Variations in Line Length

While some poems may be written in pentameter (5 beats on each line) or tetrameter (4 beats on each line), other poems are built from lines of different lengths. Such structure is no mere decoration or novelty, but can be used to support the content of the poem itself. This can be used to accomplish a variety of different effects, ranging from serious to comic, from melodic to jarring; today we will look at one example of using line length for emphasis.

In the poem below, the poet starts with tetrameter; but after 4 lines of this (rhyming abab), he presents us with 2 lines of only 2 beats each—and then finishes the stanza with a tetrameter couplet. Why does he do this?

As you read the poem, notice the effect upon the rhythm. The quatrain (the four lines rhyming abab) presents us with the idea, and establishes both the mood. Once we have the expectation of rhythm, the shorter lines become the more pronounced for violating that expectation. Consequently, we get a sense of musical crescendo: there is both a suddenness and a building of tension that emphasizes the words.



The Glories of our Blood and State
by James Shirley (1596-1666)

The glories of our blood and state
.           Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armor against fate;
.           Death lays his icy hands on kings:
.                       Scepter and crown
.                       Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

Some men with swords may reap the field,
.           And plant fresh laurels where they kill;
But their strong nerves at last must yield;
.           They tame but one another still:
.                       Early or late,
.                       They stoop to fate,
And must give up their murmuring breath,
When they, pale captives, creep to death.

The garlands wither on your brow,
.           Then boast no more of mighty deeds;
Upon death’s purple altar now,
.           See where the victor-victim bleeds:
.                       Your heads must come
.                       To the cold tomb;
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.


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