There’s nothing left but overall
Remnants of what had once been fall;
Even where a week before
A leaf or two blew through the door
The dwindling days have turned to soot
The little traveling underfoot. ·
Snow will follow soon enough
Careening through the unmown scruff
Of jimson weed and bush clover,
Nothing apt to be covered over
With just a midday’s squall—but soon
Winter will stay the afternoon. ·
Then who will afterward remember
The few days readied since September?—
The ghostly sighs of thimbleweed,
The bony knuckles of the reed,
Whole fields of startled hair turned white
Before the year end’s stricken flight. ·
I wouldn’t ask but that I know
It’s not just seasons come and go.
When ice gives way to watercress
And all of April’s loveliness,
Remember, though the days are few,
November has its flowers too. ·
· · · · · · · · · ·
by me | January 8 2018
This is my first audio recording using my new YETI microphone. My reading of the poem is just okay, but then I’m never satisfied that way. Best that I never hear myself. The poem itself is one I started not in November of last year but the year before, with a haiku. I finally devoted the time to finishing it.
Many of his greatest poems are written using regular metrical patterns like blank verse, where the metrical pattern doesn’t vary from line to line, but many more aren’t. These poems are like Emily Dickinson’s – poems based on ballad meter. Ireland is famous for its ballads and folk songs and Yeats must have heard them frequently – if only on the evidence of the forms he used. Here is the poem before my own annotations. A scansion of the poem follows later.
That civilization may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)
That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.)
That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)
I’ve ordered a book by Helen Vendler, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, but haven’t recieved it yet. I’ll be interested in seeing what she says about Long Legged Fly. Her book has recieved some mixed reviews, some bad, one reviewer finding the book as “dry as chalkdust”, but she’s the only critics, to my knowledge, that has tackled Yeats’ use of form. John Unterecker’s A Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats is useless in regard to Yeats’ formal practice. His book is more of a biographical overview of the better poems – their inspiration, meaning and symbolism. A very good book if that’s what you’re looking for (if you can get past the god-awful cover – below left).
So… I’m going to take a stab at the form Yeats used in Long Legged Fly. If reading Vendler persuades me I have missed something or gotten something wrong, I’ll make a note of it.
On the Poem
The poem is written in three stanzas and the metrical form of each Stanza is cut from the same cloth – though each is more freely varied than would have been acceptable by the generation of poets immediately preceeding Yeats (the Victorians). While contempories were veering off into free verse, Yeats was content to continue working flexibly within the varied forms he had inherited. It was said that he would sit and hum to himself as he shaped the meter and rhythm of his lines.
In each of the stanza, Yeats folds his poetry around the creative spark – the genius of mind. In the first is Ceasar, in the second Helen, and the third Michelangelo. Interestingly, Yeats doesn’t confine himself to artists – Ceasar wasn’t; neither was Helen. In one sense, Yeats could be celebrating the genius creativity as being more than just the province of the artist. On the other hand, Yeats could also be suggesting that all human endeavors, whether Ceasar’s territorial, empire-building ambition which Yeats frames as “civilization” (perhaps man’s greatest collective accomplishment), or Helen’s physical grace and beauty, are expressions of artistic genius and creativity. The meaning could be either or could be both. Unlike some analysts, I like to think that the goal is not to guess at what Yeats intended, but to offer the possibilities presented by the poem itself.
The dog and pony are tethered far from Caesar’s hearing. The work of man, and by extension mankind, will not tolerate the presence of animals. Helen, for her part, represents a nexus through which history will move because of her beauty and grace. Without her, history cannot act on human events and cannot inspire Homer, Virgil or Christopher Marlowe to write about them. With this in mind, it may be deliberate that Yeats paraphrases Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus.
FAUSTUS. Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium–
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.–
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!–
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wertenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!
Perhaps Yeats is suggesting that it is through her, symbolically a woman’s beauty, that art is made possible – that Marlowe’s lines were made possible. But, like Caesar, that creative act of her self-making, the making of her beauty, cannot be disturbed – needs quiet, needs silence for her genius to express itself. But perhaps Yeats intends another sense too. Describing her as three-parts child, one part woman, Yeats describes her innocence. She thinks that nobody looks. Her creative act is pure, without guile, without knowledge of the lascivious observer. Like the long legged fly upon the stream, her mind moves upon silence.
The reference to her picking up a tinker shuffle on the street, could be a reference to the poem itself – a poem based on ballad meter, one that Yeats could have picked up on the street. In this sense, Yeats could be treating Helen as the muse of poetry, shaping a simple rhythm into a poetry that will shape history and men’s thoughts. She becomes a sort of patron Saint of poetry.
In the final stanza Yeats suggests Michelangelo’s creation of David but is a reference to the supine, awakening Adam of the Sistine chapel. Michelangelo is the indisputably great artist – the only Artist of the three. But Yeats writes about more than Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s art will inspire a sexual awareness such that “the girls at puberty may find the first Adam in their thought”. It is, like the creative act of Caesar and Helen, a nexus of through which history will act, through which their will be further creation – procreation of the girls and their lovers – the single most profound and powerful act of creation which mankind is capable of.
So it is that Yeats moves from the creation of civilization through arms, the creation of art in symbolically graceful and beautiful Helen, to the great procreative act – the creation of ourselves. In this guise, perhaps, Yeats might have intended Michelangelo to symbolize God’s own creation of man, or better, man’s own re-creation of himself.
But keep the children out.
Curiously, Yeats must have known there would be no children in the Pope’s Chapel – no girls. I’m inclined to think that, by children, Yeats was referring to the Pope, (along with his attendant Bishops, etc…) This would imply a criticism of religion. The Pope and his attendants, the “children”, would presumably interfere with Michelangelo’s creative genius. That is, Michelangelo’s work was not meant for them, the unimaginative and spiritually naive “children” of the church, but for the pubescent girls – who would immediately, if instinctively, comprehend the meaning (the creative power and genius) of Michelangelo’s work. They, the girls, would understand what the children, the Pope and the Bishops, could not.
The supreme act of creation, the genius of mind, moves outside its own awareness – becomes like the long legged fly that moves upon the stream or the the source of being and mind. It must not be observed lest the mind too, become aware of itself, and so slip from the supple surface of its contemplation. The beautiful metaphor of the fly upon the stream is Yeats’ expression of true genius – the state in which great art is produced. Though the maps are spread before him, Caesar gazes on nothing.
The Meter of the Poem
To me, the meter of the poem is the most interesting part of it. I love to study how poets vary their lines.
Here is a first scansion. This scansion guesses that Yeats was varying not just metrical feet, but their count within each line.
