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Winter Quarter '07 - English 330: The Romantic Age

Black Board

(This page will be used for miscellaneous postings over the course of the quarter)

Contents:

1. Sample Midterm Response

2a. Notes towards writing the RSP

2b. RSP Assignment (with an updated grading criteria section).

3. Class notes for Days 1-3

4. The White Knight's Song

5. The Metrics of Poetry

 

1. Sample Midterm Response

[Here is a mid-term rewrite essay on Stanza 32. Its strength is in its careful and extensive noticing of key words, which are then explored and explained in terms of the way they work to support the overall purpose of the stanza. The essay could perhaps be even stronger by including a clearer project statement—but I think it’s still clear in what we read here what work the writer thinks the stanza is doing.]

Thus whispering, his warm, unnerved arm
Sank in her pillow. Shaded was her dream
By the dusk curtains:—’twas a midnight charm
Impossible to melt as iced stream:
The lustrous salvers in the moonlight gleam;
Broad golden fringe upon the carpet lies:
It seem’d he never, never could redeem
From such a stedfast spell his lady’s eyes;
So mus’d awhile, entoil’d in woofed phantasies.


In stanza thirty-two we see Porphyro make his initial move on Madeline, as “his warm, unnerved arm/Sank in her pillow.” Keats uses of the word “warm” to emphasize the physical ardor felt by the young man, but its juxtaposition to the image of an “iced stream” in line 4 allows the poet to demonstrate that this is not enough to penetrate the charm in which the young woman dreams. If the passion of love and art are intertwined in this poem, it seems to me that the heat that Porphyro feels as creative inspiration must somehow penetrate, or at least interact with, the cold reason embodied by the human intellect. Keats provides an additional barrier as the speaker tells us that “[s]haded was her dream/By the dusk curtains,” which casts the final object (love/art) into a darker realm. The use of the image of a dream and the additional haziness in which it is placed only seems to strengthen the poem’s theme of artistic creation by acting as a metaphor for the unexplainable region in which art happens.

Keats also makes a point that the “lustrous salvers” which Porphyro (and Angela) had hoped might help him win Madeline are likewise useless. It is almost as if the poet wants to make it clear that there are no shortcuts to the ultimate destination of love or art. Keats also mentions the “golden fringe upon the carpet,” giving us a second line that seemingly has nothing to do directly with the pursuit. I can only think that Keats is placing all of this glitz against a background of ice and dark in order to better emphasize the darker aspects of the chase-the moments when the lover/artist despairs of ever attaining his goal; it could also be suggesting that these trappings are superfluous or even detrimental in context of true love or creation.

We see the darker aspect expressed in the next line as Porphyro appears almost on the verge of despair as the narrator tells us that it “seem’d he never, never could redeem/From such a stedfast spell his lady’s eyes.” This seems an unavoidable step in the pursuit of art and love, as the frustration of anticipation versus progress inevitably presents itself. But this period must be overcome if the end is to be realized, and this is what happens on the final line of the stanza, wherein the narrator tells us that the young man “mus’d awhile, entoil’d in woofed phantasies.” The “musing” that takes place seems to directly address the activity of artistic creation and the fact that it takes “awhile” seems to bring into focus the limbo that the artist feels as he tries to discover a way to realize his creation. By using the word “entoil’d” in the second half of the line he makes clear that this isn’t simply an idle musing in which the artist bides his time until the spark arrives, but rather is something of a dogged pursuit that actively produces the fantasies from which the inspiration comes.

There is also something of a “darkest before the dawn” feeling to this stanza, as we find Madeline waking up in the next stanza. And while Porphyro does indeed find the correct path or tool to achieve his love/art, it is only through an active engagement of his subject that success is achieved.

 

2a. Notes towards writing the RSP—

On your Nominations: only a couple I was really worried wouldn’t work. but it wasn't about your artifacts I was most worried. My worries had to do with what you thought was "romantic." Remember—it isn’t just the themes at a general level we are talking about. “Nature” has been a “theme” in literature for millennia. What’s of interest here is the particular way in which the romantics defined nature, and the strategies they take with respect to their struggles with their past and with the dominance of “cold reason.” Similarly with what I’ve called the theme of “freedom by recovery.” We now live in an age in which this theme is so commonplace that it shows up in a lot of things we see or read. And that makes it relevant for the sort of analysis we are doing here. But the interest of this isn’t simply THAT such a parallel exists; it is how, how far, and, very much as well, how different, that notion is realized in your modern artifact. Our concept of “freedom by recovery” now is often (but not always) pretty sentimental and simplified when set against Wordsworth’s version of it.

