Simple Means

Our last two entries have looked at poems with minor flaws, where the natural pronunciation of words does not support (or is not supported by) the meter of a poem. But lest new readers imagine that any deviation from perfectly regular meter is a mistake, today I would like to look at a couple of poems with examples of appropriate and effective deviation from regular meter. Both of the following poems are in iambic pentameter, and have similar substance/theme. See which one you prefer:

Farewell to Folly
by Robert Greene (1560-1592)

Sweet are the thoughts that savour of content;
The quiet mind is richer than a crown;
Sweet are the nights in careless slumber spent;
The poor estate scorns fortune’s angry frown:
Such sweet content, such minds, such sleep, such bliss,
Beggars enjoy, when princes oft do miss.

The homely house that harbours quiet rest;
The cottage that affords no pride nor care;
The mean that ‘grees with country music best;
The sweet consort of mirth and music’s fare;
Obscured life sets down a type of bliss:
A mind content both crown and kingdom is.

“Happy were he”
by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1566-1601)

Happy were he could finish forth his fate
In some unhaunted desert, most obscure
From all societies, from love and hate
Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure;
Then wake again, and give God ever praise,
Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;
In contemplation spending all his days,
And change of holy thoughts to make him merry;
Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,
Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.

Now a perfectly regular iambic pentameter line runs ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /. But in both of the poems above, some of the lines (Sweet are the thoughts, Sweet are the nights, Beggars enjoy, and Happy were he…) scan instead like this: / ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /. The lines still have the important 5 beats, but the first foot of each line is a trochee ( / ~ ) instead of an iamb ( ~ / ). Such a trochaic substitution allows a line to begin with a stressed syllable, enabling the poet to place content words at the beginning of a line without starting every line with an article or conjunction. It does not disrupt the flow, so long as such substitutions are infrequent: the ear still perceives the alternating emphasis which creates the music of the poem.

Trochaic substitutions fit most neatly at the beginning of a line (although may also occur in the middle of a line, as in “the sweet consort”). When a poet needs two unstressed syllables next to each other in the middle of a line, another type of substitution may be used: one may place an anapest ( ~ ~ / ) instead of an iamb ( ~ / ). Curiously enough, Robert Greene chose not to do this on the line “The mean that ‘grees with country music best;” apparently it sounded better to him to cut a syllable off of “agrees” with an apostrophe. Such shortening of words was common enough during his time period; but today it is much less welcome to the ear. If writing today, “the mean that agrees” ( ~ / ~ ~ / ) might be a better choice.

Similarly, Greene’s pronunciation of “Obscuréd” (as 3 syllables, ~ / ~ ) also is more fitting for his time period than ours. Today, that pronunciation is highly artificial; but in his time, literary convention allowed (to an extent) for the pronunciation of the -ed suffix in such cases (but it was still a little artificial).

These two poems also both offer good illustrations of how the words we naturally emphasize when speaking will change with context. Let us begin with the words “than” and “that.” As function words, they are usually not emphasized: for example, “I want more than five” or “pull that lever.” But if these word occur between two unstressed syllables, than we will add a little more stress to them automatically: we hear this in “richer than a crown,” and “cottage that affords” (and it happens to the “of” in “savour of content”), because the English ear prefers it to 3 unstressed syllables in a row.

Conversely, when 3 syllables which are naturally stressed in isolation are put next to each other, the English ear will often diminish the middle one, as in “the poor estate scorns fortune’s angry frown” and “give God ever praise.” Should these phrases have occurred in prose, we would have still heard them the same way, with a diminished “scorn,” and less stress than usual upon the word “God.”

Find this article useful in helping you write poetry? Leave a comment below.
And if you enjoy formal poetry, check out this book on your Kindle for contemporary poetry in traditional meter.


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