and accepted autumn’s endings – its fading woods and withered land. There is no regret. I read Peace as meaning acceptance. Death refers not just to the season, but perhaps to the possibility of a greater love – a love between two women. But there is no regret and Jewitt doesn’t tell us to whom she is referring. There is no regret (perhaps not hers) and none, perhaps, on the part of her lover. These are the qualities of the woods they both love.

The year is slow to alter or forget;
June’s glow and autumn’s tenderness are met,
Across the months by this swift sunlight spanned.
I speak your name.

[LibriVox offers an audio recording of Jewett’s God’s Troubadour, The Story of St. Francis of Assisi.]

The year is slow… Whatever memories she has shared, of friendship or love, keep their warmth and glow even across the months. In referring to autumn’s tenderness, the feeling isn’t of barrenness or desolation, but of acceptance and sorrow – her wet lashes;  mixed with joy – her smile.  Perhaps, if her friend cannot reciprocate Sophie’s love, their friendship survives and continues – an autumn that tenderly closes a summer’s joy.

Because I loved your golden hair, God set
His sea between our eyes.

The meaning of these lines is truly elusive. Why would God set a sea between the friends, perhaps lovers, because Jewett loved her golden hair? In these lines, just for a moment, the surface of the poem is disturbed. Is this an outcry? If we read these lines literally, was Jewett sent overseas, to Italy perhaps? Was her travel a kind of self-exile? – her sapphic love having been forbidden? If her friend, Margaret, was the friend of her childhood, then perhaps ‘God” is a reference to her friend’s father.

Yet one doesn’t get the sense, in reading biographical material, that there was every any disharmony between Sophie Jewett and the Minister, Dr. Walcott Calkins. The 1910 biography does say, however,  that she frequently received much counsel from him.

[Archive.Org offers an audiobook of Armistice.]

Perhaps she discussed her preference for women?  Or perhaps her feelings were obvious? If the subject was ever broached, I can easily imagine the Minister’s kind but stern admonishment that love between women was counter to God’s intentions. The true meaning of these lines may have to remain beyond our reach, but Jewett’s phrase, because I loved your golden hair, carries with it a tender connotation that is hard to misconstrue.

Nude by Helen GotlibPerhaps the meaning of the line is figurative. This would be in keeping with the first line, if we interpret alien as meaning that her friend’s name now belongs to another. If her friend has been married, then it is understood that only God can marry a man and woman and only God can sunder them. Perhaps this is what Jewett means when she states that God has set his sea, the bond of marriage between a man and woman, between the eyes of Jewett and her lover, Margaret. But this doesn’t answer why God would have done this because she loved Margaret’s golden hair. Was Margaret married, if she was, to avoid a scandal? The line remains elusive.

[The image at right is by Helen Gotlib. Check out more of her beatuiful drawings by clicking on the image.]

Perhaps both meanings are at play. One feels, perhaps, a subversive double-meaning to the whole of the poem.

…I may not fret,
For, sure and strong, to meet my soul’s demand,
Comes your soul’s truth, more near than hand in hand;

And perhaps, in these lines, we come to understand November’s smiles in the second line. If the lovers’ relationship was ended prematurely for the sake of societal propriety, then perhaps Margaret did reciprocate Jewett’s love. But Margaret married. This is what was expected at the end of the 19th Century. Perhaps this is what they both accept. (There is no regret.) Jewett does not condemn her for it. And perhaps Margaret, though her name now belongs to another, and though there is “a sea” between them, still confesses her love for Jewett. There is still that smile beneath November’s wet lashes. Both joy and sorrow. The sorrow that their love cannot be enacted, but the joy that a different kind of love continues more near than hand in hand. It is her, Sophie Jewett, that Margaret still loves, this is her soul’s truth. Jewett will not fret. Though their love cannot be consummated, there is another kind of love that binds them. Jewett speaks her lovers name in alien ways, while yet November smiles from under lashes wet.

And low to God, who listens, Margaret,
I speak your name.

She knows. I’ll let these last line speak for themselves.

If Sophie Jewett is new to you;  if you have enjoyed this post, let me know…

On Imagery & Poetry: Ode to Autumn & the Five Senses

Something Different

I’ve been writing a fair amount of analysis centered on meter. So I thought I’d take some time to focus on imagery, how it has been used during different times, what it tells us about poets, which poets use imagery well, which don’t… Etc.

I’ve been tempted to enter into some of the theoretical conversation surrounding current trends in poetry: poetry in academia; the various schools and their aesthetics; theories of composition, schools of criticism, etc… But, there are many other blogs devoted to these matters and, to be honest, the subject matter bores me. The posts that interest me the most are those that help me write better poems.

At the end of the day, all the chatter about schools, aesthetics and criticism will be relegated to graduate programs, as always. What’s left behind and what matters, to the rest of the world, is the poetry itself. Learn to write well and you will be remembered.

Anyway… somewhat like my first post on Iambic Pentameter, this ought to be a post on the basics of imagery.

What is it?

I’m sure, if you search thoroughly, you can find dazzlingly complex and arcane definitions of what does and doesn’t constitute poetic imagery. princeton-encyclopediaRather than begin this post with an exhaustive retrospective of what this or that critic, poet, dictionary, or encyclopedia considers imagery, I’ll limit myself to just one “official” source, then dandle with imagery on my own. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics starts with Image, then proceeds to Imagery – almost ten pages of double-column, small type explication. The subject deserves it and it’s worth reading. I’ll just offer up the first paragraph:

Image and Imagery are among the most widely used and poorly understood terms in the poetic theory, occuring in so many different contexts that it may well be impossible to provide rational, systematic account of their usage.  A poetic image is, variously, a metaphor, simile, or figure of speech; a concrete verbal reference; a recurrent motif; a psychological event in the reader’s mind; the vehicle or second term of a metaphor; a symbol or symbolic pattern; or the global impression of a poem as a unified structure.

The Encyclopedia then goes on to explain how imagery was used and understood from the Elizabethans through moderns. Good stuff.

My Own Take

I’m not sure how I’ll develop these posts, but the following seems like a good place to start:

  • At its most basic level, an Image is anything that evokes any of the fives senses:

Visual (Sight)
Aural (Sound)
Smell
Taste
Sensation (Touch)

If you are writing poetry, keep this list next to you. Princeton states that “although imagery has come to be regarded as an essentially poetic device, many good poems contain little or no imagery.” [p. 564] Note that Princeton does not say “many great poems”. All poems that have withstood the test of time, that are now universally read and considered to be great poems, are distinguished, in part, by the genius of their imagery. John Keats - StatueThe centrality of imagery to poetry’s power is not unique. Great novelists are also distinguished by their evocative prose .

While I don’t suggest you compulsively stuff your poem with one each of the five senses, keep the list next to you. Think about what senses you are evoking in your poetry. The vast majority of poets, especially those lacking practice and experience, will usually limit themselves to the visual.

Perhaps the greatest poet, in this regard, was Keats. He was keenly aware of the world: its sounds, tastes, texture and smells. His sensitivity and the delicacy of his imagery is part and parcel of his genius. I’ve color coded one of his most famous poems, the Ode to Autumn, to help readers visually appreciate his use of imagery. (I’ve already analyzed the poem for its meaning and meter in a previous post.) Considered among the greatest poems of the English language, it’s rich and evocative imagery is essential to its reputation.

All Five Senses

Notice how Keats touches on all five senses. The poet fully engages us in the experience of autumn. There’s nothing that will add more power to your poetry than inviting the reader into your sensory world. The range of Keats’s imagery adds immediacy. Without it, the poem would have the feel of an intellectual exercise – an essay.

Sensory Clusters

Notice too, by the color coding, that you can see Keats’s mind works. There are image clusters. The first stanza is primarily visual. Sight is our pre-emininent sensory experience, Keats knows it, and so the first stanza creates the poem’s setting. But before the close of the first stanza, he dwells on sensation (touch): the warmth of the day, the clammy cells, the soft-lifted hair. I’ve tentatively included the winnowing wind as a sensation since we can both see and feel the wind .

The second moves us back to the visual experience of autumn. The fume of poppies engages our sense of smell – which scientists claim to be our most associative sense.  But notice what happens in the third stanza. With a kind of deliberateness, Keats’s verse o’erbrims with aural imagery. Keats’s visual terrain is filled with sound: the wailful choirs of mourning gnats, the lambs loud bleating, the singing of the crickets, the treble-soft whistles of the redbreast as the swallows twitter.

The cluster of aural imagery is deliberate. Beginning with the wailful choirs and mourning gnats, they effectively communicate a sense of autumnal loss that would have been more difficult to communicate solely through visual imagery.

Verbal Imagery

Keats’s use of verbal imagery (and his use of anthimeria) is also worth considering. Consider the first stanza:

The use of swell and plump are visual cues, as is  the adverbial budding more. O’erbrimmed is a lovely example of anthimeria “when adjectives are used as adverbs, prepositions as adjectives, adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives” (Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 63) . O’erbrimmed is also an example of verbal metaphor – in that summer is “like” a cup that is overfull (though the words like or as are omitted).

The use of “verbal imagery” adds vitality and dynamism to the mostly nominal and static imagery. It is also among the most difficult of poetic techniques to master. Keats learned the technique from Shakespeare who, more than any poet before or since, could  brilliantly and ingeniously coin new words and put old words to new grammatical uses. When poets do it well, we see the world in new ways.

Visual(Sight)
Aural (Sound)
Smell
Taste
Sensation (
Touch)

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think
warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,

Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the
soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft,
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud
bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

What’s Next

Examining more poems! I still haven’t decided on the next poet or poem , but the best imagery leads on to metaphor. And limiting myself to imagery means I can look at free verse poets too. So, if this has been interesting to you, helpful, or if you have questions or suggestions, please comment.

Quick Ideas on Teaching Poetry – Shakespeare’s Sonnets

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  • I have a strong bent toward teaching poetry. And I notice that some readers have been searching for guidance. So, I don’t know how innovative my ideas are, but any ideas might be useful. So… I thought I’d write up some quick posts when the thought occurs to me.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Sonnets FrontpieceIf your job is to introduce students to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. First, read  my two posts: What is: Shakespearean, Spenserian and Patrarchan Sonnets and Iambic Pentameter and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. There’s much good information in these posts that may inspire further avenues for exploration.

The thing to remember, in teaching the sonnets, is that these are the works of a Dramatist. We tend to think of Shakespeare as a poet (when reading the sonnets) but Shakespeare’s foremost instincts were always that of a Dramatist. (By contrast, I would call Keats a poet first and an aspiring dramatist second.)

