The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter – II

  • If you’re coming to this post after having gotten a notification — what a mess. WordPress initially insisted on dating it to 2012. Don’t know why. I copied the contents of the original into this new one, but parts of the post were missing (I soon discovered). I think it’s all in one piece now. If something looks like it’s missing, let me know. May 7 2013

In my last post on this subject, I wrote that at some point I would get around to poetizing the rest of North’s passage. This pot has been simmering on the back burner for over a year. I don’t know if my effort is helpful to others, but I enjoy the process. This post isn’t quite so detailed or methodical as the other, since there’s no point in altogether repeating what was said before. Nevertheless, I’ve followed much the same process. Here again, are the two relevant paragraphs from North’s Plutarch:

antony-and-cleopatra-1-largeTherefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters, both Antonius himself and also from his friends, she made light of it and mocked Antonius so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her.

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


As I wrote before, this choice piece of purple prose was written by Thomas North – a translation of a French work by Jacques Amyot which was itself a translation from Plutarch – a Greek historian who wrote while Nero was emperor of Rome. Plutarch was describing Cleopatra’s shrewd and calculating courtship of Antony. So, as before, I took the paragraph and lineated it. Voila! We now have free verse. See? The easiest verse form in the history of literature.

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

I essentially limited each line to between 9 and 11 syllables. For some who are learning to write Iambic Pentameter, this can help make the transition manageable. Write out your poem as a paragraph, then break down the paragraph into lines having 9 to eleven syllables each. Don’t Cleopatra and Antony -Colored Pencil, Copyrightedworry about meter. (Interestingly, a strong Iambic rhythm was more typical of prose writers during the Elizabethan period. Some passages can be broken down into blank verse with very few changes.) Once this is done, you can think about each line rather than the paragraph as a whole. If you’re trying to write a sonnet, then something like this is more difficult. Not only do you have to think about rearranging the letters metrically, but you also have to rhyme without being obvious. Easier, if you’re first learning, to limit yourself to blank verse (unrhymed Iambic Pentameter).

For the next step, I rearranged the words in the lines so that they would fall into an Iambic pattern. Unlike last time, I didn’t try to write as strict an Iambic Pentameter line. For the most part, the trick is in weeding out the anapests. Anapests are a permitted and common variant foot in blank verse, but too many spoil the broth. I also wanted to limit them so that a reader can see how I re-arranged phrases to avoid them. I forcefully broke down the feet as though I were trying to read the lines as Iambic Pentameter (Tetrameter in some cases) — a little arbitrary. That shows me not only anapests but many trochaic feet. I ‘m going to have iron that all out.

Her lad|ies and gent|lewom|en also,
the fair|est of them|were appar|elled like
the nymphs |Nerei|des (which are| the mermaids
of the wat|ers) and like|the Grac|es, some
[5]steering |the helm, |others |tending |the tackle
and ropes |of the barge|, out of| the which| there came
a wond|erful |passing |sweet sa|vor of
perfumes, |that per|fumed the| wharf’s side, |pestered
with innum|erable mul|titudes| of people.
[10]Some of |them fol|lowed the barge| all alongst
the riv|er’s side; |others| also| ran out
of the cit|y to see |her com|ing in;
so that |in the end |there ran |such mul|titudes
of peop|le one af|ter ano|ther to see
[15]her that |Anton|ius |was left |post-alone
in the mark|et-place |in his |imper|ial seat
to give aud|ience.:


So it’s a mess. This is the way I see it after I’ve lineated it. Obviously, I’ve got my work cut out for me. So did Shakespeare. He saw the same prose that you do and went through a similar process. There’s going to be cutting, moving around, and rephrasing. Here’s how Shakespeare did it (though probably without having to think too much about it):

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

And here’s my first go. I made some interpretative changes for the fun of it but also left some of the lines relatively intact. I’ve also used a number of feminine endings (lines that end in an extra weak/unstressed syllable). So, I’ve given myself a little more freedom than last time.

Her ladies and her gentlewomen also,
The fairest were appareled like the nymphs –
The Nereides (which sailors call the mermaids) –
While others, like the Graces, steered the helm
Or moved like apparitions tending tackle
And rope. Out of the barge there came a savor
Of perfume, scenting the wharf, its byways pestered
With multitudes of people. Some of them
Followed the barge along the river’s side
While every street and alley multiplied
Their number such that in the end there ran
So great a crowd some claimed the dam was broken
And all the city’s tributaries emptied
To never be put back. Antonius
Was left to keep the marketplace alone
His vain imperial seat of no more use
Than were a galley in a sun-burnt desert
The tide that brought it there a whistling dust
And nothing more.

Her lad|ies and| her gent|lewom|en also,
The fair|est were |appar|elled like| the nymphs –
The Ner|eides |(which sail|ors call |the mermaids) –
cleopatraposter_thumbWhile o|thers, like| the Grac|es, steered |the helm
Or moved |like ap|pari|tions tend|ing tackle
And rope. |Out of| the barge| there came| a savor
Of per|fume, scen|ting the wharf, |its by|ways pestered
With mul|titudes |of peo|ple. Some| of them
Followed |the barge| along |the ri|ver’s side
While e|very street |and al|ley mul|tiplied
Their num|ber such |that in| the end| there ran
So great |a crowd |some claimed| a dam |was broken
And all | the ci|ty’s tri|butar|ies emp|tied
To ne|ver be| put back. |Anton|ius
Was left |to keep| the mar|ketplace| alone
His vain |imper|ial seat| of no| more use
Than were |a gal|ley in |a sun-|burnt desert,
The tide |that brought| it there| a whist|ling dust
And no|thing more.

That’s okay, but I think I can do better. I’m going to change, re-arrange and add to what I’ve already written. This time, I deliberately avoided looking at Shakespeare’s version (though it’s hard not to remember and I have given him a nod or two). Also, I’ve touched up the previous passage just a little. Modern purists might be outraged by the touch of elision in the final line. Call it my sense of humor. It makes (and made) blank verse so much easier to write. If you’re writing modern blank verse, don’t do it. You need an advanced poetic license for this kind of devilry.

Enobarbus: Anotonius, together with his friends,
Sent for her.
Agrippa: How did she answer?
Enobarbus: ····················She mocked them.
Agrippa: Mocked them?
Enobarbus: ············Made light of them. Disdained them.
Agrippa: ········································································How?
Enobarbus: She answered under purple sails – her barge
Put on the river. Flute, viol and cithern
Played, and the oars struck water to their rhythm.
The poop was gold; gold glittered in its wake
As though the sun strew petals after her.
As for the Queen herself, she lay bedecked
Like Aphrodite under cloth of gold
Of tissue; poor in clothing, profligate
Without, her artifice surfeiting most
Where she most starved. On either side stood boys,
Like love-struck Cupidons, fanning her
With multi-colored wings — or so it seemed
To the gathered at the water’s edge — their eager
And unschooled apprehension peopling the thin air
With giddy excess.
Agrippa: ··············Wonderful!
Enobarbus: ····························She mocked him.
Agrippa:·How so? She praised him.
·····································No, Agrippa. Mocked him—
As if a dish were set before the King
And to a man all cried: Long live the cook!
Agrippa: Poor Antony.
Enobarbus: But Cleopatra! Girls —
She chose the loveliest girls who by
Their jade and turquoise anklets, and the seashells
art.overview.437.jpgThat cupped their dainty breasts, were like the Nereidies —
Or mermaids. I, myself, could almost swear
A school of mermaids piloted the helm,
Who by the flourish of their supple fingers
Bewitched the Nile. Out of the barge there came
A savor — perfume — scenting all who crowded
The wharfs and harborage. The city spilled
Its multitudes. As many as there were
Still more came bursting from the streets and byways
Until the city’s tributaries emptied;
And there, there in the marketplace, there where
A city’s ticklish populace had thronged
There — ci-devant — sat Antony. His high
Imperial seat had shoaled her water —
A galleon in a sun-burnt desert, call her;
The tide that brought her there a whistling dust —
He baked i’th’ sun.


Recognizing & Using Caesuras, Enjambment and End-Stopped Lines

the end-stopped line

I’ve noticed a number of searches on caesuras, enjambment and end-stopped lines.

Sir Thomas Sackville

Fortunately, these are easy to recognize. When English poets first began writing blank verse (unrhymed Iambic Pentameter) one gets the feeling they had their hands full just counting syllables. Their efforts were stiff, wooden, inflexible. The example I always like to use is Gorboduc, by Thomas Norton andThomas Sackville. The play was written in 1561, 3 years before Shakespeare’s birth. For all its limitations, the play was the first (as far as we know) to have been written using blank verse and stands as a template for all the great verse plays to follow, including Shakespeare’s. Two features that make the verse feel wooden, by modern standards, is the strict Iambic beat on one hand (there are practically no variant feet) and the heavily end-stopped lines. End-stopped lines simply means that ones thought ends with the line. If you see that the line’s end is punctuated with a period, comma, question mark, semi-colon, etc… then the line is end-stopped. The phrasal unit, the syntactic sense, ends with the line.

