Why do Poets write Iambic Pentameter?

  • May 14, 2009 Tweaked & corrected some typos.

mount-everest-colored-edgeBecause it wasn’t there.

During the sixteenth century, which culminated in poets like Drayton, Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, and Shakespeare, English was seen as common and vulgar – fit for record keeping. Latin was still considered, by many, to be the language of true literature. Latin was essentially the second language of every educated Elizabethan and many poets, even the much later Milton, wrote poetry in Latin rather than English.

Iambic Pentameter originated as an attempt to develop a meter for the English language legitimizing English as an alternative and equal to Latin (as a language also capable of great poetry and literature). Encyclopedia of Spenser - ExtractSince meter was a feature of all great Latin poetry, it was deemed essential that an equivalent be developed for the English Language. But poets couldn’t simply adopt Latin’s dactylic hexameter or dactylic pentameter lines. Latin uses quantitative meter, a meter based on  alternating long and short syllables. English, on the other hand, is an accentual language – meaning that words are “accented” or stressed while others are, in a relative sense, unstressed.  (There are no long or short syllables in English, comparable to Latin.)

False Starts

But this didn’t stop Elizabethan poets from trying. A circle of Elizabethan poets, including Sidney and Spenser, all tried to adapt quantitative meter to the English language. Here’s the problem. Even in their own day Latin and Classical Greek were dead languages – dead for a thousand years. Nobody knew what these languages really sounded like and we still don’t. Imagine if all memory of the French language vanished tomorrow (along with any recordings). French uses the same alphabet, but how would we know how to pronounce it? Americans would pronounce it like Americans, Germans would pronounce like Germans, etc… The French accent would be gone – forever. The same is true for Latin. So, while we may intellectually know that syllables were spoken as long or short, we have no idea how the language was actually pronounced. It’s tone and accent are gone. When the Elizabethans spoke Latin, they pronounced and accented Latin like Elizabethans. They assumed that this was how Latin had always been pronounced. For this reason, perhaps, Adopting the Dactylic hexameters of Latin didn’t seem so far-fetched.

The  Spenser Encyclopedia, from which I obtained the passage at right, includes the following “dazzling” example of quantitative meter in English:

Quantitative Verse (Sample from Spenser Encyclopedia)

The symbols used to scan the poem reflect Spenser’s attempt to imitate the long and short syllables of Latin. The experiments were lackluster. Spenser and Sidney moved on, giving up on the idea of reproducing long and short syllables. The development of Iambic Pentameter began in earnest. (Though Sidney continued to experiment with accentual hexameters – for more on this, check out my post on Sidney: His Meter & His Sonnets.)

Those were heady times. Iambic Pentameter was new and dynamic. Spenser adopted Iambic Pentameter with an unremitting determination. Anyone who has read the Faerie Queen knows just how determined. (That said, each Spenserian Stanza – as they came to be called – ended with an Alexandrine , an Iambic Hexameter line – as if Spenser couldn’t resist a reference to the Hexameters of Latin and Greek.)

Why the Drama?

Just as with Virgil and Homer for Epic Poetry, the Classical Latin and Greek cultures were admired for their Drama – Aeschylus, Terence, Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles. Classical drama was as admired as classical saga.

As Iambic Pentameter quickly began to be adopted by poets as an equivalent to the classical meters of Greek and Latin, dramatists recognized Iambic Pentameter as a way to legitimize their own efforts. In other words, they wanted to elevate their drama into the realm of serious, literary works – works of poetry meant to be held in the same esteem as the classical Greek and Latin dramas. Dramatists, especially during Shakespeare’s day, were held in ill-repute, to say the least. Their playhouses were invariably centers of theft, gambling, intoxication, and rampant prostitution. Dgorboduc-title-pageramatists themselves were considered nothing better than unprincipled purveyors of vulgarity – all too ready to serve up whatever dish the rabble wanted to gorge on.

There was some truth to that. The playhouses had to earn a living. The actors and dramatists, like Hollywood today, were more than willing to churn out the easy money-maker. Thomas Heywood, a dramatist and pamphleteer who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, claimed to have had “an entire hand or at least a main finger in two hundred and twenty plays”.

That said, aspirations of greatness were in the air. This was the Elizabethan Age – the small nation of England was coming into its own. The colonization of America was about to begin. The ships of England were establishing new trade routes. The Spanish dominance of the seas was giving way. England was ready to take its place in the world – first as a great nation, than as an empire. The poets and dramatists of the age were no less ambitious. Many wanted to equal the accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans – Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher, Middleton…

Ben Jonson, in his own lifetime, published a collection of his own works – plays and poetry. This was a man who took himself seriously. The Greeks and Romans wrote their Drama in verse, and so did he. The Romans and Greeks had quantitative meter, and now the Elizabethans had Iambic Pentameter – Blank Verse. Serious plays were written in verse, quick entertainments, plays meant to fill a week-end and turn a profit, were written in prose – The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Shakespeare, was written to entertain, was written quickly, and was written in prose.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Sackville and Norton were the first dramatists to write Drama, the play Gorboduc, using Iambic Pentameter or, as it came to be known, blank verse. For a brief sample of their verse you can check out my post on The Writing & Art of Iambic Pentameter.

Poets and Poet/Dramatists were quick to recognize the potential in blank verse. Early Dramatists like Greene, Peele and Kyd were quick to adopt it. Their efforts bequeathed poetry to the new verse form, but it was First Part Tamburlaine the Great & Christopher MarloweChristopher Marlowe who upped the ante by elevating not just the poetry but the verse form itself. Suddenly Iambic Pentameter was given a powerful new voice all of its own.

Hair standing on end, other poets soon referred to Marlowe’s blank verse as Marlowe’s Mighty Line. Reading Marlowe’s verse now, with 500 years of history between, the verse appears inflexible and monochromatic. It was Shakespeare who soon demonstrated to other poets the subtlety and flexibility that Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) was capable of. Shakespeare’s skill even influenced Marlowe (who had earlier influenced Shakespeare). Shakespeare’s influence is felt in Marlowe’s Faustus and Edward II, by which time Marlowe’s verse becomes more supple.

The passage above is spoken by Tamburlaine, who has been smitten by Zenocrate, “daughter to the Soldan of Egypt“. Up to meeting Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s sole ambition had been to conquer and ruthlessly expand his empire. He’s a soldier’s soldier. But his passion for Zenocrate embarrasses him. He feels, in his equally blinding passion for her, that he “harbors thoughts effeminate and faint”.

Tamburlaine, with Marlowe’s inimitable poetry, readily rationalizes his “crush”. Utterly true to his character, he essentially reasons that beauty is a spoil rightly belonging to the valorous. He will subdue both (war and love), he pointedly remarks (rather than be subdued).  After all, says Tamburlaine in a fit of self-adulation, if beauty can seduce the gods, then why not Tamburlaine?  But make no mistake, it’s not that Tamburlaine has been subdued by love, no, he will “give the world note”, by the beauty of Zenocrate, that the “sum of glory” is “virtue”. In short, and in one of the most poetically transcendent passages in Elizabethan literature, Tamburlaine is the first to express the concept of a “trophy wife”.

Not to be missed is the Elizabethan sense of the word “virtue” – in reference to women, it meant modesty and chastity. Naturally enough, in men, it meant just the opposite – virility, potency, manhood, prowess. So, what Tamburlaine is saying is not that modesty and chastity are the “sum of glory”, but virility. The ‘taking’ of a beautiful women, in the martial, sexual and marital sense, fashions “men with true nobility”. It’s no mistake that Marlowe chose “virtue”, rather than love, when writing for Tamburlaine. Tamburlaine’s only mention of love is in reference to fame, valor and victory, not affection.

Anyway, I couldn’t resist interpreting the passage just a little. So many readers tend to read these passages at face value – which, with Elizabethan poets, frequently misses the boat.

As to the meter… Notice how the meaning sweeps from one line to the next. Most of the lines are syntactically unbroken, complete units. This is partly what poets were referring to when they described Marlowe’s lines as “mighty”.  what-you-doNotice also that that the whole of the speech can be read as unvarying Iambic Pentameter and probably should be.

By way of comparison, at right is how Shakespeare was writing toward the end of his career. The effect he produced is far different. The iambic pentameter (Blank Verse) doesn’t sweep from one line to the next. The most memorable and beautiful image in this passage is when Florizel wishes Perdita, when she dances, to be like “a wave o’the sea”. And any number of critics have seen, in this passage, a graceful equivalent in the ebb and flow of Shakespeare’s blank verse. The syntactic units halt, then resume, then halt again, variably across the surface of the Iambic Pentameter pattern. The overall effect creates one of the most beautiful passages in all of Shakespeare, and not just for its content and imagery, but also for its supple verse. The Elizabethans, in Shakespeare, bettered the Greek and Romans. In 1598, Francis Meres, fully understanding the tenor of the times, wrote:

“As the Greeke tongue is made famous and eloquent by Homer, Hesiod, Euripedes, Aeschilus, Sophocles, Pindarus, Phocylides and Aristophanes; and the Latine tongue by Virfill, Ovid, Horace, Silius Italicus, Lucanus, Lucretius, Ausonius, and Claudianus: so the English tongue is mightily enriched, and gorgeously invested in rare ornaments and respledent abiliments by Sir Philip Sidney, Spencer, Daniel, Drayton, Warner, Shakespeare, Marlow and Chapman

As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras : so the sweet wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honytongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private frinds, &c…

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines : so Shakespeare among y’ English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge’tleme’ of Verona, his Errors, his Love labors lost, his Love labours wonne, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.
As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin : so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.”

Finally, the English were creating their own literary heritage. Up to now, if the English wanted to read great literature, they read Latin and Greek.

But Not Latin Enough

The Elizabethans and Jocabeans firmly established Iambic Pentameter as the great Meter of the English language. But the youth of each generation wants to reject and improve on their elders. George ChapmanThe Elizabethans and Jacobeans were old news to the eighteen and twenty year old poets who would found the restoration. They wanted to prove not just that they could find an alternative to quantitative meter, they wanted to prove that they could write just as well as the great Latin poets – English verse could be as great as Latin verse and in the same way. And so English poetry entered the age of the Heroic Couplet.

Poets had written heroic couplets before, but they were primarily open heroic couplets. The restoration poets wanted to reproduce the Latin distich – a verse from in which every rhyming couplet is also a distinct syntactic unit. This meant writing closed heroic couplets. If you want a clearer understanding of what this means, try my post About Heroic Couplets.