I’ll restate that last paragraph in different terms: it isn’t just invoking nature or a vision of the dark side that makes something a “romantic” survivor—it’s a particular uptake of the way those concepts are defined, developed, and made use of in the world of the romantics that you should be keeping in mind. So don't be slow to go back to the essay in Reading and Writing the Romantic Age on Conversations the Romantics like to have--and get the concepts clear in your mind.

On Your First Edition of your Paper: Think about your rhetorical situation as a writer here. Though it is commonplace in this particular class to think that you can compare Wordsworth with the Coen Brothers, it isn’t commonplace anywhere else on earth, and even here, you’ve got to convince me both that the parallel holds and that you know what you are talking about. So remember that (to quote Ricky Ricardo) “you’ve got some ‘splaining to do!”

To explain the question of the rhetoric of your first edition more fully, here is a comment I wrote on one of the proposals (perhaps I should have written it on all): “At first I wasn't believing you—but as you write, you start to change my mind. That's GOOD! So I look forward to seeing what you can do. Remember that I'm going to be just a little doubting of what you're trying to show, so keep working to be full and convincing as you make your case!”

Those are notes preliminary to thinking about the rhetoric of your paper. We also talked about audience, purpose, and what you will have to do to accomplish that purpose. (Yes, you, too, have a “project” in this—you have work to do, and to do it well, you need to think of it as a kind of project. What are you trying to accomplish? And for whom? Deciding what you should write finally is something that follows out of your clear understanding of exactly what you are trying to accomplish through these pages).

On Your Own Purpose For Writing: Finally, thinking generally about your own projects in doing this paper, I hope you’ll see this project as a chance to do something significant with the reading and thinking you are doing in this class and have been doing as an English major in general. Not every class can ask for a synthesis of what you know outside the class with what you know inside the class. But what’s the point of taking classes if at some point you don’t actually DO that sort of thinking?!!!

And think too about what your writing is going to do for the rest of us. I’m very impressed by how wide a range of works/films/poetry you’ve come up with as a group—I have much to learn from you in these papers, and likewise, I hope you will end up thinking you have learned a lot from each other by reading each others’ work. So—onwards! Go for it!

(I haven’t quite figured out how, but we are going to have a local publication project about all this via e-Post).

2b. RSP Assignment


Romanticism Unmasked: The Romantic Survival Project

The immediate goal of the Romantic Survival Project is to explain to someone you know well, who is culturally literate but is not an expert in the Romantic Age, any cultural artifact from the past few years that in your understanding either directly or ironically depends upon on one or more major Romantic themes or concepts.

The project will require your doing three things. First, you will need to locate a recent cultural artifact that in your view depends either directly or ironically on major Romantic themes or concepts; second, you will need to locate an appropriate analogue text—a Romantic Age poem or piece of prose we will read this quarter—that can supply a relevant Romantic Age context for your survival artifact; and third, you will need to explain exactly how your analogue text casts light on the hidden romanticism of your artifact—both by comparing their romantic elements, and by contrasting them as well. You will, after all, have to keep in mind that your artifact is not finally “romantic” in fact—and you will need to be able to explain the ways in which it is not romantic as well as the ways in which it is.

In evaluating the artifact you select it will matter to me less how perfect your example is than how well and how extensively you bring your understanding of romantic themes and conversations to bear in your discussion. We will work in class with one example: The Pirates of the Caribbean. Another example—highly ironic, to be sure—is Road Trip. Which makes another point: the artifact doesn’t have to be “great” art. Road Trip may be funny, but it’s also sexist at points, and really annoying at others. But though the film may not be great art, it certainly engages a whole range of romantic themes in very interesting ways, sometimes satirically, sometimes quite seriously, and almost always quite surprisingly.

Whatever artifact you pick, the task is essentially the same as what we will do together with Pirates: evaluate your artifact’s thematics in terms of the works you have studied this term, and then write a 5-6 page paper in which you either:

a) explain how the themes you have picked have survived in the work, and discuss 3-4 key moments at which they are developed (or, if the work is static, 3-4 elements), comparing and contrasting them with your selected Romantic Age analogue; or

b) pick a single 4-5 minute sequence of the film (or chapter-length segment story or novel) that seems to you to capture best the romantic themes you have encountered in this course, and do a reading of that scene in which you explain as fully as you can what survivals from the Romantic Age inform your scene, and compare and contrast it with your selected Romantic Age analogue.

[In the case that you pick something that is static—like an art object (an urn, say!) or a magazine layout—then instruction b) won’t work very well since it depends upon temporal sequence.]