Interestingly, the on-line text of the play at Luminarium (linked above), doesn’t include much punctuation. This could be because their text is taken from a facsimile or because the scanner (OCR) didn’t pick up on or recognize whatever text they scanned. I put my money on their having transcribed from a facsimile or an earlier, public domain (and relatively unedited) edition. It also means that you can test your ability to recognize end-stopped lines. Imagine you were an editor. How would you punctuate the following verse? If you can correctly punctuate the verse then you can recognized end-stopped lines. (Most end-stopped lines are marked by punctuation but some aren’t. Remember, if you can finish the line without feeling as though some sense is missing, or if you can pause (as though there were a pause in the syntactic sense or comma), then the line is end-stopped.


Are they in Arms? would he not send for me?
Is this the honour of a Father’s name?
In vain we travail to assuage their minds
As if their hearts whom neither Brother’s love
Nor Father’s awe, nor kingdom’s care can move
Our Councils could withdraw from raging heat
Jove slay them both, and end the cursed Line
For though perhaps fear of such mighty force
As I my Lords, joined with your noble Aides
May yet raise, shall repent their present heat
The secret grudge and malice will remain
The fire not quenched, but kept in close restraint
Fed still within, breaks forth with double flame
Their death and mine must pease the angry gods. (Act III l. 93)

What follows is an edited version from Drama of the English Renaissance 1:The Tudor Period, edited by Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin.


Are they in Arms? would he not send for me? |
Is this the honour of a Father’s name? |
In vain we travail to assuage their minds, |
As if their hearts whom neither Brother’s love, |
Nor Father’s awe, nor kingdom’s care can move, |
Our Councils could withdraw from raging heat. |
Jove slay them both, and end the cursed Line! |
For though perhaps fear of such mighty force |
As I my Lords, joined with your noble Aides, |
May yet raise, shall repent their present heat, |
The secret grudge and malice will remain. |
The fire not quenched, but kept in close restraint, |
Fed still within, breaks forth with double flame. |
Their death and mine must pease the angry gods. |

I added red pipe marks at the end of each end-stopped line and a green one at the only enjambed line. There are 14 lines and only one of them is enjambed. Notice that every one of the end-stopped lines is also punctuated. In this tiny sample, over 90% of the verse is end-stopped. Is that representative of the play? I suspect it’s not far off. The actual figure probably hovers around 90% or less. That makes for very stiff verse. That ratio is typical for beginning poets who have a hard enough time thinking through the meter, let alone the line. Some mature poets never pull it off. (I’ve already named names elsewhere, no reason to beat the horse.)


Enjambment is the opposite of the end-stopped line. There is a syntactic or phrasal pause which coincides with the end of the line. The simplest example:

Enjamb| ment makes | the read |er  read |beyond
The end |of a|ny giv|en line |of verse.

This blank |verse line| is not |enjambed |but end-stopped.

Don’t be fooled by the feminine ending in the latter line. It’s still end-stopped. By the time the Elizabethans, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson, came into their own, so did blank verse. The judicious and skillful use of enjambment is what makes Shakespeare’s verse so elegantly flexible (and any verse for that matter). Among the loveliest examples is Florizel’s speech from the Winter’s Tale:


No, like a bank for love to lie and play on; |
Not like a corse; or if, not to be buried, |
But quick and in mine arms. Come, take your flowers: |
Methinks I play as I have seen them do |
In Whitsun pastorals: sure this robe of mine |
Does change my disposition. |

Mary Riley and Richard Baird in The Winter’s Tale.


·········································What you do |
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet, |
I’ld have you do it ever; when you sing, |
I’ld have you buy and sell so, so give alms, |
Pray so; and for the ord’ring your affairs, |
To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you |
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do |
Nothing but that; move still, still so, |
And own no other function: each your doing, |
So singular in each particular, |
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds, |
That all your acts are queens. |

The beauty of Shakespeare’s verse is that the enjambment nicely dovetails the passions of the speakers. In Florize’s case, when he is the most passionate and poetic, wishing his lover like a wave o’ the sea, the sense of the poetry washes over the ends of the lines like the wave he describes.

It’s a lovely effect.In the examples above, roughly 30% of the lines are enjambed. And just giving the verse of the play a cursory glance, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the play’s overall enjambment closer to 40%. Out of curiosity, I googled shakespeare, enjambment, and percentage to see if any scholar had actually done the work (I know they have), but I couldn’t find anything. I doubt there’s a single aspect of his plays that haven’t been written about – right down to the recipe for the ink on the manuscript of Sir Thomas More.  Who knows?

separating the boys from the men

Where the skill of a poet really shows itself is in the combination of meter and rhyme. The less capable poet will end-stop his or her rhymes. The skilled poet will enjamb their rhymes – not all of them, but enough of them to give their verse a more flexible and natural (unforced) feel. The poet who end-stops their rhymes is the poet who can’t think beyond the rhyme. The habit is typical of beginning poets, and to be expected, but the mature poet should learn to think beyond the line.  Here’s a poem by Dana Gioia, from his book Interrogations at Noon. I marked each end-stopped line with a pipe ‘|’ and left it at that.

Alley Cat Love Song

Come into the garden, Fred, |
For the neighborhood tabby is gone. |
Come into the garden, Fred. |
I have nothing by my flea collar on, |
And the scent of catnip has gone to my head. |
I’ll wait by the screen door till dawn. |

The fireflies court in the sweetgum tree. |
The nightjar calls from the pine, |
And she seems to say in her rhapsody, |
“Oh, mustard-bown Fred, be mine!” |
The full moon lights my whiskers afire, |
And the fur goes erect on my spine. |

I hear the frogs in the muddy lake
Croaking from shore to shore. |
They’ve one swift season to soothe their ache. |
In autumn they sing no more. |
So ignore me now, and you’ll hear my meow
As I scratch all night at the door. |

About 90% of these lines are end-stopped. We’re back to 1561. The lyric is charming enough, but the end-stopped rhymes give the poem a wooden feel. Gioia should have left this kind of verse behind long ago. By comparison, here are two stanza’s from the poet Robert Bagg, from a longer poem called Tandem Ride, a poet who I’ve reviewed elsewhere on PoemShape. Like Gioia, Bagg dispenses with meter but writes a regular, rhyming, verse.

We search the boathouse on Paradise Pond; |
the window lights of the state asylum
dominate the sweeping skyline beyond, |
radiating a contagious gloom
as if the campus were its anteroom. |
Sensing the madness in our enterprise
we abandon our foundering tandem, |
exhaustion having (at last) made us wise. |
Who’d pump a symbol seven miles but two Amherst guys? |

She pushes a glass door open a crack, |
emerges form a tropical greenhouse, |
shoes squishing, then pauses–almost goes back– |
aware her sweat-drenched translucent blouse
would amuse us, or might even arouse
us more than her breasts did normally. |
She’d never say, Come on to me, guys, now’s
the right time!
–but I sensed viscerally
she wasn’t the same girl we had chased up that tree. |

Roughly half the lines are enjambed, giving the stanzas a nice ebb and flow. The  enjambment doesn’t overly emphasize the rhymes. Take a look at Shakespeare’s sonnets and you will notice the same freedom between end-stopped and enjambed lines. The thing to notice, most of all, is how Shakespeare (and other skillful poets) use end-stopping and enjambment to add emphasis to certain lines and thoughts. For instance, the vast majority of his sonnets’ closing couplets are end-stopped. This puts added emphasis on the rhymes which, in turn, brakes the sonnet’s momentum and emphasizes the finality of the couplets argument – the end-stopped lines emphasize the feeling of the epigrammatic sting.

Sonnet 63

Against my love shall be as I am now, |
With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’erworn; |
When hours have drained his blood and filled his brow
With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful morn
Hath travelled on to age’s steepy night; |
And all those beauties whereof now he’s king
Are vanishing, or vanished out of sight, |
Stealing away the treasure of his spring; |
For such a time do I now fortify
Against confounding age’s cruel knife, |
That he shall never cut from memory
My sweet love’s beauty, though my lover’s life: |
··His beauty shall in these black lines be seen, |
··And they shall live, and he in them still green. |

The best poets will, instinctively, fully exploit end-stopping and enjambment when the opportunity calls for it. Lesser poets won’t.

Tom O’Bedlam


Caesuras are essentially nothing more than breaks in rhythm, thought, or syntax that occur anywhere between the beginning and end of a line. In other words, they’re the same as an end-stopped line except that the “end-stopping” occurs in the middle of the line. That said, they can be trickier to spot. They aren’t associated with the end of a line and aren’t always matched by punctuation.

