Rich in Invention

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

Frédéric François Chopin

200 Years Ago

Chopin’s 200th birthday was March 1rst, 2010.

And the most interesting (to me) facet of Chopin’s career was his aesthetic differences with Franz Liszt – the other great pianist of the era. Chopin, in matters of art, was a classicist and admired the aesthetics of predecessors like Mozart. He believed that greatness was less the product of inspiration (in the Romantic sense) than discipline.  Eugène Delocroix, in one of his last conversations with Chopin, related the following:

The science of a man like Chopin is art itself. Art is no longer what the masses believe it to be, that is to say a sort of inspiration which comes from no one quite knows where, which progresses by chance and only presents the external appearances of things. It is reason itself adorned by genius but following a necessary course and governed by superior laws. This brings me to the difference between Mozart and Beethoven. When Beethoven is obscure and seems to lack unity, he told me, it is not because of his much vaunted and rather untamed originality, it is because he turns his back on eternal principles. Mozart never does.”

Franz Liszt, his friend and rival, was just the opposite. He was the first great artist who, along with Wagner, came to embody the Romantic spirit. Liszt believed that the future of art didn’t reside in the formulations of previous generations but in entirely new forms and structures. In other words, where composers like Bach, Haydn and Mozart worked within and perfected inherited forms, Liszt felt that true innovation called for not just new notes but new forms and even new rules. Liszt came to embody  the Romantic ideal of genius – a notion that the children of the Romantics and Beethoven (the generations of the 20th century) fully absorbed.

In a nutshell, the differences between Chopin and Liszt (or later, Brahms and Wagner) symbolized a new definition of what it meant to innovate, to be great and to produce great art.

Rich in invention

If ever a composer showed polyphony in its greatest strength, it was certainly our late lamented Bach. If ever a musician employed the most hidden secrets of harmony with the most skilled artistry, it was certainly our Bach. No one ever showed so many ingenious and unusual ideas as he in elaborate pieces such as ordinarily seem dry exercises in craftsmanship. He needed only to have heard any theme to be aware—it seemed in the same instant—of almost every intricacy that artistry could produce in the treatment of it. He melodies were strange, but always varied, rich in invention, and resembling those of no other composer.

This was written by Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach, one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s composing sons. He was describing his father’s greatness. What CPE Bach found most praiseworthy was how his father perfected his art. JS Bach’s melodies may have been strange but they were always varied and ingenious, and he clarifies what he means by that. His musical art was “rich in invention”.

The goal was not, for Bach or for Chopin, to rewrite oneself and ones art from the ground up, but to bring to perfection (to put ones own unique stamp on) ones artistic inheritance. This concept of originality was inherited from Renaissance theories of rhetoric which were themselves developed from ancient Greek theories of rhetoric, debate and oratory. The means by which to develop ideas (with originality) were codified as The Topics of Invention. Naturally, the means by which a composer developed ideas was different than a poet, author or orator. Prior to the 20th century Rhetoric was rigorously taught from a very early age and, especially during the late 15th and early 16th century, ones ability to elaborate on a given subject, ones skill with Rhetoric, was considered the measure of artistic skill, uniqueness and even genius. So familiar were Elizabethan audiences with the Rhetoric that Ben Jonson, in Cynthia’s Revels, could safely turn its method into a humorous parlor game:

Phantaste. Nay, we have another sport afore this, of A thing done, and, & c.
Philautia. I, good Phantaste, let’s have that: Distribute the places.
Phantaste. Why, I imagine, A thing done; Hedon thinkes, Who did it; Moria, With what it was done; Anaides, Where it was done; Argurion, When it was done; Amorphus, For what cause it was done; you Philautia, What followed upon the doing of it; and this gentleman, Who would have done it better. What? is’t conceiv’d about?
All. Yes, yes.
Phantaste. Then speake you, sir. Who would have done it better?
[Each answers and then Phantaste begins to gather the answers together.]
Phantaste. Then, The thing does was, An oration was made. Rehearse. An oration was made.
Hedon. By a travailer.
Moria. With a glyster.
Anaides. In a paire of pain’d slops.
Philautia. A few heat drops, and a moneths mirth followed.
Phantaste. And, this silent gentleman would have done it better. (4·3·160-201)

[Sister Miriam Joseph: Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language pp. 91-92]

What composers and poets shared, in terms of ambition, was the desire to prove their genius within the framework of a preexisting aesthetic and to do so through a demonstration of inventive powers – inventive genius. To that extent, composers and poets each knew what the other was describing when they referred to invention. Almost every one of Shakespeare’s sonnets is a self-conscious demonstration of invention.

Sonnet 38

How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O, give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

Sonnet 59

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child.
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whe’er better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O, sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

In Sonnet 76

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

In each case, Shakespeare playfully complains that he lacks invention while, with ironic abandon, using that very complaint as a ground on which to invent – to spin off an entire sonnet. In the very act of writing that he lacks the genius to invent, he invents.

When Ben Jonson eulogized Shakespeare, he reflected the artistic values of his age when he wrote:

Nature her selfe was proud of his designes,

And joy’d to weare the dressing of his lines !
Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,
As, since, she will vouchsafe no other Wit.

The merry Greeke, tart Aristophanes,
Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please;
But antiquated, and deserted lye
As they were not of Natures family.
Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art,
My gentle
Shakespeare, must enjoy a part
For though the Poets matter, Nature be,
His Art doth give the fashion.

  • Jonson’s praise of Shakespeare was tinged with some jealousy. Jonson, in his own day, was frequently the butt of jokes due to his extraordinarily slow (by the standards of the day) production. When dramatists like Thomas Heywood were knocking out a play a month (and that doesn’t include collaborations) Jonson was producing, maybe, one or two a year. During the War of the Theatres some scholars believe that Shakespeare lampooned Jonson as the spectacularly dim and slow-witted Ajax. It’s with this in mind that Jonson’s later, more candid appraisal of Shakespeare’s natural abilities should be considered:

I REMEMBER the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any.

Nature & Art

Jonson makes a distinction between nature and art. What does he mean? George Puttenham, author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589), was the touchstone for this sort of distinction. He writes:

But for that in our maker or Poet which rests only in device and issues from an excellent sharp and quick invention, holpen by a clear and bright phantasie and imagination… even as nature herself working by her own peculiar virtue and proper instinct and not by example of meditation or exercise as all other artificers do, is then most admired when he is most natural and least artificial: and in the feats of his language and utterance, because they hold as well of nature to be suggested as by art to be polished and reformed. Therefore shall our Poet receive praise for both, but more knowing of his art than by unseasonable using it, and be more commended for his natural eloquence than for his artificial, and more for his artificial well dissembled than for the same overmuch affected and grossly or undiscreetly bewrayed, as mnay makers and Orators do.

Puttenham is defining “nature” as the poet’s innate ability, talent and genius – his “excellent sharp and quick invention”.

George Puttenham: The Arte of English Poesie

What Jonson means is that nature, defined as free from “meditation or exercise”, artifice, contrivance or rote practice, would have been proud of Shakespeare’s “designes” because Shakespeare’s verse was deemed to flow with an innate genius or effortless naturalness. This brings us back to Chopin’s statement that “simplicity is the final achievement”. Simplicity, in Chopin’s lexicon, was comparable to the Elizabethans’ sense of the natural.

And yet, Jonson, Puttenham, and Chopin each go one step further. It’s not enough to possess genius. Puttenham puts it this way: “…our Poet [shall] receive praise for both [nature and art], but [shall receive] more [for] knowing of his art than by unseasonable using it…” By unseasonable, Puttenham means too much in the sense of a dish overly seasoned with contrivance and artifice – when food is ruined by too much seasoning. Let the artist “know his art”, and by knowing, master the proper scope and use of it. Here’s how Chopin puts it:  “After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

Chopin and Puttenham are saying the same thing, so is Jonson: “Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art… must enjoy a part, for though the Poets matter [is] Nature… his Art doth give the fashion.” Great talent (nature), alone, cannot achieve greatness, but does so through artifice, through the inheritance of traditions, and by the transcendence of that same tradition. In other words, the great artist returns to nature through his mastery and transcendence of the rules of artifice. The mediocre poet, lacking “an excellent sharp and quick invention, [helped] by a clear and bright phantasie and imagination” will never obtain that “simplicity” that is a mark of innate or natural genius. That is, the mediocre artist lacks the innate genius to transcend artifice.

The importance of simplicity or naturalness to what was then considered great art can’t be overstated. Bach, though praised for his invention, was criticized by a former student, Johann Adolph Scheibe, for “conflicting with nature”. The reason for the criticism might have been sour grapes, but the criticism stung. Scheibe wrote that Bach was

in music what Mr. von Lohenstein was in poetry. Turgidity has led them both from the natural to the artificial, and from the lofty to the somber; and in both one admires the onerous labor and uncommon effort—which, however, are vainly employed, since they conflict with nature.

[The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents p. 338]

The majority of musicians and composers were quick to come to Bach’s defense. What’s so fascinating is that even in Bach’s day, direct parallels were being drawn, explicitly, between the arts of music and poetry. When Johann Abraham Birnbaum wrote an article in Bach’s defense, the comparisons between poetry and music continued (unfortunately not in defense of the poor poet Mr. von Lohenstein). Birnbaum wrote:

[Bach] is further accused of “taking away the natural element in his pieces by giving them a turgid and confused style.” This is as severe as it is obscure. What does “turgid” mean in music? Is it to be taken in that sense in which in rhetoric that style of writing is called turgid  in which the most splendid ornaments are lavished on matters of slight import, so that their worthlessness is only the more brought to light thereby[?] (….) …there is nothing either turgid or confused to be found in the works of [Bach], the natural element—that is the necessary agreeable melody and harmony—cannot be taken away from them by this means. Instead, the praiseworthy efforts of [Bach] are directed toward the end of presenting this natural element to the world, through his art, in its highest splendor. [Ibid 343 & 345] – Emphasis is my own.