Think of each sonnet as a soliloquy or think of them as characters in a play responding to another character. Or, similarly, you could think of each sonnet as a letter written in response to a missing letter.

150px-shakespeareConsider having your students write the missing letters or write the missing speech to which the sonnets are responding. The advantage to teaching the sonnets in this light is that it enforces the perception that Shakespeare was not writing detached Romantic Poetry. This sort of poetic conception didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s day. The Elizabethans were trained rhetoricians who reveled in disputation, debate and wit. Nearly all of Elizabethan poetry is written to someone or in response to someone. They are meant to display wit, inventiveness and rhetorical prowess.

If you feel like challenging your students, have them write one heroic couplet, summing up the argument to which Shakespeare will respond. The exercise will help students think like Shakespeare and the Elizabethans.

Interpreting Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods”

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The Poem

The poem is perfect Iambic Tetrameter. And it’s one of the miracles of Frost’s genius that he could write a poem, without a single variant foot to break the metrical pattern, yet write one of the most memorable and memorized poems in the English language. Frost himself called this small poem “my best bid for remembrance” [Pritchard, A Literary Life Reconsidered, p. 164]. There are, after all, thousands of Victorian poems written in an equally perfect meter, but they are nothing if not forgettable. Since all the feet are iambic, I’ve only marked feet and one elision (which is unnecessary for most), but I’ve noticed many foreign language speakers reading this blog. Evening should be read as a bisylliabic, ev‘ning, rather than the trisyllabic ev-e-ning. Here it is:

Stopping by Woods by Robert Frost: Scansion

  • Frost recites Stopping by Woods:

  • Note: Since I’ve begun paying attention, I notice that many versions of this poem put a period after “deep” on line 13. The edition I use, The Library of America, does not. Frost biographer Richard Poirier in his book “Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing“, also takes time out to comment on this discrepency. He writes:

Work of Knowing…The woods  are not, as the Lathem edition would have it (with its obtuse emendation of a comma after the second adjective in line 13), merely “lovely, dark, and deep.” Rather, as Frost in all the editions he supervised intended, they are “lovely, [i.e.], dark and deep,”; the loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous. The recognition of the power of nature, especially of snow, to obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being is, in large part, a function here of some furtive impulse toward extinction, and impulse no more predominate in Frost than it is in nature. [p. 181]

I’ll bet this emendation is off the radar for 99 out of a 100 readers, but Poirer’s comment shows just how much, interpretively, can be read into the difference between a comma and period. Imagine what it’s like for editors of Shakespeare – whose texts are anything but authoritative. In the big picture, editors tend to agree on Shakespeare’s punctuation, but the turf wars happen in the details. If you carefully compare different modern texts of Shakespeare, you will notice differences in punctuation and even words.

But… back to Robert Frost…

An Interpretive  Tour

Rather than launch into my own interpretation of the poem, I thought it might be more interesting to sample what’s already out there (since it represents some of what I’d say anyway).

First to Poirer. His comments reflect one of the most common interpretations of this poem. Poirer writes:

The desire (which he openly reveals in certain letters to Louis Untermeyer) for peace and lostness, the desire to throw himself away, gets justified on occasions by his wondering if nature itself does not conspire with him by proposing that, at last, he “come in” to the dark woods. [p. 180]

Unfortunately, Poirer doesn’t reference any of these “certain letters”. Not that I disbelieve him, but if a biographer is going to cite an author’s texts to back up his argument, he ought to offer up a citation or two.

William Pritchard takes a different view. While he acknowledges the darker interpretations of this poem, and he acknowledges Frost’s own intimations from time to time, he also credits Frost’s statements to the contrary, something which Poirer does not do.

Literary Life ReconsideredDiscussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything siginificant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]

Pritchard then continues:

…he wanted to direct his readers away from solemnly debating them; instead he invited them simply to be pleased with how he had put it. He was to say later on about Edwin Arlington Robinson something which more naturally could have been said about himself – that his life as poet was “a revel in the felicities of language.” “Stopping By Woods…” can be appreciated only by removing it from its pedestal and noting how it is a miature revel in such felicities. [p. 165]

And these comments remind me of my post on John Keats “Ode to Autumn”, and Stillinger’s own comments concerning style. In sum, great poetry isn’t always about (G)reat content, but about common  experience described (G)reatly. Great poetry, before free verse, had almost always been marked by the greatness of its expression. Shakespeare always drew on  everyday proverbs and subject matter. The life he experienced was the same as ours. His observations are the same as ours. (And this is what makes Shakespeare universal.) What makes him great was, in large part, his ability to elevate the common through the transcendance of his language and imagery, in short, through his poetic thought. This, I have to say, has largely been abandoned by the free-versifiers of the 20th Century.

Anyway, it’s a view with which I’m sympathetic. Not everything in poetry has to mean something.

Belief and UncertaintyThat said, Robert Pack in defiance of Frost and, perhaps, Pritchard, manages to “interpret” the shaken harness bells. He writes that “the “little horse” in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” shows an instinct to return home, not to remain in the dangerously enticing woods…” [Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, p. 147] Interestingly, Pack  finds a metaphorical link between Stopping by Woods and another of Frost’s poems: The Draft Horse. Pack writes of the horse in The Draft Horse, that “if freedom has any reality at all [it] exists only in the attitude [taken] toward their fate.” In this light, the horse in Stopping by Woods, serves as a reminder that one should not be too enticed by the deep, dark woods.

Robert Bernard Hass,  in his book Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science, picks up on the threat of suicide in Frost’s poem:

Going by ContrariesIn a 1931 comment to Elizabeth Sergeant, Frost remarked that when other writers began calling themselves “Imagists or Vorticists,” he started calling himself a “synechdochist”. This term, ripe as it is with religious connotation, is an apt description of the way metaphor actually operates in Frost’s mature poetry. Although he often uses the word to mean comparison or correspondence (e.g. “every though is a feat of association”), Frost also suggests that the forms we carge out of nature ectend beyond simple figures and feats of association and, in some mysterious way, connect the whole of reality. [pp. 152-153]

From this, Hass makes the following assertion concerning “Stopping by Woods”:

Unfortunately, as Frost learned through his own trials by existence, there are moments when an individual becomes lost to large “excruciations,” when the material world reists the will and exerts counterforces that have profound effects on the quality of life. Sometimes these froces have a dangerous, seductive quality to them, and there are moments when Frost’s work reflects a strong desire to surrender to the brute forces of nature as one way of eliminating their threat. The alluring landscape of [“Stopping by Woods”], for example, presents us with a figure of the will confronting alien entanglements so large that they actually invite the poet to unlock their deepest secrets. [p. 153]

Among the most thorough considerations of the poem occurs in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost. Judith Oster, in her contributory essay calledCambridge Companion “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor”, summarizes and discusses these conflicting interpretations: “[The poem] has been read as “simply” a beautiful lyric, as a suicide poem, as recording a single autobiographical incident, and everything in between. Our is not to adjudicate, nor to “fix” a meaning, but to allow the poem its openness…” Oster then asks: “Why hasn’t it just been taken literally?”

She continues:

To choose just one of any possible starting points, the word “promises”. In this context the beautiful scene  the word “pulls down” the experience from the merely aesthetic and sensual, but does so without diminishing that beauty or that feeling, without weighing down the poem. What results is a conflict between two undiminished forces: “promises” that would lead the speakers onward, and his desire to give in to his intoxication with the beauty and peacefulness of the woods. The pull between those alternatives can be seen as that between obligation and temptation, or most literally, between stopping and going on. ¶ If we decide to look at the situation literally, we would think about what staying might mean. Most obvious is simply that it’s too cold to stay there safely. The restfulness – the “ease” of “easy wind” and the “down” of “downy flake” begin to suggest an implicit metaphor, especially when combined with the “sleep” which must be postponed until promises are kept… Sleeping before stopping, then, adds to the notion of not-yet-doing the danger of no-longer-being. [pp. 161-162]

And finally, most importantly, she writes:

What can the poem mean? That is another issue: whatever those words in those combinations will allow without distorting their meanings, without introducing elements that cannot fit in the context of the poem as a whole… one could follow Frost’s advice to a graduate student to take his poetry “all the way.” Or one could feel chastised by Frost’s ridicule of those who say this is a “suicide poem.” Or one could ignore Frost altogether. [p. 162]

Another contributor to the Cambridge Companion offers up what is probably the most representative interpretation of the poem (if one accepts that the poem should be interpreted). John Cunningham writes:

Stopping by Woods - DraftThe opposition between humanity (the owner of the woods whose “house is in the” village and who will not see the speaker, the absence of “a farmhouse near”) and the purposeless natural phenomena (descending snow and night, the woods, the frozen lake) Frost establishes early. Even the horse “must think it queer.” Three times the poet uses some form of stop. The setting is becoming blank, undifferentiated whiteness, a desert place on “the darkest evening of the year,” literally an overstatement but metaphorically not so to the speaker. For him movement forward ceases; his choice is between the “woods and frozen lake,” either offering only death to one who stops. In effect the horse asks “if there is some mistake.” To have so stopped could well prove to be such. The “sweep/ of easy wind,” free of the thousand mortal shocks that one is heir to, and the “downy flake,” like warm bedding, entice the speaker to give up his human errands and to sleep in the void of death. The woods are “dark and deep,” not promising words in Frost, deep as the final absence of death, and “lovely” only in the temptation to shuffle off that they offer. With “but I have promises to keep,” the speaker and the poem pivot, rejecting the temptation, affirming his promises, a word with human connotations of duty and presence, and accepting the “miles [that he must] go” before he sleeps this might and before he “sleep[s]” finally in death. [pp. 269-270]

Cunningham then goes on to interpret the repetition of the last two lines as “congruent with the stacked-up accents at the pivot above…” Quoi? This gets opaque. Do you get it? I don’t. However, if he’s going to run with this interpretation (which, as I wrote before, is the standard interpretation) I think he misses a golden, interpretive opportunity in the last two lines.

One could interpret the last two lines as follows:

And miles to go before I sleep
[I have miles to go before I’m home and in bed.]

And then, much more darkly and deeply he writes:

And miles to go before I sleep
[And many more “miles” to go before I go to die.]

However, I’m not convinced by Cunningham’s assertion that the descending snow is a “purposeless natural phenomena“. Frost doesn’t give us any indication, within the confines of the poem, that we should think so. No matter what thematic material you might find elsewhere in Frost’s poems, it doesn’t follow that Frost’s use of certain images and ideas is always one and the same. They aren’t. Bernard Hass, himself, makes this observation:

….[as] inviting [as] those secrets [the alien entanglements of nature] may be to one who has grown “overtired” of his struggle with nature, Frost is equally aware that natural imperatives can also be beneficial. Just  as nature has an intrinsic capacity to increase entropy, it also has synthetic powers of regeneration and self-organization that, when left to their own creative devices, terminate in beautiful structures that are both pleasing and protective. [Going by Contraries, pp. 153-154]

In this light, it’s hard to see an “easy wind” and “downy flake” as mortal threats. They are more a recognition of aesthetic beauty. But of what kind? To this end, Cunningham reasons that the adjectives are to be construed as an act of seduction. That is, the “easy” winds are seductively easy, but deadly to one who tarries too long in their cold.

