Meter in English Verse.

Verse meter is a way to make music with words without having to set the words to music. When a poem is metrical and you know how to read it, the words will follow a beat without your having to do anything except enunciate clearly when reading aloud, at an even pace, following normal rules for pronunciation. This musical effect is created by causing the utterance to conform to a more or less regular rhythm, which consists of an alternation of beat and offbeat. At any moment in the sound sequence of the poem, a sound falling on the beat may be said to occupy the beat position, and a sound between beats occupies the offbeat position.

All kinds of meter use the syllable as the most basic unit of musical time in language. A syllable is the smallest unit of speech that would require at least one musical note if the language were sung instead of spoken. All syllables in English contain vowels — that is, vowels as heard. Most vowels are also written, but sometimes vowels are heard but not written, such as the second syllable of fire if it is pronounced "FIE-yer" or of Charles if pronounced "CHAR-uhls" (see under "fudge factors," below), and often a syllable is written with a final -e instead of a normal vowel, as in apple ("AP-puhl"). A syllable may have a vowel alone, as in the word a or the first syllable of alone ("ah-LONE"). More commonly, a consonant begins the syllable, as in all three consonants of the word consonant (CON-so-nant). A syllable may also have consonants at the end, after the vowel, as in end and in the first and third syllables of consonant. Certain consonants may be combined before the vowel to form an initial consonant group or cluster, such as br, pl, st, str, etc., and others may be combined to close a syllable, such as -nt, -nce, rt, any consonant plus s (such as lots or writes — except ch, j [ge], s [-ce], or z plus s, which never occur together to end a syllable — searches), etc.

Meter, then, is a regular, organized pattern of syllables, and sometimes other sound features in addition, in order to cause an utterance to conform to a musical beat, and therefore to give the impression of an alternation of beat and offbeat positions. A given metrical system will organize language sounds according to a particular sound feature, such as the relative stress of syllables (English, German, Russian), the relative duration of syllables (Ancient Greek, Latin, Classical Arabic), their relative pitch (Chinese, Urdu), or the mere syllable itself (French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese) — or a combination of features. A given metrical system treats these features as salient, or marked, relative to the rest, according to a binary opposition, such as stressed versus unstressed, long versus short, intoned versus toneless, or vowel versus consonant. In the sound sequence making up the poem, the sounds bearing the salient feature are usually correlated with the beat, and the other sounds fall into the offbeat positions. The exception is the pure syllabic meter of the Romance languages, Japanese, and other traditions, in which a beat is more or less arbitrarily imposed on the syllables as a simple alternation or, perhaps, sometimes, in groups of three or some other pattern.

Poetry in Old English and some in Middle English used strongly stressed syllables alone (more or less) as the organizing salient feature, additionally marked by means of alliteration. The number of syllables occurring between beats could vary. Most poetry in Modern English has used a combination of a more or less strict syllable count and a pattern of stresses.

Once the hearer grasps the metrical pattern, he or she expects that same pattern to continue being repeated. Because language is never perfectly neat, the repetition of the metrical pattern also serves to confirm the hearer's inferences of that pattern. The metrical set is the metrical pattern for which the reader's or hearer's expectations are established. Poets take advantage of the metrical set. For instance, the more strongly the pattern is established, the easier it will be to allow some variations without destroying the overall effect of orderly continuation of the pattern. But a poet may also use a strongly established set in order to create a surprise later by defying that pattern. If the set is not strong enough, this violation will not seem like a surprise but simply a continuation of disorder. The poet may also design the set to remain continuously ambiguous — between one pattern and another, or between a pattern and mere chaos.

English Stress-Syllabic Meter

Most poetry in English from Chaucer on (i.e., starting in the late 14th century) has stress-syllabic meter. Stress-syllabic meter uses organized patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables to realize a musical beat.

As a rule, there are never (or rarely) more than two offbeat syllables between beats. When there are three or more, the one in the middle will tend to seem as if it should take the beat. The poet may either make use of this phenomenon, as tends to happen in written poetry, or, when oral poetry is transcribed, the reader may be momentarily confused. In oral poetry, it is easier to have three offbeat syllables, because the reciter can make the necessary adjustments in delivery so that the placement of the beats will remain clear. In written poetry, the placement of the beats must be clear to the reader without this outside help, so poets in writing avoid having three unstressed syllables in a row unless they treat the one in the middle as taking the beat. Whether in oral or in written poetry, a sequence of three syllables between the beats (i.e., in the offbeat position) is rare, because it requires that these syllables be pronounced more quickly than the rest, creating an effect of cramming. The overall principle in both oral and written poetry is that syllables are to be pronounced with a fairly even pace, with the allowance that one unstressed syllable may take about the same amount of time as two, but not three. In written poetry, the principle of even pacing is applied more rigorously, because the reader must be able to infer the correct beat pattern from the written words alone.

Not all syllables falling on the metrical (musical) beat are actually stressed. Stress-syllabic meter is a way of allowing words to follow a beat. Once you infer the beat, you can fit the words easily to the beat without violating the normal rules of stress. Words are stressed (generally) as they would normally be in nonpoetic language. There are exceptions in the oral tradition and in written poetry consciously imitating the oral tradition, such as the second syllable of daughter in "I might have been married to a king's daughter / Far, far ayont the sea," in the traditional ballad, "The Demon Lover" (9-10). An example of an imitation of this songlike phenomenon in written poetry is in Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" (1599): "The shepherds' swains shall dance and sing / For thy delight each May morning" (21-24). As in these two examples, the phenomenon occurs, if at all, at the ends of lines, and perhaps only with certain kinds of words. In any event, it is the exception and not the rule in oral poetry, and rarer still in written poetry. The norm is to have normal word stress, as in ordinary speech, coincide with the musical beat.

A line of verse is a unit of words in a poem that realizes a determined number of beats. Accordingly, a line of verse is equivalent to a measure in music. For instance, a line of verse with four beats is analogous to a measure in a march, which is in 4/4 time and has four beats per measure. A line is a metrical unit, not a visual one. Although, conventionally, we write or print poems so that each metrical line appears as a separate line of writing, a printer may run out of room on a line of print and continue the verse line onto the next print line, usually making this clear by indenting the second print line and by capitalizing only the first letter of every verse line. When you are quoting poetry or referring to line numbers, the verse lines are what count; the lines of print are trivial.

Rhyme is the use of words with similar endings. The function of rhyme, when it occurs, is to reinforce the metrical unit of the line of verse, by providing a sonic "punctuation" at the end of the line. Rhyme is insufficient to make meter; it is an ornament added to meter to highlight it. Rhyme is also not necessary to make meter and does not occur in all metrical English poems. (There are other languages in which rhyme never occurs.) Nevertheless, meters with an even number of beats per line, and no built-in silences at the ends of lines (explained below), are ambiguous without rhymes to define the ends of lines. If, for instance, a meter consists of four beats per line, with words given on every beat, then it may be hard or impossible to distinguish where the lines begin and end without rhyme. In meters that do include a silent beat at the end, rhyme is less important, and these meters are often unrhymed.

Scansion is the analysis of the meter and the graphic representation of that analysis. This document presents meter and a method of scansion at the same time. The method of scansion for English stress-syllabic meter used here is based on one devised by Derek Attridge, The Rhythms of English Poetry (London and New York: Longman, 1982). Whereas more traditional methods have used symbols derived from those for short and long syllables in Greek and Latin, or various accent marks, the present method emphasizes the connection between meter in verse and meter in music by using B for the beat and o for the offbeat. (I have somewhat modified the Attridge system to facilitate typing.)

