Poetry is frequently classified as lyric, narrative, or dramatic. The last two types are seldom written now—although they probably make up the greater part of all verse, at least that written by highly regarded authors—and most people hearing the word “poetry” probably think only of the lyric. Lyrics are those poems that seem to present the feelings or reflections of the writer—although careful readers don’t assume that the “voice” in the poem is his/hers. Narrative poetry (such as “Evangeline”) tells a story, and dramatic poetry (such as Hamlet) presents one or more voices talking to others or to themselves: we are the “fly on the wall,” looking on or eavesdropping. Monologs occur whenever a character talks to himself (as in Shakespeare’s soliloquies).
Some critics would exclude soliloquies from the “dramatic monologue” category, restricting the use of the term to free-standing poems that represent speeches delivered to some unseen listener. That seems pointless to me since the two forms are so closely related, and it is useful to discuss them together. They are dramatic because they are something overheard, not something addressed to us as readers or listeners. And they are easily distinguished from lyrics because they are put into the mouths of clearly fictional speakers.
Because they are self-revelatory, something overheard, monologs allow us to share another viewpoint for a moment in a way that lyrics can’t. They are not written in the anonymous voice of a poet making a pronouncement for an audience of poetry readers—or so it seems. Because they are dramatic, it is clear that you must give them the inflections of a real, speaking voice rising above the kind of monotone that readers often fall into when they read poetry. (You really shouldn’t ever do that. And yes, you should read poetry aloud.)
Let’s begin by looking at a soliloquy from Hamlet (Act I, scene 2). Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, became the king by marrying Hamlet’s mother less than a month after her husband died. (He actually murdered Hamlet’s father—though Hamlet doesn’t know that yet.) It is now less than two months since the funeral, and Hamlet is resentful of his mother’s apparent lack of love for his father—at what appears to be little more than the fleshy appetites of the new couple. They have just left him, going to eat and drink, and Hamlet is alone with the grief and rage that consume him.
O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d the Everlasting/God
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God! canon/church law
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world.
Fie on ‘t! ah fie! ‘tis an unweeded garden, Fie/exclamation of disgust
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead! nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king, that was, to this, to this/compared to this one
Hyperion to a satyr: so loving to my mother Hyperion/a Greek Titan;
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven beteem/think fit
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him, why/the interjection,
not a question word
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month—
Let me not think on ‘t—Frailty, thy name is woman!—
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears:—why she,— Niobe/Greek woman fabled
for her tears
O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason beast that wants, etc./
an unreasoning animal
Would have mourn’d longer,—married with my uncle.
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month;
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galléd eyes, galled/made sore by rubbing
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue!
Like most English verse-drama this is in blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter. An iamb is a poetic “foot” of two adjacent syllables that has the rhythm [dih-DAH]. Pentameter [penta-five, meter-measure] means that there are five feet, iambic in the line: [dih-DAH][dih-DAH][dih-DAH][dih-DAH][dih-DAH]. The last line of the soliloquy is a good example: [but BREAK][my HEART],[for I][must HOLD][my TONGUE]. In modern use, any poetic foot may be substituted into such a line as long as it is effective and the underlying rhythm remains. The first line, for example, substitutes a monosyllabic foot [DAH] and an anapaest [dih-dih-DAH] for the first two iambs: [O][that this TOO][too SOL][-id FLESH][would MELT]. (Another way of analyzing this is to say that a trochee [DAH-dih] has been substituted for the first iamb, but that doesn’t express the rhythm quite as well. It is, however, the simplest way to characterize the line.) Such variety adds interest and expressiveness to the poem. (In a dramatic reading as opposed to an analysis, I would go even further, as you will see in a moment.)
The earliest English blank verse is very mechanical, regular to the point of monotony, and Shakespeare became much freer in his handling of the form as he became more experienced. Hamlet was probably written about 1600, just about half-way through his career, so it is rather free. Much more important is the fact that this soliloquy is an impassioned utterance made by someone filled with rage, despair, disgust, and sorrow. That is apparent in the way in which he interrupts himself and makes false starts, leaving statements incomplete as his passion overwhelms him. Variation in the form of the lines is essential for an actor trying to project Hamlet’s emotion to the audience. That, after all, is what the soliloquy is for—to allow us to hear his deepest feelings.
