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!
The sonnet is one of the most popular forms in English poetry. Written in iambic pentameter (every other syllable stressed, five stresses per line), a sonnet’s theme is usually, but not always, centered on love. Other common themes include friendship (as in most of Shakespeare’s sonnets), death (for example, John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud,” which he actually writes to Death personified), and religious themes. Really any subject matter may be present (consider Shelly’s “Ozymandias”); love is simply the most common.
The structure of the sonnet may be organized according to either of two forms: the English/Shakespearian sonnet, and the Italian/Petrarchan. The Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two sections: an octet (8 lines) and an answering sestet (6 lines). Meanwhile the English sonnet is composed of three quatrains followed by a summary couplet. Historically, the English sonnet has been used for a greater variety of themes, while the Petrarchan is mostly reserved for romantic love. Additionally, English sonnets are sometimes also grouped into cycles (generally five sonnets long), wherein each new sonnet is an exposition of the couplet that concluded the previous one. “On Desire” is an example of such a cycle.
Here are a few examples of the English sonnet, by Samuel Daniel (1562-1619):
From Delia, Sonnet 33
When men shall find thy flower, thy glory pass,
And thou, with careful brow sitting alone,
Receivèd hast this message from thy glass,
That tells thee truth, and says that all is gone.
Fresh shalt thou see in me the wounds thou madest,
Though spent thy flame, in me the heat remaining:
I that have loved thee thus before thou fadest,
My faith shall wax, when thou art in thy waning.
The world shall find this miracle in me,
That fire can burn when all the matter’s spent;
Then what my faith hath been thyself shall see,
And that thou wast unkind thou mayst repent.
. Thou mayst repent that thou hast scorned my tears,
. When winter snows upon thy golden hairs.
From Delia, Sonnet 45
Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable night,
Brother to death, in silent darkness born,
Relieve my anguish, and restore my light;
With dark forgetting of my care return.
And let the day be time enough to morn
The shipwreck of my ill-adventured youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn,
Without the torment of the night’s untruth.
Cease, dreams, the images of day-desires,
To model forth the passions of the morrow;
Never let rising sun approve you liars,
To add more grief to aggravate my sorrow:
. Still let me sleep, embracing clouds in vain,
. And never wake to feel the sun’s disdain.
And here is an example of a Petrarchan (here the poet isn’t writing a love poem exactly, but is using the Petrarchan form to invoke the context for this little character drama):
(note: this poem features some enjambment; remember not to stop at the end of a line if there is no punctuation there!)
by John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974)
—I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying
To make you hear. Your ears are soft and small
And listen to an old man not at all,
They want the young men’s whispering and sighing.
But see the roses on your trellis dying
And hear the spectral singing of the moon;
For I must have my lovely lady soon,
I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying.
—I am a lady young in beauty waiting
Until my truelove comes, and then we kiss.
But what grey man among the vines is this
Whose words are dry and faint as in a dream?
Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream!
I am a lady young in beauty waiting.
And here you can read some other good romantic sonnets by Edmund Spenser or Sir Phillip Sydney (mind, that link will take you to four poems, but only three of them are sonnets), or some holy sonnets by John Milton or Christina Rossetti. Also, there’s last week’s post featuring Edward Arlington Robinson.
I read an article today that declared, “Robert Frost said that good fences make good neighbors.” What? Oh my! but I do believe that the author of the article totally misunderstood Robert Frost–or else had hadn’t remembered aright. (By the way, “What? Oh my!” is my attempt at a polite rendering of my astonishment at the error, which I had originally expressed with sputtering and nonsense syllable.) Anyway, read the following poem yourself, and see what I mean.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
I heartily recommend reading Pope’s entire essay. In the meantime, here are a few choice lines to spark your interest:
‘Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dangerous is the offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
‘Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go each alike, yet each believes his own.
Let such teach others who themselves excel,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their wit, ‘tis true,
But are not critics to their judgments too?
Be sure yourself and your own reach to know,
How far your genius, taste, and learning go;
Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,
And mark that point where sense and dullness meet.
Music resembles poetry, in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach,
And which a master-hand alone can reach.
If, where the rules not far enough extend,
(Since rules were made but to promote their end)
Some lucky license answer to the full
The intent proposed, that license is a rule.
Moderns, beware! or if you must offend
Against the precept, ne’er transgress its end.
Trust not to yourself; but your defects to know,
Make use of every friend—and every foe.
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ.
‘Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.
Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.
True wit is Nature, to advantage dress’d;
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.
Fear not the anger of the wise to raise;
Those best can bear reproof who merit praise.
‘Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain,
And charitably let the dull be vain:
Your silence there is better than your spite,
For who can rail so long as they can write?
Some valuing those of their own side or mind,
Still make themselves the measure of mankind:
Fondly we think we honor merit then,
When we but praise ourselves in other men.