One syllable: Two syllables: Three syllables: Four syllables:
One / X Mirth with /XX La- dy- bird, /XX X female of the
/XX X deadly than the
live / home male
In theory, it would also be possible to construct a line of verse in which each measure contained five syllables, but I am not aware that such a metre has ever been seriously attempted. Even the first and last of the above four types are unusual, simply because one-syllable and four-syllable measures are less common in connected speech than those with two or three syllables, so that it is difficult to sustain such patterns for long. The disyllabic and trisyllabic metres are by far the most common, and are the only types which traditional English prosody generally acknowledges. Notice how the impression of speed increases with the number of syllables per measure. Trisyllabic metres are commonly thought lively and suitable for light-hearted subjects. The four-syllabic 'pseonic' metre favoured by Kipling calls for a brisk, cantering tempo of recitation. It is scarcely conceivable that such a metre would be chosen for a solemn poem on (say) a religious subject.
7.3.2 The 'Foot' of Traditional Prosody
It is clear that the measure, which (like the bar in music) invariably begins with an accent, is not to be confused with the foot of traditional prosody, which may begin either with a stressed or unstressed syllable. The main types of foot generally allowed to play a significant part in English verse are:
iamb X / anapaest XX/
trochee / X dactyl /XX
The 'foot' is actually the unit or span of stressed and unstressed syllables which is repeated to form a metrical pattern. This may or may not coincide with the measure, or unit of rhythm. In a regular iambic pentameter, the basic repeated pattern of syllables is the sequence x /, or the iambic foot:
The I ploughman I homeward I plods his I weary I way
Here the measures, separated by vertical lines, are clearly distinguishable from the feet, marked by horizontal brackets. In a regular trochaic pentameter, on the other hand, the feet and measures coincide:
However, it is a notorious failing of traditional prosody that the distinction between 'rising rhythm' (iambs, anapaests) and 'falling rhythm' (trochees, dactyls) cannot be reasonably drawn when both the initial and final syllable of a line are stressed, or when both are unstressed:
Both these types of pattern, which are extremely common in English poetry, could be scanned equally well in terms of iambic or trochaic metre. Analysing into measures, we know there is only one way of distributing the bar-lines: namely, by placing one before each stressed syllable. But analysing into feet, we have to commit outselves arbitrarily in favour of iambs or trochees.
The measure is therefore a more reliable concept than the foot in English prosody. The importance of the foot lies mainly in its historical position in the body of theory which poets through the centuries have learnt, and have more or less consciously applied in their poetry. This theoretical apparatus originated in a misapplication of classical metrics to the rhythm of English, and there is reason to feel that despite its longstanding hold over English versification, it has never become fully assimilated. When we turn away from the learned tradition, towards the 'folk prosody' of nursery rhymes and popular songs, the metrical foot becomes a patently unsuitable tool of analysis. Harvey Gross uses the example of Old Mother Hubbard in this connection12:
And so the poor doggy had none. X |/ X xj / X X |/| A
The important metrical fact about this rhyme is that it is written in three-time throughout, all measures internal to a line having three syllables. But operating with traditional feet, one would feel obliged to scan lines I, 2, and 4 in terms of'falling rhythm' (dactyls and trochees) and lines 3,5, and 6 in terms of'rising rhythm' (iambs and anapaests), and thus obscure the regularity of the pattern. Here, and in countless other cases, traditional scansion forces one to over-analyse, by introducing distinctions which are irrelevant to the metre.
To live up to its label 'accentual-syllabic', conventional English verse has to be capable of division not only into regular numbers of unstressed syllables per stressed syllable, but into regular numbers of stresses or accents per line. This second layer of analysis is acknowledged in the designations monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, for lines containing one to six stresses respectively.
We now need to consider how to identify and define a line of poetry -for to function as a phonological unit of verse, the line must be distinguishable on some grounds other than mere typography. As David Abercrombie points out,13 a line is delimited by 'various devices which may be called line-end markers, and there seem to be three of these in use in English verse'. The three he specifies are the following, which may be used individually or in combination:
[a] rhyme, or some other sound scheme.
[c] a monosyllabic measure, not used anywhere else, coinciding with the last syllable of the line (see fig. [g] on p. 112).
If one or more of these markers are present in a poem, even though it may be printed or recited as if it were prose, a person confronted with it for the first time should be able to recognize the line divisions. The most interesting of them, from the metrical point of view, is the silent stress (A), which sometimes has an entire silent measure to itself:
dong bell I / I Pussy's in the I well / / IAI / X / X I / and sometimes shares a measure with the anacrusis (initial unstressed syllable or syllables) of the following line:
There X I
crooked / X
The silent stress is most clearly perceived in these examples if one taps rhythmically in time with the stressed syllables, noting how an extra beat naturally fdls in the time between one line and the next.
Following Abercrombie further,14 we may observe that silent stresses normally intrude themselves at the end of lines with an odd number of accents, but not at the end of those with an even number. Trimeters and pentameters, for example, have a silent stress, but not tetrameters. If, therefore, we add the silent stress on to the number of vocalized stresses hi each line, we reach the conclusion that all metres, even those apparently odd, are actually based 011 an even number of stresses per line. A pentameter can be regarded as a hexameter with one stress silent, and so on. The double measure (corresponding to the traditional 'dipode') is a basic unit of metre.
To test this, read through the following extracts, and note how a pause seems to be required between trimeters or between pentameters, but not between dimeters or between tetrameters. Again, tapping in time with the stressed syllables may aid the perception of silent stresses.
Dimeter: | One more Un|fortunate | Weary of | breath,
| Rashly im|portunate,
[T. Hood, The Bridge of Sighs]
[Cowper, Verses supposed to be written by Alexander Selkirk]
Tetrameter: But | hail, thou | goddess | sage and | holy,
I Hail, di|vinest j Melan|choly!
[MUton, II Penseroso]
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