In his book on the neuroscience of music, Daniel Levitin states: “As the music unfolds the brain constantly updates its estimates of when new beats will occur and takes satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one and takes delight when a skillful musician violates that expectation in an interesting way.” As with music, so with poetry.
Last month, we looked at iambic meters and their rhythms, and saw how regular the anticipated stresses would fall in a theoretical line of poetry. In reality, few poems follow this scheme, even those traditional sonnets from the 17th or 18th centuries. A good poet should be open to defeating these expectations in interesting ways.
Establishing a pure iambic pattern (See Metre in Sonnets – Part One) would make a very repetitive and dull rhythm. So, to introduce interest the stress pattern should be varied. For example, after several iambs, sufficient to establish in the reader’s mind that there is a pattern, you could introduce a trochee. This is where the metrical pattern is strong-then-weak (e.g. whether, careful). Substituting with this syncopated rhythm is called a trochaic substitution.
Alternatively, you could introduce the doubly stressed foot called a spondee (e.g. “Full house”) or the doubly unstressed foot called phyrric (e.g. “in a”). Look at some traditional sonnets to see these patterns appearing often.
Now here is an example line from a very traditional sonnet with a variation as shown in the annotated system of scansion I used in Metre – Part One. The variation comes immediately in the first foot, with the use of the trochee “whether” where an iamb is expected. I have shown this in bold:
The above example of trochaic substitution: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer”, is from the second line of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy by Shakespeare. By the way, the last foot of this line has an additional unstressed syllable, called a feminine ending (u), as an eleventh syllable and notated as (u). This is also a form of metrical variation.
Apart from in the first foot of the line, where else could you reasonably substitute a trochee for an iamb in a line? Here are some guidelines:
Foot Recommended / Not recommended
- Common variation, e.g. “Whether”. Note this relies on the iambic pattern already being established in preceding lines for it to be an unexpected variation;
- Sounds awkward;
- Not ideal, since if leaves an unaccented last syllable.
In summary, there are several different ways to vary the stresses to make a line more interesting, including:
- Substitution of feet, e.g. trochaic substitution;
- Adding an unstressed syllable to the end (feminine ending), e.g. “-ion” in Shakespeare’s line: “To be or not to be, that is the question”;
- Substitution of meter, e.g. using a hexameter (six-foot line) instead of a pentameter;
- Add a pause, or a caesura mid-line;
- Use enjambment, where a sentence carries onto the second line, which gives the impression of a longer line.
In natural speech, stresses fall in many different places. I usually do not concern myself with the overall metrical plan of a poem when I am generating poetic ideas or phrases, but during a later draft I will usually do an analysis of where the stresses fall, to diagnose opportunities or detect issues, or to see where patterns are emerging and, if I want to, modify that pattern. This type of metrical analysis is called scansion. I’ve shown one way to notate this above, but you could take a much simpler approach. The key is to be aware of metre.
That concludes this whistle-stop tour of basic metre. Its a complicated subject. For more detailed information, see acknowledgements below for information on other guides.
- Examples from: https://poemanalysis.com/definition/scansion/ ;
- A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, Mary Kinzie, University of Chicago Press, 1999, ISBN 0-226-43739-6;
- This is your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin, 2007, Atlantic Books, Grove Atlantic Ltd., ISBN 978 1 84354 716 7.