Expansive Poetry & Music Online: Prosody
Copyright (c) 2000 by Expansive Poetry & Music Online, Somers Rocks Press and Arthur Mortensen

Part II (Edited, April 2002)

Meter and foot:

There are many meters, but in English they aggregate around two general approaches, the accentual, where the number of strong stresses is equal on each line but not the number of syllables; and the accentual/syllabic, where both the number of strong stresses and the number of syllables is mostly identical in each line.   In accentual/syllabic, each stress occurs in a poetic foot.  And, in English, poetic feet are limited to six:  iamb; trochee; spondee; dactyl; anapest; and pyrrhic.  (The last is sometimes disputed.)   Note: In a poetic foot, a syllable can be a complete word, as in get lost Note 2: In employing the word accent, it must be conceded that anything heard in English is in some what accented; to differentiate between strong and weak sounds, then, unaccented means weak.

    iamb -- one unaccented or weakly accented syllable followed by one strong accent, as in:

        impossible  (two iambs in one word, light stress on first and third syllables, heavy stress on 2nd and 4th.  The inequality of the first and second strong stresses is no proof that they aren't strong stresses, just that one is stronger than the other.  This often depends on pronunciations derived from regional difference or from dialect.  A recent emigre from Italy to New York, for instance, might use impossible with a strong 3rd syllable.

        my head was hot (two iambs in four words, light stresses on first and third, heavier on second and fourth.  If you read these as trochees the line makes little sense aloud, i.e.  MY head WAS hot).

        the rain in West Virginia (three iambs, with a feminine line ending -- see below, in five words.  Find where the accents fall.)

Usages of this are plain to any reader of poetry.  The most common usages of the iamb fall into iambic trimeter, iambic tetrameter and, most common, iambic pentameter, the last as familiar to Shakespeare as to Robert Frost or Frederick Turner.

    trochee -- one strong accent followed by one weak or unaccented  syllable, as in:

    dreadful -- one trochee in one word

    helpless  -- one trochee in one word

    Giaccometti -- two trochees in one proper name

The trochee is more often used as a substitute foot (or an exception) in an iambic line than by itself, though poems have been written in trochaic trimeter, tetrameter and pentameter.   Typically, as often in Milton, a trochee is substituted for the first foot in a line of iambic pentameter.  This is true of most poets who write in blank verse.

Dirty trick time.  It goes without saying that placement of a word in a line plays a big part in what type of foot the word participates in.   For example:

    Yes! My head was hot, dear.  (That's a trochaic line, three accents, including the same two that in a previous phrase were parts of an iambic line.  Some will argue that Yes! is a truncated iamb.  There are lots of such arguments in prosody.  Use your own ear.)

        "That's dreadful, Giaccometti!" (Three iambs with a feminine ending, or two iambs with an amphibrach if you're trying to impress yourself.)

        "West Virginiia?  There, the rain was dreadful!" (nasty -- what was nicely iambic is now irritatingly trochaic. However, if that's the writer's intention, so what?  Remember, these are tools, not rulesYou have to use a saw to cut wood; how you use it, however....)

Back to feet:

    anapest -- two weakly accented syllables followed by one strong stress.

       at the time of the President's lunch (three anapests in seven words)

       Sarah Jones is a woman who leads with her word  (Four anapests in ten words.  Disputes on the first one are welcome, but consider this.  In normal pronunciation of a person's full name, many accent the last name.  Take your pick.  If you prefer to accent the first, then the line is anapestal with a dactyl foot substitution at its head)

        Gabby Hayes is a figure from radio's past  (four anapests, eight words, if you're willing to concede softer accents on Gabby than on Hayes.  If not, we'll have to try something else, as for instance "This guy Hayes is a figure from radio's past," or, if you're still carping, forget Gabby Hayes and....

    a selection of bottles was broken last night (four anapests, eight words)

