Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Sonnet (Posted by Request)

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For my reader, Aranza, who posted a request for this over at Sidney’s Sonnets.

  • June 16, 2009: Corrected link to Google’s “A Companion to Victorian Poetry”. Also corrected extract. Added extracts from Christina Rossetti’s little piece of righteous vengeance called The Ballad of Boding.

About Rossetti and The House of Life

Here’s what I’ve found. Rossetti’s Sonnet is the first sonnet, an introductory sonnet, to his sonnet cycle, The House of Life. The cycle is considered, in its day, to be the Victorian Era’s most famous sonnet cycle.  Whether that makes it the greatest is, perhaps, a different question. No critic or biographer appears to make that argument. In fact, the first thing I did was to look up DG Rossetti in the book, lives-of-the-poetsLives of the Poets, by Michael Schmidt.  Schmidt devotes several pages to Rossetti’s sister, Christina Rossetti, but only a single paragraph to Dante Rossetti, curiously and dismissively referring to him as “her brother”. He writes:

Her brother, Dante Gabriel (1828-82), has been eclipsed even as her star has risen. Only his most famous poems, “The Woodspurge” and “The Blessed Damozel,” are tenuously held in popular memory. The whole Pre-Raphaelite thing, at the hub of which he stands, with its attitudinizing, its excesses, its wild and sometimes lunatic palette, is less popular in literature than in the galleries. His poems do not partake of the charged excess of the paintings…

Schmidt closes the paragraph, however, by noting:

…in sonnets and narratives and inventive lyrics, he is a master — of enjambment, of cunning irregularity in prosody — who approaches “voice” with a diction remarkably unliterary and uncluttered for a man of his coterie. [p. 480]

The history of the sonnet cycle has to be one of the most bizarre in all of literature. My sense is that The House of Life was written as a meditation on and exaltation of his marriage to Rossetti's Beatabeatrix 1863Elizabeth Siddal – a woman who inspired many Pre-Raphaelite painters besides Rossetti.

[For a brief biography on Rossetti, visit Victorian Web.]

But Rossetti and Siddal’s affection for each other,  while it inspired Rossetti’s most intense and productive period of poetry, was not ideal. Siddal came from a lower class family and Rossetti’s sisters harshly disapproved of the relationship. Rossetti himself, sensitive to such criticism, hesitated to formally introduce Siddal  to his family and was privately criticized for it by the Art critic John Ruskin. Several years were to pass before they married. Siddal, apparently predisposed to depression (and already ill when the couple finally married) never fully recovered. Though their marriage included a period of intense and secluded contentment, Rossetti’s affections waned.  Siddal’s depression worsened along with her addiction to Laudanum.

When the couple’s first daughter was stillborn, the blow may have been too much. After becoming pregnant a second time, Rossetti would discover Siddal unconscious and dying from an overdose of Laudenum. Some have suggested that a suicide note was discovered and that Ford Maddox Brown, given the stigma and scandal still attached to suicide, strongly urged Rossetti to destroy the note. In any event, Rossetti seems to have blamed himself for his wife’s dissolution. His guilt led him to bury his poetry, including The House of Life, with the remains of his wife at Highgate Cemetery. Seven years would pass before, at the urging of his friends, the collection of poetry was exhumed and published in 1870. Talk about Gothic…

Rossetti’s Brotherhood

A key, perhaps, to understanding some of the imagery in the sonnet, is a knowledge of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – a group which Rossetti founded. Yale Fair CopyI’ve linked to Britannica rather than Wikipedia. The part that Britannica leaves out, and the part for which Wikipedia provides misleading information, is the group’s rejection of materialism. Wikipedia links to an article on materialism which, I think, over complicates the issues the Brotherhood objected to. Essentially, their understanding of materialism meant placing too much emphasis on physical well-being and worldly possessions. They considered materialism to be an over attachment with worldly concerns. This, I think, is the central tenant Rossetti carries over from painting into poetry. More on that later.

The Poem

A Scansion of Rosetti's A Sonnet

About the Scansion

All unmarked feet are Iambic. If these terms and scansion are new to you, visit Iambic Pentameter and the Basics. Trochaic Feet are red. Pyrrhic feet are yellow. Spondaic feet are purple.  The slurs, as I call them, indicate that the words should be pronounced monosyllabically rather than disyllabically (or as one syllable rather than two).

The brackets at left indicate the usual pattern in Petrarchan sonnets – the octave followed by the sestet (both divided by the volta). For more of an explanation of these terms, visit the link to Shakespearean, Spenserian and Petrarchan Sonnets . The brackets at right indicate the three quatrains and closing couplet more typical of the Shakespearean form.

About the Form of the Sonnet

The Sonnet is a kind of hybrid between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean mode, but is a form that was first pioneered in Sidney’s Sonnets. Dante Gabriel RossettiWhen Sidney used this form, the Sonnet and Iambic Pentamter (in which Rossetti’s Sonnet is written) were both brand-spanking new. Sidney’s aim was probably an homage to the Patrarchan Form, which was the form in which the Sonnet first reached the English shores, with a nod to the more rigorous and intellectual English Sonnet (Shakespearean Sonnet), then rapidly becoming a favorite form among Elizabethan poets. That is, the English Sonnet appealed to Sidney because he was an Elizabethan. He was trained to think rigorously and rhetorically. The homage to the Petrarchan form (in the first octave) was possibly a concession to legitimacy. In other words, Sidney was saying: This is a real sonnet, I’m just tweaking the form.

Rosetti may or may not have been familiar with Sidney’s Sonnets. (My guess is that he was.) But beyond sharing a rhyme scheme, Rossetti’s sonnets bare little resemblance to Sidney’s. Rossetti had his own reasons for combining the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet forms. The nesting quatrains, called Italian Quatrains, which enclose heroic couplets are suited to the more contemplative style of the Petrarchan Sonnet. They encourage the sense of a self contained form – a self-contained octave and sestet. The Petrarchan Sonnet is not a sonnet that is racing vigorously toward an epigrammatic conclusion in the form of a final couplet. The Petrarchan Sonnet’s rhyme scheme emphasizes two, more or sometimes less, discrete ideas at play with one another. The self-contained rhyme scheme emphasizes the volta, the intellectual and thematic turn that characterizes Petrarchan Sonnets; and that frequently distinguishes them from Shakespearean Sonnets (whose sonnets just as frequently dispense with the Volta).

So, the octave of Rossetti’s sonnet (the first two quatrains) are written in the manner of a Petrarchan Sonnet. Rossetti intends the Octave to be a sort of self-contained setting out of an idea or theme. We aren’t meant to rush over it, the way we might when reading a Shakespearean Sonnet. We are meant, in a way, to savor the octave. The octave is as a sort of contemplation.

But Rossetti also desired the concision of the Shakespearean form. In the final Sestet, we find ourselves in a very different world. The rhyme scheme is that of the Shakespearean Sonnet. The interlocking rhyme scheme of the sicilian quatrain doesn’t encourage a pause. Where the Petrarchan rhyme scheme introduces a couplet, encouraging, perhaps,  the ear to subliminally linger over the rhyme (or at least I find myself doing so) the Shakespearean form separates the rhyme, encouraging us to read headlong until the sonnet comes to a final thematic closure of the couplet.

If one thinks of Petrarchan Sonnets as contemplative statement and Shakespearean Sonnets as argument, then one might also treat Rossetti’s octave as statement and the closing sestet as argument. This is a generalization, and has its limits, but may be helpful toward understanding the reasons Rossetti chose the conflicting rhyme schemes.

The Sonnet and the Sonnet Sequence it Introduces

One of the most useful explications of this sonnet can be found here at Google Books, beginning on Page 103 (first paragraph below). Alison Chapman notes that the whole of Rossetti’s sonnet sequence is built on ideas of duality.  She writes:

Corrected Companion to Victorian Poetry (extract)

She goes on to make the argument that Rossetti’s sonnet sequence, in general, deals in dualities : love and loss, eroticism and religious asceticism, the physical and the spiritual. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence

What is “The House of Life” about? In his book, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence (the book at Google), John Holmes writes:

In The house of Life Gabriel employs sacramental imagery to blend Christian worship and sexual love, evoking an ecstatic sacramental imagery to blend Christian worship and sexual love, evoking an ecstatic passion before calling into question belief in both Love and God. This fusion — central to what many, following Frederic Myers (1883), have seen as Rosetti’s ‘Religion of Beauty’ — is intesified in the finished text of The House of Life. [p. 49]

On the next page, Holmes adds: “Rossetti elevates bodily love to the level of the divine.” This is the material to which “A Sonnet” serves as an introduction.

What the Poem Means

Another website offers a reading of this poem line by line: A Reading of D. G. Rossetti’s “The Sonnet” by D. F. Felluga.  I recommend the site with trepidation. Felluga indulges in such statements as the following:

“The sequence of ‘m’s and ‘n’s also forces us to take special notice of the prominent ‘s’ that precedes and follows this sequence, suggesting (once again both orally and orthagraphically) a special connection between “Sonnet” and “Soul,” an alignment even further underlined by capitalizing both of these words.”

This comes too near, for my comfort, to David Orr’s Enactment Fallacy. For more on this, read my post on Robert Frost’s The Pasture. Also see David Orr’s New York Times article. Orr writes: “Basically, this is the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess.” Felluga, in my opinion, packs his analysis with this sort of fallacy. One gets the impression that every line break, comma, and letter means something. I don’t buy it. I think it’s reading far too much to assert that the s’ in the opening lines “suggest” a connection between Sonnet and Soul. I also somewhat disagree with Felluga’s interpretation of the sestet.

Of the sestet, he writes:

[It] concerns itself not with self-sufficiency but with the “Power” to which the sonnet owes its “due.” Indeed, the first “Power” could be read precisely as the “appeals” of a public that demanded that poetry, like the novel, serve the concerns of politics, reform, and quotidian life generally.

This reading ignores Rossetti’s use of the word august in reference to life, which means “inspiring reverence or admiration; of supreme dignity or grandeur; majestic.”  Hardly quotidian. It also ignores Rossetti’s elevation of bodily love to the level of the divine. The physical expression of love is nothing if not a celebration of life. After all, this is what the ensuing sonnet sequence is all about – an august celebration of life! Rossetti may have reviled the public’s quotidian materialism but, in the sonnet at least, this isn’t what he was talking about.

But anyway, if you maintain a skeptical reading, Felluga has much to say.

A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,–
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour.

Rossetti’s comparison of a sonnet to monument is apropos. The sonnet itself serves as a marker, or monument, to the sequence as a whole. It stands at the entryway to the “House of Life”. The sense of the sonnet and the cycle as a whole, as a memorial to his deceased wife, is also implied I think. Although the poem was written before his wife’s death, the fact of its having been buried with his wife’s remains  for seven years lends a much more gothic (if unintended by Rossetti) layer of meaning to the sonnet as a memorial! The spondaic variant foot of |Dead death| is a nice metrical stroke.

To one |dead death|less hour. | Look that | it be

The effect is to aurally slow the reader. It’s a beautiful touch, really; and reminds one of Donne, who regularly used spondaic variant feet to the dismay of his peers. It is a touch available to free verse poets, but not with the same power or effect as when the repeated hard accents disrupt a regular Iambic pattern. Consider also the paradox in moment’s monument and dead deathless. This theme of contrast, duality and paradox will be continued in the sonnet sequence. A monument is usually for all time, and yet Rossetti acknowledges the timeliness of poetry which is a product of its age and depends, in part, on that context to be understood. Think of how frequently Donne’s sonnets are misread because readers no longer understand meter and how poets wrote for it. These poems are a monument, but they are also momentary. We say that Love is eternal, but we know that our loves are mortal. The hour in which the sonnet is written will be dead. The age in which the sonnet is written will be dead; but the sonnet itself, Rossetti tells us, is deathless.

Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own intricate fulness reverent:

In a structure similar to Shakespeare’s soliloquy To be or not to be, Rossetti engages in Prolepsis or Propositio. Rosetti makes a general statement, then particularizes it. In the lines above, Rossetti particularizes the idea of the sonnet as moment’s monument. A monument will outlast the age in which it was created. But in order for the monument to have meaning to later ages, it must be “of its own intricate fulness reverent”.  The word reverent has religious connotations, but in this context it’s understood as referring to something “entitled to high respect , venerable” [Shakespeare Lexicon]. Rossetti is advising the reader and poet that the true sonnet is respectful of its capacity as a monument, whether for lustral rite or dire portent, by its “intricate fullness”. This brings us back to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their emphasis on having “genuine ideas to express”, to respect what is direct, serious and heartfelt in previous art, and to “produce good pictures and statues”. Rossetti is defining what produces a good sonnet. The impulse in poetry, for Rossetti, was the same as his impulse in art. In order for the monument to outlast the moment, it’s meaning must be self-sufficient.

Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night prevail; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

Rossetti now particularizes the idea of the Sonnet as one dead, deathless hour. The ink and paper of the printed sonnet is fleeting,"House of Life" by V Williams but carve it in ivory or ebony and the sonnet, through the skill of the artists, attains permanence.  Rossetti appears to link ivory with day and ebony with night. The idea being, perhaps, that the artist’s responsibility is to suit the medium (the materials used) to the subject matter (day or night). Rossetti’s theoretical concerns, poetry and art, intermingle. One might also argue, and safely I think , that artistic medium serves as a Metaphor for form in poetry. In this light, Rossetti might be arguing that a given form is equivalent to an artist’s choice between ivory and ebony, between a Petrarchan Sonnet and a Shakespearean Sonnet (or the combination of the two). Let Time, and by Time he means posterity, judge the resultant work. Felluga makes the observation that orient is a reference to the rising sun (which rises in the East – or the orient). Felluga argues that Rossetti is playing on the idea of oppositions, that this is an ephemeral phenomena, as opposed to the permanence of something impearled. On the other hand, it’s worth mentioning that sunrise doesn’t happen only once. The phenomena is one of endless renewal (and will keep occurring long after our planet has turned into a charred cinder block).  In this sense, Rossetti could be implying that the great work of art constantly renews itself with every new generation. I prefer this latter interpretation.

And now for the volta.

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The soul,–its converse, to what Power ’tis due:–
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue
It serve; or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

Note: For foreign language readers. Don’t confuse the word august with the name of the month – August. The former is accented on the second syllable. The latter is accented on the first syllable. The word august has the meaning: “inspiring reverence or admiration; of supreme dignity or grandeur; majestic”.

And a note on the Meter: When scanning the poem, I used Synaloapha to elide “the august” to read “th’august”. If one doesn’t elide these words, then we are left with an anapestic variant foot, thus:

Whether |for tri|bute to |the august |appeals

Given Rossetti’s fairly conservative prosody, a more likely reading , in keeping with traditional expectations surrounding Iambic Pentameter, would be:

Whether | for tri|bute to |th’august|appeals

Also, and for similar reasons (an anapest in the final foot of the closing couplet would have been very unusual), I’ve opted to read the 13th line as follows:

It serve; |or, ‘mid |the dark |wharf’s cav’|rnous breath,

Think of the octave as a statement explaining how the form is made to transcend time. Think of the sestet as an argument establishing the Sonnet’s purpose. A sonnet is a coin, he tells us. Harkening back to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, here again we see Rossetti’s principles at work – his distaste for Victorian Materialism. Fellugi, in his online reading, especially emphasizes this aspect of the sonnet. My own reading is as follows: true monetary value is in the intellect, art and the spirit. Ones ability to express oneself artistically is the true currency of ones life: to the poet, poetry is his or her coinage;’ and will be posterity’s true inheritance and wealth.

To the extent that a poet’s art represents his or her coinage, it represents what they bequeath – their legacy. And their legacy will define their spiritual “worth”. It will define to what “power [their work is] due”. The poet’s legacy might be a celebration of life. It might serve as dower to Love. Websters defines a dower as ” the part of or interest in the real estate of a deceased husband given by law to his widow during her life”. Again, in this sense, Rossetti plays on the idea of art as legacy to be bequeathed. The closing, epigrammatic couplet, the summation of the sestet’s argument, warns that the poet’s misspent genius may end,

‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

The final couplet effectively adds emphasis to the warning. The mispent coin  (the mispent wealth of an artist’s or poet’s genius) will end in oblivion “‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath.” No mistake that the Sonnet’s last word is Death. This is the other side of the coin. The artist who wastes his talents will surrender his legacy to oblivion, to “Charon’s palm” in toll to death.

So it is. The sonnet frames Rossetti’s elevation of bodily love as an august celebration of life. And it frames the sonnet sequence, The House of Life, as a dower to love’s high retinue.

All the while, the sonnet also manages to express some of Rossetti’s most cherished principles on the creation of a lasting art.

Facsimile (Enlarged)

  • The original source for this reproduction can be found here. The link, though, is unreliable. It comes and goes. Maybe they’re having trouble with their server?

A Favorite Sonnet from The House of Life.

Because I’m a bit like Rossetti when it comes to celebrating bodily love , I can’t resist offering the following sonnet from the sequence. It was, so I’ve read, the most controversial (horrifying Dante’s prim and buttoned-up sister Christina Rossetti). Why? It celebrates, in a nutshell, post-coital bliss. Long live D.G. Rossetti!


At length their long kiss severed, with sweet smart:
And as the last slow sudden drops are shed
From sparkling eaves when all the storm has fled,
So singly flagged the pulses of each heart.
Their bosoms sundered, with the opening start
Of married flowers to either side outspread
From the knit stem; yet still their mouths, burnt red,
Fawned on each other where they lay apart.

Sleep sank them lower than the tide of dreams,
And their dreams watched them sink, and slid away.
Slowly their souls swam up again, through gleams
Of watered light and dull drowned waifs of day;
Till from some wonder of new woods and streams
He woke, and wondered more: for there she lay.

Apparently, Christina Rossetti was so nettled by her brother’s attitude toward, gasp, sex (or the “spiritualism of sexual love”) , that she promptly wrote an allegory in which three ships sail forth on broad, calm seas – a piece of righteous vengeance called The Ballad of Boding. (Apparently no one pointed out the pun on boating). Anyway, three ships set off: the first ship is packed with “merry lovers”; the second ship is packed with pride, envy and avarice (read Wall Street Brokers); and the third ship is manned by, you guessed it, the poor and hungry “toiling at their oars”. Cue violin. All three ships are attacked by a Demonic Monster (read Christina Rossetti).

Guess which ships are promptly dispatched?

Here is how Christina Rossetti sent her decadent brother straight to the bottom of the ocean:

There was sorrow on the sea and sorrow on the land
When Love ship went down by the bottomless quicksand
To its grave in the bitter wave.
There was sorrow on the sea and sorrow on the land
When Worm-ship went to pieces on the rock-bound strand,
And the bitter wave was its grave.

And it’s no accident that the Love Boat was the first ship  sunk. What happened to the poor and hungry?

…the third ship crossed the bar
Where whirls and breakers are,
And steered into the splendours of the sky;

Victorian Poetry isn’t for sissies. Presumably, Christina was seated primly in the third ship. For more details on the sinking of the “Love Ship“, look here! You will find that this isn’t the only poem she wrote.

  • And, finally, for a nice collection of D.G. Rossetti’s poetry and paintings, visit here.

Interpreting Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods”

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The Poem

The poem is perfect Iambic Tetrameter. And it’s one of the miracles of Frost’s genius that he could write a poem, without a single variant foot to break the metrical pattern, yet write one of the most memorable and memorized poems in the English language. Frost himself called this small poem “my best bid for remembrance” [Pritchard, A Literary Life Reconsidered, p. 164]. There are, after all, thousands of Victorian poems written in an equally perfect meter, but they are nothing if not forgettable. Since all the feet are iambic, I’ve only marked feet and one elision (which is unnecessary for most), but I’ve noticed many foreign language speakers reading this blog. Evening should be read as a bisylliabic, ev‘ning, rather than the trisyllabic ev-e-ning. Here it is:

Stopping by Woods by Robert Frost: Scansion

  • Frost recites Stopping by Woods:

  • Note: Since I’ve begun paying attention, I notice that many versions of this poem put a period after “deep” on line 13. The edition I use, The Library of America, does not. Frost biographer Richard Poirier in his book “Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing“, also takes time out to comment on this discrepency. He writes:

Work of Knowing…The woods  are not, as the Lathem edition would have it (with its obtuse emendation of a comma after the second adjective in line 13), merely “lovely, dark, and deep.” Rather, as Frost in all the editions he supervised intended, they are “lovely, [i.e.], dark and deep,”; the loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous. The recognition of the power of nature, especially of snow, to obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being is, in large part, a function here of some furtive impulse toward extinction, and impulse no more predominate in Frost than it is in nature. [p. 181]

I’ll bet this emendation is off the radar for 99 out of a 100 readers, but Poirer’s comment shows just how much, interpretively, can be read into the difference between a comma and period. Imagine what it’s like for editors of Shakespeare – whose texts are anything but authoritative. In the big picture, editors tend to agree on Shakespeare’s punctuation, but the turf wars happen in the details. If you carefully compare different modern texts of Shakespeare, you will notice differences in punctuation and even words.

But… back to Robert Frost…

An Interpretive  Tour

Rather than launch into my own interpretation of the poem, I thought it might be more interesting to sample what’s already out there (since it represents some of what I’d say anyway).

First to Poirer. His comments reflect one of the most common interpretations of this poem. Poirer writes:

The desire (which he openly reveals in certain letters to Louis Untermeyer) for peace and lostness, the desire to throw himself away, gets justified on occasions by his wondering if nature itself does not conspire with him by proposing that, at last, he “come in” to the dark woods. [p. 180]

Unfortunately, Poirer doesn’t reference any of these “certain letters”. Not that I disbelieve him, but if a biographer is going to cite an author’s texts to back up his argument, he ought to offer up a citation or two.

William Pritchard takes a different view. While he acknowledges the darker interpretations of this poem, and he acknowledges Frost’s own intimations from time to time, he also credits Frost’s statements to the contrary, something which Poirer does not do.

Literary Life ReconsideredDiscussion 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 siginificant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]

Pritchard then continues:

…he wanted to direct his readers away from solemnly debating them; instead he invited them simply to be pleased with how he had put it. He was to say later on about Edwin Arlington Robinson something which more naturally could have been said about himself – that his life as poet was “a revel in the felicities of language.” “Stopping By Woods…” can be appreciated only by removing it from its pedestal and noting how it is a miature revel in such felicities. [p. 165]

And these comments remind me of my post on John Keats “Ode to Autumn”, and Stillinger’s own comments concerning style. In sum, great poetry isn’t always about (G)reat content, but about common  experience described (G)reatly. Great poetry, before free verse, had almost always been marked by the greatness of its expression. Shakespeare always drew on  everyday proverbs and subject matter. The life he experienced was the same as ours. His observations are the same as ours. (And this is what makes Shakespeare universal.) What makes him great was, in large part, his ability to elevate the common through the transcendance of his language and imagery, in short, through his poetic thought. This, I have to say, has largely been abandoned by the free-versifiers of the 20th Century.

Anyway, it’s a view with which I’m sympathetic. Not everything in poetry has to mean something.

Belief and UncertaintyThat said, Robert Pack in defiance of Frost and, perhaps, Pritchard, manages to “interpret” the shaken harness bells. He writes that “the “little horse” in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” shows an instinct to return home, not to remain in the dangerously enticing woods…” [Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, p. 147] Interestingly, Pack  finds a metaphorical link between Stopping by Woods and another of Frost’s poems: The Draft Horse. Pack writes of the horse in The Draft Horse, that “if freedom has any reality at all [it] exists only in the attitude [taken] toward their fate.” In this light, the horse in Stopping by Woods, serves as a reminder that one should not be too enticed by the deep, dark woods.

Robert Bernard Hass,  in his book Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science, picks up on the threat of suicide in Frost’s poem:

Going by ContrariesIn a 1931 comment to Elizabeth Sergeant, Frost remarked that when other writers began calling themselves “Imagists or Vorticists,” he started calling himself a “synechdochist”. This term, ripe as it is with religious connotation, is an apt description of the way metaphor actually operates in Frost’s mature poetry. Although he often uses the word to mean comparison or correspondence (e.g. “every though is a feat of association”), Frost also suggests that the forms we carge out of nature ectend beyond simple figures and feats of association and, in some mysterious way, connect the whole of reality. [pp. 152-153]

From this, Hass makes the following assertion concerning “Stopping by Woods”:

Unfortunately, as Frost learned through his own trials by existence, there are moments when an individual becomes lost to large “excruciations,” when the material world reists the will and exerts counterforces that have profound effects on the quality of life. Sometimes these froces have a dangerous, seductive quality to them, and there are moments when Frost’s work reflects a strong desire to surrender to the brute forces of nature as one way of eliminating their threat. The alluring landscape of [“Stopping by Woods”], for example, presents us with a figure of the will confronting alien entanglements so large that they actually invite the poet to unlock their deepest secrets. [p. 153]

Among the most thorough considerations of the poem occurs in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost. Judith Oster, in her contributory essay calledCambridge Companion “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor”, summarizes and discusses these conflicting interpretations: “[The poem] has been read as “simply” a beautiful lyric, as a suicide poem, as recording a single autobiographical incident, and everything in between. Our is not to adjudicate, nor to “fix” a meaning, but to allow the poem its openness…” Oster then asks: “Why hasn’t it just been taken literally?”