Anapests are in blue. Trochaic Feet are red. Feminine Endings are Green. Anapestic Feminine Endings (of which there are two) are marked with blueandgreen. Headless feet are orange. Phyric feet are yellow. (The color coding is my own scheme. As far as Iknow, I’ m the first to ever try it. I think it helps readers to see how poets varied meter.)
Unless there’s some Regular Irish ballad meter I don’t know about (I’m hardly an expert on Irish literature) I would say that the form is Yeats’ own creation (though based on ballad meter). The first four lines are similar to ballad meter (as opposed to Common Meter – see my post on Dickinson). The syllabic count of Common Meter is strict 8/6/8/6 and Iambic . The rhyme scheme is ABAB. Ballad Meter is less strict. Syllables count less. What matters is the number of metrical feet per line 4/3/4/3 – generally Iambic Tetrameter alternating with Iambic Trimeter. Variant feet (anapests) are common in Ballad Meter and the rhyme scheme of Ballad Meter is also looser – ABXB (which is the rhyme scheme Yeats uses).
There are actually some recordings of Yeats reading his own poetry. Here’s one of him reading The Lake Isle of Innesfree.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear the water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
And here is Yeats defending his chant-like readings (for which he was sometimes criticized).
To be honest, I don’t know what Yeats intended. It was clear, however, that he took meter very seriously. What’s hard is discerning, in the case of Long Legged Fly, which meter he was taking seriously. If he was hearing ballad meter (and varying the feet on that basis) then one ought to scan the lines as alternating between Tetrameter and Trimeter (rather than Dimeter) – since the number of metrical feet per line is what matters in Ballad Meter.
That civilization may not sink, Its | great bat|tle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony To | a dis|tant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent Where |the maps |are spread, His |eyes fixed |upon no-thing,
A hand |un-der |his head.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)
This scansion reads the variant lines as having headless lines, rather than anapests. The first foot of the respective lines would be interpreted as iambic feet missing an unstressed syllable (headless). The advantage to this reading is that it retains the underlying metrical alternation (between tetrameter and trimeter) of a recognized ballad meter (at least in the first four lines). The next four lines 4/3/3/3 before the refrain are of Yeats’ own creation. (The whole of it, in fact, is probably a nonce form – meaning that the form was created to suit the poem.) Still, there is an underlying pattern, and regularizing the number of metrical feet is a recognition of it. And there’s also Yeats’ rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme is typical of ballad meter, so why not the meter? All in all, the second scansion assumes a regular pattern from which Yeats varied. The readings regularizes the number of metrical feet per line. Here is the alternate scansion in whole:
The metrical foot pattern of each stanza (as opposed to the syllabic count) is as follows:
Followed by the Refrain:
Note: I could also read the final line of the refrain as:
His | mind moves | upon si-lence
This, to me, stretches credibility. But then again, listening to Yeats read, it’s possible. He was nothing if not eccentric. It would make the refrain a 5/3 pattern, in keeping with the other Trimeter lines.
That said, the scansion is probably the least important element of this poem. Altering the scansion doesn’t alter the poems’s meaning but does alter the emphasis within the respective lines. Either way, Yeats’ modern sensibility, his willingness to flex regular metrical patterns almost beyond recognition, is apparent. His ear for the elegantly varied metrical line was part and parcel of his unique genius.
Be sure and comment if you found this interesting!
February 22, 2009 – After reading this post, you might enjoy a colorcoded scansion of Birches included with a scansion of Frost’s Mending Wall.
April 25, 2009 – Added audio of Frost reciting Mending Wall.
May 9, 2009 – Added notes about the poem and discussed Frost’s erotic bent.
….the poem is more about striking a balance between getting “away from earth” and then coming “back to it” than it is about overcoming fear. He told his former student, John Bartlett: “It isn’t in man’s nature to live an isolated life. Freedom isn’t to be had that way. Going away and looking at a man in perspective ,and then coming back… that is what’s sane and good.” In one interview in 1931, he extolled the virtues of “striving to get the balance.” He added, “I should expect life to be back and forward–now more individual on the farm, now more social in the city,” reflecting the pattern of his own life. (Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetryp. 77)
So wrote Lea Newman in her introduction to Birches. The genius of the poem is in its beautiful and powerfully sustained use of a fairly straightforward extended metaphor – swinging birches as a metaphor for balance. Frost is careful not to over interpret that balance. It could be between earth and spirit, nature and civilization, childhood and manhood, love and loss. The reader will bring to the poem his or her own meaning – and it is this capacity of the poem that makes it a great poem, a work of genius.
For most readers there’s no hidden subtext beyond what’s grasped intuitively.
Those “straighter, darker trees,” like the trees of “Into My Own” that “scarcely show the breeze,” stand ominously free from human manipulation, menacing in their irresponsiveness to acts of the will.
I’ve read Birches countless times, and the feeling of an ominous menace never once crossed my mind. To read this kind of interpretation into the imagery requires some kind of context and there simply is none – not in two lines. And referring to “Into my Own”, as though the two poems were somehow related or created the context for such an interpretation, is nonsensical. But the bottom line is that there doesn’t have to be a symbolic undercurrent (or double meaning) to every single word or image. Close readers and academics love nothing more than teasing out interpretations, but just because it can be done, doesn’t mean there’s any objective validity to the interpretation. At some point, such exercises strike me as being more like parlor games.
Just because the other trees are darker doesn’t mean that they are ominous. Fact is, every single tree in the New England landscape is darker than the birch. And for the most part (and after a good ice storm) most other trees are, factually, straighter than birches. In The Wood Pile, Frost refers to the view as being “all in lines/Straight up and down of tall slim trees,” One need not read any more into Frost’s imagery than the simple fact of it.
But, naturally, if Lentricchia is going to invoke menace, he needs to explain why (to justify that interpretation). He writes that they are menacing in their “irresponsiveness to acts of human will”. I just don’t buy it.
At best, one would need to make the assumption that Frost’s use of the word dark always constituted some kind of menace when used in reference to trees or the woods. But in his most famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Frost writes that “The woods are lovely, dark and deep”. Despite Frost’s use of the word lovely, this hasn’t stopped close readers from suggesting that Frost was contemplating suicide and that loveliness, far from being praise of the New England wood in winter, was a contemplation of the lovely, dark and deep oblivion that is suicide (or so they interpret it). Richard Poirer is among those who have made this suggestion. By the absence of a comma between the word dark and the word and he concludes that the “loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous.” The italics are mine. But Poirier’s reading could hardly be called objective. There is, in fact, no way of knowing what significance such punctuation might have held for Frost. However, Frost did have a thing or two to say about ominous interpretations. William Pritchard writes, in Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered:
Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]
All of which is to say, Frost had little patience for self-pity or, by extension, suicide. One need only read Out, Out to get a sense of Frost’s personality. In short, one can contemplate the soothing darkness and loveliness of the woods without contemplating suicide. But you decide.
