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Worlds Without End Blog

Horrible Poetry 101: Arise and Sing Posted at 7:33 PM by Rico Simpkins


SPOILER WARNING: If you have not seen Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, do NOT read this post or watch the above video! Go watch it somewhere else, and then come back.  Trust us.  You don’t want to ruin it.

Dispelling some myths

While we at WWEnd are passionate about what we do, we also have day jobs.  I mention this because it sometimes surprises people who think we are some big corporate entity that provides services for promotional purposes (we’re not really sure whether to be flattered by that).  My day job is English teacher.  I spend a lot time teaching Shakespeare, Shelly, Keats, Frost and pretty much any other English language poet to my students.  I have high standards for them, and lyric poetry can be quite intimidating.  Consequently, I have tried to dispel the notion that poetry is hard to read or that the literary figures I teach them to identify can only exist in elite centuries-old verse.  In fact, I maintain that every trope and scheme tested in an AP English exam can be found in contemporary entertainment ranging from Top 40 music to popular musicals.

…which is what gave me the idea to use Joss Whedon’s most excellent Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog to teach poetry.  I’m just at the beginning stages of lesson planning at the moment, but I have finished an analysis of the Sing-Along Blog’s final song, Everything You Ever.

A Ph. D. in Horribleness

Everything You Ever completes Billy’s transition to becoming a true villain.  As a poem, it borrows from several formal types, most notably the sonnet.  To see the sonnet form buried in the song, you need to first peel back some layers.   Each of the three stanzas consists of four lines, followed by commentary from the chorus (“Everything you ever”) which is then followed by a very short dimeter line (which I will call a declaration).  These three elements have distinct styles and are easily separable.  Disregarding the chorus (a natural thing to do, since Billy doesn’t sing it), you get a rhyme scheme in each stanza that appears to be a backwards limerick (ABBAA).  If, however, you also disregard the dimeter declaration at the end, you wind up with a rhyme scheme of ABBA.  Extended over the whole song, you get ABBA CDDC EFFE.  It’s hard not to notice the echo of an Elizabethan era sonnet (not the pattern famously used by Shakespeare, but one more directly influenced by the Petrarchan form).

Hail to the King


As with sonnets, this first layer consists of 3 stanzas that follow one another in metrical pattern.  Here is my scan of the song’s opening stanza:

Here lies | every | thing trochaic trimeter A
The world | I want | ed at | my feet iambic tetrameter B
My vic | tory’s | complete iambic trimeter B
So ha | ïl to | the king iambic trimeter A
(Every | thing you | ever…) (trochaic trimeter) (χ)
Arise | and sing iambic dimeter A

Notice that I didn’t count the chorus as being a formal part of the rhyme, as it isn’t sung by Billy and only seems to rhyme with itself.  This refrain is so overtly different than the rest of the song that I must treat it as a separate layer most of the time.

A few other things to note:

  1. The word “every” in line one is pronounced by NPH as if it were two syllables (not three), so I treat it as such in my scan.
  2. He also puts two syllables (not one) in the word “hail,” to which I added a diacritic mark (haïl) indicating a diphthong.  To pronounce “haïl” any other way would interfere with the natural meter of the line, which is iambic.

The entire first stanza is, of course, dripping with irony.  I never have to point this out to my students, because your average high school student is so focused on things like irony, similes and metaphors that they catch almost nothing else.  Suffice it to say, then, that the irony of the whole Sing-Along Blog is the irony of this quatrain.  The audience clearly perceives that Billy’s “victory” is nothing of the sort.  It is, of course, an age old expression of sour grapes.

Something else to notice about this stanza is its final declaration, “Arise and sing.”  It is, in fact, an imperative (which one would expect from the newly powerful Dr. Horrible).  It also provides an essential requirement of epic poetry: the invocation to the Muse.  Compare this line with some of the more famous invocations in poetry:

“Sing, O Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus….” – The Iliad, Homer

“Sing to me, Muse, of that man of many ways…” The Odyssey, Homer

“Of Man’s First Disobedience…Sing Heav’nly Muse…” – Paradise Lost, John Milton

As happens so much in Dr. Horrible, traditions are followed, but in reverse order.  In the classical epics, an invocation to the Muse occurs at the beginning of a story.  Whedon decides to place his at the end. Perhaps this is because the Sing-Along Blog is merely the prelude to the epic that will be Dr. Horrible’s infamous career.  Of course, the invocation itself is not just Whedon’s, but is also Billy’s.  He is calling to his Muse (can Billy’s Muse be anyone other than Penny?), asking her to arise (something that she will never do) and sing (or, more literally, inspire him to sing) the song of his ultimate triumph.

