Tercets

So much of English verse is written in quatrains or couplets, our ears get quite accustomed to them. Then, when we read a tercet, we often feel interrupted–why, there is a missing line! So it is an additional challenge to any English poet to write capably in tercets, so that the reader can enjoy the rhythm of rhymes in 3, without expecting a 4th line.

Here’s a fair example of a poem in tercets, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Maidenhood

Maiden! with the meek, brown eyes,
In whose orbs a shadow lies
Like the dusk in evening skies!

Thou whose locks outshine the sun,
Golden tresses, wreathed in one,
As the braided streamlets run!

Standing, with reluctant feet,
Where the brook and river meet,
Womanhood and childhood fleet!

Gazing, with a timid glance,
On the brooklet’s swift advance,
On the river’s broad expanse!

Deep and still, that gliding stream
Beautiful to thee must seem,
As the river of a dream.

Then why pause with indecision,
When bright angels in thy vision
Beckon thee to fields Elysian?

Seest thou shadows sailing by,
As the dove, with startled eye,
Sees the falcon’s shadow fly?

Hearest thou voices on the shore,
That our ears perceive no more,
Deafened by the cataract’s roar?

O, thou child of many prayers!
Life hath quicksands,–Life hath snares
Care and age come unawares!

Like the swell of some sweet tune,
Morning rises into noon,
May glides onward into June.

Childhood is the bough, where slumbered
Birds and blossoms many-numbered;–
Age, that bough with snows encumbered.

Gather, then, each flower that grows,
When the young heart overflows,
To embalm that tent of snows.

Bear a lily in thy hand;
Gates of brass cannot withstand
One touch of that magic wand.

Bear through sorrow, wrong, and ruth,
In thy heart the dew of youth,
On thy lips the smile of truth.

O, that dew, like balm, shall steal
Into wounds that cannot heal,
Even as sleep our eyes doth seal;

And that smile, like sunshine, dart
Into many a sunless heart,
For a smile of God thou art.

Longfellow has written this in 2-beat tetrameter (you can call it iambic, with every first foot clipped; or you can call it trochaic, with every last foot masculine instead of feminine; better just to call it 2-beat, or alternating beat): / – / – / – /

I think it is for the most part excellent verse, but with a few shortcomings (you probably found them by stumbling in your reading, if you read aloud).

“Hearest thou voices on the shore” scans  / –   – / – / – /  (unless you say “Hear’st”)

But here’s the bit that’ll really mess you up:

.     “Gates of brass cannot withstand
.     One touch of that magic wand.”

This is the only big mistake in the verse. Everywhere else (preceding), there is a natural pause at the end of each line, allowing us to end one line with a hard stress, and begin the next line also with a stress. But between these lines there is no pause, causing us to stumble over the final line. Is it “ONE touch OF that MAgic WAND” or “One TOUCH of that MAgic WAND”? The first reading is unnatural to speech, although fitting with the metrical pattern. The second reading is more natural to speech, but does not fit the meter: it has only 3 beats instead of four, and doesn’t start with a hard stress. Maybe “ONE TOUCH of that MAgic WAND” is better–natural, correct number of beats; but our ear is not prepared for the deviation in rhythm, so we likely flub it.

The last two tercets also suffer from lack of pause between the first and second lines. Pronouncing INto is unnatural–it only happens when “IN” is preceded by an unstressed syllable (or pause). Yet preceding “INto” is a hard stress and no pause. So natural speech would pronounce it as “into” with no stress–leaving the line with only 3 beats instead of 4.

On the whole, the poem is still strong; and Longfellow a prodigious master of verse still. But even the experts will make a mistake now and then.

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One response

  1. […] Johnson’s poem was written in iambic ( – / ) meter, adding the additional unstressed syllable at the end of his lines to get the feminine endings. A poem written in trochaic meter ( / – ) has the same alternating stresses, but ends with every line feminine. I’d estimate about 90% of English verse is written in iambic, with the remaining 10% divided between purely trochaic verse, anapestic verse ( –  – / ) , and the rarer dactylic verse ( / –  – , which results in rhymes that are easily perceived as comic). But I do have for you the following example of trochaic verse, by Thomas Campion, written in tercets: […]

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