by Adam Sedia

John Dryden

In 1688, John Dryden, England’s first official poet laureate, was deprived of that title for remaining Catholic and replaced with the laughably inferior Thomas Shadwell. Dryden and Shadwell had long been rivals, exchanging literary attacks on each other. Dryden surely won that battle when he composed one of the greatest masterpieces of satirical verse, “Mac Flecknoe.” In the mock epic, Dryden leveled many withering criticisms against his eventual replacement, among them this couplet:


St. Andre’s Feet ne’er kept more equal Time,
Not even the Feet of thy own Psyche‘s Rhime:

Dryden is mocking Shadwell for having his meter “keep equal time,” or remain consistent throughout the work. What does he mean by that? Is not poetry—especially in his day—adherence to meter? Without regular meter, what is poetry?

It turns out that formal or classical poetry does not demand dogged adherence to the metrical pattern throughout a poem. Quite the contrary, in fact. Metrical variation is a necessary feature of formal poetry. Even a cursory examination of the meter in verse from the greatest poets—from Shakespeare to Milton to Keats—reveals liberal use of metric variation.

Before examining the specific techniques of metric variation, it is important to note first that most of the examples assume iambic meter (unstressed-stressed). Iambs are the most common foot in English because the natural rhythm English speech falls into iambic meter. This is due in no small part to the influence of French influx following the Norman invasion—the stress in French falling on the final syllable of the word. This is in contrast to German, for example, which naturally falls into trochaic meter (stressed-unstressed).


Weak Endings

For our first examination of metric variation, let us turn to no less a master than Milton. This famous excerpt comes from Satan’s speech to the fallen angels in Book I of Paradise Lost:


To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell,—
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.


The first verse adheres to the iambic pentameter in which the epic is written. But counting the syllables in the third, most famous line, reveals eleven syllables—a rogue unstressed syllable hangs onto the end of the line.

This is neither a mistake nor an oversight, and Milton was neither the first nor the only poet to write iambic pentameter in eleven syllables. The rogue syllable also appears in one of the most famous passages in all of English literature, the title character’s soliloquy from Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet:


To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? . . .


Here, not one, but four verses in sequence end in an eleventh, unstressed syllable, even though the play is ostensibly written in iambic pentameter.

And lest anyone think that this phenomenon is confined to blank verse, the same extra syllable appears in rhyme in no less a poem than Kipling’s “If”:


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:


The poem is in iambic pentameter, but every other line contains not only an eleventh, unstressed syllable, but incorporates that syllable into the poem’s rhyme scheme.

All three examples utilize what is called the weak (or feminine) ending—as opposed to the strong (or masculine) ending, which occurs on a stressed syllable, as would be normal for iambic meter.

The weak ending, first and foremost, allows for flexibility in iambic pentameter. It liberates the poet from having to end every line on a stressed syllable. This flexibility allows for a variety that enriches the poetic form. Strict adherence to iambic meter would have deprived us of the famous passages of Shakespeare and Milton quoted above, so well known and loved.

But the feminine ending also has strategic use. As its name indicates, it has a weaker, or softer sound that lacks the force of the strong ending. That softness can subconsciously complement the text. In Hamlet’s soliloquy, the first four lines all contain weak endings as Hamlet is contemplating suicide. While Hamlet survives his evil uncle’s suspicions by feigning madness, his soliloquy gives the audience a candid picture of the inner turmoil plaguing him and reveals his emotional vulnerability. The softness of the weak endings in his speech reflect this, as well as his indecision about suicide.

The boast that Milton has Satan proclaim, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” shows an even subtler usage of the weak ending. Although Satan utters a brash act of defiance, that defiance is against the Omnipotent, and has resulted in his fall to the lowest reaches of the universe. The weak ending subtly emphasizes that although Satan boasts of reigning, his boast does not come from a position of strength.

Finally, the alternation of weak and strong endings between verses can create a dialectic or question-and-answer effect. The softness of the weak ending resembles the raised intonation the voice makes at the end of a question, while the emphatic, almost clipped sound of the strong ending resembles the confidence of an answer. Kipling’s “If” shows this subtle dialectical effect in its “if . . . but” construction between alternating weak and strong endings.

