After writing yesterday’s post, I was noodling around looking at other Shakespeare portraits and found this from 2016. It’s a painting done by Geoff Tristram for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Mr. Tristram’s aim, according to the article, was to make him look real: “I turned him into flesh and blood, like a chap you might see down the pub.” The Droeshout Portrait is said to be the most faithful portrait of Shakespeare and confirmed as such by Ben Jonson. The modern portrait, based on the Droeshout portrait, likewise makes that claim while adding a sense of immediacy and realism.
With my novel finished, I’ve gotten back to work on some languishing poems. To get my head in the right space, I decided to read Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which I read years ago, and is replete with some of Shakespeare’s most transcendent poetry. What immediately struck me, though, was how much I disliked both Leontes and Polixenes. In truth, we’re supposed to dislike them. Each, in their turn, is vicious, cruel and tyrannical, but what disturbed me now was less their viciousness than the assumed prerogatives of wealth and class that allowed them to act without compunction or consequence—ostensibly a play about two rich and entitled men who inherited their wealth (and haven’t we had enough of those these last few years)?
The aristocracy and royalty were the oligarchical billionaires of their day, and almost uniformly corrupt. The Europeans who fled to the United States in the 18th century were damned well fed up with these kinds of families. At the founding of the United States, the following was added to the Constitution:
Article I, Section 9, Clause 8. No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.
If Prince Harry were to become a naturalized US citizen, he would have to renounce his title. But none of this has prevented the US from creating its own aristocracy. The only difference is that we call them one percenters instead of “Your Excellency”. And just as in the Europe of prior centuries, they wield outsize influence on the political process through their wealth and loyalists (read Royalists if you like). They are the Koch brothers, the Murdochs and the Trumps, rewarding their loyalists with the cash needed to maintain and share in their political power. The loyalists, in turn, reward these families with lower taxes, fewer regulations and the government levers needed to crush unions, depress wages, write laws that favor them or, more mundanely, seize federal lands for their own profit. The Trump years subjected the United States to a family who treated the US no differently than the various royals, aristocrats and theocratic mobsters of pre-20th century Europe—who asserted, in one form or another, their entitlement to rule and their entitlement to the wealth over which they ruled.
So when I read the first act of The Winter Tale, I felt like I was reading about a familiar family, class and wealth bracket. I was much less interested in their tender fates as compared to the first reading and wasn’t even sure I desired a happy ending for any of them. The play begins with Leontes suddenly seized by a rabid fit of jealousy that would have embarrassed Henry VIII. He suspects that his wife, Hermione, has been cheating on him with his childhood friend, Polixenes. What does a rich and entitled man with unimpeded power do? He considers murdering her as though her life were nothing more than a formality to be relievedly dispensed with:
Say that she were gone,
Given to the fire, a moiety of my rest
Might come to me again.
Winter’s Tale Act 2.3: 7-9 | Norton Digital Edition
He orders that his erstwhile best friend, Polixenes be murdered first, by poison, then that his pregnant wife and child be burned alive.
Of boundless tongue, who late hath beat her husband
And now baits me. This brat is none of mine;
It is the issue of Polixenes.
Hence with it, and together with the dam
Commit them to the fire!
Winter’s Tale Act 2: 90-94 | Norton Digital Edition
It needs to be emphasized that Hermione, at this point, is nine months pregnant. Leontes’ comments are in response to Paulina, wife of a nobleman and vociferous defender of Hermione. What does Paulina get for defending Hermione against a rich man with absolute power? She’s all but called a bitch and her husband pussy whipped: says Leontes of Antigonus, “He dreads his wife.”
In short order, the character Hermione gives birth, off-stage, to Leontes’s daughter (presumably precipitated by the horror of Leontes’s jealous rage). When Paulina brings the newborn to Leontes, he also orders the newborn burned alive:
Thou, traitor, hast set on thy wife to this.
My child? Away with’t! Even thou that hast
A heart so tender o’er it, take it hence
And see it instantly consumed with fire.
Even thou and none but thou. Take it up straight.
Within this hour bring me word ’tis done,
And by good testimony, or I’ll seize thy life
With what thou else call’st thine. If thou refuse,
And wilt encounter with my wrath, say so.
The bastard brains with these my proper hands
Shall I dash out. Go, take it to the fire,
For thou sett’st on thy wife.
The Winter’s Tale Act 2.2: 130-141 | Norton Digital Edition
So. Shakespeare really piles it on. It’s clear that we’re not meant to like or feel much sympathy for Leontes. However, the play is considered a romance in the sense that there will be redemption and a happy ending. This is where I get tripped up. After witnessing four years of cruelty, corruption, banality, and incompetence, and after being subjected to the sneering lies of Trump and the Trump family, I’m not interested in redemption or, as the party of Trump cynically labels it: “unity”. Before having witnessed this kind of corruption first hand, the characters of Leontes and Polixenes were fairytale-like figures—the kinds of stock characters that simply serve as foils. The fabulists and tellers of fairy tales who riffed on Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses didn’t do so out of any love for these people, but because they were the Marvel super heroes of their day. They possessed unlimited power—not confined by poverty or social class. The story teller didn’t need to explain how or why a given character had the freedom to do X, Y, or Z. If they were a prince or princess, their extraordinary privilege was assumed, along with the extraordinary trials that confronted them. What evil fairy princess, after all, is going to waste her time cursing the daughter of some serf or peasant? What Prince is going to give a damn if some peasant girl is buried alive in a glass coffin by a bunch of dwarfs?
As it turns out, it’s just this dynamic that plays out in Act 4. In Act 2, Leontes orders Antigonus to take his newborn daughter (who he believes to be the bastard child of Polixenes) into the wild and leave her there (hopefully to be torn to shreds by a passing carnivore). As it turns out, the baby, Perdita, is rescued by a Shepherd. Act 4 moves us forward in time and Perdita is a marriageable, teenage girl. And as it happens, Polixenes son, Florizel, stumbles on her and straightaway falls in love. No one suspects that Perdita is actually the child of nobility and so Florizel’s amorous attention is a deadly threat to Perdita and she knows it.
Oh, but sir,
Your resolution cannot hold, when ’tis
Opposed, as it must be, by th’ power of the King.
One of these two must be necessities,
Which then will speak that you must change this purpose,
Or I my life.
Winter’s Tale 4.4: 35-39 | Norton Digital Edition
By “I my life” she doesn’t mean my life will be changed, rather, I will lose my life. But that doesn’t stop Florizel who, until meeting Perdita, has presumably lived a life of entitlement. Despite her protestations, he insists that not only will he marry her but that he would rather surrender all the benefits of his wealth and station than not marry. Shakespeare intends the audience to appreciate Florizel’s earnest love, though not, perhaps, his naïvety. Sure enough, his father, Polixenes, shows up in disguise and susses out what’s going on. Things don’t end well. Polixenese, who, until this point, had been the sympathetic and wrongly accused childhood friend of Leontes, turns out to be just as much of a tyrannical SOB:
Mark your divorce, young sir,
Whom son I dare not call. Thou art too base
To be acknowledged. Thou a scepter’s heir
That thus affects a sheephook? —Thou, old traitor,
I am sorry that by hanging thee I can
But shorten thy life one week. —And thou, fresh piece
Of excellent witchcraft, who of force must know
The royal fool thou cop’st with—
SHEPHERD Oh, my heart.
POLIXENES —I’ll have thy beauty scratched with briars and made
More homely than thy state. —For thee, fond boy,
If I may ever know thou dost but sigh
That thou no more shalt see this knack—as never
I mean thou shalt—we’ll bar thee from succession,
Not hold thee of our blood—no, not our kin—
Far than Deucalion off. Mark thou my words.
Follow us to the court. [to SHEPHERD] Thou churl, for this time,
Though full of our displeasure, yet we free thee
From the dead blow of it. [to PERDITA] And you, enchantment,
Worthy enough a herdsman—yea, him too,
That makes himself, but for our honor therein,
Unworthy thee—if ever henceforth thou
These rural latches to his entrance open,
Or hoop his body more with thy embraces,
I will devise a death as cruel for thee
As thou art tender to’t.
Winter’s Tale 4.4:408-432 | Norton Digital Edition
Polixenes has learned nothing from his experience with Leontes. First he declares that Perdita, who everyone still thinks is the Shepherd’s daughter, too low class for his royal and aristocratic blood. His son “thus affects a sheephook?” he asks. Next he declares that he will hang the Shepherd (the girl’s father), regretting only that the Shepherd is so old as to make the effort hardly worthwhile. After that Polixenes declares that he will have Perdita mutilated: “thy beauty scratched with briars and made/More homely than thy state.” How dare any mere commoner presume to marry into Polixenes’ aristocratic/royal family? He further declares that if Perdita nevertheless pursues Florizel, he will have her killed as cruelly as possible.
All the while, Shakespeare plays around with a common trope (found elsewhere in his other plays) that there is something intrinsically superior to the aristocratic/royal class. (It’s easy to see how this very prevalent attitude eventually led to the race “science” of the Nazis.) Earlier, both Polixenes and his advisor, Camillo, comment on Perdita’s aristocratic bearing:
POLIXENES This is the prettiest lowborn lass that ever
Ran on the greensward. Nothing she does or seems
But smacks of something greater than herself,
Too noble for this place.
CAMILLO [to POLIXENES] He tells her something
That makes her blood look on’t. Good sooth, she is
The queen of curds and cream.
Winter’s Tale 4.4: 155-161 | Norton Digital Edition
She is “too noble” for this place. One need not imagine that the nobility of our own age fancy themselves intrinsically superior to the common run of human being. Trump has on numerous occasions made clear his contempt for dirty, low-class Americans (including those among the exceedingly gullible mob who stormed the capitol building); and has done so in just those terms. His family has also made clear that they share his contempt for the average American. There’s a reason Trump didn’t pardon a single protestor among those who stormed the capitol—they were dispensable. They weren’t worth his time. They were a means to an end (which didn’t materialize) and nothing more. They were like the easily dispensable peasants with whom European aristocratics waged war. True to form, Trump’s children all married within their class and station.
Florizel and Perdita flee, of all places, to Leontes (under the manipulative advice of Camillo who, literally, is merely looking for an excuse to see Leontes again). He couldn’t give a damn about Perdita, who, he well knows, will straightaway be murdered by Polixenes (once they catch up to the couple); but he knows that Polixenes will pursue Florizel and Perdita and so he’ll get a free ride to Sicilia. But what is that to the noble Camillo? As far as he knows (at this point in the play) Perdita is merely a dispensable means to an end; and once that end is achieved, she will be brutally and rightfully dispensed with. But so what? T’were as much as hang a dog from a tree. One wonders to what degree Shakespeare bought into all this. First thing to know is that this was not Shakespeare’s plot, but based on a story by Robert Greene (a deceased playwright and erstwhile rival). Was he just exploiting the literary tropes of the day? I think so. Shakespeare might have bought into the belief, to some degree, that class was intrinsic and not economic; but he was also keenly aware that the nobility didn’t behave any better than anyone else and wrote dozens of plays based on just that reality (Shakespeare had a keen nose for hypocrisy).
They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
It’s my own belief that Shakespeare’s sonnets come closest to personal utterance. Those who exercise power without restraint, he suggests, though they might be deemed the very flower of their class and station, are “outbraved” by the basest weed in dignity. I personally doubt that Shakespeare would have had much sympathy for Leontes or Polixenes (neither could be said to have been like stone or to temptation slow) but he used the tropes of the day to dramatic effect. That said, it’s thought that Shakespeare endorsed the political hierarchies of the day. In his plays, at least, he comes down on the side of rule by aristocracy (which is really as much as to say that he preferred a functioning government—such as it was—to mob rule). Whenever Shakespeare gives voice to the common people they’re generally portrayed as a mob—as a dangerous and destabilizing force. That used to disappoint me, but having witnessed the mob instigated by the Trump family, I see it from Shakespeare’s perspective. It’s not that he thought particularly highly of the aristocracy, but he probably saw in them the closest thing to political and social stability that the Middle Ages had to offer. And why shouldn’t he? The enlightenment was still decades away.
When Perdita’s pedigree (as Leontes’s lost daughter) is finally revealed/discovered at the end of Act 4, then everything changes (though nothing about Perdita has changed). She was still raised by the Shepherd who discovered and saved her life (demonstrating incomparably greater integrity and kindness than any of the noblemen). Not only does Leontes recover his daughter (who he had threatened to burn on the very day of her birth and/or strangle with his own hands) but he also recovers his wife, Hermione—revealed to him by Paulina in the guise of a statue. (This is the same Leontes, in the same act who would have killed Perdita at Polixenes bidding prior to discovering her identity). All in all, I find it an undeserved happy ending for Leontes and Polixenes—or any of their venal hangers on (apart from Paulina). That said, if there’s a difference between Leontes and Trump, it’s that Leontes had enough self-awareness to spend his life, until his discovery of Perdita, regretting his wrongdoing and expressing humility. Trump isn’t even intellectually capable of the insight granted to a fictional pre-Christian King portrayed by a dramatist of the middle ages.
All this is to say, reading Shakespeare after the Trump years has changed everything. I now have a little taste for what life must have been like for those in the Middle Ages—ruled by entitled fools along with their retinue of corrupt courtiers, hangers on, grifters and opportunists. Some part of me still buys into the fairy tale tropes, but the greater part is not so inclined to overlook the venality of the nobility in The Winter’s Tale. If Leontes and Polixenes had accepted Perdita, as a Shepherd’s daughter, prior to discovering her true pedigree (probably an inconceivable outcome in Elizabethan England) then there might be some measure of redemption, but there is none. Both tyrants only accept the outcome after they get what they want. The prerogatives and entitlement of both men is reinforced rather than examined. That’s not redemption. No lessons are learned. I do recognize that Shakespeare’s job was to write a successful play and that involved fulfilling certain conventions and expectations. The Winter’s Tale should probably be read or watched as a kind of implausible fairy tale; and it’s success or failure should likewise be premised on its dramatic effectiveness rather than its moral or ethical assumptions. In that regard, I do get the sense that Shakespeare’s heart wasn’t really in it or that he was conflicted. He gives Paulina, who excoriates Leontes, all the best lines; so much so that the other characters comment on her unrealistic bravery (but maybe she speaks for Shakespeare). By the fifth act, rather than dramatize the revelation that Perdita is really Leontes’ daughter, Shakespeare assigns the revelation to a conversation between two Lords who rattle off the occasion with efficient and workmanlike prose. Should we read Leontes and Polixenes as little more than fairy-tale absurdities? One of the arguments Oxfordians put forward is that Shakespeare too accurately portrayed the court and court politics to have been, well, Shakespeare. But, as better scholars have pointed out (including near contemporaries), Shakespeare’s portrayal of the nobility and the court was patently inaccurate:
It follows, therefore, that the background of life in the plays is, and at the same time is not, the background of Elizabethan life. As an example — old Capulet is an admirable picture of a testy Elizabethan parent, and his behaviour to Juliet in the matter of the match with Paris reminds us instantly of the perpetually quoted account that Lady Jane Grey gives of her own noble father and mother. The human reality is faithfully portrayed, and at the same time the detail of the portrait is contemporary. If, however, we go on lightheartedly to assume that old Capulet in his behaviour as a “nobleman” bears any resemblance to an Elizabethan noble of similar standing we shall be hopelessly misled. If we compare him with the genuine article we realise at once that the intimate “realistic,” or Elizabethan, scenes in which he appears are purely “romantic,” or, if we prefer, untrue to the facts of contemporary noble life. Shakespeare may label Capulet the head of a noble household, who can treat Paris, “a young Nobleman, Kinsman to the Prince,” as his equal, and a proper match for his daughter; but when it comes to a scene like Act IV, Sc. iv, which shows the home life of this supposed nobleman, we realise that the setting is not Verona but Stratford, and that the most likely person to have sat for that very realistic portrait is John Shakespeare, or any of the good burgesses who were William’s father’s friends.
“The Social Background” | A Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited Harley Granville-Barker and G. B. Harrison.
So, one could treat Leontes’ and Polixenes’ entitlement and murderous threats as more figurative than literal (if one were to act the play as a contemporary city drama); and I could accept that. On those grounds I might let the play’s “happy ending” slide (and the poetry of Florizel and Perdita’s love for each other is to die for); but taken at face value? No. We don’t live in the Middle Ages. I’m not feeling the happy ending of The Winter’s Tale any more than were the corrupt billionaire Donald Trump to escape the consequences of his crimes.
up in Vermont | February 6th 2001
Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle is another one of those plays one always sees in anthologies of Elizabethan plays. So I had to read it. It’s one of the few plays currently thought to be written entirely by Francis Beaumont though one also finds it included in collections of plays by Beaumont & Fletcher. They were, in terms of their reputation, the Lennon & McCartney of their day. It was said that they lived together in the same room, share their hats and cloaks, and shared a “wench” between them. Beaumont was born in 1584, some 20 years after Shakespeare, but died the same year as Shakespeare. He lived a short life, aged only 31 or 32, but in the decades that followed, especially during the Restoration, his collaboration with Fletcher was thought to represent the pinnacle of Elizabethan drama. Reading Beaumont & Fletcher, it’s hard to fathom why they were ever considered Shakespeare’s superior, but both Beaumont and Fletcher’s poetry were more immediately accessible than Shakespeare’s.
It’s an interesting footnote that the Restoration era may have been responsible for mucking up, once and for all, one of Shakespeare’s lost plays—Cardenio. The play was a cause for excitement in the early 1700’s when Lewis Theobald, a lawyer by training with aspirations to write professionally, announced the discovery of a lost play by Shakespeare. Interestingly, he stated that one of his copies (he claimed to have three) was “in the handwriting of the prompter to Sir William D’avanant’s Duke’s company in the 1660’s”. This was exceedingly bad news because Sir William D’avenant, along with other restoration poets like Dryden and the infamously bungling Nahum Tate, couldn’t resist bringing Shakespeare up to the august standards of the Restoration. As an example of D’avenant’s “improvements”, consider the following from his rewrite of Measure for Measure:
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where; To lie in cold obstruction and to rot; This sensible warm motion to become A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice; To be imprison'd in the viewless winds, And blown with restless violence round about The pendent world; or to be worse than worst Of those that lawless and incertain thought Imagine howling: 'tis too horrible! The weariest and most loathed worldly life That age, ache, penury and imprisonment Can lay on nature is a paradise To what we fear of death.
Oh Sister, 'tis to go we know not whither. We lie in silent darkness, and we rot; Where long our motion is not stopt; for though In Graves none walk upright (proudly to face The Stars) yet there we move again, when our Corruption makes those worms in whom we crawl. Perhaps the spirit (which is future life) Dwells salamander-like, unharmed in fire: Or else with wandering winds is blown about The world. But if condemned like those Whom our uncertain thought imagines howling; Then the most loathed and the most weary life Which age, or ache, want, or imprisonment Can lay on nature, is a paradise To what we fear of death.
