English Meter 2: the Iamb

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English Meter 2: the Iamb

Post by Yejun » September 11th, 2009, 5:22 pm

This is my second thread on English prosody. The first one is here. I don't want any of these threads to be too long as my hope is that many people will find this stuff as interesting as I do. If all of this is new to you, please feel free to ask questions. If you already know this stuff, please feel free to disagree and/or point out errors.

The iamb is the most common relationship we have in English metrical poetry. It is two syllables: the first is unstressed, the second stressed (u-S). The two syllables together create a unit called a foot. A foot can be any unit of two or three syllables (or one or four but we'll talk about those later) that when put together allow us to map the meter of a poem. Notice how I said meter and not rhythm.

Meter is not rhythm.

I gave a definition of poetic rhythm in the first thread. Meter is one component of rhythm, not the whole of it. This will become important later. For now, trust me on this (or listen to the audio files I posted in the first thread).

So, let's begin:

One iamb: "The men"

--If a poem's line follow this simple structure, we call it iambic monometer. (I'll give real examples in upcoming posts)

Two iambs: "The men who sit"

--iambic dimeter

Three iambs: "The men who sit on fenc" - es

--iambic trimeter. You'll notice how words don't have to follow the beat. You're not stuck with one or two syllable words. When you carry a multi-syllabic word over the foot unit, this often increases the tempo of the poem.

Four iambs: "The men who sit on fences hide"

--iambic tetrameter. This is the second most common line in English poetry. It is probably the most common in popular songs. The other day, I heard an old Journey song in a taxi: "The smell of wine and cheap perfume"

Five iambs: "The men who sit on fences hide their tails"

--iambic pentameter. This is the most common line in English metrical poetry. We can go longer but I want to stop here. Why? Because it's the most common line in English poetry. :D

On the way home from work last night, I came up with the above example. It is iambic pentameter. It is also grammatically complete. The only problem is that is doesn't make much sense. Still, as I traveled home last night, I began to see many possibilities in what it might mean. So, even if you never write in iambic verse, meter can always be used as one method to start you on a poem. It's easy and can give you something to work with quickly.

But hear are some examples from published works:
But we, alas! are chased, and you, my friends
--Christopher Marlowe, Edward II
The earth, the seas, the light, the days, the skies
--Thomas Traherne, "The Salutation"
Above, below, without, within, around
--Alexander Pope, "The Temple of Fame"

These three examples come from Timothy Steele's All the Fun's, pp. 29-30.

And here is an example of a poem with seven beats per line (iambic heptameter):
I know that Europe's wonderful, yet something seems to lack:
The Past is too much with her, and the people looking back.
But the glory of the Present is to make the Future free--
We love our land for what she is and what she is to be.
--Henry Van Dyke, "America for Me" (This is taken from Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, p. 31)

And there it is. You have the rules, you can now write metrical verse.

Except for one thing. Look at that last example again. Isn't there something wrong?

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Post by Yejun » September 12th, 2009, 8:26 pm

1. I know that Europe's wonderful, yet something seems to lack:

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

2. The Past is too much with her, and the people looking back.

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

3. But the glory of the Present is to make the Future free--

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

4. We love our land for what she is and what she is to be.

u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S
OMG! There's an extra unstressed syllable in L. 3. What kind of craftsman is this? Doesn't he know and understand meter?

Of course, he does.

If you read the poem out loud, did you notice it? Or did you slide right over it as the rhythm carried that extra syllable right along with it? That's what I did.

You've got a nice marching beat and that, as far as I can tell, matches the theme of the poem. It is a nice poem about how wonderful America is and that's that. Sure, you can interpret it as some kind of homily to American Imperialism, you can argue that it unfairly represents the European people, that it ignores the deeply conservative roots of the American people as they are, or you can argue that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

But why would you?

The problem is that it's a nice poem and nice is often enough a euphemism for boring.

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Post by Yejun » September 15th, 2009, 4:51 pm

Two points can be derived from Van Dyke's poem:

1. Certain changes in the metrical pattern do not disrupt the rhythm of the poem overall.

2. The goal of an interesting poem is not to approximate the metrical pattern as closely as possible.

But it doesn't follow that one need give up on meter altogether.

