Poetic Meter:

An Old-Fashioned Simple Explanation

by Richard Moore

    I was much bemused, reading in the current issue of a literary magazine an essay which said how hard it was to explain the traditional meter of poetry in English and presented a new "simplified" system. This has been done many times. As always, the "simplification" was far more complex than what was being simplified, and I was reminded of Byron's remark on the philosophical Coleridge,
Explaining metaphysics to the Nation.
I wish he would explain his explanation.
    Traditional English meter is beautifully simple. When I learned it in boarding school sixty years ago, it was easier than one day of freshman algebra. For 23 years I explained it to the students I taught in a conservatory of music in Boston. They presented special difficulties because the rhythms of our formal music differ from those of our poetry and there were misunderstandings, but I explained everything that is necessary to know in a brief handout. We did it all in one class and it gave a fine new flavor to the poems we were reading. It might be worthwhile to present, explain, and justify this presentation since it proved its usefulness over many years.
    First, we should say clearly what we are talking about: traditional English meter, the system gotten up by some scholars in the sixteenth century and used consistently by just about every poet in English until it began to be called in question around the middle of the nineteenth century. So my "meter sheet" begins on safely solid ground; I quote all of it:
English accentual-syllabic verse as practiced in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Types of metric foot Examples (from the first sentence of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address)

iamb v w "ago" "conceived"
trochee w v "seven" "fathers"
spondee w w "fourscore" "brought forth"
pyrrhic v v "on this" "to the"

(Author's Note: I do not include the anapest [v v w] nor the dactyl [w v v]. They do not appear in iambic verse.)

Lengths of line
2 feet dimeter
3 " trimeter
4 " tetrameter, also called octosyllabic
5 " pentameter
6 " hexameter, also called an Alexandrine
Other useful terms
Caesura — a pause within a line
feminine ending — an additional weak syllable following the
final accent in the line
end-stopped line — a line with a pause at the end
run-on line — a line without a pause at the end

    The meter of practically all English verse is iambic — most commonly iambic pentameter. Poets vary the regular iambic pattern for variety and emphasis, by substituting trochees, spondees, and pyrrhics for iambs, and by varying the position of the caesura. Sensing these variations is an important part of appreciating poetry. One important rule is always observed: two successive accents of the regular meter are never moved or suppressed. Thus, Hopkins' line, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” is not a classic pentameter. The accent is dropped in the third foot (pyrrhic) and moved in the fourth (trochee), with the result that the last three feet sound like two anapests, breaking the iambic rhythm.
    In scanning verse of this type, it must always be realized that the meter depends on how the line would normally be spoken. This often allows latitude for interpretation, since accent can vary somewhat with the speaker. On the other hand, accent is itself influenced by the prevailing rhythm. Thus, in Pope's pentameter, “Or praise the easy vigor of a line,” the fourth foot ("-or of") can be called either pyrrhic or (preferably) a weak iamb, since the prevailing rhythm makes us feel a weak accent on "of". Such weak accents are very common. They never occur in successive feet.Thus, a pyrrhic between two iambs tends to sound like a light iamb. Similarly, a spondee between two iambs tends to sound like a heavy iamb. But if Pope had written, “Or praise the easy vigor of strong lines,” the fourth foot would be clearly pyrrhic and the fifth clearly a spondee. A pyrrhic-spondee for two iambs is a common substitution.
Exercise I: Which of the following four lines are classic pentameters and which are not?

1) I want to be a genuine success.
2) Give me your hand; promise you'll still be true.
3) I want to be in an excited state.
4) Lay your knife and your fork across your plate.

