Robert Frost’s “Out, Out”

Buzz Saws and Saw Machines

When I first read this poem, barely a teenager, I got it into my head that Frost’s buzz saw was just another word for a chain saw. But chain saws, as we know them, didn’t make it to the general public until the mid 1920s. The types of saws Frost and New England farmer’s were familiar with are scattered throughout the post.

The saw at right is probably very close to the kind of saw Frost was imagining – called a buzz saw. Here’s how it worked: The flat surface that looks like a table slid forward and back on the two rails. The farmer would put the log on the table and push it through the circular saw.

If you look closely, underneath the front left corner, you’ll see a small iron wheel that rides on the rail. Behind the table, another close look will reveal another larger round metal wheel – the pulley. A belt went around this wheel and could be attached to any kind of motor: steam, gas, or even a horse. (By 1910, Ford was already producing and widely selling gas powered traction machines – later called tractors, that could be attached to a buzz saw.) But having both the buzz saw and the early tractor would have been an expensive proposition.

To get a better idea of how these saws worked, here’s an old gas driven rig, the kind that sawyers would have used (expensive in its own day).

Because I don’t see these rigs run anymore, even up here in Vermont, I joined an antique chainsaw forum to get my facts straight. Here’s what Tom Hawkins, a forum member to whom I’m most grateful, had to say:

[The video shows] a single cylinder (or one lunger) type gasoline engines, some of which are known as “Hit & Miss” or “Make & Break” engines. These terms refer to the engine ignition systems where the spark in constantly interrupted to maintain a set or governed engine speed. In some case it is not the spark, but rather the fuel charge that is temporarily interrupted, these are throttle governed engines. Those two engines pictured above are also hopper cooled type engines, where a large case iron tub filled with water surrounds the engines cylinder for cooling. Note it is not steam powered (…) but steam from the coolant that’s seen in the video. The stream is not uncommon for a working engine, and considered as a normal sign of proper engine operating temperatures, they run best when the stream is present.

Since the machines were too expensive for most, farmers and landowners would cut and stack logs during the winter. Later in the spring and summer, (with the wood close to the homestead) the Sawyers could bring their rigs right into the dooryard and cut the wood into “stove length pieces”. These pieces would then have to be split for cook stoves. Once again, here’s Tom:

A farm family would cut down small sized trees (about 9″ at the butt), beginning in the late fall (after the crop harvest) though early spring, dragging the logs over the winters snow was easier than the bare ground. This work had to be completed before the farmers time would be consumed with the springtime task of cultivating his fields. ¶ The firewood was needed for the next winters home heating and cooking supply, the cleared land for expanding their field crops. ¶ The logs were piled close to the wood shed or home for cutting into stove length pieces, then stacked inside for dry storage and winter access. ¶ The farmers would then arrange a time when the sawyer would be available in his area, the sawyers travelled from homestead to homestead doing several cutting jobs before moving on. Many people did however cut their own firewood by hand with an axe and buck saw.

What is clear, in both Frost’s poem and the newspaper clipping that inspired it, is that the saw was machine powered. These are the kinds of machines New Englanders used before the advent of chainsaws. They could be easily moved by a team of oxen or horses wherever the cordwood needed to be bucked. And there was very little in the way of safety.

On the Writing of the Poem

The title of Frost’s poem will immediately remind knowledgeable readers of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The title echoes what are, perhaps, some of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

The feeling of exhaustion and surrender and life’s futility is palpable. And it warns, all too tragically, of the death (and its tenor) in Frost’s poem. Earlier in the play, and in keeping with Shakespeare’s habit of thought, the doubled combination of out appears in the character of Lady MacBeth.

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One–two—
why then ’tis time to do’t. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie!
A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it,
when none can call our power to account? Yet who would
have thought the old man to have had so much blood in
him?

Macbeth Act 5, scene 1, 26–40

Lady Macbeth’s utterance expresses abhorrence – abhorring a deed that cannot be undone, cannot be washed out or slighted. The blood of murder, the spot, has irrevocably stained her hand. Likewise, the boy’s hand, all but severed by the saw, cannot be redone or restored. There will be no backward step.

Shadow Newman on FrostIn her indispensable book on Frost’s most famous poems, Lea Newman observes that Frost based Out, Out on a real incident. She writes:

The March 31, 1910, edition of The Littleton Courier of Littleton, New Hampshire, carried the following story:

Raymond Tracy Fitzgerald, one of the twin sons of Michael G. And Margaret Fitzgerald of Bethlehem, died at his home Thursday afternoon, March 24, as a result of an accident by which one of his hands was badly hurt in a sawing machine. The young man was assisting in sawing up some wood in his own dooryard with a sawing machine and accidentally hit the loose pulley, causing the saw to descend upon his hand, cutting and lacerating it badly. Raymond was taken into the house and a physician was immediately summoned, but he died very suddenly from the effects of the shock, which produced heart failure… {March 31, 1910]

I can’t recommend Newman’s book enough. Clicking on the image will take you to Amazon.com and the book will take to her more detailed introduction. Buzzsaw & TractorBriefly, as part of her introduction, Newman mentions that Frost didn’t write Out, Out until his return from England, the summer of 1915. She writes that, “he bought a farm outside the village of Sugar Hill, near the Lynches, with a view overlooking the five peaks of the Franconia Range(…) It overlooked five mountain ranges to the west toward Vermont, the same view described in the poem.” He wrote the poem in 1916.

