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Poetry Guide: Spondee

In poetry, a spondee is a metrical foot consisting of two long syllables. This makes it a unique type of metre in English verse as all the other metric forms contain no more than one long syllable.

It is impossible to construct a whole, serious poem with spondees. Consequently, spondees mainly occur as variants within, say, an anapaestic structure.

For example (from G. K. Chesterton, Lepanto):

White founts falling in the courts of the sun
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;

This whole verse is rather unusual in structure, making it difficult as an example, unfortunately. The following is a possible analysis, and shows the role of the spondee.

  1. The basic template for both lines is anapaestic tetrameter : four feet, each consisting of two short syllables then a long syllable (duh-duh-DAH, duh-duh-DAH, duh-duh-DAH, duh-duh-DAH). It is then heavily modified:
  2. The second, third and fourth feet in the second line each have three instead of two short syllables (duh-duh-duh-DAH).
  3. The first anapaest in the first line is replaced with a spondee ("White founts," DAH-DAH)
  4. The second anapaest in the first line is replaced with a trochee (DAH-duh).

A simpler version of the first line might be:

There are white fountains falling in the courts of the sun .

Two short syllables are added at the beginning, and "founts" is lengthened to "fountains." These extra syllables add "filler," so that when the poem is read stress no longer naturally falls on the syllable "fount" (or, does so to a lesser degree). As a result there are unstressed syllables just before the "fall," so that naturally becomes an anapaest ("fountains fall-," duh-duh-DAH), and the "ing" slips into the following anapaest. Chesterton's original version changes all this; it is less intuitive to write and has a more unusual sound. The spondee effects this.