The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter

The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter

There is no one way to learn how to write Iambic Pentameter. If you’re not certain what Iambic Pentameter is, then you should probably read my post on Iambic Pentameter and the Basics first. The post explains what it means, how to scan it, and provides an explanation of the some of the terminology surrounding the verse form.

How Not To

The art to writing Iambic Pentameter is partly in knowing when not to write it.

Chaucer was the first poet to write full length “poems” in Iambic Pentameter. But his language was middle English, not modern. The first drama (that we know about) written in Modern English and in Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) was Gorboduc not by one author, but two – Sackville and Norton. Since this was probably their first crack at Iambic Pentameter, and since they wanted to make a good impression, they didn’t vary the pattern one iota. In other words, they didn’t quite know when not to write it.

GorboducVidena: The silent night, that brings the quiet pause
From painful travails of the weary day,
Prolongs my careful thoughts, and makes me blame
The slow Aurore, that so, for love or shame,
Doth long delay to show her blushing face;
And now the day renews my griefful plaint.

Ferex My gracious lady and my mother dear,
Pardon my grief for your so grievèd mind
To ask what cause tormenteth so your heart.
Videna So great a wrong and so unjust despite.
Without all cause against all course of kind!

So it begins. So it goes. So it ends. Te-tum te-tum te-tum. Line after line after line. The only variant feet appear to be some first foot trochees, but even these are up for debate. The word Pardon, in the lines above, was probably pronounced after the French with the stress on the second syllable – Par(don). With a cursory glance, I could find only two feminine endings in the entire play. Here is one of them:

And eke |gain time, |whose on|ly help |sufficeth Act V.i. 105.

The verse of their play feels excessively formal and buttoned up. The vast majority of their lines are end-stopped – which is to say: each line ends with punctuation or a complete syntactic unit or phrase. In short, they wrote the way some of our modern Formalists write.

Don’t make that mistake.

Where To Start

JS BachWhen J.S. Bach used to teach harmony to his students, he would give them give chorales by Martin Luther – unharmonized single line melodies. That way they didn’t have to think about composing a melody. It was already there. All they had to do was to write the base and harmonize. His students would gradually progress from two, to three, to four part harmony.

Likewise, a cool method for learning to write Iambic Pentameter is by picking some prose to poetize. That way, all you have to think about are the mechanics of the meter. To that end, I have carefully selected some old fashioned prose some readers might recognize. Here it is:

Therefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters, both Antonius himself and also from his friends, she made light of it and mocked Antonius so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her.

Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids of the waters) and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderful passing sweet savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf’s side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people. Some of them followed the barge all alongst the river’s side; others also ran out of the city to see her coming in; so that in the end there ran such multitudes of people one after another to see her that Antonius was left post-alone in the market-place in his imperial seat to give audience.

This choice piece of purple prose was written by Thomas North – a translation of a French work by Jacques Amyot which Cleopatrawas itself a translation from Plutarch – a Greek historian who wrote while Nero was emperor of Rome. North was describing Cleopatra. The coin at right, recently discovered, is said to portray Cleopatra. We live in the 21rst Century and normally I wouldn’t pick some 500 year old snippet, but the beauty of this example as that , if you try your hand at it, you can compare your effort to the greatest poet of the English language.

Now, imagine you’re a playwright and you’ve been given an advance to write a play about Cleopatra. You only have a few weeks to write the play or the advances will stop. The drama is to be written in blank verse – the standard of the day. This is your chance to Wow! theatergoers not only with your dramatic powers but with the virtuosity of your blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) – a new and flourishing verse form. You decide to draw your material from North’s translation of Plutarch.

Free Verse First

Where do you start?

The first thing you might do is to lineate the prose. A skilled poet will do this *and* produce Iambic Pentameter but I’ll break down the thought process. And (so that this post isn’t a book length post) we’ll only poetize the first of North’s two paragraphs

CleopatraTherefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters,
both Antonius himself and also from his friends,
she made light of it and mocked Antonius
so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise
but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus,
the poop whereof was of gold, the sails
of purple, and the oars of silver, which
kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music
of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such
other instruments as they played upon in the barge.
And now for the person of herself:
she was laid under a pavilion
of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled
and attired like the goddess Venus commonly
drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand
of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters
do set forth god Cupid, with little fans
in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her.