The newspaper clipping doesn’t call the saw a buzz saw but a saw machine. In 1910, the terms saw machine could refer to just about any saw (including circular saws).

Note: The tractor at left is a Farmall from the 1930s.The Howell Drag Saw Machine

However, I’ve noticed that a machine called a drag saw was almost always referred to as a saw machine (when circular saws sometimes weren’t).

The illustration at right comes from the Encyclopedia of American farm implements & antiques. The motor (which could have been just about anything – including an animal) driving the drag saw isn’t in the illustration. To truly appreciate how these machines worked, I’ve found a youtube video of a steam driven drag saw machine. Notice that the saw hangs from a pulley (as well as in the illustration). Now imagine if the pulley was hanging loose or unsecured (or the rope of the pulley) and that someone accidentally bumped the rope or pulley. The blade might suddenly release. If the machine was running, imagine the damage to ones hand.

The Scansion

Now to the poem. Without further ado, here is the poem and it’s scansion. All unmarked feet are Iambic. Pyrrhic feet are yellow. Trochaic feet are red. Spondaic feet are purple. Green indicates a feminine ending. Blue indicates an anapestic foot. The colorized scansion is my own invention and I try to keep the colors consistent throughout my scansions. As far as I know, this little innovation is all my own. The colors, to my eyes, help to quickly visualize the Frost’s metrical patterning, his use of variant feet. If scansion and its symbols are new to you, visit What is Iambic Pentameter (The Basics).

A scansion of Robert Frost's Out, Out

Meter and Meaning

The very first thing to note is that the poem is written in unrhymed Iambic Pentameter, otherwise known as blank verse.

The second thing to note is that the repetition of a Pyhrric foot followed by a Spondee is one of the more interesting patterns in this poem. While I don’t think repeating the figure is, in and of itself, significant, each individual occurrence nicely underpins the text of the poem. While it might be too much to say that every one of Frost’s variant feet are meaningful, he certainly was aware of when he was varying the iambic pattern and the effect it would have.

First Lines Metrical Example

These are strongly varied lines. The second of the three has only one Iambic Foot. All the rest are variant. Frost must have liked the effect of the trochaic dust in the first line. The snarling, rattling saw made dust (where the word dust disrupts the normal metrical pattern. This foot is followed by the spondaic dropped stove. Here too, the meter nicely emphasizes the dropping of the stove length sticks with two consecutively stressed syllables. Did Frost plan this all out? I don’t know, but in this line at least meaning and meter work well together.

Sears & Roebuck Circular Saw Machine Ad 1897I chose to read the first foot of the second line as spondaic. However, one could also read it as Iambic and I have a hunch that Frost read it this way. (Frost usually emphasized the iambic pattern of his poems when reading.) The second line would then read as follows:

Sweet-scen | ted stuff | when the | breeze drew | across it.

The real virtuoso display comes with the phrase “when the breeze drew across it“. To my ears, the pyrrhic foot followed by the spondaic “breeze drew” nicely mimics the rise and draw of a breeze followed by its “fall” in the feminine ending: across it. It’s a lovely touch and I suspect Frost was aware of the effect.

The third line could also be read as iambic pentameter, thus:

And from | there those | that lif | ted eyes | could count

I could imagine Frost reading it like this but I haven’t found a recording. It’s said that Frost rarely read it. I’m guessing that he felt the poem ought to be more private than public, having been based on real events. The next lines that give a nice metrical example also both demonstrate a repeated pattern of thought in this poem, the pyrrhic foot followed by a spondaic foot.

And the Saw Snarled - Metrical Example

Note: For those readers and poets who really enjoy understanding how the minds of poets (and by extension all of us) work, there’s a fascinating little book by Edward A. Armstrong called Shakespeare’s Imagination. Armstrong traces what he calls image clusters in the works of Shakespeare. Swing Saw AdvertIn other words, when a goose shows up in Shakespeare’s imagery, the bird is usually associated with disease, lechery and even the plague. Likewise, when Shakespeare is reminded of a violet, his thoughts almost invariably turn to breath, which becomes wind, sweet airs and even tempests. Not only Armstrong, but other Shakespearean authors have noticed, if in passing, these same habits of thought. Caroline Spurgeon, in Shakespeare’s Imagery, notes similar patterns, including Shakespeare’s negative association with dogs. M.M. Mahood, in Shakespeare’s Wordplay , observes patterns of wordplay. When one word shows up, another associated word will usually show up with it. The reason I mention it is because I’ve noticed similar habits in the writing of meter. In any given poem or stage in a poet’s career, certain variant feet will show up and in habitual combinations. Compare the hard Iambic regularity of Mending Wall with Birches. The varying use of meter in all these poems certainly reflects on the intent and mood of the poem, but I also wonder if it reflects on the poet’s state of mind.