What’s so interesting to note is that both sides are trying to define natural. Some one hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, in a different country, competing aesthetics were still fighting for legitimacy through competing definitions of nature and naturalness in great art. Those who defended Bach, at the time, triumphed, but Scheibe’s aesthetic presaged the future. Bach’s music would be forgotten and, indeed, considered too “turgid” or “baroque”. The art of polyphony would be abandoned by the generation of the Enlightenment in favor of the “singing melody”. How would they rationalize this new aesthetic? They would call it natural and contrast it with what they considered to be the unnatural artifice of the baroque era.

Invention versus Creativity

In terms of subject matter and the general spirit of the times, 19th literature and music evolved in tandem. The new Romanticism, rightly and wrongly, came to be exemplified by Beethoven. To Chopin (who was, surprisingly, a classicist at heart) Beethoven “[turned] his back on eternal principles”. But it was Beethoven, not Chopin, who exemplified (for future generations) the image of the lone genius who tore down and rebuilt art in his own image.

After Beethoven, invention was no longer enough. A new word entered the lexicon: creativity. The appearance of the word may or may not have had anything to do with the change in how art was understood. However, there’s ample evidence that the premium placed on inventiveness shifted to creativity (and did so as the ideals of Romanticism established themselves).  The first appearance of the word creative, according to the OED, was the early 19th century. Creativity was first recorded during the 1870’s – these words are distinct from create, for example, which goes back to the 16th century and earlier.

Well into the 21rst century, we no longer put a premium on invention or inventiveness (not in art). We hear the phrase, Creative Arts, but almost never Inventive Arts. And when we praise artists, we use the words creative or creativity, but  seldom or rarely, inventive.

As George Lakoff likes to remind us, words have consequences.

Inventiveness carries the implication that one is making something from the materials at hand. Creativity carries the implication that something is being created out of nothing. Creativity has become artistically paradigmatic. For instance (and without commenting on its validity) Creationism implies that God created something out of nothing. God creates. Man invents. (We would never think in terms of God inventing.) These usages reflect our understanding of the words. There’s also the phrase: inventing excuses. In this sense, the word invent has come to carry a negative connotation.

How does this apply to art? Think back to Liszt. Liszt was the quintessential Romantic artist who believed the future of art resided in discarding old forms and building new ones out of whole cloth. He felt that true innovation called for not just new notes but new forms and even new rules. In a sense, Liszt was the first self-consciously creative artist. If you were a poet or composer in the age of romanticism, like Mendelssohn, then you were considered “backward looking”. Mendelssohn continued to compose music using the traditional forms of the classical composers. At the heart of Romanticism is the primacy of the self, the vision of the self as God.

It was no longer enough to be inventive.  In the mid 1800’s, shortly before Bach’s death, another word made its first recorded appearance – originality.

Along with originality, there was another component, another word and paradigm popularized by the Romantics. The late 18th century, very early 19th century German philosopher Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) redefined Genius. Before Kant, genius had a more mundane meaning: a particular ability or talent for a given task. Kant changed that and his influence on the thinking of the early Romantics, Goethe among them, would be hard to overstate. Kant defined genius as “originality” and as “talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given”. [A Kant Dictionary: Howard Caygill p. 249] Kant’s conception of Genius entailed a whole way of thinking about the production of art, music or literature. He wrote that genius “gives the rule to art” (rather than the other way around). Gaygill characterizes Kant’s description of Genius and art as follows:

The ideal of the beautiful consists in the exemplary products of genius; the products of genius do not follow rules, but are nevertheless exemplary, self-sufficent archetypes. [Ibid. p. 239]

Creativity. Originality. Genius.

These became the Romantic ideal. To the extent that this ideal hasn’t change, we still, two hundred years later, live in the Romantic era. Modernism was just a continuing manifestation of ideals established by the Romantics.

Genius does not follow rules.

While the subject matter of the poets kept pace with the shift to Romanticism, Romantic poets were still using traditional poetic techniques established two hundreds before. They were still using meter, rhyme, and metaphor. That all changed with the advent of the 20th century.

The concepts of nature versus art changed as well. Just as the generation of the Enlightenment would reject rule-bound geniuses like Bach and a thousand years of  polyphony, the generation of modernists would reject a millennia of song and tradition within poetry. History was strikingly repeated. As with the Enlightenment, 20th century poets claimed for themselves the mantel of natural. Like the critics of the Enlightenment, who self-servingly asserted that polyphony was artificial and contrived (simplicity meant just that, a simplistic harmonic and melodic language), early 20th century poets self-servingly proclaimed that meter was artificial, contrived and unnatural; and that poetry should be like spoken language. And that makes it exceedingly easy to write. Natural. The under riding assumption in both cases, in the mid 18th century and the early 20th century is that what is simple is natural and what is complex is artificial. In both cases, this redefinition of natural wouldn’t have been readily recognized or even, possibly, accepted by the prior generation. Few poets, today, would apply the word natural to Shakespeare’s style, but Jonson meant something very different when he used the word—something subtler and more complex.

The same with Chopin. Few modern listeners would think simplicity when listening to his music, but Chopin meant something much subtler by simplicity.

The Loss of Invention and the Cult of the New

Modern day students—writers, poets, composers and artists—are told, daily, by the generation preceding them that they mustn’t sound like, paint like or write like the artists before them. But such standards aren’t written in stone. They would have been ridiculed in a previous age. (Beethoven slavishly imitated Mozart, at the outset, but no one thinks any less of the music.) The current paradigms of originality, creativity and genius are of an age—they’re a construct that’s been handed down since the late 18th century and most artists would rather not question it. They would rather accept the paradigms as a given because it’s self-serving to do so. But for all that’s been gained, much has been lost.

In the name of originality, creativity and the vaporous pursuit of genius (understood not as the ability to synthesize and perfect but as the wholesale demolition of any antecedent) whole traditions have been wiped out. But mediocrity is as ubiquitous as ever. All that’s diminished has been in the ability and willingness to recognize mediocrity. When an artist, or poet or writer can set his or her own standards and assert that these standards are part and parcel of his or her art, on what does the critic hang his hat?

The poet can say that the critic doesn’t understand or appreciate the new aesthetic in which they are working—genius defined as the cult of the new. The modern poet creates from nothing The most admired (and often the most unread) poets are those who create utterly new aesthetics, forms and rules.  The “reputable” artists and poets are frequently exalted for their originality.

But if the aesthetic as defined by the poet or artist is a mediocre one (albeit original), then they’re art, music and poetry is only going to live up to those mediocre standards. (Fortunately for the poet, or unfortunately, it’s much easier to delude herself into thinking that she’s achieved some measure of mastery when she doesn’t have to measure herself against anyone’s standards but her own.)

Ask a poet to write to standards other than his own and you will get a good sense of his abilities.

There’s a place for invention in art — making, perfecting and synthesizing from the materials at hand or handed down. Perhaps its time to be open to an older understanding of genius, such as that applied to and understood by Bach, Mozart, Keats and Shakespeare. They were inventive. They were rich in invention. Neither created new forms. (One will frequently read the comments of historians, nose deep in the Romantic paradigm, who—as though explanation were needed—state that Bach and Mozart were great although or despite the fact that they didn’t create any new forms or advance music in the sense of a Beethoven, Liszt or Stravinsky—they didn’t innovate.) One might wonder why we consider them great? Shakespeare and Keats certainly didn’t create any new forms or genres. By the standards of our own day they were both backward looking; but they were rich in invention. They mastered, synthesized and perfected traditions that had been handed down to them and which they accepted. They impressed those traditions with their own unique stamp.

When I read and analyze the works of Robert Frost, I read the work of an artist in whom simplicity emerged “as the crowning reward of art”. It’s the same feeling I get when looking at a painting by Andrew Wyeth, another artist who continues to be denigrated by a generation steeped in a two hundred year old ethos.

There is nothing simple in nature.

The tree’s solution to the earth’s gravitational tug may be simple, but that simplicity reflects the complexities of hundreds of millions of years. If I were to explain what Jonson meant by nature and Chopin by simplicity, I would explain it by the tree. This was the kind of naturalness and simplicity that arose (as Puttenham put it, lacking the word for genius) from an  “excellent sharp and quick invention, holpen by a clear and bright phantasie and imagination…” This was genius that grew from the soil of its inheritance.

My advice to the future? Be rich in invention.

Bright Star by John Keats, His Sonnet

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

About the Poem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compared to Keats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sonnet and its Scansion

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

Bright Star (Corrected) by John Keats Scansion

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

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

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

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

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–

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

Bright Star Trochaic Reading

We should probably read it like this:

Bright Star Iambic Reading

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

Bright Star Spondaic Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Volta

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

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

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

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

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

But what a way to die…

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

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

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

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

The First Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bright Star by Jane Campion

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

Why do Poets write Iambic Pentameter?

  • May 14, 2009 Tweaked & corrected some typos.

mount-everest-colored-edgeBecause it wasn’t there.

During the sixteenth century, which culminated in poets like Drayton, Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, and Shakespeare, English was seen as common and vulgar – fit for record keeping. Latin was still considered, by many, to be the language of true literature. Latin was essentially the second language of every educated Elizabethan and many poets, even the much later Milton, wrote poetry in Latin rather than English.

Iambic Pentameter originated as an attempt to develop a meter for the English language legitimizing English as an alternative and equal to Latin (as a language also capable of great poetry and literature). Encyclopedia of Spenser - ExtractSince meter was a feature of all great Latin poetry, it was deemed essential that an equivalent be developed for the English Language. But poets couldn’t simply adopt Latin’s dactylic hexameter or dactylic pentameter lines. Latin uses quantitative meter, a meter based on  alternating long and short syllables. English, on the other hand, is an accentual language – meaning that words are “accented” or stressed while others are, in a relative sense, unstressed.  (There are no long or short syllables in English, comparable to Latin.)