She continues:

To choose just one of any possible starting points, the word “promises”. In this context the beautiful scene  the word “pulls down” the experience from the merely aesthetic and sensual, but does so without diminishing that beauty or that feeling, without weighing down the poem. What results is a conflict between two undiminished forces: “promises” that would lead the speakers onward, and his desire to give in to his intoxication with the beauty and peacefulness of the woods. The pull between those alternatives can be seen as that between obligation and temptation, or most literally, between stopping and going on. ¶ If we decide to look at the situation literally, we would think about what staying might mean. Most obvious is simply that it’s too cold to stay there safely. The restfulness – the “ease” of “easy wind” and the “down” of “downy flake” begin to suggest an implicit metaphor, especially when combined with the “sleep” which must be postponed until promises are kept… Sleeping before stopping, then, adds to the notion of not-yet-doing the danger of no-longer-being. [pp. 161-162]

And finally, most importantly, she writes:

What can the poem mean? That is another issue: whatever those words in those combinations will allow without distorting their meanings, without introducing elements that cannot fit in the context of the poem as a whole… one could follow Frost’s advice to a graduate student to take his poetry “all the way.” Or one could feel chastised by Frost’s ridicule of those who say this is a “suicide poem.” Or one could ignore Frost altogether. [p. 162]

Another contributor to the Cambridge Companion offers up what is probably the most representative interpretation of the poem (if one accepts that the poem should be interpreted). John Cunningham writes:

Stopping by Woods - DraftThe opposition between humanity (the owner of the woods whose “house is in the” village and who will not see the speaker, the absence of “a farmhouse near”) and the purposeless natural phenomena (descending snow and night, the woods, the frozen lake) Frost establishes early. Even the horse “must think it queer.” Three times the poet uses some form of stop. The setting is becoming blank, undifferentiated whiteness, a desert place on “the darkest evening of the year,” literally an overstatement but metaphorically not so to the speaker. For him movement forward ceases; his choice is between the “woods and frozen lake,” either offering only death to one who stops. In effect the horse asks “if there is some mistake.” To have so stopped could well prove to be such. The “sweep/ of easy wind,” free of the thousand mortal shocks that one is heir to, and the “downy flake,” like warm bedding, entice the speaker to give up his human errands and to sleep in the void of death. The woods are “dark and deep,” not promising words in Frost, deep as the final absence of death, and “lovely” only in the temptation to shuffle off that they offer. With “but I have promises to keep,” the speaker and the poem pivot, rejecting the temptation, affirming his promises, a word with human connotations of duty and presence, and accepting the “miles [that he must] go” before he sleeps this might and before he “sleep[s]” finally in death. [pp. 269-270]

Cunningham then goes on to interpret the repetition of the last two lines as “congruent with the stacked-up accents at the pivot above…” Quoi? This gets opaque. Do you get it? I don’t. However, if he’s going to run with this interpretation (which, as I wrote before, is the standard interpretation) I think he misses a golden, interpretive opportunity in the last two lines.

One could interpret the last two lines as follows:

And miles to go before I sleep
[I have miles to go before I’m home and in bed.]

And then, much more darkly and deeply he writes:

And miles to go before I sleep
[And many more “miles” to go before I go to die.]

However, I’m not convinced by Cunningham’s assertion that the descending snow is a “purposeless natural phenomena“. Frost doesn’t give us any indication, within the confines of the poem, that we should think so. No matter what thematic material you might find elsewhere in Frost’s poems, it doesn’t follow that Frost’s use of certain images and ideas is always one and the same. They aren’t. Bernard Hass, himself, makes this observation:

….[as] inviting [as] those secrets [the alien entanglements of nature] may be to one who has grown “overtired” of his struggle with nature, Frost is equally aware that natural imperatives can also be beneficial. Just  as nature has an intrinsic capacity to increase entropy, it also has synthetic powers of regeneration and self-organization that, when left to their own creative devices, terminate in beautiful structures that are both pleasing and protective. [Going by Contraries, pp. 153-154]

In this light, it’s hard to see an “easy wind” and “downy flake” as mortal threats. They are more a recognition of aesthetic beauty. But of what kind? To this end, Cunningham reasons that the adjectives are to be construed as an act of seduction. That is, the “easy” winds are seductively easy, but deadly to one who tarries too long in their cold.

As far as this goes, I’m sympathetic with Cunningham’s interpretation; but I do not think that Frost is contemplating suicide. That’s over-interpreting the poem, in my view. I do think there is a recognition by Frost, in this poem at least, that there is something lovely in the contemplation of nature’s sleep – a recognition of its necessity and loveliness. But at no time does he actually claim to desire it. After all, he says, he has promises to keep. The last two lines withstand this interpretation. I have miles to go before I sleep tonight; and I have “miles” to go before my final sleep.

The Ordeal of Robert FrostIn reference to Frost’s poem as a suicide poem, Mark Richardson, author of The Ordeal of Robert Frost, observes Frost’s own irritation at the suggestion:

During Frost’s own lifetime… critics sometimes set [Frost’s] teeth on edge with intimations about personal themes in the poem, as if it expressed a wish quite literally for suicide… Louis Mertins quotes him in conversation:

“I suppose people think I lie awake nights worrying about what people like [John] Ciardi of the Saturday Review write and publish about me [ in 1958]… Now Ciardi is a nice fellow–one of those bold, brassy fellows who go ahead and sall sorts of things. He makes me “Stopping By Woods” out a death poem. Well, it would be like this if it were. I’d say, “This is all very lovely, but I must be getting on to heaven.” There’d be no absurdity in that. That’s all right, but it’s hardly a death poem. Just as if I should say here tonight, “This is all very well, but I msut be getting on to Pheonix, Arizona, to lecture there. ” (Mertins 371) [The Ordeal of Robert Frost, p. 190]

Typical of Frost however, he still leaves open the door, saying to Mertins later:

“If you feel it, let’s just exchange glances and not say anything about it. There are a lot of things between best friends that’re never said, and if you — if they’re brought out, right out, too baldly, something’s lost.” [Ibid]

Richardson writes that Frost’s “subtle caveat to Mertins is probably meant equally to validate Ciardi’s suggestion about “Stopping by Woods” and to lay a polite injunction against it.” Richardson then picks up on Pritchard’s observation concerning the “felicities of language”, even alluding to Frost’s comments on E.A. Robinson (later on the same page):

Frost directs our attention not to the poem’s theme or content but to its form: the interlocking rhyme among the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical or thematic readings of the poem: “If I were reading it for someone else, I’d begin to wonder what he’s up to. See. Not what he means but what he’s up to” (Cook 81). The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. [p. 191]

And again, we come back to the idea of expression, rather than content, being (if not the heart of poetry) an equal part. Richardson adds that by “empasizing the lyric’s form Frost really only defers the question of theme and content. It is not that the poem does not have a theme, or one worth a reader’s consideration; the form simply is the theme.” The same could be said for much of Keats’ poetry and his Ode to Autumn. Richardson quotes Poirier, in reference to Frost:

“If [a] poem expresses grief, it also expresses–as an act, as a composition, a performance, a ‘making,’ — the opposite of grief; it shows or expresses ‘what the hell of a good time I had writing it.” [p. 192]

Where does all of this lead? Here’s what I think: I read the poem as both an act and performance, to be enoyed as an act and performance, and as a meaningfully suggestive poem – an acknowledgement of the lovely, dark and deep thoughts that are never far from our every day thoughts and lives. Nature will bring to all of us the same sleep it brings to the dark woods, but first we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.

Frost on Stopping by Woods

Browsing through the used bookstore a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on a little book called Robert Frost an introduction: poems, reviews, criticism. I think it’s been out of print for a good many years, but it has some choice quotes concerning Stopping by Woods. All the quotes are apparently from Reginald L. Cook, “Robert Frost’s Asides on His Poetry”,  “Frost on Frost: The Making of Poems” and “The Dimensions of Robert Frost”. Here they are:

  • …When he reads “Departmental,” which he once referred to as “my iridium poem; its hard and useful,” he says, ironically, that he intends sometime to write thirty pages of notes for the scholiasts. He once remarked that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was the kind of poem he’d like to print on one page, to be followed with “forty pages of footnotes.”
  • “Stopping by Woods” contains “all I ever knew”.
  • …”Stopping by Woods” is, he says, “a series of almost reckless commitments I feel good in having guarded it so. [It is] … my heavy duty poem to be examined for the rime pairs.” [Note how Frost, once again, praises the expression of the poem, it’s form, rather than it’s content.]
  • …”That one I’ve been more bothered with than anybody has ever been with any poem in just pressing it for more than it should be pressed for. It means enough without its being pressed.” And, in a biting tone, he adds, “I don’t say that somebody shouldn’t press it, but I don’t want to be there.” Often he has spoken out against the “pressers” and over-readers. “You don’t want the music outraged.” And of “Stopping by Woods” he says that all it means is “it’s all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home.” Yet no true reader leaves the discussion there. He knows as well as the poet does that what is important is how the poet played with “the constant symbol” implicit in the making of the poem. “Everything is hinting,” Frost reminds us.
  • … “Stopping by Woods” came to him after he had been working all night on his long poem entitled “New Hampshire.” He went outside to look at the sun and it came to him. “I always thought,” he explains, “it was the product of autointoxication coming from tiredness.”
  • The most ascerbic and closest-cropped expressions of his [Frost’s] wit are reserved for the analysts of literature who try to pick a poem clean and miss its intent. When a friendly critic asked if the last two lines in “Stopping by Woods” referred to going to Heaven, and, by implication, death, the poet replied, “No, all that means is to get the hell out of there.”
  • …Frost starts out perfectly free in his poem. “I can have my first line any way I please,” he says, and he is right, “But once I say a line I am committed. The first line is a commitment. Whose woods these are I think I know. Eight syllables, four beats- a line – we call it iambic. I’m not terribly committed there. I can do a great many things. I did choose the meter. What we have in English is mostly iambic anyway. When most of it is iambic, you just fall into that – a rhyme pair – I’d be in for it. I’d have to have couplets all the way. I was dancing still. I was free. Then I committed a stanza:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

He will not see me stopping here is uncommitted. For the three rhymes in the next stanza, I picked up the unrhymed line in the first stanza, and rhymed its end-rhyme “here” with “queer’, ‘near’ and ‘year,’ and for the third stanza I picked up ‘lake’ from the unrhymed line in the second stanza and rhymed it with ‘shake,’ ‘mistake’ and ‘flake.’ For the fourth stanza I picked up ‘sweep’ from the unrymed line in the third stanza, to rhyme with ‘deep’ and ‘sleep.’

“Every step you take is further commitment. It is like going to the North Pole. If you go, you have to bring back witnesses – some Eskimos! How was I going to get out of that stanza? It’s going to be like the Arabian Nights -one story after another. By the third stanza you have a sense of how long a poem is going to be. It’s ‘sweep’ I’m committed to:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

For my poem is a commitment to convention. That’s what it’s a symbol of . The form of regular verse – Greek, Latin, English – is a symbol of commitment.

“The interest is the quarrel with those commitments. When I read a poem, I ask myself: What is the main point in the argument? Where is the insincerity in the argument? Having comitted ourselves to go to the North Pole or to our love, we have to believe we have been to the North Pole or that we have been in love. The modern poet who uses free verse or new experiments quarrels with the commitment to convention. His revolt is based on that, that all life goes false by its commitments. Consequently, I look at a poem very examiningly, very suspiciously. I don’t want to think that the poem is a compromise with the rhyme.”

  • “What it [the repeat of the final line] does is save me from a third line promising another stanza …. I considered for a moment four of a kind in the last stanza but that would have made five including the third in the stanza before it. I considered for a moment winding up with a three line stanza. The repetend was the only logical way to end such a poem.”

And finally, here is Frost himself:

The Poem’s Form

Lawrence Buell, in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, calls the poem a Rondeau [p. 111]. Every definition I’ve read of Rondeau, including The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, offers up a definition that has nothing, whatsoever, to do with “Stopping by Woods”. It’s likely that Buell is being very liberal in his use of the word Rondeau. That is, Frost’s poem is a rondeau in the sense that there is a recurring rhyme scheme that takes as its rhyme the one unrhymed word of the stanza before. Most critics would probably call this a nonce poem – meaning that the rhyme scheme is unique to the poem.

  • Note: [May 29] I just received a comment from Gemma who points out the Frost’s Rhyme Scheme is the same as that found in Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Kyayy’ám’s Rubaiyat. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics calls it the Omar Kyayy’ám Quatrain. Since Fitzgerald’s translation was published in 1859 and quite famous in its day, it’s possible (if not likely) that Frost saw it at one time or another. I myself grew up with a copy in my grandmother’s house – the only book of poetry she owned! I still have it but haven’t looked at it in a long time. That said, Frost himself (from his own comments above) seems to imply that the rhyme scheme developed organically (was of his own making).  For more details on the Rubaiyat, check out the link in Gemma’s comment.