Writing good poetry puts you between a rock and a hard place, between the Scylla of unmetrical poetry (not quite the same thing as free verse, it is called heterometric rhyme) and the Charybdis of writing a poem that is too closely aligned with the metrical grid (boring and predictable).

(Note: the Scylla/Charybdis thing is just a much a cliché as a rock and a hard place. I just wanted to use it as I can't remember ever using it before. :D )

Fussell desribes three different types of rhymed and/or metrical poetry. The first is unmetrical (heterometrical) rhymed poetry:
When he was having convulsions
He feared he would hurt me;
Therefore told me to go away
He had dug artichokes for me.

Pa dug artichokes on that day.
He never will dig anymore;
He has only paid the debt we owe.
We should try to reach the shining shore.
--Mattie J. Peterson, from "I Kissed Pa Twice After His Death" in Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, p. 31.

If that sounds "right" to you, I'd love to hear why. Fussell calls this the lowest degree of "metrical competence," but I don't think all such poetry should be written off so easily. I think Ogden Nash is great:
Consider the auk;
Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly, and could only walk.
Consider man, who may well become extinct
Because he forgot how to walk and learned how to fly before he thinked.
--A Caution to Everybody

Or what about bad limericks. This is my own variation on an Edward Lear limerick:
There was an Old Man in a tree,
Who was horribly bored by a Bee;
When they said, 'Does it buzz?'
He replied, 'Yes, it does!
But I'm getting particularly irritated by its stinging me!'

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Post by Yejun » September 17th, 2009, 7:10 pm

Over at AT, Essorant asked what the first iambic poem in English was. This was my response:

I don't know. Chaucer is generally given credit as the first person to use iambic pentameter in English.

Remember that this period, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was an era of rapid change in the way English was spoken. What C.S. Lewis called "poetical imbecility" was ever present. It wasn't until the sixteenth century that the iambic model really began to take hold (perhaps partly because people didn't know how to read Chaucer correctly).

Whether this was the result of Fussell's "metrical incompetence" or the clash of multiple dialects, I don't know. Another problem is that following French and Italian models, the syllabic aspect was much more important to many of these writers than the accent placement.

With the dominance of what we now call Early Modern English, many of the poets were still trying out this "new" form of verse in the sixteenth century. It does seem that the writers of the early sixteenth century were letting the meter control them more than they were controlling the meter.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, is credited with the first attempt at blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) around 1540. It was a partial translation of the Aeneid.

Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville wrote Gorboduc around 1561-62. This was the first original play to use blank verse.

George Gascoigne used blank verse in "The Steel Glass" in 1576 -- a lyrical satire.

In the 1580's, we get the first, generally recognized as, great poetry in the form:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss,
Her lips suck forth my soul; see where it flies.
--Chrisopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus

After that, the next person is, well, you know who comes after Marlowe. Everybody does. :D


While my focus is not on the history of iambic verse, this is useful in that it sets up my next post focusing on Fussell's second level of metrical competence.


Some books you might want to look at:

Blank Verse, Robert Shaw. 2007

--Most of the stuff above was taken from this book, pp. 33-39.

Missing Measures, Timothy Steele. 1990

--Historically, his focus is on revolutions in prosodic practice starting with Greece and Rome.

The Founding of English Metre, John Thompson. 1962

--I haven't read this, but it seems like a good place to start if you're interested in the history.

English Literature in the Sixteenth Century
, C. S. Lewis. 1954.

--I haven't read this either, but Lewis is always a pleasure to read.

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Post by Yejun » September 20th, 2009, 12:18 am

As I said before, Fussell divides metrical poetry into three levels of "metrical competency:"

1. Heterometric rhyme

This is a rhymed poem that seems to want to be metrical.

2. the metrically "perfect" poem

This is clearly a metrical poem, but it is also a poem in which the metrical rhythm pays no attention to what is being said.

