Milton’s blank verse is exceedingly conservative and easy to scan. It’s a testament to Milton’s skill as a poet that his beautiful language and careful phrasing triumphs over his monotonous meter – in many cases subtly disrupting it without violating it. It’s a miracle, really. (For an example of a poet who didn’t pull it off, read Spencer’s Fairy Queen.) It was as if the experimentation of the Elizabethans, let alone the Jacobeans, had never occurred. Milton came of age in an exceedingly conservative era- poetically. Meter, in those days, was as dominant then as free verse now, and as unadventurous. Just the fact that Milton wrote blank verse (when everyone else was writing heroic couplets) was an act of defiance.
Most of the trouble surrounding Milton and scansion (for modern readers) comes down to differences in pronunciation – some of it has to do with historical changes; and some, if you’re American, has to do with differences in British and American pronunciation (especially problematic when reading Chaucer).
I cooked up a table that, with its “scientific” terminology, gives you an idea of Milton’s metrical habits and preferences. I haven’t gone line by line to exhaustively prove the accuracy of my table, but I can assert, for example, that Milton (despite claims to the contrary) never wrote a trochee in the final foot. Here’s an extract, to that effect, from my review of M.L. Harvey’s Book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning: A Study in Generative Metrics (Studies in Comparative Literature):
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!
On to my table… Each division represents an equivalent foot in an Iambic Pentameter line.
Here is one of my favorite passages, already alluded to in a previous post – Iambic Pentameter Variants – I. To simplify matters, I haven’t marked any of the Iambic feet , I’ve only marked variant feet or feet that, for one reason another, might be read incorrectly.
Elision, a standard practice in Milton’s day and more or less assumed whether marked or not, eliminates the vast majority of Milton’s “variant” feet.
Glorious, if treated as a three syllable word, would make the second foot Anapestic, not criminal, but if you can elide, you should.
This elision might make some metrists squirm. Given just how conservative metrical practice tended to be in Milton’s day, I would be inclined to elide these two vowels. Given how Milton can barely bring himself to so much as use a feminine ending in the final foot, I seriously doubt he expected readers to treat this foot as an anapest. My advice is to elide it.
The final example of elision, above, is the word Spirits. Interestingly, Milton seems to treat this word opportunistically. In line 466, for example, he treats spirits as a two syllable word. In other lines, throughout Paradise Lost and in the latter line, he treats the word as a monosyllabic word. This sort of inconsistency in pronunciation is found as far back as Chaucer, as with his pronunciation of the word sweete – sometimes one syllable, sometimes two. Such inconsistency is permitted once one has obtained a poetic license.
Reading with the Meter
Modern readers may sometimes be tempted to read as though they were reading prose. Sometimes, though, poets play the line against the meter, wanting us to emphasize certain words we might not otherwise. That’s the beauty of meter in poetry. Milton, as with all the great poets, was skilled at this sort of counterpoint:
In the line above, the modern reader might be tempted to stress the line as follows:
Mean, or in her summ’d up, in in her containd
This would be putting the emphasis on the words in. In free verse, ok, but not Iambic Pentameter and especially not with a metrically conservative poet like Milton. Milton wants us to put the emphasis on her. Maybe the line above doesn’t seem such a stretch? Try this one:
Any modern reader would put the emphasis on Bone and Flesh:
Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self
But they would be missing the point of Milton’s line – the closing mySelf! That is, it’s not the Bone or Flesh that amazes Adam, it’s that the Bone and Flesh are of his Bone and ofhis Flesh. His Self! This contrapuntal exploitation of the meter is a master stroke and to miss it is to miss Milton’s genius. If it’s read in this light, stressing the prepositional of might not feel so strained or artificial.
Pentameter at all costs!
Milton’s obeisance to the demands of Iambic Pentameter aren’t always entirely successful.
This, to me, is a reach, but it’s probably what Milton intended and even how he pronounced it. Practice it with studied e-nunc-i-a-tion and the line may make a little more sense. An alternative is to read the line as Iambic Tetrameter.
Given Milton’s metrical squeamishness, I seriously doubt that, in the entirety of Paradise Lost, he decided, for just one moment, to write one Tetrameter line. There are other alternative Tetrameter readings, but they get uglier and uglier.
That said, ambiguities like these, along with the examples that follow, are what disrupt the seeming monotony of Milton’s meter. His use of them defines Milton’s skill as a poet. Roy Flannagan’s introduction to Paradise Lost (page 37) is worth quoting in this regard:
Milton writes lines of poetry that appear to be iambic pentameter if you count them regularly but really contain hidden reversed feet or elongated or truncated sounds that echo meaning and substance rather than a regular and hence monotonous beat. He builds his poetry on syllable count and on stress; William B. Hunter, following the analysis of Milton’s prosody by the poet Robert Bridges in 1921, counts lines that vary in the number of stresses from three all the way up to eight, but with the syllabic count remaining fixed almost always at ten (“The Sources” 198). Milton heavily favors ending his line on a masculine , accented syllable, with frequent enjambment or continuous rhythm from one line to the next… He avoids feminine feet or feet with final unstressed syllables at the ends of lines. He varies the caesura, or the definitive pause within the line, placing it more freely than any other dramatist or non-dramatic writer Hunter could locate (199). He controls elisions or the elided syllables in words most carefully, allowing the reader to choose between pronouncing a word like spirit as a monosyllable (and perhaps pronounced “sprite”) or disyllable, or Israel as a disyllable or trisyllable.
Extra Syllables: Milton’s Amphibrachs (Feminine Endings & Epic Caesuras)
The amphibrach is a metrical foot if three syllables – unstressed-stressed-unstressed. In poets prior to the 20th Century it is always associated with feminine endings or epic caesuras. In the passages above, Milton offers us two examples, one in the second foot (by far the norm) and one in the first foot.
