There are many different ways to approach the structure of a poem, a piece of fiction, a play. In what follows I’m going to make some suggestions about the structure of Michael Drayton’s poem beginning “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part,” a sonnet from his collection titled Idea, first published in 1593. It’s important for you to understand that there are many valuable and illuminating ways to talk about this poem’s structure, not any one, single, right way. That’s why I’m writing suggestions, not prescriptions. When I say “the structure” of Drayton’s poem, I mean not only how it’s put together but also the way it works.
Learning how something is put together shows us what the parts are. Learning how those “put-together” parts work shows us the thing in action. And a short lyric poem like Drayton’s (any work of literature that we’re reading, for that matter) is a thing in action, a dynamic process. Here is Drayton’s poem. Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part; Nay, I have done, you get no more of me, And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart That thus so cleanly I myself can free;4 Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows, And when we meet at any time again, Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of love retain. 8 Now at the last gasp of love’s latest breath, When, his pulse failing, passion speechless lies, When faith is kneeling by his bed of death, And innocence is closing up his eyes, 12 Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over, From death to life thou mightst him yet recover. Well, what are the parts of this poem? Words in lines. Specifically, words in lines which usually add up to ten syllables each. Words put together so that they make a rhythm as we say them, a sort of di-da di-da di-da di-da di-da rhythm, with emphasis usually on the “da” syllable, like this:
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And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart or this: And when we meet at any time again. And the poem is made up of lines whose end words rhyme (that is, chime together) in a certain pattern throughout the poem, like this: part / me / heart / free(abab)lines 1-4 vows /again / brows / retain (cdcd)lines 5-8 breath / lies / death / eyes (efef)lines 9-12 over / recover(gg)lines 13-14 This pattern creates groups of lines (they have technical English-teacher terms), which go together because their end-word rhymes link them together: lines 1-4=first quatrain lines 5-8=second quatrain lines 9-12=third quatrain lines 13-14=final couplet The words in this poem are also organized grammatically, in several ways: sentences–the first (a cumulative sentence—check out the term in a handbook or do a Google search) consisting of the poem’s first and second quatrains and the second (a periodic sentence) consisting of the third quatrain and the final couplet; clauses–a bunch; notice, for example, the first line of the poem– Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part— a subordinate clause followed by a main clause in a combination showing a cause-and-effect relationship; verbs—significant mood shifts within the poem (another technical English-teacher term—verbs come in “moods,” namely the indicative, subjunctive, or imperative, which, if you can’t recognize, you’d better get a grammar/composition handbook), with the imperative and indicative dominating the first eight lines and the indicative and subjunctive the last six (note especially “wouldst” and “mightst” in ll. 13-14); subjects—all personal pronouns in the first eight lines (“us,” “I,” “you,” “we”), nouns in the next four (“passion,” “faith,” “innocence”), and a return to pronouns in the final couplet (“thou,” “all”);
adverbs expressing time—“when” X 4, “Now” X 2, “again,” and “yet”; adjectives—there are very few: why??? Well, despite the fact that GRAMMAR IS REALITY, we probably should get off the grammar wagon for the time being. There are other ways to look at how words in a poem are organized. Consider the way they get sounded when you read them. Listen carefully as you say the first two quatrains of the poem: Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part; Nay, I have done, you get no more of me, And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart That thus so cleanly I myself can free;4 Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
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And when we meet at any time again, Be it not seen in either of our brows That we one jot of love retain. 8 I’m hearing a lot of one-syllable words. The first three lines consist entirely of one-syllable words, and there are only seven two-syllable words in all of the eight lines. I’m also hearing a kind of clipped, short way of speaking in these lines. Partly this is due to (ALERT-ALERT: another technical term) alliteration, as in the hard “c” sounds—come, kiss, cleanly, can, Shake, cancel—and “t” sounds—let, part, get, heart, That, meet, time, it, not, That, jot, retain.
Now listen to the way you’re sounding the words in the third quatrain: Now at the last gasp of love’s latest breath, When, his pulse failing, passion speechless lies, When faith is kneeling by his bed of death, And innocence is closing up his eyes 12 I’m hearing a lot more two- and even a three-syllable word now, especially in ll. 10-12. Also, I’m more aware of a kind of “breathiness” than I was when saying the first eight lines. Partly this is due to the fact that I’m saying words here that require more breath than one-syllable words.
There’s another reason for the “breathiness,” and, yup, there’s a technical term for this, too, but let’s skip over it and listen to what’s causing this “breathiness. ” What do you notice when you say these words: gasp, breath, pulse, failing, passion, faith, bed, death? Feel a little puff of breath coming out of your mouth, a kind of “uh,” after you say the initial consonant of the word? That’s what I’m getting. I think there’s another reason I’m feeling this “breathiness,” a reason not related to the sounds of words but to what they’re saying.
The speaker in this poem is painting a picture in the third quatrain by using images. LOOK OUT (another technical term): “imagery” or “images” can refer to literal, descriptive pictures in a piece of writing, as well as to figurative language like (technical alert) similes, metaphors, personifications, etc. , or to both. In the present case, the speaker’s imagery is both literal and figurative. S/he’s creating a deathbed scene: there’s a “last gasp of . . . breath,” a “pulse failing,” a “bed of death,” even the “closing up” of the dying person’s eyes by an attendant.
