Everything you wanted to know about meter in Shakespeare but were afeard to ask

Given to my Intro to Shakespeare students and now y’all. (Sorry, leaving out the bit where I show how to listen for stresses, and mark them, or show them rather they already know how to listen for stresses, just don’t know they do.)


And here we go. The baseline foot of iambic meter is the iamb:   x  / 

The most common variation in an iambic meter is the trochee:   /  x

Other common substitutions in an iambic meter are

the anapest   x  x  /
the spondee   /  /

Occasionally you’ll see the pyrrhic   x  x   and it’s usually paired with the spondee like so   x  x  /  /   and that’s sometimes also called a double iamb.

Only other foot possible, in English, is the dactyl   /  x  x   and you won’t see it in an iambic line. If you do you’ve grouped the stresses wrong. Erase your foot divisions and start over, remembering to maximize the number of iambs.

Similarly, if you come up with this   x  /  x   or this   /  x  /   as a foot, you’ve gone astray somewhere, unless you’re scanning Greek or Latin verse for quantity, which you ain’t. Back up and start over.

Sometimes at the end of a line you’ll have an extra unstressed syllable, and want to join it to the final iamb to make a foot like this   x  /  x   don’t. Leave it there. It’s not lonely, it’s a syllable, not a kitten. If you see a kitten, rescue it.


Moves to watch for, and effects they’re thought to have. An initial trochee

        /     x
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

creates emphasis by leaning into the words to come. A mid- or end-line anapest can lend speed, momentum, naturalness –

                                  x           x       / 
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

A spondee creates emphasis a bit differently than the trochee,

    /       /
No more – and by a sleep to say we end

pounding its fist on the words right at hand. The pyrrhic-spondee pairing (double iamb)

   x      x     /         /
with a bare bodkin? who would fardels bare?

is an interesting move, softening, yielding, then hitting hard. Take a look at this moment in Hamlet’s monologue; can you discern what the variation does, here? How would you perform it?

Last thing, we sometimes see trochaic meters in these plays – songs and spells, mostly. Trochee world is Bizarro world – English is biased to the iambic, so when you go trochaic, you go to the strange. In a trochaic meter, iambs are the most common substitution, and feel like an unexpected or unaccustomed softening. No anapests here but dactyls have become possible. Spon­dees and pyrrhics rock on, as before.


To review (and add a little). Feet that make the basis for meters in the plays:

iamb   x  /
trochee   /  x

Feet that can be variations in those meters:

anapest   x  x  /
dactyl   /  x  x
spondee   /  /
pyrrhic   x  x

How to describe the length of a line

one foot          monometer                             four feet          tetrameter
two feet           dimeter                                    five feet           pentameter
three feet         trimeter                                   six feet             hexameter

To give a full description of the meter of a line, identify the baseline meter (dominant foot and number of feet) and any substitutions. E.g., “iambic pentameter with a spondee in the fourth foot” or “trochaic tetrameter with a dactyl in the third foot.”

The marks, the terms, are a pain, I know, but they’re a means to an end. A violinist doesn’t learn to read sheet music so she can read sheet music. She learns it so she can play a Bach concerto.

Lastly, note we’re marking meter here, not rhythm, which is a subtler business altogether. There’s a way to mark it but we’re not going there. Fortunately, as speakers of English, you live in its rhythms as fishes in water, so just trust your sense of the character as a living human being, speaking to others the same. The meter is in there, lending order quietly, almost invisibly. When reading these lines, don’t be a robot, be a person.

“Compose in the sequence of the musical phrase”

From some that I wrote for Donald Revell once, some years back, studying Pound and Williams and their ways with him.


Dear Don,

The dictum you asked me to mull: “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” Well, sequence of the metronome, that would be the line chopped up into separate iambs, tick tick tick tick, a deadening monotony, each swing of the ticker identical in duration, parcelling out its energies with a robotic indifference to the moment at hand. The figure’s neither perfect (an iamb goes tick TOCK) nor entirely fair. With four or five discernible levels of speech stress to play among, the metrical schema can abstract itself from a wide array of stress profiles.

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!

and

My galley chargéd with forgetfulness

both perfect iamb pent, are not at all alike. But the point’s a crux just the same. Metrical patterns abstracted from speech stress, one way among many, had come to seem the one true way, and were by Pound’s day enervated, outworn, exhausted, and too few had noticed, he thunk.


An accentual-syllabic line, well made, lives in the unfolding tension between an abstract metrical scheme and the actual spoken rhythm it’s abstracted from. It requires, creates, and enforces a split between an unreal ideal and its flawed incarnation. Is it fanciful to find this split a musical instance — a rhythmic performance — of the mind/body dualism we inherit from Descartes and monotheism generally? Ideogram, pagan gods, and the musical phrase may all be for Pound an effort to throw us back into the body, sensuous actuality, to seek what truths may be found without recourse to abstraction.


A “musical phrase” is made up of notes and rests of varying durations. Elsewhere in Literary Essays he speaks at greater length about the musician’s work:

No one is so foolish as to suppose that a musician using ‘four-four’ time is compelled to use always four quarter notes in each bar, or in ‘seven-eighths’ time to use seven eighth notes uniformly in each bar. He may use one 1/2, one 1/4 and one 1/8 rest, or any such combination as he may happen to choose or find fitting.

To apply this musical truism to verse is to employ vers libre.

