End Notes: Measure for Measure

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Knox Brothers (Counterpoint Press, 2000) got a rave review from Charlotte Hays in the April 2001 issue of Crisis, and rightly so. While Hays laid before the reader the major merits of Fitzgerald’s biography of her father, Edmund Knox, and her uncles Dillwyn, Wilfred, and the Catholic convert Ronald Knox, I want to call attention to a minor and incidental merit of that book, the verse form invented by Dillwyn, which he called the Pentalope.

Fitzgerald writes: “The rules, Dilly claimed, were transparently simple; each line must end with a word of the same form, but with a different vowel, the vowels ‘of course’ coming in their proper order, a, e, i, o, u, or the equivalent sounds in English.” Here is Dilly’s example:

Just look at my father

And mother together!

I fancy that neither

Would very much bother

If rid of the other.

Some readers, intent on proving that art imitates art, will try the Pentalope. I am just such a person:

 A maid there was who latterly

Practicing coquettery

Ended up quite bitterly

In exile from her coterie

Weeping in the buttery.

Dillwyn showed modesty in not naming his new form after himself. Arthur Clerihew Bentley, on the other hand, gave his middle name to the four-line verse form he invented:

The people of Spain think Cervantes

Equal to half-a-dozen Dantes,

An opinion resented most bitterly

By the people of Italy.

There are vast numbers of other, equally complex verse forms. Perusal of Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry (1999), which contains many of them, is a delight, but I prefer John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason (1989) and, even more, Poetry Handbook (1957) by Babette Deutsch, a real feast. More solemn is The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993).

One thing I like about Hollander’s book is that he illustrates the various verse forms with poems of his own. This conveys the sheer fun to be had from the technical side of composition. The villanelle is a form few poets can resist. Here’s one of Hollander’s examples:

That existential insect the bee

In the immobility of flight

Fawns on flora tirelessly.


Dutifully from A to Z

He pollinates each flower in sight,

That existential insect the bee.


Fleetly fecundating, he

Deflowers with minimal foresight,

And fawns on flora tirelessly,


Forming an odd menage á three,

But hiveward hies at fall of night,

That existential insect the bee,


To honeyed dreams wherein he

In imaginary rite

Fawns on flora tirelessly.


His an odd immortality,

Fathering flowers with all his might,

That existential insect the bee

Who fawns on flora tirelessly.

Dylan Thomas’s famous Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is also a villanelle. The form, like the sestina— at which Auden excelled—originated in Provence. Here is my own Knox-like contribution to verse forms. I call my invention the Trireme, the first and third lines having triple inner rhyme and the second double:

                Suburbanite’s Lamen

 In the dawn on the lawn still unmown,

Deer appear:

Their lazy grazing drives me crazy.

What is the point of all this? Any art involves a technique that even the uninspired can learn and, in their manner, practice. Training in any art begins with technique: the measured, the mathematical. Like walking, until it is learned, it seems impossible. But if anyone can walk, few can dance. Fiddling with poetic forms powerfully brings home how much more than technique poetry is. But without technique, there is no poetry.

Ralph McInerny


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)