Anyway, the meter is still Iambic Pentameter, though the verse form has changed (Heroic, when attached to couplets, means couplets written in Iambic Pentameter). In other words, it’s not Iambic Pentameter with which the restoration poets were dissatisfied, it was unrhymed Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) which  restoration poets found inadequate. Alexander PopeLike the Elizabethans, they wanted English literature to be the equal of Latin and Greek literature. Blank verse wasn’t enough.

One of the best ways, perhaps, to get a feel for what restoration poets were trying to accomplish is to compare similar passages from translations. Below are three translations. The first is by George Chapman (Chapman’s Homer), an Elizabethan Poet and Dramatist, contemporary of Shakespeare and, some say, a friend of Shakespeare. Chapman writes Open Heroic Couplets – a sort of cross between blank verse and closed heroic couplets. The second translation is by Alexander Pope, a contemporary of Dryden and, with Dryden, the greatest poet of the restoration. He writes closed heroic couplets.

odyssey-book-12-chapman-pope

And now compare Pope’s translation to Robert Fitzgerald’s modern translation (1963). Fitzgerald writes blank verse and his translation is considered, along with Lattimore’s, the finest 20th Century translation available. I personally prefer Fitzgerald, if only because I prefer blank verse. Lattimore’s translation is essentially lineated prose (or free verse).

odyssey-book-12-pope-fitzgerald

Which of these translations do you like best? Fitzgerald’s is probably the most accurate. Which comes closest to capturing the spirit of Homer’s original – the poetry? I don’t think that anyone knows (since no one speaks the language that Homer spoke).

All three of these translations are written in Iambic Pentameter but, as you can see, they are all vastly different: Open Heroic Couplets, Closed Heroic Couplets, and Blank Verse. The reasons for writing them in Iambic Pentameter, in each case, was the same – an effort to reproduce in English what it must have been like for the ancient Greeks to read Homer’s Dactylic Hexameters.  Additionally, in the case of Chapman and Pope, it was an effort to legitimize the English language, once and for all, as a language capable of great literature.

Enough with the Romans and Greeks

Toward the end of the restoration, Iambic Pentameter was no longer a novelty. The meter had become the standard meter of the English language. At this point one may wonder why. Why not Iambic Tetrameter, or Iambic Hexameter? Or why not Trochaic Tetrameter?

These are questions for linguists, neuro-linguists and psycho-linguists.  No one really knows why Iambic Pentameter appeals to English speakers. Iambic Tetrameter feels too short for longer poems while hexameters feel wordy and overlong. There’s something about the length of the Iambic Pentameter line that suits the English language. Theories have been put forward, none of them without controversy. Some say that the Iambic Pentameter line is roughly equivalent to a human breath. M.L. Harvey, in his book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning (if memory serves) offers up such a theory.

Interestingly, every language finds has found its own normative meter. For the French language, its hexameters (or Alexandrines), for Latin and Greek it was dactylic Hexameter and Pentameter). Just as in English, no one can say why certain metrical lengths seem to have become the norm in their respective languages. There’s probably something universal (since the line lengths of the various languages all seem similar and we are all human)  but also unique to the qualities of each language.

Anyway, once Iambic Pentameter had been established, poets began to think that translating Homer and Virgil, yet again, was getting somewhat tiresome. English language Dramatists had already equaled and excelled the drama of the Romans and Greeks. The sonnet sequences of Drayton, Daniel, Shakespeare, Sidney and Spenser proved equal to the Italian Sonnets of Petrarch – in the minds of English poets at least. The restoration poets brought discursiveness to poetry. They used poetry to argue and debate. The one thing that was missing was an epic unique to the English language. Where was England’s Homer? – Virgil? Where was England’s Odyssey?

Enter Milton

Milton, at the outset, didn’t know he was going to write about Adam & Eve.

He was deeply familiar with Homer and Virgil.  He called Spenser his “original”, the first among English poets and a “better teacher than Aquinus“.  John MiltonBut Spenser’s Faerie Queen was written in the tradition of the English Romance. It lacked the elevated grandeur of a true epic and so Milton rejected it. He was also familiar with Dante’s Divine Comedy. But the reasons for Milton choosing the story of Adam & Eve are less important, in this post, than the verse form that he chose. At first, writing in the age of the heroic couplet, Milton’s intention was to use the verse of his peers.

But Milton was losing his eyesight. That and the constraints Heroic Couplets placed on narrative were too much for him. He chose Blank Verse. In the end, the genius of Milton’s prosody and narrative conferred on blank verse the status it needed.  Blank verse became the language of epic poetry – not heroic couplets; Milton’s blank verse was the standard against which the poetry of all other epic poems would be measured. From this point forward, later poets would primarily draw their inspiration from the English poets that had come before (not the poets of classical Greece or Rome).Paradise Lost Book 8 [Extract] Paradise Lost successfully rivaled the Odyssey and the Iliad.

The extract at right is from Book 8 of Paradise Lost. Adam, naturally enough, wants to know about the cosmos. Since reading up on Cosmology is one of my favorite pastimes, I’ve always liked this passage. The extract is just the beginning. Milton has an educated man’s knowledge of 17th Century Cosmology,  but must write as if he knows more than he does. In writing for Raphael however (the Angel who describes the Cosmos to Adam), Milton must  write as though Raphael admits less than he knows. The effect is curious. At the outset, Raphael says that the great Architect (God) wisely “concealed” the workings of the  Cosmos; that humanity, rather than trying to “scan” God’s secrets, “ought rather admire” the universe! This is a convenient dodge. Raphael then launches into a series of beautifully expressed rhetorical questions that neatly sum up Cosmological knowledge and ignorance in Milton’s day. It is a testament to the power of poetry & blank verse that such a thread-bare understanding of the universe can be made to sound so persuasively knowledgeable.  Great stuff.

With Milton, the English Language had all but established its own literature; and Iambic Pentameter, until the  20th Century, was the normative meter in which all English speaking poets would measure themselves.

The Novelty Wears Off

After the restoration poets, the focus of poets was less on meter than on subject matter. Poets didn’t write Iambic Pentameter because they were thirsting for a new expressive meter in their own language, but because it’s use was expected. Predictably, over the next century and a half, Iambic Pentameter became rigid and rule bound.  The meter was now a tradition which poets were expected to work within.

John Keats: The Fall of HyperionThis isn’t to say that great poetry wasn’t written during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Keats’ Hyperion, short as it was, equaled and exceeded the masterful Blank Verse of Milton (perhaps some of the most beautiful blank verse ever written) – but the beauty was in his phrasing, imagery and language, not in any novel use of Iambic Pentameter. Wordsworth wrote The Prelude and Browning wrote an entire novel, The Ring & the Book, using blank verse. There was Shelley and Tennyson, but none of them developed Iambic Pentameter beyond the first examples of the Elizabethans.

The Fall of Iambic Pentameter

By the end of the Victorian Era (1837-1901), and in the hands of the worst poets, Iambic Pentameter had become little more than an exercise in filling-in-the-blanks. The rules governing the meter were inflexible and predictable. It was time for a change. The poet most credited with making that change is Ezra Pound. Whether or not Pound was, himself, a great poet, remains debatable. Most would say that he was not. What is indisputable is his influence on and associations with poets who were great or nearly great: Yeats, T.S. Eliot (whose poetry he closely edited), Ezra PoundFrost, William Carlos Williams, Marriane Moore. It was Pound who forcefully rejected the all too predictable sing-song patterns of the worst Victorian verse, who helped initiate the writing of free verse among English speaking poets. And the free verse that Pound initiated has become the indisputably dominant verse form of the 20th century and 21st century, more pervasive and ubiquitous than any other verse form in the history of English Poetry – more so than all metrical poems combined. While succeeding generations during the last 100 years, in one way or another, have rejected almost every element of the prior generation’s poetics, none of them have meaningfully questioned their parents’ verse form. The ubiquity and predictability of free verse has become as stifling as Iambic Pentameter during the Victorian era.

But not all poets followed Pound’s lead.

A wonderful thing happened. With the collapse of the Victorian aesthetic, poets who still wrote traditional poetry were also freed to experiment. Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens: Idea of Order at Key WestWallace Stevens all infused Iambic Pentameter with fresh ideas and innovations. Stevens, Frost and Yeats stretched the meter in ways that it hadn’t been stretched since the days of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatists. Robert Frost’s genius for inflection in speech was greatly enhanced by his anapestic variant feet. His poems, The Road Not Taken, and Birches both exhibit his innovative use of anapests to lend his verse a more colloquial feel. The links are to two of my own posts.

T.S. Eliot interspersed passages of free verse with blank verse.

Wallace Stevens, like Thomas Middleton, pushed Iambic Pentameter to the point of dissolution. But Stevens’ most famous poem, The Idea of Order at Key West, is elegant blank verse – as skillfully written as any poem before it.

Yeats also enriched his meter with variant feet that no Victorian poet would have attempted. His great poem, Sailing to Byzantium, is written in blank verse, as is The Second Coming.

Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Pound all came of age during the closing years of the Victorian Era. They carry on the tradition of the last 500 years, informed by the innovations of their contemporaries. They were the last. Poets growing up after the moderns have grown up in a century of free verse. As with all great artistic movements, many practitioners of the new free-verse aesthetic were quick to rationalize their aesthetic by vilifying the practitioners of traditional poetry. Writers of metrical poetry were accused (and still are) of anti-Americanism (poetry written in meter and rhyme were seen as beholden to British poetry),  patriarchal oppression (on the baseless assertion that meter was a male paradigm),  of moral and ethical corruption. Hard to believe? The preface to Rebel Angels writes:

One of the most notorious attacks upon poets who have the affrontery to use rhyme and meter was Diane Wakoski’s essay, “The New Conservatism in American Poetry” (American Book Review, May-June 1986), which denounced poets as diverse as John Holander, Robert Pinsky, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost for using techniques Wakoski considered Eurocentric. She is particularly incensed with younger poets writing in measure.

The preface goes on to note that Wakoski called Holander, “Satan”. No doubt, calling the use of Meter and Rhyme a “Conservative” movement (this at the height of Reaganism), was arguably the most insulting epithet Wakoski could hurl. So, religion, nationalism and politics were all martialed against meter and rhyme. The hegemony of free verse was and is hardly under threat. The vehemence of Wakoski’s attacks, anticipated and echoed by others, has the ring of an aging and resentful generation fearing (ironically) the demise of its own aesthetics at the hand of its children (which is why she was “particularly incensed with younger poets). How dare they reject us? Don’t they understand how important we are?