Another particularly effective use of the dialectical structure is in Thomas Babington Macaulay’s “Horatius”:


Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods,


While it lacks a formal dialectical argument, each alternating line nonetheless contains a subtle contrast: living man with death, the act of dying with the cause that gives it honor, the mortal ashes and the immortal gods.

These few examples illustrate the utility and versatility of the weak ending as a variation of iambic verse. The best poetry is replete with other examples no less effective than these. And weak endings are far from the only tool available to the poet to spice up his verse. Let us explore some others.


Trochaic and Spondaic Substitution

William Shakespeare

As it turns out, the line from Milton, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” contains another metric variation frequently employed by the great poets. Its first word, “Better,” does not fit the iambic meter of the rest of the verse; it is a trochee (stressed-unstressed).

As with the weak ending, substituting the first foot of an iambic verse with a trochee is not unique to Milton. Shakespeare employs this trochaic substitution at the very beginning of many of his sonnets:


Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
(Sonnet 18)

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
(Sonnet 30)

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
(Sonnet 60)

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments.
(Sonnet 116)


Note the double trochaic substitution at the beginning of Sonnet 116.

Keats also begins his “Ode to Autumn” with trochaic substitution:


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!


And, of course, one of the most memorable lines in poetry, the conclusion of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” employs trochaic substitution:


Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


Similar to the trochee is the spondee, which consists of two stressed syllables in sequence. It can substitute in iambic verse exactly like the trochee. Paradise Lost is replete with spondaic substitution. The following examples come just from Book I:


Sing, heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd, . . .

Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal men, . . .


Both Trochaic and Spondaic substitution can also occur within the verse, as well. Hamlet’s line, “To be or not to be: that is the question,” substitutes a trochee within the meter, as does the first line of Keat’s “Ode on a Nightingale”:


My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains


Trochaic substitution, however, is much more common at the beginning of a verse. While a stressed syllable naturally flows to an unstressed one and vice versa, two stressed syllables in series requires a short pause, or caesura, to give each stressed syllable its due emphasis. In the Keats example immediately above, this effect draws out the two stressed syllables, “heart aches” emphasizing both the importance of that mood and the tendency of times of sadness to seem drawn out. In employing trochaic substitution within a verse, this effect should always be considered.

Finally, whether a foot is substituted or not can sometimes be a matter of the reader’s perception. Poems do not come with instruction manuals, and whether a verse is an iamb or a substituted trochee or spondee might not be clear, lending the foot to different readings. Take the Shakespeare line, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” The first foot can be read not only as a trochee (emphasizing “shall”), but also as an iamb (emphasizing “I”) or a spondee (emphasizing both). Each different emphasis implies a slightly different shading to the tone of the line, none of them necessarily right or wrong. This allows for a flexibility of interpretation akin to a musician’s performance of a musical piece, adhering to the work’s integrity while stamping an individual reading on it.


Pyrrhic Substitution

The pyrrhic foot consists of two unstressed syllables. While it may seem that this arrangement should either form part of a larger unit containing a stress or not have much use on its own, the pyrrhic foot is a useful tool frequently substituted within the verse.

Take the famous beginning of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” The iambic meter of the poem would normally mandate a stress on the preposition “to.” In natural speech, however, the speaker would never emphasize “to” as it occurs in that context, and adding a stress would supply an artificial deviation, with the result of the language sounding stilted or affected. Reading “to” naturally, without the emphasis leaves three unstressed syllables in a row—that is, a substitution of a pyrrhic foot for an iamb.

As it turns out, pyrrhic substitution is common within a verse to avoid a stress falling on a syllable that natural speech would not emphasize. Take the following examples (pyrrhic substitutions underlined):


The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
(Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I)


I met a traveller from an antique land
(Shelley, “Ozymandias”)


The sedge has wither’d from the lake
(Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci”)


Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
(Wilfred Owen, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”)


All of these examples show how master poets use pyrrhic substitution to maintain the natural flow of language in iambic meter. In every case, the pyrrhic substitution occurs where a preposition falls on the syllable that would ordinarily carry the stress, and this is usually the case that invokes the substitution.

The pyrrhic foot can also substitute in trochaic meter. Take the following examples from Poe’s “The Raven”:


Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,


The same analysis applies here as in iambic meter. Emphasizing “of” and “in”, as the trochaic meter would place an artificial emphasis on a preposition, giving the speech a strained, affected sound. Pyrrhic substitution preserves the natural flow of the language in the metered poem.


