Iambic Pentameter (Variants & Long Lines – II) or Tho. Middleton, his Variants, Departures & Hexameters

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This is the fourth and final post in a series on scanning Iambic Pentameter – a follow up to my first post on Iambic Pentameter Variants. This post is the deep end. It draws together what has already been discussed, shows how to apply it to some gnarly Iambic Pentameter (as tough as it gets), and adds some final variants, including Long Lines, which haven’t already been discussed. For a look at the other posts, click on the Categories Widget under About: Iambic Pentameter.

[January 11, 2009 – I did a little editing for the sake of clarity and I corrected some typos. If something seems confusing or wrong, let me know.]

This post takes a look at the first 75 lines of a play by Thomas Middleton, a contemporary and co-author of some of Shakespeare’s plays.   Middleton’s Blank Verse seems a good place to start if only because it demonstrates so many variants. I thought that showing how I read the verse (which is just my take on it) might be helpful to others.

complete-thomas-middleton

The material comes from Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. I opened the book at random to a play called Wit at Several Weapons. I had never heard of it (like much of the material in the book). Middleton is a fine dramatist (perhaps the greatest after Shakespeare) and while his gifts don’t compare to the sustained rhetoric and poetry of Shakespeare, Marlowe or even Webster, his poetry can strike like lightning – brief but brilliant.  From his most famous play, A Game at Chess, comes the lovely line: “I’m taken like a blackbird/ In the great snow.”

So far, Wit at Several Weapons is a bawdy, sexual, somewhat sinister play – not the kind of subject matter that lends itself to poetic transcendence. Describing women, Middleton (in the character of the Old Knight), writes: “They must be wooed a hundred several ways,/ Before you obtain the right way in a woman:/ ‘Tis an odd creature, full of creeks and windings,/ The serpent has not more.”

And that’s about as poetic as the play gets – the rest, poetically, is boiler plate at best.

What is more interesting, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, is just how free Middleton is with Iambic Pentameter. He was a Jacobean playwright and he, along with other Jacobean playwrights, took Iambic Pentameter to the breaking point (and beyond) – likewise Webster and Massinger. The rigor of blank verse as much as dissolves with these poets. The verse form wasn’t to see such experimentation again for almost 300 years – the 20th Century.

First, here is the opening of the play, uninterrupted. Or, you can skip this and get on with the analysis.

The First 75 Lines

thomas-middleton1WittyPate

Sir, I’m no boy, I’m deep in one-and-twenty,
The second year’s approaching.

Old Knight

A fine time
If e’er he mean to make account of any.

WittyPate

Wits, sir?

Old Knight

Ay, wits, sir; if it be so strange to thee
I’m sorry I spent that time to get a fool,
I might have employed my pains a great deal better.
Thou know’st all that I have I ha’ got by my wits,
And yet to see how urgent thou art too;
It grieves me thou art so degenerate
To trouble me for means; I never offered it
My parents from a schoolboy; past nineteen once
(See what these times are grown too!), before twenty
I rushed into the world, which is indeed
Much like the art of swimming; he that will attain to’t
Must fall plump, and duck himself at first,
And that will make him hardy and adventurous
And not stand putting in one foot, and shiver,
And then draw t’other after, like a quake-buttock;
Well he may make a paddler i’ the world,
From hand to mouth, but never a brave swimmer,
Borne up by th’ chin, as I bore up myself
With my strong industry that never failed me;
For he that lies borne up with patrimonies
Looks like a long great ass that swims with bladders:
Come but one prick of adverse fortune to him
He sinks, because he never tried to swim,
When wit plays with the billows that choked him.