General Goals:

I hope you will see over the course of this project how vibrant, supple, and adaptable the themes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century have been and continue to be. At the same time I hope you will also see ways to take the knowledge you build in this course well beyond its bounds—this course finally should be about a great deal more than Wordsworth and Hemans and Keats and Byron.

Finally, I hope when you reread your own paper at quarter’s end you’ll see yourself reading the material fluently and with sophistication, thinking about the social and aesthetic functions of the works we read, and relating course readings to your ongoing experience in the world. In an important sense, doing this project well should demonstrate to you as well as to me your learning throughout the quarter.

Grading Criteria:

As with everything else in this class, the 3 criteria (Conceptual Power/Integration, Specifics, Fullness/Exploration) will apply, but now enriched both by expectations appropriate to formal writing, and by the added requirements of comparison and contrast. (See RWRA, Section VI). That means I’ll actually be giving you 4 grid scores corresponding to the following criteria:

Conceptual Power/Integration: How strong and effectively argued is your claim
throughout?
Artifact Treatment: How well do you summarize and work with your artifact?
Analog treatment: How well and fully do you make use of your analogue?
Presentation: (see “Four Criteria for Writing in English 330” for explanation).

As for Conceptual Power/Integration, the best projects will have an element of discovery to them—even (as with Road Trip, certainly, and Pirates, most likely) surprise. They will in effect be making what will to many seem counterintuitive claims, and the more substantial those claims, and the more fully explained and defended those claims are (via Specifics, of course, and their Exploration), the more successful the overall argument will be.

Due Dates: February 12, Full page nomination of a cultural artifact on which to work, along with a possible analogue work, and a description of the direction you
expect to be going in your analysis.
February 21, Draft of full paper. Two copies ready for read-around.
March 7, 7:00 pm. Full paper, due at the start of class.

3. MIDTERM

English 330
Midterm 1


Since Day One of the quarter I've asked you to think about the poems we read in terms of their functions. “What,” I've asked you to ask, “does this poem (or this line, or this word) DO?” We’ve noted that poems can have different functions, or projects; we’ve noted that the functions works of art have can be different. Sometimes they work to raise a question, and thereby to engage us in a kind of cultural conversation; sometimes they make a particular sort of argument or claim about things, either to explain them to us or to convince us of their importance or to urge us to some sort of action. At the same time, it is not always easy to understand what a work of art’s function is; such texts tend to work by indirection and by condensation, not by direct statement, and thus they invite us to supply as part of our interpretation a hypothesis about what a given text is doing, and how it is doing it.

That’s why careful reading requires careful attention to detail, to choices writers make—to what we’ve called here the “whats” and (as ways to explore and explain the grounds for those choices) the “whys.”

That all said, for this midterm I want you to pick two of the 4 stanzas below, and to write a functional analysis of each of those two. I’d like you to begin by focusing on particular choices. Take your time—you have plenty. I’m not interested in LONG answers—and indeed, I hereby give you a word limit for BOTH essays taken together of 1000 words. I’m interested in thoughtful answers informed by the understandings you have developed as a student in this class.

Remember: You must email your exam to me no later than 9:00pm tonight, February 7. Total word limit: 1000 words.

Embed your answer in your email—do not send your exam by attachment. You can do this by blocking the answer (control-a), copying (control-c) and pasting in the body of the email (control-v).

See you next Monday! I’ll post more on assignments and so on once I’m back from Spokane on Friday.

a.
Sudden a thought came like a full-blown rose,
Flushing his brow, and in his pained heart
Made purple riot: then doth he propose
A stratagem, that makes the beldame start:
“A cruel man and impious thou art: 140
“Sweet lady, let her pray, and sleep, and dream
“Alone with her good angels, far apart
“From wicked men like thee. Go, go!—I deem
“Thou canst not surely be the same that thou didst seem.

b.
“It shall be as thou wishest,” said the Dame:
“All cates and dainties shall be stored there
“Quickly on this feast-night: by the tambour frame
“Her own lute thou wilt see: no time to spare, 175
“For I am slow and feeble, and scarce dare
“On such a catering trust my dizzy head.
“Wait here, my child, with patience; kneel in prayer
“The while: Ah! thou must needs the lady wed,
“Or may I never leave my grave among the dead.”

c.
A casement high and triple-arch’d there was,
All garlanded with carven imag’ries
Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings;
And in the midst, ’mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.

d.
Thus whispering, his warm, unnerved arm
Sank in her pillow. Shaded was her dream
By the dusk curtains:—’twas a midnight charm
Impossible to melt as iced stream:
The lustrous salvers in the moonlight gleam;
Broad golden fringe upon the carpet lies:
It seem’d he never, never could redeem
From such a stedfast spell his lady’s eyes;
So mus’d awhile, entoil’d in woofed phantasies.

