The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.086  Monday, 4 March 2012


From:        Gerald E. Downs <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         March 3, 2012 6:00:59 PM EST

Subject:     Shall I Die Again?


He looked at me and sighed, then turned up his nose and died,

Then raised up and smiled at me and died again.

            “Our Cross-eyed Beau” The Girls of the Golden West


I hesitate to bring “Shall I Die” back to life even for a moment but I gave some thought to the poem when it was kicked around and came to believe it deserves better in the way of “closure” than the ignominy of a Taylor-made asterisk to the Foster Funeral.


In my view the poem is pretty good, if not serious, but its purpose is generally misunderstood (though someone preserved it in appreciation). Most of my interest derived from analyses bruited a quarter-century ago in response to the ‘case’ for Shakespeare’s authorship. I didn’t much care about the claim itself.


“Shall I Die” was not fully described. When Mac Jackson later observed that in “avoidance of the definite article and in the extravagant complexity of its rhyme scheme, ‘Shall I Die’ is sui generis,” and that its “form might have forced any writer to have used uncharacteristic expressions,” he properly grants that statistical and stylistic analyses are of limited worth; yet more traditional criticism makes little use of evidence pointing to the work’s most telling feature—its metrical style. Taylor ignores the question.


The poem has been judged by norms when it is meant to be A. B. Normal; scholars have turned it into Frankenstein by paying little attention to their own standards. For example, Donald W. Foster described it in 1987 as “written in continuous anapests,” reiterating thirteen years later that it has “135 lamely anapestic feet.” This assertion persisted (continuing the lame wordplay) where no anapest sets foot because critics didn’t notice. Thomas A. Pendleton’s extensive article barely mentions the meter: “The adjective [suspicious] is hypermetrical . . . . The rhythm is often defective. . . .” Can we know these things without description of the meter? Pendleton also notices the oddity that “Shall I Die” never employs a definite article:


“[A]voidance of the article seems a subtler and even more idiosyncratic discipline than the odd meter and continual rhymes of ‘Shall I Die’ But . . . one must conclude that the poet deliberately did do so. Thus, aside from demonstrating that the poem is an even more bizarre performance than it seems, and perhaps evoking a bit more incredulity that Shakespeare would have undertaken it, the strange avoidance of the…does not bear significantly on its authorship” (349).


Pendleton doesn’t consider the possibility that the unidentified ‘odd meter’ may itself have precluded use of the definite article. Avoidance was not of the alone, but of unstressed syllables, though this aspect of the poem’s ‘unique form’ has not been fully recognized. As Jackson suggests, any poet working under self-imposed restrictions could be forced outside his usual limits. We may not therefore discount Shakespeare as author simply because the poem is anomalous, but those who argue against the claim seem persuaded of the author’s incompetence. Pendleton is especially critical, calling the poet “fifth rate” and “incompetent at handling the verse form” that he does not elucidate. Vickers cites these judgments approvingly, yet he helps to make up for the deficiency of description by citing George T. Wright’s otherwise little-noted analysis of “Shall I Die.” Wright calls attention to his own article in Shakespeare’s Metrical Art; Vickers repeats his argument, which I think is the only real attempt to understand the poem’s metrical characteristics. As Vickers realizes, Wright is not quite successful; to see why, we should consider metrical matters in general.


English verse is usually iambic. Although the title-phrase ‘Shall I die’ appears in iambic works, the poem itself obviously does not fit the pattern of unstressed syllables (-) alternating with stressed syllables (/) in either iambic or trochaic dominant order. An iambic example:


  -      /      -      /      -     /   -    /    -   /   -  /     -      /   

You said that you’d be happy with a baby on your knee,

But here I set with him in my lap and you’re slippin’ around on me

           “I Heard the Jukebox Playing”   Kitty Wells


The alternative is triple verse, or anapestic meter, with two offbeats instead of one:


-   -     /   -     -       /       -      -        /   -    -   /   -  -      /

I can tell by your knees you been skinnin’ up coconut trees

            “You’re Bound to Look Like a Monkey” Hank Penny


“Shall I Die” can’t be considered anapestic without reconciliation to the concept of demotion, as described by Derek Attridge, where a syllable normally stressed in speech rhythms is “perceived as playing a subsidiary rhythmic role” (168) as an offbeat to the extent that “the natural rhythm of the language is being dominated by the patterns of the metre: the strong metrical set often encourages the reader to make demotion a matter of pronunciation, and actually to subdue the stress in contravention of the norms of speech.” This otherwise unnatural pronunciation may be allowed only when “a strong enough set for triple verse is established and maintained” (200 - 204). In an anapestic “Shall I Die,” line after line would be subjected to a forced demotion of stress:


   -     -      /       -     -      /         -        -     /       -      -     /     -    -      /

Next her haire forehead faire Smooth and high next doth lye without wrinkle


Yet anapestic meter in “Shall I Die” is never established; its maintenance by rule is arbitrary (or impossible) if all lines defy scansion. Wright identifies instead a dipodic rhythm in which the metrical foot comprises a stress, an offbeat, and a greater stress ( \  –  / ) in an English adaptation of the Latin cretic measure, where “the strongest syllable in almost every foot is the third”:


   \     -      /       \     -       /         \        -     /      \      -     /      \    -     /

Next her haire forehead faire Smooth and high next doth lye without wrinkle


However, the above line and most others induce agreement with Wright, that “if this is the base meter, the poet often departs from it.” Departures require responses by the reader “to keep the tune that the meter has set up” or where “the assignment of stresses may seem rather implausible, but it is what the poem’s metrical pattern calls for.” These “courtesies to the meter” are numerous, but elsewhere “the meter forces stress on some words that we would not ordinarily emphasize” which “most readers, if left to their own devices and free from any metrical pressure” would read differently. Of these instances Wright suggests that what “the poet appears to ask is not that we suppress such inclinations entirely, but that we moderate them in the interests of maintaining the meter” (12). Vickers apparently accepts Wright’s identification of the meter but attributes the metrical anomalies to the incompetence of the poet (12-13). But if Attridge rightly requires meter to be strongly maintained not by the reader, but by the poem, and if stresses are forced, might they indicate that the meter itself is implausible? Because his remarks are confined to stress-positions dictated by the cretic form, Wright’s commentary encourages assumption that his marked offbeats consist entirely of normally unstressed syllables. This is not the case (remember, the is not allowed anywhere); the question is whether stressed syllables also dominate ‘weak’ positions so that cretic meter is not maintained at all. This is more like it:


  /   /    /       /     /     /    /     /    /     /   /       /    /    /     /      /  

Yet I must vent my lust and explain inward pain by my love breeding


None of these words invites much of an offbeat. The poem reproduced in long lines has unstressed last (feminine) syllables (‘ing’) that are by convention of no moment. I don’t claim that obviously unstressed syllables are absent but they are few and far between; I conclude of the metrical pattern that there isn’t one.


Ordinarily, ‘no metrical pattern’ means ‘prose.’ “Shall I Die” is not prose; what is it? Prose is naturally iambic, in that beats and offbeats most often alternate. Yet there is no hint of the ordinary in “Shall I Die.”


When I saw how those thirty hand-rubbed coats of lacquer glistened,

 That’s when I realized that somethin’ was missin’

“Who Stole My Spinner Hub-caps?”   Pat Davis


The poem is missing the especially weak stresses, and words and syllables commonly unstressed seem self-promoted, not demoted: “for thou art my tormentor.”


I accept that virtually all syllables are stressed differently in natural contexts. If one should say there are no exceptions, another may say “amen,” but metrical effects take advantage of differences. For example, alphabetic letters should have equal stresses; however, iambic meter relies not on one stress, but two relative stresses in each foot; it doesn’t matter what accents are elsewhere:


-    /    -    /   -     / -     /    -    /

B. J., the D. J., only twenty-four,

A wreck at ninety miles an hour,

He’ll spin the hits no more.

      “BJ the DJ”  Stonewall Jackson


To me, “Shall I Die” stresses, however naturally they may differ, seem to exist in a stand-alone (some say ‘staccato’) mode that defies notions of metric feet:


If she smiles, she exiles all my moan; if she frown, all my hopes deceiving −

Suspicious doubt, oh keep out − for thou art my tormentor.


I don’t believe this effect is accidental or the result of a bumbler (mere speech would not produce the thumping). Multi-syllable words seem chosen to avoid offbeats and some, such as ‘com-‘ compounds, may have been pronounced with stress anyhow. If suspicious is hypermetrical, then so much the better. These effects are emphasized by the numerous rhymes -- I don’t suppose they cause them. Rather, someone (gifted, as Wright suggests) went to some trouble.


