Emily Dickinson: Iambic Meter & Rhyme

Dickinson the Imp

emilydickinsonEmily Dickinson possessed a genius for figurative language and thought. Whenever I read her, I’m left with the impression of a woman who was impish, insightful, impatient, passionate and confident of her own genius. Some scholars  portray her as being a revolutionary who rejected (with a capital R) the  stock forms and meters of her day.

My own view is that Dickinson didn’t exactly “reject” the forms and meter. She wasn’t out to be a revolutionary.  She was impish and brilliant. Like Shakespeare, she delighted in subverting conventions and turning expectations upside down.This was part and parcel of her expressive medium. She exploited the conventions and expectations of the day, she didn’t reject them.

The idea that she was a revolutionary rejecting the tired prerequisites of form and meter certainly flatters the vanity of contemporary free verse proponents (poets and critics) but I don’t find it a convincing characterization. The irony is that if she were writing today, just as she wrote then, her poetry would probably be just as rejected by a generation steeped in the tired expectations and conventions of free verse.

The common meters of the hymn and ballad simply and perfectly suited her expressive genius. Chopin didn’t “reject” symphonies, Operas, Oratorios, Concertos, or Chamber Music, etc… his genius was for the piano. Similarly, Dickinson’s genius found a congenial outlet in the short, succinct stanzas of common meter.

The fact that she was a woman and her refusal to conform to the conventions of the day made recognition difficult (I sympathize with that). My read is that Dickinson didn’t have the patience for pursuing fame. She wanted to write poetry just the way she wanted and if fame mitigated that, then fame be damned.  She effectively secluded herself and poured forth poems with a profligacy bordering on hypographia. If you want a fairly succinct on-line biography of Dickinson, I enjoyed Barnes & Noble’s SparkNotes.

The Meters of Emily Dickinson

Dickinson used various hymn and ballad meters.

Searching on-line, there seems to be some confusion of terms or at the  least their usage seems confusing to me. So, to try to make sense of it, I’ve done up a meter tree.

hymn-meter-tree-updated

The term Hymn Meter embraces many of the meters in which Dickinson wrote her poems and the tree above represents only the basic four types.

If the symbols used in this tree don’t make sense to you, visit my post on Iambic Pentameter (Basics). If they do make sense to you, then you will notice that there are no Iambic Pentameter lines in any of the Hymn Meters. They either alternate between Iambic Tetrameter and Iambic Trimeter or are wholly in one or the other line length. This is why Dickinson never wrote Iambic Pentameter. The meter wasn’t part of the pallet.

Common Meter, by the way, is the meter of Amazing Grace, and Christmas Carol.

And then there is Ballad Meter – which is a variant of Hymn Meter.

I’ve noticed that some on-line sites conflate Common Meter and Ballad Meter. But there is a difference. Ballad Meter is less formal and more conversational in tone than Common Meter, and Ballad Meter isn’t as metrically strict, meaning that not all of its feet may be iambic. The best example I have found is the theme song to Gilligan’s Island:

gilligans-island-updated

Obviously the tone is conversational but, more importantly, notice the anapests. The stanza has the same number of feet as Common Meter, but the feet themselves vary from the iambic strictness of Common Meter. Also notice the rhyme scheme. Only the second & fourth line rhyme. Common Meter requires a strict ABAB rhyme scheme. The tone, the rhyme scheme, and the varied meter distinguish Ballad Meter from Common Meter.

For the sake of thoroughness, the following gives an idea of the many variations on the four basic categories of Hymn meter. Click on the image if you want to visit the website from which the image comes (hopefully link rot won’t set it). Examples of the various meters are provided there.

hymn-ballad-meters

If you look at the table above, you will notice that many of the hymn and ballad meters don’t even have names, they are simply referred to by the number of syllables in each line. Explore the site from which this table is drawn. It’s an excellent resource if you want to familiarize yourself with the various hymn and ballad meters  Dickinson would have heard and been familiar with – and which she herself used. Note the Common Particular Meter, Short Particular Meter and Long Particular Meter at the top right. These are meters you will find in Dickinson’s poetry. Following is an example of Common Particular Meter. The first stanza comes from around 1830 – by J. Leavitte, the year of Dickinson’s Birth. This stuff was in the air. The second example is the first stanza from Dickinson’s poem numbered 313.  The two columns on the right represent, first, the number of syllables per line and, second, the rhyme scheme.

common-particular-meter

Short Particular Meter is the reverse of this. That is, its syllable count is as follows: 6,6,8,6,6,8 – the rhyme scheme may vary. Long Particular Meter is 8,8,8,8,8,8 – Iambic Tetrameter through and through – the rhyme schemes may vary ABABCC, AABCCB, etc…

The purpose of all this is to demonstrate the many metrical patterns Dickinson was exposed to – most likely during church services. The singing of hymns, by the way, was not always a feature of Christian worship. It was Isaac Watts, during the late 17th Century, who wedded the meter of Folk Song and Ballad to scripture. An example of a hymn by Watts, written in common meter, would be Hymn 105, which begins (I’ve divided the first stanza into feet):

Nor eye |hath seen, |nor ear |hath heard,
Nor sense |nor rea|son known,
What joys |the Fa|ther hath |prepared
For those |that love |the Son.

But the good Spirit of the Lord
Reveals a heav’n to come;
The beams of glory in his word
Allure and guide us home.

Though Watts’ creation of hymns based on scripture were highly controversial, rejected by some churches and meaures-of-possibilityadopted by others, one of the church’s that fully adopted Watts’ hymns was the  The First Church of Amherst, Massachusetts, where Dickinson  from girlhood on, worshiped. She would have been repeatedly exposed to Samuel Worcester’s edition of Watts’s hymns, The Psalms and Spiritual Songs where the variety of hymn forms were spelled out and demonstrated. While scholars credit Dickinson as the first to use slant rhyme to full advantage, Watts himself was no stranger to slant rhyme, as can be seen in the example above. In fact, many of Dickinson’s “innovations” were culled from prior examples. Domhnall Mitchell, in the notes of his book Measures of Possiblity emphasizes the cornucopia of hymn meters she would have been exposed to:

footnote-from-measures-of-possiblity

One more variation on ballad meter would be fourteeners. Fourteeners essentially combine the Iambic Tetrameter and Trimeter alternation into one line. The Yellow Rose of Texas would be an example (and is a tune to which many of Dickinson’s poems can be sung).

emilys-fourteeners-updated

dickinson-book-coverAccording to my edition of Dickinson’s poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, these are the first four lines (the poem is much longer) of the first poem Emily Dickinson wrote. Examples of the form can be found as far back as George Gascoigne – a 16th Century English Poet who preceded Shakespeare. If one divides the lines up, one finds the ballad meter hidden within:

Oh the Earth was made for lovers
for damsel, and hopeless swain
For sighing, and gentle whispering,
and unity made of twain

All things do go a courting
in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single
but thee in His world so fair!

