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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.

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 strenuous sentiment.

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 variety:

"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 "Holy Grail."

"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 the Portuguese.

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 Sonnet":

"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 crowned

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.