In the terminology we use to describe stress-syllabic meters, there are two components. One component, which usually comes as the second term in the name of the meter, refers to the number of beats per line. The other component, usually coming first, refers to the number of offbeat syllables for every beat syllable. For instance, the term iambic tetrameter indicates that there are four beats in each line (tetrameter), and only one offbeat syllable before each syllable on the beat (iambic).

Both components of the meter — beats per line and offbeat syllables per beat — are assumed by default to remain consistent all the way through any given poem. The meter in a poem may well vary, but the variation must be clear and unambiguous, since the reader's tendency is always to try to assimilate any new line to the same pattern unless there is good reason to do otherwise.

Number of Beats Per Line

Most English poetic meters fall into either of two broad categories: tetrameter and pentameter.

Tetrameter has four beats per line. In some patterns, the fourth beat is left unrealized, in silence, like a musical rest. The beat is felt, but either the voice remains silent or the syllable that falls on the third beat is drawn out longer to cover the fourth beat, giving it a cadential quality. A line of tetrameter with a silent fourth beat is traditionally called trimeter, though we shall not be using this term in the rest of this document. The use of a tetrameter line with a silent final beat is especially common in the second and fourth lines of a four-line tetrameter stanza, so that the eighth and sixteenth beats of the stanza as a whole are silent. This 4-3-4-3 arrangement is especially popular in certain song forms such as ballads, as discussed later.

When all four beats in a line of tetrameter are realized (no silent final beat), the lines usually rhyme, since, in the absence of a cadential silence built into the line, the rhyme is the only way to let the hearer know where the lines are divided and thus to create a regular grouping of beats into larger rhythmic units. Nevertheless, meters using the cadential silent final beat variation tend also to rhyme, presumably in part because of their strong connection to oral, folk traditions.

Tetrameter may be conceived as the result of two fundamental beats, each one subdivided into two in turn, and then offbeat syllables appear between the beats:

and One and Two and Three and Four 
Come live with me and be my love 
and we shall all the plea- sures prove 

     (Christopher Marlowe, "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love," 1-2 [1599].)

This pattern may appear in a wide variety of forms. For instance, a poem may be written as two beats per line, but there is hardly any musical difference between this pattern and one written as four beats per line — since two two-beat lines add up to one four-beat line.

Jack Sprat }   =  Jack Sprat could eat no fat
Could eat no fat

     ("Jack Sprat," Mother Goose, 1-2.)

A line written as two beats is traditionally called dimeter, even though the musical effect of two dimeter lines in sequence is hardly different from the effect of one tetrameter line.

Just as a two-beat line ("dimeter") may be conceived as half of a tetrameter, a line of eight beats may be considered as two tetrameters written one after the other on the same line. Just as one common variation of the tetrameter paradigm is a line in which the fourth beat is silent, as mentioned above, the eight-beat line may have its eighth beat silent, so that it is equivalent to two lines of tetrameter in which the second line has a silent fourth beat. These lines are sometimes called fourteeners, because they normally contain fourteen syllables, alternating syllables off the beat with those on the beat:

Achilles' baneful wrath resound, O Goddesse, that impos'd
Infinite sorrowes on the Greekes, and many brave soules los'd
From breasts Heroique — sent them farre, to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their lims to dogs and vultures gave.

     (George Chapman, trans. of Homer, Iliad 1-4 [1616].)

Another variation has what appears to be six written beats, but there is always a syntactic break, and a pause, between the third and fourth beats. This line may be called "hexameter" (six beats), but this name is misleading. The syntactic breaks in the middle and end of each line would be observed as a one-beat musical rest (or silence). The verse is clearly to be read aloud as three beats followed by a rest, followed by three more beats, followed by a rest — and therefore as two tetrameters in a row, each of which has its fourth beat silent:

When I was fair and young, and favor gracèd me,
     1      2        3    4     5      6     7  8
Of many was I sought, their mistress for to be
    1    2     3     4       5        6      7   8

     (Queen Elizabeth I [1533-1603], "When I was Fair and Young" 1-2.)

This type of line may then be followed by a fourteener in a distinct couplet form called the Poulter's Measure:

Sith Fortune favors not and all things backward go,
And sith your mind hath so decreed to make an end of woe,
Sith now is no redress, but hence I must away,
Farewell, I waste no vainer words. I hope for better day.

     (Sith = "since." Barnabe Googe, "A Refusal" [1563].)

Note that, in the example above, a one-beat rest (silence) occurs between not and and in the first line, between redress and but, and at the end of every line. These metrical rests coincide nicely with vocal pauses signaling syntactic breaks.

Aside from mere appearance on the page, the only practical difference between poems written in these various forms and poems written as tetrameter is the placement of word boundaries. For instance, if the poem is written in seven-beat lines (i.e., eight beats but with the last silent), a three-syllable word may span the fourth, fifth, and sixth syllables, whereas, if the same poem were rewritten as tetrameter, that word would have to be hyphenated so as to end one line and begin the next. Also, tetrameters broken up into two-beat lines are usually so divided because they rhyme. If they were rewritten as straight tetrameter (as above with "Jack Sprat,"), the rhyme becomes an internal rhyme, which is always an option. Likewise, two tetrameters written as if they were a single eight-beat line (with or without silent beats — thus perhaps appearing as seven or even six beats) typically do not have a rhyme between the fourth (or third) beat and the final one, but internal rhyme likewise could occur in a longer line of this sort without upsetting the pattern.

The term pentameter means "five beats," but the musical pattern of pentameter really consists of six beats per line, with the sixth beat always silent. There is a musical rest at the end of every pentameter line, even if the sense, with its syntactic unit, goes on into the next line (enjambment — see "Meter and Sense," below). A good performer of pentameter verse will pause in time for the sixth beat, but use vocal intonation to make it clear that the sentence continues.

Just as the four beats of tetrameter may be conceived as two times two, the six beats of pentameter may be conceived as three beats, each of which is subdivided into two beats, with offbeat syllables between the beats, and the final beat silent. In this way, the opposition between tetrameter and pentameter boils down to the opposition between two and three at the very roots of the respective rhythmical structures.

and One and Two and Three and Four and Five (and) [Six] 
Shall com- pare thee to sum- mer's day?  

     (William , Sonnet 18:1 [1609].)

Indeed, in much pentameter poetry, a six-beat line, or hexamter, is a frequent variation, usually providing closure to a stanza or passage. In this case, the hexameter truly consists of six beats, unlike the Poulter's Measure:

Full jolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.

     (Full = "very"; giusts = "jousts." Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene I.i.8-9 [1590].)