How to Identify the Meter

The thing to remember is that although Dickinson wrote no Iambic Pentameter, Hymn Meters are all Iambic and Ballad Meters vary not in the number of metrical feet but in the kind of foot. Instead of Iambs, Dickinson may substitue an anapestic foot or a dactyllic foot.

because-i-could-not-stop-for-death-updated

So, if you’re out to find out what meter Dickinson used for a given poem. Here’s the method I would use. First I would count the syllables in each line. In the Dickinson’s famous poem above, all the stanzas but one could either be Common Meter or Ballad Meter. Both these meters share the same 8,6,8,6 syllabic line count – Iambic Tetrameter alternating with Iambic Trimeter. (See the Hymn Meter Tree.)

Next, I would check the rhyme scheme. For simplicity’s sake, I labeled all the words which weren’t rhyming, as X. If the one syllabically varying verse didn’t suggest ballad meter, then the rhyme scheme certainly would. This isn’t Common Meter. This is Ballad Meter. Common Meter keeps a much stricter rhyme scheme. The second stanza’s rhyme, away/civility is an eye rhyme. The third stanza appears to dispense with rhyme altogether although I suppose that one should, for the sake of propriety, consider ring/run a consonant rhyme. It’s borderline – even by modern day standards. Chill/tulle would be a slant rhyme. The final rhyme, day/eternity would be another eye rhyme.

It occurs to me add a note on rhyming, since Dickinson used a variety of rhymes (more concerned with the perfect word than the perfect rhyme). This table is inspired by a Glossary of Rhymes by Alberto Rios with some additions of my own. I’ve altered it with examples  drawn from Dickinson’s own poetry – as far as possible. The poem’s number is listed first followed by the rhymes. The numbering is based on The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas H. Johnson.

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RHYMES DEFINED BY NATURE OF SIMILARITY

perfect rhyme, true rhyme, full rhyme

  • 1056 June/moon

imperfect rhyme, slant rhyme, half rhyme, approximate rhyme, near rhyme, off rhyme, oblique rhyme

  • 756 prayer/despair
    123 air/cigar
    744 astir/door

augmented rhyme – A sort of extension of slant rhyme. A rhyme in which the rhyme is extended by a consonant.bray/brave grow/sown

  • (Interestingly, this isn’t a type of rhyme Dickinson ever used, either because she was unaware of it or simply considered it a rhyme “too far”.)

diminished rhyme – This is the reverse of an augmented rhyme. brave/day blown/sow stained/rain

  • (Again, this isn’t a technique Dickinson ever uses.)

unstressed rhymeRhymes which fall on the unstressed syllable (much less common in Dickinson).

  • 345 very/sorry
    1601 forgiven/hidden prison/heaven

eye rhyme – These generally reflect historical changes in pronunciation. Some poets (knowing that some of these older rhymes no longer rhyme) nevertheless continue to use them in the name of convention and convenience.

  • 712 day/eternity (See Above)
    94 among/along
    311
    Queen/been
    580
    prove/Love

identical “rhyme” – Which really isn’t a rhyme but is used as such.

  • 1473
    Pausing in Front of our Palsied Faces
    Time compassion took
    Arks of Reprieve he offered us –
    Ararats – we took
  • 130 partake/take

rich rhymeWords or syllables that are Homonyms.

  • 130 belief/leaf

assonant rhyme – When only the vowel sounds rhyme.

  • 1348 Eyes/Paradise

consonant rhyme, para rhyme – When the consonants match.

  • 744 heal/hell
    889 hair/here

feminine para rhyme – A two syllable para rhyme or consonant rhyme.

scarce rhymeNot really a true category, in my opinion, since there is no difference between a scarce rhyme and any other rhyme except that the words being rhymed have few options. But, since academia is all about hair-splitting, I looked and looked and found these:

  • 738 guess/Rhinoceros (slant rhyme)
    1440 Mortality/Fidelity (extended rhyme)
    813 Girls/Curls (true rhyme)

macaronic rhyme – When words of different languages rhyme. (This one made me sweat. Dickinson’s world was her room, it seems, which doesn’t expose one to a lot of foreign languages. But I found one! As far as I know, the first one on the Internet, at least, to find it!)

  • 313 see/me/Sabachthani (Google it if you’re curious.)

trailing rhyme –  Where the first syllable of a two syllable word rhymes (or the first word of a two-word rhyme rhymes). ring/finger scout/doubter

  • (These examples aren’t from Dickinson and I know of no examples in Dickinson but am game to be proved wrong.)

apocopated rhyme – The reverse of trailing rhyme. finger/ring doubter/scout.

  • (Again, I know of no examples in Dickinson’s poetry.)

mosaique or composite rhymeRhymes constructed from more than one word. (Astronomical/solemn or comical.)

  • (This also is a technique which Dickinson didn’t use.)

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RHYMES DEFINED BY RELATION TO STRESS PATTERN

one syllable rhyme, masculine rhyme – The most common rhyme, which occurs on the final stressed syllable and is essentially the same as true or perfect rhyme.

  • 313 shamed/blamed
    259 out/doubt

light rhyme – Rhyming a stressed syllable with a secondary stress – one of Dickinson’s most favored rhyming techniques and found in the vast majority of her poems. This could be considered a subset of true or perfect rhyme.

  • 904 chance/advance
    416 espy/try
    448 He/Poverty

extra-syllable rhyme, triple rhyme, multiple rhyme, extended rhyme, feminine rhyme – Rhyming on multiple syllables. (These are surprisingly difficult to find in Dickinson. Nearly all of her rhymes are monosyllabic or light rhymes.)

  • 1440 Mortality/Fidelity
    809 Immortality/Vitality
    962 Tremendousness/Boundlessness
    313 crucify/justify

wrenched rhyme – Rhyming a stressed syllable with an unstressed syllable (for all of Dickinson’s nonchalance concerning rhyme – wrenched rhyme is fairly hard to find.)

  • 1021 predistined/Land
    522
    power/despair

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RHYMES DEFINED BY POSITION IN THE LINE

end rhyme, terminal rhyme – All rhymes occur at line ends–the standard procedure.