But such behavior is hardly limited to writers of free verse. The 18th century Restoration poets behaved just the same, questioning the character of any poet who didn’t write heroic couplets. Artistic movements throughout the ages have usually rationalized their own tastes at the expense of their forebears while, ironically, expecting and demanding that ensuing generations behave.

Poets who choose to write Iambic Pentameter after the moderns are swimming against a tidal wave of conformity – made additionally difficult because so many poets in and out of academia no longer comprehend the art of metrical poetry. In some halls, it’s a lost art.

blank-versePart of the cause is that poets of the generation immediately following the moderns “treated Iambic Pentameter more as a point of departure than as a form consistently sustained.” Robert B. Shaw, in his book, Blank Verse: A Guide to its History and Use, goes on to write, “the great volume and variety of their modernist-influenced experiments make this period a perplexing one for the young poet in search of models.” (p. 161)

Poets like Delmore Schwartz and Randall Jarrell were uneven poets – moving in and out of Iambic Pentameter. Their efforts aren’t compelling. Karl Shapiro brought far more knowledge to bear. Robert Shaw offers up a nice quote from Shapiro:

The absence of rhyme and stanza form invites prolixity and diffuseness–so easy is it to wander on and on. And blank verse [Iambic Pentameter] has to be handled in a skillful. ever-attentive way to compensate for such qualities as the musical, architectural, and emphatic properties of rhyme; for the sense of direction one feels within a well-turned stanza; and for the rests that come in stanzas. There are no helps. It is like going into a thick woods in unfamiliar acres. (p. 137)

And some poets like to go into thick woods and unfamiliar acres. (This is, after all, still a post on why poets write Iambic Pentameter. And here is one poet’s answer.) The writing of a metrical poem, Shapiro seems to be saying, forces one to navigate in ways that free verse poets don’t have to. The free verse poet must consider content as the first and foremost quality of his or her poem. For the poet writing meter and rhyme, Shapiro implies, there is a thicket of considerations that go beyond content.

There is also John Ciardi, Howard Nemerov and, perhaps the greatest of his generation, Richard Wilbur. Wilbur writes:

There are not so many basic rhythms for American and English poets, but the possibilities of varying these rhythms are infinite. One thing modern poets do not write, thank heaven, is virtuoso poems of near perfect conformity to basic rhythms as Byron, Swinburne, and Browning did in their worst moments. By good poets of any age, rhythm is generally varied cleverly and forcefully to abet the expressive purposes of the whole poem. (p. 189)

By rhythms, Wilbur is referring to meters. Wilbur is essentially stating that when the good poet chooses to write meter, (Iambic Pentameter let’s say), he sees the rhythm (the metrical pattern) as something which, when cleverly varied, “[abets] the expressive purposes of the whole poem”. It’s a poetic and linguistic tool unavailable to the free verse poet. Period.

Robert Frost, who lived into the latter half of the 20th Century, famously quipped in response to free-verse poet Carl Sandburg:

“Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Rebel AngelsAs free verse asserted an absolute domination over the poetic aesthetic, writing meter and rhyme increasingly became an act of non-conformity, even defiance. It’s in this spirit that a small group of poets, who ended up being called “New Formalists”, published a book called Rebel Angels in the mid 1990’s – the emphasis being on Rebel. The most recognizable names in the book were Dana Goioia, R.S. Gwynn,  and Timothy Steele. The preface, already quoted above, attempts to frame its poets as revolutionaries from word one:

Revolution, as the critic Monroe Spears has observed, is bred in the bone of the American character. That character has been manifest in modern American poetry in particular. So it is no surprise that the most significant development in recent American poetry has been a resurgence of meter and rhyme, as well as narrative, among large numbers of younger poets, after a period when these essential elements of verse had been surpressed.

The word “American” turns up in each of the three (first three) introductory sentences. Lest there be any mistake, the intent was to frame themselves not as Eurocentric poets beholden to an older European tradition, but as American Revolutionaries. So what does that make the poets and critics who criticize them? – un-American? -establishmentarian? – conformist? – royalist conservatives?

So it goes.

If the intent was to initiate a new movement, the movement landed with a thud. The book is out of print and, as far as  I know, few to none of the books by those “large numbers of younger poets” have actually made it onto bookshelves. The poems in the anthology are accomplished and competent, but not transcendent. None of the poets wrote anything for the ages.

The rebellion was short lived.

Modern Iambic Pentameter

Nowadays, I personally don’t notice the fierce partisanship of the previous decades. Most of the fiercest dialectic seems to be between the various schools of free verse poetics. Traditional poetry, the poetry of meter and rhyme, is all but irrelevant even as all the best selling poetry remains in meter and rhyme! – Robert Frost, Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Stevens, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Millay, Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose and the thousands of nursery rhymes that are sold to new parents.

The Green Gate: ExtractBut why do poets write Iambic Pentameter nowadays?

As far as I know, I am one of the few poets of my own generation (Generation X) writing in form, along with A.E. Stallings and Catherine Tufariello. And why do I write Iambic Pentameter? Because I like it and because I can produce effects that no poet can produce writing free verse. I’ve talked about some of those effects when analyzing poems by Shakespeare, his Sonnet 116, John Donne’s “Death be not Proud”, and Frost’s Birches. I use all of the techniques, found in these poems, in my own poetry.

I write about traditional poetry with the hope that an ostensibly lost art form can be fully enjoyed and  appreciated.

One of my favorite moments in the Star Wars series is when Ben Kenobi kills General Grievous with a blaster instead of a Light Saber. Kenobi tosses down the blaster saying: “So uncivilized.”  Blasters do the job. But it’s the Light Saber that makes the Jedi. There are just a few poets who really understand meter and rhyme.

But enough with delusions of grandeur. At right is an extract from one of my own poems. You can click on the image  to see the full poem. One of my latest poems, written in blank verse, is Erlkönigen.

To write poetry using meter or rhyme, these days, is to be a fringe poet – out of step and, in some cases, treated with disdain and contempt by poets writing in the dominant free verse  aesthetic.

There has never been a better time to be a fringe poet! It’s usually where the most innovative work is done.

  • 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.

One Last Comparison

Going back to Homer’s Odyssey. One of the genres in which iambic pentameter still flourishes is in translating, suitably enough, Latin and Greek epic poetry. Here is one more modern Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) translation by Allen Mandelbaum, compared to Robert Fitzgerald’s (which we’ve already seen above). Mandalbaum’s translation was completed in 1990 – Fitzgerald’s in 1963. Seeing the same passage and content treated by two different poets gives an idea of how differently Iambic Pentameter can be treated even in modern times. The tone and color of the verse, in the hands of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum, is completely different. I still can’t decide which I like better, though readers familiar with the original claim that Fitzgerald’s is more faithful to the tone of the original.

odyssey-book-12-fitzgerald-mandelbaum

  • Here’s a good article on blank verse, mostly because of it’s generous links: Absolute Astronomy.

Afterthoughts • August 7 2010

With some distance from this post, I realize that I never discussed meter’s origins. And it is this: Song. In every culture that I’ve explored (in terms of their oldest recorded poetry) all poems originated as lyrics to popular songs. Recently discovered Egyptian poems strongly suggest  that they originated as lyrics to songs. If you read Chinese poetry, you will discover (dependent on the translator’s willingness to note the fact)  that a great many of the poems were written to the tune of this or that well-known song. Likewise, the meter of ancient Greek poetry is also said to be based on popular song tunes. Many scholars believe that the Odyssey was originally chanted by story tellers though no one knows whether the recitation might have been accompanied.

The first poems from the English continent are Anglo-Saxon. The alliterative meter of these poems, as argued by some, are a reflection that they too were written to the tune of this or that song. The early 20th century critic William Ellery Leonard, for example, held “that our meter of “Sing a Song of Six-Pence” is directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon meter of Beowulf” [Creative Poetry: A Study of its Organic Principles p. 252]. Though none of his poetry survives, Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne (d. 709), is said to have performed his secular songs while accompanied on the harp. None of Aldhelm’s Anglo-Saxon poetry remains. What is known to us is related by the ancient English historian Willliam of Malmesbury.

In short, meter is the remnant of music’s time signature.

The roots of Iambic Pentameter are in song (just as meter in every language and culture appears to be rooted in song and music). And it’s for this reason that the twaddle of a Dan Schneider is so misleading. Likewise,  poets like Marriane Moore who postured over the artificiality of meter, were ignorant of meter’s origins. Arguments over the naturalness of meter are irrelevant. Iambic Pentameter is no more natural to the English language than the elaborate meter and rhyme of a rapper. It’s an art.

And it’s this that separates Free Verse from Traditional Poetry.

  • Image above right: Fragment of an ancient Greek song.

Conversely, free verse is not rooted in music but only imitates the typographical presentation (the lineation) of metrical poetry. Why make this distinction? Because it’s another reason why poets write Iambic Pentameter. Writing metrical poetry is an acknowledgement of poetry’s musical roots. Meter acknowledges our human capacity to find rhythm and pattern within language (as within all things). I won’t argue that it’s a better way to write poetry. However, I will argue that writing meter is to partake in a tradition of poetry that is ancient and innate.

Milton & Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter)

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  • Revised & improved April 12, 2009.

The Creation of Eve

Milton’s blank verse is exceedingly conservative and easy to scan. It’s a testament to Milton’s skill as a poet john-miltonthat his beautiful language and careful phrasing triumphs over his monotonous meter – in many cases subtly disrupting it without violating it. It’s a miracle, really. (For an example of a poet who didn’t pull it off, read Spencer’s Fairy Queen.) It was as if the experimentation of the Elizabethans, let alone the Jacobeans, had never occurred. Milton came of age in an exceedingly conservative era- poetically. Meter, in those days, was as dominant then as free verse now, and as unadventurous. Just the fact that Milton wrote blank verse (when everyone else was writing heroic couplets) was an act of defiance.

Most of the trouble surrounding Milton and scansion (for modern readers) comes down to differences in pronunciation – some of it has to do with historical changes; and some, if you’re American, has to do with differences in British and American pronunciation (especially problematic when reading Chaucer).

