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.

odyssey-book-12-chapman-pope

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).

odyssey-book-12-pope-fitzgerald

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.

odyssey-book-12-fitzgerald-mandelbaum

  • 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.

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Iambic Pentameter & Robert Frost’s Birches

  • February 22, 2009 – After reading this post, you might enjoy a colorcoded scansion of Birches included with a scansion of Frost’s Mending Wall.
  • April 25, 2009 – Added audio of Frost reciting Mending Wall.
  • May 9, 2009 – Added notes about the poem and discussed Frost’s erotic bent.

Balance

….the poem is more about striking a balance between getting “away from earth” and then coming “back to it” than it is about overcoming fear. He told his former student, John Bartlett: “It isn’t in man’s nature to live an isolated life. Freedom isn’t to be had that way. Going away and looking at a man in perspective ,and then coming back… that is what’s sane and good.” In one interview in 1931, he extolled the virtues of “striving to get the balance.” He added, “I should expect life to be back and forward–now more individual on the farm, now more social in the city,” reflecting the pattern of his own life. (Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetryp. 77)

So wrote Lea Newman in her introduction to Birches. The genius of the poem is in its beautiful and powerfully sustained use of a fairly straightforward extended metaphor – swinging birches as a metaphor for balance. Frost is careful not to over interpret that balance. It could be between earth and spirit, nature and civilization, childhood and manhood, love and loss. The reader will bring to the poem his or her own meaning – and it is this capacity of the poem that makes it a great poem, a work of genius.

You Decide

For most readers there’s no hidden subtext beyond what’s grasped intuitively.

But this hasn’t stopped some interpreters.  For instance, in Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self, Frank Lentricchia remarks:

Those “straighter, darker trees,” like the trees of “Into My Own” that “scarcely show the breeze,” stand ominously free from human manipulation, menacing in their irresponsiveness to acts of the will.

I’ve read Birches countless times, and the feeling of an ominous menace never once crossed my mind. To read this kind of interpretation into the imagery requires some kind of context and there simply is none – not in two lines. And referring to “Into my Own”, as though the two poems were somehow related or created the context for such an interpretation, is nonsensical. But the bottom line is that there doesn’t have to be a symbolic undercurrent (or double meaning) to every single word or image. Close readers and academics love nothing more than teasing out interpretations, but just because it can be done, doesn’t mean there’s any objective validity to the interpretation.  At some point, such exercises strike me as being more like parlor games.

Just because the other trees are darker doesn’t mean that they are ominous. Fact is, every single tree in the New England landscape is darker than the birch. And for the most part (and after a good ice storm) most other trees are, factually, straighter than birches. In The Wood Pile, Frost refers to the view as being “all in lines/Straight up and down of tall slim trees,” One need not read any more into Frost’s imagery than the simple fact of it.

But, naturally, if Lentricchia is going to invoke menace, he needs to explain why (to justify that interpretation). He writes that they are menacing in their “irresponsiveness to acts of human will”.  I just don’t buy it.

At best, one would need to make the assumption that Frost’s use of the word dark always constituted some kind of menace when used in reference to trees or the woods. But in his most famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Frost writes that “The woods are lovely, dark and deep”. Despite Frost’s use of the word lovely, this hasn’t stopped close readers from suggesting that Frost was contemplating suicide and that loveliness, far from being praise of the New England wood in winter,  was a contemplation of the lovely, dark and deep oblivion that is suicide (or so they interpret it). Richard Poirer is among those who have made this suggestion. By the absence of a comma between the word dark and the word and he concludes that the “loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous.” The italics are mine. But Poirier’s reading could hardly be called objective. There is, in fact, no way of knowing what significance such punctuation might have held for Frost. However, Frost did have a thing or two to say about ominous interpretations. William Pritchard writes, in  Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered:

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]

All of which is to say, Frost had little patience for self-pity or, by extension, suicide. One need only read Out, Out to get a sense of Frost’s personality. In short, one can contemplate the soothing darkness and loveliness of the woods without contemplating suicide. But you decide.