Beyond the interpretation of individual words and lines, there is a larger philosophical debate within the poem that will flavor what readers bring to the poem. It happens in the opening lines:
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that.Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-coloured
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun. But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm, I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows–
The italicized lines bracket a digression that Frost characterizes as Truth. What does he mean? In fact, the differentiation Frost implies between Truth and his playful, imaginary fable of the boy climbing the birches, is central to the poem’s meaning. The world of Truth could be construed as the world of science and matter-of-factness – a world which circumscribes the imagination or, more to the point, the poetic imagination, Poetry. The world of the poet is one of metaphor, symbolism, allegory and myth making. At its simplest, Frost is describing two worlds and telling which he prefers and how he values each. “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” And by that, he could almost be saying: One could do worse than be a poet.
The underlined passage “You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen”, has been nicely interpreted as a reference to Ptolemaic astronomy (which believed that the planets and stars were surrounded by crystal spheres or domes). I like that interpretation and I can believe that Frost intended it. The inner dome and its shattered crystal shells like “heaps of broken glass” fit neatly within the allusion. But there is significance in the allusion. The Ptolemaic model of the universe was a poetic construct – a theory of the imagination rather than matter-of-factness. In this sense, Truth as Frost calls it (or modern science) has collapsed the inner dome of the poetic imagination and replaced it with something that doesn’t permit the poet’s entry. The shattered inner dome of the imagination (of the myth makers) has been replaced by fact – by science.
And in this light, the entirety of Frost’s description, climbing the birches, just so, and swinging back down, becomes a kind of description for the life which the poet seeks and values – the imaginative life of the poet:
…. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree….
The poet learns all there is to learn about “not launching out too soon”. He could be describing the art of poetry. You cannot swing from a birch without the right height. But if you also climb too high, if your ambitions exceed the matter of your poem, the birch will break . You must write your poetry, climbing carefully, with the “same care you use to fill a cup,/Up to the brim, and even above the brim.” But I don’t want to limit the poem’s meaning to just this. Frost is describing more than the poet, but a whole way of interpreting the world.
It’s the difference between the mind that seeks objective truths, irrespective of the observer, and the mind that perceives world as having symbolic, metaphorical and mythical significance. It’s the world of religion and spirituality. Its the world of signs and visions – events have meaning. In the scientific world view, nothing is of any significance to the observer: life is like a “pathless wood”, meaningless, that randomly afflicts us with face burns, lashing us, leaving us weeping. The observer is irrelevant. In some ways, science is anathema to the poet’s way of understanding the world. It’s loveless. And that’s not the world Frost values. “Earth’s the right place for love,” he writes. The woods that he values have a path and the birches are bent with purpose.
But having said all that, Frost also acknowledges a balance.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
If we read him right, he seems to be saying that he prefers not to be too much in one world or the other. Let him climb toward heaven, both literally and figuratively, but let him also be returned to earth. Having written this much, Frank Lentricchia’s own interpretation of the poem’s divisions may be more easily understood:
….There is never any intention of competing with science, and therefore, there is no problem at all (as we generally sense with many modern poets and critics) of claiming a special cognitive value for poetry. In his playful and redemptive mode, Frost’s motive for poetry is not cognitive but psychological in the sense that he is willfully seeking to bathe his consciousness and, if the reader consents, his reader’s as well, in a free-floating, epistemologically unsanctioned vision of the world which, even as it is undermined by the very language in which it is anchored, brings a satisfaction of relief when contemplated…..
If I may be so bold as to interpret (and interpreting academese does take some boldness), what Lentricchia seems to be saying is that Frost’s philosophical stance does not arise from any direct experience (as stated in the poem). Direct experience would be “epistemologically sanctioned”. Epistemology, a word coddled and deployed by academics with fetishistic ardor, is the “branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” So, to interpret, Lentricchia appears to be saying that Frost’s “vision/philosophy” is not “epistemologically/experientially” “sanctioned/based“. In short, Frost’s experience (and that of the readers) is that of the poet and poetry – the purely subjective realm of imagination, story telling and myth making.
Interestingly, those who criticize the poem for being without basis in experience (Lentricchia is not one of them) seem blissfully unaware that this is precisely the kind of knowing that the poem itself is criticizing and examining. That is, the poem is its own example of myth-making — the transformative power of poetry. Yes, says Frost, there is the matter-of-fact (epistemologically sanctioned) world, but there is also the poetical world – the world of metaphor and myth that is like the slender birch (and the poem itself). It can be climbed but not too high. The matter-of-fact world is good to escape, but it is also good to come back to.
“Mending Wall,” “After Apple-Picking,” and “The Wood-Pile” are centered on specific events that involve the speaker in dramatic conflicts and lead him to extraordinary perspectives. ¶ (….)however, “Birches” does not present a central dramatized event as a stimulus for the speaker’s utterance. Although the conclusion seems sincere, and although Frost created a persuasive metaphorical context for it, the final sentiments do not grow dramatically out of the experiences alluded to. (….) Frost’s confession that the poem was “two fragments soldered together” is revealing; the overt, affected capriciousness of the transitions between major sections of the poem (ll. 4-5, 21-22, and 41-42) indicates that instead of striving to establish the dynamics of dramatized experience, he felt he could rely on the force of his speaker’s personality and rural background. In early editions, a parenthetical question, “(Now am I free to be poetical?),” followed line 22, making the transition between the ice storm and the country youth even more arbitrary.
My own view is that rather than making the poem feel arbitrary, the question Now am I free to be poetical? makes Frost’s thematic concerns too explicit. The question too sharply defines the contrast between the matter-of-fact and the poetical. In short, Frost may have felt that the question overplayed his hand. (Some critics read this question as an affectation. I don’t. I read it as signaling the poem’s intent, a “stage direction” that Frost later removed.)
Frost was striving for balance both in poem and subject matter — between the poetical and the matter-of-fact.