I cooked up a table that, with its “scientific” terminology, gives you an idea of Milton’s metrical habits and preferences. I haven’t gone line by line to exhaustively prove the accuracy of my table, but I can assert, for example, that Milton (despite claims to the contrary) never wrote a trochee in the final foot. Here’s an extract, to that effect, from my review of M.L. Harvey’s Book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning: A Study in Generative Metrics (Studies in Comparative Literature):

A more egregious example of misreading, due to changes in habits of pronunciation and even to present day differences between the continents, comes when Mr. Harvey examines Milton. Words like “contest” and “blasphemous” and “surface” (all taken from Paradise Lost) were still accented on the second syllable. “Which of us beholds the bright surface.” (P.L. 6.472 MacMillan. Roy Flannagan Editor.) Mr. Harvey, offering an example of a “very rare `inverted foot’” (the credit for its recognition he gives to Robert Bridges) gives the following line: “Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim Prostrate (P.L. 6.841) In fact, Robert Bridges and Mr. Harvey are both mistaken in reading the fifth foot as inverted and one need not be a seventeenth century scholar to recognize it. Webster’s International Dictionary: Second Edition, in fact, provides the following pronunciation key. (pros [stressed] trat [unstressed]; formerly, and still by some. Esp. Brit., pros [unstressed] trat [stressed]). Any laboratory of Americans, nearly without fail, would also misread this line, and so the danger of overwhelming empirical evidence!

On to my table… Each division represents an equivalent foot in an Iambic Pentameter line.

Milton's Metrics

The Scansion

Here is one of my favorite passages, already alluded to in a previous post – Iambic Pentameter Variants – I. To simplify matters, I haven’t marked any of the Iambic feet , I’ve only marked variant feet or feet that, for one reason another, might be read incorrectly.

Milton Scansion: Book 8

Elision

Elision, a standard practice in Milton’s day and more or less assumed whether marked or not, eliminates the vast majority of Milton’s “variant” feet.

still-glorious

Glorious, if treated as a three syllable word, would make the second foot Anapestic, not criminal,  but if you can elide, you  should.

body-enjoyest

This elision might make some metrists squirm. Given just how conservative metrical practice tended to be in Milton’s day, I would be inclined to elide these two vowels. Given how Milton can barely bring himself to so much as use a feminine ending in the final foot, I seriously doubt he expected readers to treat this foot as an anapest. My advice is to elide it.

The final example of elision, above, is the word Spirits. Interestingly, Milton seems to treat this word opportunistically. In line 466, for example, he treats spirits as a two syllable word. In other lines, throughout Paradise Lost and in the latter line, he treats the word as a monosyllabic word. This sort of inconsistency in pronunciation is found as far back as Chaucer, as with his pronunciation of the word sweete – sometimes one syllable, sometimes two. Such inconsistency is permitted once one has obtained a poetic license.

Reading with the Meter

Modern readers may sometimes be tempted to read as though they were reading prose. Sometimes, though, poets play the line against the meter, wanting us to emphasize certain words we might not otherwise. That’s the beauty of meter in poetry. Milton, as with all the great poets, was skilled at this sort of counterpoint:

mean-or-in-her

In the line above, the modern reader might be tempted to stress the line as follows:

Mean, or in her summ’d up, in in her containd

This would be putting the emphasis on the words in. In free verse, ok, but not Iambic Pentameter and especially not with a metrically conservative poet like Milton. Milton wants us to put the emphasis on her. Maybe the line above doesn’t seem such a stretch? Try this one:

bone-of-my-bone

Any modern reader would put the emphasis on Bone and Flesh:

Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self

But they would be missing the point of Milton’s line – the closing my Self! That is, it’s not the Bone or Flesh that amazes Adam, it’s that the Bone and Flesh are of his Bone and of his Flesh. His Self! This contrapuntal exploitation of the meter is a master stroke and to miss it is to miss Milton’s genius. If it’s read in this light, stressing the prepositional of might not feel so strained or artificial.

Pentameter at all costs!

Milton’s obeisance to the demands of Iambic Pentameter aren’t always entirely successful.

amiable

This, to me, is a reach, but it’s probably what Milton intended and even how he pronounced it. Practice it with studied e-nunc-i-a-tion and the line may make a little more sense. An alternative is to read the line as Iambic Tetrameter.

tetrameter-amiable

Given Milton’s metrical squeamishness, I seriously doubt that, in the entirety of Paradise Lost, he decided, for just one moment, to write one Tetrameter line. There are other alternative Tetrameter readings, but they get uglier and uglier.

That said, ambiguities like these, along with the examples that follow, are what disrupt the seeming monotony of Milton’s meter. His use of them defines Milton’s skill as a poet. Roy Flannagan’s introduction to Paradise Lost (page 37) is worth quoting in this regard:

Milton writes lines of poetry that appear to be iambic pentameter if you count them regularly but really contain hidden reversed feet or elongated or truncated sounds that echo meaning and substance rather than a regular and hence monotonous beat. He builds his poetry on syllable count and on stress; William B. Hunter, following the analysis of Milton’s prosody by the poet Robert Bridges in 1921, counts lines that vary in the number of stresses from three all the way up to eight, but with the syllabic count remaining fixed almost always at ten (“The Sources” 198). Milton heavily favors ending his line on a masculine , accented syllable, with frequent enjambment or continuous rhythm from one line to the next… He avoids feminine feet or feet with final unstressed syllables at the ends of lines. He varies the caesura, or the definitive pause within the line, placing it more freely than any other dramatist or non-dramatic writer Hunter could locate (199). He controls elisions or the elided syllables in words most carefully, allowing the reader to choose between pronouncing a word like spirit as a monosyllable (and perhaps pronounced “sprite”) or disyllable, or Israel as a disyllable or trisyllable.

Extra Syllables: Milton’s Amphibrachs (Feminine Endings & Epic Caesuras)

The amphibrach is a metrical foot if three syllables – unstressed-stressed-unstressed. In poets prior to the 20th Century it is always associated with feminine endings or epic caesuras. In the passages above, Milton offers us two examples, one in the second foot (by far the norm) and one in the first foot.

second-foot-amphibrach

This would be an epic caesura. The comma indicates a sort of midline break (a break in the syntactic sense or phrase). Amphibrach’s, at least in Milton, are always associated with this sort of syntactic pause or break. Epic Caesuras and Feminine Endings are easily the primary reason for extra syllables in Milton’s line. Anapests make up the rest, but they are far less frequent and can be frequently elided.

first-foot-amphibrach

This would be a much rarer Epic Caesura in the first foot. Notice, once again, that the amphibrachic foot occurs with a syntactic break, the comma.

Differences in Pronunciation

If you just can’t make sense of the metrical flow, it might be because you aren’t pronouncing the words the same way Milton and his peers did.

pronuncation-1

Most modern readers would probably pronounce discourse and dis’course. However, in Milton’s day and among some modern British, it was and is pronounced discourse’.

pronuncation-2

Adam & EveThis one is trickier. In modern English, we pronounce attribute as att’ribute when used as a noun and attri’bute when used as a verb. Milton, in a rather Elizabethan twist, is using attributing in its nominal sense, rather than verbal sense. He therefore keeps the nominal pronunciation: att’tributing.

The arch-Angel says to Adam, as concerns Eve:

Dismiss not her…by attributing overmuch to things Less excellent…

It’s phenomenally good marital advice. In other words. Don’t dismiss her by just tallying up her negative attributes, to the exclusion of her positive attributes. There is more to any friendship, relationship, or marriage than the negative. Think on the positive.

Metrical Ambiguity

Some of Milton’s metrical feet are simply ambiguous – effectively breaking the monotony of the meter. In the example below, one could read the first foot as trochaic or as Iambic:

ambiguous-feet

|Led by|

or

|Led by|?

I chose a trochaic foot – the first option. If this foot had been in the fifth foot (or the last foot of the line) I would have read it as Iambic. Milton doesn’t write trochaic feet in the fifth foot. In the first foot, however, trochaic feet aren’t uncommon and in this instant it seems to make sense. I don’t sense that there’s any crucial meaning lost by de-emphasizing by.  Perhaps the best answer, in cases of metrical ambiguity, is to consider at what point in the line the ambiguity is occuring.

Similarly, I read the following line as having a spondee in the fourth foot:

ambiguous-feet-2

One could also read it as trochaic or iambic. Iambic, given the metrical practice of the day, is far more likely than a trochaic foot – especially, given Milton’s practice, this close to the final foot. I scanned the foot as spondaic. Spondaic feet, in Milton’s day, were considered the least disruptive variant foot and so were acceptable at just about any point of the line.

My Favorite Passages

The passages excerpted above just about cover every metrical exigency you will run into in reading Milton. The other reason I chose them is because they’re, well, juicy. I love them. I especially like the following lines for their sense of humor (and, yes, Milton does have a sense of humor).

like-folly1

What boyfriend or husband hasn’t had this experience? No matter how rational we think we are, all our intellectual bravado crumbles to folly – men are from Mars, women are from Venus.

Did Adam & Eve have sex? Why, yes, says Milton, but it wasn’t pornographic. That came after the fall:

pure-love

Lastly, and most importantly, is there sex in heaven (or do we have to go to hell for that)? Milton gives us the answer:

angels-and-sex

If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, comment! Let me know. And if you have further questions or corrections, I appreciate those too.

High Fantasy & The Oratorical Style

[This ‘sort of’ belongs on this blog. It’s a college paper. The only one that was of any interest to me. The paper tries to draw a distinction between a high mimetic mode and a low mimetic mode. According to my reading, the majority of fantasy writers are unaware of the distinction and if they are, use the high mimetic mode clumsily. The paper will probably be of little interest to most people but I have posted it for those few who might enjoy it –  as well as for those who have an interest in Rhetoric as it is used (or not used) by modern writers. Naturally, it also applies to poetry. Since writing it, J.K. Rowling has written her series, Harry Potter, as well as Christopher Paolini, Eregon. Neither writer has adopted or possibly even recognized Tolkien’s rhetorical  techniques. With Rowling, the tone probably would not  be suitable, but Paolini’s prose seems flavorless for the lack of it. If you like this sort of discussion – then enjoy and give me your impression.]