Number of Syllables Per Beat-Group

The number of beats per line essentially defines the meter, but the number of offbeat syllables per beat syllable also contributes to the meter's effect. As noted above, three unstressed syllables in a row will tend to be perceived as containing a beat somewhere, usually in the middle. Therefore, as a rule, no more than two syllables can take the position of the offbeat. Likewise, there must be at least some offbeat syllables somewhere, or else some syllables on the beat will seem to be more stressed than others, and those others will therefore be perceived as offbeats. Therefore, offbeat syllables can either be one or two per beat. (There are many instances of the absence of an offbeat syllable, but only in part of the line or stanza unit. Offbeat syllables are necessary sooner or later in order to establish the metrical set clearly.) The offbeat syllable or syllables may then be grouped with each respective beat, to form a beat-group or foot. Since the types of feet are limited to either one or two offbeats and one beat, the total number of syllables in the foot may be either two (beat-offbeat or offbeat-beat) or three (offbeat-offbeat-offbeat or beat-offbeat-offbeat). A meter consisting of two-syllable feet is duple; one consisting of three-syllable feet is triple. The two syllables in the offbeat position in triple meter are called a double offbeat, as opposed to the single offbeat in duple meter. Either line meter, whether tetrameter or pentameter (or hexameter), may be either duple or triple.

Duple meter has a single offbeat syllable between beat syllables, so that each foot consists of two syllables, one in the beat position and the other in the offbeat (in either order), and the whole meter is a simple binary alternation of beat and offbeat syllables.

Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night

(William Blake, "The Tyger" 1-2 [1794].)

If the line always (or usually) begins with an offbeat syllable, so that the feet are perceived as consisting of an offbeat syllable followed by a beat, this meter is called iambic. In musical terms, an iambic metrical line is like a musical measure that starts with a "pickup," an upbeat before the initial downbeat:

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.

(Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress," 1-2 [1681].)

Of nature's creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die.

(William Shakespeare, Sonnet 1:1-2 [1609].)

Not all duple meters are iambic. Traditionally, a duple meter that consistently begins each line on the beat and ends with an offbeat syllable is called "trochaic" ("tro-KAY-ick") and each foot is called a "troche" ("TRO-kee"). But much tetrameter verse, especially in the folk/oral tradition, is not easily classified as either "iambic" or "trochaic," so the terms are not very useful, and the more general term "duple" is best.

Duple lines may end on the beat or off the beat, but the situation is usually avoided where an offbeat syllable after the fourth beat at the end of a tetrameter line is followed by another offbeat syllable at the beginning of the next line. This would create an effect of two offbeat syllables in a row, or a momentary shift into what sounds like triple meter:

Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
"Indeed, I have not any!"

("Simple Simon," Mother Goose, 7-8.)

The ending on the offbeat is called "feminine." These terms bear witness to the origins of the stress-syllabic system in English verse, which probably first developed during the period from the late 14th to the early 16th centuries, from an adaptation of stress in English to the pure syllabic models of French and Italian poetry. In French, masculine nouns and adjectives usually end in a bare consonant, but feminine nouns and adjectives end in a final -e. During the period in which stress-syllabic meter in English was developing, the final -e in French was pronounced (e.g., bonne, "BON-nuh"), and it is still perceived by French speakers as more or less a syllable, although very weak, and, in French songs, the final -e is sung.

The feminine ending presents a problem, described above, if it immediately precedes an initial offbeat, as in iambic tetrameter. If the tetrameter allows some lines that are not truly iambic — that is, they begin on the beat rather than the offbeat and therefore contain one less syllable than the norm — then there is no momentary triple effect in going from one line to the next. This is the case for the second line of the third stanza (lines 9-12) of Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," where the first beat falls on "And," even though the "And" in the first line of the stanza falls on an offbeat. Then, the third and fourth lines are normal iambic lines, and, therefore, they do present the momentary double offbeat effect when heard in context after their respective previous lines:

And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,

A cap of flowers, and a kirtle

(Christopher Marlowe, "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love"; posies: here, bunches of flowers; elsewhere, verse inscriptions, as on lockets or other jewelry given as gifts; kirtle: garment, worn as a combination shirt and short skirt.)

Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle

Posies / A cap and kirtle / Embroidered each have double offbeats, at -sies / A and -tle / Em-, but there is none at roses / And, since And in this case takes the beat.

If the meter has a silent final beat in the line bearing the feminine ending, this silence allows room for the offbeat syllable ending the one line and the offbeat syllable beginning the next line, without the effect of two syllables occupying the same offbeat position. This is the case with iambic tetrameters having a silent fourth beat and with iambic pentameter. For this reason, feminine endings are more common in these types of verse line.

Then, be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry;
For, having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

(Robert Herrick, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," 13-16 [1648].)

Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth.

(William Shakespeare, Sonnet 33:13-14 [1609]; heaven is treated as a single syllable — discussed below as a "fudge-factor.")

Most pentameter is duple, and iambic; trochaic pentameter and triple pentameter of any sort are rare. Iambic pentameter is one of the most important meters in English poetry. As an iambic meter, it generally begins with an offbeat, except according to certain special variation rules, discussed below.

Because iambic pentameter has a built-in cadential rest at the end of each line, rhyme is less important for distinguishing one line from the next — provided that the performer observe the metrical pause at the end of the line, even while using vocal intonation to express the continuation of a syntactic unit in the case of enjambment. Thus, whereas tetrameters almost always rhyme, pentameters often do not, and some of the most important uses of the pentameter, in drama and in narrative poetry in the high style, use unrhymed pentameter, or blank verse. The term blank verse generically refers to any unrhymed verse (blank here = "unrhymed"), but the default assumption is that it refers to unrhymed iambic pentameter.

Triple meter has two offbeat syllables between beats. The foot thus consists of two offbeat syllables and one on the beat, or three altogether — hence the term "triple." The order of these syllables may be offbeat-offbeat-beat, traditionally called "anapestic," or beat-offbeat-offbeat, or "dactylic." But triple meter almost always occurs in tetrameter, where the rules are fairly loose. Just as there are many tetrameters that do not seem to follow the iambic pattern consistently but are still duple, there are many cases where it is hard and not useful to categorize a tetrameter as either "anapestic" or "dactylic," but merely as triple. Triple meter is subject to one variation rule: the double offbeat may occasionally be replaced by a single offbeat, so long as this does not happen so often that the meter no longer sounds triple.

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see an old lady upon a white horse.
Rings on her fingers, and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.

("Banbury Cross," Mother Goose.)

In "Banbury Cross," the first offbeat position is occupied by the single, one-syllable word, a. All the other offbeat positions are taken up by two syllables each.

Symbols Used to Mark Scansion

The following symbols are derived, with modifications, from Derek Attridge, The Rhythms of Enlish Poetry (New York and London: Longman, 1982). These symbols are written below the line of verse:

B = Syllable that falls on the beat.

o = Syllable that falls on the offbeat position.

o-o = Double offbeat — two syllables that fall in the offbeat position, as in triple meter. The o's are connected with a horizontal line, or hyphens if typed, to show that they all occupy a single offbeat position. If there are more than two offbeat syllables, as might occur in some oral (folk) or unconventional poetry, these would all be connected in the same way, so long as they occupy the same offbeat position.