 

1. Class Notes for Days 1-3

330 Journal Winter 07

[What follow here are notes about classes we've held over the first two weeks of the quarter. Most of you were there--but many in the class missed either because of the weather or because of enrollment difficulties. SO to help those of you get fully started, here are my short summaries of what we have done so far. (I've left out all the jokes.)]


First day—Role, quick overview of syllabus and the RSP, and intro to what Romantic poetry was by contrasting Tyger/Lamb with Volpone’s early 17th century lyric “Come My Celia.”

Worked to establish that this was a time of revolutionary ideas, in poetry as well as in the rest of the world. Class' talk with “Tyger” was particularly good. The idea of challenging God and the whole past tradition that the idea of God represented—as well as the will to engage with the dark side, the powers of the world that are dynamic and mysterious and full of savage violence, to find a cosmology where those things that have no order or sense still fit, still somehow make sense, and the paradoxical demands of a theology or cosmology that could contain such an idea. Contrast that to Jonson’s “To Celia,” which begins with several lines of translation of Catullus’ "Song V." There he works within a tradition, and represents a speaker who is both seducer and charismatic salesman. It really is an imitation of virtuous or vicious human action, with the end of pleasing and/or instructing—the Horatian dictum that so informed much of early modern and enlightenment poetry. Blake’s is not really imitation at all—its representation of the tiger is in no way realistic, either to visualize or to imagine in action. Rather, his representation is a means to a kind of transcendent question, an icon of the dynamic/terrible sublime. And in that it is deeply and foundationally romantic. It’s echoes, much toned down really, run all through Wordsworth and Coleridge, and Keats and the Shelleys (both Percy and Mary), and Byron.

Second day—

Role again, and some bureaucracy, but mainly on to Wordsworth’s poetry. We were doing Lucy poems and a few other lyrics. What is the revolutionary part of this was the main Q; and how is this poetry at all, and what is he really trying to do with what might seem like insubstantial baubles? We first just read through them all, together, aloud. We pointed out a few noticeable moments as we went, but didn’t make a big deal of them. We paid a little more attention to "Lucy Gray," reading aloud, looking for noticeables. I wanted them to see that “Lucy” here isn’t so much a particular girl as she is the “light” of what makes the child so worth attention as a kind of emblem for how we adults should be able to engage the world—an emblem of what we lose as we grow up and assume the roles of responsible adult citizenship.

We spent most time on “I Wandered Lonely”—working with each stanza, showing how much there was to pay attention to, how wide the net of this poem is cast in spite of its seeming a pretty straightforwardly simple nature poem. We talked of the “progress” from “lonely” to “joy” in “company” of the thousands of natural objects, no longer alienated, no longer alone. And then we talked about the last stanza’s recording the poetic moment by which the experience described in the first stanzas emerges in a moment of tranquility, a spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling, a recollection in tranquility. Those are Wordsworth’s own ways of describing the process of poetry, and he gives us here an account of its happening for him, along with a kind of demonstration of the value such transactions bring—joy, reintegration with the natural world to which we all belong (linked by “natural piety”—as he says in My Heart Leaps Up), having a sense of one’s sufficiency, of one’s significance in a world that does not depend on corrupting social structures. Very much a moment that enacts poetry as a response to a world captured by Rousseau’s line that runs something like “Born free but everywhere enchained.”

All this discussion was also in service of what’s and why’s—how to recognize them and what to do with them. Moving towards Project statements.

I then gave a lecture, basically, on some of the themes central to romanticism to which Wordsworth’s poetry gave particular prominence. These are summarized in RWRA—on the sub-link page. (Accessible from the main RWRA page, the one you get to after the password page.)

Day three—

Began by returning to “I wandered” so we could be explicit about project statements. Started with a review of what we’d noticed in that poem, on the overhead. Connected to the theory of poetry and all; then went on to outlining a project statement for the poem. The concept was clear enough, I think. We’ll return to it with some exercises to reinforce it next time.

Then we went on to “Nutting”; I’d asked people to select a couple lines and explain why they liked them; I asked for volunteers to contribute lines, and got several. We then went through the poem, focusing on those lines, but others too. I wanted people to see how many choice points Ww offers, how full the language is of semantic implication offered to explore the ideas he’s working with. This, too, is summarized in RWRA, at the end of Wordsworth and Poetry.

