By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.

January 5, 2015

It was Robert Frost who likened writing free verse to playing tennis with the net down.  And in keeping with that opinion, it certainly is easy to get the impression that most modern poetry is just lazy writing.  Somehow, breaking up your prose into short lines or patterns of print upon the page, not observing any rules of meter or rhyme or stanzaic structure, is supposed to impart great profundity to the prose that you write.  Perhaps there is worthwhile free verse out there somewhere, the same way that there is worthwhile free jazz or abstract painting.  But there is no question that playing tennis with the net up is more like the game of tennis as it was intended. Plus, it is harder to play it that way, it requires more skill, and the results are arguably more rewarding.  

Inevitably, the student of poetry must wrestle with those two giants of 19th Century technical poetic prowess.  They did not settle for playing tennis with the net up—they played their tennis with a double high net, setting themselves to poetic challenges and feats of word-play beyond any other English language poets. Those two men were Algernon Charles Swinburne and Henry Austin Dobson (1840-1921).  More on Swinburne some other time, but for now I have pulled the complete poetry of Dobson off the shelf.  He died in 1921, a giant among poets, had this complete edition put out by Oxford University Press in 1923, and then seemingly dropped off the face of the publishing world.  As far as I can tell, the last editions of Dobson in any form came out in the 1920’s.  And yet, he is still always quoted today in books on how to write formal poetry, particularly with reference to utilizing the French stanza forms in English.  Our edition of Dobson is a particularly treasured cornerstone of the poetry collection of the Dalenberg Library, because even though he is a giant of English poetry, it is amazing that you have to go all the way back to 1923 to find a collected edition of his work.  

Beginning about 1876, there was a vogue among certain British poets to revive the medieval French stanza forms of writers like Francois Villon from the 15th Century.  Austin Dobson was the most successful at creating new English poems in the old forms.  He wrote the first original  ballade in English, “The Prodigals.”  He also wrote triolets, rondels, rondeaus, and villanelles.  Perhaps Dobson’s poetry has not much survived for modern readers because he typifies the British gentleman poet, given to writing idyllic pastoral material (although he did write some powerful World War I poems).  Modern audiences want confessional poems, children’s poetry, or rants, like Ginsberg’s “Howl” and “Sunflower Sutra,” or poetry slams and rap battles.  Aside from those sub-genres, most modern poetry is not even relevant.  The magazine Poetry, for instance, is not even readable (plus it is full of way too much playing with the net down)—it is mostly published so poets can get published, not so anybody can actually enjoy reading it.  But Dobson is still worth reading, even today, because of his amazing verbal skills and his virtuoso exercises in form. 

No form was too tough for Dobson.  Even the most exotic French forms, like the Chant Royal and the Ballade with Double Refrain seem like child’s play for him.  The French forms are intricate and demanding verse structures with lots of rules for the poet to follow.  Dobson actually wrote very few poems in the classic English forms, such as the Shakespearian or Miltonic sonnet.  But thanks to his championing of the French forms, we have some great English poems that came after him.  One of the best known is Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” which is written in a French form called a villanelle.  

Austin Dobson published an entire book called “Essays in Old French Forms.” It is like a textbook on how to write the French forms.  One of the most illuminating and entertaining in the book is a poem called “You Bid Me Try,” wherein he educates the reader how to write a rondeau as he pens one in response to a fair young maiden who challenges him to write one.  As you can see from the poem, a rondeau consists of 13 lines in 3 stanzas.  There are only two rhymes, not counting the refrain, a phrase that occurs at the beginning of the poem and is repeated at the end of the second and last stanzas.  In this example, the refrain is “You bid me try.”  Thus, the rhyme formula for a rondeau (designating capital R as the refrain) is:  Ra-a-b-b-a  a-a-b-R  a-a-b-b-a-R.  The final distinguishing rule of the all the French forms is (and this is one of the things that make it so difficult to write them):  No word or syllable once used as a rhyme is allowed to be used again throughout the same poem, even if spelled differently!

    “You Bid Me Try”

You bid me try, Blue-Eyes, to write

A Rondeau.  What!—forthwith?—to-night?

    Reflect.  Some skill I have, ‘tis true;–

    But thirteen lines!—and rhymed on two!

‘Refrain,’ as well.  Ah, hapless plight!


Still, there are five lines, –ranged aright.

These Gallic bonds, I feared, would fright

    My easy Muse.  They did, till you—

        You bid me try!


That makes them eight.  The port’s in sight;–

‘Tis all because your eyes are bright!

