Sonnet LVIII : Is This Iambic Pentameter?


That god forbid, that made me first your slave,
I should in thought control your times of pleasure,
Or at your hand the account of hours to crave,
Being your vassal, bound to stay your leisure!
O! let me suffer, being at your beck,
The imprison'd absence of your liberty;
And patience, tame to sufferance, bide each check,
Without accusing you of injury.
Be where you list, your charter is so strong
That you yourself may privilage your time
To what you will; to you it doth belong
Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime.
I am to wait, though waiting so be hell,
Not blame your pleasure be it ill or well.

Somebody want to break those opening lines (most notably 2,4,6,7) down for me so they fit iambic pentameter?  I can’t figure it out.

24 thoughts on “Sonnet LVIII : Is This Iambic Pentameter?

  1. The way I read it:
    Line 2 just has an extra syllable at the end.
    In line 4, “being” is meant to be one (stressed) syllable, and it’s both missing a syllable at the beginning and has an extra one at the end (the other half of the feminine rhyme from line 2).
    In line 6, “the” should slur with “imprison’d”, so it doesn’t count as a syllable at all.
    In line 7, “sufferance” only has two syllables.

    But I don’t actually know all that much about Elizabethan pronunciation.

  2. I agree with Micah on those readings.

    A lot of Shakespeare’s verse wasn’t “true” iambic pentameter, if you want to call it that…lots of feminine endings, trochees and other non-iambic stresses, etc.
    Usually breaks from the verse like that mean that that line / word is particularly important or interesting.
    Either that or Will was sloppy sometimes. 😉

  3. I read it the exact same way Micah does. Feminine endings on lines 2 and 4, to match; ‘Th’imPRISoned’ as three syllables in line 6, and ‘SUFF’rance’as two in line 7.

    I think ‘the account’ is also combined into two syllables, in line 3

    “To me the most questionable is the word “Being” at the beginning of line 4. It seems to scan well as a single syllable with a stress, but I suspect there may have been an acceptable two syllable pronunciation in Shakespeare’s time.

  4. As I see it, everyone here is right more than once.

    #1 Reads and sounds as though it could actually be spoken with an inverted front foot, since “That” is specific to THE god at fault for making the speaker a slave. (THAT god forBID) But, and this works both ways, the weaker beat can often voice a stronger stress and still remain “weaker” within the bounds of the iambic rhythmic structure.
    #2 is extra-metrical-11- with a weak ending–not unusual. Shakespeare often does it intentionally as a means of providing a springboard to the next line or as a sort of built-in lilt or hesitation that builds an anticipatory tie-in to the next line. This keeps it moving. And if he likes another word in particular, he’ll make it an alexandrine- 12 beats– I’m surprised he didn’t succumb to packing the line with more than the speaker could get out, considering their mood.
    #3 “th’account” (2 syl) and “houres”(1 syl) make it generic iambic pentameter.

    #4 a little tricky-even without the literary land mines, courtesy of centuries of ‘correcting’.
    “Being” is most likely 1 syl. Full stop after “leisure”–a period, not an exclamation point; although either could serve the same purpose in completing the self-contained statement making up the finish to the quatrain. An (!) is only confusing! It robs power and natural rhythm from where it belongs, and dictates that it be bestowed on the very word sitting in front of it. And although the comma after “vassal” might help to make my case– “vassal bound” is almost hyphenated–stronger emph.on bound–than on any of its strong-headed relatives in the line; with the exception of one to come. The comma’s totally unnecessary; another modern (and confusing) ’emendation’.
    Quarto 1609:Being your vassail bound to staie your leisure.
    To me, the line reads:
    BING your VASsal BOUND to stay YOUR lieSURE.–10 beats-5 each–should make the Literati happy. “Your” gets the greatest emphasis ,because it’s the whole point of the sonnet, and the drive to the end of this portion becomes inexorable–and totally realistic tonally– ie. It’s not me, it’s YOU–YOU’RE at fault. Finished, done, point made–emphatically–let’s move on to another point; some additional injustice I suffer at YOUR hands. “YOUR,YOUR, YOUR–sometimes more than once per line. Shakespeare never repeats himself without a reason.