B = Promoted syllable — a syllable that is not (highly) stressed but falls on the beat for reasons of context, usually because the preceding and following syllables are also unstressed and take offbeat positions, and the metrical set suggests that the beat would fall upon the syllable in the middle. Very often, at least one syllable in an iambic pentameter line is promoted to take the beat. This is generally only an issue in duple meters.

o = Demoted syllable — a syllable that is normally stressed, but falls on the offbeat because of context. This usually happens when the syllable is directly preceded or followed by a stressed syllable that falls on the beat, and especially if it comes between two stressed syllables that take the beat. As with the promoted syllable, the metrical set takes over to demote the syllable to the offbeat position in order to preserve the general pattern. In unusual cases, two syllables of ambiguous stress status may occur next to each other, with one promoted and the other demoted, in order to preserve the metrical set. This occurs more often in poetry of the Renaissance than that of the 18th century and later, perhaps reflecting a gradual shift from a conception of English meters in terms of mere syllable count toward a truly stress-syllabic conception of meter, which counts beats and offbeat syllables. In triple triple meters, demotion may occur on one of the two offbeat syllables in order to preserve the pattern, so long as the syllables on the beat are also clearly stressed. But the fewer cases of demotion in triple meter, the more convincing the meter will be overall.

[B] = Implied, silent beat, as it may occur in tetrameter or its variations. This should not be marked on iambic pentameter lines, because it is assumed that all lines end in an implied, silent beat.

^ = Missing (silent) offbeat. Only applies between beats, when there is no offbeat syllable, or in initial position if the meter is iambic. Rarely relevant except when one is dealing with iambic pentameter compensation rules (discussed below).

s = Syllable not counted for metrical purposes and slurred or otherwise neglected in reciting aloud. (See discussion of "fudge-factors" below.)

How Stress is Determined

When scanning verse, it is important to remember how the normal stress patterns would sound if the words were spoken normally, in ordinary conversation or in prose, but with a deliberately even pacing. The reader should then match this pattern to a musical beat in a way that makes the best sense, avoiding wherever possible having more than two offbeat syllables in a row, or more than two beat syllables in a row, unless there are reasons to expect an anomaly of this sort. It is usually easier to mark the beats first and then fill in the offbeats.

Stress is an intrinsic feature of the English language, and people who are able to understand spoken English and to speak in it and be understood know the rules of stress, usually unconsciously, as a feature of normal speech. It is this normal stress that forms the basis of meter, as relatively stressed syllables are matched to the musical beat and relatively unstressed syllables to offbeat positions, except in the cases noted of promotion and demotion. It is generally easiest for English speakers to grasp meter, then, by trying simply to pronounce or imagine the normal pronunciation of words and phrases, with an awareness of their natural stress contours and how these stress patterns would most easily be made to fit a musical beat.

But people first learning English meter as adults sometimes find themselves scrutinizing language so closely that they lose a sense of the context necessary to know what is more stressed and what less stressed. They might wish to have a few simple rules to follow to know where stress is placed. But to spell out all these rules consciously is a rather complicated matter.

First, it is important to remember that what we call "stress" is a degree of relative stress, in context. A syllable is considered stressed if it is relatively more stressed than syllables coming directly before and after it, even if, when taken out of its context and compared to some other, strongly stressed syllable elsewhere in the same sentence, that same syllable that was first considered stressed might now appear relatively weak.

In words of two or more syllables, relative stress is easily to establish, because it is a built-in feature of the word, and can even be checked in a dictionary. In any two-syllable word, one or the other is always stressed. THis is usually the first, but there are a few words that have stress on the second syllable. There are also a few words of two syllables — and of more than two — that are metrically ambiguous by nature — that is, one is allowed to pronounce these words in more than one way. The words defense and offense, for instance, are generally pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, but, in the special context of sports, they have come to be conventionally stressed on the first syllable instead. In three-syllable words, one of the syllables will have the main stress, and, if that stress falls on either the first or the third syllable, there will be secondary stress on one of the two remaining syllables. The commonest pattern is primary stress on the first syllable and secondary stress on the third: "MER-ri-ly"; "SYL-la-ble." Words with stress on the final syllable often word similarly: "in-com-PLETE"; "dis-en-CHANT." Occasionally, a word may have primary stress on the first syllable and secondary stress on the second: "BED-rid-den"; "CARE-ta-ker." (Notice how these two examples — and perhaps most others following this pattern — are compound words.) Such words of the caretaker type are awkward in duple meter except where compensation is used and the second and third syllables are put together in the offbeat position. In words of four or more syllables, primary stress will always fall on one syllable, and secondary stress will fall on at least one other. The general rule is like that of offbeat syllables in meter: there will never be more than two unstressed syllables in a row. Very often, long words follow a simple pattern of alternating stress: "an-ti-dis-es-TAB-lish-ment"; "hex-a-chlor-o-ETH-y-lene." Such words are a great convenience to the poet of duple meter, since they cover a substantial part of a line (or the whole of it) with a built-in, unambiguous alternating pattern.

So much for words of more than one syllable. But what of monosyllabic words? Here, context alone determines stress, according to principles of grammar. Generally speaking, subordination in stress reflects subordination or dependence in grammar. For instance, an article immediately preceding a noun that is either a monosyllable or a word with (primary or secondary) stress on the first syllable is always unstressed: "the HOUSE"; "a CAR"; "a VE-hi-cle." The same goes for the pronoun before a verb: "she THINKS"; "he WRITES"; "they VER-si-fy"; "they dis-a-GREE." Likewise for monosyllabic prepositions directly before nouns — "in TIME"; "by MAIL"; "at NIGHT." But prepositions before noun phrases with articles will be stressed relative to the articles: "ON the DAY"; "IN a CI-ty." And verb phrases made up of a verb plus a prepositional adverb always stress the adverb rather than the verb: "come IN"; "sit DOWN." Forms of the verb be are generally weak in stress, and thus appear unstressed in many contexts — which explains why finite forms of the verb are often reduced to contractions: "HE is HERE" = "he's HERE." (Note how he's is downgraded to an unstressed syllable relative to the verb once the contraction is made, since there is no longer an is to which he may be considered stressed by comparison.) Auxiliary verbs are unstressed relative to the infinitive verbs they govern: "I will GO"; "SHE may FIND"; and the same for forms of have relative to perfect passive participles in perfect tenses: "THEY have COME." Conjunctions are usually weak, but context may put an unstressed initial syllable of a polysyllabic word, or — say — an unstressed article, next to the conjunction, making it relatively stressed: "HE's a LI-ar AND a CHEAT," but "he LIED and CHEAT-ed ON his TAX-es." It is because a, in the first example, is very unstressed relative to the noun it modifies, cheat, that and is relatively stressed. In the second example, no intervening weak syllable comes between and and the next verb, cheated, which has built-in stress on the first syllable. Hence, and is relatively unstressed, being grammatically subordinated to the two verbs it joins, and having no even weaker syllable next to it to raise its relative stress.

These last examples illustrate the complexity of relative stress: stress relations imposed by words or phrases elsewhere in the sentence may indirectly determine the relative stress of the word in question. Again, any competent speaker of English will arrange relative stress appropriately without having to think about it consciously, and it is usually this common knowledge of relative stress patterns that makes it possible for people to compose easily in meter and to recognize meter in written poetry.

Variation Rules

Both the subtype of duple meter called iambic and any triple meter have variation rules, allowing occasional changes from the norm without violating the overall pattern. The respective sets of rules are quite distinct.

In iambic meter, the crucial kind of variation is compensation, where an offbeat position is left empty and an adjacent offbeat position, either before or after the empty one, contains two syllables (i.e., is made a double offbeat). This way, the total number of beats in the line remains the same as the norm for that meter, and the total number of syllables also remains the same.