3. the marriage of sound and sense poem

This is the highest level of "competency". This poem uses the meter to enhance and strengthen the meaning of the poem. The primary vehicle here is substitution within an established form.

A strong example is Mathew Arnold's "Dover Beach:"
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling
At their return, up the high strand
Begin, and cease, and then again begin . . . .
I don't want to analyze this excerpt, at least not yet. Do you hear what's happening and why Fussell uses it as a strong example (p. 33)?

At any rate, let's look at the second level more closely. The example most commonly sited by poets of a weak second level poem is Gorbuduc:
If ever time to gain a kingdom here
Were offered man, now it is offered me.
The realm is reft both of their king and queen,
The offspring of the prince is slain and dead
No issue now remains, the heir unknown,
The people are in arms and mutiny,
The nobles they are busied how to cease
These great rebellious tumults and uproars

--Shaw, p. 36

(Note: I've quickly updated the spelling to make it easier to read -- I hope)

Well, do you see the problem?

Actually, I don't. The passage excerpted is a list of things going wrong in the kingdom. It makes sense that it should be metrically regular. But it's not:

The realm is reft both of their king and queen,

This line has an S-u (Trochee) in the third foot and this happens again in the second foot of

The offspring of the prince is slain and dead

Furthermore, Dictionary.com tells me that both 'tumults' and 'uproar' in the last line can be read as two approximately equal stressed syllables which gives a possible reading as:

These great rebellious tumults and uproars


(Note: that double stressed last foot is still one foot so the line is still pentameter)

I read it this way:


Does anybody else see the problem? These poems are used as examples of metrical regularity in Shaw and in Fussell but they aren't perfectly regular, they are only mostly regular.

Certainly, objections could be raised that I'm missing some secret point, some hidden history of pronunciation or metrics, that leaves me in the dark as to how they really should be read. But none is presented in Shaw* or in Fussell.

Poor teaching at its best. No wonder my high school teacher was somewhat confounded when we pointed out that the iambic pentameter she was trying to show us wasn't always iambic. Nobody had taught her so how could she teach us?

By the way, her response was that genius can get away with these "irregularities" because they were, well, geniuses.

I didn't buy it then and I don't buy it now.

Shaw continues to point out some more problems with the Gorbuduc passage:

"is slain and dead"

If someone is slain, they are dead. This line is redundant.

"The nobles they are"

"They" is another redundancy presumably to keep the meter intact.

That's clear enough and correct enough. My only problem is that neither particularly bothered me when I read it for the first time. Personally, I find the passage both interesting and enjoyable. It is probably true that over the course of the whole play, such little sacrifices to the meter accrue over time to overwhelm what interest and enjoyment it adds to the play as a whole.

But I don't know. I haven't read the whole play and have no plans to do so. I'm always backed up with my reading and don't have time to read something I'm probably not going to like anyway.

To sum up:

1. Perfectly metrical poems are hard to find.

2. Perfectly metrical poems should not be your goal (I'm going to call this the Platonic fallacy).

3. Trust your ear, not authority, not genius.

Next, I'm going to turn around and argue that much of what Shaw and Fussell are arguing is in essence correct but for different reasons (or perhaps for the same reasons that they haven't explained very well).

*To Shaw's credit, he often points out that scanning is not an exact science and that many of his readings are arguable.

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Post by Yejun » September 24th, 2009, 4:04 pm

Think of a table and imagine you're a carpenter. Most of us have an image inside our heads of what a table is: what it looks like and what it does. At the same time, each handmade table is different. Some carpenters will decorate their tables elaborately, some simply, some not at all; some will play with the structure (three legs instead of four); some will reinforce the structure making it sturdier, some will make it lighter, easier to carry around; some will change the materials: a different kind or wood, metal, or plastic; and some will make tables that don't look like tables but can still function as such, or perhaps they will make a table that doesn't function as a table.

Meter is the table image in your head. The metrical poem is the table you make.

