Heavyweight Championship Poetic Throwdown

In Act One, Scene One of Love’s Labor’s Lost, we are audience to a battle in verse between Berowne and his three compatriots, the King, Longaville, and Dumaine.  Like many poetic skirmishes we’ve talked about in the past, we hear answering and “topping,” in both rhyme and content.

The skirmish begins as Berowne chafes against the amendments to the King’s three-year study plan; Berowne wants nothing to do with the clauses calling for them to swear off women, food and sleep as well:

O, these are barren tasks, too hard to keep--
Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep!


The King responds by reminding Berowne, “Your oath is passed to pass away from these” (I.i.49).  Berowne retorts,

Let me say no, my liege, an if you please:
I only swore to study with your grace
And stay here in your court for three years' space.

— I.i.50-52

Here, Berowne not only answers in content (no to the assertion), but also in rhyme (these/please); round one goes to Berowne.  He continues with his own rhyming couplet, denying his past agreement.  When Longaville then states “You swore to that, Berowne, and to the rest.” (I.i.53), Berowne answers, “By yea and nay, sir, then I swore in jest” (I.i.54); with his response a topping in both content and rhyme (swore/jest and rest/jest, respectively), round two goes to Berowne.  Berowne then asks a question, “What is the end of study, let me know?” (I.i.55).  But because it begs a response from the King (“Why, that to know, which else we should not know.” [I.i.56]), we really can’t give this round to the King (even with the rhyme [know/know]).  Berowne then asks the King another question (“Things hid and barred, you mean, from common sense?” [I.i.57]), demanding another rhymed response (sense/recompense): “Ay, that is study’s godlike recompense” (I.i.58). Not only can’t we give this round to the King (because of the demanded response), one also gets the feeling that Berowne has been using the last two call-and-responses to set up the King for a full argument.

And that argument kicks off with a sound-alike reference to his own previous line (“Come on” to “common” [I.i.59 and 57, respectively]), and he then goes on an 11-line descant filled with rhymes in increasingly creative ways:  he begins with a couplet (so/know), follows with an ABAB quatrain (dine/forbid//fine/hid).

it’s interesting that not only does Berowne play with rhyme in this quatrain but with line endings as well: the first and third lines are enjambed, leading into end-stopped lines two and four…

Berowne follows this with another couplet (oath/troth), and then with a three-line set of rhymes (so/know/no).  Here, in a sense, Berowne leaves the King the opportunity to answer him in both content (“Swear me to this” [I.i.69]) and rhyme (the odd, outstanding “no”).  But since the King responds with a free-standing couplet of his own (quite/delight) that doesn’t respond to Berowne’s demand, we’d have to give this round to Berowne as well.

As if finding a weakness in the King’s argument, Berowne launches into the main section of his argument (one that we’ve covered before, last week).  When he comes to the end of his argument, we get a great four-line rhyming section:

How well he's read, to reason against reading!

Proceeded well, to stop all good proceeding!

He weeds the corn and still lets grow the weeding.

The spring is near when green geese are a-breeding.

— I.i.94-97

The King and his followers tease Berowne for his argument, with both the King and Dumaine admitting Berowne’s prowess (he is well-read, and he has proceeded well), while Longaville goes on to insult Berowne outright for having the wrong priorities (weeding corn, by killing the corn and leaving the weeds: according to Longaville, Berowne wants to forego the study by keeping access to women).  Berowne finishes off the rhymes of his compatriots (reading/proceeding/weeding/breeding) with a bizarre statement: spring is near when the fools (green geese) are breeding.  Because of the topping rhyme, this round goes to Berowne… again.

Dumaine follows this with a question that mirrors the audience’s thought of “huh?”

How follows that?

Fit in his place and time.

In reason nothing.

Something then in rhyme.

— I.i.98-99

This short section does many things at once.  Metrically, Berowne completes both of Dumaine’s short lines, each an antilabe without pause.  In the first line, Dumaine begins with two iambic feet, and Berowne completes the line with a trochee and two iambs.  In the second line, Dumaine begins with two and a half iambic feet (with the feminine ending of “nothing”); Berowne completes the line, beginning with a stressed syllable that completes Dumaine’s iamb, then completing the line with two iambs.  In the content of the lines, Berowne follows Dumaine’s “huh” with “everything in its place and time.”  Dumaine disparages this remark with “in reason, this makes no sense.”  Berowne’s taunting response is “maybe it will make more sense in rhyme.”  Linguistically, again, this round goes to Berowne.

The King doesn’t believe in rhyme, however, as he belittles Berowne with two lines that don’t rhyme: “Berowne is like an envious sneaping frost, // That bites the first-born infants of the spring.” (I..100-101).  The King compares Berowne the remaining frost of the winter that attacks the babes of the spring.  But as we’ve seen so far in the scene, Berowne is the master of language, so he takes those two lines’ endings (frost/spring) and begins to craft his response:

Well, say I am; why should proud summer boast
Before the birds have any cause to sing?
Why should I joy in any abortive birth?
At Christmas, I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth,
But like of each thing that in season grows.
So you, to study now it is too late,
Climb o'er the house to unlock the little gate.

— I.i.102-109

He completes the King’s lines to form an ABAB quatrain, he then follows it up with a CDCD quatrain, and a final couplet.  Berowne responds to his comparison to winter by saying that there is no reason for the seasons to change beyond winter.  Berowne cannot have any joy in these young babes of spring; everything must have its time.  And for the King and his men, Berowne feels that they are beyond study, an activity for youth.  This would be the knockout punch.

down goes Ferdinand, down goes Ferdinand…

At this point, Berowne has answered all their statements, questions, and accusations.  He has answered their lines, their content, their rhymes–even multi-line rhymes.  The King realizes he cannot convince Berowne, so he releases him from the oath: “Well, sit you out. Go home, Berowne: adieu” (I.i.110).  Berowne could easily go, but he’s won his verbal battle and has what he wants (general acceptance of his linguistic superiority), so he can give the King what he wants: “No, my good lord; I have sworn to stay with you” (I.i.111), again answering and completing the King’s rhyme.  He continues his speech, again varying the rhyme scheme (ABAB then couplet).

damned show-off

He finally ends:

Give me the paper; let me read the same,
And to the strictest decrees I'll write my name.

— I.i.116-117

He has won, and if we need any further convincing: the King can only rhyme off Berowne’s final couplet: “How well this yielding rescues thee from shame!” (I.i.118).

yeah, it’s easy to “yield” when you’ve just kicked your opponent’s ass… he’s yielding all the way around the ring with his hands held high..

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