Anapests have often been used by narrative poets, such as Tennyson, but take care:  it's difficult enterprise to avoid a fall into sing-song silliness.   Anapests are most often used as foot substitutions in iambic lines.

    dactyl -- one strong stress, followed by two weakly accented or unaccented syllables

    See in the dark what the officer's doing there (three dactyls, eight words)

    Helpless I was as the rain in Virginia fell down on my head as I
    walked in the forest where Alfred was eating his apples and oranges and
    Mary was picking the fleas from her daughter and Georgie the  poodle was
    messing the carpet and Marty the carpenter fell from his ladder and
    flattened a squirrel whose blood ran all over and....

Enough already -- dactylic hexameter, or six dactyls to the line, except for the incomplete last line, favors Greek, not English, at least without substantial variation.  Foot substitution, such as a strong iamb, may be the only way to keep yourself from falling off a cliff with this meter.  Dactyls as foot substitutions in iambic lines are also fairly common.

   spondee -- two hard stresses in successive syllables

    Drop dead!

    Bite this!

    However, bite me would be a trochee.

    Generally verse is not written in spondees, though one could:

        Drop dead!
        Bite this!
        No head!
        No kiss!

    Spondaic monometer?

    Spondees are often used in iambic lines, though there is some dispute about this (see pyrrhic).  You will find as many arguments about Milton not using spondees to start lines in Paradise Lost as for his using them.

    pyrrhic -- two relatively unaccented syllables between two regular feet.  This is often disputed.   Rather than encourage that dispute with examples, we'll agree to ignore it for now.  A surprisingly large number of poets, good and bad, believe that most "pyrrhics" can be defined as either iambs or trochees  with very weak strong accents, or as the first part of an anapest, or the last part of a dactyl.  On that big small comment we'll withold further discussion.

    statistical -- okay, there's no such thing.  If the accents fall every which way, as in a Poisson distribution, you're probably writing (or reading) prose.  A good many poets who describe themselves as New Formalists do this.  This is all right, if you have a reason for it, but as affectation struck to satisfy some committee or political requirement it results in extremely boring work.

Variation:  You've got some technical descriptions.   But are these rules?  A clever way, particularly in America, to trash the use of prosody, is to bash the user with something like "oh, he follows the rules,"  meaning, one supposes, that the subject is too stupid or too imprisoned in tradition to do anything else.  But prosody does not represent a rule set.  It is not a tradition but an ongoing process.  Most of all, prosody is a toolset. What "rules" there are in prosody regarding variation of meter, such as limit the number of foot substitutions in a line to one, as Auden suggested, but rarely practiced, are meant more as informed suggestions, or rules-of-thumb, a dramatically different concept from "law" or "rule."   For example, when building  a bridge, an engineer may not ignore the mathematics needed to determine static or dynamic loads.  Those rules are not rules-of-thumb but robust applications of mathematical and physical law applied to prevent the bridge from falling down.  When a poet ends a line with feminine ending and starts the next line with a trochee, the sense of line ending is lost;  however, that may be precisely what the poet wants, and so she can comfortably ignore the rule-of-thumb which suggests don't finish a line with a feminine ending and start the next with a trochee in iambic pentameter.  Shakespeare did that frequently.

Indeed, poets who develop an ear for prosodic practice will soon understand that exact, successive lines of one form of meter will distract a hearer from the poem altogether.  Frederick Turner, in his essay "The Neural Lyre," describes why; it's mostly a matter of some part of the brain becoming lulled into sleep.  So, in a more heightened (meaning better controlled) method than we use in everyday speech, we interrupt the regular flow of meter for emphasis, surprise (keep them awake), and more ineffable stuff such as sound pleasing to the ear, i.e., differentiable from the lawn mower running outside.  In the use of a particular metrical pattern, the tools for achieving this are most often caesura (breaks such as commas or periods), foot substitution and feminine line endings (and, as seen below in a trochaic line, masculine line endings.  We'll look at the last one first, as the first one has already been partly examined.