Here is an excerpt of a poem from the same period as Gorboduc:
The bombast hose, our treble double ruffes,
Our suits of silk, our comely guarded capes,
Our knit silk, socks, and Spanish leather shoes
(Your velvet serves, ofttimes to trample in)
Our plumes, our spangs, and all our quaint array
Are pricking spurs, provoking filthy pride,
And snares (unseen) which lead a man to hell.

"The Steel Glass," George Gascoigne
--Shaw, p. 37

I chose this because it was on the opposite page of the Gorboduc excerpt. Here, we also have a list. It is combined with the use of anaphora (the same beginning words in each line); and, to make matters even worse, we have a caesura (a break, a pause within the line) in the same position for each line.

I read this poem and scream, "Do something!" at the poem. Not a particularly mature thing to do since the poem can't change itself and the poet has been dead for a long time.

Do we really need this relentless marching for a description of clothes?

Here is another example:
. . . for now a sea
Upsurging, poured, tremendous o'er the lee,
And filled the hold; while pressed by wave and wind,
To right and left, by turns, the ship inclined.

--William Gafford in a translation of Juvenal, Satire XII
taken from The Prosody Handbook by Robert Buem and Karl Shapiro,p. 37. (1965)

Does the meter contribute any kind of energy here? It depicts a fierce storm and I keep seeing a boat slowly swaying back and forth in the harbor on a cloudy day. The rhythm doesn't help the image.

What happens then is that when the emphasis on metrical precision or even perfection is emphasized for its own sake, the meter takes over the poem and the meaning is muted. For me, a clear example of this is Poe's
The Raven.

When Doreen talks about puzzle poetry, I think this is the problem she sees.

And of course I am not immune to this problem:
His eyes were blurry gray, his hair was white.
His voice was thin and difficult to hear
In windy autumn, made you strain your ear;
Yet after eating, through the early night,
We often listened near the campfire light.
At times, his scary face, his probing leer,
Was all it took to make us feel that fear.
A building storm destroyed that camping site
To sate the middle class suburban sprawl;
I see the dust and hear the tractor roar.
Amid construction business counter claims
And work accumulating more and more,
I see his eyes or hear his voice in fall
And feel the joy before maturing flames.
Now, I don't think this is a horrible poem and some people have said some nice things about it. One can make a case that the meter enhances the feeling of nostalgia that I was shooting for: it serves as a contrast to the chaos of the working world today.

And yet, when I was reading it about a month ago, a curious thing happened. I was reading it out loud and the meter took over so that by the time I finished this short poem, I had lost track of what the thing was saying.

And I wrote it.

That cannot be good.

For a counter example, look at Karen's (Sanibel's) The Delta Boomerang Tune. I liked that one quite a bit.


The conclusion to all of this has to be that perfect meter cannot be considered an aesthetic principle. It is an intellectual abstraction, a retreat from a poet's responsibility to his or her meaning, a specious appeal to Plato's idea of perfect forms. Do you remember what Plato said about poets?

So what do you do? Well, there are two ways to vary the meter without resorting to free verse (not that free verse is bad, it just works on different principles. And yes, my plan is to talk about free verse eventually -- maybe. :? )

The two ways are substitution and internal modulation.

Next, internal modulation.

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Post by Yejun » September 25th, 2009, 5:15 pm

Some poets have chosen the bump
--Ezra Pound
An iambic unit (foot) does always exist in its theoretical position if the first of the two syllables is more weakly accented than the second.
--Robert Buem and Karl Shapiro Prosody Handbook, p. 183

Now, Ezra Pound was not so much going after metrical poetry as the idea that poetry should follow a formula. To a large extent his feeling was that poetry in the nineteenth century had stopped being 'art' and started being formulaic. His dictum was, and it's a good one, is
LISTEN to the sound that it makes
At the same time, it goes without saying that he was not a fan of iambic pentameter. In going over Eliot's The Wasteland he talks about it being still 'too penty.'

Could it be that what Pound heard and railed against was not the monotonous metronome of metrical poetry but a specific way of performing metrical poetry, particularly in the schools at that time? (Yes, prosody was actually taught in schools a century ago).