Some readers have interpreted the poem as being about masturbation. George Monteiro, Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance, alludes to this interpretation in the closing paragraphs of his own analysis. (And if you have searched on-line, then you have probably found the same interpretation in some haphazard discussions.) But here is what Monteiro (in full) has to say:
If physiologically there is some sort of pubescent sexuality taking place in the “swinging” of “birches,” it is not surprising, then, that the boy has “subdued his father’s trees” by “riding them down over and over again” until “not one was left for him to conquer” and that the orgasmic activity should be likened to “riding,” which despite the “conquering” can be done time and again. One need only note that the notion of “riding,” already figurative in “Birches,” reappears metaphorically in Frost’s conception of “Education by Poetry,” wherein he writes: “Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know . . . how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you.” And what is true for metaphor and poetry is true for love. Frost insisted that a poem “run . . . from delight to wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Then it is totally appropriate within the metaphor of “swinging birches” that even the storm-bent trees should look to the adult male like “girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” No wonder, then, and fully appropriate it is, that when the poet thinks that his wish to get away from earth might by some fate be misunderstood such that he be snatched away never to return, his thought is that “Earth’s the right place for love.” At some level of his consciousness the pleasurable activity of “swinging birches” has transformed itself into the more encompassing term “love.” One might say, within the logic of this reading of the poem, that “Earth’s the right place for [sexual] love,” including onanistic love. The same sexual metaphor runs through the final lines of the poem as the mature poet thinks of how he would like to go but only to come back.
It’s an intriguing interpretation, but I don’t buy it. Frost was capable of writing about sexual themes, but there’s no precedent, elsewhere in his poetry, for such a sleight of hand. Just as any number of critics can convince themselves that Shakespeare was a lawyer, a homosexual, Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, a woman, and even Queen Elizabeth, one can surely find evidence for just about any interpretive inference in just about any poem. Figurative language and metaphor, by definition, lend themselves to multiple interpretations.
The interpretation must remain, at best, purely speculative and very doubtful at that.
Then again, many modern critics and readers feel that the author’s intentions are irrelevant. Fortunately for the reader, the same rules apply to those critics and readers. Just because an interpretation can be made doesn’t mean they’re right or relevant. Again, you decide.
Robert Frost & the Blank Verse of Birches
I wanted to take a look at Robert Frost’s blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) and Birches is a beautiful example. I understand that this won’t interest most readers and many may find it irrelevant. The rest of this post for those who enjoy studying how meter can be used to masterful effect. If you’re one of those, be sure to comment. I would enjoy hearing from you. In an effort to avoid a book-length post I’ll read the poem 10 lines at a time. But first, here is the poem in its entirety along with my scansion. If you are new to scansion then take a look at my post on the basics.
As with The Road Not Taken, the other Frost poem I looked at, I listened to Frost read the poem before I scanned it. I actually would have been tempted to scan it differently before listening. The first line for example, I might have scanned:
When I |see bir|ches bend |to left |and right
That is, I might have been tempted to put the emphasis on When instead of I. Critics sometimes accuse metrists of unnaturally fitting a poem’s language to a metrical pattern. Read anapests, they say, don’t elide the anapest to read as an Iamb. What they forget though, is that poets who right metrical poems are themselves metrists. That’s why, when I read a line like To be or not to be that (is) the question, I prefer to put the emphasis on is. (It’s in keeping with the Iambic Meter). Similarly, listening to Frost, one can clearly hear him reading the meter. When I, he writes and reads.
Interestingly, Frost reads the fifth line as follows:
But swinging them doesn’t bend them down to stay As ice-storms do.
Instead of “Ice storms do that“. I like the printed version better because it varies the Iambic beat and makes the thought feel more like a colloquial aside. My guess is that Frost was reciting this from memory and that the Iambic alteration was easier to remember (which was partly blank verse’s advantage on the Elizabethan stage). The fifth line ends with an iambic feminine ending. And I just now noticed that I forget to mark morning, at the end of line 6 – corrected in the extract.
Up to this point, Frost has written an Iambic Pentameter that Shakespeare would have been recognized and accepted in Shakespeare’s day. The first four lines are strictly Iambic Pentameter. This has the effect of firmly establishing the meter of the poem. As long as Frost doesn’t vary too much, for this point on, the ear will register whatever he does as variations on an established Iambic Pentameter meter. I won’t say that Frost did this deliberately. In other poems, like The Road not Taken, he varies the metrical line from the outset. In this case, though, the effect is such that the lines stabilize the metrical pattern early on.
Ice-Storms and often (in line 6) are trochaic feet.
With line 7 one finds a nice metrical effect with As the |breeze ri|ses. The spondaic foot has the effect of reproducing the rising breeze – breeze being more emphasized than the, and ris-es being more emphasized than breeze. Unlike some, I won’t go so far as to say that Frost toiled for hours producing this effect, but he was probably aware that the natural progression of the language nicely fit the metrical pattern.
In his book on blank verse called Blank Verse (which I’ve been meaning to review) Robert B. Shaw provides his own scansion of this passage (or a part of it.)
Here it is:
It’s gratifying to see that we mostly agree. Where our scansion doesn’t match is probably because I’ve followed Frost’s own reading. For instance, Frost gives greater emphasis to the word shed than Shaw does and gives less emphasis to crust (in snow-crust) than Shaw. I wouldn’t call Shaw’s reading incorrect, simply different than Frost (because Shaw’s reading recognizes the overall iambic pattern – unlike the scansion of The Road Not Taken at Frostfriends.org – which I criticized elsewhere.
More to the point, the story which meter tells reinforces the content of the poem. The poem, which up to this point has been fairly standard iambic pentameter, disrupts the metrical flow just as the rising breezes disrupt the tree’s “crystal shells”. The dactylic first foot Shat-ter-ing – one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, upsets the ear’s expectation, disrupting the iambic flow. The final foot of this line – |the snow-crust – is called a heavy feminine ending. Whereas the usual iambic feminine ending ends with an unstressed syllable, a heavy feminine ending ends with an intermediate or strongly stressed syllable. This variant foot was wildly popular in Jacobean theater. Frost probably could have avoided it; but the use of it serves to further disrupt the metrical pattern – further mirroring the disruption of the “crystal shells”. All of this is an effect that is hard, and in some ways impossible, to reproduce in Free Verse.
The next line is one of the more metrically interesting:
I can’t tell, but Shaw either has forgotten to mark the second syllable of heaven, or he has chosen to elide heaven such that it reads heav‘n – making it a one syllable word. Frost pronounces it fully as two syllables. So… what makes this final foot interesting is in what to call it. Strictly speaking, it’s a tertius paeon – two unstressed followed by a stressed and unstressed syllable. Another way to read the line would be as a long line or hexameter line.
Hexameter lines can be an acceptable variant with an Iambic Pentameter pattern, but with a pyrrhic (weak) fifth foot and a trochaic (inverted) final foot, the feet seem too weak to support a hexameter reading (the extra foot). My preference is to read a line as being pentameter (having five feet) unless a line’s “feet” are strong enough to support hexameter.
Frost’s metrical habit is to see anapestic feet as a perfectly acceptable variant to iambic feet – frequently calling them loose iambs. With that in mind, my own reading is that Frost has substituted an anapestic feminine ending for an iambic feminine ending. To my ear, it’s an elegant variation – and not one found prior to Frost (to my knowledge). Frost will use this foot again later in the poem.
