Emily Dickinson: Iambic Meter & Rhyme

Dickinson the Imp

emilydickinsonEmily Dickinson possessed a genius for figurative language and thought. Whenever I read her, I’m left with the impression of a woman who was impish, insightful, impatient, passionate and confident of her own genius. Some scholars  portray her as being a revolutionary who rejected (with a capital R) the  stock forms and meters of her day.

My own view is that Dickinson didn’t exactly “reject” the forms and meter. She wasn’t out to be a revolutionary.  She was impish and brilliant. Like Shakespeare, she delighted in subverting conventions and turning expectations upside down.This was part and parcel of her expressive medium. She exploited the conventions and expectations of the day, she didn’t reject them.

The idea that she was a revolutionary rejecting the tired prerequisites of form and meter certainly flatters the vanity of contemporary free verse proponents (poets and critics) but I don’t find it a convincing characterization. The irony is that if she were writing today, just as she wrote then, her poetry would probably be just as rejected by a generation steeped in the tired expectations and conventions of free verse.

The common meters of the hymn and ballad simply and perfectly suited her expressive genius. Chopin didn’t “reject” symphonies, Operas, Oratorios, Concertos, or Chamber Music, etc… his genius was for the piano. Similarly, Dickinson’s genius found a congenial outlet in the short, succinct stanzas of common meter.

The fact that she was a woman and her refusal to conform to the conventions of the day made recognition difficult (I sympathize with that). My read is that Dickinson didn’t have the patience for pursuing fame. She wanted to write poetry just the way she wanted and if fame mitigated that, then fame be damned.  She effectively secluded herself and poured forth poems with a profligacy bordering on hypographia. If you want a fairly succinct on-line biography of Dickinson, I enjoyed Barnes & Noble’s SparkNotes.

The Meters of Emily Dickinson

Dickinson used various hymn and ballad meters.

Searching on-line, there seems to be some confusion of terms or at the  least their usage seems confusing to me. So, to try to make sense of it, I’ve done up a meter tree.


The term Hymn Meter embraces many of the meters in which Dickinson wrote her poems and the tree above represents only the basic four types.

If the symbols used in this tree don’t make sense to you, visit my post on Iambic Pentameter (Basics). If they do make sense to you, then you will notice that there are no Iambic Pentameter lines in any of the Hymn Meters. They either alternate between Iambic Tetrameter and Iambic Trimeter or are wholly in one or the other line length. This is why Dickinson never wrote Iambic Pentameter. The meter wasn’t part of the pallet.

Common Meter, by the way, is the meter of Amazing Grace, and Christmas Carol.

And then there is Ballad Meter – which is a variant of Hymn Meter.

I’ve noticed that some on-line sites conflate Common Meter and Ballad Meter. But there is a difference. Ballad Meter is less formal and more conversational in tone than Common Meter, and Ballad Meter isn’t as metrically strict, meaning that not all of its feet may be iambic. The best example I have found is the theme song to Gilligan’s Island:


Obviously the tone is conversational but, more importantly, notice the anapests. The stanza has the same number of feet as Common Meter, but the feet themselves vary from the iambic strictness of Common Meter. Also notice the rhyme scheme. Only the second & fourth line rhyme. Common Meter requires a strict ABAB rhyme scheme. The tone, the rhyme scheme, and the varied meter distinguish Ballad Meter from Common Meter.

For the sake of thoroughness, the following gives an idea of the many variations on the four basic categories of Hymn meter. Click on the image if you want to visit the website from which the image comes (hopefully link rot won’t set it). Examples of the various meters are provided there.


If you look at the table above, you will notice that many of the hymn and ballad meters don’t even have names, they are simply referred to by the number of syllables in each line. Explore the site from which this table is drawn. It’s an excellent resource if you want to familiarize yourself with the various hymn and ballad meters  Dickinson would have heard and been familiar with – and which she herself used. Note the Common Particular Meter, Short Particular Meter and Long Particular Meter at the top right. These are meters you will find in Dickinson’s poetry. Following is an example of Common Particular Meter. The first stanza comes from around 1830 – by J. Leavitte, the year of Dickinson’s Birth. This stuff was in the air. The second example is the first stanza from Dickinson’s poem numbered 313.  The two columns on the right represent, first, the number of syllables per line and, second, the rhyme scheme.


Short Particular Meter is the reverse of this. That is, its syllable count is as follows: 6,6,8,6,6,8 – the rhyme scheme may vary. Long Particular Meter is 8,8,8,8,8,8 – Iambic Tetrameter through and through – the rhyme schemes may vary ABABCC, AABCCB, etc…

The purpose of all this is to demonstrate the many metrical patterns Dickinson was exposed to – most likely during church services. The singing of hymns, by the way, was not always a feature of Christian worship. It was Isaac Watts, during the late 17th Century, who wedded the meter of Folk Song and Ballad to scripture. An example of a hymn by Watts, written in common meter, would be Hymn 105, which begins (I’ve divided the first stanza into feet):

Nor eye |hath seen, |nor ear |hath heard,
Nor sense |nor rea|son known,
What joys |the Fa|ther hath |prepared
For those |that love |the Son.

But the good Spirit of the Lord
Reveals a heav’n to come;
The beams of glory in his word
Allure and guide us home.

Though Watts’ creation of hymns based on scripture were highly controversial, rejected by some churches and meaures-of-possibilityadopted by others, one of the church’s that fully adopted Watts’ hymns was the  The First Church of Amherst, Massachusetts, where Dickinson  from girlhood on, worshiped. She would have been repeatedly exposed to Samuel Worcester’s edition of Watts’s hymns, The Psalms and Spiritual Songs where the variety of hymn forms were spelled out and demonstrated. While scholars credit Dickinson as the first to use slant rhyme to full advantage, Watts himself was no stranger to slant rhyme, as can be seen in the example above. In fact, many of Dickinson’s “innovations” were culled from prior examples. Domhnall Mitchell, in the notes of his book Measures of Possiblity emphasizes the cornucopia of hymn meters she would have been exposed to:


One more variation on ballad meter would be fourteeners. Fourteeners essentially combine the Iambic Tetrameter and Trimeter alternation into one line. The Yellow Rose of Texas would be an example (and is a tune to which many of Dickinson’s poems can be sung).


dickinson-book-coverAccording to my edition of Dickinson’s poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, these are the first four lines (the poem is much longer) of the first poem Emily Dickinson wrote. Examples of the form can be found as far back as George Gascoigne – a 16th Century English Poet who preceded Shakespeare. If one divides the lines up, one finds the ballad meter hidden within:

Oh the Earth was made for lovers
for damsel, and hopeless swain
For sighing, and gentle whispering,
and unity made of twain

All things do go a courting
in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single
but thee in His world so fair!

How to Identify the Meter

The thing to remember is that although Dickinson wrote no Iambic Pentameter, Hymn Meters are all Iambic and Ballad Meters vary not in the number of metrical feet but in the kind of foot. Instead of Iambs, Dickinson may substitue an anapestic foot or a dactyllic foot.


So, if you’re out to find out what meter Dickinson used for a given poem. Here’s the method I would use. First I would count the syllables in each line. In the Dickinson’s famous poem above, all the stanzas but one could either be Common Meter or Ballad Meter. Both these meters share the same 8,6,8,6 syllabic line count – Iambic Tetrameter alternating with Iambic Trimeter. (See the Hymn Meter Tree.)

Next, I would check the rhyme scheme. For simplicity’s sake, I labeled all the words which weren’t rhyming, as X. If the one syllabically varying verse didn’t suggest ballad meter, then the rhyme scheme certainly would. This isn’t Common Meter. This is Ballad Meter. Common Meter keeps a much stricter rhyme scheme. The second stanza’s rhyme, away/civility is an eye rhyme. The third stanza appears to dispense with rhyme altogether although I suppose that one should, for the sake of propriety, consider ring/run a consonant rhyme. It’s borderline – even by modern day standards. Chill/tulle would be a slant rhyme. The final rhyme, day/eternity would be another eye rhyme.

It occurs to me add a note on rhyming, since Dickinson used a variety of rhymes (more concerned with the perfect word than the perfect rhyme). This table is inspired by a Glossary of Rhymes by Alberto Rios with some additions of my own. I’ve altered it with examples  drawn from Dickinson’s own poetry – as far as possible. The poem’s number is listed first followed by the rhymes. The numbering is based on The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas H. Johnson.



perfect rhyme, true rhyme, full rhyme

  • 1056 June/moon

imperfect rhyme, slant rhyme, half rhyme, approximate rhyme, near rhyme, off rhyme, oblique rhyme

  • 756 prayer/despair
    123 air/cigar
    744 astir/door

augmented rhyme – A sort of extension of slant rhyme. A rhyme in which the rhyme is extended by a consonant.bray/brave grow/sown

  • (Interestingly, this isn’t a type of rhyme Dickinson ever used, either because she was unaware of it or simply considered it a rhyme “too far”.)

diminished rhyme – This is the reverse of an augmented rhyme. brave/day blown/sow stained/rain

  • (Again, this isn’t a technique Dickinson ever uses.)

unstressed rhymeRhymes which fall on the unstressed syllable (much less common in Dickinson).

  • 345 very/sorry
    1601 forgiven/hidden prison/heaven

eye rhyme – These generally reflect historical changes in pronunciation. Some poets (knowing that some of these older rhymes no longer rhyme) nevertheless continue to use them in the name of convention and convenience.

  • 712 day/eternity (See Above)
    94 among/along

identical “rhyme” – Which really isn’t a rhyme but is used as such.

  • 1473
    Pausing in Front of our Palsied Faces
    Time compassion took
    Arks of Reprieve he offered us –
    Ararats – we took
  • 130 partake/take

rich rhymeWords or syllables that are Homonyms.

  • 130 belief/leaf

assonant rhyme – When only the vowel sounds rhyme.

  • 1348 Eyes/Paradise

consonant rhyme, para rhyme – When the consonants match.

  • 744 heal/hell
    889 hair/here

feminine para rhyme – A two syllable para rhyme or consonant rhyme.

scarce rhymeNot really a true category, in my opinion, since there is no difference between a scarce rhyme and any other rhyme except that the words being rhymed have few options. But, since academia is all about hair-splitting, I looked and looked and found these:

  • 738 guess/Rhinoceros (slant rhyme)
    1440 Mortality/Fidelity (extended rhyme)
    813 Girls/Curls (true rhyme)

macaronic rhyme – When words of different languages rhyme. (This one made me sweat. Dickinson’s world was her room, it seems, which doesn’t expose one to a lot of foreign languages. But I found one! As far as I know, the first one on the Internet, at least, to find it!)

  • 313 see/me/Sabachthani (Google it if you’re curious.)

trailing rhyme –  Where the first syllable of a two syllable word rhymes (or the first word of a two-word rhyme rhymes). ring/finger scout/doubter

  • (These examples aren’t from Dickinson and I know of no examples in Dickinson but am game to be proved wrong.)

apocopated rhyme – The reverse of trailing rhyme. finger/ring doubter/scout.

  • (Again, I know of no examples in Dickinson’s poetry.)

mosaique or composite rhymeRhymes constructed from more than one word. (Astronomical/solemn or comical.)

  • (This also is a technique which Dickinson didn’t use.)



one syllable rhyme, masculine rhyme – The most common rhyme, which occurs on the final stressed syllable and is essentially the same as true or perfect rhyme.

  • 313 shamed/blamed
    259 out/doubt

light rhyme – Rhyming a stressed syllable with a secondary stress – one of Dickinson’s most favored rhyming techniques and found in the vast majority of her poems. This could be considered a subset of true or perfect rhyme.

  • 904 chance/advance
    416 espy/try
    448 He/Poverty

extra-syllable rhyme, triple rhyme, multiple rhyme, extended rhyme, feminine rhyme – Rhyming on multiple syllables. (These are surprisingly difficult to find in Dickinson. Nearly all of her rhymes are monosyllabic or light rhymes.)

  • 1440 Mortality/Fidelity
    809 Immortality/Vitality
    962 Tremendousness/Boundlessness
    313 crucify/justify

wrenched rhyme – Rhyming a stressed syllable with an unstressed syllable (for all of Dickinson’s nonchalance concerning rhyme – wrenched rhyme is fairly hard to find.)

  • 1021 predistined/Land



end rhyme, terminal rhyme – All rhymes occur at line ends–the standard procedure.

  • 904 chance/advance
    1056 June/moon

initial rhyme, head rhyme – Alliteration or other rhymes at the beginning of a line.

  • 311 To Stump, and Stack – and Stem –
  • 283
    Too small – to fear –
    Too distant – to endear –
  • 876
    Entombed by whom, for what offense

internal rhyme – Rhyme within a line or passage, randomly or in some kind of pattern:

  • 812
    It waits upon the Lawn,
    It shows the furthest Tree
    Upon the furthest Slope you know
    It almost speaks to you.

leonine rhyme, medial rhyme – Rhyme at the caesura and line end within a single line.