Ta da! We now have a free verse poem. And this is probably where 99 out of 100 modern poets stop. Free verse is the easiest and least demanding literary form ever created. But for those who like to juggle with more than one ball, let’s try two. The next step is to transform this passage into Iambic Pentameter. Again, if you’re not sure what Iambic Pentameter is (but have dared to read this post nonetheless) take a look my Guide to the Basics. This will explain just *what* Iambic Pentameter is. Now on to Plutarch. Since we don’t live in the 16th Century, no need to keep the archaisms.

Now Make it Iambic Pentameter

Therefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters,

When she |was sent |for by |An-to|ni-us

both Antonius himself and also from his friends,
she made light of it and mocked Antonius

And by |his friends, |by var|ious let|ters – she
Made light |of them |and mocked |An-to|ni-us

so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise
but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus,

Disdai|ning but |to an|swer with |a barge

the poop whereof was of gold, the sails
of purple, and the oars of silver, which

The poop |was gold, |the sa|ils pur|ple and
The sil|ver oars |kept rhy|thm to |the mu-sic

kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music
of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such

Of o|boes, flutes, |viols |and ci|therns – such
And more |as can |be played |upon |a barge.

other instruments as they played upon in the barge.
And now for the person of herself:
she was laid under a pavilion

As to |her per|son: She |was laid |beneath
A cloth |of gold |of tis|sue – her |pa-vil-ion –

of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled
and attired like the goddess Venus commonly
drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand

At-ti|red like |the god|dess Ve|nus just
As she |is drawn |in pic|tures; next |to her
On ei|ther hand |were Cupidonpret|ty boys |ap-par-eled

of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters
do set forth god Cupid, with little fans
in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her.

As if |they each |were Cu|pid, fan|ning her
To keep |the wind |up-on | her.

And here it is in one piece.

When she was sent for by Antonius
(And by his friends, by various letters) she
Made light of them and mocked Antonius
Disdaining but to answer with a barge –
The poop was gold, the sails purple and
The silver oars kept rhythm to the music
Of oboes, flutes, viols and citherns – such
And more as can be played upon a barge.
As to her person: She was laid beneath
A cloth of gold of tissue – her pavilion –
Attired like the goddess Venus just
As she is drawn in pictures; next to her
On either hand were pretty boys appareled
As if they each were Cupid, fanning her
To keep the wind upon her.

When she | was sent |for by |An-ton|i-us
(And by |his friends, |by var | ious let|ters) she
Made light |of them |and mocked |An-ton| i-us
Dis-dai|ning but |to an|swer with |a barge –
The poop |was gold,| the sa|ils pur|ple and
The sil|ver oars |kept rhy|thm to |the mu-sic
Of o|boes, flutes, |vi-ols |and ci|therns – such
And more |as can |be played |up-on |a barge.
As to |her per|son: She |was laid |be-neath
A cloth |of gold |of tis|sue – her |pa-vil-ion –
At-tir|ed like |the god|dess Ve|nus just
As she |is drawn |in pict|ures; next |to her
On ei|ther hand |were pret|ty boys |ap-par-eled
As if |they each |were Cu|pid, fan|ning her
To keep |the wind |up-on |her.

This is juggling two balls. In altering the verse from free-verse to blank verse, I was careful to keep a strict Iambic Pentameter meter – the only variants being feminine endings. Notice that I’ve had to move some words around. (If I had really wanted to be conservative, I could have end-stopped every line.)

The blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) is competent and passable poetry. And  this is where many poets stop (those who write meter). Now let’s do some real juggling. Let’s vary the meter; give it some life. And since we’re writing verse drama, I’ll add some characters: Enobarbus and Agrippa. Just for the fun of it, I’ve thrown in some Shakespearean touches to give the passage a more conversational feel. I also split up the lines for visual effect, but if you put them back together, they will all be Iambic Pentameter (some with various variant feet). At some later date, I’ll poetize the second paragraph because, well,  it’s fun to do (or at least I think so). Done. Visit The Writing & Art of Iambic Pantemeter II if you want  to read my try at the whole passage.

She answered under Purple Sails

Plutarch & Gillespie

And here it is for easier reading:

She answered under purple sails...

She came from Egypt…

And here’s another juggler – one of our greatest Poets and Dramatists – John Dryden. Not who you were expecting? This is from his play All for Love; or, The World Well Lost Act III Line 180.  The Literary Encyclopedia offers a good article on the play, but you have to be willing to pay for it after the first 600 words.

