The Technique of Verse
by The Editor Company
Both poetry and prose must have rhythm, that is, a more or less even
and regular flow of syllables long and short, accented and unaccented.
In both poetry and prose there are the same principles of rhythm, and
to a great extent they run parallel; only in poetry there is one more
operative element than in prose, and that is the element of measure or
systematic recurrence; and therefore the rhythm of poetry is called
Metre, this measured rhythm, is the basal and determining principle of
English verse. It is merely a conventional law, evolved from the genius
of the language, by means of which the elevated scope of poetic diction
is made orderly and musical. Metre is not the only active rhythmical
motive, nor does the introduction of it in any sense supplant another
element still more fundamental. Moving over the same course there is
also an unmeasured, constantly varied, exceedingly flexible grouping of
syllables, which may be called the rhythm of the phrase. This
latter, interwoven with the metrical, works in poetry to impart a
graceful variety to its uniformity; while, moving in its own
unconventional way, it forms that sonority and largeness of phrase
which is known as prose rhythm.
In its progressive organization of articulate sounds metre observes
according to its own system the grammatical analogy of the phrase, the
clause, and the sentence; it groups syllables into feet, feet into
verses or lines, and lines into stanzas.
Every kind of measure has its unit of measurement. Poetic metre starts
its unit procedure in the grouping of syllables into twos or threes,
each group being called a foot. Thus the standard types of metre take
their rise, the kind of feet being distinguished from one another by
their various arrangements of accented and unaccented syllables.
First.—The iambic foot, or iambus, is a dissyllabic foot
accented on the second syllable, a short and a long ( —).
Being far the most common, it may be regarded as the standard English
measure. All the serious and sustained types of poetry— the
epic, the drama, the ode, the elegy—are written in iambic
metre; indeed, there is no other foot so well adapted to be the measure
of all work.
An example of standard dissyllabic rhythm is seen in the following from
Shakespeare, the accented syllables being
"to die'— | to sleep'— |
No more'; — | and by' | a sleep' | to say' | we end' | The
heart' | ache."
Second.—The trochaic foot, or trochee, is a long and a short
(— ). Its effect is lighter and more tripping than that of
the iambic; on that account it is used for rapid movement and less
As an example to illustrate the general movement and effect of the
trochaic the well-known poem of Hiawatha may be
"Should' you | ask' me, | whence' these | stor'-ies, | Whence' these |
leg'-ends and tra | di'-tions;" |
Third.—The spondaic foot, or spondee, is two long (-------).
It is not used in English as a prevailing measure, as this would
require a stress on each syllable. Its use is for occasional offset to
iambic or trochaic feet.
In the following stanza from Tennyson one can detect the spondaic feet
from the natural stress of the word in reading and
its weight in the sense. A spondee gives added weight, just as the
trochee gives an effect of lightness:
"I held' | it truth', | with him' | who sings' | To one' | clear harp'
| in di' | vers tones', That men' | may rise' on step' [ ping-stones' |
Of their' dead [ selves' | to high' | er things'."
Fourth.—The dactylic foot, or dactyl. Is a trisyllabic foot
composed of one long and two short (— ). It ranks among
the trisyllabic measures, much as the trochee does among the
dissyllablic; tripping and light, and hard to adapt to dignified
sentiment without a liberal admixture of the spondaic.
Browning's, "The Lost Leader," which is prevailingly dactylic, will
illustrate both the dactylic swing, and an occasional spondee for
"We' that had [ lov'-ed him so, | fol'-lowed him, [ hon'-ored him, |
Lived' in his | mild' and mag | nif'-icent | eye' Learned' his great |
lang'-uage, | caught' his clear | ac'-cents, | Made' him our |
pat'-tern to | live' and to die'!"
Fifth.—The anapestic foot, or anapest, is two shorts and a
long ( —), the reverse of the dactyl. Its general effect
is also the reverse. It is suited to a pensive or meditative sentiment
where the movement is quiet and subdued. It is seldom used pure for any
great length; it is varied by an admixture of iambic and the dactylic.
The following is a pure anapestic line:
"At the close' | of the day', when the ham' | let is still'" |
The following from Coleridge's "Christabel" is an example of anapestic
mixed freely with iambic:
"Tis the mid' | die of night' | by the cas' | tie clock'" |
Sixth.—The amphibrach is a short, a long, and a short, as in
the word "remember." This is a very unstable measure; an ellipsis of a
syllable, or the placing of a pause may easily change its tune to
dactylic or anapestic.
A rare example of amphibrach without ellipsis is the following:
"There came' to | the beach' a | poor ex'-ile | of Er'-in." |
Seventh.—The amphiracer is a long, a short, and a long
(— —), as in the word "undismayed." It is seldom
used in English verse except as an occasional intermediate foot.
Corresponding in rhythm to the clause in grammar is the grouping of
metrical feet which makes up the verse or line; which latter receives a
technical name from the number of feet it contains. Thus a verse one
foot long is a monometer; two
feet, dimeter; three feet, trimeter; four feet, tetrameter; five feet,
pentameter; six feet, hexameter; seven feet, heptameter.