WittyPate

Why, is it not a fashion for a father, sir,
Out of his yearly thousands to allow
His only son a competent brace of hundreds,
Or such a toy?

the-witch-by-middleton

Yes, if he mean to spoil him
Or mar his wits he may, but never I.
This is my humour, sir, which you’ll find constant;
I love wit so well, because I live by’t,
That I’ll give no man power out of my means to hurt it,
And that’s a kind of gratitude to my raiser,
Which great ones oft forget. I admire much
This age’s dullness. When I scarce writ man,
The first degree that e’er I took  in thriving,
I lay intelligencer close for wenching,
Could give this lord or knight a true certificate
Of all the maidenheads extant; how many lay
‘Mongst chambermaids, how many ‘mongst Exchange wenches
(Though never many there, I must confess,
They have a trick to utter ware so fast);
I knew which lady had a mind to fall,
Which gentlewoman new divorced, which tradesman breaking,
The price of every sinner to a hair
And where to raise each price; which were the termers
That would give velvet petticoats, tissue gowns,
Which pieces, angels, suppers, and half-crowns:
I knew how to match and make my market,
Could give intelligence where the pox lay ledger,
And then to see the lechers shift a point,
‘Twas sport and profit too; how they would shun
Their adored mistress’ chambers, and run fearfully
Like rats from burning houses! So brought I
My clients o’ the game still safe together,
And noble gamesters loved me, and I felt it:
Give me a man that lives by his wits, say I,
And never left a groat, there’s the true gallant.
When I grew somewhat pursy, I grew then
In men’s opinions too, and confidences;
They put things called executorships upon me,
The charge of orphans, little senseless creatures,
Whom in their childhoods I bound forth to feltmakers,
To make ’em lose and work away their gentry,
Disguise their tender nature with hard custom,
So wrought ’em out in time: there I risse ungently;
Nor do I fear to discourse this unto thee,
I’m armed at all points against treachery.
I hold my humour firm; if I can see thee thrive by thy wits while I live, I shall have the more courage to trust thee with my lands when I die; if not, the next best wit I can hear of carries ’em: for since in my time and knowledge so many rich children of the City conclude in beggary, I’d rather make a wise stranger my executor than a foolish son my heir, and to have my lands called after my wit, thou after my name; and that’s my nature.

The First 75 Lines & Patrick Gillespie: His Interjections

Couple things needing to be said: I wasn’t alive 400 years ago. I don’t know how actors actually spoke their lines or how the Dramatists actually conceived of meter. Nobody has to agree with me. This is just how I have learned to read blank verse, both by reading other scholars on the subject and my own efforts to master the form. Also, I don’t want to give the impression that iambic pentameter overrules any other consideration. Not everything should or needs to be fitted to the iambic pattern. It’s art and instinct.   

WittyPate

Sir, I’m no boy, I’m deep in one-and-twenty,
The second year’s approaching.

Old Knight

A fine time

So far, the lines are easily identifiable as Iambic Pentameter. The first line is 11 syllables, ending with a feminine ending (a very common variant), the second is divided at the fourth foot between the two speakers: The second year’s approaching / A fine time. But the next line seems to out & out break with the Iambic Pentameter pattern:

For a youth to live by his wits, then, I should think,

This is a 12 syllable line; but is it hexameter and is it iambic hexameter? Hexameter lines, or long lines, are infrequent but accepted departures from the iambic pentameter pattern in blank verse. They can be found in Shakespeare & become more frequent after him. However, one way to tell if one is dealing with a hexameter line is to count metrical feet. If one simply counts off a foot at every two syllables, then one ends up with this:

for-a-youth-to-live-by-his-wits-trochaic

This would be a Hexameter line, but with too many variant feet to be called Iambic; and would break completely with the Iambic Pentameter pattern of blank verse. The scansion would be very doubtful given the expectations of the time. The division of the feet also works against the phrasing – and this is where scansion is part art and part science. As I mentioned in my previous post, especially as concerns anapests, one sometimes allows the phrasing to define the metrical foot. So, with that in mind, we end up with:

for-a-youth-to-live-by-his-wits-anapestic

This variation is not inconceivable in Jacobean Blank Verse, as far as variants go, but two anapests in a single line is unlikely. One of the advantages to the regularity of Iambic Pentameter, in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, is that it made the script easier for actors to remember. And that was important. They were frequently acting several different plays during a given week. So, while the line above doesn’t bare the mark of Elision or Eclipsis (as it might have just ten years earlier) it’s a safe bet that the line was probably pronounced as though the anapests were elided.

for-a-youth-to-live-by-his-wits-iambic

In this case, the line is felt, rhythmically, like Iambic Pentameter. The phrase For a is spoken quickly, the a almost disappearing. In the third foot, by his, becomes  by’s wits. The whole line, in this wise, has the effect of being spoken quickly or trippingly, as Shakespeare might have said. That said, the line will still have an anapestic ring to it. Poets from this period were content to introduce anapests that could be elided. The effect is a kind of grey area. They were paying lip service to the iambic pattern without being slavish. In the hands of the Jacobean poets, though, such grey areas were frequently overplayed, as in the line above.