Using the symbols above, the rule is expressed thus:

Compensation Rule: Any sequence of two iambic feet in the normal pattern,

o  B  o  B  

may be replaced in practice by either

^  B o-o B


o-o B ^  B

The lines connecting the sign for missing offbeat syllable with the sign for double offbeat help clarify the compensatory relation between these two.

If we represent the same rule using nonsense syllables instead of scansion sins, it appears as follows:

Almost anywhere where the pattern would normally require

duh DAH duh DAH,

the words may instead follow the variation pattern of either

DAH duhduh DAH     or

duhduh DAH, DAH,

without significantly weaking the overall duple effect of the meter.

Compensation may occur anywhere in a line, but it is very unlikely to occur at or near the end of the line of verse, where it is the most important to signal the ear so as to confirm the normal pattern. By far the commonest place where compensation occurs is at the beginning of the line, and the first type (^ B o-o B) occurs more frequently than the second. The next most common place for compensation is in the middle of the line, after a syntactic break, signalled by a comma or other punctuation.

Here are some examples in iambic tetrameter. In the following four lines from Andrew Marvell's "The Garden" (37-40 [1681]), the second and third have compensation at the beginning:

The nectarine, and curious peach
  o  B  o B    o    B so    B

   Into my hands themselves do reach.
^  B  o--o  B      o  B      o  B

 Stumbling on melons as I pass,
^  B   o---o   B o   B  o  B

Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
o   B     o     B s    o  B   o    B

"The Garden" generally follows strict iambic rules — that is, there is always an initial offbeat except in cases of compensation, and there are always a total of eight syllables per line (since all endings are masculine). In practice, however, many tetrameter poems do not follow the iambic pattern as strictly, and one cannot always tell whether the line has compensation or merely slips into triple meter (double offbeat) momentarily — or simply does not always have an initial offbeat syllable. Tetrameter is the usual meter in folk/oral poetry, and can work effectively without always following as strict rules as iambic pentameter.

But in iambic pentameter, compensation is an important variation, and iambic pentameter lines tend to follow the rules — either as normal lines or varied with compensation — in order to keep the meter clear for the listener. Here are some examples of isolated iambic pentameter lines showing compensation. All of these lines are drawn, out of context, from Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning" (1923).

   Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
^    B      o----o  B  o   B   o    B  o    B

   Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
^    B   o------o  B    o   B   o  B   o  B

As a calm darkens among water lights
o--o  B  ^ B  o---o B  ^ B o   B
 |_______|      |______|

The first two lines above have the DAH-dudduh-DAH type of compensation at the beginning of the line. The third line has the dudduh DAH, DAH type, occurring twice — once at the beginning of the line, and then immediately afterwards, on "(dar)kens among wa(ter): as a calm darkens among wa-, "duhduh DAH, DAH duhduh DAH, DAH."

In triple meter, the substitution rule applies: a single offbeat may be used anywhere instead of a double offbeat — or, in other words, any triple foot in the pattern may be replaced by a duple foot in practie — so long as the substitution of duple for triple (single offbeat for double offbeat) does not happen often enough to cause the meter to lose its triple character. Triple meter is very difficult for even a skilled poet to sustain, so the replacement rule makes composition more practical. But the more thoroughly triple the meter remains, and the fewer substitutions, the more effectiv it will be in creating the characteristic jingling sound of triple meter.

Rules Governing Rhyme

Rhyme is the repetition of similar sounds in comparable syllables of different words. In standard rhyme in English, the initial consonant (or initial consonant group) of rhyming syllables is not repeated, but the rest of the syllable is repeated — the vowel, and any closing consonant or consonants, if present. Standard rhyming matches the vowel of the last stressed syllable of rhyming words, and any sounds following the vowel, including any unstressed syllables coming after that last stressed syllable. Thus folk rhymes with poke; allow rhymes with plow; hollow rhymes with follow; and writing rhymes with exciting. Exciting does not rhyme with thing, however, since the -ing in exciting is not stressed. Any rhyme with exciting must repeat the entire sound following the initial consonant of the last stressed syllable, here soft c, and thus must end in -iting. Rhymes consisting of stressed final syllables alone are called masculine rhymes, such as approach/coach; rhymes including an unstressed syllable after the stressed one are called feminine: Apollo/swallow.

Standard rhymes are perfect rhymes, in which the vowel of the last stressed syllable and all following sounds are repeated exactly. Some poetry uses near rhymes, also called slant rhymes or imperfect rhymes. These may make use of assonance, which is the repetition of the vowel but with different consonants following it, or consonance, which is the repetition of the consonant or consonants following the vowel but the use of different vowels, or a combination of the two, using either vowels or consonants that are similar but not the same.

Different periods and dialects of English may make certain rhymes possible that do not seem evident in contemporary Modern Standard English. All of these rhymes reflect pronunciations in which the sounds actually do rhyme, or form near rhymes. A few examples in Early Modern English poetry, including Shakespeare, are:

Following this last example, some of these syllabification and rhyme effects are maintained even by more recent poets, sometimes with no real appearance of archaism. Many other words, in both earlier and more recent poetry, show these variations. Also, there are also folk survivals of some earlier or nonstandard pronunciations. For instance, there are American ballads (of Irish-American origin) in which California is pronounced "Cal-i-FOR-nye-ay."

Rhymes are an opportunity for the exercise of the poet's wit. The critic W. K. Wimsatt ("The Relation of Rhyme to Reason," The Verbal Icon [Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1982], 152-166) observes that the most effective rhymes in poetry generally match very different parts of speech, and words that are not etymologically related and do not have similar grammatical endings, so that their similarity of sound arrives as a surprise to the reader. Thus the rhyme of relation with operation is less surprising and effective than one between operate and late or eight. Better than a rhyme of dance with prance would be one of dance with plants.

Stanzaic Forms

Because of the natural phenomenon, mentioned above, whereby we group regularly repeated sounds into hierarchical groups of two, four, eight, sixteen, etc., there is a strong tendency for tetrameter lines to be grouped into stanzaic structures, following some sort of binary arrangement or variation of one. Such stanzas are generally held together by means of rhyme, which creates a sound association between one line and another. The commonest tetrameter stanza consists of four lines, or a quatrain. A tetrameter quatrain, logically, has a total of 16 beats, and, if duple, a total of 32 syllables (unless there are feminine rhymes). Quatrains may be bound together by a variety of different rhyme-schemes. The simplest of these is a pair of rhymed lines, or couplet, followed by another rhymed couplet. A quatrain may, alternatively, have alternating rhyme, in which the third line rhymes with the first and the fourth with the second, or envelope (or enclosed) rhyme, where the fourth line rhymes with the first and the third with the second.

Rhyme schemes are conventionally represented using letters of the alphabet. Each letter stands for a distinct rhyme ending within the pattern. The first rhyme is A, and any other line that ends in the same rhyme sound is also represented by A. If the second line does not rhyme with the first, it is represented by B, and any other line rhyming with it is represented by B as well. Thus a quatrain made up of rhymed couplets is represented schematically as AABB; alternating rhyme as ABAB; and envelope rhyme as ABBA. If the pattern includes one line in the stanza that never rhymes with any other line, it may be represented by X. Thus a quatrain may have a form AAXA, in which the first, second, and fourth lines always rhyme, but the third one never does. These letters are used to represent the pattern of a stanzaic unit, not the actual occurrence of rhymes in a whole poem. A poem consisting of 10 quatrains may follow the same pattern — say, ABAB — in each of the quatrains, and therefore ABAB would stand for the pattern for the whole poem.

