If you are a poet, you are probably interested in making your language as effective as possible. You wish it to be condensed and highly significant, and to make it that way you look to deploy every possible means you can. You use the resources of metaphor, of diction and of sentence structure, of course, but poetry also has available to it what is called “meter”: the systematic and regular appropriation for artful effect of the natural rhythmic dimensions of language.
Understanding meter in English thus begins with recognizing the inherently metrical nature of the English language. Stress patterns are part of what makes English work; they occur both within words, and as intonation patterns for whole phrases or even sentences. These stress patterns are a necessary part of the language; indeed, when we change stress patterns, we often change meaning as well. Thus part of knowing English is knowing rules about how stress affects meaning—though these “rules” are of the hidden kind that we generally know without even knowing that we know them.
ENGLISH STRESS PATTERNS
Think about the rhythm of words first. In any polysyllabic word, one or more syllables are stressed more than the others. Consider the following words:
In two syllable words the case is easy: for most of them, one syllable is stressed, and the other is not. In “contend,” for example, we stress the second syllable after not stressing the first--and to do otherwise would make the word nearly unrecognizable. That gives “contend” a particular stress pattern, but its unstressed-stressed pattern doesn’t fit every two syllable word. In the word “practice,” by contrast, we stress the first syllable, and not the second.
We can represent these facts about stress with a set of conventional marks: stress we indicate with an accent mark; unstressed syllables with a macron:
So much for the easy ones. Words of more than two syllables can be more of a problem, since each can actually have more than one stressed syllable; often in fact we even use more than one level of stress. This is a complicated dimension of spoken English, but we’ll assume just two levels of stress, what we will call “primary” and “secondary” stress. Consider the word “contradiction.” You can hear that the first syllable of that word is stressed more than the second, but you can also hear that the third syllable is stressed even more than the first. So this word actually shows two stress levels. The primary (or stronger) stress is on the third syllable, the secondary is on the first syllable. The word’s other two syllables—relative to the first and third—are unstressed. We can represent these facts with the accent mark (/) (primary stress), the macron (-) (unstressed), and a reverse accent mark (\) (secondary stress):
Each of the other words in the list above have other patterns:
So much for the facts of word stress. The thing that matters most here is to see that the fact that stress exists itself creates an opportunity to increase the density of one’s language by so selecting and ordering one’s words that we create a certain careful, even musical, regularity. Here is the opening of a poem (Poe’s The Raven) with a very strong rhythmic effect:
These are not the rhythms of spoken English; or rather, these are the rhythms of spoken English, but in words so chosen and arranged by the poet that they create a more or less regular, repeated stress pattern—a patterning that’s virtually never heard in conversation.
There are other general issues we might consider—like what happens with one syllable words. Are they always stressed? No, in fact they are not. For them we have to trust our sense of their role in the phrase or sentence in which they occur. If you think of a sentence as a set of ideas laid like tiles all in a row, you can think of its rhythmical structure as made up of “tile” words (primary meaning units) and “grout” words (secondary meaning units). For example:
If you read that sentence naturally, you’re likely to give stress to just three of its six one syllable words: “dog,” “went” and “dish.” Those differ from the other three words (“the,” “to” and “its”) by each having a primary function in the sentence--as subject, verb and object. These are the tiles. The other words, though still necessary for the sentence to make sense, can be thought of as helper words, secondary to the others--and thus (given that we aren’t going to stress every word) we give them less stress. These are the grout.
Finally, we also have sentence pattern stresses. Ordinary statements have one basic pattern; questions have another. As a statement, “He’s going” will end with an unstressed syllable. But as a question (“He’s going?”), that last syllable now must be stressed. Indeed, it is precisely by stressing it (along with a somewhat rising intonation) that a speaker turns what could have been a statement into a question.
Other things could be said, but with just these basic facts we can actually do a pretty good job of describing poetic meter. For even if you as a speaker don’t consciously know all these different stress rules, you nevertheless use them regularly, and you use them correctly. All you really need to do, then, is learn to listen to yourself. That has its own troubles: when you first start to listen you will find yourself slowing down, distorting stress because you are listening so carefully. But with some practice you’ll get past that, and you’ll be well on your way.
I quoted a fragment from Poe’s “The Raven” up above, a poem with a particularly strongly felt rhythm. But what Poe does there other poets also do, and one way to be a better reader of poetry is to learn to analyze these patterns both to understand how metrical effects are created, and to understand as well how and why poets vary their metrical patterns. For not all poems are as regular as is The Raven. Poe likes a very strong metrical, musical effect; other poets look to create less striking rhythms, and they do this by varying their lines ever so subtly, breaking up the regularity of their meter just enough to bring its net metrical effect close to—though not quite equal with—the rhythms of natural speech:
These lines (from a Philip Sidney sonnet) have a far less obvious rhythmic pattern than do Poe’s lines. Though they still are almost entirely regular in their rhythms, they don’t seem so, and Sidney accomplishes this simply by changing his pattern in the first line.
To be able to explain how Sidney manages this effect, we will have to do two things: first, we need to scan each line, marking the stressed and unstressed syllables—a process called (unsurprisingly) “scansion.” But second, we must then also analyze each resulting line into its underlying pattern. For what poets are really doing is imagining the sounds of their poems as sets of repeating units of either two or three syllables—units normally called “feet.” Most poems have either 4 or 5 such feet in each line; they are called “tetrameter” (Greek for “four-measure”) if they have 4 feet, and “pentameter” (“five-measure”) when they have 5.