If e’er he mean to make account of any.

Notice that ever is elided to read e’er through syncope (the removal of a letter or syllable from the middle of a word) [Sister Miriam Joseph: Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 52]. In this case, either the copyist or Middleton chose to deliberately spell out the elision and, by extension,  his concern that the Iambic rhythm be maintained.  (And this is the curious feature of this and the play in general. There’s a kind of schizophrenic  attentiveness to the meter. On the one hand, as with the line before this one, Middleton or the copyist doesn’t seem concerned with the meter or with indicating where the actors should elide words. Should we care about the meter? Then, with the very next line, Middleton or the copyist elides ever. Does he or doesn’t he care? Here’s my theory:

The iambic meter mattered.

However, Middleton and his contemporaries were frequently writing with great haste and they weren’t thinking of their works as poems to be read by the public. 1.) These plays were to be performed by actors drenched in the practice of performing blank verse – some having performed for and with Shakespeare and Marlowe. Middleton probably didn’t find it necessary to spell out every instance of elision, knowing the actors would “normalize” the lines. 2.) He may have simply overlooked such indications in the haste of writing. 3.) Few plays from this period survive in the author’s original hand. Texts were frequently altered by copyists if only because they couldn’t read the Dramatist’s hand writing.

All these may sound like rationalizations, but the play to remember is Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. This play electrified the public and other Dramatists not just for its subject matter – the drama – but for the genius of its blank verse. The verse form was part and parcel of the drama and dramatists were, in part, appraised by their use of it. These were heady times for the English language.

WittyPate

Wits, sir?

Old Knight

Ay, wits, sir; if it be so strange to thee
I’m sorry I spent that time to get a fool,

The phrase sorry I spent can be elided so that the y and I combine if spoken quickly, somewhat maintaining the Iambic beat.

I might have employed my pains a great deal better.

This line can be elided to read something like: I might ha’employed my pains… (You might think this is a stretch, but Middleton employs this very elision in the next line.)

Thou know’st all that I have I ha’ got by my wits,

This is a deceptively difficult line to scan because of our modern habits of speech. In this case, the subject matter of the Old Knight’s speech gives us a clue. Namely, he’s talking about himself. So, the line could be scanned as follows:

all-that-i-have

George Wright calls this a heavy feminine ending (the final extra syllable in the fifth foot being an intermediate or strong stress). I would be more apt to call it a double closing, (which would then relate it to the double onset – which is what Wright calls an anapestic first foot or anacrusis). But calling the fifth foot in the line above a heavy feminine ending makes sense too (and in the end, it just doesn’t matter). Middleton and other Jacobean poets were  increasingly fond of the heavy feminine ending while Shakespeare used it with considerable restraint. The ending allows for greater flexibility but also threatens the rhythm of blank verse. It’s one of the reasons the verse of the Jacobean theater sounds more diffuse, less disciplined and memorable than the earlier verse – (though perhaps only in my opinion).


And yet to see how urgent thou art too;
It grieves me thou art so degenerate

These two lines firmly reestablish the Iambic Pentameter pattern by precluding the need for elipsis. So far, it has been possible to read most of the lines within an iambic and pentameter pattern . But now comes the next line.


To trouble me for means; I never offered it

This is the first line which seems to defy elision. Using syncope, one might be able to elide never to ne’er, but that creates an anapest.

to-trouble-anapestic

This is an acceptable variant and an acceptable scansion, but I’m more inclined to think that we have our first hexameter line.

to-trouble-hexameter

In this case, knowing to what degree anapests were avoided, it makes more sense to me that Middleton would opt to preserve the iambic rhythm – though it makes the line Iambic Hexameter rather than Iambic Pentameter.

My parents from a schoolboy; past nineteen once

I read the line above is an eleven syllable line with a heavy feminine ending.