High Fantasy & the Oratorical Style:
The Use of Style in the Creation of the Secondary World

jrr-tolkienAs early as the sixteenth century, Cervantes had killed the romance with Don Quixote, a novel which was both the culmination and the greatest parody of the romance form, and which introduced a new style of prose narrative in what Northrop Frye calls the “low mimetic” mode.  Low mimetic writing deals with the life of ordinary people, with the everyday life we live, seen from the inside, where the mythic and high mimetic modes treat the life of heroes and kings, seen from the outside.(i)

Style is not often discussed in its relation to the creation of a secondary world, or as Tolkien expressed it, in its contribution to the creation of literary(ii).  Yet the style in which narrative is written is the most tangible portion of any work and to disregard it is to disregard its most fundamental feature.
At the time when Cervantes wrote his narrative in prose it was an age of verse with strictly observed metrical patterns.  The choice was provocative and unmistakable.  He himself said of the work:  “It is so conspicuous and void of difficulty that children may handle him, youths may read him, men may understand him, and the old may celebrate him.”  It was as much a part of the work as the characters within it.  The twentieth century is the age of prose.  There are no major works in verse.  The closest a juvenile novel comes to verse may be discovered in Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff.  It is written, as it were, in broken prose — the purpose being, perhaps, to imitate the cadence of the characters’ speech.  There is, however, nothing to separate it from prose but line breaks.
But for such obvious diversions, the real stylistic difference between the high mimetic mode and the low mimetic mode (iii) is now far more difficult to pinpoint occurring within the confines of prose.  The “high mimetic modes [treating] the life of heroes and kings, seen from the outside” would seem to have, arguably in the twentieth century, a home in the genre of fantasy.  Yet how does the high mimetic mode, as found in the cantos of Spenser or the lofty blank verse of Milton, translate into prose — the century’s predominant mode?  The answer may be found in Rhetoric.  Rhetoric was first classified by the Greeks as a means of codifying the techniques by which an orator might sway his audience.  Rhetoric therefore has its origins in oratory.  It is only natural then that one should find those same devices used in the epic poetry of Homer, Spencer, or Milton.  The poet is addressing the audience, as it were, as an orator.  He is relating events and wishes to communicate them effectively and persuasively.  It is only natural then that the writer of High Fantasy, in his attempt to more persuasively relate the events of his world, would consciously or subconsciously utilize the rhetorical devices of the orator.  The oratorical voice, that is, will lend weight to the narrative.  This is a High Style which, for the sake of clarity, I’ll call the Oratorical Style.
The genre examined will be a narrow one — that wherein a secondary world is created.  Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising cannot be contrasted with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1) or Lord of the Rings because she does not attempt to create a secondary world. The more effective contrast is between The Wizard of Earthsea and Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown or Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three.

Hobbit Footnote
The Figures of Oratorical style in Le Guin and Tolkien


Ursula K. Le Guin and J.R.R. Tolkien, it is broadly agreed, have both most successfully created secondary worlds — A Wizard of Earthsea and The Lord of the Rings.  Among the features the books hold in common is an achieved high mimetic style within the confines of prose.  This high style, the oratorical style, is achieved by the use of rhetorical figures historically common to the poetry of tragedy and the epic poem, themselves rooted in oratory.  The following contains the first, and perhaps the most important of the six figures to be examined.
A feeling of fear had been growing in [Fatty Bolger] all day, and he was unable to rest or go to bed: there was a brooding threat in the breathless night air.  As he stared out into the gloom, a black shadow moved under the trees; the gate seemed to open of its own accord and close again without a sound. iv

ProsopopoeiaThe figure prosopopoeia v, personification, is found in the poetry of Homer, medieval sagas and epics, and naturally enough in Milton; though which, in the serious poetry of the twentieth century has all but died out vi.  It is telling that it is alive and well in the literature of high fantasy, which “[treats] the life of heroes and kings.”
In the example above, the night is breathless and the night air is brooding.  Tolkien is, perhaps, unique in the way in which he uses prosopopoeia to effectively create an elemental force that both threatens and sustains the characters within it.  The landscape contains the same elemental force as the good and evil that struggles to control it.  Adding to the impression of the animate within the inanimate, the gate seems “to open of its own accord and close again”.  The world itself becomes, as here, a character within its own universe.
AmplificatioA second figure, perhaps less common today, found in epic poetry is amplificatio viiThe Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms provides the following definition:
The elaboration or, sometimes, the contraction of a statement (as in Meios).  Cicero considered this device of enlargement and ornament “one of the highest distinctions of eloquence.”  Quintilian listed four types of a.: 1.) by augmentation (incrementum), 2) by comparison, 3) by reasoning, and 4) by accumulation (congeries).  The device is prominent in epic and tragic poetry.

The figure of amplification is one often confused by rhetoricians.  It is, for example, treated by some as its own figure and by others it is treated as a category of figures.  The term amplification shall be used for the category and amplificatio as the figure.  The figure may be seen in the following:
When he joined Ged and Serret for supper he sat silent, looking up at his young wife sometimes with a hard, covetous glance.  Then Ged pitied her.  She was like a white deer caged, like a white bird wing-clipped, like a silver ring on an old man’s finger…viii

Syntactic parallelism is used — a series of similes — to elaborate upon the nature of Serret.  It may also be observed more fully in the following paragraph:
As their eyes met, a bird sang aloud in the branches of the tree.  In that moment Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the waterfalling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves…ix

Examples like these are far less frequent, as shall be shown, in the writings of Robin McKinley and Lloyd Alexander, revealing a concerted effort by Le Guin to recreate in the realm of prose the techniques previously reserved for the poetry of the epic tradition.  This figure may also be found in Tolkien.  The following example of amplificatio is achieved by the parallelism of anologia (analogy) which in A Handbook to Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, is described by Quintillion as a figure “used for amplification, [that] seeks to rise from the less to the greater…”
The hobbits ran about for a while on the grass, as he told them.  Then they lay basking in the sun [1] with the delight of those that have been wafted suddenly from the bitter winter to a friendly clime, or [2]of people that, after being long ill and bedridden, wake one day to find that they are unexpectedly well…x

TropeThe third figure which will be considered in the creation of the oratorical style is called the Trope.  Again referring to The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms the following definition is offered:
A general term for FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE, that is, language whose semantic meaning must be taken in a metaphorical or figurative sense rather than its literal sense.  Poetic devices such as METAPHOR, METONYMY, SIMILE, and SYNECDOCHE fall under the categories of tropes.

We will concern ourselves only with Metaphor, and at that, only with Verbal Metaphor (2), as it is considered the most potent form of metaphor.  The paragraph following provides two examples:
Once more she lifted her strange bright eyes to him, and her gaze pierced him so that he trembled as if with cold.  Yet there was fear in her face, as if she sought his help but was too proud to ask it. xi

Verb Metaphor Footnote

When Le Guin writes that “once more she lifted her strange bright eyes to him”, the use of the verb lifted is an example of Trope — figurative language.  It is a figure which, among other effects, can add a tremendous degree of weight and formality, can elevate the prose idiom by introducing a primarily poetic affect.  The formality introduced further reinforces the presence of the fictive narrator, the orator, mentioned earlier.  Compare this with a comparable passage from Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown.

She looked up at him and smiled: a lover’s smile, sweet and brilliant, but it was directed at him; her eyes looked at something invisible that she herself did not recognize, and yet his heart stirred in a way he did not recognize. xii

We perceive the character’s actions directly.  It may be said of it that it is less poetic and therefore more immediate.  It is stylistically compatible with the low mimetic mode which “deals with the life of ordinary people, with the everyday life we live, seen from the inside.”  We do as the character does and the division between narrator and character is blurred.  The reader’s initial impression is not of an oratorical delivery.  It may be argued that “her eyes looked at something” is an example of prosopopoeia, however it is not.  Prosopopoeia relies upon catachresis (3), of which this is not an example.  Le Guin’s “Her gaze pierced him” is an example of catachresis as is McKinley’s “his heart stirred,” although McKinley’s verbal metaphor is so overused as to be more readily considered a dead metaphor.

Catachresis Footnote
antisagogeAnother figure, antisagoge, especially with the conjunctive FOR, is ubiquitous especially in the prose of fable and fairy tale but is also found in fantasy.  It is rarely found, significantly, outside of these genres.  It is often over-used by clumsy writers because of its feeling that it elevates prose.  The Longman Dictionary offers the following definition:
A logical figure dealing with cause and effect, or antecedent and consequence.  In a., the antecedent and consequence are linked together in a logical dimension: “Do as your father commands / and you will inherit his lands…”  A. Is often used in discursive as well as poetic PROSE.

The following is an example which follows immediately on the paragraph already quoted from page 119 and so some of that paragraph will be included.
He saw… how they had used his fear to lead him, and how they would, once they had him, have kept him.  They had saved him from the shadow, indeed, for they did not want him to be possessed by the shadow until he had become a slave of the Stone.

The bolded portion is the consequence and the italicized portion is the antecedent.  In this construction the antecedent and the consequence are reversed.  The figure may also be found in Tolkien, though with less frequency than with Le Guin.
Many eyes turned to Elrond in fear and wonder as he told of the Elven-smiths of Eregion and their friendship of Moria, and their eagerness for knowledge, by which Sauron ensnared themFor in that time [Sauron] was not yet evil to behold… xiii

PolysyndetonThe next figure, one of the most common of the six figures considered here, found especially in the prose of high fantasy, and especially in the writing Le Guin, is Acervatio or, as it is more commonly known in Greek, polysyndetonThe Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms again provides the definition defining it as “a grammatical device of rhythm and balance in rhetoric that employs the repetition of conjunctions to effect measured thought and solemnity…” (Bold by Author)  It should be noted that Quintillion includes adverbs and pronouns as characteristic connecting particles. xiv It is a rhetorical device which, if we are to use Milton’s Paradise Lost as a model of the high mimetic mode, finds its home most clearly in this mode.  The following example will suffice as the figure is so frequent as to need no further examples.
Now what Pechvarry and his wife and the witch saw was this: the young wizard stopped midway in his spell, and held the child a while motionless.  Then he had laid little Ioeth gently down on the pallet, and had risen, and stood silent, staff in hand. xv

I have only bolded those conjunctions which are grammatically unnecessary, serving rather stylistic concerns.  The figure of polysyndeton, that is, describes the use of conjunctions which unnecessarily connect words or phrases in a series.  As an extension to this is Le Guin’s polysyndetic use of and and but between phrases and sentences.  The following paragraph illustrates Le Guin’s extensive use of the technique, — an uncommon feature, significantly, in the low mimetic style; and which illustrates the writer’s conscious effort to recreate oratory.  The polysyndetic conjunctions have been bolded.
To Petchvarry it seemed that the wizard also was dead.  His wife wept, but he was utterly bewildered.  But the witch had some hearsay knowledge concerning magery and the ways a true wizard may go, and she saw to it that Ged, cold and lifeless as he lay, was not treated as a dead man but as one sick or tranced. xvi

HyperbatonThe final figure, hyperbaton, is such a frequent figure in the realm of fable, fairy tale, and high fantasy as to need little explanation.  It is a “generic name for rhetorical figures that work through a reorganization of normal word order.”  A specific type of hyperbaton, for example, is anastrophe (involving only two words), a “grammatical construction in which an INVERSION or reversal of the normal word order takes place for the sake of emphasis in meaning, rhythm, melody or tone.” xvii Tolkien uses hyperbaton and its various types throughout The Lord of the Rings where it heightens the tone of the language.  “Like a deer he sprang away.  Through the trees he sped.  On and on he led them, tireless and swift, now that his mind was at last made up.  The woods about the lake they left behind.” xviii It is also especially frequent where the intent of the author writing fantasy is to obsolesce the language spoken by the characters.