Plutarch & Dryden

John DrydenAnt. … she came from Egypt.
Her Gally down the Silver Cydnos row’d
The Tacking Silk, the Streamers wav’d with Gold.
The gentle Winds were lodg’d in Purple Sails:
Her Nymphs, like Nereids, round her Couth, were plac’d;
Where she, another Sea-born Venus lay.
Dolla. No more: I would not hear it.
Ant. O, you must!
She lay, and leant her Cheek upon her Hand,
And cast a Look so languishingly sweet,
As if, secure of all Beholders Hearts,
Neglecting she could take ‘em: Boys, like Cupids,
Stood fanning, with their painted Wings, the Winds
That played about her Face: But if she smil’d,
A darting Glory seem’d to blaze abroad:
That Men’s desiring Eyes were never waery’d;
But hung upon the Object: To soft Flutes
The silver Oars kept Time; and while they played,
The Hearing gave new Pleasure to the Sight;
And both to Thought: ‘twas Heav’n or somewhat more;
For she so charm’d all Hearts, that gazing crowds
Stood panting on the shore, and wanted Breath
To give their welcome Voice.

The Chair she sat in…

And here’s another juggler! This poet’s name is T.S. Eliot. Not who you were expecting? This is from the second part of The Waste Land: A Game of Chess. Eliot doesn’t hue to Plutarch’s text. That’s not what he’s about in in this rendition, but notice how some of North’s words show up in different contexts and how the general  tone and progress imitates North’s narrative.

TS EliotThe Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,
From satin cases poured in rich profusion.
In vials of ivory and colored glass,
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid–troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odors; stirred by the air
That freshened from the window, these ascended
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.
Huge sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,
In which sad light a carved dolphin swam.
Above the antique mantle was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.

The barge she sat in…

And here are some of the greatest lines ever written by the greatest poet of the English language – 150px-shakespeareWilliam Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s version (on which I based my own) Enobarbus describes what he has seen. This comes from Antony and Cleopatra Act II Sc. II 230. You can hear it read on YouTube.

And here’s the thing to know. What make’s this passage great is what makes poetry great. It’s not content. This is what novels do. There are many great and profound passages of prose. What makes poetry great is something else: style—ordinary content made into something extraordinary. Every woman, with a touch of Cleopatra, knows that by a turn of hair, the cut of her skirt, the shade of her lips and eyebrows—small and poetic touches—her beauty is transformed into something that makes the heart skip.

And this is what’s missing in so much contemporary and free verse poetry.

If you want to be a truly great poet, learn what little touches make a woman into a beauty. Study closely how little additions and adornments turn ordinary prose into poetry. It’s not the content that makes the poem. Shakespeare’s every addition plays on the idea of Cleopatra’s sexual seductiveness. North’s passage is merely description. Shakespeare gives description suggestiveness, underscoring the psychology of the character who speaks the lines – an essential part of Shakespeare’s dramatic genius. Shakespeare’s use of imagery always underscores his character’s psychological state. When you write your own poetry, remember this. There is not a single 21rst century poet, to my knowledge, who gets it. The winds are “love-sick”. The silver oars make “the water which they beat follow faster, amorous of their strokes”.

Don’t miss the erotic double-entendre in the phrase “amorous of their strokes”.

With the image, amorous strokes, still fresh in his mind, Shakespeare then adds that the wind “did seem to glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool”.  NShakespeare's Wordplayo image is separate or divided from the image before. Shakespeare’s imagery is of a piece. This subtle linkage between images, frequently through wordplay, is a habit of his thought that allows Shakespeare to unify acts and entire plays through the linkage of word and image. In Shakespeare’s hands, imagery can be like a leitmotif. If you really want to understand how Shakespeare did it, M.M. Mahood’s book “Shakespeare’s Wordplay“, is worth every penny. Compare Dryden’s effort to Shakespeare. Interestingly, Dryden was trying to imitate Shakespeare. The entirety of Dryden’s play was written in blank verse. This was a considerable departure for Dryden who, along with his contemporaries, wrote nearly all their poetry in heroic couplets.

In the next passage, the silken tackle “swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands”. All in all, Shakespeare’s additions to North’s passage reach a kind of subliminal sexual crescendo. Enobarbus is not just smitten by the extravagance of Cleopatra’s excess, not just reporting on what he has seen, the undercurrent of his imagery reveals him to be smitten by the sexuality of her excess.

Plutarch & Shakespeare

Enobarbus: I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion–cloth-of-gold of tissue–
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

Agrippa: O, rare for Antony!

Enobarbus: Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ the eyes,
And made their bends adornings: at the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.

