Meter 3: Substitutions

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Meter 3: Substitutions

Post by Yejun » October 19th, 2009, 8:38 pm

There are no rules.

I start with that sentence to remind you that everything I'm trying to explain in these threads is based on what poets do, not on what you or anybody else is supposed to do. With that said, over the years, people have offered descriptions and called them rules. Then someone comes along and breaks them and this is the key point:

It still sounds right.

Or maybe it doesn't sound "right" but it still sounds "good".

And that's what matters. It should also be pointed out that people will have different opinions on the subject (and of course most will have no opinion at all). Some will be more "conservative" (the closer to the metrical grid, the better), some will be more "liberal" (the farther away from the metrical grid, the better), and some will wonder why the hell people are actually talking about these things.

Dana Gioia:
Literary etiquette demands that in mixed company poets pretend prosody is a dull subject. What genuine artist could possibly take those dusty Greek terms and mechanistic scansions seriously? Only pedants reduce art to arithmetic. Among their own kind, however, poets find prosody anything but boring. I have watched poets argue intemperately over a detail of scansion and witnessed others exhaust an evening disputing theories of versification. Free-verse poets display surprisingly little immunity from these fevers; no one, after all, likes to debate religion more than an atheist.
--from "Meter-Making Arguments", Meter in English, p. 75

With these ideas in mind, let's get started:

Substitution 1: the extra-metrical syllable

The most common variation of the pentameter line or of any line is the extra-metrical syllable:

u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S (u)

It makes sense, doesn't it? Why limit yourself to words that are stressed only on the last syllable or are monosyllabic? What's more at least the way I read it, it doesn't influence the 'feel' of the pentameter line. When I read these line out loud, I feel the line is completed at the final stress and that last syllable is simply added. This is why I use extra-metrical, it just doesn't seem a part of the overall feel of the meter, it feels outside of it.

I'll not be pleased with less than Cleopatra
--Dryden, All for Love
She woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
--Adrienne Rich, "Living in Sin"
The age of miracles is gone forever
--Charles Martin, "Easter Sunday, 1985"
What it would take, a magic word to free you
--Robert B. Shaw, "Narcissus" *

The age of miracles is gone forever

What would it take, a magic word to free you

Other terms you'll see that mean the same thing:

hypermetrical ending

feminine ending (Masculine is ending on the stress. The same words are used for rhyme as well)

extra-syllable ending (es-ending)

amphibrachic foot, amphibrach (u-S-u)

--the problem with this word (another one of those dusty Greek terms) is that it gives the impression you can put extra syllables anywhere in the line. If you do that, you start losing the specific iambic cadence. Keep it as a special case, at the end of the line.

In theory, you can actually get away with two unstressed syllables at the end but I'll leave that for later. The examples I've seen aren't so much outside the meter as metrically ambiguous.

And just to confuse you more, this substitution does seem to take on a life of its own here:

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate,
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thy self thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me to whom thou gav'st it else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgement making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.
--Sonnet 87

*The above lines are all taken from Steele again, p. 64. This type of ending is not difficult to find however. Pretty much anywhere you look you'll see it. I was being lazy -- again.

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Post by Yejun » October 21st, 2009, 5:22 pm

Substitution 2: the inverted first foot

S-u, u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S

Substitution 3: the pyrrhic/spondee combination anywhere in the line

u-S, u-S, u-u, S-S, u-S*

Rereading the first post, I laughed at myself for starting with such an obvious point. Yet, my overall view is that they are not simply conventions but things that can both be heard as different from the metrical grid and yet do not disrupt the approximation of that grid. That is, you can still tap it out.

Substitution 2, the trochee in the first position (foot), is the second most common substitution in metrical poetry. Steele estimates that something like ten percent of all pentameter lines contain this trochee and some argue that it is so common that we shouldn't even call it a substitution:
Steps from the darkness of her town-house door
--Wilbur, "Transit"

"Steps from"

--trochaic first foot

"the dark-"


"ness of her town-house door"

"of" is 'promoted' here: u-U,u

"house" is 'demoted' as well: S, s-S

Another example of the trochaic first foot, same poem:
Leaving the stations of her body there
I read Sonnet 18's first line:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day
as an opening iamb but I can't think of a reason to stress 'I'. I see nothing wrong with seeing that first foot as a trochee and, honestly, it probably makes more sense. You're stressing the supposition of the poem, not the importance of the writer/speaker.

Here are two opening trochees in my poem "Siblings"
"Look," from the Light, "I hit the dynamo

"Listen," from Sound, "and hear the screaming clime.
A couple more:
Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days
--Emerson, "Days"
Motionless torrents! Silent cataracts
--Coleridge, "Hymn before Sunrise"

Substitution 3 will have to wait for the next post. :(


iamb: u-S

trochee: S-u

spondee: S-S

pyrrhic: u-u

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Joined: December 22nd, 2007, 4:17 pm

Post by Yejun » November 3rd, 2009, 10:45 pm

Well, back to business:

Substitution 3: the pyrrhic/spondee combination anywhere in the line

Shakespeare, sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

S-u, u-S, u-u, S-S, u-S
Here we have a trochaic sub. in foot 1 and a pyrrhic/spondee in feet 3 and 4.

But he's got another one in the next line
I summon up remembrance of things past,

u-S, u-S, u-S, u-u, S-S
Siegfred Sassoon, "Hero"
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke

u-u, S-S, u-S,u-U, u-S
Yeats, "The Circus Animals' Desertion"
I sought it daily for six weeks or so

u-S, u-S, u-u, S-S, u-S
If the trochaic sub. is sometimes called a reverse iamb, this sub. is so popular that Robert Wallace calls it a double iamb. I'll put the Greek terms for some of these formulations below.

