Since poetry’s inception, word rhythms – the ebb and flow between accented and unaccented syllables – have played a key role in the art and craft of creating a well-thought-out poem.
Although rhyming conventions, certain metaphors, and even certain words themselves have come in and out of vogue throughout the centuries, poets ancient and modern alike have shown great regard for meter in verse. Metrical poetry showcases the music inherent in language, and every lover of words should have a detailed understanding of how stresses and accents are measured and used.
The most basic unit of measurement for our purposes is called a metrical foot, the smallest unit for describing the arrangement of syllables in a line of poetry. A two-syllable metrical foot is called a disyllable foot and is used to compose duple-metered poems; likewise, a three-syllable foot is trisyllabic; a four-syllable, tetrasyllabic.
Perhaps the most commonly used metrical foot is the iamb. The iamb consists of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one: da-DUM. Words such as com-BINE, de-STROY, e-LATE, and suf-FICE are all natural iambs.
Metered verse using iambs is called iambic and is described by the number of iambs it contains. For example, a poem with lines comprising five iambs each is called iambic pentameter; three iambs each, iambic trimeter; etc. The line, “Around the rocks the rugged rascal ran” is an example of iambic pentameter. Count the five iambs:
a-ROUND the ROCKS the RUG-ged RAS-cal RAN.
Around 75 percent of duple verse is iambic pentameter. The iamb and iambic pentameter are discussed in depth in “Poet’s Workshop: Understanding Iambs.”
The inverse of an iamb, called a trochee, is simply an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one: DUM-da. Trochees are found naturally in words such as BOT-tle, TAK-en, BUT-ton, etc.
Metered poetry using trochees is called trochaic and is fairly uncommon; however, Longfellow used it exclusively in The Song of Hiawatha, written in trochaic tetrameter:
DARK be-HIND it ROSE the FOR-est,
ROSE the BLACK and GLOO-my PINE-trees
This meter is also common is nursery rhymes:
PE-ter PI-per PICKED a PECK of PICK-led PEP-pers.
TWIN-kle, TWIN-kle, LIT-tle STAR.
Trochees are often found in iambic meter, usually as exceptions to the rule. They provide rhythmic variation, such as inversions, where a trochee is used to begin a line of iambic verse:
WHITE as an AN-gel IS the EN-glish CHILDÃ¢Â?Â¦
LOOK on the RIS-ing SUN; there GOD does LIVE.
The rest of this poem, William Blake’s The Little Black Boy, is in iambic pentameter; but in these lines, trochees begin the sequence.
The spondee is a disyllabic metrical foot comprising two accented syllables. Examples of spondees include such words as “SWITCHBLADE”, “PER SE”, and “CREW CUT”. Although it is fairly unheard of to compose a poem entirely of spondees, they are used to great effect for rhythmic variation in duple verse.
Again, William Blake gives an example in his poem The Cradle Song, written in trochaic tetrameter:
SWEET SLEEP with SOFT DOWN,
WEAVE thy BROWS an IN-fant CROWN.
In the first line, Blake uses two spondees rather than four trochees to give the line four accented syllables. In fact, throughout The Cradle Song, every other line begins with a spondee.
You can also hear spondees used in John Keats’ Bright Star, Would I Were as Steadfast as Thou Art, written in iambic pentameter:
of PURE ab-LU-tion ROUND EARTH’S HU-man SHORES
In this line, we can hear the syncopation in the word-rhythms: iamb, iamb, iamb, spondee, iamb; da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, DUM-DUM, da-DUM.
Finally, the phyrrus, also known as a dibrach, is a metrical foot consisting of two unaccented syllables. This unit is rarely used in the entirety of a poem; however, examples can be found of phyrric variations in iambic or trochaic verse.
Examine these lines from Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, written in iambic tetrameter:
the WOODS are LOVE-ly, DARK, and DEEP,
But I have PRO-mis-es to KEEP
In the first line, we see and hear four iambs. However, in the second line, the third iamb is replaced by a phyrrus, making the accents in the line da-DUM, da-DUM, da-da, da-DUM.
Again, in Keats’ Bright Star, the following line displays iambs, a phyrrus, and a spondee:
to FEEL for E-ver its SOFT FALL and SWELL
Here, we see iamb, iamb, phyrrus, spondee, iamb: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-da, DUM-DUM, da-DUM.
Dissecting classic English poetry will help you further identify and understand duple meters and how to use iambs, trochees, and rhythmic variations to create elegant and compelling metered poetry.