Now your world is mine


Now that the invocation has been, er, invoked, the second stanza can really give voice to Billy’s argument.

So your | world’s be | nign, trochaic trimeter C
So you | think just | ice has | a voice iambic tetrameter D
And we | all have | a choice iambic trimeter D
Well now | your world | is mine iambic trimeter C
(Every | thing you | ever…) (trochaic trimeter) (χ)
And I | am fine. iambic dimeter C

The second stanza (another sestet), begins with a polysyndeton:

So you world’s benign
So you think justice has a voice
And we all have a choice

This repeated use of coördinating conjunctions (So, So, And) turns Penny’s ideals into a cheap laundry list, a mere caricature of what benignity, justice and choice really are. This is, perhaps, the cruelest sestet in the song, as it not only denies Billy’s love for Penny, but attacks her most cherished values. Here we get the answer to the question Billy puts to Moist in Act 2, “Do I even know you?”

That the line attacks the very idea of choice provides a sort of excuse for Billy’s behavior (a particularly convenient one at this moment). Billy’s not responsible, because nobody is. This both explains why there is no justice and gets Billy off the hook for the crime he just committed. It allows him to feel, as he says, fine, a word he lingers on for five whole seconds, as if he’s still trying to convince himself.

Now the nightmare’s real


The third and final stanza is notable both for its regularity (all three stanzas parallel one another perfectly, without variation) and for the one rule that it does break:

Now the | nightmare’s | real. trochaic trimeter E
Now Doc | tor Hor | rible | is here iambic tetrameter F
To make | you quake | with fear iambic trimeter F
To make | the whole | world kneel iambic trimeter E
(Every | thing you | ever…) (trochaic trimeter) (χ)
And I | don’t feel iambic dimeter E
A thing iambic monometer G

As with stanza 2, this stanza starts with repetition.  This time it’s straight up anaphora:

Now the nightmare’s real
Now Dr. Horrible is here

The dismissing “So” that Doc H. applied to Penny’s worldview has been replaced by “Now.” While Billy spent much of his time in the Sing-Along Blog using the future tense (as DeadNotSleeping points out, in Act 1, “you always say in your blog that you will show her the the way, show her that you are a true villain”). By stanza three of this song, the waiting is over. The nightmare is not only real, but present. Now.

Dr. Horrible makes himself truly manifest in all his scarlet glory. But for whom is all of this bluster? Clearly it’s for Bad Horse and the rest of the villains in the conference room of evil. In private, as we see, things are quite different.

Now, bear with me, here, because what I’m about to point out is not really that profound in a literary sense, but it is quite cool:

If you attend only to the song as a whole, it’s easy to miss the two words at the end. The whole song consists of three sestets. That means the line count for the stanzas is (gulp) 6-6-6.  To be honest, I have no reason to believe that this was intentional on the songwriters’ part, but I like to think that they realized this. What makes it so cool is the single iamb of that final monometer line, “a thing.” The lyric sheet puts this on its own line (which makes sense, because it preserves the meter of line 18, which matches all other stanzas). That means the final stanza of the song is not a sestet, but a septet.  That attack of conscience at the end, therefore, saves the line count from an infernal identity.  Because Billy is revealed to still have a soul (so to speak), Everything You Ever is reformed to 6-6-7. There’s a kernel of good in this new devil yet.

Maybe Joss will wipe out that little bit of hope in the sequel.



Mis   |   02 May 2013 @ 18:11

Thank you, this was very enlightening. It’s so nice to see teachers using modern works as teaching tools. When I was at school oh so many years ago, it wasn’t fun. I truly think this kind of teaching would have helped a lot. Thank you for being a teacher, and you seem like a very good one at that! 🙂

Evan   |   02 May 2013 @ 21:02

That was a really, really interesting analysis. I’m not sure I agree with quite all of it, though; I’ve always taken “arise and sing” to be a command he’s giving to himself as he crowns himself king, comparable to “arise, Sir Knight!” — not as an invocation of the muse, and certainly not addressed to Penny. And that still seems like a more natural interpretation to me.

I’ve always taken the second stanza to be addressed to the sheep he now rules, not to Penny… but the thought that he is addressing Penny (even partially) is so much crueler, and ties in so well with her earlier-stated belief that “some kind of harmony is on the rise”, that I find the idea very compelling.

Anyway, well done, I envy your students.

cupertino jay   |   02 May 2013 @ 22:02

Twitter handle Whedonesque brought me here. Source:

Alas, poetry lectures didn’t stick with me in 1960s california public HS, so I’m gonna have to set that analysis aside.

Spoilers ahead.. duh!

> ..gets Billy off the hook for the crime he just committed.