(See what these times are grown too!), before twenty
I rushed into the world, which is indeed
Much like the art of swimming; he that will attain to’t

And this line beginning Much like is an archly variant line. When I first read it I was completely baffled. I think, though, that it is still an acceptable variant within the larger Iambic Pentameter passage – if only by the slimmest of margins and only on a – once every hundred lines – basis. But that’s just my aesthetic opinion. The verdict? I think it’s a hexameter line with a heavy feminine ending. Middleton can get away with it, perhaps, because the hexameter line is an accepted variant (to judge by the writing of contemporaneous playwrights) and because the heavy feminine ending was, by that time, accepted. Here is how I scan it.

hexameter reading of attain to't

Notice the elision of to it to to’t, as if Middleton knew he was getting away with something. Now this is stretching the limits – expecting an ostensibly 14 syllable line to be an acceptable deviation from a 10 syllable iambic pentameter pattern! Yet, there you have it. The great master himself, William Shakespeare, sometimes peppered his blank verse with hexameter lines. Here is the precedent (taken from Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, Page 147).

How dares thy harsh rude tongue sound this unpleasing news? (Richard II, 3.4.74)

Fleeter than arrows, bullets, wind, thought, swifter things (Love’s Labor’s Lost 5.2.261)

It’s worth stressing that not all metrists accept Hexameter lines as an allowable variant. Some metrists try to regularize all lines so that they fit the iambic pentameter grid. But I don’t see how it can be done in all cases and I tend not to be dogmatic but pragmatic. I can’t see how any metrist could possibly regularize Middleton’s line. I find it easier to believe, given the practice of their day, that hexameters were understood as a “legal” variant.

Must fall plump, and duck himself at first,

The line above is missing an unstressed syllable in the first foot – commonly called a headless line.

headless-line

And that will make him hardy and adventurous
And not stand putting in one foot, and shiver,

The two lines above both end with feminine endings.


And then draw t’other after, like a quake-buttock;

This is another odd line. The iambic pentameter of the blank verse is at the breaking point. I read the line as having a heavy feminine ending – buttock was probably pronounced like butt’ck, syncope reducing a two syllable word to, essentially, one.


Well he may make a paddler i’ the world,
From hand to mouth, but never a brave swimmer,

The line above works as long as one doesn’t put too much stress on brave. The fourth foot would be phyrric and the last foot another feminine ending. Thus:

never-a-brave-swimmer

The two lines, more firmly iambic pentameter, help re-establish the, up to now, heavily varying meter.


Borne up by th’ chin, as I bore up myself

The line above is firmly iambic with the elision of by th’chin to b’th’chin. If you think this is extreme, compare it to Shakespeare: I had rather be set quick i’th’earth. Such elision was normal practice at the time and reflects a syllabic ambiguity which poets of the day seemed to take for granted. Many hypermetrical syllables can be elided in this fashion and apparently were.

With my strong industry that never failed me;
For he that lies borne up with patrimonies
Looks like a long great ass that swims with bladders:
Come but one prick of adverse fortune to him

All the lines above are firmly iambic with feminine endings.

He sinks, because he never tried to swim,
When wit plays with the billows that choked him.

I read the last line as having a phyrric in the fourth foot and a spondaic in the fifth. All in all, these last six lines have re-established the iambic pentameter pattern.

WittyPate

Why, is it not a fashion for a father, sir,

I read this line as having what is called a triple ending – when two unstressesed syllables follow the final stressed syllable of the fifth foot: essentially a feminine ending with an extra unstressed syllable. Thus:

triple-ending

There are also examples of triple endings in Shakespeare.

Out of his yearly thousands to allow
His only son a competent brace of hundreds,

In the line above, syncope reduces competent to comp’tent, mainting a strong iambic rhythm.

Or such a toy?

Old Knight

Yes, if he mean to spoil him
Or mar his wits he may, but never I.
This is my humour, sir, which you’ll find constant;
I love wit so well, because I live by’t,

I read the line above as being headless with a strong feminine ending. An acceptable variant after four strongly iambic pentameter lines.