Upon hearing this report, Mecaenas realizes that Mark Antony, who had been the most admired soldier in all of Rome, is quickly becoming nothing more than Cleopatra’s playboy. Legend has it that when Cleopatra initially saw that she was going to be defeated by Caesar, she ordered that she be rolled inside a carpet. The carpet was to be presented to Caesar as a gift. When Ceasar unrolled it, Cleopatra unrolled with it, naked, nubile and young. The rest is history.

This is the legend.

Here is the story as presented at the United Nations of Roma Victrix website:

Cleopatra was rowed in a small rowboat by a single Sicilian, by name of Apollodorus. Upon reaching the palace area, the only way to enter Caesar’s presence was to conceal herself in such a manner without arousing suspicion of her brother’s men. The story of Cleopatra being rolled in a carpet, while false, is still true in essence. She was slipped into some bed coverings and presented to Caesar as a gift. Though little is known of the actual meeting, it’s quite clear that the young queen made an enormous impression on the great Roman. Though her ‘beauty’ is disputed, (at worst probably plain of appearance) Cleopatra was young and virile. She was elegant and charismatic, but most of all, she had power and money, and Caesar probably supposed she was susceptible to manipulation. Caesar, at 52 years old and 35 years her elder, was easily seduced, or perhaps even seduced her, as Caesar’s affairs were legendary anyway. Cleopatra was politically brilliant and secured Caesar’s loyalty, certainly not only through sexual pleasure, but through manipulation of her own. She was, and Caesar was well aware, the key to controlling the vast wealth of Egypt. Caesar was, and she was well aware, the key to securing her place as Queen, and perhaps even Pharaoh, and the power of the gods.

At the close of Enobarbus’ description, Enobarbus plainly knows that Antony will never escape the whiles of Cleopatra. The image of Cleopatra, at right, was created for a BBC documetary. It is a reconstruction of what Cleopatra might have looked like based on coinage, description, artifacts, etc…

cleopatra-reconstructedEnobarbus: I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breathe forth.

Mecaenas: Now Antony must leave her utterly.

Enobarbus: Never; he will not:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

Give it a Try

If you decide to give North’s passage a try, measuring yourself against Shakespeare, be sure and post it in the comment section!

In any case, if this post has been helpful or has inspired you, let me know.

About Heroic Couplets

Heroic Couplets

The term Heroic refers to Iambic Pentameter and Couplets refers to any two, paired, rhyming lines.

Open Heroic Couplets: Open Heroic couplets are rhyming couplets that are enjambed.

Closed Heroic Couplets: Closed Heroic couplets are rhyming couplets that are, first and foremost, syntactically discrete, meaning that each couplet is end-stopped with the end-of-couplet rhyme.

Open Heroic Couplets

Open Heroic Couplets can also be called riding rhyme – a term coined by Puttenham and Gascoigne to describe and differenitate Chaucer’s rhyming heroic couplets from the (in their day) rapidly increasing popularity of Closed Heroic Couplets. I personally love the term riding rhyme and prefer it. One of the first Iambic Pentameter poems I wrote, a fable called the Monkey and the Crane, is written in riding rhymes. The greatest example, in my opinion, was written by Christopher Marlowe – his Hero and Leander.

kit-marloweAt Sestos Hero dwelt; Hero the fair,
Whom young Apollo courted for her hair,
And offered as a dower his burning throne,
Where she should sit for men to gaze upon.
The outside of her garments were of lawn,
The lining purple silk, with gilt stars drawn;
Her wide sleeves green, and bordered with a grove,
Where Venus in her naked glory strove
To please the careless and disdainful eyes
Of proud Adonis, that before her lies.
Her kirtle blue, whereon was many a stain,
Made with the blood of wretched lovers slain.
Upon her head she ware a myrtle wreath,
From whence her veil reached to the ground beneath.
Her veil was artificial flowers and leaves
Whose workmanship both man and beast deceives.
Many would praise the sweet smell as she passed,
When ’twas the odour which her breath forth cast;
And there for honey bees have sought in vain,
And, beat from thence, have lighted there again.
About her neck hung chains of pebblestone,
Which, lightened by her neck, like diamonds shone.