    #5 Q 1609– Oh let me suffer (being at your beck) Actor’s choice: The full exasperation of Shakespeare’s O–OH let me SUFfer BEing AT your BECK-inverted front foot all the rest iambs; OR…simply stated as a regular beat iambic line.
    compare the two out loud–how artificial the added commas make it–and draaag? Simply drop the voice slightly at the brackets (it’s very quick) and don’t look back–never mind wait a comma.
    Yet one more reason I have for this tendency to preach on punctuation.

    #6 What were they thinking? They usually love nice neat packages of perfectly idyllic iambs.Instead, they ADD a superfluous beat!–+ + + +more confusion. Q 1609:Th’imprison’d absence of your libertie,

    #7 Again,with,the,punctu,a,tion,_!!!!!!!!! Did I use enough—?
    Quarto 1609: And patience tame, to sufferance bide each check,
    Can someone please tell me what, in the quarto line above, necessitates a change in punctuation? It’s generic–the only reason it causes a question is because –ofthe-halting–and–starting,,, artificially,, created with, the extra,, comma! Although the comma doesn’t change the scan, it sure does change what we hear as we read it.
    “sufferance”,said Micah, who claimed to know little about Elizabethan pronunciation, “only has two syllables.”
    –that’s exactly what makes it regular.

    Shakespeare’s focus was, to say the least, less than ours on “fitting into” iambic pentameter–his talent resides in bending it to the breaking point to fit his dramatic need. The best way to find out what’s happening in one of his lines of verse, is to read it out loud with a NORMAL speech pattern. Forget the da-DUM, da-DUM. It’s there only as a starting point and a safety net (just in case old Willy gets too slick for us mortals) Where it really resides is embedded within the natural inflection pattern of the English language itself.But it moves and changes, ebbs and flows even there. That’s why they used the ‘form’ for re-enacting dramatic dialog. (among other reasons of course).

    The mistake is to look at it as poetry first–gums things up sometimes even worse than the academicians have.
    Fit the beats where they fall in that natural vocal pattern you hear. If something sounds weird, it probably is–shape it, bend it, mold it!
    That’s what Shakespeare did. It’s why he and his boys were the best in town.

  5. This is great! Some of the best commentary on Shakespearean meter I have read. Willshill has some excellent points, especially the need to leave the 1609 punctuation alone. To answer his question about line 7, nothing requires a change, but early commentators were confused by the syntax. They did not recognize the series of statments: let me suffer the absence of your liberty, and tame patience, and bide each check to sufference. They thought that “patience” was the subject of a new clause and “bide” was its verb, hence the muddled punctuation they devised.
    I would argue for a few different readings:
    Line 4: “Being your vassail”
    I read the first four syllables as a trochee-iamb combination, that is, “Being” is two syllables with reversed stress, and the next two syllables are stressed normally. This is a common pattern in The Sonnets and gives a particularly flowing rhythm: DAH-dah-dah_DAH. Sometimes, as here, it leaves part of a word left over for the next foot. “Being” must be two syllables here because this line must have a feminine ending to match its rhyme-pair, line 2. Shakespeare almost never rhymes a line with a feminine ending with another line without a feminine ending (and he never does it in The Sonnets).

    Line 1: Although Willshill brings up an interesting point that has been debated about the interpretaion of this line (is the speaker merely saying “God forbid that I should have been made your slave”, i.e., “I wish it had not been so,” or is he blaming the god that did so?) I have a hard time reading this as anything but 5 iambs. Even if I force myself to read the first foot as a trochee, I just can’t get an iamb to follow it. Of course, that ridiculous exclamation point must be jettisoned, regardless, as Willshill points out.

    I agree with Willshill that rather than being sloppy about his iambic pentamter, Shakespeare strethced it to its limits.