Caesura’s were a fixture of classical Greek and Latin poetry but Anglo Saxon was the language in which the Caesura came to glory. In the book Creative Poetry by B. Roland Lewis  one finds this little gem tucked away in a footnote:

William Ellery Leonard’s two studies, “Beowulf and the Niebelungen Couplet” and “The Scansion of Middle English Alliterative Verse,” in The University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, for an entirely untraditional view about Anglo-Saxon prosody. Or see is Introduction to his own metrical translations of Beowulf. He holds that our meter of “Sing a Song of Six-Pence” is directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon meter of Beowulf; and his modernized version of Beowulf is in that meter. Professor E.W. Scripture’s new (1929) Grundzuge der Englischen Verswissensschaft has some closing chapters in Old English and Middle English alliterative verse in the light of laboratory analysis.

So, if we were to lineate Sing a Song of Six-Pence as Beowulf’s author might have, it might look like this  (caesuras marked):

Sing a song of sixpence, || a pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds, || baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, || the birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish, || to set before the king?

The king was in his counting house, || counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour, || eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden, || hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird || and pecked off her nose.

If you click the link to Leonard’s translation, you’ll see how this translates when applied to Beowulf. You might get an idea as to how the Anglo Saxons would have “heard” the great poem (and how the caesura was an integral part of the poem’s rhythm and structure). I always favor translations which try to capture, not just the sense, but the sound and structure of the original — something which is altogether too rare with the near total dominance of free verse.

The caesura’s importance to English poetry faded with the language’s modernization.  Still, examples can be found. Wikipedia offers an example from the ballad Tom O’Bedlam. I’ll give another from the same poem (which you can read in its entirety in Harold Bloom’s book The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost):

When I short have shorn my sow’s face
·······And swigged my horny barrel,
At an oaken inn || I impound my skin
·······In a suit of gilt apparel.
The moon’s my constant mistress
·······And the lovely owl my marrow.
The flaming drake || and the night-crow make
·······Me music to my sorrow.
While I do sing || “Any food, any feeding
·······Feeding, drink or clothing?
Come dame or maid, || be not afraid:
·······Poor Tom will injure nothing.

Notice that only the final caesura coincides with any sort of punctuation. (Is the rhythm of the ballad a faint echo of the ancient Anglo Saxon poetry? Possibly.) The caesura, in the stanza above, indicate rhythmic pauses. Also, all of the caesuras would be masculine caesuras. They each occur after a stressed syllable. Here are the first two stanzas from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven.

Once upon a midnight dreary, || while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious || volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, || suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, || rapping at my chamber door.
`’Tis some visitor,’ || I muttered, || `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.’

Ah, distinctly I remember || it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember|| wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; – || vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow – || sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden || whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

Once again, some of  the caesura are marked by punctuation, some aren’t. Most native English speakers will instinctively pause mid-line, even without punctuation. The combination of the internal rhymes (dreary/weary, napping/tapping) and the trochaic meter encourages us to read the lines as bipartite. Normally, for example, one wouldn’t pause between curious and volume in the second line, but the poem’s rhyme and meter strongly encourage us to divide the line (if only to reinforce the rhythm of the others). Try it. See if you agree. Conversely, we want to read through pauses that we normally wouldn’t. For instance, the heavy mid-line caesuras make us want to ignore the syntactic breaks in the first stanza’s third, fifth and last line::

While I nodded, nearly napping

`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered…
Only this, and nothing more.

We might be more hard-pressed to ignore the natural break in ‘Tis some visitor,‘ I muttered…, but we could. In Poe’s poem, unlike Tom O’Bedlam, all the Caesura are feminine caesuras because they each occur after unstressed syllables.

In the following, another passage from Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, you will find caesuras and what’s called an epic caesura (generally in reference to a feminine caesuras within an iambic line – I highlighted the epic caesura in red.

It is for you we speak, || not for ourselves:
You are abused || and by some putter-on
That will be damn’d for’t; || would I knew the villain,
I would land-damn him. || Be she honour-flaw’d,
I have three daughters; || the eldest is eleven
The second and the third, || nine, || and some five;
If this prove true, || they’ll pay for’t. || By mine honour. (Act II, sc. I :142-148)

The fifth line contains the epic caesura. The unstressed syllable -ers at the end of daughters is hypermetrical (because the line immediately continues with the unaccented ‘the’ instead of an expected strong accent.). In other words, it’s an extra unaccented syllable. Below, the blue represents an anapestic foot and the green represents a feminine endings (the colors I use in all my scansions). Notice how Shakespeare, ever the dramatist, uses the unusually frequent caesuras and end-stopped lines to denote an agitated mind. Not all uses of caesura create the same sense of agitation. Context is everything and a good poets uses whatever tools are available.

I have | three daugh |ters; the eld| est is | eleven

The other way to scan it is to treat the epic caesura as its own feminine ending within the line.

I have | three daugh ters; |the eld| est is | eleven

My habit has been to use the second scansion (having learned to read and write Iambic Pentameter with George T. Wright’s book Shakespeare’s Metrical Art). Shakespeare’s line, therefore, has twelve syllables, unlike the expected ten of iambic pentameter, but nevertheless falls within the graces of standard practice.

A second kind of feminine Caesura would be the lyric caesura. This is probably the most obscure of all caesuras (and the one you’ll forget the quickest). Give something a name for the sake of giving it a name. This term refers to a caesura which occurs after an expected unstressed syllable. Got that? Four examples can be found in Dickinson’s poem Because I could not stop for Death–. I’ve highlighted them in red.

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess || – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather || – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet || – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice || – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

free verse

The use of enjambment and end-stopping can be very useful to the free verse poet and for similar reasons. T.S. Eliot, in his poem Rhapsody on a Windy Night, skillfully uses a combination of enjambment and end-stopping to control the ebb and flow of the verse and thought. Writing free verse, he could have broken his lines anywhere, but clearly manipulated the lines in such a way that they suggested a kind of rhythm.

Twelve o’clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

Half-past one,
The street lamp sputtered,
The street lamp muttered,
The street lamp said,
“Regard that woman
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin.” (….)

Notice, in the second stanza above, how the first four lines are end-stopped, emphasizing and slowing down the verse with a kind of childlike, mother goose-ish feel. Then notice how, when the street lamp speaks, the lines are enjambed and the verse has the feeling of spaciousness. The voice feels different.  The effect is accomplished both through enjambment and the lack of rhyme.

It’s an effect, however, that the vast majority of free verse poets are unaware of or have chosen to ignore. The result is that their poetry is nothing more than lineated prose. While their lines may be end-stopped or enjambed, the effect feels completely arbitrary.

The caesura loses all it’s effect in free verse. After all, if the verse is regular enough to make the reader aware of such a syntactic feature, then the verse by definition isn’t free. If the verse has structure, then it’s not free. I’ve had this argument with practitioners of free verse and they either get that glazed look of breathtaking denial or they lose the ability to speak. Free verse can’t be both free and “structured” (in the sense of a regular pattern). Can’t happen.

Anyway, that’s that. If the post has been helpful, let me know. If not, I’m always ready to improve.

up in Vermont • March 26 2011

The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter

The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter

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

How Not To

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t make that mistake.

Where To Start

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Verse First

Where do you start?

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

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

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

Now Make it Iambic Pentameter

Therefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here it is in one piece.

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

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

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

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

She answered under Purple Sails

Plutarch & Gillespie

And here it is for easier reading:

She answered under purple sails...

She came from Egypt…

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

Plutarch & Dryden

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

The Chair she sat in…

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

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

The barge she sat in…

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

And here’s the thing to know. What make’s this passage great is what makes poetry great. It’s not content. This is what novels do. There are many great and profound passages of prose. What makes poetry great is something else. Style. A great poet can transform ordinary content into something beautiful and extraordinary. A great poem is like a beautiful woman – like Cleopatra. She is beautiful, but every woman knows that by a turn of hair, the cut of her skirt, the shade of her lips and eyebrows – small touches, poetic touches, her beauty is transformed into something that makes the heart skip. That’s style.

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

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

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

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

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

Plutarch & Shakespeare

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

Agrippa: O, rare for Antony!

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

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

This is the legend.

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

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

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

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

Mecaenas: Now Antony must leave her utterly.

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

Give it a Try

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

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

Rhyme & Meter Online: Sunday February 15 2009

  • This is the first of what I hope will be a weekly Sunday post. I’ll be searching the net for whatever has been posted during the previous week – posts related to meter and rhyme in poetry. Hopefully the post will expand as I get better at it. If any readers would like to recommend sites please do so in the comment field. Feel free to recommend your own blog or poem if you like but please don’t post your poem in the comment field (provide a link and the first lines).


Book & Reading Forums asks the Question: Is Shakespeare Poetry?