While Marlowe is fairly conservative with his enjambment (he was murdered at the start of his career), notice the following lines:

Her wide sleeves green, and bordered with a grove,
Where Venus in her naked glory strove
To please
the careless and disdainful eyes
Of proud Adonis

The end-of-couplet strove is enjambed, it’s syntactic and phrasal sense carries over into the next line. In poetic terms, there is no caesura or pause after strove, usually indicated by punctuation. This, in a nutshell, is what typifies Open Heroic Couplets. By way of comparison, take a look at the opening to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (the poet who was the first, as far as we know, to make use the form. )

Marlowe was murdered (a great reckoning in a little room as Shakespeare called it) before he could complete Hero and Leander. George Chapman picked up where Marlowe left off (completing Hero and Leander), not the genius that Marlowe was, but a fine poet nonetheless. Chapman’s own heroic couplets further break down the formality of a coinciding rhyme and pause. See Chapman’s Odyssey as well. Ben Jonson and John Donne were also writing heroic couplets during this period and, if you like the form, they’re worth reading.  By the mid-sixteenth century the presence of couplets were almost made invisible – thought and sense flowed from one line to the next without any relationship to the couplets.

This evolution of the open heroic couplet, as such, reach a kind of apogee in Chamberlayne’s Romance (book length) Pharonnida, written in 1659. Because of literature like this, the open heroic couplet also came to be known as the romance couplet. It was a model that Milton would later reject when he chose a verse form for Paradise Lost. He wanted to write an Epic, not a romance.

That all changed with the Restoration.

Closed Herioc Couplets

Closed and Open Heroic Couplets both got their start at roughly the same time – about 1590 to 1600, when Shakespeare was establishing himself. princeton-encyclopediaThe appearance of heroic couplets was mostly due to a rash of Latin translations during this period – Ovid’s Amores and Heroides along with Martial’s Epigrammation (a tip of the hat to The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics for some of this information). The couplets, in English, were apparenty meant to imitate the Latin distich. A distich is defined as “a unit of verse consisting of two lines, especially as used in Greek and Latin elegiac poetry.” The online Literary Dictionary goes on to say:

distich [dis‐tik], a pair of verse lines, usually making complete sense, as in the closed couplet. The term is most often applied to the Greek verse form in which a dactylic hexameter is followed by a ‘pentameter’ (actually composed of two dactylic half‐lines of two‐and‐a‐half feet each). This form, known as the elegiac distich or elegiac couplet, was used in Greek and Latin verse for elegies and epigrams, and later by some German poets including Goethe.

The  thing to note is that in Latin, the “pair” of verse lines didn’t necessarily rhyme, but they did tend to make a complete and closed syntactic unit which, in and of itself, made complete sense. This is important because this is just the feature which the Restoration Poets like Dryden and Pope, valued above and beyond any other feature of the heroic couplet; and this is precisely what open heroic couplets don’t do. Open Heroic Couplets are, in a sense, an English bastardization of the Latin poetry which initially inspired the form’s rennaisance in the 1590s. The works of Marlowe, Done, Jonson and others were seen as a bastardization.

For their part, the Restoration poets brought a white-hot formality to Closed Heroic Couplets, more closely imitating the spirit of the Latin distich. At no other time in history, to my knowledge, was poetry subject to such a rigorous and complex formality. Dryden  made “definitive use of the caesura in the second and fourth lines” (Princeton p. 523) in addition to emphasizing the couplet and end-of-couplet rhyme with its own caesura. Within the couplet, a whole array of rhetorical grammatical figures were wielded for the sake of balance and elegance: anadiplosis, zeugma, syllepsis, antimetabole, polyptoton, etc…

Here are a couple of examples by the Restoration’s greatest poets:

John DrydenDryden: One Happy Moment

O, no, poor suff’ring Heart, no Change endeavour,
Choose to sustain the smart, rather than leave her;
My ravish’d eyes behold such charms about her,
I can die with her, but not live without her:

One tender Sigh of hers to see me languish,
Will more than pay the price of my past anguish:
Beware, O cruel Fair, how you smile on me,
‘Twas a kind look of yours that has undone me.

Love has in store for me one happy minute,
And She will end my pain who did begin it;
Then no day void of bliss, or pleasure leaving,
Ages shall slide away without perceiving:

Cupid shall guard the door the more to please us,
And keep out Time and Death, when they would seize us:
Time and Death shall depart, and say in flying,
Love has found out a way to live, by dying.

Maybe in some later posts I’ll give these a line by line analysis. For now, just a couple of features worth noting. Notice how all of the end-of-couplet rhymes are end-stopped. Notice, besides that, how all of the lines are end-stopped. Compare this to Thomas Middleton’s Verse of just a generation or so before. They make Middleton look like an Allen Ginsberg. Notice also, especially with Dryden, how you can extract any one of his couplets and they will more or less make a complete syntactical unit.