Let’s just take a little detour from Beaumont to explore all the ways that D’avenant goes wrong. You could also think of this as a brief lesson in the difference between great poetry and mediocrity.
Right away, and for some inexplicable reason, D’avenant has Claudio address his sister rather than the subject at hand. This is supremely ironic given the Restoration’s obsession with “manliness” because rather than Claudio turning the audience’s attention to the subject of death—”Aye, but to die”—D’avenant’s Claudio turns to his sister with something like a frightened cry or sigh for comfort: Oh Sister, he says.
Next comes D’avenant’s change of “To lie in cold obstruction and to rot” to “We lie in silent darkness, and we rot”. This is just wrong on so many levels. The genius of Shakespeare’s “lie in cold obstruction” resides in his contrasting “lie” with the implied inability to move—”cold obstruction”. It’s not that we just lie there, but that we are horrifically trapped by the cold, indifferent obstruction of the earth, earth that had erstwhile been warm and nurturing. This is the genius packed into Shakespeare’s horrific and kinesthetic imagery. D’avenant inexplicably strips out the kinesthesia, opting for the bland and mediocre “silent darkness”. But who doesn’t put babies down to sleep in “silent darkness”. D’aventant’s imagery utterly loses the horror of Shakespeare’s original. Not only that, but whereas Shakespeare’s cold obstruction is the cause of our body’s decomposition, D’avenant’s “and we rot” is only related to “silent darkness” by a comma. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lain down at the end of the day, having accomplished nothing with my life and thought to myself: “we lie in silent darkness, and we rot”. But morning brings a new day. Not so with Shakespeare. That cold obstruction is nothing you or I will ever escape.
In the next few lines Shakespeare doesn’t let up:
This sensible warm motion to become A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice; To be imprison'd in the viewless winds, And blown with restless violence round about The pendent world...
Shakespeare’s thought process, just have to say, is beautiful to observe. And one sees it over and over again. He reminds me of JS Bach in that he takes a single theme or idea, like a fugal subject, states it, than develops with an almost contrapuntal ease and precision. The theme that tantalizes Shakespeare’s imagination is “cold obstruction”—the implication of trapped motion. He immediately expands this thematic idea into “This sensible warm motion to become/A kneaded clod”. Do you see how this is just a restatement of “cold obstruction”? And it’s not enough to say that motion becomes a clod. The contrast of motion and immobility is constant. The word “sensible” implies motion and inquisitiveness, warmth contrasts with the cold of “cold obstruction”, while motion contrasts with “clod”. But describing our body as a lifeless clod isn’t enough. With the theme of motion and immobility working in Shakespeare’s mind, he writes “kneaded clod”. Kneaded implies motion, but paradoxically the kneading is the motion of earth’s obstruction, kneading our bodies, having become clay-like, with a cold indifference to our erstwhile “sensible warmth”.
From there, Shakespeare’s imagination moves from body to soul which, no less than the body, contends with contrasts—opposites always in the dramatist’s mind—with motion and immobility. It’s not enough to say that the “spirit is tormented by fire”, but Shakespeare combines opposites, applying the imagery of water to fire, by describing the soul as bathing in floods of fire. And it’s not enough that it’s the soul, but Shakespeare echoes the earlier imagery of the “sensible warm motion” with “the delighted soul”. On other words, the soul, capable of delight and warmth and motion, is tormented by just those qualities in the “warmth” of the firea and “motion” of the floods. And yet for all that, the soul, like the kneaded clod, is trapped, not in the earth, but in the floods of fire; the “thrilling”—again riffing on sensible—thick-ribbed ice, like the bars of a jail cell; and paradoxically imprisoned in the violent, restless, viewless—in the sense of both blind and without purpose—winds. Not even the earth is still in this paradox of the grave’s imprisonment and the soul’s violent motion. The earth is pendent, ceaseless in its cruel forward motion, burying all it gives birth to, like a remorseless clock.
It’s all there. This is why Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer who ever lived, because he could pack into a few lines of verse who paragraphs of meaning.
And then there’s D’avenant.
All of this is lost on D’vaenant. All of it. Like a Salieri revising Mozart, he tosses all of that out for the towering mediocrity of the following lines:
Where long our motion is not stopt; for though In Graves none walk upright (proudly to face The Stars) yet there we move again, when our Corruption makes those worms in whom we crawl. Perhaps the spirit (which is future life) Dwells salamander-like, unharmed in fire: Or else with wandering winds is blown about The world.
He retains, as a faint echo, the driving force of Shakespeare’s imagery, the claustrophobic entrapment of the body and soul in the never ceasing motion and torment of death. But whereas Shakespeare drives Claudio’s thoughts forward in a single, driven, obsessive sentence, D’avenant turns Claudio’s cry into a pendantic disquisition interrupted by “for though”, and “yet there” and “perhaps” and “or else”, “but if”, turning Shakespeare’s Claudio into Rowen Atkinson’s Blackadder.
D’avenant first interrupts the cascading terror of Shakespeare’s speech by essentially putting a period after “Where long our motion is not stopt”. D’avenant understands that small part of Shakespeare’s imagery, that our motion doesn’t stop, but utterly misses the the paradoxical horror of both entrapment and violent motion captured by Shakespeare. Instead he makes the comically trite observation that no one walks upright in the grave whilst proudly facing the stars. Whereas Shakespeare draws us into the experience of death, appealing to our sense sight, organic and kinesthetic sensation, D’avenant draws us out of the experience by making us observers: “yet there we move again, when our Corruption makes those worms in whom we crawl”. The imagery is entirely visual. But then, most egregious of all (and probably the entire reason for D’avenant’s monkey-Jesus) is the following: “Perhaps the spirit (which is future life)/ Dwells salamander-like, unharmed in fire”. One has to assume that D’avenant’s religious and Restoration sensibilities were offended by the decidedly un-Christian fate of Shakespeare’s soul and worried for the sensibilities of the audience. D’avenant utterly undercuts the terror of Shakespeare’s passage by reassuring the audience that the soul remains our “future life” and nothing, after all, can harm it. In short, D’avenant sacrifices the dramatic effectiveness of Elizabethan Drama for the sake of 17th century religious prudery and propriety. It was a strain of piousness that would ruin much poetry in the 18th and 19th century. Finally, D’avenant closes this disastrous revision with the utterly bland and clichéd “wandering winds” rather than the powerful “viewless winds”—the latter suggesting both the invisibility of the winds but also the soul’s helplessness and purposelessness in such aimlessness.
Finally, whereas Shakespeare offers no hope, adding that the fear of death even drives us to imagine fates—too horrible!—worse than the worst we already imagine howling, D’avenant piously reassures us that such a fate only applies to the “condemned” by writing—”if condemned”. We can all relax. The Claudio of D’avenant’s play indulges in a mere rhetorical aside.
So, getting back to Beaumont and Fletcher, whose speed of thought and temperaments were much more congenial to the fastidious and pious Restoration poets, if a collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher were to fall into their hands, which poet do you think they would edit out of the play? Well, it’s a curious thing, about Cardenio (or Double Falsehood) as it comes down to us through Theobald. The portions of the play that appear to be intact are Fletcher’s, whereas all those portions of the play that hint at Shakespeare:
I do not see that fervour in the maid Which youth and love should kindle. She consents, As 'twere, to feed without an appetite; Tells me she is content and plays the coy one, Like those that subtly make their words their ward, Keeping address at distance. This affection Is such a feign'd one as will break untouched; Die frosty ere it can be thawed; while mine, Like to a clime beneath Hyperion's eye, Burns with one constant heat.
O do not rack me with these ill-placed doubts, Nor think though age has in my father's breast Put out love's flame, he therefore has not eyes, Or is in judgement blind. You wrong your beauties. Venus will frown if you disprize her gifts That have a face would make a frozen hermit Leap from his cell and burn his beads to kiss it, Eyes, that are nothing but continual births Of new desires in those that view their beams. You cannot have a cause to doubt.
Bear all the marks of having been butchered by a poet like D’avenant or Tate. In short, the instinct of Restoration poets was to edit out the Shakespeare and to keep intact the Fletchers, Beaumonts and Massingers. And that’s why, for a period of time, the folios of Beaumont and Fletcher were more highly praised than those of Shakespeare.
Perhaps the only lines of Shakespeare that survive intact in Double Falsehood are the following:
Violante ...Home, my lord. What you can say, is most unseasonable; what sing Most absonant and harsh, nay, your perfume, Which I smell hither, cheers not my sense Like our field-violet's breath. Henriquez Why this dismission Does more invite my staying.
And why a D’avenant, a Tate, or possibly Theobald saw fit to leave these lines unmolested remains a mystery.
But getting back to Beaumont, most every discussion of Beaumont involves Fletcher to the same degree that discussions of Lennon involve McCartney. Beaumont is generally considered the greater poet, wrote the tragic and comic-satiric portions of any given collaboration and possessed greater insight into personality. Whereas Fletcher’s character’s were often plot driven, Beaumont’s plots were character driven. In A Short View of Elizabethan Drama, Thomas Marc Parrott and Robert Ball put it this way:
Fortunately the work of Beaumont is marked by such individual characteristics that it is comparatively easy to distinguish his hand from Fletcher’s, although when they worked together it is not always possible to assign a play scene by scene to one of the other. Beaumont’s verse is more regular than Fletcher’s, patterned apparently on the verse of Shakespeare in the The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar. It is marked by an abundance of run-on lines, and a frequent use of rhyme. As his mood changes from grave to gay, he shifts from verse to prose, which Fletcher seldom uses. A stronger mind, apparently, though younger than his friend, he seems to have been the guiding force in their collaboration. The serious, tragic, and pathetic scenes in their joint work are as a rule his: so too are the comic-satiric scenes, for Beaumont was a disciple of Jonson as well as a lover of Shakespeare.p. 185-186
And it’s Beaumont’s comic-satiric gifts that shine in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The play is the first full length satire in the history of English drama. In it, Beaumont, ever the aristocrat at heart, lampoons and satirizes the tastes of the common London playgoers. What strikes me as applicable to our modern day? Anyone who watched the dramatization of Game of Thrones is probably aware of the fan-criticism that attended the close of series. Some fans went so far as to altogether rewrite the closing season. The Star Wars series has also been shaped by criticism from its audience—and to its detriment according to other fans and critics.
Some things never change. It was far from uncommon for Elizabethan audiences to interfere in the progress of the play and even confuse, then as now, the play with reality. Larry Hagman, who played JR on Dallas, was often accosted by fans who treated him as though he were the character. Elizabethan acting troupes, accustomed to such audiences, were always prepared to change the endings of scenes and plays on the spot. It was also
“not uncommon for an aspiring amateur to take over a leading part.” Ibid. 187. Authorial integrity mattered less to them than the income of a successful performance (unless you were Ben Jonson, who complained incessantly about the fools to whom he was forced to subject his plays ).
Beaumont’s play satirizes this impulse by having two characters, playing members of the audience (a citizen grocer and his wife), immediately interrupt the play, demanding that their own preferences and subject matter be adopted.
Enter Speaker of the Prologue. S. of Prol. From all that's near the court, from all that's great, Within the compass of the city-walls— We now have brought our scene—" Citizen leaps on the Stage. Cit. Hold your peace, goodman boy ! S. of Prol. What do you mean, sir ? Cit. That you have no good meaning : this seven years there hath been plays at this house, I have observed it, you have still girds at citizens; and now you call your play " The London Merchant." Down with your title, boy ! down with your title ! S. of Prol. Are you a member of the noble city? Cit. I am. S. of Prol. And a freeman? Cit. Yea, and a grocer. S. of Prol. So, grocer, then, by your sweet favour, we intend no abuse to the city. Cit. No, sir ! yes, sir : if you were not resolved to play the Jacks, what need you study for new subjects, purposely to abuse your betters? why could not you be contented, as well as others, with "The legend of Whittington," or "The Life and Death of Sir Thomas Gresham, with the building of the Royal Exchange," or "The story of Queen Eleanor, with the rearing of London Bridge upon woolsacks? S. of Prol. You seem to be an understanding man : what would you have us do, sir ?
And so it begins. The citizen and his wife (his wife who constantly mistakes the play for real events) ceaselessly interfere in the progress of the play going so far as to force the acting troupe to include their prentice, Ralph, as the character of the the Knight of the Burning Pestle. Now, if you read the opening above and scratched your head, saying to yourself—Well, I guess you had to be there—you’re in luck. Listen to this performance of the opening scene and tell me you don’t laugh:
It’s worthy of Monty Python, and this was written by Beaumont in 1608. And here’s Part 2.
Apparently, the play didn’t go ever well with Elizabethan playgoers. While playgoers may not have appreciated being the butt of the joke, I more suspect that they didn’t like the illusion of reality being constantly undermined. Audiences, then as now, probably wanted to forget themselves, to be swept up in the story, not constantly reminded that the play was just a put on and that they were all the dupes. Alas that Beaumont died at such a young age. Twenty years later the play was revived by the Queen’s Company with great success.
Being satire, and being primarily comedic, the play doesn’t give much scope for flights of poetry, but there’s a fun and charming moment when the grocer’s wife demands that Ralph Dance the Morris, at which Ralph randomly appears on stage dressed as a May-lord:
London, to thee I do present the merry month of May; Let each true subject be content to hear me what I say : For from the top of conduit-head, as plainly may appear, I will both tell my name to you, and wherefore I came here. My name is Ralph, by due descent though not ignoble I Yet far inferior to the stock of gracious grocery ; And by the common counsel of my fellows in the Strand, With gilded staff and crossed scarf, the May-lord here I stand. Rejoice, oh, English hearts, rejoice! rejoice, oh, lovers dear! Rejoice, oh, city, town, and country! rejoice, eke every shere! For now the fragrant flowers do spring and sprout in seemly sort, The little birds do sit and sing, the lambs do make fine sport; And now the birchen-tree doth bud, that makes the schoolboy cry; The morris rings, while hobby-horse doth foot it feateously; The lords and ladies now abroad, for their disport and play, Do kiss sometimes upon the grass, and sometimes in the hay; Now butter with a leaf of sage is good to purge the blood; Fly Venus and phlebotomy, for they are neither good; Now little fish on tender stone begin to cast their bellies, And sluggish snails, that erst were mewed, do creep out of their shellies The rumbling rivers now do warm, for little boys to paddle; The sturdy steed now goes to grass, and up they hang his saddle; The heavy hart, the bellowing buck, the rascal, and the pricket, Are now among the yeoman's peas, and leave the fearful thicket: And be like them, oh, you, I say, of this same noble town, And lift aloft your velvet heads, and slipping off your gown, With bells on legs, and napkins clean unto your shoulders tied, With scarfs and garters as you please, and " Hey for our town ! " cried. March out, and show your willing minds, by twenty and by twenty, To Hogsdon or to Newington, where ale and cakes are plenty; And let it ne'er be said for shame, that we the youths of London Lay thrumming of our caps at home, and left our custom undone. Up, then, I say, both young and old, both man and maid a-maying, With drums, and guns that bounce aloud, and merry tabor playing! Which to prolong, (Sod save our king, and send his country peace, And root out treason from the land ! and so, my friends, I cease.
I can’t help but hear a touch of Shakespeare, much admired by Beaumont. And that’s that. There’s much more one could write about The Knight of the Burning Pestle, including its parallels with Don Qixote (which by that time was just beginning to reach the wider populace in a new English language translation) but maybe that gives just a little taste.
The only other observation might be the relationship between the grocer and his wife. The wife’s enthusiasm and the grocer’s indulgence of his wife’s whims and enthusiasms bespeaks a relationship as loving and fun-loving as any portrayed in an Elizabethan play before or after—when it seems that all Elizabethan men and women could think of was killing each other. One gets the sense that we loved each other then just as much as now.
And with that I leave you with a lovely little line, a little piece of pure poetry, by Beaumont:
Sorrow can make a verse without a muse.
April 25th 2020 ❧ upinVermont
The next play I just finished is John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. This is the one play by John Ford that is usually included in anthologies of Elizabethan Plays. Interestingly, John Ford got lots of attention at the start of the millennia when A Funeral Elegy was identified as being by Shakespeare (note that the link to MITs site still lists it as being by Shakespeare). The Elegy was even included in the 2nd edition of the Norton Complete Shakespeare as by Shakespeare until scholarly opinion finally converged on John Ford as the actual author. The poem, needless to say, is not in the 3rd edition and Norton took some heat for including it. To my credit, I never thought that it was by Shakespeare and even proposed (though I was roundly ignored because I’m a nobody) that the poem was by John Ford. There’s proof on the Shaksper Listserv somewhere—if they still call it that.
John Ford was born some 20 years after Shakespeare and so didn’t really get started until Shakespeare was at his peak. Around 1601 when he would have been 15 or 16, he joined the Middle Temple, an institution that was considered a prestigious law school. Whether he studied law is debatable but he was obviously well educated, a man of letters, and must have had literary ambitions. After being kicked out of the Middle Temple due to financial issues, he set about looking for patronage by writing an elegy and a prose pamphlet. Yet it isn’t until 1620, four years after Shakespeare’s death (though Ben Jonson was still alive and active) that he appears as an active playwright. What can be said for Ford is that he became one of the Elizabathen era’s finest dramatists and collaborated with other dramatists like Dekker (with whom he co-authored The Witch of Edmonton), Webster and Massinger. That said, while Ford had a fine instinct for drama and could write some of the most pellucid blank verse of the era, he was a mediocre poet at best (which makes the mis-identification of his Funeral Elegy as Shakespeare’s all the more baffling).
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is generally thought to be the finest incest tragedy of the Elizabethan Era, a highly popular genre in its day, that continued to be performed through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Not only that, but according to Wikipedia, the 20th century saw the play adapted into two movies: My Sister, My Love (Sweden, 1966) and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Belgium, 1978). The genre remains popular for all the obvious titillating reasons.
So what was my impression? Once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. This though I knew it was all going to end tragically—and that’s probably the point. The dramatic tension is not in wondering how the play will end, but in the spectacle of its unraveling—as one character after another is stabbed and/or poisoned. Before they even stepped foot in the theater, Elizabethans knew matters were going to go spectacularly bad. The only question was how bad. Ford handles it all beautifully, disappointing no one when, in the final scenes, a bloody Giovanni steps into the banquet hall with Annabella’s heart impaled on the tip of his phallic dagger. Has there ever been a more brutally symbolic manifestation of incest?
But is there anything for the modern reader beyond an Elizabethan fondness for incest, bloody denouements, and murderous spectacle? First to be said is that Annabella is really little more than the shiny object around which all the men plot and scheme; which is to say, Annabella’s own agency is slim to none. When she takes Giovanni as her lover, there’s little to no deliberation on her part. While Giovanni is wracked with doubts throughout Act I, essentially deliberating for both of them, Annabella confesses her love after the briefest of conventional and clichéd Elizabethan tropes. In short, Giovanni claims that if his love is not requited, he would rather die. Of course, this symbolically makes Annabella responsible for Giovanni’s fate. To drive home the point, Giovanni “offers his dagger to her“. That’s Annabella’s one moment of agency. Take her brother as lover or murder him. The correct response would have been obvious to any self-respecting Elizabethan play-goer: she should have murdered him and taken her own life forthwith. Instead, after a series of pro-forma objections, she blows it:
...what thous hast urged
My captive heart had long ago resolved.
