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.
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 Percy Bysshe Shelley
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun
O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
Thou dost float and run,
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.
The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of Heaven
In the broad daylight
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight:
Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear
Until we hardly see–we feel that it is there.
All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud.
As, when night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and heaven is overflowed.
What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.
Like a poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:
Like a high-born maiden
In a palace tower,
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:
Like a glow-worm golden
In a dell of dew,
Its aerial hue
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view:
Like a rose embowered
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflowered,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet these heavy-winged thieves.
Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.
Teach us, sprite or bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
Or triumphal chaunt
Matched with thine, would be all
But an empty vaunt–
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.
What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?
With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest, but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.
Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.
Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!
Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now!
Any particular line of poetry may be either end-stopped or enjambed. In end-stopped poetry, the writer places a natural pause at the end of each line (typically with a comma or period), which maintains a particular rhythm and emphasizes the rhymes. In contrast, an enjambed line does not stop at the end of a line, but runs right into the next without a pause. For example, in Shelley’s Ozymandius, we find the following enjambed lines (underlined):
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
While this poem features 5 enjambed lines, end-stopped lines nonetheless dominate—as they do in nearly every poem. The end-stopped lines support the sound-structure of the poem; in the enjambed lines, the rhyme continues to support the sound structure while the rhythm of the pausing makes a slight deviation to accommodate a larger phrase. “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert,” is 6 beats—too large for any one line (which are 5 beats each). But as this is the description that best suits the poet, he has opted for enjambing the line. It is a simple trade-off: better description at the cost of a regular rhythm of pauses. And since the structure is to support content (instead of dictating it), it is an excellent trade-off in this case. Since Shelley has not overburdened this poem with enjambment, the cost is minimal.
The amount of enjambment acceptable to Shelley’s readers in his time is rather greater than it is now—simply because modern readers do not read so much poetry. But reading poetry, as with reading various types of prose, is a skill that improves with practice—or atrophies with the lack of use. And this presents us with the following problem:
Metrical poetry is an auditory experience. However, most of our contact with poetry today is through reading—a visual experience. As a result, we are tempted to misinterpret an apparent visual cue (the end of a line) as a audio cue (a pause or stop), resulting in butchering an otherwise pleasant line. That is, we read, “Two vast an trunkless legs of stone. [Hard stop.] Stand in the desert.” And at the end of the poem, “Round the decay. Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare. The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
In other words, an unfamiliarity with enjambed poetry often results in us reading it very badly. And it is not simply a matter of making it sound bad: when we break up phrases like this, our minds also divide the portions into multiple units, trying to make sense of them separately instead of together. As a result, we often find the poem more difficult to understand. Many people who do not “get” a particular poem are wrestling with precisely this problem. One of my favorite poems by C.S. Lewis is heavily enjambed; and I find many people cannot even read it—but they like it if I read it aloud to them.
This problem isn’t really new: even Elizabethan playwrights occasionally had to give some of their actors their scripts written as prose, because those actors would keep pausing at the end of every poetic line, ruining their delivery. But the problem is more widespread now, as even colleges often fail to teach about metrical poetry and enjambment; and much of modern/post-modern “free verse” divides poetic lines without rule (and some free verse eschews all punctuation entirely). We stop at the ends of lines, whether we should or not.
So how do we fix this? Practice, of course. Only by reading poetry will we get better at reading it. So go and read. And pay attention to things like punctuation: if a line ends with no punctuation, you probably aren’t supposed to stop.
Here’s the first stanza of one of my poems:
Once upon a time when heroes fought
With iron sword and shield,
And once when military masters taught
New champions to wield
Their weapons ‘gainst the mightiest of foes…
Once when knights would battle giants, orges, trolls,
And even these would yield,
When armies of the mightiest of souls
Would storm what battlefield
Their emperors and rightful princes chose…
How many times did you pause when reading that?