More than 90% of metrical English poetry is written in 2-beat (iambic) meter. And most of what is written in 3-beat (anapestic) meter tends to be comic verse. Why is this?
To begin with, 3-beat meter is almost irrepressibly lively. Whenever two unstressed syllables are next to each other, our natural speech speeds through them. When this speed-up happens at regular intervals in a sentence, it creates an energy and an expectation. After all, 3-beat meter is even further removed from normal speech than 2-beat meter—that is, our natural speech patterns don’t often fall that way for more than a couple beats, so
making the stresses fall 3 beats apart will be certain to summon the hearer’s attention.
The rhythm comes to the forefront, motivating the audience to ask themselves “what is it for?” What content can possibly justify this bouncing rhythm?
How about an invasion? Consider Byron’s “Destruction of Sennacherib:”
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
Or a galloping horse, as in Sir Walter Scott’s “Lochinvar:”
O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west,
Through all the wide Border his steed was the best;
And, save his good broadsword, he weapon had none,
He rode all unarmed, and he rode all alone.
I have to pause here to marvel at Scott’s ability: because in another poem he employs 3-beat meter with astonishing subtlety—the first time I read it I did not realize I was listening to 3-beat meter, because the rhythm never forced me into a gallop:
Oh say not, my love, with that mortified air
That your springtime of pleasure has flown,
Nor bid me to maids that are younger repair
For those raptures that still are thine own.
The full poem is four stanzas, and remains gentle throughout (you can find the full Song by clicking on Sir Walter Scott in the menu on the right). I think alternating the lines between four and three beats helped, restraining the momentum.
Another way to restrain momentum is using internal punctuation, which breaks the lines into smaller segments. But overdo it and you easily irritate your reader—after all, the rhythm is trying to manifest itself, and you don’t want to give the reader the impression of a car stalling. So, make sure that if you are restraining the rhythm, you have a good reason for doing so. So in “Thoughts Which Overtook Me in a Rose Garden,” a depressed city dweller stumbles into a rose garden, and—
I tremble. The scent of a rose makes me quiver;
The colors in bloom make me weak in the knees!
I’m insane. Or unhealthy. Or maybe just withered—
Yes withered, but watered, by bushes and trees.
But upon leaving the garden—
I’m reclaimed by the town. I am cold, I am stone,
I’m machine, in a world that was built for machines.
I will work, then I’ll drink to forget I’m undone,
And seek after pleasures that never have been.
The whole poem is about a struggle between feeling dead and embracing life; accordingly, the anapestic meter keeps getting interrupted, as if it’s natural liveliness is being stifled.
Before I get too carried away with how to constrain 3-beat meter, I ought to backtrack a little: the liveliness and bounce of 3-beat meter is a good thing—any time the content of your poem calls for liveliness and bounce. This is the whole point I really want to make: meter affects content, has simultaneously a constraining and an animating influence upon what you want to say. A good poem heeds the constraints and takes advantage of the animation, as both “Destruction of Sennacherib” and “Lochinvar” do. Consider the opening lines of “Faye:”
Deep in the mountains, a maiden awaits,
Confined to a tower, a dragon at guard.
The bouncing rhythm is immediately manifest, promising action. And further down in the poem, when an adventuring knight is introduced
From deep in the forest, Sir Hector rode forth,
Determined to rescue the unhappy Faye,
With helmet and shield and so mighty a sword
The hero had honored the blade with a name:
You know what kind of action this will be: not some ponderous clash, but rather some adventurous fun. Hm—I had better just post the whole poem, I think, instead of pulling other excerpts. Actually, I think later this week I’ll write a whole entry on what went into the crafting of that poem. In the meantime, you can read it and leave comments to let me know if you felt the meter did its job.
So, 3-beat meter is good for a galloping adventure. And for comic verse. Wait—I haven’t posted any comic verse yet. Hmm…. How about
Our sires regarded with fear the undead,
Expressing revulsion and horror and dread;
But modern emotions know different affects,
Which motivate fancies of vampire sex.
Okay, so comic is a matter of personal taste. So I suppose I’ll leave to readers to offer examples in the comments section. (But I defy you to rewrite that doggerel in 2-beat meter, and make it half so entertaining.)