  • 904 chance/advance
    1056 June/moon

initial rhyme, head rhyme – Alliteration or other rhymes at the beginning of a line.

  • 311 To Stump, and Stack – and Stem –
  • 283
    Too small – to fear –
    Too distant – to endear –
  • 876
    Entombed by whom, for what offense

internal rhyme – Rhyme within a line or passage, randomly or in some kind of pattern:

  • 812
    It waits upon the Lawn,
    It shows the furthest Tree
    Upon the furthest Slope you know
    It almost speaks to you.

leonine rhyme, medial rhyme – Rhyme at the caesura and line end within a single line.

  • (Dickinson’s shorter line lengths, almost exclusively tetrameter and trimeter lines, don’t lend themselves to leonine rhymes. I couldn’t find one. If anyone does, leave a comment and I will add it.)

 

caesural rhyme, interlaced rhyme – Rhymes that occur at the caesura and line end within a pair of lines–like an abab quatrain printed as two lines (this example is not from Dickinson but one provided by Rios at his webpage)

  • Sweet is the treading of wine, and sweet the feet of the dove;
    But a goodlier gift is thine than foam of the grapes or love.
    Yea, is not even Apollo, with hair and harp-string of gold,
    A bitter God to follow, a beautiful God to behold?

(Here too, Dickinson’s shorter lines lengths don’t lend themselves to this sort of rhyming. The only place I found hints of it were in her first poem.)

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By Position in the Stanza or Verse Paragraph

crossed rhyme, alternating rhyme, interlocking rhyme – Rhyming in an ABAB pattern.

  • (Any of Dickinson’s poems written in Common Meter would be Cross Rhyme.)

intermittent rhyme – Rhyming every other line, as in the standard ballad quatrain: xaxa.

  • (Intermittent Rhyme is the pattern of Ballad Meter and reflects the majority of Dickinson’s poems.)

envelope rhyme, inserted rhyme –  Rhyming ABBA.

  • (The stanza from poem 313, see above, would be an example of envelope rhyme in Common Particular Meter.)

irregular rhyme – Rhyming that follows no fixed pattern (as in the pseudopindaric or irregular ode).

  • (Many of Dickinson’s Poems seem without a definite rhyme scheme but the admitted obscurity of her rhymes – such as ring/run in the poem Because I could not stop for death – serve to obfuscate the sense and sound of a regular rhyme scheme. In fact, and for the most part, nearly all of Dickinson’s poems are of the ABXB pattern – the pattern of Ballad Meter . This assertion, of course, allows for a wide & liberal definition of “rhyme”. That said, poems like 1186, 1187 & 1255 appear to follow no fixed pattern although, in such short poems, establishing whether a pattern is regular or irregular is a dicey proposition.)

sporadic rhyme, occasional rhyme – Rhyming that occurs unpredictably in a poem with mostly unrhymed lines. Poem 312 appears to be such a poem.

thorn line – An un-rhymed line in a generally rhymed passage.

  • (Again, if one allows for a liberal definition of rhyme, then thorn lines are not in Dickinson’s toolbox. But if one isn’t liberal, then they are everywhere.)

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RHYME ACROSS WORD BOUNDARIES

broken rhyme – Rhyme using more than one word: 

  • 516 thro’ it/do it

(Rios also includes the following example at his website)

  • Or rhyme in which one word is broken over the line end:
    I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    Dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing…

(I can find no comparable example in Dickinson’s poetry.)

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Getting back to identifying meter (in Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for death) the final method is to scan the poem. The pattern is thoroughly iambic. The only individual feet that might be considered anapestic variants are in the last stanza. I personally chose to elide cen-tu-ries so that it reads cent‘ries – a common practice in Dickinson’s day and easily typical of modern day pronunciation. In the last line, I read toward as a monosyllabic word. This would make the poem thoroughly iambic. If a reader really wanted to, though, he or she could read these feet as anapestic. In any case, the loose iambs, as Frost called them, argue for Ballad Meter rather than Common Meter – if not its overall conversational tone.

The poem demonstrates Dickinson’s refusal to be bound by form. She alters the rhyme, rhyme scheme and meter (as in the fourth stanza) to suit the demands of subject matter. This willingness, no doubt, disturbed her more conventional contemporaries. She knew what she wanted, though, and that wasn’t going to be altered by any formal demands. And if her long time “mentor”, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, had been a careful reader of her poems, he would have known that she wouldn’t be taking advice.

If I think of anything to add, I’ll add it.

If this post has been helpful, let me know.

Shakespearean, Spenserian, & Petrarchan Sonnets

  • Updated and expanded March 25, 2009Miltonic Sonnet, Nonce Sonnet, Links to Various Sonnet Sequences and additional Sonnets.
  • After you’ve read up on Sonnets, take a look at some of my poetry. I’m not half-bad. One of the reasons I write these posts is so that a few readers, interested in meter and rhyme, might want to try out poetry. Check out Spider, Spider or, if you want modern Iambic Pentameter, try My Bridge is like a Rainbow or Come Out! Take a copy to class if you need an example of Modern Iambic Pentameter. Pass it around if you have friends or relatives interested in this kind of poetry.
  • April 23 2009: One Last Request! I love comments. If you’re a student, just leave a comment with the name of your high school or college. It’s interesting to me to see where readers are coming from and why they are reading these posts. :-)

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The Shakespearean Sonnet: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

The word Sonnet originally meant Little Song.

Sonnets are one of my favorite verse forms after blank verse. And of all the sonnet forms, Shakespearean is my favorite – also known as the English Sonnet because this particular form of the sonnet was developed in England. The Shakespearean Sonnet is easily the most intellectual & dramatic of poetic forms and, when written well, is a showpiece not only of poetic prowess but intellectual prowess. The Shakespearean Sonnet weeds the men from the boys, the women from the girls. It’s the fugue,  the half-pipe of poetic forms. Many, many poets have written Shakespearean Sonnets, but few poets (in my opinion) have ever fully fused their voice with the  intellectual and poetic demands of the form. It ‘s not just a matter of getting the rhymes right, or the turn (the volta) after the second quatrain, or the meter, but of unifying the imagery, meter, rhyme and figurative language of the poem into an organic whole.

