Understanding Poetry #5: Metrics

Metrics (the language of poetic rhythm) can add rich new layers to our understanding of poetry. It’s also one of the chief reasons people believe poetry is difficult. Start talking about iambic pentameter or dactylic trimeter and you’ll often reduce a room full of enthusiastic readers to a room full of bored poetry-phobics.

At the heart of this is the mistaken belief that you need to know about metrics to appreciate poetry. You don’t, any more than you need to know about time signatures to appreciate Beethoven: it can add a new dimension to your understanding (and is essential if you want to study how the thing is put together) but millions of people have been moved to tears by the music without having a clue how it works.

The same is true with poetry. Poems are built from sound and meant to be read aloud. Much of appreciating a poem is simply clearing space to let the sound effects do their thing, and if you can hear the galloping tension in Byron’s “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold / And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold” then it really doesn’t matter whether you spot that each line is made up of four anapaests, or know what an anapaest is.

It’s another matter if you want to take a poem apart to see how it works (or if you want to write good poems yourself). There’s a difference between appreciating a poem, studying a poem and writing a poem.

Metrics is no more than a technique for describing (or prescribing) rhythm in poetry. In most English verse it works by counting beats or stresses (there are exceptions to this, but we’ll save them for another time). If you ask a native speaker to say the words “water” and “rejoice”, they will naturally stress the first syllable in water and the second in rejoice. Likewise for multiple words run together: ask the same native speaker to say “lord of the flies”, and they’ll stress “lord” and “flies” more than “of” or “the”.

Now let’s ask our native speaker to read a couple of lines of poetry. One by Yeats

Nor stand upon my feet, so great a fright

and one by Auden

The crowds upon the pavement

They should find five stresses in the first line (Nor stand upon my feet, so great a fright) and three in the second (The crowds upon the pavement) – not because someone has told them that the first is a pentameter and the second a trimeter, but because that’s how the words naturally sound when spoken aloud.

They might also notice that in both lines the stressed and unstressed syllables alternate regularly off and on, whereas in Byron’s line “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold” there are two unstressed syllables for every stressed one (and, as a result, this line gallops along more than the other two). In comparing these three lines our native speaker will already have discovered the two key variables of metrical verse: how many stresses there are in a line, and how the unstressed syllables are arranged around those stresses.

The naming conventions referenced above (iambic pentameter, dactylic trimeter, etc) are technical ways of describing these two things. The second word tells you how many stresses (pent = 5; tri = 3) and the first tells you how the unstressed syllables are arranged around the stresses (iambs and dactyls are just different arrangements of unstressed syllables – as are trochees, anapaests, amphibrachs, etc).

[A quick disclaimer: strictly speaking this isn’t true, since the meter counts feet rather than stresses (and occasionally you can have more than one stress in the same foot). But the above is fine for now.]

You can look up any of these metrical arrangements online so I’m not going to define each of them here. It’s more useful to look at the way different types of poetry make use of metical patterns. There are two variables: how freely a poem varies the number of stresses between lines, and how rigidly it pays attention to the arrangement of unstressed syllables.

Most Anglo Saxon poetry had four stresses per line but wasn’t overly prescriptive about the unstressed syllables. Chaucer wrote fluent iambic pentameter, but for various reasons the art had been lost by the early modern period. Tudor pioneers like Sir Thomas Wyatt struggled to reinvent it, and by the late sixteenth century the Elizabethan dramatists had perfected the “strong line” of blank verse (iambic pentameter), with five stresses and a regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables.

The history of English poetry ever since has been a struggle between regularity and disruption. Jacobean drama disrupted what the Elizabethans had worked so hard to discover and perfect. Two decades after writing the following in Richard II (1585)

How some have been deposed, some slain in war

Shakespeare gives us this in Macbeth (1606):

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

We can hear the different (less regular) rhythm even if we don’t know that it’s caused by the insertion of two additional (hypermetric) unstressed syllables into the line.

The fashion in unstressed syllables alternated between regularity and disruption several times over the next few centuries, until Ezra Pound argued in favour of composing each line of verse as a musical phrase rather than following a regular meter, and in doing so encouraged poets to disrupt not just the arrangement of unstressed syllables but the number of stresses per line. The resulting “free verse” has been much misused (often as an excuse for lazy writing) but it’s hard to overstate its liberating effect on modern poetry – more for its reinvention of metrical verse than for giving bad poets an excuse to publish chopped-up prose. The Waste Land is mostly metrical, but it lengthens and shortens and deviates as the music compels.

Glance through any selection of recent poetry books and you’ll find poems in free verse and strict verse; poems that are rigid with their unstressed syllables and poems that let them run wild; poems closer to song and poems closer to speech – often all of them in the same collection by the same poet.

You can spend a lifetime studying metrics or ignore it completely: in either case it is no more or less than a way of talking about rhythm. Personally I love the intricacies of metrical patterns and the subtle ways poets make use of them; the endless creative tension between order and chaos. But you can be moved by the sound-play in a poem without being conscious of it, let alone being able to name how it’s done.

Next week (the penultimate post in this series) we’ll look at rhyme and its close cousins. For now, here’s a passage you can pull apart for its metrical effects or just read aloud for its wonderful rhythm.

from Macbeth, William Shakespeare (1606)

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.