The Analysis

The six rhetorical figures described above are not those most commonly found in the oratorical style of high fantasy.  Other figures are equally common within this style — simile, hypotaxis (subordination) and polysyndetic connectives in the writings of Le Guin and, hyperbaton and prepositional metaphor in the writings of Tolkien are so ubiquitous as to seem less a reflection of style than of an author’s habit of thought.  I have chosen the six figures above only because they were the first of the many I happened to isolate.
Nevertheless, these figures are common to all writers in whatever medium.  None of these figures are exclusive and so the distinction is one of degree.  The following table will compare the frequency of these figures in six books:  A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis xix, The Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander xx, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley xxi, Milton’s Paradise Lost xxii, and Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori xxiii.  The final two are a control.  The novel by Mori provides an example of contemporary realistic fiction.  If the suppositions concerning these figures are correct, that they are figures primarily associated with the high mimetic mode, with oratory, then they should occur with the least frequency in Mori — for there is no need to persuade when one writes realistic fiction — and with the most frequency in Milton.  The first fifteen pages from each book will be examined.  Narrative and dialogue will be treated separately.
Lastly, it ought to be said that these numbers only point to a larger pattern.  It might be argued that such a small sampling hardly argues for a consistent style.  Yet if all the rhetorical figures used by the writers of High Fantasy (those writing within the oratorical style) were tallied, they would prove this sampling to be an accurate indicator of a larger stylistic consistency.

Final Table

Conclusion


McKinley and Lewis use the least figures followed by Alexander.  Alexander and Lewis’ fantasies are clearly written for a younger audience and so the use of oratorical figures is restrained and of the most obvious type.  There is no sense of the orator.  Yet neither is the orator’s voice present in McKinley’s work, which, in tone, comes closest to the contemporary realistic fiction of Mori.  Depending on the experience and preference of the reader, the lack of the orator’s presence may produce a disjunctive affect and may even harm her attempt to create a secondary world.  She is, in effect, using a low mimetic style in a high mimetic mode; she is speaking of times past with a twentieth century voice.  As is apparent, Tolkien and Le Guin use the most figures of oratory, writers who are considered to have most successfully created a secondary world, no doubt, reinforced by the oratorical style.  The oratorical voice removes the narrator into the world which he or she is describing, and so helps to create a more self contained universe.

1 The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings offer two very different narrative voices. It wasnít until the Lord of the Rings, in fact, that Tolkien attempted and succeeded in creating a high style, in the same sense that Paradise Lost is written in a high style. The narrative of the Hobbit is a much more personable style. This is achieved primarily by the rhetorical figure Aversio, the sudden alteration from the third person to the second (which never occurs in The Lord of the Rings)p. 160, and by Digressio, or more simply digressions, lending to the narrative a certain home-spun confiding quality.

2“Some verb metaphors are derived from verbs, some from adjectives, and some from compressed noun phrases. The sentence ‘I have blinded myself with optimism’ could have been derived from either the verb ‘to blind’ or the adjective ‘blind.’ We can transform the noun simile ‘He ran away as fast as a rocket can fly’ into the verb m. ‘He rocketed away…’” (The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms. See Metaphor.)

3“…A figure of similarity and dissimilarity, which uses a word that belongs in one dimension of meaning in another dimension. ‘Her hands sniffed into the bag of candy,’ in which hands act as if they were a nose.” (The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms)

i “Literary Realism and Its Effects” 6.

ii J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in his Tree and Leaf, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1965, p.47.

iii Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 33.

1. If superior in degree to other men and to the environment of other men, the hero is a divine being, and the story about him will be a myth in the common sense of a story about a god.

2. If superior in degree to other men and to his environment the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvelous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established. Here we have moved from myth, properly so called, into legend, folk tale, m‰rchen, and their literary affiliates and derivatives…

3. If superior in degree to other men but not to his natural environment, the hero is a leader. He has authority, passions, and powers of expression far greater than ours, but what he does is subject both to social criticism and to the order of nature. This is the hero of the high mimetic mode, of most epic and tragedy…

4. If superior neither to other men nor to his environment, the hero is one of us: we respond to a sense of his common humanity, and demand from the poet the same canons of probability that we find in our own experience. This gives us the hero of the low mimetic mode, of most comedy and of realistic fiction…

5. If inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity, the hero belongs to the ironic mode. This is still true when the reader feels that he is or might be in the same situation as the situation is being judged by the norms of greater freedom.

iv J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, New York, Ballantine Books, 1973, 238.

v Prosopopoeia,” The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms, 1989 ed.

“A rhetorical figure of definition that through vivid and imaginative description lends human qualities to an abstraction, or to an animate or inanimate object.”

vi “Personification,” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1993 ed.

“The following enumeration of abstractions in Gray’s [18th c.] ëOde on a Distant Prospect of Eton College shows how such personifications had lost their capacity to produce emotional effects like those in medieval morality plays or in Milton:

These shall the fury Passions tear
The vultures of the mind,
Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear,
And Shame that skulks behind;
Or pining Love shall waste their youth,
Or Jealousy with rankling tooth,
That inly gnaws the secret heart,
And Envy wan, and faded Care
Grim-visaged, comfortless Despair,
And sorrow’s piercing dart.

vii Lee A. Sonnino, A Handbook to Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, New York, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1968 (see Amplificatio).

viii Le Guin, 114.

ix Le Guin, 35.

x J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, New York, Ballantine Books, 1973, p. 199.

xi Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, New York, Bantam Books, 1977, p.118.

xii Robin McKinley, The Hero and the Crown, New York, Greenwillow Books, 1984, p. 145.

xiii Ibid. 318.

xiv The Handbook of Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, 19.

xv Le Guin, 81.

xvi Le Guin, 81-82.

xvii The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms.

xviii Tolkien, The Two Towers, 26.

xix C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe, New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

xx Lloyd Alexander, The Taran Wanderer, New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967.

xxi Robin McKinley, The Hero and The Crown, New York, Greenwillow Books, 1984.

xxii John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Roy Flannagan, New York, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1993.

xxiii Kyoko Mori, Shizukoís Daughter, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1993.

Iambic Pentameter (Variants – I)

  • This post was edited, tweaked & improved on March 24, 2009.
  • February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost (& Middleton is a scansion too far), 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.
  • December 24, 2018 – Brief addition.

Variants That May or May Not Be Variants

Individual lines of Iambic Pentameter can be found in any poem, including free verse.

However, since free verse avoids any regular meter, there’s no meter from which to vary.

  • There tends to be a fair amount of confusion as to how something can be considered metrical without being strict in regard to its meter. In other words, how do we account for variant feet in an otherwise metrical poem and at what point do too many variant feet undermine the meter? The best way to answer this is to think of meter as a musical beat. As far as we know, much ancient poetry appears to have been associated with music. In other words, poetry started out as lyrics. The stress patterns of the words commonly reflected the music’s beat (as in Hymn Meter). A musical melody reflects a given time signature such as 6/8 or 4/4 or 3/4. Think of variant feet like syncopation or triplets in a 4/4 time signature. A melody doesn’t always follow a given beat, but it also isn’t so disruptive as to lose the beat. If you think of meter as a time signature (iambic verses anapestic meter for example), then think of variant feet as a kind of syncopation that both works against the beat and reinforces it.

So, variants are only relevant within the context of Metrical poetry. Blank verse is meter consisting of un-rhymed iambic pentameter. It is the verse of Shakespeare’s Plays and the verse of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

john-milton1This turn hath made amends; thou hast fulfill’d
Thy words, Creator bounteous and benigne,
Giver of all things faire, but fairest this
Of all thy gifts, nor enviest. I now see
Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self
Before me; Woman is her Name, of Man
Extracted; for this cause he shall forgoe
Father and Mother, and to his Wife adhere;
And they shall be one Flesh, one Heart, one Soule.

Paradise Lost Book 8 491-499

In the passage above, Adam expresses his gratitude for the creation of Eve – man’s gratitude for woman.

The first line that appears irregular is the fourth line. However, this line is not, in fact, a variant. Milton usually wrote a very strict blank verse in terms of syllable count. So, if a line looks like it might contain an extra syllable, especially in Milton, there’s usually a way to read it while maintaining the integrity of the pentameter line. In the case of the fourth line, -viest (of enviest) should be elided (0r synaeresized as some metrists say), making it one syllable instead of two.

scansion-milton-a1

Making the assumption that a poet means for two syllables to be elided, when habit of speech tells us they can be, is usually a safe assumption for poets through the 19th century. But this assertion, like all things, isn’t without controversy. Some metrists will assert that anapests shouldn’t be swept under the rug and that elision is simply a prudish avoidance of anapests. Anything can be carried too far; and not all anapests should be excised. On the other hand, metrists who oppose such elision (as above) give no answer as to why so many anapests during this period of poetry occur with words that can be easily elided or synaeresized. Even in the 20th Century, Robert Frost will frequently read anapestec feet as Iambic. In Birches, he writes They are but contracts the words to read They’re when reciting the poem. It’s hard for critics to argue with that! In poetry prior to the 20th century, indisputable anapests can be hard to find unless one considers all epic caesura to be anapests (more on that later). The pragmatic answer is that poets saw words like  enviest as a sort of middle ground – a compromise between anapests and a stricter iambic rhythm. Simple as that.

By the 20th century, the strictures and expectations concerning blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) loosen considerably. Also, especially toward the end of the 20th century, poets have become less knowledgeable and skilled in the use of blank verse and iambic pentameter. One need not assume that a word can be or should be elided.

The 8th line is trickier: “Father and Mother, and to his Wife adhere“. This is an eleven syllable line and there are two ways to scan it. One way, knowing that Milton was a very rule-bound writer of blank verse, is to look for another possible elision.

scansion-milton-b

In this case, “to his could be elided – the two words combining so that, when one reads it quickly, the word “his” almost disappears: Father and Mother, and to’s Wife adhere. Such elisions were common practice in Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden and many other poets during this period. (Poets during the Restoration took Iambic Pentameter very seriously.)