I am tempted to examine sonnets by poets other than Shakespeare or Spenser, the first masters of their respective forms, but I think it’s best (in this post at least) to take a look at how they did it, since they set the standard. The history of the Shakespearean Sonnet is less interesting to me than the form itself, but I’ll describe it briefly. Shakespeare didn’t publish his sonnets piecemeal over a period of time. They appeared all at once in 1609 published by Thomas Thorpe – a contemporary publisher of Shakespeare’s who had a reputation as “a publishing understrapper of piratical habits”.

Thank god for unethical publishers. If not for Thomas Thorpe, the sonnets would certainly be lost to the world.

How did Thorpe get his hands on the sonnets? Apparently they were circulating in manuscript among acquaintances of Shakespeare, his friends and connoisseurs of his poetry. Whether there was more than one copy in circulation is unknowable. However, Shakespeare was well-known in London by this time, had already had considerable success on the stage, and was well-liked as a poet. Apparently, there was enough excitement and interest in his sonnets that Thorpe saw an opportunity to make some money. (Pirates steal treasure, after all, not dross.)

The implication is that the sonnets were printed without Shakespeare’s knowledge or permission, but no historian really knows. Nearly all scholars put 15 years between their publication and their composition. No one knows to whom the sonnets were dedicated (we only have the initials W.H.) and if it’s ever irrefutably discovered- reams of Shakespeare scholars will have to file for unemployment.

(Note: While I once entertained the notion that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays – no longer. At this point, having spent half my life studying Shakespeare, I find the whole idea utterly ludicrous. And I find debating the subject utterly ludicrous. But if readers want to believe Shakespeare was written by Oxford, or Queen Elizabeth, or Francis Bacon, etc., I couldn’t care less.)

Now, onto one of my favorite Shakespearean Sonnets – Sonnet 129.

sonnets-fronticpieceThe expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
··All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
··To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

While this sonnet isn’t as poetic, figurative or “lovely” as Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, it is written in a minor key, like Mozart’s 20th Piano Concerto, and beautifully displays the rigor and power of the Shakespearean Sonnet. Let’s have another look, this time fully annotated.

sonnet-129

The Shakespearean Sonnet: Structure

First to the structure. Many Shakespearean Sonnets can be broken down, first, into two thematic parts (brackets on the left).  The first part is comprised of two quatrains, 8 lines, called the octave, after which there is sometimes a change of mood or thematic direction. This turn (or volta) is followed by the sestet, six lines comprised of the quatrain and couplet. However, this sonnet – Sonnet 129 – does not have that thematic turn. There are plenty of sonnets by Shakespeare which do not.

In my experience, many instructors and poets put too much emphasis on the volta as a “necessary” feature of Shakespearean sonnet form (and the Sonnet in general). It’s not . In fact, Shakespeare (along contemporaries like Sidney) conceived of the form in a way that frequently worked against the Petrarchan turn with it’s contemplative aesthetic. The Elizabethan poets were after a different effect – as Britannica puts it: an argumentative terseness with an epigrammatic sting.

My personal analogy in describing the Shakespearean Sonnet is that of the blacksmith who picks an ingot from the coals of his imagination. He puts it to the anvil, chooses his mallet and strikes and heats and strikes with every line. He works his idea, shapes and heats it until the iron is white hot. Then, when the working out is ready, he gives it one last blow – the final couplet. The couplet nearly always rings with finality, a truth or certainty – the completion of argument, an assertion, a refutation.

Every aspect of the form lends itself to this sort of argument and conclusion. The interlocking rhymes that propel the reader from one quatrain to the next only serve to reinforce the final couplet (where the rhymes finally meet line to line). It’s from the fusion of this structure with thematic development that the form becomes the most intellectually powerful of poetic forms.

I have read quasi-Shakespearean Sonnets by modern poets who use slant rhymes, or no rhymes at all, but to my ear they miss the point. Modern poets, used to writing free verse, find it easier to dispense with strict rhymes but again, and perhaps only to me,  it dilutes the very thing that gives the form its expressiveness and power. They’re like the fugues that Reicha wrote – who dispensed with the normally strict tonic/dominant key relationships. That made writing fugues much easier, but they lost much of their edge and pithiness.

And this brings me to another thought.

Rhyme, when well done, produces an effect that free verse simply does not match and cannot reproduce. Rhyme, in the hands of a master, isn’t just about being pretty, formal or graceful. It subliminally directs the reader’s ear and mind, reinforcing thought and thematic material. The whole of the Shakespearean rhyme scheme is hewed to his habit of thought and composition. The one informs the other. In my own poetry, my blank verse poem Come Out! for example, I’ve tried to exploit rhyme’s capacity to reinforce theme and sound. The free verse poet who abjures rhyme of any sort is missing out.

The Shakespearean Sonnet: Meter

As of writing this (Jan 10, 2009), Wikipedia states: “A Shakespearean sonnet consists of 14 lines, each line contains ten syllables, and each line is written in iambic pentameter in which a pattern of a non-emphasized syllable followed by an emphasized syllable is repeated five times.”

And Wikipedia is wrong.

Check out my post on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145. This is a sonnet, by Shakespeare, that contains 8 syllables per line, not ten. It is the only one (that we know of) but is nonetheless a Shakespearean Sonnet. The most important attribute of the Shakespearean Sonnet is it’s rhyme scheme, not its meter. Why? Because the essence of the Shakespearean Sonnet is in its sense of drama. (Shakespeare was nothing if not a dramatist.) The rhyme scheme, because of the way it directs the ear, reinforces the dramatic feel of the sonnet. This is what makes a sonnet Shakespearean. Before Shakespeare, there was Sidney, whose sonnets include many written in hexameters.

That said, the meter of Sonnet 129 is Iambic Pentameter. I have closely analyzed the meter in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, so I won’t go too far in depth with this one, except to point out some interesting twists.

As a practical matter, the first foot of the first line |The expense |should probably, in the reading, be elided to sound like |Th’expense|. This preserves the Iambic rhythm of the sonnet from the outset. Unless there is absolutely no way around it, an anapest in the first foot of the first line of a sonnet (in Shakespeare’s day) would be unheard of.

Lines 3 and 4, of the first quatrain, are hard driving, angry Iambs. Murderous in line 3 should be elided, in the reading, to sound like murd‘rous, but the word cruel, in line 4, produces an interesting effect. I have heard it pronounced as a two syllable word and, more commonly, as a monosyllabic word. Shakespeare could have chosen a clearly disyllabic word, but he didn’t. He chooses a word that, in name, fulfills the iambic patter, but in effect, disrupts it and works against it. Practically, the line is read as follows:

savage

The trochaic foot produced by the word savage is, in and of itself, savage – savagely disrupting the iambic patter. Knowing that cruel works in a sort of metrical no man’s land, Shakespeare encourages the line to be read percussively. The third metrical foot is read as monosyllabic – angrily emphasizing the word cruel. The whole of it is a metrical tour de force that sets the dramatic, angry, sonnet on its way.