As far as this goes, I’m sympathetic with Cunningham’s interpretation; but I do not think that Frost is contemplating suicide. That’s over-interpreting the poem, in my view. I do think there is a recognition by Frost, in this poem at least, that there is something lovely in the contemplation of nature’s sleep – a recognition of its necessity and loveliness. But at no time does he actually claim to desire it. After all, he says, he has promises to keep. The last two lines withstand this interpretation. I have miles to go before I sleep tonight; and I have “miles” to go before my final sleep.

The Ordeal of Robert FrostIn reference to Frost’s poem as a suicide poem, Mark Richardson, author of The Ordeal of Robert Frost, observes Frost’s own irritation at the suggestion:

During Frost’s own lifetime… critics sometimes set [Frost’s] teeth on edge with intimations about personal themes in the poem, as if it expressed a wish quite literally for suicide… Louis Mertins quotes him in conversation:

“I suppose people think I lie awake nights worrying about what people like [John] Ciardi of the Saturday Review write and publish about me [ in 1958]… Now Ciardi is a nice fellow–one of those bold, brassy fellows who go ahead and sall sorts of things. He makes me “Stopping By Woods” out a death poem. Well, it would be like this if it were. I’d say, “This is all very lovely, but I must be getting on to heaven.” There’d be no absurdity in that. That’s all right, but it’s hardly a death poem. Just as if I should say here tonight, “This is all very well, but I msut be getting on to Pheonix, Arizona, to lecture there. ” (Mertins 371) [The Ordeal of Robert Frost, p. 190]

Typical of Frost however, he still leaves open the door, saying to Mertins later:

“If you feel it, let’s just exchange glances and not say anything about it. There are a lot of things between best friends that’re never said, and if you — if they’re brought out, right out, too baldly, something’s lost.” [Ibid]

Richardson writes that Frost’s “subtle caveat to Mertins is probably meant equally to validate Ciardi’s suggestion about “Stopping by Woods” and to lay a polite injunction against it.” Richardson then picks up on Pritchard’s observation concerning the “felicities of language”, even alluding to Frost’s comments on E.A. Robinson (later on the same page):

Frost directs our attention not to the poem’s theme or content but to its form: the interlocking rhyme among the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical or thematic readings of the poem: “If I were reading it for someone else, I’d begin to wonder what he’s up to. See. Not what he means but what he’s up to” (Cook 81). The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. [p. 191]

And again, we come back to the idea of expression, rather than content, being (if not the heart of poetry) an equal part. Richardson adds that by “empasizing the lyric’s form Frost really only defers the question of theme and content. It is not that the poem does not have a theme, or one worth a reader’s consideration; the form simply is the theme.” The same could be said for much of Keats’ poetry and his Ode to Autumn. Richardson quotes Poirier, in reference to Frost:

“If [a] poem expresses grief, it also expresses–as an act, as a composition, a performance, a ‘making,’ — the opposite of grief; it shows or expresses ‘what the hell of a good time I had writing it.” [p. 192]

Where does all of this lead? Here’s what I think: I read the poem as both an act and performance, to be enoyed as an act and performance, and as a meaningfully suggestive poem – an acknowledgement of the lovely, dark and deep thoughts that are never far from our every day thoughts and lives. Nature will bring to all of us the same sleep it brings to the dark woods, but first we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.

Frost on Stopping by Woods

Browsing through the used bookstore a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on a little book called Robert Frost an introduction: poems, reviews, criticism. I think it’s been out of print for a good many years, but it has some choice quotes concerning Stopping by Woods. All the quotes are apparently from Reginald L. Cook, “Robert Frost’s Asides on His Poetry”,  “Frost on Frost: The Making of Poems” and “The Dimensions of Robert Frost”. Here they are:

  • …When he reads “Departmental,” which he once referred to as “my iridium poem; its hard and useful,” he says, ironically, that he intends sometime to write thirty pages of notes for the scholiasts. He once remarked that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was the kind of poem he’d like to print on one page, to be followed with “forty pages of footnotes.”
  • “Stopping by Woods” contains “all I ever knew”.
  • …”Stopping by Woods” is, he says, “a series of almost reckless commitments I feel good in having guarded it so. [It is] … my heavy duty poem to be examined for the rime pairs.” [Note how Frost, once again, praises the expression of the poem, it’s form, rather than it’s content.]
  • …”That one I’ve been more bothered with than anybody has ever been with any poem in just pressing it for more than it should be pressed for. It means enough without its being pressed.” And, in a biting tone, he adds, “I don’t say that somebody shouldn’t press it, but I don’t want to be there.” Often he has spoken out against the “pressers” and over-readers. “You don’t want the music outraged.” And of “Stopping by Woods” he says that all it means is “it’s all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home.” Yet no true reader leaves the discussion there. He knows as well as the poet does that what is important is how the poet played with “the constant symbol” implicit in the making of the poem. “Everything is hinting,” Frost reminds us.
  • … “Stopping by Woods” came to him after he had been working all night on his long poem entitled “New Hampshire.” He went outside to look at the sun and it came to him. “I always thought,” he explains, “it was the product of autointoxication coming from tiredness.”
  • The most ascerbic and closest-cropped expressions of his [Frost’s] wit are reserved for the analysts of literature who try to pick a poem clean and miss its intent. When a friendly critic asked if the last two lines in “Stopping by Woods” referred to going to Heaven, and, by implication, death, the poet replied, “No, all that means is to get the hell out of there.”
  • …Frost starts out perfectly free in his poem. “I can have my first line any way I please,” he says, and he is right, “But once I say a line I am committed. The first line is a commitment. Whose woods these are I think I know. Eight syllables, four beats- a line – we call it iambic. I’m not terribly committed there. I can do a great many things. I did choose the meter. What we have in English is mostly iambic anyway. When most of it is iambic, you just fall into that – a rhyme pair – I’d be in for it. I’d have to have couplets all the way. I was dancing still. I was free. Then I committed a stanza:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

He will not see me stopping here is uncommitted. For the three rhymes in the next stanza, I picked up the unrhymed line in the first stanza, and rhymed its end-rhyme “here” with “queer’, ‘near’ and ‘year,’ and for the third stanza I picked up ‘lake’ from the unrhymed line in the second stanza and rhymed it with ‘shake,’ ‘mistake’ and ‘flake.’ For the fourth stanza I picked up ‘sweep’ from the unrymed line in the third stanza, to rhyme with ‘deep’ and ‘sleep.’

“Every step you take is further commitment. It is like going to the North Pole. If you go, you have to bring back witnesses – some Eskimos! How was I going to get out of that stanza? It’s going to be like the Arabian Nights -one story after another. By the third stanza you have a sense of how long a poem is going to be. It’s ‘sweep’ I’m committed to:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

For my poem is a commitment to convention. That’s what it’s a symbol of . The form of regular verse – Greek, Latin, English – is a symbol of commitment.

“The interest is the quarrel with those commitments. When I read a poem, I ask myself: What is the main point in the argument? Where is the insincerity in the argument? Having comitted ourselves to go to the North Pole or to our love, we have to believe we have been to the North Pole or that we have been in love. The modern poet who uses free verse or new experiments quarrels with the commitment to convention. His revolt is based on that, that all life goes false by its commitments. Consequently, I look at a poem very examiningly, very suspiciously. I don’t want to think that the poem is a compromise with the rhyme.”

  • “What it [the repeat of the final line] does is save me from a third line promising another stanza …. I considered for a moment four of a kind in the last stanza but that would have made five including the third in the stanza before it. I considered for a moment winding up with a three line stanza. The repetend was the only logical way to end such a poem.”

And finally, here is Frost himself:

The Poem’s Form

Lawrence Buell, in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, calls the poem a Rondeau [p. 111]. Every definition I’ve read of Rondeau, including The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, offers up a definition that has nothing, whatsoever, to do with “Stopping by Woods”. It’s likely that Buell is being very liberal in his use of the word Rondeau. That is, Frost’s poem is a rondeau in the sense that there is a recurring rhyme scheme that takes as its rhyme the one unrhymed word of the stanza before. Most critics would probably call this a nonce poem – meaning that the rhyme scheme is unique to the poem.

  • Note: [May 29] I just received a comment from Gemma who points out the Frost’s Rhyme Scheme is the same as that found in Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Kyayy’ám’s Rubaiyat. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics calls it the Omar Kyayy’ám Quatrain. Since Fitzgerald’s translation was published in 1859 and quite famous in its day, it’s possible (if not likely) that Frost saw it at one time or another. I myself grew up with a copy in my grandmother’s house – the only book of poetry she owned! I still have it but haven’t looked at it in a long time. That said, Frost himself (from his own comments above) seems to imply that the rhyme scheme developed organically (was of his own making).  For more details on the Rubaiyat, check out the link in Gemma’s comment.

At the beginning of the post, I asked how a poem so metrically regular could, nonetheless, feel so dynamic. Returning to The Cambridge Introduction to Robert Frost, Timothy Steele, in his essay entitled “Across Spaces of the Footed Line”: the Meter and Versification of Robert Frost, offers the most insightful analysis I have come across. He writes:

Because iambic structure often is compounded of non-iambic elements of English word-shape and phraseology, a poet like Frost can initiate, within the basic iambic rise-and-fall movement, all sorts of counter-currents to the prevailing rhythm. An exemplary instance of these modulatory West-Running Brooks occurs in stanza three of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’:

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

In the first two lines, Frost uses mainly monosyllabic words, and of the two two-syllable words, one is rear-stressed. As a result, divisions between feet and those between words largely coincide, and this in turn produces a strong sense of rising, iambic rhythm:

He gives || his har || ness bells || a shake
To ask || if there || is some || mistake.

In contrast, the remaining two lines feature four fore-stressed disyllabic words. Consequently, words more often cross foot divisions than end at them. Even as the iambic fluctuation continues, the lines have a falling, trochaic character, which in turn suggests the sweeping movement of wind and snow:

The on|| ly oth || er sound’s || the sweep
Of eas || y wind || and down || y flake.

