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Book: A Boy’s Will
Poet: Robert Frost
Text: at archive.org (PDF)


I read Robert Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, at perhaps the perfect time. As the title suggests, the poems here come from a specifically youthful perspective (though Frost was not himself young when he published it). And this means a certain combination of doubt and braggadocio, of exuberance and overeagerly embraced sadness, that I recognize—not so much in myself (though they are not wholly absent) but in the person I was between, say, 18 and 22. (I am 26 now.) Why is this the perfect time? I cannot wholly enter these poems, yet I remember the version of myself that could, and as I read, I am reading not just the poems but also my past, with my own combination of enthusiasm and nostalgia.

Here, for instance, is the first poem of the volume, “Into My Own”:

Into My Own

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew–
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

The narrator romanticizes isolation, and regrets a world that does not afford it. It is not that he is isolated (the trees are, after all, the merest mask of gloom, no more), but that he imagines that he might become so. And if he did (the youthful hope)—and if he did, others would find him “only more sure of all I thought was true.” The youth feels his precarious position, feels the blows of an external world that would bend him to its demands, and protests against this corruption by dreaming of escape.

This recourse to such dreams, I know well. I look on it now with a more mature (I do not say ‘mature’ without qualification) eye, recognizing that this fantasy is something effete, unreal—mere dream in just the way the trees are the merest mask of gloom. Yet this is not an unkind judgment: I begrudge neither myself nor Frost’s youth our vanities.

Sorrow, like isolation, is equally romanticized by the youth, as in “My November Guest”, the volume’s third poem:

My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Where the last poem is easier to “dismiss” (that is not quite the right word) as merely a youthful fancy, this poem sticks, by which I mean that I still find myself able to enter into it somewhat naïvely, and make myself the speaker. The speaker who formerly dreamed of physical isolation now (I imagine) finds himself still in society, but nonetheless isolated, and so sorrowful. (In my own case, at least, the dream of physical isolation is often a wistful hope to escape the isolation I so often feel in crowds.) And yet he embraces this sorrow, and finds that in its own way it enhances the beauty of a certain sort of gloomy day. (On this point, Frost is entirely correct.)

What makes this poem something more than mere youthful faux-misery is the youth’s guile, as seen in the last stanza. It is not just that the sorrow makes the days beautiful, but that Sorrow, personified, praises them. And even though he has come to understand her praise, he hides this from her, does not let her know that he has been persuaded, so that she will continue to praise the “bare November days.” It is this image of the youth struggling with his sorrow, trying to outwit her and to subvert her to his own benefit, that escapes youth. I, at least, have not found the need for such guile to diminish with age. (But then, I am not old.)

One last poem to illustrate what I find so rewarding about this volume:

Love and a Question

A Stranger came to the door at eve,
And he spoke the bridegroom fair.
He bore a green-white stick in his hand,
And, for all burden, care.
He asked with the eyes more than the lips
For a shelter for the night,
And he turned and looked at the road afar
Without a window light.

The bridegroom came forth into the porch
With, ‘Let us look at the sky,
And question what of the night to be,
Stranger, you and I.’
The woodbine leaves littered the yard,
The woodbine berries were blue,
Autumn, yes, winter was in the wind;
‘Stranger, I wish I knew.’

Within, the bride in the dusk alone
Bent over the open fire,
Her face rose-red with the glowing coal
And the thought of the heart’s desire.
The bridegroom looked at the weary road,
Yet saw but her within,
And wished her heart in a case of gold
And pinned with a silver pin.

The bridegroom thought it little to give
A dole of bread, a purse,
A heartfelt prayer for the poor of God,
Or for the rich a curse;
But whether or not a man was asked
To mar the love of two
By harboring woe in the bridal house,
The bridegroom wished he knew.

The poem and its beauty speak for itself. What I want to point out is simply what I take to be an important element of it: that the narrator is not married. I suppose I do not know this, but the emphasis on isolation in the volume suggests it. In any event, if we accept that the youth is not married, then we are forced to conclude that this poem is sheer imagination: the youth is inventing the scene of his wedding night, and is worried that it will be interrupted by the various sorrows he feels. As someone who is happily married, I can say that the fear is a justified one. The sense of isolation can strike even when one is among the closest and most trusted of friends.

