In English, the major feet are:
IAMB ( ^ / ) — unstressed, stressed
Examples: InDEED // beLIEVE // the END
Shall I | comPARE | thee TO | a SUM | mer’s DAY? |
TROCHEE ( / ^ ) — stressed, unstressed
Examples: SINGing // SLEEPy // TALK to
DOUble, | DOUble, | TOIL and | TROUble — |
SPONDEE ( / / ) — stressed, stressed
Examples: AMEN // ARCH-FIEND // DARK NIGHT
• (It would be confusing at best to literate an entire poem consisting of purely spondaic feet —it would sound like a drill! Or Incessant hammering! For this reason, the spondee is usually used for emphasis, or to break up another foot such as the anapest.)
PYRRHIC ( ^ ^ ) — unstressed, unstressed
Examples: and the // in the // is to
And the | QUAINT MAZ | es in | the WAN | ton GREEN. |
• (Due to the monotonous, or redundant sound, the pyrrhic foot is not used to construct an entire poem. Much like the anapest and the dactyl, the pyrrhic is often found within the framework of the poem, but does not make up the entire structure.)
Lord Byron's "Don Juan" contains a fine example of pyrrhic feet:
My WAY | is to | begIN | with the | begIN | ning. |
ANAPEST ( ^ ^ / ) — unstressed, unstressed, stressed (FYI: this is the natural rhythm of the French language)
Examples: in the NIGHT // by the LIGHT // of the MOON
I am MON | arch of ALL | i surVEY |
DACTYL ( / ^ ^ ) — stressed, unstressed, unstressed (FYI: this is the natural rhythm of the Italian language)
Examples: BEAUtiful // SERious // SING to her
TAKE her up | TENDderly |
• IAMBIC and ANAPESTIC meters are called rising meters (because their movement rises from unstressed syllable to stressed)
• TROCHAIC and DACTYLIC meters are called falling meters.
SPONDEE and PYRRHIC feet, are never used as the sole meter of a poem; if they were, it would be like the steady impact of nails being hammered into a board—no delight to hear. Blech. But inserted now and then, they can lend emphasis and variety to a meter.
• (In the twentieth century, the bouncing meters—anapestic and dactylic—have been used more often for comic verse than for serious poetry.)
What is a caesura?
A caesura . . . is . . . . . . . . . a pause.
indicated by a “double-pipe” || (so as to be discernible front he SPONDEE “railroad tracks:” //) is an indication of a brief pause outside of the metrical rhythm. It may be:
- initial caesura (near the beginning of a line)
- medial caesura (near the middle of a line)
- terminal caesura (near the end of a line)
FEMININE ENDING - A line of iambic pentameter (our stock in trade) has a feminine ending when there are one (or sometime more) unaccented syllables after the fifth foot. The line ends with an extra unstressed syllable, giving eleven syllables instead of ten. (For reference, a masculine ending is a (“regular”) end, one with a stressed syllable.)
Crucial: a feminine ending indicates the presence of a CAESURA, a pause.
Why is this so critical?
• Let us begin with the assertion that William Shakespeare is a great poet.
• Thus, we can assume that Shakespeare can write regular iambic pentameter any time he damn well wants to.
• Therefore, when he varies from it, he has a purpose.
• If dramatic verse represents the character's thoughts, we can have confidence that any “turbulence” or irregularity within the verse represents some idea that causes the character distress or pause for some reason.
If a line ends with a feminine ending, we can pick out the exact word that is causing the character additional thought/distress/pause.
• It makes the thought itself potentially ironic
• It makes the effect making the line more pliant
• and often giving the quality of working through the thought
• something giving it a haunted and unfinished sound as thought leaving the thought in the air.
There are many feminine endings in Hamlet's famous Act 3 soliloquy:
To be, or not to be: that is the ques-tion:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suf-fer
The slings and arrows of outrageous for-tune,
Or to take arms against a sea of trou-bles,
And by opposing, end them. (…)
My personal favorite example of an extremely effective feminine ending is from Desdemona’s speech in Act 4, scene 2 of Othello:
O good Iago,
What shall I do to win my lord again?
Good friend, go to him; for, by this light of heaven,
I know not how I lost him. Here I kneel:
If e'er my will did trespass 'gainst his love,
Either in discourse of thought or actual deed,
Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense,
Delighted them in any other form;
Or that I do not yet, and ever did.