In a short 1987 commentary, Jacquelyn L. Mason suggested that “Shall I Die” was a response to George Gasgoigne’s “Certayne notes of Instruction.” It is remarkable how the works relate to one another (in various ways); I can’t deny the conjecture outright. For example, GG asks his poet to “remember to hold the same measure wherwith you begin, whether it be in a verse of sixe syllables, eight . . . and though this precept might seeme ridiculous . . . .” The (undivided) lines of “Shall I Die” vary from twelve to eighteen syllables. Neither am I opposed to a hypothesis that the poem existed early on.


But my impression tends to agree with Wright; the work looks hurried and was “perhaps undertaken as a jeu d'esprit, a response to a challenge . . .” (12). I guess it tries to answer whether rhyme alone can make a poem, if injecting it into prose is not enough. After all, if we didn’t know better, some poetry might be accidental:


Decided to try the local picture show --

When out she comes struttin’ with this college Joe

        “Teenage Love is Misery”    Jerry Kennedy


Poetry can be metrical but not rhyming: can it be be rhyming but not metrical? To one supposing not, “Shall I Die” replies with an overwhelming number of rhymes and no rhythm. A poet casually producing something like this shouldn’t be judged or identified by statistics or style, nor be faulted for not sounding conventional. If the poem is seen more for what it is, the faults seem to be in the commentary.


Gerald E. Downs



Shall I die, shall I fly lovers baits and deceits, sorrow breeding?

Shall I tend, shall I send, shall I shew and not rue my proceeding?

In all duty, her beauty binds me her servant for ever;

If she scorn, I mourn, I retire to despair, joying never.


Yet I must vent my lust and explain inward pain by my love breeding.

If she smiles, she exiles all my moan; if she frown, all my hopes deceiving −

Suspicious doubt, oh keep out − for thou art my tormentor.

Fly away, pack away! I will love, for hope bids me venter


T’were abuse to accuse my faire love ere I prove her affection;

Therefore try. Her reply gives thee joy or annoy or affliction.

Yet howe’er, I will bear her pleasure with patience, for beauty

sure wit not seem to blot, her deserts wronging him, doth her duty.


In a dreame it did seeme but alas dreames do passe as doe shadowes

I did walke, I did talke with my love, with my dove through faire meadows

Still we past till at last we sate to repose vs for or pleasure

being set lips mett armes twin’d & did bind my hearts treasure


Gentle wind sport did find wantonly to make fly her gold tresses

As they shooke, I did looke but her faire, did impaire all my senses

As amaz’d I gaz’d On more than a mortall complection

then that loue, can prove Such force in beawties inflection


Next her haire forehead faire Smooth and high next doth lye without wrinkle

Her faire browes under those starlike eyes win loues prize when they twinckle

In her cheekes, whoe seekes Shall find there displaid beawties banner

Oh admiring, desiring breeds as I looke still vpon her


Thin lips red, fancies fed with all sweets when he meets and is granted

There to trade, and is made happy sure, to endure still vndaunted

Pretty chinne, doth winne Of all thats cald comendatious

Fairest neck, noe speck All her parts meritt high admiracons


A pretty bare, past compare parts those plotts (which besots) still asunder

It is meet, nought but sweet should come nere, that soe rare tis a wonder

Noe mishap, noe scape Inferior to natures perfection

noe blot, noe spot Shees beawties queene in election


Whils’t I dream’t, I exempt for all care seem’d to share pleasures in plenty

but awake care take for I find to my mind pleasures scanty

Therefore I will trie To compasse my hearts cheife contenting

to delay, some saye In such a case causeth repenting.




Derek Attridge, The Rhythms of English Poetry


George T. Wright, "The Meter of 'Shall I Die'", Eidos, Nov. 1986


Brian Vickers, Counterfeiting Shakespeare


Donald W. Foster, “’Shall I Die’ Post Mortem,” SQ 1987, & Author Unknown.


Jacquelyn L. Mason, “’Shall I Die?’” Spear-Shaker Review, 1987.


Thomas A. Pendleton, “The non-Shakespearian Language of ‘Shall I Die’”

RES, August, 1989.

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