False Starts

But this didn’t stop Elizabethan poets from trying. A circle of Elizabethan poets, including Sidney and Spenser, all tried to adapt quantitative meter to the English language. Here’s the problem. Even in their own day Latin and Classical Greek were dead languages – dead for a thousand years. Nobody knew what these languages really sounded like and we still don’t. Imagine if all memory of the French language vanished tomorrow (along with any recordings). French uses the same alphabet, but how would we know how to pronounce it? Americans would pronounce it like Americans, Germans would pronounce like Germans, etc… The French accent would be gone – forever. The same is true for Latin. So, while we may intellectually know that syllables were spoken as long or short, we have no idea how the language was actually pronounced. It’s tone and accent are gone. When the Elizabethans spoke Latin, they pronounced and accented Latin like Elizabethans. They assumed that this was how Latin had always been pronounced. For this reason, perhaps, Adopting the Dactylic hexameters of Latin didn’t seem so far-fetched.

The  Spenser Encyclopedia, from which I obtained the passage at right, includes the following “dazzling” example of quantitative meter in English:

Quantitative Verse (Sample from Spenser Encyclopedia)

The symbols used to scan the poem reflect Spenser’s attempt to imitate the long and short syllables of Latin. The experiments were lackluster. Spenser and Sidney moved on, giving up on the idea of reproducing long and short syllables. The development of Iambic Pentameter began in earnest. (Though Sidney continued to experiment with accentual hexameters – for more on this, check out my post on Sidney: His Meter & His Sonnets.)

Those were heady times. Iambic Pentameter was new and dynamic. Spenser adopted Iambic Pentameter with an unremitting determination. Anyone who has read the Faerie Queen knows just how determined. (That said, each Spenserian Stanza – as they came to be called – ended with an Alexandrine , an Iambic Hexameter line – as if Spenser couldn’t resist a reference to the Hexameters of Latin and Greek.)

Why the Drama?

Just as with Virgil and Homer for Epic Poetry, the Classical Latin and Greek cultures were admired for their Drama – Aeschylus, Terence, Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles. Classical drama was as admired as classical saga.

As Iambic Pentameter quickly began to be adopted by poets as an equivalent to the classical meters of Greek and Latin, dramatists recognized Iambic Pentameter as a way to legitimize their own efforts. In other words, they wanted to elevate their drama into the realm of serious, literary works – works of poetry meant to be held in the same esteem as the classical Greek and Latin dramas. Dramatists, especially during Shakespeare’s day, were held in ill-repute, to say the least. Their playhouses were invariably centers of theft, gambling, intoxication, and rampant prostitution. Dgorboduc-title-pageramatists themselves were considered nothing better than unprincipled purveyors of vulgarity – all too ready to serve up whatever dish the rabble wanted to gorge on.

There was some truth to that. The playhouses had to earn a living. The actors and dramatists, like Hollywood today, were more than willing to churn out the easy money-maker. Thomas Heywood, a dramatist and pamphleteer who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, claimed to have had “an entire hand or at least a main finger in two hundred and twenty plays”.

That said, aspirations of greatness were in the air. This was the Elizabethan Age – the small nation of England was coming into its own. The colonization of America was about to begin. The ships of England were establishing new trade routes. The Spanish dominance of the seas was giving way. England was ready to take its place in the world – first as a great nation, than as an empire. The poets and dramatists of the age were no less ambitious. Many wanted to equal the accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans – Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher, Middleton…

Ben Jonson, in his own lifetime, published a collection of his own works – plays and poetry. This was a man who took himself seriously. The Greeks and Romans wrote their Drama in verse, and so did he. The Romans and Greeks had quantitative meter, and now the Elizabethans had Iambic Pentameter – Blank Verse. Serious plays were written in verse, quick entertainments, plays meant to fill a week-end and turn a profit, were written in prose – The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Shakespeare, was written to entertain, was written quickly, and was written in prose.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Sackville and Norton were the first dramatists to write Drama, the play Gorboduc, using Iambic Pentameter or, as it came to be known, blank verse. For a brief sample of their verse you can check out my post on The Writing & Art of Iambic Pentameter.

Poets and Poet/Dramatists were quick to recognize the potential in blank verse. Early Dramatists like Greene, Peele and Kyd were quick to adopt it. Their efforts bequeathed poetry to the new verse form, but it was First Part Tamburlaine the Great & Christopher MarloweChristopher Marlowe who upped the ante by elevating not just the poetry but the verse form itself. Suddenly Iambic Pentameter was given a powerful new voice all of its own.

Hair standing on end, other poets soon referred to Marlowe’s blank verse as Marlowe’s Mighty Line. Reading Marlowe’s verse now, with 500 years of history between, the verse appears inflexible and monochromatic. It was Shakespeare who soon demonstrated to other poets the subtlety and flexibility that Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) was capable of. Shakespeare’s skill even influenced Marlowe (who had earlier influenced Shakespeare). Shakespeare’s influence is felt in Marlowe’s Faustus and Edward II, by which time Marlowe’s verse becomes more supple.

The passage above is spoken by Tamburlaine, who has been smitten by Zenocrate, “daughter to the Soldan of Egypt“. Up to meeting Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s sole ambition had been to conquer and ruthlessly expand his empire. He’s a soldier’s soldier. But his passion for Zenocrate embarrasses him. He feels, in his equally blinding passion for her, that he “harbors thoughts effeminate and faint”.

Tamburlaine, with Marlowe’s inimitable poetry, readily rationalizes his “crush”. Utterly true to his character, he essentially reasons that beauty is a spoil rightly belonging to the valorous. He will subdue both (war and love), he pointedly remarks (rather than be subdued).  After all, says Tamburlaine in a fit of self-adulation, if beauty can seduce the gods, then why not Tamburlaine?  But make no mistake, it’s not that Tamburlaine has been subdued by love, no, he will “give the world note”, by the beauty of Zenocrate, that the “sum of glory” is “virtue”. In short, and in one of the most poetically transcendent passages in Elizabethan literature, Tamburlaine is the first to express the concept of a “trophy wife”.

Not to be missed is the Elizabethan sense of the word “virtue” – in reference to women, it meant modesty and chastity. Naturally enough, in men, it meant just the opposite – virility, potency, manhood, prowess. So, what Tamburlaine is saying is not that modesty and chastity are the “sum of glory”, but virility. The ‘taking’ of a beautiful women, in the martial, sexual and marital sense, fashions “men with true nobility”. It’s no mistake that Marlowe chose “virtue”, rather than love, when writing for Tamburlaine. Tamburlaine’s only mention of love is in reference to fame, valor and victory, not affection.

Anyway, I couldn’t resist interpreting the passage just a little. So many readers tend to read these passages at face value – which, with Elizabethan poets, frequently misses the boat.

As to the meter… Notice how the meaning sweeps from one line to the next. Most of the lines are syntactically unbroken, complete units. This is partly what poets were referring to when they described Marlowe’s lines as “mighty”.  what-you-doNotice also that that the whole of the speech can be read as unvarying Iambic Pentameter and probably should be.

By way of comparison, at right is how Shakespeare was writing toward the end of his career. The effect he produced is far different. The iambic pentameter (Blank Verse) doesn’t sweep from one line to the next. The most memorable and beautiful image in this passage is when Florizel wishes Perdita, when she dances, to be like “a wave o’the sea”. And any number of critics have seen, in this passage, a graceful equivalent in the ebb and flow of Shakespeare’s blank verse. The syntactic units halt, then resume, then halt again, variably across the surface of the Iambic Pentameter pattern. The overall effect creates one of the most beautiful passages in all of Shakespeare, and not just for its content and imagery, but also for its supple verse. The Elizabethans, in Shakespeare, bettered the Greek and Romans. In 1598, Francis Meres, fully understanding the tenor of the times, wrote:

“As the Greeke tongue is made famous and eloquent by Homer, Hesiod, Euripedes, Aeschilus, Sophocles, Pindarus, Phocylides and Aristophanes; and the Latine tongue by Virfill, Ovid, Horace, Silius Italicus, Lucanus, Lucretius, Ausonius, and Claudianus: so the English tongue is mightily enriched, and gorgeously invested in rare ornaments and respledent abiliments by Sir Philip Sidney, Spencer, Daniel, Drayton, Warner, Shakespeare, Marlow and Chapman

As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras : so the sweet wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honytongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private frinds, &c…

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines : so Shakespeare among y’ English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge’tleme’ of Verona, his Errors, his Love labors lost, his Love labours wonne, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.
As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin : so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.”

Finally, the English were creating their own literary heritage. Up to now, if the English wanted to read great literature, they read Latin and Greek.

But Not Latin Enough

The Elizabethans and Jocabeans firmly established Iambic Pentameter as the great Meter of the English language. But the youth of each generation wants to reject and improve on their elders. George ChapmanThe Elizabethans and Jacobeans were old news to the eighteen and twenty year old poets who would found the restoration. They wanted to prove not just that they could find an alternative to quantitative meter, they wanted to prove that they could write just as well as the great Latin poets – English verse could be as great as Latin verse and in the same way. And so English poetry entered the age of the Heroic Couplet.

Poets had written heroic couplets before, but they were primarily open heroic couplets. The restoration poets wanted to reproduce the Latin distich – a verse from in which every rhyming couplet is also a distinct syntactic unit. This meant writing closed heroic couplets. If you want a clearer understanding of what this means, try my post About Heroic Couplets.

