Tag Archives: anapestic

Sustained Amphibrach

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 Storyteller

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.


Faye (video)


Narrative poem in anapestic meter by the Bearded Poet. Enjoy!

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Some Limericks

Today we get a little light verse. Poetry doesn’t have to always be noble sentiment and visionary beauty, after all.

The limerick is a simple comic form, composed in anapestic meter. The first, second, and fifth line each have three beats apiece, and are rhymed together. The third and fourth lines are shorter (only two beats each), and they get their own rhyme. The first foot of any line may be clipped; that is, instead of a full metrical foot, it may be missing the initial unaccented beat: thus an anapestic foot [- – /] may instead only be [- /]. Additionally, the end of a line may feature a feminine rhyme; such an anapestic foot would become [- – / -]. But even with such adjustments, the lines maintain a 3-beat character.

The first two lines in a limerick typically introduce the subject; the next two provide the set-up; and the final line delivers the punchline. The point of the limerick is the punchline–which is commonly “lowbrow” humor. The snobs may dismiss the form for this, and even reject the poetic form as “mere rhyme;” but lovers of traditional English meter will continue to delight in the form. Meanwhile it is an excellent place to start learning how to write poetry, because it develops the metrical skill, and provides an immediate payoff in enjoyment. Anyway, I hope you enjoy these.


Said an envious, erudite ermine,
“There’s one thing I cannot determine:
.            When a girl wears my coat,
.            She’s a person of note.
When I wear it, I’m called only vermin.”


A young schizophrenic named Struther,
Who learned of the death of his Brother,
.            Said, “I know that its bad,
.            But I don’t feel too sad.
After all, I still have each other.”


There once was a girl named Irene,
Who lived on distilled kerosene.
.            But she started absorbin’
.            A new hydrocarbon,
And since then has never benzene!


A bather whose clothing was strewed,
By winds that left her quite nude,
.            Saw a man come along,
.            And unless we are wrong,
You expected this line to be lewd.


There was a young girl from Rabat,
Who had triplets, Nat, Pat and Tat;
.            It was fun in the breeding,
.            But hell in the feeding,
When she found she had no tit for Tat.


A limerick fan from Australia
Regarded his work as a failure:
.            His verses were fine
.            Until the fourth line



Readers, please, post some of your own favorites below.

Use of Meter in The Highwayman

If a student of mine told me they wanted to write a poem that was half iambic, half anapestic, I would probably tell them that that sounded like a bad idea. Then if they explained that they weren’t going to alternate meters between lines or stanzas, but simply write every line in such a way that it was a mix of iambic (~ /) and anapestic (~ ~ /) feet, I might be nearly certain that the effort was doomed.

But then I read the Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, and I have to admit that it can be done, and fantastically so. (But Alexander Pope could have predicted this: remember his maxim that is an exception meets the purpose of a rule, then that exception becomes the rule for that case.)

The Highwayman is written in hexameter (6 beats per line), but a critic would have a hard time telling if it were in iambic or anapestic hexameter. Consider how this stanza scans:

Over the cobbles he clattered, and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Pleating a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

/ - - / - - / - - / - - / - /
- - / - - / - - / - - / - / - /
- / - - / - - / - - / - - / - /
- - / - / - / -
/ - / - / -
/ - - / - / - / - - / - /

So why does he do this? And more importantly, why does it work?

The Highwayman is a short narrative poem that describes how a particular road and particular inn came to be haunted: a highwayman had a lover there, and when a trap was laid for him at the inn, she sacrificed herself to warn him; and when he found out about her death, charged recklessly back to get killed himself. Now, what form meter best supports this theme?

“The highwayman came riding” scans naturally as iambic (~ / ~ / ~ / ~). But stop for a moment and imitate the sound of a riding horse– ta-ta-tup ta-ta-tup ta-ta-tup– that scans as anapestic. An anapestic rhythm can be employed to suggest the galloping horse so featured in the poem. Except that I have written before that anapestic meter tends toward jaunty, or even comic, substance, and this poem is in no way comic…

Noyes’ final product seems to have seized the horns of this dilemma. The anapestic feet suggest the galloping horse throughout; but the iambic feet keep the poem grounded, so that it never becomes too jaunty—on the contrary, between the iambic feet and the verbal repetitions, the poem develops with a measured and suspense-generating tone. While most of the lines have a mix of iambic and anapestic feet, the anapests dominate the front half of the lines (each line has a pause between the first three beats and the second three beats), and iambs dominate the back half. Except for the occasional perfect line:

Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.