    Now just a pair to end in ‘oo’—

    When maids command, what can’t we do

Behold!—the Rondeau, tasteful, light,

        You bid me try!

The ballade is the king of French forms, holding a place in the poetic pantheon somewhat equal to the sonnet (which is not a French form.)  To confuse the issue, Dobson titled most of his ballades “The Ballad of . . .(something or other.”  But they were really ballades (with that extra e on the end of “ballad.”)  A ballad (without the e) is actually a story-song, often with a folk story flavor.  But that is not what a ballad is in Dobson.  In Dobson, his ballads are ballades.

The ballade has very specific rules.  It consists of three stanzas of eight lines, and another stanza (or half-stanza) of four lines called the envoy.  Often, the envoy is addressed to some muse or princely power or potentate.  The first stanza rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b-c-b-c.  This same scheme is repeated in the second and third stanzas.  The envoy scheme (the last four lines of the poem) is b-c-b-c.  The last distinguishing feature of the ballade is the refrain, which is the repeated line that ends each of the three stanzas and the envoy.

In Austin Dobson’s “The Ballad of Imitation,” he varies the first word of the refrain for slightly different emphasis each time it is repeated, but he otherwise follows the form strictly.  He calls the envoy a “postscriptum.”  Also, to repeat, this is a ballade, not a ballad, but Dobson’s quirky use of language is to title it a ballad.  

The Ballad of Imitation


If they hint, O Musician, the piece that you played

    Is nought but a copy of Chopin or Spohr;

That the ballad you sing is but merely ‘conveyed’

    From the stock of the Arnes and the Purcells of yore;

    That there’s nothing, in short, in the words or the score

That is not as out-worn as the ‘Wandering Jew,’

    Make answer—Beethoven could scarcely do more—

That the man who plants cabbages imitates, too!


If they tell you, Sir Artist, your light and your shade

    Are simply ‘adapted’ from other men’s lore;

That—plainly to speak of a ‘spade’ as a ‘spade’—

    You’ve ‘stolen’ your groupings from three or from four;

    That (however the writer the truth may deplore),

‘Twas Gainsborough painted your ‘Little Boy Blue’;

    Smile only serenely—though cut to the core—

For the man who plants cabbages imitates, too!


And you too, my Poet, be never dismayed

    If they whisper your Epic—‘Sir Eperon d’Or’—

Is nothing but Tennyson thinly arrayed

    In a tissue that’s taken from Morris’s store;

    That no one, in fact, but a child could ignore

That you ‘lift’ or ‘accommodate’ all that you do;

    Take heart—though your Pegasus’ withers be sore—

For the man who plants cabbages imitates, too!


POSTSCRIPTUM—And you, whom we all so adore, 

    Dear Critics, whose verdicts are always so new!—

One word in your ear.  There were Critics before. . .

    And the man who plants cabbages imitates too!



In “The Ballad of Prose and Rhyme,” Dobson is showing off his mastery of poetic pyrotechnics.  This is a variation of the ballade form, called the Ballade with Double Refrain.  Most poets would not even attempt one due to the difficulty of pulling it off successfully.  As you can see, each stanza has two refrains, one in the fourth line and one in the eighth line.  The first refrain is then recapped in the second line of the 4-line envoy, and the second refrain is recapped in the fourth line.  A virtuoso performance!  


When the ways are heavy with mire and rut, 

    In November fogs, in December snows, 

When the North Wind howls, and the doors are shut,–

    There is place and enough for the pains of prose;

    But whenever a scent from the whitethorn blows,

And the jasmine-stars at the casement climb,

    And a Rosalind-face at the lattice shows,

They hey!—for the ripple of laughing rhyme!


When the brain gets dry as an empty nut,

    When the reason stands on its squarest toes, 

When the mind (like a beard) has a ‘formal cut,’—

    There is place and enough for the pains of prose;

But whenever the May-blood stirs and glows, 

And the young year draws to the ‘golden prime,’

And Sir Romeo sticks in his ear a rose,–

Then hey!—for the ripple of laughing rhyme!


In a theme where the thoughts have a pedant-strut,

    In a changing quarrel of ‘Ayes’ and ‘Noes,’

In a starched procession of ‘If’ and ‘But,’—

    There is place and enough for the pains of prose;

    But whenever a soft glance softer grows

And the light hours dance to the trysting-time, 

    And the secret is told ‘that no one knows,’—

Then hey!—for the ripple of laughing rhyme!




In the work-a-day world,–or its needs and woes,

There is place and enough for the pains of prose;

But whenever the May-bells clash and chime,

Then hey!—for the ripple of laughing rhyme!