Introduction to Meter

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Introduction to MeterTIMOTHY STEELEnglish-language poetry is written mostly in iambic meters. “Meter” (from the Greek metron) means “measure” and denotes the rhythmical organization of verse lines. “Iambic” refers to a specific kind of rhythm that alternates between relatively lightly stressed syllables and relatively heavily stressed ones. Because iambic rhythm suits English speech more naturally and flexibly than other rhythms, it has been the principal mode of English poetry from the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (14th c.) to the present day.Below are short passages from poems (the final one is actually a complete two-line epigram) that illustrate the chief meters of English verse. All the selections feature iambic rhythm. The lines, however, differ in length. The shortest has two feet and four syllables. The longest has five feet and ten syllables. (A “foot” is the basic rhythmical unit of a verse line; in an iambic line, this unit consists of a metrically unaccented syllable followed by a metrically accented one.) As Robert Frost once remarked, prefacing a proposed collection of his work for younger readers, poets follow “The measured way, … so many feet to the line, seldom less than two or more than five in our language” (Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays, edited by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson [New York: Library of America, 1995], 847).Who knows his will? Who knows what mood

His hours fulfil?
His griefs conclude?
      (J.V. Cunningham, “Meditation on a Memoir,” 1-4)How frightened you were once —And not so long ago—
When late one night we took
Our pathway homeward through
The churchyard where you saw
Grey gravestones row on row.
      (Dick Davis, “Mariam Darbandi,” 1-6)This youth too long has heard the break Of waters in a land of change.
He goes to see what suns can make
From soil more indurate and strange.
      (Louise Bogan, “A Tale,” 1-4)I rang them up while touring Timbuctoo,  Those bosom chums to whom you’re known as Who? 
       (X. J. Kennedy, “To Someone Who Insisted I Look Up Someone”)To clarify the structure of these selections, we can scan them. (“Scan” comes from the Latin scandere, “to climb”; the etymology of the word suggests the process of moving up or along, and analyzing step by step, a verse line.) Scanning lines involves dividing them into their component feet and assigning a metrical value to each syllable. A metrically unaccented syllable is conventionally noted with an “x,” a metrically accented syllable with a “/.” Lines are named with reference to their prevailing rhythm and number of feet.  |

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We should bear in mind several points about scansion. First, scansion divides lines according to units of rhythm, not units of sense. Scansion, in other words, treats a line merely and abstractly as a row of syllables. It does not consider the ways in which the syllables are clustered into words, phrases, clauses, or sentences. Hence, though we sometimes find lines in which divisions between feet coincide with divisions between words,He goes | to see | what suns | can makewe just as often find lines in which they do not. For instance, in the second line of Kennedy’s epigram, “touring” crosses the boundary between the third and fourth feet and “Timbuctoo” crosses the boundary between the fourth and fifth feet:I rang | them up | while tour <|> ing Tim <|> buctooAnother point is that the only requirement of an iambic foot is that its second syllable be weightier than its first. The exact degree of difference is, for purposes of scansion and metrical analysis, irrelevant. Hence some iambs may consist of two relatively light syllables (as long as the second still is heavier than the first) and other iambs may consist of two relatively weighty syllables (again, as long as the second still is heavier than the first).We can make this point clearer by supplementing the conventional two-level notation of scansion with a numerical four-level...
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