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  On-line Readings for Week 2: Meter & Metrical Meaning
annotations:    Fussell & Raffel  /  Gross & McDowell

     scansion:  General tips  /  Kind of poem: Campion vs. Donne

    Resolution to base meter: Shakespeare & Crashaw

    Historical context  /  Meters verging on accentual

             notes:    Kinds of stress  /  Levels of stress  /  Quantity
    Back to Syllabus
Note: Links below to discussions of individual poems & metrical problems will take you to the page called "Scansions". This page may have more poems added to it as we go along.

Fussell & Raffel / notes on meter

Meter is a form of rhythmic cognition. --Harvey Gross

The key literary event of the Rennaisance was the burgeoning of literature in vernacular languages, and this change produced an accompanying crisis: what meter would govern poetry, now that the quantitative measure of Latin were unavailable? Each language had to evolve its own solution according to its own predominate features. In English the dominating feature is stress, and the native poetic tradtion was based on it. In French, in which stress plays little part, meter was a matter of counting syllables.Yet the Norman Invasion, in 1066, and the subsequent period in which French was the language of England's law and of the ruling class, had brought the two together, complicating both the English language and its literary possibilities. The result was not a smooth evolution of forms, but a bundle of contradictory impulses in which no metric convention prevailed. 

In the 14th century, Chaucer found a key: a hybrid meter we have since named "syllable-stress." Despite the genius of this breakthrough, surviving English poetry in subsequent generations exhibits a puzzling and disheartening variety of metrical means -- for many of which we cannot now decipher a rhythmic principle. Current thinking on this disarray concentrates on changes in the language itself, especially the gradual loss of the enunciated final 'e'. It is believed that poets reading Chaucer in the generations after his own were unable to decipher his meter because their own pronunciation differed so markedly -- hence they couldn't follow his example and we can't recapture what they heard in their own poems. In Scotland, by contrast, Chaucer was emulated and revered by 15th c. poets (such as Henryson and Dunbar) whose more stable Scots and English pronunciations allowed them to hear the genius of his metric.

By Elizabethan times, English in England had stabilized, and the growing number of vernacular poets both demanded and made possible a more consistent solution to the problem of meter. As Fussell points out (p.136) the printing press also helped make metrical experimentation possible--a consistent, universal “heard” metric was no longer the only possible platform for the poem. The solution was the one already hit upon by Chaucer: a syllable-stress meter, which, as its name implies, used elements of syllabic meter and elements of strong-stress meter.  That is what Raffel calls "the Chaucerian compromise." This term is not universally recognized (there is evidence Chaucer himself conceived of his meter as following the French and rejecting native stress), but I like it: it reminds us of the historical and therefore provisional nature of what we take to be the "given" metrical norms of English. As Raffel demonstrates, the regularity of lines in which every syallable is counted is foreign to English speech, in which we cannot hear syllable count. The native strong-stress tendency (in which syllables are not counted) thus periodically reasserts itself, roughening the "smooth numbers" of syllabically regulated lines. Looked at this way, even the metric revolutions of free verse can be placed in a context of  a metric struggle going back 500 years.

Raffel uses an admittedly crude method of scansion, one which does not recognize some types of metrical feet which are very important to Fussell's way of scanning -- and understanding -- meter.  The most important is the spondee, a frequently substituted foot of two stressed syllables. Derived from the spondee is the double iamb, or combination of a phyrrhic foot followed by a spondee.  Raffel argues that there is no "true spondee" in English, that in every apparent spondee one of the syllables is slightly more stressed than the other. Fussell points out that scansion must be able to record not only an abstract pattern, but also that pattern's compromise with the poem's rhetorical force, its "spokenness." In that compromise lies the poem's rhythmic brilliance. 