One tender Sigh of hers to see me languish,
Will more than pay the price of my past anguish:

The verse is regular Iambic Pentameter with some variant, trochaic first feet. Don’t be fooled by the following line, which some might read as follows:

I can die |with her,|| but not live | without her:

Here’s how Dryden means us to read it:

I can | die with | her, but | not live | without her:

When reading poetry, especially, from this period, always try to read with the meter.

The last thing to notice about Dryden’s poem is that, despite the tightly laced poetry, this poem is about sex, sex, sex. The meter itself! Every single line ending is a feminine ending – a sort of metrical double entendre. Every rhyme of the poem is a feminine rhyme (otherwise known as a multiple rhyme) – en-deavor/leave her; please us/seize us.  It is chalk full of pornographic double-entendres. Don’t be fooled by the straight-laced formality of the poetry from this period. Some of the most depraved, erotic and sexual poetry ever written comes from this period.

As an aside: when the Restoration poets did try to write in a form other than Heroic Couplets, as in blank verse, they couldn’t shake (what had become) an instinctive habit of thought. Their habit of writing closed syntactic  ideas every two lines continues to show up in their blank verse like faint shadows ; giving to their blank verse the feeling that it proceeded two lines at a time. For more on this, and Dryden especially, take a look at my post on All for Love & The Modern Formalists.

Alexander Pope

Pope: An Essay on Criticism, 1709

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
Th’ eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last:
But, those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthened way,
Th’ increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

Pope, as compared to Dryden, preferred a poetry that was less public, more social and personal. You might not think so given these samples, but they’re only two samples. Pope’s poetry, for that reason, is perhaps more approachable than Dryden’s. If you’re going to read any poem from in Closed Heroic Couplets, my advice would be to read The Rape of the Lock.

Here’s the story behind the poem as given in the Twickenham Edition of Pope’s poem:

The families concerned in the Rape of the Lock–the Fermors, Petres, and Carylls–were prominent members of that group of great intermarried Roman Catholic families owning land in the home counties, most of whom came within the circle of Pope’s friends and acquaintances and to whom Pope considered his own family to belong. Some time before 21 March, 1712, when Pope sold his poem to Lintott, Robert, Lord Petre had cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair, and John Caryll had suggested to Pope that he should write a poem to heal the estrangement that followed between the two families:

The stealing of Miss Belle Fermor’s hair, was taken too seriously, and caused an estrangement between the two families, though they had lived so long in great friendship before. A common acquaintance and well-wisher to both, desired me to write a poem to make a jest of it, and laugh them together again. It was with this view that I wrote the Rape of the Lock.

The incident behind the poem has never been authoritatively tracked down to place and time. It is improbable, but possible, that it happened, as the poem states, at Hampton Court; and the counter-claims of the houses of the Fermors, Petres, or Carylls have never been substantiated.” (Twickenham, Vol II, p. 83)

Was Belinda, as the poem hints, willing to marry the Baron? “Arabella may well have been considered as the possible bride for Lord Petre. The rape of the lock may well have been an incident in the period of circumspection–how thorough such circumspection was likely to be may be gathered from the correspondence of Caryll during 1710-11 when he was choosing a wife for his son. If two such families who ‘had lived so long in friendship before’ are estranged through a fairly trivial incident, it seems there is thunder in the air. All the fun of the poem read very differently when, less than two months before the poem was published, Lord Petre married Catherine Warmsley, a Lancashire heiress some seven or more years younger than Arabella and much richer.”

On Hegemony

Curious to see what other online writers had written on the subject, I ran across the following site – The Heroic Couplet: Its Rhyme and Reason by J. Paul Hunter. His take on the form is a dense, sort of socio-political/socio-aesthetic examination. It’s worth reading if you enjoy this kind of criticism. He makes one assertion that is both true and untrue.

If forms can be hegemonic–and all but prevent meaningful departures–the couplet was such a form; never has any single poetic form before or since dominated the English language (or any other language I know about) so insistently and so thoroughly.

Closed heroic couplets were hegemonic and dominated poetic practice for many decades. However, to say that no other single poetic form before or since has so dominated the English language is to curiously ignore or exclude free-verse. The poets of the heroic couplet could only in their faintest dreams conjure up the triumphant ubiquity and hegemony of free verse! If any age of poetry compared to the Restoration, this is it.

Write (G)reatly!

All for Love & the Modern Formalists – Megan Grumbling

  • January 28 2010: Slightly edited.