However

Beyond the interpretation of individual words and lines, there is a larger philosophical debate within the poem that will flavor what readers bring to the poem. It happens in the opening lines:

….

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that.
Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-coloured
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows–

The italicized lines bracket a digression that Frost characterizes as Truth. What does he mean? In fact, the differentiation Frost implies between Truth and his playful, imaginary fable of the boy climbing the birches, is central to the poem’s meaning. The world of Truth could be construed as the world of science and matter-of-factness – a world which circumscribes the imagination  or, more to the point, the poetic imagination, Poetry. The world of the poet is one of metaphor, symbolism, allegory and myth making. At its simplest, Frost is describing two worlds and telling which he prefers and how he values each. “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” And by that, he could almost be saying: One could do worse than be a poet.

The underlined passage “You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen”, has been nicely interpreted as a reference to Ptolemaic astronomy (which believed that the planets and stars  were surrounded by crystal spheres or domes). I like that interpretation and I can believe that Frost intended it. The inner dome and its shattered crystal shells like “heaps of broken glass” fit neatly within the allusion. But there is significance in the allusion. The Ptolemaic model of the universe was a poetic construct – a theory of the imagination rather than matter-of-factness. In this sense, Truth as Frost calls it (or modern science) has collapsed the inner dome of the poetic imagination and replaced it with something that doesn’t permit the poet’s entry. The shattered inner dome of the imagination (of the myth makers) has been replaced by fact – by science.

And in this light, the entirety of Frost’s description, climbing the birches, just so, and swinging back down, becomes a kind of description for the life which the poet seeks and values – the imaginative life of the poet:

…. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree….

The poet learns all there is to learn about “not launching out too soon”. He could be describing the art of poetry. You cannot swing from a birch without the right height. But if you also climb too high, if your ambitions exceed the matter of your poem, the birch will break . You must write your poetry, climbing carefully, with the “same care you use to fill a cup,/Up to the brim, and even above the brim.” But I don’t want to limit the poem’s meaning to just this. Frost is describing more than the poet, but a whole way of interpreting the world.

It’s the difference between the mind that seeks objective truths, irrespective of the observer, and the mind that perceives world as having symbolic, metaphorical and mythical significance. It’s the world of religion and spirituality. Its the world of signs and visions – events have meaning. In the scientific world view, nothing is of any significance to the observer: life is like a “pathless wood”, meaningless,  that randomly afflicts us with face burns, lashing us, leaving us weeping. The observer is irrelevant. In some ways, science is anathema to the poet’s way of understanding the world. It’s loveless. And that’s not the world Frost values. “Earth’s the right place for love,” he writes.  The woods that he values have a path and the birches are bent with purpose.

But having said all that, Frost also acknowledges a balance.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.

If we read him right, he seems to be saying that he prefers not to be too much in one world or the other. Let him climb toward heaven, both literally and figuratively, but let him also be returned to earth. Having written this much, Frank Lentricchia’s own interpretation of the poem’s divisions may be more easily understood:

….There is never any intention of competing with science, and therefore, there is no problem at all (as we generally sense with many modern poets and critics) of claiming a special cognitive value for poetry. In his playful and redemptive mode, Frost’s motive for poetry is not cognitive but psychological in the sense that he is willfully seeking to bathe his consciousness and, if the reader consents, his reader’s as well, in a free-floating, epistemologically unsanctioned vision of the world which, even as it is undermined by the very language in which it is anchored, brings a satisfaction of relief when contemplated…..

If I may be so bold as to interpret (and interpreting academese does take some boldness), what Lentricchia seems to be saying is that Frost’s philosophical stance does not arise from any direct experience (as stated in the poem). Direct experience would be “epistemologically sanctioned”. Epistemology, a word coddled and deployed by academics with fetishistic ardor, is the “branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” So, to interpret, Lentricchia appears to be saying that Frost’s “vision/philosophy” is not “epistemologically/experientially” “sanctioned/based“. In short, Frost’s experience (and that of the readers) is that of the poet and poetry – the purely subjective realm of imagination, story telling and myth making.

