Robert Burns & Trochaic Tetrameter (Sort of…)

I recently wrote a post analyzing a more successful poem written in Trochaic Tetrameter – Edna St Vincent Millay’s Sorrow. ~ February 3, 2009

I noticed that someone searched for the meter to Burn’s Ae fond kiss. Curious, I decided to look the poem up.

What a surprise! As it turns out, Burns has tried his hand at a trochaic poem. Writing trochaic poetry is devilishly difficult. Here’s why. Writing lines that begin with a stressed syllable and end with an unstressed syllable, as Burns does, is the easy part. The devilishly difficult part is making the ear hear the lines as trochaic rather than iambic. The rythm of spoken English is naturally iambic. Listen to yourself talk, and you may notice that almost all of your sentences end with a strong syllable. Up to this very sentence, all but one have ended on a strong or intermediate stress. Here’s the poem by Burns, unmolested by my commentary.

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
robert-burnsDeep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerful twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.

I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,
Naething could resist my Nancy:
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.
Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met-or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Fare-thee-weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare-thee-weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure!
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

And now to the commentary. Rather than go line by line, as is my usual habit, I’ll try not to extenuate.

Here’s how Burns would like us to read the first four lines (and how some instructors may want to scan the lines):

ae-fond-trochaic-reading

These are trochaic four foot lines. However, most readers, probably even in Burns’ day, will be more inclined to (subconsciously) read the lines as follows:

ae-fond-iambic-reading

Notice that the first lines are read as iambic trimeter. The iambic pull is too hard to resist when the lines begin with the weak indefinite article Ae or (modern spelling) A. This is what makes writing trochees so devilishly difficult. The poet must go the extra mile to enforce the trochaic rhythm, otherwise the ear will naturally want to read iambs – which is what happens in the lines above and which is why, at first glance, the poem’s meter is deceptively obscure. Burns doesn’t quite pull it off. It’s not until we get past the first two lines that Burns’ metrical intentions become clear. In musical terms, it’s as if Burns failed to establish the tonic. Only mid-way through the melody do we really know what key we’re in.

So, rather than hearing trochaic feet, we hear it as an anapest followed by a solid iambic foot. The third foot in the first and second lines are heard as feminine endings. Only in the third and fourth lines does Burns unambiguously push the lines into a trochaic reading.

Nevertheless, (and having said all that), if the reader wants to read it in the spirit in which Burns’ wrote it, he or she should try to read the first lines as trochaic, in accordance with the first scansion. The meter is telling a tale that informs the poem. It mirrors  the topsy-turvy emotions of the speaker. Rather than pledging the joyful union of an undying love, he is pledging the opposite, the painful separation of an undying love. It’s upside down. Nothing is the way it should be in this love poem – and the meter reinforces that. It’s all backwards.

The next four lines of the first stanza are more easily read as trochaic. It’s not until the forth line of the second stanza that the reader might stumble again: Love but her, and love for ever.

love-but-her

The first scansion is how Burns means for us to read it. The second scansion is how the ear, realistically, hears it – a headless iambic tetrameter line with a feminine ending. Being the one line out, in an otherwise trochaic pattern, the iambic rhythm has the curious effect of sounding backwards and awkward. It’ also, curiously, the one line in which Burns most directly states his love. The effect, brought about by the use of meter, is to make Burns’ statement of his love sound curiously backwards and out of kilter. I think it’s probably giving Burns too much credit to say the effect was intentional. My own impression in reading  Burns is that he’s a conservative metrist (just as one would expect from a poet of short poems). He seldom ties or has the leeway to exploit the full potential of meter.

The final stanza is the least successful in terms of its trochaic meter.

fare-thee-weel

The first scansion, again, is how Burns means it to be scanned (and that’s the spirit in which we should read it); the second two lines are how the ear hears it – two headless iambic tetrameter lines with feminine endings. And this is where art means science in the art & science of scansion. Does one scan it the way Burns intended it to be scanned, or how the ear hears it? It’s probably as simple as deciding what one wants to demonstrate. The  next two lines of the last stanza could more easily be read as trochaic, but because of the iambic rhythm established by the first two lines, one tends to read them, again, as Iambic Tetrameter.

Thine | be il | ka joy | and trea-sure,
Peace, | En-joy | ment, Love | and Plea-sure!

After these lines Burns repeats the initial lines, reinforcing the iambic rhythm (though the lines feel like trimeter rather than tetrameter). The overall effect by the time one gets  to the last two lines (which do read as trochaic) is of metrical confusion. For most readers, if they realize that the poem was meant to be read as trochaic, the second reading will make much more sense. This is a poem that will probably take two readings by most readers. Unlike Longfellow’s The Song of Haiwatha, Burns fails to firmly establish the trochaic rhythm from the outset – and so the feeling of metrical confusion.

And that’s the point, if any, I would make about trochaic meter: not that Burns’ poem is a failure, but that the meter is devilishly difficult to write. Many readers and critics will observe that trochaic poems tend to be monotonous. The reason is that the poet must constantly fight against the English language’s natural tendency to be iambic. That makes variant feet in a trochaic meter a dicey proposition and usually avoided – hence the monotony.

If you try to write one, good luck.

Be sure and let me know if this post was a help!

2 responses

  1. That’s the trouble I’ve always had with metrical verse. I usually find myself knowing what the meter should be, but my ear typically hears it differently.

    Furthermore, I don’t believe that speech is naturally iambic. People all have different rhythms. We all have our own voices and they usually informed by a variety of social cues, education level, breadth of reading, and other factors.

  2. Hi Allen,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Metrical verse succeeds in some cases, doesn’t in others. I suppose it *could* be construed as the “trouble with metrical verse”. My own experience is that if it’s well-handled, the tension between the metrical line and speech can be rewarding.

    As to whether or not speech is naturally iambic -this isn’t my own assertion. This is born out by those who study languages and human speech – individuals far more knowledgeable than myself.

    I think they’re right, otherwise trochaic meters wouldn’t be so difficult to pull off. On the other hand, I appreciate your point and don’t necessarily disagree with that either.

    P.S. If the subject (the Iambic nature of the English Language) is of interest to you, I could probably dig up some references – mostly from the literature on poetics and meter.

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