I blush to tell thee—but I'll tell thee now—
For every sigh that thou hast spent for me
I have sighed ten; for every tear shed twenty:
And not so much for that I loved, nor scarcely think it.
And so let the play begin. Would that the Elizabethans had had popcorn.
Once the secret tryst between Giovanni and Annabella is sealed, the other suitors, none the wiser, court Annabella with all the gusto of horse-traders. Annabella’s father Florio, meanwhile, makes a somewhat modern concession:
My care is how to match her to her liking:
I would not have her marry wealth, but love...
One often reads that marriage in those days, especially among the aristocracy, was a bleak market wherein marriageable women were used as currency, to be “bedded”, buying peace between warring families, buying social status, securing extravagant endowments which would be promptly gambled away by profligate husbands, etc… The desire of women, and men, to marry for love wasn’t a foreign concept. Some one hundred and fifty years later Jane Austen would make marrying for love (among the aristocracy) the centerpiece of her novels. And don’t forget that Giovanni and Annabella’s love is an ironic commentary on Florio’s statement coming, as it does, immediately after Annabella and Giovanni have gone off to make love for the first time. Such is Ford’s dramatic art.
At any rate, immediately after Florio has stated that he would not have Annabella marry for wealth, Donado (the father of one of Annabella’s suitors) reassuringly states:
Sir, you say well, Like a true father, and for my part I, If the young folks can like ('twixt you and me), Will promise to assure my nephew presently Three thousand florins yearly during life, And after I am dead, my whole estate. [Act I, Scene iii]
La! Wink wink. Nudge nudge. Florio responds approvingly, to which Donado adds:
Well, Here's hope yet, if my nephew would have wit; But he is such another dunce, I fear He'll never win the wench. [Act I, Scene iii]
And that’s the tone with which the suitors discuss Annabella—wench this and wench that—though it should be said that the appellation ‘wench’ didn’t carry the same negative connotations then as now. One could use ‘wench’ as as term of endearment, but it was more commonly used as shorthand for a sexually available young female. “Wenching” was used in the sense of lecherous, and Elizabethan playwrights, including Shakespeare, did seem to take a certain relish and discussing women. Bergetto, Donado’s nephew has taken to a different wench, Philotus, and comments:
O, the wench! Uda sa' me, uncle, I tickled her with a rare speech, that I made her almost burst her belly with laughing.
The sexual innuendo wouldn’t have been lost on Elizabethan audience. He tickled her (penetrated her) with a rare speech (intercourse) and almost burst her belly (impregnated her) with laughing (their mutual orgasm). And if you suppose I’m reading too much into this, Ford clears up any confusion when Donado, Poggio (Berghetto’s servant) and Berghetto are later discussing Annabella:
Donado What’s the news now? Bergetto Save you Uncle save you, you must not think I come for nothing Masters, and how and how is ’t? what you have read my letter, ah, there I — tickled you i’ faith. Poggio But ’twere better you had tickled her in another place. [Act II Sc. vi]
So, Donado’s use of the word wench is both an endearment and a mutual acknowledgement as to the purpose to which his daughter should be put. Who wins the right to conceive in a female? You may think that’s a crass way to put it, but the seriousness of the question will be what leads to the play’s bloody denouement. In general, the lascivious way in which Annabella and other women are discussed, given the play’s central theme and the way in which incest takes that objectification to its extreme, no doubt contributed to the play’s popularity.
Modern readers might be more taken with the early inklings of humanism, atheism and enlightenment rationalism in Ford’s play. When one read’s Christopher Marlowe’s Faust, a modern reader gets that sense that Marlowe, though he dutifully damned Faust, was sympathetic. Likewise, though Ford no doubt would have condemned incest without the Master of the Revel’s prompting, one does get the sense that he was sympathetic with the humanistic impulse behind the arguments made (by Giovanni) in defense of his relationship with Annabella. The very first words of the play begin thusly:
Enter Friar and Giovanni.
Friar Dispute no more in this, for know (young man)
These are no Schoolpoints; nice Philosophy
May tolerate unlikely arguments,
But Heaven admits no jest; wits that presumed
On wit too much, by striving how to prove
There was no God; with foolish grounds of Art,
Discovered first the nearest way to Hell;
And filled the world with devilish Atheism:
Such questions youth are fond; For better ’tis,
To bless the Sun, than reason why it shines;
In other words, like any perplexed parent when too cleverly challenged by their child: The Friar’s response is: Do it because God said so. And this was an absolutely legitimate theological argument in the medieval era (of which the Elizabethans were still a part). Even so, you will find strikingly modern thought.
What Judgement, or endeavors could apply
To my incurable and restless wounds,
I thoroughly have examined, but in vain:
O that it were not in Religion sin,
To make our love a God, and worship it.
I have even wearied heaven with prayers, dried up
The spring of my continual tears, even starved
My veins with daily fasts: what wit or Art
Could Counsel, I have practiced; but alas
I find all these but dreams, and old men’s tales
To fright unsteady youth...
Love to God or love to one another? The passage could have been written as a critique of arranged marriage, rather than incest. Do we owe primacy to love, to ourselves, or to societal norms and conventions? While incest might be the “libertarian ethicist’s” most extreme provocatoin, the tension between individual liberty and societal conventions is fiercely ongoing especially as regards gender, marriage, adultery, erotic fantasy and even pornography. At any rate, hundreds of years later Steinbeck will take up the same question in Grapes of Wrath, only this time it will be the “Friar” himself, in the shape of an old preacher, who loses religion.
An’ I got to thinkin’ like this—’Here’s me preachin’ grace’. An’ here’s them people gettin’ grace so hard they’re jumpin’ and shoutin’. Now they say layin’ up with a girl comes from the devil. But the more grace a girl got in her, the quicker she wants to out in the grass [have sex].’ An’ I got to thinkin’ how in hell, s’cuse me, how can the devil get in when a girl is so full of the Holy Sperit that it’s spoutin’ out of her nose an’ ears. ¶ Finally it give me such pain I quit an’ went off my myself an’ give her a damn good thinkin’ about. [….] I says to myself, ‘What’s gnawin’ you? Is it the screwin’?’ An’ I says, ‘No, it’s the sin.’ An’ I says, ‘Why is it that when a fella ought ot be just about mule-ass proof against sin, an’ all full up of Jesus, why is it that’s the time a fella gets fingerin’ his pants buttons?’ ¶ And it come night, an’ it was dark when I come to. They was coyotes squawkin’ near by. Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some things folks do is nice. and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say.” ¶ “I says. ‘What’s this call, this sperit?’ An’ I says, ‘Don’t you love Jesus?’ Well, I thought an’ thought, an’ finally I says, ‘No, I don’t know nobody name’ Jesus. I know a bunch of stories, but I only love people. An’ sometimes I love ’em fit to bust, an’ I want to make ’em happy.’
Compare Ford’s “old men’s tales” to Steinbeck’s “just a bunch of stories”. The humanist questions are the same. Is it intrinsically wrong to sleep with ones sister? Is it intrinsically wrong to sleep with girls in the grass after baptizing them? Why shouldn’t we take pleasure in lust and love? Giovanni will make other ingenious arguments defending his incestual love, all while obliquely criticizing the absurdity of the religious arguments on which they’re based:
Giovanni Father, in this you are uncharitable;
What I have done, I’ll prove both fit and good.
It is a principle (which you have taught
When I was yet your Scholar) that the Fame
And Composition of the Mind doth follow
The Frame and Composition of Body:
So where the Body’s furniture is Beauty,
The Mind’s must needs be Virtue: which allowed.
Virtue itself is Reason but refined,
And Love the Quintessence of that, this proves
My Sister’s Beauty being rarely Fair,
Is rarely Virtuous; chiefly in her love,
And chiefly in that Love, her love to me.
If hers to me, then so is mine to her;
Since in like Causes are effects alike.
[Act II, Sc. v]
The friar’s impotent response is to call him a madman, though that would certainly have been sufficient for the censor. Likewise, many Elizabethans would have deemed Giovanni’s argument so absurd as to merit no other retort but madman. And what do the women say? Ford leaves that to Annabella’s older nurse and servant:
Putana Nay what a Paradise of joy have you passed under?
why now I commend thee, charge, fear nothing, sweetheart;
what though he be your Brother? Your Brother’s a
man I hope, and I say still, if a young Wench feel the fit upon
her, let her take anybody, Father or Brother, all is one.
[Act II, Sc. 1]
And that’s no argument at all. So frank and extreme is Putana’s amorality that I have to suppose it’s to make her later treatment, when her eyes are gouged out and she’s ordered to be burnt to ashes, more just and palatable.
Ford’s awareness of the hypocricies at work will make itself felt in the final scenes of the play when Soranzo, who has married Annabella unaware of her affair with her brother, demands to know who has already conceived a child in her—essentially robbing him of his prize.
Soranzo Tell me his name.
Annabella Alas, alas, there’s all
Will you believe?
Annabella You shall never know. Soranzo How!
If you do, let me be cursed.
Soranzo Not know it, Strumpet, I’ll rip up thy heart,
And find it there.
Soranzo’s servant will interrupt Soranzo and Annabella:
Vasques Now the gods forefend! And would you be her executioner, and kill her in your rage too? O ’twere most unmanlike; she is your wife, what faults hath been done by her before she married you, were not against you; alas Poor Lady, what hath she committed, which any Lady in Italy in the like case would not? Sir, you must be ruled by your reason, and not by your fury, that were unhuman and beastly. Soranzo She shall not live. Vasques Come she must; you would have her confess the Authors of her present misfortunes I warrant ’ee, ’tis an unconscionable demand, and she should lose the estimation that I (for my part) hold of her worth, if she had done it; why sir you ought not of all men living to know it: good sir be reconciled, alas good gentlewoman.
And what does Vasques mean by “you ought not of all men living to know it”? Vasques knows that Soranzo has slept with another man’s wife, Hippolita; and did so shortly before courting and marrying Annabella. Soranzo is a hypocrite of the first order, but ultimately Vasques’s efforts are also hypocritical. He only means to calm Soranzo long enough to trick Annabella’s servant, Putana, into revealing who it was that impregnated Annabella.
Before it’s all said and done, Annabella is murdered by her brother, another of Annabella’s suitors is mistakenly murdered by the servant of the man whose wife Soranzo has slept with. The wife, Hippolita, in attempting to exact revenge, is tricked into drinking from her own poisoned cup. Putana, Annabella’s servants, has her eyes gouged out and is burned as a heretic, Vasques is banished to Spain and poor Florio, the well-meaning, decent and honorable father of Giovanni and Annabella, dies of a heart attack during the death and blood-letting of the final banquet.
My final thought is to remark on the one passage that offers anything like poetry, and this is Ford’s Dante-esque description of Hell. Ford’s poetic muse seems to wake right up when it comes to Hell:
Friar I am glad to see this penance; for believe me,
You have unripped a soul, so foul and guilty.
As I must tell you true, I marvel how
The earth hath borne you up, but weep, weep on,
These tears may do you good; weep faster yet,
Whiles I do read a Lecture.
Annabella Wretched creature.
Friar Ay, you are wretched, miserably wretched.
Almost condemned alive; there is a place
(List daughter) in a black and hollow Vault,
Where day is never seen; there shines no Sun,
But flaming horror of consuming Fires;
A lightless Sulphur, choked with smoky fogs
Of an infected darkness; in this place
Dwell many thousand, thousand sundry sorts
Of never dying deaths; there damned souls
Roar without pity, there are Gluttons fed
With Toads and Adders; there is burning Oil
Poured down the Drunkard’s throat, the Usurer
Is forced to sup whole draughts of molten Gold;
There is the Murderer forever stabbed,
Yet can he never die; there lies the wanton
On Racks of burning steel, whiles in his soul
He feels the torment of his raging lust.
And that’s that. I leave you with a famous description of Ford by a contemporary:
Deep in a dump alone John Ford was gat,
With folded arms and melancholy hat.
I’m going to essentially repeat a passage from another post, but it fits so beautifully in the context of minimalist poetry that I thought I should make it a post of its own. Little known, I think, is that the English word villain largely arose from the last name of the medieval French Poet Francois Villon. The OED defines the villain as “a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man unnaturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes.” One might wonder how France’s equivalent of Geoffrey Chaucer, at least it terms of time period and genius, inspired the word villainy.
As it turns out, Villon, like many living and dead rapper of our own age, had a taste for gang-life and criminality. The author of danse Macabre: Poetry & Murder in Medieval France, Aubrey Burl, writes that after his death he became known as a sort of French Robin Hood.
“Almost in his own lifetime, by the end of the fifteenth century, there was a popular book of thefts and swindles attributed to him, the Recueil des Repues Franches de Maître François Villon et de ses Campagnons. ‘The Free Feeds’ went into many editions. The stories were old, derived from earlier scamps and rascals like Til Eulenspiel but their adapted association with Villon’s name shows how strong his reputation became as as trickster. Suavely, slyly, he cheated shopkeepers, substituting a flagon of water for one of wine; distracting a merchant while friends stole bread, fish, cheese, meat; pretending to quarrel violently with a ‘stranger’ so that the alarmed tradesman rushed out to fetch the police leaving his wares unguarded. Much of its was exaggerated or simply untrue but its very existence shows what a celebrity Villon was, a laughing rogue, a scallywag. ¶ Villon himself subscribed to the notoriety, writing that after his death:
At least there will be a memory of me
As one who was a merry madcap. [T. 177]
Long before Villon’s birth, ‘villon’ had meant ‘to insult’ but the poet’s fame modified it into a ‘cunning rogue, a pleasant thief’. Words like villon, villonerie, villoniser, all carried the implication of someone who took property without payment. [p. 30]
Aubrey Burl further quotes writers from Villon’s own lifetime:
“He was as very proper looking fellow, but for the fact that he was a bit of a lecher and naturally subject to a malady that was called at that time, ‘the lack of money, pain incomparably’. However, he had sixty-three ways of finding it at a pinch, the commonest and most honest of which was by means of cunningly perpetrated larceny. He was a mischievous rogue, a cheat, a boozer, a roysterer, and vagabond if ever there was one in Paris, but otherwise the best fellow in the world; and he was always perpetrating some trick against the sergeants and the watch.”
Villon was exiled from Paris three times and was imprisoned, tortured, and nearly executed by peeved adversaries in positions of power. To Villon’s credit, he had little patience for the hypocrisies and cruelties of those in power, including among the Church, the aristocracy, police and military. In that sense, he was a defender of the common people, much like Robin Hood.
But it’s not primarily for his reputation as a trickster that Villon’s reputation survives. He was also a poetic genius who far outstripped his peers in France or England. Aubrey Burl succinctly describes one of Villon’s surpassing abilities as a poet:
Poetic shorthand was one of Villon’s strengths. Where contemporaries were sincere but long-winded he was sincere but succinct, stripping a thought to its essence. A typical example of this was how contemporaries expressed the idea of laughing through ones tears. Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote:
Je ris des yeulx, et mon coeur place
I laugh with eyes and my heart cries
Alain Chartier wrote:
le pleure ens, et me ry par dehors
crying within, and laughing outside:
Jean Molinet wrote:
Ma bouche rie at mon povre cueur pleure
My mouth laughs and my poor heart cries
je rie en pleurs
I laugh in tears.
[danse Macabre: Francois Villon: Poetry & Murder in Medieval France p. 93-94]
Understand stripping a thought to its essence as a kind of minimalism, then it’s something worth the minimalist poet striving for. An example from Keats, also mentioned in the linked post above, comes from his fragment This living hand now warm and capable:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is —
I hold it towards you.
The powerful collocation, red life, can be read as a synecdoche for blood, life, heartbeat and even consciousness in Keats’ fragment. An image succinctly stripped to its essence, decluttered as it were, can produce a more visceral reaction because it engages the imagination in a way that more verbose specificity doesn’t. Less really can be more.
As mentioned in the previous post, Shakespeare’s imagery also underwent a transformation over the course of his career, from the extravagance of youth to the stripped essence of age and experience. In Act V of Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale, he can reduce an idea and connotation to a single image:
············The blessed gods
Purge all infection from our air whilst you
Do climate here.
Climate evokes, in a single word and image (also being a beautiful example of anthimerea) the intent behind Leontes wish—a wish that might otherwise have taken many more words to express. Earlier in the play Florizel famously compares Perdita to a wave:
············when you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ the sea, that you might
Nothing but that; move still, still so,
And own no other function:
When another poet might have gone on to compare the particulars of Perdita’s movement to the particulars of the wave, Shakespeare gives that all over to the playgoer’s imagination. That is, he adds nothing further to the image but invites the auditor to play on that single image, a wave o’ the sea, saying she might do nothing but that—leaving that to the imagination—and saying that she might move still, still so, still adding nothing more to the image but for the rhythm, the ebb and flow, of the language itself. The economy of Shakespeare’s imagery lends to his later verse a force and evocative immediacy that is more diffuse in his earlier poetry.
In some later posts, I hope to look at more modern examples.
upinVermont | January 20th 2020
What inspires this first post (of several I hope) are the various bloggers and vloggers, in German and English, who were initially inspired by Minimalism, vloggers like Matt D’Avella and Anthony Ongaro at Break the Twitch. I’ve also enjoyed recent articles like Kyle Chayka who criticize the more (ironically) insipid and commodified aspects of “minimalism”, close quotes. She writes: “The literature of the minimalist lifestyle is an exercise in banality.” Hopefully, I can avoid that.
Since Minimalism isn’t solely about how many forks and spoons one owns, I thought I’d explore what the aesthetic of Minimalism might mean to a poet, even if it risks being ahistorical and anachronistic. If you’re not familiar with minimalism, the best place to start is probably with The Minimalists. You can watch a trailer for their autobiographical movie here. At the heart of minimalism is the belief that neither possessions nor the pursuit of possessions will bring you happiness. There’s freedom in loving what you have and only having what you love. And there’s a freedom in living a life that costs less. All possessions come with costs that can be anything from the obligations of ownership to the debt incurred by their acquisition.
There are some minimalists who go so far as to limit their possessions to 100 items or less, and why not? But for most, I think, minimalism means knowing the difference between the meaningful and the superfluous; and that will be different for every person. And as far as that goes, Minimalism is hardly new. If you go back to Stoicim, the Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium, you will discover that his writings and beliefs are eerily similar to current Minimalist literature, right down to their own version of mindfulness and the implicit moral “goodness” of fewer posessions. As Wikipedia writes: ” According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness) for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself…” Modern Minimalism can easily be understood as a modern variant of stoicism.