A curious fact about English is that we can add stress to any syllable in a word as long as we don’t make a syllable that is ordinarily weakly-stressed stronger than one which is ordinarily strongly-stressed. If you were a drama coach analyzing this for an actor, you might produce a reading like this:
[O],[that this TOO],[TOO SOL][-id FLESH][would MELT]
[THAW][and re-SOLVE][it-SELF][in-to][a DEW!]
[Or THAT][the EV][-er-LAST][-ing HAD][not FIX’D]
[His CAN][-on ‘GAINST][SELF-SLAUGH][-ter! O][GOD! GOD]!
[How WEAR][-y, STALE],[FLAT],[and un-PROF][-it-a-ble]
[SEEM][to me ALL][the US][-es OF][this WORLD].
[FIE on ‘t]![AH FIE]! [‘TIS an][un-WEED][-ed GARD-en],
[That GROWS][to SEED]; [THINGS RANK]and GROSS][in NA-ture]
The essential stresses are found in polysyllabic words such as “SOL-id” and “re-SOLVE,” for that is how we pronounce them. Interjections such as “O,” “GOD!” and “FIE!” are always stressed, and the little function words (a, an, the, of, in, on, and, but, or, etc.) are seldom stressed. Some stresses come from the syntax; for example, auxiliaries such as “would” generally take less stress than the main verb [would MELT]. And some stresses come from our effort to emphasize certain things: our flesh is TOO, TOO solid to melt away.
Now for some more foot names: be patient! [-ed GARD-en] is an amphibrach, [dih-DAH-dih]. [THINGS RANK] is a spondee, [DAH-DAH]. [in-to] is a pyrrhic: [dih-dih. In ordinary speech some of the syllables in a word like “profitable” may be elided (swallowed-up) and it may even be pronounced as if it had two only syllables: “proft’ble.” I have regarded the last syllables of this word [-it-a-ble] as a tribrach [dih-dih-dih] for that slows the line at the end, helping to build the sense of despair. To really understand such lines, you have to read them aloud, putting yourself into Hamlet’s state of mind, just as you would try if you were an actor.
Sometimes, people who are laboring to figure out what the rhythm of a line is will read it in a kind of sing-song: [oh THAT][this TOO][too SOL][-id FLESH][would MELT]/[thaw AND][re-SOLVE][it-SELF][in-TO][a DEW]. Don’t do this, or if you think you sometimes must—do it with great caution. Here’s why: if dactyls [DAH-dih-dih] are substituted for the first two iambs of a line of iambic pentameter, and if a monosyllabic foot is substituted for the third, we might have a line like this: [LOST in his][TUR-bu-lent][THOUGHTS][he STOOD][a-GHAST]. Try to read this in a two-syllable, sing-song and see how far it gets you. Much the best thing to do is to cultivate your feeling for the lines as rhythmic entities.
This soliloquy is one of my favorites, rivaled only by “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” (Act II, scene 2). I like it because of the brilliance with which the feeling is displayed, and Hamlet, who has no real power in the court, has reason to be filled with turbulent and conflicting emotions. Critics often talk about “Hamlet’s problem,” but the issue is simple: his problem is his mother. The king has gone to his supper, making a reference to the cannon that will fire each time he drinks a toast. In pointed contrast, Hamlet begins his speech by wishing that he could melt away into nothing but dew. For him the world is stale and meaningless, a garden taken over by weeds. His father was a loving man and king, and his uncle is merely coarse, but it is his mother’s hasty wedding that troubles him most. Even a dumb beast would have mourned longer, he feels—but the shoes that she wore at the funeral have outlasted her love for his father. Because of the close relationship (brother and sister-in law), Hamlet views her marriage to Claudius as being virtuously incestuous: “O most wicked speed, to post/With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” Notice the alliteration of the “s,” “sh,” and “ch” sounds in these lines, which hiss out his disgust: “most,” “speed,” “post,” “such,” “dexterity,” “incestuous,” and “sheets.” (Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds, often at the beginnings of words. I have included both the “hissing” and the related “shushing” sounds, here.)