This would be an epic caesura. The comma indicates a sort of midline break (a break in the syntactic sense or phrase). Amphibrach’s, at least in Milton, are always associated with this sort of syntactic pause or break. Epic Caesuras and Feminine Endings are easily the primary reason for extra syllables in Milton’s line. Anapests make up the rest, but they are far less frequent and can be frequently elided.
This would be a much rarer Epic Caesura in the first foot. Notice, once again, that the amphibrachic foot occurs with a syntactic break, the comma.
Differences in Pronunciation
If you just can’t make sense of the metrical flow, it might be because you aren’t pronouncing the words the same way Milton and his peers did.
Most modern readers would probably pronounce discourse and dis’course. However, in Milton’s day and among some modern British, it was and is pronounced discourse’.
This one is trickier. In modern English, we pronounce attribute as att’ribute when used as a noun and attri’bute when used as a verb. Milton, in a rather Elizabethan twist, is using attributing in its nominal sense, rather than verbal sense. He therefore keeps the nominal pronunciation: att’tributing.
The arch-Angel says to Adam, as concerns Eve:
Dismiss not her…by attributing overmuch to things Less excellent…
It’s phenomenally good marital advice. In other words. Don’t dismiss her by just tallying up her negative attributes, to the exclusion of her positive attributes. There is more to any friendship, relationship, or marriage than the negative. Think on the positive.
Some of Milton’s metrical feet are simply ambiguous – effectively breaking the monotony of the meter. In the example below, one could read the first foot as trochaic or as Iambic:
I chose a trochaic foot – the first option. If this foot had been in the fifth foot (or the last foot of the line) I would have read it as Iambic. Milton doesn’t write trochaic feet in the fifth foot. In the first foot, however, trochaic feet aren’t uncommon and in this instant it seems to make sense. I don’t sense that there’s any crucial meaning lost by de-emphasizing by. Perhaps the best answer, in cases of metrical ambiguity, is to consider at what point in the line the ambiguity is occuring.
Similarly, I read the following line as having a spondee in the fourth foot:
One could also read it as trochaic or iambic. Iambic, given the metrical practice of the day, is far more likely than a trochaic foot – especially, given Milton’s practice, this close to the final foot. I scanned the foot as spondaic. Spondaic feet, in Milton’s day, were considered the least disruptive variant foot and so were acceptable at just about any point of the line.
My Favorite Passages
The passages excerpted above just about cover every metrical exigency you will run into in reading Milton. The other reason I chose them is because they’re, well, juicy. I love them. I especially like the following lines for their sense of humor (and, yes, Milton does have a sense of humor).
What boyfriend or husband hasn’t had this experience? No matter how rational we think we are, all our intellectual bravado crumbles to folly – men are from Mars, women are from Venus.
Did Adam & Eve have sex? Why, yes, says Milton, but it wasn’t pornographic. That came after the fall:
Lastly, and most importantly, is there sex in heaven (or do we have to go to hell for that)? Milton gives us the answer:
If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, comment! Let me know. And if you have further questions or corrections, I appreciate those too.
Having noticed several searches on Frost’s Mending Wall (probably one of the most famous poems he wrote) I thought I would take a look at the poem. I’ve looked at several of my books on Frost and none of them extensively analyze the poem. The archetypal meaning of the wall is straightfoward and expounded on by the speaker of the poem. Perhaps the most insightful comment was Richard Poirier’s in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Poirier makes the observation Frost’s “genius as a narrative poet is in part his capacity to sustain debates between people about the nature of the ‘homes’ which they very often occupy together.” Mending Wall is an ideal manifestation of that genius, just as Home Burial is.
As an aside, it is also worth noting how few poets take an interest in writing narratively or even in voices other than their own. In the most recent issue of Measure, a biannual journal that publishes “formal” poetry, I could only find one poem indisputably written in a voice other than the poet’s – “Moliere’s Housekeeper”. The overwhelming majority were first person with the remaining few being second and third person. Not a single poem was written in the manner of a debate between two separate voices. Robert Frost is truly unique in this respect.
Having just analyzed Frost’s Birches, I was struck by the difference, in metrical style, between Birches and Mending Wall. My first thought was that Birches must have been written later (if not much later) than Mending Wall. Where Mending Wall is extremely conservative in its use of variant feet, Birches shows a much greater freedom and flexibility. As is the habit with most poets , when young they will try to master the game strictly by the rules – both to learn the rules and to prove to themselves and to others that they have the right stuff. Frost himself bragged that his first book, “A Boy’s Will”, proved that he could write by the numbers. That done, he quickly learned how to bend the rules.
I still think that Birches must have come later but William Pritchard, Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, recounts that when Frost wrote to Bartlett (a publisher) in August of 1913 “about a book to be called, tentatively, New England Eclogues, made up of ‘stories’ form between one to two hundred lines, he sent along a list of eleven poems, one of which bore the title “Swinging Birches.” Pritchard, echoing another biographer (John Kemp) speculates that Frost didn’t include Birches in the first book because the tone, more philosophical “and sage”, would have set it (too much) apart from the other poems “rooted in the realism of experience”. Page 103.
So… I’ m left clinging to my theory on the basis of meter alone. Which isn’t a wholly reliable way to date poetry. But there you have it. One last interesting note. Lea Newman, who I mentioned in a previous post, writes in her book Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry, of a children’s story Frost wrote for Carol and Lesley. In reference to elves and a spell, she quotes the following passage from the story:
Their backs were to the wall so that when a stone fell off it they were taken by surprise. They hardly turned in time to see two little heads pop out of sight on the pasture side. Carol saw them better than Lesley. “Faries!” he cried. Lesley said, “I can’t believe it.” “Fairies sure,” said Carol.