Metricists often reject the spondee, however, for precisely that reason: meter, they argue, is abstract and should be represented as such. Its interactions with other rhythms, including spoken and rhetorical stress, are essential to an insightful reading of the poem's overall prosody, but should not be confused with meter itself. In Fussell's scansions it is easy to find spondees and phyrrhics that could be as easily scanned as iambic -- the Yeats lines on page 40 make a good example. The meter calls for stresses on upon and in. Fussell leaves them phyrrhic to emphasize the lines' particular expressive character, but one might argue that marking the meter demonstrates its varition from and tension with spoken rhythm.

note: We have three kinds of stress in our language. Semantic stress is that marked in a dictionary to indicate accepted pronunciation(s). This is a binary system of relatively more or less stress -- only slightly complicated by acknowledgment of secondary stress in polysyllabic words. For example: you might mark this word one of two ways: 
árbitráry -- marking both stresses as if they were equal, or 
árbitràry -- marking the first stress as primary and the second stress as secondary
Grammatical stress is used to convey meaning in a sentence. It falls on the stressed syllables of the most important words. It is not codified in the maner of semantic stress, but it is recognizable and fairly consistent among different speakers. The fact that it can shift in context is part of what makes it useful.
He dránk his wíne.    can become    Hé drank his wine. Shé drank his whisky.
Rhetorical stress is even more variable, and serves to convey certain kinds of unstated meaning, governed by context, as in:
She drank his whísky?     if she is someone who never drinks whisky. 
All these kinds of stress may play a role in the creation and deciphering of metrical stress, and in the relationships between meter and spoken rhythm in a poem or line.

note: How many levels of stress should you mark in scansion? Two? three? four?

The fundamental fact about meter is that it is a binary system. Meter does not concern itself with the absolute measurement of stress (as would, for example, a linguist trying to precisely record the individual performance of a poem). Meter concerns itself only with relative stress. Does this syllable receive more or less stress than the syllables on either side of it? To answer yes and mark a syllable as stressed does not mean that you hear all metrically stressed syllables as equally stressed. In

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun
grammatical stress causes most of us hear more stress on MIStress and NOTHing than we do on eyes, are, or sun. A few readers may even hear rhetorical stress on MY, which thus demotes mistress to two unstressed syllables and gives the line a reversed first foot. In either case, force of stress is not equally distributed throughout the line. These variations in the level of stress can be confusing when you are learning to scan. For some, the confusion is lessened if at least three levels of stress are marked: heavy stress, milder stress, and unstressed. For others, this only adds to the confusion. Use whichever system suits you, but remember that what you are looking for is relative stress in a binary system of less and more.

OK, so whether you acknowledge the spondee or the double iamb may depend on whether you want to use a more or a less senstive system for recognizing stress. It is worth noting that acknowledging the spondee ( / / ) and the double iamb ( - - / / ) as legitimate and deft metrical substitutions would "explain" several passages Raffel scans as particularly awkward--especially among the Romantics and 19th century poets. Whether this argues for their promotion to the status of "metrical feet" or merely points out the relatively high importance of spoken rhythm in Romantic poetry may always be an individual judgment. Either way of looking at it underlines Raffel's fundamental point about the 19th century: that the "Chaucerian compromise" had, by that time, passed its peak force.

The frequency and idiosyncratic use of spondees and double iambs -- along with anapests and reversed feet -- signals the sometimes casual, sometimes expressive, but always elastic relationship 19th century poets maintained with the metrical tradition. Brilliant adaptation of tradition to the fulsome self-expression of Romanticism? or gradual decay and ultimate irrelevance of a convention whose day was passing?  And if its day was passing, why? Because human experience was changing -- and hence our relationship with form, our "rhythmic cognition"? Or because our language was changing?  (Are those two versions of the same question?)  In any case, Raffel's method, though crude, clearly shows the changing relationship between metrical stress and speech stress that marked the 19th century and laid the path to free verse and Modernism. As both Raffel and Fussell acknowledge, 19th century prosody is essentially a return of accentual verse: the standard line is still defined by five feet, but the number of syllables and placement of stresses vary widely.