    Thanks for the post, Duane!

  6. So I wrote my previous post without referring to my own commentary on this sonnet in my book. Having now reviewed it, I thought an excerpt might be interesting. It is necessary, though, fisrt to reprint the sonnet as it appeared in 1609:

    That God forbid, that made me first your slave,
    I should in thought controule your times of pleasure,
    Or at your hand th’account of houres to crave,
    Being your vassail bound to staie your leisure.
    Oh let me suffer (being at your beck)
    Th’imprison’d absence of your libertie,
    And patience tame, to sufferance bide each check,
    Without accusing you of injury.
    Be where you list, your charter is so strong,
    That you your selfe may priviledge your time
    To what you will, to you it doth belong,
    Your selfe to pardon of selfe-doing crime.
    I am to waite, though waiting so be hell,
    Not blame your pleasure be it ill or well.

    “Ridley (1934) calls line 6 ‘A typical instance of violdent compression. The writer is imprisoned (i.e. cut off from the society of his friend) by the friend’s absence, which is due to the friend’s liberty of action.’ Wilson adds, ‘Note the violence of the compression conveys the sense of insufferable restraint which the situation puts upon the Poet.’…
    “The power of this sonnet lies not only in the ‘violent compression’ noted by Ridley, but also in its rhythms, undulating beneath the iambic pentameter of the verse. Note the richness of the phrasing with six lines containing internal punctuation. All the midline breaks occur after the fourth or fifth syllable, but there is such a variety of syllable lengths that the meter never seems monotonous….Line 4 is particularly noteworthy. The initial trochee-iamb combined with the midline pause after the fifth syllable and the feminine ending serve to reverse the iambic flow–one can read three successive trochees starting with the middle of the third foot (‘bound’). This changes the normally weak feminine line into the strongest one in the poem.”

  7. Thanks catkins for the "hist!" and the kind & gentle elbow.

    Looking again, having read catkins' comments, I can see where I was off in my analysis re:line #4. I wasn't entirely sure to begin with, which is why I wrote ("Being is 'most likely' one syllable"). I think maybe my desire to give the line the most strength, and the attention it deserved at "your" was what drove the decision, when in fact, if I had taken my own previous advice about line #1:"…the weaker beat can often voice a stronger stress and still remain weaker…" I wouldn't have been so quick to force the issue within the first 2 syllables. It has the same power at the end, read aloud, as catkins noted, even as an 11 beat feminine-ended line–"Being" (2 syllable trochee).

    Thanks also, for an answer to the punctuation question, line #7–"And patience tame,…" And for the iteration confirming the importance of having a look at the real thing, at least for comparison's sake.
    It does, however, raise another query–I suppose this is somewhat rhetorical, but: Why do they allow this superimposed error to perpetuate from one edit to the next?

    Much the same kind of thing is rife within every "new" edition of the plays–From Rowe in 1709 to the latest Arden, bits and pieces of every editor's annotation have become acceptable grafts. Most have to do with punctuation; some are even more egregious. While it's true that there were "mistakes" in the quartos and folio,the idea of what what constitutes a mistake seems to have been left, at times, to the discretion of some "literary libertines":)

  8. Duane–

    Iambic pentameter is iambic pentameter; you've defined it correctly & there's no argument there.
    What isn't EXACTLY true is that "Shakespeare wrote the sonnets in iambic pentameter." For the most part, he did, but it would be more true to say that "Shakespeare wrote the sonnets in verse that is usually iambic pentameter." There are many different kinds of feet (what that two-syllable thing is) and emphasis patterns, such as trochees and dactyls & so forth, that Shakespeare utilized in his poetry, usually for emphasis on ideas or dramatic effect. Learning the iambic pentameter of the sonnets (& the verse parts of his plays too) is important, & special attention should be paid to the places where he strays from the typical iambic pattern–because that usually means something should be noticed. It's not a failure–on our parts or Shakespeare's–if something doesn't "fit" iambic pentameter; it's a deliberate choice about how to use verse to tell a story / emotion (for the most part, & not counting changes in punctuation etc that other commenters have outlined).