Mixed Meter

The weak ending and the trochaic, spondaic, and pyrrhic substitutions are far from the only variances permitted in metered verse. Indeed, no hard-and-fast rules exist for selection of meter, except perhaps that it must be intentional.

In his eminently accessible introduction to poetry, The Ode Less Travelled – which devotes 122 pages to discussion of meter – the British actor and author Stephen Fry sets forth the rationale mixed meter as follows:


The end of writing poetry is not to write “perfect” metre with every line going da-dum or dum-da into the distance, it is to use the metre you’ve chosen to reflect the meaning, mood and emotional colour of your words and images. . . . Don’t get hung up on writing perfectly symmetrical parades of consistent rhythm. Utterance, sung or spoken, underlies poetry. Human utterance, like its heartbeat and its breathing, quickens, pauses and breaks its patterns according to states of relaxation, excitement, passion, fear and all manner of moods and feelings . . . .

(Fry, The Ode Less Travelled, p. 67.)


The point of this argument is not that meter is illusory or affected, but rather that meter should always obey the natural patterns of human speech. Indeed, the natural patterns of human speech are the very origin of poetry. Meter organizes those patterns, but if it fails to allow for natural speech, it serves as a constraint rather than a vehicle for expression.

Deviation from the poem’s regular meter, as with the substitutions discussed, can also serve a strategic purpose. One of the most masterful uses of intentional deviation from meter occurs in Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated meditation, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” To understand Kipling’s metric variation, the context and meaning of the poem is important. Thus, the first two stanzas must appear in their entirety:


As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market-Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall.
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn,
That water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision, and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.


The meter varies considerably, but it is based on the anapest (two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable). Then the third stanza begins thus:


We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,


Rudyard Kipling

The first sentence in this verse certainly deviates from the anapestic pattern established in the previous stanzas. Its meter is at best ambiguous. Possible scans of that sentence could be spondee-pyrrhic-trochee-trochee or iamb-anapest-iamb. However it is read, it interrupts the anapestic beat pulsing through the previous stanzas.

The deviation from the established rhythm into ambiguous meter reflects the text, which describes capricious following of the spirit of the moment. The second sentence in the verse, however, snaps back into anapests, again reflecting the text describing the Gods of the Copybook Headings (a metaphor for eternal moral order) remaining unchanged.

In this example of metric variation, as in all others, the deviation is purposeful, and serves the dual purpose of adhering to the natural patterns of speech and subtly supplementing the meaning of the text.



Just as brushstrokes form the basis of constructing a painting or harmonies of composing music, meter is the building block of a poem. As with painting or musical composition, understanding the rules is essential to creating beauty, as those rules derive from common human understanding of the beautiful. Knowing when to suspend the rules or deviate from them to achieve a specific effect is a far more subtle art, and springs from a deeper understanding of the formal rules. If masters like Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats deviate from their regular meter, it is assuredly no mistake. Instead, their example provides us with a guide in crafting our own poems. Understanding their methods requires discernment and adopting them requires both practice and taste.

To sum this lesson up in one exhortation: in our meter, let us deviate shamelessly, but always purposefully. Variety, as the proverb goes, is the spice of life.




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15 Responses

  1. Rob Crisell

    Yes! I’m so heartened to see this essay, especially here on the SCP site. It is a vital corrective to the (often belligerent) opinion of writers and critics here who believe that any deviation from strict meter is a sure sign of incompetence or even, well, deviance. Understanding the often complex interplay of rhythm and meter is so important for great verse. If we are slavish about adherence to meter, we can sometimes limit what we want to accomplish with our poetry. As a Shakespeare actor and devotee for many years, one is hard pressed to read more than one or two pages of his plays without finding divergences from “strict” blank verse. I also am reminded of Frost’s wonderful (and undoubtedly tongue in cheek statement), and I paraphrase: “There are only two types of meter: strict iambic and loose iambic.” Thanks again for your contribution.

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you, Mr. Sedia! Years ago here on a discussion thread I tried to argue that counting syllables in English verse is an absurdity, and that one could find many instances of iambic-five lines in Shakespeare that had eleven or more syllables. You wouldn’t believe the pig-headed objections I got.

