The other day, I wrote down some thoughts on Frost for a class I’m taking. Of course, I ended up writing about King Lear instead. Here's how it happened ...
In "Home Burial", Frost’s male character plaintively asks:
Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?
As the two characters in the poem struggle over control of each other, of their past, of their marriage and its meaning, and of so much else, this question is weighted with huge responsibilities. It also derives its power from the directness of its metrical form – each word a syllable, I count ten of them, and each syllable stressed. A quick search says these are spondees, not the more easily manageable iambs that Frost is often associated with, but each powerful beat ensures that a core emotional reality of the dramatic counterpoint cannot be missed.
For all its power, my first association with this line isn’t with Frost at all however. Instead, my mind wanders to one of the most insightful commentaries about meter I’ve ever read, about a different poet who also wrote in English. It comes from Roma Gill, editor of an Oxford School Shakespeare edition of King Lear in which she offers the following:
Underlying King Lear, as the groundrock of which the play is made, is the iambic pentameter line which forms the blank verse used by most English dramatists writing in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It is a very flexible medium, capable – like the human speaking voice – of an infinite variety of tones. The syllables have alternating stresses, just like normal English speech; and they divide into five ‘feet’ to make up the iambic pentameter.
King Lear initiates the rhythm when, following the prose conversation of Kent and Gloucester, he enters in full majesty, summoning all his court to hear his declared intentions:
Meantime, we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom; and ‘tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall,
And you, our no less loving son of Albany,
We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughters’ several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now …
…Tell me, my daughters …
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
The rhythm is easily shared by other speakers. Lear’s elder daughters join with their father in a a smooth, dignified interchange – and even the youngest, Cordelia, does not disturb the harmony with her whispered ‘aside’:
Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter;
Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare …
Of all these bounds, even from this line to this,
With shadowy forests and with champains rich’d,
With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads
We make thee lady …
… What says our second daughter?
Our dearest Regan, wife of Cornwall?
I am made of that self metal as my sister,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short: that I profess …
… I am alone felicitiate
in your highest love.
The poor Cordelia!
And yet not so; since I am sure my love’s
More ponderous than my tongue.
Lear [who is answering Regan]
To thee and thine, hereditary ever,
Remain this ample share of our fair kingdom …
He turns to Cordelia – and now the verse begins to tremble and falter, as his favorite daughter holds firm against him:
…Now, our joy,
Although our last, and least, to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interes’d; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Nothing, my lord.
Nothing will come of nothing; speak again.
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave (I, 1, 90)
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; no more or less …
Cordelia re-asserts the pentameter: no line could be more regular than line 90. But the play’s harmony has been disrupted, and it will not easily be restored.
The regularity and casual formality of the pentameter is a mask for the treachery of the daughters, its neat rhythms serve as a cover for the schemes of the two. When Cordelia speaks, however, the reassuring patterning falls apart. The balance of the play has been disturbed, not by deceit but by true adoration and honesty, something the audience will only vaguely sense – a light turbulence has suddenly been introduced into the rhythm of the speech. In an incredibly complex interweaving of form and meaning, Shakespeare gives us our first clue that something is about to go wrong. As it turns out, Lear tragically misinterprets Cordelia’s honesty for a lack of love, setting off the dramatic, brutal events of the play.
And if only the metrical story ended there. Gill then notes that later in the play, at the very crux of the tragedy when Lear is confronted with the sight of Cordelia’s lifeless corpse – astonishingly he returns to perfect iambic pentameter. Stripped of all flower and ornament, Lear exclaims a reality that is both physically true and emotionally untenable:
Never, never, never, never, never (V, 3, 307)
[NOTE: Here the professor, Theo Theoharis, added this important correction and interpretation. In his shorthand — line V, 3, 307 is “not iambic (unstressed/stressed), but trochaic (stressed/unstressed) — reverse of iamb — death as reverse of life or grief as opposite of joy?” Theoharis’s evaluation is a very interesting one: has Shakespeare reversed the metrical foot to say that we are now talking about death rather than life, that we are talking about grief rather than joy, that we are talking a dark thing that has happened rather than a pleasant thing that is about to happen?]
Never will he see his daughter Cordelia alive again.
Shakespeare, in the course of this play, has used identical metrical form to convey two wildly different states of mind. On the one hand, iambs are the meter of courtly duplicity and dishonesty cloaked in formality. On the other hand, at the very moment when all the shades have been removed from his eyes, and the ultimate honesty and unavoidable coming-to-terms with the truth and his role in creating it has arrived, Lear clops off five perfect feet to his tragic emotional and literal end. At that revelation that tragedy so depends on, when Lear like Oedipus finally understands what he has been seeing all along but not comprehending, he falls back into perfect form. It is so unexpected … and so powerful – a single line using only a single word that gets the heartbeat rhythm exactly right but which rolls like a tank tread over the listener’s heart.
When I first read this commentary five years ago, I jotted this down: “A mastery of language Shakespeare rolls out, seemingly effortlessly, but so geniusly perfect. A feast for scholars hundreds of years later. This mastery is almost more than the mind can comprehend.”
Indeed, it is a mastery almost more than the mind can comprehend. Frost reaches for a similar effect in his “Can’t a man …” question. Of course, he doesn’t quite arrive at the depth of interplay between form and meaning and dramatic resonance that Shakespeare so elegantly and seemingly effortlessly achieves, but then again, who else ever has?