Interestingly, those who criticize the poem for being without basis in experience (Lentricchia is not one of them) seem blissfully unaware that this is precisely the kind of knowing that the poem itself is criticizing and examining. That is, the poem is its own example of myth-making — the transformative power of poetry. Yes, says Frost, there is the matter-of-fact (epistemologically sanctioned) world, but there is also the poetical world – the world of metaphor and myth that is like the slender birch (and the poem itself). It can be climbed but not too high. The matter-of-fact world is good to escape, but it is also good to come back to.

John C Kemp, in Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist, goes further in explaining what some readers consider the poem’s weaknesses.

“Mending Wall,” “After Apple-Picking,” and “The Wood-Pile” are centered on specific events that involve the speaker in dramatic conflicts and lead him to extraordinary perspectives. ¶ (….)however, “Birches” does not present a central dramatized event as a stimulus for the speaker’s utterance. Although the conclusion seems sincere, and although Frost created a persuasive metaphorical context for it, the final sentiments do not grow dramatically out of the experiences alluded to. (….) Frost’s confession that the poem was “two fragments soldered together” is revealing; the overt, affected capriciousness of the transitions between major sections of the poem (ll. 4-5, 21-22, and 41-42) indicates that instead of striving to establish the dynamics of dramatized experience, he felt he could rely on the force of his speaker’s personality and rural background. In early editions, a parenthetical question, “(Now am I free to be poetical?),” followed line 22, making the transition between the ice storm and the country youth even more arbitrary.

My own view is that rather than making the poem feel arbitrary, the question Now am I free to be poetical? makes Frost’s thematic concerns too explicit. The question too sharply defines the contrast between the matter-of-fact and the poetical. In short, Frost may have felt that the question overplayed his hand.  (Some critics read this question as an affectation. I don’t. I read it as signaling the poem’s intent, a “stage direction” that Frost later removed.)

Frost was striving for balance both in poem and subject matter — between the poetical and the matter-of-fact.

Another Interpretation

Some readers have interpreted the poem as being about masturbation. George Monteiro, Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance, alludes to this interpretation in the closing paragraphs of his own analysis. (And if you have searched on-line, then you have probably found the same interpretation in some haphazard discussions.) But here is what Monteiro (in full) has to say:

If physiologically there is some sort of pubescent sexuality taking place in the “swinging” of “birches,” it is not surprising, then, that the boy has “subdued his father’s trees” by “riding them down over and over again” until “not one was left for him to conquer” and that the orgasmic activity should be likened to “riding,” which despite the “conquering” can be done time and again. One need only note that the notion of “riding,” already figurative in “Birches,” reappears metaphorically in Frost’s conception of “Education by Poetry,” wherein he writes: “Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know . . . how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you.” And what is true for metaphor and poetry is true for love. Frost insisted that a poem “run . . . from delight to wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Then it is totally appropriate within the metaphor of “swinging birches” that even the storm-bent trees should look to the adult male like “girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” No wonder, then, and fully appropriate it is, that when the poet thinks that his wish to get away from earth might by some fate be misunderstood such that he be snatched away never to return, his thought is that “Earth’s the right place for love.” At some level of his consciousness the pleasurable activity of “swinging birches” has transformed itself into the more encompassing term “love.” One might say, within the logic of this reading of the poem, that “Earth’s the right place for [sexual] love,” including onanistic love. The same sexual metaphor runs through the final lines of the poem as the mature poet thinks of how he would like to go but only to come back.

It’s an intriguing interpretation, but I don’t buy it. Frost was capable of writing about sexual themes, but there’s no precedent, elsewhere in his poetry, for such a sleight of hand. Just as any number of critics can convince themselves that Shakespeare was a lawyer, a homosexual, Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, a woman, and even Queen Elizabeth, one can surely find evidence for just about any interpretive inference in just about any poem. Figurative language and metaphor, by definition, lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

The interpretation must remain, at best, purely speculative and very doubtful at that.