"masculine/feminine":  While there are vestiges of other feet from classical times, such as the amphibrach, which are sometimes substituted for the line-ending foot,  "feminine" endings are more likely and more audible.  (Masculine/feminine has nothing to do with the gender agenda, as they don't in the "sex" of body parts in French, which can be confusing for the novice.)  For example:

        To be or not to be, that is the question...(feminine ending, the attachment of an unaccented syllable to the end of the last iambic foot of the line.  Does this mean trochaic meter is inherently feminine?  Perhaps this is not the venue for that question.   But with most English lines close to or variations of iambic, it's a fair guess that a dangling syllable is a feminine ending.  This may be symbolically confusing.)  Note the obvious.  If you end with an unaccented syllable, the meter will be confused if you start the next line with a strong syllable, as with a trochee.  This doesn't mean you can't (see below) but notice how useful the femine line ending is in emphasizing a line while at the same time sounding different than a completely regular iambic flow.

        You kissed the man you met last night? (masculine ending, 8 syllables in an iambic tetrameter line.  The line ends with a normally accented foot.)   As with a feminine ending, a masculine ending need not lead to either confusion or to an over-emphasized line;  by substituting a trochee for a beginning iamb in the next line, the break is harsh, which might be just what you want.

        You kissed the man I met this morning? (feminine ending, 9 syllables in an iambic tetrameter line, the last the feminine ending.)

Continuing with the old warhorse from Hamlet:

    To be, or not to be; that is the question:
                            (feminine, with a substitution
                            at foot four of a trochee,
                            and a break after "to be"
                            and a very strong emphasis
                            of the line ending with
                            a colon)
    Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
                            (feminine, with trochee at foot one,
                            line enjambed to next)
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
                            (feminine, emphasis of line
                            ending with comma)
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
                            (feminine, trochee in first foot,
                            emphasis of line ending with comma)
    And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep -
                            (masculine, "standard" ending,
                            trochee at first foot.  The line
                            has four breaks, which forces
                            the actor into mimicking a
                            reflective mode, i.e., of
                            stopping and starting in
                            following the logic of the
                            thought. Powerful emphasis of
                            already strong line ending with dash)
    No more, and by a sleep to say we end
                            (masculine, "standard" ending,
                             but "no more" has to be said
                            about like a spondee or the line
                            won't make sense.  A break
                            after "no more."  But then the
                            beginning of about two lines,
                            two halves and a complete one,
                            of enjambed and
                            perfect iambic.  An actor will
                            pick up the pace here until the
                            the break two lines down.)
    The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
                            (masculine, "standard" ending)
    That flesh is heir to -- 'tis a consummation
                            (feminine, strong break after
                            "heir to" -- switch from possibility
                            to possible consequence)
    Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep.
                            (masculine, "standard" ending,
                            two breaks, concluding a
                            thought, considering another.)
    To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,
                            (masculine, "standard" ending,
                            with one strong break, and two
                            light ones.  From the consequence,
                           to how he feels about it.)
    For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
            (masculine, "standard" ending, no breaks, no
             foot substitutions, a fast imitation of a breathtaking
            question that can't be stopped, enjambed to next line)
    When we have shuffled of this mortal coil must give us pause... (etc)
           (masculine, "standard" ending, see previous on accelerated pace)

This speech from Act III, scene i, as famous as any aria by Verdi, is a remarkable summary of Shakespeare's technique in writing playable or actable poetry.   Notice his "violations" of the rule-of-thumb about following a feminine line ending with a trochee.  It happens in lines 2 and 4, 5.  Read it aloud to see why.   He offsets the feminine ending by a strong break at the end of lines 1, 2, and 4 (a colon; a comma; and another comma).  This stop actually adds duration to the feminine endings and gives each, when played aloud, the same strength as a standard masculine ending.