Frost’s first version of the line about the wind and flake read, “Of easy wind and fall of flake.” He may have made the change not only because he wanted a more descriptive word for the snow, but also because he intuited that the rhythm would benefit from a more descending flow than “and fall of flake” could give. [pp. 133-134]

On to my own comments…

The other facet to consider is line length versus phrase length. Notice how the first two lines are also two succinct syntactic phrases. They are essentially each a complete sentence. Frost eases this confluence of line and phrase in the next two lines through enjambment – Stopping by Woods: Manuscriptboth lines comprise a single sentence. The first stanza’s confluence of line and thought mimic the poet’s own deliberation. He stops. He considers the land owner. He decides the land owner won’t know he’s “tresspassed”.

The next stanza then relaxes just as the poet himself relaxes. The form and sensibility of the poem are in prefect congruity. All four lines of the stanza comprise a single sentence. The reader will, perhaps without explicitly observing this trick, subconsciously register the effect and the poet’s relaxation.

The third stanza doesn’t repeat the first two. (Each stanza is different.) The first two lines comprise one sentence while the closing two lines comprise another. The poet is divided, just as the stanza is divided between two sentences. The horse reminds the driver that their travel isn’t through, but the poet remains distracted by the easy wind and downy flake.

The syntax of the final stanza breaks each line into discreet phrases. The poet is matter of fact. First, and yes, the woods are love, dark and deep; but more importantly, I have promises to keep. The spell of the woods are broken. The speaker of the poem returns to miles he must travel before he sleeps.

The point in all this is to demonstrate that there are more ways to vary a metrical poem than through the varying of meter. Line lengh, phrase and syntactic sense, if well-played against and with each other, can have a powerful and dynamic effect on a poem.

Frost’s small poem is a masterpiece.

Anyway… if you enjoyed this post and have questions or suggestoins, please comment!

Further sources of information:

  • A new & recommended post that examines the poem as aesthetic statement. Fascinating.

  • Modern American Poetry • This is a collection of essays culled from various authors and critics, possibly the most helpful offering on the web – similar to my own approach but without the multimedia.

Poetry Everywhere

  • Clicking on the Image will take you to PBS.ORG where you can watch Frost read Stopping by Woods.
  • Answers.Com offers two interesting essays by authors who are not among the “big guns” of Frost criticism.
  • Sparknotes offers a brief  little overview of the poem and a possible interpretation. These are followed by study notes if you’re in need of a kick start.

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

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UnDonne

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

This is a disaster.

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

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

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

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

Donne

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

Comparison of Modernized & Facsimile Sonnet XIV

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

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

When it should read something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the differences between the old and new printings:

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

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

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

The Sonnet

John Donne: Sonnet XIV "Batter my heart" Scansion

The First Quatrain: Batter me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Quatrain

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

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

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

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

Save me! – Donne cries.

The Sestet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The octave takes on a new layer of meaning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Bradstreet: Before the Birth of One of her Children

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A Quick Look

I keep the poetry of Anne Bradstreet close by. She is America’s first poet writing in English Bradstreet's First Editionand she was the first to publish a book of poetry in America. I’ve read various dismissive comments directed at her poetry, but I don’t share those opinions. Her poetry may lack the clever cosmopolitan  imagery, metaphor and conceit of other poets, but her peers weren’t living in the wilderness of Massachusetts. Her best poetry, her later poetry, is intensely direct, honest, heartfelt and tender in a way that none of her Jacobean peers, still in London, ever equaled. It’s tempting to say there’s something already uniquely American about her voice. With an ocean between her and Europe, her poetry and thoughts (initially written in the schoolish, conventional and literary mode of her peers and upbringing) turns to the every day fact of love, life, motherhood and family. Her thoughts turn from what she has left behind, to what she has created in her new world.

Adrienne Rich, in her introduction to Bradstreet’s works, states that she arrived in America in 1630. She was eighteen years old and had been married since sixteen. Rich writes:

Her father, Thomas Dudley, a man of education and worldly experience, had been steward to an earl; her mother, by Cotton Mather’s account, “a gentlewoman whose extraction and estates were considerable.” Her own education had been that of a clever girl in the cultivated seventeenth century house: an excellent library, worldly talk, the encouragement of a literate father who loved history. Her husband was a Cambridge man, a Nonconformist minister’s son. Her father, her husband, each was to serve as Governor of Massachusetts; she came to the wilderness as a woman of rank.” Younger, Anne Bradstreet had struggled with a “carnall heart.” Self-scrutiny, precisianism. were in any event expected of Puritan young people. But her doubts, her “sitting loose from God,” were underscored by uncommon intelligence and curiosity.

Before the Birth

In terms of meter, Bradstreet’s Iambic Pentameter is fairly strict. To be fair, the meter was still very new. Many among the generation who first established Iambic Pentameter as the standard meter of the English language were still  alive. One wonders exactly which poets Bradstreet was exposed to. Shakespeare? Doubtful, since his most famous works of poetry, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, were both considered borderline erotica. Sidney? Possibly. Spenser. Very likely. John Donne?

The poem itself is written in open heroic couplets. I’ll point out some probable differences in pronunciation and some variant feet. Bradstreet was born and England and spoke with an English accent. Besides that, the American accent didn’t exist yet.) The first two lines that might trip up a modern reader are the following. The modern American might be tempted to read them as follows:

The sen|tence past |is most ir|re-vo |ca-ble,
A com|mon thing, |yet oh, |in-ev |i-ta-ble.

Here’s how Bradstreet probably expected them to be read:

The sen|tence past |is most |irrev|ic’ble,
A com|mon thing,| yet oh, | inev | it’ble.

The British, then as now, tend to clip irrevocable, putting the stress on the second syllable. Here are another two lines Americans might be tempted to misread – this being more out of a misunderstanding of meter.

We both |are ig|norant, |yet love | bids me
These fare|well lines |to re|commend |to thee,

And here’s how Bradstreet intended them to be read:

We both |are ig|norant, |yet love |bids me
These fare|well lines |to re|commend |to thee,

The emphasis is on me, not on bids. Similarly, another two lines are apt to be misread:

If an|y worth |or vir|tue were |in me,
Let that |live fresh|ly in |thy mem|ory

And here’s what Bradstreet intended:

If an|y worth |or vir|tue were |in me,
Let that |live fresh|ly in |thy mem|ory

There are a couple of variant feet. Although it’s possible to read the first foot of the following line as Iambic, my feeling is that the first foot serves an expressive purpose in being read as a trochaic foot. Look, she cries, look to my children. There is no greater love than a mother’s for her child and it is the emotional zenith of the poem – her cry at the close of the poem: “if thou love thyself, or loved’st me”  protect and love our children!

Look to| my little babes, my dear remains.

More metrical variants quickly follow, as if to express Bradstreet’s emotional terrain:

And if | change to |thine eyes |shall bring |this verse,

And if change

The nice touch here is that the pyrric first foot adds emphasis to the trochaic change – meter underscores the meaning and content of the poem.

The last line that might be misread is due to differences in pronunciation. Honour, in Bradstreet’s time, was still probably pronounced with a French inflection – empasizing the second syllable rather than the first. So it was probably read as follows:

With some |sad sighs |honour |my ab|sent hearse;

All the rest of the poem is standard Iambic Pentameter – which is to say, all the other feet are Iambic.

The Poem

Most poems on childbirth, these days, are mawkish, sentimental verses. But childbirth, in the absence of modern medicine,  was a frightening experience. It might promise new life, rebirth and joy; but it could also end in death – both the child’s and the mother’s. No poem, to my knowledge, captures both this mixture of fear, anticipation, and love for the children already birthed, as this poem. It is, in its way, the greatest and most memorable poem of its kind.

Before the Birth of One of her Children

Anne_Bradstreet PortraitAll things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh, inevitable.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend,
We both are ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when that knot’s untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
And if I see not half my days that’s due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
That many faults that well you know I have
Let be interred in my oblivious grave;
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me
These O protect from step-dame’s injury.
And if change to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent hearse;
And kiss this paper for thy love’s dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last farewell did take.

bradstreetFor the complete works of Anne Broadstreet, if you’re curious, try The Works of Anne Bradstreet. I thought my edition was out of print, but I just found it (same title):  The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Both come with Adrienne Rich’s introduction. At Amazon, at least, the editorial review for both books is the same. The newer issue, however, has more pages. Maybe the newer issue includes more of her prose? If I find out, I’ll add an addendum to this post.

For a website dedicated to Anne Bradstreet and her poetry, try AnneBradStreet.Com. However, detailed biographical information, on the web at least, seems to be sparse.

Perhaps Anne Bradstreet’s most famous poem is the following:

To My Dear and Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize they love more than whole mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere
That when we lifve no more, we may live ever.

Bright Star by John Keats, His Sonnet

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  • Sept 22, 2009 • Just learned that Jane Campion has made a movie “based” on the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. You can watch the trailer at the bottom of the post.

About the Poem

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. – John Keats in a letter to Fanny Brawne

Bright Star is one of Keats’s earlier poems and I can’t help but detect the opening of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Shakespeare equates love to a star and this association was surely present in Keats’ mind from the time he first read Shakespeare’s Sonnet. That is, the star isn’t only a symbol of steadfastness and stability, but also love. And love, in Keats’s mind, is unchangeable and ever-fixèd (or else it isn’t love). Shakespeare’s Ever-fixèd turns into Keats’ steadfast. Shakespeare’s never shaken turns into Keats’s hung aloft the night and unchangeable. R.S. White, in his book Keats as a reader of Shakespeare, makes note of some other parallels as well:

…it is not possible to ignore a creative connection between Keats’s resonant line, “Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art–‘ and on the one hand the phrase of the undoubtedly ‘stedfast’ character, Helena,

‘Twere all one,
That I should love a bright particular star, (I.i.79-80)

and on the other, although the play is not marked, Julius Ceasar’s more ironic ‘But I am constant as the northern star’ (Julius Ceasar, III.i.60). Such echoes, whether intende, unconcious or even coincidental, display vividly the special compatibility between the language and thought of Keats and the parts of Shakespeare which he appreciated and assimilated so thoroughly. [p. 72]

White’s survey of Keats’ Shakespearean influence isn’t just guess work by the way. Keats’ copy of Shakespeare’s plays is still extent, along with his comments, underlinings and double-underlinings. White’s book is an interesting commentary on Keats’ reading of Shakespeare. White observes another interesting parallel between Shakespeare and Keats’ poetic thought:

[Keats] picks out one of the images in the [Midsummer Night’s Dream] to convey his enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s poetry of the sea, which he often equates with Shakespeare himself:

Which is the best of Shakespeare’s Plays? – I mean in what mood and with what accompaniment do you like the Sea best? It is very fine in the morning when the Sun

‘opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams
Turns into yellow gold his salt sea streams’

Keats seems to be trusting his memory for the quotation, for his ‘salt sea’ is actually ‘salt green (II.ii.329-3). By associating Shakespeare himself with the moods of the sea, Keats is perhaps conveying something of his notion of the dramatist’s developement, implying that after the morning of this play the sea will become rougher as the day goes on. Shakespeare’s sea-music informs Keats’s poetry as well, particularly in the sonnets ‘On the Sea’ and ‘Bright Star’. [p. 102]

What White doesn’t mention are the parallels between Keats’ Sonnet and Shakespeare’s. Notice how the sea makes it’s appearance in both sonnets.