  • (Dickinson’s shorter line lengths, almost exclusively tetrameter and trimeter lines, don’t lend themselves to leonine rhymes. I couldn’t find one. If anyone does, leave a comment and I will add it.)


caesural rhyme, interlaced rhyme – Rhymes that occur at the caesura and line end within a pair of lines–like an abab quatrain printed as two lines (this example is not from Dickinson but one provided by Rios at his webpage)

  • Sweet is the treading of wine, and sweet the feet of the dove;
    But a goodlier gift is thine than foam of the grapes or love.
    Yea, is not even Apollo, with hair and harp-string of gold,
    A bitter God to follow, a beautiful God to behold?

(Here too, Dickinson’s shorter lines lengths don’t lend themselves to this sort of rhyming. The only place I found hints of it were in her first poem.)


By Position in the Stanza or Verse Paragraph

crossed rhyme, alternating rhyme, interlocking rhyme – Rhyming in an ABAB pattern.

  • (Any of Dickinson’s poems written in Common Meter would be Cross Rhyme.)

intermittent rhyme – Rhyming every other line, as in the standard ballad quatrain: xaxa.

  • (Intermittent Rhyme is the pattern of Ballad Meter and reflects the majority of Dickinson’s poems.)

envelope rhyme, inserted rhyme –  Rhyming ABBA.

  • (The stanza from poem 313, see above, would be an example of envelope rhyme in Common Particular Meter.)

irregular rhyme – Rhyming that follows no fixed pattern (as in the pseudopindaric or irregular ode).

  • (Many of Dickinson’s Poems seem without a definite rhyme scheme but the admitted obscurity of her rhymes – such as ring/run in the poem Because I could not stop for death – serve to obfuscate the sense and sound of a regular rhyme scheme. In fact, and for the most part, nearly all of Dickinson’s poems are of the ABXB pattern – the pattern of Ballad Meter . This assertion, of course, allows for a wide & liberal definition of “rhyme”. That said, poems like 1186, 1187 & 1255 appear to follow no fixed pattern although, in such short poems, establishing whether a pattern is regular or irregular is a dicey proposition.)

sporadic rhyme, occasional rhyme – Rhyming that occurs unpredictably in a poem with mostly unrhymed lines. Poem 312 appears to be such a poem.

thorn line – An un-rhymed line in a generally rhymed passage.

  • (Again, if one allows for a liberal definition of rhyme, then thorn lines are not in Dickinson’s toolbox. But if one isn’t liberal, then they are everywhere.)



broken rhyme – Rhyme using more than one word: 

  • 516 thro’ it/do it

(Rios also includes the following example at his website)

  • Or rhyme in which one word is broken over the line end:
    I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    Dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing…

(I can find no comparable example in Dickinson’s poetry.)


Getting back to identifying meter (in Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for death) the final method is to scan the poem. The pattern is thoroughly iambic. The only individual feet that might be considered anapestic variants are in the last stanza. I personally chose to elide cen-tu-ries so that it reads cent‘ries – a common practice in Dickinson’s day and easily typical of modern day pronunciation. In the last line, I read toward as a monosyllabic word. This would make the poem thoroughly iambic. If a reader really wanted to, though, he or she could read these feet as anapestic. In any case, the loose iambs, as Frost called them, argue for Ballad Meter rather than Common Meter – if not its overall conversational tone.

The poem demonstrates Dickinson’s refusal to be bound by form. She alters the rhyme, rhyme scheme and meter (as in the fourth stanza) to suit the demands of subject matter. This willingness, no doubt, disturbed her more conventional contemporaries. She knew what she wanted, though, and that wasn’t going to be altered by any formal demands. And if her long time “mentor”, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, had been a careful reader of her poems, he would have known that she wouldn’t be taking advice.

If I think of anything to add, I’ll add it.

If this post has been helpful, let me know.

As on a sunny afternoon…

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As on a sunny afternoon

Shakespearean, Spenserian, & Petrarchan Sonnets

  • Updated and expanded March 25, 2009Miltonic Sonnet, Nonce Sonnet, Links to Various Sonnet Sequences and additional Sonnets.
  • After you’ve read up on Sonnets, take a look at some of my poetry. I’m not half-bad. One of the reasons I write these posts is so that a few readers, interested in meter and rhyme, might want to try out poetry. Check out Spider, Spider or, if you want modern Iambic Pentameter, try My Bridge is like a Rainbow or Come Out! Take a copy to class if you need an example of Modern Iambic Pentameter. Pass it around if you have friends or relatives interested in this kind of poetry.
  • April 23 2009: One Last Request! I love comments. If you’re a student, just leave a comment with the name of your high school or college. It’s interesting to me to see where readers are coming from and why they are reading these posts. :-)


The Shakespearean Sonnet: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

The word Sonnet originally meant Little Song.

Sonnets are one of my favorite verse forms after blank verse. And of all the sonnet forms, Shakespearean is my favorite – also known as the English Sonnet because this particular form of the sonnet was developed in England. The Shakespearean Sonnet is easily the most intellectual & dramatic of poetic forms and, when written well, is a showpiece not only of poetic prowess but intellectual prowess. The Shakespearean Sonnet weeds the men from the boys, the women from the girls. It’s the fugue,  the half-pipe of poetic forms. Many, many poets have written Shakespearean Sonnets, but few poets (in my opinion) have ever fully fused their voice with the  intellectual and poetic demands of the form. It ‘s not just a matter of getting the rhymes right, or the turn (the volta) after the second quatrain, or the meter, but of unifying the imagery, meter, rhyme and figurative language of the poem into an organic whole.

I am tempted to examine sonnets by poets other than Shakespeare or Spenser, the first masters of their respective forms, but I think it’s best (in this post at least) to take a look at how they did it, since they set the standard. The history of the Shakespearean Sonnet is less interesting to me than the form itself, but I’ll describe it briefly. Shakespeare didn’t publish his sonnets piecemeal over a period of time. They appeared all at once in 1609 published by Thomas Thorpe – a contemporary publisher of Shakespeare’s who had a reputation as “a publishing understrapper of piratical habits”.

Thank god for unethical publishers. If not for Thomas Thorpe, the sonnets would certainly be lost to the world.

How did Thorpe get his hands on the sonnets? Apparently they were circulating in manuscript among acquaintances of Shakespeare, his friends and connoisseurs of his poetry. Whether there was more than one copy in circulation is unknowable. However, Shakespeare was well-known in London by this time, had already had considerable success on the stage, and was well-liked as a poet. Apparently, there was enough excitement and interest in his sonnets that Thorpe saw an opportunity to make some money. (Pirates steal treasure, after all, not dross.)

The implication is that the sonnets were printed without Shakespeare’s knowledge or permission, but no historian really knows. Nearly all scholars put 15 years between their publication and their composition. No one knows to whom the sonnets were dedicated (we only have the initials W.H.) and if it’s ever irrefutably discovered- reams of Shakespeare scholars will have to file for unemployment.

(Note: While I once entertained the notion that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays – no longer. At this point, having spent half my life studying Shakespeare, I find the whole idea utterly ludicrous. And I find debating the subject utterly ludicrous. But if readers want to believe Shakespeare was written by Oxford, or Queen Elizabeth, or Francis Bacon, etc., I couldn’t care less.)

Now, onto one of my favorite Shakespearean Sonnets – Sonnet 129.

sonnets-fronticpieceThe expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
··All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
··To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

While this sonnet isn’t as poetic, figurative or “lovely” as Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, it is written in a minor key, like Mozart’s 20th Piano Concerto, and beautifully displays the rigor and power of the Shakespearean Sonnet. Let’s have another look, this time fully annotated.


The Shakespearean Sonnet: Structure

First to the structure. Many Shakespearean Sonnets can be broken down, first, into two thematic parts (brackets on the left).  The first part is comprised of two quatrains, 8 lines, called the octave, after which there is sometimes a change of mood or thematic direction. This turn (or volta) is followed by the sestet, six lines comprised of the quatrain and couplet. However, this sonnet – Sonnet 129 – does not have that thematic turn. There are plenty of sonnets by Shakespeare which do not.

In my experience, many instructors and poets put too much emphasis on the volta as a “necessary” feature of Shakespearean sonnet form (and the Sonnet in general). It’s not . In fact, Shakespeare (along contemporaries like Sidney) conceived of the form in a way that frequently worked against the Petrarchan turn with it’s contemplative aesthetic. The Elizabethan poets were after a different effect – as Britannica puts it: an argumentative terseness with an epigrammatic sting.

My personal analogy in describing the Shakespearean Sonnet is that of the blacksmith who picks an ingot from the coals of his imagination. He puts it to the anvil, chooses his mallet and strikes and heats and strikes with every line. He works his idea, shapes and heats it until the iron is white hot. Then, when the working out is ready, he gives it one last blow – the final couplet. The couplet nearly always rings with finality, a truth or certainty – the completion of argument, an assertion, a refutation.

Every aspect of the form lends itself to this sort of argument and conclusion. The interlocking rhymes that propel the reader from one quatrain to the next only serve to reinforce the final couplet (where the rhymes finally meet line to line). It’s from the fusion of this structure with thematic development that the form becomes the most intellectually powerful of poetic forms.

I have read quasi-Shakespearean Sonnets by modern poets who use slant rhymes, or no rhymes at all, but to my ear they miss the point. Modern poets, used to writing free verse, find it easier to dispense with strict rhymes but again, and perhaps only to me,  it dilutes the very thing that gives the form its expressiveness and power. They’re like the fugues that Reicha wrote – who dispensed with the normally strict tonic/dominant key relationships. That made writing fugues much easier, but they lost much of their edge and pithiness.

And this brings me to another thought.

Rhyme, when well done, produces an effect that free verse simply does not match and cannot reproduce. Rhyme, in the hands of a master, isn’t just about being pretty, formal or graceful. It subliminally directs the reader’s ear and mind, reinforcing thought and thematic material. The whole of the Shakespearean rhyme scheme is hewed to his habit of thought and composition. The one informs the other. In my own poetry, my blank verse poem Come Out! for example, I’ve tried to exploit rhyme’s capacity to reinforce theme and sound. The free verse poet who abjures rhyme of any sort is missing out.

The Shakespearean Sonnet: Meter

As of writing this (Jan 10, 2009), Wikipedia states: “A Shakespearean sonnet consists of 14 lines, each line contains ten syllables, and each line is written in iambic pentameter in which a pattern of a non-emphasized syllable followed by an emphasized syllable is repeated five times.”

And Wikipedia is wrong.

Check out my post on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145. This is a sonnet, by Shakespeare, that contains 8 syllables per line, not ten. It is the only one (that we know of) but is nonetheless a Shakespearean Sonnet. The most important attribute of the Shakespearean Sonnet is it’s rhyme scheme, not its meter. Why? Because the essence of the Shakespearean Sonnet is in its sense of drama. (Shakespeare was nothing if not a dramatist.) The rhyme scheme, because of the way it directs the ear, reinforces the dramatic feel of the sonnet. This is what makes a sonnet Shakespearean. Before Shakespeare, there was Sidney, whose sonnets include many written in hexameters.

That said, the meter of Sonnet 129 is Iambic Pentameter. I have closely analyzed the meter in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, so I won’t go too far in depth with this one, except to point out some interesting twists.

As a practical matter, the first foot of the first line |The expense |should probably, in the reading, be elided to sound like |Th’expense|. This preserves the Iambic rhythm of the sonnet from the outset. Unless there is absolutely no way around it, an anapest in the first foot of the first line of a sonnet (in Shakespeare’s day) would be unheard of.

Lines 3 and 4, of the first quatrain, are hard driving, angry Iambs. Murderous in line 3 should be elided, in the reading, to sound like murd‘rous, but the word cruel, in line 4, produces an interesting effect. I have heard it pronounced as a two syllable word and, more commonly, as a monosyllabic word. Shakespeare could have chosen a clearly disyllabic word, but he didn’t. He chooses a word that, in name, fulfills the iambic patter, but in effect, disrupts it and works against it. Practically, the line is read as follows:


The trochaic foot produced by the word savage is, in and of itself, savage – savagely disrupting the iambic patter. Knowing that cruel works in a sort of metrical no man’s land, Shakespeare encourages the line to be read percussively. The third metrical foot is read as monosyllabic – angrily emphasizing the word cruel. The whole of it is a metrical tour de force that sets the dramatic, angry, sonnet on its way.

There are many rhetorical techniques Shakespeare uses as he builds the argument of his sonnet, many of them figures of repetition, such as Epanalepsis in line 1, Polyptoton, and anadiplosis (in the repetition of mad at the end and start of a phrase): “On purpose laid to make the taker mad;/Mad in pursuit”. But the most obvious and important is the syntactic parallelism that that propels the sonnet after the first quatrain. The technique furiously drives the thematic material forward, line by line, each emphasizing the one before – emphasizing Shakespeare’s angry, remorseful, disappointment in himself – the having and the having had. It all drives the sonnet forward like the blacksmith’s hammer blows on white hot iron.

