Review: Variations in the Literary Iambic Pantemater

A window into the poet’s mind?

variations-in-the-literary-iambic-pentameterVariations in the Literary Iambic Pentameter: The Strict Metrical Tradition from Sydney and Spenser to Matthew Arnold by David Keppel-Jones

So, I was more than ready to dislike this book. There have been any number of attempts to reinvent traditional scansion and every one of them, despite the revelatory accolades of their inventors and partisans, soon end up in the dust-bin of literary baubles and curiosities. Why? Because they add little if anything to old fashioned scansion, are generally redundant, overly subjective, or solutions to invented problems. Keppel-Jones’s methodology isn’t one of those. He uses traditional scansion to build a more complex system of analysis capable of recognizing the distinctive metrical practices of any given author (in effect  an author’s fingerprint).

That said, while Keppel-Jones’s insights are valid and a very useful way to examine the individual fingerprints of poets who wrote iambic pentameter, knowing that one poet preferred the second epitrite while another favored the minor ionic (or that a poet’s favored stress patterns changed over the course of their career) will rarely, if ever, add anything to the comprehension of a poem. Nevertheless, if you read Keppel-Jones’s opening introduction, you might be forgiven for thinking so. Passages like the following are typical:

“At first Spenser fluctuates between a method resembling that of Sindey’ abrupt spondee and the method of the minor ionic. But all these cases are unsatisfactory in their use of weak or ambiguous stresses. [Then he] suddenly seems to realize that the solution to the problem lies in the minor ionic after all, when used with this kind of confidence. And so, at stanza 23, he begins to pour out minor ionics embodying the monosyllabic adjective group, in exuberant profusion… Meanwhile he uses the second epitrite as his alternative vehicle, boldly but not too frequently.” [p. 14-15]

To write that Spenser “seems to realize” is speculative. Spenser was not thinking in terms of minor ionics or second epitrites and whether he had a “realization” is pure speculation. The best one can say is that Spenser’s metrical strategy shows an observable change as he writes. How conscious was he of the change? Being a poet myself, I would guess that Spenser found certain formulations easier than others.

Keppel-Jones goes on to write:

“It all seems to present a clear picture. He started the canto with the problem of the monosyllabic adjective clearly before him, but nothing beyond hits as to what his solution would be. There was just one figure that he was already sure of, the second epitrite; but this ws the one that he was determined not to use as his prime vehicle. Several false starts led him to the solution he wanted, and then at last, finding it, he felt a surge of confidence. Meanwhile, the methods he had started out with, and in differing degrees rejected, are recognizable as those to be found in the poems of Sidney’s Countesse of Pembroke’s Arcadia.” [p.15]

And that all makes a very nice ‘just-so’ fairy tale. Keppel-Jones begins with the hedging “seems to present”, then summarily shelves that qualification as he narrates Spenser’s motives and thinking process. In short, he treats his scansions like windows into the minds of poets. And by this means makes his “strict metrical tradition” an outgrowth of conscious choices—but I’m not convinced. A poet may be influenced by other poets and the tenor of the times without a deliberative awareness of the influence.

And that brings me to the more general question: Who this book for?

I’m inclined to say that the book is for metrists and linguists (primarily interested in authorship studies). I greatly enjoy both subjects but they seldom offer any interpretive insight into this or that work of literature as literature. What does the number of minor ionics tell us about The Faerie Queen interpretively? Nothing.

That said, I have read some fascinating analysis that shows how characters within a single play by Shakespeare may meaningfully differ in their use of language. Russ McDonald’s book Shakespeare’s Late Style is a beautiful and formidable example. Might Keppel-Jones find consistent differences between characters in a given play? I would be interested to know. If so, this would imply a degree of intentionality otherwise missing in his analysis.

The Mono-Syllabic Adjective

Here’s the nub of the problem: For the poet who writes Iambic Pentameter, the English language presents some challenges. First and foremost is the monosyllabic adjective. Keppel-Jones writes:

“Let us be quite clear as to the nature of this problem. The problem was to accommodate, in the iambic pentamater line, wordgroups of the following very common type:

the strong enemy

her sad troubles

with false shows

and sure aid

In each case both the second and third syllables are stressed (the second being, of course, the monosyllabic adjective).” [p. 6]

In other words, how does the poet use any of the examples above without disturbing the iambic pentameter line? Using Keppel-Jones’s own example:

For greit sorrow his hart to brist was boun

The risk is that the line will be read as tetrameter with 4 beats instead of 5.

