Title - Prosody Line and Meter

Many writers are already very familiar with prosody, and for them this is basic information they have already learned although it never hurts to have a review. However, others who write may simply hear their own music in their ears, and write it as it comes. It’s useful to know that there are terms for what we’re writing especially when working on specific forms that call for their use. Thinking about this once in a while, particularly if you write mostly in free verse, will help you appreciate the effort other poets employ while constructing their poetry.

However, I will make this observation: regional accents and stresses inform the way we scan what we read and what we write. This complicates the rhythms we read. Like music, poetry is best appreciated when heard, especially if read by its author.


Poetry’s relationship to music:

Music is written by being arranged on staffs and separated by bars. The notes within the bars are called measures; the time signature at the front of the staff sets the rhythm. Written as a fraction, the top number designates the beats in the measure, and the bottom number designates what kind of note gets one beat.

I think of Poetry as word music; and like music; it can be observed in some similar ways. In poetry, we speak of lines and feet. A line is the line length – made up of words which can be further broken into stressed and unstressed syllables. Those stressed and unstressed syllables may not be combined in a single word but spread out so that a foot falls over two words or sometimes three words, part being in one word and the other part or parts being in the next.

Iambs (iambic) and trochees (trochaic) are two syllable feet. An iamb starts with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. In the phrase The supper bell the first foot would be The supwith the first syllable having a light stress and the second having a heavy one. The second foot would be per bell and it would be the same, another iamb, with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.

Trochees are the reverse, a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one (and again arc over the syllables in the line). Here is a couplet from Edgar Allen Poe that illustrates trochaic verse: (bold letters represent stressed syllables)

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

Now we consider the two kinds of feet that that have three syllables. They have two syllables with light stresses and one syllable with a heavy stress. These two feet are called anapest (two light stresses followed by one heavy one), and dactyl (one heavy stress followed by two light ones). Here then are the six types of poetic feet: iamb; trochee; spondee; dactyl; anapest; and pyrrhic. A spondee is a two syllable foot where both syllables are stressed. Certain words conform to this – football – backboard – downfall, Key West, shortcake. A pyrrhic foot presumably has no stress at all. (although it is disputed whether English has a pyrrhic foot)

Iambs and Anapests

Iambs and anapests might be the most natural feet in the English language. Many poets use them interchangeably in a line of poetry still keeping to a strict count of feet. This is seen in nearly all form poetry – sonnets, villanelles, etc. When a line ends on a heavily stressed syllable as it does in the Poe example above, the ending is said to be masculine; (ending on a lightly stressed syllable, it is said to be feminine).

Let’s take the word impossible. It is a four syllable word and is usually broken thus: im/poss/i/ble. The dictionary ( the dictionary is useful to tell us the standard place for stresses) puts the stresses in this word on the second and fourth syllables. Therefore, this one word is two feet of iambic. Or we could say that by itself it is an iambic dimeter line.

Pete Marshall has given me the permission to use one of his poems as an example of the meter we are using today. Here are lines from Pete’s poem, The Pier written in iambic tetrameter.

walked| a long | these wood|en planks
as wind |would lash |and tear |my face
the seas |would crash |be neath |my feet
and rain |would strike |my in| ner faith

The bars separate the feet here. Four lines of four feet with the stresses falling on the second syllable You see here that how you put words together affects where the stresses are placed. You may have to check with a dictionary to see if the first syllable of a given word is lightly or heavily stressed because as they jamb together the stresses will be different than they are as a single word. This is easy to see in the two feet “these wooden planks”. Wooden by itself is a trochee (a two syllable foot with the first syllable heavily stressed) but with these before it and planks after it, the two feet are both now iambs.

Here are two lines from Shelley’s poem The Cloud as example of anapests:
Here is the full text: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=174384

Like a child| from the womb,| like a ghost| from the tomb,| = tetrameter (four feet)
I arise| and un build| it a gain.|  = trimeter  (3 feet)

Here he mixes his line length alternating tetrameter and trimeter. as is common in some ballad forms. All the feet in the example are anapestic and have THREE syllables, and as you see the first two are unstressed and the last syllable is stressed.