Then again, many modern critics and readers feel that the author’s intentions are irrelevant. Fortunately for the reader, the same rules apply to those critics and readers. Just because an interpretation can be made doesn’t mean they’re right or relevant. Again, you decide.

Robert Frost & the Blank Verse of Birches

I wanted to take a look at Robert Frost’s blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) and Birches is a beautiful example.  I understand that this won’t interest most readers and many may find it irrelevant. The rest of this post for those who enjoy studying how meter can be used to masterful effect. If you’re one of those, be sure to comment. I would enjoy hearing from you. In an effort to avoid a book-length post I’ll read the poem 10 lines at a time. But first, here is the poem in its entirety along with my scansion. If you are new to scansion then take a look at my post on the basics.

Frost recites Birches:

For the colorcoded version click here.

Birches

Robert Frost - Scansion of Birches

Lines 1-10

lines-1-10-corrected

As with The Road Not Taken, the other Frost poem I looked at, I listened to Frost read the poem before I scanned it. I actually would have been tempted to scan it differently before listening. The first line for example, I might have scanned:

When I |see bir|ches bend |to left |and right

That is, I might have been tempted to put the emphasis on When instead of I. Critics sometimes accuse metrists of unnaturally fitting a poem’s language to a metrical pattern. Read anapests, they say, don’t elide the anapest to read as an Iamb. What they forget though, is that poets who right metrical poems are themselves metrists. That’s why, when I read a line like To be or not to be that (is) the question, I prefer to put the emphasis on is. (It’s in keeping with the Iambic Meter). Similarly, listening to Frost, one can clearly hear him reading the meter. When I, he writes and reads.

robert-frost-chair1Interestingly, Frost reads the fifth line as follows:

But swinging them doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do.

Instead of “Ice storms do that“. I like the printed version better because it varies the Iambic beat and makes the thought feel more like a colloquial aside. My guess is that Frost was reciting this from memory and that the Iambic alteration was easier to remember (which was partly blank verse’s advantage on the Elizabethan stage). The fifth line ends with an iambic feminine ending. And I just now noticed that I forget to mark morning, at the end of line 6 – corrected in the extract.

Up to this point, Frost has written an Iambic Pentameter that Shakespeare would have been recognized and accepted in Shakespeare’s day. The first four lines are strictly Iambic Pentameter. This has the effect of firmly establishing the meter of the poem. As long as Frost doesn’t vary too much, for this point on, the ear will register whatever he does as variations on an established Iambic Pentameter meter. I won’t say that Frost did this deliberately. In other poems, like The Road not Taken, he varies the metrical line from the outset. In this case, though, the effect is such that the lines stabilize the metrical pattern early on.

Ice-Storms and often (in line 6) are trochaic feet.

With line 7 one finds a nice metrical effect with As the |breeze ri|ses. The spondaic foot has the effect of reproducing the rising breeze – breeze being more emphasized than the, and ris-es being more emphasized than breeze. Unlike some, I won’t go so far as to say that Frost toiled for hours producing this effect, but he was probably aware that the natural progression of the language nicely fit the metrical pattern.

lines-11-20

In his book on blank verse called Blank Verse (which I’ve been meaning to review) Robert B. Shaw provides his own scansion of this passage (or a part of it.)

Here it is:

shaws-scansion

blank-verseIt’s gratifying to see that we mostly agree. Where our scansion doesn’t match is probably because I’ve followed Frost’s own reading. For instance, Frost gives greater emphasis to the word shed than Shaw does and gives less emphasis to crust (in snow-crust) than Shaw. I wouldn’t call Shaw’s reading incorrect, simply different than Frost (because Shaw’s reading recognizes the overall iambic pattern – unlike the scansion of The Road Not Taken at Frostfriends.org – which I criticized elsewhere.