At the beginning of the post, I asked how a poem so metrically regular could, nonetheless, feel so dynamic. Returning to The Cambridge Introduction to Robert Frost, Timothy Steele, in his essay entitled “Across Spaces of the Footed Line”: the Meter and Versification of Robert Frost, offers the most insightful analysis I have come across. He writes:

Because iambic structure often is compounded of non-iambic elements of English word-shape and phraseology, a poet like Frost can initiate, within the basic iambic rise-and-fall movement, all sorts of counter-currents to the prevailing rhythm. An exemplary instance of these modulatory West-Running Brooks occurs in stanza three of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’:

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

In the first two lines, Frost uses mainly monosyllabic words, and of the two two-syllable words, one is rear-stressed. As a result, divisions between feet and those between words largely coincide, and this in turn produces a strong sense of rising, iambic rhythm:

He gives || his har || ness bells || a shake
To ask || if there || is some || mistake.

In contrast, the remaining two lines feature four fore-stressed disyllabic words. Consequently, words more often cross foot divisions than end at them. Even as the iambic fluctuation continues, the lines have a falling, trochaic character, which in turn suggests the sweeping movement of wind and snow:

The on|| ly oth || er sound’s || the sweep
Of eas || y wind || and down || y flake.

Frost’s first version of the line about the wind and flake read, “Of easy wind and fall of flake.” He may have made the change not only because he wanted a more descriptive word for the snow, but also because he intuited that the rhythm would benefit from a more descending flow than “and fall of flake” could give. [pp. 133-134]

On to my own comments…

The other facet to consider is line length versus phrase length. Notice how the first two lines are also two succinct syntactic phrases. They are essentially each a complete sentence. Frost eases this confluence of line and phrase in the next two lines through enjambment – Stopping by Woods: Manuscriptboth lines comprise a single sentence. The first stanza’s confluence of line and thought mimic the poet’s own deliberation. He stops. He considers the land owner. He decides the land owner won’t know he’s “tresspassed”.

The next stanza then relaxes just as the poet himself relaxes. The form and sensibility of the poem are in prefect congruity. All four lines of the stanza comprise a single sentence. The reader will, perhaps without explicitly observing this trick, subconsciously register the effect and the poet’s relaxation.

The third stanza doesn’t repeat the first two. (Each stanza is different.) The first two lines comprise one sentence while the closing two lines comprise another. The poet is divided, just as the stanza is divided between two sentences. The horse reminds the driver that their travel isn’t through, but the poet remains distracted by the easy wind and downy flake.

The syntax of the final stanza breaks each line into discreet phrases. The poet is matter of fact. First, and yes, the woods are love, dark and deep; but more importantly, I have promises to keep. The spell of the woods are broken. The speaker of the poem returns to miles he must travel before he sleeps.

The point in all this is to demonstrate that there are more ways to vary a metrical poem than through the varying of meter. Line lengh, phrase and syntactic sense, if well-played against and with each other, can have a powerful and dynamic effect on a poem.

Frost’s small poem is a masterpiece.

Anyway… if you enjoyed this post and have questions or suggestoins, please comment!

Further sources of information:

  • A new & recommended post that examines the poem as aesthetic statement. Fascinating.

  • Modern American Poetry • This is a collection of essays culled from various authors and critics, possibly the most helpful offering on the web – similar to my own approach but without the multimedia.

Poetry Everywhere

  • Clicking on the Image will take you to PBS.ORG where you can watch Frost read Stopping by Woods.
  • Answers.Com offers two interesting essays by authors who are not among the “big guns” of Frost criticism.
  • Sparknotes offers a brief  little overview of the poem and a possible interpretation. These are followed by study notes if you’re in need of a kick start.

John Donne & Batter my Heart: Editing Iambic Pentameter Then & Now

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I was looking for another poem to analyze. Since there’s been so much interest in my post on Donne’s Death Be Not Proud, I thought I would  look at another of his Holy Sonnets, the famous Batter My Heart. john donneThe first thing I did was to Google the sonnet. And here’s what I found out: All of the sites I have looked at so far, offer readers a “modernized” version of the sonnet. Not only is the spelling modernized, but also the punctuation.

This is a disaster.

Here’s why: The Elizabethans used spelling and punctuation as signposts (spelling hadn’t been standardized) indicating how their lines should be read. Unfortunately, modernizations of the sonnet overlook this, misunderstanding the reasons Elizabethans wrote and spelled the way they did. It wasn’t haphazard. The end result is that all the modernizations I’ve seen so far, completely and devastatingly erase the clues to Donne’s intentions.

So, I’ve used an Oxford edition of Donne’s Poetical Works which retains the original spellings and punctuation. It falls just short of being a facsimile edition. This is the version I’ve scanned and once we go through it together, it will all make sense.

  • Note: [June 4 2009 – As I sit at the Dartmouth Bookstore] Another edition which respects Donne’s punctuation and your ability to get it, is the Everyman Library’s edition of The Complete English Poems. Astonishingly, the Norton Critical Edition of John Donne’s Poetry does not. Dickson edits the poem inconsistently, choosing to note some of Donne’s markings while ignoring others, all while giving the reader no indication that he is doing so. I don’t recommend this edition and if instructors want you to buy it, point out the poor editing or point them to my website.

Note, if any of this terminology is unfamiliar to you, you might consider reading my post on Iambic Pentameter and the Basics, first. I’ve also spent aless time explaining the reasons why an Iambic Pentameter poem should be read as such. My previous posts, such as my previous post on Donne, go into more of the historical reasons for conservative readings of meter.


First, by way of comparison, here is the modernized version (as typically found on the web) side by side with the “facsimile”. I’ve highlighted the crucial punctuation, in the original, missing in the modernization.

Comparison of Modernized & Facsimile Sonnet XIV

In each of the highlights, the apostrophes indicate the use of Synalophea, a form of elision where, “at the juncture of two vowels one is elided” [Sister Miriam Joseph: Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 52]. Without these indications no modern reader of poetry, having grown up on free verse, would suspect that something was missing. They would simply read the lines as anapests, completely ignoring the meter and Donne’s intentions. So, they would read the third line as follows:

That I| may rise, |and stand, |o’erthrow |me, and bend

When it should read something like this:

That I| may rise, |and stand, |o’erthrow |me’nd bend

There’s room for debate as to whether this sort of slurring or elision works. There were readers in Donne’s own day who frequently scratched their heads. But what’s indisputable, is that Donne intended us to elide these words. He was writing Iambic Pentameter – still a new meter. So many anapests in the span of a single sonnet would have been derided as incompetent. In my last post on Donne, examining his other Holy Sonnet, Death be not Proud, you’ll find the following:

Ben Jonson was quoted as having said: “Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging.” Even two hundred years later, literary historian Henry Hallam considered Donne the “most inharmonius of our versifiers, if he can be said to have deserved such a name by lines too rugged to seem metre.” Right up to 1899, Francis Thompson was describing Donne’s poetry as “punget, clever, with metre like a rope all hanks and knots.”

Thomas Carew, a contemporary, wrote in his elegy to Donne:

Our stubborne language bends, made only fit
With her tough-thick-rib’d hoopes to gird about
Thy Giant phansie

Carew praised Donne’s meter for it’s “masculine expression”.  Dryden, on the other hand, wished that Donne “had taken care of his words, and of his numbers [numbers was a popular term for meter] eschewing in particular his habitual rough cadence. (For most of these quotes, I’m indebted to  C.A. Partrides Everyman’s Library introduction to Donne’s complete poems.)

The Holy Trinity Masaccio, 1426-27 Fresco, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.

The Holy Trinity Masaccio, 1426-27 Fresco, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.

In Donne’s 14th Holy Sonnet, “thick ribb’d”, spondaic lines like “but knocke, |breathe, shine”  or “to break, | blowe, burn” were  the lines that troubled readers the most. Yet lines like these are what Donne needed to convey the energetic emotional conviction behind his rhetoric – anger, contempt, desperation, etc…

Back to the differences between the old and new printings:

Notice how Donne spells usurped as  usurpt. This wasn’t because he didn’t know how to spell. He was telling us that the word was to be treated as bi-syllabic, not tri-syllabic. In other words, it shouldn’t be pronounced usurpèd.  He apostrophizes betroth’d for the same reason. He doesn’t want us to pronounce it as betrothèd. Now, you might object that since no one pronounces it like this anymore anyway, why preserve this spelling. The reason is that you will miss the words that he does want us to pronounce tri-syllabically – like “beloved fain”.

Yet dearely’I love you,’and would belov|èd faine,

So, it’s not that he remembered how to spell beloved, it’s that he wanted us to pronounce the -ed ending. And it’s the reason why “responsible” modern editions add the accent grave over the è when they modernize the rest of the spelling. Now, on to the sonnet. Here it is:

The Sonnet

John Donne: Sonnet XIV "Batter my heart" Scansion

The First Quatrain: Batter me!

As with modern day religious leaders, Donne’s carnality and spirituality were never far removed. Donne, at least, wasn’t hypocritical about it. He made great poetry out of the conflict.

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

battering ramThree-person’d God refers to the holy trinity. The battering ram was an old, if not ancient, weapon by the time Donne wrote his sonnet, but it was still a very effective and violent weapon – possibly the most terrifying weapon of its day. If the battering ram was out and it was battering your portcullis, and if you were out of hot oil, you were in a lot of trouble.  So, Donne’s battering was probably the most violent and terrifying weapon he could conjure. No battering ram, by the way, could be effectively used by one person. Donne remedies that by referring to God as three-personed. In the illustration at right, though the perspective is somewhat confused, you will notice that three soldiers are using the first of the battering rams.

Batter me! – Donne cries to God. All you do is try to mend. Mend, in Donne’s day, had the sense “to repair from breach or decay: Like the mending of highways” [ Shakespeare-Lexicon: A Complete Dictionary of All the Works of the Poet. Schmidt.] It also, as today, has the sense of improving and making better. But it’s the first sense that Donne was playing on. He tells us that God is reparing the breach when he should be battering it down. In the first two lines Donne plays on paradoxical demands, subverting the reader’s usual expectations. Let God destroy; and by destroying, build. So that I can rise up and stand, says Donne, overthrow me, bend/use your force/your power, to break and blow (in the sense of a bomb or petar – used to blow up walls). Burn me (like the invader who burns down the besiged fortress) and rebuild me – make me new. This is an urgent sonnet.
Here’s how Bejamin Britten expressed the Sonnet in music:Death be not proud.... CD by Britten & Bostridge[Audio https://poemshape.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/batter-my-heart.mp3%5D

Note: This, by the way, is directly related to the much misunderstood expression – “hoisted by one’s own petard”. A petard was like dynamite, a kind of bomb.

Let it work;
For ’tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petar; and ‘t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon.
[Shakespeare: Hamlet III, 4]

The Second Quatrain

The second quatrain continues the theme of the first, rounding off the Sonnet’s octave.

I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.

Donne compares himself to a “usurpt towne”. The word due, according to the Shakespeare Lexicon (the best dictionary for words in Shakespeare’s day), has as its second meaning “belonging” – to belong to someone. I am due to a woman [Err. III, 2, 81]. So, Donne is saying that he has been usurpt and now belongs to another (greed? carnality? temptation? we don’t really know yet…). And though he labors to admit God, his efforts are “to no end”.

Donne then characterizes Reason, his own reason, as God’s viceroy. A viceroy was understood as a substitute for the King. So, by this analogy, Donne sees himself as a city into which God has breathed reason – the (substitute or viceroy) of God (the King). But in Donne, God’s viceroy, who should defend Donne, is captive to another. He proves weak or untrue. In my scansion, I chose to emphasize the conjunction or.  In terms of meter, Donne has placed it in a position which is normally stressed (the second syllable of any iambic foot). As I’ve written before: If one can read a foot as Iambic in poetry prior to the 20th Century, one probably should. In this case, stressing or adds another layer of meaning reinforced by the content. That is, it’s one thing for Donne to suggest that his reason is weake, but entirely another to suggest that his reason is untrue – a traitor. Being convicted of treachery in Donne’s day was treated as an especially heinous offense. A death sentence was usually a sure bet. Dismemberment, including having your dismembered parts nailed up for public display, was de rigueur. If the sonnet were spoken like a monologue, I might expect the actor to hesitate at or. “My reason is too weake or… or untrue!”  – spoken as with a sense of self-discovery or even self-loathing.

Save me! – Donne cries.

The Sestet

Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

The structure of the sonnet is most like those of Sidney’s Sonnets. However, where there is usually a division between the third quatrain and a final epigrammatic couplet, Donne makes none. The final quatrain is enjambed. Its phrasing flows smoothly into the couplet. So, while I would normally treat the quatrain and couplet as discrete, I’ve reproduced the entire sestet as an indivisible whole. In this regard, the content of the sonnet more closely approximates that of a Patrarchan Sonnet.

Despite the possible betrayal of reason, God’s viceroy, Donne insists that, though he is “betrothed to God’s enemie, he “dearely” loves God and “would be loved faine” (faine means gladly). What’s interesting is that the analogy Donne uses to portray his relationship to God and his own will seems to change completely. No longer is he a city. He now compares himself to a desperate bridegroom – one who is betrothed to someone he does not wish to marry. Is this the volta? – a change of conceit?