Here for your information are the names of the lines when they are made up of the various number of feet:

one foot = monometer
two feet = dimeter
three feet = trimeter
four feet = tetrameter
five feet = pentameter
six feet = hexameter
seven feet = heptameter
eight feet = octameter

There can be longer lines, of course, but these are the usual lengths.

Trochees and Dactyls.
Both of these kinds of feet begin with a heavy stress. The trochee a foot of two syllables (the first heavily stressed and the second with the lighter stress) and the dactyl a foot of three syllables (the first syllable again heavily stressed and the next two having a lighter stress).

Trochaics are not well sustained in English as the rhythm becomes tedious and easily parodied. But the very thing that makes them unappealing in modern poetry makes them memorable and well suited to children’s poetry. The most famous poem that is written in sustained trochees (while making use of spondees and dactyls every so often) is Longfellow’s Hiawatha. Notice the ends of the lines are softly stressed making them feminine.

By the shores of Gitchee-Gumee
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

Shakespeare used it occasionally to accent his usual meter of iambic pentameter as in Macbeth:

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Jump rope rhymes are nearly always in Trochee rhythms. Shel Silverstein and Lewis Carroll both employed them although they usually gave them an extra stressed syllable at the end making the ending masculine.

Now we take up Dactyls. I borrowed the following paragraph from the blog of Jack Hart an excellent page on prosody which can be found here: http://meadhall.homestead.com/PoeticMeter.html

“Dactylic as a meter hardly exists in English aside from one form, dactylic hexameter.  English does not normally accommodate such a long line, and no English poet would have ever thought of it without the example of the ancient Greek and Roman poets. The form has a high prestige from its use in the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Ovid’s Metmorphosis, and lesser ancient works. Experiments with it never seemed to go well, however, and translations of the ancient poems usually ended up being translated into iambic pentameter, often as rhymed couplets–an awkward fit, since one iambic pentameter line is short to represent one of the original lines, and a couplet is too long. The best known examples of the form in English are by Longfellow in such poems as Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish. The line usually quoted in textbooks on meter is this one from Evangeline:

“This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.”
The metrical pattern is, | x x| / x x| / x x| / x x| / x x | / / . Notice that though this is called dactylic hexameter, there are only five dactyls.  The last metrical foot is a spondee. Longfellow has managed five dactyls in a row–why does he break down on the last one?”

Many poets have combined different kinds of feet to form their own kinds of poems experimenting with them for metrical effect and uniqueness. Some have utilized trochees ending with spondees which is not unusual in order to begin with a hard beat and end with a hard masculine ending instead of the softer feminine ending

Once in a while a poet may want to fill a “beat” with silence. This can be done with a space or a punctuation mark. A comma, semicolon, or period can make up a pause. As in music this is called a rest or more usually in poetry, a caesura.

It is unlikely you will write an entire poem in these first heavy stress meters, but it is useful to realize that when you begin a foot with a stressed syllable you may be breaking your iambic or anapestic rhythm. However, you may certainly want to experiment with these kind of feet interspersing them with other kind of feet in a regular way to create your own music and your own voice. As in music when you start fiddling with the time signature of music, one has to be careful that it is musical unless you are seeking a lack of harmony and then banging a dactyl with an iamb or a trochee up against an anapest may give you the harsh cacophonous sounds you want to make.

For this week, I believe you might take a few lines of free verse that you have already written and re-write them in iambic feet (perhaps mixed with some anapests) of whatever line length you like. If you put them in lines of five feet, they would be written in blank verse if they don’t rhyme. I will leave it up to you if you want to add rhyme to this exercise. For now all that’s necessary is understanding stress and length of line. Link with Mr. Linky below and have some fun working through the puzzle of creating them with different feet and length of lines. Share with one another as usual.