Anyway, the meter is still Iambic Pentameter, though the verse form has changed (Heroic, when attached to couplets, means couplets written in Iambic Pentameter). In other words, it’s not Iambic Pentameter with which the restoration poets were dissatisfied, it was unrhymed Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) which  restoration poets found inadequate. Alexander PopeLike the Elizabethans, they wanted English literature to be the equal of Latin and Greek literature. Blank verse wasn’t enough.

One of the best ways, perhaps, to get a feel for what restoration poets were trying to accomplish is to compare similar passages from translations. Below are three translations. The first is by George Chapman (Chapman’s Homer), an Elizabethan Poet and Dramatist, contemporary of Shakespeare and, some say, a friend of Shakespeare. Chapman writes Open Heroic Couplets – a sort of cross between blank verse and closed heroic couplets. The second translation is by Alexander Pope, a contemporary of Dryden and, with Dryden, the greatest poet of the restoration. He writes closed heroic couplets.


And now compare Pope’s translation to Robert Fitzgerald’s modern translation (1963). Fitzgerald writes blank verse and his translation is considered, along with Lattimore’s, the finest 20th Century translation available. I personally prefer Fitzgerald, if only because I prefer blank verse. Lattimore’s translation is essentially lineated prose (or free verse).


Which of these translations do you like best? Fitzgerald’s is probably the most accurate. Which comes closest to capturing the spirit of Homer’s original – the poetry? I don’t think that anyone knows (since no one speaks the language that Homer spoke).

All three of these translations are written in Iambic Pentameter but, as you can see, they are all vastly different: Open Heroic Couplets, Closed Heroic Couplets, and Blank Verse. The reasons for writing them in Iambic Pentameter, in each case, was the same – an effort to reproduce in English what it must have been like for the ancient Greeks to read Homer’s Dactylic Hexameters.  Additionally, in the case of Chapman and Pope, it was an effort to legitimize the English language, once and for all, as a language capable of great literature.

Enough with the Romans and Greeks

Toward the end of the restoration, Iambic Pentameter was no longer a novelty. The meter had become the standard meter of the English language. At this point one may wonder why. Why not Iambic Tetrameter, or Iambic Hexameter? Or why not Trochaic Tetrameter?

These are questions for linguists, neuro-linguists and psycho-linguists.  No one really knows why Iambic Pentameter appeals to English speakers. Iambic Tetrameter feels too short for longer poems while hexameters feel wordy and overlong. There’s something about the length of the Iambic Pentameter line that suits the English language. Theories have been put forward, none of them without controversy. Some say that the Iambic Pentameter line is roughly equivalent to a human breath. M.L. Harvey, in his book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning (if memory serves) offers up such a theory.

Interestingly, every language finds has found its own normative meter. For the French language, its hexameters (or Alexandrines), for Latin and Greek it was dactylic Hexameter and Pentameter). Just as in English, no one can say why certain metrical lengths seem to have become the norm in their respective languages. There’s probably something universal (since the line lengths of the various languages all seem similar and we are all human)  but also unique to the qualities of each language.

Anyway, once Iambic Pentameter had been established, poets began to think that translating Homer and Virgil, yet again, was getting somewhat tiresome. English language Dramatists had already equaled and excelled the drama of the Romans and Greeks. The sonnet sequences of Drayton, Daniel, Shakespeare, Sidney and Spenser proved equal to the Italian Sonnets of Petrarch – in the minds of English poets at least. The restoration poets brought discursiveness to poetry. They used poetry to argue and debate. The one thing that was missing was an epic unique to the English language. Where was England’s Homer? – Virgil? Where was England’s Odyssey?

Enter Milton

Milton, at the outset, didn’t know he was going to write about Adam & Eve.

He was deeply familiar with Homer and Virgil.  He called Spenser his “original”, the first among English poets and a “better teacher than Aquinus“.  John MiltonBut Spenser’s Faerie Queen was written in the tradition of the English Romance. It lacked the elevated grandeur of a true epic and so Milton rejected it. He was also familiar with Dante’s Divine Comedy. But the reasons for Milton choosing the story of Adam & Eve are less important, in this post, than the verse form that he chose. At first, writing in the age of the heroic couplet, Milton’s intention was to use the verse of his peers.

But Milton was losing his eyesight. That and the constraints Heroic Couplets placed on narrative were too much for him. He chose Blank Verse. In the end, the genius of Milton’s prosody and narrative conferred on blank verse the status it needed.  Blank verse became the language of epic poetry – not heroic couplets; Milton’s blank verse was the standard against which the poetry of all other epic poems would be measured. From this point forward, later poets would primarily draw their inspiration from the English poets that had come before (not the poets of classical Greece or Rome).Paradise Lost Book 8 [Extract] Paradise Lost successfully rivaled the Odyssey and the Iliad.

The extract at right is from Book 8 of Paradise Lost. Adam, naturally enough, wants to know about the cosmos. Since reading up on Cosmology is one of my favorite pastimes, I’ve always liked this passage. The extract is just the beginning. Milton has an educated man’s knowledge of 17th Century Cosmology,  but must write as if he knows more than he does. In writing for Raphael however (the Angel who describes the Cosmos to Adam), Milton must  write as though Raphael admits less than he knows. The effect is curious. At the outset, Raphael says that the great Architect (God) wisely “concealed” the workings of the  Cosmos; that humanity, rather than trying to “scan” God’s secrets, “ought rather admire” the universe! This is a convenient dodge. Raphael then launches into a series of beautifully expressed rhetorical questions that neatly sum up Cosmological knowledge and ignorance in Milton’s day. It is a testament to the power of poetry & blank verse that such a thread-bare understanding of the universe can be made to sound so persuasively knowledgeable.  Great stuff.

With Milton, the English Language had all but established its own literature; and Iambic Pentameter, until the  20th Century, was the normative meter in which all English speaking poets would measure themselves.

The Novelty Wears Off

After the restoration poets, the focus of poets was less on meter than on subject matter. Poets didn’t write Iambic Pentameter because they were thirsting for a new expressive meter in their own language, but because it’s use was expected. Predictably, over the next century and a half, Iambic Pentameter became rigid and rule bound.  The meter was now a tradition which poets were expected to work within.

John Keats: The Fall of HyperionThis isn’t to say that great poetry wasn’t written during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Keats’ Hyperion, short as it was, equaled and exceeded the masterful Blank Verse of Milton (perhaps some of the most beautiful blank verse ever written) – but the beauty was in his phrasing, imagery and language, not in any novel use of Iambic Pentameter. Wordsworth wrote The Prelude and Browning wrote an entire novel, The Ring & the Book, using blank verse. There was Shelley and Tennyson, but none of them developed Iambic Pentameter beyond the first examples of the Elizabethans.

The Fall of Iambic Pentameter

By the end of the Victorian Era (1837-1901), and in the hands of the worst poets, Iambic Pentameter had become little more than an exercise in filling-in-the-blanks. The rules governing the meter were inflexible and predictable. It was time for a change. The poet most credited with making that change is Ezra Pound. Whether or not Pound was, himself, a great poet, remains debatable. Most would say that he was not. What is indisputable is his influence on and associations with poets who were great or nearly great: Yeats, T.S. Eliot (whose poetry he closely edited), Ezra PoundFrost, William Carlos Williams, Marriane Moore. It was Pound who forcefully rejected the all too predictable sing-song patterns of the worst Victorian verse, who helped initiate the writing of free verse among English speaking poets. And the free verse that Pound initiated has become the indisputably dominant verse form of the 20th century and 21st century, more pervasive and ubiquitous than any other verse form in the history of English Poetry – more so than all metrical poems combined. While succeeding generations during the last 100 years, in one way or another, have rejected almost every element of the prior generation’s poetics, none of them have meaningfully questioned their parents’ verse form. The ubiquity and predictability of free verse has become as stifling as Iambic Pentameter during the Victorian era.

But not all poets followed Pound’s lead.

A wonderful thing happened. With the collapse of the Victorian aesthetic, poets who still wrote traditional poetry were also freed to experiment. Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens: Idea of Order at Key WestWallace Stevens all infused Iambic Pentameter with fresh ideas and innovations. Stevens, Frost and Yeats stretched the meter in ways that it hadn’t been stretched since the days of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatists. Robert Frost’s genius for inflection in speech was greatly enhanced by his anapestic variant feet. His poems, The Road Not Taken, and Birches both exhibit his innovative use of anapests to lend his verse a more colloquial feel. The links are to two of my own posts.

T.S. Eliot interspersed passages of free verse with blank verse.

Wallace Stevens, like Thomas Middleton, pushed Iambic Pentameter to the point of dissolution. But Stevens’ most famous poem, The Idea of Order at Key West, is elegant blank verse – as skillfully written as any poem before it.

Yeats also enriched his meter with variant feet that no Victorian poet would have attempted. His great poem, Sailing to Byzantium, is written in blank verse, as is The Second Coming.

Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Pound all came of age during the closing years of the Victorian Era. They carry on the tradition of the last 500 years, informed by the innovations of their contemporaries. They were the last. Poets growing up after the moderns have grown up in a century of free verse. As with all great artistic movements, many practitioners of the new free-verse aesthetic were quick to rationalize their aesthetic by vilifying the practitioners of traditional poetry. Writers of metrical poetry were accused (and still are) of anti-Americanism (poetry written in meter and rhyme were seen as beholden to British poetry),  patriarchal oppression (on the baseless assertion that meter was a male paradigm),  of moral and ethical corruption. Hard to believe? The preface to Rebel Angels writes:

One of the most notorious attacks upon poets who have the affrontery to use rhyme and meter was Diane Wakoski’s essay, “The New Conservatism in American Poetry” (American Book Review, May-June 1986), which denounced poets as diverse as John Holander, Robert Pinsky, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost for using techniques Wakoski considered Eurocentric. She is particularly incensed with younger poets writing in measure.