    (Also, I would add that sometimes the change in verse I've found is to simply wake the audience up–at least in the plays–because if you read more than five or so lines in PERFECT iambic pentameter, it'll put you to sleep. 🙂 Those little jumps & bumps in the rhythm, besides showcasing ideas or moments or emotions, keep the audience on their toes so to speak.)

  9. Wow. Remind me never to post an iambic pentameter question right before I go away for a few days! It’s going to take me a little while to parse all that.

    In the meanwhile, let me see if I can sum up, or maybe somebody else can. It is an easy lesson to explain to someone, “Iambic pentameter is 5 sets of 2 syllables each, baDUM baDUM baDUM baDUM baDUM. Shakespeare wrote the sonnets in iambic pentameter.” Now – which part of that statement is wrong? Is iambic pentameter more flexible than just badump badump…, or did Shakespeare simply not use it all the time? Or is the statement still right, but you just have to stretch the limits of your understanding in order to see how it fits? I like to hope that the latter is true, and that if we fail to see how it fits, it is our own failure, not Mr. Shakespeare’s.

  10. Sorry if the impression left was that it was all about counting the punctuation changes–although the number would stagger someone who is unaware of how many “corrections” have been made after centuries of tinkering editors who had connections to publishing houses.

    The point I was attempting to make, is how much of an affect those changes can have on the interpretation of what was intended by the author, and how much instances of punctuation can alter intent in the story telling and the translation of emotion into words. It has a great deal to do with the rhythm of what we hear; it can affect even what we think we scan. Is it an iamb, trochee, spondee, etc.

    And relevant to the “little jumps and bumps”: Shakespeare used punctuation more and more, as he progressed, toward employing caesuras in his verse–both hesitations and full Dead Stops– in the middle of lines to make the verse more dynamic,conversational, and emotional–shifting over all. This had an absolute and a direct affect–as he intended it to have– on whether or not those surrounding beats counted out as iambs, or whatever they became. The mode of expression, coloring, and emotional shifts had the SOUND HE was after as a direct result of HIS choice and placement of punctuation alone. But punctuation is not simply an addendum to scanning verse–it’s an integral part of the process. To alter Shakespeare’s punctuation arbitrarily, or for some later-important consideration of grammar, is to change the dynamic markings on Beethoven’s symphonic manuscripts because classical music writing styles “change”.

  11. King Tut: As a teacher of English, I teach my students that if the majority of feet in a line are a certain rhythm, the line is considered that rhythm. This easily explains how each line is iambic. There are a few lines not in pentameter, however (in the sonnets). I also stress that if there is a different rhythm (such as the “Being” in line two, he did that on purpose and wants that word stressed and interpreted differently.

  12. Thes. This fellow doth not stand vpon points.

    Lys. He hath rid his Prologue,like a rough Colt: he knowes not the stop. A good morall my Lord. It is not enough to speake, but to speake true.

    Hip. Indeed hee hath plaid on his Prologue, like a childe on a Recorder, a sound, but not in gouernment.

    Thes. His speech was like a tangled chaine: nothing impaired, but all disordered. Who is next?

  13. Willshill, I share your frustration about editors and have actually written an article about the problem (in regard to The Sonnets). I think the propensity to perpetuate errors comes from the feeling of comfort that it is supported by a previous authority. The more an error is repeated, the more authority it has. One is, unfortunately, often left with an emperor without clothes. The problem is most acute with punctuation, which most editors assume to be non-authorial (which may or may not be true) and which was used very differently by Elizabethans than by modern English users.

