Category Archives: Hill, David Octavius

Morns like these – we parted

The Birdcage, 1845, David Octavius Hill
Background Image: The Birdcage, 1845, David Octavius Hill

I want to look at the formal aspects of this poem, specifically its meter. When you read it out loud it has a very sing-song rhythm: “Morns” is spoken with a stress while the next word, “like” is pronounced unstressed. The poem continues like this with a stressed followed by an unstressed, or up then down then up then down. This is the opposite of iambic which is an unstressed followed by a stressed, which has the effect of mimicking a heartbeat: baDUM, baDUM, baDUM. Each line is also a trimeter which means it contains 3 feet: “Morns” is one foot, “like these” is the second, and “we parted” is the third foot of the first line. Finally, beginning with the first line, each odd numbered line contains 6 syllables (thus you would have to pronounce “fluttering” in line 3 as only two syllables, such as flut-ring) while the even numbered lines contains 5 syllables.

Why is this important? Well most interesting is that in writing a poem about someone dying, “we parted” and “this linnet flew”, she is describing the process when a person’s heart finally stops and, during this process, my not be beating properly. There is a sort of tension as if the person is constantly trying to catch their breath at the start of each word, yet their breath gets cut off and thus the person dying is “mute” and even the even number of syllables is cut short (6 in one line, only 5 in the next).

Yet oddly it is us who are experiencing the pain of dying, not the person who is actually dying. The patient is “mute from transport” in that they are in a state of joy as they are about to move on, yet it is the person who will remain alive that is in “agony” that their friend is leaving. Thus the formal quality of the poem could actually be representing the sobs of the poet.

Most unusual, however, is the final line. If you read the poem start to finish and you get caught up in the sing-song quality of it, once you get to “And this linnet” it doesn’t quite seem to fit. When you say “And this” you automatically want to stress “this” and not “And”. It can be read in the same meter as the rest of the poem, but also the flat stress of the second syllable of the word “linnet” makes it sort of unnatural to say it in the meter of the rest of the poem. Yet this is not a mistake in the poem because I think Emily wanted to capture that exact moment of surprise, “transport” and “agony” when death occurs and the linnet escapes its cage (linnets are songbirds kept in cages) and is free to fly to heaven. This songbird which had been singing through the whole poem is now free and so there is a moment of shock when the cage door opens and the bird is now free to leave: the poem almost derails from the meter, yet it still manages to work itself out and by the final word, “flew” and so the poem is back on track and its spirit (as well as the bird’s spirit) lives on in the afterlife.