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.
A poet might strive for perfection when crafting a poem in formal English meter; but it is very easy to miss the mark, and complete a work without recognizing some mistake. Today we’re going to consider a short poem written by Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), as an example of a good poem that missed the mark. Now this is not for the purpose of nit-picking, and it is in no way meant to devalue the work (which remains a good poem); but is intended to draw a prospective writer’s attention to the process of crafting a poem, and to some of the decisions that go into the act. (And if you have no interest in writing, well, then simply enjoy the poem.)
On Monsieur’s Departure
I grieve and dare not show my discontent,
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate,
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant,
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate.
I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned.
My care is like my shadow in the sun,
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done.
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be suppressed.
Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, love, and be so kind.
Let me float or sink, be high or low.
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die and so forget what love e’er meant.
Those familiar with English meter will have immediately recognized that his was written in iambic pentameter—that is, in lines of alternating stress ( ~ / ~ / ) with 5 stresses in each line. If one is to read the poem aloud, one’s natural speech patterns will produce a rhythm like this throughout most of the poem: ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
There are a couple of deviations from this rhythm—but some of these are not themselves imperfections; for there is a difference between being perfect and being perfectly regular. For example, the line “Let me float or sink…” begins with a stressed syllable instead of an unstressed syllable (the technical term for this is a “clipped foot”); but this in no way interrupts the rhythm or diminishes the poem: since there was a pause at the end of the line immediately preceding this one, the ear accepts the missing off-beat without surprise. Likewise, it is no imperfection to end two lines with “pursue it” and “rue it” (the technical term for this is “feminine rhyme”), since the poet has made sure to rhyme the stressed syllables, and again, the pause at the end of the line supports the minute deviation from regular iambic meter.
The whole line “Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,” ( / ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ ) is not in regular meter; but this too is an example of an acceptable deviation. The first word, “follows,” has a natural stress opposite to the regular meter ( / ~ instead of ~ / ), but it is still two syllables with one stress; so the whole line maintains 5 beats.
The mistake comes in the line following. “Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done.” produces 6 beats instead of 5: / ~ / ~ /, / ~ / ~ /. Now, this imperfection does not particularly stand out: at least I did not notice it the first time I read the poem. And it does not particularly bother me that one line in the poem has 6 beats while the rest have 5. But if I were the poet still in the act of writing it, I would work to correct the matter. Which makes me wonder how the error might have come to pass—
When I was in elementary school, the curriculum for poetry was terrible. And one of the faults of the material was that it instructed students to count the syllables in a line. According to that instruction, such lines as the ones above should all have 10 syllables. And indeed, our imperfect line does have exactly 10 syllables. But we are writing in English meter, not Japanese; and in English prosody the syllable count is not in fact what drives the rhythm, but rather the beat count—in this case, 5 beats (stressed syllables) make up each pentameter line.
Now I do not know if Queen Elizabeth made her mistake because she was counting syllables instead of beats; but I do know that some writers today will make mistakes this way. So be on alert when writing, and read your work aloud: listen to how it sounds (and to how it sounds when you read it again a day later, separated from habit of forced rhythm), and mark the beats with your ear. In this way you can be more sure to count the right way, and produce a work of flowing beauty that does not sneak an extra measure into its song.
If you liked the above poem, you can read more poetry from this time period by checking out Sir Phillip Sydney, Edmund Spenser, or Sir Walter Raleigh. Or, if you’re interested in formal poetry being written today, you can check out some samples from my book, Visions–and support an artist by buying the book on Amazon Kindle for only 99 cents!
Even in the age of free verse, people still read Robert Frost. Or at least they read “The Road Not Taken,” anyway, which gets recited in a few thousand graduation speeches every year. That is, indeed, a fine poem; though I suspect it gains more popularity because people can read it to applaud themselves. But also popular is “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which does not afford the same pleasure—but is (in my opinion) a rather better poem.
So how did Frost succeed in continuing to be read, even as other metrical verse fell out of popular circulation? I don’t know for certain; but I can think of several aspects of his work which might begin to account for it. First, Frost knew how to write in meter such that the language remained natural. Second, his rhymes (when he wrote in rhyme) were also natural word choices, instead of strained ones. Third, he had a gift of showing forth the beauty of many everyday and commonplace moments in life. His subject choices resonated with people—and did not require some esoteric background experience or education to connect with. (Even when he wrote of peculiarly New England experience, a reader did not have to be a New Englander to “get” it.)