    To answer your question, Duane, Shakespeare writes occasional stretches of pure iambic pentameter. Sonnet 48 is an example. He rarely does this, because it is difficult to do without making the meter sound boring. In Sonnet 48, he manages the feat through the use of varied placement of the midline break, careful mixture of monosyllables and multisyllable words, and varied syllable length.
    For an example of the boring use of pure iambic pentameter in a sonnet take a look at Giles Fletcher the Elder’s Sonnet 42:

    For if alone thou think to waste my love,
    Her cold is such as can the sea command:
    And frozen Ice shall let thy boat to move,
    Nor can thy forces row it from the land.
    But if thou friendly both at once shalt take,
    Thy self mayst rest. For why? My sighs will blow.
    Our cold and heat so sweet a thaw shall make,
    As that thy boat without thy help shall row.
    Then will I sit and glut me on those eyes,
    Wherewith my life, my eyes could never fill.
    Thus from thy boat that comfort shall arise,
    The want whereof my life and hope did kill.
    Together plac’d so thou her scorn shalt cross,
    Where if we part, thy boat must suffer loss.

    The sonnet has its merits, but the meter only dulls it, it in no way enhances it. It has a tendency, at least for me, to induce sleep. This is an error that Shakespeare studiously avoided.

  14. Thanks for the follow up. Any idea who “King Tut” is?

    Although I deal mostly with the plays and rarely have investigated the Sonnets anywhere nearly as deeply, they still fascinate. I do use sonnets, mainly as tools, I blush to admit, sometimes in teaching acting/ verse performance. They’re like little condensed worlds–complete extended thoughts. It helps with familiarization of rhythm, scanning, antithetical phrasing, soliloquy, set speeches–in fact, most of the things actors have to deal with when playing a role.

    You mentioned differences in use; Elizabethan VS Modern.
    I work a lot out of F1 and the Quartos, and you know, I’ve found that for the most part, the punctuation (whether or not it might be Shakespeare’s or the Elizabethan typesetters’ or editors’) can usually be made to make a great deal of sense within the context of a performance. If not (which is more rare than than otherwise) it has at least made the actor stop and think. Usually, paying attention to what’s there, right or wrong, is a catalyst for ideas and inspiration (unlike falling into the patterns of some of the ‘versified’ emendations of much modern editing).

    Structural changes really bug me as well, for many of the same reasons–but with the focus on directing first– but that’s another topic.

    I’d be very interested in reading your article, if it’s possible.

  15. I think you are right on target, Willshill, about using sonnets as a tool for helping actors learn performance techniques. They are like two-minute scenes rich with different uses of verse. And the punctuation IS there to guide the actor!
    My article, “The Application of Bibliographic Principles to the Editing of Punctuation in Shakespeare’s Sonnets” can be found in Studies in Philology 100 (4): 493-513, 2003. You might also be interested in my book,, “Shakespeare’s Sonnets: WIth 300 Years of Commentary.” It is a bit expensive, but it can be found in quite a few libraries.
    –Carl Atkins

  16. Until I find a way to circumnavigate through JSTOR I'll have to be satisfied with about the first half page of "The Application of…" I know a couple of Librarians- it may be possible to access through them and I can check for the book at the same time.

    In the meantime, you mentioned spellings on that first page. I've found some similar uses (as dramatic catalysts) for spelling variants and Caps in the original documents. Again,these are only suggestive, not dogmatic, but the connection between some of the variants and uses of alliteration and assonance seem, at times, unmistakably intentional. In my early (though late beginning) studies of Shakespeare's dramatic techniques in connection with his verse, these instances were touched on, but as you noted re: punctuation, the naked emperor rides into view on this issue as well very soon after mention is made.
    Because of this, it's difficult at times to get anyone to embrace the idea because the unveiling can sometimes be contradictory even in its revelation. On the other hand, using them when directing a play works much better (as do punctuation cues) because they're more easily applied when incorporated within a piece of direction. In any event, I've continued to pursue the ideas, and although no hard and fast rules can be set, their fruitfulness has been very evident to me. As an actor, I've used all of the above not only in Shakespeare's work, but with other playwrights as well. Obviously, any author worth his/her salt has HEARD what the characters are saying. Punctuation, assonance, alliteration,etc.are the musical/emotional/LITERARY partners. I've played the mediator more than once
    on the issues having to do with Theatre VS Literature when it comes to Shakespeare. And although I rail more loudly at the academicians than at the dramatists (and boy do the dramatists deserve it tenfold sometimes), I am convinced that in his world Shakespeare was both–regardless of what Greene or Jonson or Pope said re: his "scholarly" attributes. I think they were a little jealous because he could do it All.