And when the iron is hot, he strikes:

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The intellectual power displayed in the rhetorical construction of the sonnet finds its dramatic climax in the final couplet – the antimetabole of “well knows” and “knows well” mirrors the parallelism in the sonnet as a whole – succinctly. The midline break in the first line of the couplet is resolved by the forceful, unbroken final line. The effect is of forceful finality. This sonnet could have been a monologue drawn from one of Shakespeare’s plays. And this, this thematic, dramatic momentum that finds resolution in a final couplet is what most typifies the Shakespearean Sonnet. The form is a showpiece.

Lastly, I myself have tried my hand at Shakespearean Sonnets. My best effort is “As on a sunny afternoon…”. Three more of my efforts can be found if you look at the top of the banner-  under Index: Opening Book (my favorite of the three being The Farmer Wife’s Complaint. I learned how to write poetry by writing Sonnets. I’ve written many others but their quality varies. I may eventually post them anyway.

spenser-dark-smThe Spenserian Sonnet: Spenser’s Sonnet 75

Spenser has to be the most doggedly Iambic of any poet – to a fault. Second only to his dogged metrical Iambs, is his rhyming. English isn’t the easiest language for rhyming (as compared to Japanese or Italian). Rhyming in English requires greater skill and finesse, testing a poet’s resourcefulness and imagination. Yet Spenser rhymed with the ease of a cook dicing carrots. Nothing stopped him. His sonnets reflect that capacity – differing from Shakespeare’s mainly in their rhyme scheme. Here is a favorite Sonnet (to me) his Sonnet 75 from Amoretti:


One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
··But came the waves and washed it away:
··Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
··A mortal thing so to immortalize,
··For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise
··To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
··My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.
··Where whenas Death shall all the world subdue,
··Our love shall live, and later life renew.

The Elizabethans were an intellectually rigorous bunch, which is one of the reasons I enjoy their poetry so much. They don’t slouch or wallow in listless confessionals. They were trained from childhood school days to reason and proceed after the best of the Renaissance  rhetoricians. Spenser, like Shakespeare, has an argument to make, but Spenser was less of a dramatist, and more of a lyricist and storyteller. His preference in Sonnet form reflects that. Here it is – the full monty:


The Spenserian Sonnet: Structure

The difference in temperament between Spenser and Shakespeare is revealed in the rhyme scheme each preferred. Spenser was a poet of elegance who looked back at other poets, Chaucer especially; and who wanted his readers to know that he was writing in the grand poetic tradition – whereas Shakespeare was impishly forward looking, a Dramatist first and a Poet second, who enjoyed turning tradition and expectation on its head, surprising his readers (as all Dramatists like to do) by turning Patrarchan expectations upside down. Spenser elegantly wrote within the Petrarchan tradition and wasn’t out to upset any apple carts. Even his choice of vocabulary, as with eek, was studiously archaic (even in his own day).

Spenser’s sonnet lacks the drama of Shakespeare’s. Rather than withholding the couplet until the end of the sonnet, lending a sort of climax or denouement to the form, Spencer dilutes the effect of the final couplet by introducing two internal couplets (smaller brackets on right)  prior to the final couplet. While Spencer’s syntactic and thematic development rarely emphasizes the internal couplets, they are registered by the ear and so blunt the effect of the concluding couplet.

There is also less variety of rhyming in the Spenserian Sonnet than in the Shakespearean Sonnet. The effect is of less rigor and momentum and greater lyricism, melodiousness and grace. The rhymes elegantly intertwine not only the quatrains but the octave and sestet (brackets on left). Without being Italian (Petrarchan) the effect which the Spencerian Sonnet produces is more Italian – or at minimum a sort of hybrid between Shakespeare’s English Sonnet and Pertrarch’s “Italian” model.

Spencer comes closest, in spirit, to anything like a Petrarchan Sonnet sequence in the English language.

The Spenserian Sonnet: Spenser’s Meter

As far as I know, Spenser wrote all of his sonnets in Iambic Pentameter. He takes fewer risks than Shakespeare, is less inclined to flex the meter the way Shakespeare does. For instance, in two of the three Shakespeare sonnets I have analyzed on this blog, Shakespeare is willing to have the reader treat heaven as a monosyllabic word (heav’n) (see my post on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145 for an  example of Shakespeare’s usage along with sonnet above).  Spencer treats heaven is disyllabic.  Their different treatment of the word might reflect a difference in their own dialects but I’m more inclined to think that Shakespeare took a more flexible approach to meter and pronunciation – less concerned than Spenser with metrical propriety. Shakespeare, in all things, was a pragmatist, Spenser, an idealist – at least in his poetry.

(Interesting note, Robert Frost referred to such metrical feet which could be anapestic or Iambic depending on the pronunciation, as “loose Iambs “. Such loose iambs would include Shakespeare’s sonnet where murderous could be pronounced murd’rous and The expense as Th’expense.)

There are two words which the modern reader might pronounce as monosyllabic – washed in line 2 and wiped in line 8. When reading Spenser, it’s best to assume that he meant his lines to be strongly regular. It is thoroughly in keeping with 15th & 16th century poetic practice (and with Spenser especially) to pronounce both words as disyllabic – washèd & wipèd. Spenser was a traditionalist.

I also wanted to briefly draw attention to the difference in Shakespeare and Spenser’s use of figurative language. Shakespeare was much more the intellectual. Nothing in Spenser’s sonnets compare to the brilliant rhetorical figures used by Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a virtuoso on many levels.

john-miltonThe Petrarchan Sonnet: John Milton

The Petrarchan Sonnet was the first Sonnet form to be written in the English Language – brought to the English language by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard Earl of Surrey (who was also the first to introduce blank verse to the English writing world). However, there is no great Petrarchan Sonnet sequence that left its mark on the form.  The Petrarchan model was quickly superseded by the English/Shakespearean Sonnet. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet Sequence (all Petrarchan Sonnets) is mixed with greatness but never influenced the form.  They were written toward the close of the form’s long history. For a link to her Sonnets, see below.

The search for the ideal representative, among English language poets, of the Petrarchan Sonnet is a search in vain.  Petrarchan Sonnets are scattered throughout the language by a number of great poets and poets, who if they weren’t “great”,  happened to write great Petrarchan Sonnets.

One thing I have failed to mention, up to now, is the thematic convention associated with the writing of Sonnets – idealized love. Both the Shakespearean and Spenserian Sonnet sequences play on that convention. The Petrarchan form, interestingly, was readily adopted for other ends. It was as if (since the English Sonnet took over the thematic convention of the Petrarchan sonnet) poets using the Petrarchan form were free to apply it elsewhere.

Since there is no one supreme representative Petrarchan Sonnet or poet, I’ll offer up John Milton’s effort in the form, since it was early on and typifies the sort of thematic freedom to which the Petrarchan form was adapted.

When I consider how my light is spent,
··Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
··And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
··My true account, lest He returning chide;
··“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

And here is the same Sonnet under the magnifying glass:


The Petrarchan Sonnet: Structure

My primary interest is in English language poets who have written in the Petrarchan form. However, for those who want a good site that examines Petrarchan Sonnets as written by Petrarch, I would strongly recommend Peter Sadlon’s site – he includes some examples in the Italian. He makes the point, for example, that Petrarch did not write Iambic Pentameter sonnets, since the meter is ill-suited to the Italian Language. More important is the observation that Petrarch himself varied the rhyme scheme of the sestet – cd cd cd (as in Milton’s Sonnet), cde ced, or cdcd ee.Petrarch’s freedom in the final sestet is carried over into the English form. You will know that you are reading a Petrarchan sonnet first, if it’s not Shakespearean or Spenserian, and second if the rhyme scheme favors the reading of an octave followed by a sestet. Identifying a Petrarchan sonnet sometimes isn’t an exact science. This beautiful sonnet form is less about the rhyme scheme and more about the tenor of expression.

Interestingly, even though Robert Frost’s famous sonnet “Silken Tent” is formally a Shakespearean Sonnet, it has the feel of a Petrarchan Sonnet.

As regards Milton, he wrote this sonnet as a response to his growing blindness. The sonnet has little to do with idealized love but its meditative and contemplative feel is very much in keeping with Petrarch’s own sonnets – contemplative and meditative poems on idealized love. The rhyme scheme reinforces the the sonnet’s introspection: enforcing the octave, the volta and the concluding sestet.

The internal couplets in the first and second quatrain (smaller brackets on right) give each quatrain and the octave as a whole a self-contained, self-sufficient feeling. The ear doesn’t register a step wise progression (a building of momentum) as it does in the Shakespearean & Spenserian models. The effect is to create a kind of two-stanza poem rather than the unified working-out of the English model.

Note: Perhaps a useful way to think of the difference between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean Sonnets is to think of the Petrarchan form as a sonnet of statement and the Shakespearean form as a sonnet of argument. Be forewarned, though, this is just a generalization with all its inherent limitations and exceptions.

The volta or turn comes thematically with God’s implied answer to Milton’s questioning. The lack of the concluding couplet makes the completion of the poem less epigrammatic, less dramatic and more considered. The whole is a sort of perfectly contained question and answer.

The Petrarchan Sonnet: Milton’s Meter

This sonnet was written prior to Paradise Lost and, to my ear, shows a slightly more adventurous metric. The first departure from the iambic rhythm comes in the first foot of line  4 with Lodged. This is the sort variation that perfectly exploits the expectations established by a metrical pattern. That is, the word works on two levels, “lodged” thematically and trochaic-ally within the iambic meter- not a brilliant variant but an effective one.

In line 5 I read the fourth foot as being pyrric, but one can also give the word and an intermediate stress: To serve therewith my Maker, and present.

It’s not until line 11 that things get interesting. Most modern readers would probably read the first two feet of the line as follows:

Bear His |mild yoke, |they serve Him best. His state

But the line can be read another way – iambically. And in poetry of this period, if we can, then we should.

Bear His |mild yoke, |they serve Him best. His state

What’s lovely about this reading, which is what’s lovely about meter, is that the inflection and meaning of the line changes. Notice also how His is emphasized in the first foot, but isn’t in the fourth and fifth:

Bear His |mild yoke, |they serve |Him best. |His state

In this wise, the emphasis is first on God, then on serving him. It is a thematically natural progression.

The last feature to notice is that the final line, line 14, retains a little of the pithy epigrammatic quality of the typical English or Shakespearean Sonnet. No form or genre is completely isolated from another. The Petrarchan mode can be felt in the Shakespearean Sonnet and the Shakespearean model can be felt in the Petrarchan model.

The Miltonic Sonnet

The Miltonic Sonnet is a Petrarchan Sonnet without a volta. Although Milton was hardly the first to write sonnets in English without a volta, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 being a case in point, Milton made that absence standard practice; and so, this variation on the Petrarchan Sonnet is called a Miltonic Sonnet.

On the Importance of Naming Things

Not only are there names for the different sonnets, which is forgivable, but there also names for the different quatrains and octaves in all these sonnets because human beings like nothing more than to classify. God’s first request to Adam & Eve was to name… everything. (What interests me more is puzzling out the aesthetic effects these different rhyme schemes produce.)   But, because knowing the name of things always sounds impressive – here they are.


The Petrarchan Sonnet can be said to be written with two Italian Quatrains (abbaabba) which together are called an Italian Octave.

The Italian Octave can be followed by an Italian Sestet (cdecde) or a Sicilian Sestet (cdcdcd)

The Envelope Sonnet, which is a variation on the Petrarchan Sonnet, rhymes abbacddc efgefg or efefef.


The Shakespearean Sonnet is written with three Sicilian Quatrains: (abab cdcd efef) followed by a heroic couplet. Note, the word heroic refers to Iambic Pentameter. Heroic couplets are therefore Iambic Pentameter Couplets. However, not all Elizabethan Sonnets are written in Iambic Pentameter.


The Spenserian Sonnet is written with three interlocking Sicilian Quatrains: (abab bcbc cdcd) followed by a heroic couplet.
  • Note: I have found no references which reveal when these terms first came into use. I doubt that the terms Sicilian or Italian Quatrain existed in Elizabethan times.  Spenser didn’t sit down and say to himself: Today, I shall write interlocking sicilian quatrains. I think it more likely that these poets chose a given rhyme scheme because they were influenced by others or because the rhyme scheme was most suitable to their aesthetic temperament.
  • Note: It bears repeating that many books on form will state that all these sonnets are characterized by voltas. They are, emphatically, not. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 (above) would be an example.
Sidneyan Sonnet
For more on Sidney’s Sonnets, see post on Sidney: his Meter and Sonnets.

Other Petrarchan Sonnets

Since the Petrarchan Sonnet is so varied in the English Language tradition, I thought I would post a few more examples. I have divided the quatrains, octaves and sestets to better show their structure. I’ll probably come back to this post and include more as I find them. (For the most part, a couplet in the closing sestet seems, usually, to be avoided by most poets.)