Of interest in the next two lines are the elision of They are to They’re. Some metrists, like George T. Wright, are criticized for too readily reducing anapests to iambs by the use of elision – as if he were philosophically opposed to anapests. If the poets had meant the lines to be read as iambs, the reasoning goes, they would have written them as iambs. If you’ve read my previous posts on meter you’ll know that, if I can, I tend to elide anapests to read as iambs. I learned this technique by reading Wright’s books on meter.
I feel a little vindicated noticing that when Frost reads or recites Birches, he pronounces (elides) They are as They’re – despite the fact that he hasn’t marked them as such. (Mind you, his lines would be perfectly acceptable variants if read them as anapests.) So, I don’t make this stuff up.
A last observation on these ten lines. It is interesting to note that balance Frost establishes between standard Iambic Pentameter and variant lines. The seventh and eighth line from the extract above are varied with trochaic and anapestic feet, but notice how both these lines are balanced by perfect Iambic Pentameter lines.
More so than the meter, the next ten lines are interesting for their Frostian colloquialism. Before Frost, no 19th Century Poet (or earlier unless they were writing Drama) would have stopped the poem mid-breath to say something like: But I was going to say. Up to this point, the poem’s tone could be considered fairly traditional, but Frost, as interrupts the elevated tone with colloquial banter: broke in, all her matter-of-fact, I should prefer, fetch the cows.
Note: There’s no denying the eroticism, by today’s standards, in the lines: “Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair hair/ Before them over their heads…” I have a truffle pig’s nose for eroticism in poetry. Trust me. Read my analysis of Sidney and Dryden if you don’t believe me. However, I think it’s reading too much into this imagery if one takes it as the starting point for an erotic subtext in the entirety of the poem. Several reasons:
1.) In 1913, when this poem was published, what was tolerated in terms of sexuality and eroticism was worlds apart from now (or the Elizabethan Age for that matter). There was erotic literature, but it was very underground. Women couldn’t vote. They couldn’t swim at the beach unless they were, practically speaking, fully clothed. Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, published just over twenty years later, wouldn’t be permitted on American shores for another 50 years! Doggy style was not the first thing to pop into readers’ minds when they read this (or else the poem would have been banned). Pornographic language and imagery was practically non-existent in the public sphere.
2.) Frost himself was risk averse. He didn’t achieve any real recognition until he was in his mid-forties and he would not have risked his reputation if he had thought the image was too suggestive. He was nothing if not conscious if his own image as a sort of New England farmer/poet. And there’s is simply no other precedent for this kind of suggestiveness in any of his other published poetry. There is some poetry that remained unpublished however – humorous and one step removed from bathroom graffiti. Here’s an example:
The symbol of the number ten–
The naught for girls, the one for men–
Defines how many times does one
In mathematics or in fun
Go as you might say into zero.
You ask the heroine and hero.
This was about as close as Frost got to anything “erotic”. He joked about sex, one notch above crude, or treated sexuality as a dark undertow in the lives of men and women, The Subverted Flower for example.
3.) It’s too obvious. Even in his unpublished pranks, he was indirect. No where else is Frost ever so explicit about sexuality (if one insists on interpreting the line as such). Though some interpreters will probably still make the argument, I personally don’t buy it.
In terms of meter, only the very rare 19th century (or earlier) poet would have ended a line with a trochaic foot. Frost does so with baseball in the 5th line and will do so again later in the poem. His willingness to extend variant feet into places where they hadn’t normally been helps lend his poetry a colloquial feel. Frost isn’t willing to sacrifice the “sound of sense” for the sake of meter. But he also strikes a balance. Once again, notice that he brackets this line with perfectly Iambic Pentameter lines before and after. In the 9th line, he substitues an anapestic final foot for an iambic foot – a much freer variation than used by any poet in the generation preceeding him.
I scanned Line 8 as a headless line (the initial unstressed syllable is omitted) and the third foot as anapestic – in keeping with his willingness to substitute iambs with anapests. However, one can also read the line as starting with two trochaic feet:
I’m not philosophically opposed to this reading. Two trochaic feet at the start of a line is perfectly acceptable. The reason I prefer my own reading, I suppose, is because I hear the phrasing, not as trochaic, but Iambic – One| by one | he sub-dued. This is where the art of scansion comes into play; and I’m not going to argue that my preferred reading is the right one (in this case).
Notice how Frost echoes one by one with over and over – it’s a nice touch and works within the metrical patterning he allows himself.
The next ten lines come with one metrically ambiguous line – the 6th line.
I scanned the line as follows:
This makes the line pentameter and my hunch is that this is the spirit in which Frost wrote it.I notice that in his reciting of the poem, he is careful to give carefully it’s full three syllables. However, were it not part of a well established Iambic Pentameter poem, I would be tempted to scan the line as follows:
Essentially trochaic tetrameter. Either way, the meter echoes the hesitant and careful climbing of the boy. This line, of all the lines, most threatens the Iambic Pattern and, in that respect, most draws attention to what the boy is doing – climb-ing care-fully.
Alternate Readings November 11th 2016: I’ve just been having an email exchange with the poet Annie Finch, one of the finest “formalist” poets currently writing. She has a Ph.D. and currently teaches poetry. She strongly takes issue with my reading of the line above (and the next one below) as headless (∧). For example, where I read:
(∧} And |not one |but hung limp,| not one |was left
Andnot | onebut | hung limp,| not one |was left
I’ve used gray-scale and italics to indicate the level of stress she assigns to each word. So, “not one” receives more stress than “And”, but not as much as the bolded words.
As I mentioned above, I chose to scan the poem the way Frost read it. This is not the only way to scan the poem; but since we have his recitation I thought it might be interesting to scan it the way he imagined it . Even in that respect my scansion is open to differences of opinion: Did Frost really emphasize a word as much as I’ve marked? That’s all subjective. Annie Finch’s reading, on the other hand, disregards the way Frost reads his poem. That said, I think her reading is equally valid and undoubtedly reflects the way she reads the poem. She writes:
“You mention that you based the scansion of the poem on Frost’s own recorded performance of it. I honor your interest in respecting Frost’s voice here, but this is really not a viable way to scan (his pronunciation of poems is so subjective that if scansion were dependent on the way a poem is spoken, meter would have ceased to exist long ago). “
I agree that Frost’s reading is subjective, but I’d assert that all readings are subjective and that meter has nevertheless survived, so why not inquire into Frost’s own metrical preferences? As regards that, though, Annie Finch stated her guiding principle at the outset of our exchange:
“As you will see throughout A Poet’s Craft, the SIMPLEST SCANSION IS ALWAYS BEST…” [Uppercase is her own.]