But how to apply it? Do we work with stresses the way a musician works with notes? Again, stress, an elusive and fluid amalgam of volume, pitch, and duration, is broadly variable. Two stresses of equal strength might reach that level by different paths, one by the length of a diphthong, say, the other by the rising pitch of the phrase-end. Stress is not accent — on, off, on, off — in the way Pound makes it out to be.

Or do we rather turn our attention to duration itself, working with syllables as half-notes and quarter-notes, with caesura as rest? Pound said around the same time this: “the desire for vers libre is due to the sense of quantity reasserting itself after years of starvation.” I suspect “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase” means a return to quantity, a sensual attention to the lengths of syllables.


Poets had always been attentive to quantity. But to make it focal, an arranging principle, that was something new. Or renewal by way of return to something very old—

You begin with the yeowl and the bark, and you develop into the dance and into music, and into music with words, and finally into words with music, and finally into words with a vague adumbration of music, words suggestive of music, words measured, or words in a rhythm that preserves some accurate trait of the emotive impression.

From the raw animal yelp and howl, to the articulated body, to music, through music and words in different proportions, to musical wordings. But when the wording loses musicality, holds only to a lifeless and abstract on/off that has forgotten its origins in musical tempo, sez Ez, time to go back to the roots, the wellspring, the rhythmic ground, the moving and sounding body. That’s why the return to quantity mattered — not to give a poet something new to do, but to return him to origins, something vital.


Lines (this interposed as I prep this letter for posting) that have haunted dissociated me in the years since I came to them —

This body is my body.
This body is my body.

— though I’ve never found a home for them. Just to note that I have a personal stake in the reading I’ve laid out here. I think that might be the source of the a wee bit polemical moments.


And honest. As the ideogram is closer than phonetic charactery to pictorial art, which cannot lie, and duration is closer than stress to aural and rhythmic art, which cannot lie. Cannot because they make no claim to truth other than their own undeniable is.

In Pound’s work quantity is a form of attention but rarely a system. Which is as it should be, for syllable duration in English is a fuzzy math, a matter of subtle gradations. Rather than simple boxes, short and long, we have a continuum:

a – at – bat – bait – bought – brought – sprouts – strength – strengths

So quantity’s never been a basis for a metrical system in English. Besides which, any metrical system is or fast becomes an imposition, not a discovery, of order. Some such are gorgeous in their effects — masterful in their reach — but are impositions just the same, the mind of abstraction bearing down on the life from which it has abstracted its sleekly gleaming principles.


A discovered order may in comparison look at first like a welter, a chaos, formlessness. As you said last week, we might look at Pound’s career as a struggle between his rage for order and a gracious (grace-filled) surrender. One field on which that struggle is played out is melopoeia. And one patch of that field is quantity.

If quantity is no basis for a system, are there yet patterns to take part in? Mimetic moments? Meaningful recurrences? Before closing this horribly long digressive and disorderly note, I’ll offer a few noticings.


One is this: the length of the syllable is the pace of the mind. Long syllables, slow attention. Short syllables, quick attention. One pole is stillness, one motion. This is how quantity contributes to the “absolute rhythm” that “corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.” Because one of the things that gives emotion (or thought) its particular shading is how and where one lingers and where and whether one zips through.

(Slowness and speed — stillness and motion — are just a part of it of course. Stress has a role — how gentle or hard the emphases are. Consonants have a role — liquids, stops, nasals, blurring or defining borders. Vowel timbre — the difference between a high sharp long i , which resonates just in the mouth and nose, and a low sonorous ou, which reaches into the gut. The interlacings of all these. And whether the emergent order is that of a cut diamond, or of an orchard, or a watershed.)


Another is this. As absolute rhythm, drawn inward, brings shade and precision to a thought or emotion, drawn outward, it gives heft and clarity to a sensation. An obvious example: the sequence of long syllables in “wide flat road” widens and flattens the road. Many subtler effects could be found.

A third is this. One element of speech stress is duration. So we generally expect heavily stressed syllables to be longer than lightly stressed ones. (Compare the length of “it” in “rabbit” and “omit.” That one’s courtesy of Robert Pinsky.) But sometimes that expectation is defied. In this passage I’ve boldfaced the syllables where stress and duration don’t coincide: they’re either long but lightly stressed, or short but heavily stressed:

Lithe sinews of water, gripping her, cross-hold,

And the blue-grey glass of the wave tents them,

Glare azure of water, cold-welter, close cover.

This marking shows why there’s more unease in the first and third lines than in the second. The first and third, with their tensions between stress and duration, arouse physical tension, sympathetic alertness, concentration, a readiness to fight or to flee. In the second line, stress and duration are in good accord, and the attention is parasympathetic, a relaxed attentiveness, mindfulness, a readiness just to be.

It’s a dynamic tension. (Tension as in what makes us tick. How muscles work, nerves fire, mountains rear up and wear down. Not the tension of silences short or long at the family table.) In other words, not the accentual-syllabic tension between abstract pattern and actual instance, mind getting in the way of being, imposing its perfections on perfection. A tension rather between two actual rhythms in our actual speech. Making no bad-faith leap out of real existence into airy abstraction, setting up no ideal against which the actual is found wanting, fully embedded in the lived sensual life, this melopoeia creates a bridge, as Pound says elsewhere, between consciousness and the insentient universe.

Whether there is such a thing — an insentient universe — that’s for another day.

C.