Metrical systems in English-language poetry
The four major types of metrical systems in English are:
- Accentual verse. This focuses on the number of stresses in a line, while ignoring the number of offbeats and syllables. (The alliterative verse of Old English could possibly be included as a special type of accentual verse.)
- Accentual-syllabic verse. This regulates both the number of stresses and the total number of syllables
- Syllabic verse. This only counts the number syllables in a line.
- Quantitative verse. This more Classical form is explained above and is considered weird and alien to English poetry.
Frequently used metres in English poetry
As mentioned previously, iambic pentameter is the most common, probably entering the language through Chaucer in imitation of his Italian inspirations before being mastered by Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser. John Milton’s Paradise Lost, most sonnets and an estimated three quarters of most everything else is written in iambic pentameter.
Lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter are commonly known as blank verse (think of the plays of Shakespeare and the great works of Milton). If they rhyme, they are heroic couplets – think Pope or Dryden. Heroic couplets were perhaps overused in the 18th century to the point they’re now mostly used for comic effect, though Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire would be a notable exception.
Though iambic pentameter is, strictly speaking, always five iambs to a row, there are occasionally deviations and variations. It must still always contain five feet, and the second foot is almost invariably an iamb… however, the first foot will sometimes change by use of inversion, so that the iamb becomes a trochee. An example would be this line from Richard III:
/ ˘ ˘ / ˘ ˘ / / ˘ /
Now is | the win | ter of | our dis | con-tent
Trochee | iamb | dibrach | spondee | iamb
Another common departure is the addition of a final unstressed syllable, which creates a weak or feminine ending. Another example from Shakespeare, this time from Hamlet (note also the inversion of the fourth foot, “that is,” after the caesura (forced pause, i.e. comma, denoted thus: ||)):
To be or not to be, || that is the question.
A caesura in general can act in many ways like a line-end, in that inversions after it are common, and the extra unstressed syllable of the feminine ending may appear before it.
Metrical variations in iambic pentameter are used strategically. For instance, here is the first line of the first quatrain of a sonnet by John Donne:
/ ˘˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
Bat-ter | my heart | three- per- | soned God | for you
Donne uses an inversion, a trochee in the first foot, to stress the key verb “batter,” before setting up a clear iambic pattern with the rest of the line.
˘ / ˘ / / / ˘ / ˘ /
as yet | but knock, | breathe, shine | and seek | to mend.
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / / / ˘ ˘ /
That I | may rise | and stand | o’er throw | me and bend
˘ / ˘ / / / ˘ / ˘ /
Your force | to break, | blow, burn | and make | me new.
In the second and fourth lines, he uses spondees in the third foot to slow down the rhythm as he lists monosyllabic verbs. The parallel rhythm and grammar of these lines highlights the comparison Donne sets up between what God does to him “as yet” (knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend) and what he asks God to do (break, blow, burn and make me new). There is an extra syllable in the final foot, which can be read as an anapest (dada DUM).
So, as long as iambic pentameter is the base from which you work, it need not consist entirely of iambs, nor need it have ten syllables. The rhythmic artistry of a Shakespeare, Milton or a Donne is arguably in their variation of iambic pentameter rather than in their strict adherence to it.
Another important metre is the ballad metre, also called the “common metre” (in, for instance, hymnody, as it is the most common hymn metre). This is a four-line stanza composed of two pairs of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, with the rhymes usually falling on the trimeter. An example from Emily Dickinson, famed for her frequent use of the ballad metre:
Great streets of silence led away
To neighbourhoods of pause –
Here was no notice – no dissent –
No universe – no laws.
Tetrameter (and its inferiority to pentameter)
It is perhaps worth noting that the tetrameter is, like the pentameter, an important metre in English poetry. It is also known as “four-beat,” “strong-stress,” “native metre,” or “four-by-four metre.” It is the metre of nursery rhymes, folk songs and, as seen above, ballads; as well as marching cadence calls, a good deal of art poetry and many songs and almost all jazz music. It has been observed to be based on doubling: two beats to each half line, two half lines to a line, two pairs of lines to a stanza.
However, four-beat, perhaps because of its association with nursery rhymes, can seem childish. In addition, in comparison to pentameter, it seems dictatorial. Pentameter does not impose itself on the natural rhythm of spoken language because of its odd number of metrical beats, and frees intonation from the repetitiveness of four-beat. Pace can also be varied in pentameter, which it cannot in tetrameter.
For variety and maturity, choose pentameter. For folkyness and catchyness, choose tetrameter. Which is probably far too harsh, but that’s the impression I get.
Also (fittingly, considering the critical weight carried by the dactyl) called the “reverse dactyl,” is a particularly light-hearted example. Each foot has two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. Examples would include ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and those awful Dr Seuss books. However, Byron’s Don Juan and Eminem’s The Way I Am are both serious works that make good use of anapestic tetrameter. Usually, in non-comic works, the metre will be used in a less regular manner, with caesuras and other feet breaking up the driving regularity.
Designed (or discovered, so he claims) by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is constricted from feet in which the first syllable is stressed and may be followed by a variable number of unstressed syllables. It’s meant to imitate the rhythm of natural speech, and Hopkins reckoned he’d observed it in natural patters of English folk songs, spoken poetry, Shakespeare and Milton, for instance, and reckoned it was an older rhymatic structure inherited from the Norman side of English literary heritage.
Some critics reckon he just coined a name for poems with mixed, irregular feet. However, while sprung rhythm allows for any number of syllables to a foot, once the feet to a line is chosen, it doesn’t vary throughout the poem, which is what separates it from free verse. It may be classed as a form of accentual verse (see above). Here is an example from Hopkins’ Pied Beauty (scansion mine, not in original poem):
|Glory | be to | God for | dappled | things–
For | skies of | couple- | colour as a | brinded | cow;
For | rose-moles | all in | stipple upon | trout that | swim;
He would also use diacritical marks on syllables which should be drawn out (acute, e.g. à) or quickly uttered (grave, e.g. é). See later on in Pied Beauty:
What | ever is | fickle, | freckléd | (who knows | how?)
With | swíft, | slów; sweet, | sóur; a | dázzle, | dím;
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