…it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark…

Compared to Keats

…watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores…

And there are also some parallels in Keats’ letters that remind one of the Sonnet’s central themes. Fanny BrawneThe most explicit, in terms of thematic content, comes from May 3, 1818, in a letter to his fiance Fanny Brawne.

“. . .I love you; all I can bring you is a swooning admiration of your Beauty. . . . You absorb me in spite of myself–you alone: for I look not forward with any pleasure to what is call’d being settled in the world; I tremble at domestic cares–yet for you I would meet them, though if it would leave you the happier I would rather die than do so. I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world: it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it. From no others would I take it. I am indeed astonish’d to find myself so careless of all charms but yours–remembering as I do the time when even a bit of ribband was a matter of interest with me. What softer words can I find for you after this–what it is I will not read. Nor will I say more here, but in a Postscript answer any thing else you may have mentioned in your Letter in so many words–for I am distracted with a thousand thoughts. I will imagine you Venus tonight and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Hethen.”

Love letters don’t get much better than this and Keats’ Sonnet is thought to be a love poem to Fanny Brawne – and John Keats PortraitBrawne herself treated it as such. She copied Bright Star into her “very dear gift” of Dante’s Inferno – along with its thematically related (but much less successful) companion sonnnet As Hermes once took his feathers light (see below).  Anyway, worth noting is his comparison of Brawne to a star and his desire, as in the poem, to “swoon to death” or, as he puts it – “I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it.” The play of death and orgasm shouldn’t be overlooked in all this romantic swooning. The conceit is probably as old as sex and, Keats, if nothing else, was an über sensualist. If tuberculosis hand’t killed him, sex probably would have.

There are still some more interesting parallels. Amy Lowell, in her biography on Keats called John Keats, argues that during a visit to a Mrs. Bentley’s, Keats writes to George (his brother) that he ” put all the letters to and from you and poor Tom and me…” [Book II, p. 202] In one of these letters, which Lowell argues Keats must have reread, comes the following:

“We are now about seven miles from Rydale, and expect to see [Wordsworth] to-morrow. You shall hear all about our visit .
There are many disfigurements to this Lake — not in the way of land or Water. No; the two views we have had of it are of the most noble tenderness – they can never fade away – they make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches; and refine one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power…” [Book II, p. 22]

As Lowell points out, the parallels are too uncanny. It doesn’t take much to go from, a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power, to:

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–

If Keats didn’t lift from having re-read an older letter, then the imagery linking the open lidded eye with the North Star, the one constant star of the sky, was certainly ever fixed in his mind. All poets, and this is something I would like to write more about, reveal a habit of thought, imagery and associations over the course of their careers. The great poets vary them, the competent poets don’t.

Yet another anecdote is related by another of Keats’s biographers, Aileen Ward. She notes that while writing a letter, Keats saw Venus rising outside his window. Ward says that at that moment all “doubt and distraction left him; it was only beauty, Fanny’s and the star’s, that mattered.”

The Sonnet and its Scansion

  • Note! I notice that many internet versions of this poem (including the video below)  have “To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,” instead of “To feel for ever its soft swell and fall“. This may be a viral mistake. One text was typed incorrectly and everyone else copied and pasted. On the other hand, I notice that a copy in The Oxford Book of Sonnets prints the former version.  The version I use is from Jack Stillinger’s the Poems of John Keats, considered to be the most accurate textually. He states that his text is “from the extant holograph fair copy” [p. 327]. I put my money on Stillinger. However, there are metrical reasons why I consider Stillinger’s to be correct. More detail on that below.

Bright Star (Corrected) by John Keats Scansion

The first thing to notice about the sonnet is that it’s a Shakespearean Sonnet. If you’re not sure what that entails then follow the link and you will find my post on Shakespearean, Petrarchan and Spenserian Sonnets. Also, if you’re not sure about scansion or how it’s done, take a look at my post on The Basics. Keats wrote Sonnets in a variety of forms. That he chose the Shakespearean Sonnet, I think, is telling. With all the other parallels, why not the structure of the sonnet?

The form allows Keats to gradually build the the sonnet toward the epigrammatic climax of the couplet:

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.

The second thing to notice is the meter itself. The first line of the first quatrain is, perhaps, the most easily misread, like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 or Donne’s Death Be Not Proud. We live in an age when Meter has become a art for fringe poets. As a result, many, if not most, modern poets and readers misread metrical poetry for lack of experience and knowledge. Most modern readers would probably read the line as follows:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–

This makes a hash of the meter, effectively reading the line as though it were free verse. But Keats was writing in a strong metrical tradition. As I’ve said in other posts, if one can read a foot as Iambic, then one probably should. So instead of reading the line like this:

Bright Star Trochaic Reading

We should probably read it like this:

Bright Star Iambic Reading

Or we should read the final foot as an outright spondee (as I originally scanned it):

Bright Star Spondaic Reading

Fortunately, unlike my fruitless search for a good reading of Donne’s sonnet, I found a top notch reading of the poem on Youtube. Here it is:

To my ears, he reads the last foot as a spondee. None of these alternate last feet are iambs, by the way. When I say that a foot should be read as an Iamb if it can be, I mean that a foot should be read with a strong stress on the second syllable (an Iamb or Spondee), rather than a falling stress (a trochee). The other reason for emphasizing art is that it’s meant to rhyme with apart. If one de-emphasizises art with a  trochaic reading, then we end up with a false rhyme. Two nearly unpardonable sins would have been committed by the standards of the day.  A trochaic final foot in an Iambic Pentameter pattern (unheard of) and an amateurish false rhyme. Keats was aiming for greatness. We can be fairly sure that he didn’t intend a trochaic final foot.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite…

Other than that, the first quatrain is fairly straightforward. An eremite is a hermit. So, what Keats is saying works on two levels. He wants to be steadfast (and by implication her as well), like the North Star (Bright Star), but not in lone splendor – not in lonely contemplation. Keats isn’t wishing for the hermit’s patient search for enlightenment. Nor, importantly, is he wishing for the hermit’s asceticism – his denial of passion and earthly attachment – in a word, sex.

The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors;

In the second quatrain Keats describes the star’s detachment, like the hermit’s, as one of unmoving observation and detachment. The star’s sleeplessness is beautiful and it’s contemplation holy – observing the water’s “priestlike task of pure ablution”. But such contemplation is, for Keats, an inhuman one. It’s no mistake that Keats refers to the shore’s as earth’s human shores – a place of impermanence, fault and failings in need of “pure ablution”. This the world the Keats inhabits. Up to this point, all of Keats’s imagery is observational. The only hint of something more is in the tactile “soft-fallen”. There is little sensual contact or life in these images; but the first two quatrains present a kind of still life – unchanging, holy, and permanent. That said, there’s the feeling that the “new soft-fallen mask/ Of snow upon the mountains” anticipates his lover’s breasts.

The Volta

The sonnet now turns to toward life and, ironically, impermanence. Notice the nice metrical effect of spondaic first foot, it’s emphasis on the word No. One can produce a similar effect in free verse, but the abrupt reversal of the meter, also signaling the Sonnet’s volta, is unmatchable.

No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Notice how the imagery changes. We are suddenly in a world of motion, touch, and feeling. No, says Keats, he wants the permanence of the star but also earth’s human shores. He wants to be forever “pillow’d upon [his] fair love’s ripening breast”. The anthimeria of pillow, using a noun as verb, sensually implies the  softness and warmth of Fanny Brawne’s breasts. The next line gives life and breath to his imagery: He wants to feel her breasts “soft swell and fall” forever “in a sweet unrest”. The sonnet’s meter adds to the effect – the spondaic soft swell follows nicely on the phyrric foot that precedes it, reproducing, it its way, the rise and fall of her breasts. (Also, it’s worth noting that metrically, it makes more sense to have soft swell be a spondaic foot, rather than (as with some versions of the poem)  soft fall. The meter, in a sense, swells with the intake of Fanny’s breath. ) Anyway, on earth’s human shores, there is nothing that is unchangeable and immutable. And Keats knows it. The irony of Keats’ desire for the immutable in a mutable world must find resolution – and there is only one:

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.

If he could, he would live ever so, but Keats knows the other resolution, the only resolution, must be death. La Petite Mort - by Dimitry Kirilloff Immutability, permanence and the unchangeable can only be found in death.

But what a way to die…

And this brings us to the erotic subtext of the poem. As I wrote earlier, the idea of orgasm, which the French nicely call  the little death or la petite mort, is an ancient conceit (the photo at right, by the way, is called La petite mort, clicking on the image will take you to Kirilloff’s gallery). If we read Keats’ final words as a wry reference to the surrender of orgasm, then there’s a mischievous  and wry smile in Keats’ final words. After all, how do readers interpret “swoon“? Webster’s tells us that to swoon is “to enter a state of hysterical rapture or ecstasy…” Hmmm…. It’s hard to know whether Keats had this in mind. He never wrote overtly sexual poetry, but there is frequently a strong erotic undercurrent to much of his poetry. He was, after all, a sensualist. (Many of the poets who came after him accused him of being an “unmanly” poet – of being too sensuous and effeminate. Keats’ eroticism runs more along the lines of what is considered a feminine  sensuality of touch and feeling.)

Such overt suggestiveness might be a little out of character for Keats but, if it was intended, I think it adds a nice denouement to the sonnet. After all, what is a lust and passion but a “sweet unrest”? And what is the only release from that “sweet unrest” but a swoon to death?  But in this “death”, life is renewed.  Life is engendered, remade and made immutable through the lovers’ swoon or surrender to “death”. Keat’s paradoxical desire for the immutable is resolved. The pleasure of the mutable but sweet unrest of his lovers rising and falling breasts, is only mitigated by the even more pleasurable, eternizing and transcendent pleasure of “death’s swoon”.

Which does Keats prefer? The immutable pleasure implied by the analogy of the changeless star, or the swoon of death? Keats, perhaps, is ready to find pleasure in both. The sonnet is profoundly romantic but, in keeping with Keats’ character, wryly pragmatic.

