Poetry Kaleidoscope: Guide to Poetry

Meter

Foot | Dactyl | Decasyllable | Elegy | Hendecasyllabic | Vedic meter | Poulter's Measure

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Meter (non-American spelling: metre) describes the linguistic sound patterns of verse. Scansion is the analysis of poetry's metrical and rhythmic patterns. Prosody is sometimes used to describe poetic meter, and indicates the analysis of similar aspects of language in linguistics. Meter is part of many formal verse forms.

Fundamentals

The precise units of poetic meter, like rhyme, vary from language to language and between poetic traditions. Often it involves precise arrangements of syllables into repeated patterns called feet within a line. In English verse the pattern of syllable stress differentiates feet, so English meter is founded on the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. In Latin verse, on the other hand, while the metrical units are similar, not syllable stresses but vowel lengths are the component parts of meter. Old English poetry used alliterative verse, a metrical pattern involving varied numbers of syllables but a fixed number of strong stresses in each line. Meters in English verse, and in the classical Western poetic tradition on which it is founded, are named by the characteristic foot and the number of feet per line. Thus, for example, blank verse is unrhymed "iambic pentameter," a meter composed of five feet per line in which the kind of feet called iambs predominate. The origin of this tradition of metrics is ancient Greek poetry from Homer, Pindar, Hesiod, Sappho, and the great tragedians of Athens.

Technical Terms

  • caesura: (literally, a cut or cutting) refers to a particular kind of break within a poetic line. In Latin and Greek meter, caesura refers to a break within a foot caused by the end of a word. In English poetry, a caesura refers to a sense of a break within a line. Caesurae play a particularly important role in Old English poetry.
  • Inversion: when a foot of poetry is reversed with respect to the general meter of a poem.
  • Headless: a meter where the first foot is missing its first syllable.
  • Quantitative: see Quantitative#Use in prosody and poetry

Common Feet

The most common characteristic feet of English verse are the iamb in two syllables and the anapest in three. (See Foot (prosody) for a complete list of the metrical feet and their names.)

Greek and Latin

The metrical "feet" in the classical languages were based on the length of time taken to pronounce each syllable, which were categorized as either "long" syllables or "short" syllables. The foot is often compared to a musical measure and the long and short syllables to whole notes and half notes. In English poetry, feet are determined by emphasis rather than length, with stressed and unstressed syllables serving the same function as long and short syllables in classical meter.

The basic unit in Greek and Latin prosody is a mora, which is defined as a single short syllable. A long syllable is equivalent to two moras. A long syllable contains either a long vowel, a diphthong, or a short vowel followed by two or more consonants. Various rules of elision sometimes prevent a grammatical syllable from making a full syllable.

The most important Classical meter is the dactylic hexameter, the meter of Homer and Virgil. This form uses verses of six feet. The first four feet are dactyls, but can be spondees. The fifth foot is always a dactyl. The sixth foot is either a spondee or a trochee. The initial syllable of either foot is called the ictus, the basic "beat" of the verse. There is usually a caesura after the ictus of the third foot. The opening line of the neid is a typical line of dactylic hexameter:

rmă vĭrūmquě cănō, // Trōiǽ quī prmŭs ăb ris
("I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy. . . ")

The first and second feet are dactyls; their vowels are grammatically short, but long in poetry because both are followed by two consonants. The third and fourth feet are spondees, with two long vowels, one on either side of the caesura. The fifth foot is a dactyl, as it must be, with the ictus this time falling on a grammatically long vowel. The final foot is a spondee with two grammatically long vowels.

The dactylic hexameter was imitated in English by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem Evangeline:

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of old, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.

Also important in Greek and Latin poetry is the dactylic pentameter. This was a line of verse, made up of two equal parts, each of which contains two dactyls followed by a long syllable. Spondees can take the place of the dactyls in the first half, but never in the second. The long syllable at the close of the first half of the verse always ends a word, giving rise to a caesura.

Dactylic pentameter is never used in isolation. Rather, a line of dactylic pentameter follows a line of dactylic hexameter in the elegiac distich or elegiac couplet, a form of verse that was used for the composition of elegies and other tragic and solemn verse in the Greek and Latin world. An example from Ovid's Tristia:

Vrgĭlĭūm vīdī // tāntm, něc ămāră Tĭbllŏ
Tmpŭs ămī cĭtĭe // fātă dĕdḗrĕ mĕe.
("I only saw Vergil, greedy Fate gave Tibullus no time for me.")

The Greeks and Romans also used a number of lyric meters, which were typically used for shorter poems than elegiacs or hexameter. One important line was called the hendecasyllabic, a line of eleven syllables. This meter was used most often in the Sapphic stanza, named after the Greek poet Sappho, who wrote many of her poems in the form. A hendecasyllabic is a line with a never-varying structure: two trochees, followed by a dactyl, then two more trochees. In the Sapphic stanza, three hendecasyllabics are followed by an "Adonic" line, made up of a dactyl and a trochee. This is the form of Catullus 51 (itself a translation of Sappho 31):

/ x / x / x x/ x / x
Ille mi par esse deo videtur;
/ x / x / x x / x / x
ille, si fas est, superare divos,
/ x / x / x x / x / x
qui sedens adversus identidem te
/ x x / x
spectat et audit. . .
("He seems to me to be like a god; if it is permitted, he seems above the gods, he who sitting across from you gazes at you and listens to you.")

The Sapphic stanza was imitated in English by Algernon Charles Swinburne in a poem he simply called Sapphics:

Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
Saw the reluctant. . .