An important type of quatrain is the ballad measure, also known as the common measure, the ballad meter, the common meter, the hymn meter, or the hymn form. This quatrain has a silent fourth beat in the second and fourth lines, so that the count of realized beats (i.e., beats upon which syllables fall) in this form would go 4-3-4-3. Typically, the ballad measure has the second and fourth lines rhyme, with the overall rhyme scheme most often ABAB, and sometimes ABXB. The ballad measure is metrically equivalent to a pair of fourteeners (see above), except that there must be a word boundary between the fourth and fifth beats and between the twelfth and thirteenth, and there is usually a rhyme between the fourth beat (end of the first line in quatrain form) and the twelfth beat (end of the third quatrain line).

The ballad measure is used very widely in songs, poetry in the oral tradition, written poetry, and hymns — and versions of it are in similarly wide use in many other languages all over the world. "Amazing Grace" is a familiar instance of ballad measure in English:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
o B o     B     o    B     o  B

That saved a wretch like me!
  o   B    o   B     o    B    [B]

I once was lost, but now am found;
o B     o   B     o   B  o   B

Was blind, but now I see.
 o    B     o   B  o  B   [B]

Note that the rhyme on the second and fourth lines of the ballad measure must occur on the third beat of each line, since each line only has three realized beats. As a more general rule, a rhyming line must be the same length as the line with which it rhymes, so that the rhyme will occur on the same beat in the sequence — in this case, the third beat. There are exceptions to this rule, but generally not in ballad measure.

Variations of the ballad measure include the short meter, 3-3-4-3, and the long meter, which is simply a quatrain with alternating rhyme. There is also a subtype of short meter in which all four lines have only three realized beats, but the first and third end on feminine rhymes and the second and fourth on masculine. This pattern is fairly common in the work of Emily Dickinson.

Poetry in iambic pentameter may also be composed in stanzas, including quatrains. Aside from quatrains, poets have made up a wide variety of nonce (improvised) stanzaic forms, some of which were eventually imitated by later poets and therefore have become standard. One of these is the sonnet, composed of a total of 14 lines. The sonnet was first invented by the 13th-century Italian poet Petrarch. Later, when it was adapted into English, variations were developed, including Shakespeare's own version of the sonnet form. The Petrarchan sonnet has two quatrains first, rhyming ABBA (with the second quatrain using the same rhymes as the first), which together make up the octet. The octet is followed by a six-line group, the sestet. The sestet may follow a variety of different rhyme schemes, generally using three different rhymes — CCDDEE, CDECDE, CDEDEC, etc. The Shakespearean stanza has three quatrains in a row — with different rhymes for each quatrain, and then a closing couplet. The Shakespearean form is better adapted to English than the Petrarchan, because it is not as easy to find appropriate rhymes in English than in Italian. In the Petrarchan sonnet, the change in rhymes from the octet to the sestet corresponds to a change in mood, called the turn. Some Shakespearean sonnets also have a turn between the 8th and 9th lines, while others have different patterns of emotional and thematic organization.

Meter in Practice

The above principles are meant to help the reader to recognize meter in English poetry. But meter in practice often bends the rules, or fulfills them by means of bending other rules of English language pronunciation or usage. For instance, although duple and triple meters are distinct phenomena, folk poetry tends to mix the two so that it is sometimes difficult to decide which type of rhythm characterizes a given poem as a whole. Some tetrameter poems follow iambic rules quite closely, while others may never have an initial offbeat syllable but always a final one ("trochaic" tetrameter); still others may have no offbeat syllable at either end of the line; still others may have one in either place occasionally. As noted before, some tetrameter poetry will place an otherwise offbeat syllable — usually the second in a disyllabic word such as daughter or morning — in the beat position. Finally, oral tradition will sometimes preserve otherwise unexpected arrangements of syllables on beats, such as the last syllable of water and after in "Jack and Jill" — where, in both cases, both the first and second syllable fall on beats, respectively the third and fourth of the line.

In oral poetry and especially tetrameters set to music, the rule of no fewer than one and no more than two syllables in the offbeat position may occasionally be violated, since the oral or musical performance will assure the correct placement of syllables on or off beats. There are many nursery rhymes that have some empty offbeat positions, especially near the beginning of the poem — e.g., "Jack Sprat," above, and "Ba, Ba, Black Sheep." Later offbeat positions that do have syllables falling on them help to confirm the general pattern and the correct assignment of syllables to beats. Conversely, especially in sung tetrameter verse, there may be more than two offbeat syllables in a row. If there are three, for instance, the middle one may fall on what is felt in the music as a subordinate or secondary beat between two principle beats. Also in sung tetrameters, more than one beat may be held in silence — again, the oral performance accommodates this. And there are instances of written poetry imitating such effects.

In iambic pentameter, compensation on rare occasions may be delayed — an empty offbeat position may be matched with a double offbeat elsewhere, but not in an adjacent offbeat position. Also, in orally recited dramatic verse, such as in Shakespeare's plays, offbeat positions may be empty without compensation. This occurs not infrequently at the beginnings of lines, and, in other places, it may produce an effect of special intensity, as when Lear, on the heath, speaks to the storm:

Blow winds and crack your cheeks!  Rage!  Blow!
  o   B    o     B    o     B    ^  B   ^   B

The iambic pentameter in general developed through a process of evolution, from the purely syllabic model borrowed from Italian and French, which only requires ten (or eleven) syllables with a stress on the tenth, to a truly English model of five distinct beats (plus the sixth silent beat). As a result of this evolution, there are many lines in iambic pentameter poetry before the 18th century that seem to scan more as ten (or eleven) syllables than as real iambic pentameter, that do not clearly have five beats — even allowing for promotion — or that seem to require the beats to be matched only awkwardly to the natural stress contour of the language. This is even the case in Shakespeare's poetry on occasion, and is common in that of Edmund Spenser, a generation earlier.

Poets, whether traditional or learned, in oral or written poetry, often exploit flexibilities within the syllable structure of spoken English to make words fit into a metrical pattern. A syllable may be defined as the smallest unit of sound in a word that would be sung to a musical note, and a syllable normally consists of a vowel, either alone or bounded by a consonant — either before or after or both before and after the vowel. Although the distinction between vowels and consonants is generally set and clear, there are some consonants that can be drawn out (continuants), such as m, n, s, z, l, and r, while others are instantaneous (stops), such as b, p, d, and t. Of the continuants, some are unvoiced, such as s and th, and others are voiced, such as m, n, z, r, and l. These latter are therefore very close to the status of vowels. Humming, for instance, is singing the sound of m alone. Conversely, some vowels may chance to occur in places, generally before other vowels, where they are treated more like consonants — a u may be spoken to sound like a w, for instance. Because of this gradation between vowels and consonants in practice, there are many cases where some apparent vowels may be treated as consonants or consonants as vowels to alter the normal number and structure of syllables in words containing those sounds. The name Charles, for instance, may be considered a single syllable, or two — "CHAR-uhls" — depending on how it is pronounced. A poet may then use the name, alternatively, either to take up a single syllable place in a meter, or two, with the first stressed and the second unstressed. I call these phonological ambiguities fudge-factors.