Exercise II: Scan the following two lines and state what substitutions have been made:

And the insurance company's tower pops
Up like a corsetted, five-hundred-eyed Cyclops.
    This really is all one needs to know. But it represents an uncompromising simplification — a weeding out of unnecessary complexities that well-meaning scholars have been finding in the practice of poets and in their own imaginations for many decades. The first simplification is my adherence to the old "cups and dashes" symbolism for syllables (here transcribed as v's and w's, which are more readily available on computers). They are derived from antiquity, where they referred to the short and long syllables found in Latin and ancient Greek. Applied to English, the symbolism implies that a syllable is either unstressed or stressed. Strictly speaking, this is inaccurate. Many degrees of stress are possible. Timothy Steele, to name one, bases a presentation of meter on four levels of stress. Why not refine it even further? Why not specify, say, sixteen levels? Sixteen would be absurd because that would introduce a complexity unnecessary for an understanding of what is going on rhythmically in English poetry. And four levels are unnecessary as well for such understanding. Also, in such elaborations, we are ignoring the plain fact that a speaker of a language like ours can alter the stress almost at will. We had better allow him the freedom that he will take.
    The next simplification is my absolute exclusion of anapests and dactyls. I have seen a line like Marlowe's, “Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars,” scanned as an opening iamb with the light syllable missing followed by an iamb with the missing light syllable added in recompense, so that it is an anapest. Other analysts speak of an opening dactyl in a similar vein. It seems to me much simpler to say, "the first foot is a trochee substituted for an iamb." That way, the overall pattern of two-syllable feet is kept and the analysis is simpler. The sixteenth-century scholars mentioned above had ancient Greek iambic in mind, and this is how they would have thought of it.
    But how about another line of Marlowe's not far from the line just quoted? In “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss!” isn't that third foot, "me immor," an anapest? No, it isn't. The "open vowel" gets elided, as in French or Italian — or more accurately, perhaps, squeezed into a diphthong — so that the two light syllables become one. This is a very common practice among our "classical" English poets. They loved to hint at the lively lilt of an anapest, but I have never caught any of them clearly penning one. For them, evidently, that would have ruined the rhythm — and it gave them an exquisite game to play.
    Next we come to the "two successive accents" rule. I had long formulated it for myself, as no doubt many have, but the only place I have seen it in print is in the introduction to Volume I of Poets of the English Language, edited by W. H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson (New York: The Viking Press, 1953). The examples in my "Exercise I" are from the same source. They clearly illustrate the principle: you can have two pyrrhics or two trochees in a pentameter, as in 1) and 2), without losing the rhythm, if they are separated by iambs; but if the aberrant feet come together, as in 3) and 4), the rhythm gets lost.
    Of course, in all temporal performances, whether a rhythm is lost or kept is a subjective judgment. All tolerable rhythms must be varied to avoid monotony, but if they are varied too much, we feel that there is no rhythm and that order has been replaced by chaos. Where is the point of "too much," the breaking point? I think this is one of the places where art provides a unifying sense of identity to the members of a society. One of the many little ways that "we" (some group in question) are unified is in our similar feeling about that rhythmic breaking point — that point where beautifully varied rhythm gets too beautiful and turns into ugly formlessness. So evidently it was in the English-speaking societies during the centuries described. But then it was questioned, as sooner or later, doubtless it had to be. No society lasts forever.
    Whatever the reason, Hopkins was one of those in the nineteenth century who felt the need to redesignate the breaking point. He would have said that the line of his quoted above was in "counterpointed rhythm" (meaning only that his line was more boldly counterpointed than would have pleased the poets and audiences of earlier generations). He also had poems in what he called, "sprung rhythm," a wilder departure from accepted metrical practice. His friend, Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate of England, flung up his hands and cried, "Chaos!" They were, of course, both right — and both wrong.
    Nowadays we live in a poetry world in which all sorts of metrical norms are possible — which makes them, not norms at all, but whims. "We live in an old chaos of the sun," as Wallace Stevens said. One of the ways, not necessarily the only way, through this chaos for poets is to revive the old metrical customs and usages. If we take that path, we'd better be quick about it before we forget what they were.
    The second Exercise, from a poem in my first book, is meant to illustrate, following the example of Yeats or Frost, how a poet can adhere to the old rules and still give verse a modernity...an outlandishness that perhaps the crazy years we live through require.

Richard Moore, an often acerbic and humorous, and inveterately profound poet, is known for his unfailing sense of craft. He is the author of several full-length collections, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and his poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Harper's, The Hudson Review, Poetry, and The New Yorker.