The Spice of Life: Metric Variation in Formal Verse
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).
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
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.
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.
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,"
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.
Originally published by The Society of Classical Poets
Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Northwest Indiana, with his wife, Ivana, and their two children, and practices law as a civil and appellate litigator. In addition to the Society’s publications, his poems and prose works have appeared in The Chained Muse Review, Indiana Voice Journal, and other literary journals. He is also a composer, and his musical works may be heard on his YouTube channel.