Metrical Terms I
Bill Long 5/5/08
From Milton, Shakespeare, Longfellow..and Others
My first acquaintance with poetic scansion, or determination of poetic meter, was in freshman Latin class in high school. I never warmed up to the process in high school, and I always thereafter have had difficulty discerning the "quality" of certain Greek and Latin syllables. One might say that there really are bigger and more bitter tragedies in the world, and that I should, like Justice Antonin Scalia urges all of us regarding the ridiculous Supreme Court decision Bush v. Gore, to "get over it," but I find myself today wanting to return to poetic meter and understand once and for all the terms used in classical and English literature for the various rhythms of poetic speech.
Once you come into English the process is easier, since the focus is on "stress" or "accent" of syllable rather than whether an "iota" or "alpha" might be long or short. This and the next essay are dedicated to trying to clarify metrical terms. Here is a website that does it well. In addition, you might consult Wikipedia and other sources for examples of the words that I discuss. Let's begin with a few words about meter, and then introduce the words. One caution is in order. Things are, in fact, much more complex than what I present, so that even the most sophisticated literary scholars really don't agree on systems of scansion or identification of syllables in modern English. But, uncertainty shouldn't seal our lips.
Getting the Words Straight--Beginning with Iamb
The smallest unit of poetic organization is the foot, which usually consists of two, but sometimes three, syllables. A line of poetry consists of a number of feet. Two feet constitutes a dimeter, three a trimeter, four a tetrameter, five a pentamenter, and six a hexameter. A stanza is a series of lines written in the same kind of meter.
The Greeks bequeathed to us many terms for the types of syllables making up the foot. The most familiar term is the iamb or iambus. Derived from the Greek verb meaning "to send, drive, throw or assail with words," it became identified with a foot whose first syllable was unaccented and whose second syllable was accented. The iambic pentameter is the most popular poetic verse in English. Two examples from Milton's Paradise Lost illustrate it. From I.59-63:
"At once as far as angels ken he views
The dismal situation waste and wild:
A dungeon horrible on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible"
The rhythm is as follow: "at ONCE as FAR as AN gels KEN he VIEWS..." The second line, actually, connects content and meter even more strongly, however, because both WASTE and WILD are stressed. We are impressed and oppressed with the horribleness of hell, and "waste and wild" stay in our mind.
A Miltonic Example--Of Content Combining with Meter
But Milton's use of language goes beyond the dee DUM of the iambic pentameter. He also wants us to stop and focus not only on the rhythm but also the words. Note, for example, the first five lines of the epic:
"Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat...
Two impressions dawn on us as we are reading the flow of the words. First is a downward spiral, triggered by humanity's disobedience. It brought death, woe and loss of Eden. Down we tumble, the theological equivalent of Mulcibler's great fall from heaven, where for the length of a summer's day he fell from heaven until he landed on "Lemnos, th' Aegean Isle." Down and down we fall. But who will break our fall? Or, conversely, can anything stop our downward plunge? That is where the words "till one greater Man/ Restore us" come in. The words "ResTORE us" are, like all Milton's lines, in iambic pentameter, but we stop on the two simple words "Restore us," and heave a great sigh of relief. Christ has stopped our "fall." Not only that, he has, as it were, reversed the effect of the Fall. We were plunging down in free fall, with no hope in the world, until one "greater Man" reached out his hand, so to speak, and restored us. We pause in reciting the epic on the words "restore us" only for a moment, to note the reversal of fortunes, and then we go on. So iambic pentameter combines with flow of content to help Milton establish a beachhead in our minds and win us over.
The next essay takes us to the other poetic meters.