    In addition, there are some literal-minded types who actually believe that the syllabic structure of a word is based on orthography, and not phonics!

  3. Leo Zoutewelle

    I hesitate to speak at this level of poetic thought, but as a mere beginner, I deeply appreciate this clear and systematic lecture and the value it has for me as a learner. Thank you, Mr. Sedia!

  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    This excellent essay explains things clearly and concisely while removing all snobbery from the subject of metre. I will admit that Stephen Fry’s “The Ode Less Travelled” has been a huge inspiration to me during my darkest hours of trying to adhere to every rule and regulation put forth during my studies in English Literature. Your essay is educational and inspirational – a perfect combination for those who love to read and write poetry. Thank you, Mr. Sedia.

  5. The Society

    I would only add as a footnote to this fine essay by Mr. Sedia that it is important to first clearly understand meter and be able to write, if necessary, a poem in perfect meter, discerning where every beat falls. Please do not be lazy with your meter or use syllable counting and submit it, claiming metric variation as your defense. For those editors trying to maintain formal standards in these times, this is an important distinction to make.

    -Evan Mantyk

  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    In a well-constructed formal poem, the meter is either heard aurally when the poem is read aloud properly, or else sensed silently in the reader’s mind when he reads the text to himself.

    Unfortunately, many persons today simply don’t know HOW to read a poem aloud. They read the text as if it were the simple prose of a letter, paying no connection at all to the inherent stress, rhythm, and flow of the verses. It follows that when they read silently they also get nothing out of the experience. This is totally the fault of modernist teachers, who have labored mightily to reduce poetry to prosaic boredom.

    Macaulay’s “Horatius at the Bridge” was one of my father’s favorite poems. He recited it forcefully, and with strong emphasis in all the proper places. Once when I recited it in the same manner at a poetry reading, some officious fool objected that the proper Latin pronunciation of “Horatius” had four syllables, while I had wrongly reduced to to three.

    I asked him if he also wanted me to pronounce the word “every” in the poem with three syllables instead of two. These syllable-counting freaks are beyond help.

    • Adam Sedia

      Imagine the pedantry it takes to insist on correct Latin pronunciation in an English poem. As any lawyer will tell you, we have our own way of pronouncing Latin in English that is nothing like what Cicero or Aquinas would recognize.

      My father, too, recited “Horatius” to me as a child (maybe it’s an Italian thing?), and it enraptured me. It remains one of my favorites to this day. And the part I quote is probably my favorite section of the poem, although I can’t deny it has a stirring beginning.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        I think it was the time period in which they attended school. My dad was born in 1913. In the lower grades of the 1920s, “Horatius” was a common selection in the schoolbooks, and so many kids learned it. Another was “Abou Ben Adhem,” which my father loved to quote.

  7. Margaret Coats

    This is a good justification, with good examples, of metrical variation. I agree with the main point, that metrical variation is the spice of English poetry, and indeed sometimes a necessary condiment, as English words and speech acts cannot always fall into iambic meter.

    I take issue, however, with the idea that the English poetic line became iambic in an unnatural attempt to duplicate French word rhythm after the Norman Conquest. Look up some Old English poetry and you will see many lines beginning with conjunctions, prepositions, negations, and unstressed pronouns or adverbs–just as do most of the lines in the above examples! English without French influence tended toward iambic meter, and when it didn’t get there, that was often due to the demands of alliteration, now an ornament rather than a requirement in English poetry.

    If in fact English poets had duplicated French word rhythm, we would have little in the way of stresses at all, as French does NOT stress the second syllable of a two-syllable word, but pronounces syllables equally. This was a surprise to me when I learned it from linguist and medievalist Morton Bloomfield, who gave the following example. English speakers pronounce the word “lemon” as LIH mn, hitting the first syllable with a hammer and dropping the second into such oblivion that the vowel sound disappears. When we hear a French speaker say “limon” as LEE MO(nasalized), we only think we hear an accent on the second syllable, because any stress on the second does not conform to our expectation of the hammer on the first.

  8. Lew Icarus Bede

    I appreciate that Mr. Sedia’s essay “The Spice of Life: Metric Variation…” begins with Dryden. Presently I am perusing his translation of Vergil’s Aeneid. I think Dryden is an important, overlooked English poet. In my own poetry, I used Dryden’s Plutarch translation for my unpublished epyllion “Thesiad”.