As every student understands the working principles of poetry, and the
above given names of the metres explain themselves, and as the kinds
can readily be recognized by the easy process of counting feet, there
is no need of further description here, further than to give our
students a few examples of the more prevalent or celebrated ones.
The most prevalent—the one that is regarded as the standard
English line for serious poetry—is the iambic pentameter, of
which the formula is
| _ | _ | _ | _ |
An example from one of the noblest works in that measure is Tennyson's
"And all at once, as there we sat, we heard A cracking and. a riving of
the roofs, And rending, and a blast, and overhead Thunder, and in the
thunder was a cry. And in the blast there smote along the hall A beam
of light seven times more clear than day; And down the long beam stole
the Holy Grail All over cover'd with a luminous cloud, And none might
see who bare it, and it past."
Next to this in prevalence, for long poems, is the iambic tetrameter; a
favorite with the older poets. Scott used it for his narrative romantic
poems, as the following quotation from the "Lady of the Lake" shows:
"With that he shook the gather'd heath,
And spread his plaid upon the wreath;
And the brave foemen, side by side,
Lay peaceful down like brothers tried,
And slept until the dawning beam
Purpled the mountain and the stream."
In trochaic metre the tetrameter is celebrated as the measure
of Longfellow's "Hiawatha." It is not well adapted for serious
work, on account of the easy way in which it can be reeled off.
Longfellow's "Hiawatha" is almost the only example of pure
trochaic tetrameter in serious verse:
"Out of childhood into manhood Now had grown my Hiawatha, Skilled in
all the craft of hunters, Learned in all the lore of old men, In all
youthful sports and pastimes, In all manly arts and labors."
Just as the verse corresponds to the clause in grammar, so the stanza
may be regarded as the full metrical sentence; being
a series of lines so grouped and related as to form a circuit, and thus
constitute a complete metrical idea. The means by which the lines of a
stanza bear relation to each other is by the rhyme, the fixed scheme of
verse-lengths, and sometimes by the refrain, which last is a strain
recurring at set intervals at the end of each stanza.
The stanza forms are so well known and so self-interpretative that
there is no practical good of our classifying them here. We will just
mention a few of the famous ones.
The elegiac stanza is well known as the stanza of Gray's "Elegy." It is
four lines of iambic pentameter rhymed alternately. The neatness of
finish, both of single lines and of the whole stanza, may be seen in
any stanza of Gray's "Elegy"; it is these qualities that have made the
lines so quotable: "Here rests his head upon the lap of earth
A youth, to fortune and to fame unknown.
Fair science frown'd not on his humble birth,
And melancholy mark'd him for her own."
The prevailing hymn stanzas are too numerous and well known for
specification, they are, for convenience in fitting melodies to them,
marked conventionally according to the number of syllables in the
lines; thus, 7s, 10s, 8s and 7s, 6s and 4s, these explain themselves.
Older designations still in use are: Long Metre (L. M.), Common Metre
(C. M.), and Short Metre (S. M.), and Hallelujah Metre (H. M.).
The sonnet is the most elaborate stanza form of all, and one of the
most esteemed. It is a fourteen-line stanza constituting in itself a
complete poem. Its measure is iambic pentameter, and its rhymes follow
a fixed succession.
A sonnet, as we just stated, is a complete poem; but sonnets may be
written in sequence, forming a series of poems more or less closely
connected and continuous. Some of the most celebrated sonnet-sequences
in English are Shakespeare's sonnets, and Mrs. Browning's sonnets from
An excellent example that will both exemplify the form and define the
value of this stanza form is the following, Wordsworth's "Sonnet on the
"Scorn not the sonnet; critic you have frowned, Mindless of its just
honors; with this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody Of
this small lute gave ease to Petrarch's wound; A thousand times this
pipe did Tasso sound; With it Camoens soothed an exile's grief; The
sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf Amid the cypress with which Dante
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!"
Rhyme is the recurrence of similar sounds at the ends of lines or at
corresponding parts of lines. It prevails in modern poetry, of couplet
and stanza structure. It is sometimes used in the body of the verse as
well as at the end as a kind of wordplay; in which case it becomes an
adjunct rather of sense than form.
Rhyme in poetry is so universal that it is not necessary for us to give
any examples here. The way rhyme may be introduced into the body of a
verse may be illustrated by the following from Browning:
"How sad and bad and mad it was— But then, how it was sweet!"
or in Tennyson's
"Airy, fairy Lilian, Flitting, fairy Lilian."
Other excellent examples noted for their rhythm, which our students
will do well to study very carefully are: "The Vision of Sir Launfal,"
by Lowell; "To a Skylark," by Shelley; "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and "The
Eve of St. Agnes," by Keats; Milton's blank verse, "Paradise Lost";
"The Forsaken Merman," by Arnold; "The Ancient Mariner," by Coleridge;
and "Home Thoughts from Abroad," by Browning.