Consider the following line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12:
That is a five footed “pentameter” line, and it is completely regular: its first syllable is unaccented, its second is accented, its third is unaccented, its fourth accented, and so on. The smallest repeating pattern—the basic measure for this poem—is thus of just two syllables: unaccented, accented. We can mark them off with a slash:
But as I’ve already suggested, not all poetry is so regular. Look again at those lines by Sidney. Myself, were I to mark off the stresses in these lines they’d run something like this:
I’ve put in slash marks to indicate basic feet again, but you’ll notice that not all of the feet are the same. Most are the same—indeed, most are of the same “unstressed-stressed” pattern we saw in Shakespeare’s line. And the second line is, again like Shakespeare’s, completely regular. But in the first line two of these units are different: the first and the fourth. They are called metrical substitutions—where a different pattern has been substituted in place of the basic “unstressed-stressed” pattern.
We’ve now got some different foot patterns—let’s give them names. In fact, let’s give names for all of the usual possible foot patterns in English—there are only six of them anyway. (The names are all from Greek, since that’s where we take a lot of our conventions from in the first place.)
iamb: unstressed-stressed: When I do count the clock:
trochee: stressed-unstressed: Never buy a pickled pumpkin:
spondee: stressed-stressed: Eight tall ships sailed eight miles:
pyrrhic: unstressed-unstressed: In the tall grass was small
anapest: unstressed-unstressed-stressed: It was many and many a year:
dactyl: stressed-unstressed-unstressed: Terrible, terrible, pulsating
By far the most frequent pattern poets have adopted in English has been the first of these feet: the iamb. And, since the five-footed line has also been very popular, perhaps the best known meter in English is iambic pentameter. That is, for example, the basic line for almost all of Shakespeare’s work. Iambic tetrameter is probably the next most popular, but (as Poe’s trochaic tetrameter in “The Raven” shows) others, too, exist.
One more rhythm-related concept. You’ll notice as you or another person speaks that you include various pauses—sometimes quite marked, others only very slight. These, too, are essential for meaning—indeed they are so essential that we have to provide for them even in written English. That’s really all that punctuation marks are: visible indications of what would be signifying pauses if we were listening instead of reading. Thus we have a strong pause at the end of a sentence, a less strong pause to mark other effects (when in writing we use a comma or a dash). In fact, it turns out that we make some sort of pause very often—usually every four or five words. That being the case, poets have found a way to use that fact too. Thus by carefully arranging words, they can also arrange pauses. Look at those two lines we had above from Sidney:
In the first of these two lines there are actually TWO relatively strong pauses, each marked by a comma. But even in the second line, where there are no commas, there is nevertheless a slight, but noticeable pause (as there will be in almost any five-foot line)—between “be” and “with.” Each of these pauses we refer to in scansion as a caesura--the Latin word for “pause.” We mark these with a double slash:
OK. Those are all the tools you need. Now let’s sum up. English poetry depends upon meter: the systematic and regular appropriation for artful effect of the natural rhythmic dimensions of language. That’s a mouthful, but it boils down to three principles: 1) poets very often arrange their words so that they create regular stress patterns, 2) poets introduce variation in those basic patterns by occasional substitutions of a different foot pattern into the poem’s underlying dominant pattern, and 3) poets also make conscious use of the pauses we make in our speaking. And finally, to those three principles we should also add an overriding caution: scansion is not an entirely exact science, and not every reader will scan every line in exactly the same way. That’s OK. But even with a little disagreement, we’ll still see eye to eye on most things. We’re aiming not for perfection—just agreement on the main points.
That seems a lot to keep track of, so why do it? Because although the main purpose of adopting patterns is simply to create a kind of musical backdrop against which to play out the reading of the poem, and although the main purpose of substitutions is usually only to keep the poem from getting TOO regular, thereby sounding sing-song and nursery-rhyme-ish, poets can also use metrical patterns either to emphasize words and phrases they want you to pay special attention to, or to create other special sound effects to make their verse more lively or more meaningful.
Let me end this with a demonstration. One of the early masters of metrical effect was Philip Sidney; below is a poem in which he uses almost every metrical trick he knows. He’s been writing a whole series of poems to a woman he’d like to love him; she has so far not taken him very seriously, only within the last sonnet or so having granted him a single and no doubt very chaste kiss. So in this poem he tries again, first declaring that he has never been a traditional (and thus boring) poet (conventionally supposed to have drunk from the muses’ sacred well at Aganippe), nor has he sat in the shade of Tempe (a valley sacred to Apollo); indeed, he says, he’s not much of a poet at all. He doesn’t even steal lines from others. So why, he goes on to ask, does it turn out that he can in fact write good poems? Only, he claims, because Stella has kissed him; she alone is the cause for his inspiration. That, at least, is the gist. But now read this poem aloud, and listen to what Sidney does to make it come rhythmically to life:
Before you look below at how I would scan the poem, take time to read it
aloud. Notice how regularly it begins. In the whole first quatrain there
is only one metrical substitution. But then notice how irregular the
meter gets in the second quatrain, especially in line 6, as Sidney uses
sound and meter comically to pretend to have descended into a kind of
poetic “fury”—a kind of madness Plato says poets are
prey to. But then note how smooth and easy the meter becomes in lines
9, 10 and 11—only once more to become broken up with caesuras
and metrical substitutions in lines 12 and 13 as he again pretends confusion,
now about the causes for his poetic ability. And then, finally, note
how line 14 yet again grows “sweet,” regular, calm and charming,
as if to demonstrate by meter alone the empowering effect of Stella’s
kiss. (I’ve underlined all the irregular feet.)
Astrophel and Stella: 73