The book she refers to is her own. Her assertion that the simplest scansion is always the best leads her to write that my own scansion “is absurdly and needlessly complex.” I disagree and I don’t agree with her assertion if treated as an invariable rule (though it’s certainly useful as a guiding principle). In the case of Frost’s poem we can, at minimum, say that her “rule” leads her to read the lines counter to the way Frost reads them. Does that make her scansion wrong? No. I would, however, say that this demonstrates how scansion is less science than art. Do you care about how a poet reads his or her work? Does it matter when scanning? Does it matter if your scansion agrees with the poet’s? These questions are themselves debatable, but that they’re debatable is worth emphasizing. I don’t and would not claim that my scansion is the “correct” scansion—just my own spin on the matter. She adds:
“I notice you have marked three headless lines. I believe only one of these is a true headless line and should be scanned as such, the one that begins “one by one he subdued.” (and this also fits with the meaning of the poem at that moment–he is subduing the poem in this one act of great metrical defiance). Any other scansion distorts the line’s connection to the underlying iambic pentameter pattern, and furthermore the headless scansion is the simplest scansion of this line (by which I mean the scansion that has the fewest variations from the completely regular underlying model of iambic pentameter).
The other two lines you have marked as headless, the one beginning “and not one” and the one beginning “may no fate,” are not truly headless. A headless scansion of these two lines introduces needless complications and unnecessary variations from the underlying iambic pentameter pattern. In the “may no fate” line, the only justification I can see for your headless scansion is that it avoids a trochee in the third foot (“FULly”) but that trochee is not a problem that needs to be avoided, because there is a caesura immediately after it followed by a four-syllable word that creates two of the most unrelentingly iambic feet in the poem. Furthermore, the trochee “fully” in my opinion deserves to be scanned as such because it is a beautifully expressive prosodic example of willfullness and Frost deserves full credit for this magnificent piece of metrical variation. And finally, I feel it should be scanned to show the trochee because the trochee is I believe one of only two trochees in the poem that does not occur at a line-beginning or after a very strong caesura–and both of these wrenching, challenging prosodic moments express powerful verbal meanings of imposing will and overcoming the restrictions of reality (the other is “over” in the third foot of the line beginning “by riding them down”).“
I think the risk here is that she’s associating her own aesthetics with Frost’s. In other words: ‘My reading, not yours, is the one that credits his “magnificent piece of metrical variation”‘. The problem with this sort of assertion is that it’s a logical fallacy, somewhat like the “No True Scottsman” fallacy in the following sense: “No true appreciation of Frost’s metrical art would read these lines other than the way I’ve read them.” Needless to say, I disagree. I could just as easily make the same claims for my own readings, that they are necessary because they uniquely capture Frost’s “beautifully expressive” prosody, but that would be just as fallacious. Further, I certainly don’t think trochaic feet are to be avoided. My own reading, after all, includes a trochee. She writes in closing:
“And once you admit the poem really is in iambic pentameter, then any scansion of any line in the poem needs to use that as a starting point. The scansion needs to show how Frost was following, when he was following, the basic rules of iambic pentameter. If he wasn’t following them, then show that he wasn’t. But that is only possible when the scansion itself can be trusted to follow the rules.“
I would dispute her characterization of my reading as not showing how Frost follows the basic rules of Iambic Pentameter. A headless line is a variant foot and very much a normal variant among those “rules” that define Iambic Pentameter.
All that said, I include her comments to demonstrate how contentious these matters can be. (Admittedly, it’s a bit like arguing over how many grains of salt are in a teaspoon.) I also want to stress that I consider her reading equally valid. I’m of the belief that scansion, within limits, may be subject to interpretation. Just as there’s often no one way to interpret a poem, there is sometimes more than one way to scan a poem. But I invite readers to make up their own mind.
The next two lines follow a more normative pattern with trochaic and anapestic variant feet.
The most elegantly metrical lines follow with the 9th & 10th line of the extract:
Then he flungoutward, feet first, with a swish Kicking his way down through the air to the ground
The spondee of flung out beautifully reinforces the image by disrupting the metrical pattern, as does feet first. Kick-ing is further reinforced and emphasized by being a trochaic first foot. The word down, as Frost recites it, trochaically disrupts the meter again, more so than if it had been iambic.
Birches: “It’s when I’m weary of considerations.” This line is perfect iambic pentameter, with an extra metrical (feminine) ending.
Their statement is incorrect. This line is not perfect iambic pentameter. A perfectly iambic pentameter line would not have a feminine ending (an amphibrach) in the final foot. It would have an iambic foot (if it were “perfect” iambic pentameter). The correct thing to say would have been: This is a perfectly acceptable variant with an iambic pentameter pattern.
Notice the trochaic final foot in the 9th line – a thoroughly modern variant.
As with the other lines, I scanned the 10th line as headless to preserve an Iambic scansion and because I thought it most accurately reflected Frost’s own reading of the poem. (That is, the feeling is Iambic rather than trochaic. ) While scansion doesn’t, by in large, reflect phrasing, there is a certain balance to be struck; and I have tried to do so in these lines.
The fourth line is the most metrically divergent. I have scanned the line as Iambic Tetrameter with an anapestic feminine ending. The alternative would be to read it as follows:
If this is what Frost imagined, then my own feeling is that the scansion fails as such. The pyrrhic fourth foot is exceptionally weak, even for pyrrhic feet, while a trochaic final foot seems inadequate to restore the underlying Iambic Pentameter pattern after such a weak fourth foot. Given precedence for an anapestic feminine foot earlier in the poem, and in the final line, the line makes much more sense if read as Tetrameter with an anapestic feminine foot. I don’t see this as being outside the bounds of an acceptable variant. Interestingly, the line remains decasyllabic so that the ear doesn’t so much perceive a short line as a a variant line.
This line has been preceded by some richly varied lines. As is Frost’s habit, he grounds the meter with the iambically regular 6th and 7th line. To that end (in his recitation) Frost effectively reads Toward as a monosyllabic word, emphasizing the return to Iambic Pentameter.
The closing two lines are conservative in their variants. Frost has reaffirmed the Iambic Pentameter and he’s not going to disrupt it again. The message, at this point, is what matters. The meter reinforces the calm and measured summation. In the second to last line, the only variant is an anapestic fourth foot.
With the last line, the temptation is to read the first foot as One could| do worse, but Frost, in reciting the poem, once again reaffirms the iambic meter by emphasizing could. This sort of metrical emphasis, emphasizing words that might not normally be emphasized while de-emphasizing others that are more normally emphasized, is a Frostian specialty made possible by his use of meter. Free Verse can’t reproduce it. The last line, as Frost reads it, is regularly iambic until the last foot, at which point he elegantly closes with an anapestic feminine ending.