Later, from Ophelia:

    O what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
            (masculine, "standard" ending, foot one a trochee
             if the actor doesn't want to sound singsong -- interjections
             are usually louder than articles or conjunctions. )
    The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's eye, tongue, sword,
           (Tricky, even with elision of "courtier" and "soldier,"
            the line is long, ending with two hard beats in
            two syllables.  The pause between "tongue" and
            "sword," which must be pronounced,
            is all that remains of the closing iamb).
    Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state,
           (Again, closing on two hard beats in two
             syllables, each of which works as a foot
    The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
            (masculine, "standard" ending on first
             view, but as a line below, it falls into
             halves, with alliteration on either side
             and only four strong beats)
    Th' observed of all observers, quite, quite, down!
           (Spoken aloud, it is natural to de-emphasize
             the second "quite", so it's a masculine ending
             and a 5 iamb line.)
    And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
                            (feminine, otherwise regular)
    That sucked the honey of his music vows,
            (masculine, "standard" ending, regular
            5 iambs)
    Now see that noble and most sovereign reason
                            (feminine, but with a strong
                             caesara at "and," the line
                             sound almost like one by
                            Chaucer with alliteration in both
                            and across both halves -- alliteration
                            does not mean that the sound is
                            repeated only at the beginning of
                            a word! 4 strong beats only,
                            enjambed to next line)
    Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh;
             (masculine, "standard" ending, and, aloud,
             falling naturally into iambs across)
   That unmatched form and feature of blown youth
            (masculine ending, but tricky again, as two strong
            beats fall on last two words. Enjambed
             to next line)
    Blasted with ecstasy. O woe is me,
            (masculine, "standard" ending, but varied with
             a trochee at the first position.  Interjection 'O' is
            overwhelmed by "woe' in a typical reading)
    T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!
            (masculine, "standard" ending, arguably an
             anapest in foot one)

The sharp breaches of "rules" stand out; they're meant to.  They're as much a revelation of the state of Ophelia's mind (clearly disturbed at what she's seen of her lover) as the actual words.   They're highlighted by the hard re-entry to
relatively strict iambic pentameter in the second half of the speech.

The prosody revealed in these two speeches only seems haphazard until you hear it working, when it becomes clear that the substitutions, varying types of  line endings, and breaks were composed by someone with an ear for verse that an actor can say with conviction that an audience will understand what's going on and what's being said.  Should we do less in poetry of any kind using prosody?   It's not a matter of "roughing it up" a little after you write your forty iambic lines for a contest.  Such arbitrary artiness will strike most readers as affected and precious, like drawing a moustache on a print of the Mona Lisa to show yourself as one with the common folk.  Work through those forty lines by how they sound, each by each, halfline by halfline if that's appropriate, and together, and you'll make the changes required to transform it from the di-dum-di-dumdi-dum-di-dumdi-dum-di-dum of a hack into dynamic lines of poetry.

foot substitution:  As has been looked at already above, the most common way of varying meter at the beginning of, or within the line, is foot substitution, as...

        joyfully, the man began to sing the hymn  (the line begins with a dactyl, continues with iambs)

        Michael enjoyed his trafficking in drugs   (the line begins with a trochee, continues with iambs) or

        Michael hated his trafficking in drugs   (the line begins with two trochees, continues with iambs)

       In the three examples, practice and ear suggest that it's best to restate the meter in the next line after a significant variation.  Otherwise, the meter may be lost.  It's a result of the re-entry principle mentioned above.  It's more familiar to students of  music than recent students of poetry but should be examined closely. (You can see a psychological application of this in Hamlet's and Ophelia's speeches above.)

