A Guide to Poetry 1: On Metrics 1: General Overview

I wasn’t having a very fun time of it in the run-up to Christmas, and so I did what any mentally abnormal person might do and started writing about poetry. I don’t know whether you would call it an essay, a treatise, a project or what, but all in all it was very cathartic, and it necessitated me filling in some huge gaps I had in my knowledge and my ability as a writer.

I don’t know whether it might be as useful to anyone else, but in case it is, I’m putting it up on here piece by piece. The first section is on the basics of metrics, which I later go into more detail on, looking at metrical systems from all over the world including France, Spain, and Italy, and the Ancient world. Later topics cover traditional verse forms and attempts at writing in them.

As it was done very idiosyncratically, I don’t have the sources to hand, but I suspect George Saintsbury, F.R. Leavis (New Critics in general actually), Stephen Fry, Dr Johnson and a fat old dose of Wiki helped substantially.

If anyone does find this to be helpful and wants to have a crack at writing their own poetry, I’d love to read it and offer an amateur exegesis if you’d like. Anyway, here is the first section – a background on metre and feet.

Metre

Metre is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order. The study of metres and forms of versification is known as prosody.

Many poems in classical languages used a scheme known as quantitative metre, where patterns are based on syllable weight rather than stress. In dactylic hexameter of Classical Latin and Classical Greek, for example, each of the six feet making up the line was either a dactyl (long-short-short) or spondee (long-long), where a long syllable was literally one that took longer to pronounce than a short syllable: specifically, a syllable consisting of a long vowel or diphthong or followed by two consonants. The stress patterns of the words made no difference to the metre. A number of other ancient languages, such as Sanskrit and Classical Arabic, also used quantitative metre.

Nowadays, though, the familiar type of metre in English-language poetry is called qualitative metre – instead of long and short, we have stressed (or accented*) and unstressed (unaccented), respectively, with stressed syllables coming at regular intervals – e.g., in iambic pentameter, typically every even-numbered syllable.

N.B. Many Romance language poems utilise a scheme that is somewhat similar but where the position of only one particular stressed syllable (e.g. the last) needs to be fixed. The metre of the old Germanic poetry of languages like Old Norse and Old English, whilst radically different, was still based on stress patterns.

An example of a commonly used metrical line (the most common by far in English) would be iambic pentameter (meaning to have five iambs). The term describes the particular rhythm that the words establish in that line. That rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables; these small groups of syllables are called “feet.”

* An accent, then, is the stressed syllable of a polysyllabic word, or a monosyllabic word that receives stress because it belongs to an “open class” of words (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) or because of “contrastive” or “rhetorical” stress.

Feet

The metre of the verse, in most Western classical poetic traditions, can be described as a sequence of feet, each foot being a specific sequence of syllable types – such as the unstressed/stressed (the norm in English poetry or long/short (as in most classical or Greek poetry).

To stick with iambic pentameter as an example, it is a sequence of five iambic feet or iambs, which consist of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one – “da-DUM.”

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

Metric variations

For quantitative languages, substitute stressed for long, and unstressed for short.

Disyllables

Pyrrhus/dibrach – pyrrhic – unstressed + unstressed

Iamb – iambic – unstressed + stressed

Trochee/choree – trochaic – stressed + unstressed

Spondee – Spondaic – stressed + stressed

Trisyllables

Tribrach – tribrachic – unstressed + unstressed + unstressed

Dactyl – dactylic – stressed + unstressed + unstressed

Amphibrach – amphibrachic – unstressed + stressed + unstressed

Anapest (/antidactylus) – anapestic – unstressed + unstressed + stressed

Tetrasyllables

Choriamb – choriambic – stressed + unstressed + unstressed + stressed

And so on. The most oft-encountered of these are the iamb, trochee (as an inversion of the iamb), spondee (in Classical languages especially), dactyl (ditto) and the anapest.

Count the number of feet in a line. If there’s one foot, the line is monometer. Two is dimeter. Three is trimeter. Four is tetrameter. Five is pentameter. Six is hexameter. Seven in Heptameter. Eight is octameter. For example, if the feet are iambs, and there are five feet to a line, then it’s called iambic pentameter. If the feet are primarily dactyls, and there are six feet to a line, then it’s dactylic hexameter.

Scansion

The act of determining, and graphically representing, the metrical character of a line of verse. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, as scansion can become a tiresome exercise of prosodists competing to see who has the best ear for metre (mine is dreadful): just provide a rough key for notation.

I am using the ‘ictus and breve’ notation. So:

A stressed syllable is denoted thus: /

An unstressed syllable is denoted thus: ˘

Furthermore, I’m using feet scansion, which means I divide the line into feet using this: |

I’m also observing caesuras in some cases, which will be denoted thus: ||

Put them altogether, and here’s the scansion of a famous line of Shakespeare denoted:

˘ / ˘ / ˘ / / ˘ ˘ / ˘

To be | or not | to be, || that is | the ques- tion

Next: Metrical systems within English language poetry

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