The peculiarity of modern formalist poetry is that the poetry’s effect is frequently that of free verse, as though the poets were either embarrassed to be writing formally or unable to shake its ghost from their ears.

Old habits die hard.

The symptoms are similar to those of Restoration Poets who tried to write blank verse. John Dryden’s play “All for Love or, The World Well Lost”, was printed in 1692. This play, another dramatization of Anthony and Cleopatra, was expressly “Written in Imitation of Shakespeare’s Stile”. However, by the time Dryden published his play, blank verse had long since been abandoned in favor of heroic couplets (iambic pentameter written in rhyming couplets).

Restoration Poets found blank verse too licentious. Even anapests were sometimes considered politically subversive and aesthetically scandalous. The Restoration was the age of heroic couplets in the same sense that the “Modern Age” is the age of Free Verse. For a taste of heroic couplets, here’s a prologue written by Dryden from “The Conquest of Granada”. (For all the propriety of his age, Dryden had a healthy sense of humor when it came to sex.) Note the rhyming couplets:

They who write Ill, and they who ne’r durst write,
Turn Critiques, out of mere Revenge and Spight…

…Some wiser Poet now would leave Fame first:
But elder wits are like old Lovers, curst;
Who, when the vigor of their youth is spent,
Still grow more fond as they grow impotent.
This, some years hence, our Poets case may prove;
But, yet, he hopes, he’s young enough to love.

But in return for propriety, the restoration poets gave up the flexibility and malleability of blank verse. And since there were no towering geniuses during this period, heroic couplets never equaled the blank verse of the previous age. (Fortunately Milton, in writing Paradise Lost, dispensed with heroic couplets.) One of the salient features of the period’s heroic couplets is in their frequently end-stopped lines – an imitation of the Latin poetry they were emulating. Restoration poets learned to tailor their thoughts and phrases to coincide with every couplet. In the brief excerpts above, there is not a single example of enjambment. Every thought or phrase ends with every line. Dryden’s lines fall neatly into syntactical units that end, elegantly, with each line.

And when it came time for Dryden to imitate Shakespeare, the force of compositional habit imprinted itself, ghostlike, in every passage of “All for Love”.

I pity Dollabella; but she’s dangerous:
Her eyes have pow’r beyond Thessalian Charms
To draw the Moon from Heav’n; for Eloquence,
The Sea-green Syrens taught her Voice their flatt’ry;
And, while she speaks, Night steals upon the Day,
Unmark’d of those that hear; Then she’s so charming,
Age buds at sight of her, and swells to youth:
The holy Priests gaze on her when she smiles;
And with heav’d hands forgetting Gravity,
They bless her wanton Eyes: Even I who hate her,
With a malignant joy behold such Beauty… [IV: 264]

Compared with Shakespeare’s equivalent passage:

I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breath forth.

….Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy preists
Bless her when she is riggish. [II, ii, 239]

In Dryden’s passage, though he is writing blank verse, his meaning falls into the ghostly pattern of heroic couplets:

A– Her eyes have pow’r beyond Thessalian Charms
A– To draw the Moon from Heav’n; for Eloquence,

B – The Sea-green Syrens taught her Voice their flatt’ry;
B – And, while she speaks, Night steals upon the Day…

C – …Then she’s so charming,
C – Age buds at sight of her, and swells to youth:

The line endings still mostly break with their syntactical units. In Dryden’s passage there is only one example of enjambment, and weak at that. In Shakespeare’s passage there are seven instances of enjambment.

And now we return to the twenty-first century.

Instead of Restoration propriety, free verse dominates. If Dryden and his ilk were to step into our modern colleges, he might think he had stepped into a sort of “mirror-mirror” world. He would learn that some modern poets considered iambic pentameter to be a politically corrupt form, so much so that formalism is seen as subversive (patriarchal). He would struggle to find employment in any college writing program. Dryden – a strict formalist, intellectual, white and distinctly British – might find employment as a plumber.

Even so, one is increasingly finding blank verse and some formality. In the January 2006 issue of POETRY magazine, we find some beautiful poems by Megan Grumbling. But remember, this is mirror mirror world. Just as Dryden’s heroic couplets showed up, ghostlike, in his blank verse, free verse asserts itself, ghostlike, in modern formal verse.

“Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls
our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road
crosses the river that they call Great Woks.
The nearby fields so rich it’s hard to breathe–
the hay treacly with auburn, grasses bronzed–
we stop before a red farmhouse, just shy
of where the river runs, where maple trees
have laid the front lawns ravished with their loss.”