In music, a composer will often demand that a lyric be restated; often (this is typical of Cole Porter or of Billy Joel) the restatement is accompanied by an ironic shift in meaning.  Much the same thing is done with restatement of musical themes.  When an alto player does a 64 bar solo based on an opening theme, the most challenging part is the return, when the player has to show that the variation played fits with the melody as he and the other musicians re-enter its realm.  In the same instance, the variation itself is controlled by the re-entry of the melody's chord changes, which underly the solo (and are often vamped in by a piano player or a bass player to keep the soloist in the tune's "universe").  In poetic meters, re-entry is a powerful tool, as strong statement and restatement of meter allows effective variations from it (the same is true of rhyme).  The reason for that is simple:  exceptions only stand out from an existing pattern (one of the reasons why so much free verse is bland is that it's all exception).  That notion is behind the above-mentioned rule-of-thumb about feminine endings and trochees.   If an iambic line ends with a feminine ending, and the next one starts with a trochee, the sound will be of a continuous iambic line that may suddenly break up into a mishmash -- is that an anapest or a pyrrhic? -- where the meter and the rhythmn of the poem is lost.  If that's not what the poet intended, the poet should make repairs.

    Foot substitution can happen at any stage of writing, whether the first draft or the last.  It should not be arbitrary (though this is recommended by some seminar leaders);  it should fit the effect you're trying to get.  That's why you use prosody, isn't it, to get something out of its toolset?

What's used?

From the quantity of verse employing it, it's clear that the most common and pleasing poetic foot to an English-hearing ear is the iamb, and that the most common variation in iambic lines is the trochee.   However, in much narrative writing in the 19th century, the "triple meters," dactylic and anapest, were employed, but not without artful variation.  Rigid use of triple meters is dreary to listen to and easy to parody (in case you thought the example above was particularly fine work).   Trochaic verse is rare in English beyond short lyrics (See Dr. Salemi's article on Unusual Meters).  It is nearly impossible to write spondaic verse (though Milton has a lines in Paradise Lost that are spondaic.)  Nor is it possible to write "pyrrhic" verse in English, which would be wholly unstressed (in French, of course, we'd call such verse syllabic, and the differences between meters would be measured solely in numbers -- though one can't deny the value of pitch and duration in a Romance language or in English).

Suggesting that the iambic foot and line are the most widely used because they're the easiest is contravened in practice.  It is just as difficult to write blank verse as rhymed.  However, among criticism of some noteworthy blank verse poets, such as Milton, you can find the thought that blank verse is just disguised prose.  Not a few critics have described Shakespeare's blank verse in plays as prose (actually about half of Hamlet is written in prose, though even that is roughly scannable in five beat lines --  suggesting that those sections might be a prompter's transcribed version).  Close study would suggest otherwise; it isn't possible to create the dynamism and tension of either Milton or Shakespeare's blank verse by approximating it in prose, that both were very close students of unrhymed iambic pentameter as  verse.

Lines in a stanza are often the same length in feet, but need not be. A  great deal of stanzaic verse is comprised of lines of unequal length, from the regular pattern in ballad measure, where lines of four and three feet are alternated in four-line stanzas, to the seemingly erratic yet quite controlled examples of Wordsworth and Cowley in the so-called great odes, "Ode, Intimations of Immortality..." one of the best-known.

   Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
                    5 iambs, feminine ending, but
                    strong stop adds duration
   The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
                    3 iambs, then either a fourth or a
                    unique foot of one accented and two stressed
                    syllables, 2 breaks
       Hath had elsewhere its setting,
                    2 trochees, 1 iamb, feminine ending,
                    weighted line ending with comma
         And cometh from afar:
                    3 iambs, strongly weighted masculine
                    ending, a very sharp line break
       Not in entire forgetfulness,
                trochee, 3 iambs, reinforced
                    line break with comma
       And not in utter nakedness,
                   4 iambs, line break weighted with
   But trailing clouds of glory do we come
                5 iambs, line enjambed to next
       From God, who is our home:
                   3 iambs, break, then strongly
                   weighted masculine line
   Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
                   5 trochees, 1 pyrrhic (there are
                  alternative ways of seeing this)
                  Heavily reinforced line ending.
   Shades of the prison-house begin to close
                   trochee, 4 iambs, enjambed w/next line.
       Upon the growing Boy,
                    3 iambs, comma strengthens
                    masculine line ending
   But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
                    5 iambs, one break, weighted masculine
                    line ending with comma
       He sees it in his joy;
                    3 iambs, strong stop at line ending.
   The Youth, who daily farther from the east
                   5 iambs, one break, line enjambed
                    with next
       Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
                     4 iambs, one break, line ending
                    weighted with comma
       And by the vision splendid
                     3 iambs, feminine ending,
                     line enjambed to next
       Is on his way attended;
                     3 iambs, feminine ending
                     weighted w/semi-colon
   At length the Man perceives it die away,
                     5 iambs, masculine ending
                    weighted with comma
   And fade into the light of common day.
                  iamb, trochee, 3 iambs
Said aloud, even one of its eleven stanzas, as above, there's no doubt that Wordsworth, who wrote superb blank verse, knew what he was about in using irregular line lengths.  The contrast of phrase and meter is remarkable, yet doesn't defeat but rather shows another way of using it.  It seems unlikely that the conclusion with five-beat lines was an accident.  The most common line in English verse, it makes a powerful close.

Phillip Larkin used irregular length (but metrical) lines to marvelous effect in dozens of his shorter lyrics.  So did Auden and in great variety Thomas Hardy.    So did Edna St. Vincent Millay, as in "God's World" from Renascence.

Long have I known a glory in it all,
           trochee, 4 iambs
          But never knew I this;
           3 iambs, strong stop with semi-colon,
            which adds duration to masculine ending
          Here such a passion is
           trochee, 2 iambs
As stretcheth me apart -- Lord, I do fear
           3 iambs, trochee, iamb, 2 breaks,
            strong after "apart" where there's
            a break in syntax.    Enjambed to
            next line.
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year;
           5 iambs, strong stop with semi-colon
My soul is all but out of me -- let fall
             5 iambs, sharp break to show
             syntax shift, enjambed to next line
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.
           2 iambs, trochee, 2 iambs,
              strong break after "leaf" concludes
             a phrase, sets up concluding line
             of stanza
Later Millay has less of the antique diction, but this is still masterful in how she uses varying line lengths to pace the poem, in addition to substitution and breaks.   For centuries, music composers, whether Beethoven or Stravinsky, have used changing time signatures as well, and for much the same purpose, for emphasis, shift in mood, surprise, and more ineffable effects such as pleasing or startling contrasts.

Mixed meters:  Why not?  Poets have changed line lengths for hundreds of years.  Why not shift metrical schemes, depending on what a particular section of a piece is doing?   In longer poems, or in dramatic poems, it's an obvious choice to change meters (or use rhyme or not use rhyme) for different characters.   Not many poets have done this, but it's a wonderful tool for differentiating voices.  Dick Allen and other poets often shift between metrical lines to free verse lines.

Other points of view:

One modernist interpretation of meters implies that each use of a foot is an imposition to artistically distort ordinary speech, and thus to force unusual pronunciation of words, rather like declaring trump in bridge. (The idea is not new; in the 19th century, the Brownings and Rosettis used to have parlor readings where the rule was that the feet were to be pronounced without variation, thus denying the possibility, so important to most English poets, including Browning himself, of variation in the meter as a means of dramatic emphasis.)  But it is clear from example that something quite different happens, that the sound of ordinary pronunciation is integrated into an imposed meter, so that while words sound the same individually, and word order may be close to that expected in prose, the fusion results in a dynamic, rhythmic line.  The difference is that between prose and verse (poetry, we are told, may be both, but this prosody is concerned solely with metrical poetry.)   The notion of changing the sound of language by a simple declaration of meter is as precious as it is ignorant of prosodic practice and history.