FORM OF POETRY
Shakespeare / Anne Finch / Browning / 20th c. Hybrids / Eliot / Yeats / H.D.
Or, using Attridge's system:
/ x | /
x | x / | x x
| / /
x / | x /
| x / || / x |
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Traditonally, the opening lines of a poem announce and establish its meter. In these opening lines, trochaic and (possibly) spondaic substitution threaten to unseat iambic pentameter altogether. We are drawn out of conflict in the nick of time by the perfectly iambic third line. The fourth line retains that regularity and trumps it: there the iambic finally becomes emphatic enough to take over the rhythmic rhetoric of the poem.
Proponents of the spondee, such as Annie Finch, argue that scanning a spondee at the end of line 1, and another created by rhetorical stress on not in line 2 is the best way to show this rhythmnic and emotional conflict. If you scan with three levels of stress, you can make the rhythm visible in another way: by noting the mounting stress at the end of each of those first two lines. In the phrase of true minds each word receives more stress than the one before it. A similar effect is achieved in line two.
Lines three and four, however, end quite differently: with the exception of a slight promoiton on it, no syllable contests its status, and the unstressed syllables toward the ends of those lines are notably weak and retiring. After a grand and disturbing entrance, the poem is getting down to business.
Finch makes a similar argument for inclusion of a phyrrhic foot in the same poem. Is it
IT is | the STAR | to EV | ry WAND | ering BARK or
It is | the STAR | to EV | ry WAND | ering BARK ?
Finch argues that "[t]he first foot is not a trochee; to scan
it as such would obscure the earnest, hopeful, thwarted stretch of the
second syllable towards a stress, and the consequent increase in energy
that finally accompanies the awaited stress on 'star.'" (Baker 72) Others
argue that what she is talking about is a rhythmic affect distinct from
meter, though one of its effects. This line of thought would have it
that we must first recognize the difference between meter and rhythm in
order to feel the
tension between them.
Of course, except when pressed for a scansion we are free to hear and adore such affects and effects with no necessity to make up our minds about their ontological status.
Here's a poem by the original Anne Finch, Countess Winchilsea (1661-1720):
Anne Finch, Countess Winchilsea: Unequal Fetters
THE UNEQUAL FETTERSAnne Finch, Countess Winchilsea: Letter to Daphnis, April 2nd 1685
This to the Crown, and blessing of my life,Robert Browning's Counterpoint
A useful exercise with Browning’s dramatic monologues is to type them out by phrase. Thus20th c. Hybrid Meters: examples from Eliot & Yeats
Metrical poets of our century also have a world of possibilities to choose from--and therefore their poems must be scanned with a good ear and an open mind. Mostly regular poems may have irregular lines in them. Lines with many unstressed (or very lightly stressed) syllables may tend toward accentual meter. In some cases, these moves are intentional and highly affecting. In others, they reflect nothing more than a general desire to remain in the metrical tradition without imposing too much rigor on the poem. (And by late 20th century standards, it doesn’t take much metrical rigor to be considered too much by many readers.) The discussions below owe much to Gross & McDowell.
April is the cruelest month, breeding
We might convince ourselves to hear five stresses in the first line, but the result isn't very satistactory as a perception of either spoken or metrical English:
x AP | ril IS | the CRUEL | est MONTH | BREEDing
Four stresses and four feet tell us more about what the line sounds like, showing both the run of three unstressed syllables early and the decisive final reversed foot:
APril | is the CRUEL | est MONTH | BREEDing
The second line is similarly ambiguous as to four vs. five stresses, and it’s hard either way to rationalize into feet. Maybe it's trochaic:
LIlacs | OUT of the | DEAD land | MIXing
So let’s go to line three:
MEMor | y AND | deSIRE | STIRring
Again, as in the first line, four feet, with 2 each of iambic and trochaic. Things are definitely “mixing.” The speech stress on “and” is slight, but discernible and as a metrical stress it’s perfectly acceptable. Next:
DULL ROOTS with SPRING RAIN
Whoops. Four beats, yeah, but no sign of accentual-syllabic meter, iambic or trochaic. No way you can make it four feet except by the weirdest of scansions--only one unstressed syllable to share among four stresses. So what is it? Well, what’s consistent? The number of stresses per line. Which makes it, in fact, an accentual meter. What makes the passage metrically interesting is that the ear dwells in the gray zone for three lines, not sure what it’s hearing, not sure what the pattern is, until the fourth line resolves the question.
This aural ambiguity corresponds to emotional and spiritual ambivalence in the poem. We start with line one, wondering why or how April is cruel. The next lines begin to explain that, and the end of the explanation falls on the heavy, unarguable thud of the fourth line. To a reader attuned to the nuances of prosody and their history, the very return to the heavy thud of four strong stresses may have emotional implications.