That I’ll give no man power out of my means to hurt it,

The line above reads like a 14 syllable line by modern standards! However, according to the practice of the day, power can be read (as now) as having one syllable, while out of my could be elided to something like out’o’my means. This would make the line standard iambic pentameter with a feminine ending. It might scan as follows:

out-of-my-means-iambic-reading

Another possibility would be to give power two syllables, making the line hexameter with a feminine ending. I personally find this latter reading more believable:

out-of-my-means-hexameter-reading

This elides of my to o’my – such that the preposition of almost disappears. This is more easily within the practicable elision of the day.

And that’s a kind of gratitude to my raiser,

Gratitude was probably pronounced grat’tude, maintaing the iambic meter with a feminine ending.


Which great ones oft forget. I admire much
This age’s dullness. When I scarce writ man,
The first degree that e’er I took  in thriving,
I lay intelligencer close for wenching,
Could give this lord or knight a true certificate

Certificate can be read as certif’cate, making the ending feminine, or the line can be treated as having a triple ending. So far, though, another long stretch of Iambic Pentameter.

Of all the maidenheads extant; how many lay

To me, the line above is most easily read as a Hexameter line.

Mongst chambermaids, how many ‘mongst Exchange wenches

I read the line above as another line with a triple ending. Thus:

exchange-wenches-triple-ending

(Though never many there, I must confess,
They have a trick to utter ware so fast);
I knew which lady had a mind to fall,

The three lines above, perfectly iambic, reestablish the meter.


Which gentlewoman new divorced, which tradesman breaking,

This is an interesting line. It’s probably easiest read as another Hexameter (with a feminine ending). If one is determined to regularize the line, one might use sycnope to quickly slur the last three syllables of gentlewomen (such that, in effect, the word is reduced to two syllables).

The price of every sinner to a hair
And where to raise each price; which were the termers
That would give velvet petticoats, tissue gowns,

Petticoats was probably pronounced Pett’coats, maintaining the Iambic rhythm.

Which pieces, angels, suppers, and half-crowns:
I knew how to match and make my market,

The line above is headless, the stress on I. (Remember, the Old Knight is bragging about himself.) Thus:

i-knew-how-headless-reading

Understanding the rules and standards of the day, the reading above is far more likely than an anapestic reading:

i-knew-how-anapestic-reading

Such a reading as above would be to bring a 21rst Century sensibility to a 17th Century aesthetic.

Could give intelligence where the pox lay ledger,

Intelligence was most likely pronounced intell’gence, again maintaining the iambic line.

And then to see the lechers shift a point,
‘Twas sport and profit too; how they would shun
Their adored mistress’ chambers, and run fearfully

Fearfully could be read as fearf’lly, a feminine ending, or as a triple ending. Either would be acceptable. Frequent triple  endings were certainly more frequent among Jacobean playwrights.

Like rats from burning houses! So brought I
My clients o’ the game still safe together,
And noble gamesters loved me, and I felt it:
Give me a man that lives by his wits, say I,

By his wits was probably elided to read by’s wits – maintaining the iambic pattern.

And never left a groat, there’s the true gallant.
When I grew somewhat pursy, I grew then
In men’s opinions too, and confidences;
They put things called executorships upon me,

Executorships was probably pronounced exec’torships, making the line iambic pentameter with a feminine ending.

The charge of orphans, little senseless creatures,
Whom in their childhoods I bound forth to feltmakers,

Reading the line above as an Iambic Pentameter line with a triple ending.

To make ’em lose and work away their gentry,
Disguise their tender nature with hard custom,
So wrought ’em out in time: there I risse ungently;

Risse means rose. The line is hard to read. Most likely, there I can be elided:

there-i-risse-elision

Another possibility is to treat the colon as a midline break (which is what it is in either case) and the phrase there I risse as being a kind of double onset for the next phrase (there I being two unstressed syllables before risse). Remember, a double onset is when an iambic pentameter line begins with an extra unstressed syllable: Not a word, a word, we stand upon our manners (Wright P. 170). This would be, in effect, a reverse of the Epic Caesuras, a very common feature in Shakespeare’s works. For example:

seven-ages-epic-caesuras

This is from As You Like It 2.7.43. Notice the extra unstressed syllable at the midline break.

Nor do I fear to discourse this unto thee,
I’m armed at all points against treachery.