Reading the poem, I get a sense of self-absorption on the part of the youth. I say this without judgment (lest I be judged). The bride is left in the background, neglected, while the youth is occupied with his care. Even though he says he “wished he knew” whether or not to admit this guest, he does not really have a choice: he has already invited him in, has neglected his bride for the sake of his care.

What we get with this poem, therefore, is a youth imagining a scenario about which he knows little firsthand (marriage) and placing into that scene a character—the only character—about whom he knows a great deal (himself). The result is a mix of fancy and realism, not exactly accurate, but believable enough, and a reasonable fear. It is this mix that so attracts me to the poem. The youth still knows little enough of the material realities of life to invent these realities after his own image, and so we learn the contours of that image—as does he.

 

Poem: The Caged Skylark
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins


Taking a break now from Hopkins’ terrible sonnets, here is Hopkins in his uplifting mode, so far as it goes. My attempt to scan the poem is below, with commentary following. As usual, an acute accent marks a primary stress, a grave accent marks a secondary stress, and underlining marks outrides (all outrides follow Hopkins’ own markings).

As a dáre-gàle skýlàrk scánted in a dúll cáge
….Màn’s móunting spírit in his bóne-hòuse, méan hòuse, dwélls—
….Thát bìrd beyónd the remémbering hís frèe félls;
Thís in drúdgery, dày-lábouring-óut lìfe’s áge.

Though alóft on túrf or pérch or póor lòw stáge,
….Both síng sòmetímes the swéetest, swéetest spélls,
….Yet bóth dròop déadly sómetìmes ín their célls
Or wríng their bárriers in búrsts of féar or ráge.

Nót that the swéet-fòwl, sóng-fòul, néeds nò rést—
Whỳ, héar hìm, héar hìm bábble and dròp dówn to his nést,
….But his ówn nést, wíld nést, nò príson.

Man’s spírit wíll be flésh-bòund when fóund at bést,
But úncúmberèd: méadow-dòwn is nót distréssed
….For a ráinbòw fóoting it nòr hé for his bónes rísen.

Sprung rhythm allows for four basic types of foot, and, because it is dipodic, ten sub-variations within these four types:

Monosyllable: (1) /
Trochee: (2) / u | (3) / \
Dactyl: (4) / u u | (5) / \ u | (6) / u \
First paeon: (7) / u u u | (8) / \ u u | (9) / u \ u | (10) / u u \

Examples from “The Caged Skylark”:

(1) dull; line 1
(2) mounting; line 2
(3) dare-gale; line 1
(4) –yond the re–; line 3
(5) That bird be–; line 3
(6) n/a
(7) scanted in a; line 1
(8) n/a
(9) meadow-down is; line 13
(10) drudgery, day; line 4

I want to focus on Hopkins’ use of feet of types (1), (3), and (10). He uses each to excellent effect, demonstrating the expressive power of sprung rhythm.

Foot type (3)

Foot type (3) (along with foot type (9)) is one of the anchors of a dipodic rhythm. Both (3) and (9) create a pleasant and balanced rocking motion, whereas all other dipodic feet ((5), (6), (8), (10)) are “unbalanced” because of how their stresses are distributed. Hopkins especially likes to place feet of type (3) back-to-back, as occurs several times in this poem:

Line 1: dare-gale skylark
Line 2: bone-house, mean house
Line 9: sweet-foul, song-foul, needs no
Line 10: hear him, hear him

The use in the first two lines is especially powerful. The poem is an extended comparison between man and the skylark. In line 1, “dare-gale skylark” (the first two feet of the poem following the opening anacrusis) establishes the latter of these as courageous and noble, daring to take on the gale. (And with only a little imaginative extension, we can imagine the rising and falling motion of these feet as the movement of the skylark in the gale.) In line 2, we get a similar rich introduction to man and his “mounting spirit.” The absence of secondary stresses here gives the feeling of a continuous upward movement, echoing rhythmically the mounting of man’s spirit. But this then hits a brick wall with “bone-house, mean house,” where the back to back dipodic feet introduce a sense of falling—falling, that is, into our bodies. That is, because of the way the rhythm (and sense) of the first half of the line contextualizes these two feet, they take on a very different feel from the corresponding two feet in the first line, despite being rhythmically identical. Moreover, this very contrast deepens our experience of the meanness of man, for it brings us to feel this meanness in contrast with the very bravery of the skylark.

