You may have learned in your English classes the names for different types of poetic feet, including
Iamb, which is two syllables, with the second stressed ( ~ / )
Trochee, which is two syllables, with the first stressed ( / ~ )
Anapest, which is three syllables, with the last stressed ( ~ ~ / )
Dactyl, which is three syllables, with the first stressed ( / ~ ~ )
Amphibrach, which is three syllables, with the middle stressed ( ~ / ~ )
Amphimacer, which is three syllables, with the first and last stressed ( / ~ / )
Spondee, two stressed syllables, and
Pyrrhic, two unstressed syllables.
These terms are actually useful when describing Greek or Latin poetry; but in the practice of English poetry, the Amphimacer, Spondee, and Pyrrhic feet are nearly useless categories, since the natural pronunciation of English words make it nearly impossible to create lines written entirely in Amphimacers, Spondees, or Pyrrhics. In actual practice, about 90% of formal English poetry is written in iambic meter, with the other 10% divided between trochaic, anapestic, and a fraction of percent to dactylic (mostly comic verse, like the double dactyl form). To my knowledge, not a single poem has ever been published in sustained Amphibrach—so I wrote one, just for play with it. I then showed it to one of my poet friends, who, celebrating the joke, announced that the poem was actually written in anapestic meter, with a clipped foot beginning each line, and a feminine rhyme at the end.
The kids at the library love when he visits
To read to them poems and dramas and stories;
Such magical voice! oh yes everyone says it’s
A joy and a wonder—they always want more. He’s
A bard and a wizard, an actor and teacher,
With morals and counsel dispensed with his reading;
Though human, he seems more some magical creature,
But just what the children have always been needing.
Adults at the coffeeshop welcome his coming
Escaping monotonous humdrum and plodding;
And list’ning, they’ll contemplate what they’re becoming
Between sips of coffee and fiction, and nodding,
They’ll think of the things that they’ve known and forgotten
Now mentioned again in the stories they’re hearing;
They’ll recollect lessons from battles they’ve fought in,
And what they are teaching the children they’re rearing.
Then off to the rest home, a song and a smile
Announces him to the infirm and the weakened;
Delighted they visit, and listen awhile
To tales that he promised the previous weekend.
With joy and respect he will read to the weary,
And pray with them, ease them, and calm their upstarting;
With heart full of loving and eyes a bit teary
He’ll read from his books to the old and departing.
The children, they get from him wonder and learning,
The grown, they receive him an ally in aging,
The old, just the comfort for which they’ve been yearning,
For him, these rewards for the stories he’s staging.
If you enjoyed that, you can listen to some more anapestic meter here.
If you have a Kindle, you can pick up my book, Visions, for only 99 cents!
And if you’d like to learn more about meter, a good place to start is here.
Anybody who is trying to sound intelligent about formal poetry will probably drop the words “iambic pentameter.” And that truly is a fine meter (and, along with iambic tetrameter, one of the two meters that describe the vast majority of English formal poetry); but I personally have a preference for iambic heptameter myself. Having 7 beats in a line instead of 5 places the major rhymes a little farther apart, and provides space for internal rhymes as well. Furthermore bulkier words and phrases can be written in a heptameter line, which might not fit comfortably in a shorter line. Meanwhile the longer line seems to have no adverse effect on pacing–but listen to an example yourself, and see if you agree. This is The Glove and the Lions:
If you like heptameter poetry you can also check out some of my own work, such as the poems Rebekah or Complementary Beauties. Better yet, help support a new poet by purchasing Visions on your Kindle for only 99 cents!
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.
I’ve posted once before on Feminine Rhyme, but as some visitors have been looking for more examples of it, I figured it was time to post some more. Which isn’t the easiest to find, actually—for the vast majority of English poetry is written in Masculine Rhyme.
“Masculine” rhyme refers to rhyming words with their stressed final syllable (for example: cat/mat, refrain/complain, respect/collect, learn/return). “Feminine” rhyme refers to rhyming words by their stressed penultimate syllable (for example: keeping/weeping, smarter/barter, fire/desire, collection/correction). Since most English poetry is written in iambic meter (with a rhythm that goes – / – / – / – / ), the final syllable in each line tend to be stressed, resulting in masculine rhyme. One contributing factor in this in English there a more word choices for words with final stress (including all single syllable words) than there are for words with penultimate stress; and many of the words with penultimate stress are that way because of suffixes like –ing and –er, which the poet may not wish to overuse.
However, some important and commonly-used words still have penultimate stress, such as fire, power, forever, and beauty; so a poet must be able to master feminine rhyme if he or she means to use them. Often, poems that are otherwise dominated by masculine rhymes will have a few lines of feminine rhyme specifically to accommodate these kinds of words. For example, Sir Philip Sydney uses feminine rhyme in the sestet of his sonnet on Desire:
. But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought,
. In vain thou mad’st me to vain things aspire,
. In vain thou kindlist all thy smoky fire.
. For virtue hath this better lesson taught,
. Within myself to seek my only hire,
. Desiring naught but how to kill desire.
And he uses the same rhymes in his Sonnet From the Aged. Meanwhile William Wordsworth used feminine rhyme in the octet of his sonnet on London, 1802:
. Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
. England hath need of thee: she is a fen
. Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
. Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
. Have forfeited their ancient English dower
. Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
. Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
. And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
When feminine rhymes are used more frequently, they can alter the tone of the poem. In the following poem by Ben Johnson, the feminine rhyme actually creates the framing for each stanza of the poem—and gives us a narrative voice that is more personal and less pedantic:
Ah! do not wanton with those eyes,
. Lest I be sick with seeing;
Nor cast them down, but let them rise,
. Lest shame destroy their being.
Ah, be not angry with those fires,
. For then their threats will kill me;
Nor look too kind on my desires,
. For then my hopes will spill me.
Ah! do not steep them in they tears,
. For so will sorrow slay me;
Nor spread them as distraught with fears,—
. Mine own enough betray me.
You can note in this poem that feminine rhyme can work across multiple words (as in kill me/spill me and slay me/betray me), since they are still rhyming the second-to-last syllable on each line.
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:
Think’st thou to seduce me then with words that have no meaning?
Parrots so can learn to prate, our speech by pieces gleaning;
Nurses teach their children so about the time of weaning.
Learn to speak first, then to woo; to wooing much pertaineth:
He that courts us, wanting art, soon falters when he feigneth,
Looks asquint on his discourse, and smiles when he complaineth.
Skillful anglers hide their hooks, fit baits for every season;
But with crooked pins fish thou, as babes do that want reason:
Gudgeons only can be caught with such poor tricks of treason.
Ruth forgive me, if I erred from humane heart’s compassion,
When I laughed sometimes too much to see thy foolish fashion:
But, alas, who less could do that found so good occasion?
And finally, one more example of trochaic verse—although in this case, the poet only rhymes every other line:
Sorrows of Werther
by William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)
Werther had a love for Charlotte
Such as word could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.
Charlotte was a married lady,
And a moral man was Werther,
And for all the wealth of Indies
Would do nothing for to hurt her.
So he sighed and pined and ogled,
And his passion boiled and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more by it was troubled.
Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.
Hmm, I suppose I can’t really mention trochaic verse and feminine rhyme without referencing Poe’s The Raven, which uses a great deal of internal feminine rhyme (that is, rhyming insides of lines, instead of only at the end). But instead of reprinting that, you can listen to it here.
For those of you interested in this kind of rhyme (or just writing a report on it for school), I’ll provide a few more examples in the next entry. And for those of you who are already well-read, I invite you to suggest some examples in the comments section.
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.