Review Raffel and see Fussell's chapter 4 for confirmation that when language changes, prosody must change with it. What are the implications in our time, when our Latinate vocabulary is expanding exponentially in response to scientific and sociological demands?

note: Variation in the level of stress falling on each metrically stressed syllable generally increases as the line lengthens. This is one of the reasons iambic tetrameter sounds less conversational, less ample and fulsome, than iambic pentameter. (The other reason is that the longer line provides more room for modifiers, dependent clauses, and etc., to modulate both idea and syntax.) Tetrameter has been a definitive form in Scotland, however, where its possibilities have been exploited more fully than in the south.

Fussell p.9  "In Distrust of Merits," the Marianne Moore poem on which he works his argument against the validity of syllabics, is a fairly late poem and is actually a metrical hybrid. Though purportedly syllabic, it clearly uses iambic phrasing to effect closure and certain emotions -- a strategy the late Moore resorted to with some frequency. This poem, in fact, is cited by nearly everyone who wants to debunk syllabics in English. It is said to prove that all genuine emotional affects are achieved by shadow iambics. However, Moore wrote a number of brilliant, affective, and pure syllabic poems in the first half of her career, poems which juxtapose the arbitrary strictness of syllabic pattern with the rhythms of "spoken American" -- not syllable-stress meter. This quality of the poems was recognized early on by Eliot, who pointed out that hers was the speech of a certain class of college-educated Americans and her poems the first ever published which recorded it. The interplay of genteel Americanism, exotic vocabulary, and wholly artificial meter is a trademark of early Moore, and creates a tone of disingenuous discovery that complicates and deepens the affects of satire, humor, and social comment. We will talk about syllabic meter in detail later in the semester..

The principle argument by which syllabic meter is discredited is that it is not an audible meter. This is generally accepted as true -- though some Moore scholars claim she composed her lines by ear, and that they themselves can hear shorter runs of three, four, or five syllable phrases, from which longer lines are built. Even if we accept that syllabic lines can't be heard, we must then decide if our definition of meter includes audibility or only measurement -- some means by which we can predict when a line will end. It is worth noting that even French poetry, whose meter is syllabic, relies heavily on rhyme to make the line-turn audible.

As to halting unnaturally at line-endings: Moore is a wizard of line-endings, at times even seeming to make fun of our interest in them. She was one of the first poets in English to write with the full assumption that her readers will see as well as hear the poems, that the visual body of the poem is part of its structure. She is also a poet of subterfuge, of intense though discreet rebellion. Though clearly one of the rebel geniuses of Modernism, she also desires admiration for her accomplishments, acknowledgment that her place in literature is earned. In closely composed syllabic stanzas she finds the perfect form: rhythmically modern, based on speech-stress, but even more arcane and difficult than traditional meter and stanza form. With it, she proves her worth, while rejecting traditional measures -- in both senses of the word.

Fussell p. 26  You need not memorize the Classical metrical feet listed on this page. As the basis of meter, they exist in English only as curiosities; as substitutions in iambic lines they are rare.

Fussell pp. 27-31 A quick look at Browing's counterpoint makes a good supplement to Fussell's discussion of caesura. 

Fussell p. 39  I watched, one evening, a government man (soon to be head of the CIA), protecting his deniability by inserting into every statement a qualifier that altered the meaning of the interviewer's question. Repeatedly asked if American soldiers had been exposed to chemical weapons in the Gulf War, he repeatedly inserted the modifier "widespread" in front of the noun "exposure," thus evading the question without, perhaps, making an outright lie. Fussell, too, avoids pure falsehood with a qualifier: "we can have no variations in entirely 'free' or cadenced verse." (Emphasis added.) Every critic has strengths and passions, beyond which the most succint mind sometimes fades abruptly into incompetence. A sophisticated understanding of free verse is out of Fussell's range. See also pp. 88-90, where (writing in the 1960's) he confidently dismisses the formal experiments of modernism as "naive" dead-ends, and p.104 where he attempts to demonstrate this with a poorly-informed discussion of Williams. See note above about new language producing new prosody. We'll talk about free verse in the second half of the course

Fussell p. 64  In discussing Eliot's brilliant and oft-quoted use of "When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly" in "The Waste Land," Fussell emphasizes the affect of introducing into Goldsmith's perfect iambics an initial trochee on an action verb. His observations are astute; yet he fails to mention the other formal element employed in the satire: line-length. Goldsmith's original is composed in a smooth, tidy tetrameter, whose metrical message seems as predigested as its content. Even the feminine rhymes conspire to diminish the woman’s ethical and aesthetic weight.

