Updated May 5, 2018

by Evan Mantyk

Some people have raised concerns about the technical difficulty of writing classical poetry. Actually, there is very little difficulty behind writing classical poetry from a technical perspective. Classical poetry is simply poetry that is metrical (also called metered), thus contrasting with unmetered poetry, known as free verse. There is no requirement to rhyme or have a particular number of lines or anything else.

The easiest beginner-level approach to writing metrical poetry is to simply count the syllables. If your first line has ten syllables then your next line should have ten syllables. Seven, eight, ten, and twelve syllables are all common lengths. Write in this way, and perhaps make your last two lines rhyme or use alliteration (or neither) and call it classical poetry. It is that easy.

If you don’t know the number of syllables, simply look it up in a dictionary.


Beyond the Beginner Level

Moving past the beginner level, we find that, strictly speaking, counting syllables is not metrical. Counting syllables puts us on the right path, but doesn’t get us to high-level classical poetry. For truly metrical poetry you have to count the number of hard and soft syllables (or stresses)  in the words.

Below is an excerpt from a sonnet by Edmund Spenser (from his Amoretti sequence)

What more miraculous thing may be told
That fire, which all things melts, should harden ice:
And ice which is congealed with senseless cold,
Should kindle fire by wonderful device?

Here are the same lines showing the hard syllables in capital letters and soft syllables in lowercase letters:

what MORE mirACulOUS thing MAY be TOLD
that FIRE, which ALL things MELTS, should HARden ICE:
and ICE which IS conGEALED with SENSEless COLD,
should KINDle FIRE by WONderFUL deVICE?

Notice that a soft syllable is always followed by a hard one. This is perfect meter since the soft-hard pattern (iamb) is repeated without flaw. Because there are five such patterns, this is called pentameter. This particular meter is thus called iambic pentameter. There are many other forms of meter, but this one comes perhaps closest to natural English speech.

You may ask, how did you determine which are the hard syllables and which are the soft ones? There are two main factors:

(1.) The first factor is whether the word has a natural stress in it. “harden” is usually pronounced “HARDen” not “hardEN” and “congealed” is usually “conGEALED” not “CONgealed.” Two-syllable words ending in -ing and -less are usually like harden (hard then soft), two syllable words beginning in a- or en- (such as “adjust” or “enjoy”) are usually like congealed (soft then hard).

(2.) The second factor is simply based on where it is placed in the poem. Many, perhaps most, syllables and words can go either way. For example, “Fire” and “cold” are used as hard syllables above, but in these lines their role is reversed:

how GREAT fire RAges in HERoes HEARTS
so CRUEL cold CANnot MAKE them dePART

Judging which to use as soft or hard is something that one has to determine for oneself. Reading your poem aloud is recommended. Note that the further one strays from the soft or hard stress found in natural pronunciation, the more one’s poem becomes unmetered and sonically mushy. Of course, on the other hand, if the wording becomes too abstruse and removed from listeners’ comprehension, you risk endangering the effectiveness of your poem. You have to balance technical perfection and accessibility well.

Finally, notice that in the above two lines, “RAges in HER” and “MAKE them dePART” both have an extra soft syllable. This is breaking from strict iambic meter that is otherwise consistent in the lines. This is not perfect meter like Spenser’s meter further above. Nonetheless, the four hard syllables make the lines still relatively strong. William Shakespeare, Spenser, and other great poets often bent the rules in exactly the same way.

Read more about meter here: The Basics of Writing Classical Poetry. I also recommend the Society of Classical Poets’ official guide: How to Write Classical Poetry.


The Most Crucial Factor in Writing Classical Poetry

The technical aspect of classical poetry is actually secondary. The primary aspect is driven by the intangible elements: the character and insight of the poet him or herself.

With painting, sculpting, dancing, or performing music, the format itself, whether it be paint brushes or musical instruments, speaks of a certain level of sophistication. Poetry, however, is an art form that leaves the artist relatively naked. Anyone can write words down, so the main focus is immediately the poet’s character and insight. These intangible elements to poetry are reflected in every word, idea, and theme represented.

For example, great English poet John Milton was at the forefront of the English Reformation, a movement that reformed the corruption that had been bred in Catholicism and the monarchy at the time. The cultural, social, and institutional reforms and insights he helped crystallize would leave an impression on civilization that can be felt even today, over 300 years later. Great American poet Henry Longfellow was a pillar of American society during his time, composing poems that not only entertained the masses but were grounded in good values and deep reverence for nature and the divine.

The moral of the story: the outer requirement for classical poetry is not as daunting as it appears. The only hard part is getting started. The inner requirement is an endless climb that takes us into realms truly sublime and poetry that is truly epic.


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One Response

  1. penny turner

    Thankyou for this. I have an MA in English Literature and Language, and I know about metre etc.. but somehow I understand it much better now..


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