There are many rhetorical techniques Shakespeare uses as he builds the argument of his sonnet, many of them figures of repetition, such as Epanalepsis in line 1, Polyptoton, and anadiplosis (in the repetition of mad at the end and start of a phrase): “On purpose laid to make the taker mad;/Mad in pursuit”. But the most obvious and important is the syntactic parallelism that that propels the sonnet after the first quatrain. The technique furiously drives the thematic material forward, line by line, each emphasizing the one before – emphasizing Shakespeare’s angry, remorseful, disappointment in himself – the having and the having had. It all drives the sonnet forward like the blacksmith’s hammer blows on white hot iron.

And when the iron is hot, he strikes:

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The intellectual power displayed in the rhetorical construction of the sonnet finds its dramatic climax in the final couplet – the antimetabole of “well knows” and “knows well” mirrors the parallelism in the sonnet as a whole – succinctly. The midline break in the first line of the couplet is resolved by the forceful, unbroken final line. The effect is of forceful finality. This sonnet could have been a monologue drawn from one of Shakespeare’s plays. And this, this thematic, dramatic momentum that finds resolution in a final couplet is what most typifies the Shakespearean Sonnet. The form is a showpiece.

Lastly, I myself have tried my hand at Shakespearean Sonnets. My best effort is “As on a sunny afternoon…”. Three more of my efforts can be found if you look at the top of the banner-  under Index: Opening Book (my favorite of the three being The Farmer Wife’s Complaint. I learned how to write poetry by writing Sonnets. I’ve written many others but their quality varies. I may eventually post them anyway.

spenser-dark-smThe Spenserian Sonnet: Spenser’s Sonnet 75

Spenser has to be the most doggedly Iambic of any poet – to a fault. Second only to his dogged metrical Iambs, is his rhyming. English isn’t the easiest language for rhyming (as compared to Japanese or Italian). Rhyming in English requires greater skill and finesse, testing a poet’s resourcefulness and imagination. Yet Spenser rhymed with the ease of a cook dicing carrots. Nothing stopped him. His sonnets reflect that capacity – differing from Shakespeare’s mainly in their rhyme scheme. Here is a favorite Sonnet (to me) his Sonnet 75 from Amoretti:

spensers-amoretti

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
··But came the waves and washed it away:
··Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
··A mortal thing so to immortalize,
··For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise
··To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
··My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.
··Where whenas Death shall all the world subdue,
··Our love shall live, and later life renew.

The Elizabethans were an intellectually rigorous bunch, which is one of the reasons I enjoy their poetry so much. They don’t slouch or wallow in listless confessionals. They were trained from childhood school days to reason and proceed after the best of the Renaissance  rhetoricians. Spenser, like Shakespeare, has an argument to make, but Spenser was less of a dramatist, and more of a lyricist and storyteller. His preference in Sonnet form reflects that. Here it is – the full monty:

spensers-sonnet-75

The Spenserian Sonnet: Structure

The difference in temperament between Spenser and Shakespeare is revealed in the rhyme scheme each preferred. Spenser was a poet of elegance who looked back at other poets, Chaucer especially; and who wanted his readers to know that he was writing in the grand poetic tradition – whereas Shakespeare was impishly forward looking, a Dramatist first and a Poet second, who enjoyed turning tradition and expectation on its head, surprising his readers (as all Dramatists like to do) by turning Patrarchan expectations upside down. Spenser elegantly wrote within the Petrarchan tradition and wasn’t out to upset any apple carts. Even his choice of vocabulary, as with eek, was studiously archaic (even in his own day).

Spenser’s sonnet lacks the drama of Shakespeare’s. Rather than withholding the couplet until the end of the sonnet, lending a sort of climax or denouement to the form, Spencer dilutes the effect of the final couplet by introducing two internal couplets (smaller brackets on right)  prior to the final couplet. While Spencer’s syntactic and thematic development rarely emphasizes the internal couplets, they are registered by the ear and so blunt the effect of the concluding couplet.

There is also less variety of rhyming in the Spenserian Sonnet than in the Shakespearean Sonnet. The effect is of less rigor and momentum and greater lyricism, melodiousness and grace. The rhymes elegantly intertwine not only the quatrains but the octave and sestet (brackets on left). Without being Italian (Petrarchan) the effect which the Spencerian Sonnet produces is more Italian – or at minimum a sort of hybrid between Shakespeare’s English Sonnet and Pertrarch’s “Italian” model.

Spencer comes closest, in spirit, to anything like a Petrarchan Sonnet sequence in the English language.

The Spenserian Sonnet: Spenser’s Meter

As far as I know, Spenser wrote all of his sonnets in Iambic Pentameter. He takes fewer risks than Shakespeare, is less inclined to flex the meter the way Shakespeare does. For instance, in two of the three Shakespeare sonnets I have analyzed on this blog, Shakespeare is willing to have the reader treat heaven as a monosyllabic word (heav’n) (see my post on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145 for an  example of Shakespeare’s usage along with sonnet above).  Spencer treats heaven is disyllabic.  Their different treatment of the word might reflect a difference in their own dialects but I’m more inclined to think that Shakespeare took a more flexible approach to meter and pronunciation – less concerned than Spenser with metrical propriety. Shakespeare, in all things, was a pragmatist, Spenser, an idealist – at least in his poetry.

(Interesting note, Robert Frost referred to such metrical feet which could be anapestic or Iambic depending on the pronunciation, as “loose Iambs “. Such loose iambs would include Shakespeare’s sonnet where murderous could be pronounced murd’rous and The expense as Th’expense.)

There are two words which the modern reader might pronounce as monosyllabic – washed in line 2 and wiped in line 8. When reading Spenser, it’s best to assume that he meant his lines to be strongly regular. It is thoroughly in keeping with 15th & 16th century poetic practice (and with Spenser especially) to pronounce both words as disyllabic – washèd & wipèd. Spenser was a traditionalist.