When lovely woman stoops to folly,
  And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
  What art can wash her guilt away?

The only art her guilt to cover,
  To hide her shame from every eye,
To give repentance to her lover,
  And wring his bosom--is to die.

Eliot lengthens the line to the more untidy, unpredictable, and flexible pentameter, maximizing the effect by ending the line on an conjunction, both stressed and rhymed:

  When lovely woman stoops to folly, and

In the next line, the woman does not dwell (as tradition says she should) on the betraying man: she has her active trochaic verb, "paces", and she is alone.

  When lovely woman stoops to folly, and
  Paces about the room again, alone,

note: The facsimile edition of The Waste Land shows us that it took Eliot several tries to get to that trochaic verb. "Then walks about the room again..." and other choices preceded it. To women readers and writers, however, the most important thing about that verb may be simply  that it is alive. The art of dying is okay as far as it goes, but the art of living, and writing, is rather to be preferred. Eliot exhibits a certain repulsion toward the heroine of this little drama -- feminist critics have accused him of preferring noble death to ignoble survival in this case, though God knows the hero is not portrayed as one worth dying for. In my reading, Eliot goes no farther than many Modernist women writers, who felt a similar disgust in the aftermath of their own sexual liberation. See Mina Loy's "Love Songs" as an example, or Edna St. Vincent Millay's love sonnets, characterized by such metrical wit as:
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.

NOTES FROM Harvey Gross & Robert McDowell: Sound and Form in Modern Poetry

On the Nature of Prosody

G&M: The word denotes not only the study of a poet’s versification, but that which is studied, the versification itself. p.1

[U]nderstanding what prosody is depends on how we conceive its function....We venture that rhythmic structure neither ornaments conceptual meaning nor provides a sensuous element extraneous to meaning; prosody is a symbolic structure like metaphor and carries its own weight of meaning.  [Hence] prosody is an evaluative as well as a technical term... A prosody is something a poet achieves, distinction in the movement of an individual language, a style with deep historic roots growing up from he bedrock of shared speech... 

Style in art, as Whitehead remarks, “is the fashioning of power, the restraining of power”--in other words, control. Such control is always the result of an equilibrium: the balancing of idiosyncrasy with tradition, personal freedom with restraint, revolt with conformity. To be idiosyncratic, however, presupposes the existence of a tradition; to revolt presupposes the presence of a conformity, a convention, against which revolt is possible.  p.2-3

Our understanding of prosody’s function is based on what a poem is, and how we conceive the nature of rhythm... A poem is not an idea or an experience rendered into metrical language; still less is it an attitude toward an experience. A poem is a symbol in which idea, experience, and attitude are transmuted into feelings; these feelings move in significant arrangements: rhythmically. It is prosody and its structures that articulate the movement of feeling in a poem, and render to our understanding meanings which are not paraphrasable....

Rhythmic structure, like all aesthetic structure, is a symbolic form, signifying the ways we experience organic processes and the phenomena of nature...

...In the arts of time, music and literature, rhythmic forms transmit certain kinds of information about the nature of our inner life...