Back to Out, Out. Everyone who has heard a chainsaw knows how the engine revs and rattles. The two lines above, to my ears, capture that sound. The pyrrhic foot followed by the doubly stressed spondaic foot and the amphibrach (feminine ending) all contribute to a kind of metrical onomatopoeia: and the saw snarledand rattled/ as it ran light. By no means does every variant foot feel so nicely wedded to meaning, but Frost, like all great metrical poets, knows how to take advantage of the art when the opportunity arises. Mediocre poets will frequently dilute the power of such variations by introducing them meaninglessly and even contrary to the textual meaning.

All spoiled

The disruptive spondee |Don’t let| disrupts the iambic pattern – a kind of shock and outcry both textually and metrically.

The hand was gone

With this line the blank verse pattern breaks down. There are two ways to scan this line. Above, I’ve scanned the line as an Iambic Tetrameter line with a spondaic first foot and a feminine ending. It’s a nice little trick of meter. The hand is missing and a metrical foot is missing. With an Iambic Tetrameter scansion, the meter neatly reinforces the meaning of the text. Something is missing. The experienced reader of metrical poetry may subliminally or consciously sense the missing foot in the poem. The effect can be powerful, causing both the reader and the listener to pause, to palpably sense an absence. The line is the turning point of the poem.

Another way to scan the line (and the two ways of scanning the line are not mutually exclusive, though that may sound odd) is to treat the first two syllables as monosyllabic feet.

The hand was gone (monosyllabic feet)

Many, if not most, poets and metrists claim that monosyllabic feet don’t exist. I don’t agree. Metrical Art with ShadowI go along with George T. Wright, author of Shakespeare’s Metrical Art. He writes:

Occasional lines appear to be missing an unstressed syllable in some other position than at line -beginning or after a midline break. Anomalous lines of this kind appear in some early plays, sometimes (as in the work of Shakespeare’s predecessors) without notable expressive effect. But as Shakespeare develops the technique in his middle and later plays, it becomes a deliberate device for conveying emotional excitement. All of the following lines appear to involve a foot-long monosyllable intended to be spoken with great force or weight [The following is the second of the two examples Wright offers p. 178]:

King Lear Monosyllabic Feet

In like manner, I’ve read Frost’s So and But as monosyllabic feet. (This makes the line a five foot line.) While the variant feet don’t convey emotional excitement, they do convey a profound emotional turning point in the poem. I imagine the intonation as profoundly sad – a kind of tragic acknowledgment. The words could be spoken slowly with a generous pause – a tragic acceptance (though there are other equally powerful ways to read the poem).

Whether one reads the line as Pentameter or Tetrameter, the effect of both scansions can be felt simultaneously. And this is partly what scansion can do. It demonstrates the different ways readers and poets are affected by speech stress and rhythm in language, and sometimes there is more than one way to scan a line.

The final lines worth considering is the following:

Little, less, nothing

It’s the second line that’s especially noteworthy – a trochaic foot (the heart skips a beat), a spondaic foot (the last two heartbeats) and a pyrrhic foot (then nothing, no stresses, no beats). The boy dies. …such is Frost’s mastery of meter. I give him this one. I think he knew very well how he was playing the meter with the meaning. It’s an effect free verse can approximate, but can’t equal.

The Storyteller

A comparison of the newspaper clipping with Frost’s poem shows a number of changes. He changed the young man to a boy; and Frost clearly means for us to think the boy is more child than man – calling him “a child at heart”. If only given the newspaper clipping, I think most readers would imagine someone in his early to mid teens, rather than a “boy”.

Frost doesn’t want the reader to think this was simply carelessness – a young man who should have known better.

This was a boy, a child at heart, who didn’t know better. Frost suggests where the real responsibility rested: Call it a day, I wish they might have said. They, presumably, are the boy’s elders. Some critics and readers have read, in the poem’s closing lines, a cold callousness. Homemade Swing Saw (Side View)But if the narrator is assumed to be Frost, then there is also compassion and empathy in these lines. Frost possessed strong political opinions. And though his poetry is not overtly political, his philosophical and political views inevitably informed his poetry. Artists can’t escape their personalities (or at least I’m not aware of any).