The final foot, with its anapestic swing and feminine falling off, could almost be said to imitate the swinging of the birch.
If scansion is new to you, check out my post on the basics.
February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost, you might like reading Birches along with a colorcoded scansion of Birches included in my post on Frost’s Mending Wall. To find all the posts I’ve written on Robert Frost, click here.
After you’ve read up on Robert Frost, 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 my 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.
One of the loveliest poems in the English language is Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Part of the magic is in how Frost loosens meter to obtain a more colloquial tone. In one of the most enjoyable books I own (among books on Frost) Lea Newman relates that according to a survey of 18,000 written, recorded and videotaped responses, this poem (along with Robert Frost) is America’s most popular poem – a probably more accurate poll than the self-selected poll done by poets.org. Lea also writes that Frost’s intent, in writing the poem, was to satirize his friend, Edward Thomas, who would frequently dither over which road he and Frost should walk. (Edward Thomas was an English poet who Frost befriended while living in England). Frost completed and sent the poem to Thomas only after he had returned to New Hampshire. Thomas, however, didn’t read the poem as satire and neither have other readers coming to the poem for the first time.
I personally have a hard time taking Frost’s claims at face value.
But here he is saying so himself:
If you don’t see a play button below, just copy and paste the URL and you will be able to hear the recording.
More to the point, the provenance of the poem seems to be in New England – prior to Frost’s friendship with Thomas. Newman references a letter that Frost wrote to Susan Hayes Ward in Plymouth, New Hampshire, February 10, 1912:
Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn’t go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made out. I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity.
The poem is written, nominally, in Iambic Tetrameter. Nominally because Frost elegantly varies the meter to such a degree that readers may only glancingly hear the imposition of a metrical pattern – the effect is one of both metrical freedom and form. I have based my scansion, by the way, on Frost’s own reading of the poem. I suppose that might be considered cheating, but Frost’s own conception of the poem interests me.
March 28 2011 • Given some time and a conversation with a reader and poet Steven Withrow (see the comments) I’ve changed the scansion of the last stanza to reflect the way Frost probably would have scanned the poem (rather than how he read it). The new scansion, immediately below, retains the tetrameter meter throughout (more on how later). You can still find my old scansion at the bottom of the post. Decide for yourself which scansion makes more sense. As for myself, I lean toward the new scansion. All unmarked feet are iambic and all feet in blue are anapests.
Frost recites The Road not Taken:
The first element to notice is the rhyme scheme and overall structure of the poem. The poem is really four stanzas, quintains, each having the same rhyme scheme – ABAAB. The nested couplets within the stanzas subliminally focus the ear, while resolution to the pattern is found in the final rhyme. The overall effect of the rhyme scheme is analogous to that of the Petrarchan Sonnet. That is, rather than springing forward, the internal couplets produce the effect of rounded thought and reflection – a rhyme scheme suited to Frost’s deliberative intellect.
The same point I made in my post on Sonnet forms, I’ll make here. In the hands of a skilled poet, rhyming isn’t about being pretty or formal. It’s a powerful technique that can, when well done, subliminally direct the listener or reader’s ear toward patterns of thought and development- reinforcing thought and thematic material. 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 first three lines, metrically, are alike. They seem to establish a metrical pattern of two iambic feet, a third anapestic foot, followed by another iambic foot.
Two roads |diverged |in a yel|low wood
The use of the singular wood, instead of woods, is a more dialectal inflection, setting the tone for the poem with the first line. The third foot surrounded by strong iambs, takes on the flavor of an iambic variant foot.
After the first two lines, the third line could almost be read as strictly Iambic.
This would be an example of what Frost would consider a loose Iamb. If read one way, it’s an anapest, if the word is elided – trav‘ler – it creates an Iambic foot. Although I don’t think it’s deliberate (Frost didn’t go searching for a word that could create a loose Iamb) but the ambiguity subliminally encourages the ear to hear the more normative meter of Iambic Tetremater. Frost will play against and with this ambiguity throughout the poem.
- ! ! - - - ! - !And be / one trav el / er long / I stood .........4 feet(iambic) (dactyl) (iambic) (iambic)
Converting their symbols - it would look like this:
This is not an unreasonable way to scan the poem – but it ignores how Frost himself read it. And in that respect, and only in that respect, their scansion is wrong. Furthermore, even without Frost’s authority, their reading ignores Iambic meter. Frost puts the emphasis on trav-eler and so does the meter. Their reading also ignores or fails to observe the potential for elision in trav‘ler which, to be honest, is how most of us pronounce the word. A dactyllic reading is a stretch. I think, at best, one might make an argument for the following:
If one is going to put the emphasis on one, choosing to ignore the metrical pattern (which one can do), then it seems arbitrary to insist on reading traveler as a three syllable word. If one is going to put a modern interpretive spin on the poem, then I would opt for a trochaic second foot and elide traveler so that the line reads the way most of us would read it.
In the fourth line of the first quintain, Frost allows an anapest in the final foot, offsetting the pattern established in the first two lines. Curiously (and because the other feet are Iambic) the effect is to reinforce the Iambic Tetrameter patter. There is only one line that might be read as Iambic, but because the other feet, when they aren’t variant anapests, are Iambic, Frost establishes Iambic Tetrameter as the basic pattern. The final line of the quintain returns the anapestic variant foot but, by now, Frost has varied the lines enough so that we don’t hear this as a consistent pattern.
It’s worth noting that, if Frost had wanted to, he could have regularized the lines.
And looked |down one |far as |I could To where |it bent |in un|dergrowth
Compare the sound of these regularized lines to what Frost wrote and you might begin to sense how the variant feet contribute to the colloquial tone of the poem. Regularizing the lines, to my ear, takes some of the color from the poem. The anapests encourage the reader to pause and consider, reinforcing the deliberative tone of the poem – much as the rhyme scheme. It’s the play against the more regularized meter that makes this poem work. As I’ve written elsewhere, a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. The meter of The Road Not Taken tells a story of pause and consideration. Its an effect that free verse poetry can approximate but can’t reproduce, having no meter to play against.
The second quintain’s line continues the metrical pattern of the first lines but soon veers away. In the second and third line of the quintain, the anapest variant foot occurs in the second foot. The fourth line is one of only three lines that is unambiguously Iambic Tetrameter. Interestingly, this strongly regular line comes immediately after a line containing two anapestic variant feet. One could speculate that after varying the meter with two anapestic feet, Frost wanted to firmly re-establish the basic Iambic Tetrameter pattern from which the overal meter springs and varies.
