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The extra syllable often seems a mere extension of the previous stressed one like Gerard Manley Hopkins' "outride" , and the pattern usually invites a pause before the second half-line resumes a more regular meter. In Chaucer's verse this extra syllable and pause are sometimes used for effects of expansiveness:.

The so-called broken-backed or Lydgate line, which omits an un- stressed syllable after the midline break, is rare in Chaucer; some scholars have denied that he uses it at all. When it occurs, its chief effect is to throw extra stress on the strong syllable that begins the second half-line. If such strong stress is not justified by some meaning in the words, the broken- backed line will appear to be the limp resource of an ungifted poet, as it often does in the fifteenth century. But Chaucer does have an occasional line that appears to use this metrical pattern to good expressive effect:.

My tale is doon, Afor my wit is thynne. These three odd line-types have often troubled scholars and critics, especially those with strict ideas about the proprieties of iambic pen- tameter verse, who have interpreted them as blemishes on the stately he- roic line. Sometimes such critics have apparently taken the view that no poet in his senses would ever deliberately compose such lines and that wherever they appear they betray the poet's incompetence or carelessness. Textual editors of Chaucer have tried to emend, elide, or syncopate such lines out of existence.

But that Chaucer resorted to lines of the first two types seems clearly established, and some of his fifteenth-century suc- cessors evidently thought he used the third type, too. Unlike them, he apparently never combines them to form even odder lines. See below, pp. But Chaucer's iambic pentameter had not hardened its rules, and his ear evidently enjoyed the occasional line with an exceptional structure as a pleasing variation from the more frequent decasyllabic pattern. That Chaucer could handle the marriage of meter and phrasing with a masterly touch may be illustrated briefly by two lines from "The Pardoner's Tale.

The language is perfectly ordinary except that the final phrase has high symbolic overtones. The first line, like so many in Chaucer, is full of minor words that demand at most middling stress; the second is crammed with words of more significant content. The first is segmented twice, the second once, but the central assertion is divided into three consecutive and climac- tic parts: an address, a condition, and a direction.

The second of these runs over the line, so that the tripartite structure of the speech is gracefully but with a certain tension comprehended in only two lines. Both lines are obediently iambic, but several phrases offer a variety of options to the skilled performer. The first syllable of "Now, sires" might be drawn out with ominous effect; the voice may run quickly over "if that," emphasize its first syllable, or linger somewhat on or after "that"; "so" may be given.

Everything leads to this phrase: the quick small words of the first line, the periodic syntax, the speech-act of respectful compliance, the natu- ralistic tendering of directions, and the equivocal stressing of several metri- cally paired syllables. No one else for almost two hundred years would be writing lines of such subtlety and force. What nedeth it to sermone of it moore?

Chaucer led English poets to the decasyllabic line and discovered for himself an abundant array of tech- niques for varying not only the line but also the stanza. Later poets discov- ered further refinements and procedures that permitted the line to achieve levels of expressiveness that Chaucer rarely touched, partly because the tenor of his verse rarely needed them. Certainly Chaucer's work served as a model for his successors, but apparently as an increasingly enigmatic model, as their own verse wandered from his simpler principles of line and hardly pretended to follow his varied play of line and phrase, his subtle modulations, and his masterly control of the line-flow of couplet and stanza.

By the second quarter of the sixteenth century, when Sir Thomas Wyatt began to write poems in iambic pentameter, the ease and grace which had characterized Chaucer's line had long been lost, at least by English poets. The Scottish Chauceriansnotably, Henryson, Dunbar, and James Icontinued to write in metrically regular stanzas, but some- thing peculiar and nearly unaccountable occurred in the verse of Chaucer's English followers. In Hoccleve, Lydgate, and other English poets of the fifteenth century, the art of Chaucer's iambic pentameter disintegrated.

Lydgate's lines are often monotonously regular; Hoccleve's frequently ap- pear to insist on stressing unlikely syllables. Whether the loss of final -e was largely responsible for throwing their lines into disorder or whether, as seems likely, the odd character of their verse results from the conscious.

Among the English poets who wrote between Chaucer and Surrey, Wyatt is easily the most gifted and interesting, but the metrical system he uses in his apparently pentameter poems is an odd one that has baffled critics for centuries. Their syllables exceed or fall short of the expected number, and it often looks as if Wyatt were somehow incompetent as a composer of longer-line verse. But Wyatt probably developed his puzzling decasyllabic lines from two different sources: the fifteenth-century heroic line of Lydgate and his successors, and the contemporary Italian hendecasyllable.