But the beauty of this formulation is that it can be performed in two ways:

u-U, s-S or u-u, S-S

Ah, but which one is better? That depends on the poem and your own preference. For me, I tend to prefer the former as I like the steady beat. A sub. should be clear and point to some change in the poem (a change in content or tone or whatever) within the content of the poem. Others may prefer more variety in their rhythm. Critics seem to prefer more variation:
Fussell scans this line from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium":
An aged man is but a paltry thing,

Like I said before, I can't hear it as a pyrrhic, but Fussell wants to point out the relationship between sound and meaning and so he scans it like that. This also gives me a chance to correct an error I made previously in my scanning. I accidentally added a foot. :oops:

The advantage to my scanning is that when a sub. does occur, it is more dramatic. The disadvantage is the danger of monotony.

Some Greek terms:

u-u-S = anapest

u-S-u = amphibrach

S-u, u-S = choriamb

u-u, S-S = ionic minor

S-S, u-u = ionic major

[] or | = caesura

The only terms that are important here are the first and last ones. The last one means means pause or break. As I understand how these variations work, that particular point is what allows most of this to work and to work smoothly in the rhythmic pattern.

For example, earlier I talked about the feminine ending (u-S-u) as being hyper-metrical. I still think it is but it is hypermetrical because of the line break, which is of course a pause. If your poem is heavily enjambed and you tend to speed up the tempo by de-emphasizing the line break or ignoring it altogether, it carries over into the next line. This creates an anapest (u-u-S) and, at least for me, can mess up my timing. Part of the problem, I think, is that you don't see it as an anapest (it's split between lines after all) so even if you know it's coming, it's hard to reconcile with the rhythm.

The solutions are easy enough:

1. Don't use it.

2. Make sure you have a clear pause before going to the next line

3. Use a trochaic sub. in the next line

4. Forget about it. It's not a problem, it's my idiosyncrasy.

Here I should point out that I don't see a clear distinction between end-stopped lines (lines that usually end with a period or some other marker to reinforce the pause and enjambed lines (lines that syntactically carry over from one line to the next). I see, as usual, a spectrum:

Soft is the strain when zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
--Alexander Pope, "Essay on Criticism"

Especially now when all the others here
Are having holiday visitors, and I feel
A little conspicuous and in the way.
--Anthony Hecht, "The Transparent Man"

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Post by Yejun » November 8th, 2009, 6:08 am

The last two subs in traditional metrical poetry:

3. A trochee in the third foot

4. A trochee in the fourth foot

At least initially these substitutions were preceded by a caesura, a break or pause in the line. Once you realize that, there's not much difference between these subs and an inverted first foot. They follow the same rhythmic pattern:
The joyous birds, shrouded in cheerful shred.

u-S, u-S,| S-u, u-S, u-S
--Spenser, The Faerie Queen
What though the sea be calm? Trust to the shore

u-S, u-S, u-S,| S-u, u-S,
--Herrick, "Safety on the shore

While I don't know this for sure, my guess is that as readers and listeners became more accustomed to the substitution, the absolute need for a break disappeared:
In silence through a wood gloomy and still

u-S, u-S, u-S,| S-u, u-S
Wordsworth, The Prelude

Though some argue that it creates its own caesura, a very subtle one, I tend to hear it or pay much attention to it.

You can of course, as we've already seen, combine these substitutions:
Good night, Good Night! Parting is such sweet sorrow
--Do I really have to tell you what play?

The interesting part here is that "is such sweet sorrow" kind of looks like a candidate for an ionic minor form (u-u, S-S). It can't do that as far as I can hear because of the trochee in the previous foot:

S-u, u-u, SS.

If you read it like that, I think you tend to want to promote that middle unstressed syllable. This is the same problem with dactyls (S-u-u) in an iambic line. They create confusion and don't secure a strong rhythm.

One more example of substitution combination:
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
--Shelly, "Ozymandias"

And with that we've pretty much covered all the standard substitutions (I think). There are more. There are also anomalies that somehow seem to work but nobody really knows why. There are also breaks that can't be reconciled with the meter for expressive purposes. Poems that almost have a kind of metrical feel but aren't metrical. Poems with three, four, or five beats but other than that go all over the place.

And other meters as well, other aspects of the language (this is where quantity comes in, Bob) such as consonance, assonance, alliteration etc, and the relationship between syntax and lineation.

Oh yeah, that minor thing called rhyme as well.

I'll end with two famous Robert Frost poems:

One with anapestic (u-u-S) substitution:
The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
And one with an anapestic meter:
from Blueberries

"You ought to have seen what I saw on my way
To the village, through Mortenson's pasture to-day:
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe! You ought to have seen!"
"I don't know what part of the pasture you mean."
"You know where they cut off the woods--let me see--
It was two years ago--or no!--can it be
No longer than that?--and the following fall
The fire ran and burned it all up but the wall."
"Why, there hasn't been time for the bushes to grow.
That's always the way with the blueberries, though:
There may not have been the ghost of a sign
Of them anywhere under the shade of the pine,
But get the pine out of the way, you may burn
The pasture all over until not a fern
Or grass-blade is left, not to mention a stick,
And presto, they're up all around you as thick
And hard to explain as a conjuror's trick."
"It must be on charcoal they fatten their fruit.
I taste in them sometimes the flavour of soot.
And after all really they're ebony skinned:
The blue's but a mist from the breath of the wind,
A tarnish that goes at a touch of the hand,
And less than the tan with which pickers are tanned."
"Does Mortenson know what he has, do you think?"
"He may and not care and so leave the chewink
To gather them for him--you know what he is.

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