This section we also ended with a few minutes on project statements—what is Ww’s project here? What is he trying to do, and what does the poem actually accomplish (two related but somewhat different questions).

Finally we turned to “Resolution and Independence.” I’d asked people to id stanzas in their response papers, so I collected a list of the stanzas folks had selected, and then gave pairs of students each a stanza of those nominated to look at and come up with something worth noticing. We then did a circuit of the groups as we ended class. We will return to that poem next time, both to loop back and include the ten class members who were not able to get to class on the snow day, and to extend our thinking about the poem from the mere noticing of interesting elements to a putting of it all together into an argument about the work we think the poem is doing (what project it is attempting to enact), and how it manages to accomplish that work (project).

Then on to Coleridge.

 

1. "The White Knight's Song" (This is from Through the Looking Glass. In it Carroll parodies Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence." Like many parodies, this one is in the end not entirely fair--it is a Victorian/Edwardian way of mocking its poetic ancestor. But it's also awfully good at what it does--and brilliantly imaginative. Included simply for your amusement.)

The White Knight’s Song, or, The Aged, Aged Man, or A Sitting on a Gate

By Lewis Carroll

I'll tell thee everything I can;
There's little to relate.
I saw an aged aged man,
A-sitting on a gate.
"Who are you, aged man?" I said,
"And how is it you live?"
And his answer trickled through my head
Like water through a sieve.

He said, "I look for butterflies
That sleep among the wheat:
I make them into mutton-pies,
And sell them in the street.
I sell them unto men," he said,
"Who sail on stormy seas;
And that's the way I get my bread -
A trifle; if you please."

But I was thinking of a plan
To dye one's whiskers green,
And always use so large a fan
That they could not be seen.
So, having no reply to give
To what the old man said,
I cried, "Come, tell me how you live!"
And thumped him on the head.

His accents mild took up the tale:
He said, "I go my ways,
And when I find a mountain-rill,
I set it in a blaze;
And thence they make a stuff they call
Rowland's Macassar-Oil -
Yet twopence-halfpenny is all
They give me for my toil."

But I was thinking of a way
To feed oneself on batter,
And so go on from day to day
Getting a little fatter.
I shook him well from side to side,
Until his face was blue:
"Come, tell me how you live," I cried,
"And what it is you do!"

He said, "I hunt for haddocks' eyes
Among the heather bright,
And work them into waistcoat buttons
In the silent night.
And these I do not sell for gold
Or coin of silvery shine,
But for a copper halfpenny,
And that will purchase nine.

"I sometimes dig for buttered rolls,
Or set limed twigs for crabs;
I sometimes search the grassy knolls
For wheels of hansom-cabs.
And that's the way" (he gave a wink)
"By which I get my wealth -
And very gladly will I drink
Your Honour's noble health."

I heard him then, for I had just
Completed my design
To keep the Menai bridge from rust
By boiling it in wine.
I thanked him much for telling me
The way he got his wealth,
But chiefly for his wish that he
Might drink my noble health.

And now, if e'er by chance I put
My fingers into glue,
Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot
Into a left-hand shoe,
Or if I drop upon my toe
A very heavy weight,
I weep, for it reminds me so
Of that old man I used to know -
Whose look was mild, whose speech was slow,
Whose hair was whiter than the snow,
Whose face was very like a crow,
With eyes, like cinders, all aglow,
Who seemed distracted with his woe,
Who rocked his body to and fro,
And muttered mumblingly and low,
As if his mouth were full of dough,
Who snorted like a buffalo -
That summer evening long ago
A-sitting on a gate.

(from Through the Looking Glass)

3. The metrics of Poetry

THE METRICS OF POETRY

John Webster

If you are a poet, you are probably interested in making your language as effective as possible. You wish it to be condensed and highly significant, and to make it that way you look to deploy every possible means you can. You use the resources of metaphor, of diction and of sentence structure, of course, but poetry also has available to it what is called “meter”: the systematic and regular appropriation for artful effect of the natural rhythmic dimensions of language.

Understanding meter in English thus begins with recognizing the inherently metrical nature of the English language. Stress patterns are part of what makes English work; they occur both within words, and as intonation patterns for whole phrases or even sentences. These stress patterns are a necessary part of the language; indeed, when we change stress patterns, we often change meaning as well. Thus part of knowing English is knowing rules about how stress affects meaning—though these “rules” are of the hidden kind that we generally know without even knowing that we know them.