This brings us to euphony and cacophony. Euphony [eu-good, phony-sound] is exemplified by lines that are smooth and flowing. Cacophony [caco-bad, phony-sound] is exemplified by lines that are broken up by consonants which require strong shifts in the positions of one’s vocal organs (notably the tongue and lips). The true measure of cacophony is how much you have to work to pronounce the lines, and “to post/with such dexterity . . . “ is cacophonous. Another example is the line: “O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason . . . “ Read this slowly aloud and notice how the lips and tongue move vigorously from one sound to the next. Then compare it with the first line which is far more euphonious: “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt . . . “ The movement of the lips and tongue required for “too, too solid” is very subtle compared with that required for “wants discourse.” The first line may be read as being slow and elegiac in feeling, the other is an outcry.
The use of imagery and figures of speech is very effective, particularly the un-weeded garden metaphor. This works especially well because it takes stewardship to keep a garden weeded, and his uncle is the new steward of his world. That garden is now possessed by (taken over by) things rank and gross in nature. His father, in contrast to his uncle, didn’t even want the winds of heaven (the sky) to blow too strongly upon his mother’s face, and—as if his use of the word “heaven” leaves it present in his mind—Hamlet bursts out in an oath: “Heaven and earth!” We have the focus on the small details, the shoes she wore walking after her husband’s casket. We have classical imagery: his father, compared to his uncle, was like Hyperion compared to a satyr; his mother was all tears, like Niobe; and his uncle is no more like his father than Hamlet is to Hercules. And we have the wonderful mixed metaphor: because he must hold his tongue, his heart is breaking.
But despite the fact that all of this is so carefully controlled by the poet, the characteristics of actual, spontaneous speech appear throughout. There are the oaths and lamentations: “O God! God!”; “Fie on’t! ah fie!”; “Heaven and earth!/Must I remember?” There are self-interruptions: “Let me not think on’t—Frailty, thy name is woman!” And when he is talking about the haste with which his mother has married he bursts out in the line we looked at before: “O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason/would have mourn’d longer . . . .“ All of this is perfectly natural in speech, but it is not generally characteristic of lyric.
One of the dramatic monologs that is most similar to a soliloquy is Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” We are listening to the Duke of Ferrara who is negotiating with an agent of the Count of Tyrol. We know these things because the poem is based upon actual events. The Duke’s first wife, whom he had married when she was fourteen years old, died when she was seventeen under suspicious circumstances. We hear only the Duke’s voice, but his actions and those of his guest are made clear by the things he says. As in the Hamlet soliloquy, he interrupts himself as he gropes for words, but he is not perfectly candid in expressing his innermost thoughts. We must read between the lines to know what happened to his first wife.
That’s my Last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now. Frà Pandolf’s hands Frà Pandolf/
a fictitious painter
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
Frà Pandolf by design, for never read by design/deliberately, because
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, durst/dared
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘twas not
Her husband’s presence only called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps
over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat”: such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘twas all one! My favor at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West, dropping, etc./sunset
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred years old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such a one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
–E’en then would be some stooping, and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat.
The Count your master’s known munificence munificence/liberality with money
Is ample warrant that no just pretense warrant/guarantee; pretense/claim
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; dowry/price paid to a suitor
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though, Neptune/ Greek god of the sea
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! Claus/fictitious sculptor
The first thing to note is that this is not blank verse, but rhyming couplets (two-line stanzas) though it still iambic pentameter. The first four lines might be read like this:
[that’s MY][LAST DUCH][-ess PAIN][-ted ON][the WALL]
[LOOK-ing][AS IF][she WERE][A-LIVE].[I CALL]
[THAT PIECE][a WON][-der NOW]:[frà PAN][-dolf’s HANDS]
[WORKED BUS][-il-y][a DAY][and THERE][she STANDS].
(Remember that the capitals don’t necessarily mean that a syllable is “punched” out, but merely that it is made more noticeable. This is often achieved by a slight prolongation rather than an “accent.”)
The most important point to observe in reading any poem is that the line is the fundamental unit. The rhyme calls attention to the line-endings, and the rhyming syllables must be slightly prolonged to make them effective and knit the poem together. But a poem like this must never degenerate into pairs of lines with the rhyme dominating. It is, after all, a dramatic speech.