The overall effect of the first two lines is thus two-fold. The primary sense of the lines draws a straightforward parallel: just as the “dare-gale skylark” is reduced to life in a “dull cage,” so too “man’s mounting spirit” is forced to reside in a “bone-house, mean house.” But the rhythm produces a kind of semantic counterpoint, creating a second comparison between the meanness of man’s bone-house and the skylark daring the gale. This comparison makes us feel more acutely man’s wretchedness.

Foot type (1)

The use of monosyllables (foot type (1)) in sprung rhythm inevitably leads to clashing accents (back to back stressed syllables). Because each foot in sprung rhythm should be of roughly equal duration, this means that monosyllables must be dwelt upon, slowing down the poem and concentrating a great deal of emphasis in a small space. For instance, “dull cage” in line one disrupts the rhythm established by “dare-gale skylark,” just as the cage itself disrupts the skylark’s flight.

But the really striking use of monosyllables comes in line 11, where Hopkins places three back-to-back, leading to four consecutive stressed syllables: “own nest, wild nest.” The emphasis concentrated in these four words is tremendous, corresponding to the heightened emotional pitch of this line. We have just seen, in the final lines of the octet, the skylark and the spirit of man drooping in their cages. In the sestet, Hopkins is quick to assure us that he is not saying that the wild bird does not struggle, does not escape the need for rest, but notice where it rests: in its own, wild nest. The comfort is not perpetual vigor, but the ability to be at home where one rests. This sets up the final tercet, where we see that man’s spirit, when found at its best, is in a similar position: flesh-bound, but uncumbered.

Foot type (10)

This discussion will focus less on meaning and more on simply pointing out a metrical curiosity of this poem. While all 10 metrical feet surveyed above are allowable in sprung rhythm, I find that two of them are especially rare: (8) and (10). Indeed, I often use a desire to avoid feet of type (8) as an aid in scanning Hopkins. The reason is that these feet are strongly unbalanced (the dipodic dactyls are also unbalanced, but less strongly so) in where they place the stresses. I find it hard to explain just why, but they sound less natural to my ear than (7) or (9).

In this poem, however, there are three instances of foot type (10). Interestingly, Hopkins marked the slack syllables in each case as outrides. Since outrides are extrametrical and not counted in the scansion, in a sense these feet are technically of type (3), but their rhythmic effect is dramatically different from genuine type (3) feet, so I’m going to treat them as type (10) feet. Here they are:

Line 4: drudgery, day
Line 10: babble and drop
Line 14: footing it nor

It is worth noting that an alternate scansion of line 10 would put a primary stress on “drop” and a secondary stress on “down.” I avoid this for three reasons. First and foremost, because I think it sounds less good. Second (and in a sense this is just an elaboration of the first reason), because it would create a foot of type (8) (“drop down to his”). Third, because it would leave no explanation for why Hopkins marked the slack syllables as outrides. Every other instance in the poem is in a four-syllable foot (two of type (10) and one of type (7)).

Ultimately, I don’t see that the use of these type (10) feet contributes noticeably to enhancing the meaning of the poem, but it is interesting that this rare foot appears three times in this poem, and that (though this is no surprise, for it is Hopkins we are discussing) each time it enhances the rhythm of the line in which it appears.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Caged Skylark

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage,
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells —
That bird beyond the remembering his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.
Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage
Both sing sometímes the sweetest, sweetest spells,
Yet both droop deadly sómetimes in their cells
Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.

Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest —
Why, hear him, hear him babble & drop down to his nest,
But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.

Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best,
But uncumberèd: meadow-down is not distressed
For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bónes rísen.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Farming” in Society and Solitude

Intellect is a fire: rash and pitiless it melts this wonderful bone-house which is called man.

Poem: (Carrion Comfort)
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins


Way back in high school, before I knew anything about poetry (though even then I styled myself a poet, in hindsight a “poet” of the kind you are liable to find on wordpress), I had my first encounter with Gerard Manley Hopkins. Even then, (Carrion Comfort) struck me, though the basic overview of sprung rhythm we received was inadequate to allow me to unlock its rhythm (and, to accept what blame is mine, I lacked any interest then even in learning to scan simpler meters).

Now almost a decade later, I’ve learned and mature enough to take a crack at it. Though a sonnet, (Carrion Comfort) is in hexameter rather than pentameter (we’ve seen this before). In this, I follow Hopkins himself, and disagree with Edward A. Stephenson, which disagreement I note since it was Stephenson who isolated the nine principles of sprung rhythm that make clear its workings. I owe him a great debt, but in this instance he is wrong.