 ...Our view is that meter, and prosody in general, is itself meaning. Rhythm is neither outside a poem’s meaning nor an ornament to it. Rhythmic structures are expressive forms, cognitive elements, communicating those experiences that rhythmic consciousness can alone communicate: emphatic human responses to time in its passage. pp.9-10

Rhythms of syntax and meter articulate relationships among objects, qualities, and actions that are never precisely denoted...p.15 

if prosody is itself meaning, meaning also forms prosody. Rhythmic structures grow out of patterns of rhetorical emphasis: patterns that sometimes move against or across the meter. We find in Donne’s poetry many startling instances of expressive rhythms emerging out of ambiguities of emphasis: where meter pulls the prepositional sense in one direction, rhetorical emphasis in the other. p.18

ST: Note here that G&M are not saying that meter=rhetorical emphasis. An easy mistake to make when learning to scan is to simply scan speech stress. (The other common mistake is to mark a rigidly perfect metrical pattern without regard to how the line actually reads.) As G&M note here, rhetorical stress sometimes coincides with meter, so that each strengthens the other, while in other lines or poems (or poets) meter and rhetorical stress pull against or across each other, creating complexities and ambiguities of stress that can be among the most interesting affects in metrical poetry. The counterpoint of meter, line, and syntax is one of the most important prosodic tools in English language poetry. 

In nonmetrical poetry, this counterpoint is reduced to two parts: line and syntax -- interesting and important, but not as complex as a three-sided affair. See counterpoint in the writing exercises.

note: On quantity or duration:

Poets who have tried to write in a quantitative meter in English have mostly made quantity and stress coincide, which makes it a moot point. On the other hand, hearing quantity instead of stress in lines where they don't coincide is yet another way to go wrong when first learning to scan, and the frequency of that mistake illustrates the importance of quantity or duration as a variable in the line's sound. In other words, though quantity can't be the basis of meter in English, the quantity or duration of vowels remains an extremely important factor in the effect a line achieves. This line is from Theodore Roethke, a 20th c. American poet:

She slowed to sigh, in that long interval.
Though "long" receives no metrical stress, it is longer in duration than the last three stressed syllables: that, in, and val.

On Scansion: How to do it, Why do it

A) Remember that you are scaning relative stress in a binary system of less and more. See discussion of levels of stress, above.

B) Since expressive and conventional substitutions are most common at the beginning of the line, it often helps to scan the line in reverse: look at the last couple of feet first... but don't be fooled by hypermetrical syllables and feminine rhymes.

C)  If you are unsure of a metrical pattern, say the line aloud with heavy overemphasis on the stressed syllables. (I once had a student who performed the lines in rap in order to hear this.)

And TROUBle deaf HEAVen WITH my BOOTless CRIES is  wholly mechanical pattern, with virtually no reference to spoken English--modern or Elizabethan.]

D) Look at the meter of the poem not just individual lines. Context helps in interpreting metrical phenomena. In a tetrameter context we would probably scan:

Lovliest of trees, the cherry now    as  LOVEliest | of TREES, | the CHER | ry NOW

while the same line in an iambic pentameter context might look headless, like this:

x LOVE | liEST | of TREES,| the CHER | ry NOW

Here you can see the principle of relative stress at work as that secondary stress on the last syllable of loveliest gets promoted and demoted. However, no context, metrical or otherwise, can change the relative value of the two stresses within the word. In other words, it can never be scanned loveliEST.

E) When faced with variations, substitutions, and multiple metrical possibilities, choose the simplest explanation. For example, if you find this line in an imabic pentameter poem, the second scansion makes more sense than the first one.
F) In poems of consistent iambic pentameter, a quick glance at the placement of ceasurae may provide an introductory clue as to whether the lines before you tend more to the formally regular or more toward the rhythms of thought or speech.

G) Looking at the meter of the whole poem also means considering what kind of poem it is. Is it a short lyric, perhaps a song, whose meter is consistently patterned from stanza to stanza? Or is it closer to speech stress, using what the Elizabethans called "strong lines" of rough meter? In the latter sort of poem you must understand the syntax and the expressive speech of the poem in order to scan it -- meter and meaning illuminate each other in a manner more dramatic than lyrical.When we read this stanza by Thomas Campion:

When to her lute Corinna sings,
Her voice revives the leaden strings,
And doth in highest notes appear
As any challenged echo clear;
But when she doth of mourning speak,
Ev'n with her sighs the strings do break

we know almost without looking that its second stanza will follow the same pattern: Iambic tetrameter in short couplets, masculine rhyme, first and last lines beginning with a reversed foot, the others regular. Set to music, the stanzas of this short lyric could easily be sung to the same repeating tune. The stanzas of John Donne's "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day" also follow a metrical pattern: corresponding lines in each stanza have the same number of feet and a predictable rhyme scheme. But to read these lines, let alone scan them, we must fully understand them; and, sometimes, to fully understand them we must figure out how to scan them:

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
    For I am every dead thing,
    In whom love wrought new alchemy.
        For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness:
He ruined me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.

