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

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