Here is a sample of one of those commonplace moments rendered beautifully in verse:
Going for Water
The well was dry beside the door,
And so we went with pail and can
Across the fields behind the house
To seek the brook if still it ran;
Not loth to have excuse to go,
Because the autumn eve was fair
(Though chill), because the fields were ours,
And by the brook our woods were there.
We ran as if to meet the moon
That slowly dawned behind the trees,
The barren boughs without the leaves,
Without the birds, without the breeze.
But once within the wood, we paused
Like gnomes that hid us from the moon,
Ready to run to hiding new
With laughter when she found us soon.
Each laid on other a staying hand
To listen ere we dared to look,
And in the hush we joined to make
We heard, we knew we heard the brook.
A note as from a single place,
A slender tinkling fall that made
Now drops that floated on the pool
Like pearls, and now a silver blade.
Here’s another mundane moment made beautiful:
A Time to Talk
When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
I particularly like the last line: he trim it two only two beats instead of four, cutting short his work to go talk with his friend.
I’ll give you one more today; and just for fun I’ll print it here as if it were prose: notice how you read it how the poetry still jumps out loud and clear:
A Brook in the City
The farmhouse lingers, though averse to square with the new city street it has to wear a number in. But what about the brook that held the house as in an elbow-crook? I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength and impulse, having dipped a finger length and made it leap my knuckle, having tossed a flower to try its currents where they crossed. The meadow grass could be cemented down from growing under pavements of a town; the apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame. Is water wood to serve a brook the same? How else dispose of an immortal force no longer needed? Staunch it at its source with cinder loads dumped down? The brook was thrown deep in a sewer dungeon under stone in fetid darkness still to live and run—and all for nothing it had ever done except forget to go in fear perhaps. No one would know except for ancient maps that such a brook ran water. But I wonder if from its being kept forever under, the thoughts may not have risen that so keep this new-built city from both work and sleep.
You can read more by Frost here and here. And for a great discussion of how Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening is a great example of how poetry works, I recommend John Ciardi’s essay, “How Does a Poem Mean.”
What are some of your favorite poems by Frost? Say in the comments below.
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.
Miniver Cheevy by Edwin Arlington Robinson is written in a curious meter: each stanza consists of three lines of 4 beats followed by a single line of two beats. Now as most poems which run 4 beats in a line do so throughout (or alternate with 3 beat lines), the unusual choice in this poem rather startles the ear. Consider the beginning (better yet, first click on the link for the whole poem, and read that–otherwise the following discussion will spoil it for you):
Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
. Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
. And he had reasons.
The sudden rhyme brings an unexpected and abrupt end to the stanza, at once engaging our attention. It is unfamiliar to us; and yet, it is not unnatural. “And he had reasons” sounds like an interruption in the flow, but it is exactly the type of self-interruption a storyteller would use. Here the narrator is telling us the story of Miniver Cheevy: he sets the tone, and is ready to run with it–but then stops for a moment to give us this important explanation.
Well, so much for the first stanza. But he employs the same metrical abruptness in every stanza, and he surely isn’t interrupting himself in those places. And stanza after stanza, our ear notes the short line, and wonders at it. Why, there’s supposed to be another beat or two there! Why is the poet doing this?
Then we get to the final stanza, and we understand:
Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
. Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
. And kept on drinking.
The final line is perfect, and justifies the entire poem. The poet has painted a picture of a man who complains about his mundane life and desires his fantasy of the past–and then drowns himself in alcohol in order to cope with that. Miniver coughs, and calls it cruel fate that he was born into the wrong time period; but we see what he cannot (or will not). And this is made clearer in 2 beats rather than 4, both as a matter of wit, and because the line stands out metrically. For 8 stanzas, our ear has noted this line, a sense of anticipation building up; this is the payoff.
It is often a good idea to write with the end in mind. Here, the poet almost certainly had the end in mind before beginning this poem. An image of a bitter drunk, captured in that last sentence–and then the construction of the entire build-up, both semantically and metrically, to support this line.
In my own writing, I have on several occasions only selected a meter after selecting a particular phrase that I wanted in the poem. This could be the end, or a particularly important image earlier in the poem. But having that particular phrase as a goal became not so much a constraining as a creative force for the rest of the poem. Every word, every phrase, every beat, had purpose.
If you haven’t been writing with the end in mind, I encourage you to give it a try. Whether you are writing to paint a picture, make an argument, or simply to express your own emotion or person, your end result will be both clearer and more powerful than before.