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All this is vivid, literal imagery. But who’s dying? Someone named “love. ” Who else is present in the scene? Persons named “passion,” “faith,” and “innocence” (in some printed versions of the poem these names are capitalized).
These “persons” are abstract nouns that are being given the characteristics of humans—hence the term personification. So I’m getting both literal and figurative images, a double-whammy deathbed scene that strongly conveys the idea of the dying person’s final expiration. How does the imagery of the end of the poem compare with imagery at the beginning of the poem?
I can’t see any figurative language at all in the first two quatrains, except for “you get no more of me” in l. 2, which suggests the idea of possession in a love relationship, and “Be it not seen in either of our brows” in l. 7, a (you got it) metonymy or figure of speech in which a part is substituted for the whole (brow for face).
But for these exceptions, I can take more or less literally everything the speaker is saying. S/he and her/his partner are going to kiss and separate—that’s all that can be done. The speaker is finished with the partner, and s/he’s glad that s/he can make this separation so neatly.
It’s simply a case of shaking hands goodbye, freeing each other of any obligation created by what the lovers might have said in the past (“I swear I’ll love you forever,” “There’ll never be another person in my life,” “You’re the center of my world,” etc. ), and making sure that, whenever they meet in the future, no bystander will be able to detect the slightest trace of their former love. I think it’s time to start asking how these put-together parts work in action, that is, to see what dynamic process is operating in the poem.
If the structure of this poem is a dynamic process, then you ought to be able to see changes, differences, shifts, as you move through the poem. In fact, if you compare the beginning of the poem with the end, you can see major shifts. I’ve already noted some—for example, the change in verb moods from imperative and indicative in the first eight lines to indicative and subjunctive in the last six. Then there’s the difference in the sounds the words make and the style of speaking you can hear, from the direct, concise, controlled tone of ll.
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1-8 to the breathy, drawn out speech of the last part of the poem, where the speaker creates a vivid picture of Love at the point of death. How do these grammatical and tonal differences work together to reinforce the changes you can hear as the speaker confronts his/her soon-to-be-ex partner? In the first part of the poem the speaker is giving orders to his/her partner, using imperative verbs (“come let us kiss and part,” “Shake hands,” “cancel,” “be it not seen”) and making statements s/he intends the partner to take as true and literal, using indicative verbs (“there’s no help,” “I have done,” “you get,” “I am glad,” “I . can free”).
Then there’s the alliteration of hard “c” and “t” sounds and the dominance of one-syllable words, creating a sense of directness. It’s almost as if the speaker is trying to maintain emotional control of the situation, as if s/he needed to suppress feelings of regret over the breakup. You can even see this in the use of “you” in l. 2, a formal style of address in early modern English. (In a similar situation, why would you formally address your soon-to-be-ex? ) There is also an effort at matter-of-factness here, evident in the avoidance of figurative language.
All this is accomplished in a cumulative sentence, where you get the main message at the beginning (we know we’re breaking up, so let’s get on with it).
In the last part of the poem the speaker is painting a vivid picture of Love at the point of death, surrounded by mourning figures (those personifications) attending at the bedside, and maybe, if s/he were willing, the speaker’s partner. Note that indicative verbs are used in ll. 10-12 (in the subordinate “when” clauses), then subjunctive verbs in the final couplet (“if thou wouldst” and “mightst .. recover”).
The important thing to know about the subjunctive mood here is that it expresses an action that might take place, not one that does take place. Note also that in this final couplet the speaker addresses his/her partner by using the informal, intimate form “thou” instead of the formal “you. ” In addition to the figurative language and significant grammatical differences between the beginning of the poem and this part, you now get longer words and the breathiness I noted.
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It’s as if the speaker is encouraging his/her partner to imagine, to see, to feel what the death of their love is going to be like, complete with mourners and last gasps. This invitation to participate is clearly intended to have an emotional impact on the partner. The speaker is also feeling some emotion, I think. You can see this in something I haven’t spoken of before. It’s the shift from a regular di-da di-da rhythm in the first part of the poem to some pretty strong, off-beat rhythms in the last six lines. Look, for instance, at the beats in ll. 9-10 or l. 13.
Something different is going on here, not the regular di-da di-da amble you’ve gotten used to. Why this shift? I think it may have to do with the emotion the speaker is starting to feel as s/he describes the deathbed scene. S/he is getting near the end of the poem, and if anything is going to happen other than shaking hands and saying goodbye, it had better happen soon. I’m sensing that emotions are getting much more noticeable. S/he even makes his/her partner the central figure, on whom love’s life or death depends: Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over, From death to life thou mightst him yet recover.
All this happens in a periodic sentence, where you get the main message at the end, here in the final couplet (it’s up to you dear, if you want to bring love back . . . ) Well, I could go on, but I won’t—not for much longer, anyway. I’ve been trying to show you that the closer you look at a piece of literature, the more things happen. Drayton’s poem—any good poem—is super dynamic. However, you can’t capture this dynamic quality just by taking a photograph or making a list of the poem’s parts. You’ve got to experience the dynamic quality of the poem in order to know its structure.