What Newman doesn’t observe is that even here, two voices (Frost’s children) are in debate. One sees fairies, the other doesn’t. Not only were the seeds of magic and elves present in this children’s story, but also the presence of two distinct voices in debate. It’s easy to imagine how, rightly or wrongly, these first thoughts gradually evolved into the famous poem. Newman mentions, additionally, that Frost himself never firmly identified himself with one speaker or the other. There was a little of both speakers in himself – and the poem could in some ways be taken as an internal debate.
Here is what Frost himself said, 1955, at Bread Loaf:
It’s about a spring occupation in my day. When I was farming seriously we had to set the wall up every year. You don’t do that any more. You run a strand of barbed wire along it and let it go at that. We used to set the wall up. If you see a wall well set up you know it’s owned by a lawyer in New York — not a real farmer. This is just about that spring occupation, but of course all sorts of things have been done with it and I’ve done something with it myself in self defense. I’ve gone it one better — more than once in different ways for the Ned of it — just for the foolishness of it. [The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frostp. 231]
To show just how divergent the metrical usages are between the two poems, I’ve color coded the scansion of Mending Wall and Birches. Trochaic feet are in red, Spondees are purple, Anapests are blue, and Feminine Endings are green, Phyrric feet are yellowish.
Frost reciting Mending Wall:
The meter does little in terms of acting as counterpoint to the line. (The scansion, by the way, is based on Frost’s own reading of the poem.) One might conjecture that the regularity of the meter, if it wasn’t simply for the sake of writing Iambic Pentameter, was meant to echo the stepwise, regular, stone by stone mending of the wall. After all, there is no flinging of feet from the topmost spindle of a birch. There is no avalanching or crazed ice. There are no girls on hands and knees throwing their hair before them over their heads to dry them. The work of mending wall is slow, methodical, hand roughening work. This, of itself, may explain the careful regularity of the meter.
There are some nice touches worth mentioning, touches that might escape a reader unaccustomed to reading blank verse (Iambic Pentameter). First:
The temptation, including my own, is to read the first foot as Trochaic |But at|, but Frost clearly reads it Iambically. He reads the first foot quickly. It’s a craft that many “professional” metrists don’t take seriously enough – perhaps because they’re not poets themselves. The meter of poets who write metrically shouldn’t be taken for granted. All too often, it seems, metrists insist that the English language, as it is spoken on the street, trumps any given metrical pattern. Don’t believe them. A poet who writes metrically does so for a reason.
The sweetest metrical touch comes in the following line:
Most of us would read the third foot as |I could|, putting the emphasis on I, but Frost reads the foot Iambically and the pattern reinforces the reading. Putting the emphasis on could gives the line a much different feel, then if one emphasized I. To me, Frost’s reading sounds more mischeivious. Frost specialized in this sort of metrical subtletly, emphasizing words that might not normally recieve the ictus. It’s also a specially nice touch because just several lines before Frost used the word could as an unstressed syllable.
One could conceivably stress could in the line above, but that would be subverting the Iambic pattern.
Lastly, another effect of the regular iambic pattern is to especially contrast the first trochaic foot in the poem’s seminal line:
Some-thing | there is | that does | n’t love | a wall
It’s an effect that subliminally draws attention to the eye, catching the ear. It’s a line that disrupts the normal “foot on foot”, “stone on stone” pattern of the poem. And it is doubly effective because the line occurs twice. If the effect wasn’t noticed the first time, it will be the second time.
The author Mark Richardson, in one of my favorite books on Frost, The Ordeal of Robert Frost, finds that the two trochees in this first line and in the four lines “contribute subtly to the theme of these lines”.
Something| there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes |gaps ev|en two can pass abreast.
“How much better”, he asks, “to describe a disordered wall than in lines themselves disordered.” To me, given that only 2 out of the 20 feet are variant metrical feet (and the spondee is really only marginal) I’m not persuaded that they’re all that disordered. I’m more apt to apply that observation to the following lines:
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones |under |his pines, |I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make |good neighbors’. Spring is |the mischief in me, and |I wonder
In these lines, 5 out of the feet are variant. Two trochaic feet and three feminine endings. I think these lines make a stronger case for the juncture of meter and meaning. There is a sort of excitement and mischievousness in the tone of the speaker reflected, one could argue, in the disruption of the meter. As Frost reads it, these are the most irregular lines in the poems – the moment when the two men exchange words.
Interpreting Mending Wall: (June 19 2009)
I’m adding this section because I should have written it from the beginning. But what prompted me to write it is the fascinating reading from an acquaintance of mine. He is the Director of a New England private school and in his most recent newsletter, he wrote the following about the poem:
The more I read and teach this poem. the more I find the speaker to be a condescending jerk. After inviting the neighbor to repair the wall, a tradition that clearly brings the speaker pleasure, he then makes fun of him for caring about the wall. First he assures his neighbor that his apples trees will not cross the wall to eat his pine cones. Then he imagines making an even more preposterous suggestion — that it is “elves” and not frost heaves that have toppled the wall — but decides not to mention it since his neighbor is not clever enough to come up with such an idea on his own… He ends the poem with an insult, confiding to us that the neighbor is “an old stone savage armed”.
The point being made is that the speaker’s humor comes at the expense of his neighbor. “Wall mending becomes an opportunity not to talk with his neighbor, but to sneer at him.” This is prejudice, he adds.