That’s my last Duchess painted on the WALL
Looking as if she were alive. I CALL
That piece a wonder now: frà Pandolf’s HANDS
Worked busily a day, and there she STANDS
Never read a poem like this. Browning helps the reader to hear it as a coherent speech by enjambment (running the lines together) and by breaking the lines up with pauses. In other words, he makes every effort to defeat this sort of reading. These pauses are usually marked by punctuation, and if we were to ignore the lines and focus only on the fragments from which they are made, we have this:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.
I call that piece a wonder now:
Frà Pandolf’s hands worked busily a day,
And there she stands.
You should never read a poem like this either, but it is important for you to look at both examples because they represent the two structures that we must keep in balance if we are to read the poem effectively. This is why the last syllable in a line (rhyming or not) must be prolonged slightly, for that helps to preserve some sense of the form.
If Browning didn’t believe that the form was important, he might have written the poem as it is shown in the last example. As it is, the poem becomes something more than prose only through the delicate interrelation between the form and the syntax, which makes it wonderfully effective (and of course, by the rhyme, but that is secondary). Look at this fragment from the last example: “I call that piece a wonder now.” There is nothing to cause you to draw out “call” when you read it, and there is nothing to suggest that you are reading iambs: no shape for this utterance is offered to you. Now look at our iambic reading: “I C-A-A-L that PIECE a WON-der NOW.” “Call” is the last syllable of the second iambic pentameter line so is slightly prolonged, as is the last syllable in every line. Given the cues Browning has provided, you know how to read it. It isn’t: “I call THAT PIECE a wonder now,” or “I call that piece a wonder NOW.” or anything else. The inflections of the speaking voice are (to some degree) shaped for you.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t have decisions to make. For example, you may choose to stress “I” and “my” wherever they appear because the Duke is an arrogant man and he places emphasis on himself and on the things he asserts dominion over. Notice how (in line 9) he tells his listener that HE is the only person who is permitted to draw the curtain that covers the painting. In line 42 he tells us: “I choose never to stoop,” and he regards it as stooping if he merely condescends to express his wants to someone. (They are expected to leap with alacrity in anticipation of his desires.) He traces his family lineage back for nine-hundred years, and that makes him something special in his own eyes. Look at line 25 where he loses his composure:
Sir, ‘twas all one! My favor at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech
Here, displayed for all to see, is his wife’s sin: she had a simple joy in life, taking pleasure in the sunset, a gift of cherries, and her pet mule, and she didn’t make some special show of obeisance to him. He is, in short, a cold, vicious, arrogant man, and this is all revealed just by hearing him speak.
You should pay attention to all of the cues the poet has provided you with in order to know how to read it. There is the exclamation, “Sir, ‘twas all one!” That requires emphasis. The rest of the line is euphonious, “my favor at her breast” but then we pick up the alliteration of “dropping” and “daylight.” If we were to mechanically (mindlessly) analyze this line we might end up with: [the DROP][-ping OF][the DAY][-light IN][the WEST]. This puts the stress on the function words “of” and “in,” but it isn’t impossible. In the context, however, it is just an introduction to much more cacophonous lines. There is a sort of crescendo building:
[the DROP][-ping of][the DAY][-light in][the WEST].
[the BOUGH][of CHER][-ries SOME][off-ICI][-ous FOOL]
[BROKE in][the OR][-chard FOR][HER, the][WHITE MULE]
[SHE RODE][with ROUND][the TER][- race
Look especially at [the BOUGH][of CHER][-ries SOME][off-ICI][-ous FOOL]/[BROKE in][the OR][-chard FOR][HER . . .] This is an example of what is sometimes called expressive mime. Imagine that you are expressing ill-controlled rage. Look at the resources you have been presented with to express that. “Bough” is a little explosion of feeling, and it is followed by “cherries,” the “ch” spitting out his contempt. “Officious fool” causes you to thrust out your lower lip in an expression of disgust (which shows clearly why this is called mime). The next line repeats this pattern with “broke” and “orchard” which have the same “b” and “ch” sounds. At the end of the line, “mule” causes the lower lip to be thrust out again. The mirroring of the two lines in terms of sound increases the intensity of the feeling.