Our galloping horse—perfectly anapestic. But in the next stanza:

King George’s men marching, up to the old inn-door.

Almost entirely iambic–which fits with men marching. And actually, that line can be read either as

(- / - / - / - / - - / - /) or (- / - / - / - || - / - / - /)

the second reading provides a marching step at the pause between the phrases, for a regular march (note that the comma which creates the pause is not at all grammatically necessary; but it is consistent with the rhythm established by the poem).

The meter in the Highwayman accomplishes another goal as well: it allows the author to tell his story with the kind of language fit for telling a story. You see, in short lyric poetry, readers expect a kind of elevated diction and speech; so grammatical inversions and other like irregularities (to a limited extent) are accepted, and even enjoyed. But in a narrative the expectations—and therefore the rules–are different: if we are going to read 96 lines of a story, it had better be written in a flowing, natural pattern, so that we never find it a labor to read.

And it never is a labor. Noyes gives us an engaging and suspenseful story, perfect for telling over a campfire, or in the sitting room in front of the fireplace, in a time when there were no television sets. In fact, I heartily recommend you tell it to somebody that way, as metrical poetry is a beauty to be enjoyed by the ear, not the eye. Read aloud, you will hear the rhythm—without becoming distracted by it—a continuing series of three beats (each hexameter line is divided by a pause into two sections of three beats, and the shorter lines are also three beats each).

Oh, that brings up an interesting poetic device: the caesura as a beat. Note that lines like

Then look for me by the moonlight,
Watch for me by the moonlight,

clearly have 3 beats, but

And the highwayman came riding,
Riding, riding

Appears to have only two in that second line. Well, it would have only two if we were racing through it in prose–and the highwayman came riding riding riding–as our eye might pick it up. But when reading it aloud, as a story, we have a hard pause (the caesura) at the comma, so “Riding, riding,” becomes

/ - || / -

with the pause doing the duty of a poetic foot (in this case, / -). Anyway, read it aloud; read it aloud to someone as a story (don’t tell them it’s a poem, either). Then you’ll feel the beauty of the piece.

Don’t miss this other post about the artistry behind The Highwayman!

And if you liked this post, you might also want to check out this one on Art in Poe’s The Raven, or these other posts analyzing poetic construction. Or, if you are new to formal English meter (or just have to write about it for a school assignment), this post will give you a starting explanation.

The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes (1880-1958)

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
.     And the highwayman came riding,
.     Riding, riding,
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door.

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
.     And he rode with a jeweled twinkle,
.     His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jeweled sky.

Over the cobbles he clattered, and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
.     But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
.     Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Pleating a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

And dark in the dark old inn yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened, his face was white and peaked;
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
.     But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
.     The landlord’s red-lipped daughter,
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say:

“One kiss, my bonnie sweetheart, I’m after a prize tonight,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
.     Then look for me by the moonlight,
.     Watch for me by the moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by the moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

He rose upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair i’the casement!  His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
.     And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
.     (oh, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.

He did not come at the dawning: he did not come at noon;
And out o’ the tawny sunset, before the rise o’ the moon.
When the rode was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
.     A red-coat troop came marching,
.     Marching, marching,
King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

They said no word to the landlord, they drank his ale instead
But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed;
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
.     There was death at every window;
.     And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the rode that he would ride.

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest;
They had bound a musket beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
“Now keep good watch!” and they kissed her.  She heard the dead man say—
.     Look for me by the moonlight;
.     Watch for me by the moonlight;
I’ll come to thee in the moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years.
.     Till. now, on the stroke of midnight,
.     Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it!  The trigger at least was hers!

The tip of one finger touched it; she strove no more for the rest!
Up, she stood up to attention, with the barrel beneath her breast,
She would not risk their hearing! she would not strive again;
.     For the road lay bare in the moonlight,
.     Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins in the moonlight throbbed to her love’s refrain.

Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot! Had they heard it?  The horse-hoofs were ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance?  Were they deaf that did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
.     The highwayman came riding,
.     Riding, riding,
The red-coats looked to their priming!  She stood up, straight and still!

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence!  Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer!  Her face was like a light!
Her eyes grew wide for a moment!  She drew one last deep breath,
.     Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
.     Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.

He turned, he spurred to the West; he did not know she stood
Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own red blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it; his face grew grey to hear
.     How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
.     The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

Back he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs i’ the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
.     When they shot him down on the highway,
.     Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.

And still, of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
.     A highwayman comes riding,
.     Riding, riding,
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn door.



Learn more about this poem:
Word Choices in the Highwayman
Meter in the Highwayman