My own take is that there is certainly some humor at the neighbor’s expense, but the speaker of the poem gives the neighbor the final word. In other words, the poem doesn’t end with these words:
He moves in darkness as it seems to me
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
It ends with the aphorism – Good fences make good neighbors. This is what the reader of the poem walks away with. There is a weight and seriousness in this last line, like the stones being placed back onto the wall, that undercuts the speaker’s glib humor.
Tyler Hoffman, in his book, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry (another one of my very favorite books on Robert Frost and dirt cheap at Amazon), actually acknowledges some of my acquaintances reservations concerning Mending Wall’s speaker. Hoffman’s observes that Frost’s own conception of the poem initially confirms the impression of the speaker’s dismissiveness. Hoffman writes:
In 1915, when the tone [of the neighbor’s aphorism] is fresher in his mind, Frost advses that this instance should be heard as expressing ‘Incredulity of the other’s dictum’ (CPPP 689). But how much sarcasm is entangled in the in the speaker’s quotation of his neighbor’s statement? The tone is held in suspension, allowing us to imagine it is said with either a shrug or a sneer.
(…) none of the imaginable tones is flattering to the neighbor: when we hear it one way, we condemn him as smug and self-congratulatory; when we hear it another way, we write him off as a blockhead (“an old-stone savage armed”).
According to Hoffman, Frost’s acquaintance, Reginald Cook reported that Frost used to stress “I’d rather he said it for himself” in the lines:
I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.
There were evidently tonalities and “sentence sounds” that Frost lost track of as a result of repeated readings. Hoffman relates that Frost himself said (in reference to the poem’s central aphorism): “You know, I’ve read that so often I’ve sort of lost the right way to say, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ See. There’s a special way to say [it] I used to have in my imagination, and it seems to have gone down. You say it in two different ways there.”
What’s interesting about Frost’s statement is that it confirms what many readers probably sense (or may not), that there is a shift in tone from the start of the poem to the finish. The speaker’s own attitude toward his neighbor changes. Does the poem end sarcastically or does it only begin sarcastically and end with a different sort of respect. It seems that the speaker of the Mending Wall wants his neighbor to be more playful or more open to a kind of intentionality in the world’s workings. Human beings do more than build barriers. We cannot separate ourselves from the vagaries of life that, sometimes, seem almost mischievous, tearing down our most ingeniously devised walls. The speaker wants his neighbor to say it for himself. But if one reads the poem in this sense, then it seems as though the neighbor really does move in a kind of darkness. He comes to represent that part in us that refuses to give ourselves up to a world we cannot, ultimately, control. It’s not exactly elves, but maybe something like elves. Call it impishness, perhaps.
But there’s another aspect to this poem, and that’s in knowing which character is really Robert Frost, if either. In the Road Not Taken, Frost describes the following experience:
I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home.
This sort of experience characterizes much of Frost’s poetry – Frost in conversation with himself, divided in his own beliefs and assertions. Many of his poems are like argumentative engagements with himself. Frost himself said as much:
“I make it a rule not to take any ‘character’s side in anything I write” [RF & The Politics of Poetry p. 108]
It’s a theme that Mark Richardson recognizes in his book The Ordeal of Robert Frost. Mending Wall, he writes: “perfectly exhibits the balance he sought between dispositions of conformity and formity. The speaker… allies himself with the insubordinate energies of spring…” Then Richardson adds:
…the association of the speaker with insubordinate natural forces should not be permitted to obscure an important fact, which has been often enough noticed: he, not the neighbor, initiates the yearly spring repair of the wall; moreover, it is again he, not the neighbor, who goes behind hunters who destroy the wall in other seasons and makes repairs. So, if the speaker is allied with the vernal mischief of spring and its insubordinations, he is nevertheless set against them in his efforts to make the stones of the wall balance and remain in place… [p. 141]
Driving the point home, Richardson closes his argument with the following:
The speaker of “Mending Wall” is obviously of two minds: at once wall-builder and wall-destroyer, at once abettor and antagonist of seasonal entropies…. The difference is that, unlike his benighted neighbor, the speaker of the poem does indeed go behind his own favored aphorism [Something there is that doesn’t love a wall] to play both sides of the fence. In short, the two opposed men in the poem fairly shape up into one, and his name is Robert Frost.
Here from The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, is Frost himself. Frost was responding to the president of Rollins College.
He took both my hands to tell me I had written a true international poem. And just to tease him I said: “How do you get that?” You know. I said I thought I’d been fair to both sides — both national [and international]. “Oh, no,” he said, “I could see what side you were on.” And I said: “The more I say I the more I always mean somebody else.” That’s objectivity, I told him. That’s the way we talked about it, kidding. That’s where the great fooling comes in. But my latest way out of it is to say: “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries. That’s man. [pp. 231-232]
George Monteiro, the essayists from whose article these quotes are taken, adds that Frost took Mending Wall “very much… as a fable.”
The Poet and his Poetry (September 25 2011)
Just as we change, the best poems change with us. When I return to Mending Wall, I read the poem in ways I didn’t before. I won’t claim that what follows represents Frost’s intentions, just that it’s another possible way to understand it.
One of Frost’s most engaging traits, to me, was his way of putting the overly inquisitive off his trail. His metaphorical gifts were such that he could talk about himself and no listener would be the wiser. In many of his poems he slyly (and not so slyly) discusses himself, his poetry, his readers, his critics and the pushy. He merrily described this facility in his poem Woodchuck.
My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.
With those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.
All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.
We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.
And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),
If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,
It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.
It’s hard not to read Woodchuck as Frost’s sly confession regarding his attitude toward his poetry and the interpreting of it. All of his poems are like a two door borrow. He can pretend he and the world — his readers and critics — are friends, but get too close he’ll “dive down under the farm”. Don’t forget that Frost was at odds with a ‘world’ in which Free Verse was fast becoming the dominant verse form. Frost warily dodges the double-barreled blast of critics who suffer from “the loss of common sense”. Finally, we can read “crevice and burrow” as a sly reference to his poetry. He’s been instinctively thorough in his concealment and self-preservation.