What’s worth noting, as well, is how beautifully Frost manages a colloquial expressiveness in this poem with expressions like having perhaps, Though as for that, really about. After setting the location in the first quintain, the self-reflective expressions, new to poetry up to this point, create a feeling of shifting ideas and thought, of re-consideration within the poem itself – as if the speaker were in conversation with himself and another. Colloquial, in fact, is “considered to be characteristic of or only appropriate for casual, ordinary, familiar, or informal conversation rather than formal speech or writing.” It’s an effect that has been touched on by other poets, but never with such mastery or understanding as Frost demonstrates. Expressions like better claim ,wanted wear and the passing there add a New England dialectal feel to the lines.
Again, it’s worth noting the Frost probably could have regularized the lines, but he might have had to sacrifice some of the colloquial feel reinforced by the variant anapestic feet that give pause to the march of an iambic line.
Then took |the o|ther road |as fair, Having |perhaps |the bet|ter claim,
Because |of grass |and wan|ting wear;
Though as |for that |the pas|sing there
Had worn |them just |about |the same.
Notice how, at least to my ear, this metrically regularized version looses much of its colloquial tone.
On the other hand, here’s a free verse, rhyming version:
Then I took the other as being just as fair,
And as maybe having a better claim,
Because it was overgrown with grass and wanted wear;
But the passing there
Had really worn them just about the same.
Curiously, even though this is closer to spoken English (or how we might expect the average person to deliberate) the poem loses some of its pungent colloquial effect. And here it is without the rhyme:
Then I decided the other road was just as nice
And was maybe even better
Because it was overgrown with grass and needed
to be walked on; but other people
Had just about worn them the same.
And this, ultimately, is modern English. This is the speech of real people. But there’s something missing – at least to my ear. Free verse poets, historically, have claimed that only free verse can capture the language of the times. I don’t buy it. To me, this last version sounds less colloquial and speech-like than Frost’s version. My own philosophy is that great art mimics nature through artifice, or as Shakespeare put it in Winter’s Tale:
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.
In the third quatrain, the first line can be read as a loose Iamb if we elide equally to read equ‘ly – making the line Iambic Tetrameter while the second is solidly so.
After two more regular lines, Frost once again diverges from the pattern. The third and fifth lines are pentasyllabic though still tetrameter, each line having two anapests. Interestingly, as with the second quintain, Frost never seems to vary too far from the pattern without reaffirming the basic meter either before or after the variant lines. The interjection Oh is entirely unnecessary strictly in terms of the poem’s subject matter. Lesser poets writing meter might have omitted this as an unnecessary variant, but the word heightens the colloquial feel of the poem and is very much in keeping with the poem’s overall tone and them – echoed in the first line of the final quintain – a sigh.
The second and fourth lines are actually Iambic Trimeter, but once again Frost reaffirms the meter from which they vary by placing a solidly Iambic Tetrameter line between them (the fourth line).
March 28 2011 • The reading above is my original scansion. This scansion was based on the way Frost read it. The problem with scanning it that way is twofold: First, it breaks the tetrameter pattern, which isn’t unheard of, but very unusual for Frost; Second, it means the rhyme between hence and difference is what’s called an imperfect rhyme. An imperfect rhyme is when the syllables are nominally the same but one syllable is stressed and the other is unstressed. In the scansion above, hence is stressed and the –ence ending of diff‘rence is un-stressed. Emily Dickinson lovedthis kind of rhyme but Frost, rarely if ever. The problem is that Frost wants his cake and eats it too. To my ear, when I listen to him read the poem, he reads the last rhyme as an off-rhyme. But, like the Elizabethans, he probably would have scanned it as below:
Two things to notice: In the second line I’ve read the first foot as headless. This is a standard variant foot that can be found with the Elizabethans. Some call it anacrusis. A headless foot means that the first syllable of the foot is missing. Second, the last line is changed so that difference, at least on paper, is pronounced trisyllabically as diff/er/ence, rather than diff’rence. This makes the line tetrameter and makes the final rhyme a perfect rhyme.
Frost sometimes took criticism from more strictly “Formalist” poets (including his students) who felt that his variants went too far and were too frequent. In either case, whether you can it the way Frost read it or according to the underlying meter and rhyme scheme, Frost’s metrical genius lay preciely in his willingness to play against regularity. Many of his more striking colloquial and dailectal effects rely on it.
Below is the original scansion: Anapests are blueish and feminine endings are green.
If you prefer this scansion (I no longer do), then not only does Frost vary the metrical foot but the entire line. Even so, the two Iambic Trimeter lines (the second and last lines of the quintain) are octasyllabic. No matter how they’re scanned, they don’t vary from the octasyllablicIambic Tetrameter as they might. The anapests elegantly vary the final lines, reinforcing the colloquial tone – even without dialectal or colloquial phrasing.
Newman quotes Frost, saying:
“You can go along over these rhymes just as if you didn’t know that they were there.” This was a poem “that talks past the rhymes,” he said, and he took it as a compliment when his readers told him they could hear him talking in it.
What Newman and Frost neglect to mention is how the meter of the poem amplifies the sense of “talking”. Frost’s use of meter was part and parcel of his genius – and the greatness of his poetry.
If this was helpful and if you enjoyed the post, let me know. Comment!
Emily 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 (an iambic subset of Hymn Meter and most common) 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 Hymn Meter and Ballad Meter. But there is a difference. Ballad Meter is less formal and more conversational in tone than Hymn 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 regularity of Common Meter. Also notice the rhyme scheme. Only the second & fourth line rhyme. Common Meter requires a regular 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 names reflect the number of syllables per line you will frequently 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 adopted 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).
According 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.
RHYMES DEFINED BY NATURE OF SIMILARITY
perfect rhyme, true rhyme, full rhyme
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 rhyme – Rhymes 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.
Pausing in Front of our Palsied Faces
Time compassion took –
Arks of Reprieve he offered us –
Ararats – we took –
rich rhyme – Words or syllables that are Homonyms.
assonant rhyme – When only the vowel sounds rhyme.
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 rhyme – Not 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:
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 rhyme – Rhymes constructed from more than one word. (Astronomical/solemn or comical.)
(This also is a technique which Dickinson didn’t use.)
RHYMES DEFINED BY RELATION TO STRESS PATTERN
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.)
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.)
RHYMES DEFINED BY POSITION IN THE LINE
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 –
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:
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.)
RHYME ACROSS WORD BOUNDARIES
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.
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.
Those 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.
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!
Deep 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 articleAe 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.
I wasn’t sure whether I would post my fables but many of them include poetry and many of them are all but prose-poems. The poems, or songs, are based on songs from Shakespeare’s plays – the structure and the rhyme scheme. I experimented in the last of the songs, using the older forms of the pronouns. I will print the three poems separately in posts that follow. I didn’t think it would make sense to post them as separate from the fable in which they were created.