The rich Italian families in the Renaissance possessed great fortunes built on the blood and tears of others (something that is always at the back of my mind when I look at the beautiful things their money bought). Families like the Borgias became synonymous with murder and treachery. When Dürer visited Italy and had great success, he was very much afraid he would be poisoned out of envy. The famous silversmith, Benvenuto Cellini tells in his autobiography about committing a murder (and yes, it was a “murder” and not a duel). Women were routinely forced into loveless, arranged marriages to create the ties that reinforced such wealth and power. This is all a preamble to the question: did the Duke have his “last Duchess” killed? Even a slight knowledge of the period tells you that it is entirely possible, and Browning provides strong hints that the Duke did. The most obvious of these is in lines 45 through 47. “This grew; I gave commands/Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands/As if alive.” Note the juxtaposition of “gave commands”/”smiles stopped”/”as if alive.”
Let’s recap. He is talking to a go-between who is arranging his next marriage. He pauses to show his guest the portrait of his previous wife. It is a wonderful work of art, and as he explains the radiant smile in the painting, he rehearses his previous emotions of anger, frustration, and revenge. Because he has no emotion beyond that (and he has triumphed in his recital of events), he turns quickly to business (marriage and money), and as they go down to join the other guests, he brags about another work of art, “Neptune taming a sea-horse.” Clearly, his wife meant nothing to him. Browning’s evocation of all of this in fifty-six lines is remarkable.
We have looked at monologs in blank verse and rhymed couplets, and now we have something very different, Mathew Arnold’s best-known poem, “Dover Beach,” which was written about 1851. The voice in the poem presumably belongs to a man standing at the window in his room, looking out at the English Channel from the English side. He is talking to a woman he loves:
1 The sea is calm tonight.
2 The tide is full, the moon lies fair
3 Upon the straits: on the French coast the light
4 Gleams and is gone: the cliffs of England stand,
5 Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
6 Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
7 Only, from the long line of spray
8 Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land.
9 Listen! you hear the grating roar
10 Of pebbles which the waves draw back and fling,
11 At their return, up the high strand,
12 Begin, and cease, and then again begin.
13 With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
14 The eternal note of sadness in.
15 Sophocles long ago
16 Heard it on the Aegean and it brought
17 Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
18 Of human misery, we
19 Find also in the sound a thought,
20 Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
21 The sea of Faith
22 Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
23 Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. girdle/sash or belt
24 But now I only hear
25 Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.
26 Retreating, to the breath
27 of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
28 And naked shingles of the world. shingles/pebbly, not
29 Ah, love, let us be true
30 To one another! for the world, which seems
31 To lie before us like a land of dreams,
32 So various, so beautiful, so new,
33 Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
34 Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
35 And we are here as on a darkling plain
36 Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
37 Where ignorant armies clash by night.
This is clearly iambic in its movement, but beyond that, what can we say? Let’s look at the seven lines in the middle of the fourth verse paragraph (30-36). These lines are perfectly regular pentameter, with only two substitutions in the last line: a trochee for the first foot, and an anapaest for the last: [SWEPT with][con-FUSED][a-LARMS][of STRUG][-gle and FLIGHT]. In fact, twenty of the thirty-seven lines are clearly pentameter: lines 3-6; 10; 12; 16; 17; 20; 22 and 23; 25; 27: and 30-36. Line 27 is difficult to scan: “Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear,” but I suspect it has this form: [of the][NIGHT-WIND][down the VAST][EDG-es][DREAR]. And many of the lines are short, most of them iambic trimeter (tri-three, meter-measure) or tetrameter (tetra-four, meter-measure).