But then again… the tricky “Art” of Scansion

But then again, as I presently devote an entire post to this passage, I’ve taken to another possibility:

Epic Caesura

In this scansion, I’ve read the line as having an Epic Caesura (to be discussed below). The rest of the feet are iambic. (In essence, an Epic Caesura is a feminine ending at a midline break.)  So… some lines can be scanned in multiple ways. As for myself, I think I’ve come to prefer this second scansion.

Missing & Extra Syllables

In my last post (Basics), we saw that even though a poem or play might be written in Iambic Pentameter, individual lines may vary from the overall pattern. The 11 syllable line beginning Hamlet’s famous, blank verse soliloquy is an example: To be or not to be, that is the question. A given line may have 9 , 11 or even 12 syllables instead of 10. And variations in Iambic Pentameter can extend even further. Shakespeare will sometimes intersperse the overall 10 syllable pattern with 6 syllable lines – called squinting lines (a term coined by George Wright).

Not all of these lines could be called Iambic Pentameter (since they’re not all Pentameter or five foot lines), but they might be variations if they vary from (but not too far from) an established iambic pentameter pattern. They also will generally be iambic. In other words, all these lines might be found in Free Verse but context is everything. In free verse, there is no meter to vary from, therefore the same line in a free verse poem wouldn’t be heard as a variation.

Let’s say a given line in an Iambic Pentameter poem has eleven syllables.

How, if one is scanning, do we decide which foot contains the extra syllable?

The following rule of thumb is fairly reliable: Choose the scansion that preserves the most Iambs. NOTE: If you were reading a poem that was Trochaic Tetrameter or Trochaic Pentameter, let’s say, then you would choose the scansion that preserves the most Trochees.

(I stress fairly because, in some cases, scanning a poem is as much art as science. If you don’t have a tin ear for the rhythm of language, the art of scansion is learned quickly.)

Missing Syllables: Headless Line

Here is an example from my own blank verse poem, Ulysses in Burlington, Vermont :

Longboard idle at the curb – I dole
My laws to boys that leer and know not me

If you divide the first line without giving thought to preserving the most iambs, marking off every two syllables, you might scan the first line as follows:

scansion-ulysses

This gives us five feet (a Pentameter line). But by simply marking off every two syllables, starting with the first word, we have created a line with no Iambic Feet. They are all Trochaic – meaning that the first syllable of each foot is stressed and the second unstressed (the reverse of an Iambic Foot). If this were a free verse poem, this scansion would probably be as good as any. And if this were a free verse poem, another way to scan might be as follows:

scansion-ulysses-2

In this case, we have a four foot line, or a tetrameter line, not pentameter. (A one foot line is a monometer line, two foot line is a dimeter line; a three foot line is trimeter; a four foot, tetrameter; five foot, pentameter; six foot, hexameter.) In the line above, the first two feet are Trochaic, the third foot is Anapestic (two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable, while the last foot is Iambic.

While tetrameter lines or trochaic pentameter is not unheard of in an Iambic Pentameter poem, consider it an option of last resort. If we follow our rule of thumb, preserve the most Iambs when scanning an Iambic Pentameter Poem (as well as trying to preserve the five feet of a pentameter line) we end up with the following:

scansion-ulysses-33

A Cretic Foot?

The arrow indicates a missing syllable. This scansion preserves our five feet and preserves the Iambic pattern established by the poem.You might be tempted to read the first two feet as one |Long-board id|, a cretic foot – also called an amphimacer. This foot is exceedingly rare in Iambic Poetry. It also would make the line above a Tetrameter line:

Longboard id|le at| the curb| – I dole

There’s no hard and fast reason why one couldn’t read the first foot as cretic, but metrists generally prefer to read a line within the context of an established metrical pattern. Since the established metrical pattern of the poem is blank verse (I wrote it), my intention was to treat the line as a headless Iambic Pentameter variant.

  • Hint!If you just can’t make sense of a line, sometimes it helps to scan the line backwards. Start by establishing the last foot of the line first, (|I dole| in the line above), then work your way backwards.

Missing Syllables: Broken-backed Lines

A line missing an unstressed syllable before the stressed syllable in the first foot is called a headless line and is a common variant of Iambic Pentameter. A missing syllable may occur in any foot. Here’s an example from Shakespeare:

scansion-richard-ii

In this case, the third foot is missing an initial unstressed syllable. This is called a broken-backed line because an unstressed syllable is missing after a midline pause (Wright: Shakespeare’s Metrical Art Page 176). The final foot is an Amphibrachic Foot which, in an Iambic Pentameter poem, is called a Feminine Ending. That is, when a line ends on an unstressed syllable, it is called Feminine. When it ends with a stressed syllable, it is called Masculine.

One more important lesson to notice about the line above is that it contains ten syllables. But just because the line contains ten syllables doesn’t make it Iambic Pentameter through and through. Otherwise one might have been tempted to scan it as follows:

scansion-richard-ii-21

But this breaks our tidy rule of thumb. Instead of having three iambic feet (the first foot is still considered iambic with an intermediate stress), we now have two. For a full consideration of lines with missing syllables, try reading Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, already linked above.

Extra Syllables: The Feminine Ending

Any line in an Iambic Pentameter poem that contains more than ten syllables (syllables which can’t be elided) contains extra syllables. Perhaps the most common extra-syllabic variant is the line with a feminine ending – an amphibrach in the fifith foot.

to-be-scansion

Extra Syllables: The Anapestic Feminine Ending

In the 20th Century, Poets like Robert Frost (especially) introduced anapestic feminine endings.
youd-think

In the final foot of the example above, Frost substitutes an anapest for an Iamb (in what would otherwise be an Iambic Feminine Ending). More on this line and the poem it comes from in my post on Frost’s Birches.

  • Note: The amphibrach  is also common before a midline break and is called an Epic Caesura (see example at bottom of post.)

Extra Syllables: The Heavy Feminine Ending

Another form of the feminine ending is known as the heavy feminine ending, wherein the final (and extra) syllable of the line receives an intermediate or heavy stress (example from Middleton’s The Changeling).

heavy-feminine-ending

Like the feminine ending,  the heavy feminine ending can also occur before a midline break – another form of Epic Caesura – but, to my knowledge, never occurs in Shakespeare and very infrequently in Middleton.

Here’s another example of a Heavy Feminine Ending from Frost’s Birches:

heavy-feminine-ending1

Extra Syllables: A Triple Ending

A final foot with a kind of double feminine ending (two additional unstressed syllables in the final foot) is called a triple ending (example from my next post on Thomas Middleton).

triple-ending1

or Shakespeare:

tirple-ending-he-to-hecuba

A triple ending can also occur before a midline break (Hamlet Act IV Scene 5).

midline-triple-ending

(Note that all these examples are still pentameter: they still have five feet though they are not iambic through and through.) Any of the other metrical feet can contain extra syllables and the rule of thumb for scanning those lines remains the same – use the scansion that preserves the most iambic feet.

scansion-macbeth

This is from MacBeth, IV iii Line 5. You might be tempted to think the line above has 12 syllables. However, the word spirits can be elided, and given what we know of the time and Shakespeare’s metrical habits, it probably should be (though no one can say with absolute certainty). The word woman, however, cannot be elided. This foot is amphibrachic, containing an extra unstressed syllable before a midline pause (the end of a phrase). It is called an Epic Caesuras (George Write: Shakespeare’s Metrical Art Page 165). The example is my own. The Epic Caesuras is easily among the most common extra-syllabic variant after the feminine ending. It is, in fact, a kind of feminine ending that occurs midline.

Extra Syllables: Epic Caesuras & Epic Controversies

But, as I mentioned earlier, calling this pattern an epic caesura is not without controversy among cut-throat scansion professionals (and they do cut throats). Some metrists, like Robert Wallace, seem exasperated with the term and the seeming avoidance of anapests. They would read the line above as follows:

was-he-not-born-anapestic-reading

This dispenses with the “pretense” of an epic caesura and the elision of the word spirits. I could go along with treating spirits as two syllables (who knows how they really pronounced it). In this case one has an anapest in the final foot.  But simply stamping this as an anapest somewhat ignores the history of meter and how it was practiced during the time.  Again, my own view is that poets like Shakespeare treated such words as an acceptable middle ground – a sort of neither/nor. In the same way that Canterbury was pronounced as a three syllable word (see my post on Chaucer), I have frequently heard spirit  pronounced as having a single syllable.

As to the whole concept of an epic caesura, I’m for it. Dicing up woman, in my view, ignores the phrase. There is some art to scansion and this is where I, personally, would apply it. Why ignore phrasing just to hang an anapest on the wall? A metrist like David Baker (Meter in English pp. 328-329) may not like the term, epic caesura, but if not, then he has to answer why these “anapests” all seem to occur with a midline break. It is the most common “anapest” in Shakespeare – and so was clearly considered an acceptable iambic pentameter variant. If all anapests were equally acceptable then one should expect to find them at every point of the line and with equal regularity – but prior to the 20th Century one simply does not. This tells us that the midline “anapest” was considered a special case – a sort of midline feminine ending. Given the evidence, I think it’s worth discriminating this foot from the run-of-the-mill anapest.

Extra Syllables: On to the Anapest

That said, the anapest is the second most common extra-syllabic variant (though far behind the epic caesura), a variant which readily picked up speed two centuries after Shakespeare died. Prior to the 19th Century, the anapest was considered a sign of decadence and depravity – literally. Critics and poets were scandalized by them. By the 20th century though, and after free verse had become the dominant verse form, the anapest became a regular (if not too regular) feature of iambic pentameter poetry. It’s overuse (overused by poets too accustomed to free verse and unskilled formal poets) frequently threatens to break down any regular metrical pattern – casting into doubt a poem’s claim to an iambic pentameter pattern. Frost used the anapest regularly but was also careful to ground the the meter just regularly by writing solid Iambic Pentameter lines – that is, without variants.

In case it’s not clear already, the anapest consists of a metrical foot containing two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. Here is a possible example from Browning’s the Last Duchess.