More to the point, the story which meter tells reinforces the content of the poem. The poem, which up to this point has been fairly standard iambic pentameter, disrupts the metrical flow just as the rising breezes disrupt the tree’s “crystal shells”. The dactylic first foot Shat-ter-ing – one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, upsets the ear’s expectation, disrupting the iambic flow. The final foot of this line  – |the snow-crust – is called a heavy feminine ending. Whereas the usual iambic feminine ending ends with an unstressed syllable, a heavy feminine ending ends with an intermediate or strongly stressed syllable. This variant foot was wildly popular in Jacobean theater. Frost probably could have avoided it; but the use of it serves to further disrupt the metrical pattern – further mirroring the disruption of the “crystal shells”. All of this is an effect that is hard, and in some ways impossible, to reproduce in Free Verse.

The next line is one of the more metrically interesting:

youd-think

I can’t tell, but Shaw either has forgotten to mark the second syllable of heaven, or he has chosen to elide heaven such that it reads heav‘n – making it a one syllable word. Frost pronounces it fully as two syllables. So… what makes this final foot interesting is in what to call it. Strictly speaking, it’s a tertius paeon – two unstressed followed by a stressed and unstressed syllable. Another way to read the line would be as a long line or hexameter line.

youd-think-hexameter-reading

Hexameter lines can be an acceptable variant with an Iambic Pentameter pattern, but with a pyrrhic (weak) fifth foot and a trochaic (inverted) final foot, the feet seem too weak to support a hexameter reading (the extra foot). My preference is to read a line as being pentameter (having five feet) unless a line’s “feet” are strong enough to support hexameter.

Frost’s metrical habit is to see anapestic feet as a perfectly acceptable variant to iambic feet – frequently calling them loose iambs. With that in mind, my own reading is that Frost has substituted an anapestic feminine ending for an iambic feminine ending. To my ear, it’s an elegant variation – and not one found prior to Frost (to my knowledge). Frost will use this foot again later in the poem.

hearing-the-measuresOf interest in the next two lines are the elision of They are to They’re. Some metrists, like George T. Wright, are criticized for too readily reducing anapests to iambs by the use of elision – as if he were philosophically opposed to anapests. If the poets had meant the lines to be read as iambs, the reasoning goes, they would have written them as iambs.  If you’ve read my previous posts on meter you’ll know that, if I can, I tend to elide anapests to read as iambs. I learned this technique by reading Wright’s books on meter.

I feel a little vindicated noticing that when Frost reads or recites Birches, he pronounces (elides) They are as They’re – despite the fact that he hasn’t marked them as such. (Mind you, his lines would be perfectly acceptable variants if read them as anapests.) So, I don’t make this stuff up.

A last observation on these ten lines. It is interesting to note that balance Frost establishes between standard Iambic Pentameter and variant lines. The seventh and eighth line from the extract above are varied with trochaic and anapestic feet, but notice how both these lines are balanced by perfect Iambic Pentameter lines.

bracketed-lines-corrected

More so than the meter, the next ten lines are interesting for their Frostian colloquialism. Before Frost, no 19th Century Poet (or earlier unless they were writing Drama) would have stopped the poem mid-breath to say something like: But I was going to say. Up to this point, the poem’s tone could be considered fairly traditional, but Frost, as interrupts the elevated tone with colloquial banter: broke in, all her matter-of-fact, I should prefer, fetch the cows.

  • Note: There’s no denying the eroticism, by today’s standards, in the lines: “Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair hair/ Before them over their heads…” I have a truffle pig’s nose for eroticism in poetry. Trust me. Read my analysis of Sidney and Dryden if you don’t believe me.  However, I think it’s reading too much into this imagery if one takes it as the starting point for an erotic subtext in the entirety of the poem. Several reasons:

1.) In 1913, when this poem was published, what was tolerated in terms of sexuality and eroticism was worlds apart from now (or the Elizabethan Age for that matter). There was erotic literature, but it was very underground. Women couldn’t vote. They couldn’t swim at the beach unless they were, practically speaking, fully clothed. Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, published just over twenty years later, wouldn’t be permitted on American shores for  another 50 years!  Doggy style was not the first thing to pop into  readers’ minds when they read this (or else the poem would have been banned). Pornographic language and imagery was practically non-existent in the public sphere.