For greit so | rrow his hart |to brist |was boun

Instead of:

For greit | sorrow | his hart |to brist |was boun

Every four syllable, two foot metrical pattern cataloged by Keppel-Jones may be understood as a variation on that initial impulse to fit the monosyllabic adjective within the context of an iambic line. The basic patterns are as follows:

Choriamb: /⌣⌣/
Minor Ionic: ⌣⌣//
First Epitrite:
Second Epitrite: /⌣//
Third Epitrite: //⌣/
Disponde: ////
Fourth Paeon: ⌣⌣⌣/

So, an example of the minor ionic, using traditional scansion, would be:

⌣⌣ | //

On the | rich Quilt | sinks with becoming Woe

So, what Keppel-Jones is creating is a layer of terminology on top of traditional scansion. Where traditional scansion concerns itself with individual feet, Keppel Jones’s scansion concerns itself with multiple-foot patterns. There are upsides and downsides to this. For the uninitiated, the downsides are considerable. Quite simply, there are far more variations in two foot patterns. In traditional scansion, there are only four basic patterns:

Iamb: ⌣/
Trochee: /
Pyrrhic: ⌣⌣
Spondee: //

Two foot combinations create, theoretically, eight different patterns. Keppel-Jones only finds seven. The eighth:


Apparently doesn’t exist, though I can readily create an example:


Being an in|dispu|table |example
Of what |a met|rist calls |a te|trabrach

I used this word being specifically because Keppel-Jones himself treats it as Pyrrhic:


And being still | unsatisfied with aught [p. 107]

But if you ask me, the line above could also be strictly iambic:

And be|ing still | unsat|istfied |with aught

And if you ask me my own lines begins with a trochee:

/⌣ | ⌣/

Being | an in|dispu|table | example

Is there an example prior to my own? How about a line from Middleton’s The Fyve Wittie Gallantes?


E’en to the last | sop, gapéd while I fed’em (Act 1: 1 l. 158)

We would probably read E’en as trochaic, but Middleton abbreviated the word. The performer could, in fact, get away with a tetrabrach. Or:

E’en to the last | sop, gapéd while I fed’em

There’s considerable subjectivity in scansion. There’s no reason to think that any given poet actually read his or her own meter the way Keppel-Jones does, and if there’s one criticism to be leveled at Keppel-Jones’s scansions, it’s that he doesn’t appear to acknowledge this fact. I don’t dispute the general insights provided by his book, but I’d estimate that a third of his scansions are open to debate. For example, I randomly opened the book to page 107 and found this:


Joined with me once, now miserly hath joynd

Keppel-Jones calls this a choriamb but I could just easily read it as iambic:


Joined with me once

This involves, as metrists term it, demoting Joined and promoting with. But this is precisely what iambic pentameter allows us to do, and is a daily feature of spoken English (and is the sort of thing poets expected from readers). So, I would argue that many of Keppel-Jones’s scansions are anachronistic and ignore how meter can be deployed by the skillful poet. (In fact, many of the metrical conundrums that seem to keep metrists up at night can easily be solved if the reader is willing to read with the meter.) Doing so often changes the meaning of the line and also its emotional content, but that’s precisely meter’s advantage over prose. Ignoring this is to read meter like prose. Shakepeare’s Sonnet 116 is a beautiful example of this and so is Hamlet’s famous line:

To be or not to be: that is the question

Most if not all modern readers read ‘that is’ as trochaic, putting the emphasis on that, and I can’t tell you how many readers, critics and poets assume this to be the case. This dubiously identified trochee is, perhaps, the most famous in the English language, but there’s no reason to read it that way. Any actor can put the emphasis on is, nicely changing the meaning and delivery of the line. That’s reading with the meter; and there’s no reason to think that Shakespeare didn’t intend us to do so. I’m often of the mind that metrists create the problems they claim to solve.

Beyond the General Introduction

Most of my examples come from the General Introduction and this is because the entirety of Keppel-Jones’s argument occurs there. The latter 200 pages of the book are a catalog of multiple-foot combinations, how they are recognized, and all the various syntactic ticks and characteristics typifying them. Here’s the “topic sentence” from his General Introduction:

“A preliminary step in the present work will be to draw a bounding line around the body of verse fully observing this tradition. Then, on the basis of representative samples of iambic pentameter from that body of verse, the three aims of the work are: fist, to describe the variations in question; second, to account for these variations and the form they take, in the light of an appropriate general rationale; and, finally, to demonstrate the consistency with which this system was employed throughout the domain defined by the bounding line.” [p. 5]

Keppel-Jones’s “account for these variations” will exhaust the average reader. He applies a quasi-scientific rigor to his analyses based on what are, largely, subjective readings. One either accepts his scansions or doesn’t. But if one does, then anyone using his system of scansion will be expected to remember paragraphs like these:

“Meanwhile the predicament of syllable 1 (its subordinate status and yet the desirability of its asserting its opposition to the iambic base) is taken care of. Because the spondeee is relieved of the burden of immediate identification, syllable 1 can actually be lingered on, and its opposition to the iambic base felt to the full – as happens in the 11 cases with a major break at a, or at a and b. (I do not say that the boldness of syllable 1 is always displayed, just that it is free to be displaced. In fact, the third epitrite is less frequently placed at the opening of the line than the isolated spondee.)” [p. 115]

And so forth. This is taken out of context but characterizes the sort of fussy housekeeping the reader can expect. It turns out, not only are there seven two-foot combinations, but there are also “isolated” and “appended” feet (and rules of use associated with those) and multiple foot combinations:

Isolated Spondee //
Appended Pyrrhic/⌣⌣
Choriamb + Spondee /⌣⌣///
Spondee + Minor Ionic //⌣⌣//
Spondee + First Epitrite //⌣///
Fourth Paeon + Spondee ⌣⌣⌣///
Appended Pyrrhic + Spondee/⌣⌣//
spondee-paeon //⌣⌣⌣/

So, what Keppel-Jones is really doing is categorizing English syntax in a metrical context. None of this provides any interpretive insight whatsoever into poetry as literature and is very unlikely to provide any insight into a poet’s deliberative process when writing meter (despite Keppel-Jones’s just-so stories). He’s simply offering metrists an exhaustive methodology by which to catalog the various stress patterns that inevitably appear, whether the poet intends them or not, in the English language.

For those interested though, the detailed scansions will be different for each poet— informed by their era, locale and habits of speech—such that even if one doesn’t know the provenance of a given work, the stress patterns can help identify the author. In the latter third of the book, Kepple-Jones applies his technique to the poetry of the Renaissance and later.

Would I recommend this layer of scansion to the average student of poetry? No. It adds nothing in terms of meaning or interpretation beyond traditional scansion. Keppel-Jones also doesn’t write for the uninitiated. He assumes a general academic knowledge of meter , such as a familiarity with Attridge, that few if any general readers are going to have.  However, for those with an interest in the study of meter for meter’s sake, then Keppel-Jones’s book is insightful and indispensable.

The good news is that if you want to learn more about Keppel-Jones’s methodology and try it yourself, another blogger and frequent commenter at Poemshape offers a series of posts that will get you started. The blog’s name is Versemeter. Enjoy.

And Merry Christmas!


4 responses

  1. Misunderstandings are a normal part of any discussion. Let’s both of us dispense with posturing.

    I’m going to delete our comment thread because I think it’s a confused morass. It’s not going to be helpful to anyone. Though I’ll save it if you want a copy.

    Let’s review where we’re at though.

    1.) You define a minor ionic as being a single indivisible foot. On this basis, you assert that all pyrrhics are even or slightly iambic since any example I might find to counter that is arguably part of a minor ionic. Okay. For the purposes of scanning poetry using Keppel-Jones’s method, this is appropriate. Insofar as traditional scansion is concerned, it’s not.

    2.) You define an Iambic Pentameter line as having 5 beats. Okay. Same as above.

    3.) On the subject of beats and beat-syllables. I’m wrong. Rereading several passages, Keppel-Jones appears to be using beat-syllable to refer to nothing more than degree of stress. He calls it the “important syllable”, apparently understood as the syllable that receives more emphasis/stress than its neighbor [p. 95]. Accordingly, there may or may not be 5 beats or beat-syllables per IP line. For instance, all the lines pages 143-145 are 4 beat/beat-syllable lines. All the lines on pages 120-124 are 6 beat lines. Some of his readings are bizarre:

    But when her lips were read | ie for his pay

    He apparently seems to think that the word his should receive the same stress as pay, violating iambic norms for the sake of a minor ionic?

    4.) Steele appears to base his definition of meter and feet on traditional scansion. Appealing to Steele probably isn’t going to affirm you assertions when based on Keppel-Jones’s methodology.

    5.) Traditional scansion and Keppel-Jones’s scansion are two different ways of modeling meter and the assertions of one are semantically incompatible with the other.

    Edit: I’d like to continue discussing the degree to which any method of scansion is useful as an interpretive tool. Beyond establishing whether a given syllable is promoted or demoted, I see very little use for scansion as an interpretive tool. It can be a tremendously useful tool as far as linguistics and authorship studies go. Your own opinion is different though.

    • No, Keir. You don’t get to spend an entire comment attacking my character, beginning with the characterization “desperate counter-accusation”. As you discovered, it’s easy for me to go there. Sigh… I’m sorry for that. I gave you my perspective and didn’t dwell on it. I also left the door open, and invitation, for continuing conversation. I still do; and don’t bear grudges.

      Edit: Any further comments that are personal will be deleted, including my own. And, yes, I am dictator-for-life at this blog.

      Also: Our conversation has got me thinking about my own philosophy of scansion; will post on that. Doubt anybody cares but me, but now I realize how differently scansion can be perceived.

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