It’s hard to regularize these last two lines. Even in Jacobean England, I doubt that they would have acted the lines as follows:

final-couplet

I’ll be blunt. They’re clumsy. They’re bad lines. The second line could be read as having two anapests – at all points | against treach |. But this isn’t any less clumsy by the standards of blank verse.  The lines were ultimately written for the rhyme of thee and treachery. It was traditional, sometimes, to signal the end of a soliloquy or extended speech with a rhyming couplet, but the rhyme, in this case, is poorly executed and not a true rhyme. This may not be a sign of Middleton’s incompetence. It may simply be haste. (Dramatists in these days weren’t writing for posterity but for money – and new plays were needed fast, fast, fast!)

middleton-textual-companionThe clumsy meter and rhyme could also reflect on the character of the Knight (although I always doubt these sorts of readings; but it’s possible). After all, the Old Knight is a blow hard and just as he speaks these last two lines he collapses into prose – a curious effect and not often seen mid-speech in the theater of the day. It were as if the old blowhard simply gave up on the pretense of blank verse, exhausted by it, falling into the matter-of-fact discourse of prose – (similar to the rapid fire list of side-effects at the end of a drug commercial).

All in all, I would have to say that Middleton’s blank verse, at least in this opening act,  is only just passable. The frequent variants and long lines weaken the overall pattern, sapping it of its vigor and rigorousness.  The enjambment and end-stopping is varied, more so than with many of our modern “formalist” poets, but the effect is diluted by the frequent feminine and triple endings. It’s not good blank verse but it’s blank verse as the Jacobeans practiced it.

The passage demonstrates the wild side of Jacobean Blank Verse.

Iambic Pentameter & Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

  • January 10 2011 Updated Scansion.
  • March 19 2009 John Donne & his Sonnet Death be not proud… . [This sonnet is so misread by contemporary readers that it might as well be a companion to this post on Shakespeare’s sonnet.]
  • A companion guide to this one is the Annotated To be or Not to be. Don’t forget to check out some of my poetry while you’re picking my brains – I do write some good stuff. And let me know if this was helpful or if, especially, there’s a question you would like answered. I have written other posts on Iambic Pentameter including guides to the scansion of Iambic Pentameter (with more examples  from Shakespeare) and a look at Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter. I just completed a guide to Shakespearean, Petrarchan and Spenserian Sonnets. I’ve also written a detailed guide to Haiku (if you’re interested). (Further links on other Sonnets are at the bottom of this post.) According to my Stats page, this has become one of my most popular posts; and no one is commenting! Just say hello or thanks – I like hearing from readers.
  • February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost, you might like reading Birches along with a color coded scansion of Birches included in my post on Frost’s Mending Wall. To find all the posts I’ve written on Robert Frost, click here.
  • 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. :-)

william-shakespeareWhat possible use could scansion be?

A masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. In Shakespeare’s hands, the meter tells us about the writer, the speaker of the sonnet – something we might easily miss.

Meter is of no use to free verse poets or reader’s of free verse. But to poet’s writing meter, it provides a tool, an extra layer of meaning, counterpoint and play. And to readers of metered poetry, knowing that there’s an underlying pattern informs the language and meaning of the poem. In the hands of a skilled poet (Shakespeare, Keats, Wilbur, Frost, Browning), the tension between language and meter is an art form.

I’ll look at other poets and poems, because it’s fun to do, like sleuthing, but I wanted to start with Sonnet 116 because it’s so famous and so frequently misread. These days, I suspect most readers, without a knowledge of meter, would read the poem as follows:

modern-scansion

This reading would be acceptable if this were a free verse poem. Since there’s no metrical pattern in free verse one is free to put the emphasis (ictus) wherever one wishes (within reason) , depending on ones subjective interpretation of the poem. But, in Shakespeare’s day, so many variants in so short a space would have landed him in critical hot water with his contemporaries and with the reading public. (In his shorter poems, at least, Shakespeare was much more conservative, leaving the more daring flights of metrical variation to his contemporary, John Donne – who was, regularly, skewered for his turgid meter and blank verse.)  But the first line’s two trochaic feet (Let me | not to ) would have been daring even for Donne – (trochaic feet are the reverse of iambic feet in that the stressed syllable is first and the unstressed second). Two such variant feet at the start of a sonnet was practically unheard of. Only one of John Donne’s Sonnets, the most controversial metrist of the day, could be construed to begin with two trochaic feet.