ENGLISH STRESS PATTERNS

Think about the rhythm of words first. In any polysyllabic word, one or more syllables are stressed more than the others. Consider the following words:

contend; practice; contradiction; willingness; preposterous

In two syllable words the case is easy: for most of them, one syllable is stressed, and the other is not. In “contend,” for example, we stress the second syllable after not stressing the first--and to do otherwise would make the word nearly unrecognizable. That gives “contend” a particular stress pattern, but its unstressed-stressed pattern doesn’t fit every two syllable word. In the word “practice,” by contrast, we stress the first syllable, and not the second.

We can represent these facts about stress with a set of conventional marks: stress we indicate with an accent mark; unstressed syllables with a macron:

- /
con tend

- /
prac tice

So much for the easy ones. Words of more than two syllables can be more of a problem, since each can actually have more than one stressed syllable; often in fact we even use more than one level of stress. This is a complicated dimension of spoken English, but we’ll assume just two levels of stress, what we will call “primary” and “secondary” stress. Consider the word “contradiction.” You can hear that the first syllable of that word is stressed more than the second, but you can also hear that the third syllable is stressed even more than the first. So this word actually shows two stress levels. The primary (or stronger) stress is on the third syllable, the secondary is on the first syllable. The word’s other two syllables—relative to the first and
third—are unstressed. We can represent these facts with the accent mark (/) (primary stress), the macron (-) (unstressed), and a reverse accent mark (\) (secondary stress):

\ - / -
con tra dic tion

Each of the other words in the list above have other patterns:

/ - -
will ing ness

- / - - pre pos ter ous

So much for the facts of word stress. The thing that matters most here is to see that the fact that stress exists itself creates an opportunity to increase the density of one’s language by so selecting and ordering one’s words that we create a certain careful, even musical, regularity. Here is the opening of a poem (Poe’s The Raven) with a very strong rhythmic effect:

Once upon a midnight dreary,
As I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a volume of quaint and curious lore,
Suddenly there came a rapping,
As of someone gently tapping . . .

These are not the rhythms of spoken English; or rather, these are the rhythms of spoken English, but in words so chosen and arranged by the poet that they create a more or less regular, repeated stress pattern—a patterning that’s virtually never heard in conversation.

There are other general issues we might consider—like what happens with one syllable words. Are they always stressed? No, in fact they are not. For them we have to trust our sense of their role in the phrase or sentence in which they occur. If you think of a sentence as a set of ideas laid like tiles all in a row, you can think of its rhythmical structure as made up of “tile” words (primary meaning units) and “grout” words (secondary meaning units). For example:

The dog went to its dish.

If you read that sentence naturally, you’re likely to give stress to just three of its six one syllable words: “dog,” “went” and “dish.” Those differ from the other three words (“the,” “to” and “its”) by each having a primary function in the sentence--as subject, verb and object. These are the tiles. The other words, though still necessary for the sentence to make sense, can be thought of as helper words, secondary to the others--and thus (given that we aren’t going to stress every word) we give them less stress. These are the grout.

Finally, we also have sentence pattern stresses. Ordinary statements have one basic pattern; questions have another. As a statement, “He’s going” will end with an unstressed syllable. But as a question (“He’s going?”), that last syllable now must be stressed. Indeed, it is precisely by stressing it that the speaker turns what could have been a statement into a question.

Other things could be said, but with just these basic facts we can actually do a pretty good job of describing poetic meter. For even if you as a speaker don’t consciously know all these different stress rules, you nevertheless use them regularly, and you use them correctly. All you really need to do, then, is learn to listen to yourself. That has its own troubles: when you first start to listen you will find yourself slowing down, distorting stress because you are listening so carefully. But with some practice you’ll get past that, and you’ll be well on your way.


POETIC METER

I quoted a fragment from Poe’s “The Raven” up above, a poem with a particularly strongly felt rhythm. But what Poe does there other poets also do, and one way to be a better reader of poetry is to learn to analyze these patterns both to understand how metrical effects are created, and to understand as well how and why poets vary their metrical patterns. For not all poems are as regular as is The Raven. Poe likes a very strong metrical, musical effect; other poets look to create less striking rhythms, and they do this by varying their lines ever so subtly, breaking up the regularity of their meter just enough to bring its net metrical effect close to—though not quite equal with—the rhythms of natural speech:

Reason, in faith thou art well served, that still
Wouldst brabling be with sense and love in me. . .

These lines (from a Philip Sidney sonnet) have a far less obvious rhythmic pattern than do Poe’s lines. Though they still are almost entirely regular in their rhythms, they don’t seem so, and Sidney accomplishes this simply by changing his pattern in the first line.