William Blake's "The Tyger" has a nice instance of such a fudge-factor in lines 5-8:

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare sieze the fire?

In the second line above, fire has two syllables — "FYE-uhr" — but in the fourth line, it presumably has only one, to rhyme with aspire.

Some fudge-factors are especially prevalent in poetry of the 16th-17th centuries and later poetry that imitates it as a traditional archaism:

a. Words ending in -er or -en like ever, never, or heaven, given, are often treated as one syllable: "heav'n." In older texts they are sometimes spelled that way, too.

b. Up until the 20th century, very often poets would, as an archaism, expect the -ed verbal ending to be pronounced as a full syllable (as in the adjectives naked, learned, and winged today). When this was the practice, if the ending did not make a syllable (i.e., sounded as it does nowadays in words like "saved"), it would often be spelled with an apostrophe: sav'd, or even, if it had a t sound, with a t: "they past before me" or "they pass'd before me" for "they passed before me." Modern editions sometimes use the modern method: if the -ed is to take a syllable, the e has an accent over it: "the wingèd Victory." The reader must look carefully to see whether the text at hand follows the older procedure, where all -ed endings are full syllables, and the nonsyllabic ending is spelled -'d, or the more modern practice, where -ed usually does not sound as a syllable, and the syllabic ending is spelled -èd.

c. When two vowels are next to each other, they can often be scanned either as two syllables or one (offbeat) syllable, depending on what the poet needs for the meter. In words that have a u before another vowel, it may be treated like a w: unusual, "un-U-zhwal" (3 syllables) or "un-U-zhu-AL" (4 syllables). I may be treated as a y: proverbial: "pro-VERB-yal" or "pro-VERB-i-AL."

This effect may also occur between an unaccented vowel ending one word and another one beginning the next word. This fudge-factor effect is known as "elision" — the disappearing syllable is "elided" — and one of the commonest instances of it is in the vowel of the before the unstressed initial vowel of the noun modified by the article. Sometimes Renaissance poets actually wrote this elision as an apostrophe: "Th'expense." Donne sometimes signals it by an apostrophe following the first vowel (and thus between the two joined words), perhaps to suggest a vowel glide rather than the complete disappearance of the first of the two vowels. Another instance of elision, fairly common in Donne, is the treatment of a final unstressed y (as in the suffix -ly) as the beginning of a glide into the unstressed vowel of the next word, so that both vowels together form one syllable.

d. Occasionally, in a word of three or more syllables, a syllable between the main stressed syllable and one with secondary stress may be ignored, especially if the syllable includes at least one consonant that is a continuant (and especially if the continuant is voiced). For instance, invisible, in the third line of the passage cited above from George Chapman's translation of Homer's Iliad, is treated as having three syllables: invis'ble, "in-VIZ-buhl." This contraction of a syllable occurs frequently in ordinary speech and is called, in technical parlance, syncope ("SIN-ko-Pee").

e. As mentioned earlier (under "Rules Governing Rhyme"), the endings -tion and -sion may be scanned as one syllable (as today) or as two, with secondary stress on the -on.

In scansion, when a fudge-factor is used to avoid counting a syllable (as in heaven pronounced "heav'n"), the symbol is written below the syllable to be ignored. If a fudge-factor results in the addition of a syllable, as in fire prounounced "FYE-uhr," the normal scansion symbols, such as B o (as in this case), will make the presence of this extra syllable clear.

Rhymes are another area of variety in the actual practice of poetry. Rhymes come in many types and subtypes. A normal or perfect rhyme reproduces all the sounds in final beat syllable of the line in question coming after that syllable's initial consonant or consonants, and any offbeat syllable following that beat syllable. Thus time rhymes with rhyme, but timing rhymes with rhyming. A rhyme of timing with hiking would be imperfect and nontraditional. The point of a rhyme in the most traditional form, beyond the reinforcement of metrical closure as mentioned earlier, is to give delight in the tension between the changes in meaning wrought by changes in words up through the initial consonant (or consonant-cluster) of the final beat syllable and the likeness of all sounds following that consonant (or consonant-cluster). Thus, in addition to punctuating the line-ends and the larger form (whether couplet or stanza), the rhyme provides an opportunity for surprise.

In more modern times, poets have often made more strained, imperfect rhymes, where the sounds are reproduced imperfectly. This is often the case with Emily Dickinson, for example. In reading such poets, one must make allowances for the possibilities of nontraditional or imperfect rhymes that still work for the purpose of reinforcing the rhythmic pattern. The imperfection of the rhyme may create some sense of tension because the rhyme is not neat and feels slightly awkward. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to call such pairs as prose / doors (Dickinson) simply "unrhymed."

Meter and Sense.

Spoken language expresses sense by means of sequences of distinctive sounds, and written texts represent spoken language. Meter organizes the sounds of language into patterns, even while the language simultaneously continues to express sense. Accordingly, meter is one of the forms of sound-play in poetry, which draw the listener's or reader's attention away from the sense and toward the mere sound, just as, if you pay attention to the sound of a person's voice, you would find it difficult to pay attention to what the person is saying. Despite this tension, meter also interacts with sense in important ways. The patterns of sound that we call meter are forms of repetition and parallelism — the repeated sequence of offbeats and beats, of line units, of rhyming groups of lines, of stanzas, and of larger stanza sequences. These parallelisms of sound tend to structure sense into corresponding parallelisms. Poetry as a whole, then, both in sound and in sense, is characterized by repetitions, rhythms, parallelisms, and alternations of opposites, all of which engage the mind in the activity of comparing and contrasting.

In the nursery rhyme "Jack and Jill," for instance, rich patterns of sound parallelism and opposition on several levels structure the sense.

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water;
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.

The quatrain is neatly divided, both in sound and in sense, at the semicolon between lines two and three, creating, in sound, two identical metrical forms, the two halves of an iambic tetrameter ballad measure quatrain. In sense, the first half forms an independent clause — a sentence — telling of Jack and Jill's ascent, which is the first "event" in this very brief narrative. The second half, which would form another complete sentence, tells of the descent, the second and last "event." The ascent is, in a sense, the cause; the descent is the result. The ascent is, presumably, happy; the descent is unhappy. Then, within each sentence/line-pair, further divisions may be found both in sound and sense, also providing parallelisms, comparisons, and contrasts. The first line gives the action, the second the purpose; the third line gives an action, the fourth a result. Thus purpose and result — lines two and four — also neatly fall into parallel contrast. Within the first line, the first two beats give us the compound subject of the sentence, "Jack and Jill," while the rest of the line gives us the predicate, which of course concludes with an internal rhyme on Jill/hill. And within the first line, finally, Jack and Jill give us the two characters, balanced male and female, in the form of two monosyllabic names beginning with the identical consonant (that is, alliterating), and contrasting in vowel sounds and in the hard, voiceless stop -ck and the voiced liquid -ll. There are many other such parallels in both sound and sense throughout this little poem, but the foregoing should suffice to show how meter participates in a general tendency toward the structuring of both sound and sense into such parallelisms, providing complex and multidirectional relations of comparison and contrast.

