In each of the last two weeks, we’ve been looking at good poems that have nevertheless had some imperfections, and we have examined how we as writers might be more sensitive to such things as we construct our own poems. We will be doing the same thing today with another fine poem. Enjoy the poem below, and then, if you’d like to learn more about the craft of writing poetry, consider the commentary below.
The Darkling Thrush
by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
I leant upon a coppice gate,
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled vine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to me
The Century’s corpse outleant,
Its crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind its death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervorless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead,
In a full-throated evensong
Of joy illimited.
An ancient thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
With blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew,
And I was unaware.
The meter may feel familiar to you: it is the same meter used by Abraham Lincoln in the poem of his we looked at last week. We may scan it like this:
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
~ / ~ / ~ /
Now when writing in this meter, it is quite permissible for the poet to deviate a little, so long as the dominant beat structure is uninjured. For example, one might need to use a word that has two unstressed syllables next to each other, and this can be done so long as we leave the correct number of beats in a line (the technical vocabulary for this is called anapestic substitution, using an anapestic ~ ~ / foot in place of an iambic ~ / foot). Thomas hardy does this with the line “The Century’s corpse outleant,” which scans as ~ / ~ ~ / ~ /. The line still has its 3 beats, which are separated by unstressed syllables.
However, a little later in that stanza, Harding miscounts his beats. The line “And every spirit upon earth” is supposed to have 4 beats (since each line of the poem has been alternating between 3 and 4 beats), but a natural reading of this line (that is, as we would pronounce it in normal speech, in prose, or even in the first line of any poem, before the meter has been established) would be ~ / ~ / ~ ~ ~ /.
What has happened here? Well, when 3 unstressed syllables occur in a row, the one in the middle sometimes takes on a little extra stress. This typically happens when 3 small functions words proceed in a row. But here, the middle syllable in question is the “up” from “upon.” And how do we pronounce “upon?” Do you say upon ( ~ / ) or upon ( / ~ ) ? In normal speech, we say the first; but in this poem, an over-regularization of the meter would suggest the second.
In English, proper word stress helps us to identify meaning: content words get stressed more than function words, and the roots of words tend to get more stress than the prefixes and suffixes. Over-regularization, or reading the poem with an artificially perfect meter instead of a natural pronunciation, can distract us from the meaning by shifting the stresses around. For example, in the line “The bleak twigs overhead,” an over-regular reading (The bleak twigs overhead) will de-emphasize the noun, twigs. Meanwhile, in the line “An ancient thrush, frail, gaunt and small,” the word “frail” get de-emphasized. In such a line, the poet must therefore consider the relative importance of each word, and order them appropriately. Here, the impression upon the reader is of a gaunt and small thrush, instead of a frail and small thrush: swapping the position of the words frail and gaunt would create the other impression.
Finally, over-regularization can totally distort a line: for example, “In a full-throated evensong,” sounds terrible, for we do not naturally stress an “a” before a word. A more natural reading would be “In a full-throated evensong,” scanned ~ ~ / ~ ~ / ~ /. Note that such a reading yields only 3 beats instead of the 4 that the line is supposed to have. It appears that the poet has made a mistake: possibly he was counting syllables instead of beats, or possibly he had his established rhythm sounding so strong in his mind that he mistakenly read the line with a stress on “a,” and so counted 4 beats instead of 3.
I still like this poem; the last stanza really makes an impact on me, stirring both heart and mind. But I note the error here so that when I write, and when you write, we can work to eliminate such mistakes in our own work; for it would be a pity if some prospective reader missed out on a stirring last stanza because they had to slog through too many difficulties before then, and gave up.
Last week I posted a poem written by Queen Elizabeth; this week is another post from an historical leader that most people don’t know wrote poetry. The following poem was written by President Abraham Lincoln (before he became president, though: he wrote it 1844 when he passed through his boyhood home while campaigning for Henry Clay. While he said the place was as un-poetical as ever there was, it nevertheless stirred him such to write the following lines:
My Childhood’s Home I See Again
by Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
My childhood’s home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There’s pleasure in it too.
O Memory! thou midway world
‘Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise,
And, freed from all that’s earthly vile,
Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
Like scenes in some enchanted isle
All bathed in liquid light.