John Keats

Rhyme Scheme:

ABBA ABBA CDCDCD (The same as Milton’s)

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

keatsMuch have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

William Wordsworth

Rhyme Scheme:


wordsworthSurprised by joy — impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport–Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind–
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind

To my most grievous loss?–That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Rhyme Scheme:


shelley1I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

For a closer look at this sonnet, take a look at my post: Shelley’s Sonnet: Ozymandias

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Rhyme Scheme:


millayWhat lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Rhyme Scheme:


eb-browningHow do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Other Sonnets:

  • Sir Philip Sidney Astrophel and StellaSidney’s sonnets are a kind of hybrid between the Shakespearean and Petrarchan mode. The Octave of his sonnets alternate between the Petrarchan Octave and the interlocking Sicilian Quatrains of the English Sonnets. His Sestets alternate between one of his own devising and the Shakespearean model. For more on this: visit my post Sidney: His Meter and Sonnets.
  • John Donne Holy Sonnets These sonnets are like Sidney’s – having qualities of both the Shakespearean and Petrarchan form.
  • And then there are sonnets of varying rhyme schemes – Nonce Sonnets. The word Nonce simply means that a given form is unique to the poem. Keats’ If by dull rhymes would be a Nonce Sonnet – and written specifically about the making of a new rhyme scheme.

John Keats

Rhyme Scheme:


If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;

Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d
By ear industrious, and attention meet:
Misers of sound and syllable, no less

Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.

Sonnet 145 – Shakespeare & Iambic Tetrameter

This is one of my favorite Sonnets by Shakespeare. And it is the one sonnet, of the 154, that some Shakespeare “scholars” consider to be apocryphal – which is to say, they think it isn’t by Shakespeare. I, drawing my line in the Vermont snow, say they are wrong. This sonnet, unless some letters are discovered,  is as close as we may come to hearing Shakespeare’s unscripted voice.

shakespeare-frontpieceThose lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’
To me that languish’d for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she alter’d with an end,
That follow’d it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
‘I hate’ from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying ‘not you.’

The figurative language is straightforward – the simplest of his sonnets. (Figurative language is any that uses metaphor, simile or any of the other rhetorical figures.) But what is most unique is it’s meter: Iambic Tetramater –  the only one of Shakespeare’s sonnets not written in Iambic Pentameter. Some scholars say it must have been an early sonnet, which is possible.  The supposition, I suppose, is that Iambic Tetrameter is a warm up to Iambic Pentameter or that a more youthful poem will be less figurative. These are all possibilities, but the humor and ease of the sonnet feels more assured to me. It’s a friendly joke. I like to imagine that it was written after a marital spat as a kind of humorous peace offering. In that respect, I like to think it’s the most personal of Shakespeare’s verses and offers a little glimpse into his home life and the kind of temperament he possessed.

One other note: This is among the first sonnets that I read by Shakespeare (when in highschool) and it was the first that I immediately understood. For me, it opened the door to all his other sonnets and made Shakespeare human.

The scansion of the sonnet is fairly straightforward, but I’ll go with the assumption that some readers are coming to this for the first time. The first four lines would be scanned as follows:


These lines are all solidly iambic and there is nothing figurative in any of them – I’m willing to assert that in no other Sonnet by Shakespeare are there four consecutive lines of unadorned English.


Shakespeare mixes it up a little. The first feet of the quatrain’s first two lines are trochaic (a Shakespearean sonnet is divided into three quatrains – each four lines – and a final couplet). What’s more interesting is Shakespeare’s use of personification – a Shakespearean specialty found throughout his sonnets and plays. He personifies the heart and tongue as though they were dramatic characters – the single most telling aspect, to me, that favors Shakespeare’s authorship. Mercy, like one of the virtues in an older miracle play, comes to his lover’s heart and the heart chides the tongue: be more sweet to your poor William!


The final quatrain is all very straightward in terms of its poetic language. It offers the entirely straightfoward and ordinary observation that the “day doth follow night”, then follows that with a sort of simile or analogy comparing the night to “a fiend (From heaven to hell” flown away). The image is all but hackneyed, even in Shakespeare’s day, but it’s hackneyed in an easy-going sort of way.

(Notice that I’ve scanned the last line of the quatrain so that the second foot reads as an anapest. One could read the line as follows:


With this scansion, the iambic rhythm is maintained – heaven reads more like heav’n. I know this reading gives some metrists heartburn, but that’s the way poets write. Heaven is one those words that Shakespeare might have treated as a compromise between an iambic foot and an anapest.)

This isn’t a virtuosic show-piece and it’s clearly not meant to be. I get the feeling that he jotted this quickly, unselfconsciously for his own pleasure and the pleasure of his lover. And who was she? The final couplet, interestingly, may hold a clue.


Notice the trochaic foot in the final line before the iamb ‘not you’. I can’t help but think this little metrical jest is deliberate. He could have written “she said ‘not you‘”, retaining the “proper” iambic rhythm, but instead deliberately employed the trochaic foot, adding emphasis to ‘not you‘! Shakespeare breaths a sigh of relief.

The contorted syntax and grammar of the second to last line is ‘a little’ unusual for Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s day people didn’t talk this way. It could be for the rhyme but this idea strikes me as overly awkward even for a young Shakespeare – the greatest literary genius of our language. He was more resourceful than that. Something is up.

There is speculation, and I agree with the speculation, that Shakespeare was emplying a pun. ‘I hate’ from hate away‘ could be read as  ‘I hate’ from Hathaway ‘ or, to spell it out, ‘I hate from Anne Hathaway.’

And in case you don’t already know it, Anne Hathaway was Shakespeare’s wife.

If you enjoyed this and are looking for more information on meter, check out my Guides to Meter and another analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, Spenser’s Sonnet 75 and Milton’s Sonnet: When I consider….

Robert Burns & Trochaic Tetrameter (Sort of…)

I recently wrote a post analyzing a more successful poem written in Trochaic Tetrameter – Edna St Vincent Millay’s Sorrow. ~ February 3, 2009

I noticed that someone searched for the meter to Burn’s Ae fond kiss. Curious, I decided to look the poem up.

What a surprise! As it turns out, Burns has tried his hand at a trochaic poem. Writing trochaic poetry is devilishly difficult. Here’s why. Writing lines that begin with a stressed syllable and end with an unstressed syllable, as Burns does, is the easy part. The devilishly difficult part is making the ear hear the lines as trochaic rather than iambic. The rythm of spoken English is naturally iambic. Listen to yourself talk, and you may notice that almost all of your sentences end with a strong syllable. Up to this very sentence, all but one have ended on a strong or intermediate stress. Here’s the poem by Burns, unmolested by my commentary.

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
robert-burnsDeep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerful twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.

I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,
Naething could resist my Nancy:
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.
Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met-or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Fare-thee-weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare-thee-weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure!
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

And now to the commentary. Rather than go line by line, as is my usual habit, I’ll try not to extenuate.

Here’s how Burns would like us to read the first four lines (and how some instructors may want to scan the lines):


These are trochaic four foot lines. However, most readers, probably even in Burns’ day, will be more inclined to (subconsciously) read the lines as follows:


Notice that the first lines are read as iambic trimeter. The iambic pull is too hard to resist when the lines begin with the weak indefinite article Ae or (modern spelling) A. This is what makes writing trochees so devilishly difficult. The poet must go the extra mile to enforce the trochaic rhythm, otherwise the ear will naturally want to read iambs – which is what happens in the lines above and which is why, at first glance, the poem’s meter is deceptively obscure. Burns doesn’t quite pull it off. It’s not until we get past the first two lines that Burns’ metrical intentions become clear. In musical terms, it’s as if Burns failed to establish the tonic. Only mid-way through the melody do we really know what key we’re in.

So, rather than hearing trochaic feet, we hear it as an anapest followed by a solid iambic foot. The third foot in the first and second lines are heard as feminine endings. Only in the third and fourth lines does Burns unambiguously push the lines into a trochaic reading.

Nevertheless, (and having said all that), if the reader wants to read it in the spirit in which Burns’ wrote it, he or she should try to read the first lines as trochaic, in accordance with the first scansion. The meter is telling a tale that informs the poem. It mirrors  the topsy-turvy emotions of the speaker. Rather than pledging the joyful union of an undying love, he is pledging the opposite, the painful separation of an undying love. It’s upside down. Nothing is the way it should be in this love poem – and the meter reinforces that. It’s all backwards.

The next four lines of the first stanza are more easily read as trochaic. It’s not until the forth line of the second stanza that the reader might stumble again: Love but her, and love for ever.


The first scansion is how Burns means for us to read it. The second scansion is how the ear, realistically, hears it – a headless iambic tetrameter line with a feminine ending. Being the one line out, in an otherwise trochaic pattern, the iambic rhythm has the curious effect of sounding backwards and awkward. It’ also, curiously, the one line in which Burns most directly states his love. The effect, brought about by the use of meter, is to make Burns’ statement of his love sound curiously backwards and out of kilter. I think it’s probably giving Burns too much credit to say the effect was intentional. My own impression in reading  Burns is that he’s a conservative metrist (just as one would expect from a poet of short poems). He seldom ties or has the leeway to exploit the full potential of meter.

The final stanza is the least successful in terms of its trochaic meter.


The first scansion, again, is how Burns means it to be scanned (and that’s the spirit in which we should read it); the second two lines are how the ear hears it – two headless iambic tetrameter lines with feminine endings. And this is where art means science in the art & science of scansion. Does one scan it the way Burns intended it to be scanned, or how the ear hears it? It’s probably as simple as deciding what one wants to demonstrate. The  next two lines of the last stanza could more easily be read as trochaic, but because of the iambic rhythm established by the first two lines, one tends to read them, again, as Iambic Tetrameter.

Thine | be il | ka joy | and trea-sure,
Peace, | En-joy | ment, Love | and Plea-sure!

After these lines Burns repeats the initial lines, reinforcing the iambic rhythm (though the lines feel like trimeter rather than tetrameter). The overall effect by the time one gets  to the last two lines (which do read as trochaic) is of metrical confusion. For most readers, if they realize that the poem was meant to be read as trochaic, the second reading will make much more sense. This is a poem that will probably take two readings by most readers. Unlike Longfellow’s The Song of Haiwatha, Burns fails to firmly establish the trochaic rhythm from the outset – and so the feeling of metrical confusion.

And that’s the point, if any, I would make about trochaic meter: not that Burns’ poem is a failure, but that the meter is devilishly difficult to write. Many readers and critics will observe that trochaic poems tend to be monotonous. The reason is that the poet must constantly fight against the English language’s natural tendency to be iambic. That makes variant feet in a trochaic meter a dicey proposition and usually avoided – hence the monotony.

If you try to write one, good luck.

Be sure and let me know if this post was a help!

Iambic Pentameter & Chaucer

In my post on Shakespeare I wrote that a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. With the Prologue, meter tells us the story of Chaucer’s language and how he spoke it.

Iambic Pentameter  & Blank Verse

In my previous post on Iambic Pentameter (The Basics), I quoted the opening to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, saying I would take a look at it in a later post. This is the later post.  And here are the opening lines, once again.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
geoffrey-chaucerThe droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

There are some sites that credit Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, with first introducing Iambic Pentameter to the English Language. The confusion seems to stem from the difference between Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter. Chaucer did not write Blank Verse. All of Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter is rhymed – using a form called Open Heroic Couplets or Riding Rhymes. Judging by the literature left to us, Henry Howard was indeed the first to introduce Iambic Pentameter Blank Verse to English literature, but he wasn’t the first to introduce Iambic Pentameter. The first record we have of Iambic Pentameter is in Chaucer’s verse.

The trick to recognizing Chaucer’s use of Iambic Pentameter is in knowing how to pronounce the words. The first key is in recognizing that English is a Germanic language and that in Chaucer’s day the split between English and proto-German was still relatively fresh. Why is that important? Because in German all vowels are pronounced.  There is no silent e as in the English word Rose (as in the flower).  The German word for  Rose is die Rose.  The word is the same in English and German. However, in German, it is pronounced something like  Ros-uh (having two syllables). And in Chaucer’s day, this pronunciation still held sway in many English words. The other key is a familiarity with the Iambic Pentameter pattern. Knowing that Chaucer was writing Iambic Pentameter helps us to know which –e was silent, in which word, and which –e was not. (Note: Some modern editions appear to only include the -e in words in which it was pronounced.)

Also, this post isn’t about translating the text into modern English. The Gypsy Scholar provides a good translation and I’m all for supporting another scholarly blogger!

Now to the Scansion

From the very first line of the Canterbury tales, Chaucer shows us that he’s not going to be hide-bound in his use of Iambic Pentameter. His first line is a headless line with a feminine ending. (Now, having said that, there are some scholars who insist that aprill was originally spelled aprille and should be three syllables. I don’t buy it. But I’ve thrown in an interesting discussion at the bottom of the post to show to what degree scholars will debate such matters – and how it is only through meter that we have a clue.)Whan that...

