Miniver Meter

Miniver Cheevy by Edwin Arlington Robinson is written in a curious meter: each stanza consists of three lines of 4 beats followed by a single line of two beats. Now as most poems which run 4 beats in a line do so throughout (or alternate with 3 beat lines), the unusual choice in this poem rather startles the ear. Consider the beginning (better yet, first click on the link for the whole poem, and read that–otherwise the following discussion will spoil it for you):

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
.            Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
.            And he had reasons.

The sudden rhyme brings an unexpected and abrupt end to the stanza, at once engaging our attention. It is unfamiliar to us; and yet, it is not unnatural. “And he had reasons” sounds like an interruption in the flow, but it is exactly the type of self-interruption a storyteller would use. Here the narrator is telling us the story of Miniver Cheevy: he sets the tone, and is ready to run with it–but then stops for a moment to give us this important explanation.

Well, so much for the first stanza. But he employs the same metrical abruptness in every stanza, and he surely isn’t interrupting himself in those places. And stanza after stanza, our ear notes the short line, and wonders at it. Why, there’s supposed to be another beat or two there! Why is the poet doing this?

Then we get to the final stanza, and we understand:

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
.           Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
.            And kept on drinking.

The final line is perfect, and justifies the entire poem. The poet has painted a picture of a man who complains about his mundane life and desires his fantasy of the past–and then drowns himself in alcohol in order to cope with that. Miniver coughs, and calls it cruel fate that he was born into the wrong time period; but we see what he cannot (or will not). And this is made clearer in 2 beats rather than 4, both as a matter of wit, and because the line stands out metrically. For 8 stanzas, our ear has noted this line, a sense of anticipation building up; this is the payoff.

It is often a good idea to write with the end in mind. Here, the poet almost certainly had the end in mind before beginning this poem. An image of a bitter drunk, captured in that last sentence–and then the construction of the entire build-up, both semantically and metrically, to support this line.

In my own writing, I have on several occasions only selected a meter after selecting a particular phrase that I wanted in the poem. This could be the end, or a particularly important image earlier in the poem. But having that particular phrase as a goal became not so much a constraining as a creative force for the rest of the poem. Every word, every phrase, every beat, had purpose.

If you haven’t been writing with the end in mind, I encourage you to give it a try. Whether you are writing to paint a picture, make an argument, or simply to express your own emotion or person, your end result will be both clearer and more powerful than before.

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