scansion-donne-sonnet-xvi

Yet even here, knowing that Donne was a skillful master of diction and meter, one could consider an alternate reading (and one should, whenever diction appears to run against a meter’s pattern):

scansion-donne-sonnet-xvi-iambic1

Stressing the preposition of isn’t as awkward as it might seem. Even in modern speech we sometimes stress the preposition of – as in: Well, you know, part of the fun is getting drunk. It’s a sort of sly tone of voice which, in the case of Donne’s sonnet, fits with his argument. It’s a tone of voice Donne could be angling for, made possible only if one considers the meter. The same can be said of the second line. The temptation is to read Son as strongly stressed and Thy as weakly stressed. But in keeping with the tone of the first line, putting the stress on Thy reinforces that Donne is addressing “Father” and doing so with a direct, knowing tone of voice. There is no way to know whether this is actually what Donne intended, but the reading is reinforced by the poem’s Iambic pattern.

Likewise, there’s a tone to Shakespeare’s sonnet that we miss if we fail to take the meter into account. Here is how Shakespeare most likely expected his sonnet to be read.

  • January 10, 2011: I decided to bring this scansion “up to date”.  As opposed to before, I’ve left all Iambic feet unmarked so the scansion is less cluttered. I’ve chosen to mark the “weak” Iambic feet, marked in yellow with weak stresses, as Pyrrhic feet, although others might be inclined to mark them as Iambic. The two feminine endings, ne|ver shaken and be taken are marked green. The Spondaic feet are purple.


The sonnet takes on a different tone and, to a certain extent, meaning. Where the first scansion has a sort of elegiac sound to it – a sort of contemplation on love – the second reading gives it a more inflected sound, as if the poet were writing with an unspoken agenda – (Shakespeare was nothing if not a dramatist).

For example, in the iambic version, the line sounds almost defensive: Let me not admit impediments – as if he were responding to some sort of accusation. Don’t accuse me of denying true love. Here is what I believe. In this wise, taking into account the pull of the iambic meter, we are already starting with a very different tone to the sonnet – in keeping with the other sonnets of his collection. They are all written as though in conversation – as though the speaker of the poet were responding to another speaker, or character, whose statements we can only hear through Shakespeare’s responses. Each one is like a monologue in a play.

Consider the change in line two:

modern-scansion-love-is-not-love

Versus:

iambic-scansion-love-is-not-love

The first is how a modern reader usually reads the close of the second line. The second reading follows the Iambic pattern of the sonnet. The second reading, putting stress on the verb – isadds emphasis to Shakespeare’s argument, emphasis which a modern reading lacks.

At the start of the third line we have another choice:

modern-scansion-which-alters-when

Versus:

iambic-scansion-which-alters-when

While a pyrrhic foot isn’t unheard of in sonnets of the time, the iambic reading adds emphasis to the argument of the sonnet. Love doesn’t alter when it alteration finds. The emphasis almost lends a tone of sarcasm or perhaps scorn. Again, the iambic pentameter acts as a sort of prompter, hinting at how the sonnet should be read, in what tone and inflection.

Line five tends to be misread by inexperienced readers, especially when reading unaccented versions of the poem, which frequently print the word fixéd as fixed:

O no, it is an ever fixed mark.

modern-scansion-an-ever-fixed

The accented é indicates that the -éd of fixéd makes the word two syllables rather than one. Even in an unmarked edition, however, experienced readers of Iambic Pentameter, simply through familiarity with metrical poems, will quickly hear the missing syllable and instinctively read fixéd as two syllables.

iambic-scansion-an-ever-fixed

The seventh line is the next that typically diverges between modern readers and the iambic pattern. The iambic reading renders that line as follows:

iambic-scansion-it-is-the-star1

Notice that, once again, the verb is is accented. While modern readers might read this first foot as being pyrrhic (two unaccented syllables), accenting the verb adds emphasis to Shakespeare’s argument. No, he seems to be saying, it is the ever fixéd mark, it is the star. It almost feels as though he is disagreeing with someone who claims that love isn’t any of these things. And notice too, the -ery of every is elided, making it a two syllable word -though most modern readers would read it this way.

