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.
Sadly as some old mediaeval knight
Gazed at the arms he could no longer wield,
The sword two-handed and the shining shield
Suspended in the hall, and full in sight,
While secret longings for the lost delight
Of tourney or adventure in the field
Came over him, and tears but half concealed
Trembled and fell upon his beard of white,
So I behold these books upon their shelf,
My ornaments and arms of other days;
Not wholly useless, though no longer used,
For they remind me of my other self,
Younger and stronger, and the pleasant ways
In which I walked, now clouded and confused.
Commonly sonnets are written upon love; second-most commonly they are written upon death/mortality. Here, Longfellow writes upon–both, actually. Not romantic love, but any bookish person recognizes his love of books. And not quite mortality, but still a sigh for the loss of youth. This matter may have been well written using another form; but the sonnet form particularly suits it.
The poem is rather enjambed; but those familiar with reading sonnets should be able to read through the end of lines to the punctuation. If you are newer to enjambed lines, this is a good poem to start practicing with, as the lines breaks aren’t so disruptive as to make it difficult to understand the content of the poem (in contrast, Shelley’s Ozymandias, or Lewis’s sonnet cycle on grief both are very hard to follow if one halts at the end of each line). Practice reading it aloud, pausing only where punctuation asks you to pause. The rhyme manifests itself without being forced. Likewise the meter does not need to be overstressed; natural speech patterns produce the metrical rhythm by themselves.
I really enjoy this poem, and taste in it a foreboding of my own future. Alas, I am not nearly so vigorous a literary knight as he, and shall likely reach this state at an earlier age. Well–perhaps. May I continue to train, and adventure, and not let my mental limbs stiffen with premature age…
In the meantime, our new technology gives us an additional context for this poem, undreamt of by Longfellow: for as I peruse the many books on my Kindle, the bookshelf behind me bears long-untouched paper tomes from my younger years.
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In his chamber, weak and dying,
Was the Norman baron lying;
Loud, without, the tempest thundered
And the castle-turret shook,
In this fight was Death the gainer,
Spite of vassal and retainer,
And the lands his sires had plundered,
Written in the Doomsday Book.
By his bed a monk was seated,
Who in humble voice repeated
Many a prayer and pater-noster,
From the missal on his knee;
And, amid the tempest pealing,
Sounds of bells came faintly stealing,
Bells, that from the neighboring kloster
Rang for the Nativity.
In the hall, the serf and vassal
Held, that night their Christmas wassail;
Many a carol, old and saintly,
Sang the minstrels and the waits;
And so loud these Saxon gleemen
Sang to slaves the songs of freemen,
That the storm was heard but faintly,
Knocking at the castle-gates.
Till at length the lays they chanted
Reached the chamber terror-haunted,
Where the monk, with accents holy,
Whispered at the baron’s ear.
Tears upon his eyelids glistened,
As he paused awhile and listened,
And the dying baron slowly
Turned his weary head to hear.
“Wassail for the kingly stranger
Born and cradled in a manger!
King, like David, priest, like Aaron,
Christ is born to set us free!”
And the lightning showed the sainted
Figures on the casement painted,
And exclaimed the shuddering baron,
In that hour of deep contrition
He beheld, with clearer vision,
Through all outward show and fashion,
Justice, the Avenger, rise.
All the pomp of earth had vanished,
Falsehood and deceit were banished,
Reason spake more loud than passion,
And the truth wore no disguise.
Every vassal of his banner,
Every serf born to his manor,
All those wronged and wretched creatures,
By his hand were freed again.
And, as on the sacred missal
He recorded their dismissal,
Death relaxed his iron features,
And the monk replied, “Amen!”
Many centuries have been numbered
Since in death the baron slumbered
By the convent’s sculptured portal,
Mingling with the common dust:
But the good deed, through the ages
Living in historic pages,
Brighter grows and gleams immortal,
Unconsumed by moth or rust.
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:
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.
The Children’s Hour
Between the dark and the daylight,
When the light is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
Known as the Children’s Hour.
I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.
From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.
A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.
A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!
They climb up into my turret
O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.
They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his mouse-tower on the Rhine!
Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old moustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!
I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
And put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.
And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, for ever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!
The Rainy Day
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.
My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the leaves of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.
Be still, my heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark, and dreary.