You might ask how a reader should know whether the final word soote is one or two syllables. Scansion doesn’t help us because we could just as easily read the word as being one syllable. (Pronouncing the e was not a hard and fast rule – as with droughte – some editions, I notice, omit the e in this word.) In the case of soote, the only reason we know is that Chaucer uses the word, midline, later in The Second Nun’s Tale: “The soote savour, lilie was hir name.” In this line, if we don’t pronounce soote as two syllables soot-uh, the iambic pattern will be broken.

the Droghte

Notice that perced should be pronounced percèd. In textual parlance, it shouldn’t be clipped. If we clip the pronunciation, the Iambic pattern will be broken. The tradition of pronouncing -ed words continued well into the Victorian Era.

and bathed

Once again, bathed should be pronounced bathèd. Just as in modern english, we want the strong stress (or ictus) to be on the first syllable of every. Unless we pronounce bathed with two syllables, the iambic pattern will be broken. Every is also elided to read as two syllables, just as in modern English. Note also that we don’t pronounce the e at the end of veyne. If you did, you would introduce an anapestic foot into the line (two unstressed syllables before a stressed syllable) and Chaucer simply does not write anapests – which is helpful to know. (If someone does find one, I’m ready to stand corrected.)

of which virtu

The only real stickler is the word virtu which can be safely understood as virtue in modern English. In modern English however, it’s the first syllable which is stressed, not the second. An expertise in Latin and French is pushing the limits of my knowledge (I’m a carpenter for a living) but a little research shows us two things: the word comes from the Latin virtus (stress on the first syllable); but also that the Anglo-Saxons absorbed the word from the Normans (middle-French) and that even the proto-French had to do everything differently. That is, they accented the second syllable of the word, pronouncing it vertu. Because trochaic feet are very rare in Chaucer, and because we know the English language absorbed an astonishing number of French words (80% of our vocabulary) as a result of the Norman invasion (just a couple hundred years prior to Chaucer), we can safely say that the Iambic Foot is retained. When reading Chaucer, and when in doubt, always read it iambically.

These first four lines cover just about every exigency you will find in Chaucer’s verse.

When Zephirus ii

The first of the four lines is interesting in that one might be tempted to scan it as a tetramter line, thus:


This would make the line, in effect, octasyllabic – an iambic tetrameter line. 400 years later this might be an acceptable iambic variant, but not in Chaucer’s day. The second interesting question is how to pronounce sweete – one or two syllables. Here are two possiblities if we pronounce sweete with two syllables:


In the first instance, the first foot is an amphibrach. This might go in Modern English, but an amphibrach is an all but unacceptable iambic variant in Chaucer’s day. If you read an amphibrach in Chaucer, you should find probably find another way to pronounce the word. In fact, in Chaucer’s day, Zephirus was pronounced with a long i – Zeph-irus. The second reading retains this pronunciation but gives us two inverted feet – two trochaic feet – in the first and second foot. All this to grant sweete two syllables. Since two consecutive trochaic feet just don’t happen in Chaucer’s meter, and since iambic feet are the rule – the first reading is most likely the way Chaucer heard the line – a headless line.

Interestingly, Chaucer seems to have pronounced sweete with either one or two syllables, depending on what he needed for the sake of the meter. In the Miller’s Tale one reads the two pronunciations even in the same sentence:

What do ye, hony-comb, (sweete) Al-i-soun,
My fair-e bryd, my (sweet-e) cy-na-mome?

In the first line, sweete is pronounced with one syllable, in the second, with two. So, like every poet after him, Chaucer wasn’t above inconsistency for the sake of meter. I personally like the effect that changing the pronunciation produces. It gives the speaker a sort of sly ingratiating tone as he flatters the girl – some things never change.

In the lines above, croppes and yonge are pronounced with two syllables to retain the meter. The line containing the words is headless. Sonne was probably pronounced with two syllables, making the ending a feminine ending. I say probably, because in other lines where the word sonne is in the middle, Chaucer treats it as a two syllable word: Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe.

and smalle foweles

Corages and pilgrimages both end the lines with feminine endings. The only word that is likely trip up a modern reader, trying to read according to Chaucer’s meter, is nature. As with virtu, nature is pronounced na-ture, the stress on the second syllable. If you check Webster’s, you will find that the etymology of the word places it with middle english and middle french – and as with virtu, middle french (as with modern French) tends to stress the second syllable in words like these. At the end of this post, I have provided a link to a performance of the prologue. Notice how the reader pronounces nature.

and palmeres

You can see that Chaucer’s lines are carefully iambic. For instance, you might have been tempted to pronounce the -e at the end of kowthe, but knowing that Chaucer was careful to preserve the meter you might rightly guess that the -e remained silent. The rest is fairly self-explanatory. The only word which might trip you up is Canterbury. Nowadays, in America at least, we pronounce the word as having four full syllables. But in Chaucer’s day (and the meter is our only clue) the word was apparently pronounced with three syllables – Cant-er-b’ry. Listen to the linked reading  below. It’s somewhat similar to the modern day difference in the American and English pronunciation of secretary. Americans give it four syllables – se-cre-tar-y, the Brits give it three – se-cre-t’ry. Several of the lines end with feminine endings, a favorite iambic variant in Chaucer’s metrical toolkit, along with headless lines (though some don’t believe Chaucer didn’t write headless lines – see the note below).

Anyway, if I think of something I left out, I’ll add it.

If this post was helpful, let me know.

Now listen to it read. The wave file is linked from the following site which offers a pronunciation guide. Once Iambic Pentameter becomes second nature, though, you may find you no longer need pronunciation guides to the same extent. Enjoy.


High Fantasy & The Oratorical Style

[This ‘sort of’ belongs on this blog. It’s a college paper. The only one that was of any interest to me. The paper tries to draw a distinction between a high mimetic mode and a low mimetic mode. According to my reading, the majority of fantasy writers are unaware of the distinction and if they are, use the high mimetic mode clumsily. The paper will probably be of little interest to most people but I have posted it for those few who might enjoy it –  as well as for those who have an interest in Rhetoric as it is used (or not used) by modern writers. Naturally, it also applies to poetry. Since writing it, J.K. Rowling has written her series, Harry Potter, as well as Christopher Paolini, Eregon. Neither writer has adopted or possibly even recognized Tolkien’s rhetorical  techniques. With Rowling, the tone probably would not  be suitable, but Paolini’s prose seems flavorless for the lack of it. If you like this sort of discussion – then enjoy and give me your impression.]

High Fantasy & the Oratorical Style:
The Use of Style in the Creation of the Secondary World

jrr-tolkienAs early as the sixteenth century, Cervantes had killed the romance with Don Quixote, a novel which was both the culmination and the greatest parody of the romance form, and which introduced a new style of prose narrative in what Northrop Frye calls the “low mimetic” mode.  Low mimetic writing deals with the life of ordinary people, with the everyday life we live, seen from the inside, where the mythic and high mimetic modes treat the life of heroes and kings, seen from the outside.(i)

Style is not often discussed in its relation to the creation of a secondary world, or as Tolkien expressed it, in its contribution to the creation of literary(ii).  Yet the style in which narrative is written is the most tangible portion of any work and to disregard it is to disregard its most fundamental feature.
At the time when Cervantes wrote his narrative in prose it was an age of verse with strictly observed metrical patterns.  The choice was provocative and unmistakable.  He himself said of the work:  “It is so conspicuous and void of difficulty that children may handle him, youths may read him, men may understand him, and the old may celebrate him.”  It was as much a part of the work as the characters within it.  The twentieth century is the age of prose.  There are no major works in verse.  The closest a juvenile novel comes to verse may be discovered in Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff.  It is written, as it were, in broken prose — the purpose being, perhaps, to imitate the cadence of the characters’ speech.  There is, however, nothing to separate it from prose but line breaks.
But for such obvious diversions, the real stylistic difference between the high mimetic mode and the low mimetic mode (iii) is now far more difficult to pinpoint occurring within the confines of prose.  The “high mimetic modes [treating] the life of heroes and kings, seen from the outside” would seem to have, arguably in the twentieth century, a home in the genre of fantasy.  Yet how does the high mimetic mode, as found in the cantos of Spenser or the lofty blank verse of Milton, translate into prose — the century’s predominant mode?  The answer may be found in Rhetoric.  Rhetoric was first classified by the Greeks as a means of codifying the techniques by which an orator might sway his audience.  Rhetoric therefore has its origins in oratory.  It is only natural then that one should find those same devices used in the epic poetry of Homer, Spencer, or Milton.  The poet is addressing the audience, as it were, as an orator.  He is relating events and wishes to communicate them effectively and persuasively.  It is only natural then that the writer of High Fantasy, in his attempt to more persuasively relate the events of his world, would consciously or subconsciously utilize the rhetorical devices of the orator.  The oratorical voice, that is, will lend weight to the narrative.  This is a High Style which, for the sake of clarity, I’ll call the Oratorical Style.
The genre examined will be a narrow one — that wherein a secondary world is created.  Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising cannot be contrasted with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1) or Lord of the Rings because she does not attempt to create a secondary world. The more effective contrast is between The Wizard of Earthsea and Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown or Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three.

Hobbit Footnote
The Figures of Oratorical style in Le Guin and Tolkien

Ursula K. Le Guin and J.R.R. Tolkien, it is broadly agreed, have both most successfully created secondary worlds — A Wizard of Earthsea and The Lord of the Rings.  Among the features the books hold in common is an achieved high mimetic style within the confines of prose.  This high style, the oratorical style, is achieved by the use of rhetorical figures historically common to the poetry of tragedy and the epic poem, themselves rooted in oratory.  The following contains the first, and perhaps the most important of the six figures to be examined.
A feeling of fear had been growing in [Fatty Bolger] all day, and he was unable to rest or go to bed: there was a brooding threat in the breathless night air.  As he stared out into the gloom, a black shadow moved under the trees; the gate seemed to open of its own accord and close again without a sound. iv

ProsopopoeiaThe figure prosopopoeia v, personification, is found in the poetry of Homer, medieval sagas and epics, and naturally enough in Milton; though which, in the serious poetry of the twentieth century has all but died out vi.  It is telling that it is alive and well in the literature of high fantasy, which “[treats] the life of heroes and kings.”
In the example above, the night is breathless and the night air is brooding.  Tolkien is, perhaps, unique in the way in which he uses prosopopoeia to effectively create an elemental force that both threatens and sustains the characters within it.  The landscape contains the same elemental force as the good and evil that struggles to control it.  Adding to the impression of the animate within the inanimate, the gate seems “to open of its own accord and close again”.  The world itself becomes, as here, a character within its own universe.
AmplificatioA second figure, perhaps less common today, found in epic poetry is amplificatio viiThe Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms provides the following definition:
The elaboration or, sometimes, the contraction of a statement (as in Meios).  Cicero considered this device of enlargement and ornament “one of the highest distinctions of eloquence.”  Quintilian listed four types of a.: 1.) by augmentation (incrementum), 2) by comparison, 3) by reasoning, and 4) by accumulation (congeries).  The device is prominent in epic and tragic poetry.

The figure of amplification is one often confused by rhetoricians.  It is, for example, treated by some as its own figure and by others it is treated as a category of figures.  The term amplification shall be used for the category and amplificatio as the figure.  The figure may be seen in the following:
When he joined Ged and Serret for supper he sat silent, looking up at his young wife sometimes with a hard, covetous glance.  Then Ged pitied her.  She was like a white deer caged, like a white bird wing-clipped, like a silver ring on an old man’s finger…viii

Syntactic parallelism is used — a series of similes — to elaborate upon the nature of Serret.  It may also be observed more fully in the following paragraph:
As their eyes met, a bird sang aloud in the branches of the tree.  In that moment Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the waterfalling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves…ix

Examples like these are far less frequent, as shall be shown, in the writings of Robin McKinley and Lloyd Alexander, revealing a concerted effort by Le Guin to recreate in the realm of prose the techniques previously reserved for the poetry of the epic tradition.  This figure may also be found in Tolkien.  The following example of amplificatio is achieved by the parallelism of anologia (analogy) which in A Handbook to Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, is described by Quintillion as a figure “used for amplification, [that] seeks to rise from the less to the greater…”
The hobbits ran about for a while on the grass, as he told them.  Then they lay basking in the sun [1] with the delight of those that have been wafted suddenly from the bitter winter to a friendly clime, or [2]of people that, after being long ill and bedridden, wake one day to find that they are unexpectedly well…x

TropeThe third figure which will be considered in the creation of the oratorical style is called the Trope.  Again referring to The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms the following definition is offered:
A general term for FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE, that is, language whose semantic meaning must be taken in a metaphorical or figurative sense rather than its literal sense.  Poetic devices such as METAPHOR, METONYMY, SIMILE, and SYNECDOCHE fall under the categories of tropes.