The eleventh line is the next where the emphasis differs between the iambic line and modern readers. Notice the emphasis on his implied by the iambic meter.

iambic-scansion-his-brief-hours

It’s the equivalent of saying: His brief hours and weeks won’t alter love! Once again, it’s a difference of emphasis. The iambic reading is more emphatic and more dynamic. Immediately following is a line that most would read as a variant iambic line – reading even as two syllables. Although Shakespeare doesn’t use syncope to change even to e’en, the tradition of eliding these words is well-enough established, especially in poetry of this period, that we can safely do so.

iambic-scansion-even-to-the-edge

If a line can be read so that it conforms to an iambic pentameter reading, especially in poetry during this period (and for the two centuries following too) then it probably should be read that way. (Note: Robert Frost took to calling these feet loose iambs, by which he meant that a foot could conform to an iambic rhythm depending on pronunciation.  It’s a useful term and reflects a convention that metrical poets have known about for hundreds of years.) Anyway, the elision of words in metrical poems is like the performance of trills in baroque and classical music. It was simply assumed that the reader (or performer in the case of music) understood the conventions of the day. Those conventions didn’t need to be spelled out. That was a long time ago, though. Nowadays, those conventions need to be relearned if one wants to read a poem the way it was read in its day. In a similar vein, and during the last thirty years, old conventional practices were relearned and rediscovered in classical music performance. These days, such performances are called Historically Informed Performances. Likewise, reading a Sonnet or Blank Verse passage with an awareness of the metrical pattern underlying it, might as well be called Historically Informed Readings.

[Just as an aside. Tooting my own horn. Helen Vendler states the following: “No reader, to my knowledge, has seen Let me not to the marriage of true minds as a coherent refutation of the extended implied argument of an opponent, and this represents an astonishing history of critical oversight.” Well, I’ve been reading this sonnet (most of them for that matter)  in just this fashion for over 20 years. Her book was published in 1997. So, Helen, if you should read this blog, take comfort. You weren’t the first.]

So far,  the rhymes have alternated ABAB, CDCD, EFEF. Now comes the final couplet, GG – a Shakespearean Sonnet. Shakespearean Sonnets heat the metal through the first 12 lines then, when the working out of the argument is white hot, he lays it to the anvil and strikes:

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

My intention hasn’t been to interpret the poem, though some interpretation arises simply by reading it through the lense of meter. Many critics are troubled by the series of negatives in this poem and in its last line – never, nor, no. I’m not as troubled by the negatives. Shakespeare’s last line is almost a dare. I dare you to prove me wrong! Even in offering the possibility that he could be proved in error, he (almost sarcastically) refutes the possibility by offering the impossible retort that proving such an error would mean he never writ and that no man ever loved. Since we know already that he wrote and that men have loved, Shakespeare urges us toward the inevitable conclusion that he will never be proven in error.

The one metrical nicety to notice is in the final line. An iambic reading urges the following:

iambic-scansion-nor-no-man-ever

Notice the iambic emphasis on no. The modern reader might be tempted to gloss over the third foot as pyrrhic (see the “modern” scansion above), putting the emphasis on man. The iambic reading gives extra force to no, lending to the poet’s voice a kind of anger – as if both daring to be proven wrong and contemptuously dismissive of any effort to try. Go ahead, he seems to say, try! Prove me wrong! If you do, then no man ever loved! The equanimity of a modern reading, of an innocent love poem, vanishes. This is a sonnet with a transcendent axe to grind.

Reading the poem by the meter, we discover a very different kind of poem – one of refutation, of a speaker refuting an unspoken argument, not of impersonal definition. In this third post on Iambic Pentameter, I wanted to demonstrate just how powerfully a knowledge of scansion can inform and alter a poem’s meaning. If you have any questions or comments, please post.

February 4rth 2013: I was asked if I could read 116. What follows is about my 21rst try.  I wanted to communicate the sense that this is half of an argument, like a speech in one of Shakespeare’s plays. See what you think:

I’ll be examining more poems as time permits – especially Robert Frost.

Follow up posts:

Thomas Middleton’s Blank Verse

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter

Shakespeare & his Sonnet 145

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

Spenser’s Sonnet 75

John Milton’s Sonnet: When I consider…

And…

Check it out…