The preface goes on to note that Wakoski called Holander, “Satan”. No doubt, calling the use of Meter and Rhyme a “Conservative” movement (this at the height of Reaganism), was arguably the most insulting epithet Wakoski could hurl. So, religion, nationalism and politics were all martialed against meter and rhyme. The hegemony of free verse was and is hardly under threat. The vehemence of Wakoski’s attacks, anticipated and echoed by others, has the ring of an aging and resentful generation fearing (ironically) the demise of its own aesthetics at the hand of its children (which is why she was “particularly incensed with younger poets). How dare they reject us? Don’t they understand how important we are?

But such behavior is hardly limited to writers of free verse. The 18th century Restoration poets behaved just the same, questioning the character of any poet who didn’t write heroic couplets. Artistic movements throughout the ages have usually rationalized their own tastes at the expense of their forebears while, ironically, expecting and demanding that ensuing generations behave.

Poets who choose to write Iambic Pentameter after the moderns are swimming against a tidal wave of conformity – made additionally difficult because so many poets in and out of academia no longer comprehend the art of metrical poetry. In some halls, it’s a lost art.

blank-versePart of the cause is that poets of the generation immediately following the moderns “treated Iambic Pentameter more as a point of departure than as a form consistently sustained.” Robert B. Shaw, in his book, Blank Verse: A Guide to its History and Use, goes on to write, “the great volume and variety of their modernist-influenced experiments make this period a perplexing one for the young poet in search of models.” (p. 161)

Poets like Delmore Schwartz and Randall Jarrell were uneven poets – moving in and out of Iambic Pentameter. Their efforts aren’t compelling. Karl Shapiro brought far more knowledge to bear. Robert Shaw offers up a nice quote from Shapiro:

The absence of rhyme and stanza form invites prolixity and diffuseness–so easy is it to wander on and on. And blank verse [Iambic Pentameter] has to be handled in a skillful. ever-attentive way to compensate for such qualities as the musical, architectural, and emphatic properties of rhyme; for the sense of direction one feels within a well-turned stanza; and for the rests that come in stanzas. There are no helps. It is like going into a thick woods in unfamiliar acres. (p. 137)

And some poets like to go into thick woods and unfamiliar acres. (This is, after all, still a post on why poets write Iambic Pentameter. And here is one poet’s answer.) The writing of a metrical poem, Shapiro seems to be saying, forces one to navigate in ways that free verse poets don’t have to. The free verse poet must consider content as the first and foremost quality of his or her poem. For the poet writing meter and rhyme, Shapiro implies, there is a thicket of considerations that go beyond content.

There is also John Ciardi, Howard Nemerov and, perhaps the greatest of his generation, Richard Wilbur. Wilbur writes:

There are not so many basic rhythms for American and English poets, but the possibilities of varying these rhythms are infinite. One thing modern poets do not write, thank heaven, is virtuoso poems of near perfect conformity to basic rhythms as Byron, Swinburne, and Browning did in their worst moments. By good poets of any age, rhythm is generally varied cleverly and forcefully to abet the expressive purposes of the whole poem. (p. 189)

By rhythms, Wilbur is referring to meters. Wilbur is essentially stating that when the good poet chooses to write meter, (Iambic Pentameter let’s say), he sees the rhythm (the metrical pattern) as something which, when cleverly varied, “[abets] the expressive purposes of the whole poem”. It’s a poetic and linguistic tool unavailable to the free verse poet. Period.

Robert Frost, who lived into the latter half of the 20th Century, famously quipped in response to free-verse poet Carl Sandburg:

“Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Rebel AngelsAs free verse asserted an absolute domination over the poetic aesthetic, writing meter and rhyme increasingly became an act of non-conformity, even defiance. It’s in this spirit that a small group of poets, who ended up being called “New Formalists”, published a book called Rebel Angels in the mid 1990’s – the emphasis being on Rebel. The most recognizable names in the book were Dana Goioia, R.S. Gwynn,  and Timothy Steele. The preface, already quoted above, attempts to frame its poets as revolutionaries from word one:

Revolution, as the critic Monroe Spears has observed, is bred in the bone of the American character. That character has been manifest in modern American poetry in particular. So it is no surprise that the most significant development in recent American poetry has been a resurgence of meter and rhyme, as well as narrative, among large numbers of younger poets, after a period when these essential elements of verse had been surpressed.

The word “American” turns up in each of the three (first three) introductory sentences. Lest there be any mistake, the intent was to frame themselves not as Eurocentric poets beholden to an older European tradition, but as American Revolutionaries. So what does that make the poets and critics who criticize them? – un-American? -establishmentarian? – conformist? – royalist conservatives?

So it goes.

If the intent was to initiate a new movement, the movement landed with a thud. The book is out of print and, as far as  I know, few to none of the books by those “large numbers of younger poets” have actually made it onto bookshelves. The poems in the anthology are accomplished and competent, but not transcendent. None of the poets wrote anything for the ages.

The rebellion was short lived.

Modern Iambic Pentameter

Nowadays, I personally don’t notice the fierce partisanship of the previous decades. Most of the fiercest dialectic seems to be between the various schools of free verse poetics. Traditional poetry, the poetry of meter and rhyme, is all but irrelevant even as all the best selling poetry remains in meter and rhyme! – Robert Frost, Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Stevens, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Millay, Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose and the thousands of nursery rhymes that are sold to new parents.

The Green Gate: ExtractBut why do poets write Iambic Pentameter nowadays?

As far as I know, I am one of the few poets of my own generation (Generation X) writing in form, along with A.E. Stallings and Catherine Tufariello. And why do I write Iambic Pentameter? Because I like it and because I can produce effects that no poet can produce writing free verse. I’ve talked about some of those effects when analyzing poems by Shakespeare, his Sonnet 116, John Donne’s “Death be not Proud”, and Frost’s Birches. I use all of the techniques, found in these poems, in my own poetry.

I write about traditional poetry with the hope that an ostensibly lost art form can be fully enjoyed and  appreciated.

One of my favorite moments in the Star Wars series is when Ben Kenobi kills General Grievous with a blaster instead of a Light Saber. Kenobi tosses down the blaster saying: “So uncivilized.”  Blasters do the job. But it’s the Light Saber that makes the Jedi. There are just a few poets who really understand meter and rhyme.

But enough with delusions of grandeur. At right is an extract from one of my own poems. You can click on the image  to see the full poem. One of my latest poems, written in blank verse, is Erlkönigen.

To write poetry using meter or rhyme, these days, is to be a fringe poet – out of step and, in some cases, treated with disdain and contempt by poets writing in the dominant free verse  aesthetic.

There has never been a better time to be a fringe poet! It’s usually where the most innovative work is done.

  • Note: There are critics & poets who deny that meter “exists”. I tend to group them with flat-earthers and moon landing denialists. Dan Schneider, of Cosmoetica, is one of them. If you’re curious to read my response to some of his writing, read Critiquing the Critic: Is Meter Real.

One Last Comparison

Going back to Homer’s Odyssey. One of the genres in which iambic pentameter still flourishes is in translating, suitably enough, Latin and Greek epic poetry. Here is one more modern Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) translation by Allen Mandelbaum, compared to Robert Fitzgerald’s (which we’ve already seen above). Mandalbaum’s translation was completed in 1990 – Fitzgerald’s in 1963. Seeing the same passage and content treated by two different poets gives an idea of how differently Iambic Pentameter can be treated even in modern times. The tone and color of the verse, in the hands of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum, is completely different. I still can’t decide which I like better, though readers familiar with the original claim that Fitzgerald’s is more faithful to the tone of the original.


  • Here’s a good article on blank verse, mostly because of it’s generous links: Absolute Astronomy.

Afterthoughts • August 7 2010

With some distance from this post, I realize that I never discussed meter’s origins. And it is this: Song. In every culture that I’ve explored (in terms of their oldest recorded poetry) all poems originated as lyrics to popular songs. Recently discovered Egyptian poems strongly suggest  that they originated as lyrics to songs. If you read Chinese poetry, you will discover (dependent on the translator’s willingness to note the fact)  that a great many of the poems were written to the tune of this or that well-known song. Likewise, the meter of ancient Greek poetry is also said to be based on popular song tunes. Many scholars believe that the Odyssey was originally chanted by story tellers though no one knows whether the recitation might have been accompanied.

The first poems from the English continent are Anglo-Saxon. The alliterative meter of these poems, as argued by some, are a reflection that they too were written to the tune of this or that song. The early 20th century critic William Ellery Leonard, for example, held “that our meter of “Sing a Song of Six-Pence” is directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon meter of Beowulf” [Creative Poetry: A Study of its Organic Principles p. 252]. Though none of his poetry survives, Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne (d. 709), is said to have performed his secular songs while accompanied on the harp. None of Aldhelm’s Anglo-Saxon poetry remains. What is known to us is related by the ancient English historian Willliam of Malmesbury.

In short, meter is the remnant of music’s time signature.

The roots of Iambic Pentameter are in song (just as meter in every language and culture appears to be rooted in song and music). And it’s for this reason that the twaddle of a Dan Schneider is so misleading. Likewise,  poets like Marriane Moore who postured over the artificiality of meter, were ignorant of meter’s origins. Arguments over the naturalness of meter are irrelevant. Iambic Pentameter is no more natural to the English language than the elaborate meter and rhyme of a rapper. It’s an art.

And it’s this that separates Free Verse from Traditional Poetry.

  • Image above right: Fragment of an ancient Greek song.

Conversely, free verse is not rooted in music but only imitates the typographical presentation (the lineation) of metrical poetry. Why make this distinction? Because it’s another reason why poets write Iambic Pentameter. Writing metrical poetry is an acknowledgement of poetry’s musical roots. Meter acknowledges our human capacity to find rhythm and pattern within language (as within all things). I won’t argue that it’s a better way to write poetry. However, I will argue that writing meter is to partake in a tradition of poetry that is ancient and innate.