The enjambment of the first three lines has all the flavor of free-verse. There are no auditory clues (in the way of syntactical units) that might hint to a listener that these are lines of blank verse. One might as easily write the first sentence as follows:

Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road crosses the river that they call Great Woks.

The average reader would never suspect that this was blank verse. He or she might, in a moment of preternatural attentiveness, notice that the line is entirely iambic. That said, there is no indication that this sentence is Iambic Pentameter. Given Grumbling’s approach, one might as easily print her poem as follows:

Their stri|dent hold |upon |the back
roads pulls |our mor|ning drive, |out to
where Oak |Woods Road |crosses |the river
they call |Great Woks. |The near|by fields
so rich |it’s hard |to breathe– |the hay
treacly |with au|burn, grass|es bronzed–
we stop |before |a red |farmhouse,
just shy |of where |the ri|ver runs,
where ma|ple trees |have laid |the front
lawns ra|vished with |their loss.

This is perfectly acceptable iambic tetrameter, but for the short last line. I only had to remove the purely metric “that”. It might be argued that one could submit any iambic pentameter poem to the same exercise, but such an argument would only be partially true. One would find it exceedingly difficult to apply the same exercise to Shakespeare’s passage from Antony and Cleopatra. Or, more fairly, consider Frost’s An Encounter. (More fairly because Grumbling’s poetry is clearly inspired by Frost.)

Once on the kind of day called “weather breeder,”
When the heat slowly hazes and the sun
By its own power seems to be undone,
I was half boring through, half climbing through
A swamp of cedar. Choked with oil of cedar
And scurf of plants, and weary and over-heated,
And sorry I ever left the road I knew,
I paused and rested on a sort of hook
That had me by the coat as good as seated…

And now for the tetrameter version:

Once on |the kind |of day |called “weather
breeder,” |When the |heat slow|ly hazes
and the |sun by |its own |power seems
to be |undone, |I was |half boring
through, half |climbing |through a swamp
of ce|dar. Choked |with oil |of cedar
And scurf |of plants, |and wear|y and
over-|heated, |And sor|ry I
ever |left the |road I |knew, I
paused and |rested |on a sort |of hook
That had |me by |the coat |as good
as seat|ed…

The latter isn’t a very passable version of iambic tatrameter. The third line is entirely trochaic and can only be “rescued” if we elide power to read pow’r; or read the line as follows:

and the |sun by |its own pow|er seems

Though this too is unsatisfactory. The fifth line fails altogether. I picked Frost’s poem at random (lest the reader think I picked one poem especially antithetical to such treatment). What the poem illustrates is Frost’s skillful wedding of sense(grammatical & otherwise) to blank verse – Iambic Pentameter.

The same commitment is not sensed in Grumbling’s poem, skillful though it is. One might assert that Grumbling’s poem is primarily iambic and only secondarily pentameter. The ghostly influence of free-verse pervades her poem, just as the ghost of heroic couplets pervaded Dryden’s blank verse. One might say that she only grasps the surface of blank verse. But her choices might also be deliberate.

More to the point, while she is not the worst offender, her verse is harmed by metrical expediency. One of the first words that need to be banished from the Formalist’s dictionary is “upon”.  It’s appearance in modern poetry is primarily due to formalist poets . They use it because it is a ready made iamb. Grumbling wastes no time falling upon its tempting ictus.

we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this field.

The word “within” is metrical padding. How else does a bag hold anything but “within”? The word “upon” appears again,

More metrical padding appears with “out to where the Oak Woods Road…” Using modern English, we say: “out where the Oak Woods Road…” The unnecessary “to” reminds me of “for to”, as in, “I picked my roses for to kiss my love…” Happily, this archaism died from sheer embarrassment at the end of the 16th century. Who knows, its ghost might live on in some Amish communities…

However, in fairness to Grumbling, the promise of her poetry far outweighs the learning pangs.

As autumn and the Great Works trickle by,
we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this fields.
October’s task has raked the colors high.

These are beautiful lines of poetry. They show a willingness to learn from the old masters (an especially subversive and ridiculed practice in some modern circles). She has a sense for the music of language, like Frost, and is richly visual (perhaps at the expense of her other senses).

The aging oaks have puckered, mollusk-like,
to clutch and hold the sun-blanched, rain-run board,
and all its ancient measurements, in place…

From Measures – Poetry Magazine January 2006.

I can’t wait to see more from her. I can’t wait to see how she develops and how her mastery of metrical verse progresses.