Note: The saw at left is called a swing saw or swing saw machine. The swing saw in the image is homemade but is representative of the kind of saw that turn-of-the-century word workers would have been familiar with. (Cross-cut saws and chop saws would eventually replace them.) Notice how the saw is hanging like a pendulum. The weight of the circular saw blade (and assembly) were usually counterbalanced by another weight – like the “window weights” in old double-hung windows. If the counterweight hung from a pulley and someone bumped the weight or pulley, the saw might descend on the users hand. However, these saws were primarily shop saws and wouldn’t have been used in a dooryard for bucking lumber. In my view, a swing saw is probably not what was being referred to as a saw machine.

Some readers and critics have taken Frost’s poem as a criticism of child labor laws. Frost had spent time as an educator and so one might expect his sympathies to be attuned to the young. When Frost wrote the poem child labor was still a pernicious practice. It wasn’t until 1938 that the Federal government regulated child labor in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Frost, by this point, was already in his early sixties.

The other change was from a sawing machine to a buzz saw. Saw machines (like the larger drag saws) were probably less apt to be operated by a single person. The newspaper clipping states that Fitzgerald was assisting someone else (or others). A buzz saw, on the other hand, could easily be used by one person handling smaller logs. The impression Frost gives is of a boy working alone (his sister has to come out to tell him supper is ready). A child working after hours and alone only adds to the feeling, not of carelessness, but of tragedy. Frost additionally resists blaming the boy. He writes that the saw leaped out at the boy’s hand, as if it knew what supper was. The modern reader might wonder how a buzz saw could leap, but here’s Tom Hawkins again:

Now I’ve run many a cordwood saws in my life, so I kinda understand that poem a bit. Those old one lunger type gasoline engines had counterweighted flywheels to keep up their momentum as they were running, this caused the saw rig to bounce somewhat. The engines also had a make and break ignition, spark on and off as engine needed to maintain it’s governed speed, so as a new charged fired the whole unit would jump. ¶ I remember that when were cutting real dried out Oak or more so Locust (very hard wood), a large cloud of sawdust would surround an encompass us. ¶ It’s very possible that the saw did leap right out and take the hand, these type of saws really do jump, especially when their slowing to a stop, which appear to be the case here. The jump or leaping is caused by those counterweighted flywheels rotating at lower than normal balance speed.

Was it the boy? Was it the saw? Did the “boy give the hand”? It was fate. These things simply happen. The effect is to express the inexplicable.

Frost and the Poem’s Reception

As I’ve mentioned already, many of Frost’s readers were perplexed by the seeming callousness and indifference of the poem. Consider, as well, the reference of the poem’s title.

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Is this how readers are to understand the boy’s death? – as signifying nothing? Other words and images occur in Frost’s poem that may or may not have their source in Shakespeare’s passage. Consider these lines:

all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

Then consider how dust appears within the first lines of Frost’s poem:

The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust…

And the saw does just that. The buzz saw turns the boy’s own life to dust. It makes dust both literally and symbolically. And the poem, like Shakespeare’s soliloquy, closes with the word nothing.

They listened at his heart.
Little — less — nothing!

Just as with the poor fool, the actor who frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more, so too is the boy’s heart “heard no more”.

Belief & UncertaintyRobert Pack, one of the only authors to offer a detailed analysis of the poem, writes in Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost:

The poem’s narrative arc is of dust returning to “dusty death” (Shakespeare’s phrase), although the narrator and reader are at first misled by the sweet-scented odor of the cut wood in the breeze. The narrator, along with those other would-be believers who have lifted eyes, appears to be enjoying a vision of great depth into nature itself — “the Five mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset, far into Vermont” — as if nature were beautiful and benign, a spectacle of Wordsworthian and biblical revelation. But the narrator will subsequently realize that he has had, rather, a vision of nature’s beautiful indifference. [p. 158-159]

Pack calls the poem a confrontation with nothingness. And the feeling of nothingness and utilitarian purpose is only emphasized by the choice of words that close the poem, “no more to build on there“. This was more than the loss of a child. The work of building, of preparing for the season, the next season and the years to come never stopped. Frost’s words are hard. What had to be considered was not just the loss of a child but what the child contributed. Life in New England, at the turn of the century, was not easy. The response to the poem, among some of Frost’s closest readers and associates, seems to have put Frost on the defensive. Pack quotes a passage from a letter that may capture some of that defensiveness:

“And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies.” [p. 160]

Though Pack calls this passage “revealing” he doesn’t indicate why (or if) he thinks Frost was referring specifically to Out, Out. This sort of “hard pragmatism” can also be found in Home Burial. But even more revealing than this brief passage is the poem The Lesson for Today. As with the poem For Once, Then, Something, Frost seems to be responding to his critics, readers and even, perhaps, to his closest friends and family – acquaintances who may have accused Frost, himself, of that same hard callousness.