Milton & Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter)

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  • Revised & improved April 12, 2009.

The Creation of Eve

Milton’s blank verse is exceedingly conservative and easy to scan. It’s a testament to Milton’s skill as a poet john-miltonthat his beautiful language and careful phrasing triumphs over his monotonous meter – in many cases subtly disrupting it without violating it. It’s a miracle, really. (For an example of a poet who didn’t pull it off, read Spencer’s Fairy Queen.) It was as if the experimentation of the Elizabethans, let alone the Jacobeans, had never occurred. Milton came of age in an exceedingly conservative era- poetically. Meter, in those days, was as dominant then as free verse now, and as unadventurous. Just the fact that Milton wrote blank verse (when everyone else was writing heroic couplets) was an act of defiance.

Most of the trouble surrounding Milton and scansion (for modern readers) comes down to differences in pronunciation – some of it has to do with historical changes; and some, if you’re American, has to do with differences in British and American pronunciation (especially problematic when reading Chaucer).

I cooked up a table that, with its “scientific” terminology, gives you an idea of Milton’s metrical habits and preferences. I haven’t gone line by line to exhaustively prove the accuracy of my table, but I can assert, for example, that Milton (despite claims to the contrary) never wrote a trochee in the final foot. Here’s an extract, to that effect, from my review of M.L. Harvey’s Book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning: A Study in Generative Metrics (Studies in Comparative Literature):

A more egregious example of misreading, due to changes in habits of pronunciation and even to present day differences between the continents, comes when Mr. Harvey examines Milton. Words like “contest” and “blasphemous” and “surface” (all taken from Paradise Lost) were still accented on the second syllable. “Which of us beholds the bright surface.” (P.L. 6.472 MacMillan. Roy Flannagan Editor.) Mr. Harvey, offering an example of a “very rare `inverted foot’” (the credit for its recognition he gives to Robert Bridges) gives the following line: “Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim Prostrate (P.L. 6.841) In fact, Robert Bridges and Mr. Harvey are both mistaken in reading the fifth foot as inverted and one need not be a seventeenth century scholar to recognize it. Webster’s International Dictionary: Second Edition, in fact, provides the following pronunciation key. (pros [stressed] trat [unstressed]; formerly, and still by some. Esp. Brit., pros [unstressed] trat [stressed]). Any laboratory of Americans, nearly without fail, would also misread this line, and so the danger of overwhelming empirical evidence!

On to my table… Each division represents an equivalent foot in an Iambic Pentameter line.

Milton's Metrics

The Scansion

Here is one of my favorite passages, already alluded to in a previous post – Iambic Pentameter Variants – I. To simplify matters, I haven’t marked any of the Iambic feet , I’ve only marked variant feet or feet that, for one reason another, might be read incorrectly.

Milton Scansion: Book 8


Elision, a standard practice in Milton’s day and more or less assumed whether marked or not, eliminates the vast majority of Milton’s “variant” feet.


Glorious, if treated as a three syllable word, would make the second foot Anapestic, not criminal,  but if you can elide, you  should.


This elision might make some metrists squirm. Given just how conservative metrical practice tended to be in Milton’s day, I would be inclined to elide these two vowels. Given how Milton can barely bring himself to so much as use a feminine ending in the final foot, I seriously doubt he expected readers to treat this foot as an anapest. My advice is to elide it.

The final example of elision, above, is the word Spirits. Interestingly, Milton seems to treat this word opportunistically. In line 466, for example, he treats spirits as a two syllable word. In other lines, throughout Paradise Lost and in the latter line, he treats the word as a monosyllabic word. This sort of inconsistency in pronunciation is found as far back as Chaucer, as with his pronunciation of the word sweete – sometimes one syllable, sometimes two. Such inconsistency is permitted once one has obtained a poetic license.

Reading with the Meter

Modern readers may sometimes be tempted to read as though they were reading prose. Sometimes, though, poets play the line against the meter, wanting us to emphasize certain words we might not otherwise. That’s the beauty of meter in poetry. Milton, as with all the great poets, was skilled at this sort of counterpoint:


In the line above, the modern reader might be tempted to stress the line as follows:

Mean, or in her summ’d up, in in her containd

This would be putting the emphasis on the words in. In free verse, ok, but not Iambic Pentameter and especially not with a metrically conservative poet like Milton. Milton wants us to put the emphasis on her. Maybe the line above doesn’t seem such a stretch? Try this one:


Any modern reader would put the emphasis on Bone and Flesh:

Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self

But they would be missing the point of Milton’s line – the closing my Self! That is, it’s not the Bone or Flesh that amazes Adam, it’s that the Bone and Flesh are of his Bone and of his Flesh. His Self! This contrapuntal exploitation of the meter is a master stroke and to miss it is to miss Milton’s genius. If it’s read in this light, stressing the prepositional of might not feel so strained or artificial.

Pentameter at all costs!

Milton’s obeisance to the demands of Iambic Pentameter aren’t always entirely successful.


This, to me, is a reach, but it’s probably what Milton intended and even how he pronounced it. Practice it with studied e-nunc-i-a-tion and the line may make a little more sense. An alternative is to read the line as Iambic Tetrameter.


Given Milton’s metrical squeamishness, I seriously doubt that, in the entirety of Paradise Lost, he decided, for just one moment, to write one Tetrameter line. There are other alternative Tetrameter readings, but they get uglier and uglier.

That said, ambiguities like these, along with the examples that follow, are what disrupt the seeming monotony of Milton’s meter. His use of them defines Milton’s skill as a poet. Roy Flannagan’s introduction to Paradise Lost (page 37) is worth quoting in this regard:

Milton writes lines of poetry that appear to be iambic pentameter if you count them regularly but really contain hidden reversed feet or elongated or truncated sounds that echo meaning and substance rather than a regular and hence monotonous beat. He builds his poetry on syllable count and on stress; William B. Hunter, following the analysis of Milton’s prosody by the poet Robert Bridges in 1921, counts lines that vary in the number of stresses from three all the way up to eight, but with the syllabic count remaining fixed almost always at ten (“The Sources” 198). Milton heavily favors ending his line on a masculine , accented syllable, with frequent enjambment or continuous rhythm from one line to the next… He avoids feminine feet or feet with final unstressed syllables at the ends of lines. He varies the caesura, or the definitive pause within the line, placing it more freely than any other dramatist or non-dramatic writer Hunter could locate (199). He controls elisions or the elided syllables in words most carefully, allowing the reader to choose between pronouncing a word like spirit as a monosyllable (and perhaps pronounced “sprite”) or disyllable, or Israel as a disyllable or trisyllable.

Extra Syllables: Milton’s Amphibrachs (Feminine Endings & Epic Caesuras)

The amphibrach is a metrical foot if three syllables – unstressed-stressed-unstressed. In poets prior to the 20th Century it is always associated with feminine endings or epic caesuras. In the passages above, Milton offers us two examples, one in the second foot (by far the norm) and one in the first foot.


This would be an epic caesura. The comma indicates a sort of midline break (a break in the syntactic sense or phrase). Amphibrach’s, at least in Milton, are always associated with this sort of syntactic pause or break. Epic Caesuras and Feminine Endings are easily the primary reason for extra syllables in Milton’s line. Anapests make up the rest, but they are far less frequent and can be frequently elided.


This would be a much rarer Epic Caesura in the first foot. Notice, once again, that the amphibrachic foot occurs with a syntactic break, the comma.

Differences in Pronunciation

If you just can’t make sense of the metrical flow, it might be because you aren’t pronouncing the words the same way Milton and his peers did.


Most modern readers would probably pronounce discourse and dis’course. However, in Milton’s day and among some modern British, it was and is pronounced discourse’.


Adam & EveThis one is trickier. In modern English, we pronounce attribute as att’ribute when used as a noun and attri’bute when used as a verb. Milton, in a rather Elizabethan twist, is using attributing in its nominal sense, rather than verbal sense. He therefore keeps the nominal pronunciation: att’tributing.

The arch-Angel says to Adam, as concerns Eve:

Dismiss not her…by attributing overmuch to things Less excellent…

It’s phenomenally good marital advice. In other words. Don’t dismiss her by just tallying up her negative attributes, to the exclusion of her positive attributes. There is more to any friendship, relationship, or marriage than the negative. Think on the positive.

Metrical Ambiguity

Some of Milton’s metrical feet are simply ambiguous – effectively breaking the monotony of the meter. In the example below, one could read the first foot as trochaic or as Iambic:


|Led by|


|Led by|?

I chose a trochaic foot – the first option. If this foot had been in the fifth foot (or the last foot of the line) I would have read it as Iambic. Milton doesn’t write trochaic feet in the fifth foot. In the first foot, however, trochaic feet aren’t uncommon and in this instant it seems to make sense. I don’t sense that there’s any crucial meaning lost by de-emphasizing by.  Perhaps the best answer, in cases of metrical ambiguity, is to consider at what point in the line the ambiguity is occuring.

Similarly, I read the following line as having a spondee in the fourth foot:


One could also read it as trochaic or iambic. Iambic, given the metrical practice of the day, is far more likely than a trochaic foot – especially, given Milton’s practice, this close to the final foot. I scanned the foot as spondaic. Spondaic feet, in Milton’s day, were considered the least disruptive variant foot and so were acceptable at just about any point of the line.

My Favorite Passages

The passages excerpted above just about cover every metrical exigency you will run into in reading Milton. The other reason I chose them is because they’re, well, juicy. I love them. I especially like the following lines for their sense of humor (and, yes, Milton does have a sense of humor).


What boyfriend or husband hasn’t had this experience? No matter how rational we think we are, all our intellectual bravado crumbles to folly – men are from Mars, women are from Venus.