But this interpretation is conjectural. To Amy Lowell, the final lines are characterized as ending in a “forlorn, majestic peace” and I think this is how the majority of readers read the poem. I, personally, can’t help but think that there was more to Keats’ desire than Romantic obsession. The sheer, physical sexuality of resting his cheek on his lover’s breasts is more than just Romantic boiler plate.

The First Version

And here’s something won’t see very often on the web – considered to be Keats’ first version of the Sonnet.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung amid the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s devout, sleepless Eremite,
The morning waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen masque
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Cheek-pillow’d on my Love’s white ripening breast,
Touch for ever, its warm sink and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
To hear, to feel her tender-taken breath,
Half passionless, and so swoon on to death.

To students of poetry, what is worth noting is how few changes made a moving but flawed sonnet into a work of genius. As I’ve said before , it’s not the content of poetry that makes it great, but the style – the language.  The first version, in terms of content, is ostensibly the same as the second version.

  • Changing amid to aloft gives the feeling of a star that is apart from the others, aloft, rather than amid.
  • The adjective devout is simply descriptive – having little connotative power. But the adjective patience is attributive and gives the description the force of personality. It also plays against Keats’ sweet unrest, later in the sonnet. Patience, Keats tells us, is not an attribute he wants to mimic, only its steadfastness and unchangeableness.
  • The change of morning to moving, again changes a simply descriptive adjective to an attributive adjective. Moving gives the waters motion and a kind of intent. It also avoids the conflict of the star having been hung aloft the night, but watching the morning waters.
  • Keats’ initial choice of masque is curious and may be a misprint. A masque is a short, usually celebratory, one act play.
  • “Cheek-pillow’d on my Love’s white ripening breast,” gives us more information than we need. We can already guess that it’s his cheek on her breasts because he uses the anthemeria pillow’d. What else do we put on our pillows but our cheeks? Her white breast is unnecessary. All but a handful of 19th Century English women had white breasts. Keats was just trying to fill out the meter with the adjective white. “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,” dispenses with both of the former redundancies. The word fair is there solely for the sake of the meter, but doesn’t feel as extraneous or contrived as white. It also allows the emphasis to turn to ripening, which is a beautifully erotic description of a young woman’s breast.
  • “Touch for ever, its warm sink and swell,” The verb touch lacks the rich connotation of feel. After all, we might forensically touch a hot kettle, to find out if it’s too hot; but we wouldn’t feel it. Feeling things is a tactile, sensual act when we want to explore an object. Warm sink and swell is replaced by soft swell and fall. Once again, the adjective warm lacks the connotative sensation of soft. To know that something is warm, we don’t necessarily need to touch or feel it. But to know something is soft implies a more tactile and sensual exploration.  The verb sink is a less neutral expression than fall. Boats sink. Rocks sink. Drowning swimmers sink. Most importantly, when objects sink, they tend not to rise again. Fall is a more neutral, less loaded description. It also rhymes better with unchangea(ble). Keats may have been uneasy with the rhyme between (ble) and swell.
  • To hear, to feel is replaced by Still, still to hear. The latter phrase gives the final couplet a more dramatic, less literary feel. We can hear the wistfulness and expectation of an actual speaker in the disrupted meter – the epizeuxis of Still, still
  • The final line is the most dramatic alteration: “Half passionless, and so swoon on to death.” Half passionless undercuts the eroticism of the poem. Who is half-passionless? Keats? Brawne? What does that mean? The closing line appears to give the sonnet’s ending a more despondent tone, conflicting with the idea of a sweet unrest. Keats probably meant to imply that his ardor was both like the star’s, detached, and like attachment of a lover. But I suspect he sensed the contradiction in the description. It undercuts what had, until then, been a profoundly passionate poem. It also undercuts the erotic suggestiveness of a swooning death.

And here is the companion Sonnet Fanny Brawne wrote into her copy of Dante:

As Hermes once took to his feathers light,
When lulled Argus, baffled, swooned and slept,
So on a Delphic reed, my idle spright
So played, so charmed, so conquered, so bereft
The dragon-world of all its hundred eyes;
And seeing it asleep, so fled away,
Not to pure Ida with its snow-cold skies,
Nor unto Tempe, where Jove grieved a day;
But to that second circle of sad Hell,
Where in the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kissed, and fair the form
I floated with, about that melancholy storm.

If this post was enjoyable or a help to you, please let me know! If you have questions, comments or suggestions. Comment. In the meantime, write (G)reatly!

Bright Star by Jane Campion

Don’t know much about the movie. But as with all movies like these, it may be based on a true story, but it remains a work of fiction. I can’t wait to see it.

Robert Frost’s “The Pasture”

  • September 28 2011: Be sure and read the comment section, especially the comments by Richard Lawrence, who shares with us a seemingly lost verse from the original version of this poem.
  • July 18, 2009: New PostRobert Frost’s “Out, Out”
  • June 6 2009: Tweaked and expanded.

About the Pasture

I’ve been following the lead of my readers, noting on the Stats page what searches you use to find my blog. The most popular poet remains Robert Frost. And I’ve noticed several searches for Frost’s “The Pasture”.

Robert Frost's: The Pasture

Robert Frost recites The Pasture

There are few poems in the English language that can compare. Right now? I can’t think of one. In terms of brevity and memorability, it’s unsurpassed. Why? Subject matter, rhyme and meter are perfectly suited to each other.

Frost-NewmanRobert Frost himself, according to Lea Newman (book at left), stated that it was “a poem about love that’s new in treatment and effect. You won’t find anything in the range of English poetry just like that.”

I have several books on Robert Frost and all of them only mention this poem in passing – giving it short shrift. Lea Newman’s book, in terms of the poems themselves, remains the best of any of them. Her opening paragraph describes some of the inspiration for the poem:

One spring evening in 1905, Frost took a walk over those fields with his wife, Elinor, and their six-year-old daughter, Lesley. According to the notebook Lesley kept as a child, she and her mother picked apple and strawberry blossoms while her father went down to the southwest corner of the big cow pasture to check on how much water was in the spring. In 1910, when Frost wrote “The Pasture” he used a walk to a spring in a cow pasture as its centerpiece. The experience was still a favorite memory thirty years after he wrote about it. In 1940 he reminisced, “I never had a greater pleasure that coming on a neglected spring in a pasture in the woods.

Newman’s introduction to the poem continues and I wholly recommend the book as a companion to his poems. But what does the poem mean? (It never seems enough to say that the poem means what it says.) It’s a poem of invitation first and foremost – Frost chose this poem as a sort of introduction and invitation to his collected poems.  More than that, the poem typifies what many readers love the most about Frost: his connectedness with nature and the everyday; his contemplative ease; and, above all, the approachable  content of his thought and poetry. Frost was a poet with whom most everyone felt a kinship and understanding. He was comprehensible during a time when poetry was becoming increasingly incomprehensible. Saying he won’t be gone long could summarize his craft. There are depths to his poetry, but they are such that the reader returns. He won’t go too far. He won’t be gone too long. You come too, he says to the reader and to anyone who wants to go with him.

Meter and Rhyme

The internal rhyme that contributes to the poems lyricism is the most important and also the most difficult to describe, but I’ll try. And it may seem like  I’m making too much of vowel sounds, but sound is everything in poetry. Consider the following anecdote which occurred between Keats and Wordsworth (from John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics and After-Fame by Sidney Colvin pp. 401-402):

keats-wordsworth-discuss-vowels

And here is another sample about Keats’s as related by his friend, Benjamin Bailey:

…one of Keats’ favorite topics of conversation was the principle of melody of verse, which he believed to consist in the adroit management in verse, which he believed to consist in the adroit management of open and close vowels. He had a theory that vowels could be as skillfully combined and interchanged as as differing notes of music, and that all sense of monotony was to be avoided, except when expressive of a special purpose. (Richard H. Fogle – The Imagery of Keats and Shelley, p. 63)

In point of a fact, I write my own poetry with the vowel sounds in mind. I hear words as music and tones, which makes me an “ear reader” rather than an “eye reader”, as Frost put it, and a very slow reader.

Keats was conscious of his choices, and Frost was too. (However, it’s definitely possible to read too much into “word sounds”, vowel sounds, percussive consonants and the like  – I’ve seen it done by plenty of critics and analysts.)  Such analytic overreaches are called Enactment Fallacies – a term I first came across in one of David Orr’s New York Times reviews. He defines it:  in the following passage:

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

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

“With each new verbal or participial theater of action of the stanza, there arrives a new agent,” Vendler writes, “making the clauses scramble helter-skelter, one after the other. The headlong pace is crucial.” Since the stanza involves words like “dragon,” “nightmare,” “murdered,” “blood” and “fighting,” it’s easy to see what she’s thinking here. But to make a more modest use of Vendler’s rewriting trick above, what if we kept the same enjambments, syntax, rhyme scheme and basic rhythm — yet changed some of the words? We might get this (my words, with apologies to I. A. Richards for adapting one of his tactics):

Now days are slow and easy, the summer
Sighs into fall: a purring bumble-bee
Can leave the flower, softened to a blur,
To soak in the noon sun, and fly carefree;
The night can breathe with pleasure as once more
We weave our visions into poetry
And seek to bring our thoughts under a rule,
Who are the mindful servants of the soul.

Not so “helter-skelter” now, is it? In a book review or essay, committing this particular fallacy is a minor error. Most critics do it regularly (I certainly have). In a book that sets out to explain why a poet makes particular formal choices, however, the mistake is more serious, because it replaces the complex relationships among a poem’s elements with just-so stories in which it always turns out — surprise! — that meaning has been mirrored by shape and sound. Think of it this way: we don’t enjoy a bowl of gumbo because it “feels” exactly the way it “tastes”; rather, we find the combination of “taste” and “feel” pleasing. Similarly, a particular stanza arrangement can reinforce our experience of a poem, but only because that arrangement is working in harmony with the poem’s other aspects.

I quote the better part of the passage because I think it’s something every novice in poetry and poetry criticism should be aware of. Read all criticism and analysis with skepticism. Including, obviously, mine; though I try to be reasonable in my assertions.

Anyway, back to Frost and The Pasture. Whether intentional or not, the first line’s variety of vowel sounds is lovely – no two are repeated.

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;

That in itself isn’t so remarkable, but what happens next, to me at least, beautifully sets off the first line.