2.) Frost himself was risk averse. He didn’t achieve any real recognition until he was in his mid-forties and he would not have risked his reputation if he had thought the image was too suggestive. He was nothing if not conscious if his own image as a sort of New England farmer/poet.  And there’s is simply no other precedent for this kind of suggestiveness in any of his other published poetry. There is some poetry that remained unpublished however – humorous and one step removed from bathroom graffiti. Here’s an example:

Sam-ball-ism

The symbol of the number ten–
The naught for girls, the one for men–
Defines how many times does one
In mathematics or in fun
Go as you might say into zero.
You ask the heroine and hero.

This was about as close as Frost got to anything “erotic”. He joked about sex, one notch above crude, or treated sexuality as a dark undertow in the lives of men and women, The Subverted Flower for example.

3.) It’s too obvious. Even in his unpublished pranks, he was indirect.  No where else is Frost ever so explicit about sexuality (if one insists on interpreting the line as such). Though some interpreters will probably still make the argument, I personally don’t buy it.

lines-21-30

In terms of meter, only the very rare 19th century (or earlier) poet would have ended a line with a trochaic foot. Frost does so with baseball in the 5th line and will do so again  later in the poem. His willingness to extend variant feet into places where they hadn’t normally been helps lend his poetry a colloquial feel. Frost isn’t willing to robertfrost-at-batsacrifice the “sound of sense” for the sake of meter. But he also strikes a balance. Once again, notice that he brackets this line with perfectly Iambic Pentameter lines before and after.  In the 9th line, he substitues an anapestic final foot for an iambic foot – a much freer variation than used by any poet in the generation preceeding him.

I scanned Line 8 as a headless line (the initial unstressed syllable is omitted) and the third foot as anapestic – in keeping with his willingness to substitute iambs with anapests. However, one can also read the line as starting with two trochaic feet:

one-by-one-trochaic

I’m not philosophically opposed to this reading. Two trochaic feet at the start of a line is perfectly acceptable. The reason I prefer my own reading, I suppose, is because I hear the phrasing, not as trochaic, but Iambic – One| by one | he sub-dued. This is where the art of scansion comes into play; and I’m not going to argue that my preferred reading is the right one (in this case).

Notice how Frost echoes one by one with over and over – it’s a nice touch and works within the metrical patterning he allows himself.

The next ten lines come with one metrically ambiguous line – the 6th line.

lines-31-40-corrected

I scanned the line as follows:

the-top-branches

This makes the line pentameter and my hunch is that this is the spirit in which Frost wrote it.I notice that in his reciting of the poem, he is careful to give carefully it’s full three syllables. However, were it not part of a well established Iambic Pentameter poem, I would be tempted to scan the line as follows:

to-the-top-trochaic

Essentially trochaic tetrameter. Either way, the meter echoes the hesitant and careful climbing of the boy. This line, of all the lines, most threatens the Iambic Pattern and, in that respect, most draws attention to what the boy is doing – climb-ing care-fully.

  • Alternate Readings November 11th 2016: I’ve just been having an email exchange with the poet Annie Finch, one of the finest “formalist” poets currently writing. She has a Ph.D. and currently teaches poetry. She strongly takes issue with my reading of the line above (and the next one below) as headless (∧). For example, where I read:

(∧} And |not one |but hung limp,| not one |was left

She reads:

And not | one but | hung limp,| not one |was left

I’ve used gray-scale and italics to indicate the level  of stress she assigns to each word. So, “not one” receives more stress than “And”, but not as much as the bolded words.