Because there is no reason that metrical poetry be monotonous unless it is performed that way. Given that there are different degrees of stress, given that those stresses will sometimes change as a result of the syllables surrounding that stress, the potential for rhythmic and sonic variety in metrical poetry is infinite.

To quote Pound yet again:
Most arts attain their effects by using a fixed element and a variable
The fixed element is the metrical grid (u-S,u-S,u-S,u-S,u-S), the variable element is the language.

More specifically, I want to borrow two terms from Timothy Steele*, the heavy iamb (s-S) and the light iamb (u-U)

iamb: u-S

heavy iamb: s-S

light iamb: u-U
Perhaps, if summer ever came to rest

--Stevens, "The man Whose Pharynx Was Bad"

Regular iambic but so is this:
The penance, and the woeful pride you keep

--Edwin Arlington Robinson, "Captain Craig"

We can go further:
The bosom of his Father and his God

--Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

or even
The reputation of Tiepolo

u-U,u-S,u-U,u-U,u-S, u-U,
--Anthony Hecht, "The Venetian Vespers"
(Note: I didn't highlight this line as I thought it would make it more confusing)

It can work the other way as well as with this famous (notorious?) line from Milton:
Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death
I'll show lines with increasing stress in the next post.

*Timothy Steele, all the fun's in how you say a thing, pp. 30-31. I am shamelessly taking the quotes (except the Milton one) from this book. If you're interested in this stuff, Steele's book has the most comprehensive exposition around these days. It's a great book.

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Post by Yejun » October 1st, 2009, 9:03 am

Continuing, we can see variations using the heavy iamb (s-S)

Here's 6 stresses:
No selfish wish the moon's bright glance confines

--Jones Very, "The Absent"

And 7:

Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids

--John Donne, "Satire III"

True thoughts, good thoughts, thoughts fit to treasure up

--Robert Browning, "Transcendentalism"

(Note: By now it should be clear what I'm trying highlight. The use of emphasis here and in the next one seems needlessly confusing at this point)

and finally nine:
Milk hands, rose cheeks, or lips more sweet, more red

--Sidney, Astrophel and Stella

These light and heavy iambs do not depart from the metrical grid yet they still change the rhythm of the particular poem. As a result, some prosodists will scan them as different types of feet:

phyrric: u-u or two unstressed syllables

spondee: S-S or two stressed syllables

This doesn't mean that they hear it differently, it means they want to show the effect these feet make on the poem as clearly as they can. That's a laudable goal but it often leads to confusion when reading a passage:

Fussell scans this line from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium":
An aged man is but a paltry thing,

I simply cannot read 'is but' in this context as two consecutively unstressed syllables. I don't think Fussell does either but the point I'm trying to make is that you will encounter variant scannings that don't in fact change the performance of the poem. Follow your ear first, not what other people are arguing for you to do.

Three main books used here:

all the fun's in how you say a thing

--Probably the best book out there on the nuts and bolts of the thing.

Blank Verse

--Great overview of the twentieth century. Wish he wasn't so strict in sticking to the blank verse type.

Poetic Meter & Poetic Form

--Generally recognized as a classic. If I seem over-critical of this book, it's because the book is so good that the little problems I have with it become more important than they are.

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Post by Yejun » October 3rd, 2009, 11:26 pm

A list:

Iambic monometer:

Robert Herrick's "Upon His Departure Hence":
Thus I
Pass by
And die:
As One
And gone:
I'm made
A shade
And laid
There have
My cave
Where tell,
I dwell.
Iambic dimeter:

from Robert Frost's "I Will Sing you One-O"
It was long I lay
Awake that night
Wishing the tower
Would name the hour
And tell me whether
To call it day
(Though not yet light.)
And give up sleep.
The snow fell deep
With the hiss of spray;
Two winds would meet
One down one street,
One down another,
And fight in a smother
Of dust and feather.

Iambic trimeter:

from W. H. Auden's "Feet Visit"
The sailors come ashore
Out of their hollow ships
Mild-looking middle-class boys
Who read the comic strips;
One baseball game is more
To them than fifty Troys.