I originally started this post meaning to define minimalism the way one defines good poetry verses bad. But if there’s one lesson for Minimalists, it’s that there’s no one right or wrong way to simplify ones life. There’s not a set number of possessions that defines minimalism. And while Minimalism may seem like a lifestyle only the well-off can afford, living beyond ones means is hardly the province of the rich. Too many allow themselves to be defined through their possessions rather than by self-possession. As The Minimalists like to say: Love people, use things; the opposite never works. How does one define a possession when writing poetry? I would say it is when the poet makes a possession of his or her poem: when the poet treats the poem as a storehouse rather than a meeting place, when the poet is unwilling to give ownership of the poem to the reader but dictates to the reader how the poem should be interpreted or how the reader should feel.
Just to start out with, and to demonstrate that this concern with possessions and lifestyle is hardly new, I thought it might be interesting to read opinions from two of our most famous Elizabethan poets—Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. If there’s a cynical difference between Hellenistic stoicism and modern Minimalism, it’s that the former rationalized the reasons we shouldn’t want (and were better off without) the kinds of possessions we weren’t about to get a hold of anyways. Call it Sour Grape Minimalism: The “Didn’t want it anyways and am morally superior with out it”-Minimalism.” Current day minimalism assures us that we shouldn’t want (and are better off without) all the possessions we did actually managed to horde. Ultimately though, the goals of Stoicism and Minimalism are largely the same—to be happy with less.
Shakespeare most directly addressed his opinion on excess in the character of King Lear:
O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady.
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need—
[Act II, iii 261-267]
Beyond the contradictory testimony of his poetry, we know nothing of Shakespeare’s personality. We only know through legal documents that while he lived frugally in London, he became, as Bill Bryson put it, “one of the most conspicuous men of property in Stratford”. His bequest included four houses. If he lived like a minimalist in London, perhaps to avoid taxes, he was no minimalist in Stratford. Back then, a lack of property and possessions most commonly meant a short, if not brutal, life of servitude. In Elizabethan England, if you weren’t the hustler, then you were the hustled. But in his art?—poetry? If he were alive to day he might have written:
Allow literature not more than the words needed, and poetry is as cheap as prose.
The line between traditional poetry and prose, in Shakespeare’s day, wasn’t remotely as stark as it is today. But maybe you get the drift? Traditional poetry has been stripped of what made it “gorgeous”—meter, rhyme, figurative language, metaphor, form. But insofar as semantic content goes, all these traditional techniques are superfluous. Stripping poetry of this superfluity hasn’t made it beastly, but it has made it prose. So my own approach to minimalism (as regards the aesthetics of poetry) is to keep some of the clutter around. Shakespeare, for his part, did more than keep some clutter around. His earlier works were baroque in their excess, their puns, their extended conceits, and convoluted eddies into, for all intents and purposes, plays within plays.
So makest thou faith an enemy to faith; And like a civil war set'st oath to oath, Thy tongue against thy tongue. O, let thy vow First made to heaven, first be to heaven perform’d, That is, to be the champion of our church! What since thou sworest is sworn against thyself And may not be performed by thyself, For that which thou hast sworn to do amiss Is not amiss when it is truly done, And being not done, where doing tends to ill, The truth is then most done not doing it: The better act of purposes mistook Is to mistake again; though indirect, Yet indirection thereby grows direct, And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d. [Act III, Scene I] 287-
And Shakespeare goes on like this for another twenty five lines. The link to this site actually explains, in equally convoluted modern English, what Shakespeare is trying to say. He could have simply said: Keep your vow to the church. Instead, as was the fashion of the day, he wrote an extended conceit that is, in essence, a kind of play within a play. Shakespeare literally must have seen the world as a stage. Not only did he observe human beings as characters in their own dramas, but the very words they spoke were like characters on the stage of their psyches, competing for dominance. Shakespeare regularly personified inanimate objects with motive and desire. In the conceit above, Shakespeare makes faith an enemy to faith, a kind of character competing against itself. Then he makes the vow a character who, as if in a morality play, first performs his promise in heaven (on heaven’s stage)—champion of the church—only to be perplexed by the moral ambiguity of dueling vows. In the conceit, the vow becomes a character in and of itself, directed or misdirected against itself by the King.
None of this is minimalist and Shakespeare was criticized for his excess by none other than Ben Jonson, his friend and colleague.
I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech.
And he continued:
Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter: as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him, “Caesar, thou dost me wrong,” he replied “Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause,” and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.
- unity of action: a tragedy should have one principal action.
- unity of time: the action in a tragedy should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours.
- unity of place: a tragedy should exist in a single physical location.
In a sense, you could interpret this as Jonson’s effort to prune what he perceived to be the excesses/maximalism of his fellow dramatists. He didn’t care one whit for Shakespeare’s flighty Prologue wafting audiences from England to the fields of France, or for the Prologue of The Winter’s Tale who not only ignored unity of place but unity of time. He critiqued Shakespeare’s maximal prologues in his own “Introduction” to Bartholemew Fair.
So, in temperament, at least, Jonson was very different from Shakespeare, and it’s interesting that we have a passage from one of Jonson’s plays that can stand in almost direct contrast to Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Who can endure to see The fury of men's gullets and their groins?— What fires, what cooks, what kitchens might be spared?— What stews, ponds, parks, coops, garners, magazines What velvets, tissues, scarfs, embroideries, And laces they might lack? They covet things— Superfluous still; when it were much more honor They could want necessary. What need hath Nature Of silver dishes or gold chamber-pots?— Of perfumed napkins, or a numerous family To see her eat? Poor and wise, she requires Meat only; hunger is not ambitious. [The Staple of News Act III, Scene 4 45-55]
Jonson starts with “who can endure to see” men’s avarice or, in so may words, the fury of their gullets and groins? Then asks, who can bare to see the cooks and kitchens that might be spared (if they weren’t so avaricious), and what stews, ponds, etc., they could just as easily go without—”they might lack”. We covet superfluous things, writes Jonson, when it were of “more honor”, morally and ethically, to only lack and pursue what is necessary—”They could want necessary”. (“Want”, in Elizabethan parlance, more commonly had the meaning “to lack”. ) Then he asks who has need of gold chamber-pots (a fad that continues into modern times)? Jonson, it would seem, also considered a “numerous family” to be a superfluous luxury. Nature, being poor and wise, needs only meat. Hunger, says Jonson, is not ambitious but something necessary and for that reason virtuous. What does a human being need besides their next meal? All the rest is ambition and vanity (gold chamber-pots). Shakespeare’s King Lear would answer that such a parsimonious attitude toward human potential makes a “man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s”.
To be fair to Jonson, the words of the Second Peni-Boy are those of a character in a play, just like Shakespeare’s words are those of King Lear’s, but given what we know of Shakespeare and Jonson, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to read a bit of themselves in what they wrote. Whereas Shakespeare wasn’t about to be embarrassed for the enjoyment he took in his success and acquisitions, Ben Jonson, the rough and plain-speaking bricklayer’s son had a strong distaste for pretension of any kind, and made fun of Shakespeare, among other reasons, for his desire to obtain a coat arms. Non Sans Droit said Shakespeare’s freshly acquired coat of arms, meaning “Not Without Right”. In Jonson’s Every Man Out of his Humour, the socially ambitious fool Sogliardo is a country bumpkin, newly arrived in the city, and eager to show off his freshly purchased coat of arms. Another of Jonson’s characters recommends that Sogliardo use the motto, “Not Without Mustard”.
Whereas Shakespeare’s material positions increased, his poetic art was a steady trimming of his youthful excess. In a sense, and to use a current term, he decluttered his verse. Wolfgang Clemens, in The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery, devotes a book to describing just how Shakespeare does this—how Shakespeare learns to create the illusion of imagery arising organically from the circumstances at hand (subsumed by the drama of the moment) rather than as, in effect, an elaborated aside. To give just one example from Clemens’s book:
Exaggeration is characteristic of many of the conceits of the early plays. In The Two Gentlemen it is said of Proteus’ mistress:
She shall be dignified with this high honour— To bear my lady's train, lets the base earth Should from her vesture chance to steal a kiss And, of so great a favour growing proud, Disdain to root the summer-swelling flower And make rough winter everlastingly. [II. iv. 158]
This conceit, too, is carried out for its own sake and for the sake of an exaggerated inventiveness. But what points to Shakespeare’s early period is not the fact that nature has here been violated, and that it is somewhat extravagantly demanded of her that she take consideration of a woman. For Shakespeare has also used this motif at a later time. When, for example, after the happy landing of Desdemona in Cyprus it is said by Cassio of the wild rocks and foaming seas:
Traitors ensteep'd to clog the guiltless keel,— As having sense of beauty, do omit Their mortal natures letting go safely by The divine Desdemona. [Othello, II. i. 70]
we have here, too, a violation of nature and a motif like that of Two Gentlemen. But the difference is that the image from Othello results organically from the joyous excitement over the rescue of Desdemona in the storm just experienced: the rescue appeared to the hard-pressed seafarers in a miraculous light, and Cassio rivets this imrpession with an image. But this organic relationship is still wholly lacking in the image from Two Gentlemen in which the two friends outbid each other with praises of their mistresses. And out of such mutual rhetorical rivalry grows the conceit.The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery P.35
The decluttering of Shakespeare’s imagery from the early to the late plays is remarkable. It’s also interesting that so few modern poets are aware of Shakespeare’s innovation. While modern poets don’t avail themselves of the Elizabethan conceit, those few who strive to introduce some metaphor and imagery into their poetry (most contemporary poets write discursively) most often do so with similes and prepositional metaphors—conceits in miniature. They don’t arise organically but most often have the feeling of cluttering a poem’s momentum. As an example, one of our previous Poet Laureates, Charles Wright, begins his poem Archaeology
The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods, Hoping to fin the radiant cell That washed us, and caused our lives to glow in the dark like clockhands Endlessly turning toward the future, Tomorrow, day after tomorrow, the day after that, all golden, all in good time.
with a four line simile that is as long as a Shakespearean conceit, the kind of thing John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s younger contemporary, availed himself of, having learned only a little from his elder collaborator.
Getting back to Ben Jonson: Whereas Shakespeare, in a sense, decluttered his verse and created an ever more elliptical style, Jonson’s poetry gradually became less austere until, by the time he was writing his last and unfinished play “The Sad Shepherd“, his lines touch on the superfluous lyricism (with echoes of Cymbeline and Midsummer Night’s Dream) that might have been described by Lear as “gorgeous”.
Earine, Who had her very being, and her name With the first knots or buddings of the spring, Born with the primrose, or the violet, Or earliest roses blown; when Cupid smiled; And Venus led the Graces out to dance, And all the flowers and sweets in nature's lap Leap'd out, and made their solemn conjuration, To last but while she lived! [Act I. ii]
Or Jonson’s description of the witch’s dell:
Within a gloomy dimple she doth dwell Down a pit, o'ergrown with brakes and briars, Close by the ruins of a shaken abbey, Torn with an earthquake down unto the ground 'Mongst graves and grots, near an old charnel-house, Where you shall find her sitting in her fourm, As fearful and melancholic as that She is about; with caterpillars' kells, And knotty cob-webs, rounded in with spells. Thence she steals forth to relief in the fogs, And rotten mists, upon the fens and bogs, Down to the drowned lands of Lincolnshire; To make ewes cast their lambs, swine eat their farrow, The housewives' tun not work, nor the milk churn! Writhe children's wrists, and suck their breath in sleep, Get vials of their blood! and where the sea Casts up his slimy ooze, search for the weed To open locks with, and to rivet charms, Planted about her in the wicked feat Of all her mischiefs, which are manifold. [Act II. ii]
If Jonson had been a minimalist, you might say that he made room for a cup of flowers and knick-knacks on his mid-century Swedish table. One might broadly say that Jonson and Shakespeare met in the middle—Shakespeare’s poetry became more elliptical and organic, while Jonson discovered a new and generous lyricism. (The Elizabethans also understood austerity vs. excess as masculine and feminine attributes, respectively. Shakespeare went so far as to dramatize the tension between austerity and excess in the characters of Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia. Coriolanus typified the ideology of Seneca in his verbal austerity while Volumnia typified, as Elizabethans deemed it, the hyperbole, excess and artifice of the Ciceronian, feminine style. Shakespeare later fused these contradictory ideologies—much to Jonson’s distaste—in the romances.) As far as Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd goes (and lyricism aside) there is still not one conceit or simile in the above passages and adjectives are few. They are gorgeous purely in their evocative and concrete descriptiveness. Jonson is still a “minimalist poet”, rooted in a broadly Senecan taste for the plain and masculine, but finds a place for the gorgeous within that ideology.
So, anyway, that’s my first post on minimalism and poetry—a very brief look at two of our greatest poets and their conflicting notions of the necessary and the superfluous, the austere and the hyperbolic. Hope you enjoyed.
upinvermont | January 7th 2020
So, this is going to be a diversion from my usual subject matter, mostly. My original ambition was to be a composer. I studied for two years at Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music and studied composition, but soon and somewhat reluctantly decided my real talent was in writing.
Anyway, the question that prompted this post arose during a conversation between Jordan Peterson and Samuel Andreyev. Jordan Peterson, if you haven’t already heard of him, is a Canadian Professor and Clinical Psychologist (currently famed for his critique of neo-Marxism in, as he labels it, academia’s radical left). He brings Joseph Campbell’s knowledge of mythological archetype to a psychologist’s perspective. He offers fascinating insights regarding the nature of being, rationality, intuition, religion, mysticism and, quite simply, how to be in the world. He recently published a book on just that subject called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I haven’t read it. But he’s a gifted lecturer and well worth listening to. Samuel Andreyev is a composer, poet and teacher entirely unknown to me prior to the interview.
What makes a composer great? What is it about Bach’s music, or any great composer’s music, that survives their lifetime?
Andreyev’s answer struck me as circular in it’s reasoning. At about the 47:40 mark:
Peterson: How do you decide what you should continue to listen to?
Andreyev: (….) Works that are no longer able to communicate something vitally important—that [only address] a present concern—trend to fall out of favor. History is merciless. (….) Think of the tens of thousands of composers that were active during the baroque period. How many have we retained? There’s maybe a dozen figures that are still regularly performed and discussed and generally known to the public. There’s an absolutely ruthless selection process that goes on(….) And of course one of the fundamental difficulties of addressing contemporary or modern forms of art is that that process of selection hasn’t taken place yet(….) There is an overwhelming likelihood that what you’re going to hear might not be of the highest standard. If you figure that there are a hundred thousand composers active in the world today, how many of them are geniuses?—how many of them are producing work of the highest order? It’s going to be a vanishingly small percentage.”
So, what exactly is “vitally important” isn’t addressed by Andreyev. He calls it “something”, but he establishes the notion that it is communicating something. Peterson will pick up on this assertion, characteristically thinking of it in mythological terms . But first he makes one of his memorable quips (which is why he’s so enjoyable to listen to).
Peterson: As an avant-garde listener you’re more likely to be killed, so to speak, as the avant-garde in the battle.”
You can take this two ways: Either contemporary art’s greatness will be so far ahead of your own vision that you will be archetypally “killed” (somewhat like peeking into the Arc of the Covenant) or, alternately, that it’s mediocrity will accomplish the same. I’m not sure which death is preferable.
Peterson goes on to ask:
Peterson: What does it mean that Bach still has something to say? It’s the same as Shakespeare I suppose, but it’s isn’t obvious what it is that remains to be said, I don’t get that, it’s got to be something like: The culture has not fully incorporated all of the perceptual genius that that person had to offer. Bach hasn’t been transformed into cliché or implicit into assumption assumption, or something like that. But I think that one of things artists do, visual or auditory, is that they teach people to see or hear.
This is where Peterson picks up on Andreyev’s assertion that great works of art are communicating something that transcends present concerns—that they have something “to say”, as if there were some hidden and mystical “message” to be found in their “art”. Unfortunately, I think this sort of framing is a dead-end mainly because, as happens with Peterson, you next begin asking yourself just what Shakespeare or Bach were communicating?—or, as Peterson puts it: offering. But I think that’s the wrong question. The music of genius and mediocrity are both communicating the same things, it’s just that genius is better at it. It’s not that Bach was communicating something that his mediocre rivals couldn’t comprehend, it’s just that he translated his comprehension into music in a way that, for instance, Scheibe and Mattheson (contemporary composers critical of Bach), never could.
Peterson goes on to ask:
Peterson: Do composers teach us to hear? And once we’ve learned everything they have to say, do we not need their lesson anymore?”
At this point I think Peterson goes somewhat off the rails, equating great composers with, I suppose, great college lecturers (equating their musical compositions to lessons). But why not? Mathematicians are endlessly flattering themselves with their proclamations that Bach was really a great mathematician just like them! Why shouldn’t a gifted Canadian University professor compare himself to Bach? (Is it coincidence that Peterson chose the opening to Bach’s Goldberg variations as the theme for his podcasts?) The answer is that there isn’t some hidden message in Bach’s music. There’s no “lesson”.
But anyway, more to the point:
Peterson: It still doesn’t answer the question of why those people in particular [survive]…
Andreyev: The great composers are the ones that fundamentally: They own their material more thoroughly and in a more, deeply personal way than other composers. In other words, there’s a minimum of neutral material in their music—material that already exists; that is almost like found material in a sense; and that you don’t have to work very hard to fashion into something resembling a coherent piece. A great composer invents forms. they invent a language. They invent a universe. They take enormous risks.”
Now I think that gets closer to what’s really going on. He goes on to say:
Any composer you can think of that is considered today to be among the greats has at some point been horribly denigrated and humiliated and spoken badly of by the public of their time. That’s just a permanent feature of music history.
Well yes, but that comes with a considerable caveat. Mediocre composers were also “horribly denigrated and humiliated”. Just think of Salieri. While the events in the play Amadeus are fictional, the conspiracy theory that Salieri murdered Mozart was absolutely not. Even on his deathbed, Salieri felt forced to deny that he’d murdered Mozart out of jealousy. No “great” composer was ever denigrated or humiliated like that—and on his deathbed. I think those less conversant with music history prefer the notion that geniuses prevail against all odds, but much of what you read about Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and others being ignored in their day simply isn’t true. Bach was famous and recognized as a great composer in his own day. Consider Johann Mattheson’s own comment regarding “the famous” Bach: “I have seen things by the famous organist of Weimar, Herr Joh. Sebastian Bach, both for the church and for the hand that are certainly such as must make one esteem the man highly.” If not recognized by all, and not like we do, so what? There are still audiophiles who prefer Telemann to Bach. But Bach was in fact so well-regarded that he was invited to Potsdam by no less than Frederic the Great where no sooner had he stepped out of the carriage than he was made to perform (so eager was Frederick, and the attendant musicians, to hear the great composer). Many years later, long after Bach had died, Mozart visited Leipzig and played at Bach’s organ. An old man, who still remembered Bach, was said to have stated that it was like old Bach had returned. Not only did this old man recognize Bach’s genius, but he recognized Mozart’s as well.