We will concern ourselves only with Metaphor, and at that, only with Verbal Metaphor (2), as it is considered the most potent form of metaphor.  The paragraph following provides two examples:
Once more she lifted her strange bright eyes to him, and her gaze pierced him so that he trembled as if with cold.  Yet there was fear in her face, as if she sought his help but was too proud to ask it. xi

Verb Metaphor Footnote

When Le Guin writes that “once more she lifted her strange bright eyes to him”, the use of the verb lifted is an example of Trope — figurative language.  It is a figure which, among other effects, can add a tremendous degree of weight and formality, can elevate the prose idiom by introducing a primarily poetic affect.  The formality introduced further reinforces the presence of the fictive narrator, the orator, mentioned earlier.  Compare this with a comparable passage from Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown.

She looked up at him and smiled: a lover’s smile, sweet and brilliant, but it was directed at him; her eyes looked at something invisible that she herself did not recognize, and yet his heart stirred in a way he did not recognize. xii

We perceive the character’s actions directly.  It may be said of it that it is less poetic and therefore more immediate.  It is stylistically compatible with the low mimetic mode which “deals with the life of ordinary people, with the everyday life we live, seen from the inside.”  We do as the character does and the division between narrator and character is blurred.  The reader’s initial impression is not of an oratorical delivery.  It may be argued that “her eyes looked at something” is an example of prosopopoeia, however it is not.  Prosopopoeia relies upon catachresis (3), of which this is not an example.  Le Guin’s “Her gaze pierced him” is an example of catachresis as is McKinley’s “his heart stirred,” although McKinley’s verbal metaphor is so overused as to be more readily considered a dead metaphor.

Catachresis Footnote
antisagogeAnother figure, antisagoge, especially with the conjunctive FOR, is ubiquitous especially in the prose of fable and fairy tale but is also found in fantasy.  It is rarely found, significantly, outside of these genres.  It is often over-used by clumsy writers because of its feeling that it elevates prose.  The Longman Dictionary offers the following definition:
A logical figure dealing with cause and effect, or antecedent and consequence.  In a., the antecedent and consequence are linked together in a logical dimension: “Do as your father commands / and you will inherit his lands…”  A. Is often used in discursive as well as poetic PROSE.

The following is an example which follows immediately on the paragraph already quoted from page 119 and so some of that paragraph will be included.
He saw… how they had used his fear to lead him, and how they would, once they had him, have kept him.  They had saved him from the shadow, indeed, for they did not want him to be possessed by the shadow until he had become a slave of the Stone.

The bolded portion is the consequence and the italicized portion is the antecedent.  In this construction the antecedent and the consequence are reversed.  The figure may also be found in Tolkien, though with less frequency than with Le Guin.
Many eyes turned to Elrond in fear and wonder as he told of the Elven-smiths of Eregion and their friendship of Moria, and their eagerness for knowledge, by which Sauron ensnared themFor in that time [Sauron] was not yet evil to behold… xiii

PolysyndetonThe next figure, one of the most common of the six figures considered here, found especially in the prose of high fantasy, and especially in the writing Le Guin, is Acervatio or, as it is more commonly known in Greek, polysyndetonThe Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms again provides the definition defining it as “a grammatical device of rhythm and balance in rhetoric that employs the repetition of conjunctions to effect measured thought and solemnity…” (Bold by Author)  It should be noted that Quintillion includes adverbs and pronouns as characteristic connecting particles. xiv It is a rhetorical device which, if we are to use Milton’s Paradise Lost as a model of the high mimetic mode, finds its home most clearly in this mode.  The following example will suffice as the figure is so frequent as to need no further examples.
Now what Pechvarry and his wife and the witch saw was this: the young wizard stopped midway in his spell, and held the child a while motionless.  Then he had laid little Ioeth gently down on the pallet, and had risen, and stood silent, staff in hand. xv

I have only bolded those conjunctions which are grammatically unnecessary, serving rather stylistic concerns.  The figure of polysyndeton, that is, describes the use of conjunctions which unnecessarily connect words or phrases in a series.  As an extension to this is Le Guin’s polysyndetic use of and and but between phrases and sentences.  The following paragraph illustrates Le Guin’s extensive use of the technique, — an uncommon feature, significantly, in the low mimetic style; and which illustrates the writer’s conscious effort to recreate oratory.  The polysyndetic conjunctions have been bolded.
To Petchvarry it seemed that the wizard also was dead.  His wife wept, but he was utterly bewildered.  But the witch had some hearsay knowledge concerning magery and the ways a true wizard may go, and she saw to it that Ged, cold and lifeless as he lay, was not treated as a dead man but as one sick or tranced. xvi

HyperbatonThe final figure, hyperbaton, is such a frequent figure in the realm of fable, fairy tale, and high fantasy as to need little explanation.  It is a “generic name for rhetorical figures that work through a reorganization of normal word order.”  A specific type of hyperbaton, for example, is anastrophe (involving only two words), a “grammatical construction in which an INVERSION or reversal of the normal word order takes place for the sake of emphasis in meaning, rhythm, melody or tone.” xvii Tolkien uses hyperbaton and its various types throughout The Lord of the Rings where it heightens the tone of the language.  “Like a deer he sprang away.  Through the trees he sped.  On and on he led them, tireless and swift, now that his mind was at last made up.  The woods about the lake they left behind.” xviii It is also especially frequent where the intent of the author writing fantasy is to obsolesce the language spoken by the characters.

The Analysis

The six rhetorical figures described above are not those most commonly found in the oratorical style of high fantasy.  Other figures are equally common within this style — simile, hypotaxis (subordination) and polysyndetic connectives in the writings of Le Guin and, hyperbaton and prepositional metaphor in the writings of Tolkien are so ubiquitous as to seem less a reflection of style than of an author’s habit of thought.  I have chosen the six figures above only because they were the first of the many I happened to isolate.
Nevertheless, these figures are common to all writers in whatever medium.  None of these figures are exclusive and so the distinction is one of degree.  The following table will compare the frequency of these figures in six books:  A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis xix, The Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander xx, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley xxi, Milton’s Paradise Lost xxii, and Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori xxiii.  The final two are a control.  The novel by Mori provides an example of contemporary realistic fiction.  If the suppositions concerning these figures are correct, that they are figures primarily associated with the high mimetic mode, with oratory, then they should occur with the least frequency in Mori — for there is no need to persuade when one writes realistic fiction — and with the most frequency in Milton.  The first fifteen pages from each book will be examined.  Narrative and dialogue will be treated separately.
Lastly, it ought to be said that these numbers only point to a larger pattern.  It might be argued that such a small sampling hardly argues for a consistent style.  Yet if all the rhetorical figures used by the writers of High Fantasy (those writing within the oratorical style) were tallied, they would prove this sampling to be an accurate indicator of a larger stylistic consistency.

Final Table


McKinley and Lewis use the least figures followed by Alexander.  Alexander and Lewis’ fantasies are clearly written for a younger audience and so the use of oratorical figures is restrained and of the most obvious type.  There is no sense of the orator.  Yet neither is the orator’s voice present in McKinley’s work, which, in tone, comes closest to the contemporary realistic fiction of Mori.  Depending on the experience and preference of the reader, the lack of the orator’s presence may produce a disjunctive affect and may even harm her attempt to create a secondary world.  She is, in effect, using a low mimetic style in a high mimetic mode; she is speaking of times past with a twentieth century voice.  As is apparent, Tolkien and Le Guin use the most figures of oratory, writers who are considered to have most successfully created a secondary world, no doubt, reinforced by the oratorical style.  The oratorical voice removes the narrator into the world which he or she is describing, and so helps to create a more self contained universe.

1 The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings offer two very different narrative voices. It wasnít until the Lord of the Rings, in fact, that Tolkien attempted and succeeded in creating a high style, in the same sense that Paradise Lost is written in a high style. The narrative of the Hobbit is a much more personable style. This is achieved primarily by the rhetorical figure Aversio, the sudden alteration from the third person to the second (which never occurs in The Lord of the Rings)p. 160, and by Digressio, or more simply digressions, lending to the narrative a certain home-spun confiding quality.

2“Some verb metaphors are derived from verbs, some from adjectives, and some from compressed noun phrases. The sentence ‘I have blinded myself with optimism’ could have been derived from either the verb ‘to blind’ or the adjective ‘blind.’ We can transform the noun simile ‘He ran away as fast as a rocket can fly’ into the verb m. ‘He rocketed away…’” (The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms. See Metaphor.)

3“…A figure of similarity and dissimilarity, which uses a word that belongs in one dimension of meaning in another dimension. ‘Her hands sniffed into the bag of candy,’ in which hands act as if they were a nose.” (The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms)

i “Literary Realism and Its Effects” 6.

ii J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in his Tree and Leaf, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1965, p.47.

iii Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 33.

1. If superior in degree to other men and to the environment of other men, the hero is a divine being, and the story about him will be a myth in the common sense of a story about a god.

2. If superior in degree to other men and to his environment the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvelous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established. Here we have moved from myth, properly so called, into legend, folk tale, m‰rchen, and their literary affiliates and derivatives…

3. If superior in degree to other men but not to his natural environment, the hero is a leader. He has authority, passions, and powers of expression far greater than ours, but what he does is subject both to social criticism and to the order of nature. This is the hero of the high mimetic mode, of most epic and tragedy…

4. If superior neither to other men nor to his environment, the hero is one of us: we respond to a sense of his common humanity, and demand from the poet the same canons of probability that we find in our own experience. This gives us the hero of the low mimetic mode, of most comedy and of realistic fiction…

5. If inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity, the hero belongs to the ironic mode. This is still true when the reader feels that he is or might be in the same situation as the situation is being judged by the norms of greater freedom.

iv J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, New York, Ballantine Books, 1973, 238.

v Prosopopoeia,” The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms, 1989 ed.

“A rhetorical figure of definition that through vivid and imaginative description lends human qualities to an abstraction, or to an animate or inanimate object.”

vi “Personification,” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1993 ed.

“The following enumeration of abstractions in Gray’s [18th c.] ëOde on a Distant Prospect of Eton College shows how such personifications had lost their capacity to produce emotional effects like those in medieval morality plays or in Milton:

These shall the fury Passions tear
The vultures of the mind,
Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear,
And Shame that skulks behind;
Or pining Love shall waste their youth,
Or Jealousy with rankling tooth,
That inly gnaws the secret heart,
And Envy wan, and faded Care
Grim-visaged, comfortless Despair,
And sorrow’s piercing dart.

vii Lee A. Sonnino, A Handbook to Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, New York, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1968 (see Amplificatio).

viii Le Guin, 114.

ix Le Guin, 35.

x J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, New York, Ballantine Books, 1973, p. 199.

xi Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, New York, Bantam Books, 1977, p.118.

xii Robin McKinley, The Hero and the Crown, New York, Greenwillow Books, 1984, p. 145.

xiii Ibid. 318.

xiv The Handbook of Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, 19.

xv Le Guin, 81.

xvi Le Guin, 81-82.

xvii The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms.

xviii Tolkien, The Two Towers, 26.

xix C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe, New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

xx Lloyd Alexander, The Taran Wanderer, New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967.

xxi Robin McKinley, The Hero and The Crown, New York, Greenwillow Books, 1984.

xxii John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Roy Flannagan, New York, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1993.

xxiii Kyoko Mori, Shizukoís Daughter, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1993.

Opening Book: The Green Gate Page 74-76

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Page 74 The Green Gate
Page 75 The Green Gate

Page 76 The Green Gate

IMHO: Critiquing the Critic

I was googling the net for “new formalists” and came across a good article by John Holcombe called The New Formalism. I found the article brief but insightful – neatly summing up the pros and cons of the New Formalist poetic- most of it analysis and some review. There was one passage that tweaked me though. This was criticism of Richard Wilbur’s poem, The Things of This World, referencing a critique by Marjorie Perloff.

Criticism can generally be broken into three kinds – Analysis, Review & Literary Criticism.  There is a place for all three, but I usually prefer analysis because, in the case of poetry, it analyzes the poem on its own terms and teaches me how the poet accomplishes the art of poetry. Literary Criticism all too easily seems to veer into ideological or dogmatic criticism.

Holcombe summed Perloff up this way:

But misgivings had been voiced much earlier by Marjorie Perloff {33} who said of the title poem of The Things of This World (1956) collection, which begins:

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple.
As false dawn. Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

that, for all the New Criticism values of depersonalization, ambiguity, tension, and paradox so brilliantly displayed, the aloof conceit of washing viewed as disembodied angels took some swallowing. Could we forget what laundry actually involved and looked like from a New York apartment? Wasn’t the St. Augustine-derived title, “Love Calls us to the Things of This World” more a studious, male-orientated avoidance of things as they were in the world?”

I found Perloff’s original criticism linked in the footnotes.

Perloff wastes no time laying her cards on the table. Here is how she  begins: “This much anthologized poem provides us with an interesting index to Establishment poetics in the mid-fifties.”

