Category Archives: Elizabethan Poets

Simple Means

Our last two entries have looked at poems with minor flaws, where the natural pronunciation of words does not support (or is not supported by) the meter of a poem. But lest new readers imagine that any deviation from perfectly regular meter is a mistake, today I would like to look at a couple of poems with examples of appropriate and effective deviation from regular meter. Both of the following poems are in iambic pentameter, and have similar substance/theme. See which one you prefer:

Farewell to Folly
by Robert Greene (1560-1592)

Sweet are the thoughts that savour of content;
The quiet mind is richer than a crown;
Sweet are the nights in careless slumber spent;
The poor estate scorns fortune’s angry frown:
Such sweet content, such minds, such sleep, such bliss,
Beggars enjoy, when princes oft do miss.

The homely house that harbours quiet rest;
The cottage that affords no pride nor care;
The mean that ‘grees with country music best;
The sweet consort of mirth and music’s fare;
Obscured life sets down a type of bliss:
A mind content both crown and kingdom is.

“Happy were he”
by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1566-1601)

Happy were he could finish forth his fate
In some unhaunted desert, most obscure
From all societies, from love and hate
Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure;
Then wake again, and give God ever praise,
Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;
In contemplation spending all his days,
And change of holy thoughts to make him merry;
Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,
Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.

Now a perfectly regular iambic pentameter line runs ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /. But in both of the poems above, some of the lines (Sweet are the thoughts, Sweet are the nights, Beggars enjoy, and Happy were he…) scan instead like this: / ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /. The lines still have the important 5 beats, but the first foot of each line is a trochee ( / ~ ) instead of an iamb ( ~ / ). Such a trochaic substitution allows a line to begin with a stressed syllable, enabling the poet to place content words at the beginning of a line without starting every line with an article or conjunction. It does not disrupt the flow, so long as such substitutions are infrequent: the ear still perceives the alternating emphasis which creates the music of the poem.

Trochaic substitutions fit most neatly at the beginning of a line (although may also occur in the middle of a line, as in “the sweet consort”). When a poet needs two unstressed syllables next to each other in the middle of a line, another type of substitution may be used: one may place an anapest ( ~ ~ / ) instead of an iamb ( ~ / ). Curiously enough, Robert Greene chose not to do this on the line “The mean that ‘grees with country music best;” apparently it sounded better to him to cut a syllable off of “agrees” with an apostrophe. Such shortening of words was common enough during his time period; but today it is much less welcome to the ear. If writing today, “the mean that agrees” ( ~ / ~ ~ / ) might be a better choice.

Similarly, Greene’s pronunciation of “Obscuréd” (as 3 syllables, ~ / ~ ) also is more fitting for his time period than ours. Today, that pronunciation is highly artificial; but in his time, literary convention allowed (to an extent) for the pronunciation of the -ed suffix in such cases (but it was still a little artificial).

These two poems also both offer good illustrations of how the words we naturally emphasize when speaking will change with context. Let us begin with the words “than” and “that.” As function words, they are usually not emphasized: for example, “I want more than five” or “pull that lever.” But if these word occur between two unstressed syllables, than we will add a little more stress to them automatically: we hear this in “richer than a crown,” and “cottage that affords” (and it happens to the “of” in “savour of content”), because the English ear prefers it to 3 unstressed syllables in a row.

Conversely, when 3 syllables which are naturally stressed in isolation are put next to each other, the English ear will often diminish the middle one, as in “the poor estate scorns fortune’s angry frown” and “give God ever praise.” Should these phrases have occurred in prose, we would have still heard them the same way, with a diminished “scorn,” and less stress than usual upon the word “God.”

Find this article useful in helping you write poetry? Leave a comment below.
And if you enjoy formal poetry, check out this book on your Kindle for contemporary poetry in traditional meter.


A metrical example from Queen Elizabeth

A poet might strive for perfection when crafting a poem in formal English meter; but it is very easy to miss the mark, and complete a work without recognizing some mistake. Today we’re going to consider a short poem written by Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), as an example of a good poem that missed the mark. Now this is not for the purpose of nit-picking, and it is in no way meant to devalue the work (which remains a good poem); but is intended to draw a prospective writer’s attention to the process of crafting a poem, and to some of the decisions that go into the act. (And if you have no interest in writing, well, then simply enjoy the poem.)

On Monsieur’s Departure

I grieve and dare not show my discontent,
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate,
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant,
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate.
I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned.

My care is like my shadow in the sun,
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done.
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be suppressed.

Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, love, and be so kind.
Let me float or sink, be high or low.
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die and so forget what love e’er meant.

Those familiar with English meter will have immediately recognized that his was written in iambic pentameter—that is, in lines of alternating stress ( ~ / ~ / ) with 5 stresses in each line. If one is to read the poem aloud, one’s natural speech patterns will produce a rhythm like this throughout most of the poem: ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

There are a couple of deviations from this rhythm—but some of these are not themselves imperfections; for there is a difference between being perfect and being perfectly regular. For example, the line “Let me float or sink…” begins with a stressed syllable instead of an unstressed syllable (the technical term for this is a “clipped foot”); but this in no way interrupts the rhythm or diminishes the poem: since there was a pause at the end of the line immediately preceding this one, the ear accepts the missing off-beat without surprise. Likewise, it is no imperfection to end two lines with “pursue it” and “rue it” (the technical term for this is “feminine rhyme”), since the poet has made sure to rhyme the stressed syllables, and again, the pause at the end of the line supports the minute deviation from regular iambic meter.