Voices is a CD with original recordings of Icelandic folk music. The recordings were collected around Iceland in the homes of farmers, grandmothers and fishermen that still lived in the old tradition or could remember some of the old songs that had been sung in Iceland for generations. The CD contains chanting of rimur, hymns, ballads and nursery rhymes.


Barrier of a Common Language
An American Looks at Contemporary British Poetry

About the Book

The latest offering in the Poets on Poetry series from acclaimed poet, critic, and National Endowment for the Arts’ chairman Dana Gioia, Barrier of a Common Language collects essays on British poets and poetry spanning the past two decades.

Gioia ignited a national debate on the relevance of poetry in 1991 when he published an essay in the Atlantic titled “Can Poetry Matter?” The essay was expanded into a book of the same name and went on to become one of the best-selling books of contemporary poetry criticism in the 1990s…

The Road Not Taken

One of the loveliest poems in the English language is Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Part of the magic is in how Frost loosens meter to obtain a more colloquial tone. In one of the most enjoyable books I own (among books on Frost)  Lea Newman relates that according to a survey of 18,000 written, recorded and videotaped responses, this poem (along with Robert Frost) is America’s most popular poem…


Between the Rhyme

Too often doing time
World is deaf and dumb and blind
Loss is less than fine
Walk between the rhyme…


Things Fall Apart: A Guide to William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming”
Notes on Form

By Bob Holman & Margery Snyder


Able Muse Call for Submissions

Able Muse exclusively publishes formal poetry complemented by art and photography, fiction and non-fiction including essays, book reviews and interviews with a focus on metrical poetry. We are looking for well-crafted poems of any length or subject that employ skillful and imaginative use of meter and rhyme, executed in a contemporary idiom, that reads as naturally as your free verse poems. All forms of formal poetry are welcome. For an example of what we’re interested in, check the poetry of Philip Larkin, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, Derek Walcott, Marilyn Hacker, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht….

Able Muse seeks to publish established as well as new voices. We read everything and publish only the best. Send your best!

Send only previously unpublished poems. No simultaneous submissions, please. Contributions that have already been published or are being considered for publication elsewhere are not eligible to be considered for publication in Able Muse, unless a cross-publishing arrangement has previously been negotiated.


Dr. Kim Bridgford wins prestigious NEA fellowship

Dr. Bridgford explained that a criticism of contemporary poetry is that it is too much like prose, hence the increasing appeal of the traditional form that employs rhyme and meter. Her favorite traditional form is the sonnet, a 14-line poem. “It sounds different with every little change. It appeals to my sense of detail,” she said.

Dr. Bridgford said she likes poems that are conversational, and wants readers to notice the form and rhythms. “I like to break the form and experiment with various parts of form,” she said….

The Songbird – A Fable with Poetry

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woodcut-swan-fade-correctedI wasn’t sure whether I would post my fables but many of them include poetry and many of them are all but prose-poems. The poems, or songs, are based on songs from Shakespeare’s plays – the structure and the rhyme scheme. I experimented in the last of the songs, using the older forms of the pronouns. I will print the three poems separately in posts that follow. I didn’t think it would make sense to post them as separate from the fable in which they were created. Page 1 The Songbird (No background) Page 2 The Songbird (No background) Page 3 The Songbird (No background) Page 4 The Songbird (No background) Page 5 The Songbird (No background) Page 6 The Songbird (No background) Page 7 The Songbird (No background)

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:


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.


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):


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:




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:




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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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 trouble 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:


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…


Check it out…

Opening Book: Prologue to a Play by Thomas Holcroft Page 31-32

[The title says it all. I was invited to write this prologue for a performance by the director and lead actor of Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery. I no longer remember the actor's name. I wish I did. If memory serves, the play was not written in heroic couplets or any kind of verse, but I thought writing the prologue this way would set it apart. Much of the subject matter, and even the wording, comes straight from a book on the history of Salem during this period. (I don't remember the name of the book but found it locally.)

All I did was to versify the book's prose (changing the prose to rhyming iambic pentameter). Shakespeare used to do this with his own plays - the most famous examples being from Antony & Cleopatra - in which he versified whole passages from Plutarch. If I had it to do again, I probably wouldn't put this in my book. The couplet: "I only tell it now because it's sad/ To see what's good so easily go bad" is execrable. If spoken the way it should be (the actor reading the prologue was the villain of the play), the couplet might come off as humorously trite and mean-spirited - the way it was meant to be.  ]


Iambic Pentameter (The Basics)

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  • Revised, tweaked and improved March 24 2009.
  • 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.
  • After you’ve read up on Iambic Pentameter, 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 my 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.

First Appearance

Iambic Pentameter is the meter of Blank Verse, most Sonnets, and a variety of verse forms starting in the14th and continuing through the 21rst Century.

Iambic Pentameter is closely associated with Blank Verse, which some websites credit as having first been written by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The assertion is incorrect. Chaucer was, in fact, the first poet to write Iambic Pentameter and examples can be found with the prologue of the Canterbury Tales.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
chaucer-stained-glassAnd bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

Although, at first glance, this may not appear to be Iambic Pentameter, it is. We’ll get back to it in another post.

What is Iambic and Pentameter?

All of Elizabethan, Jacobean and Restoration Drama, written in verse, is written using Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) – this includes all of Shakespeare’s Plays and Sonnets. Milton’s Paradise Lost is written in Iambic Pentameter. Keats’ Sonnets & Hyperion, along with most of his major poems, are written in Iambic Pentameter.  Almost every major poet , prior to the 20th Century, wrote Iambic Pentameter when writing their best known poetry.  Exceptions would be poets like Walt Whitman (free verse), Robert Burns (who wrote a variety of metrical lines – mostly iambic), and Emily Dickinson (whose meter is derived from hymn tunes, which is why so many of her poems can be sung to Yellow Rose of Texas).

Iambic is an adjective. Iamb is the noun and is short for Iambus. Iambus is from the Greek and refers to two. Therefore, Iamb refers to any two syllable “unit”, referred to as a foot by metrists, consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (or ictus).

What is a Foot?

A foot is defined as a group of syllables (unspecified in number) comprising a metrical unit. In the case of an Iamb, the metrical foot contains two syllables.

In the following example, I’ve bolded and italicized the stressed syllables.

To be or not to be

The bolded and italicized words receive greater stress, when speaking, than the words which have not been bolded or italicized.

Now, if we break this line into feet, we end up with following:

To be | or not | to be | that is | the question.

Except for the last foot, each foot consists of two syllables. The last foot is a variant called an amphibrach (in that it varies from the first four iambic feet). The amphibrach is a foot (a metrical unit) consisting of an unstressed, stressed, and unstressed syllable.

A strictly iambic line would be:

Of hand, | of foot, | of lip, | of eye, | of brow   (Shakespeare: Sonnet 106: Line 6)

What is Pentameter

The Greek prefix Pent- or Penta-, means five. Pentameter therefore means a line of verse consisting of five metrical feet. Remember, a metrical foot contains an unspecified number of syllables until it is modified by an adjective like Iambic.

What is Iambic Pentameter

The adjective, Iambic, modifies Pentameter to mean, a line of verse consisting of five Iambic metrical feet [feet containing an unstressed and stressed syllable].

There are also examples of poems written in trochaic pentameter. In this case, the term would mean a line of verse consisting of five trochaic [metrical feet [feet containing an stressed and unstressed syllable]. (Note: The stressed and unstressed syllables, in comparison to Iambic, are reversed.)  It would also be possible to have amphibrachic pentameter. To my knowledge, no poems have been written in this meter. If any reader knows of one, let me know!

The line:

Of hand, | of foot, | of lip, | of eye, | of brow

is strictly Iambic Pentameter because each foot is strictly an Iamb and there are strictly five feet.

The line:

To be | or not | to be | that is | the question.


To be | or not | to be | that is | the question.

is not, strictly speaking, an Iambic Pentameter line, because the final foot is amphibrachic and the fourth foot may be read as being trochaic. However, it is considered an acceptable variant of the Iambic Pentameter line. In the second scansion of the line above, putting the emphasis on is might sound awkward, but imagine an actor speaking the line. The second scansion gives the line a different emphasis. It all depends on where the is is.

Perfect Iambic Pentameter?

After having written this, I’ve noticed various websites who (not to put too fine a point on the matter) get it wrong., for example, writes the following about the closing line of Frost’s poem Birches:

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

Their statement is incorrect. This line is not perfect iambic pentameter (and this is more than just splitting hairs). A perfectly iambic pentameter line would not have a feminine ending (an amphibrach) in the final foot. The correct thing to say would have been – this is a perfectly acceptable variant within an iambic pentameter pattern.

More on this poem, and its scansion, can be found at my post on Frost’s Birches.