I also wanted to briefly draw attention to the difference in Shakespeare and Spenser’s use of figurative language. Shakespeare was much more the intellectual. Nothing in Spenser’s sonnets compare to the brilliant rhetorical figures used by Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a virtuoso on many levels.

john-miltonThe Petrarchan Sonnet: John Milton

The Petrarchan Sonnet was the first Sonnet form to be written in the English Language – brought to the English language by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard Earl of Surrey (who was also the first to introduce blank verse to the English writing world). However, there is no great Petrarchan Sonnet sequence that left its mark on the form.  The Petrarchan model was quickly superseded by the English/Shakespearean Sonnet. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet Sequence (all Petrarchan Sonnets) is mixed with greatness but never influenced the form.  They were written toward the close of the form’s long history. For a link to her Sonnets, see below.

The search for the ideal representative, among English language poets, of the Petrarchan Sonnet is a search in vain.  Petrarchan Sonnets are scattered throughout the language by a number of great poets and poets, who if they weren’t “great”,  happened to write great Petrarchan Sonnets.

One thing I have failed to mention, up to now, is the thematic convention associated with the writing of Sonnets – idealized love. Both the Shakespearean and Spenserian Sonnet sequences play on that convention. The Petrarchan form, interestingly, was readily adopted for other ends. It was as if (since the English Sonnet took over the thematic convention of the Petrarchan sonnet) poets using the Petrarchan form were free to apply it elsewhere.

Since there is no one supreme representative Petrarchan Sonnet or poet, I’ll offer up John Milton’s effort in the form, since it was early on and typifies the sort of thematic freedom to which the Petrarchan form was adapted.

When I consider how my light is spent,
··Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
··And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
··My true account, lest He returning chide;
··“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

And here is the same Sonnet under the magnifying glass:

miltons-sonnet

The Petrarchan Sonnet: Structure

My primary interest is in English language poets who have written in the Petrarchan form. However, for those who want a good site that examines Petrarchan Sonnets as written by Petrarch, I would strongly recommend Peter Sadlon’s site – he includes some examples in the Italian. He makes the point, for example, that Petrarch did not write Iambic Pentameter sonnets, since the meter is ill-suited to the Italian Language. More important is the observation that Petrarch himself varied the rhyme scheme of the sestet – cd cd cd (as in Milton’s Sonnet), cde ced, or cdcd ee.Petrarch’s freedom in the final sestet is carried over into the English form. You will know that you are reading a Petrarchan sonnet first, if it’s not Shakespearean or Spenserian, and second if the rhyme scheme favors the reading of an octave followed by a sestet. Identifying a Petrarchan sonnet sometimes isn’t an exact science. This beautiful sonnet form is less about the rhyme scheme and more about the tenor of expression.

Interestingly, even though Robert Frost’s famous sonnet “Silken Tent” is formally a Shakespearean Sonnet, it has the feel of a Petrarchan Sonnet.

As regards Milton, he wrote this sonnet as a response to his growing blindness. The sonnet has little to do with idealized love but its meditative and contemplative feel is very much in keeping with Petrarch’s own sonnets – contemplative and meditative poems on idealized love. The rhyme scheme reinforces the the sonnet’s introspection: enforcing the octave, the volta and the concluding sestet.

The internal couplets in the first and second quatrain (smaller brackets on right) give each quatrain and the octave as a whole a self-contained, self-sufficient feeling. The ear doesn’t register a step wise progression (a building of momentum) as it does in the Shakespearean & Spenserian models. The effect is to create a kind of two-stanza poem rather than the unified working-out of the English model.

Note: Perhaps a useful way to think of the difference between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean Sonnets is to think of the Petrarchan form as a sonnet of statement and the Shakespearean form as a sonnet of argument. Be forewarned, though, this is just a generalization with all its inherent limitations and exceptions.

The volta or turn comes thematically with God’s implied answer to Milton’s questioning. The lack of the concluding couplet makes the completion of the poem less epigrammatic, less dramatic and more considered. The whole is a sort of perfectly contained question and answer.

The Petrarchan Sonnet: Milton’s Meter

This sonnet was written prior to Paradise Lost and, to my ear, shows a slightly more adventurous metric. The first departure from the iambic rhythm comes in the first foot of line  4 with Lodged. This is the sort variation that perfectly exploits the expectations established by a metrical pattern. That is, the word works on two levels, “lodged” thematically and trochaic-ally within the iambic meter- not a brilliant variant but an effective one.

In line 5 I read the fourth foot as being pyrric, but one can also give the word and an intermediate stress: To serve therewith my Maker, and present.

It’s not until line 11 that things get interesting. Most modern readers would probably read the first two feet of the line as follows:

Bear His |mild yoke, |they serve Him best. His state

But the line can be read another way – iambically. And in poetry of this period, if we can, then we should.

Bear His |mild yoke, |they serve Him best. His state

What’s lovely about this reading, which is what’s lovely about meter, is that the inflection and meaning of the line changes. Notice also how His is emphasized in the first foot, but isn’t in the fourth and fifth:

Bear His |mild yoke, |they serve |Him best. |His state

In this wise, the emphasis is first on God, then on serving him. It is a thematically natural progression.

The last feature to notice is that the final line, line 14, retains a little of the pithy epigrammatic quality of the typical English or Shakespearean Sonnet. No form or genre is completely isolated from another. The Petrarchan mode can be felt in the Shakespearean Sonnet and the Shakespearean model can be felt in the Petrarchan model.

The Miltonic Sonnet

The Miltonic Sonnet is a Petrarchan Sonnet without a volta. Although Milton was hardly the first to write sonnets in English without a volta, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 being a case in point, Milton made that absence standard practice; and so, this variation on the Petrarchan Sonnet is called a Miltonic Sonnet.

On the Importance of Naming Things

Not only are there names for the different sonnets, which is forgivable, but there also names for the different quatrains and octaves in all these sonnets because human beings like nothing more than to classify. God’s first request to Adam & Eve was to name… everything. (What interests me more is puzzling out the aesthetic effects these different rhyme schemes produce.)   But, because knowing the name of things always sounds impressive – here they are.

Petrarchan

The Petrarchan Sonnet can be said to be written with two Italian Quatrains (abbaabba) which together are called an Italian Octave.

The Italian Octave can be followed by an Italian Sestet (cdecde) or a Sicilian Sestet (cdcdcd)

The Envelope Sonnet, which is a variation on the Petrarchan Sonnet, rhymes abbacddc efgefg or efefef.

Shakespearean

The Shakespearean Sonnet is written with three Sicilian Quatrains: (abab cdcd efef) followed by a heroic couplet. Note, the word heroic refers to Iambic Pentameter. Heroic couplets are therefore Iambic Pentameter Couplets. However, not all Elizabethan Sonnets are written in Iambic Pentameter.