Peterson goes on:
Peterson: It’s what you’d expect too though because someone who is, let’s say, going in the right direction but who is way ahead of everyone else(….) It’s very difficult for them to communicate what they’re doing and it’s very difficult for them to distinguish themselves from the naked emperor.
Again, yes and no. This somewhat buys into the myth of genius, which Andreyev also seems to endorse. Yes, Bach’s music was called turgid by critics, and yes, Mozart’s music was sometimes criticized as too complex, but don’t forget that both composers also had their fierce, and I do mean fierce, defenders and advocates. The city of Prague begged Mozart to leave Vienna. Haydn begged Mozart to come to London where London’s musical patrons were fully prepared to pay Mozart’s way. Were Mozart and Bach artistically way ahead of everyone else? Yes. Was it very difficult for them to communicate what they were doing? I’m not so sure. If the ability to communicate what they were doing was the barrier to success, then many a lesser composer with a gift for doing just that, as with Bach’s son Johann Christian, wouldn’t have died in poverty.
So all this interests me because defining genius, or greatness in art, has always fascinated me. Defining what makes poetry great is why I blog. So why am I talking about music? Here’s why: Because I have a background in music, have loved music (and Bach in particular) since I was two years old, and because I also love poetry and language. I gradually came to a recognition that music and language are deeply interrelated in a way that, I don’t think, has really been recognized or explored yet—or understood. Andreyev touches on it when he says: “A great composer invents forms. they invent a language.”
Robert Frost liked to say that his poetry was about capturing “the sound of sense”. He liked to say that if one stood outside a door and heard a man and woman argue that, even if you couldn’t make out the words, you might get the gist of the argument solely by the sound (the cadences) of their speech. This is vitally important. What Frost was saying was that speech isn’t just about words. It’s about the cadence and intonations that underly those words; and though every language has its own intonations and cadences, I’m willing to assert, sans evidence, that there are also universal cadences and intonations that underly all our languages; that even were we to hear a couple arguing in Chinese or Swahili, there would be that “sound of sense” that we would innately understand. That ability is ancient and human. It’s evolutionary. It’s that capability, I’d argue, that is part and parcel of a human being’s ability to learn language.
A baby isn’t born understanding the meaning of words. What a baby is born with, I’d argue, is the ability to perceive the sound of sense. First comes the sound of sense, then, as the baby develops, the meaning of words are understood in relation to the sound of sense underlying them. Mothers instinctively grasp this when they communicate to baby’s using “nonsense words”. The words may be nonsensical but the “musical” sound of sense underlying these nonsense words is instinctively grasped by the child. Rob the human child of the ability to perceive the sound of sense and, I’d argue, you greatly impede, if not make impossible, her ability to discern the meaning of words. One might object: What about a child born deaf? I’d respond that because a child is deaf doesn’t mean he or she isn’t still wired to perceive the sound of sense. Deafness is only an impediment. That said, a deaf person’s speech will always and noticeably lack that underling sound of sense. A deaf person, for example, will have great difficulty learning how to reproduce the inflections of sarcasm. But there are other psychological impediments that impede not just the ability to communicate the sound of the sense, but to perceive it—Autism for example.
But what does this have to do with music? I’d argue that music is the abstraction of language’s sound of sense. Music abstracts not just the sound of words (the ability to differentiate between the different sounds of words) but the falling and rising intonations that characterize the “soundscape” of language—the meaning of its sounds, cadences, inflections). Consider that the same word can have an entirely different implication, even meaning, depending on the sound of sense that underlies it—sarcasm, inquiry, relief, curiosity, anger, happiness, etc… These emotions aren’t communicated by the words but by the cadences that underly them. Humans are quite good at expressing all these meanings without words. The cadences of speech give words context: reinforce, undercut, or alter their meanings in unexpected ways.
Music, I’d argue, is quite literally our residual, childlike, perception of language before we comprehended words.
So then, to answer Peterson’s question: What makes Bach or Mozart’s music great?
I’ll stick with Mozart (though I think the same assertions could be made of the Beatles for example). It’s often said of Mozart that even when he was writing instrumental music, he remained an operatic composer. (The vast majority of Bach’s music, not coincidentally, was vocal, as was Schubert’s.) What’s meant by that is that there’s always the feeling, in Mozart’s music, of the declamatory—the notion that the music imitates the patterns of speech or of someone singing. All this, I think, is just another way of saying that the sound of sense characterizes even Mozart’s instrumental music. In order to be a great vocal composer, the composer must innately graft not just the word’s meanings to the music, but also the sound of sense that underlies the words.
This is what separates the great composer from the mediocre composer. Where the mediocre composer, with greater or less success, grafts the music’s grammar to the meaning of the words, the great composer is able to translate not just the meaning of the words into music, but musically translates the sound of sense underlying those words. We know it when it happens. We instinctively recognize it without being able to put words to it because it’s a recognition of language that precedes words. It’s what brings us back to composers of genius again and again. They light up that pre-verbal neural pathway in a way that mediocre composers don’t. Listen to Mozart’s instrumental music (and I have listened to his music many times over and have read his music in score) and you begin to hear the sound of sense in every musical phrase (what others like to call his operatic musical phrasing). Mozart (like other great composers) possessed a genius for translating the sound of sense into music. (The Beatles do this too, by the way.) Musical phrases feel declamatory, as though they’re questioning, arguing, curious, assertive, reluctant. It’s because Mozart was able to translate the evolutionary scaffolding of language into the abstraction of music. Bach, using the musical language of the Baroque, did the same thing. He once said, in fact, that a piece of music should sound as if the instruments were in conversation. Few pieces of music typify this assertion more so than the Brandenburg concertos. Bach’s musical phrases are like declamatory assertions (assertions possessed by the feeling of sense and emotional content) traded, expanded, debated and explored within the confines of the music’s form.
How is it that a musical phrase can evoke the sound of sense?—sorrow, anxiousness, anger, excitement? Through a combination of melodic and harmonic inventiveness that inevitably defines a composer’s genius—and personal musical “language”. Certain modulations, certain chordal progressions, produce an almost universal and concomitant set of emotional responses. For instance, a minor chord universally produces a different set of emotions than a major chord, and that emotional response, I’d argue, is universal in its commonality. The great composer, among other gifts, possesses a far greater sensitivity to what different harmonies, cadences, and modulations can produce in the listener, and possesses the melodic and harmonic genius to achieve that understanding. The more mediocre or difficult a piece of music is, the more it will be divorced from that declamatory scaffolding, that abstraction, of language’s sound of sense. Though we can learn the language of extremely dissonant music, for example, it will be difficult precisely because it is so distant from the intuitive sound-phrasing that underlies all human language.
In short: The periodicity of a musical phrase, in its likeness to the periodicity of the linguistic phrase, combined with a genius for the harmony underlying the phrase, abstracting and imitating the sounds of sense that universally underly all languages, is what characterizes musical genius and what answers Peterson’s question. If this ability to recognize the abstraction of language’s sound of sense weren’t universal, then we might expect Bach and/or Mozart’s music to be meaningless to speakers of Japanese or Chinese.
You might object that if I’m right, then why aren’t we all listening to Bach and Mozart? The answer is partly straightforward—musical taste. But having said that, I’d argue that within each musical tradition—classical, jazz, country, rock—audiences will, overtime, gravitate toward those composers and musicians most able to abstract language’s sound of sense within their own musical vernacular. Music is, in a way, a linguistic art.
And how does any of this apply to poetry? Perhaps only obliquely. Where composers are working with the sound of sense that underlies language, poets are manipulating the language itself. Poets and composers are both, in a sense, linguists, though their exploitation of language proceeds from a very different place. Music, I think, appeals to an ancient developmental place before words (and which human beings still experience as children) which is why it’s universal. Poetry (Traditional Poetry using meter and rhyme) proceeds from the sound of the language itself. Some might call it the music of the language, but I would be careful not to conflate what poet’s and composers are doing.
Greatness in poetry depends on a different sort of genius, one that transcends content. Great poetry, I’d say, is transcendent in its language, its memorableness, and lastly, its content. When Peterson asserts that Shakespeare, like Bach, “still has something to say”, one can interpret that literally or figuratively. If interpreted literally, I would have to disagree with Peterson’s premise. What Shakespeare had to say really wasn’t all that different from what his contemporaries were saying. Shakespeare, in fact, liked to copy, almost word for word in some cases, his source material. What made the result a work of genius was not the content—not what he had to say (which had already been said by Plutarch or North)—but in how he said it (in his sublime poetic alterations). That’s a much tougher nut to crack, but well worth the effort—Shakespeare’s transformation of the proverbial and commonplace into the sublime solely through the arts of language is astonishing. It’s an art that his contemporaries, and our own, remain largely incapable and ignorant of. But Keats understood it; and so did T.S. Eliot, among others.
Saturday February 10th 2018 | up in Vermont
Addenda | February 11th:
My, I’m-not-making-this-stuff-up addenda.
Just had an interesting email exchange with Samuel Andreyev. Encouraged me to fetch some links that, I think, lend credence to my hypothesis—not yet a theory I guess. A really fascinating and recent study, The Inherent Gender of Names, finds for instance that there’s a universal predilection, across languages and cultures, for differentiating between male and female names by sound. The link above is to a Scientific American Article discussing the study.
So, one could postulate, based on that, that there are musical themes, instrumentations, or chord progression that might feel more masculine or feminine. Did you know that in 70 percent of languages, questions are asked with a rising intonation? The question is why. Is there some neurological basis? Evolutionary? Is it simply linguistic? The preceding link tries to answer that. You can find further information on this question and further studies at Wikipedia.
Another paper from the Canadian Center of Science and Education closes with the following paragraph:
“The universality of emotional colours appears in general intonation characteristics of positive and negative emotions. Positive emotions are, as a rule, characterized by the higher tone registers unlike the negative ones, which have the lower tone level. Those words, which bear emotional load, are pronounced with the higher melodic melodic tone.”
So, again, I think one begins to perceive the fundamentals of our capacity for music in these studies—from what it arises and the mechanics of how it affects the human brain. My assertion that musical genius (among other heightened traits) is characterized by its use of musical intervals (harmony) to abstract the sense of sound that characterizes all human languages, finds some evidence in a study found at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, entitled Musical Intervals of Speech. The abstract includes the following:
“Throughout history and across cultures, humans have created music using pitch intervals that divide octaves into the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. Why these specific intervals in music are preferred, however, is not known. In the present study, we analyzed a database of individually spoken English vowel phones to examine the hypothesis that musical intervals arise from the relationships of the formants in speech spectra that determine the perceptions of distinct vowels. Expressed as ratios, the frequency relationships of the first two formants in vowel phones represent all 12 intervals of the chromatic scale. Were the formants to fall outside the ranges found in the human voice, their relationships would generate either a less complete or a more dilute representation of these specific intervals. These results imply that human preference for the intervals of the chromatic scale arises from experience with the way speech formants modulate laryngeal harmonics to create different phonemes.”
The study demonstrates that these intervals are not random but apparently a universal feature of human language which, again, explains why Japanese and Chinese speakers easily comprehend the musical “language” of Bach, Mozart, or Pink Floyd. And that invites the question: If music reflects the ‘intonational’ foundation of all human languages, then can different languages likewise exert an influence on the music of those same cultures. Indeed, apparently, they can and do. An article at NCBI entitled Effects of Culture on Musical Pitch Perception, examines just that question, and the answer is yes:
“The strong association between music and speech has been supported by recent research focusing on musicians’ superior abilities in second language learning and neural encoding of foreign speech sounds. However, evidence for a double association—the influence of linguistic background on music pitch processing and disorders—remains elusive. Because languages differ in their usage of elements (e.g., pitch) that are also essential for music, a unique opportunity for examining such language-to-music associations comes from a cross-cultural (linguistic) comparison of congenital amusia, a neurogenetic disorder affecting the music (pitch and rhythm) processing of about 5% of the Western population. In the present study, two populations (Hong Kong and Canada) were compared. One spoke a tone language in which differences in voice pitch correspond to differences in word meaning (in Hong Kong Cantonese, /si/ means ‘teacher’ and ‘to try’ when spoken in a high and mid pitch pattern, respectively). Using the On-line Identification Test of Congenital Amusia, we found Cantonese speakers as a group tend to show enhanced pitch perception ability compared to speakers of Canadian French and English (non-tone languages).”
And that’s that. That should provide anyone with enough links to further explore this subject on their own.
Monday February 12th 2018
Recently, I got into an email discussion with the poet Annie Finch concerning my scansion of Robert Frost’s Birches. I added some of that conversation to the post itself simply because I thought it might be interesting to other readers. Unlike me, Annie Finch has actually made something of herself. She teaches in Maine and has published several books of poetry, one of which I reviewed here, and has also published a guide to poetry: A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry. She’s even earned her own entry in Wikipedia. The opening paragraph, as of December 2016, says of her: “Dictionary of Literary Biography names her ‘one of the central figures in contemporary American poetry’ for her role, as poet and critic, in the contemporary reclamation of poetic meter and form.”
So, she has some very definite opinions concerning meter and how poems should be scanned. And just as human beings can’t agree on so much as boiling eggs, we disagreed on the scansion of Frost’s Birches.
But an interesting upshot of the conversation was her mention of an article she wrote for a book called After New Formalism: Poets on Form, Narrative, and Tradition, a compendium of essays she curated and edited. Her own essay is entitled “Metrical Diversity: A Defense of the Non-Iambic Meters”. What she’s “defending” non-iambic meters from is the generally accepted assertion that the cadence of the English language is predominantly, and in the most general sense, iambic, and that all non-Iambic meters are therefore ‘unnatural’ or counter to the prevailing cadence of English.
And I agree with this latter assertion.
I favor keeping things simple. Take any sentence in the English language in which there is only a monosyllabic subject and verb and it will normally always be iambic.
I am. I think. I love. You drink. You ate. We sing. We dance.
Likewise, any monosyllabic noun in combination with a definite article will normally always be iambic
The stick. The house. The beer. The hope. The dream.
Any combination of indefinite and definite article with a monosyllabic noun is assumed to be iambic.
My road. His house. Their beer. Our hope. Her dream.
Now combine these basic patterns, the most elemental building blocks of the English language, and you have a language that is, at root, naturally iambic.
I love my house. You drink a beer. We dance the dream. I think therefore I am.
If one accepts that the grounding cadence of the English language is iambic, then all other accentual patterns can be understood as variations on that basic pattern.
I love my red house. You drink a warm beer. We dance a happy dream.
The anapest can be understood as fulfilling the iambic cadence with an extra syllable. The same can be said for the amphibrachic ‘I whittled’, in which the extra syllable follows the iamb. And though the absorption of French and Latin vocabulary added more variety in the cadence of our language—I contrived, she unraveled, they capitulated—the monosyllabic and iambic roots of English encourage us to hear the iambs in these combinations, rather than the trochees. We instinctively emphasize the second syllable in each verb, turning each example into an anapest or, as above, an iamb with extra syllables.
- By contrast, in the Finnish language, words are normally accented on the first syllable and so the writing of the Finnish Kalevala in a trochaic meter as as natural (or neutral) to their language as Paradise Lost’s blank verse is to English.
But watch what happens if I do this:
My road. His house. Their horse. Our hope. Her dream.
Suddenly the patten is no longer iambic but trochaic. At which point the devil’s advocate might interject: “Ah ha! You see! The iambic rhythm isn’t intrinsic, only contextual.” However, the very fact that the articles need to be italicized (in order to be read as trochaic) proves the rule, and that’s that the building blocks of all English sentences are iambic. One might endlessly quibble over trochaic, cretic and amphibrachic patterns, but the fact remains that the most basic syntactic units of the English language are far and away iambic and if they’re not iambic—emphatic formulations like Stop it! Hit me! Catch her !—they are emphatic precisely because they disrupt English’s normal iambic cadence. In short, anapests, trochees and amphibrachs are best understood as variations on an iambic ground. Even when reading non-iambic meters, the English speaking ear looks for iambs.
And this is why most audience members will listen to a recitation of Robert Frost’s Mending Wall and never realize that it’s relatively strict Iambic Pentameter. The basic building blocks of blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) and the English Language are one and the same, the ear finds nothing immediately unusual about Frost’s blank verse (the only meter that can pull this off). And setting aside differences in Elizabethan and Restoration English, the same can be said for Shakespeare and Milton’s iambic verse, or Keats or Wordsworth.
As Finch herself concedes, “all but a tiny portion of poetry in English has been written so far in iambic pentameter” [p. 117]. That’s not sheer coincidence. However, Finch immediately tries to reframe that inconvenient fact. She continues: “…it is important to recognize that the iambic pentameter is not a neutral or essentially ‘natural’ meter. It’s connotations are distinct and culturally defined.”
And with that assertion Finch apparently considers her work done. She provides no explanation as to what she means by “distinct and culturally defined”. Apparently the obviousness of her assertion doesn’t merit an explanation. And that academically imperious phrase, “it is important to recognize“, does nothing to lend validity.
For me, at last, the entirety of her essay falls apart with this assertion. One either accepts what she thinks the reader should recognize, or one doesn’t. And I don’t. I’m really not seeing any room for debate: the basic syntactic building blocks of the English language are iambic. Try it for yourself. See if you can come up with a monosyllabic subject/verb or definite article/noun combination that isn’t iambic.
Finch then goes on to observe that when iambic pentameter was first being established “it was characterized by no substitution at all, clumsy substitution, and ‘forcing’ the meter.” She asserts that “perhaps the early history of non-iambic meters is developing analogously with the early history of the iambic pentameter”.
What Finch fails to mention is that this early history of Iambic Pentameter barely lasted two decades—if that. Sackville and Norton’s Gorboduc, the poster child for stiff Iambic Pentameter, was written in 1561. Between 1582 and 1592, Kyde produced The Spanish Tragedy and modern blank verse was underway. By comparison, as Finch herself states, non-iambic verse has “only”, quote-unquote, had “the past two centuries” to become “a barely accepted presence in English-language written poetry”. In what world are two decades in Elizabethan England analogous to two centuries?—and counting? I think, rather, what this firmly argues, once again, is that non-iambic meters are not “neutral”. Secondly, the reason for iambic pentameter’s initial strictness wasn’t because the ear was unaccustomed to the meter but because there was no history of blank verse when Norton and Sackville, for example, were writing. They were making it up and so, naturally, wrote a strict meter. After two centuries (and three or four centuries of metrical poetry in general), the same argument can’t be made for non-iambic meters.
The more traditional argument against non-iambic meters being “neutral” is that non-iambic meters don’t fare well with “substitution” (and by substitution we mean variant feet). Finch writes:
“Of the many questions that have yet to be answered about the nature of non-iambic meters, perhaps the most essential is the question of their hospitiality to metrical substitution. The prosodist Martin Halpern formalized in 1962 the idea, now a truism, that iambic meter is different from all the other meters because it alone can absorb substitutions with varying degrees of stress.”