In American courts the accused who first initiates mayhem is legally responsible for incidental damage, fine, so you’re right that by law Penny’s death belongs to DrH.

But hopefully defensive counsel in closing arguments will point out mitigating factors: BillyBuddy did his utmost to stop Corporate TOOL Hammer from pulling the trigger of the DeathRay, recognizing the bounced Wonderflonium power pack was itching to blow. But did the popular local hero listen.. NOOOOO.

That’s all I got. Thanks again Rico.

Rebecca   |   03 May 2013 @ 09:35

Wonderful! As a fellow English teacher I understand the difficulty in drumming up interest and excitement in seemly archaic literary conventions. I’ve used comics such as the Dark Knight Returns and Kingdom Come in the classroom with great success, but I’ve never thought to consider the poetry in Dr. Horrible, and this is a great idea. I’d be really interested in knowing about the other lesson your plan for this unit, if you would be willing to share your ideas.

icowrich   |   03 May 2013 @ 10:13

Evan: While I think my line count analysis (6-6-6 => 6-6-7) is probably incidental (not likely anticipated by the songwriter), I stick to my comments about the invocation. I think you are right to say that Dr. H. is crowning himself (a la Napoleon’s coronation), but I think the line “Arise and sing” is addressed formally to a Muse. I don’t mean to say that Penny is literally singing. When one prays to a Muse, one asks her to sing through oneself. When reciting Homer, the bard would literally sing, but it was believed he was simply mouthing the words that the Muse put there. Because the formula for the invocation is so consistent, it seems likely to me that the “Arise and sing” is not there coincidentally. By this, I don’t mean to imply that Penny really is providing the lyrics (they are antithetical to her world view). I only mean that Dr. Horrible is recognizing her role in his creation. She is his Muse in that her death has given rise to his existence…as a real villain. This is not the normal poet-Muse relationship, but, why would it be?

Your second point, about the second sestet being about the crowds, is apt. I just think that Penny shares those views of benignity, justice and choice. She is one of them, which perhaps explains her passion for helping humanity in whatever way she can. Also, I find the idea of a post-mortem argument with a murdered (okay, manslaughtered) love to be quite poetic. It puts me in the mind of the excellent duet in the opener of Act 2.

icowrich   |   03 May 2013 @ 10:15

cupertino jay: Thanks for your remarks. I meant to say that Dr. H. wants to be let of the hook morally, not legally. I doubt, at this point, that he fears the law at all. He just needs to justify what he has done.

icowrich   |   03 May 2013 @ 10:22

Rebecca: Well, I plan on doing an analysis for all of the songs in the Sing-Along Blog, and I’m hoping to extract examples of at least half of the tropes and schemes I teach in AP, such as metaphor, simile, anastrophe, alitteration, rhyme scheme, meter (we do scansion), hyperbole, litotes, metonymy, periphrasis, pun, synecdoche, and the like. The songs in the Blog are so rich and varied, I don’t think this will be a problem.

Of course I’m always looking for classical allusions and references to other bit of literatary inheritance. All (good) literature is part of the “great conversation,” so there should be artificacts in many of the songs that references older ideas.

I’ll post again when I get to another song analysis.

Robyn   |   03 May 2013 @ 14:06

Penny’s laundry buddy belittles her ideals as a laundry list.
(You’re right, all we pick up on are the similes.)

Kali   |   04 May 2013 @ 12:32

I would say that the first stanza doesn’t indicate “sour grapes” so much as a “hollow/bitter victory”, a staple of tragedy. He isn’t denigrating what he can’t have (Penny), he’s trying to pretend that his nominal victory, which should make him happy, does.

The irony and tragedy of loss that turns sweet success bitter is a classic theme:
Gain the crown, lose your honor (Macbeth).
Gain revenge/justice, pretty much everyone dies (Hamlet).
Escape with beloved, die with them (Romeo and Juliet)
Realize your daughter actually loves you, die miserable that you’re responsible for her death (King Lear).
King’s order and authority maintained, family dead (Sophocles’ Antigone).

Mae   |   06 May 2013 @ 02:01

Don’t miss the Dr. H Commentary songs — at least Heart, Broken — for more meat for the great conversation.

icowrich   |   06 May 2013 @ 09:26

Kali: Ah, but when one reaches for grapes high on the vine, fails to grasp them, and then decides that the grapes were sour, anyway, one is (perhaps falsely) declaring victory. Dr. H. would like nothing better than to convince himself that he doesn’t want Penny (or at least that he doesn’t want her more than that ticket into the ELE).

I like the Shakespeare parallels.

Mae: Commentary, The Musical was epic!

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