She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech

The second line could be scanned as follows:

scansion-last-duchess

Notice the extra syllable in the fourth foot. This is an anapest if we judge it by 20th century standards. However, that said, this poem was written in the 19th century, Browning learned from poets like Shakespeare, Milton and Keats and the rest of the poem, My Last Duchess, is perfectly Iambic. It’s possible that we once again have two syllables that should be elided: the approving could be read as th’approving. Browning doesn’t write it this way though. He doesn’t use synaloephasignaling the omission or elision of one or two vowels with an apostrophe as in t’other for the other. Perhaps he doesn’t feel the need to (it was assumed), but he did use synaloepha elsewhere in the poem. It is for the reader or performer to decide. I’m willing to call it an anapest – a little variation is a good thing.

The Primary Variant Feet and Their Names

If the nominal pattern for a poem were Iambic (unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) the following feet would be considered variants. By in large, these feet account for almost all of the variants you will find.

Trochaic : Stressed followed by unstressed. Hamlet Act I Scene I

trochaic

Spondee: Intermediate Stress followed by Stressed. Hamlet ActI Scene III

spondee

Pyrrhic: Unstressed followed by unstressed or intermediate Stress.  Hamlet Act II Scene V

pyrrhic

pyrrhic-2

Spondaic: Stressed followed by a stressed syllable.  Act III Scene 4

spondaic

Dactylic: Stressed followed by two unstressed syllables. Tempest Act V Scene 1 (Notice that this line is a tetrameter line due to the two Dactylic feet.)

dactylic

Amphibrachic: Unstressed followed by stressed followed by unstressed. Hamlet Act III Scene 4. In the fifth foot, this is called a Feminine Ending. In the examples below, they would more particularly be called Iambic Feminine Endings.

amphibrachic

If the Amphibrach occurs before a midline break, it is called an Epic Caesura (example from my own All Hallows’ Eve). (The Epic Caesura, an extra unstressed syllable, was a frequent Shakespearean variant.)

epic-caesura

Anapestic: Two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. 2 Henry VI Act II Scene 1

anapestic

In my previous post (Basics) I mentioned that sometimes phrases can define a metrical foot. The anapest would be an example of this. If a line has 11 syllables, or even twelve, and the last foot isn’t a feminine ending, then it’s likely that one or two of the metrical feet are anapests (not Iambic). In this case, it doesn’t make sense to simply mark off a foot at every two syllables, especially if the line is part of a larger poem with an established meter like Iambic Pentameter (and, as with the line above,  it would defeat the rule that one should preserve as many Iambs as possible).  In the line above, the phrase, in a day, defines the metrical foot.

All of the variations above can occur in any of the five feet in a Pentameter line.

  • 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.

What’s Next?

The third post, Iambic Pentameter & Shakespeare, tries to answer the question: Who cares? Why does any of this matter? Why on God’s green earth would anyone want to scan a poem? And we’ll answer the question using Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.

The fourth post , Iambic Pentameter: Variants & Long Lines, is more or less the second half of this post. It takes a look at some variants (not discussed here) by actually scanning some of Thomas Middleton’s blank verse (a contemporary of Shakespeare).  The verse isn’t pretty, which is why it’s useful for demonstrating the extremes of metrical variants. Between these four posts, you will hopefully have a good fix on how to scan Iambic Pentameter.

And finally, know who said this?

scott-patton“You know. . .if I had my way, I’d send that genius son of a bitch an engraved invitation in iambic pentameter: A challenge in two stanzas to meet me alone in the desert. I’ll deliver it. Rommel in his tank and me in mine. We’d stop about paces. We’d get out, we’d shake hands. . . then we’d button up and do battle, just the two of us. That battle would decide the outcome of the war. It’s too bad jousting’s gone out of style.”

Feel free to comment if you have questions, suggestions or if you would like to see some part of this subject treated more fully – I’ll add it.

Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning

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william-shakespeare[First, if you came to this post looking for information on Shakespeare & Iambic Pentameter, the symbols used and how to scan Shakespeare, take a look at my Guides to Iambic Pentameter in the Categories Widget or simply click on the link – among other posts you will find my scansion of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. I notice that some users find this post looking for information on Haiku and “scanned Haiku”, take a look at my Guide to Haiku. If there’s specific information you are looking for, feel free to ask in the Guest Book and, given time, I’ll post an answer. This blog is for everyone. Please, please say Hello.]

[Second, this is a review I wrote on Amazon a while back. The full title of the book is: Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning: A Study in Generative Metrics (Studies in Comparative Literature). The author is M.L. Harvey.]

Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning

This is the first book this reader has read from the series “Studies in Comparative Literature” and the twentieth in the series. It is clearly not written for the causual reader who wishes to deepen his or her appreciation for the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Shelley, or Browning. It is what it claims to be–a study in generative metrics, with the emphasis on “study”.

From the first page, the reader will be left with the distinct impression that he has walked into the middle of an ongoing conversation. The author of the book, M.L. Harvey, assumes an acquaintance with prior material and the reader is well-advised to become acquainted with that material. Mr. Harvey has other matters to attend to and proceeds quickly with his own elaborations. If the reader (as I did), chooses not to read from Halle and Keyser’s “English Stress, Its Form, Its Growth, and Its Role in Verse” (an earlier exegesis on which some of Mr. Harvey’s own ideas build) then the footnotes are central. Read them all. They are hardly asides, being more often essential to Mr. Harvey’s contentions.

This is not slight material and the reader may often wish the editors had treated Mr. Harvey’s material with similar energy. Mr. Harvey, for example, uses `W’ to denote a weak stress and `S’ to denote a strong stress along with a variety of other symbols including `N’,.’Z’, `a’ and `b’, all of which are mercifully explained in a glossary of terms. The problem arises when these symbols are meant to be placed above their relevant syllables. In some instances, it is difficult to discern which syllable they are being placed above. I found myself sometimes trying to decipher Mr. Harvey’s intentions. In one or two instances, the symbols referred to by Mr. Harvey were missing in the relevant example, or the shorthand he apparently used in preparing the manuscript was not converted to its appropriate symbol.

The thrust of Mr. Harvey’s book is to create a kind of metrical unified field theory for each of the poets considered. Mr. Harvey refers more than once to the empirical support for his conclusions, including laboratory’s in which a number of readers were apparently given material to read (presumably poetry). Based on their reading habits (and presumably his own and those of his peers) a fairly reliable pattern can be discerned as to how English speaking readers scan a line. There is safety in numbers, but this approach is also problematic and reveals a central difficulty. Such research reveals how -twentieth century- readers (including Mr. Harvey) scan a line, but cannot reveal how a sixteenth or seventeenth century reader might have scanned a line, let alone the poets, for whom context was also a consideration. Although it is not clear, Mr. Harvey seems to propose, in a passage called “How to Scan a Line”, that his rules, derived from observed patterns of scanning, can in turn be used to “objectively” scan a line.

An oddly conspicuous example of where this method can go wrong, is one he returns to repeatedly. Mr. Harvey, for example, finds that the line: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” contains two anapests followed by two iambs. Because, in his opinion, a stressed syllable occurs in the third and sixth position, the line must adhere to the abstract pattern “WWSWWSWSWS”. This conclusion is almost unanimously counter to the accepted reading of this line by Shakespearean scholars, and by inference, Shakespeare himself. Although a modern reader (the nub of the problem) would read this line as containing two anapests, one need only refer to the most recently published examination of the complete sonnets (an outstanding book by Helen Vendler called “The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets”) to see where and how Mr. Harvey’s methods can go wrong. Ms. Vendler writes: “It is the iambic prosody that first brings the pressure of rhetorical refutation into Shakespeare’s line: `Let -me- not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments.’ [Ms. Vendler italicises “me”] The speaker says these lines schematically, mimicking, as in reported discourse, his interlocutor’s original iron laws.” The context of the line [it is not clear that Mr. Harvey’s methods of scanning take into account the dramatic context of any one line] contradicts his methods. Another example he chooses comes from Lear: “Bids the winds blow the earth into the sea”. He again reads this line as beginning with two anapests. Given the context of the line, it is more likely and more accepted (according to sixteenth and seventeenth century habits of speech and prosody) that the line is iambic throughout, the first foot being trochaic and the second a spondee. This is a reading that can be applied to many of Mr. Harvey’s double anapests and one which argues that his `rules’ (such as the successive S constraint) need further refinement. It is this reader’s experience, for example, that a spondee in the second foot, while creating a minimal stress, paradoxically serves to further enforce the stress value of the fourth position, often imparting to that position the highest stress of any other syllable. In Lear’s line above, “blow” would therefore receive the greatest stress of any syllable in the line, a reading which, contextually at least, makes more sense.

A more egregious example of misreading, due to changes in habits of pronunciation and even to present day differences between the continents, comes when Mr. Harvey examines Milton. Words like “contest” and “blasphemous” and “surface” (all taken from Paradise Lost) were still accented on the second syllable. “Which of us beholds the bright surface.” (P.L. 6.472 MacMillan. Roy Flannagan Editor.) Mr. Harvey, offering an example of a “very rare `inverted foot'” (the credit for its recognition he gives to Robert Bridges) gives the following line: “Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim Prostrate (P.L. 6.841) In fact, Robert Bridges and Mr. Harvey are both mistaken in reading the fifth foot as inverted and one need not be a seventeenth century scholar to recognize it. Webster’s International Dictionary: Second Edition, in fact, provides the following pronunciation key. (pros [stressed] trat [unstressed]; formerly, and still by some. Esp. Brit., pros [unstressed] trat [stressed]). Any laboratory of Americans, nearly without fail, would also misread this line, and so the danger of overwhelming empirical evidence!

This misreading (due to changes and differences in pronunciation), along with contextual misreadings, is symptomatic and reveals the flaws yet to be ironed out by Mr. Harvey. For the time being, his methodology fails to take into account context, as demonstrated by the sonnet, as well as changes in pronunciation, as demonstrated by his extracts of Milton, and therefore can still only be used as a semi-reliable presentation of how these individual poets created and scanned their lines. Rather than using Mr. Harvey’s methodology (if such should be the temptation) the modern reader of these poets is still advised to purchase a well-annotated edition where the proper scanning of a line is a concern.

robert-browningThat being said, I do not wish to discourage anyone from reading Mr. Harvey’s work. Objections like those mentioned in this review are inevitable when dealing with something so subjective and changeable as the pronunciation of the English language. Mr. Harvey’s undertaking is not an enviable one and the objections so far raised are less than his successes. Mr. Harvey’s reasoning is, for the better part, solid and insightful. In fact, to be fair, one should spend as much time sampling his successes. This, however, would only restate what is already well-stated by Mr. Harvey. Most notably, he convincingly answers (in this reader’s opinion) why poets prefer iambic verse to trochaic verse-no mean feat and a question which clearly fascinates Mr. Harvey.