The Lydgate tradition exploited those three aberrant lines Chaucer had apparently used sparinglythe headless line, the broken-backed line, and the line with an epic caesuraand combined their odd features to form still more deviant lines. In Lydgate's work, too, there is almost always a strong midline pausea caesuraafter the fourth syllable, and the constancy of this pause has the effect of dividing the line into two halves.

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The full line stitched together its two halves, and the half-lines had several different optional structures:. First half a. Second half e. Any of the first-half patterns could be linked to any of the second-half patterns to form a verse line. Some of the sixteen possible line-patterns might not be strictly decasyllabic they might have as few as eight or as many as twelve syllables , but five of the syllables in every such line would still receive metrical stress.

The basic combinations omitting the ones with feminine endings are eight in number:.

Shakespeare’s metrical art…

Each of these eight line-types may be varied with a feminine ending or with a late caesura after the sixth syllable. Each of the first four line- types may also be varied by an additional unstressed syllable at the begin- ning double onset. The eight basic line-types with their variants could thus generate as many as forty different line-patterns. Because the line is so palpably made up of two half-lines, the epic caesura may seem like a feminine ending of the first half-line, and the broken-backed line may seem like a headless second half-line.

In any case, half-lines may link with each other to form an extremely varied set of possible line-forms. Here are some examples from the works of poets in this tradition:. For Lydgate this system was sufficient. He uses the line-types for variety but varies little within them. Some line-types he uses more than others, and for long passages he hardly diverges at all from the basic type-i line, divided after the fourth syllable. But whether he repeats or diverges, his lines seldom make much use of trochaic variations within an iambic context. Spondees are also rare, and we may suspect that his unstressed syllables in stressed positions did not signal a pyrrhic foot so much as a pounded beat.

In the following lines, for example admittedly more vari- ous than most , Lydgate's phrasing conforms exactly to the meter and never exerts against it any pressure worth mentioning. The seven lines belong to five different line-types; but, whatever the line-type, the phras- ing sits down neatly within it:. Wyatt uses the same basic keyboard, but with a much greater deli- cacy and resourcefulness. He evidently developed his unusual long-line meter when he set out to translate poems, usually sonnets, from the Italian.

Whatever his earlier skill in lyrics written in shorter meters, he must have sensed, as he started to translate Petrarch, that in the Italian sonnet form he had touched a deeper current of poetry. Whereas the rime royal stanzas common among Chaucer and his successors were an admirable form for continuous stately narrative or for the expression of public sentiments, the Italian sonnet, with its interweaving rhymes and flowing, yet segmented, sentences, its multiple elisions which hurry the line and its lingering feminine endings, seems fitted for a much more private utterance, espe- cially for the tracing of half-hidden, debating, contradictory, and ironic feelings that course within the troubled breast of a lover.

Southall argues convincingly that Wyatt's best verse is "a psychologi- cal drama of inner perturbation and distress" 67 ; it "expresses the doubts, anxieties, trials and tribulations of an unusually sensitive mind confront- ing a perplexing and dangerously insecure world" The poems in octosyllabic meters, with their sharp rhythms, portray this perilous realm through formal pairings and confrontations, half-line matching half-line, rhymed line matching rhymed line. The effect is that of formal jousting or dancing, the oppositions well-lit and precisely set up, even though we know that beneath them lurk questions about love and court that are deliberately left unresolved.

But the sonnets are darker altogether, the balances between two-foot and three-foot segments less precise, less pre- dictable. The longer line lends itself to a greater variety of internal ar- rangements; its ambiguous oppositions must be posed more problemati- cally within or between half-lines, between line and line, quatrain and quatrain, though even here, in the management of the sonnet's segments, Wyatt the master of balanced phrases rarely lets his periods correspond to his quatrains.

The long but faintly out-of-step procession of self-judging, self-condemning utterances conveys the troubled turning of a mind in anguish or uncertainty. The mystery of love's insecurity, its incessant be- wilderments, can be intimated through the obscurity of the rhythms, the obsessive hesitations, quickenings, and tightenings of the jointed line. One way. The Lydgatian decasyllabic was an obvious model, and he used it for these translations.

For a sensitive metrist the eight-line sys- tem provided opportunities to imitate the Italian system of alternately speeding and slowing syllable-groups. The extra unstressed syllable at the beginning of the line, or at the caesura, or at line's end might recall the tumbling trochaic rhythms of the Italian hendecasyllable, even at the risk of occasionally losing the iambic feeling.

Furthermore, the shortening of syllables by elision or syncope and the syllabic ambiguity of English -es, -ed, -eth, and -en, especially in the metrical setting of the Lydgate line, afforded him the most promising opportunities. Wyatt's use of the traditional line, then, is far more purposeful and intelligent than that of his post-Chaucerian predecessors, who for the most part adopt it automatically, and without any thought about its inher- ent capacities, as a narrative or celebratory instrumentthe poet's fife and drum.