Symbols used in scanning Metrical Poetry

Lastly, the symbols used to denote stress in a line of verse are as follows:

weak-stress This symbol denotes a weak stress.

intermediate-stressThis symbol denotes an intermediate stress.

strong-stressThis symbol denotes a strong stress.

metrical-divider This symbol denotes the division of a metrical foot.

So, the line above would appear as follows:


Note: I’ve scanned that as receiving the stress although I believe that the word is should receive it. For more on this opinion and why, visit my post on To Be or Not To Be.

And consider the following scansion:


In the scansion above, notice that the word sweet receives an intermediate stress. This means that most readers would probably put less stress on sweet (saying it less loudly) than on the syllable si- of silent. Try it out. Also, importantly, notice that the feet divide the words. An iambic metrical foot consists of two syllables, not necessarily two words. Thus, count two syllables and mark off a foot, count two more syllables and mark off a foot, etc… Mark off every two syllables regardless of the words. If the lines contains more than 10 syllables, as in the scansion of “To be or not be”, one of your metrical feet will not be iambic.

A Ten Syllable Line is not the same as an Iambic Pentameter Line

It’s also possible that just because a line has ten syllables, it might not have 5 feet. It might have four feet with two anapestic feet. And this is where science becomes art. There is an art to scansion, but it is not hard to learn. While metrical feet may divide words, the placement of metrical feet is not insensitive to phrasing. In other words, sometimes it may make more sense to recognize a phrase as being anapestic or, as with feminine endings, amphibrachic.

(My next post answers what to do when considering such variants.) In the example above, the last foot was not iambic. In other examples, the first, second, third or fourth foot might not be iambic. When I write my next post, on variant lines, we’ll figure out how to tell which foot gets the extra syllable.

Two More Symbols: Elision

There are two more commonly used symbol to consider. One is the symbol for elision. Elision means that instead of pronouncing a word as having, say, two syllables, it is pronounced as having one. Likewise, a word that appears to have three syllables, might be pronounced as two.

elision This symbol denotes elision.

Consider the following line:


This example is taken from George T. Wright’s Shakespeare’s Metrical Art. Only the first foot is scanned. Notice that -lier of livelier may be pronounced with two syllables -li-er or one -lier. If the reader wishes to maintain the iambic rhythm of the line, the whole word livelier would be pronounced with two syllables. If the word were pronounced with three, then the line would be considered dactylic – a strong stress or syllable followed by two weak stresses or syllables.


Two More Symbols: The Missing Syllable

Finally, a less common but equally useful symbol designates a missing syllable.


It is useful when discussing variant lines, such as the following from my blank verse poem My Bridge is Like a Rainbow:


The symbol indicates a missing syllable in an otherwise fully Iambic line. The line itself is called a headless line, but more on that in my next post.

The next post will deal with sorting out variation in the Iambic Pentameter line  – how they can be read, how to know, and if you can know.

Other Symbols, Other Systems

the-book-of-formsIt’s worth noting that there are other systems and symbols used to denote stress patterns in English Language Poetry. The one that I’ve presented here is the most universally used and recognized. There may be slight differences. For instance, Lewis Turco, in his book The Book of Forms, doesn’t use the intermediate symbol that I provided above – he uses a dot instead.

turco-intermediate-stressSymbol used for Intermediate Stress in Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms.

Besides the difference in this one symbol, however, Turco uses the same basic system I have been describing. You may run across other symbols or, if you are researching this as a part of a class, you may have an instructor that prefers one symbol over another. All that matters is that you understand the basic ideas that these symbols represent. The symbols themselves are secondary.

Beyond this point, the fights between metrists can get ugly. There is no end to the precision to which some metrists aspire. Some detest the basic system of scansion described above. Some dispense with the symbols altogether and opt to typographically move individual words up or down (in relation to each other) according to how much stress they believe each word should receive. My own view is that these systems of scansion lose sight of their original purpose. They reflect a sort of obsessiveness that has more to do with linquistics than with poetry.

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

(This is the short form, for a slightly more detailed description, try Wikipedia.)

Feel free to comment if you have questions or suggestions.

Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning

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william-shakespeare[First, if you came to this post looking for information on Shakespeare & Iambic Pentameter, the symbols used and how to scan Shakespeare, take a look at my Guides to Iambic Pentameter in the Categories Widget or simply click on the link - among other posts you will find my scansion of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116. I notice that some users find this post looking for information on Haiku and "scanned Haiku", take a look at my Guide to Haiku. If there's specific information you are looking for, feel free to ask in the Guest Book and, given time, I'll post an answer. This blog is for everyone. Please, please say Hello.]

[Second, this is a review I wrote on Amazon a while back. The full title of the book is: Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning: A Study in Generative Metrics (Studies in Comparative Literature). The author is M.L. Harvey.]

Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning

This is the first book this reader has read from the series “Studies in Comparative Literature” and the twentieth in the series. It is clearly not written for the causual reader who wishes to deepen his or her appreciation for the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Shelley, or Browning. It is what it claims to be–a study in generative metrics, with the emphasis on “study”.

From the first page, the reader will be left with the distinct impression that he has walked into the middle of an ongoing conversation. The author of the book, M.L. Harvey, assumes an acquaintance with prior material and the reader is well-advised to become acquainted with that material. Mr. Harvey has other matters to attend to and proceeds quickly with his own elaborations. If the reader (as I did), chooses not to read from Halle and Keyser’s “English Stress, Its Form, Its Growth, and Its Role in Verse” (an earlier exegesis on which some of Mr. Harvey’s own ideas build) then the footnotes are central. Read them all. They are hardly asides, being more often essential to Mr. Harvey’s contentions.

This is not slight material and the reader may often wish the editors had treated Mr. Harvey’s material with similar energy. Mr. Harvey, for example, uses `W’ to denote a weak stress and `S’ to denote a strong stress along with a variety of other symbols including `N’,.’Z’, `a’ and `b’, all of which are mercifully explained in a glossary of terms. The problem arises when these symbols are meant to be placed above their relevant syllables. In some instances, it is difficult to discern which syllable they are being placed above. I found myself sometimes trying to decipher Mr. Harvey’s intentions. In one or two instances, the symbols referred to by Mr. Harvey were missing in the relevant example, or the shorthand he apparently used in preparing the manuscript was not converted to its appropriate symbol.

The thrust of Mr. Harvey’s book is to create a kind of metrical unified field theory for each of the poets considered. Mr. Harvey refers more than once to the empirical support for his conclusions, including laboratory’s in which a number of readers were apparently given material to read (presumably poetry). Based on their reading habits (and presumably his own and those of his peers) a fairly reliable pattern can be discerned as to how English speaking readers scan a line. There is safety in numbers, but this approach is also problematic and reveals a central difficulty. Such research reveals how -twentieth century- readers (including Mr. Harvey) scan a line, but cannot reveal how a sixteenth or seventeenth century reader might have scanned a line, let alone the poets, for whom context was also a consideration. Although it is not clear, Mr. Harvey seems to propose, in a passage called “How to Scan a Line”, that his rules, derived from observed patterns of scanning, can in turn be used to “objectively” scan a line.

An oddly conspicuous example of where this method can go wrong, is one he returns to repeatedly. Mr. Harvey, for example, finds that the line: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” contains two anapests followed by two iambs. Because, in his opinion, a stressed syllable occurs in the third and sixth position, the line must adhere to the abstract pattern “WWSWWSWSWS”. This conclusion is almost unanimously counter to the accepted reading of this line by Shakespearean scholars, and by inference, Shakespeare himself. Although a modern reader (the nub of the problem) would read this line as containing two anapests, one need only refer to the most recently published examination of the complete sonnets (an outstanding book by Helen Vendler called “The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets”) to see where and how Mr. Harvey’s methods can go wrong. Ms. Vendler writes: “It is the iambic prosody that first brings the pressure of rhetorical refutation into Shakespeare’s line: `Let -me- not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments.’ [Ms. Vendler italicises "me"] The speaker says these lines schematically, mimicking, as in reported discourse, his interlocutor’s original iron laws.” The context of the line [it is not clear that Mr. Harvey's methods of scanning take into account the dramatic context of any one line] contradicts his methods. Another example he chooses comes from Lear: “Bids the winds blow the earth into the sea”. He again reads this line as beginning with two anapests. Given the context of the line, it is more likely and more accepted (according to sixteenth and seventeenth century habits of speech and prosody) that the line is iambic throughout, the first foot being trochaic and the second a spondee. This is a reading that can be applied to many of Mr. Harvey’s double anapests and one which argues that his `rules’ (such as the successive S constraint) need further refinement. It is this reader’s experience, for example, that a spondee in the second foot, while creating a minimal stress, paradoxically serves to further enforce the stress value of the fourth position, often imparting to that position the highest stress of any other syllable. In Lear’s line above, “blow” would therefore receive the greatest stress of any syllable in the line, a reading which, contextually at least, makes more sense.