To be able to explain how Sidney manages this effect, we will have to do two things: first, we need to scan each line, marking the stressed and unstressed syllables—a process called (unsurprisingly) “scansion.” But second, we must then also analyze each resulting line into its underlying pattern. For what poets are really doing is imagining the sounds of their poems as sets of repeating units of either two or three syllables—units normally called “feet.” Most poems have either 4 or 5 such feet in each line; they are called “tetrameter” (Greek for “four-measure”) if they have 4 feet, and “pentameter” (“five-measure”) when they have 5.

Consider the following line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12:

When I do count the clock that tells the time. . .

That is a five footed “pentameter” line, and it is completely regular: its first syllable is unaccented, its second is accented, its third is unaccented, its fourth accented, and so on. The smallest repeating pattern—the basic measure for this poem—is thus of just two syllables: unaccented, accented. We can mark them off with a slash:

1 2 3 4 5

- / | - / | - / | - / | - /

When I do count the clock that tells the time. . .

But as I’ve already suggested, not all poetry is so regular. Look again at those lines by Sidney. Myself, were I to mark off the stresses in these lines they’d run something like this:

/ / | - / | - / | / / | - /

Reason, in faith thou art well served, that still

- / | - / | - / | - / | - /

Wouldst brabling be with sense and love in me. . .

I’ve put in slash marks to indicate basic feet again, but you’ll notice that not all of the feet are the same. Most are the same—indeed, most are of the same “unstressed-stressed” pattern we saw in Shakespeare’s line. And the second line is, again like Shakespeare’s, completely regular. But in the first line two of these units are different: the first and the fourth. They are called metrical substitutions—where a different pattern has been substituted in place of the basic “unstressed-stressed” pattern.

We’ve now got some different foot patterns—let’s give them names. In fact, let’s give names for all of the usual possible foot patterns in English—there are only six of them anyway. (The names are all from Greek, since that’s where we take a lot of our conventions from in the first place.)

- / | - / | - /
iamb: unstressed-stressed: When I do count the clock
/ - | / - | / - | / -

trochee: stressed-unstressed: Never buy a pickled pumpkin

/ / | / / | / /

spondee: stressed-stressed: Eight tall ships sailed eight miles

- - | / / | - - | / /

pyrrhic: unstressed-unstressed: In the tall grass was a small mouse
(you can’t actually do these very well in a row!)

- - / | - - / | - - /

anapest: unstressed-unstressed-stressed: It was many and many a year

/ - - | / - - | /- - |

dactyl: stressed-unstressed-unstressed: Terrible, terrible, pulsating

/ - -
animal

By far the most frequent pattern poets have adopted in English has been the first of these feet: the iamb. And, since the five-footed line has also been very popular, perhaps the best known meter in English is iambic pentameter. That is, for example, the basic line for almost all of Shakespeare’s work. Iambic tetrameter is probably the next most popular, but (as Poe’s trochaic tetrameter in “The Raven” shows) others, too, exist.

THE CAESURA

One more rhythm-related concept. You’ll notice as you or another person speaks that you include various pauses—sometimes quite marked, others only very slight. These, too, are essential for meaning—indeed they are so essential that we have to provide for them even in written English. That’s really all that punctuation marks are: visible indications of what would be signifying pauses if we were listening instead of reading. Thus we have a strong pause at the end of a sentence, a less strong pause to mark other effects (when in writing we use a comma or a dash). In fact, it turns out that we make some sort of pause very often—usually every four or five words. That being the case, poets have found a way to use that fact too. Thus by carefully arranging words, they can also arrange pauses. Look at those two lines we had above from Sidney:

Reason, in faith thou art well served, that still
Wouldst brabling be with sense and love in me. . .

In the first of these two lines there are actually TWO relatively strong pauses, each marked by a comma. But even in the second line, where there are no commas, there is nevertheless a slight, but noticeable pause (as there will be in almost any five-foot line)—between “be” and “with.” Each of these pauses we refer to in scansion as a caesura--the Latin word for “pause.” We mark these with a double slash:

/ / || - / | - / | / / || - /
Reason, in faith thou art well served, that still
- / | - / || - / | - / | - /
Wouldst brabling be with sense and love in me. . .

