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1. Mer'rily | swing'ing on bri'er and I weed
Bob'-o'-link, bob'-o'-link, 6.
Spink', spank', spink'; 7. Snug' and safe in this nest of ours', 8. Hid'den a | mongʻ the sum'mer | How'ers. 9.
Chee', chee', chee'. In the first line there are three dactylic feet followed by an accented syllable. The next line appears to consist of three dactylic feet, but in reading, the last word in the line carries emphasis. The third line has two dactylic feet and one iambic foot; the fourth line has three dactylic feet followed by an accented syllable.
The bird's song, in the last five lines, is exceedingly irregular in structure, but it will be found that the structure is practically the same in all the stanzas. Accordingly, we infer that Bryant meant to imitate the broken measures of the bird's song. The word “bob-o'link” is a dactylic foot. “Spink, spank, spink” are three accented syllables, as are also the three words "chee, chee, chee.”
The two intervening lines are not difficult of scansion, but are not easily classified. You will notice that there is in each of these lines but one dactylic foot; the others are trochees, with the exception of the single accented syllable, which terminates the first of the two lines. Trochees and dactyls are very commonly found together. Iambics and anapests are also common in combination.
Enough has been said here to give you an understanding of the meter of Robert of Lincoln. It is not worth while to carry it out farther. If you pay too much attention to the structure, you will destroy appreciation of the underlying rhythm, which here is very strong. Remember that the purpose of metrical analysis is not to label and classify poems as iambic, trochaic, etc., but is to assist merely in an appreciation of the music.
III. READING FOR THE Music. When you have brought out the structure sufficiently, read the stanza aloud. In the first four lines lend your voice to the swinging motion of the dactyls; Robert himself is swinging. When you reach his song, be sprightly and quick in your utterance, and place a strong emphasis on the accented syllables in the first line, “bob'-o'-link, bob'-o'-link.” Bryant has chosen the next three words, with their numerous consonants and short, snappy vowels, for the purpose of bringing out the sharp, disconnected notes of the bird's song. The trochees in the next two lines imitate the rolls and trills in the song, which are in great contrast to the emphatic introductory note. To these lines you do not give the broad swinging motion of the descriptive part of the stanza, but the lively, rollicking measures that make the body of the bobolink's song. The words “chee, chee, chee” are the three final song notes, each prolonged as is indicated by the double final vowel.
Wherever the meter is very pronounced, many people find it difficult to read aloud without making the accents too prominent, and it seems necessary to repeat the caution, that reading must not degenerate into scansion. In reading aloud, one finds certain thought-units which very frequently do not correspond with the metrical units of the lines. These thought-units are groups of words which are closely related, and whose utterance is given practically with one impulse. If the first stanza were divided into these thought-units, and the emphatic words underscored, the contrast between reading and scansion might become more apparent:
Merrily swinging on brier and weed
Near to the nest of his little dame, Over the mountain side | or mead, Robert of Lincoln is telling his name:
Spink, / spank, spink; | Snug and safe in this nest of ours, Hidden among the summer flowers. I
Chee, chee, chee!
It is a difficult matter to represent oral reading graphically, and you must remember that the underscoring of words in the stanza above does not show the inflections and modulations of the voice with any degree of accuracy, but the vertical lines do indicate the thought-units. You will notice at once that these units do not correspond with metrical feet. The real music of poetry is made by the combination of the rhythm in the metrical feet, the emphasis and modulation given in expressing the thought, and a third element, which we have not yet mentioned. This last element is found in the vocal power of the words. Some words are in themselves musical, while others are harsh and unpleasant to the ear. The poet realizes this and chooses his words with care. In this first stanza you will notice the force of our remark by comparing the first line with the sixth; the latter is evidently harsh and unmusical when compared with the others, and it is only tolerable in that by contrast it heightens the tinkling music of the bird's name and the more delicate harmony of the two following lines.
The other stanzas are very similar to the first and need no further explanation, although you must watch for variations from the dactylic feet in the first four lines of each stanza, and for variations in the third and fourth lines of the bird's song. As you read you may find these two lines scanning more easily as iambics and anapests.
IV. INTERPRETATION. This lively little poem is so great a favorite with the children that it seems worth while to offer some suggestion for its interpretation.
a. Words, Phrases, etc. "Robert of Lincoln."
This is a fanciful name which has been derived from the bird's note, which sounds like "Bob-o'-link," as though he had abbreviated the words "Robert of Lincoln."
“Quaker wife.” The female bobolink is, as Bryant describes her, very plain in her appearance, quite unlike her brilliant mate. The allusion is to the gray and sober clothing worn by that religious sect, the Quakers.
“Off is his holiday garment laid.” The male bobolink, like most other birds, sheds his gay feathers in the late summer, and the new ones which come out are much soberer in color. After the bobolinks migrate they live in the rice fields of the South, where they are known as rice birds, and unfortunately are considered a great table delicacy.
“We sing as he goes.” There is a very happy idea in this last stanza. Up to this time the bobolink has, in every stanza, sung his own song, but now that he has forgotten it (and few birds do sing in the autumn), we take up the refrain and sing the invitation for him to return.
b. Character Study:
ROBERT OF LINCOLN
From Bryant's description.
From Robert's song.
Fond of home.
Robert is very much of a person, as Bryant depicts him. In the first place, as may be seen in the table, the poet gives us some characteristics, and in the second place Robert tells us some things himself by his song and by his actions.
Make a similar outline of the character of Robert's Quaker wife and contrast the two.
c. The Song. Consider the two important lines of the song in each of the first seven stanzas, in order to think of these lines together.
(1) Stanza 1. About what does Robert first sing? What is his chief thought about this nest of his? How many, and what qualities does he see in the location of this nest? Is the fact that it is among "summer flowers” of any great interest to him?
(2) Stanza 2. What is next in importance to the safety of his nest? Was it a new coat that he was wearing? How long had he been wearing it? What trait of character is shown by the line, “Sure there was never a bird so fine.”
(3) Stanza 3. Of whom does Robert think now? Who is the “kind creature”? What does he mean by “brood”? Is he thinking more of himself or of his wife in this stanza? What are the “thieves” and “robbers” she might fear?
(4) Stanza 4. Of whom is he thinking now? Is the trait of character he shows in these two lines in harmony with the trait of character Bryant gives him in the third line of this same stanza? Who are the "cowards” he speaks of? What propriety is there in calling them cowards ?
(5) Stanza 5. Of whom is he singing now? Does he call her a "nice good wife” because she is doing what she ought to do or because she gives him liberty? Does this show him to be conceited?
(6) Stanza 6. How is this new life likely to be hard for Robert? Is he a "gay young fellow” in respect to his clothes or in respect to his character? Do you think he resents the idea that he has to work, or is he playfully sympathizing with himself?
(7) Stanza 7. What is the subject of his song in the seventh verse? How does this compare with the subject of the song in the first stanza?
Do you not think that, after all, Robert's chief concern is for his nest and its safety? Do you think he is, in spite of his brag and his gay dress, a good husband and father?
(8) Stanza 8. What is the “merry old strain” that Robert piped? Do you think you can join with Bryant in hoping that Robert will come back?
d. Descriptive Lines. The analysis of the descriptive quatrains which introduce each stanza shows the following leading thoughts:
(1) Stanza 1. The merry Robert of Lincoln sings his name from an elevated position near his nest. (The