They look a bit lost, set down
in this unamerican place
Where natives pass with laws
And futures of their own;
They are not here because
but only just-in-case.

The whore and ne'er-do-well
Who pester them with junk
In their grubby ways at least
Are serving the Social Beast;
They neither make nor sell--
No wonder they get drunk.
Iambic tetrameter:

Theodore Roethke's "Epidermal Macabre"
Indelicate is he who loathes
The aspect of his fleshy clothes, --
The flying fabric stitched on bone,
The vesture of the skeleton,
The garment neither fur nor hair,
The cloak of evil and despair,
The veil long violated by
Caresses of the hand and eye.
Yet such is my unseemliness:
I hate my epidermal dress,
The savage blood's obscenity,
The rags of my anatomy,
And willingly would I dispense
With false accouterments of sense,
To sleep immodestly, a most
Incarnadine and carnal ghost.

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Post by Yejun » October 6th, 2009, 5:21 pm

Anthony Hecht has a nice exercise in his Melodies Unbound, p. 4:

He takes eight lines from Giles Fletcher and pares them down by a foot:
If sad complaint would show my pain
Or tears express my troubled heart,
If melting sight would pity gain,
Or true laments but ease my smart;

Then should my plaints all sounds surmount,
And tears like seas flow from my eyes;
Then sight should far exceed all count
And lamentation dim the skies.
That is from iambic pentameter to tetrameter. It's okay but I don't find it particularly moving. It's a little bland, no?

Note: substitution in L.6: seas flow from my eyes (S-u,u-S) in the third position. This is a perfectly acceptable sub. Does it bother you?

Here is the original:
If sad complaint would show a lover's pain,
Or tears express the torments of my heart,
If melting sight would ruth and pity gain,
Or true laments but ease a lover's smart;

Then should my plaints the thunder's noise surmount,
And tears like seas should flow from out my eyes;
Then sight like air should far exceed all count,
And true laments with sorrow dim the skies.
I find this much more exciting. I don't just hear a beat, I hear a rhythm. It is also metrically regular. :D


Shorter is not always better. Substitutions are not always better. Words matter, form matters.

On the other hand (and you knew this was coming, didn't you?), Hecht quotes Donald Francis Tovey* from the Encyclopedia Britannica. In an article on Bruckner, he says:
[O]ne of the greatest living conductors actually solemnized a Bruckner festival by producing the fifth symphony with the omission of every alternate pair of bars throughout whole sections! Gray's "Elegy" has survived turning into octosyllables by omitting an adjective in each line.
Hmm, I thought, let's try that. Here are the first four strophes of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard":
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
And here is my truncated version:
The curfew tolls the knell of day,
The herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his way,
And leaves the darkened world to me.

Now fades the landscape on the sight,
And all the air a stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his flight,
And tinklings lull the distant folds:

Save that from ivy-mantled tower
The owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her bower,
Molest her solitary reign.

Beneath those elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a heap,
Each in his cell for ever laid,
The hamlet Forefathers do sleep.
I rearranged two lines but other than that, I really just dropped the adjectives. Personally, I like the truncated version better but that could just be me and I don't know how the poem would be changed if I had gone ahead and done the whole thing.

What do you think?

*Hecht calls him a great music critic. I have no idea. I put his name here hoping that others who have more knowledge of such things than I have might share that knowledge.

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Post by Yejun » October 9th, 2009, 5:40 pm

Terminology break:

iamb: unstressed, stressed (u-S)

trochee: stressed, unstressed (S-u)

light iamb: unstressed, secondary stress (u-U)

heavy iamb: secondary stress, stressed (s-S)

Obviously, the light and heavy can also be used for trochees as well.

Except perhaps when the poem is in a trochaic meter -- a topic for a different day.

One problem with this system is the division between light and heavy. This complicates the binary system and some people are simply uncomfortable with that.