OK. Those are all the tools you need. Now let’s sum up. English poetry depends upon meter: the systematic and regular appropriation for artful effect of the natural rhythmic dimensions of language. That’s a mouthful, but it boils down to three principles: 1) poets very often arrange their words so that they create regular stress patterns, 2) poets introduce variation in those basic patterns by occasional substitutions of a different foot pattern into the poem’s underlying dominant pattern, and 3) poets also make conscious use of the pauses we make in our speaking. And finally, to those three principles we should also add an overriding caution: scansion is not an entirely exact science, and not every reader will scan every line in exactly the same way. That’s OK. But even with a little disagreement, we’ll still see eye to eye on most things. We’re aiming not for perfection—just agreement on the main points.


SO WHAT?

That seems a lot to keep track of, so why do it? Because although the main purpose of adopting patterns is simply to create a kind of musical backdrop against which to play out the reading of the poem, and although the main purpose of substitutions is usually only to keep the poem from getting TOO regular, thereby sounding sing-song and nursery-rhyme-ish, poets can also use metrical patterns either to emphasize words and phrases they want you to pay special attention to, or to create other special sound effects to make their verse more lively or more meaningful.

Let me end this with a demonstration. One of the early masters of metrical effect was Philip Sidney; below is a poem in which he uses almost every metrical trick he knows. He’s been writing a whole series of poems to a woman he’d like to love him; she has so far not taken him very seriously, only within the last sonnet or so having granted him a single and no doubt very chaste kiss. So in this poem he tries again, first declaring that he has never been a traditional (and thus boring) poet (conventionally supposed to have drunk from the muses’ sacred well at Aganippe), nor has he sat in the shade of Tempe (a valley sacred to Apollo); indeed, he says, he’s not much of a poet at all. He doesn’t even steal lines from others. So why, he goes on to ask, does it turn out that he can in fact write good poems? Only, he claims, because Stella has kissed him; she alone is the cause for his inspiration. That, at least, is the gist. But now read this poem aloud, and listen to what Sidney does to make it come rhythmically to life:

I never drank of Aganippè° well, °A spring sacred to poetry
Nor ever did in shade of Tempè? it; °
A wooded valley associated with poetry
And Muses scorn with vulgar brains to dwell;
Poor layman I, for sacred rites unfit.
Some do I hear of Poets’ fury tell,
But God wot,º wotº not what they mean by it; °
knows; know
And this I swear by blackest brookº of hell, °
stream
I am no pickpurse of another’s wit.
How falls it then that with so smooth an ease
My thoughts I speak, and what I speak doth flow
In verse, and that my verse best wits doth please?
Guess we the cause. “What, is it thus?” Fie, no.
“Or so?” Much less. “How then?” Sure thus it is:
My lips are sweet, inspired with Stella’s kiss.

Before you look at how I would scan the poem, take time to read it aloud. Notice how regularly it begins. In the whole first quatrain there is only one metrical substitution. But then notice how irregular the meter gets in the second quatrain, especially in line 6, as Sidney uses sound and meter comically to pretend to have descended into a kind of poetic “fury”—a kind of madness Plato says poets are prey to. But then note how smooth and easy the meter becomes in lines 9, 10 and 11—only once more to become broken up with caesuras and metrical substitutions in lines 12 and 13 as he again pretends confusion, now about the causes for his poetic ability. And then, finally, note how line 14 yet again grows “sweet,” regular, calm and charming, as if to demonstrate by meter alone the empowering effect of Stella’s kiss. (I’ve underlined all the irregular feet.)

Astrophel and Stella: 73


- /|| - / || - / | - / || - / ||
I never drank of Aganippe well,

- / | - / || - / | - / | - / ||
Nor ever did in shade of Tempe sit;
2

- / | - / || - / | - / | - / ||
And Muses scorn with vulgar brains to dwell;

/ / | - / || - / | - / | - / ||
Poor layman I, for sacred rites unfit. 4

/ / || - / || - / | - / | - / ||
Some do I hear of Poets’ fury tell,

/ / | / || / | \ / | - / | - / ||
But God wot, wot not what they mean by it; 6

- / | - / || - / | - / | - / ||
And this I swear by blackest brook of hell,

/ / | / / | - || - | - / | - / ||
I am no pick-purse of another’s wit. 8

- / | - / || - / | - / | - /
How falls it then that with so smooth an ease

- / | - / || - / | - / | - /
My thoughts I speak, and what I speak doth flow 10

- / || - / | - / | \ / | - / ||
In verse, and that my verse best wits doth please?

/ - | - / || / || - | - / || / || / ||
Guess we the cause. “What, is it thus?” Fie, no. 12

\ / || / / || / - || / / | - / ||
“Or so?” Much less. “How then?” Sure thus it is:

- / | - / || - / | - / | - / ||
My lips are sweet, inspired with Stella’s kiss. 14

 

 

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