Emily Dickinson possessed a genius for figurative language and thought. Whenever I read her, I’m left with the impression of a woman who was impish, insightful, impatient, passionate and confident of her own genius. Some scholars portray her as being a revolutionary who rejected (with a capital R) the stock forms and meters of her day.
My own view is that Dickinson didn’t exactly “reject” the forms and meter. She wasn’t out to be a revolutionary. She was impish and brilliant. Like Shakespeare, she delighted in subverting conventions and turning expectations upside down.This was part and parcel of her expressive medium. She exploited the conventions and expectations of the day, she didn’t reject them.
The idea that she was a revolutionary rejecting the tired prerequisites of form and meter certainly flatters the vanity of contemporary free verse proponents (poets and critics) but I don’t find it a convincing characterization. The irony is that if she were writing today, just as she wrote then, her poetry would probably be just as rejected by a generation steeped in the tired expectations and conventions of free verse.
The common meters of the hymn and ballad simply and perfectly suited her expressive genius. Chopin didn’t “reject” symphonies, Operas, Oratorios, Concertos, or Chamber Music, etc… his genius was for the piano. Similarly, Dickinson’s genius found a congenial outlet in the short, succinct stanzas of common meter.
The fact that she was a woman and her refusal to conform to the conventions of the day made recognition difficult (I sympathize with that). My read is that Dickinson didn’t have the patience for pursuing fame. She wanted to write poetry just the way she wanted and if fame mitigated that, then fame be damned. She effectively secluded herself and poured forth poems with a profligacy bordering on hypographia. If you want a fairly succinct on-line biography of Dickinson, I enjoyed Barnes & Noble’s SparkNotes.
The Meters of Emily Dickinson
Dickinson used various hymn and ballad meters.
Searching on-line, there seems to be some confusion of terms or at the least their usage seems confusing to me. So, to try to make sense of it, I’ve done up a meter tree.
The term Hymn Meter embraces many of the meters in which Dickinson wrote her poems and the tree above represents only the basic four types.
If the symbols used in this tree don’t make sense to you, visit my post on Iambic Pentameter (Basics). If they do make sense to you, then you will notice that there are no Iambic Pentameter lines in any of the Hymn Meters. They either alternate between Iambic Tetrameter and Iambic Trimeter or are wholly in one or the other line length. This is why Dickinson never wrote Iambic Pentameter. The meter wasn’t part of the pallet.
Common Meter, by the way, is the meter of Amazing Grace, and Christmas Carol.
And then there is Ballad Meter – which is a variant of Hymn Meter.
I’ve noticed that some on-line sites conflate Common Meter and Ballad Meter. But there is a difference. Ballad Meter is less formal and more conversational in tone than Common Meter, and Ballad Meter isn’t as metrically strict, meaning that not all of its feet may be iambic. The best example I have found is the theme song to Gilligan’s Island:
Obviously the tone is conversational but, more importantly, notice the anapests. The stanza has the same number of feet as Common Meter, but the feet themselves vary from the iambic strictness of Common Meter. Also notice the rhyme scheme. Only the second & fourth line rhyme. Common Meter requires a strict ABAB rhyme scheme. The tone, the rhyme scheme, and the varied meter distinguish Ballad Meter from Common Meter.
For the sake of thoroughness, the following gives an idea of the many variations on the four basic categories of Hymn meter. Click on the image if you want to visit the website from which the image comes (hopefully link rot won’t set it). Examples of the various meters are provided there.
If you look at the table above, you will notice that many of the hymn and ballad meters don’t even have names, they are simply referred to by the number of syllables in each line. Explore the site from which this table is drawn. It’s an excellent resource if you want to familiarize yourself with the various hymn and ballad meters Dickinson would have heard and been familiar with – and which she herself used. Note the Common Particular Meter, Short Particular Meter and Long Particular Meter at the top right. These are meters you will find in Dickinson’s poetry. Following is an example of Common Particular Meter. The first stanza comes from around 1830 – by J. Leavitte, the year of Dickinson’s Birth. This stuff was in the air. The second example is the first stanza from Dickinson’s poem numbered 313. The two columns on the right represent, first, the number of syllables per line and, second, the rhyme scheme.