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

This misreading (due to changes and differences in pronunciation), along with contextual misreadings, is symptomatic and reveals the flaws yet to be ironed out by Mr. Harvey. For the time being, his methodology fails to take into account context, as demonstrated by the sonnet, as well as changes in pronunciation, as demonstrated by his extracts of Milton, and therefore can still only be used as a semi-reliable presentation of how these individual poets created and scanned their lines. Rather than using Mr. Harvey’s methodology (if such should be the temptation) the modern reader of these poets is still advised to purchase a well-annotated edition where the proper scanning of a line is a concern.

robert-browningThat being said, I do not wish to discourage anyone from reading Mr. Harvey’s work. Objections like those mentioned in this review are inevitable when dealing with something so subjective and changeable as the pronunciation of the English language. Mr. Harvey’s undertaking is not an enviable one and the objections so far raised are less than his successes. Mr. Harvey’s reasoning is, for the better part, solid and insightful. In fact, to be fair, one should spend as much time sampling his successes. This, however, would only restate what is already well-stated by Mr. Harvey. Most notably, he convincingly answers (in this reader’s opinion) why poets prefer iambic verse to trochaic verse-no mean feat and a question which clearly fascinates Mr. Harvey.

Vernacular, Colloquial, Common, Dialectal

[This is a relatively old post and there has been a lot of interest in it (given the number of hits it receives per day). The article has undergone a drastic revision but even now I think one could dedicate a book to the subject. This post is thin gruel, all considered. I give just a few paragraphs to each poet but at least this may serve as a starting point. My apologies to those looking for a far more detailed and thorough treatment. Maybe on some upcoming posts I'll go into more detail with specific poets.  Last revision Jan 1, 2009]

Wikipedia, as of my writing this, defines Colloquial as language “considered to be characteristic of or only appropriate for casual, ordinary, familiar, or informal conversation rather than formal speech or writing.”

The Challenge

A number of modern poets have said that they consider the proper voice for poetry to be ordinary speech. Some phrase this as the responsibility of the poet, others equate this choice as a political statement and for others it is a gender issue.

The reasons poets give, however, is not so interesting to me as the practical exercise, especially when it comes to the fusion of colloquial rhythms with metrical poetry. So my focus is on poets who write metrical (or formal) poetry with the hope that what I write can be applied to free verse poets as well.

The question is why, over a stretch of four centuries, there have been so few poets who write colloquially in metered verse. The answer, in part, is that it takes a special confluence of talents – the ability to work within meter with ease and mastery along with the talent to hear and reproduce the tone and inflection of ordinary speech. The two abilities don’t always go together. Add to this the circumstance of time and place, and it’s no wonder such a poet is so rare.

Back in the Day

william-shakespeareWhat makes writing colloquially in metered verse so difficult is that the rhythm of colloquial speech frequently runs counter to the regular patterns of accentual syllabic verse. It didn’t always used to be so difficult. When Shakespeare needed to write colloquially or dialectally, and needed to do it in Blank Verse, he could use all sorts of metrical cheats and did – elevating such devices to an art form. Here are just some of those tricks, drawn from Shakepeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, by Sister Miriam Joseph.

If Shakespeare needed an extra syllable, he used prosthesis to change rattle to berattle.

If he needed to change a trochaic word to a dactyl, he used epenthesis, changing meetly to meeterly.

If he needed to omit a syllable he could use aphaeresis, changing against to gainst.

If he needed to omit a syllable from the middle of the word he used syncope, changing prosperous to prosp’rous.

In short, Shakespeare could freely omit or add syllables as necessary. It was the norm and was prized in Elizabethan times when done skillfully. It was through the use of prosthesis and proparalepsis (adding a syllable to the end of a word), that many of our modern words were coined by Shakespeare. The bottom line is that using these techniques made writing colloquially and dialectally, in meter (Iambic Pentameter), much, much easier. Consider the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet, one of the most memorably colloquial characters in all of Shakespeare:

Lord, how my head aches! what a head have I!
It beats as it would fall in twenty pieces.
My back o’ t’ other side,–O, my back, my back!
Beshrew your heart for sending me about,
To catch my death with jaunting up and down!

In the second line Shakespeare uses the figure elipsis or eclipsis to eliminate the word if and the figure apocope to eliminate the last syllable of the preposition into. In other words, the line should read: It beats as if it would fall into twenty pieces. However, this would introduce two anapests (in the third & fourth foot) into the Iambic line, an embarrassing disaster in Shakespeare’s day.


I’m not sure a modern poet would dare to use the same techniques. Then, in the third line, the nurse’s colloquial speech once again threatens to rupture the Iambic Pentameter pattern.


This could probably be scanned differently, but this is my stab it. I’ve chosen to treat the third foot as a heavy feminine ending before a midline break (the comma after O). One could argue, perhaps, that the midline break really comes after side. In which case it would read:


In this case, the fourth foot would be a kind of double-onset after the midline break (after the word side). In both cases, the scansions are easily within the realm of acceptable iambic pentameter variants. In fact, the lines are mostly iambic. Shakespeare, of course, pulls this off by using the figure syncope, removal of a letter or syllable from the midle of a word – o’t’other side. If he hadn’t used this figure, the second foot would have been an anapest. In Shakespeare’s day, this anapest, along with the heavy feminine ending or the double onset (however you choose to scan it) would have exceeded the bounds of a tolerable variant.

A brief note on Shakespeare’s use of Proverbs. Of all the poets who put pen to paper, Shakespeare is the most conversant in the proverbial lore of this day. His mind was filled with proverbs and their use is like a multi-colored thread through the entirety of his output. At some point I may write a post on his use of proverbs. They give to his verse and to the voice of his characters an earthiness and familiarity that we hear as colloquial  and vernacular. But Shakespeare wasn’t unique in his love of proverbs. The Elizabethans were avid collectors of proverbs and they were taught them from their childhood schooldays. All the great Elizabethan playwrights sprinkled their writing with proverbial lore – if not so skillfully as Shakespeare.

Robert Burns

robert-burns-2One of the most dialectal, as opposed to colloquial, of English poets is Robert Burns, so much so that some of his poems are almost incomprehensible without annotation.

The night was still, and o’er the hill
The moon shone on the castle wa’;
The mavis sang, while dew-drops hang
Around her on the castle wa’.

Sae merrily they danc’d the ring,
Frae e’enin till the cocks did craw,
And aye the owerword o’ the spring
Was Irvine’s bairns are bonie a’.

This wonderful little tetrameter poem was written in rhyming couplets. Burns uses several metrical “cheats” to fit the dialect within the feet – all the same as those in Shakespeare’s day. He uses syncope to change over to o’er and evening to e’ening. In both cases he avoided an anapest. Notice that he doesn’t elide the word merrily. Even though we might, ourselves, be tempted to pronounce it with two syllable – merr’ly – Burns clearly wants it pronounced as a three syllable word – mer-ri-lyotherwise the solidly iambic patter breaks down.

Now, there’s one line that is especially tricky. How do you read: And aye the owerword o’the spring? One might be tempted to read the line as follows:


However, this would give us a dactyl in the third foot – something which, up to now, Burns has studiously avoided. The elipsis o’the, reducing two syllables to one, gives us a clue as to how Burns would like us to read the line.


With this reading the perfectly iambic pattern of the lyric is preserved. In fact, Burns (for all his dialect) is far, far more conservative than Shakespeare ever was and even Milton! His poems are all, by in large, strictly iambic.  And he accomplishes this feat using a variety of metrical “cheats”. Burns, it seems, valued metrical regularity over the irregular pull of dialectal diction. Another interesting facet of Burns’ poems is that, for all the dialectal vocabulary, his use of colloquialism or the vernacular voice is relatively normal. He may use colloquial or proverbial phrases, but not in any way that truly sets him apart from other poets. From A Dedication:

Be to the poor like ony whunstane,
And haud their noses to the grunstane;

The phrase the poor like ony whunstane has a proverbial ring to it. The colloquial expression hold their noses to the grindstone is typical of Burns’ use. Unlike Shakespeare, who poetically enriches his proverbs, Burns writes them out as he’s heard them. Having said all that, his use of these effects, when added to the rich dialectal voice of his poetry, unquestionably lends his poetry (despite their strict metrical devices) an air of the commonplace and the common voice.

But my point, in all this, is to demonstrate just how many metrical cheats poets were able to employ when writing colloquially or otherwise.

john-clareJohn Clare

John Clare’s career began as Burns’ ended. Like Burns he wrote about common things, but did so without  Burns’ virtuosity.When other poets were writing (or attempting to write) with a more elevated and heightened style, in a High Mimetic Mode, Clare was writing about common things in a common voice.

From The Nightingale’s Nest:

Hush! let the wood-gate softly clap for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love,
From here I’ve heard her many a merry year
At morn, at eve, nay, all the livelong day,
As though she lived on song.