Woodchuck isn’t the only poem to fit into this Frostian trick. If there was ever are more searing critique of modern verse than Etherealizing (and by extension Free Verse) then I don’t know it.
Etherealizing By Robert Frost
A theory if you hold it hard enough
And long enough gets rated as a creed:
Such as that flesh is something we can slough
So that the mind can be entirely freed.
Then when the arms and legs have atrophied,
And brain is all that’s left of mortal stuff,
We can lie on the beach with the seaweed
And take our daily tide baths smooth and rough.
There once we lay as blobs of jellyfish
At evolution’s opposite extreme.
But now as blobs of brain we’ll lie and dream,
With only one vestigial creature wish:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.
If you read theory as a sly reference to Pound’s preface to the anthology, “Some Imagist Poets” (as I do) then the entirety of the poem effortlessly falls in place. If modern poets hold a theory hard enough, such as the Pound’s dictums concerning poetry, then they’ll be rated a creed, in the sense of a written body of teachings of a religious group generally accepted by that group — in a word: Dogma.
Continuing this interpretation, flesh, for Frost, is synonymous with meter and rhyme — the techniques of traditional poetry. Naturally our arms and legs will atrophy (our ability to write traditionally) and all that will be left of our poetry is “brain”. Frost’s prediction, in this respect, has proven true. Modern free verse poetry is seldom appraised for it’s skill in rhyme, meter or imagery, but largely its subject matter — in a word, brain. Two hundred years ago, a poorly written poem was readily dismissed no matter how elevated its content. Today, when the only thing that separates Free Verse from prose is ego, the poems of award winning poets are almost solely praised for their elevated and socially relevant content.
Frost compares such stuff to seaweed. With nothing left to the poetry but content (or brain) the daily tide (the vicissitudes of readers and critics) will hardly affect it whether the baths are smooth or rough. Frost is comparing free verse, and the subject matter of free free verse poets, to the amorphous jelly fish that moves whichever way the tide moves it. The jellyfish takes no stand, and can’t.
With one final kick in the rear, Frost compares the free verse poem to the blobs of brain who “lie and dream” with only “one vestigial creature wish”:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.
What other poems follow this pattern? Read A Considerable Speck, where the pursuit of a mite is a droll reference to the creative process. It ends:
I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.
Similarly, the poem For Once Then Something is Frost’s response to criticism (still made today) that his poetry is all shine and no depth. Click on the link of you want to read my interpretation. Frost’s poem Birches can also be read as an introspective consideration of the poet’s place in the modern world. In short, there is good precedent for reading Frost’s poems as sly and subtle revelations, commentary almost, on his sense of self as poet, artist and critic. The poem Mending Wall can be read in that tradition.
To start with, remember Frost’s statement that “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries.” Read the poem as Frost in two guises, as wall builder and wall toppler. Read the wall, perhaps, as a poem, not Mending Wall necessarily, but any poem.
Two sides of Frost, the poet, appear. There is the playful Frost, the one that wants to tease and reveal, and there is the coy Frost, the Woodchuck, who is instinctively thorough about his crevice and burrow. This is the Frost who wants to keep something out. He doesn’t know what, but something. Some kinds of poems, like walls, keep things out and keeps things in reserve and that is all the explanation needed. Nevertheless, there are readers who won’t be satisfied. They want Frost to tell them what his poems are really about. They want to take down the wall. They make “gaps even two can pass abreast”.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.
The hunter and critic, says the cagey Frost, leaves not one stone on a stone, but would have the rabbit, the poem’s meaning, out of hiding to please the yelping dogs — the too inquisitive public. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says the cagey Frost, but some things are better untold or hidden. He says, good fences make good neighbors and we could just as easily take that to mean that a good poem, if the poet doesn’t give too much away, makes good readers.
But Frost is of two minds and the poem stands between them. The best poem, like the best wall, is made by both Frosts (though the alliance isn’t easy). One Frost, in a sense, is all apple orchard (the brighter wood with its associations of food, family and public) and the other Frost is pine (a darker, pitchier wood that is reticent and unrevealing).
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
The Frost that teases and revels in suggestion and misdirection will have his say — the Frost of the Apple Orchard.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.
The public Frost, the mischievous trickster, suggests Elves. He wants to know what the other Frost is walling in or out. What is he afraid of? What is he hiding? What is he afraid to let out? But no answer comes. The cagey, darker Frost will keep his secrets. Revelation isn’t in his nature. As if commenting on the meaning of the poem itself, he answers simply but also evasively, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Read the poem this way and and we read a philosophy of poetry.
Read it like this and Frost is revealing something about himself. There are two sides and it’s in their uneasy truce that his poetry finds greatness. I don’t know if Frost was thinking along these lines when he wrote the poem, but he was a shrewd poet. This way of writing is something that shows up in his other poems.
A Comparison to Birches
In terms of the degree to which the meter differs between Mending Wall and Birches, I thought I’d post my scansion of Birches for comparison:
Something I mentioned in my previous post on Birches, is how the variant feet emphasize and reinforce the narrative of the poem. Having color coded the variant feet, Frost’s skillful use of meter is all the more visible. The most concentrated metrical variation occurs where the narrative describes motion – movement and spectacle. This is no mistake. Poets learning to write metrically (and there must be a few of them in the world) would do well to study Frost carefully.
If you enjoyed this post or have further questions, please let me know.
February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost (& Middleton is a scansion too far), you might like reading Birches along with a colorcoded 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.