Major Themes of RFWe are all doomed to broken-off careers,
And so’s the nation, so’s the total race.
The earth itself is liable to that fate
Of meaninglessly being broken off.
(And hence so many literary tears
At which my inclination is to scoff.)
I may have wept that any should have died
Or missed their chance, or not have been their best,
Or been their riches, fame, or love denied;
On me as much as any is the jest.
I take my incompleteness with the rest.
God bless himself can no one else be blessed.

O hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

Radcliffe Squires, who also noted the relationship between this poem and the poem Out, Out, comments:

What matters is that [Robert Frost] could hold together in one poem the two severe and mutually accusing ideas that one must be moved to pity and compassion and that one must coldly and sternly pursue the duty of endurance and survival.

The beauty of the poem, and it’s powerful effect on the reader, arises from the balance Frost obtains. The accident is both carelessness, “the boy gave the hand” and accident “the saw leaped”. The narrator is both compassionate, “call it a day I wish they might have said”, and coldly pragmatic, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs”. The narrator is almost like nature itself – the passionate and dispassionate observer – that leaves us, the readers, to wonder at its design and purpose. That’s the best kind of poetry.

Sir Phillip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets

A New Form & a New Meter

I have noticed that readers of my previous post on Shakespearean, Spenserian, Petrarchan Sonnet Forms have occasionally searched for further information on Sidney’s Sonnets. sir-phillip-sidneyThe first thing to know about Sidney is that his Sonnets predated those of Shakespeare, Daniel, Drayton, Donne, or Spenser. Spenser published his sonnets, Amoretti,  in 1595, 9 years after Sidney’s death and four years after Sidney’s own Sonnets were posthumously published. Samuel Daniel’s Delia was published in 1592. Micheal Drayton’s Idea was published in 1594. Shakespeare’s Sonnet Sequence was published in 1609. My point in mentioning this is that Sidney’s Sonnets are written in a variety of rhyme schemes and his meter varies between Iambic Pentameter and Iambic Hexameter (also called Alexandrines). Shakespeare, Spenser, Daniel and Drayton all settle on a single Sonnet scheme. When Sidney was writing, the Sonnet was still an unestablished form.

The other aspect to consider is Sidney’s use of Meter. The works of Marlowe, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Chapman, Donne and others were still unpublished. Sidney wasn’t working with a pre-established meter. He was creating it in the act of writing it. What might appear to be eccentric or radical has more to do with his search for a form that satisfies his own aesthetics. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, the first play that demonstrated what blank verse  (iambic pentameter) was capable of, was performed a year after Sidney’s death.

If you want a brief but good introduction to Sidney (how to understand some of the themes central to his poetry and how they differ from modern day concerns) I strongly recommend Sir Philip Sidney. Brief Background. The Sonnet Tradition. Atrophil and Stella by Peter Sinclair. I just discovered his blog and think very highly of it. For a web site entirely dedicated to Sidney, try Sir Philip Sidney at Luminarium.Org. The latter website includes a variety of links to his works.

The Variety of his Sonnets

Rather than offer up an in-depth analysis of any one of his sonnets (as is my usual habit), I’ll offer up an example of the different types along with some brief commentary. (All unmarked feet are iambic.)

Astrophil & Stella

Sidney Sonnet 1

  • There seem to be two versions of this sonnet. The version most frequently printed (and the one you’ll find most often on the net), reads the second line as follows:

That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:

My source is Richard Dutton’s edition of Sidney’s Selected writings (which I own). Dutton writes:

Atrophil and Stella was first published in 1591 in two quarto editions which appear to have had no sanction from any of Sidney’s family or friends. I have followed recent editorial practice in preferring the text given in the 1598 Folio of Sidney’s works, which there is good reason for supposing was supervised by his sister, Mary, Countess of Pembroke. It is the fullest of the early texts and includes songs as they are given here (some texts have none, others only some), lyric embellishments on the narrative running through the sonnets.

The book appears to be out-of-print, or I would provide a link.

Shakespeare's Metrical ArtAnyway, this is Sidney’s first sonnet from his sequence Astrophil and Stella. I’ve scanned it the way George T. Wright, Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, scans Sidney. (He didn’t scan this poem, but I’ve used his “methodry”.) What Wright does is to treat certain phrases as a double foot. So, in the first line, a standard reading would read the line as Iambic Hexameter with a trochaic first foot:

Loving | in truth, |and fain |in verse |my love |to show

This is well within the metrical practice of the day and so, at first glance, Wright’s method appears arbitrary (or at least it did to me).  In other words, if Wright is going to read the first four syllables as a double foot, why not read the next four syllables as a double foot, or why not apply the same standards to Shakespeare’s sonnets?