The phrase many a merry year is colloquial, as well as all the livelong day - an idiomatic & vernacular English (as opposed to uniquely American) expression. Like Burns, though, Clare is very careful to stay within the metrical foot – archly conservative in his use of variants. The only variants I could find were trochaic first feet (blank verse).  In the lines above, one might be tempted to read the third line as a variant.


This reading would create an anapestic fourth foot. In the entirety of the poem, no line veers from ten syllables and hardly veers from Iambic. Although Clare hasn’t used syncope or elipsis to slur the syllables, the correct reading is almost certainly as follows:


This reading retains the strong Iambic Pentameter pattern of the poem. It again shows how poets, writing in meter, expected to fuse colloquial diction with the demands of meter. Clare’s omission of elipsis was a sign of the future – when more modern poets, writing in meter, would omit the visible indication of slurred syllables on the presumption that a knowledgeable reader of metered verse would slur the syllables without prompting – other modern poets – not aware of this tradition – simply read their lines as anapests and see up to two or three anapests as an acceptable variant. My own feeling is that more than two anapests in a line tends to be a departure from Iambic Pantameter rather than a variant.

At other times, there was no need for Clare to use such figures of grammar. His colloquial speech fit effortlessly into the pattern of whatever meter he was writing:

Hark! there she is as usual- let’s be hush -
For in this blackthorn-clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
Those hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ‘neath the rustling boughs…

Such colloquial phrases as if rightly guessed and stoop right cautious fit neatly in the iambic pattern. Clare’s only concession was use aphaeresis when changing beneath to ‘neath – the only such figure in the entirety of the blank verse poem.

Most of John Clare’s poetry follows this similar pattern. An attentive reader can deduce that he wrote quickly, his verse frequently filled with words that do little more than fill out the meter, but his voice is always at ease and filled with the sort of speech and rhythms that seldom found their way into the more rarefied poeticizing of his contemporaries.

That said, and like Burns, Clare’s meter always remains rigid and archly conservative.

In fact, after the Elizabethans, the history of meter is one of ever increasing rigidity. The plasticity of a developing language hardened. By the end of the 17th Century words and their usages were all but standardized in comparison to the free-wheeling heydey of Shakespeare’s period. What this meant was that these techniques, rather than being an outgrowth of (and contributing to) a developing language, were becoming tools of poetry rather than of language. The coinage of new words declined rapidly and was even frowned on. Concomitant to this reining in of loose canons was an increasingly formal tone in poetry. Erudition, refinement and dignity were the bywords of Restoration Poetry – the stuff of Pope, Dryden , Davenant, Milton – not colloquialism. The malleable freedom of blank verse gave way to the strict accounting of heroic couplets. So, even though poets had the tools available to them, the times weren’t right. Colloquialism no longer found its way into the poetry of the leading poets.

After the restoration, even as the tyranny of heroic couplets finally began to give way, the rigidity of the restoration left its stamp of the following generations. The extravagant adventurousness of the Elizabethans were all but forgotten and seldom imitated, even as the nineteenth century fell under the sway of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and the great Victorains – Browning and Tennyson.

By the end of the nineteenth century many of the techniques used to fulfill the demands of meter and rhyme had become no more than mannerisms. It was to this that Pound was reacting when he rejected the sing-song meter of the Victorians. He believed that the only way to liberate poetry from the stale exigencies of meter and rhyme was to liberate it from meter and rhyme. Free verse was born and the exigencies were thrown out the window. They were no longer needed.

To some poets, though, Pound was taking the easy way out.

A few Poets looked for a new way to fuse the colloquial voice with metrical poetry.

Colloquialism without the Cheats

ea-robinsonE.A. Robinson was already meeting the demands of meter without recourse to the tired devices of his contemporaries — the tired metrical cheats, the flowery language and expostulations. Robinson’s poetry, for the first time in English language poetry,  reunited the common, colloquial voice with the demands of formal poetry.

The Blank Verse poem Aunt Imogen is a fine example of Robinson’s more vernacular and supple style. There are no thees or thous, no syncope, no elipsis, no aphaerisis.

The verse begins with an informality that was, up to this point, unheard of .

Aunt Imogen was coming, and therefore
The children—Jane, Sylvester, and Young George—
Were eyes and ears; for there was only one
Aunt Imogen to them in the whole world,
And she was in it only for four weeks
In fifty-two.

Knowing that the verse is iambic pentameter blank verse, we know a few things about the first line:


The first is that the first & last syllable of Imogen receives the strong stress, not the second syllable. The second thing we know is that therefore is pronounced differently than nowadays, with the second syllable receiving the stress – there-fore’. A quick search in Webster’s (not the dinky collegiate version but the old one the size of a cinder block) confirms that the older pronunciation of therefore was more prevalent in Robinson’s day. (Trochaic feet, in the fifth foot of an Iambic Pentameter line, is extremely rare before the middle of the 20th Century.) Robinson doesn’t mind the Pyrrhic fourth foot, willing to exchange metrical rigidity for phrasal flexibility.

After the informality of the first line Robinson offers up some American vernacular. “Were eyes and ears” comes from the expression all ears, a uniquely American Idiomatic expression. Then the next lines seek to echo the voice of the children saying that  “there was only one/Aunt Imogen to them in the whole world. It is the kind of exaggerated expression children are prone to but which, up to now, rarely found its way into serious poetry. Robinson ends this first sentence with the following: “And she was in it only for four weeks
In fifty-two”.
The closing words have the feeling of a conversational aside, adding to the air of informality and colloquial speech – something which Frost was to develop even further. There is, deliberately, no rhetorical heightening in any  of these lines.

In terms of the meter, Robinson relaxes his strict accounting, allowing the colloquialism to disrupt the iambic pattern.


I read the first of the two lines as containing what’s called a double foot – a Pyrrhic-Spondee. (The double foot is an Iambic Pentameter variant which Sidney, an early pioneer of Iambic Pentameter, made frequent use of.)  The next line mirrors the first, though this time I read the line as having five feet. Though it probably was not deliberate on Robinson’s part, the second line helps re-affirm the Iambic Pentameter pattern without sacrificing Robinson’s colloquial effects. The effect is supple and flexible. It is a new voice in the poetry of blank verse.

There’s more to say about this poem but I think another poem will better demonstrate the other salient feature of Robinson’s verse – his magnificent Sonnet “The Sheaves”. He generally resists altering the natural grammar of spoken English for the sake of rhyme or metrical rhythm. He finds ways to preserve normal speech patterns while preserving the integrity of the Iambic Pentameter pattern. This is significant. Up until Robinson, poets regularly reversed grammatical units depending on what Iamb or Rhyme they needed.

For example, consider Wordsworth’s Scorn not the Sonnet:

“the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound”

The last line reverses the normal grammatical order for the sake of the rhyme wound/sound. Allowing that we don’t use the auxillary verb do as an expletive, one would normall say: Tasso did sound this pipe a thousand times or Tasso sounded this pipe a thousand times.

Robinson tries to dispense with such devices, rhetorical heightening, the use of the antiquated pronouns thee or thou for a much more familiar and “low American”  colloquial voice or or “low mimetic style” (See my post on the Oratorical Style for a discussion of high and low mimetic styles – the discussion is in reference to Fantasy Writers but applies to poetry as well. Apart from the poets mentioned in this post, and up until the 20th Century, most poets writing in meter chose to write in a high mimetic style, including Emily Dickinson.)

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as by some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly into gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay –
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Robinson’s concessions are change assigned, magic undivined and long to stay (where one would normally expect assigned change, undivined magic and to stay long. Other than that, the poem sounds thoroughly modern to an American ear. Whitman can sound modern to an American ear, but Whitman set aside meter to do it. Robinson didn’t and that, and if only in this respect, is all the more impressive.

Robert Frost: A Master of Colloquialism in Poetry

robert-frost-youngAfter Robinson, Robert Frost became the unrivaled twentieth century master of the colloquial. Frost, through skill, genius or sheer determination, dispensed with any metrical concessions. His verse is free of grammatical inversions, syncope, elision or any of the other metrical concessions. And there are no wasted words – words merely to pad the meter. His colloquial phrases strain the meter (and he was criticized for it even by his students – Robert Francis). But nonetheless, he mastered both the demands of formal poetry and colloquial sense and discursiveness – the halting, digressive, deliberative and informal pattern of our daily talk.

We don’t speak in five paragraph essays, but feel our away forward, our thoughts shaped by what we build on. This is the tone that Frost mastered.  His uniqueness, in this respect, and the difficulty of his art is attested to by the fact that, so far, few poets and fewer poems have achieved anything comparable.