Short Particular Meter is the reverse of this. That is, its syllable count is as follows: 6,6,8,6,6,8 – the rhyme scheme may vary. Long Particular Meter is 8,8,8,8,8,8 – Iambic Tetrameter through and through – the rhyme schemes may vary ABABCC, AABCCB, etc…
The purpose of all this is to demonstrate the many metrical patterns Dickinson was exposed to – most likely during church services. The singing of hymns, by the way, was not always a feature of Christian worship. It was Isaac Watts, during the late 17th Century, who wedded the meter of Folk Song and Ballad to scripture. An example of a hymn by Watts, written in common meter, would be Hymn 105, which begins (I’ve divided the first stanza into feet):
Nor eye |hath seen, |nor ear |hath heard,
Nor sense |nor rea|son known,
What joys |the Fa|ther hath |prepared
For those |that love |the Son.
But the good Spirit of the Lord
Reveals a heav’n to come;
The beams of glory in his word
Allure and guide us home.
Though Watts’ creation of hymns based on scripture were highly controversial, rejected by some churches and adopted by others, one of the church’s that fully adopted Watts’ hymns was the The First Church of Amherst, Massachusetts, where Dickinson from girlhood on, worshiped. She would have been repeatedly exposed to Samuel Worcester’s edition of Watts’s hymns, The Psalms and Spiritual Songs where the variety of hymn forms were spelled out and demonstrated. While scholars credit Dickinson as the first to use slant rhyme to full advantage, Watts himself was no stranger to slant rhyme, as can be seen in the example above. In fact, many of Dickinson’s “innovations” were culled from prior examples. Domhnall Mitchell, in the notes of his book Measures of Possiblity emphasizes the cornucopia of hymn meters she would have been exposed to:
One more variation on ballad meter would be fourteeners. Fourteeners essentially combine the Iambic Tetrameter and Trimeter alternation into one line. The Yellow Rose of Texas would be an example (and is a tune to which many of Dickinson’s poems can be sung).
According to my edition of Dickinson’s poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, these are the first four lines (the poem is much longer) of the first poem Emily Dickinson wrote. Examples of the form can be found as far back as George Gascoigne – a 16th Century English Poet who preceded Shakespeare. If one divides the lines up, one finds the ballad meter hidden within:
Oh the Earth was made for lovers
for damsel, and hopeless swain
For sighing, and gentle whispering,
and unity made of twain
All things do go a courting
in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single
but thee in His world so fair!
How to Identify the Meter
The thing to remember is that although Dickinson wrote no Iambic Pentameter, Hymn Meters are all Iambic and Ballad Meters vary not in the number of metrical feet but in the kind of foot. Instead of Iambs, Dickinson may substitue an anapestic foot or a dactyllic foot.
So, if you’re out to find out what meter Dickinson used for a given poem. Here’s the method I would use. First I would count the syllables in each line. In the Dickinson’s famous poem above, all the stanzas but one could either be Common Meter or Ballad Meter. Both these meters share the same 8,6,8,6 syllabic line count – Iambic Tetrameter alternating with Iambic Trimeter. (See the Hymn Meter Tree.)
Next, I would check the rhyme scheme. For simplicity’s sake, I labeled all the words which weren’t rhyming, as X. If the one syllabically varying verse didn’t suggest ballad meter, then the rhyme scheme certainly would. This isn’t Common Meter. This is Ballad Meter. Common Meter keeps a much stricter rhyme scheme. The second stanza’s rhyme, away/civility is an eye rhyme. The third stanza appears to dispense with rhyme altogether although I suppose that one should, for the sake of propriety, consider ring/run a consonant rhyme. It’s borderline – even by modern day standards. Chill/tulle would be a slant rhyme. The final rhyme, day/eternity would be another eye rhyme.
It occurs to me add a note on rhyming, since Dickinson used a variety of rhymes (more concerned with the perfect word than the perfect rhyme). This table is inspired by a Glossary of Rhymes by Alberto Rios with some additions of my own. I’ve altered it with examples drawn from Dickinson’s own poetry – as far as possible. The poem’s number is listed first followed by the rhymes. The numbering is based on The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas H. Johnson.