This is no analysis. Perloff  appears only tangentially interested in the poem. From the outset, we know she wants to talk about: “Establishment poetics in the mid-fifties”. This is her world, the world of critical schools and theories, not poetry.  Such criticism can be its own art form  – using literature to create its own literature – but it exists in a sort of parallel universe. (Nowadays one must expend considerable effort to be truly conversant in the various critical paradigms.)

Literary Criticism, as I use the term, may be Feminists, Marxists, Postcolonial, Semiotic, Freudian; and while critics of the various schools may have many interesting and illuminating things to say about how they read poetry (and ultimately about themselves and their opinions), they sometimes have little or nothing to say about how the poet intended the poem. They don’t care and have said so. In most cases, their observations, while relevant from the perspective of a modern reader or performer, are entirely anachronistic in terms of the work being discussed.

Perloff’s analysis amounts to about one sentence: ” Its thirty lines are divided into six five-line stanzas, the meter being predominantly iambic pentameter (“Sóme are in smócks: but trúly thére they áre”), with some elegant variation, as when a line is divided into steps (see lines 4, 15, 18, 30), presumably to create a more natural look. A similar effect is gained by the absence of end rhyme, although there is a good deal of alliteration and assonance…”

That’s it.

And now that she has, almost flippantly, tipped her hat to the poem, she gets on with her feminist axe-grinding, telling us nothing about the poem but a great deal about Ms. Perloff. Here is one of her more pointed passages:

richard-wilbur-2“But if, as Wilbur himself explains it, the scene is outside the upper-story window of an apartment building, in front of which “the first laundry of the day is being yanked across the sky,” the reality is that the sheets and shirts would probably be covered with specks of dust, grit, maybe even with a trace or two of bird droppings. At best, those sheets seen (if seen at all) from Manhattan highrise windows in the fifties, billowing over the fire-escapes under the newly installed TV aerials, would surely be a bit on the grungy side.”

Perloff is excoriating Wilbur for writing a poem that is seemingly out of touch with the realities of cleaning laundry – the laborious, hand-chaffing, skin-cracking work of “Woman”. In short, she accuses him of being a male, self-absorbed (male avoidance) day-dreamer – out of touch with the realities of women’s labor – never mind that men have been known to do their own laundry. (Evidence must exist somewhere.) What’s ironic, though, is that she herself writes as if she knows better.

She writes: “the reality is… probably…

Probably? It’s a disingenuous argument. After excoriating Wilbur for being out of touch, it turns out that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about either! If she doesn’t know (and clearly she doesn’t) then her criticism is just as aloof as Wilbur’s so-called daydream. But not content to leave it at that, she adds: “shirts would probably be covered with specks of dust, grit, maybe even with a trace or two of bird droppings…”

I’ve lived in the city and I lived in the country. I’ve hung laundry out to dry. I’ve never, to this day, had  bird droppings on my laundry (which isn’t to say it never happens); and its never been grungy. If Perloff were probably right, who would hang their laundry out to dry? If it’s going to need another cleaning just for being hung on the line, why bother? What is especially absurd is that Perloff’s commentary has nothing whatsoever to do with the poetry. What point is she making? – that Wilbur is wallowing in male avoidance? So what? What about the poem?

Perloff’ self-serving disingenuousness continues. She writes, for example, : “those sheets seen… from Manhattan highrise windows…” Well, ok, but who said anything about highrises? Not Wilbur. He himself called it the “upper-story window of an apartment building“. But Perloff disingenuously and self-servingly interprets  this as a highrise window, all to make Wilbur’s poem seem ridiculous and unrealistic. Proceeding from her straw man, rather than the poem, she belittles Wilbur along with the poem. And to what purpose?

Perloff asks: “The poem refers to “rosy hands in the rising steam”–no doubt, as Eberhart remarks, an allusion to Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” (AO 4), but where are the real hands of those laundresses, hands that Eliot, half a century earlier, had seen “lifting dingy shades in a thousand furnished rooms?”

Perloff’s question is trite. Yes, I suppose Wilbur could have written a poem about, as she puts it, a woman “who only dreams of better detergents“, but this is criticizing the poem for not being what it isn’t. (It’s also an ironically sexist comment.)

She might as well complain that the hammer makes a poor screw driver.

Perloff wants us to believe that Wilbur and his poem are aloof or as John Holcombe summarizes: an aloof conceit. However, the same could be said of Perloff’s critique. Wilbur didn’t set out to write the kind of poem she thinks it should have been. To spend so many words pointing this out is to say nothing about the poem – but much about Perloff’s own ideology and dogma. The best criticism would help the reader understand Wilbur’s poem on its own terms and in its own aesthetic milieu – a masterfully constructed conceit which many readers have enjoyed and rightfully praised. How did he do it? What can we learn from it? What makes the poem so moving to so many? – even in 1956.

These, to me, are the questions worth asking.

Iambic Pentameter (Variants & Long Lines – II) or Tho. Middleton, his Variants, Departures & Hexameters

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This is the fourth and final post in a series on scanning Iambic Pentameter – a follow up to my first post on Iambic Pentameter Variants. This post is the deep end. It draws together what has already been discussed, shows how to apply it to some gnarly Iambic Pentameter (as tough as it gets), and adds some final variants, including Long Lines, which haven’t already been discussed. For a look at the other posts, click on the Categories Widget under About: Iambic Pentameter.

[January 11, 2009 – I did a little editing for the sake of clarity and I corrected some typos. If something seems confusing or wrong, let me know.]

This post takes a look at the first 75 lines of a play by Thomas Middleton, a contemporary and co-author of some of Shakespeare’s plays.   Middleton’s Blank Verse seems a good place to start if only because it demonstrates so many variants. I thought that showing how I read the verse (which is just my take on it) might be helpful to others.


The material comes from Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. I opened the book at random to a play called Wit at Several Weapons. I had never heard of it (like much of the material in the book). Middleton is a fine dramatist (perhaps the greatest after Shakespeare) and while his gifts don’t compare to the sustained rhetoric and poetry of Shakespeare, Marlowe or even Webster, his poetry can strike like lightning – brief but brilliant.  From his most famous play, A Game at Chess, comes the lovely line: “I’m taken like a blackbird/ In the great snow.”

So far, Wit at Several Weapons is a bawdy, sexual, somewhat sinister play – not the kind of subject matter that lends itself to poetic transcendence. Describing women, Middleton (in the character of the Old Knight), writes: “They must be wooed a hundred several ways,/ Before you obtain the right way in a woman:/ ‘Tis an odd creature, full of creeks and windings,/ The serpent has not more.”

And that’s about as poetic as the play gets – the rest, poetically, is boiler plate at best.

What is more interesting, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, is just how free Middleton is with Iambic Pentameter. He was a Jacobean playwright and he, along with other Jacobean playwrights, took Iambic Pentameter to the breaking point (and beyond) – likewise Webster and Massinger. The rigor of blank verse as much as dissolves with these poets. The verse form wasn’t to see such experimentation again for almost 300 years – the 20th Century.

First, here is the opening of the play, uninterrupted. Or, you can skip this and get on with the analysis.

The First 75 Lines


Sir, I’m no boy, I’m deep in one-and-twenty,
The second year’s approaching.

Old Knight

A fine time
If e’er he mean to make account of any.


Wits, sir?

Old Knight

Ay, wits, sir; if it be so strange to thee
I’m sorry I spent that time to get a fool,
I might have employed my pains a great deal better.
Thou know’st all that I have I ha’ got by my wits,
And yet to see how urgent thou art too;
It grieves me thou art so degenerate
To trouble me for means; I never offered it
My parents from a schoolboy; past nineteen once
(See what these times are grown too!), before twenty
I rushed into the world, which is indeed
Much like the art of swimming; he that will attain to’t
Must fall plump, and duck himself at first,
And that will make him hardy and adventurous
And not stand putting in one foot, and shiver,
And then draw t’other after, like a quake-buttock;
Well he may make a paddler i’ the world,
From hand to mouth, but never a brave swimmer,
Borne up by th’ chin, as I bore up myself
With my strong industry that never failed me;
For he that lies borne up with patrimonies
Looks like a long great ass that swims with bladders:
Come but one prick of adverse fortune to him
He sinks, because he never tried to swim,
When wit plays with the billows that choked him.


Why, is it not a fashion for a father, sir,
Out of his yearly thousands to allow
His only son a competent brace of hundreds,
Or such a toy?


Yes, if he mean to spoil him
Or mar his wits he may, but never I.
This is my humour, sir, which you’ll find constant;
I love wit so well, because I live by’t,
That I’ll give no man power out of my means to hurt it,
And that’s a kind of gratitude to my raiser,
Which great ones oft forget. I admire much
This age’s dullness. When I scarce writ man,
The first degree that e’er I took  in thriving,
I lay intelligencer close for wenching,
Could give this lord or knight a true certificate
Of all the maidenheads extant; how many lay
‘Mongst chambermaids, how many ‘mongst Exchange wenches
(Though never many there, I must confess,
They have a trick to utter ware so fast);
I knew which lady had a mind to fall,
Which gentlewoman new divorced, which tradesman breaking,
The price of every sinner to a hair
And where to raise each price; which were the termers
That would give velvet petticoats, tissue gowns,
Which pieces, angels, suppers, and half-crowns:
I knew how to match and make my market,
Could give intelligence where the pox lay ledger,
And then to see the lechers shift a point,
‘Twas sport and profit too; how they would shun
Their adored mistress’ chambers, and run fearfully
Like rats from burning houses! So brought I
My clients o’ the game still safe together,
And noble gamesters loved me, and I felt it:
Give me a man that lives by his wits, say I,
And never left a groat, there’s the true gallant.
When I grew somewhat pursy, I grew then
In men’s opinions too, and confidences;
They put things called executorships upon me,
The charge of orphans, little senseless creatures,
Whom in their childhoods I bound forth to feltmakers,
To make ’em lose and work away their gentry,
Disguise their tender nature with hard custom,
So wrought ’em out in time: there I risse ungently;
Nor do I fear to discourse this unto thee,
I’m armed at all points against treachery.
I hold my humour firm; if I can see thee thrive by thy wits while I live, I shall have the more courage to trust thee with my lands when I die; if not, the next best wit I can hear of carries ’em: for since in my time and knowledge so many rich children of the City conclude in beggary, I’d rather make a wise stranger my executor than a foolish son my heir, and to have my lands called after my wit, thou after my name; and that’s my nature.

The First 75 Lines & Patrick Gillespie: His Interjections

Couple things needing to be said: I wasn’t alive 400 years ago. I don’t know how actors actually spoke their lines or how the Dramatists actually conceived of meter. Nobody has to agree with me. This is just how I have learned to read blank verse, both by reading other scholars on the subject and my own efforts to master the form. Also, I don’t want to give the impression that iambic pentameter overrules any other consideration. Not everything should or needs to be fitted to the iambic pattern. It’s art and instinct.   


Sir, I’m no boy, I’m deep in one-and-twenty,
The second year’s approaching.

Old Knight

A fine time

So far, the lines are easily identifiable as Iambic Pentameter. The first line is 11 syllables, ending with a feminine ending (a very common variant), the second is divided at the fourth foot between the two speakers: The second year’s approaching / A fine time. But the next line seems to out & out break with the Iambic Pentameter pattern:

For a youth to live by his wits, then, I should think,

This is a 12 syllable line; but is it hexameter and is it iambic hexameter? Hexameter lines, or long lines, are infrequent but accepted departures from the iambic pentameter pattern in blank verse. They can be found in Shakespeare & become more frequent after him. However, one way to tell if one is dealing with a hexameter line is to count metrical feet. If one simply counts off a foot at every two syllables, then one ends up with this:


This would be a Hexameter line, but with too many variant feet to be called Iambic; and would break completely with the Iambic Pentameter pattern of blank verse. The scansion would be very doubtful given the expectations of the time. The division of the feet also works against the phrasing – and this is where scansion is part art and part science. As I mentioned in my previous post, especially as concerns anapests, one sometimes allows the phrasing to define the metrical foot. So, with that in mind, we end up with:


This variation is not inconceivable in Jacobean Blank Verse, as far as variants go, but two anapests in a single line is unlikely. One of the advantages to the regularity of Iambic Pentameter, in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, is that it made the script easier for actors to remember. And that was important. They were frequently acting several different plays during a given week. So, while the line above doesn’t bare the mark of Elision or Eclipsis (as it might have just ten years earlier) it’s a safe bet that the line was probably pronounced as though the anapests were elided.


In this case, the line is felt, rhythmically, like Iambic Pentameter. The phrase For a is spoken quickly, the a almost disappearing. In the third foot, by his, becomes  by’s wits. The whole line, in this wise, has the effect of being spoken quickly or trippingly, as Shakespeare might have said. That said, the line will still have an anapestic ring to it. Poets from this period were content to introduce anapests that could be elided. The effect is a kind of grey area. They were paying lip service to the iambic pattern without being slavish. In the hands of the Jacobean poets, though, such grey areas were frequently overplayed, as in the line above.

If e’er he mean to make account of any.