As I mentioned above, I chose to scan the poem the way Frost read it. This is not the only way to scan the poem; but since we have his recitation I thought it might be interesting to scan it the way he imagined it . Even in that respect my scansion is open to differences of opinion: Did Frost really emphasize a word as much as I’ve marked? That’s all subjective. Annie Finch’s reading, on the other hand, disregards the way Frost reads his poem. That said, I think her reading is equally valid and undoubtedly reflects the way she reads the poem. She writes:

You mention that you based the scansion of the poem on Frost’s own recorded performance of it.  I honor your interest in respecting Frost’s voice here, but this is really not a viable way to scan (his pronunciation of poems is so subjective that if scansion were dependent on the way a poem is spoken, meter would have ceased to exist long ago).

I agree that Frost’s reading is subjective, but I’d assert that all readings are subjective and that meter has nevertheless survived, so why not inquire into Frost’s own metrical preferences? As regards that, though, Annie Finch stated her guiding principle at the outset of our exchange:

As you will see throughout A Poet’s Craft, the SIMPLEST SCANSION IS ALWAYS BEST…” [Uppercase is her own.]

The book she refers to is her own. Her assertion that the simplest scansion is always the best leads her to write that my own scansion “is absurdly and needlessly complex.” I disagree and I don’t agree with her assertion if treated as an invariable rule (though it’s certainly useful as a guiding principle). In the case of Frost’s poem we can, at minimum, say that her “rule” leads her to read the lines counter to the way Frost reads them. Does that make her scansion wrong? No. I would, however, say that this demonstrates how scansion is less science than art. Do you care about how a poet reads his or her work? Does it matter when scanning? Does it matter if your scansion agrees with the poet’s? These questions are themselves debatable, but that they’re debatable is worth emphasizing. I don’t and would not claim that my scansion is the “correct” scansion—just my own spin on the matter.  She adds:

I notice you have marked three headless lines.  I believe only one of these is a true headless line and should be scanned as such, the one that begins “one by one he subdued.” (and this also fits with the meaning of the poem at that moment–he is subduing the poem in this one act of great metrical defiance).  Any other scansion distorts the line’s connection to the underlying iambic pentameter pattern, and furthermore the headless scansion is the simplest scansion of this line (by which I mean the scansion that has the fewest variations from the completely regular underlying model of iambic pentameter). 
 ·
The other two lines you have marked as headless, the one beginning “and not one” and the one beginning “may no fate,” are not truly headless.  A headless scansion of these two lines introduces needless complications and unnecessary variations from the underlying iambic pentameter  pattern. In the “may no fate” line, the only justification I can see for your headless scansion is that it avoids a trochee in the third foot (“FULly”) but that trochee is not a problem that needs to be avoided, because there is a caesura immediately after it followed by a four-syllable word that creates two of the most unrelentingly iambic feet in the poem.  Furthermore, the trochee “fully” in my opinion deserves to be scanned as such because it is a beautifully expressive prosodic example of willfullness and Frost deserves full credit for this magnificent piece of metrical variation. And finally, I feel it should be scanned to show the trochee because the trochee is I believe one of only two trochees in the poem that does not occur at a line-beginning or after a very strong caesura–and both of these wrenching, challenging prosodic moments express powerful verbal meanings of imposing will and overcoming the restrictions of reality (the other is “over” in the third foot of the line beginning “by riding them down”).
  ·
I think the risk here is that she’s associating her own aesthetics with Frost’s. In other words: ‘My reading, not yours, is the one that credits his “magnificent piece of metrical variation”‘. The problem with this sort of assertion is that it’s a logical fallacy, somewhat like the “No True Scottsman” fallacy in the following sense: “No true appreciation of Frost’s metrical art would read these lines other than the way I’ve read them.” Needless to say, I disagree. I could just as easily make the same claims for my own readings, that they are necessary because they uniquely capture Frost’s “beautifully expressive” prosody, but that would be just as fallacious. Further, I certainly don’t think trochaic feet are to be avoided. My own reading, after all, includes a trochee. She writes in closing:
  ·
And once you admit the poem really is in iambic pentameter, then any scansion of any line in the poem needs to use that as a starting point.  The scansion needs to show how Frost was following, when he was following, the basic rules of iambic pentameter. If he wasn’t following them, then show that he wasn’t.  But that is only possible when the scansion itself can be trusted to follow the rules.
  ·
I would dispute her characterization of my reading as not showing how Frost follows the basic rules of Iambic Pentameter. A headless line is a variant foot and very much a normal variant among those “rules” that define Iambic Pentameter.
  ·
All that said, I include her comments to demonstrate how contentious these matters can be. (Admittedly, it’s a bit like arguing over how many grains of salt are in a teaspoon.) I also want to stress that I consider her reading equally valid. I’m of the belief that scansion, within limits, may be subject to interpretation. Just as there’s often no one way to interpret a poem, there is sometimes more than one way to scan a poem. But I invite readers to make up their own mind.
 ·