Spenserian

The Spenserian Sonnet is written with three interlocking Sicilian Quatrains: (abab bcbc cdcd) followed by a heroic couplet.
  • Note: I have found no references which reveal when these terms first came into use. I doubt that the terms Sicilian or Italian Quatrain existed in Elizabethan times.  Spenser didn’t sit down and say to himself: Today, I shall write interlocking sicilian quatrains. I think it more likely that these poets chose a given rhyme scheme because they were influenced by others or because the rhyme scheme was most suitable to their aesthetic temperament.
  • Note: It bears repeating that many books on form will state that all these sonnets are characterized by voltas. They are, emphatically, not. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 (above) would be an example.
Sidneyan Sonnet
For more on Sidney’s Sonnets, see post on Sidney: his Meter and Sonnets.

Other Petrarchan Sonnets

Since the Petrarchan Sonnet is so varied in the English Language tradition, I thought I would post a few more examples. I have divided the quatrains, octaves and sestets to better show their structure. I’ll probably come back to this post and include more as I find them. (For the most part, a couplet in the closing sestet seems, usually, to be avoided by most poets.)

John Keats

Rhyme Scheme:

ABBA ABBA CDCDCD (The same as Milton’s)

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

keatsMuch have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

William Wordsworth

Rhyme Scheme:

ABBA ACCA DEDEDE

wordsworthSurprised by joy — impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport–Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind–
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind

To my most grievous loss?–That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Rhyme Scheme:

ABAB ACDC EDEFEF

shelley1I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

For a closer look at this sonnet, take a look at my post: Shelley’s Sonnet: Ozymandias

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Rhyme Scheme:

ABBA ABBA CDEDCE

millayWhat lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Rhyme Scheme:

ABBA ABBA CDCDCD

eb-browningHow do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Other Sonnets:

  • Sir Philip Sidney Astrophel and StellaSidney’s sonnets are a kind of hybrid between the Shakespearean and Petrarchan mode. The Octave of his sonnets alternate between the Petrarchan Octave and the interlocking Sicilian Quatrains of the English Sonnets. His Sestets alternate between one of his own devising and the Shakespearean model. For more on this: visit my post Sidney: His Meter and Sonnets.
  • John Donne Holy Sonnets These sonnets are like Sidney’s – having qualities of both the Shakespearean and Petrarchan form.
  • And then there are sonnets of varying rhyme schemes – Nonce Sonnets. The word Nonce simply means that a given form is unique to the poem. Keats’ If by dull rhymes would be a Nonce Sonnet – and written specifically about the making of a new rhyme scheme.

John Keats

Rhyme Scheme:

ABCADE CADC EFEF

If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;

Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d
By ear industrious, and attention meet:
Misers of sound and syllable, no less

Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.

Iambic Pentameter (The Basics)

  • Revised, tweaked and improved March 24 2009.
  • February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost, you might like reading Birches along with a color coded scansion of Birches included in my post on Frost’s Mending Wall. To find all the posts I’ve written on Robert Frost, click here.
  • After you’ve read up on Iambic Pentameter, take a look at some of my poetry. I’m not half-bad. One of the reasons I write these posts is so that a few readers, interested in meter and rhyme, might want to try out my poetry. Check out Spider, Spider or, if you want modern Iambic Pentameter, try  My Bridge is like a Rainbow or Come Out! Take a copy to class if you need an example of Modern Iambic Pentameter. Pass it around if you have friends or relatives interested in this kind of poetry.
  • November 14th 2015 Another blogger has taken up the effort to write some introductory posts on Iambic Pentameter. He takes a different tact than I do, choosing to recognize larger patterns (repeating patterns) in multiple feet: the 4th paeon, the 1rst epitrite, the 3rd epitrite, the Spondee-paeon, the Paeon-Spondee, the choriamb, the minor ionic, and minor ioncis with deferred closures, etc.. His blog is called versemeter  and his first introductory posts are broken into three parts: Iambic Pentameter Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. I encourage you to take a look, see what you think, and comment. Let him know what you think. At minimum, it demonstrates that there are different approaches to meter. Use the one that works for you.

First Appearance

Iambic Pentameter is the meter of Blank Verse, most Sonnets, and a variety of verse forms starting in the14th and continuing through the 21rst Century.

Iambic Pentameter is closely associated with Blank Verse, which some websites credit as having first been written by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The assertion is incorrect. Chaucer was, in fact, the first poet to write Iambic Pentameter and examples can be found with the prologue of the Canterbury Tales.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
chaucer-stained-glassAnd bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

Although, at first glance, this may not appear to be Iambic Pentameter, it is. We’ll get back to it in another post.

What is Iambic and Pentameter?

All of Elizabethan, Jacobean and Restoration Drama, written in verse, is written using Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) – this includes all of Shakespeare’s Plays and Sonnets. Milton’s Paradise Lost is written in Iambic Pentameter. Keats’ Sonnets & Hyperion, along with most of his major poems, are written in Iambic Pentameter.  Almost every major poet , prior to the 20th Century, wrote Iambic Pentameter when writing their best known poetry.  Exceptions would be poets like Walt Whitman (free verse), Robert Burns (who wrote a variety of metrical lines – mostly iambic), and Emily Dickinson (whose meter is derived from hymn tunes, which is why so many of her poems can be sung to Yellow Rose of Texas).

Iambic is an adjective. Iamb is the noun and is short for Iambus. Iambus is from the Greek and refers to two. Therefore, Iamb refers to any two syllable “unit”, referred to as a foot by metrists, consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (or ictus).

What is a Foot?

A foot is defined as a group of syllables (unspecified in number) comprising a metrical unit. In the case of an Iamb, the metrical foot contains two syllables.

In the following example, I’ve bolded and italicized the stressed syllables.

To be or not to be

The bolded and italicized words receive greater stress, when speaking, than the words which have not been bolded or italicized.

Now, if we break this line into feet, we end up with following:

To be | or not | to be | that is | the question.

Except for the last foot, each foot consists of two syllables. The last foot is a variant called an amphibrach (in that it varies from the first four iambic feet). The amphibrach is a foot (a metrical unit) consisting of an unstressed, stressed, and unstressed syllable.

A strictly iambic line would be:

Of hand, | of foot, | of lip, | of eye, | of brow   (Shakespeare: Sonnet 106: Line 6)

What is Pentameter

The Greek prefix Pent- or Penta-, means five. Pentameter therefore means a line of verse consisting of five metrical feet. Remember, a metrical foot contains an unspecified number of syllables until it is modified by an adjective like Iambic.