English

Most English meter is classified according to the same system as Classical meter with an important difference: beats and offbeats take the place of long and short syllables. In most English verse, the meter can be considered as a sort of back beat, against which natural speech rhythms vary expressively.

The most frequently encountered line of English verse is the iambic pentameter, in which the metrical norm is five iambic feet per line, though metrical substitution is common and rhythmic variations practically inexhaustible. John Milton's Paradise Lost, most sonnets, and much else besides in English are written in iambic pentameter. Lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter are commonly known as blank verse. Blank verse in the English language is most famously represented in the plays of William Shakespeare, although it is also notable in the work of Tennyson (e.g. Ulysses, The Princess).

A rhymed pair of lines of iambic pentameter make a heroic couplet, a verse form which was used so often in the eighteenth century that it is now used mostly for humorous effect (although see Pale Fire for a non-trivial case).

Another important meter in English is the ballad meter, also called the "common meter", which is a four line stanza, with two pairs of a line of iambic tetrameter followed by a line of iambic trimeter; the rhymes usually fall on the lines of trimeter, although in many instances the tetrameter also rhymes. This is the meter of most of the Border and Scots or English ballads. It is called the "common meter" in hymnody (as it is the most common of the named hymn meters used to pair lyrics with melodies) and provides the meter for a great many hymns, such as Amazing Grace:

Amazing Grace! how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

Another poet who put this form to use was Emily Dickinson:

Great streets of silence led away
To neighborhoods of pause;
Here was no notice no dissent
No universe no laws.

Old English poetry has a different metrical system. In Old English poetry, each line must contain four fully stressed syllables, which often alliterate. The unstressed syllables are less important. Old English poetry is an example of the alliterative verse found in most of the older Germanic languages.

French

In French poetry, meter is determined solely by the number of syllables in a line. A silent 'e' counts as a syllable, except before a sounded vowel or at the end of a line. The most frequently encountered meter in French is a line of two times six feet separated by a caesura called the alexandrine. Classical French poetry also had a complex set of rules for rhymes that goes beyond how words merely sound. These are usually taken into account when describing the meter of a poem.

Spanish

In Spanish poetry, meter is determined solely by the number of syllables in a line. Syllables in Spanish metrics are determined by consonant breaks, not word boundaries, so a single syllable may include multiple words. For example, the line De armas y hombres canto consists of 6 syllables: "De ar" "mas" "y hom" "bres" "can" "to."

Some common meters in Spanish verse are:

  • Septenary: A line consisting of seven syllables, the sixth being always stressed.
  • Octosyllable: A line consisting of eight syllables, the seventh always being stressed. This meter is commonly used in romances, narrative poems similar to English ballads.
  • Hendecasyllable: A line consisting of eleven syllables; the sixth and the tenth or the fourth, the eighth and the tenth always being stressed. This meter plays a similar role to pentameter in English verse. It is commonly used in sonnets, among other things.
  • Alexandrines: A line consisting of two heptasyllables.

Italian

In Italian poetry, meter is determined solely by the number of syllables in a line. When a word ends with a vowel and the next one starts with a vowel, they are considered to be in the same syllable: so Gli anni e i giorni consists of only four syllables ("Gli an" "ni e i" "gior" "ni"). Moreover, syllables are enumerated with respect to a verse which ends with a paroxytone: an heptasyllable may so contain eight syllables (Ei fu. Siccome immobile) or just six (la terra al nunzio sta).

Some common meters in Italian verse are:

  • Septenary: A line consisting of seven syllables, the sixth being always stressed.
  • Octosyllable: A line consisting of eight syllables, with the main stress on the seventh and secondary accents on the first, third and fifth syllable. This meters is commonly used in nursery rhymes.
  • Hendecasyllable: A line consisting of eleven syllables; there are various kinds of possible accentations, but the tenth syllable has always the main stress. It is used in sonnets, in ottava rima, and in many other works.

Dissent

Not all poets accept the idea that meter is a fundamental part of poetry. Twentieth Century American poets Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Robinson Jeffers, were poets who believed that meter was imposed into poetry by man, not a fundamental part of its nature. In an essay titled "Robinson Jeffers, & The Metric Fallacy"[1], poet/critic Dan Schneider echoes Jeffers' sentiments: "What if someone actually said to you that all music was composed of just 2 notes? Or if someone claimed that there were just 2 colors in creation? Now, ponder if such a thing were true. Imagine the clunkiness & mechanicality of such music. Think of the visual arts devoid of not just color, but sepia tones, & even shades of gray." Jeffers called his technique "rolling stresses".

Moore went even further than Jeffers, openly declaring her poetry was written in syllabic form, and wholly denying meter. These syllabic lines from her famous poem "Poetry" illustrate her contempt for meter, and other poetic tools (however, even the syllabic pattern of this poem does not remain perfectly consistent):

nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and
school-books": all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry

Williams tried to form poetry whose subject matter was centered on the lives of common people. He came up with the concept of the variable foot. Williams spurned traditional meter in most of his poems, preferring what he called "colloquial idioms." Another poet that turned his back on traditional concepts of meter was Britain's Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins' major innovation was what he called "sprung rhythm". Hopkins claimed most poetry was written in a rhythmic structure inherited from the Norman side of the English literary heritage, based on repeating groups of two or three syllables, with the stressed syllable falling in the same place on each repetition. Hopkins called this structure running rhythm. He became fascinated with older rhythmic structures in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, which he called sprung rhythm. Sprung rhythm is structured around feet with a variable number of syllables, generally between one and four syllables per foot, with the stress always falling on the first syllable in a foot. All these poets made good arguments against the naturalness of traditional meter.


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