C.A. Partride, in his notes to the Sonnet (The Complete English Poems), has this to say:

Man’s relations with God have been set forth in terms of marriage or adultery ever since the great Hebrew prophets, beginning with Hosea. It was within such a context that Donne described adultery as ‘every departing from that contract you made with God at your Baptisme… [p. 433]

Divorce mee! – Donne cries. “Untie or breake that knot again!” Recalling the martial analogies of octave, he cries: “Imprison me!” And now Donne revels in a sort of paradoxical delight. “Imprison me,” he cries, enthrall me (enslave me), and I “shall be free”!  “Ravish me!” – Donne cries. “And I shall be chaste!”

But ravish, in its Elizabethan sense, carried a more violent connotation than now, the first two definitions being: 1.) To rob, to carry away by force; 2.) to deflower by violence. We are reminded of the sonnet’s first line, but now the martial imagery assumes a very different meaning. The heart is the “seat of love and amorous desire” [Shakespeare Lexicon]. The soul is a feminine attribute [Shakespeare Lexicon p. 1090]. The battering ram is phallic.

The octave takes on a new layer of meaning.

In one sense, Donne, his body and soul are one and the same.

In another sense, they are not. Donne’s soul is trapped within the body (the usurpt town) – usurpt by reason.  And now we begin to comprehend the different characters in the sonnet:

Three person’d GodWhose overthrow Donne (or Donne’s Soul) desires.
ReasonGod’s viceroy, who has betrayed Donne.
The Towne – Which is Donne’s Physical Being. His body.
The Enemie – Fear. Or the fear of Death. Fear seeks to prevent God’s entry.
The Betrothed – Donne’s soul. The Bridegroom who seeks God rather than Fear.

So… Weake and untrue reason has captiv’d Donne; has betroth’d him to fear. Donne, in the sense of his phsycial being, fears the very thing his soul desires – Death.  The soul’s cry to God is a cry for death – freedom from her unwilling betrothal to the body. Do not mend but batter my heart! she cries. Free me from the body! – she cries. Donne gives voice to both characters – being both characters. The seeming violence of the soul’s rhetoric is best understood as expressing the immediacy of her desire  – for the chaste union, death, that promises her liberation. Death’s consummation is understood, by the soul (by her) as a kind of erotic and spiritual ecstasy. But before the soul can be enthralled and freed, the body must be overthrown and broken. The body must be divorced from its betrothal to fear.

The sonnet, we realize,  begins with the same cry that ends it  – “ravish me”!

If you enjoyed this post, found it helpful or have more questions – please comment!

Anne Bradstreet: Before the Birth of One of her Children

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A Quick Look

I keep the poetry of Anne Bradstreet close by. She is America’s first poet writing in English Bradstreet's First Editionand she was the first to publish a book of poetry in America. I’ve read various dismissive comments directed at her poetry, but I don’t share those opinions. Her poetry may lack the clever cosmopolitan  imagery, metaphor and conceit of other poets, but her peers weren’t living in the wilderness of Massachusetts. Her best poetry, her later poetry, is intensely direct, honest, heartfelt and tender in a way that none of her Jacobean peers, still in London, ever equaled. It’s tempting to say there’s something already uniquely American about her voice. With an ocean between her and Europe, her poetry and thoughts (initially written in the schoolish, conventional and literary mode of her peers and upbringing) turns to the every day fact of love, life, motherhood and family. Her thoughts turn from what she has left behind, to what she has created in her new world.

Adrienne Rich, in her introduction to Bradstreet’s works, states that she arrived in America in 1630. She was eighteen years old and had been married since sixteen. Rich writes:

Her father, Thomas Dudley, a man of education and worldly experience, had been steward to an earl; her mother, by Cotton Mather’s account, “a gentlewoman whose extraction and estates were considerable.” Her own education had been that of a clever girl in the cultivated seventeenth century house: an excellent library, worldly talk, the encouragement of a literate father who loved history. Her husband was a Cambridge man, a Nonconformist minister’s son. Her father, her husband, each was to serve as Governor of Massachusetts; she came to the wilderness as a woman of rank.” Younger, Anne Bradstreet had struggled with a “carnall heart.” Self-scrutiny, precisianism. were in any event expected of Puritan young people. But her doubts, her “sitting loose from God,” were underscored by uncommon intelligence and curiosity.

Before the Birth

In terms of meter, Bradstreet’s Iambic Pentameter is fairly strict. To be fair, the meter was still very new. Many among the generation who first established Iambic Pentameter as the standard meter of the English language were still  alive. One wonders exactly which poets Bradstreet was exposed to. Shakespeare? Doubtful, since his most famous works of poetry, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, were both considered borderline erotica. Sidney? Possibly. Spenser. Very likely. John Donne?

The poem itself is written in open heroic couplets. I’ll point out some probable differences in pronunciation and some variant feet. Bradstreet was born and England and spoke with an English accent. Besides that, the American accent didn’t exist yet.) The first two lines that might trip up a modern reader are the following. The modern American might be tempted to read them as follows:

The sen|tence past |is most ir|re-vo |ca-ble,
A com|mon thing, |yet oh, |in-ev |i-ta-ble.

Here’s how Bradstreet probably expected them to be read:

The sen|tence past |is most |irrev|ic’ble,
A com|mon thing,| yet oh, | inev | it’ble.

The British, then as now, tend to clip irrevocable, putting the stress on the second syllable. Here are another two lines Americans might be tempted to misread – this being more out of a misunderstanding of meter.

We both |are ig|norant, |yet love | bids me
These fare|well lines |to re|commend |to thee,

And here’s how Bradstreet intended them to be read:

We both |are ig|norant, |yet love |bids me
These fare|well lines |to re|commend |to thee,

The emphasis is on me, not on bids. Similarly, another two lines are apt to be misread:

If an|y worth |or vir|tue were |in me,
Let that |live fresh|ly in |thy mem|ory

And here’s what Bradstreet intended:

If an|y worth |or vir|tue were |in me,
Let that |live fresh|ly in |thy mem|ory

There are a couple of variant feet. Although it’s possible to read the first foot of the following line as Iambic, my feeling is that the first foot serves an expressive purpose in being read as a trochaic foot. Look, she cries, look to my children. There is no greater love than a mother’s for her child and it is the emotional zenith of the poem – her cry at the close of the poem: “if thou love thyself, or loved’st me”  protect and love our children!

Look to| my little babes, my dear remains.

More metrical variants quickly follow, as if to express Bradstreet’s emotional terrain:

And if | change to |thine eyes |shall bring |this verse,

And if change

The nice touch here is that the pyrric first foot adds emphasis to the trochaic change – meter underscores the meaning and content of the poem.

The last line that might be misread is due to differences in pronunciation. Honour, in Bradstreet’s time, was still probably pronounced with a French inflection – empasizing the second syllable rather than the first. So it was probably read as follows:

With some |sad sighs |honour |my ab|sent hearse;

All the rest of the poem is standard Iambic Pentameter – which is to say, all the other feet are Iambic.

The Poem

Most poems on childbirth, these days, are mawkish, sentimental verses. But childbirth, in the absence of modern medicine,  was a frightening experience. It might promise new life, rebirth and joy; but it could also end in death – both the child’s and the mother’s. No poem, to my knowledge, captures both this mixture of fear, anticipation, and love for the children already birthed, as this poem. It is, in its way, the greatest and most memorable poem of its kind.

Before the Birth of One of her Children

Anne_Bradstreet PortraitAll things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh, inevitable.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend,
We both are ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when that knot’s untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
And if I see not half my days that’s due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
That many faults that well you know I have
Let be interred in my oblivious grave;
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me
These O protect from step-dame’s injury.
And if change to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent hearse;
And kiss this paper for thy love’s dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last farewell did take.

bradstreetFor the complete works of Anne Broadstreet, if you’re curious, try The Works of Anne Bradstreet. I thought my edition was out of print, but I just found it (same title):  The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Both come with Adrienne Rich’s introduction. At Amazon, at least, the editorial review for both books is the same. The newer issue, however, has more pages. Maybe the newer issue includes more of her prose? If I find out, I’ll add an addendum to this post.

For a website dedicated to Anne Bradstreet and her poetry, try AnneBradStreet.Com. However, detailed biographical information, on the web at least, seems to be sparse.

Perhaps Anne Bradstreet’s most famous poem is the following:

To My Dear and Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize they love more than whole mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere
That when we lifve no more, we may live ever.

Frost, Hendecasyllabics & For Once, Then, Something

Catullizing English

Reading a letter from Catallus

Neaera Reading a Letter from Catullus

While Robert Frost’s, For Once, Then, Something, isn’t the most memorable of his poems, it’s one of his most unique. It’s written, nominally, in hendecasyllabics. It’s also one of the most devilish to scan.  Frost was imitating the Latin meter of Catullus – said to be one of his favorite Latin poets. What makes the poem difficult to scan is that the English language simply does not do what Latin did. English is not a quantitative language (meaning that syllables are long or short). English is an accentual language, meaning that words receive more or less stress dependent on their usage.

  • I notice that Wikipedia makes much ado about the difference between Hendecasyllable and Hendecasyllabic, (Hendecasyllabic Verse or Hendecasyllabics). However, the author or authors of the Wikipedia article offer no citations to back up their assertions. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics makes no such distinction.  Hendecasyllabic, according to Webster’s and to Princeton, is simply the adjectival form of Hendecasyllable (an eleven syllable line or word). On the other hand, a distinction  can be made between Latin quantitative Hendecasyllabics and the accentual Hendecasyllabics of the later Romance Languages, but that appears unrelated to the whether the word is used as a noun or adjective.

The English language is a naturally Iambic and Anapestic language (meaning that the language prefers a rising stress). In nominal phrases, we don’t  normally say the car, we say the car. (The former also makes sense, but the exception proves the rule.) By stressing the, we  draw attention to the fact that the car is singular. We can do this because English is an accentual language. It is the car. Also, all of our prepositional phrases prefer a rising stress (iambic or anapestic). In a previous post, one commenter objected that I didn’t take into consideration regional or dialectal inflections. Not so. This feature of the language has nothing to do with regional or dialectal inflections. It is simply the way our language works. It’s the reason Iambic meters, rather than Trochaic meters, are the dominant meters of English poetry.

So, what does all this have to do with Frost’s poem?

The problem is that the hendecasyllabics of Catullus, when transliterated into English, make for a trochaic meter. Trochaic meters are extremely difficult to pull off in English. Few poets actually pull it off. No poet, to my knowledge, has succeeded through and through. What do I mean by this? I mean that, at the first chance, the reader will want to read a line as Iambic rather than trochaic. For example, if Frost’s poem were written in Latin, here is how we would unflinchingly scan the first line.

Others | taunt me with | having | knelt at | well-curbs

robert-frost-chairThis is essentially Trochaic Pentameter with a variant dactylic second foot.  If you were being asked to scan this poem for a class, then this is how the professor would probably expect the poem to be scanned (and I’ll provide this scansion), but as far as the English language goes. Here is how most of us will read the line:

Others | taunt me | with ha|ving knelt |at well-curbs

This is essentially Iambic Pentameter with two variant trochaic feet (the first and second foot) with a feminine ending. By modern standards, this would be a perfectly acceptable variant line within a larger Iambic Pentameter poem. And therein lies the rub. Being English speakers we prefer to hear Iambs rather than trochees. We naturally bias our readings toward Iambs. Here is another option:

Others taunt| me with hav|ing knelt | at well-crubs

This makes the meter tetrameter (four foot) rather than pentameter. The first foot is cretic, the second anapestic, the third Iambic and the last a feminine ending, or an amphibrach.

All the variations above are hendecasyllabic. The first two might be called a Pentameter Hendecasyllable and the last might be called a Tetrameter Hendecasyllable.

So, when scanning the poem, what do we do? Do we scan it according to the poet’s intentions, or how the lines actually work in the English language? Frost may have been imitating a Latin meter, but the language is English.

Here is the poem as Frost intended it:

Hendadecasyllabic Scansion - For Once, Then, Something

Robert Frost reciting:

In the scansion above, I only marked the first line. All the following lines are the same except for the first foot of line 12. As you can hear, Frost reads this first foot as a spondee.  Trochaic meters are less forgiving as far as variant feet go and if only for this reason, Frost departs from the hendecasyllabic meter only once. It’s probably the most metrically conservative poem Frost wrote after his first book of poetry.

  • Robert Pack, in his book Belief and uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, Page 30, incorrectly identifies this poem as a sonnet. He doesn’t do so elsewhere in the book which leads me to think this was a slip of the pen.

By way of comparison, here is the scansion of a hendecasyllabic line in Latin.


The example comes from a powerpoint document I found online (no author is given). Clicking on the link or image will download it – if you’re curious. The paper is intended for students studying Latin. While the symbols used are similar to those used for accentual-syllabic verse, the symbols mean something different. What Frost (and all English poets) have done is to substitute a stressed syllable for a Latin long syllable, and an unstressed syllable for a Latin short syllable. If you don’t want to download a Powerpoint presentation but are still curious, here’s another resource from the Iona School of Arts & Sciences:

Latin example from iona.edu

Scanning it the way we read it

Dactylic feet are hard to pull off for the same reason that trochaic meters are hard to pull off. The English speaker’s ear will always want to turn a dactyl into a anapest.