What is Iambic Pentameter

The adjective, Iambic, modifies Pentameter to mean, a line of verse consisting of five Iambic metrical feet [feet containing an unstressed and stressed syllable].

There are also examples of poems written in trochaic pentameter. In this case, the term would mean a line of verse consisting of five trochaic [metrical feet [feet containing an stressed and unstressed syllable]. (Note: The stressed and unstressed syllables, in comparison to Iambic, are reversed.)  It would also be possible to have amphibrachic pentameter. To my knowledge, no poems have been written in this meter. If any reader knows of one, let me know!

The line:

Of hand, | of foot, | of lip, | of eye, | of brow

is strictly Iambic Pentameter because each foot is strictly an Iamb and there are strictly five feet.

The line:

To be | or not | to be | that is | the question.

or

To be | or not | to be | that is | the question.

is not, strictly speaking, an Iambic Pentameter line, because the final foot is amphibrachic and the fourth foot may be read as being trochaic. However, it is considered an acceptable variant of the Iambic Pentameter line. In the second scansion of the line above, putting the emphasis on is might sound awkward, but imagine an actor speaking the line. The second scansion gives the line a different emphasis. It all depends on where the is is.

Perfect Iambic Pentameter?

After having written this, I’ve noticed various websites who (not to put too fine a point on the matter) get it wrong. Frostfriends.org, for example, writes the following about the closing line of Frost’s poem Birches:

Birches: “It’s when I’m weary of considerations.” This line is perfect iambic pentameter, with an extra metrical (feminine) ending.

Their statement is incorrect. This line is not perfect iambic pentameter (and this is more than just splitting hairs). A perfectly iambic pentameter line would not have a feminine ending (an amphibrach) in the final foot. The correct thing to say would have been – this is a perfectly acceptable variant within an iambic pentameter pattern.

More on this poem, and its scansion, can be found at my post on Frost’s Birches.

Symbols used in scanning Metrical Poetry

Lastly, the symbols used to denote stress in a line of verse are as follows:

weak-stress This symbol denotes a weak stress.

intermediate-stressThis symbol denotes an intermediate stress.


strong-stressThis symbol denotes a strong stress.

metrical-divider This symbol denotes the division of a metrical foot.

So, the line above would appear as follows:

to-be-scansion

Note: I’ve scanned that as receiving the stress although I believe that the word is should receive it. For more on this opinion and why, visit my post on To Be or Not To Be.

And consider the following scansion:

when-to-scansion

In the scansion above, notice that the word sweet receives an intermediate stress. This means that most readers would probably put less stress on sweet (saying it less loudly) than on the syllable si– of silent. Try it out. Also, importantly, notice that the feet divide the words. An iambic metrical foot consists of two syllables, not necessarily two words. Thus, count two syllables and mark off a foot, count two more syllables and mark off a foot, etc… Mark off every two syllables regardless of the words. If the lines contains more than 10 syllables, as in the scansion of “To be or not be”, one of your metrical feet will not be iambic.

A Ten Syllable Line is not the same as an Iambic Pentameter Line

It’s also possible that just because a line has ten syllables, it might not have 5 feet. It might have four feet with two anapestic feet. And this is where science becomes art. There is an art to scansion, but it is not hard to learn. While metrical feet may divide words, the placement of metrical feet is not insensitive to phrasing. In other words, sometimes it may make more sense to recognize a phrase as being anapestic or, as with feminine endings, amphibrachic.

(My next post answers what to do when considering such variants.) In the example above, the last foot was not iambic. In other examples, the first, second, third or fourth foot might not be iambic. When I write my next post, on variant lines, we’ll figure out how to tell which foot gets the extra syllable.

Two More Symbols: Elision

There are two more commonly used symbol to consider. One is the symbol for elision. Elision means that instead of pronouncing a word as having, say, two syllables, it is pronounced as having one. Likewise, a word that appears to have three syllables, might be pronounced as two.

elision This symbol denotes elision.

Consider the following line:

scansion-with-elision

This example is taken from George T. Wright’s Shakespeare’s Metrical Art. Only the first foot is scanned. Notice that lier of livelier may be pronounced with two syllables li-er or one -lier. If the reader wishes to maintain the iambic rhythm of the line, the whole word livelier would be pronounced with two syllables. If the word were pronounced with three, then the line would be considered dactylic – a strong stress or syllable followed by two weak stresses or syllables.

livelier

Two More Symbols: The Missing Syllable

Finally, a less common but equally useful symbol designates a missing syllable.

missing-syllable

It is useful when discussing variant lines, such as the following from my blank verse poem My Bridge is Like a Rainbow:

missing-syllable-in-my-bridge

The symbol indicates a missing syllable in an otherwise fully Iambic line. The line itself is called a headless line, but more on that in my next post.

The next post will deal with sorting out variation in the Iambic Pentameter line  – how they can be read, how to know, and if you can know.

Other Symbols, Other Systems

the-book-of-formsIt’s worth noting that there are other systems and symbols used to denote stress patterns in English Language Poetry. The one that I’ve presented here is the most universally used and recognized. There may be slight differences. For instance, Lewis Turco, in his book The Book of Forms, doesn’t use the intermediate symbol that I provided above – he uses a dot instead.

turco-intermediate-stressSymbol used for Intermediate Stress in Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms.

Besides the difference in this one symbol, however, Turco uses the same basic system I have been describing. You may run across other symbols or, if you are researching this as a part of a class, you may have an instructor that prefers one symbol over another. All that matters is that you understand the basic ideas that these symbols represent. The symbols themselves are secondary.

Beyond this point, the fights between metrists can get ugly. There is no end to the precision to which some metrists aspire. Some detest the basic system of scansion described above. Some dispense with the symbols altogether and opt to typographically move individual words up or down (in relation to each other) according to how much stress they believe each word should receive. My own view is that these systems of scansion lose sight of their original purpose. They reflect a sort of obsessiveness that has more to do with linquistics than with poetry.

  • Note: There are critics & poets who deny that meter “exists”. I tend to group them with flat-earthers and moon landing denialists. Dan Schneider, of Cosmoetica, is one of them. If you’re curious to read my response to some of his writing, read Critiquing the Critic: Is Meter Real.

(This is the short form, for a slightly more detailed description, try Wikipedia.)

Feel free to comment if you have questions or suggestions.