I’ll only (stop) to rake the leaves (a) way
(And wait to (watch) the (wa)ter clear, I may) :

The two lines are rich with internal rhyme – the long A’s of rake, away, wait and may bracket the short, rhyming  vowel sounds of stop, away, watch and water. The Pasture - Manuscript Robert FrostThe effect of these internal rhymes (interlocking in the second line and bracketed in the third) will be different for different readers, though I think all readers, but those with tin ears, will register them. To me the internal rhyming creates a sort of sing-song effect in perfect keeping with the light-hearted, carefree, teasing tone of the poem. And, again for me, the “long A” vowel sound has a sort of easy-going and open feel to it. There’s no way to know whether Frost had this in mind, but I’m sure that the music in the lines, however he interpreted their effect, was intended.

I sha’n’t be gone long. (You) come (too).

Up to this point, the lines have been Iambic Pentameter. But the fourth line (repeated in the second stanza) is Iambic Tetrameter. The effect is lovely and though it can be imitated in free verse, it can’t be reproduced.

The first three lines could be spoken to an unnamed companion or to oneself. We read the poem in the same manner that we read first person narratives (where our presence is irrelevant to the narrator). But then Frost does something  magical. He talks explicitly to “you” and he does so in Iambic Tetrameter. “You come too”, he says, and the shortened tetrameter line has same effect as an aside in a play or drama – an effect of immediacy and personableness. Suddenly we find ourselves in the poem!

The internal rhyme of gone and long anticipate and are complimented by You and too. The musicality of the line heightens the feeling of intimacy, unselfconsciously inviting – the appeal of a close friend. And, as a final note, notice too how the Iambic pattern is broken in the last two feet (spondaic variant feet) of the Tetrameter line.

I sha’n’t |be gone |long. You |come too.

This too adds to the air of informality. The formal Iambic Pentameter is broken for the sake of a friendly aside. The ceasura (the break between the two sentences), occurs in the middle of the third foot, also disrupting the metrical pattern of the previous lines. It all contributes to the informal, intimate feel of the fourth line. Again, it’s an effect that free verse simply can’t equal.

Frost’s Colloquialisms

robert_frostOne of Robert Frost’s most powerful poetic figures (as in a rhetorical figure or figure of speech – also called figurative language) is anthimeria. It’s also one of my favorites and one of the truly beautiful ornaments in the toolbox of poetry – adding vitality and rigorousness when done well. (Shakespeare was one of the greatest users of this figure.) In short, anthimeria is the substitution of one part of speech for another – “when adjectives are used as adverbs, prepositions as adjectives, adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives” (Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 63) . Turning nouns into adjectives is Frost’s favorite substitution and he does this because, interestingly, this form of grammatical substitution is typical of New England dialects. (For a more thorough treatment of colloquialism in poetry, see my post Vernacular Colloquial Common Dialectal.)

So…

Instead of saying “I’m going out to clean the spring in the pasture”, he says “pasture spring”. Pasture, normally a noun, becomes an adjective modifying spring. Et viola! Anthimeria! If you read enough of Frost’s poetry you will see this figurative language recur again and again. And if you hang about Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine, and hear some old-timers, you will hear this same grammatical short-cut. I don’t know why it’s more prevalent in New England (more so than in other regions of the United States) but it may be a hold over from the speech patterns of a much older generation.

Anyway, Frost always keenly observed, recorded and remembered the speech habits of New Englanders and deliberately infused his own poetry with the patterns he heard. Techniques like anthimeria, the substitution of a noun for an adjective, helps give his poetry a dailectal and colloquial feel. In a similar vein, the contraction sha’n’t, for shall not, adds to the colloquial informality and intimacy of the poem. “I sha’n’t be gone long” is a style of speech that’s almost gone. Probably more typical of what was heard among an older generation of New Englanders if only because the region is where American English is the oldest.

I’m going out to fetch the little (calf)
That’s (stand)ing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I (sha’n’t) be gone long. You come too.

Again, I’ve tried to emphasize the play of internal rhyme – to make it visible. The short i sound of little is bolded. The short a sound of calf is italicized and (bracketed). The short u sound of young is underlined. I won’t belabor the same points I’ve already made discussing the previous stanza. The effects are the same. There are no internal rhymes within the first line of the stanza, as in the first line of the first stanza. The sing-song informality and intimacy created by the internal rhymes that occur in the lines that follow, once again, find completion and resolution in the final invitation:

You come too.

If this post has been helpful to you; if you enjoyed; if you have suggestions or questions; please comment!

Frost, Hendecasyllabics & For Once, Then, Something

Catullizing English

Reading a letter from Catallus

Neaera Reading a Letter from Catullus

While Robert Frost’s, For Once, Then, Something, isn’t the most memorable of his poems, it’s one of his most unique. It’s written, nominally, in hendecasyllabics. It’s also one of the most devilish to scan.  Frost was imitating the Latin meter of Catullus – said to be one of his favorite Latin poets. What makes the poem difficult to scan is that the English language simply does not do what Latin did. English is not a quantitative language (meaning that syllables are long or short). English is an accentual language, meaning that words receive more or less stress dependent on their usage.

  • I notice that Wikipedia makes much ado about the difference between Hendecasyllable and Hendecasyllabic, (Hendecasyllabic Verse or Hendecasyllabics). However, the author or authors of the Wikipedia article offer no citations to back up their assertions. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics makes no such distinction.  Hendecasyllabic, according to Webster’s and to Princeton, is simply the adjectival form of Hendecasyllable (an eleven syllable line or word). On the other hand, a distinction  can be made between Latin quantitative Hendecasyllabics and the accentual Hendecasyllabics of the later Romance Languages, but that appears unrelated to the whether the word is used as a noun or adjective.

The English language is a naturally Iambic and Anapestic language (meaning that the language prefers a rising stress). In nominal phrases, we don’t  normally say the car, we say the car. (The former also makes sense, but the exception proves the rule.) By stressing the, we  draw attention to the fact that the car is singular. We can do this because English is an accentual language. It is the car. Also, all of our prepositional phrases prefer a rising stress (iambic or anapestic). In a previous post, one commenter objected that I didn’t take into consideration regional or dialectal inflections. Not so. This feature of the language has nothing to do with regional or dialectal inflections. It is simply the way our language works. It’s the reason Iambic meters, rather than Trochaic meters, are the dominant meters of English poetry.

So, what does all this have to do with Frost’s poem?

The problem is that the hendecasyllabics of Catullus, when transliterated into English, make for a trochaic meter. Trochaic meters are extremely difficult to pull off in English. Few poets actually pull it off. No poet, to my knowledge, has succeeded through and through. What do I mean by this? I mean that, at the first chance, the reader will want to read a line as Iambic rather than trochaic. For example, if Frost’s poem were written in Latin, here is how we would unflinchingly scan the first line.

Others | taunt me with | having | knelt at | well-curbs

robert-frost-chairThis is essentially Trochaic Pentameter with a variant dactylic second foot.  If you were being asked to scan this poem for a class, then this is how the professor would probably expect the poem to be scanned (and I’ll provide this scansion), but as far as the English language goes. Here is how most of us will read the line:

Others | taunt me | with ha|ving knelt |at well-curbs

This is essentially Iambic Pentameter with two variant trochaic feet (the first and second foot) with a feminine ending. By modern standards, this would be a perfectly acceptable variant line within a larger Iambic Pentameter poem. And therein lies the rub. Being English speakers we prefer to hear Iambs rather than trochees. We naturally bias our readings toward Iambs. Here is another option:

Others taunt| me with hav|ing knelt | at well-crubs

This makes the meter tetrameter (four foot) rather than pentameter. The first foot is cretic, the second anapestic, the third Iambic and the last a feminine ending, or an amphibrach.

All the variations above are hendecasyllabic. The first two might be called a Pentameter Hendecasyllable and the last might be called a Tetrameter Hendecasyllable.

So, when scanning the poem, what do we do? Do we scan it according to the poet’s intentions, or how the lines actually work in the English language? Frost may have been imitating a Latin meter, but the language is English.

Here is the poem as Frost intended it:

Hendadecasyllabic Scansion - For Once, Then, Something

Robert Frost reciting:

In the scansion above, I only marked the first line. All the following lines are the same except for the first foot of line 12. As you can hear, Frost reads this first foot as a spondee.  Trochaic meters are less forgiving as far as variant feet go and if only for this reason, Frost departs from the hendecasyllabic meter only once. It’s probably the most metrically conservative poem Frost wrote after his first book of poetry.

  • Robert Pack, in his book Belief and uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, Page 30, incorrectly identifies this poem as a sonnet. He doesn’t do so elsewhere in the book which leads me to think this was a slip of the pen.

By way of comparison, here is the scansion of a hendecasyllabic line in Latin.

latin-example-hendadecasyllabic1

The example comes from a powerpoint document I found online (no author is given). Clicking on the link or image will download it – if you’re curious. The paper is intended for students studying Latin. While the symbols used are similar to those used for accentual-syllabic verse, the symbols mean something different. What Frost (and all English poets) have done is to substitute a stressed syllable for a Latin long syllable, and an unstressed syllable for a Latin short syllable. If you don’t want to download a Powerpoint presentation but are still curious, here’s another resource from the Iona School of Arts & Sciences:

Latin example from iona.edu

Scanning it the way we read it

Dactylic feet are hard to pull off for the same reason that trochaic meters are hard to pull off. The English speaker’s ear will always want to turn a dactyl into a anapest.

So although Frost may have imagined the third line as follows:

Deeper | down in the |well than |where the |water

No reader, without a prior knowledge of the Latin verse Frost was transliterating, would ever scan it this way. Nearly all prepositional phrases are heard as anapestic (as a rising stress) by English speakers.

Deeper down |in the well |than where |the water

None of this is to say that there aren’t dactylic words or phrases, or that a dactylic meter can’t be written. Longfellow’s opening lines to Evangeline have a dactylic gait. But Longfellow isn’t assiduous in pursuing a dactylic meter for long:

THIS is the | forest pri|meval. The |murmuring |pines and the |hemlocks,
Bearded with |moss, and in |garments green, indistinct in the twilight…

The Dactylic gait is helped when the first word of each line receives the stress. Frost’s hendecasallabic line also places the stress on the first word of each line but the effect isn’t the same. The first foot isn’t dactylic but trochaic, so the ear isn’t primed for a dactylic reading as with Longfellow’s poem.

Furthermore, 9 out of the 15 “dactylic” feet are prepositional phrases, which strongly favor an anapestic reading.

to the light
in the well
in a shining…
in the summer
of a wreath
as I thought
of the depths
to rebuke
from a fern

So, after all that, how would I scan it? I opt for a tetrameter line.

For once, then, Something - Alternate Scansion

  • Once again, the scansion for each line, following the first line, is the same unless otherwise marked.