This simply means that introducing a variant foot in an iambic pentameter line is less disturbing to the meter than doing so in a trochaic or dactylic line. For example, a dactylic poem:
And | where’s there a | scene more de | lightfully seeming
To | eyes like to | mine that is | blinded wi love
Than | yon setting | sun on the | steeple point gleaming
And | blue mist deep | tinging the edge | of the grove.
~ Song by John Clare p. 87 from Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters
Now let’s put in some “substitutions” (italics) and see how it works:
And |where’s there a scene more delightfully seeming
To |eyes like both of mine each blinded wi love
Than yon setting sun on the |steeple point reflecting
And |blue mist deep |tinging the edge |of the grove.
So, how distracting were the substitutions in the rewrite? If you say very, and most do, that (in a nutshell) is the argument against non-iambic meters being “neutral”. Because blank verse is built on the same iambic building blocks as the English language, it’s rhythm isn’t quite so easily undermined by so many substitutions/variant feet (italics):
To be, or not to be- that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-
To read dactylic meter is a deliberate act in a way that reading blank verse isn’t. This is because no sustained dactylic meter is ever going to sound like normal speech and this is because dactylic meters aren’t “neutral”. The same is true for anapestic meters and trochaic meters. And contrary to Finch’s vague assertion, this isn’t just a matter of cultural distinctions and definitions. This is why readers, when confronted with more ambiguous lines (than mine above) are tempted “to force the pronunciation of certain words to fit the meter”. For instance:
“All the wild-fowl sang them to him,
In the moorlands and the fen-lands,
In the melancholy marshes;
Chetowaik, the plover, sang them,
Mahng, the loon, the wild-goose, Wawa,
The blue heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
And the grouse, the Mushkodasa!”
~ The Song of Haiwatha [Italics mine.]
“As Timothy Steele puts it, ‘trochaics and triple meters… haven’t the suppleness and the capacity for fluid modulation that iambic measures have, not do they tolerate the sorts of variations (e.g. inverted feet at line beginnings or after mid-line pauses) that the texture of iambic verse readily absorbs.’ Steele gives as an example a line from Longfellow: ‘The blue heron, the Shuh,shu-gah,’ and comments ‘it is unlikely that we would emphasize the two definite articles… but that is what Longfellow wishes us to do since he is writing in trochaic tetrameter.’ This line of reasoning constitutes a tautological trap in which to catch non-iambic meters; because the meter is trochaic, we assume the pronunciation is meant to be unnatural; then we damn the trochaic meter for forcing unnatural pronunciations. According to this common conception, “substitutions” in a non-iambic meter do not substitute at all, but actually demand that we “force” the pronunciation of certain words to fit the meter. Non-iambic meters are held to be so overbearing that they can’t allow word-stresses an independent and counterpointing rhythm.” [pp. 119-120]
Once again Finch’s argument seems to fall apart. On what basis does a reader “assume” the pronunciation “is meant to be unnatural”? Before reading the poem? How would they know? And why would a reader “force the pronunciation” unless their assumption (if they made one) was confirmed?—in which case it’s no longer an assumption. The problem is in the way Finch frames the argument. She implies that the reader imposes the idea of “unnaturalness” on the meter. But since the reader normally has no way of knowing the meter before reading the poem, on what basis would a reader make such an assumption? The meter itself is what imposes expectations on the reader as they’re reading. This is Steele’s point. This isn’t about retrospectively “catching” non-iambic meters. This is a recognition that a trochaic meter, because it’s in tension with the English language’s normal iambic cadence, all the more forcefully shapes a reader’s expectations.
And as far as that goes, Steele is mistaken in asserting that “this is what Longfellow wishes us to do”. In fact, Steele has no idea. It’s quite likely, as Finch argues, that Longfellow didn’t intend us to read the lines as trochaic. But what Finch doesn’t acknowledge is that it’s the meter itself that creates this expectation (perhaps despite Longfellow’s intentions). That said, if the adjective “blue” and the first “shuh” is sufficiently demoted (un-stressed) I can almost hear the lines as trochaic. To be honest, the first line of the extract troubles me more than the line quoted by Steele and FInch. The meter wants us to read it like this:
All the |wild-fowl |sang them| to him
I read it this way:
All the |wild fowl |sang them| to him
And if I’m trying to read the poem as trochaic, I definitely feel the variant feet much more so than if the line were iambic.
Lastly, Finch’s statement that “while some student poets write metrical poetry most easily and happily in iambs, and equal number (in my experience) write it most easily and happily in dactyls and trochees,” has nothing whatsoever to do with whether a non-iambic meter is “neutral”. With enough practice one may skillfully walk backwards, but no one would conclude that walking backwards is as natural as walking forwards. Our bodies have evolved to walk a certain direction and all the evidence thus far (including several centuries of metrical practice) argues the evolution of the English language has and continues to favor an iambic cadence.
But the most intriguing question, to me, is why Annie Finch is even making the argument?
Why does it matter, to her, that non-iambic meters be seen as neutral? Does she think students are discouraged from writing non-iambic meters? Does she think it will change how non-iambic meters are written? Is it because she thinks her own poetry, which is often non-iambic, suffers neglect?
One answer she herself gives:
“Prosodic systems which maintain that only iambs can form a metrical base for substitution deny these students who might enjoy non-iambic meters the chance to develop skill in modulating them.” [p. 121]
This reasoning, of course, reflects her belief that 600 years of metrical practice is solely due to connotations “that are distinct and culturally defined”. In other words, our favoring of iambics has nothing to do with the language but is solely arbitrary—nurture rather than nature. Given that set of beliefs, it’s no wonder she’d blame “prosodic systems” for discouraging metrical experimentation. I’m not buying it though.
I personally think there’s more promise in asking whether non-iambic meters have been, or ever were, in any sense subversive. One of the earliest and most famous examples of trochaic meter, interestingly enough, comes from Thomas Middleton’s addition (as modern Shakespearean scholars assert) to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The cant of the three witches:
1 WITCH. Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.
2 WITCH. Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin’d.
3 WITCH. Harpier cries:—’tis time! ’tis time!
1 WITCH. Round about the caldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot!
ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH. Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
3 WITCH. Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf;
Witches’ mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark;
Root of hemlock digg’d i the dark;
Liver of blaspheming Jew;
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse;
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips;
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,—
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingrediants of our caldron.
ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH. Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
The whole archetype of the witch is nothing if not subversive—both in accusation and practice. And I think it’s cool as all get out that Shakespeare/Middleton flipped the meter. Is there another example like this in other plays of the era? Right now, I can’t think of any. And what’s really cool is that the witches continue to address Macbeth and Banquo in trochaics, and also later in Act 4.
But why would the playwrights continue to have them speak in trochaics?
The answer is that the meter was distinctive and immediately recognizable to Elizabethan audiences. Finch will write:
“Few if any poets in our own century have written non-iambic meters that are subtly modulated and meant to be read aloud with natural speech stress, according to our twentieth-century preference. The fact, however, does not necessarily mean it cannot be done.” [p. 118]
Despite the hedging and wishful “few”, we can safely say that no poets have done so. Either Finch knows of an example or she doesn’t. So while I would be hesitant to say it can’t be done, we do know that it hasn’t been done; and I would bet against it simply because the witches’ cant is just as startling, hair-raising, and memorable today as 400 years ago. Our perception of trochaic meter hasn’t changed.
Finch’s desire to make metrical substitutions in non-iambic verse “natural” is essentially an effort to normalize non-iambic meters. To which I say: Why? The beauty of trochaic verse, among other non-iambic meters, is precisely that it can’t be normalized, that it’s difficult to pull off, and that that’s what makes the meter immediately recognizable.
And I would think, given Finch’s use of non-iambic meters and her self-identification with Wiccan practices, she would want to explore their potential disruptiveness. Have non-Iambic meters ever been actively exploited politically? Has trochaic meter, beyond Shakespeare’s Macbeth, ever been purposefully identified with the ‘witch’, the magical being, the disruptive female?
I don’t know.
Interestingly, and as an aside perhaps, Longfellow wasn’t the first American poet to tell a story about native Americans using trochees. The poet Schoolcraft wrote a romantic poem called Alhalla, or the Lord of Talladega, also in trochaic tetrameter. In the preface:to the poem Schoolcraft wrote:
“The meter is thought to be not ill adapted to the Indian mode of enunciation. Nothing is more characteristic of their harangues and public speeches, than the vehement yet broken and continued strain of utterance, which would be subject to the charge of monotony, were it not varied by the extraordinary compass in the stress of voice, broken by the repetition of high and low accent, and often terminated with an exclamatory vigor, which is sometimes startling. It is not the less in accordance with these traits that nearly every initial syllable of the measure chosen is under accent. This at least may be affirmed, that it imparts a movement to the narrative, which, at the same time that it obviates languor, favors that repetitious rhythm, or pseudo-parallelism, which so strongly marks their highly compound lexicography.”
With Schoolcraft’s preface in mind, Longfellow was to write:
“Your article . . . needs only one paragraph more to make it complete, and that is the statement that parallelism belongs to Indian poetry as well to Finnish… And this is my justification for adapting it in Hiawatha.”
- A reader recently asked me to compare Sidney’s Sonnets 1 & 2 as help for a school assignment. I wrote a brief email, let the email stew, and then decided it was a shame not to develop the ideas into a proper post. So, if on the short side, here it is. If you’re under the age of 18, be warned, Elizabethan ‘Love’ Poetry is commonly rated somewhere between R and XXX.
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That the dear She might take some pleasure in my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
····I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn’d brain.
····But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
····Biting my truand pen, beating myself for spite,
····“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write”.
The first item to notice is that the sonnet isn’t iambic pentameter, but iambic hexameter (a six foot iambic line):
“Loving | in truth, | and fain | in verse | my love | to show,”
Sidney’s sonnets alternate between pentameter and hexameter and I’m not aware of any rock solid explanations for why he chose one meter for one sonnet and another for the next. My own guess, simply put, is that he was showing off. The only hint we have is from Sidney himself:
“The ancient marked the quantity of each syllable, and according to that framed his verse, the modern observing only number…. Now for the rhyme [modern accentual verse], though we do not observe quantity, yet we observe the accent very precisely, which other languages either cannot do, or will not do so absolutely. That caesura, or breathing place in the midst of the verse, neither Italian nor Spanish have, the French and we never almost fail of.”
This is from Sidney’s The Defense of Poesy. What it tells us is that Sidney was keenly interested in the poetry and metrical practices on other languages, ancient and modern. Why? Because Elizabethan poets were still in search of a “native meter”. (Except for three or four scholars, who were thought to be mad-hatters, no one recognized Chaucer’s verse as being Iambic Pentameter simply because they didn’t know how to pronounce middle English.) They tried importing classical quantitative meter into English (for that instant classical burnish) but the English language was having none of it. As Sidney argues, English observes “only number” or the accent. The French alexandrine on the other hand, the twelve syllable line, was something that could be imported into English. The thinking, I suppose, was that English, by dressing itself in the triumphal robes of other languages, might prove itself their equal. But English had to do its own way; and soon enough that would be iambic pentameter.
For Sidney, possibly, the future of English meter was undecided. It might be iambic pentameter or it might be iambic hexameter (an English Alexandrine). I’m guessing he might have keen to display his, and the English language’s suitability and prowess in both meters; and in either case he may have wanted to set the example, himself the model of the multi-faceted and versatile Elizabethan.
- The whole notion of falling in love, as a pre-requisite to marriage (and therefore sanctioned sex), would have been somewhat foreign to Elizabethans. Marriages in the upper classes were mostly social contracts. Besides that, the word Love didn’t carry the same full-throated romantic connotations. In fact, up until the start of the 20th century, love-making didn’t refer to sex but, innocently, to verbal expressions of tenderness. Sidney’s use of the word Love is likewise unlike modern usage. In sonnet 52 he’ll position Love and Virtue in opposition to one another, which might strike a modern reader as odd. But ‘Love’, for Sidney (or for Astrophil), means sex, the physical connection more than the modern emotional or romantic connection:
Well Love, since this demur our suit doth stay
····Let Virtue have that Stella’s self; yet thus,
····That Virtue but that body grant to us.
Worth also noticing is Sidney’s mention of the caesura typical of French poetry, probably his favored model . In hexameter lines, the midline pause can nicely divide the line into two 6 foot halves, and it’s possible that this symmetrical elegance appealed to Sidney more than asymmetric pauses usually typical of pentameter verse. One could split pantemater evenly, but one would be forced to divide the third in half, not uncommon but more typical of later and blank verse (as opposed to rhymed sonnets and the like). Sidney used his first sonnet to exploit that “breathing space”, or midline pause, for a flashy display of rhetoric and parallelism.
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That the dear She [might take some pleasure] in my pain:
Pleasure [might cause her read,] reading [might make her know,]
Knowledge [might pity win,] and pity grace obtain…
Isocolon can produce especially powerful and memorable effects. What kind of effects depends on the context and the context, in this case, reinforces a methodically determined lover carefully laying out his seduction the way a military strategist might draw up a battle plan. In his own day, Sidney was known as the consummate courtier—a militant Protestant who would soon be killed on the battle field. Worth noting is that the hexameter gives Sidney greater scope for this sort of elaboration. As we’ll see, pentameter demands a pithier and more elliptical argument. There are 28 fewer syllables in a pentameter sonnet, almost three fewer lines. The whole of the quatrain is also an example of Gradatio. Joe Albernaz, “Fit Words to Paint”: The Rhetoric of Courtship and Courtiership in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella“, explaining the importance of the figure, quotes Sokol extensively:
“The uses in the first two sonnets of Astrophil and Stella of the figure gradatio are rhetorically “thick” in the sense that they speak not only on the level of syntax and surface semantics, but also on the level of poetic structures conveying tone. This practice allows a profound engagement between verbal form and poetic purpose. ¶ These particular uses of gradatio involve play upon, and not only within, its rhetorical scheme. Specifically, the start of Astrophil and Stella successively flaunts and then flouts the rigid form of gradatio. Sidney’s purpose is to reference the distinctive shape of the scheme in service of an underlying expressive strategy.”
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn’d brain.
The second quatrain continues the ABAB rhyme scheme of the first quatrain, but the argument and rhetoric changes. Worth noting is how Sidney makes use of the midline pause, nicely dividing the hexamater line in two (an effect we don’t find in Sidney’s Pentameter sonnets) :
Studying inventions fine || her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves || to see if thence would flow
Also worth mentioning is to what degree Shakespeare was influenced by Sidney, so much so that one might almost call a number of Shakespeare’s sonnets variations on Sidneys. Where Sidney will next complain that he lacks “Invention” (ideas):
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
- “other’s feet” refers to the poetry (meter) of others.
So does Shakespeare:
If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!
Why is my verse so barren of new pride?
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Also, Sidney’s conceit of the “Nature’s child, [fleeing] step-dame Study’s blows” has always reminded me of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 143, though in this case the resemblance is probably superficial.
Notice again the caesuras in the third quatrain:
But words came halting forth || wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child || fled step-dame Study’s blows…
Thus great with child to speak || and helpless in my throes,
So what we have is this: Sidney claims he lacks “Invention” all whilst displaying the very pinnacle of Elizabethan inventiveness. But Sindey has a great sense of humor (much ignored by other commentators). He himself recognizes the absurdity and self-contradictory posturing of his lines. The irony isn’t lost on him and becomes the butt of the joke. He skewers it all in the closing couplet:
Biting my truand pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write”.
The contrast is pointed. In other words: Stop your damned showing-off and simply tell her you love her. So his Muse isn’t saying: if you want to be inventive, write from the heart; but just the opposite: stop your damned intellectual preening (Invention) and be genuine (write from the heart). The joke is that Sidney’s Muse isn’t fooled by his rhetorical posturing, (though readers sometimes are).
But there’s another joke. If this were the only Sonnet that Sidney had written then we might easily read the last line at face value, as a quasi-romantic pledge to write from the heart, feelingly, instead of “rhetorically”. But Sidney was a young man and hot-blooded. Virtue, in Elizabethan times, meant different things for men and women. (Elizabethans were apparently untroubled by the contradictory rules that understood womanly virtue as chastity and manly virtue as the conquest of that same chastity.)
The second thing to consider is freedom of speech in Elizabethan England. It was emphatically not free. (Although if you didn’t mind your body parts being nailed to a wall, the sky was the limit.) Wanton, lewd, lascivious speech was dutifully and appropriately frowned on but immensely enjoyed. If you were a Shakespeare, knowing what the audience liked and knowing your play had to get past the “Office of the Revels”—whose job was to weed out profanity, heresy, or politics—then you made use of a sort of “thieves cant” that consisted of universally understood puns and allusions. And among the most common of these puns was the Hart (the stag) and the Hind—the male and female deer respectively. And do I really need to explain this any further? Heart and behind? And where, do we suppose, will we find a man’s “heart” when he’s in lust? And what of a woman’s anatomy does he especially pursue?
“If a hart do lack a hind, Let him seek out Rosalind.” As You Like It III.ii.99
Now, having been brought up to speed, what do you suppose an Elizabethan would have made of Sidney’s final line?
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write”.
There’s a reason this is the first sonnet. It clues the reader into the sonnets that will follow. Yes, they’ll be romantic but you’re going to miss the fun if you don’t read between the lines. Don’t think that Sidney’s “heart” isn’t also a reference to his libido and that other part of his anatomy keenly interested in Stella’s seduction.
Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot
····Love gave the wound, which while I breathe will bleed:
····But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.
I saw and liked, I liked but loved not,
····I loved, but straight did not what Love decreed:
····At length, to Love’s decrees, I forced, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.
····Now even that footstop of lost liberty
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite,
I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit,
····To make myself believe, that all is well,
····While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.
In the second sonnet, notice that there’s much less rhetorical embroidery. Sidney appears to use the shorter lines as a means to a tighter argument. The whole sonnet, I think, could be construed as exploiting a single rhetorical figure: Correctio or Epanothorsis. The first quatrain sets up the context, and then each line, in effect, corrects the one before until Sidney lands himself in “my hell”. Is it really, though? Consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
···All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
···To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
I personally find it impossible not to think that Shakespeare knowingly rewrote Sidney’s sonnet (and improved it). But my reason for posting it is so that you’ll notice the last word—hell. Hell is the butt (literally) of the joke. There’s a reason that it’s the one word Shakespeare didn’t change. Why?
hell vagina In LrF IV.vi.124, the sexual parts arouse loathing ‘There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Etc. [Shakespeare’s Sexual Language: A Glossary]
hell, in Sonnet 144, ‘I guess one angel in another’s hell’ = I suspect that my good male friend (‘the better angel’) is copulating with ‘the worser spirit a woman colour’d ill’. Not impossibly, Shakespeare here alludes to the famous Bocaccio story of ‘putting the devil in hell’. [Shakespeare’s Bawdy]
Given the subject matter of both sonnets, I think anyone who argues against the pun is going to be on the losing end. But there’s more.
employ occupy sexually. In KJ I.i.96, ‘Your brother did employ my father much’ earns the quibbling response: ‘Your tale must be how he employed my mother.’ [Shakespeare’s Sexual Language: A Glossary]
wit semen; pudendum? …A good example of wit-semen occurs in Rudyerd (1599) p. 43, on a lover’s entertaining his mistress, so ‘that once in three days he speak with some spice of Wit, and to the purpose twice every night if it be possible’. [Shakespeare Sexual Langauge: A Glossary]
wit | whit | white Puns on each other and on genitals. Jonson, The Alchemist, II, iii: Mammon spies Dol Common (each part of her name means a mistress – F&H; P), a ‘brave piece’: ‘Is she no way accessible? no means/ No trick to give a man a taste of her — wit — / Or so?’ In archery, 15th c., the white or target was placed on a butt and was called a prick (LLL, iv.i.134: ‘let the mark have a prick in it’). ‘Prick’, like a whit, is a minute particle’ (OED) Etc. [A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance]
- In Sonnet 4, Astrophil will write: “Virtue, alas, now let me take some rest./Thou set’st a bate between my will and wit.” If we take wit in its usual meaning, then the line is somewhat redundant, but if wit takes on its bawdy meaning, then its argument with will (angelic reason) makes more sense.