In most lines of verse, the syntax corresponds with the meter, as they do in "Jack and Jill": generally speaking, a line, which is a metrical unit of sound, will also contain a complete phrase, clause, or even sentence, whose end will occur at the end of the line. Lines that correspond in this way to syntactic structures are called end stopped. End stopping is not always observed, however. A poem may provide opportunities for playful tension and surprise by having syntactic units cross the boundaries of lines of verse. When the sense thus continues from one line to the next, spanning a syntactic unit, so that the sense of a given moment is not complete until the reader reaches at least the beginning of the next line, this is called enjambment, and the lines are said to be enjambed. Usually, enjambment is a special device within a generally end-stopped poem, but some poems and some genres tend toward enjambment as the rule. Enjambment is particularly the norm in blank verse, especially in drama and narrative (epic poetry). Examples of the former are Shakespeare's plays, and a good example of the latter is Milton's Paradise Lost, which pioneered the practice of heavily-enjambed blank verse for this purpose.

Generic Associations of Meters

The analysis of both the "surface" level of the foot and the "deeper" level of the line involves an opposition between two and three, binary and ternary. In the foot, this opposition gives rise to the distinction between duple and triple meter. In the line, this opposition gives rise to the difference between tetrameter, consisting of 2 x 2 beats, and pentameter, consisting of 3 x 2 beats — with the final beat silent, like the final beat of some tetrameter lines.

It seems to be a fact of nature that binary rhythms are more readily perceptible and more convincing than ternary rhythms. For instance, if a person hears a sound regularly repeated in identical form, such as the ticking of a clock or watch (of the old-fashioned kind), the beating of a metronome, or the rocking of an unstable washing machine, he or she will tend to hear those identical noises in groups of two, and in hierarchical binary groups of groups — as four, eight, sixteen, etc. By contrast, one tends to hear the same noises in groups of three only if one is given the suggestion from outside — for instance, if another person counts "One, two, three" to that beat. As a result of this natural phenomenon, the tetrameter, which is based on an underlying structure of two slow beats per line (subdivided into four, with offbeats added) is more immediately recognized by the listener than pentameter, whose underlying structure has three slow beats. This difference accounts for the need for iambic pentameter rules to be fussier than the relatively loose practice of tetrameter.

These differences then lead to different sets of cultural associations for tetrameter and pentameter, as follows:

Folk traditionHigh art
Working-class, peasantryAristocracy
Oral traditionWritten tradition
Native English (Germanic)Imported, Romance-Language
Song, danceFormal speech
Narrative: balladNarrative: epic

There are also cultural associations for duple and triple versions of these meters. (Triple pentameter, as noted, is quite rare.)

Natural expressionArtifice

In both tables above, the opposition between one column and the other can be explained with reference to the fact that binary rhythms are more intuitively obvious, easy, and convincing than ternary. Ternary rhythm, on the level of the line, in the form of iambic pentameter (or hexameter), tends to allow the content of the language to come to the foreground relative to the sound of the meter, so iambic pentameter is well suited to poetry in which the content is complex, demanding, and serious. Also, it takes more work to make ternary rhythms perceptible, so the rules must be stricter. But at the same time, the at the level of the foot, the artifice of making ternary rhythm out of language requires that the language be more obviously molded to fit the meter. This foregrounds the meter and foregrounds its artifice. In this way, ternary rhythm in the foot is well suited for poetry that draws attention to the musical play of sounds in poetry, where content is relatively less important than sound. Thus triple meter is well suited for nonsense verse, comic verse, "light" verse, and poetry that otherwise is associated with childhood, song, dance, and play. Even in folk ballads, where the content is quite serious and sober, triple meter often occurs, reinforcing the connection between the ballad form and its sung performance.

Thus the relative obviousness and simplicity of binary rhythm over ternary is the common principle accounting for both sets of opposed cultural associations, whether applying to the foot or the line, even though the two sets are also contrary in some ways — that is, the associations with ternary rhythm in the line are similar to those with binary rhythm in the foot, and the associations with binary rhythm in the line are like those with ternary rhythm in the foot. The The most extreme contraries are:

Triple TetrameterIambic Pentameter
Foot: 3 syllablesFoot: 2 syllables
Line: 2 x 2 beatsLine: 3 x 2 beats
Triple tetrameterIambic pentameter
Nursery rhymeEpic/dramatic blank verse
NonsenseSerious matter

The Role of Meter in Interpretation

The primary, most important functions of meter in poetry are not to express meaning at all, but to produce musical effects. These musical effects mark the difference between the poem and the kind of real, communicative utterance that it may imitate, reminding the reader to have the frame of mind appropriate to a work of art and to look for surprise, delight, and poignancy rather than the active meaning one finds in communication. The sound rhythm of meter also helps structure the content material of the poem into parallelisms and oppositions — rhythms of ideas and images. Meter is also catchy. It provides an occasion for playing with the sounds of language. These functions are true of any successfully convincing meter in any poem, and, therefore, the identification of the particular meter does not bear upon them.

The interpreter may, however, identify the specific meter in a particular poem in order to help place its genre, in accordance with the generic associations described above. Beyond this general effect of meter to define genre for a whole poem or passage, readers should avoid making extravagant claims for the appropriateness of particular local metrical effects, such as momentary variations — compensation, promotion, demotion, substitution, etc. — to carry off some particular meanings in particular passages. These supposed effects, known as cases of "imitative form," are impossible to prove, and usually show the imagination of the reader more than his or her careful reading of the text. Poets rarely actually think about how to make a particular moment of compensation or promotion (for instance) coincide with the meaning of that particular passage. Poets do, however, consider which meter to cast a particular poem in, as a matter of choosing the mood or general tone of the poem — based upon familiar associations with genres shared by the audience. The metrical form of a poem may also allude to a previous poem or poetic tradition using that form.

Of special interest to the reader are instances where there seems to be a conflict between the normal generic associations with a given meter and the apparent theme or subject matter of the poem. In such cases, the meter is marked against the reader's normative expectations of generically-based metrical choices. For instance, a sad and serious poem — say, a sorrowful reminiscence of a dead friend — written in triple tetrameter would create a mild surprise, since triple tetrameter is usually light and playful, associated with nursery rhymes, etc. In such a case, the use of a "light" meter for a "heavy" subject could create an unusual mood of wistfulness, yoking a dream of a happier mental state with the observation of a sad reality.


Try your hand at scansion on the following two items. The first is a complete poem, the second only a part. Make sure you can name the meter and stanzaic form where appropriate.

A slumber did my spirit seal;

     I had no human fears;

She seemed a thing that could not feel

     The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;

     She neither hears nor sees;

Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course

     With rocks and stones and trees.

(William Wordsworth — pub 1805)

In addition to scanning the fragment below, can you identify the poet who composed it?

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer's lease hath all too short a date.

Writing Verse

In writing metrical verse, students should begin by following the strictest rules with precision. Since original written poetry does not have an oral tradition to which to appeal to clear up ambiguities in meter, for example, the student should use very regular metrical patterns and make sure that the meter is as free of ambiguity as possible in order to fulfill the metrical set and allow the reader to recognize the meter easily. Rhymes, likewise, should be perfect. Only with mastery of these skills should a beginning writer consider the possible effects of departing from the rules. But much superb and powerfully moving poetry by great masters of verse also follows the rules exactly. Departing from them is not necessary to achieve great artistic ends.

Amittai F. Aviram ” © 2001, all rights reserved.

Ver. 20 July 2001

This page last updated Thursday, May 6, 2004 by the author — amittai dot aviram at gmail dot edu. © 2001 by Amittai F. Aviram.