December 24, 2018 – Brief addition.
Variants That May or May Not Be Variants
Individual lines of Iambic Pentameter can be found in any poem, including free verse.
However, since free verse avoids any regular meter, there’s no meter from which to vary.
There tends to be a fair amount of confusion as to how something can be considered metrical without being strict in regard to its meter. In other words, how do we account for variant feet in an otherwise metrical poem and at what point do too many variant feet undermine the meter? The best way to answer this is to think of meter as a musical beat. As far as we know, much ancient poetry appears to have been associated with music. In other words, poetry started out as lyrics. The stress patterns of the words commonly reflected the music’s beat (as in Hymn Meter). A musical melody reflects a given time signature such as 6/8 or 4/4 or 3/4. Think of variant feet like syncopation or triplets in a 4/4 time signature. A melody doesn’t always follow a given beat, but it also isn’t so disruptive as to lose the beat. If you think of meter as a time signature (iambic verses anapestic meter for example), then think of variant feet as a kind of syncopation that both works against the beat and reinforces it.
So, variants are only relevant within the context of Metrical poetry. Blank verse is meter consisting of un-rhymed iambic pentameter. It is the verse of Shakespeare’s Plays and the verse of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
This turn hath made amends; thou hast fulfill’d
Thy words, Creator bounteous and benigne,
Giver of all things faire, but fairest this
Of all thy gifts, nor enviest. I now see
Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self
Before me; Woman is her Name, of Man
Extracted; for this cause he shall forgoe
Father and Mother, and to his Wife adhere;
And they shall be one Flesh, one Heart, one Soule.
Paradise Lost Book 8491-499
In the passage above, Adam expresses his gratitude for the creation of Eve – man’s gratitude for woman.
The first line that appears irregular is the fourth line. However, this line is not, in fact, a variant. Milton usually wrote a very strict blank verse in terms of syllable count. So, if a line looks like it might contain an extra syllable, especially in Milton, there’s usually a way to read it while maintaining the integrity of the pentameter line. In the case of the fourth line, -viest (of enviest) should be elided (0r synaeresized as some metrists say), making it one syllable instead of two.
Making the assumption that a poet means for two syllables to be elided, when habit of speech tells us they can be, is usually a safe assumption for poets through the 19th century. But this assertion, like all things, isn’t without controversy. Some metrists will assert that anapests shouldn’t be swept under the rug and that elision is simply a prudish avoidance of anapests. Anything can be carried too far; and not all anapests should be excised. On the other hand, metrists who oppose such elision (as above) give no answer as to why so many anapests during this period of poetry occur with words that can be easily elided or synaeresized. Even in the 20th Century, Robert Frost will frequently read anapestec feet as Iambic. In Birches, he writes They are but contracts the words to read They’re when reciting the poem. It’s hard for critics to argue with that! In poetry prior to the 20th century, indisputable anapests can be hard to find unless one considers all epic caesurato be anapests (more on that later). The pragmatic answer is that poets saw words like enviest as a sort of middle ground – a compromise between anapests and a stricter iambic rhythm. Simple as that.
By the 20th century, the strictures and expectations concerning blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) loosen considerably. Also, especially toward the end of the 20th century, poets have become less knowledgeable and skilled in the use of blank verse and iambic pentameter. One need not assume that a word can be or should be elided.
The 8th line is trickier: “Father and Mother, and to his Wife adhere“. This is an eleven syllable line and there are two ways to scan it. One way, knowing that Milton was a very rule-bound writer of blank verse, is to look for another possible elision.
In this case, “to his“could be elided – the two words combining so that, when one reads it quickly, the word “his” almost disappears: Father and Mother, and to’s Wife adhere. Such elisions were common practice in Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden and many other poets during this period. (Poets during the Restoration took Iambic Pentameter very seriously.)
But then again… the tricky “Art” of Scansion
But then again, as I presently devote an entire post to this passage, I’ve taken to another possibility:
In this scansion, I’ve read the line as having an Epic Caesura (to be discussed below). The rest of the feet are iambic. (In essence, an Epic Caesura is a feminine ending at a midline break.) So… some lines can be scanned in multiple ways. As for myself, I think I’ve come to prefer this second scansion.
Missing & Extra Syllables
In my last post (Basics), we saw that even though a poem or play might be written in Iambic Pentameter, individual lines may vary from the overall pattern. The 11 syllable line beginning Hamlet’s famous, blank verse soliloquy is an example: “To be or not to be, that is the question“. A given line may have 9 , 11 or even 12 syllables instead of 10. And variations in Iambic Pentameter can extend even further. Shakespeare will sometimes intersperse the overall 10 syllable pattern with 6 syllable lines – called squinting lines (a term coined by George Wright).
Not all of these lines could be called Iambic Pentameter (since they’re not all Pentameter or five foot lines), but they might be variations if they vary from (but not too far from) an establishediambic pentameter pattern. They also will generally be iambic. In other words, all these lines might be found in Free Verse but context is everything. In free verse, there is no meterto varyfrom, therefore the same line in a free verse poem wouldn’t be heard as a variation.
Let’s say a given line in an Iambic Pentameter poem has eleven syllables.
How, if one is scanning, do we decide which foot contains the extra syllable?
The following rule of thumb is fairly reliable: Choose the scansion that preserves the most Iambs. NOTE: If you were reading a poem that was Trochaic Tetrameter or Trochaic Pentameter, let’s say, then you would choose the scansion that preserves the most Trochees.
(I stress fairly because, in some cases, scanning a poem is as much art as science. If you don’t have a tin ear for the rhythm of language, the art of scansion is learned quickly.)