    I also enjoy Mr. Sedia’s essay, as an example of what T. S. Eliot referred to as the poet’s workshop. A poet’s criticism explains what he or she admires and desires to make; and therefore can be quite illuminating. For instance, Mr. Sedia’s essay tells us he finds Thomas Shadwell’s poetry “laughably inferior”.

    I did wonder about his contention that the iamb was due in “no small part to the influence of French,” which Ms. Coats has succinctly discussed. There is an Anglo-Saxon-French friction embedded in the English language, which pits its Germanic core against its naturalized Romantic power (mainly French, Italian, Latin), which I have to admit I admire. My own cursory studies suggest that just a little over half of our language of over 1,000,000 words (the most of any language) is Romantic’lly derived.

    As to the trochaic quality of German verse, I would suggest it is due in “no small part” to the work of Martin Opitz. It could just as well have followed his contemporary Georg Weckhelin, who was more interested in French models. Of course, in modern German poetry, free verse dominates. I do also enjoy Shakespeare’s own trochaic verse, particularly in his songs, messages, and witch-speech.

    Mr. Sedia refers to “like as” as an example of a Shakespearean trochaic beginning. It is a phrase I use all the time (just this week in a poem), which I use as an iamb; so I am surprised to find it trochaic for Mr. Sedia; but as he rightly points out, pronunciation can be a “matter of the reader’s perception”. Essays, like Mr. Sedia’s, are so nice to read. They keep traditional poetry in mind, as we move through this New Millennium, and they allow us to think about our own critical evaluations.

    I did have a comment about the censoring of syllable counting. For some poets, it really does matter, as when we are writing haiku, or other oriental poetic forms in English, when we are reading Greek and Latin poetry and working through a confluence between classical literature and English literature, when we are studying nonEnglish poetry, French, Polish, etc., again looking for dynamic interplay, and when we are closely reading Modernist poets, Moore, Williams, etc. I have no qualms about Mr. Salemi banning syllable counting from his own poetry; but I shall never drop it from my own. I take a different tack; I tend to use all the resources of language that I can in my poetry and prose—Dickinson dashes, Cummings techniques, philosophical, mathematical, and scientific symbols. In the spirit of the great English language, literature for me is accumulative.

  9. Uwe Carl Diebes

    Mr. Bede has a typo: It should be Johann Weckherlin (1584-1653).

  10. David Gosselin

    Edgar Allan Poe, in his essay on the ”Poetic Principle” cites a fine example of a poem that utilizes metrical variation in a natural and artful manner:

    I cannot better introduce the few poems which I shall present for your consideration, than by the citation of the Pröem to Mr. Longfellow’s “Waif”

    The day is done, and the darkness

    Falls from the wings of Night,

    As a feather is wafted downward

    From an Eagle in his flight.

    I see the lights of the village

    Gleam through the rain and the mist,

    And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me,

    That my soul cannot resist;

    A feeling of sadness and longing,

    That is not akin to pain,

    And resembles sorrow only

    As the mist resembles the rain.

    Come, read to me some poem,

    Some simple and heartfelt lay,

    That shall soothe this restless feeling,

    And banish the thoughts of day.

    Not from the grand old masters,

    Not from the bards sublime,

    Whose distant footsteps echo

    Through the corridors of time [[Time]].

    For, like strains of martial music,

    Their mighty thoughts suggest

    Life’s endless toil and endeavor;

    And to-night I long for rest.

    Read from some humbler poet,

    Whose songs gushed from his heart,

    As showers from the clouds of summer,

    Or tears from the eyelids start;

    Who through long days of labor,

    And nights devoid of ease,

    Still heard in his soul the music

    Of wonderful melodies.

    Such songs have power to quiet

    The restless pulse of care,

    And come like the benediction

    That follows after prayer.

    Then read from the treasured volume

    The poem of thy choice,

    And lend to the rhyme of the poet

    The beauty of thy voice.

    And the night shall be filled with music,

    And the cares that infest the day,

    Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,

    And as silently steal away.