These lines adhere not to a repeatable tune, but to dramatic speech: we find their stresses much as we find them in Shakespeare's blank verse. Yet there is more to reading meter here than fitting our tongues around speech. The stanza plays many things off against each other, including long and short lines, masculine and feminine rhymes, speech stress and metrical pattern. Note in line 3 that the need to reach a stressed, masculine rhyme instructs us how to speak the line. Similarly and more significantly, the need to end the last line on a stressed rhyme tells us we cannot place grammatical stress on are. We must read that line, as John Hollander says, as if it were parallel to the phrase "things which are hot" (Vision 53). And what do we get when we do? We discover that the poet is not re-begot of things which don't exist: but that he is re-begot of things which are nothingness.

H) "Iambic poems tend to resolve passages of rhythmic complication in strongly iambic lines, anapestic poems resolve on anapestic lines, and trochaic poems on trochaic lines." Charles O. Hartman. Baker p.112.  A good example of this principle at work is in the opening lines of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116.

Here's a more complicated application,
Richard Crashaw's "An Epitaph Upon a Young Married Couple
They, sweet turtles, folded ly
In the last knot love could ty.
And though they ly as they were dead,
Their pilow stone, their sheets of lead
(Pillow hard and sheets not warm)
Love made the bed; they'l take no harm.
THEY, sweet TURTles, FOLDed LY
IN the LAST knot LOVE could TY.
And THOUGH they LY as THEY were DEAD,
Their PILlow STONE, their SHEETS of LEAD
LOVE made the BED; they'l TAKE no HARM.

This little poem acheives its metrical affects specifically through a contrast and tension between metrical affects: that's easy to see, and to hear. Does it alternate trochaic and iambic couplets? Or does it alternate complete iambic lines with headless ones? Trochaic lines often drop the last, unstressed syllable, in order to end on a strong syllable. Iambic lines often drop the first, unstressed syllable in order to begin on a strong syllable. Both these tactics are more common in tetratmeter than in pentameter poems, and both are common in the era of this poem. So where does that leave us? 

The rule of thumb that says to use the simplest explanation would favor a description of headless iambs. But does that tell us anything that helps us to read the poem? One of the first things I noticed when I scanned the poem is that in the center couplet meter is secure: metrical and grammatical stress are in perfect agreement. No mistake can be made about the meter and yet no particular affect within the lines is acheived by meter. In the first and third couplets, the first line of each couplet is secure in its stresses (though we may hear a small rhetorical tug on not), even though we can't tell if the line is trochaic or iambic. In each of those couplets, however, the second line begins with a flex of metrical muscle. In line two, only meter guides the voice to stress in. In the last line, meter and rhetorical stress coincide to make love the most rhythmically important word in the poem. 

So Hartman's rule of thumb in this case would suggest that since the decisive metrical affect is trochaic, those lines and the entire poem should be described as trochaic.Whether or not you agree with that description of the poem's base meter, the important thing is that looking for metrical stress, distress, and resolution, guided us to the poem's key word, its theme, and its sense of internal order and expression. Note how many images, how many lines of loss, hardness and coldness are balanced against the structural force of that last love. Whether or not Richard Crashaw considered his poem trochaic or iambic will always be unknown; that he made a poem whose message is in its meter is a certainty.