To see how this all works together, let’s look at a “reading” (not a mechanical scansion) of the first verse paragraph:
1 [the SEA][is CALM][to-NIGHT] 3 A
2 [the TIDE][is FULL][the MOON][LIES FAIR] 4 B
3 [up-ON][the STRAITS]; [ON][the FRENCH COAST][the LIGHT] 5 A
4 [GLEAMS][and is GONE];[the CLIFFS][of ENG][-land STAND] 5 C
5 [GLIM-er-ing][and VAST],[out IN][the TRAN][-quil BAY]. 5 D
6 [COME][to the WIN][-dow, SWEET][is THE][NIGHT-AIR]! 5 B
7 [ON-ly][FROM][the LONG][ LINE][of SPRAY] 5 D
8 [WHERE the SEA][MEETS][the MOON][-blanched LAND] 4 C
9 [LIS-ten]![you HEAR][the GRAT][-ing ROAR] 4 X
10 [of PEB][-bles WHICH][the WAVES][DRAW BACK],[and FLING] 5 E
11 [at THEIR][re-TURN][UP][the HIGH][STRAND], 5 C
12 [be-GIN],[and CEASE],[and THEN][a-GAIN][be-GIN], 5 F
13 [with TREM][u-lous CAD][-ence SLOW][and BRING] 4 E
14 [the e-TER][-nal NOTE][of SAD][-ness IN]. 4 F
I have put the number of feet in the line to the right of each line. The letters following this form a rhyme scheme. Each new rhyming sound is given a new letter beginning with A, and any sound that is not repeated is given an X. So . . . “tonight” in the first line ends with the “ite” sound and is assigned an A. The next line ends in the “air” sound and is assigned a B. The third line ends in the “ite” sound again, so it is assigned an A . . . and so it goes. Only the “ore” sound in line nine is not repeated, so it receives an X. The same sort of thing can be done separately for each of the verse paragraphs. These rhymes hold the poem together. Because of the clear metrical structure, this is not at all related to prose libre (free “verse”). It is a very free use of the iambic pentameter framework.
I like this poem, and students always like it, so I’m very sorry to say that one reason for its accessibility is that fact that it more than a little juvenile (although Arnold was about 29 when it was written). Let’s go through it. The first six lines extol the beauty of the evening with a fine description of the view from the window, and then the word “only” at the beginning of line seven starts us in a different direction. We hear the melancholy sound of the waves. Through the allusion to Sophocles (who, in Antigone, uses the metaphor of a gigantic wave sent to destroy those cursed by the gods), we move to the lack of certainty faced by people who have lost faith in the middle of the nineteenth century. (This is all vastly over-stated; after all, it was “faith” that brought us the inquisition and the crusades—hardly a “bright girdle”—and science and technology brought us the promise of certainty of another kind. Take particular note that this is not a reference to The Origin of Species, which wasn’t yet published.) Finally, this adolescent angst gels in a picture of a world caught up in battle between armies of ignorance: everything that it seemed to promise us is false—so what certainty can we have except to be true to each other?
The description is beautifully handled and the imagery is vivid. Line 12 is as clear an example of onomatopoeia as you will find. Onomatopoeia is the use of words that suggest, in the sound of the utterance, the sounds they are intended to describe. We can hear the repeated sound of the waves coming ashore in the line, “begin, and cease, and then again begin,” and we are specifically told that this is the sound of the sea. (Be very careful about finding it everywhere—it is not common.) The waves are the thread linking the first three verse-paragraphs. It is the waves that lead the speaker to his memory of Sophocles, and just as they retreat from the shore, we find the Sea of Faith also retreating. The final verse-paragraph changes the imagery to emphasize the consequences of this loss, ending with the chaos of battle. Many of the lines are very beautiful, such as “Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” and “the world, which seems /To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new.” It is melodious and memorable—but it is also unmotivated and hyperbolic. Are we really expected to go from the sweet night air, to the sound of the waves, to Sophocles, and on to cosmic despair in under three minutes?
A very different kind of dramatic monolog is Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Luke Havergal.” The speaker is a voice from the grave (or a voice in Luke’s head) that seems to be suggesting that there is no hope for him, and that he should take his own life. It is also unusual because it is written in a complex stanza form, one that is, I think, of Robinson’s own invention. It is very effective.
Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal,
There where the vines cling crimson on the wall,
And in the twilight wait for what will come.
The leaves will whisper there of her, and some,
Like flying words, will strike you as they fall;
But go to the western gate, Luke Havergal—
No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies
To rift the fiery night that’s in your eyes: rift/tear, rend
But there, where western glooms are gathering,
The dark will end the dark if anything:
God slays Himself with every leaf that flies,
And hell is more than half of paradise.