In the scansion below, I have marked primary stresses with an acute accent and secondary stresses with a grave accent (though note that the accent on “bruisèd,” line 7, indicates pronunciation and not stress). Outrides are underlined; all outrides follow Hopkins’ own markings. Afterwards, I discuss some interesting features that emerge.

Nòt, Í’ll nòt, cárrion cómfort, Despáir, nòt féast on thée;
Nòt untwíst — sláck they may bé — thése làst stránds of mán
In me ór, mòst wéary, crý I cán no móre. I cán;
Càn sómethìng, hópe, wísh dày cóme, nòt chóose nòt to bé.
But áh, but Ó thou térrible, why wóuldst thou rúde on mé
Thy wríng-wòrld ríght fòot róck? lày a líonlìmb agáinst me? scán
With dárksome devóuring éyes my brúisèd bónes? and fán,
O in túrns of témpest, me héaped there; me frántic to avóid thèe and flée?

….Whý? That my cháff might flý; my gráin lìe, shéer and cléar.
Nay in áll that tóil, that cóil, since (séems) I kíssed the ród,
Hànd ráther, my héart lò! lápped strèngth, stóle jòy, wóuld làugh, chéer.
Chèer whóm though? the héro whose héaven-handling flúng me, fóot tród
Me? or mé that fóught him? O whích one? is it éach òne? That níght, that yéar
Of nów dòne dárknèss I wrétch lày wréstling wìth (my Gód!) my Gód.

Comments

  1. Hopkins in this poem takes full advantage of the freedom that sprung rhythm offers as a logaoedic meter. The base rhythm in sprung rhythm is a mix of trochees and dactyls, with monosyllables and first paeons (one stress followed by three slack syllables) as rarer exceptions. The danger of such a meter is that it becomes simply unprincipled, haphazard. Here that does not happen. The dominant rhythm is trochaic and often claustrophobic (see my second comment below), with dactyls used to create breathing space. To give just one example, in the first line we have three trochees (I’ll not; -pair not; feast on) and, ignoring for now the rove-over syllables, a monosyllable (thee). There is also the line-opening anacrusis (Not), which in my view takes a secondary stress. Two of the trochees have secondary stresses (I’ll not; -pair not), making the line very heavy. Yet in the middle we have two dactyls (carrion; comfort, de-). After the inward-looking insistence of “Not, I’ll not,” Hopkins turns outward to his oppressor. The rhythm captures this outward turning beautifully.

  2. Hopkins also uses dipodic feet to excellent effect in modulating the rhythm, even where the pattern of primary stresses and slack syllables (counting secondarily stressed syllables as slack) is identical. Consider the endings of line 3 (cry I can no more. I can) and line 11 (lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer). Both have the following stress pattern: / u / u / u /. In line 3, however, every slack syllable truly lacks a stress, whereas in line 11 every slack syllable takes a secondary stress. Both are incredibly heightened moments of the poem (though what isn’t, in Hopkins?), yet they achieve very different effects. In line 3, the speaker’s cry comes through clearly and cleanly, is uncluttered and musical. By contrast, in line 11, the effect is that of a slow build, two steps forward (the primary stresses), one step back (the secondary stresses), finally culminating in that crucial word, “cheer,” which brings us to the central tension of the poem, “Cheer whom though?”, about which more in the next comment.

  3. It is an interesting feature of the poem that the word “not,” which appears six times in the first four lines, always takes a secondary stress and not a primary stress. This runs contrary to my first inclination on reading the poem, but in the context of the whole it is actually quite crucial that “not” never takes a primary stress. Notice what syllables are forced to take a primary stress because of this: I’ll; (des)pair; feast; (un)twist; choose. All concern either the speaker (I’ll) or the speaker’s actions (the rest). The stressing thus points to the self-centeredness of the speaker, setting up the later question, central to the entire poem: “Cheer whom though?” And notice also that once he asks this question, once he asks whether it is himself or his oppressor whom he cheers, how the word “me” takes or fails to take a stress. When considering his oppressor (heaven-handling flung me, foot trod / me), it does not. But when he considers himself (or me that fought him), it does. Hopkins’ genius shows itself in the littlest things.