Even if their lines, too, can be seen, with the aid of the eight-line system, as more often regular than we have been used to finding them, they seem to drift from one line-type to another for no expressive purpose, and they rarely introduce metrical variations to reflect meaning in shifts of sound. They understand meter purely as a frame, not as an expressive instrument. What we can discern in his extraordinary sonnets is an able and inventive metrist struggling to invest a brisk and racy metrical system with a flexible expres- siveness that is at this point literally foreign to it. Wyatt's well-known poem "They fle from me," though it is not a sonnet, can illustrate these points briefly.

In this stanza and the two that follow, Wyatt is really using a metrical system, not just composing poetry in phrases, though phrases are impor- tant to him. He has a keyboard, which authorizes coherent lines of basi- cally iambic verse; and although some of his lines, like some of Donne's, may puzzle us, we need not feel baffled.

The system he uses in almost all his verse is a four-part system, the parts of which can be clearly dis- tinguished:. Metrical forms: for the decasyllabic line, an array of Lydgatian line- types with strong midline breaks, which sometimes appear elsewhere than after the fourth or fifth syllable.

Metrical variations, similar to those used later on: trochees, some spon- dees and pyrrhics, a very occasional anapest; and some combinations that never became standard for iambic pentameter for example, a monosyllabic third foot; a pyrrhic foot followed by a trochee. Syllabic procedures: elision, synaloepha, syncope, expansion of mono- syllables into disyllables, and so forth.

Some of these techniques re- mained available to poets for centuries. Accentual conventions: especially, near-spondaic pronunciation of some disyllabic words or phrases; shifting or level stress in many words, notably Romance words, for which a definitive pronunciation, at least in verse, had evidently not yet become established fortune, venue ; and occasional use of "thwarted stress" unspeechlike stress on minor syl- lables of polysyllabic words. The phrasing arrangements Wyatt uses are a further level of organi- zation.

They work with and through the others to secure effects of balance, opposition, intensification, crispnesssometimes of speechlike authen- ticity. Phrase joined to phrase composes the Wyatt line. The phrases, nor- mally two to a line, are themselves usually different in character and feel- ing that is, composed of different kinds of grammatical units, though often with sharply contrasting features. The skill required to write such a. As we read these poems, we have a strong sense of the phrase and of the line, a much weaker sense both of the sentence and of the quatrain or tercet.

Shakespeare's Metrical Art

The struggle of the agonizing lover seems reflected in the difficulty with which the distinctive phrases combine to form a patterned line, and perhaps also in the awkwardness with which the lines sometimes combine to form larger prosodic units. In his longer-line poems generally, Wyatt appears to be absorbed much more deeply in the problems of assembling phrases into lines than in the prob- lems of arranging those lines into groups that flow melodiously and please the ear with the larger patterns of quatrain or stanza.

This preoccupation with the line, to the injury of the line-flow, was more than compensated for by the next two generations of sixteenth- century poets, who, abandoning Wyatt's complex decasyllabic system, found easier terms on which to make single lines and interested them- selves instead in the problems of composing harmonious stanzas or son- nets that course more fluently from quatrain to quatrain than these diffi- cult poems of Wyatt's ever do. But he himself may have come round to this positionor at least part way.

Those sonnets that were evidently com- posed later take two crucial steps in the direction of smoothness: they avoid problematical rhymes, and they stick very largely to the i or ta or 4 or 43 line-types. The surer rhymes and more regular meter help us to feel as well a greater quatrain- and tercet- integrity.

Inventive and resourceful as the metrical system Wyatt used in these poems may have been, it was even then too difficult for his readers. It takes considerable metrical sophistication to hear what is happening around a Wyatt caesura, and even someone who grasps the system may not see how individual lines are meant to be read. Several lines in "They fle from me" offer the reader alternative choicesfor example:.

In the most intriguing of Wyatt's sonnets, several or most or sometimes almost all the lines present perplexing problems of interpretation. But when, in what appears to be his later verse, he began to moderate the freedom with which he varies the line, he could use the line- types eloquently, along with trochees, pyrrhics, and spondees, as expressive resourcesfor example, in this passage from Satire I:.

Line-Type I am not he suche eloquence to boste, i To make the crow singling as the swanne, 2. The variety of line-types here perhaps eight in nine lines does much to enforce Wyatt's irony. Wherever there is an extra or an omitted syllable, the tone is sharpened: we feel the sarcasm in "the crow singing as the swanne" because of the two successive stressed syllables, and the extra little catch at the center of lines 45 and 49, and perhaps of 47, makes the argu- ment sound more headlong.