As dusky mountains please the eye
When twilight chases day;
As bugle-notes that, passing by,
In distance die away;
As leaving some grand waterfall,
We, lingering, list its roar—
So memory will hallow all
We’ve known, but know no more.
Near twenty years have passed away
Since here I bid farewell
To woods and fields, and scenes of play,
And playmates loved so well.
Where many were, but few remain
Of old familiar things;
But seeing them, to mind again
The lost and absent brings.
The friends I left that parting day,
How changed, as time has sped!
Young childhood grown, strong manhood gray,
And half of all are dead.
I hear the loved survivors tell
How naught from death could save,
Till every sound appears a knell,
And every spot a grave.
I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I’m living in the tombs.
Those of you familiar with English meter might recognize this to be written in ballad form: it is in iambic meter (alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables), and alternates between lines of 4 beats and lines of 3 beats. But even someone totally unfamiliar with English meter will still feel the rhythm of the poem manifest itself as they read. Lincoln no doubt felt it quite loudly as he crafted the poem; and a scan of the poem’s beats will reveal a very regular metrical construction.
But it seems there is at least one line that got forced into the meter, instead of creating it naturally. Ideally, the words in a poem can be read naturally, and the meter presents itself to our ears because the master poet has placed the words in just the right order for a natural reading to generate the poem’s music. But sometimes a writer, who already has the music in mind, can inadvertently superimpose that rhythm upon the normal pronunciation of the words. When this happens, a natural reading of the words will cause a disruption to the meter; but the disruption may be easily missed if the writer is so caught up in the rhythm that they alter the pronunciation or stressing of words without realizing it.
In Lincoln’s poem. the rhythm is a regular ~ / ~ / ~ /, and we get so used to hearing that, we expect each line to continue in the same way. But how would we really read the line “As leaving some grand waterfall,” if we came across it in prose? Well, we tend to emphasize content words (like nouns, verbs, and descriptive adjectives), and de-emphasis function words (like articles, prepositions, and conjunctions). “As leaving some grand waterfall” would probably scan ~ / ~ ~ / / ~ ~ (or ~ / ~ ~ / / ~ /). But in this poem, it comes out instead as “As leaving some grand waterfall” ( ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /). A little less natural.
As I said last week, this is not to nit-pick on someone else’s work, but just to draw prospective writers’ attentions to the process and production of metrical poetry. We see this here, and it does NOT have to diminish our appreciation for this poem; but it can spur us on to examine our own productions, and consider if there is anything in our own works we may want to improve. In my poetry, do I want to emphasize a word like “some?” Well, some of the time, yes; but only when appropriate (for example, if I want to contrast with “all”).
This lesson is particularly worth noting, as over-regularization of meter was one of the things that prompted people to question whether or not English poetry should be written in meter at all. For they noted that English meter sounded artificial, and impeded the natural emotion of a piece of art–and certainly bad meter can do just that. Had Lincoln reproduced this error 10 or 20 other times in the poem, we would be quite dissatisfied with it, and call it a bad poem. Fortunately, he makes this slip only once, and it is not so noticeable. Now, how noticeable are the mistakes in our own works?
I don’t [yet] have any other poetry by Lincoln on the site, but I do have one about Lincoln, by Walt Whitman.
Meanwhile, if you want to check out some contemporary poetry in English meter (yes some of us still write in English meter, while the rest of the English world is busy with free verse), you can check out some samples here (or better yet, get a whole book on your Amazon Kindle for only 99 cents).
And remember to leave a comment if you find an article on this site helpful to your own writing (or maybe let one of your writer friends know about the site!).
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!
A Brief and Basic Overview
There are 2 basic types of English meter: 2-beat and 3-beat. But I have never read a textbook that accepts that simplicity; instead they want to insist that there are at least 4 basic types (if not more): iambic, trochaic, anapestic, and dactylic. Well, technically this is the traditional description (which I am reducing), and you’ll need those terms to pass a college test introducing you to poetry—but study a little more and you’ll discover that these are actually descriptions of Latin meters, borrowed to describe English. Let us consider them:
2-beat meter (iambic and trochaic) consists of alternating the stress between every other syllable, like these lines from Wordsworth:
I wandered lonely as a cloud (-/-/-/-/)
That floats on high o’er vales and hills, (-/-/-/-/)
Although “as” only gets a stress because it falls between two unstressed syllables, and English speech patterns naturally apply a little more stress in such a situation—but only a little: it’s still less than the naturally-stressed syllables.
