In the English language, some syllables are sounded with greater stress/emphasis than others. For example, in the word “English,” the first syllable is pronounced with more stress than the second ( / – ), and in “example,” the middle syllable gets the most stress ( – / – ). In formal English poetry, poets order their words such that the natural stresses in each word form a pattern. When the stressed and unstressed syllables alternate, we call that iambic or trochaic meter. Iambic meter starts with an unstressed syllable and ends with a stressed one ( – / – / ) while trochaic starts with the stress and ends with an unstressed one ( / – / – ).
Because rhyme only works on stressed syllables, trochaic meter has to use two-syllable rhymes, like “singing/bringing,” “flower/power,” “intention/prevention,” (3-syllable words, but the rhyme takes place on the last two) or “river/give her” (for a rhyme can be spread across words, so long as it matches the syllables). However, if a poet does not wish to make every rhyme in a poem feminine, he or she may choose to use a few masculine rhymes—particularly when there is a natural pause at the end of the line—without upsetting the overall metrical flow of the poem. Consider this example from Longfellow:
The Slave Singing at Midnight
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Loud he sang the psalm of David!
He, a Negro and enslavéd,
Sang of Israel’s victory,
Sang of Zion, bright and free.
In that hour, when night is calmest,
Sang he from the Hebrew Psalmist,
In a voice so sweet and clear
That I could not choose but hear.
Songs of triumph, and ascriptions,
Such as reached the swart Egyptians,
When upon the Red Sea coast
Perished Pharaoh and his host.
And the voice of his devotion
Filled my soul with strange emotion;
For its tones by turns were glad,
Sweetly solemn, wildly sad.
Paul and Silas, in their prison,
Sang of Christ, the Lord arisen.
And an earthquake’s arm of might
Broke their dungeon-gates at night.
But, alas! what holy angel
Brings the Slave this glad evangel?
And what earthquake’s arm of might
Breaks his dungeon-gates at night?
Each stanza in the above poem used a feminine couplet for the first two lines (enslaved was pronounced – / – ), and a masculine for the next two; so the overall structure of the poem was consistent. We would call this meter trochaic, since every line begins with a hard beat; trochaic tetrameter since each line had four beats.
But here’s where it gets tricky: just as poets writing in trochaic meter might choose to use some masculine rhymes, so poets writing in iambic meter might choose to start some lines with a stressed syllable instead of an unstressed syllable; and in both of these cases a line of tetrameter would scan / – / – / – /. Now if the poem is dominated with iambic lines, we would say that such a line as this has a “clipped” foot at the beginning. But what if all of the lines scanned like that? Would we then say it is written in trochaic meter with masculine rhymes, or in iambic meter with clipped feet?
I’d just as soon as refer to both iambic and trochaic meter as 2-beat meter, and not worry about it. But the literary world will not conform to my own categories. Ah, well.
Anyway, if you enjoyed the rhythm of Longfellow’s 2-beat meter above, check out The Norman Baron as well. For some examples by other poets of 2-beat meter that features both masculine and feminine rhyme, check out To A Skylark and Miniver Cheevy. And if you’d rather than hear the sound than merely read it, check out The Raven. Meanwhile, if you found this page because you’re doing a paper for school on Feminine Rhyme, review last week’s post here.