Longboard idle at the curb – I dole
My laws to boys that leer and know not me
If you divide the first line without giving thought to preserving the most iambs, marking off every two syllables, you might scan the first line as follows:
This gives us five feet (a Pentameter line). But by simply marking off every two syllables, starting with the first word, we have created a line with no Iambic Feet. They are all Trochaic – meaning that the first syllable of each foot is stressed and the second unstressed (the reverse of an Iambic Foot). If this were a free verse poem, this scansion would probably be as good as any. And if this were a free verse poem, another way to scan might be as follows:
In this case, we have a four foot line, or a tetrameter line, not pentameter. (A one foot line is a monometer line, two foot line is a dimeter line; a three foot line is trimeter; a four foot, tetrameter; five foot, pentameter; six foot, hexameter.) In the line above, the first two feet are Trochaic, the third foot is Anapestic (two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable, while the last foot is Iambic.
While tetrameter lines or trochaic pentameter is not unheard of in an Iambic Pentameter poem, consider it an option of last resort. If we follow our rule of thumb, preserve the most Iambs when scanning an Iambic Pentameter Poem (as well as trying to preserve the five feet of a pentameter line) we end up with the following:
A Cretic Foot?
The arrow indicates a missing syllable. This scansion preserves our five feet and preserves the Iambic pattern established by the poem.You might be tempted to read the first two feet as one |Long-board id|, a cretic foot – also called an amphimacer. This foot is exceedingly rare in Iambic Poetry. It also would make the line above a Tetrameter line:
Longboard id|le at| the curb| – I dole
There’s no hard and fast reason why one couldn’t read the first foot as cretic, but metrists generally prefer to read a line within the context of an established metrical pattern. Since the established metrical pattern of the poem is blank verse (I wrote it), my intention was to treat the line as a headless Iambic Pentameter variant.
Hint! – If you just can’t make sense of a line, sometimes it helps to scan the line backwards. Start by establishing the last foot of the line first, (|I dole| in the line above), then work your way backwards.
Missing Syllables: Broken-backed Lines
A line missing an unstressed syllable before the stressed syllable in the first foot is called a headless line and is a common variant of Iambic Pentameter. A missing syllable may occur in any foot. Here’s an example from Shakespeare:
In this case, the third foot is missing an initial unstressed syllable. This is called a broken-backed line because an unstressed syllable is missing after a midline pause (Wright: Shakespeare’s Metrical Art Page 176). The final foot is an Amphibrachic Foot which, in an Iambic Pentameter poem, is called a Feminine Ending. That is, when a line ends on an unstressed syllable, it is called Feminine. When it ends with a stressed syllable, it is called Masculine.
One more important lesson to notice about the line above is that it contains ten syllables. But just because the line contains ten syllables doesn’t make it Iambic Pentameter through and through. Otherwise one might have been tempted to scan it as follows:
But this breaks our tidy rule of thumb. Instead of having three iambic feet (the first foot is still considered iambic with an intermediate stress), we now have two. For a full consideration of lines with missing syllables, try reading Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, already linked above.
Extra Syllables: The Feminine Ending
Any line in an Iambic Pentameter poem that contains more than ten syllables (syllables which can’t be elided) contains extra syllables. Perhaps the most common extra-syllabic variant is the line with a feminine ending – an amphibrach in the fifith foot.
Extra Syllables: The Anapestic Feminine Ending
In the 20th Century, Poets like Robert Frost (especially) introduced anapestic feminine endings.
In the final foot of the example above, Frost substitutes an anapest for an Iamb (in what would otherwise be an Iambic Feminine Ending). More on this line and the poem it comes from in my post on Frost’s Birches.
Note: The amphibrach is also common before a midline break and is called an Epic Caesura (see example at bottom of post.)
Extra Syllables: The Heavy Feminine Ending
Another form of the feminine ending is known as the heavy feminine ending, wherein the final (and extra) syllable of the line receives an intermediate or heavy stress (example from Middleton’s The Changeling).
Like the feminine ending, the heavy feminine ending can also occur before a midline break – another form of Epic Caesura – but, to my knowledge, never occurs in Shakespeare and very infrequently in Middleton.
Here’s another example of a Heavy Feminine Ending from Frost’s Birches:
Extra Syllables: A Triple Ending
A final foot with a kind of double feminine ending (two additional unstressed syllables in the final foot) is called a triple ending (example from my next post on Thomas Middleton).
A triple ending can also occur before a midline break (Hamlet Act IV Scene 5).
(Note that all these examples are still pentameter: they still have five feet though they are not iambic through and through.) Any of the other metrical feet can contain extra syllables and the rule of thumb for scanning those lines remains the same – use the scansion that preserves the most iambic feet.
This is from MacBeth, IV iii Line 5. You might be tempted to think the line above has 12 syllables. However, the word spirits can be elided, and given what we know of the time and Shakespeare’s metrical habits, it probably should be (though no one can say with absolute certainty). The word woman, however, cannot be elided. This foot is amphibrachic, containing an extra unstressed syllable before a midline pause (the end of a phrase). It is called an Epic Caesuras (George Write: Shakespeare’s Metrical Art Page 165). The example is my own. The Epic Caesuras is easily among the most common extra-syllabic variant after the feminine ending. It is, in fact, a kind of feminine ending that occurs midline.
Extra Syllables: Epic Caesuras & Epic Controversies
But, as I mentioned earlier, calling this pattern an epic caesura is not without controversy among cut-throat scansion professionals (and they do cut throats). Some metrists, like Robert Wallace, seem exasperated with the term and the seeming avoidance of anapests. They would read the line above as follows:
This dispenses with the “pretense” of an epic caesura and the elision of the word spirits. I could go along with treating spirits as two syllables (who knows how they really pronounced it). In this case one has an anapest in the final foot. But simply stamping this as an anapest somewhat ignores the history of meter and how it was practiced during the time. Again, my own view is that poets like Shakespeare treated such words as an acceptable middle ground – a sort of neither/nor. In the same way that Canterbury was pronounced as a three syllable word (see my post on Chaucer), I have frequently heard spirit pronounced as having a single syllable.