No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies—
In eastern skies.
Out of a grave I come to tell you this,
Out of a grave I come to quench the kiss
That flames upon your forehead with a glow
That blinds you to the way that you must go.
Yes, there is yet one way to where she is,
Bitter, but one that faith may never miss.
Out of a grave I come to tell you this—
To tell you this.
There is the western gate, Luke Havergal,
There are the crimson leaves upon the wall.
Go for the winds are tearing them away,—
Nor think to riddle the dead words they say, riddle/ figure out
Nor any more to feel them as they fall;
But go, and if you trust her she will call.
There is the western gate, Luke Havergal—
This is iambic pentameter except for the iambic dimeter “tail” [di-two, meter-measure], but we have a complex stanza form with the rhyme scheme: AABBAAAa. I’ve used a “small-a” for the tail, which is always the last four syllables of the preceding line. (A tail is a short rhyming line at the end of a stanza.)
Now, what makes us think that a woman (the woman of the poem) has died, and why should we think that he is being called upon to take his own life? To begin with, it is a voice from the grave that tells him to go join her. In the second stanza, he is told that there is no dawn for him in the eastern skies—and dawn is renewed day, which is renewed light, which is renewed hope. The imagery here is very ancient. Morning is birth, evening is age, night is death. The same sort of imagery applies to the seasons: spring is birth, autumn is age, winter is death. So, Luke is asked to go towards the dark, and the red, falling leaves (autumn) are there.
There are three paradoxical statements in this stanza. The dark will end the dark; God slays himself with every flying leaf; and hell is more than half of paradise. The first is equivocal,” the dark” is death, and the “the dark” is the “fiery night” that is in his eyes: death will end despair. The second suggests that God is creation and that creation is destroyed itself in the falling leaves. The third is much more problematic, but it clearly tells us that hell and paradise are not poles apart, completely separated. These are brief rationales for suicide, offered to him by the seductive voice from the grave. In contrast to the second stanza, which is focused on denial, the third is affirmative. There is one way for him to go to her, though it is bitter and requires faith.
These two stanzas, one of denial and one of affirmation stand between two stanzas that mirror each other. They talk of the vines, the leaves, the words the leaves say, the falling of the leaves, the wind, and the fact that she will call. The first begins and ends “Go to the western gate” and the second begins and ends “There is the western gate.” (This is surely more immediate.) The first says that the leaves will whisper of her and some will strike him like flying words. (This hints of an argument, but we know nothing more about it.) The second says he should not try to figure out what they say or feel them as they fall. They are now “dead words.” And the utterance, “if you trust her she will call,” explains the use of “faith” in the third stanza.
We don’t know whose voice is calling to him, but we do know that it isn’t hers. It may well be an obsessive voice in his own mind, but we don’t know. The little tail is like an echo, and that gives the voice a ghostly effect that is appropriate. We have reason to think that she is dead and that he is being called to commit suicide. We don’t know how she died or why.
Now then! We can make up many little stories that explain all this, but they aren’t in the poem: it isn’t about them. I will give you one, just to show you how easily the poem can be explained in this way. They argued—the flying words. He said he didn’t care whether she stayed or not. She stormed out and—driving too fast, blinded by tears, she went off the road and was killed. He blames himself for her death, and now a voice in his mind tells him to join her. Okay. It is plausible, but it isn’t in the poem and it isn’t what the poem is about. It is something I just made up and I can make up many other things. We simply don’t know who she was, what their relationship was, or how she died, and any explanation we invent is irrelevant to the poem. Keats talks about “negative capability,” the ability to accept what is in a poem without trying to find an explanation for every detail. You should try to cultivate that virtue and to never go beyond what the poem is telling you. (Teddy Roosevelt, who admired Robinson, said of this poem that he didn’t know what it meant but he knew that he liked it.)
This might be regarded as a symbolist poem. As the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics says, “symbolist poets use words for their magical suggestiveness.” Music and suggestion are more important in this poem than the kinds of facts and arguments that we saw in the three previous examples. It is a beautiful, evocative poem, and we have a sense of what it means without filling in all of the blanks. Why do we want anything more?