Essays

Iambs and I am’s: Syllabic Structure in Understanding Ego

Phyllis Webb’s “Poetics Against the Angel of Death” is a poem about poetry. Webb’s persona reacts against the institutional and patriarchal iambic pentameter, seeing it as oppressive. She equivocates iambs with the ego, which can be aptly expressed through their homophonic relationship: “iambs” and “I am’s.” Fittingly for a poem about syllables, Webb uses syllabic structure to reflect her increasing disdain for egocentric poetry, and her development towards more liberating forms and meters.

Webb begins the poem with an “I am,” which is a subtle homophone for “iamb.” She immediately shows the overarching dominance of the iamb. Unsurprisingly, the first line is in iambic pentameter: “I am sorry to speak of death again” (Webb 1). Iambs, ego and death are hence covertly linked. The persona immediately apologizes, indicating her inferiority and the superiority of iambs/ego/death. Indeed, the “again” suggests that this is an issue that has defeated her before.

The conjunction “but” indicates that iambs, ego and death are epitomized in Wordsworth’s Prelude, “but last night Wordsworth’s “Prelude” / suddenly made sense” (Webb 2-3). Webb uses enjambment to emphasize the “Prelude,” making it the solitary event last night. Such deep immersion allows the persona to come to an epiphany: it “suddenly made sense – I mean the measure, / the elevated tone, the attitude / of private Man speaking to public men” (Webb 4-6). The discourse becomes gendered here, as Webb implies that iambs are patriarchal. The persona comprehends the purpose of the patriarchal pentameter: an egotistic construct designed to dominate—indeed, “The Prelude” is a deeply autobiographical poem centered firmly on Wordsworth’s ego. Crucially, these three lines are in iambic pentameter. The persona is at her most vulnerable here. She understands the allure of iambs, and almost succumbs to it: “Last night I thought I would not wake again” (Webb 7). But Webb subverts the defeated message of such a line through its syllabic structure, hinting at the persona’s natural resilience. The line is in trochaic pentameter, the reverse of iambic. Trochaic form also necessitates a feminine unstressed ending, subtly asserting the persona’s femininity in the face of patriarchy.

Webb invokes a definite sense of pathetic fallacy. Last night, in the darkness, the persona is vulnerable. But in the beautiful June morning, she finds the will to rebel. “But now with this June morning I run ragged to elude” (Webb 8). The messages clearly matches the syllabic structure. Webb is still using iambs, but uses seven feet, as opposed to the five in pentameters. She is literally running the line on to elude the iambic pentameter. Enjambment makes this escape much more potent. There is the sense that the persona is not just eluding iambic pentameter, but everything associated with it. Webb’s fondness for homophones reveals it once more, in “morning” and “mourning.” Perhaps the persona sees her death in the night as a rebirth in the morning.

The enemy is finally named, “the Great Iambic Pentameter / who is the Hound of Heaven in our stress” (Webb 9-10). The persona characterizes iambic pentameter as the ultimate authority figure. By compounding “Angel of Death” and “the Hound of Heaven,” Webb creates a contradictory figure whose only constant is power—heaven and hell do not represent good and evil, but authority over man. This patriarchal authority manifests in the masculine ending, a literal “stress.” Of course, Webb also uses the homonym nature of “stress” to include anxiety over the iambic pentameter’s relentlessness, alluding to the relentless God in Francis Thompson’s poem “Hound of Heaven.” This is the tenth line of the poem, mirroring the tenth syllable of the iambic pentameter.

It has finally ended, and the persona is free. Death is associated with the iamb, and this is continued in the iambic tetrameter, “because I want to die.” But it is not the persona’s death, but the iambic pentameter’s death. The longevity of the persona is foreshadowed in the second line, “(some say I’ll have a long life)” (Webb 2). Once again, death allows for a rebirth: the rebirth of the haiku, a poetic form that is free of ego. The poem ends on a note of open defiance. The persona is not merely content with writing haikus, she wants to actively move forward, “or better” (Webb 13). This final line captures her opposition of the iambs once more, as it is written in trochees. The unstressed-stressed structure of the trochee gives it a sense of forward momentum as the persona gathers speed and confidence. The choice of simile is potent, “clean and syllabic as knotted bamboo” (Webb 14). As opposed to the iambs, which was obsessed with man and death, the bamboo is natural and living. The persona chooses a neutrality that has no connotations of man or religion.

The poem ends on a final emphasis of triumph and affirmation: “Yes!” (Webb 14). Webb is able to appropriate the masculine ending for herself now. The ego and iamb had completely disappeared in the haiku. Webb’s persona finally exists as one with the poetry.

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