    With no great range of imagination, these lines have been justly admired for their delicacy of expression. Some of the images are very effective. Nothing can be better than —

    —————— the bards sublime,

    Whose distant footsteps echo

    Down the corridors of Time.

    The idea of the last quatrain is also very effective. The poem, on the whole, however, is chiefly to be admired for the graceful insouciance of its metre, so well in accordance with the character of the sentiments, and especially for the ease of the general manner. This “ease,” or naturalness, in a literary style, it has long been the fashion to regard as ease in appearance alone — as a point of really difficult attainment. But not so: — a natural manner is difficult only to him who should never meddle with it — to the unnatural. It is but the result of writing with the understanding, or with the instinct, that the tone, in composition, should always be that which the mass of mankind would adopt — and must perpetually vary, of course, with the occasion. The author who, after the fashion of “The North American Review,” should be, upon all occasions, merely “quiet,” must necessarily upon many occasions, be simply silly, or stupid; and has no more right to be considered “easy,” or “natural,” than a Cockney exquisite, or than the sleeping Beauty in the wax-works.

  11. Joseph S. Salemi

    Notice that, in the poem quoted by Mr. Gosselin, the meter is an obvious trimeter. And yet the individual lines are made up of a widely varied number of syllables, interspersed with different substitutions:

    Line 1 – 8 sylls. (u X u X u u X u)
    Line 2 – 6 sylls. (X u u X u X)
    Line 3 – 9 sylls. (u u X u u X u X u)
    Line 4 – 7 sylls. (u u X u X u X)
    Line 5 – 8 sylls. (u X u X u u X u)
    Line 6 – 7 sylls. (X u u X u u X)
    Line 7 – 10 sylls. (u u X u u X u u X u)
    Line 8 – 7 sylls. (u u X u X u X)
    Line 9 – 9 sylls. (u X u u X u u X u)

    And so on, throughout the poem. The ONLY THING THAT MATTERS in the metrical structure of this particular piece is the trimeter stress! The number of syllables in each line was of no concern to Longfellow. Poe’s commentary on the metrical felicity of this poem shows his acuity of perception. It also demonstrates, in passing, that slavish syllable-counting is for lame-brains.

  12. Cadwel E. Bruise

    Later, Longfellow did not respond to Poe’s vituperative criticism.

    A Change in the Narrative
    “…a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston…”
    —Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter”

    The light I saw in Boston grew much dimmer every day,
    as the Bostonians began to toss their works away.
    Anne Bradstreet couldn’t make the grade, the tenth muse had to go,
    along with Taylor, Hawthorne and crude Edgar Allan Poe.

    Longfellow, too, would have to leave with Low’ll and Wittier.
    Thoreau was never wanted; none could get much grittier.
    Holmes too would have to leave with Sprague and spinster Dickinson,
    and what about Alcott and Holmes, as well as Emerson?

    It’s even time for Mother Goose to take a bow and fly.
    That Boston had a literary past was just a lie.
    Apparently, the lettered birthplace of America,
    to no surprise, was not in Boston. Change the narrative.

  13. Daniel Kemper

    I think it noteworthy, that in a reasoned discussion about meter, there is always an emotional, straw-man styled insult directed against either the act of remaining accurate to the meter, or against those who defend it. It has been called, in my ears/eyes over the last six months things like “slavish” “robotic” “lame brain syllable counters”. This is indecorous and undeserved.

    Beauty often bowls us over, but a mustard stain on say Angelina Jolie’s dress is still a mustard stain. The public would probably begin to put mustard stains on their dresses though.

    That’s a trite quip, but it does get at an essential point. These poems cited are not beautiful because of their variations, but in spite of them. All else is misattribution.

    I personally feel embarrassed when advocates for formal poetry praise random variation; that is, in-formality. Variation can be used; I hope no one makes a straw man of me for the position I am taking up. Properly done, variation must be to a purpose in the design of the poem. Further, I’ve never heard an over-arching theory of what makes “variations” (for lack of a better, more precise word(s)) sound good and what makes them sound bad. Music for one has this. If we want there to exist some poetry worthy of the title “Fine Art” (as in Jazz or Classical music), then this should be the direction of development. Not the inconsistent hodge-podge thus far asserted.

    Closing note: Milton’s Paradise Lost is not IP; it is accentual. Robert Bridges demonstrates this conclusively.


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