Paint 1. Pander, Peindre (Cot), to paint. Dekker and Middleton, The Honest Whore I, n.i: ‘What you are old, and can well paynt no more,/You Turne Baw’. Cosmetic paint or ‘fucus’ (Jonson, Cynthia’s Revels, v.ii) may have connoted ‘fucks’ (F&H; fottarie — F). Painted brothel panels (Dekker’s ‘painted cloth rhymes’ — CD) bore cheap sentiments: ‘traders in the flesh, set this in your painted cloths’ (TrCI, v.x.46) …. iv.ii.38 Pompey, ‘unlawul bawd’, tells Abhorsen, executioner, ‘Painting… is a mystery; and your whores… being members of my occupation, using painting, do prove my occupation a mystery…’ Painting is a MYSTERY (prostitution)…. [A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance]
feel ‘Sampson. Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads; take it in which sense thou wilt. — Gregory. They must take it in sense that feel it. — Sampson. Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and ’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh’, R & J, I i 24-28. ¶ The same semantic idea—here again is Shakespeare the forerunner, perhaps the progenitor!—resides in the C.18 slang old hat, ‘prudend’ (because often felt), and the erotic stress stress on ‘feeling’, with the suggestive removal of the hyphen, in the C.20 fast girls’ recast of the proverbial saying, a fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind. ¶ The word has an Aryan base that = ‘to strike gently’.
And now consider the last three lines of Sidney’s sonnet:
And now employ the remnant of my wit,
····To make myself believe, that all is well,
····While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.
Now, if it were only one of these words, and if it weren’t in the context of a horny courtier who will write a sonnet sequence stuffed with double entendres and sexual puns (see Sexual Puns in Atrophil and Stella by Alan Sinfield), then one might reasonably dismiss this all. In discussing the word wit for example, Gordon Williams (Shakespeare’s Sexual Language) rightly points out that the word “occupied a much more central place in Elizabethan discourse than in ours; the word is used incessantly and with multiple colorings.” The point being that it becomes “almost impossible to tell when writers had been using wit ambiguously and when not.” Granted, but consider the context. As Sinfield writes in Sexual Puns:
“Even in recent critical studies and annotated editions, most of which have a lot to offer, commentators have been slow to appreciate, or to help the reader appreciate, the sexual inferences in the poems. I suggest that Astrophil’s consciousness of the sexual nature of his passion for Stella is more extensive and more important than is usually implied.” [Sexual Puns in Atrophil and Stella p. 1]
He will later add:
“I want to make two further claims: that sexual double-entendre is an important feature of Sidney’s verbal skill and, following this, that Astrophil’s love for Stella is sexual right from the beginning of the sequence.” [Ibid. p. 3]
Then suggests five criteria or discerning sexual puns:
“First, the interpretations proposed should use senses demonstrably current in the langauge; second, in their immediate context they should be consistent with each other and with other levels of meaning; third (in other than short poems) they should be appropriate to the theme and its treatment in the work as a whole; fourth, they should make the poetry appear better—more subtle, dense and interesting; and fifth, they should be compatible with the known practice of the poet and his contemporaries in that kind of poem.” [Ibid. p. 3]
The proposed double entendres of Sonnet 2 meets all those criteria. And if the last lines are read as the double entendres one can conclude that Astrophil, contrary to the entire history of critical interpretation, did in fact consummate his affair with Stella; and that the entire sequence is not an effort to obtain what he will never have, but to win back what he lost. The sequence can be read consistently either way. That said, one might point out that Atrophil, in Sonnet 78, asserts that Stella’s husband has not been cuckolded:
Is it not evil that such a devil wants [lacks] horns?
But there’s nothing saying the sequence doesn’t begin before she’s married. And consider further that most critics agree that Stella was inspired by Penelope Devereux (who would become Lady Rich, husband of Lord Rich).
“One of the most intense and ongoing scholarly debates regarding Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella is concerned with exactly how much, if any, of the sequence is autobiographical (such biographical criticism is not uncommon with regard to Elizabethan sonneteers; the degree of autobiography in Shakespeare’s sonnets is also thoroughly questioned and debated). While proponents of the Sidney-as-Astrophil view point to the clever nominal puns (the most salient being Phil-Astrophil, and the numerous puns on the word “rich” – the married name of Penelope Devereux, a supposed love interest of Sidney’s) and apparent references to events in Sidney’s life, other critics have warned readers of Sidney to be cautious in such areas.” [Fit Words to Paint”: The Rhetoric of Courtship and Courtiership in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella]
And then there’s this:
Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence, assuming we can believe it, is from an account of Sidney’s death-bed confession recorded by George Gifford, one of the divines who attended him in his final illness: “There came to my remembrance a vanity wherein I had taken delight, whereof I had not rid myself. It was my Lady Rich. But I rid myself of it, and presently my joy and comfort returned with a new hours.” [Sir Phillip Sidney: Selected Writings edited by Richard Dutton p. 19]
If the confession is true, and if Astrophil and Stella is in any way biographical, then what to make of it? If we interpret “vanity” as Sidney confessing to having had an affair with Penelope Devereux, then how do we square that with “Atrophil’s” assertion that the husband was never cuckolded. The answer is that the dalliance occurred before she was married—and it is to this dalliance that Sonnet 2 confesses. Further, this might further explain Stella’s odd indulgence toward Astrophil (they have some history); but once she’s married, she cannot and will not be unfaithful.
Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot
····Love gave the wound, which while I breathe will bleed:
- Astrophil “bleeds”, meaning that their meeting is the wound that won’t heal. He can’t forget her. dribbed: random
····But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.
- Progressively, his platonic appreciation becomes an obsession beyond his control. The next several lines detail this “conquest” over him. in mine: by way of a mine (as in planting mines beneath a cities fortifications and thus undermining them); of time as in time’s mine: did [by way of time’s undermining] proceed…
I saw and liked, I liked but loved not,
····I loved, but straight did not what Love decreed:
- “did not what love decreed” Meaning that he did not actively court her.
····At length, to Love’s decrees, I forced, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.
[Eventually, he courts her, yet “repines” (is not content), with merely courting her (partial lot).]
····Now even that footstop of lost liberty
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite,
I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
- And here is where interpreting the sonnet gets dicey. What does he mean by “even that footstop of lost liberty/ Is gone”? What has he done? How does one go beyond courting without consummating the courtship? The conventional interpretation is that whereas “courting” had been in his control (in the sense that he was the pursuer and could break off the courtship), he has now become slave to the pursuit. No other woman is a possibility.
And now employ the remnant of my wit,
····To make myself believe, that all is well,
····While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.
If we read the next three lines as double entendres, however, Astrophil tells us something else.
And now employ [sexually occupy] the remnant [remains] of my wit [semen],
····To make myself believe, that all is well,
····While with a feeling skill [removing her hymen/taking her virginity] I paint [fuck] my [his lover’s] hell [vagina].
If interpreted this way, then Sonnet 2 confesses what got Astrophil into this mess. I expect that most, if not all, scholars would object that this entirely disrupts and undercuts the Patrarchan (if not moral) underpinnings of the sonnet sequence, but that somewhat puts the cart before the horse—those moral and philosophical underpinnings are themselves matters of interpretation. Personally I find either scenario compelling, though if I had to choose I would probably go with the more conventional interpretation. The use of the word now suggests this isn’t a memory and if hell is really to be interpreted as Stella’s vagina, then it’s not his but Stella’s (enforced elsewhere in the sonnet sequence). Here’s a more likely interpretation, perhaps, that preserves the double entendres:
And now employ [sexually occupy/spend/masturbate] the remnant [remains] of my wit [semen],
····To make myself believe, that all is well,
····While with a feeling skill [the skill of the seducer] I paint [describe (the sequence being like “painted brothel panels”] my hell [the vagina he longs for].
This more closely conforms to Sidney’s usage of paint in Sonnet 1 “I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe”. The notion of Astrophil coming, masturbating, spending will appear later in Sonnet 18:
Unable quite to pay even Nature’s rent,
Which unto it by birthright I do owe:
And which is worse, no good excuse can show,
But that my wealth I have most idly spent.
To spend was a common euphemism for achieving orgasm. As Alan Sinfeld points out, Shakespeare (again, possibly inspired by Sidney) will use the same theme and imagery in his Sonnet 4:
Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And being frank, she lends to those are free.
- Jonathan Smith, Professor of English at Hanover College, whose wonderful blog Blogging Sidney’s Sonnets analyses all of Sidney’s Sonnets, doesn’t address the potential double entendres, but nevertheless offers a compelling interpretation:
“There are at least two distinct possibilities, and in this case I think we do well to accept both, and thus enrich the poem’s meaning through ambiguity; as Benedick says, “There’s a double meaning in that!” Duncan-Jones’s endnote opts for Hamlet’s understanding of “paint” as giving “a false colouring or complexion to,” or in the crude American political vernacular, “putting lipstick on a pig.” So in that sense, the speaker admits to using optimistic descriptions of a love relationship to “pretty up” what is really a hellish state he has gotten into. It could similarly be said that line 5 of Sonnet 1, “I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe” refers to putting false make-up on an ugly face (blackness being equated with ugliness in Renaissance-speak). But just as clearly, that line occurs in the midst of a description of the struggle to create art, so it carries the ambiguity of “paint” as “create art.” [Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 2]
So, perhaps all of that wets your appetite for Astrophil and Stella? If possible, I recommend Alan Sinfeld’s essay, Sexual Puns in Atrophil and Stella. Part I of this essay, Sidney and Astrophil is also worth reading. And for an analysis of all of Sidney’s Sonnets: Blogging Sidney’s Sonnets.
Of Plain Poems, Figurative Poems & Metaphoric Poems
Call this post a rough draft; and there are more than these three (like Allegorical Poems) but these are the three primary ways a poem is written, I think. On and off I get queries from poets who would like my opinion on their poems. In a very general way, I can break down their poems down into three main types — the Plain Poem, the Figurative Poem, and the Metaphoric Poem; though almost all the poetry sent me falls into the first two categories. I don’t know whether these categories are original to me. I doubt they are, and I may be using the terms differently (if they’re already out there). But so be it. There are poetic masterpieces in all three categories, so I’m not going to argue that one is superior to another, but of the three types of poetry — the Plain Poem and the Metaphoric Poem are the kind I admire most. But first things first:
The Plain Poem
When I first began writing this, I called this kind of poem a ‘Literal Poem’; but I decided ‘Plain Poem’ is a more poetic description, and reminds me of plain chant. Plain Poem also allows for some variation, some touches of figurative language perhaps, whereas the term ‘Literal’ invites too strict an interpretation. I have no idea what percentage of contemporary poems are Plain Poems, possessing minimal figurative language, but my hunch is that they represent fewer than one might expect, maybe only single digits. They’re very difficult to write well (or memorably). Perhaps Edwin Arlington Robinson would be its finest exponent in traditional forms. The fact of his plainness may, in some measure, contribute to his relative neglect. (It’s ironic that Ezra Pound preached the gospel of “everyday language and materials”, as Christopher Clausen put it, only to write a massive book, “The Cantos”, that becomes progressively all but incomprehensible.)
by EA Robinson
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Some readers might object that Robinson uses a smattering of figurative language, but they’re of the colloquial, ‘every day’ sort. We don’t need editorial footnotes to understand “from sole to crown” or “fluttered pulses” or “glittered when he walked”. This is truly the language of the every day and the reader would have to stretch, or be a Helen Vendler, to read more into it than is there. The power of the poem isn’t to be found in any sort of figurative or metaphorical elusiveness. As with the majority of Robinson’s poems, it is what it is, but beautifully so. Robinson uses meter and rhyme to lend the poem direction, succinctness and to make the poem memorable. Until the very end the rhymes seem innocuous enough, and then the rhyme of bread and “put a bullet through his head” strikes like a thunderclap. As with many good rhyming poems, the reader is likely to anticipate the final coup de grâce, which gives the narrative that extra kick.
- I’ve ready many passages of free verse poets, especially, posturing over the predictability of rhymes, but this bespeaks an ignorance of what good rhymes do. There are times when the predictable is exactly what the poet wants.
Another good example might be William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
There is such a reflexive determination to think that a poem has to mean something more than what it says. I’m not sure how much sweat and blood has been spilled over what Williams really meant. And yet, the haiku-like sublimity of the poem is self-evident and probably instinctively grasped by anyone who reads it (and needs no explanation or rationalization). This poem, quite simply, means what it says. But what makes it so memorable? There’s no rhyme or meter, so something else is at play. In part, it’s very much its similarity to the best haiku. There’s no discourse or disquisition. In other words, a narrator doesn’t thrust himself, nattering, between the reader and the poem (an intrusion into the conversation that Williams can rarely resist). We are permitted to consider the facts as they are and draw our own conclusion — and that is how a poem is like a haiku. The next facet is the imagery. Williams has carefully chosen what to emphasize — the contrast between the red of the wheelbarrow and the white of the chickens, for example. As an experiment, substitute blue for red, or brown for white.
Red is an impish color when you think about it. It attracts attention to itself; (there’s a reason we call red cars “cop magnets”). The poetic juxtaposition of a loud color like red on a humble wheelbarrow gives it a sort of underdog status — like a red Volkswagon beetle — and endears it to the reader (maybe not universally but as a generalization I think this is probably true). After all, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. What other color could it be? (Unfortunately, my own wheelbarrow is blue, but I’m going to spray paint it red.)
And then there are the chickens. What if they had been brown? Nah. The white chickens make the wheelbarrow all the redder. The contrast is easy to imagine. But what if Williams had written white horse or, white house, or white tractor? When the reader imagines the scene, the chickens will always be smaller than the wheelbarrow; and this has the effect of making the red wheelbarrow a little bigger, and a little more important, and a little more there, like an ever present, reassuring background to the lives of the chickens. If Williams had written ‘white horse’, then that might have diminished the importance of the wheelbarrow. The white chickens give us a contrast in color and in size.
But what about a white house or white tractor? These two would have diminished the wheelbarrow’s ‘scale’ (for lack of a better term). Not only that, but we can imagine the lives of the chickens being dependent on the wheelbarrow, but not an inanimate house or tractor. The wheelbarrow is larger than the chickens, and is brought into the living ecosystem of the barnyard by being beside the chickens. In a certain sense, it’s given life by giving life.
And glazed with rainwater? Why this detail? Well, what if it had been coated with dust? My own feeling is that a coat of dust implies disuse. There are certainly farm implements (and carpentry tools) that get dusty, but that coating is always disturbed by use. I think it’s safe to say that a well-used wheelbarrow would seldom be covered by dust. The word glazed is one most commonly used in reference to pottery. When we glaze a piece of pottery we are finishing it. We are, one might say, making it beautiful and, to a certain degree, transforming it into a finished work of art or, at minimum, a usable implement. Williams choice of word is probably no accident. There’s also the sense that o much depends on the wheelbarrow that it cannot be spared even in the rain. This is an indispensable presence in a living and working environment.
But this poem is lightning in a bottle. Williams only pulled it off twice, I think. With The Red Wheelbarrow and This Is Just to Say. These two poems are justly famous and plain poems. They are plain (or very literal), easy to grasp, but in their choice of observation, like the best haiku, they successfully evoke a world of emotional associations. And this, perhaps, is the trick to the greatest poems of this kind — the art of evocation.
- I haven’t discussed haiku, but these deceptively simply poems (and carefully literal) are some of the most evocative poems in any language.
Another example of a plain poem would be Frost’s Stopping by Woods:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Many attempts have been made to read meaning into this poem, but it is what it is. It’s beautifully simple and, in that simplicity, is profoundly evocative. This is poetry that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself. The combination of rhyme and meter add to the memorability of the poem — a revelry in the “felicities of language” as Frost called it. William Pritchard had this to say:
Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant… [Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164]
There’s a certain kind of reader for whom plain poems are anathema. One of the more common criticisms leveled at Frost was that his poetry was that of the “simple, farmer poet” — as if that were bad thing in and of itself. In truth, the plainly stated poem, done well or even greatly, is an exceedingly rare accomplishment. The criticism itself says vastly more about those making it. They seem to think that the only good poem is the “difficult” poem. The 20th century is nothing if not the pursuit of obscurity/difficulty as an end in itself, and not just any obscurity, but the kind meant to evoke layers of “meaning”, elusive and implying depth, brilliance and perhaps genius. As a rule of thumb, the more ambiguous — the more interpretations available to the poem — then the better it must be. And while that sort of writing may be candy to the critic and academic, the precipitous decline in modern poetry’s audience suggests that the average reader has better ways to spend their time (rather than sort out a poet’s “meaning”). “Make it plain”, a reader might say, and the modern poet hears: “Dumb it down”. But that’s not at all what the reader is saying.
Greatness in literature has nothing to do with how “difficult” it is.
And perhaps the most remarkable 20th century writer of Plain Poems was Charles Bukowski:
we had goldfish and they circled around and around
in the bowl on the table near the heavy drapes
covering the picture window and
my mother, always smiling, wanting us all
to be happy, told me, ‘be happy Henry!’
and she was right: it’s better to be happy if you
but my father continued to beat her and me several times a week while
raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn’t
understand what was attacking him from within.
my mother, poor fish,
wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a
week, telling me to be happy: ‘Henry, smile!
why don’t you ever smile?’
and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the
saddest smile I ever saw
one day the goldfish died, all five of them,
they floated on the water, on their sides, their
eyes still open,
and when my father got home he threw them to the cat
there on the kitchen floor and we watched as my mother
In the process of writing this post, I read through about two dozen poems by Bukowski, and if he ever wrote a simile, I haven’t yet found it. I would judge Bukowski’s favorite rhetorical device to be the analogy. In the poem above, for instance, Bukowski is essentially drawing an analogy between the goldfish and the suffering experienced by himself and mother. Even then, Bukowski’s use of analogy is sparing and far from obvious. A reader may read a Bukowski poem, read a scenario which he or she has never experienced, and yet feel a commonality because the subject is nevertheless analogous to his or her own experiences. This, I think, is at the root of Bukowski’s genius — his ability to provide a context for experiences that make them recognizable and universal. In the poem Bluebird, Bukowski is again essentially drawing an analogy between his suppressed empathy and compassion and a symbolic bluebird he keeps locked in his heart.