Did Adam & Eve have sex? Why, yes, says Milton, but it wasn’t pornographic. That came after the fall:


Lastly, and most importantly, is there sex in heaven (or do we have to go to hell for that)? Milton gives us the answer:


If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, comment! Let me know. And if you have further questions or corrections, I appreciate those too.

Shakespearean, Spenserian, & Petrarchan Sonnets

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


The Shakespearean Sonnet: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

The word Sonnet originally meant Little Song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Shakespearean Sonnet: Structure

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

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

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

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

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

And this brings me to another thought.

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

The Shakespearean Sonnet: Meter

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

And Wikipedia is wrong.

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

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

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

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


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

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

And when the iron is hot, he strikes:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


The Spenserian Sonnet: Structure

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

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

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

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

The Spenserian Sonnet: Spenser’s Meter

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

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

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

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

john-miltonThe Petrarchan Sonnet: John Milton

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here is the same Sonnet under the magnifying glass:


The Petrarchan Sonnet: Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Petrarchan Sonnet: Milton’s Meter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Miltonic Sonnet

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

On the Importance of Naming Things

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


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

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

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


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


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

Other Petrarchan Sonnets

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

John Keats

Rhyme Scheme:

ABBA ABBA CDCDCD (The same as Milton’s)

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

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

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

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

William Wordsworth

Rhyme Scheme:


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

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

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

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Rhyme Scheme:


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

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

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

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

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Rhyme Scheme:


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

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

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

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Rhyme Scheme:


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

Other Sonnets:

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

John Keats

Rhyme Scheme:


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

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

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

High Fantasy & The Oratorical Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verb Metaphor Footnote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Analysis

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

Final Table


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

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

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

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

i “Literary Realism and Its Effects” 6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

viii Le Guin, 114.

ix Le Guin, 35.

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

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

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

xiii Ibid. 318.

xiv The Handbook of Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, 19.

xv Le Guin, 81.

xvi Le Guin, 81-82.

xvii The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms.

xviii Tolkien, The Two Towers, 26.

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

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

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

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

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

Iambic Pentameter (Variants – I)

  • This post was edited, tweaked & improved on March 24, 2009.
  • February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost (& Middleton is a scansion too far), you might like reading Birches along with a color coded 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.
  • December 24, 2018 – Brief addition.

Variants That May or May Not Be Variants

Individual lines of Iambic Pentameter can be found in any poem, including free verse.

However, since free verse avoids any regular meter, there’s no meter from which to vary.

  • There tends to be a fair amount of confusion as to how something can be considered metrical without being strict in regard to its meter. In other words, how do we account for variant feet in an otherwise metrical poem and at what point do too many variant feet undermine the meter? The best way to answer this is to think of meter as a musical beat. As far as we know, much ancient poetry appears to have been associated with music. In other words, poetry started out as lyrics. The stress patterns of the words commonly reflected the music’s beat (as in Hymn Meter). A musical melody reflects a given time signature such as 6/8 or 4/4 or 3/4. Think of variant feet like syncopation or triplets in a 4/4 time signature. A melody doesn’t always follow a given beat, but it also isn’t so disruptive as to lose the beat. If you think of meter as a time signature (iambic verses anapestic meter for example), then think of variant feet as a kind of syncopation that both works against the beat and reinforces it.

So, variants are only relevant within the context of Metrical poetry. Blank verse is meter consisting of un-rhymed iambic pentameter. It is the verse of Shakespeare’s Plays and the verse of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

john-milton1This turn hath made amends; thou hast fulfill’d
Thy words, Creator bounteous and benigne,
Giver of all things faire, but fairest this
Of all thy gifts, nor enviest. I now see
Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self
Before me; Woman is her Name, of Man
Extracted; for this cause he shall forgoe
Father and Mother, and to his Wife adhere;
And they shall be one Flesh, one Heart, one Soule.

Paradise Lost Book 8 491-499

In the passage above, Adam expresses his gratitude for the creation of Eve – man’s gratitude for woman.

The first line that appears irregular is the fourth line. However, this line is not, in fact, a variant. Milton usually wrote a very strict blank verse in terms of syllable count. So, if a line looks like it might contain an extra syllable, especially in Milton, there’s usually a way to read it while maintaining the integrity of the pentameter line. In the case of the fourth line, -viest (of enviest) should be elided (0r synaeresized as some metrists say), making it one syllable instead of two.


Making the assumption that a poet means for two syllables to be elided, when habit of speech tells us they can be, is usually a safe assumption for poets through the 19th century. But this assertion, like all things, isn’t without controversy. Some metrists will assert that anapests shouldn’t be swept under the rug and that elision is simply a prudish avoidance of anapests. Anything can be carried too far; and not all anapests should be excised. On the other hand, metrists who oppose such elision (as above) give no answer as to why so many anapests during this period of poetry occur with words that can be easily elided or synaeresized. Even in the 20th Century, Robert Frost will frequently read anapestec feet as Iambic. In Birches, he writes They are but contracts the words to read They’re when reciting the poem. It’s hard for critics to argue with that! In poetry prior to the 20th century, indisputable anapests can be hard to find unless one considers all epic caesura to be anapests (more on that later). The pragmatic answer is that poets saw words like  enviest as a sort of middle ground – a compromise between anapests and a stricter iambic rhythm. Simple as that.

By the 20th century, the strictures and expectations concerning blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) loosen considerably. Also, especially toward the end of the 20th century, poets have become less knowledgeable and skilled in the use of blank verse and iambic pentameter. One need not assume that a word can be or should be elided.

The 8th line is trickier: “Father and Mother, and to his Wife adhere“. This is an eleven syllable line and there are two ways to scan it. One way, knowing that Milton was a very rule-bound writer of blank verse, is to look for another possible elision.


In this case, “to his could be elided – the two words combining so that, when one reads it quickly, the word “his” almost disappears: Father and Mother, and to’s Wife adhere. Such elisions were common practice in Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden and many other poets during this period. (Poets during the Restoration took Iambic Pentameter very seriously.)

But then again… the tricky “Art” of Scansion

But then again, as I presently devote an entire post to this passage, I’ve taken to another possibility:

Epic Caesura

In this scansion, I’ve read the line as having an Epic Caesura (to be discussed below). The rest of the feet are iambic. (In essence, an Epic Caesura is a feminine ending at a midline break.)  So… some lines can be scanned in multiple ways. As for myself, I think I’ve come to prefer this second scansion.

Missing & Extra Syllables

In my last post (Basics), we saw that even though a poem or play might be written in Iambic Pentameter, individual lines may vary from the overall pattern. The 11 syllable line beginning Hamlet’s famous, blank verse soliloquy is an example: To be or not to be, that is the question. A given line may have 9 , 11 or even 12 syllables instead of 10. And variations in Iambic Pentameter can extend even further. Shakespeare will sometimes intersperse the overall 10 syllable pattern with 6 syllable lines – called squinting lines (a term coined by George Wright).

Not all of these lines could be called Iambic Pentameter (since they’re not all Pentameter or five foot lines), but they might be variations if they vary from (but not too far from) an established iambic pentameter pattern. They also will generally be iambic. In other words, all these lines might be found in Free Verse but context is everything. In free verse, there is no meter to vary from, therefore the same line in a free verse poem wouldn’t be heard as a variation.

Let’s say a given line in an Iambic Pentameter poem has eleven syllables.

How, if one is scanning, do we decide which foot contains the extra syllable?

The following rule of thumb is fairly reliable: Choose the scansion that preserves the most Iambs. NOTE: If you were reading a poem that was Trochaic Tetrameter or Trochaic Pentameter, let’s say, then you would choose the scansion that preserves the most Trochees.

(I stress fairly because, in some cases, scanning a poem is as much art as science. If you don’t have a tin ear for the rhythm of language, the art of scansion is learned quickly.)

Missing Syllables: Headless Line

Here is an example from my own blank verse poem, Ulysses in Burlington, Vermont :

Longboard idle at the curb – I dole
My laws to boys that leer and know not me

If you divide the first line without giving thought to preserving the most iambs, marking off every two syllables, you might scan the first line as follows:


This gives us five feet (a Pentameter line). But by simply marking off every two syllables, starting with the first word, we have created a line with no Iambic Feet. They are all Trochaic – meaning that the first syllable of each foot is stressed and the second unstressed (the reverse of an Iambic Foot). If this were a free verse poem, this scansion would probably be as good as any. And if this were a free verse poem, another way to scan might be as follows:


In this case, we have a four foot line, or a tetrameter line, not pentameter. (A one foot line is a monometer line, two foot line is a dimeter line; a three foot line is trimeter; a four foot, tetrameter; five foot, pentameter; six foot, hexameter.) In the line above, the first two feet are Trochaic, the third foot is Anapestic (two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable, while the last foot is Iambic.

While tetrameter lines or trochaic pentameter is not unheard of in an Iambic Pentameter poem, consider it an option of last resort. If we follow our rule of thumb, preserve the most Iambs when scanning an Iambic Pentameter Poem (as well as trying to preserve the five feet of a pentameter line) we end up with the following:


A Cretic Foot?

The arrow indicates a missing syllable. This scansion preserves our five feet and preserves the Iambic pattern established by the poem.You might be tempted to read the first two feet as one |Long-board id|, a cretic foot – also called an amphimacer. This foot is exceedingly rare in Iambic Poetry. It also would make the line above a Tetrameter line:

Longboard id|le at| the curb| – I dole

There’s no hard and fast reason why one couldn’t read the first foot as cretic, but metrists generally prefer to read a line within the context of an established metrical pattern. Since the established metrical pattern of the poem is blank verse (I wrote it), my intention was to treat the line as a headless Iambic Pentameter variant.