This is solved by filling out the possibilities of the binary system:

pyrrhic: unstressed, unstressed (u-u)

spondee: stressed, stressed (S-S)

Thus, we have all combinations:

u-u = pyrrhic

u-S= iamb

S-u= trochee

S-S= spondee

Next, syllable count:

monometer: u-S

dimeter: u-S, u-S

trimeter: u-S, u-S, u-S

tetrameter: u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S

pentameter: u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S

hexameter: u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S

heptameter: u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S, u-S


ballad meter: alternating iambic lines of trimeter and tetrameter

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

long meter: iambic tetrameter

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

Blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter

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

Alexandrines: iambic hexameter*

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

*This line is the preferred line in traditional French poetry. It technically doesn't have to be metered as French versification is syllabic (you only count the syllables).

Fourteeners: iambic heptameter

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

And one more word: caesura

A caesura means a break within the line (a period, a comma, a natural pause etc.)

In theory then, there really is no reason for a regularly metered poem to both avoid monotony and retain the feel of an iambic poem.

But that's not all. I want to end this thread, the main thrust of it (questions and/or comments are always welcome), with four or five poems in iambic pentameter. The next thread will concentrate on commonly accepted substitutions (variations) in the iambic line.

Posts: 229
Joined: December 22nd, 2007, 4:17 pm

Post by Yejun » October 11th, 2009, 4:19 am

If you're new to this stuff, you might want to read these a few times. If you're not, you probably will read these a few times. Don't worry if a foot or a line doesn't seem exactly iambic, or exactly 10 syllables, try to hear the rhythm and understand the meaning simultaneously. In other words, try to get how the things feel.

I can at last consider those events
Almost without emotion, a circumstance
That for many years I'd scarcely have believed.
We forget much, of course, and, along with facts,
Our strong emotions, of pleasure and of pain,
Fade into stark insensibility.
For which, perhaps, it need be said, thank God.
So I can read from my journal of that time
As if it were written by a total stranger.
--Anthony Hecht, from "See Naples and Die"
The world is full of mostly invisible things,
And there is no way but putting the mind's eye,
Or its nose, in a book, to find them out,
Things like the square root of Everest
Or how many times Byron goes into Texas,
Or whether the law of the excluded middle
Applies west of the Rockies. For these
And the like reasons, you have to go to school
And study books and listen to what you are told,
And sometimes try to remember. Though I don't know
what you will do with the mean annual rainfall
On Plato's Republic, or the calorie content
Of the Diet of Worms, such things are said to be
Good for you, and you will have to learn them
In order to become one of the grown-ups
Who see invisible things neither steadily nor whole,
But keeps gravely the grand confusion of the world
Under his hat, which is where it belongs,
And teaches small children to do this in their turn.
--Howard Nemerov, "To David, About his Education"

And this is where they kept it, though their own,
Hungry in the dark beneath the stair,
And virgins with their torches of gold hair.

When howls were heard, they claimed it was the earth,
Subduction of a continental plate,
Put down their sherry glasses with thin mirth,
Excused themselves, and said it was late.

But when the earth did make a mooing sound,
Stones that had been stacked into the wall
Knelt to the embracing of the ground
Amid the gravity that struck them all

No one thought to go unlock the door.
Archeologists, amazed to find
A skeleton they were not looking for,
Said it was the only of its kind.

They've unravelled the last days of the thing:
It lived a while on rats and bitumen,
And played with its one toy, a ball of string,
To puzzle out the darkness it was in.
--A.E. Stallings, "Tour of the Labyrinth"

Behind his back, the first wave passes over
The city which at dawn he left for good,
HIs staff-car musing through the streets, its tires
Kissing the rainy cheeks of cobblestones,
Till at St. Basil's gate the tower clock
Roused with a groan, flung down the hour, and shook
The tears into his eyes. In those lapped roars
And souring resonance he heard as well
Hoarse trains that highball down the world's ravines,
Some boat-horn's whoop and shudder, all sick thrills
of transit and forsaking. Now he is calm,
Here in this locust-copse, his rendezvous,
Laying his uniform away in leaves
For good, and lacing up a peasant jerkin.
--Richard Wilbur, from "The Agent"

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of this will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
--Elizabeth Bishop, "One Art"
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
--Seamus Heaney, from "Death of a Naturalist"

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