RHYMES DEFINED BY NATURE OF SIMILARITY
perfect rhyme, true rhyme, full rhyme
imperfect rhyme, slant rhyme, half rhyme, approximate rhyme, near rhyme, off rhyme, oblique rhyme
- 756 prayer/despair
augmented rhyme – A sort of extension of slant rhyme. A rhyme in which the rhyme is extended by a consonant.bray/brave grow/sown
- (Interestingly, this isn’t a type of rhyme Dickinson ever used, either because she was unaware of it or simply considered it a rhyme “too far”.)
diminished rhyme – This is the reverse of an augmented rhyme. brave/day blown/sow stained/rain
- (Again, this isn’t a technique Dickinson ever uses.)
unstressed rhyme – Rhymes which fall on the unstressed syllable (much less common in Dickinson).
- 345 very/sorry
1601 forgiven/hidden prison/heaven
eye rhyme – These generally reflect historical changes in pronunciation. Some poets (knowing that some of these older rhymes no longer rhyme) nevertheless continue to use them in the name of convention and convenience.
- 712 day/eternity (See Above)
identical “rhyme” – Which really isn’t a rhyme but is used as such.
Pausing in Front of our Palsied Faces
Time compassion took –
Arks of Reprieve he offered us –
Ararats – we took –
rich rhyme – Words or syllables that are Homonyms.
assonant rhyme – When only the vowel sounds rhyme.
consonant rhyme, para rhyme – When the consonants match.
- 744 heal/hell
feminine para rhyme – A two syllable para rhyme or consonant rhyme.
scarce rhyme – Not really a true category, in my opinion, since there is no difference between a scarce rhyme and any other rhyme except that the words being rhymed have few options. But, since academia is all about hair-splitting, I looked and looked and found these:
- 738 guess/Rhinoceros (slant rhyme)
1440 Mortality/Fidelity (extended rhyme)
813 Girls/Curls (true rhyme)
macaronic rhyme – When words of different languages rhyme. (This one made me sweat. Dickinson’s world was her room, it seems, which doesn’t expose one to a lot of foreign languages. But I found one! As far as I know, the first one on the Internet, at least, to find it!)
- 313 see/me/Sabachthani (Google it if you’re curious.)
trailing rhyme – Where the first syllable of a two syllable word rhymes (or the first word of a two-word rhyme rhymes). ring/finger scout/doubter
- (These examples aren’t from Dickinson and I know of no examples in Dickinson but am game to be proved wrong.)
apocopated rhyme – The reverse of trailing rhyme. finger/ring doubter/scout.
- (Again, I know of no examples in Dickinson’s poetry.)
mosaique or composite rhyme – Rhymes constructed from more than one word. (Astronomical/solemn or comical.)
- (This also is a technique which Dickinson didn’t use.)
RHYMES DEFINED BY RELATION TO STRESS PATTERN
one syllable rhyme, masculine rhyme – The most common rhyme, which occurs on the final stressed syllable and is essentially the same as true or perfect rhyme.
- 313 shamed/blamed
light rhyme – Rhyming a stressed syllable with a secondary stress – one of Dickinson’s most favored rhyming techniques and found in the vast majority of her poems. This could be considered a subset of true or perfect rhyme.
- 904 chance/advance
extra-syllable rhyme, triple rhyme, multiple rhyme, extended rhyme, feminine rhyme – Rhyming on multiple syllables. (These are surprisingly difficult to find in Dickinson. Nearly all of her rhymes are monosyllabic or light rhymes.)
- 1440 Mortality/Fidelity
wrenched rhyme – Rhyming a stressed syllable with an unstressed syllable (for all of Dickinson’s nonchalance concerning rhyme – wrenched rhyme is fairly hard to find.)
- 1021 predistined/Land
RHYMES DEFINED BY POSITION IN THE LINE
end rhyme, terminal rhyme – All rhymes occur at line ends–the standard procedure.
- 904 chance/advance
initial rhyme, head rhyme – Alliteration or other rhymes at the beginning of a line.