This scansion, I think, more accurately reflects how we read the poem and I like it because there’s a nifty symmetry. Where the first foot is cretic, or an amphimacer, the final foot is a sort of mirror image, an amphibrach (otherwise called a feminine ending). The second foot is anapestic and the third is iambic. Lastly, and best of all, the first foot of the twelfth line is a Molossus. A molossus is a metrical foot of three syllables with each syllable being stressed. Molossus. Good word. Good foot. Very rare.

So what’s it about?

Not a lot is written about this poem. Several Frost biographies fail to even mention the poem. But in certain ways, it’s his most revealing. He apparently wrote it in response to criticism (still made today) that his poetry is all shine and no depth. Two writers who discuss the poem are Tyler Hoffman, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry, and Robert Pack’s Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost.

The speaker of the poem is both the poet himself and his reader. The criticism he has received from critics and other poets, he characterizes and analogizes in the first six lines of the poem:

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
My myself in the summer heaven, godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.

“Others taunt me”, he writes, in reference to critics. He is accused of kneeling at well-curbs, “always wrong  to the light” – where “light” could be understood as knowledge, poetic knowledge or understanding. The result? He never sees “deeper down in the well”. His poetry and meaning is shallow. His poetry is merely a “surface picture” lacking substance. Then, with some wry humor, he adds that, rather than perceiving the deeper currents of the well’s waters, he only sees himself in “heaven, godlike,/ Looking out of a wreath of fern…”. The sly reference to Apollo’s laurel’s, the Poet’s Laurels which Keats so desired,  from which the term “Poet Laureate” comes, is unmistakable.  In other words, he is accused of being little more than a vain, cracker-barrel  philosopher suffering from delusions of grandeur. That view and criticism of Frost still holds up today – in some quarters.

From there Frost turns to more Philosophical matters – a defense.

Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths-and then I lost it.

Frost essentially rejects the notion that there is a truth, the truth, that can be perceived beneath the surface. Yes, he may have thought (in his youth) that there was something “beyond the picture” (that surface picture which, ultimately, is all we have) but whatever truth that was, he “lost it”. And in the losing of it, he rejects the notion that it can be known. He writes:

Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

Water creates the reflective surface upon which we perceive life and understand life. The surface of water, in this poem, is like Keats’ veil – it is everything that we see, but only the surface of what we see. The surface of the water is what we perceive as reality. And when we try to look beyond it, past the veil, one drop falls “from a fern”, almost teasingly, blurring and blotting out any deeper truth. We are not meant to know but to guess, Frost seems to be saying. But there may be another analogy at play. The surface of the water could also be seen as the textual surface of a poem. In this sense, the person peering into the well is transformed into the reader or critic reading one of Frost’s poems. Frost rejects certainties. He rejects the “too clear water” of other poets and rejects the critics’ call for it. When they look too closely, lo, “Water”/Frost “rebukes” them.

“What was that whiteness?” – Frost asks. “What was that whiteness?” -the critic asks.

Neither are meant to know with any certainty – only that, yes, there was and is “something”. Keep looking, says Frost. Keep looking.

By contrast, Tyler Hoffman takes a different set of concerns to the poem. Here is some of what he writes:

In “For Once, Then, Something” Frost depicts someone who tries to find a way to knfrost-the-politics-of-poetry3ow (and know he has known) such a moral absolute as Truth. The speaker seems to be an object of ridicule for pursuing absolutes without a proper faith — a person blinded by egotistical concerns (“Others taunt me with having knelt at well curbs”). But that figure is not fully imagined; we do not receive a profile that would help us determine with certainty the attitudes and emotions behind his utterances. It us unclear how he feels about the taunting that he receives and how his search for “Something more of the depths” is shaped by it. The questions leading up to the phrase in its final appearance only muddy the water: “What was that whiteness? / Truth? A pebble of quartz?” How are we to hear these questions? Does he ask them in an agitated tone?… The epistemological problem that the poem presents — “How can we know the Truth if at all?” and “How do we know if we have known Truth?” – is never finally resolved. (Pages 113-114)

My own view on Hoffman’s comments is that he asks questions that Frost himself does not try to answer. This sort of analysis by rhetorical question gets mixed reviews from me. To me, at least, the trick is guessing at what questions Frost does ask, based on the poem which is, in and of itself, the answer.

Here is Robert Pack’s take:

…in “For Once, Then, Something,” in looking down into the bottom of a well to discern the identity of some object glittering there, Belief & UncertaintyFrost ironically speculates that it might be “Truth” or merely “A pebble of quartz.” Frost’s dismissal of the concept of truth as such is much like Stevens’s parodic line, “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.” In Stevens’s outrageous concluding line in “The Man on the Dump,” the word “truth” finally is replaced by the word “the,” suggesting ironically that “the” is the more specific and useful word. For Frost, the abstract idea that there is something we might call Truth goes beyond uncertainty into meaningless abstraction. Even when Frost uses “Truth” capitalized as a term as in “Birches,” he does so to make the distinction between his fancy that the birch trees have been permanently bent down by a boy’s swinging on them and the truthful “fact about the ice storm.” In other words, truth here is known in its specificity, as a phenomenon of nature. His dismissal of Truth in its abstract grandiosity is part of Frost’s anti-romantic strain, his worldliness, his suspicion of anything smacking of transcendence, as distinguished, say,. from Keats’s indentification of Beauty and Truth in both poetry and his lectures. (Pages 184-185)

Once again, I hope this post has been helpful. Let me know.

I love comments. If you’re a student, just drop a note with the name of your school. I’m always interested to know who’s reading and why.

Rhyme & Meter Online: April 19 2009

  • Missed last week. This one is a little delayed.
  • Many discussions on various forums which, though interesting, are too changeable to reference.
  • If any readers would like to recommend sites or blogs please do! Feel free to recommend your own blog or poem if you like but please don’t post your poem in the comment field (provide a link and the first lines).
  • Search terms used to find these posts: Rhyme, Meter, Formal, Formalist, Poetry

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PoemShape

Reading Richard Wilbur’s “Mind”

If a bat becomes lost in your house, don’t cringe in a corner. Here’s something you might not know. If a bat can’t escape from a room after a certain period of time, it will indeed assume that it knows all the obstacles. It has memorized your room. It will stop echo locating and fly and fly and fly – no matter what windows you open. A memory is like an opinion. In a sense, the bat becomes trapped by its own opinion. The bat won’t falter. The bat/mind assumes that it has no need to explore. The most inflexible opinions are the loneliest ones and, as Wilbur tells us at the outset, the mind is like the bat that beats in its cavern all alone…

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Got a poem – by heart?

In our second hour today we’re talking with writer Jim Holt about learning poems by heart — and reciting them from memory.  Who needs an iPod, he says, when you’ve got great verse running through your head! We’re hoping our listeners, on the air and online, will bring their own favorites to the party. If you have a great poem you want to recite, from memory (no cheating!), then let’s hear it — call in this morning between 11am and noon Eastern, at 1-800-423-8255, and we’ll try to get you on…

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‘Book of Rhymes’ by Adam Bradley: Professor of literature takes us inside the rhythms of rap

Some folks may scoff at the comparison of hip-hop to metaphysical poetry, but Bradley wouldn’t be among them. A literature professor at Claremont McKenna College with a doctorate in English from Harvard, he is keenly attuned to what he calls “the poetics of hip-hop,” the ways that rap both converges with and distinguishes itself from what we traditionally think of as poetry.

Here you’ll find Yeats and Frost alongside Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan, together forming a discussion on meter and accent, scansion and slant rhymes. More important, the old-timers and the new jacks seem to get along just fine: Book of Rhymes, MLA vocabulary or no, takes great joy in the written and the rapped word, and it will leave you listening to your favorite MCs with bigger and better ears than before…

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Read Write Believe

Poetry Quote of the Day: Rilke Defends Rhyme

“Do not say anything against rhyme! It is a mighty goddess indeed…

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New York Times

Sunday Book Review

“A Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” With this sentence the novelist E. M. Forster introduced the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy to the English-speaking world in 1919. Since then, Cavafy’s distinctive tone —wistfully elegiac but resolutely dry-eyed — has captivated English-language poets from W. H. Auden to James Merrill to Louise Glück. Auden maintained that Cavafy’s tone seems always to “survive translation,” and Daniel Mendelsohn’s new translations render that tone more pointedly than ever before. Together with “The Unfinished Poems” (the first English translation of poems Cavafy was still drafting when he died in 1933), this “Collected Poems” not only brings us closer to one of the great poets of the 20th century; it also reinvigorates our relationship to the English language…

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All Rileyed Up

Poetry Talk with Ginny Kaczmarek

I like so many different poets for different reasons, and I’m always discovering new ones (or old ones I never read deeply before). I go through phases, too. Lately I’m really into formalist poetry, sonnets, villanelles, rhymes and meter, so I’ve been reading Gwendolyn Brooks, Claude McKay, for their takes on old forms. I love Thom Gunn, who wrote formal, British- proper poetry about biker gangs and his gay lovers and the plague of AIDS in the ’80s. Annie Finch inspires me with her feminist formalist experiments…

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Poemshape

Why do Poets write Iambic Pentameter?

Iambic Pentameter originated as an attempt to develop a meter for the English language legitimizing English as an alternative and equal to Latin (as a language also capable of great poetry and literature). Encyclopedia of Spenser – ExtractSince meter was a feature of all great Latin poetry, it was deemed essential that an equivalent be developed for the English Language. But poets couldn’t simply adopt Latin’s dactylic hexameter or dactylic pentameter lines. Latin uses quantitative meter, a meter based on the alternation of long and short syllables…

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Poetry By Stacey

Battle of Wills [Extract]

Fighting the urge was becoming too strong,
It had only been days but seemed so long,
Temptation all around, pulling him in,
Would its magnetic power finally win?

Desparately trying to keep occupied,
Pushing the thought to the back of his mind,
But despite everything he tried to do,
A voice screamed ” go on you know you want to…

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[Don’t know if this is recent – or just recently indexed – but an interesting post.]

The Politics of Meter: on Traditional Forms
by Catherine Wagner

For decades, traditional patterns have been distrusted by, for instance, the “organic form”/”projective verse” avant-garde, as well as by writers working with nontraditional word-patterns—the Language poets, Jackson Mac Low, Susan Howe, and others. The distrust of verse is widespread. Even my dad tells me he knows that poetry shouldn’t rhyme or be in regular meter anymore. And poets of all stripes still get suddenly bored or nervous when they detect traditional forms. Not very many years ago, some members of the Buffalo Poetics listserv were provoked to anger when Annie Finch joined the list to ask for input on the anthology of forms she was putting together. And after a reading I gave recently in England, a poet (a committed political activist and self-declared member of the avant-garde) congratulated me on my “anti-prosody.” She was certain that what she’d heard meant I was working in ironic opposition to traditional meter. Not so…