The Figurative Poem
By this, I mean poems that use figurative language but are otherwise (or mostly) plain in their meaning. In other words, I would consider calling a Figurative Poem a ‘Plain Poem’ that uses figurative language. Figurative Poems, as I use the term, probably represent the vast majority of poetry. Nearly all of free verse is of the figurative kind. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are all figurative poems. They are by far and away the most popular and have therefore accumulated an ocean of bad examples. The term figurative (or figurative language) refers to rhetorical figure (a figure understood as any rhetorical linguistic device). A linguistic device most commonly includes, for example the simile — the favorite rhetorical figure of twentieth and twenty-first century poetry. As soon as you see a simile, you know you’re dealing with figurative poetry. Additionally, and unfortunately, it’s nearly always a sign of second or third rate poetry — almost without fail (the exceptions prove the rule, perhaps).
I know I’ve mentioned the following passage before, but I’m offering more of it because it first got me thinking about this subject (many years ago):
“Shakespeare’s style, as everyone knows, is metaphorical to excess. His imagination is always active, but he seldom pauses to indulge it by lengthened description. I shall hereafter have occasion to direct your observation to the sobriety with which he preserves imagination in its proper station, as only the minister and interpreter of thought; but what I wish now to say is, that in him the two powers operate simultaneously. He goes on thinking vigorously, while his imagination scatters her inexhaustible treasures like flowers on the current of his meditations, His constant aim is the expression of facts, passions ,or opinions; and his intellect is constantly occupied in the investigation of such; but the mind acts with ease in its lofty vocation, and the beautiful and the grand rise up voluntarily to do him homage. he never indeed consents to express those poetical ideas by themselves; but he shows that he felt their import and their legitimate use, by wedding them to the thoughts in which they originated. The truths which he taught, received magnificence and amenity from the illustrative forms; and the poetical images were elevated into a higher sphere of associations by the dignity of the principles which they were applied to adorn. Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness. Nothing can be more different from this, or farther inferior to it, than the style of the poet who turns aside in search of description, and indulges in simile preferably to the brevity of metaphor, to whom perhaps a poetical picture originally suggested itself as the decoration of a striking thought, but who allowed himself to be captivated by the beauty of the suggested image, till he forgot the thought which had given it birth, and on its connexion with which its highest excellence depended. Such was Fletcher, whose style is poor in metaphor. [The New Shakespeare Society Publications, Series VIII Miscellanies Nos. 1-4 A Letter on Shakespeare’s Authorship of the drama entitled THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN, by William Spalding p. 16-17]
This was published in 1876, so the language is Victorian and convoluted, and Spalding didn’t quite have the tools to express his ideas. That was to come nearly three quarters of a century later with Wolfgang Clemens and The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery. Clemens showed how Shakespeare essentially absorbs the simile into a metaphorical language — the idea that Spalding is trying to express. (My dictionary calls metaphor a compressed simile, which is a good way to think about it.) For example, Clemens shows how in Shakespeare’s earliest poetry he hadn’t yet absorbed the simile:
The particles “as” and “like” not only make the image stand out from the text and isolate it in a certain way; they also show that the object to be compared and the comparison are felt as being something different and separate, that image and object are not yet viewed as an identity, but that the act of comparing intervenes. It would be false to exaggerate the importance of such a fact, because in Shakespeare’s let plays we also find many comparisons introduced with “like” or “as”. Nevertheless the frequency of such comparisons with “as” and “like” in Titus Andronicus is noteworthy, and this loose form of connection corresponds entirely to the real nature of these image4s. If we take, for example, passages such as these:
…then fresh tears
Stood on her cheeks, as doth the honey-dew
Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.
…that kiss is comfortless
As frozen water to a starved snake.
we see that these images are simply added on to the main sentence afterwards, dove-tailed into the context, appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration. They occurred to Shakespeare as an afterthought, as “illustration”, as “example”, but they were not there from the very beginning as simultaneous poetic conce3ption of subject and image. [The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery p. 22-23]
Compare this to The Winter’s Tale:
Later, in the same scene, Camillo asks him to be “cured of this diseased opinion” (I.ii. 297) and retorts to Leontes’ false assumption of his “infected” wife “who does infect her?” (I.ii. 307). The disease-imagery links up with the notion of taint and stinging things. Shortly after Camillo’s question Leontes speaks the following words which also contain dramatic irony:
Leon. Make that thy question, and go rot!
Dost think I am so muddy, so unsettled,
To appoint myself in this vexation, sully
the purity and whiteness of my sheets,
Which to preserve is sleep, which being spotted
Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps, (I.ii 325)
In the next scene this collocation of disease, of stinging and poison becomes more obvious. Note the following by Leontes:
There may be in the cup,
A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
The abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider (II. i 39)
The dramatic and structural significance of this image should be noted. For it is the first time Leontes builds up a full image, all the more striking as Leontes’ hasty diction does not usually allow of the elaboration of images. The directness and realism with which this image; of the spider in the cup is presented and the way Leontes turns it into a personal experience, expressed by the laconic ending “I have drunk, and seen the spider”, bring home to us the brutal and naked force of Leontes self-deceiving obsession… [p. 196-197]
Most importantly, notice that Shakespeare never uses “as” or “like” in these two passages. The similes have been organically absorbed into the character’s “personal experience”, not tacked on as in Titus. It’s this difference that Spalding was trying to express almost a hundred years earlier. Shakespeare, in the course of his poetic development, learned to speak through metaphor rather than by the elaboration of similes (John Fletcher, not so much). It’s in this sense that Spalding delineated the difference between Shakespeare and Fletcher’s verse:
“Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness.”
- A very simple example from Shakespeare: “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” In earlier days Shakespeare might have written: “He draweth out his argument like a spinner who draweth out his thread & etc.“
The same criticism applies to all poets since Shakespeare, including the poetry of our current poet Laureate, Charles Wright (2014-). On a whim, and at random, I looked up his poetry at Poetry Foundation. The first to come up was Archeology. And what do we find?
The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods,
Hoping to find the radiant cell
That washed us, and caused our lives
…………………………….to glow in the dark like clock hands
Endlessly turning toward the future,
Tomorrow, day after tomorrow, the day after that,
………………………………………all golden, all in good time.
Just as with Shakespeare’s earlier efforts, or Fletcher, Wright tacks on the simile, “appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration”. Like will appear twice more in this short poem:
Gaze far out at the lake in sunflame,
Expecting our father at any moment, like Charon, to appear
Back out of the light from the other side,
…..low-gunwaled and loaded down with our slippery dreams.
Rather than compress the comparison of his father to Charon in the language of metaphor, Wright interrupts the narrative (amateurishly in my opinion) with the announcement of the simile, and then a little later:
Other incidents flicker like foxfire in the black
Nevertheless, at the poem’s conclusion, Wright demonstrates that he can write metaphorically (compress simile):
Sunlight flaps its enormous wings and lifts off from the back
The wind rattles its raw throat,
…………………………………but I still can’t go deep enough.
And if you ask me (and in terms of technique) this ‘compression’ of simile in the language of metaphor is the better way to write poetry (though there are obviously exceptions). Loading ones verse with similes strikes me too often as a kind of poetic shorthand — roughly equivalent to inserting a thee and a thou just because that’s what poetry is supposed to do — and frequently the simile adds little to the narrative. It’s more poetic flourish than necessity. Wright’s poem is an example of figurative poetry, though not a good one. Wright tells us what it’s about: “[digging] into our childhoods…” (so that it’s cousin to the plain poem) then uses the rhetorical figures of simile, metaphor, verbal metaphor, adjectival metaphor, etc…
But there are also beautiful examples of figurative poems that work. The Love Song of J. Afred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, begins:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
The poem begins with the famous simile “Like a patient etherized upon a table”. “Muttering retreats” is both an adjectival metaphor and personification. “Like a tedious argument” is another simile describing the way streets “follow” — itself a verbal metaphor. And why do I like these similes, and not Wright’s? Because Eliots are wholly original. When before has an evening been compared to a patient “etherized upon a table”, as opposed to an evening boater to Charon? (I don’t hold a high opinion of Greek mythology’s appearance in modern poetry. It’s often plugged into a poem when having to do the work oneself would be much more difficult.) When has the layout of a city’s streets been compared to “a tedious argument”. Eliot’s simile’s are not only fresh, they add a subtext to the poem. Why the choice of etherized? What does this say about the narrator? Why compare streets to a tedious argument? — And how does this play into the narrator’s own avoidance of complications and explanations later in the poem?
The Silken Tent, by Robert Frost, is not only one sentence but is comprised, but for the first two words, of a single simile! The sonnet is the simile:
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.
She is like a silken tent, says Frost, and from there the sonnet elaborates. Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 116 would also fall into the category of the Figurative Poem:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
··If this be error and upon me proved,
··I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
The whole of the poem is an example of personification, in which Love is endowed with personality, intent, and conviction. The figure itself is called prosopopia: “(Rhet.) A figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstract idea is represented as animated, or endowed with personality…” Shakespeare was extremely adept at using this figure (a common one during his era); and his skill, above and beyond that of his contemporaries, was surely attributable to his dramatic genius. In essence, the inanimate became characters. Take a look, for example, at the following brief passage from King John, at the way Shakespeare so beautifully personifies grief:
“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words,
Remembers me of his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form”
And this also reminds me of Richard Wilbur’s extraordinary poem Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, wherein the morning breezes are, in a sense, animated and endowed with the personality of angels. One might justifiably dispute whether this is really personification (since Wilbur never attributes the angel-like behavior to the breezes, but rather distinguishes the angels and air by saying that the “morning air is all awash with angels”) — perhaps more accurate to call the angel-like behavior of the breezes a poetic conceit (in the sense of an extended metaphor that nearly governs the whole poem).
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
··············Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
···Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
···Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
·······································The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
··············“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
··············keeping their difficult balance.”
The poem, as I read it, comes very near to being what I would consider a Metaphoric Poem. I’d say it falls in the far spectrum of figurative poems, but still a Figurative Poem, because the poetic conceit of the angels is framed by the reality of eyes opening “to a cry of pulleys”. The conceit is framed by the reality of the “morning air” at the beginning and the thieves, lovers, and nuns at the close. It’s is brought ‘down from its ruddy gallows’, back into the difficult balance of the real world.
- The conceit is itself considered a trope. The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms writes that “In general usage, most poets and critics use the term to indicate, as Coleridge proposed, any language that aspires toward the state of metaphor.”
The Metaphoric Poem
I’m trying to coin a new term and I’ve sweat over it. As far as I know, this type of poem hasn’t really been given a name. It’s not just poetry that uses metaphor, or a conceit, but a poem that, in its entirety, is a metaphor for something else. So, I settled on Metaphoric rather than Metaphorical. I’ve checked all my poetry dictionaries. I’ve Googled the term. I checked my Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry, and the term “Metaphoric Poetry” isn’t used in any specific way. So, I’m claiming it to mean something very specific. As I judge it, a poem may be metaphorical simply by using metaphor, but what distinguishes the Metaphoric Poem is that the poet doesn’t, or only in the most oblique way, give the reader any indication that the poem is really about something other than its apparent subject.
To me, the metaphoric poem is the pinnacle of poetic accomplishment. The poem can have the appearance of a Plain Poem or a Figurative Poem, but is really, in its entirety, a beautifully modulated, extended metaphor on what can be an altogether different subject. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, in fact, Robert Frost more or less invented and perfected this kind of poetry, though it’s tempting to go back in history, point to other poems, and say that this or that poem was never really about X, but about Y. We have become somewhat accustomed to this way of reading and critiquing poetry, but I’d assert that this way of thinking about poetry is really a very late development. For instance, I had a reader write the following after my post on Ann Bradstreet’s poem, Before the Birth of One of Her Children:
“…when Bradstreet writes about the dangers of childbirth in Before the Birth of One of Her Children, this could also be read as the dangers women face when publishing their work”
That’s reading Bradstreet’s poem as a Metaphoric Poem. My response was that this is probably anachronistic. Bradstreet was a contemporary of John Donne and near contemporary of Shakespeare. There’s no evidence (that I’ve ever found) that poets wrote or thought this way prior to the 20th century. In every poem that I’m aware of, the conceit, or metaphor, or analogy, is framed as a poetic construction within the poem. The reader is always made aware of the poet’s “misdirection”. In all of John Donne’s poems, for example, there’s no confusion as to what the poem is about (setting aside the usual interpretive challenges). He famously constructs elaborate conceits, but we always know that he knows that we know what the conceit is really about.
Not so with Robert Frost.
For years he was accused of being “a simple, farmer poet”. The accusation, as accusations usually do, revealed more about the critics. In short, despite considering Frost a 19th century hold-over, it was in fact the critics who were behaving like 19th century readers — reading all poems as Plain Poems or Figurative Poems. The day that readers and critics realized that Frost might have been fooling them all (all along) can actually be dated very precisely. While it’s not the birth of Metaphoric Poetry, it might be the birth of it’s broader awareness. It happened at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in 1959, on the evening of Frost’s 85th birthday. It happened when, to the shock and consternation of all those gathered, Lionel Trilling called Frost a “terrifying poet”. (Trilling, embarrassed by his own comment and worried that he’d insulted Frost, reportedly left the gathering early.)
Trilling opened the world’s eyes to the possibility that yes, all along, they’d been reading Frost with outdated expectations. As Frost said himself, as if to drive home the point that he wasn’t just writing about “nature”: “I am not a nature poet. There is almost always a person in my poems.”
Even when there isn’t.
As a nice essay at FrostFriends.Org puts it:
“Frost uses nature as metaphor. He observes something in nature and says this is like that. He leads you to make a connection, but never forces it on the reader. Read on a literal level, Frost’s poems always make perfect sense. His facts are correct, especially in botanical and biological terms. But he is not trying to tell nature stories nor animal stories. He is always using these metaphorically implying an analogy to some human concern.” [Frost and Nature ~ March 7 2015]
But then Frost had already been telling the world as much. In The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, Judith Ostler begins her contribution entitled “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor” with the following paragraph, quoting Frost at the outset:
“‘Metaphor is the whole of poetry.’ ‘Poetry is simply made of metaphor… Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing.’ Such are the burdens Robert Frost placed upon metaphor, and on himself as a poet. He went even further in his claiming that metaphor is the whole of thinking, and that, therefore, to be educated by poetry — note: by poetry — is to be taught to think.” [p. 155]
Why did it take so long for readers to realize that Frost had been ‘fooling’ them? He was cagey in life, and cagey in his poetry.
A Drumlin Woodchuck
One thing has a shelving bank,
Another a rotting plank,
To give it cozier skies
And make up for its lack of size.
My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.
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.
I hesitate to call this a Metaphoric poem, as the narrator gives away the game (if the joke wasn’t already painfully obvious) with a wink and a nod to “my dear”. You could read it as Frost’s commentary on his own art and persona with a sly pun on Thoreau in the closing rhyme of thorough/burrow. To read quite a good essay on the significance of the pun, visit Two Woodchucks,or Frost and Thoreau on the Art of the Burrow by Fritz Oehlschlaeger.
“Further suggestion that the woodchuck be seen as a poet figure can be found in the somewhat submerged tension between the poem’s playfulness and the seriousness of the matter at hand. The woodchuck’s jocularity nearly causes us to forget that his survival is at stake. While the burrow provides him a wonderful possibility for fanciful comparison to his counterpart at Walden, it also serves the mundane but equally important purpose of saving him from the hunters.” [p. 5]
And there’s more at stake than that. Who are the hunters? Could they be his critics? Think of Frost’s uncanny poem this way: The burrow as his poetry and the two entrances are two ways (among many more we suspect) to enter therein — a “two-door burrow”. As soon as you try to catch Frost by hunting down one crevice, he’s out the other. While pestilence and war rage, and notably “the loss of common sense”, Frost remains cagey enough not to be cornered. He won’t be caught up one side or t’other.
There are a good many of his poems that are ‘two-door burrows’. The most famous example might be “Stopping by Woods” and its many interpretations. At the two extremes are notions of the poem as a simple and beautiful lyric on the one hand and a suicide poem on the other. It may have seemed that Frost grew impatient with readers trying to identify the meaning of the poem, as if they all tried to come in at the same door, but he’d also never say what a poem wasn’t. Frost, in the end, always wanted to keep his burrow a “two-door” burrow
“Mending Wall” and “Birches” can both be read as Metaphoric Poems and I’ve offered a reading of Birches and Mending Wall suggesting how (though my interpretations may or may not reflect Frost’s thinking). The trick in Metaphoric Poetry is in knowing how to be understood or how not too be too obscure. The poet writes to be understood (unless you’re a John Ashbery).
WE make ourselves a place apart
··Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
··Till someone find us really out.
’Tis pity if the case require
··(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
··The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
··At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
··Must speak and tell us where they are.
‘Revelation’ is from Frost’s first book of poetry and reveals him, early on, searching out the balance between hiding “too well away” and having to “speak the literal to inspire”. Frost, much later in life, addresses this same question in the Metaphoric Poem For Once Then Something. In it, Frost cannily addresses the accusation that his poetry is shallow by using the very device, the Metaphoric Poem, that his critics stubbornly and shallowly misread. It’s an elaborately constructed tour-de-force, and perhaps a little too much so, not being among his better known or understood.
But now that I’ve made the argument that Frost was the first to deliberately write Metaphoric Poetry, there is a genre of poetry that anticipates Frost by several centuries (in some cases) — the nursery rhyme. Many of these poems mean something entirely other than their ostensible meaning. They were written in a time when speaking freely, and too freely, could be a life and death matter. “I Had a Little Nut Tree”, for instance, is speculated to be about the visit of Joanna of Castile to the court of Henry VII, though I happen to disagree with that 19th century assertion. “Little Boy Blue” is said to parody the life of Cardinal Wolsey. “Hey Diddle Diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle”, is thought to originate with Queen Elizabeth. The cat is Queen Elizabeth, who was known to greatly enjoy dancing to the fiddle at Whitehall Palace (throughout her reign). The moon is said to represent the Earl of Walsingham (who she skipped over, choosing to remain unmarried) and the dog was the Earl of Leicester (jeered in the poem as a laughing dog) because he “skulked at the Queen’s flirtatious behavior”, asking to leave the Court for France [Origins of Rhymes, Songs and Sayings, p. 157-159]. Nursery rhymes could be seen as related to the fable and apologue (being symbolic, metaphorical and archetypal in nature). The notion that Frost was the first to write metaphorically is not what I’d assert; but I think he was the first to make the poem the metaphor, as it were.
So, the next time you write or read a poem, these three categories might give you another way to approach it.
And that’s that.
up in Vermont: March 7 2015