- 311 To Stump, and Stack – and Stem –
Too small – to fear –
Too distant – to endear –
Entombed by whom, for what offense
internal rhyme – Rhyme within a line or passage, randomly or in some kind of pattern:
It waits upon the Lawn,
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.
leonine rhyme, medial rhyme – Rhyme at the caesura and line end within a single line.
- (Dickinson’s shorter line lengths, almost exclusively tetrameter and trimeter lines, don’t lend themselves to leonine rhymes. I couldn’t find one. If anyone does, leave a comment and I will add it.)
caesural rhyme, interlaced rhyme – Rhymes that occur at the caesura and line end within a pair of lines–like an abab quatrain printed as two lines (this example is not from Dickinson but one provided by Rios at his webpage)
- Sweet is the treading of wine, and sweet the feet of the dove;
But a goodlier gift is thine than foam of the grapes or love.
Yea, is not even Apollo, with hair and harp-string of gold,
A bitter God to follow, a beautiful God to behold?
(Here too, Dickinson’s shorter lines lengths don’t lend themselves to this sort of rhyming. The only place I found hints of it were in her first poem.)
By Position in the Stanza or Verse Paragraph
crossed rhyme, alternating rhyme, interlocking rhyme – Rhyming in an ABAB pattern.
- (Any of Dickinson’s poems written in Common Meter would be Cross Rhyme.)
intermittent rhyme – Rhyming every other line, as in the standard ballad quatrain: xaxa.
- (Intermittent Rhyme is the pattern of Ballad Meter and reflects the majority of Dickinson’s poems.)
envelope rhyme, inserted rhyme – Rhyming ABBA.
- (The stanza from poem 313, see above, would be an example of envelope rhyme in Common Particular Meter.)
irregular rhyme – Rhyming that follows no fixed pattern (as in the pseudopindaric or irregular ode).
- (Many of Dickinson’s Poems seem without a definite rhyme scheme but the admitted obscurity of her rhymes – such as ring/run in the poem Because I could not stop for death – serve to obfuscate the sense and sound of a regular rhyme scheme. In fact, and for the most part, nearly all of Dickinson’s poems are of the ABXB pattern – the pattern of Ballad Meter . This assertion, of course, allows for a wide & liberal definition of “rhyme”. That said, poems like 1186, 1187 & 1255 appear to follow no fixed pattern although, in such short poems, establishing whether a pattern is regular or irregular is a dicey proposition.)
sporadic rhyme, occasional rhyme – Rhyming that occurs unpredictably in a poem with mostly unrhymed lines. Poem 312 appears to be such a poem.
thorn line – An un-rhymed line in a generally rhymed passage.
- (Again, if one allows for a liberal definition of rhyme, then thorn lines are not in Dickinson’s toolbox. But if one isn’t liberal, then they are everywhere.)
RHYME ACROSS WORD BOUNDARIES
broken rhyme – Rhyme using more than one word:
(Rios also includes the following example at his website)
- Or rhyme in which one word is broken over the line end:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
Dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing…
(I can find no comparable example in Dickinson’s poetry.)
Getting back to identifying meter (in Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for death) the final method is to scan the poem. The pattern is thoroughly iambic. The only individual feet that might be considered anapestic variants are in the last stanza. I personally chose to elide cen-tu-ries so that it reads cent‘ries – a common practice in Dickinson’s day and easily typical of modern day pronunciation. In the last line, I read toward as a monosyllabic word. This would make the poem thoroughly iambic. If a reader really wanted to, though, he or she could read these feet as anapestic. In any case, the loose iambs, as Frost called them, argue for Ballad Meter rather than Common Meter – if not its overall conversational tone.
The poem demonstrates Dickinson’s refusal to be bound by form. She alters the rhyme, rhyme scheme and meter (as in the fourth stanza) to suit the demands of subject matter. This willingness, no doubt, disturbed her more conventional contemporaries. She knew what she wanted, though, and that wasn’t going to be altered by any formal demands. And if her long time “mentor”, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, had been a careful reader of her poems, he would have known that she wouldn’t be taking advice.
If I think of anything to add, I’ll add it.
If this post has been helpful, let me know.