Reading Sidney’s sonnets as a whole, however, reveals the reasons. Sidney’s variant feet always seem to come in pairs while the lines (within which they occur) remain strongly iambic. In his later sonnets, double feet can consist of two trochees, for example, an effect that would all but disappear from shorter Elizabethan poems – treated as incompetent. Sidney must have been well aware of the trends – that poets, like Spenser, Daniel and Drayton were increasingly favoring a strong Iambic Pentameter line. Sidney’s metrical experiments were not born out of ignorance or newness to the form. Sidney, after all, was the first English poet/critic to write a critical essay on Poetry – his Defence of Poetry.

He was experimenting with meter in a way that later poets couldn’t (as accentual syllabic verse became established and regularized). He was writing a line that was more typical of French Poetry, the Alexadrine, and trying to naturalize it (if not reconcile it) with accentual syllabic verse more natural to the English language. In the French poetry of the time, the Alexandrine was not as patterned as it was to become at the hands of the 17th century French Dramatists. There was a certain regularity, but it was “intensified and regularized” [Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics p. 30] after Sidney’s lifetime.  So, the form of the Alexandrine with which Sidney was familiar, was a less patterned, syllabic line.  That he was familiar with the Alexandrine is apparent from his Defence of Poetry:

Now for the rhyme [modern accentual verse], though we do not observe quantity, yet we observe the accent very precisely, which other languages either cannot do, or will not do so absolutely. That caesura, or breathing place in the midst of the verse, neither Italian nor Spanish have, the French and we never almost fail of.

So, to Sidney, the French Alexandrine was syllabic and characterized by division into two hemistichs “making it an apt vehicle for polarization, paradox, parallelism and complementarity.” [Ibid. 30] Notice, in the first sonnet,  how many of his Alexandrines are broken, midline, by a caesura. For instance:

Pleasure might cause her read, || reading might make her know,

The line is also characterized by anadiplosis, the repetition of read at the end and beginning;  and the parallelism – all characteristics of the French Alexandrine (though equally characteristic of English poetry). And there is also the parallelism of meter – each having a double foot (trochee-iamb). Sidney seems to be combining syllabic (French Influence) with accentual syllabic (English Influence) verse in a strict dodecasyllabic line. He’s trying to anglicize the French Alexandrine – remake it into an English meter having characteristics of both the French and English verse.

What was Sidney’s aim in all of this?

The variant double feet seemed to give Sidney some flexibility in the patterning of his syntax. In the person of Astrophil, Sidney’s “cries, curses, prayers, and resolutions” [Wright: 73] are aptly expressed in the flexible meter of his double foot:

I sought fit words|
strang
|ers in my way
help|
less in my throes

Rather than reinvent the wheel,  I’ll let Wright sum up Sidney’s purposes, which he does well:

Through such arrangements of meter and phrasing, Sidney finds a convincing tonal correlative for the psychological states of the Petrarchan lover and opens up iambic pentameter to a whole new order of English Speech. Compared with the earlier uses of Iambic Pentameter for narrative, dramatic, and even lyric verse, Sidney’s discovery of the meter’s powers is revolutionary. The next step, as we can see in retrospect, will be taken by Shakespeare, who pours new life into the relatively inert dramatic poetry of his age by adapting and developing to a much finer pitch and for incomparably grander purposes Sidney’s art of expressive metrical speech. [Ibid. 74]

You might wonder why Wright is talking about Iambic Pentameter when the first of Sidney’s Sonnets is written in Alexandrines.  Of all Sidney’s sonnets, however, there are only five other examples (this combined with Shakespeare’s Iambic Tetrameter Sonnet, should all but dispel the myth that sonnets are, by definition, written in Iambic Pentameter). Sidney may have been dissatisfied with Alexandrines, or more attracted to the developing decasyllabic lines of Iambic Pentameter. The rest of his sonnets are decasyllabic. That said, he carries over the technique of the double foot into his decasyllabic sonnets. In our day, his decasyllabic sonnets would easily fall within the confines of Iambic Pentameter. That is, most would readily identify them as Iambic Pentameter.

Interpreting Sonnet 1

In his own day, though, his meter was much more experimental than that – miles apart from the sonnets Spenser was writing. I think it always helps to appreciate a poet (one that might seem staid by today’s standards) by trying to read them as their contemporaries read them. And speaking of which, I quick word on interpreting the sonnet:

That the dear She might take some pleasure of my pain:

Filthy ShakespeareThis line works on many levels because of the word pain. It means, in its least ribald sense, that Stella might take some platonic pleasure from the effort/pain of writing the sonnets. But Sidney’s intentions are hardly platonic. Pain was also a reference to orgasm (as it is now). So… Sidney is slyly suggesting that, if only his Sonnets achieve their aim, she might take some pleasure (her own orgasm) from his orgasm. If you think this far-featched, then I would recommend a book like Filthy Shakespeare. The Elizabethans saw life very differently than we do. Death and sex was ever present. Life, in all its glory and decay, was intimate. They weren’t nearly so prudish about the realities of life as we have become – which isn’t to say that prudishness didn’t exist. The Elizabethans were all too ready to find sly humor in the crudities of life – much to the dismay and denial of our more puritan contemporaries.

reading might make her know

And what does Sidney mean by know. Does he simply mean that she will know that he loves her? Hardly. The phrase to bibically know someone comes from this era. To know someone possessed the double sense of having sex, just as it does now. So…Sidney is saying that if she reads his sonnets, she might come to know him, have sex with him. He is continuing the playful double-entendre of the previous line.

Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain

The first quatrain closes, appropriately, with the attainment of grace. Grace continues Sidney’s double-meaning – grace as pity, beneficence, release from sin, sexual release, release from sexual obsession, lust and desire through the exercise of the same. It’s all there. From this point, Sidney plays on the conceit of his imagination/invention as a wayward student looking for inspiration in all the wrong places. Fool, says Sidney’s exasperated muse in the closing couplet, just shut-up and write from your heart.

As an aside, compare Sidney’s Sonnet to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76, ostensibly on the same conceit of “writer’s block”:

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

One gets the feeling that Shakespeare had read and re-read Sidney’s Sonnets, frequently inspired by many of Sidney’s own ideas.

On the Variety of his Sonnets

Lastly, worth noting is that although Sidney is writing in the Petrarchan tradition, he has already adopted and anticipated the much more Elizabethan, brilliantly argumentative, form that was to quickly evolve into the English/Shakespearean sonnet. The Elizabethans weren’t romantics. They reveled in the brilliantly turned argument, quick reparté, ingenius conceit, and wit. Every one of Sidney’s arguments are witty engagements with figurative language, simile, metaphor. Out of 108 poems, 93 of them are written with the closing, epigrammatic couplet typical of the English/Shakespearean Sonnet  – of these, all but 5 are decasyllabic (or a loose Iambic Pentameter). The dramatic sting of the couplet’s closing summation, toward which the argument of the entire sonnet drives, is clearly a form that appealed to Sidney, as to most of his contemporary Elizabethan poets. They loved nothing more than the display of wit in rhetoric and debate. Formally, though the meter of Sonnet 1 is written in Alexandrines, the closing couplet typifies the majority of his sonnets. All that changes, between these 83 sonnets, is the rhyme scheme leading up to the closing couplet.

Sonnet 1 – Three Interlocking Sicilian Quatrains: ABAB ABAB CDCD followed by a heroic Couplet EE.
Sonnet 2 – An Italian Octave made up of two Italian Quatrains ABBA ABBA followed by an interlocking Sicilian Quatrain CDCD and a heroic couplet EE.

These two variations comprise the lion’s share of the 93 Sonnets ending in a couplet. The rhyme scheme of Sonnet 1, as mentioned before, comes closest to the Shakespearean Sonnet, saving its epigrammatic couplet for the close of the sonnet. The whole of the sonnet feels driven toward the concluding couplet. Sonnet 2 is a sort of hybrid between Petrarchan and English Sonnets. The nested couplets in the first and second quatrain make the first octave feel more self-contained, more like a Petrarchan Sonnet. Whereas the sestet (CDCDEE) is a sort of English Sestet [my own coinage] to the Italian Octave, acting as a sort of counterpoise (an English Sonnet reduced to a sestet).

And here is yet another Sidneyan experiment – a sonnet composed in Identical Rhyme. It’s form is, outwardly, comparable to Sonnet 2, but the final couplet is altered in the name of Elizabethan wit.

ABBA ABBA ABAB AB

Sonnet 89

Now that of absence the most irksome night
With darkest shade doth overcome my day;
Since Stella’s eyes, wont to give me my day,
Leaving my hemisphere, leave me in night;
Each day seems long, and longs for long-stayed night;
The night, as tedious, woos th’ approach of day:
Tired with the dusty toils of busy day,
Languished with horrors of the silent night,
Suffering the evils both of day and night,
While no night is more dark then is my day,
Nor no day hath less quiet then my night:
With such bad-mixture of my night and day,
That living thus in blackst winter night,
I feele the flames of hottest summer day.

And again, as an aside, compare this to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 28

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarr’d the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night, and night by day, oppress’d?
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me;
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day, to please them thou art bright
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven:
So flatter I the swart-complexion’d night,
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

(One gets the feeling that Shakespeare was measuring himself against Sidney.)

The second form, unfortunately in the minority, is typified by Sonnet 80.