‘The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it – that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound’

~ Home Burial: Robert Frost

Notice how Frost imitates the deliberative pattern of colloquial speech. The husband says: “I never noticed it from here before.” Then, colloquially, he reflects: “I must be wonted to it“. The poem is written in Blank Verse and the phrase fits neatly within the meter.  Outside the sphere of Dramatic Verse, no other poet before Frost ever introduced the everyday pattern of speech into verse.  This was Frost’s innovation. Notice the dialectal effect of “We haven’t to mind those.” defines Dialect “as a variety of a language that is distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and by its use by a group of speakers who are set off from others geographically or socially.”

The pithiness of “We haven’t to mind those” is characteristic of the New England dialect still alive and well, up in Vermont – a tight, clipped and northerly accent. However, the dialectal language strains against the meter.


This is a hard line to scan and don’t hold me to it. “We have” is iambic but from there, the dialect of the voice plays against the meter – the sort of liberty that Frost was criticized for by more traditional poets.  Nevertheless, Frost just manages to fuse the colloquial tone with the overall Iambic Pentameter pattern (the variant feet are an allowable variant).

That’s hard to do, especially for modern poets. One has to have an ear for colloquial language, for meter, and how to fit the two together. My own poetry shows the learning process. In my poem Come Out!, the first of my poems where I was able to fuse colloquial speech and meter, there are still some poetic turns of phrases that, if I were to write it now, I might avoid.

But I might be taught,
I should supposeI can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With womenfolk.  We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.

The phrase I should suppose is a Frostian touch followed by the colloquial asseveration  I can’t say I see how. It’s worth noting that he could have written I can’t see how but he needed the extra iamb |say I| to fill the meter. Because the phrase is speech-like and feels natural, the filling out of the line feels natural. But there’s another Frostian feature of the line, and that is the tension between natural speech pattern and the Iambic Pentameter pattern. A colloquial reading might go something like this:


This, at least, is how I would expect a local to say it. But something Frost is renowned for, and probably because of the tension between phrase and meter, is his tendency to put the expected metrical stress on words that normally might not receive stress. Here’s how the phrase reads if one takes the meter into account:


With this second reading, should takes empasis. The husband knows he should be more cognizant of his wife’s experience. And we know that this is how Frost meant the line to be read because the husband immediately avers, reconsiders, saying I can’t say I see how. In this phrase the iambic stress is on can’t and I. The husband has already determined that he can’t see through his wife’s experience and probably won’t. Not I he says.

The effect finds parallels in A Swinger of Birches, among other poems. The speaker seems to turn back, aver, reconsider what he’s spoken just as we do in everyday speech.

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them

The colloquialism of the italicized lines, like many of the lines, plays hard against the meter. In this sample, there is only one line that is indisputable Iambic Pentamter: Like girl on hands and knees that throw their hair. Taken at face value, the iambic pattern is lost, breaks down in these lines, but there is the echo of an older reading in these lines (and it is with this knowledge that Frost allowed himself some variance).

For instance, in Shakespeare’s day a little syncope and elipsis would have regularized the line :

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun
Before them o’er   their heads to dry i’th’sun

But he was going to to say when Truth broke in

[Where going is slurred via elision to read as one syllable.]


On the other hand, Frost allows himself a more flexibility, willing to end a final foot with a trochee: bend them; willing to vary the Pentameter with a Tetrameter line having two anapests.


In short, Frost was skilled at matching colloquial phrase to the metrical line, but he was also willing to deviate from the pattern when the phrasing mattered more than the meter. It was a flexibility that served him beautifully, and which he seemed to beautifully balance (never completely losing the iambic pentameter feel) – a flexibility which, as we will see, no modern poets writing in meter seem to have absorbed from Frost – despite their study and admiration of the poet. As for myself, my own poem All Hallows’ Eve works toward that ideal, along with some newer poems I have’t posted yet.

[For a look at meter and colloquialism in another Frost poem, check out my post on A Road Not Taken.]

After Frost

richard-wilburRichard Wilbur , probably considered the natural heir to Frost, seldom touches on the colloquial voice the way Robert Frost does. His voice and technique harken back to an older poetry – to Robinson mor than to Frost. Not only are Wilbur’s poems frequently formal in structure, but they mostly sound formal, even his free verse. The are spoken with an air of formality or literariness that works against the colloquial voice. Consider “Seed Leaves”, dedicated to R.F. (Robert Frost?). The poem begins:

Dislodging the earth crumbs
Here something stubborn comes,
It comes up bending double,
And looks like a green staple.
And making crusty rubble.

The inverted grammar of the first line, for the sake of the rhyming “comes/crumbs” firmly undercuts the feeling of a colloquial voice. The subject/verb inversion as much as announces the presence of Poet, much as one clears his throat before he speaks. In his latest collection, “Mayflies”, perhaps the most masterful , none of the poems are written in a voice other than his own — always the poet speaking. “The Crow’s Nest” begins:

That lofty stand of trees beyond the field,
Which in the storm of summer stood revealed…

Once again, this time in the second line, the normal order of subject, object and verb gives way to the exigencies of rhyme. And this is the trap of formal poetry, which only Frost seems to have overcome– how to write a metrical and rhyming poem while preserving the vernacular, colloquial voice.

Timothy Steele

timothy-steeleTimothy Steele, a contemporary poet well-liked for his skill in formal poetry, succeeds in areas where Wilbur does not. In one of his most Frostian poems, he largely succeeds, but Steele pays a dear price. It is excessively derivative both in voice and subject matter, as though Steele couldn’t write a colloquial poem without adopting not just Frost’s voice, but also his subject matter. Consider “Timothy“:

Although the field lay cut in swaths,
Grass at the edge survived the crop:
Stiff stems. with lateral blades of leaf,
Dense cattail flower-spikes at the top.
If there was breeze and open sky,
We raked each swath into a row;
If not , we took the hay to dry
To the barn’s golden-showering mow.

Compare this to extracts from Frost’s poems “Mowing” and “Tuft of Flowers”, written, probably, a hundred years earlier:

[Notice the echo of gold in the poem above and below...]

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,

Or easy gold…

[Or the echo of "row" and Frost's "swale" with Steel's "swaths"...]

To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

[Or compare how flowers and spikes show up in both poems...]

Not without feeble-pointed spokes of flowers…

Or compare Steele’s “we took the hay to dry” with Frost’s “to toss the grass to dry“…

Steel’s poem is rife with Frostian parallels, so much so that one suspects that Steele either deliberately imitated Frost in style and subject as a way to learn , or that Steele is altogether too pickled in his admiration. His reverence borders outright theft. Thankfully, Steel’s other poems are not as pickled, but he does not, to my knowledge, ever write in another’s voice – something which lends itself to colloquial or dialectal diction. It were as though none of the formal poets had ever read anything beyond Frost’s very first book?

[Current revision ends here - Dec 21 2008]

Rebel Angels

[My intention is to provide some fuller examples from Lea's poem - Dec 21 2008].

Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea

I paged through “Rebel Angels” a compendium of 25 poets: “Poets of the New Formalism”; and I could not firmly identify any poem as being written in a voice other than the “poet’s”, as opposed to say, Frost’s The Housekeeper, or The Witch of Coos or The Pauper Witch of Grafton. The only poet who might count is Sydney Lea and the poem The Feud. Lea comes the closest to a distinct (which is to say not Frostian) colloquial voice. His poems begins:

I don’t know your stories. This one here
is the meanest one I’ve got or ever hope to.
Less than a year ago. Last of November,
but hot by God! I saw the Walker gang…

In an earlier version of the post, I remarked that Lea’s meter was too variable to be true blank verse.

No longer. In fact, I find Lea’s meter to be somewhat conservative; and reading it now, I sometimes wish the colloquial phrasing conformed a little less to the Iambic pattern! That said, I wish the same for some of my poems. Lea’s poem is an admirable  effort – more so now that I’ve given it a second consideration.

My only disappointment remains the use of Italics (in the second line) – and something Sydney uses elsewhere in the poem.

One of the great advantages of meter, which free verse is incapable of, is in the ability to stress words that otherwise might not be stressed, according to their place in the metrical line. Consider Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet that begins “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments…” The temptation is to read it as follows: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” However, Shakespeare’s sonnets rarely, some say never, deviate from the iambic norm. A safer bet is to assume that Shakespeare is playing against the meter, expecting us to read it as follows: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” Admittedly, the prepositions [to] and [of] should not receive much stress.

The meaning of Shakespeare’s poem is very different when the meter is kept in mind. Lea, on the other hand, fails to use the meter to advantage. The italics, in fact, vary from the meter and act as a sort of cheat. In Lea’s poem we’ve come full circle. Only now, the effect is not to preserve the meter but to ignore it!


There’s more to write on this  subject, and I will.

It would be interesting to consider how colloquialism has been used in differing forms. For now, I still hope to find the formal poet who can re-unite the colloquial, common and vernacular with meter, verse and rhyme.


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