For discussion of metrical variation in tetrameter couplets, see Anne Finch's 
Unequal Fetters & Letter to Daphnis

I) Remember that some historic sense helps in scansion. The trisyllabic foot is conspicuously absent in the Shakespearean sonnet line, for example; but the inverted foot, at strategic points of rhythmical tension, is often very much present. In Augustan verse, trisyllabic substitution is virtually forbidden -- recall Fussell's examples of syncope, a device by which Augustan poets could make extra unwanted syllables disappear in order to keep their strictly syllabic line intact.

Correct scansion also requires a knowledge of how English pronunciation has changed over time. In Elizabethan English, “heaven” is one syllable. Thus we scan Shakespeare's line:

And TROUB | le DEAF | HEAVEN with | my BOOT | less CRIES 

 not as the wholly mechanical:

And TROUB | le deaf HEAV | en WITH  | my BOOT | less CRIES 

The correct scansion helps us to identify the line’s rhythmic (and hence emotional) signature: the unusual inverted foot in the third position. The incorrect scansion, based on modern pronunciation, requires us to pass over “deaf” too lightly, reducing its impact and reducing the affect of its assonance with “heaven.”  The correct scansion also sets us up for a punch on “bootless,” with the stressed syllable coming after two unstressed syllables.

J) Some lines (or poems) are hard to scan because they in fact fall in between syllable-stress (accentual syllabic) and accentual meter. Some lines may scan easily as iambic (or some other s-s meter), in others the distribution of stresses may be more irregular. Again, a knowledge of the history of meter can help you decide if  you might be dealing with a hybrid--or if you’re just having trouble scanning. You might expect this metrical ambiguity, for example, in the years before syllable-stress became the norm--say, from Chaucer through the early Renaissance. You would not expect it following that, among the Elizabethan, Jacobean, or Augustan poets. 

With the Romantic period (late 18th through early 19th centuries) came a new attitude toward meter.  Lines became rougher, substitutions more frequent, triple feet and double iambs more common.  Reversed feet began to show up in odd places. Keats, for example, often reversed the last foot of a line. In other words, the old native syllable-stress meter of English was reasserting itself. Poets were still counting stresses, but they had a markedly more casual attitude toward the placement of stresses and number of unstressed syllables allowed into a line.

Gross & McDowell put it this way: “The general prosody of Romantic and Victorian poetry strains but does not abrogate the syllable-stress tradition. Eclecticism flourishes; Tennyson and [Robert] Browning, the Victorian Establishment, are linked together in academic contexts, but their prosodies are miles apart.” However, Tennyson and Browning are never linked by poets studying their predecessors.  As G&M’s statement suggests, only someone with no ear could lump them together. 

By Victorian times, some poets began to go farther, consciously experimenting with alternative metrical concepts, most of which boiled down to a movement back toward strong stress poetry.  In this era are several strong poets who for metrical and other reasons became the foundations of Modern poetry. A bit later in the semester we will look at Browning in some detail, also at Thomas Hardy's tendency toward the accentual, and at Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm” and “overstressing.” Hopkins had read Walt Whitman, whose early and best work was ostensibly outside the metrical tradition entirely, based on Biblical and oratorical rhythms (though Raffel, Annie Finch and others can relate his lines to the loosest meters of his Romantic predecessors). Hopkins worked hard to rationalize his own, post-Whitman, experiments as falling within English metrical boundaries. Emily Dickinson, whose signature form is the hymnal stanza, also wrote poems in which the stress count is regular but the distribution of stresses is not--poems, in other words, that move back toward the ancestor of the hymnal stanza, the strong-stress ballad stanza, now reborn as an elegant intellectual stanza.

Thus, when we arrive at the modern era, the abandonment of meter by many strong poets should be no surprise. Nor should a continuing confusion as to what is metrical and what is not. Once vers libre was invented in the 1890s in France new verse movements proliferated. While some have written verse that is truly and entirely nonmetrical, far more poets (to this day) write a nominally “free” verse that is loosely iambic, with uneven line length and unrestricted substitutions and variations. Which of such poems are worth analyzing metrically is a question that continues to vex. 

Much later in the course we will look at 20th century poems that are, in T.S. Eliot's words, haunted by meter. If you want a preview, click here for More discussion of this.

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