Here’s another iambic line:
The remnants of a dream escape my thoughts (-/-/-/-/-/)
We say the line is in iambic pentameter, because it has five iambic (-/) feet, stressing every other syllable. But trochaic meter also stresses every other syllable:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary (/-/-/-/-,/-/-/-/-)
As you can hear, the rhythm is the same; only in trochaic each line starts with a stress and ends with an unstressed syllable. Well—most of the time. For what are we to do with these lines from Scott:
I have strain’d the spider’s thread (/-/-/-/)
‘Gainst the promise of a maid; (/-/-/-/)
Shall we call them trochaic, since they start with a stress, or iambic, since they end with a stress? Beginning a line with “’gainst” instead of “against” seems to indicate a determination to start on a stressed syllable; but of the 16 lines in the full poem, only four end with a complete trochee (/-)… so most teachers will end up calling it iambic (because everything is iambic except Poe’s “The Raven”), and tell you that those lines begin with a “clipped” foot.
Meanwhile, the meaningful distinction between iambic and trochaic meter really comes from Latin poetry, where those terms measure syllable length instead of stress. So I say dash it all and just call refer to it as 2-beat meter. But that tends to annoy teachers of literature who insist that the two meters are different (and yet who are never able of articulating how that difference makes a difference).
Moving on to 3-beat meter—or as the teachers will insist, anapestic, dactylic, and (shudder) amphibrach and amphimacer. Listen to the anapestic from Sir Walter Scott:
O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west, (~/~~/~~/~~/)
Through all the wide Border his steed was the best; (~/~~/~~/~~/)
Or this example from my poem “Faye”—
Deep in the mountains, a maiden awaits, (/~~/~~/~~/)
Confined to a tower, a dragon at guard. (~/~~/~~/~~/)
All of those lines had hour beats, dominated by the anapest (~~/); the first foot was clipped in every line. Invert anapestic, and you get dactylic:
Higgledy piggledy (/~~/~~)
Sorry about the nonsense—dactyls (/~~) at the end of lines result in polysyllabic rhymes, which almost always sound comic in English; so dactylic is almost exclusively employed for comic verse, and often for nonsense verse.
You must be an alien (~/~~/~~)
To enjoy such verse. (Actually, I do enjoy such verse.) Anyway, if the lines require polysyllabic rhymes, they get labeled dactylic, and if they don’t, they get labeled anapestic, so
Hickory Dickory Dock (/~~/~~/)
Counts as anapestic after seeming to start with two dactylic feet. Confused? Then your literature teacher makes it worse by telling you about amphibrach (~/~) and amphimacer (/~/)—but will provide you ZERO examples of English poetry written in those meters. Fortunately for you, I have an example:
The kids at the library love when he visits (~/~~/~~/~~/~)
To read to them poems and dramas and stories (~/~~/~~/~~/~)
Yes, I wrote “The Storyteller”—28 lines of natural amphibrach—as a game, to prove that first, it could be done, and second, that it sounds exactly like anapestic meter. In fact, my friend, appreciating the joke, declared it to be written in anapestic “with the first foot clipped and a feminine ending on each line” (yes, we’re nerds). Anyway, anapestic, dactylic, amphibrach—it’s all 3-beat meter, which tends to be more bouncy and quicker-tempo than 2-beat meter. 3-beat meter actually isn’t much used in English—maybe less than 5% of all English poetry, and most of that comic.
Meanwhile sustained amphibrach (/~/) doesn’t exist in English poetry. Neither does spondaic, for that matter, because
We. Do. Not. Talk. This. Way. (/ / / / / /)
Except very occasionally, for particular emphasis.
Of course teachers will continue to teach people about the 4 to 7+ different poetic meters—and bore many students to death, diverting them from the delights to be had in poetry. I think we would be much better off teaching only the two rhythms—2-beat and 3-beat—and letting students feel their impact upon the reader/listener.
Like the post if you agree, and if I haven’t bored you to death myself.