So although Frost may have imagined the third line as follows:

Deeper | down in the |well than |where the |water

No reader, without a prior knowledge of the Latin verse Frost was transliterating, would ever scan it this way. Nearly all prepositional phrases are heard as anapestic (as a rising stress) by English speakers.

Deeper down |in the well |than where |the water

None of this is to say that there aren’t dactylic words or phrases, or that a dactylic meter can’t be written. Longfellow’s opening lines to Evangeline have a dactylic gait. But Longfellow isn’t assiduous in pursuing a dactylic meter for long:

THIS is the | forest pri|meval. The |murmuring |pines and the |hemlocks,
Bearded with |moss, and in |garments green, indistinct in the twilight…

The Dactylic gait is helped when the first word of each line receives the stress. Frost’s hendecasallabic line also places the stress on the first word of each line but the effect isn’t the same. The first foot isn’t dactylic but trochaic, so the ear isn’t primed for a dactylic reading as with Longfellow’s poem.

Furthermore, 9 out of the 15 “dactylic” feet are prepositional phrases, which strongly favor an anapestic reading.

to the light
in the well
in a shining…
in the summer
of a wreath
as I thought
of the depths
to rebuke
from a fern

So, after all that, how would I scan it? I opt for a tetrameter line.

For once, then, Something - Alternate Scansion

  • Once again, the scansion for each line, following the first line, is the same unless otherwise marked.

This scansion, I think, more accurately reflects how we read the poem and I like it because there’s a nifty symmetry. Where the first foot is cretic, or an amphimacer, the final foot is a sort of mirror image, an amphibrach (otherwise called a feminine ending). The second foot is anapestic and the third is iambic. Lastly, and best of all, the first foot of the twelfth line is a Molossus. A molossus is a metrical foot of three syllables with each syllable being stressed. Molossus. Good word. Good foot. Very rare.

So what’s it about?

Not a lot is written about this poem. Several Frost biographies fail to even mention the poem. But in certain ways, it’s his most revealing. He apparently wrote it in response to criticism (still made today) that his poetry is all shine and no depth. Two writers who discuss the poem are Tyler Hoffman, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry, and Robert Pack’s Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost.

The speaker of the poem is both the poet himself and his reader. The criticism he has received from critics and other poets, he characterizes and analogizes in the first six lines of the poem:

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
My myself in the summer heaven, godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.

“Others taunt me”, he writes, in reference to critics. He is accused of kneeling at well-curbs, “always wrong  to the light” – where “light” could be understood as knowledge, poetic knowledge or understanding. The result? He never sees “deeper down in the well”. His poetry and meaning is shallow. His poetry is merely a “surface picture” lacking substance. Then, with some wry humor, he adds that, rather than perceiving the deeper currents of the well’s waters, he only sees himself in “heaven, godlike,/ Looking out of a wreath of fern…”. The sly reference to Apollo’s laurel’s, the Poet’s Laurels which Keats so desired,  from which the term “Poet Laureate” comes, is unmistakable.  In other words, he is accused of being little more than a vain, cracker-barrel  philosopher suffering from delusions of grandeur. That view and criticism of Frost still holds up today – in some quarters.

From there Frost turns to more Philosophical matters – a defense.

Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths-and then I lost it.

Frost essentially rejects the notion that there is a truth, the truth, that can be perceived beneath the surface. Yes, he may have thought (in his youth) that there was something “beyond the picture” (that surface picture which, ultimately, is all we have) but whatever truth that was, he “lost it”. And in the losing of it, he rejects the notion that it can be known. He writes:

Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

Water creates the reflective surface upon which we perceive life and understand life. The surface of water, in this poem, is like Keats’ veil – it is everything that we see, but only the surface of what we see. The surface of the water is what we perceive as reality. And when we try to look beyond it, past the veil, one drop falls “from a fern”, almost teasingly, blurring and blotting out any deeper truth. We are not meant to know but to guess, Frost seems to be saying. But there may be another analogy at play. The surface of the water could also be seen as the textual surface of a poem. In this sense, the person peering into the well is transformed into the reader or critic reading one of Frost’s poems. Frost rejects certainties. He rejects the “too clear water” of other poets and rejects the critics’ call for it. When they look too closely, lo, “Water”/Frost “rebukes” them.

“What was that whiteness?” – Frost asks. “What was that whiteness?” -the critic asks.

Neither are meant to know with any certainty – only that, yes, there was and is “something”. Keep looking, says Frost. Keep looking.

By contrast, Tyler Hoffman takes a different set of concerns to the poem. Here is some of what he writes:

In “For Once, Then, Something” Frost depicts someone who tries to find a way to knfrost-the-politics-of-poetry3ow (and know he has known) such a moral absolute as Truth. The speaker seems to be an object of ridicule for pursuing absolutes without a proper faith — a person blinded by egotistical concerns (“Others taunt me with having knelt at well curbs”). But that figure is not fully imagined; we do not receive a profile that would help us determine with certainty the attitudes and emotions behind his utterances. It us unclear how he feels about the taunting that he receives and how his search for “Something more of the depths” is shaped by it. The questions leading up to the phrase in its final appearance only muddy the water: “What was that whiteness? / Truth? A pebble of quartz?” How are we to hear these questions? Does he ask them in an agitated tone?… The epistemological problem that the poem presents — “How can we know the Truth if at all?” and “How do we know if we have known Truth?” – is never finally resolved. (Pages 113-114)

My own view on Hoffman’s comments is that he asks questions that Frost himself does not try to answer. This sort of analysis by rhetorical question gets mixed reviews from me. To me, at least, the trick is guessing at what questions Frost does ask, based on the poem which is, in and of itself, the answer.

Here is Robert Pack’s take:

…in “For Once, Then, Something,” in looking down into the bottom of a well to discern the identity of some object glittering there, Belief & UncertaintyFrost ironically speculates that it might be “Truth” or merely “A pebble of quartz.” Frost’s dismissal of the concept of truth as such is much like Stevens’s parodic line, “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.” In Stevens’s outrageous concluding line in “The Man on the Dump,” the word “truth” finally is replaced by the word “the,” suggesting ironically that “the” is the more specific and useful word. For Frost, the abstract idea that there is something we might call Truth goes beyond uncertainty into meaningless abstraction. Even when Frost uses “Truth” capitalized as a term as in “Birches,” he does so to make the distinction between his fancy that the birch trees have been permanently bent down by a boy’s swinging on them and the truthful “fact about the ice storm.” In other words, truth here is known in its specificity, as a phenomenon of nature. His dismissal of Truth in its abstract grandiosity is part of Frost’s anti-romantic strain, his worldliness, his suspicion of anything smacking of transcendence, as distinguished, say,. from Keats’s indentification of Beauty and Truth in both poetry and his lectures. (Pages 184-185)

Once again, I hope this post has been helpful. Let me know.

I love comments. If you’re a student, just drop a note with the name of your school. I’m always interested to know who’s reading and why.

Reading Richard Wilbur’s “Mind”

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The Mechanics of Wilbur’s “Mind”

I’ve noticed several searches for this poem (off and on again) so I thought I’d take a look at it. The meter is Iambic Pentameter and the poem itself consists of three quatrains with an interlocking rhyme scheme. The first rhyme of the first quatrain is a slant rhyme – bat/wit. Other than that, everything else about the poem is conventional. There is nothing remarkable about Wilbur’s use of the meter. If I were to criticize the poem, I might call Wilbur’s use of meter perfunctory. Unlike Shakespeare or Donne’s inventive use of Iambic Pentameter, Wilbur’s meter only informs the poem in the most conventional ways. The poem’s three trochees are apt, putting the emphasis on Mind, Not, and Darkly, but the effect is hardly novel.

But metrical expressiveness is not Wilbur’s strong suit.

Rather, Wilbur’s use of meter adds elegance to his language – heightening and elevating his rhetoric. Whether one interprets that as a plus or minus depends on what one expects from metrical poetry. I’m content to accept Wilbur on his own terms, rather than criticize him for what he doesn’t attempt. His use of meter is elegant and accomplished. The “rhythm”, as Wilbur calls it, makes his poems memorable where other poems are less so.

Richard Wilbur: Mind - Annotated

Interpreting the Poem

In the third quatrain, Wilbur refers to his poem as a simile, and it surely is, but it is also a conceit. Wikipedia offers up the following definition of a conceit:

The term is generally associated with the 17th century metaphysical poets in contemporary usage. In the metaphysical conceit, metaphors have a much more purely conceptual, and thus tenuous, relationship between the things being compared. Helen Gardner[2] observed that “a conceit is a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness” and that “a comparison becomes a conceit when we are made to concede likeness while being strongly conscious of unlikeness.”

So… Wilbur is being a little disingenuous in referring to his poem as a simile. That said, the whole of the poem is really no more than the working out of Wilbur’s initial simile, The Mind is like a bat – a genuine tour-de-force. Wilbur’s skillful use of the extended metaphor is the mark of his uniqueness (his particular gift) among nearly all other 20th and 21rst century poets.

Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.

RiddleThe first quatrain is, on the surface, very straight forward.  However, the only element of the simile that is spelled out is the bat. The bat is like the mind. The mind is like the bat. After that, the more one tries to discern the different elements of Wilbur’s  “simile”, the more one wonders exactly what each element is like. Besides having a predilection for simile, metaphor and analogy, Wilbur is also unique among modern poets for his delight in riddles.  If memory serves, the oldest surviving poem in the English language is a riddle. I doubt anyone would claim that all English poetry is descended from a riddle, but there is an element to the riddle in all poetry – and I’ve always noticed that strains prevalence in Wilbur’s poetry. What are the caverns?

  • Is the cavern like consciousness? – If so, then the mind is like the bat and the bat is like the cavern. The whole of it becomes an insoluble hall of mirrors.
  • Does the cavern represent uncertainty? – spiritual uncertainty? – Wilbur dispels this possibility in the next quatrain by writing: “[The bat] has no need to falter or explore”. Whatever else the cavern is, the bat is not uncertain about its contours.
  • Are the caverns “life”? – Possibly, but would anyone really accept Wilbur’s assertion that the mind has no need to falter or explore?

All that Wilbur gives us, by way of a hint, is “senseless wit”. In this quatrain, at least, Wilbur appears to be describing instinct. Or… there’s another possibility, but let’s see what he writes in the next quatrain.

It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.

Again, the poem has more and more the feel of a riddle. There are apt words, but one gets the feeling that there’s a double meaning at work – Darkly, obstacles, weave, flitter, perfect courses, blackest air.

In the final quatrain, Wilbur will ask: “has this simile a like perfection?” I can’t help but notice a teasing, impish tone to this question. There’s something sly about it. In fact, the simile isn’t perfect at all. Bats don’t “know” where obstacles are. Their  “wit” isn’t “senseless”. They echo-locate, constantly…


If a bat becomes lost in your house, don’t cringe in a corner. Here’s something you might not know. If a bat can’t escape from a room after a certain period of time, it will indeed assume that it knows all the obstacles. It has memorized your room. It will stop echo-locating and fly and fly and fly – no matter what windows you open. A memory is like an opinion. In a sense, the bat becomes trapped by its own opinion. The bat won’t falter. The bat/mind assumes that it has no need to explore. The most inflexible opinions are the loneliest ones and, as Wilbur tells us at the outset, the mind is like the bat that beats in its cavern all alone. The bat or the mind’s  wit seems more senseless than wit.

Darkly it knows.

That is, the mind remains in the dark of ignorance. Obstacles are perceived through ignorance. And yet, in the ruff of its opinion, the mind weaves its “perfect courses” through the blackest air. How does one interpret blackest air? I can’t help but read irony in these lines. We all know that the mind isn’t perfect.  It is subject to any variety of ailments, the worst of them being self-delusion – the blackest air. (After all, the double meaning of air is when one puts on airs.)

And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat.

The word perfect shows up again. What is Wilbur really asking? If one reads a certain impishness in this question, then the word perfection takes on a very different tone. In case the reader missed it the first time, it mocks the perfection of the bat or the mind’s perfect courses.

If, having read this far, I’ve spoiled the poem for you, consider this: The most famous analogy  in all of Western Literature is that of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Given Wilbur’s erudition, I find it hard to believe he didn’t have this in the back of his mind.  The Allegory of the Cave is all about the human mind so confined within the cave of its opinion that it ceases to consider other possibilities or realities. The denizens of Plato’s cave never faltered in their beliefs and never felt the need to explore.  The denizens darkly understand what they perceive to be reality. Their wits are senseless in that they lack the one sense only appreciated by leaving the cave.

Consider the double meaning hidden in the word conclude – line 4 of the 1rst Quatrain. It was precisely by looking against a wall of stone that the denizens of Plato’s gave drew their conclusions. And they were wrong. They contrive with a “senseless” wit not to “conclude” against a wall of stone, and yet this is precisely what the human mind does in the act of contrivance.

Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.

The simile is “perfect”, except for the happiest (which also means fortunate) intellection (or perception). A graceful error “may correct the cave.” Though Plato, speaking through Socrates, doesn’t reveal how one of the trapped men came to be released from his cave, the moment might be described as fortunate and a moment of grace – perhaps, even, a gracefull error.  Whatever the reason, the moment of happy intellection, of grace, of graceful error, “corrects the cave”.

Note: I just recently reviewed a collection of poetry by Robert Bagg, his book Horsegod. As it turns out, Bagg knows Wilbur and is presently writing a critical biography on the poet. I was pleased that he approved of my interpretation and also pleased by his suggesting a facet I had missed. The “graceful error”, he suggested, refers to Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. And it is through this error that “we are offered an even better garden than Eden”. This is a convincing interpretation. To paraphrase Bagg, Wilbur has “fused” the concerns of Plato and Paradise Lost.

I think it’s no accident that Wilbur closes with the word cave, rather than cavern.

If my interpretation is correct, then the final word is also our final hint as to the true meaning of the poem – the poem itself is like the cave, waiting to be corrected by the happiest intellection of the reader. The graceful error of the perfect simile will be corrected.

Or, in the case of the bat, if you open the window, the bat will be freed to correct its false conclusions.

Then again, Richard Wilbur is still alive, migrating seasonally between Massachusetts and Florida. Send him a letter and ask him what he meant!

If you enjoyed this post, let me know!

Robert Frost, Iambic Pentameter & Mending Wall

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  • September 25, 2011. Further thoughts on interpreting Mending Wall.
  • June 26, 2009Major revision. Expansion of post with interpretive passage.
  • April 25th, 2009 –  Added audio of Robert Frost reciting Mending Wall.

About the Poem

Having noticed several searches on Frost’s Mending Wall (probably one of the most famous poems he wrote) I thought I would take a look at the poem.the-work-of-knowing1 I’ve looked at several of my books on Frost and none of them extensively analyze the poem. The archetypal meaning of the wall is straightfoward and expounded on by the speaker of the poem. Perhaps the most insightful comment was Richard Poirier’s in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Poirier makes the observation Frost’s “genius as a narrative poet is in part his capacity to sustain debates between people about the nature of the ‘homes’ which they very often occupy together.” Mending Wall is an ideal manifestation of that genius, just as Home Burial is.

As an aside, it is also worth noting how few poets take an interest in writing narratively or even in voices other than their own. In the most recent issue of Measure, a biannual journal that publishes “formal” poetry, I could only find one poem indisputably  written in a voice other than the poet’s – “Moliere’s Housekeeper”. The overwhelming majority were first person with the remaining few being second and third person. Not a single poem was written in the manner of a debate between two separate voices. Robert Frost is truly unique in this respect.

Having just analyzed Frost’s Birches, I was struck by the difference, in metrical style, between Birches and Mending Wall. My first thought was that Birches must have been written later (if not much later) than Mending Wall. Where Mending Wall is extremely conservative in its use of variant feet, Birches shows a much greater freedom and flexibility. As is the habit with most poets , when young they will try to master the game strictly by the rules – both to learn the rules and to prove to themselves and to others that they have the right stuff. Frost himself bragged that his first book, “A Boy’s Will”, proved that he could write  by the numbers. That done, he quickly learned how to bend the rules.

I still think that Birches must have come later but William Pritchard, Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, pritchard_frostrecounts that when Frost wrote to Bartlett (a publisher) in August of 1913 “about a book to be called, tentatively, New England Eclogues, made up of ‘stories’ form between one to two hundred lines, he sent along a list of eleven poems, one of which bore the title “Swinging Birches.” Pritchard, echoing another biographer (John Kemp) speculates that Frost didn’t include Birches in the first book because the tone, more philosophical “and sage”, would have set it (too much) apart from the other poems “rooted in the realism of experience”. Page 103.

So… I’ m left clinging to my theory on the basis of meter alone. Which isn’t a wholly reliable way to date poetry. But there you have it. One last interesting note. Lea Newman, who I mentioned in a previous post, writes in her book Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry,  of a children’s story Frost wrote for Carol and Lesley. In reference to elves and a spell, she quotes the following passage from the story:

Their backs were to the wall so that when a stone fell off it they were taken by surprise. They hardly turned in time to see two little heads pop out of sight on the pasture side. Carol saw them better than Lesley. “Faries!” he cried. Lesley said, “I can’t believe it.” “Fairies sure,” said Carol.

What Newman doesn’t observe is that even here, two voices (Frost’s children) are in debate. One sees fairies, the other doesn’t. Not only were the seeds of magic and elves present in this children’s story, but also the presence of two distinct voices in debate. It’s easy to imagine how, rightly or wrongly, these first thoughts gradually evolved into the famous poem. Newman mentions, additionally, that Frost himself never firmly identified himself with one speaker or the other. There was a little of both speakers in himself – and the poem could in some ways be taken as an internal debate.

Here is what Frost himself said, 1955, at Bread Loaf:

It’s about a spring occupation in my day. When I was farming seriously we had to set the wall up every year. You don’t do that any more. You run a strand of barbed wire along it and let it go at that. We used to set the wall up. If you see a wall well set up you know it’s owned by a lawyer in New York — not a real farmer. This is just about that spring occupation, but of course all sorts of things have been done with it and I’ve done something with it myself in self defense. I’ve gone it one better — more than once in different ways for the Ned of it — just for the foolishness of it. [The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost p. 231]

To show just how divergent the metrical usages are between the two poems, I’ve color coded the scansion of Mending Wall and Birches. Trochaic feet are in red, Spondees are purple, Anapests are blue, and Feminine Endings are green, Phyrric feet are yellowish.

Frost reciting Mending Wall:

Mending Wall

Mending Wall - Color Coded Scansion

The meter does little in terms of acting as counterpoint to the line. (The scansion, by the way, is based on Frost’s own reading of the poem.) One might conjecture that the regularity of the meter, if it wasn’t simply for the sake of writing Iambic Pentameter, was meant to echo the stepwise, regular, stone by stone mending of the wall.  After all, there is no flinging of feet from the topmost spindle of a birch. There is no avalanching or crazed ice. There are no girls on hands and knees throwing their hair before them over their heads to dry them. The work of mending wall is slow, methodical, hand roughening work. This, of itself, may explain the careful regularity of the meter.

There are some nice touches worth mentioning, touches that might  escape a reader unaccustomed to reading blank verse (Iambic Pentameter). First:


The temptation, including my own, is to read the first foot as Trochaic |But at|, but Frost clearly reads it Iambically. He reads the first foot quickly. It’s a craft that many “professional” metrists don’t take seriously enough – perhaps because they’re not poets themselves. The meter of poets who write metrically shouldn’t be taken for granted. All too often, it seems, metrists insist that the English language, as it is spoken on the street, trumps any given metrical pattern. Don’t believe them. A poet who writes metrically does so for a reason.

The sweetest metrical touch comes in the following line:


Most of us would read the third foot as |I could|, putting the emphasis on I, but Frost reads the foot Iambically and the pattern reinforces the reading. Putting the emphasis on could gives the line a much different feel, then if one emphasized I. To me, Frost’s reading sounds more mischeivious. Frost specialized in this sort of metrical subtletly, emphasizing words that might not normally recieve the ictus. It’s also a specially nice touch because just several lines before Frost used the word could as an unstressed syllable.


One could conceivably stress could in the line above, but that would be subverting the Iambic pattern.

Lastly, another effect of the regular iambic pattern is to  especially contrast the first trochaic foot in the poem’s seminal line:

Some-thing | there is | that does | n’t love | a wall

It’s an effect that subliminally draws attention to the eye, catching the ear. It’s a line that disrupts the normal “foot on foot”, “stone on stone” pattern of the poem. And it is doubly effective because the line occurs twice. If the effect wasn’t noticed the first time, it will be the second time.

The author Mark Richardson, in one of my favorite books on Frost, The Ordeal of Robert Frost, finds that the two trochees in this first line and in the four lines “contribute subtly to the theme of these lines”.

Something| there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes |gaps ev|en two can pass abreast.

“How much better”, he asks, “to describe a disordered wall than in lines themselves disordered.” To me, given that only 2 out of the 20 feet are variant metrical feet (and the spondee is really only marginal) I’m not persuaded that they’re all that disordered.  I’m more apt to apply that observation to the following lines:

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones |under |his pines, |I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make |good neighbors’.
Spring is |the mischief in me, and |I wonder

In these lines, 5 out of the feet are variant. Two trochaic feet and three feminine endings.  I think these lines make a stronger case for the juncture of meter and meaning. There is a sort of excitement and mischievousness in the tone of the speaker reflected, one could argue, in the disruption of the meter. As Frost reads it, these are the most irregular lines in the poems – the moment when the two men exchange words.

Interpreting Mending Wall: (June 19 2009)

I’m adding this section because I should have written it from the beginning. But what prompted me to write it is the fascinating reading from an acquaintance of mine. He is the Director of a New England private school and in his most recent newsletter, he wrote the following about the poem:

The more I read and teach this poem. the more I find the speaker to be a condescending jerk. After inviting the neighbor to repair the wall, a tradition that clearly brings the speaker pleasure, he then makes fun of him for caring about the wall. First he assures his neighbor that his apples trees will not cross the wall to eat his pine cones. Then he imagines making an even more preposterous suggestion — that it is “elves” and not frost heaves that have toppled the wall — but decides not to mention it since his neighbor is not clever enough to come up with such an idea on his own… He ends the poem with an insult, confiding to us that the neighbor is “an old stone savage armed”.

The point being made is that the speaker’s humor comes at the expense of his neighbor. “Wall mending becomes an opportunity not to talk with his neighbor, but to sneer at him.” This is prejudice, he adds.

My own take is that there is certainly some humor at the neighbor’s expense, but the speaker of the poem gives the neighbor the final word. In other words, the poem doesn’t end with these words:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

It ends with the aphorism – Good fences make good neighbors. This is what the reader of the poem walks away with. There is a weight and seriousness in this last line, like the stones being placed back onto the wall, that undercuts the speaker’s glib humor.

Politics and Poetry - Robert FrostTyler Hoffman, in his book, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry (another one of my very favorite books on Robert Frost and dirt cheap at Amazon), actually acknowledges some of my acquaintances reservations concerning Mending Wall’s speaker. Hoffman’s observes that Frost’s own conception of the poem initially confirms the impression of the speaker’s dismissiveness. Hoffman writes:

In 1915, when the tone [of the neighbor’s aphorism] is fresher in his mind, Frost advses that this instance should be heard as expressing ‘Incredulity of the other’s dictum’ (CPPP 689). But how much sarcasm is entangled in the in the speaker’s quotation of his neighbor’s statement? The tone is held in suspension, allowing us to imagine it is said with either a shrug or a sneer.

Hoffman continues:

(…) none of the imaginable tones is flattering to the neighbor: when we hear it one way, we condemn him as smug and self-congratulatory; when we hear it another way, we write him off as a blockhead (“an old-stone savage armed”).

According to Hoffman, Frost’s acquaintance, Reginald Cook reported that Frost used to stress “I’d rather he said it for himself” in the lines:

I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself

There were evidently tonalities and “sentence sounds” that Frost lost track of as a result of repeated readings. Hoffman relates that Frost himself said (in reference to the poem’s central aphorism): “You know, I’ve read that so often I’ve sort of lost the right way to say, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ See. There’s a special way to say [it] I used to have in my imagination, and it seems to have gone down. You say it in two different ways there.”

What’s interesting about Frost’s statement is that it confirms what many readers probably sense (or may not), that there is a shift in tone from the start of the poem to the finish. The speaker’s own attitude toward his neighbor changes. Does the poem end sarcastically or does it only begin sarcastically and end with a different sort of respect. It seems that the speaker of the Mending Wall wants his neighbor to be more playful or more open to a kind of intentionality in the world’s workings. Human beings do more than build barriers. We cannot separate ourselves from the vagaries of life that, sometimes, seem almost mischievous, tearing down our most ingeniously devised walls.  The speaker wants his neighbor to say it for himself. But if one reads the poem in this sense, then it seems as though the neighbor really does move in a kind of darkness. He comes to represent that part in us that refuses to give ourselves up to a world we cannot, ultimately, control. It’s not exactly elves, but maybe something like elves. Call it impishness, perhaps.

But there’s another aspect to this poem, and that’s in knowing which character is really Robert Frost, if either. In the Road Not Taken, Frost describes the following experience:

I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home.