The next two lines follow a more normative pattern with trochaic and anapestic variant feet.

The most elegantly metrical lines follow with the 9th & 10th line of the extract:

Then he  flungoutward, feet first, with a swish
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground

The spondee of flung out beautifully reinforces the image by disrupting the metrical pattern, as does feet first.  Kick-ing is further reinforced and emphasized by being a trochaic first foot. The word down, as Frost recites it, trochaically disrupts the meter again, more so than if it had been iambic.

lines-41-501

At Frostfriends.org you will find the following:

Birches: “It’s when I’m weary of considerations.” This line is perfect iambic pentameter, with an extra metrical (feminine) ending.

Their statement is incorrect. This line is not perfect iambic pentameter. A perfectly iambic pentameter line would not have a feminine ending (an amphibrach) in the final foot. It would have an iambic foot (if it were “perfect” iambic pentameter). The correct thing to say would have been: This is a perfectly acceptable variant with an iambic pentameter pattern.

Notice the trochaic final foot in the 9th line – a thoroughly modern variant.

As with the other lines, I scanned the 10th line as headless to preserve an Iambic scansion and because I thought it most accurately reflected Frost’s own reading of the poem. (That is, the feeling is Iambic rather than trochaic. ) While scansion doesn’t, by in large, reflect phrasing, there is a certain balance to be struck; and I have tried to do so in these lines.

lines-51-59

The fourth line is the most metrically divergent. I have scanned the line as Iambic Tetrameter with an anapestic feminine ending. The alternative would be to read it as follows:

id-like-to-go-pentameter

If this is what Frost imagined, then my own feeling is that the scansion fails as such. The pyrrhic fourth foot is exceptionally weak, even for pyrrhic feet, while a trochaic final foot seems inadequate to restore the underlying Iambic Pentameter pattern after such a weak fourth foot. Given precedence for an anapestic feminine foot earlier in the poem, and in the final line, the line makes much more sense if read as Tetrameter with an anapestic feminine foot. I don’t see this as being outside the bounds of an acceptable variant. Interestingly, the line remains decasyllabic so that the ear doesn’t so much perceive a short line as a a variant line.

This line has been preceded by some richly varied lines. As is Frost’s habit, he grounds the meter with the iambically regular 6th and 7th line. To that end (in his recitation) Frost effectively reads Toward as a monosyllabic word, emphasizing the return to Iambic Pentameter.

The closing two lines are conservative in their variants. Frost has reaffirmed the Iambic Pentameter and he’s not going to disrupt it again. The message, at this point, is what matters. The meter reinforces the calm and measured summation. In the second to last line, the only variant is an anapestic fourth foot.

chapin-robert-frost-lrWith the last line, the temptation is to read the first foot as One could| do worse, but Frost, in reciting the poem, once again reaffirms the iambic meter by emphasizing could. This sort of metrical emphasis, emphasizing words that might not normally be emphasized while de-emphasizing others that are more normally emphasized, is a Frostian specialty made possible by his use of meter. Free Verse can’t reproduce it. The last line, as Frost reads it, is regularly iambic until the last foot, at which point he elegantly closes with an anapestic feminine ending.

The final foot, with its anapestic swing and feminine falling off, could almost be said to imitate the swinging of the birch.

Such is the genius of Robert Frost.