With the fourth line so heavy-handed, the old Anglo-Saxon
seems a primitive thing, linked to the cruelty of mortality, the
of spring when it figures hope. It alludes to an agricultural reality
far removed from the effete consciousness that emerges as the poem
progresses, and it links to the Anglo-Saxon Fisher-King myth that
the poem. We don’t know that yet, if we’re reading the poem for the
time. But we do know how it feels.
Some Examples from Yeats: Counterpoint and the Intrusion of Strong-Stress Meter
William Butler Yeats in his early books was at times afflicted by a dreary, padded hexameter line, whose rhythms matched the vague romance of the Celtic Twilight By the end of his career he had evolved to an opposite sound: accentual meters, short lines, and brilliantly counterpointed syntax. He began with lines like:
And the flame of the blue star of twilight, hung low on the rim of the sky
Four prepositions, three articles, and a conjunction! a prize winner. In his turning-point volume, Responsibilities, published in 1914, we still find hexameters, but they are more firm, more subtle, and their metrical moves more necessary. These lines are from “The Magi”:And all their helms of silver hovering side by side, ,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
Sounds like a different poet. Notice that Yeats, like Milton and others before him, followed a principle of elision whereby certain syllables ordinarily spoken in performance do not count in scansion. (Hovering, Calvary, mystery, and bestial are all (metrically) two-syllable words. (In the 19th century many poets marked their elisions with apostrophes: hov’ring, e.g., which Yeats did not do.) Whether Yeats, an Irishman, actually pronounced them thus (hov’ring, Calv’ry, etc.) is a different quesion. The convention is a metrical one, not dependent on the accent of the poet. Thus we scan:
And ALL | their HELMS |of SIL | ver HOV |ering SIDE | by SIDE,
And ALL | their EYES | still FIXED | HOPing | to FIND | once MORE,
BEing | by CAL | vary’s TURB | uLENCE | unSAT | isFIED,
The UN | conTROLL | able MY | stery ON | the BEST | tial FLOOR.
Notice that in the first two lines speech stress and metrical stress coincide: we hear them all clearly. In line three, the last syllable of turbulence is so lightly stressed as to cause a little rock in the road. In line four we hear only four strong speech stresses:
The unconTROLLable MYstery on the BESTtial FLOOR
The line scans just fine as hexameter, but its spoken rhythm is quite different--it is counterpointed. The rock in the road has turned into a boulder: this line is cut off from the classical world of hexameter, so not only what the line says but how it sounds pushes us forward into the 20th century. And besides the bestiality of 20th century horrors, we are reminded by those four strong speech stresses of a primitive past, figured by the shadow of the old English meter--a shadow that is made somewhat more substantial by the internal rhyme between two of the stressed words, uncontrollable and bestial, reminding us of the old meter’s alliterative pattern.
In “Easter 1916” Yeats used a three beat line in which iambs and anapests interchange freely.
I have met them at close of day
It can be scanned in feet, as an accentual-syllabic poem, or it can be scanned as accentual, marking only the stresses. Does it matter? In his late poems Yeats paid little attention to syllable count and moved firmly into an accentual meter: this poem can be seen as a step on that path. But probably more important than trying to categorize the poem’s meter is to recognize the delicacy of the ear at work here. Notice the unaccented syllables: “emphatic upbeats,” G&M call them, or “delicate end assonance.” Yeats is also known for superb syntactical control: no “flaccid long sentence or...monotonous short one.” The placement of the caesura, and the relationship of line and sentence vary infinitely and expressively, guiding the reading voice in pace, emphasis, melody:
We know their dream; enough
The lines each have three beats, but the phrases fall very differently. The first line begins with a 2-beat phrase, followed by a caesura. The last word is the start of a 4-beat phrase that completes itself on the next line. And the last two lines make a phrase together, with six beats--an echo, after all, of the old hexameter. Thus while the meter says 3/3/3/3, the syntax says 2/4/6, and the 4 says a very different thing than the 6.
One of the criticisms of accentual poetry is that it cannot manage much variety in the lines. The lack of control over unaccented syllables and secondary stresses necessitates a more heavy-footed line than can be presented in accentual-syllabic verse -- to lighten the beat is to risk loosing meter altogether. These masterful lines by Yeats demonstrate how syntax, counterpointed with line, can create efects of speed, lightness, and emotional variation in that put the lie to this complaint.H.D.: An example of how “free verse” uses meter:
Much apparent free verse is actually written in loosely iambic lines of varying length. Such as:
Against the shimmering heat,
These lines can easily be described as trimeter and dimeter, and the passage is further unified by sound: heat/leaf, bright/shining/fine, separate/bright, bright/bronze/bark, wood/gold, the o sounds of cold, bronze, wood, gold. In the following passage by the same poet (H.D.--Hilda Doolittle) notice how the prose-like phrasing tightens down to two-beat strong stress when the emotion climaxes:
few were the words we said
he, Achilles, piling brushwood,
few were the words we said,
swaying as before the mast,
let him forget