As to the whole concept of an epic caesura, I’m for it. Dicing up woman, in my view, ignores the phrase. There is some art to scansion and this is where I, personally, would apply it. Why ignore phrasing just to hang an anapest on the wall? A metrist like David Baker (Meter in English pp. 328-329) may not like the term, epic caesura, but if not, then he has to answer why these “anapests” all seem to occur with a midline break. It is the most common “anapest” in Shakespeare – and so was clearly considered an acceptable iambic pentameter variant. If all anapests were equally acceptable then one should expect to find them at every point of the line and with equal regularity – but prior to the 20th Century one simply does not. This tells us that the midline “anapest” was considered a special case – a sort of midline feminine ending. Given the evidence, I think it’s worth discriminating this foot from the run-of-the-mill anapest.
Extra Syllables: On to the Anapest
That said, the anapest is the second most common extra-syllabic variant (though far behind the epic caesura), a variant which readily picked up speed two centuries after Shakespeare died. Prior to the 19th Century, the anapest was considered a sign of decadence and depravity – literally. Critics and poets were scandalized by them. By the 20th century though, and after free verse had become the dominant verse form, the anapest became a regular (if not too regular) feature of iambic pentameter poetry. It’s overuse (overused by poets too accustomed to free verse and unskilled formal poets) frequently threatens to break down any regular metrical pattern – casting into doubt a poem’s claim to an iambic pentameter pattern. Frost used the anapest regularly but was also careful to ground the the meter just regularly by writing solid Iambic Pentameter lines – that is, without variants.
In case it’s not clear already, the anapest consists of a metrical foot containing two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. Here is a possible example from Browning’s the Last Duchess.
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech
The second line could be scanned as follows:
Notice the extra syllable in the fourth foot. This is an anapest if we judge it by 20th century standards. However, that said, this poem was written in the 19th century, Browning learned from poets like Shakespeare, Milton and Keats and the rest of the poem, My Last Duchess, is perfectly Iambic. It’s possible that we once again have two syllables that should be elided: the approving could be read as th’approving. Browning doesn’t write it this way though. He doesn’t use synaloepha – signaling the omission or elision of one or two vowels with an apostrophe as in t’other for the other. Perhaps he doesn’t feel the need to (it was assumed), but he did use synaloepha elsewhere in the poem. It is for the reader or performer to decide. I’m willing to call it an anapest – a little variation is a good thing.
The Primary Variant Feet and Their Names
If the nominal pattern for a poem were Iambic (unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) the following feet would be considered variants. By in large, these feet account for almost all of the variants you will find.
Trochaic : Stressed followed by unstressed. Hamlet Act I Scene I
Spondee: Intermediate Stress followed by Stressed. Hamlet ActI Scene III
Pyrrhic: Unstressed followed by unstressed or intermediate Stress. Hamlet Act II Scene V
Spondaic: Stressed followed by a stressed syllable. Act III Scene 4
Dactylic: Stressed followed by two unstressed syllables. Tempest Act V Scene 1 (Notice that this line is a tetrameter line due to the two Dactylic feet.)
Amphibrachic: Unstressed followed by stressed followed by unstressed. Hamlet Act III Scene 4. In the fifth foot, this is called a Feminine Ending. In the examples below, they would more particularly be called Iambic Feminine Endings.
If the Amphibrach occurs before a midline break, it is called an Epic Caesura (example from my own All Hallows’ Eve). (The Epic Caesura, an extra unstressed syllable, was a frequent Shakespearean variant.)
Anapestic: Two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. 2 Henry VI Act II Scene 1
In my previous post (Basics) I mentioned that sometimes phrases can define a metrical foot. The anapest would be an example of this. If a line has 11 syllables, or even twelve, and the last foot isn’t a feminine ending, then it’s likely that one or two of the metrical feet are anapests (not Iambic). In this case, it doesn’t make sense to simply mark off a foot at every two syllables, especially if the line is part of a larger poem with an established meter like Iambic Pentameter (and, as with the line above, it would defeat the rule that one should preserve as many Iambs as possible). In the line above, the phrase, in a day, defines the metrical foot.
All of the variations above can occur in any of the five feet in a Pentameter line.
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.
The third post, Iambic Pentameter & Shakespeare, tries to answer the question: Who cares? Why does any of this matter? Why on God’s green earth would anyone want to scan a poem? And we’ll answer the question using Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.
The fourth post , Iambic Pentameter: Variants & Long Lines, is more or less the second half of this post. It takes a look at some variants (not discussed here) by actually scanning some of Thomas Middleton’s blank verse (a contemporary of Shakespeare). The verse isn’t pretty, which is why it’s useful for demonstrating the extremes of metrical variants. Between these four posts, you will hopefully have a good fix on how to scan Iambic Pentameter.
And finally, know who said this?
“You know. . .if I had my way, I’d send that genius son of a bitch an engraved invitation in iambic pentameter: A challenge in two stanzas to meet me alone in the desert. I’ll deliver it. Rommel in his tank and me in mine. We’d stop about paces. We’d get out, we’d shake hands. . . then we’d button up and do battle, just the two of us. That battle would decide the outcome of the war. It’s too bad jousting’s gone out of style.”
Feel free to comment if you have questions, suggestions or if you would like to see some part of this subject treated more fully – I’ll add it.