I mentioned in my first attempt at a proper scanning of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “No worst, there is none…” that I did not really understand the purpose of outrides, and that I used them in line six out of felt necessity. This morning, in Edward Stephenson’s essay “Hopkins’ ‘Sprung Rhythm’ and the Rhythm of Beowulf,” I found an example of an outride used to include an extrametrical syllable, and this confirms that I used them incorrectly in my previous attempt. Here is a revised scansion correcting the error, with changes from the previous attempt marked in red. Commentary to follow:

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I have changed the way I scan seven of the feet: one foot in line 2, two feet in line 6, two feet in line 10, and two feet in lines 12-13. I will explain each change.

Line 2. The change here does not reflect a change in the rhythm or the distribution of stresses, but rather my new understanding of outrides. Previously, I had scanned “More pangs will” as a dipodic foot with a primary stress on “More,” a secondary stress on “will,” and no stress on “pangs.” I assumed “pangs” did not take a stress because it has to be muted relative to the stressed syllables that flank it. In fact, however, it is a quite heavy word, and something is lost in marking it simply as unstressed. What Stephenson’s essay taught me is that this is precisely the context in which a syllable should be treated as an extrametrical outride (his example is “shake’s heel sweeps” from The Windhover, with “heel” as the outride).

Line 6. The recognition that “pangs” is an outride in line 2 has as its corollary the recognition that “on an” in line 6 is not a pair of outrides. But this creates a problem. They cannot be attached to the prior foot (“world-sorrow”) for two reasons. One, it would violate isochronicity. “World-sorrow” is already long enough, and even though “on an” passes quickly, the semicolon enforces a pause that adds to the length. Two, it would make the foot contain five-syllables, which while technically allowable, is a special case in sprung rhythm, and nothing in the content of the poem here seems to warrant such an exception. At the same time, “on an” cannot be attached to the next foot (“age-old” in my original attempt), because that would require giving a primary stress to “on” and a secondary stress to “age,” a manifest violation of the way in which the line can actually be read. For this same reason, “on an” cannot be treated as a foot of its own, because, again, this would require giving “on” a primary stress it plainly does not demand (not to mention that it would violate isochronicity pretty badly, since “on an” skates by rather rapidly in this line).

The only option left is to introduce a rest, such that “on an” becomes the tail end of a foot whose primary stress is taken up by a rest beat. This respects that “on” here takes a light stress. It eases the pressure on “world-sorrow” by removing the pause after the semicolon from that already lengthy foot. So it is an attractive option for several reasons; it is not merely a last resort. But it does introduce a problem, for it seems to make the line contain six beats (world; rest; age; an[vil]; wince; sing). In fact, however, this allows me to treat “age-old anvil” as a single dipodic foot, which I think improves the isochronicity of the line: both “age-old” and “anvil” on their own are shorter than “world-sorrow” even without the pause. Introducing a rest in line 6 thus seems to be the correct way of scanning the line.

Line 10. Here my change has no connection to outrides. Rather, I simply realized that “no-man-fathomed” reads nicely as a dipodic foot, while “sheer” can stand on its own as a monosyllable (especially since it is followed by a comma that gives a pause). Indeed, treating “sheer, no-man” as a single foot is quite awkward. This change requires promoting the stress on “no” and demoting the stress on “fath[omed],” but this is a natural change, for “no” begins a new adjective and so can quite properly take a stress. This change thus allows me to treat each of the three descriptions of the “cliffs of fall” equally, which respects the meaning of the line. Honestly, with hindsight I am not sure why I ever scanned it the other way.

Lines 12-13. Previously I scanned “deep. Here! creep, / Wretch” as four consecutive stresses. I was worried about this from the start, since it seemed a bit too much even for such a heightened moment in the poem. Another reason to be worried is that it gives the first foot of line 13 (“Wretch, under a”) a somewhat awkward scanning pattern (/ \ u u). While technically an allowable foot, it is to my ear the least elegant of the ten basic feet sprung rhythm can include. This particular instance of it is made more awkward by the comma between “Wretch” and “under.” Demoting “Wretch” to a secondary stress (and thus making it the completion of the foot begun at the end of the previous line: “creep, / Wretch”) and elevating the first syllable of “under” to a primary stress (yielding the foot: “under a”) resolves both problems. It also, to my ear at least, reads naturally.


I am now fairly confident that I have the proper scansion of this poem, though if history is any guide you can expect another revision tomorrow.