This sort of experience characterizes much of Frost’s poetry – Frost in conversation with himself, divided in his own beliefs and assertions. The Ordeal of Robert FrostMany of his poems are like argumentative engagements with himself. Frost himself said as much:

“I make it a rule not to take any ‘character’s side in anything I write” [RF & The Politics of Poetry p. 108]

It’s a theme that Mark Richardson recognizes in his book The Ordeal of Robert Frost. Mending Wall, he writes: “perfectly exhibits the balance he sought between dispositions  of conformity and formity. The speaker… allies himself with the insubordinate energies of spring…” Then Richardson adds:

…the association of the speaker with insubordinate natural forces should not be permitted to obscure an important fact, which has been often enough noticed: he, not the neighbor, initiates the yearly spring repair of the wall; moreover, it is again he, not the neighbor, who goes behind hunters who destroy the wall in other seasons and makes repairs. So, if the speaker is allied with the vernal mischief of spring and its insubordinations, he is nevertheless set against them in his efforts to make the stones of the wall balance and remain in place… [p. 141]

Driving the point home, Richardson closes his argument with the following:

The speaker of “Mending Wall” is obviously of two minds: at once wall-builder and wall-destroyer, at once abettor and antagonist of seasonal entropies…. The difference is that, unlike his benighted neighbor, the speaker of the poem does indeed go behind his own favored aphorism [Something there is that doesn’t love a wall] to play both sides of the fence. In short, the two opposed men in the poem fairly shape up into one, and his name is Robert Frost.

Here from The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, is Frost himself. Frost was responding to the president of Rollins College.

He took both my hands to tell me I had written a true international poem. And just to tease him I said: “How do you get that?” You know. I said I thought I’d been fair to both sides — both national [and international]. “Oh, no,” he said, “I could see what side you were on.” And I said: “The more I say I the more I always mean somebody else.” That’s objectivity, I told him. That’s the way we talked about it, kidding. That’s where the great fooling comes in. But my latest way out of it is to say: “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries. That’s man. [pp. 231-232]

George Monteiro, the essayists from whose article these quotes are taken, adds that Frost took Mending Wall “very much… as a fable.”

The Poet and his Poetry (September 25 2011)

Just as we change, the best poems change with us. When I return to Mending Wall, I read the poem in ways I didn’t before. I won’t claim that what follows represents Frost’s intentions,  just that it’s another possible way to understand it.

One of Frost’s most engaging traits, to me, was his way of putting the overly inquisitive off his trail. His metaphorical gifts were such that he could talk about himself and no listener would be the wiser. In many of his poems he slyly (and not so slyly) discusses himself, his poetry, his readers, his critics and the pushy. He merrily described this facility in his poem Woodchuck.

The Woodchuck

My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.
With those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.
All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.
We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.
And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),
If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,
It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.

It’s hard not to read Woodchuck as Frost’s sly confession regarding his attitude toward his poetry and the interpreting of it. All of his poems are like a two door borrow. He can pretend he and the world — his readers and critics — are friends, but get too close he’ll “dive down under the farm”. Don’t forget that Frost was at odds with a ‘world’ in which Free Verse was fast becoming the dominant verse form. Frost warily dodges the double-barreled blast of critics who suffer from “the loss of common sense”. Finally, we can read “crevice and burrow” as a sly reference to his poetry. He’s been instinctively thorough in his concealment and self-preservation.

Woodchuck isn’t the only poem to fit into this Frostian trick. If there was ever are more searing critique of modern verse than Etherealizing (and by extension Free Verse) then I don’t know it.

By Robert Frost

A theory if you hold it hard enough
And long enough gets rated as a creed:
Such as that flesh is something we can slough
So that the mind can be entirely freed.
Then when the arms and legs have atrophied,
And brain is all that’s left of mortal stuff,
We can lie on the beach with the seaweed
And take our daily tide baths smooth and rough.
There once we lay as blobs of jellyfish
At evolution’s opposite extreme.
But now as blobs of brain we’ll lie and dream,
With only one vestigial creature wish:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.

If you read theory as a sly reference to Pound’s preface to the anthology, “Some Imagist Poets” (as I do) then the entirety of the poem effortlessly falls in place. If modern poets hold a theory hard enough, such as the Pound’s dictums concerning poetry, then they’ll be rated a creed, in the sense of a  written body of teachings of a religious group generally accepted by that group — in a word: Dogma.

Continuing this interpretation, flesh, for Frost, is synonymous with meter and rhyme — the techniques of traditional poetry. Naturally our arms and legs will atrophy (our ability to write traditionally) and all that will be left of our poetry is “brain”. Frost’s prediction, in this respect, has proven true. Modern free verse poetry is seldom appraised for it’s skill in rhyme, meter or imagery, but largely its subject matter — in a word, brain. Two hundred years ago, a poorly written poem was readily dismissed no matter how elevated its content. Today, when the only thing that separates Free Verse from prose is ego, the poems of award winning poets are almost solely praised for their elevated and socially relevant content.

Frost compares such stuff to seaweed. With nothing left to the poetry but content (or brain) the daily tide (the vicissitudes of readers and critics) will hardly affect it whether the baths are smooth or rough. Frost is comparing free verse, and the subject matter of free free verse poets, to the amorphous jelly fish that moves whichever way the tide moves it. The jellyfish takes no stand, and can’t.

With one final kick in the rear, Frost compares the free verse poem to the blobs of brain who “lie and dream” with only “one vestigial creature wish”:

Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.

What other poems follow this pattern? Read A Considerable Speck, where the pursuit  of a mite is a droll reference to the creative process. It ends:

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Similarly, the poem For Once Then Something is Frost’s response to criticism (still made today) that his poetry is all shine and no depth. Click on the link of you want to read my interpretation. Frost’s poem Birches can also be read as an introspective consideration of the poet’s place in the modern world.  In short, there is good precedent for reading Frost’s poems as sly and subtle revelations, commentary almost, on his sense of self as poet, artist and critic. The poem Mending Wall can be read in that tradition.

To start with, remember Frost’s statement that “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries.” Read the poem as Frost in two guises, as wall builder and wall toppler.  Read the wall, perhaps, as a poem, not Mending Wall necessarily, but any poem.

Two sides of Frost, the poet, appear. There is the playful Frost, the one that wants to tease and reveal, and there is the coy Frost, the Woodchuck, who is instinctively thorough about his crevice and burrow. This is the Frost who wants to keep something out. He doesn’t know what, but something. Some kinds of poems, like walls, keep things out and keeps things in reserve and that is all the explanation needed. Nevertheless, there are readers who won’t be satisfied. They want Frost to tell them what his poems are really about. They want to take down the wall. They make “gaps even two can pass abreast”.

The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.

The hunter and critic, says the cagey Frost, leaves not one stone on a stone, but would have the rabbit, the poem’s meaning, out of hiding to please the yelping dogs — the too inquisitive public. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says the cagey Frost, but some things are better untold or hidden. He says, good fences make good neighbors and we could just as easily take that to mean that a good poem, if the poet doesn’t give too much away, makes good readers.

But Frost is of two minds and the poem stands between them. The best poem, like the best wall, is made by both Frosts (though the alliance isn’t easy). One Frost, in a sense, is all apple orchard (the brighter wood with its associations of food, family and public) and the other Frost is pine (a darker, pitchier wood that is reticent and unrevealing).

We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

The Frost that teases and revels in suggestion and misdirection will have his say — the Frost of the Apple Orchard.

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.

The public Frost, the mischievous trickster, suggests Elves. He wants to know what the other Frost is walling in or out. What is he afraid of? What is he hiding? What is he afraid to let out? But no answer comes. The cagey, darker Frost will keep his secrets. Revelation isn’t in his nature. As if commenting on the meaning of the poem itself, he answers simply but also evasively, “Good fences make good neighbors.

Read the poem this way and and we read a philosophy of poetry.

Read it like this and Frost is revealing something about himself. There are two sides and it’s in their uneasy truce that his poetry finds greatness. I don’t know if Frost was thinking along these lines when he wrote the poem, but he was a shrewd poet. This way of writing is something that shows up in his other poems.

A Comparison to Birches

In terms of the degree to which the meter differs between Mending Wall and Birches, I thought I’d post my scansion of Birches for comparison:


Birches - Color coded scansion

Something I mentioned in my previous post on Birches, is how the variant feet emphasize and reinforce the narrative of the poem. Having color coded the variant feet, Frost’s skillful use of meter is all the more visible.  The most concentrated metrical variation occurs where the narrative describes motion – movement and spectacle. This is no mistake. Poets learning to write metrically (and there must be a few of them in the world) would do well to study Frost carefully.

If you enjoyed this post or have further questions, please let me know.

It makes writing them worthwhile.

Robert Frost & Iambic Dimeter

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Dust of Snow


Robert Frost reciting “Dust of Snow”:

[Audio https://poemshape.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/dust-of-snow.mp3%5D

robert-frost-colorIambic: Unstressed syllable followed by a stressed Syllable.
Dimeter: Two Metrical Feet per line.

This lovely little poem is written in two stanzas. The rhyme of each Stanza is called a Cross Rhyme, Interlocking Rhyme, or Alternating Rhyme scheme.

Frost varies the iambic foot with anapestic feet in the first foot of the fourth line, the second foot of the fifth line and in both feet of the final line. The majority of the metrical feet are iambic, however, which is why this poem would be considered Iambic Dimeter.

Anapests are considered a variant foot when found in an Iambic Pattern.

And that’s that.

Dust of Snow - ManuscriptFor more information on any of these terms, visit my post on the basics of scansion.

And, for another poem in Iambic Dimeter, check out my own poem: A February Bat.

Edna St Vincent Millay & Trochaic Tetrameter

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I saw a couple searches for this poem and its meter. Wondering what it was, I took a look. If this post was a help to you, please let me know. I like to hear from my readers.


by Edna St. Vincent Millay

millaySorrow like a ceaseless rain
Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain,—
Dawn will find them still again;
This has neither wax nor wane,
Neither stop nor start.

People dress and go to town;
I sit in my chair.
All my thoughts are slow and brown:
Standing up or sitting down
Little matters, or what gown
Or what shoes I wear.

The poem is short and powerful. I think the meter could be read in one of several ways. Here’s what I came up with initially:

Millay's Sorrow & Scansion

This scansion reads the meter as a headless Iambic Tetrameter alternating with a headless Iambic Trimeter. The reason I initially read the poem this way was because I liked the monosyllabic emphasis on words like Beats, Dawn, I, and All.

And here are a couple other alternative readings.


A.) This scansion would read the poem as Iambic Trimeter (3 metrical feet per line) alternating with Iambic Dimeter (2 metrical feet per line) – the first foot of each line would be cretic (stressed-unstressed-stressed). I personally don’t think this is how anyone would read it.

B.) This scansion is the reverse of B. The scansion is Trochaic Trimeter alternating with Trochaic Dimeter. The last foot of each line would be cretic. Again, I just don’t have the feeling that anyone would emphasize the phrasing quite like this. The relationship between a metrical foot and how one reads the line isn’t a direct one, but there is somewhatof a relationship.

However, I think the most persuasive reading would be Trochaic Tetrameter alternating with Trochaic Trimeter. The trochaic meter would serve to reinforce the intense downward beat of the poet’s depression – the reverse of the upward, forward momentum felt in iambic meter. Also, fittingly, the reading emphasizes the monosyllabic final foot of every line – words like: rain, heart, pain, gain, brown, down (of which there are more than in the initial feet if we read the lines as Iambic and Headless.  Here is how it looks:


This reading still allows one to emphasize the initial monosyllabic words like Beats, I, and All, while giving the final monosyllabic words the the hard, driving emphasis demanded by the content of the poem.  The world is upside down, the meter is backwards, downward and incessant. The final monosyllabic feet strike like the pulse and throb of a migraine. As I’ve written in my other posts: A masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. The meter of this poem reinforces the grinding torment of depression. (Technically, the final foot in each line is missing a final unstressed syllable. I could and probably should have marked the end of each line, as I did in the first feet of the first scansion, with a missing syllable.)

A couple subtleties worth observing: Most readers, without a knowledge of meter, would probably read the second line of the second stanza as follows:

I sit | in my chair

However, if one pauses to consider the metrical pattern Millay has created, then the stress (or ictus) wants to occur on I.

I sit | in my | chair

This lovely reading, revealed by the meter, puts the emphasis where it belongs. Whereas other people “dress and go to town” I sit in my chair. The latter implies a bitterness and resentfullness that’s missing in the former reading. She sits in her chair when others go out. Not only does she resent herself, her state, her helplessness by stressing the personal pronoun I, but stressing in implies a resentment of her immobility – as though she were trapped in her chair.

In the final lines the reader also has the option of stressing the conjunctions: or.

Or what gown/Or what shoes I wear.

The meter urges us toward this reading if we have an ear for it. The stress on the conjunctive or adds to the tone and voice of bitterness. For all it’s brevity, this is a metrically brilliant and masterful poem.

One final thought: The form which this poem reminds me of the most is the ballad meter used by Emily Dickinson. Like Millay’s poem, Dickinson’s ballad meters alternated between Iambic Tetrameter and Iambic Trimeter. Millay, if this is what she had in mind, varies the pattern and turns the conventional metrical pattern upside down. (For a closer look at Dickinson’s work, read my post on Dickinson and Iambics.)

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.