Notice that ever is elided to read e’er through syncope (the removal of a letter or syllable from the middle of a word) [Sister Miriam Joseph: Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 52]. In this case, either the copyist or Middleton chose to deliberately spell out the elision and, by extension,  his concern that the Iambic rhythm be maintained.  (And this is the curious feature of this and the play in general. There’s a kind of schizophrenic  attentiveness to the meter. On the one hand, as with the line before this one, Middleton or the copyist doesn’t seem concerned with the meter or with indicating where the actors should elide words. Should we care about the meter? Then, with the very next line, Middleton or the copyist elides ever. Does he or doesn’t he care? Here’s my theory:

The iambic meter mattered.

However, Middleton and his contemporaries were frequently writing with great haste and they weren’t thinking of their works as poems to be read by the public. 1.) These plays were to be performed by actors drenched in the practice of performing blank verse – some having performed for and with Shakespeare and Marlowe. Middleton probably didn’t find it necessary to spell out every instance of elision, knowing the actors would “normalize” the lines. 2.) He may have simply overlooked such indications in the haste of writing. 3.) Few plays from this period survive in the author’s original hand. Texts were frequently altered by copyists if only because they couldn’t read the Dramatist’s hand writing.

All these may sound like rationalizations, but the play to remember is Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. This play electrified the public and other Dramatists not just for its subject matter – the drama – but for the genius of its blank verse. The verse form was part and parcel of the drama and dramatists were, in part, appraised by their use of it. These were heady times for the English language.


Wits, sir?

Old Knight

Ay, wits, sir; if it be so strange to thee
I’m sorry I spent that time to get a fool,

The phrase sorry I spent can be elided so that the y and I combine if spoken quickly, somewhat maintaining the Iambic beat.

I might have employed my pains a great deal better.

This line can be elided to read something like: I might ha’employed my pains… (You might think this is a stretch, but Middleton employs this very elision in the next line.)

Thou know’st all that I have I ha’ got by my wits,

This is a deceptively difficult line to scan because of our modern habits of speech. In this case, the subject matter of the Old Knight’s speech gives us a clue. Namely, he’s talking about himself. So, the line could be scanned as follows:


George Wright calls this a heavy feminine ending (the final extra syllable in the fifth foot being an intermediate or strong stress). I would be more apt to call it a double closing, (which would then relate it to the double onset – which is what Wright calls an anapestic first foot or anacrusis). But calling the fifth foot in the line above a heavy feminine ending makes sense too (and in the end, it just doesn’t matter). Middleton and other Jacobean poets were  increasingly fond of the heavy feminine ending while Shakespeare used it with considerable restraint. The ending allows for greater flexibility but also threatens the rhythm of blank verse. It’s one of the reasons the verse of the Jacobean theater sounds more diffuse, less disciplined and memorable than the earlier verse – (though perhaps only in my opinion).

And yet to see how urgent thou art too;
It grieves me thou art so degenerate

These two lines firmly reestablish the Iambic Pentameter pattern by precluding the need for elipsis. So far, it has been possible to read most of the lines within an iambic and pentameter pattern . But now comes the next line.

To trouble me for means; I never offered it

This is the first line which seems to defy elision. Using syncope, one might be able to elide never to ne’er, but that creates an anapest.


This is an acceptable variant and an acceptable scansion, but I’m more inclined to think that we have our first hexameter line.


In this case, knowing to what degree anapests were avoided, it makes more sense to me that Middleton would opt to preserve the iambic rhythm – though it makes the line Iambic Hexameter rather than Iambic Pentameter.

My parents from a schoolboy; past nineteen once

I read the line above is an eleven syllable line with a heavy feminine ending.

(See what these times are grown too!), before twenty
I rushed into the world, which is indeed
Much like the art of swimming; he that will attain to’t

And this line beginning Much like is an archly variant line. When I first read it I was completely baffled. I think, though, that it is still an acceptable variant within the larger Iambic Pentameter passage – if only by the slimmest of margins and only on a – once every hundred lines – basis. But that’s just my aesthetic opinion. The verdict? I think it’s a hexameter line with a heavy feminine ending. Middleton can get away with it, perhaps, because the hexameter line is an accepted variant (to judge by the writing of contemporaneous playwrights) and because the heavy feminine ending was, by that time, accepted. Here is how I scan it.

hexameter reading of attain to't

Notice the elision of to it to to’t, as if Middleton knew he was getting away with something. Now this is stretching the limits – expecting an ostensibly 14 syllable line to be an acceptable deviation from a 10 syllable iambic pentameter pattern! Yet, there you have it. The great master himself, William Shakespeare, sometimes peppered his blank verse with hexameter lines. Here is the precedent (taken from Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, Page 147).

How dares thy harsh rude tongue sound this unpleasing news? (Richard II, 3.4.74)

Fleeter than arrows, bullets, wind, thought, swifter things (Love’s Labor’s Lost 5.2.261)

It’s worth stressing that not all metrists accept Hexameter lines as an allowable variant. Some metrists try to regularize all lines so that they fit the iambic pentameter grid. But I don’t see how it can be done in all cases and I tend not to be dogmatic but pragmatic. I can’t see how any metrist could possibly regularize Middleton’s line. I find it easier to believe, given the practice of their day, that hexameters were understood as a “legal” variant.

Must fall plump, and duck himself at first,

The line above is missing an unstressed syllable in the first foot – commonly called a headless line.


And that will make him hardy and adventurous
And not stand putting in one foot, and shiver,

The two lines above both end with feminine endings.

And then draw t’other after, like a quake-buttock;

This is another odd line. The iambic pentameter of the blank verse is at the breaking point. I read the line as having a heavy feminine ending – buttock was probably pronounced like butt’ck, syncope reducing a two syllable word to, essentially, one.

Well he may make a paddler i’ the world,
From hand to mouth, but never a brave swimmer,

The line above works as long as one doesn’t put too much stress on brave. The fourth foot would be phyrric and the last foot another feminine ending. Thus:


The two lines, more firmly iambic pentameter, help re-establish the, up to now, heavily varying meter.

Borne up by th’ chin, as I bore up myself

The line above is firmly iambic with the elision of by th’chin to b’th’chin. If you think this is extreme, compare it to Shakespeare: I had rather be set quick i’th’earth. Such elision was normal practice at the time and reflects a syllabic ambiguity which poets of the day seemed to take for granted. Many hypermetrical syllables can be elided in this fashion and apparently were.

With my strong industry that never failed me;
For he that lies borne up with patrimonies
Looks like a long great ass that swims with bladders:
Come but one prick of adverse fortune to him

All the lines above are firmly iambic with feminine endings.

He sinks, because he never tried to swim,
When wit plays with the billows that choked him.

I read the last line as having a phyrric in the fourth foot and a spondaic in the fifth. All in all, these last six lines have re-established the iambic pentameter pattern.


Why, is it not a fashion for a father, sir,

I read this line as having what is called a triple ending – when two unstressesed syllables follow the final stressed syllable of the fifth foot: essentially a feminine ending with an extra unstressed syllable. Thus:


There are also examples of triple endings in Shakespeare.

Out of his yearly thousands to allow
His only son a competent brace of hundreds,

In the line above, syncope reduces competent to comp’tent, mainting a strong iambic rhythm.

Or such a toy?

Old Knight

Yes, if he mean to spoil him
Or mar his wits he may, but never I.
This is my humour, sir, which you’ll find constant;
I love wit so well, because I live by’t,

I read the line above as being headless with a strong feminine ending. An acceptable variant after four strongly iambic pentameter lines.

That I’ll give no man power out of my means to hurt it,

The line above reads like a 14 syllable line by modern standards! However, according to the practice of the day, power can be read (as now) as having one syllable, while out of my could be elided to something like out’o’my means. This would make the line standard iambic pentameter with a feminine ending. It might scan as follows:


Another possibility would be to give power two syllables, making the line hexameter with a feminine ending. I personally find this latter reading more believable:


This elides of my to o’my – such that the preposition of almost disappears. This is more easily within the practicable elision of the day.

And that’s a kind of gratitude to my raiser,

Gratitude was probably pronounced grat’tude, maintaing the iambic meter with a feminine ending.

Which great ones oft forget. I admire much
This age’s dullness. When I scarce writ man,
The first degree that e’er I took  in thriving,
I lay intelligencer close for wenching,
Could give this lord or knight a true certificate

Certificate can be read as certif’cate, making the ending feminine, or the line can be treated as having a triple ending. So far, though, another long stretch of Iambic Pentameter.

Of all the maidenheads extant; how many lay

To me, the line above is most easily read as a Hexameter line.

Mongst chambermaids, how many ‘mongst Exchange wenches

I read the line above as another line with a triple ending. Thus:


(Though never many there, I must confess,
They have a trick to utter ware so fast);
I knew which lady had a mind to fall,

The three lines above, perfectly iambic, reestablish the meter.

Which gentlewoman new divorced, which tradesman breaking,

This is an interesting line. It’s probably easiest read as another Hexameter (with a feminine ending). If one is determined to regularize the line, one might use sycnope to quickly slur the last three syllables of gentlewomen (such that, in effect, the word is reduced to two syllables).

The price of every sinner to a hair
And where to raise each price; which were the termers
That would give velvet petticoats, tissue gowns,

Petticoats was probably pronounced Pett’coats, maintaining the Iambic rhythm.

Which pieces, angels, suppers, and half-crowns:
I knew how to match and make my market,

The line above is headless, the stress on I. (Remember, the Old Knight is bragging about himself.) Thus:


Understanding the rules and standards of the day, the reading above is far more likely than an anapestic reading:


Such a reading as above would be to bring a 21rst Century sensibility to a 17th Century aesthetic.

Could give intelligence where the pox lay ledger,

Intelligence was most likely pronounced intell’gence, again maintaining the iambic line.

And then to see the lechers shift a point,
‘Twas sport and profit too; how they would shun
Their adored mistress’ chambers, and run fearfully

Fearfully could be read as fearf’lly, a feminine ending, or as a triple ending. Either would be acceptable. Frequent triple  endings were certainly more frequent among Jacobean playwrights.

Like rats from burning houses! So brought I
My clients o’ the game still safe together,
And noble gamesters loved me, and I felt it:
Give me a man that lives by his wits, say I,

By his wits was probably elided to read by’s wits – maintaining the iambic pattern.

And never left a groat, there’s the true gallant.
When I grew somewhat pursy, I grew then
In men’s opinions too, and confidences;
They put things called executorships upon me,

Executorships was probably pronounced exec’torships, making the line iambic pentameter with a feminine ending.

The charge of orphans, little senseless creatures,
Whom in their childhoods I bound forth to feltmakers,

Reading the line above as an Iambic Pentameter line with a triple ending.

To make ’em lose and work away their gentry,
Disguise their tender nature with hard custom,
So wrought ’em out in time: there I risse ungently;

Risse means rose. The line is hard to read. Most likely, there I can be elided:


Another possibility is to treat the colon as a midline break (which is what it is in either case) and the phrase there I risse as being a kind of double onset for the next phrase (there I being two unstressed syllables before risse). Remember, a double onset is when an iambic pentameter line begins with an extra unstressed syllable: Not a word, a word, we stand upon our manners (Wright P. 170). This would be, in effect, a reverse of the Epic Caesuras, a very common feature in Shakespeare’s works. For example:


This is from As You Like It 2.7.43. Notice the extra unstressed syllable at the midline break.

Nor do I fear to discourse this unto thee,
I’m armed at all points against treachery.

It’s hard to regularize these last two lines. Even in Jacobean England, I doubt that they would have acted the lines as follows:


I’ll be blunt. They’re clumsy. They’re bad lines. The second line could be read as having two anapests – at all points | against treach |. But this isn’t any less clumsy by the standards of blank verse.  The lines were ultimately written for the rhyme of thee and treachery. It was traditional, sometimes, to signal the end of a soliloquy or extended speech with a rhyming couplet, but the rhyme, in this case, is poorly executed and not a true rhyme. This may not be a sign of Middleton’s incompetence. It may simply be haste. (Dramatists in these days weren’t writing for posterity but for money – and new plays were needed fast, fast, fast!)

middleton-textual-companionThe clumsy meter and rhyme could also reflect on the character of the Knight (although I always doubt these sorts of readings; but it’s possible). After all, the Old Knight is a blow hard and just as he speaks these last two lines he collapses into prose – a curious effect and not often seen mid-speech in the theater of the day. It were as if the old blowhard simply gave up on the pretense of blank verse, exhausted by it, falling into the matter-of-fact discourse of prose – (similar to the rapid fire list of side-effects at the end of a drug commercial).

All in all, I would have to say that Middleton’s blank verse, at least in this opening act,  is only just passable. The frequent variants and long lines weaken the overall pattern, sapping it of its vigor and rigorousness.  The enjambment and end-stopping is varied, more so than with many of our modern “formalist” poets, but the effect is diluted by the frequent feminine and triple endings. It’s not good blank verse but it’s blank verse as the Jacobeans practiced it.

The passage demonstrates the wild side of Jacobean Blank Verse.