And ever will--though he do shake me off
To beggarly divorcement--love him dearly,
Comfort forswear me! Unkindness may do much;
And his unkindness may defeat my life,
But never taint my love. I cannot say 'whore:'
—the topic word itself IS the feminine ending, and the subsequent pause further emphasizes the following line:
It does abhor me now I speak the word;
To do the act that might the addition earn
Not the world's mass of vanity could make me.
Elision and Expansion
Things to keep in mind:
- Remember to put a mark over every syllable.
- Keep in mind that by pronouncing a word differently, you may find different numbers of syllables in it, as in “diff-rent-ly” and “diff-er-ent-ly.” (I'll go into more detail about what is called elision and expansion in the next post). This is particularly true of proper names ("Iago" can be "ee-AH-go" or "YA-go").
- If you are having "trouble" with a line, go to proper names first and then any polysyllabic words and play around with pronunciation, see if you missed something. This is art not science so try not to have a stroke about it.
METER [Meter maids!]
What is meter?
Meter defines the number of feet in a single line of poetry.
• monometer - One foot
• dimeter - Two feet
• trimeter - Three feet
• tetramter - Four feet
• pentameter - Five feet
• hectameter or hexameter - Six feet
• heptameter - Seven feet
• octameter - Eight feet
A frequently heard metrical description is iambic pentameter which simply describes/translates to: a line of five iambs.
As an example of iambic pentameter, take a look at the first four lines (describes in poetry as a quatrain) of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 141:
In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who in despite of view is pleased to dote; (…)
We see the rhythm of this quatrain is made up of:
• one unaccented syllable
• followed by one accented syllable,
• that is called an iambic foot.
• we also count that there are five feet per line
• making the meter of the line pentameter.
• So, the rhythm and meter are: iambic pentameter. (Ta-daaaa!)
This is a meter especially familiar because it occurs in all blank verse (such as Shakespeare’s plays), heroic couplets, and sonnets. It is the most like English speech, and thus a familiar and “comforting” rhythmic meter to speak and hear.
OK, BUT… WHY?
Okay. Yes, that’s all very lovely and fancy and all, but why do we study rhythm & meter?
People have a basic need for rhythm (or for the effect produced by it) as several experiments in human psychology have demonstrated (as you can see by watching a crew of workers digging or hammering, or by listening to the chants of work songs, not to mention our most intrinsic human rhythm: our heartbeat—the source and evidence of human life).
Rhythm gives pleasure and a more emotional response to the listener or reader because it establishes a pattern of expectations, and rewards the listener or reader with the pleasure that comes from having those expectations fulfilled, or the noted change in a rhythm.
To emphasize this extraordinary poetic pleasure, here is one of the most rhythmic poems in history: Hilaire Beloc’s Tarentella:
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of tar?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
(Under the vine of the dark verandah)?
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteeers
Who hadn't got a penny,
And who weren't paying any,
And the hammer at the doors and the Din?
And the Hip! Hop! Hap!
Of the clap
Of the hands to the twirl and the swirl
Of the girl gone chancing,
Backing and advancing,
Snapping of a clapper to the spin
Out and in --
And the Ting, Tong, Tang, of the Guitar.
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
- Never more;
- Never more.
- Only the high peaks hoar:
- And Aragon a torrent at the door.
- No sound
- In the walls of the Halls where falls
- The tread
- Of the feet of the dead to the ground
- No sound:
- But the boom
- Of the far Waterfall like Doom.
An argument might be raised against scanning: isn’t it too simple to expect that all language can be divided into neat stressed and unstressed syllables?
Well. Yeah. Of course it is.
There are infinite levels of stress, from the loudest scream to the faintest whisper.
But, the idea in scanning a poem is not to reproduce the sound of a human voice—a recorder can do that.
To scan a poem is to make a diagram of the stresses and absence of stress we find in it. Studying rhythms, “scanning,” is not just a way of pointing to syllables; it is also a matter of listening to a poem and making sense of it—thus allowing the sense to emerge FROM THE TEXT.
To scan a poem is one way to indicate how to read it aloud; in order to see where stresses fall, you have to see the places where the poet wishes to put emphasis.
That is why when scanning a poem you may find yourself suddenly understanding it.
Above all, in Shakespeare:
By understanding, and ultimately honoring the poetic verse in all its glory, we allow emotion to stir itself from within the confines of the poetry, as opposed to forcing our emotions upon the the text.
View the text AS THE SPINE of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.