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Explainer: poetic metre

The foot is the basic unit for what we consider to be romantic and beautiful: poetry. Khánh Hmoong

Explainer: poetic metre

In everyday life the foot is both a necessity and nuisance. For most, the foot simply takes us where we need to go, and requires maintenance to avoid bunions and bad odour. Hey, don’t look at my feet – look at my Miu Miu sandals.

What an unromantic thing is the undressed foot. But the foot is the basic unit for what, against our everyday lives, we consider to be romantic and beautiful: poetry.

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Consider the foot a building block, poetry’s first unit of measure. As in the proverbial sobriety test, one foot steps after another to form a conventional line.

There are different kinds of feet, such as the trochee, the spondee, the dactyl, the iamb, and the anapaest. These indicate various formations of stresses in syllables.

There are different kinds of lines – hexameter, pentameter, tetrameter and so on – whose names indicate the number of feet a line contains. This terminology forms the basis of the discipline, and so any introduction to poetic metre should begin here.

But these words can be alienating, off-putting. Whispering dactylic hexameter in people’s ears won’t necessarily tempt them into reading heroic verse.

Connecting to the past

Scansion, the technical study of metre, seems tedious, with its scholarly and time-consuming demands. Why bother knowing which foot falls where, and how many times, in a line?

If seeing the word “dactyl” makes you anxious, try placing this anxiety into context. If you never quite remember what these words denote, consider your anxiety apposite to one of poetry’s major preoccupations: memory.

ArTeTeTrA

Words like dactyl are Greek, spoken by people who in pre-Homeric times had weak means for recording speech by the written word. The idea of unrecordable, disappearing words represented a singular terror. There was even a term for this fear: epea pteroenta, or “winged word”.

Perhaps this term sounds whimsical to the modern ear, but the original fear it signified was actual, its question urgent: how to stop these beautiful words – these fantasies, these memories – from flying away and disappearing into the air?

In antiquity, metre was central among poetic formulae for fixing words in communal memory. Thus, as Milman Parry hypothesised in his many essays, it was possible for the first singers of epic tales to recite long, complex verses to their audiences by heart.

The vocabulary isn’t merely technical when we examine the intimate connection it maps between the body and mnemonics. Forgotten what a dactyl is? Look at your index finger, formed by one long and two short bones. “Dactyl,” derived from the Greek for finger, metrically indicates one long and two short syllables.

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If you’re feeling fanciful, think of pterodactyls. These are your winged dinosaurs, these old words transmitted through time.

By no means exhaustive, the following examples touch on what metre itself can suggest and say.

Heroic verse

Formed by hexameters – lines of six feet whose final two feet are usually a dactyl and a trochee – this barnstorming verse was in classical times reserved for telling of the great deeds of great men.

The Latin magnum opus, Metamorphoses (8AD), for instance, is written in dactylic hexameter.

Jan Andries Lievens. The grief stricken Pyramus commits suicide. Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 4. Wikimedia Commons

But even by Ovid’s time, two thousand years ago, the heroic was often (and often reluctantly) deployed by poets who, for political or financial reasons, found themselves required to use the form to advance thinly-veiled flattery to their contemporaries in the senatorial classes.

Homer’s Iliad translated into English dactylic hexatmeter.

Elegiac

In his earlier masterpiece, Amores (10BC) Ovid stages a ludicrous, yet compelling, scene in which the personifications of two poetic forms compete for the poet’s pen.

Ovid statue (1887) by Ettore Ferrari, commemorating Ovid’s exile in Tomis (present-day Constanța, Romania). Wikimedia Commons

Tragedy, formidable and unsympathetic, scolds, “Now why not turn my way, make Roman tragedy famous,” as she stomps through an ancient wood in “high Lydian boots”. The focus on feet is crucial, because Elegy, with her coquettish limp, wins Ovid’s election.

What defines the classical elegy is its missing “foot”; while hexameter was for heroes, the elegiac couplet followed a six-five groove – hexameter, followed by pentameter (a line of five feet).

Flip and seductive, Ovid’s Elegy shrugs, “I’m frivolous, like my subject”.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge demonstrated the sensation of the form in this meta-elegiac couplet:

In the hexameter rises the fountain’s silvery column,
In the pentameter aye falling in melody back.

Elegy has never held a fixed formal or thematic definition. While classical elegy encompasses a range of “unheroic” subjects – particularly the amorous – the modern era attaches elegy to mourning.

How to reconcile an off-beat form once expressive of sexual frivolity with sombre lines addressing death? Ovid’s Elegy provides a clue to the puzzle of multiple meanings: her missing foot.

Perhaps the sense of perpetually missing is elegy’s defining characteristic. Love and mourning poetry may be linked by an absence, a longing for the missing thing: in love, for what could be; in mourning, for what has been.

A modern elegy, W. H. Auden’s In Memory of W. B. Yeats.

Blank verse

The metrical foot most recognised by English-language readers is the iamb, its unstressed-stressed beat pattern thought to resemble the natural cadence of English speech.

Listen: I-amb-what-I-amb.

While his sonnets observe a precise rhyming pattern, Shakespeare has his actors speak in blank verse – unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter (lines of five iambs). This rhythmic predictability helps players remember dialogue, but beyond practical benefit blank verse exploits profound possibilities.

A sculpture of Lady Macbeth at the Shakespeare Memorial, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, UK. Sculpted in 1888 by Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower. Andrew Smith

The expectation that five feet (or ten syllables) fall in each line allows the playwright to embed speech with meaningful silences, as Lady Macbeth demonstrates:

That which that made them drunk hath made me bold;
What hath quench’d them hath given me fire.
Hark! Peace!

That paradoxically tense “Peace!” precedes eight counts of silence, an enormous pause on stage. Does the speaker equivocate here, or boldly cross the moral threshold?

Regardless, for Shakespeare nothing speaks the unspeakable act of killing a king better than silence itself.

Robert Frost reading his blank verse poem, Birches.

Free verse

Walt Whitman penned Leaves of Grass (1855) over the second half of the 19th century.

Quintessentially American, the grand project was continually rewritten to encompass vast panoramas of the poet’s cosmos: planet, nation, city, self. An extravagant new vision demands an extravagant new poetic style. Whitman, in his Song of Myself (1892) wrote:

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

Walt Whitman, 1887. Wikimedia Commons

For Whitman, traditional metre binds New World to old: the line had to be freed to express the utopian vision of American democracy. No fixed foot, no fixed number of feet.

A line’s length is determined by the scope of a thought, or the duration of a breath.

Though he was not the first poet to unfix the foot, Whitman pioneered the notion that a line, rather than a foot, could be a basic unit of poetry. Whitman’s lines expand to an outreaching horizon, mapping the grassy prairies of the mythic frontier.

The lines reach out still, for that vague dream of equality and inclusion.

Marianne Moore reading her free verse poem, Bird-Witted.