The Sidneyan Sonnet

Sidney Sonnet 80

Sidney’s efforts to infuse his meter with the “expressive speech” (passion)  finds its way into his decasyllabic sonnets. I call them decasyllabic because it’s not clear that Sidney, himself, would have considered these sonnets as Iambic Pentameter. He was trying to do something different – at least if judged against his contemporaries. While they are well within the confines of modern Iambic Pentameter,  it would be several generations before so many variant feet would again occur in a single line within the space of a sonnet.  Only Donne would come close. Lines like:

Since best wits think || it wit || thee to admire
Nature’s praise, vir||tue’s stall; ||Cupid’s cold fire
Breather of life||, and fast||’ner of desire
Loathing all lies,|| doubting this flat||tery is

On the other hand, lines 1,4,5,8,9, 13, and 14 are firmly Iambic and Pentameter. So, while his sonnets might not have been considered Iambic Pentameter in his own day, Sidney was using Iambic Pentameter as a basic pattern from which to vary. As Wright points out, when Sidney returns to the normative meter, he does so firmly and unequivocally –  as though he were compensating for the variant patterns.

This sonnet form (the Sonnet above) was, to my knowledge, was first used by Sidney (probably created by him) and never used again. It’s every bit as interesting, to me, as the Shakespearean or Petrarchan form, and more interesting than the Spenserian Sonnet. It does something very unique. The couplet assumes the role of a sort of epigrammatic volta, the embodiment of the Petrarchan turn, neatly hinging the subject matter. This Sidneyan form clearly demarcates the sonnet into two parts – the Octave, a hinging heroic Couplet, and a summarizing quatrain.

The form is, perhaps, the most legal-like, attorney-esque form in all of poetry – perfectly suited to the Elizabethan temperament of discourse, reason, balance, thesis and antithesis. The heroic couplet aurally reinforces the turn in disquisition – subliminally. To my sensibility, it’s a beautiful effect. The Octave and final Quatrain’s envelope Quatrains (meaning they each envelope a heroic couplet) enforces the sense that they are self-contained arguments. The heroic couplet of the volta therefore feels less like a summation than a hinge between two distinct parts.

Intepreting Sonnet 80

Elizabethan CourtshipSonnet 80 stretches the notion of the conceit almost to the limit – verging on fetish (by modern standards). In the first line he is addressing Stella’s lip – the idealized woman’s lip. Swell with pride, he says. (The bawdy implication in these lines shouldn’t be overlooked.) The woman’s lip is a thing to be admired by “wits” (like himself). It is the praise of nature, virtue’s “stall” (in the Elizabethan sense being a seat of dignity – again, a certain bawdiness is hard to overlook). It is the place where heavenly graces “slide”.  The word slide was every bit as suggestive in Elizabethan days as now.

Just which lip is he talking about?

Slyly, Sidney doesn’t tell us. He both knowingly suggests and  deliberately misdirects. In the next quatrain the idealized woman’s lip is the new Parnasus, where the Muses (the Greek goddesses of art) bide; sweetener of music and wisdom’s beautifier. All fairly innocent stuff. But is it? Which muses? Then he knowingly suggests his real meaning.

Her lip is the “breather of life” – the entrance to the woman’s womb and the giver/breather of life. Her “lip” is the fastener of desire where beauty’s “blush” in Honour’s grain is dyed. Indeed. And don’t miss the  pun on dyed – or died – the woman’s sex being the place of death/orgasm.

I can imagine that some readers will strongly, if not vehemently object that I’m reading too much into this Octave. Possibly, but I don’t think so. 30 years of Elizabethan Drama followed these sonnets and the language in these plays is stuffed with innuendo, puns, and outright crudities, making it clear that this was a culture that reveled in bawdy sexual humor and full-blooded suggestiveness. Some things don’t change. Many of their puns are still alive and well in our own day, belted out by everyone from Madonna to, less subtly,  rappers. There was a reason the Puritans promptly shut down the stage some thirty years after Shakespeare’s death. Shakespeare, himself, was considered too sexually coarse by the restoration poets that followed (ironically – since many of them weren’t any less suggestive).

Anyway, Sidney, as if suspecting that he may be skirting obviousness – becomes somewhat more platonic with the Hinge Couplet:

This much my heart compell’d my mouth to say,
But now spite of my heart my mouth will stay…

Loathing lies, fearing/doubting that his sonnet would simply be interpreted as flattery, he seeks to discover the truth. His mouth won’t be satisfied (is resty or restive) to discover how far (whether or not) Sidney’s praise falls short. Sweet lip, he writes, you teach my mouth with one sweet kiss.

Interpret that how you will.

Again, compare Sidney’s Sonnet 80 to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 128 – I, for one, am hard pressed not to notice many parallels. Music appears in both sonnets while Shakespeare, like Sidney before him, delights in personifying the different parts of his own and his lover’s body. In Sidney, it’s the heart, the mouth, and lip. In Shakespeare, it’s the fingers, the hand and lips. Both sonnets end with a kiss.

Oft, when thou, my music, music play’st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more blest than living lips.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

To all and any… if this post was helpful, was enjoyable, or if you have further questions or suggestions, please comment!