The whole line “Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,” ( / ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ ) is not in regular meter; but this too is an example of an acceptable deviation. The first word, “follows,” has a natural stress opposite to the regular meter ( / ~ instead of ~ / ), but it is still two syllables with one stress; so the whole line maintains 5 beats.

The mistake comes in the line following. “Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done.” produces 6 beats instead of 5: / ~ / ~ /, / ~ / ~ /. Now, this imperfection does not particularly stand out: at least I did not notice it the first time I read the poem. And it does not particularly bother me that one line in the poem has 6 beats while the rest have 5. But if I were the poet still in the act of writing it, I would work to correct the matter. Which makes me wonder how the error might have come to pass—

When I was in elementary school, the curriculum for poetry was terrible. And one of the faults of the material was that it instructed students to count the syllables in a line. According to that instruction, such lines as the ones above should all have 10 syllables. And indeed, our imperfect line does have exactly 10 syllables. But we are writing in English meter, not Japanese; and in English prosody the syllable count is not in fact what drives the rhythm, but rather the beat count—in this case, 5 beats (stressed syllables) make up each pentameter line.

Now I do not know if Queen Elizabeth made her mistake because she was counting syllables instead of beats; but I do know that some writers today will make mistakes this way. So be on alert when writing, and read your work aloud: listen to how it sounds (and to how it sounds when you read it again a day later, separated from habit of forced rhythm), and mark the beats with your ear. In this way you can be more sure to count the right way, and produce a work of flowing beauty that does not sneak an extra measure into its song.

If you liked the above poem, you can read more poetry from this time period by checking out Sir Phillip Sydney, Edmund Spenser, or Sir Walter Raleigh. Or, if you’re interested in formal poetry being written today, you can check out some samples from my book, Visions–and support an artist by buying the book on Amazon Kindle for only 99 cents!

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Fear no More

Fear no more the heat o’the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task has done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic must
All follow this and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finish’d joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee and come to dust.

From Twelfth Night, a Dirge

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid,
Fly away, fly away breath,
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white all stuck with yew
O prepare it.
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.
Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
On my black coffin let there be strown;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse where my bones shall be thrown.
A thousand, a thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O where
Sad true lover never find my grave
To weep there.

Sonnets by Shakespeare to his young friend

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:
Oh no! It is an ever fixéd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring 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 bear it out even to the edge of doom:—
.     If this be error and upon me be proved,
.     I never writ, no nor man ever loved.

Being I your servant, what could I do but tend
Upon the times and hours of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do ’till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
Whilst I, my sov’reign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think I the bitterness of absence sour
When you have bid your servant once adieu.
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of naught
Save where you are, how happy you make those!
.     So true a fool is love that in your will,
.     Though you do any thing, he thinks no ill.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon these boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
.     This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
.     To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

Sonnets by Shakespeare to his dark lady

How oft, when thou, my music, music play’st
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds.
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which would that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand.
To be so tickl’d they would gladly change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk, with nimble gait,
Making dead wood more blest than living lips.
.     Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
.     Give them thy fingers, and me thy lips to kiss.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts be dun;
If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
.     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
.     As any she belied with false compare.

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)


Thou blind man’s mark, thou fool’s self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy’s scum and dregs of scattered thought,
Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care,
Thou web of will whose end is never wrought;
Desire! desire, I have too dearly bought
With price of mangled mind thy worthless ware;
Too long, too long asleep thou hast me brought,
Who should my mind to higher things prepare.
But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought,
In vain thou mad’st me to vain things aspire,
In vain thou kindlist all thy smoky fire.
For virtue hath this better lesson taught,
Within myself to seek my only hire,
Desiring naught but how to kill desire.

“Like those sick folks”

Like those sick folks in whom strange humours flow
Can taste no sweets, the sour only please,
So to my mind, while passions daily grow,
Whose fiery chains upon his freedom seize,
Joys strangers seem, I cannot bide their show,
Nor brook aught else but well-acquainted woe.
Bitter grief tastes me best, pain is my ease,
Sick to the death, still loving my disease.

Leave me, O Love

Leave me, O Love which reachest but to dust,
And thou my mind aspire to higher things;
Grow rich in that which never taketh rust:
Whatever fades but fading pleasure brings.
Draw in thy beams, and humble all thy might
To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be;
Which breaks the clouds and opens forth the light,
That doth both shine and give us sight to see.
O take fast hold; let that light be thy guide
In this small course which birth draws out to death,
And think how evil becometh him to slide
Who seeketh heav’n and comes of heav’nly breath.
Then farewell world, thy uttermost I see;
Eternal Love, maintain thy life in me.

From The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, a Sonnet from the Aged

Let not old age disgrace my high desire;
O heavenly soul in human shape contained:
Old wood inflamed doth yield the bravest fire,
When younger doth in smoke his virtue spend.
Ne let white hairs which on my face do grow
Seem to your eyes of a disgraceful hue,
Since whiteness doth present the sweetest show,
Which makes all eyes do homage unto you.
Old age is wise and full of constant truth;
Old age well stayed from ranging humor lives;
Old age hath known whatever was in youth;
Old age o’ercome, the greater honor gives.
And to old age since you yourself aspire,
Let not old age disgrace my high desire.


Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618)

“What is our Life?”

What is our life? A play of passion;
Our mirth the music of division;
Our mothers’ wombs the tiring houses be
Where we are dressed for this short comedy;
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is
That sits and marks still who doth act amiss;
Our graves that hide us from the searching sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we playing to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest, that’s no jest.

“Even Such is Time”

Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, and joys, and all we have;
And pays us with but age and dust,
Which, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days:
And from which earth and grave and dust
The Lord will raise me up, I trust.