Here's an example of metrical threat and resolution, illustrating
Charles Hartman's point that a metrical poem will resolve instability in
a line of perfect meter:
Finch, Countess Winchilsea: Unequal Fetters
|Let me not to the marriage of true
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
|LET me| NOT to | the MAR | riage OF |trúe MINDS
AdMIT | imPED | iMENTS || LOVE is | nót LOVE
Which AL | ters WHEN | it AL | terA | tion FINDS.
o NO || it IS | an EV | er-FIX | ed MARK
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, as I have done,
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):
THE UNEQUAL FETTERS
Anne Finch, Countess Winchilsea: Letter
to Daphnis, April 2nd 1685
Cou'd we stop the time that's flying
Or recall it when 'tis past
Put far off the day of Dying
Or make Youth forever last
To Love wou'd then be worth our cost.
But since we must loose those Graces
Which at first your hearts have wonne
And you seek for in new Faces
When our Spring of Life is done
It wou'd but urdge our ruine on
Free as Nature's first intention
Was to make us, I'll be found
Nor by subtle Man's invention
Yield to be in Fetters bound
By one that walks a freer round.
Marriage does by slightly tye Men
Whil'st close Pris'ners we remain
They the larger Slaves of Hymen
Still are begging Love again
At the full length of all their chain.
Note the pattern in the first stanza: four "headless" tetrameter lines
(two with feminine rhymes making them trochaic, two with masculine rhymes
making them headless and unidentifiable as iambic or trochaic), followed
by a perfect iambic tetrameter:
COULD we STOP the TIME that's FLYing
OR reCALL it WHEN 'tis PAST
PUT far OFF the DAY of DYing
OR make YOUTH forEVer LAST
To LOVE wou'd THEN be WORTH our COST
Despite the presence of only one fully iambic line, we can describe
this poem as iambic according to Hartman's rule of thumb. The first four
lines give us no metrical assurance and the 5th line resolves that tension
into iambic conclusion. What matters about this structure, however, is
not what name we choose to give to it: what matters is that the metrical
change in the last line simultaneously reinforces its quality of
conclusion and subtly undercuts the illusions proposed in the more
emphatic, falling, headless rhythm.
In the first line of the next stanza, readers in our day, unused to
reading metrical signals, might naturally start off: "But SINCE we
MUST..." and run smack into "loose" (i.e. "lose") where the iambic falls
apart. In fact, the meter of the first stanza provides perfect instruction
on how to read this one:
BUT since WE must LOOSE those GRACes
WHICH at FIRST your HEARTS have WON
AND you SEEK for IN new FACes
WHEN our SPRING of LIFE is DONE
It WOULD but URDGE our RUine ON
The pattern continues neatly through the third stanza as she proclaims
her unwillingness to submit to an unnatural inequality --the only variation
being enjambment. In the last stanza, however, grammatical stress suddenly
pops up and bucks against the meter:
MARriage DOES but SLIGHTly TIE men
is the ideal pattern. But who could read it without adding stress to
the last word, in contrast to "we" in the next line? To my ear at least,
no pattern of stress in this line makes it comfortable in the smooth and
consciously artificial metric that has been established over three stanzas.
(MARiage DOES but SLIGHTly tie MEN? MARriage DOES but SLIGHTly TIE
MEN?) Thus the genius of this line lies precisely in its uneasiness. True
to the Augustan aesthetic, the poem has expressed its complaint in a light
and witty manner. Here, resentment lodges rhythmically, metrically, like
a small rock under a carpet. And the final line surprises again. The expected
pattern would be:
At THE full LENGTH of ALL their CHAIN
which almost no one would take seriously. Breaking the pattern
by reversing the first foot is possible:
AT the full LENGTH of ALL their CHAIN
but when the whole stanza is read this is awkward and robs the line
of even as much closural force as the last lines of previous stanzas. Further
possibilities are that either a double iamb or a reversed foot and a spondee
are intended. If not intended, certainly they stand in ghostly counterpoint,
speech stress rising up against meter as the woman rises against the man.
At the FULL LENGTH of ALL their CHAIN.