    I'm anxious to read your work–I'm convinced from a 1/2 page of it-and what I've read here- that your approach will be peripheral–like that of any good Philosopher. –Regards & thanks

  17. Thanks for your interest, Willshill. As far as capitalization goes, I do believe it points to intended emphasis. This was certainly the compositorial practice of the day. One must be careful though, as there was a tendency to use it just to indicate important nouns (sort of following the German practice of capitalizing all nouns). Spelling variants, on the other hand, I have come to believe to be irrelevant to meaning, pronunciation or emphasis, but rather representative of the contemporary looseness of usage (one often found people spelling their own names differently as they chose).

  18. Isn’t there though, the possibility that because the license was there,that someone might make use of that permission as an additional tool of edification about what he was hearing in a particular passage; or how it could be applied vocally, therefore dramatically, in certain instances? I realize that again, in being anything like what approaches dogmatic about this, there is great danger. But in exploring the work wearing other hats, as actor/director, I’ve found that many times the same kind of “hook” for inspiration and thought rears its head when the eye and ear is open to the idea that it could be there.

    Decius: HERE lies the East: doth not the Day breake HEERE?
    […. ]
    Caska: You shall confesse, that you are both deceiv’d:
    HEERE, as I point my Sword, the Sunne arises,
    (the intentional caps are mine of course)

    As with capitalization, there are instances of conflicting usage, on the same page, stave, sometimes even within the same passage. The
    differentiations may simply be compositor or typesetter decision, laziness, or error–but many times, as in the above case, their “fortuity” makes them jump out at me from the page.

  19. I know there may be a temptation to see a rationale behind spelling variation, but my analysis leads me to believe otherwise. The variations are legion and in most cases clearly haphazard. I think it is dangerous to choose a particular instance that seems meaningful and ignore other instances that are clearly not. Without a systematic approach to draw upon, you would be on very shaky ground I am afraid.

  20. Carl, maybe I’m not being clear.
    I’m not attempting to develop a thesis on this aspect; I mention authorial intent only in a passing theoretical sense. What’s important to me is that regardless of original intent, or lack of it, being opportunistic about it all can open a door to application… sometimes. The possibility of a per se “rationale in spelling habits” is of far less importance to me, than is an awareness that it’s sometimes fruitful to “rationalize” about some of them as they might apply dramatically–In Particular and Singularly, to a case in point.
    From any other standpoint, I recognize that you are absolutely correct about the shaky ground on which I might stand.

  21. I don’t see your point, Willshill. You may as well find a dramatic use for an inksmudge on an original folio manuscript, in that case, as a spelling variant.

  22. Unlike the same word spelled differently in the same sentence or passage, ink smudges can’t make different sounds or generate different emphases. Ink smudges aren’t spoken out loud.

    I’ve found spelling variants to be of use–once again, sometimes.
    The fact that you’ve found them totally irrelevant in your analysis–however and to whatever that conclusion has been specifically applied–hasn’t stopped me from sometimes using them constructively regarding vocal differentiation, spoken emphasis, or variations in delivery.
    As a director, knowing the word is sometimes spelled differently, I’ll even tell an actor to “correct” it to that spelling in order to remind them of an emphasized piece of direction that helps them over a hurdle in the scene. –Totally Irrelevant?–Not to the actor I’m thinking of at the moment.
    In the theatre, mistakes and happenstance are sometimes great sources of enlightenment.
    Once again, I’m positing no claim of any pattern, intentional or otherwise.
    Rorschach 🙂 might argue that case, but it surely has nothing to do with anything I’ve been talking about.

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