  • Hint!If you just can’t make sense of a line, sometimes it helps to scan the line backwards. Start by establishing the last foot of the line first, (|I dole| in the line above), then work your way backwards.

Missing Syllables: Broken-backed Lines

A line missing an unstressed syllable before the stressed syllable in the first foot is called a headless line and is a common variant of Iambic Pentameter. A missing syllable may occur in any foot. Here’s an example from Shakespeare:


In this case, the third foot is missing an initial unstressed syllable. This is called a broken-backed line because an unstressed syllable is missing after a midline pause (Wright: Shakespeare’s Metrical Art Page 176). The final foot is an Amphibrachic Foot which, in an Iambic Pentameter poem, is called a Feminine Ending. That is, when a line ends on an unstressed syllable, it is called Feminine. When it ends with a stressed syllable, it is called Masculine.

One more important lesson to notice about the line above is that it contains ten syllables. But just because the line contains ten syllables doesn’t make it Iambic Pentameter through and through. Otherwise one might have been tempted to scan it as follows:


But this breaks our tidy rule of thumb. Instead of having three iambic feet (the first foot is still considered iambic with an intermediate stress), we now have two. For a full consideration of lines with missing syllables, try reading Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, already linked above.

Extra Syllables: The Feminine Ending

Any line in an Iambic Pentameter poem that contains more than ten syllables (syllables which can’t be elided) contains extra syllables. Perhaps the most common extra-syllabic variant is the line with a feminine ending – an amphibrach in the fifith foot.


Extra Syllables: The Anapestic Feminine Ending

In the 20th Century, Poets like Robert Frost (especially) introduced anapestic feminine endings.

In the final foot of the example above, Frost substitutes an anapest for an Iamb (in what would otherwise be an Iambic Feminine Ending). More on this line and the poem it comes from in my post on Frost’s Birches.

  • Note: The amphibrach  is also common before a midline break and is called an Epic Caesura (see example at bottom of post.)

Extra Syllables: The Heavy Feminine Ending

Another form of the feminine ending is known as the heavy feminine ending, wherein the final (and extra) syllable of the line receives an intermediate or heavy stress (example from Middleton’s The Changeling).


Like the feminine ending,  the heavy feminine ending can also occur before a midline break – another form of Epic Caesura – but, to my knowledge, never occurs in Shakespeare and very infrequently in Middleton.

Here’s another example of a Heavy Feminine Ending from Frost’s Birches:


Extra Syllables: A Triple Ending

A final foot with a kind of double feminine ending (two additional unstressed syllables in the final foot) is called a triple ending (example from my next post on Thomas Middleton).


or Shakespeare:


A triple ending can also occur before a midline break (Hamlet Act IV Scene 5).


(Note that all these examples are still pentameter: they still have five feet though they are not iambic through and through.) Any of the other metrical feet can contain extra syllables and the rule of thumb for scanning those lines remains the same – use the scansion that preserves the most iambic feet.


This is from MacBeth, IV iii Line 5. You might be tempted to think the line above has 12 syllables. However, the word spirits can be elided, and given what we know of the time and Shakespeare’s metrical habits, it probably should be (though no one can say with absolute certainty). The word woman, however, cannot be elided. This foot is amphibrachic, containing an extra unstressed syllable before a midline pause (the end of a phrase). It is called an Epic Caesuras (George Write: Shakespeare’s Metrical Art Page 165). The example is my own. The Epic Caesuras is easily among the most common extra-syllabic variant after the feminine ending. It is, in fact, a kind of feminine ending that occurs midline.

Extra Syllables: Epic Caesuras & Epic Controversies

But, as I mentioned earlier, calling this pattern an epic caesura is not without controversy among cut-throat scansion professionals (and they do cut throats). Some metrists, like Robert Wallace, seem exasperated with the term and the seeming avoidance of anapests. They would read the line above as follows:


This dispenses with the “pretense” of an epic caesura and the elision of the word spirits. I could go along with treating spirits as two syllables (who knows how they really pronounced it). In this case one has an anapest in the final foot.  But simply stamping this as an anapest somewhat ignores the history of meter and how it was practiced during the time.  Again, my own view is that poets like Shakespeare treated such words as an acceptable middle ground – a sort of neither/nor. In the same way that Canterbury was pronounced as a three syllable word (see my post on Chaucer), I have frequently heard spirit  pronounced as having a single syllable.

As to the whole concept of an epic caesura, I’m for it. Dicing up woman, in my view, ignores the phrase. There is some art to scansion and this is where I, personally, would apply it. Why ignore phrasing just to hang an anapest on the wall? A metrist like David Baker (Meter in English pp. 328-329) may not like the term, epic caesura, but if not, then he has to answer why these “anapests” all seem to occur with a midline break. It is the most common “anapest” in Shakespeare – and so was clearly considered an acceptable iambic pentameter variant. If all anapests were equally acceptable then one should expect to find them at every point of the line and with equal regularity – but prior to the 20th Century one simply does not. This tells us that the midline “anapest” was considered a special case – a sort of midline feminine ending. Given the evidence, I think it’s worth discriminating this foot from the run-of-the-mill anapest.

Extra Syllables: On to the Anapest

That said, the anapest is the second most common extra-syllabic variant (though far behind the epic caesura), a variant which readily picked up speed two centuries after Shakespeare died. Prior to the 19th Century, the anapest was considered a sign of decadence and depravity – literally. Critics and poets were scandalized by them. By the 20th century though, and after free verse had become the dominant verse form, the anapest became a regular (if not too regular) feature of iambic pentameter poetry. It’s overuse (overused by poets too accustomed to free verse and unskilled formal poets) frequently threatens to break down any regular metrical pattern – casting into doubt a poem’s claim to an iambic pentameter pattern. Frost used the anapest regularly but was also careful to ground the the meter just regularly by writing solid Iambic Pentameter lines – that is, without variants.

In case it’s not clear already, the anapest consists of a metrical foot containing two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. Here is a possible example from Browning’s the Last Duchess.

She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech

The second line could be scanned as follows:


Notice the extra syllable in the fourth foot. This is an anapest if we judge it by 20th century standards. However, that said, this poem was written in the 19th century, Browning learned from poets like Shakespeare, Milton and Keats and the rest of the poem, My Last Duchess, is perfectly Iambic. It’s possible that we once again have two syllables that should be elided: the approving could be read as th’approving. Browning doesn’t write it this way though. He doesn’t use synaloephasignaling the omission or elision of one or two vowels with an apostrophe as in t’other for the other. Perhaps he doesn’t feel the need to (it was assumed), but he did use synaloepha elsewhere in the poem. It is for the reader or performer to decide. I’m willing to call it an anapest – a little variation is a good thing.

The Primary Variant Feet and Their Names

If the nominal pattern for a poem were Iambic (unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) the following feet would be considered variants. By in large, these feet account for almost all of the variants you will find.

Trochaic : Stressed followed by unstressed. Hamlet Act I Scene I


Spondee: Intermediate Stress followed by Stressed. Hamlet ActI Scene III


Pyrrhic: Unstressed followed by unstressed or intermediate Stress.  Hamlet Act II Scene V



Spondaic: Stressed followed by a stressed syllable.  Act III Scene 4


Dactylic: Stressed followed by two unstressed syllables. Tempest Act V Scene 1 (Notice that this line is a tetrameter line due to the two Dactylic feet.)


Amphibrachic: Unstressed followed by stressed followed by unstressed. Hamlet Act III Scene 4. In the fifth foot, this is called a Feminine Ending. In the examples below, they would more particularly be called Iambic Feminine Endings.


If the Amphibrach occurs before a midline break, it is called an Epic Caesura (example from my own All Hallows’ Eve). (The Epic Caesura, an extra unstressed syllable, was a frequent Shakespearean variant.)


Anapestic: Two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. 2 Henry VI Act II Scene 1


In my previous post (Basics) I mentioned that sometimes phrases can define a metrical foot. The anapest would be an example of this. If a line has 11 syllables, or even twelve, and the last foot isn’t a feminine ending, then it’s likely that one or two of the metrical feet are anapests (not Iambic). In this case, it doesn’t make sense to simply mark off a foot at every two syllables, especially if the line is part of a larger poem with an established meter like Iambic Pentameter (and, as with the line above,  it would defeat the rule that one should preserve as many Iambs as possible).  In the line above, the phrase, in a day, defines the metrical foot.

All of the variations above can occur in any of the five feet in a Pentameter line.

  • Note: There are critics & poets who deny that meter “exists”. I tend to group them with flat-earthers and moon landing denialists. Dan Schneider, of Cosmoetica, is one of them. If you’re curious to read my response to some of his writing, read Critiquing the Critic: Is Meter Real.

What’s Next?

The third post, Iambic Pentameter & Shakespeare, tries to answer the question: Who cares? Why does any of this matter? Why on God’s green earth would anyone want to scan a poem? And we’ll answer the question using Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.

The fourth post , Iambic Pentameter: Variants & Long Lines, is more or less the second half of this post. It takes a look at some variants (not discussed here) by actually scanning some of Thomas Middleton’s blank verse (a contemporary of Shakespeare).  The verse isn’t pretty, which is why it’s useful for demonstrating the extremes of metrical variants. Between these four posts, you will hopefully have a good fix on how to scan Iambic Pentameter.

And finally, know who said this?

scott-patton“You know. . .if I had my way, I’d send that genius son of a bitch an engraved invitation in iambic pentameter: A challenge in two stanzas to meet me alone in the desert. I’ll deliver it. Rommel in his tank and me in mine. We’d stop about paces. We’d get out, we’d shake hands. . . then we’d button up and do battle, just the two of us. That battle would decide the outcome of the war. It’s too bad jousting’s gone out of style.”

Feel free to comment if you have questions, suggestions or if you would like to see some part of this subject treated more fully – I’ll add it.