AT the FULL LENGTH of ALL their CHAIN
It is interesting to compare this poem to my earlier dyad, Campion and
Donne. Its prosody is superficially much closer to Campion, and its genre,
the woman's complaint, requires neither an individualized speaker nor a
dramatic prosody. And yet, suddenly, in those last two lines, we stumble
on the suggestion of both.
Here's another by Finch:
This to the Crown, and blessing of my life,
The much lov'd husband, of a happy wife.
To him, whose constant passion found the art
To win a stubborn, and ungrateful heart;
And to the World, by tend'rest proof discovers
They err, who say that husbands can't be lovers.
With such return of passion, as is due,
Daphnis I love, Daphnis my thoughts persue,
Daphnis, my hopes, my joys, are bounded all in you:
Ev'n I, for Daphnis, and my promise sake,
What I in women censure, undertake.
But this from love, not vanity, proceeds;
You know who writes; and I who 'tis that reads.
Judge not my passion, by my want of skill,
Many love well, though they express itt ill;
and I your censure cou'd with pleasure bear,
Wou'd you but soon return, and speak itt here.
Note how she employs the conventions in this apparently sincere poem.
She portrays herself as "stubborn and ungrateful," requiring much wooing;
she addresses "the World;" she calls her husband "Daphnis," a pastoral
convention oft employed to at once idealize and disguise an illicit lover;
she implies that for a woman to write love poems is objectionable, but
her passion for him requires her to yield : apparently he has requested
that she write him a poem--so writing becomes a stand-in for sexual yielding;
she apologizes for her want of skill, even as she deploys her skill; and
she welcomes his censure if it comes in a package with his presence.
In this poem the conjunction of metrical and speech stress is quite
firm, and, again, where they threaten to diverge she exploits the tension
fruitfully. In line 2, for example, two rhythms are overlaid:
The MUCH LOV'D HUSband, of a HAPpy WIFE versus
The MUCH lov'd HUSband, OF a HAPpy WIFE
And in line 8 the two reversed feet (initial and after the caesura)
create another rhythmic unit in counterpoint to the meter: /uu/,/uu/
DAPHnis i LOVE, DAPHnis my THOUGHTS perSUE
She does, however adhere to the period style: she avoids anapestic substitutions
and spondees, and her primary device remains the caesura (whose placement
varies from after the first foot to the middle of the fourth foot, sometimes
weak, sometimes strong, as many as three in a line). Three lines have reversed
first feet: the two lines beginning "Daphnis," which makes of the name
a cry; and "Many love well," which provides a variation in pattern to set
us up for the ending.
A useful exercise with Browning’s dramatic monologues is to
type them out by phrase. Thus
Hybrid Meters: examples from Eliot & Yeats
Well, if the marks seem gone,
‘T is because stiffish cock-tail, taken in time,
Is better for a bruise than arnica.** **A herb
There, sir! I bear no malice: ‘t is n’t in me.
I know I acted wrongly: still, I’ve tried
What I could say in my excuse,--to show
The devil’s not all devil . . . I don’t pretend,
He’s angel, much less such a gentleman
As you, sir! And I’ve lost you, lost myself,
is written as:
if the marks seem gone,
‘t is because stiffish cock-tail,
taken in time,
is better for a bruise than arnica.
I bear no malice:
‘t is n’t in me.
I know I acted wrongly:
still: I’ve tried
This helps to show the virtuosity of Browning’s prosody, how he stretched
meter toward speech without ever quite breaking it. It also shows
what an inferior poem the same words would make if reduced to phrase-determined
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.
Here is the famous
opening of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory with desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
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 meter seems
a primitive thing, linked to the cruelty of mortality, the deception 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 recurs throughout
the poem. We don’t know that yet, if we’re reading the poem for the first
time. But we do know how it feels.
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 more lightly stressed than the others, creating 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
In “Easter 1916” Yeats used a three beat line in which iambs
and anapests interchange freely.
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among gray
Eighteenth century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
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
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
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,
each separate leaf
is bright and cold,
and through the bronze
of shining bark and wood
run the fine threads of gold.
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
but the words are graven on stone,
minted on gold, stamped upon lead;
he, Achilles, piling brushwood,
finding an old flint in his pouch,
“I thought I had lost that”;
few were the words we said,
“I am shipwrecked, I am lost,”
turning to view the stars,
swaying as before the mast,
“the season is different,
we are far from--from--”
let him forget
let him forget