The unusual 7a-pattern in line 48 seems like- wise energetic, for it appears to begin the line with three successive trochees; the line ends iambically, but the next one has several features that revive the trochaic feeling.

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The headless line 50 sounds clipped and caustic. These striking effects, which Wyatt uses skillfully here and can call up at will when he needs them, work in conjunction with metrical substitutions to give the passage its strength of movement: the pyrrhic-spondee com- bination at the end of line 46 unusual before Sidney , and the trochee that begins line Finally, the disyllabic pronunciation of "knyght" in line 51 which lets it rhyme with Wyatt gives a special intensity to the poet's scorn for these scorners.

In these enterprising poems, then, Wyatt appears to be forging a distinctive decasyllabic style comparable to those of later masters. The line-types here function not as alternative paradigms in the manner of Lydgate et al. When Wyatt presents David's self-blame in the first of the Penitential Psalms, he largely abandons the French polysyllabic words of aureate verse and de- velops a monosyllabic style that joins a steadier iambic meter to emphatic and expressive phrasing.

In this style, repeated words and phrases, internal rhymes, expressive trochees and spondees, an epic caesura type 3 , allitera- tion, assonance, and consonance, and similar devices intensify the feeling in a way that is characteristic of poems of the later sixteenth and of the seventeenth century and utterly beyond the reach of such earlier poets as Lydgate, Hoccleve, and the rest:.

In the generation after Wyatt, poets went further in the direction of standardizing the iambic line, but they did not much advance the develop- ment of its expressive resources, which remained latent for forty years while poets learned to write the measured line. The development of a simpler metric than the multi-type jointed line had several important re- sults. It assured a wider audience, and it encouraged a larger number of writers to try their hand at an art that promised success on easier terms.

It made possible, too, the development of smoother melodic currents through- out a quatrain, tercet, or couplet. Its simpler metrical base offered exactly the opportunities for expressive variation that would later form the pecu- liar wealth of a great metrical tradition. For it was only after the Tudor poets had simplified the poetic line that Sidney, Shakespeare, and Milton could make those spondaic, pyrrhic, and trochaic departures from it that. Their line is not so multiform as Lydgate's, but it is much more economical; it permits fewer variations from the norm and the norm is more definite , but those few along with a more mobile midline pause allow it to bring into play an immense range of quickly recognizable speech-patterns.

In the last analysis, the jointed line, brilliant as it is in the hands of a master, is inherently too subservient to the spoken phrase, too deficient in predictable musical pattern. Since the basic pattern is variable, we may not be sure what the variations vary from, so our sense of them as variations is diminished and confused. Or, to put it differently, the formal side of the struggle between line and phrase, between life-conditions and the imme- diate life that they test, is underrepresented.

We do not feel this, of course, in the strong meters of Wyatt's octosyllabic poems nor, to the same extent, in the Satires and Penitential Psalms; but in the early sonnets it is as if the power that constrains human action and struggle is too shapeless to serve as a convincing antagonist to the dark inner turmoil of the speaker.

In a few of these poems Wyatt makes this situation, this existential in- coherence, wonderfully moving, but its force rests on a precarious metric. The metric of Shakespearethanks largely to Wyatt himselfwas to be more solidly constructed. By , the year of Shakespeare's birth, iambic pentameter was still a clumsy and lumbering meter. In contrast to Chaucer's mastery of a ser- viceable and expressive pentameter line, the achievement of metrical grace and strength in the sixteenth century was an arduous and painful struggle, a heroic quest of a sort, in the pursuit of which poets appear to have been, like Spenser's courtly knights, all too frequently distracted and irresolute.

We have learned to think of this meter as a remarkably rich and subtle one, capable of the most delicate or powerful effects in the hands of a master. But, apart from Wyatt himself, whose expressive experiments were far in advance of his time, hardly any poet before the would have regarded such a view as sensible. Almost all the verse produced in this meter before or so could lay little claim to richness and subtlety, only at most to a certain energy that was usually neutralized by the monotony of the beat.

The best literary minds of the day understandably regarded such verse, especially when rhymed, as crude and trivial, not at all comparable in expressiveness and complexity to the classical quantitative meters.


In Well-Weighed Syllables, Derek Attridge has told, with clarity and understanding, the story of sixteenth-century quantitative verse. By his account, although the Romans may have heard the apparent disparities between the stress-accents of words and the durational quantities of syl- lables in verse lines and this subject is very obscure , changes in the pro-.

Medieval scholars, of course, dutifully learned them and taught them to dutiful schoolboys in England as else- where. But even though Latin verse was probably pronounced in a normal way by stressing the syllables that in a prose passage would receive accent, the trained reader would see a pattern of quantitative values running partly counter to the prose rhythm. Thus in the famous opening line of the Aeneid, the first syllable of cano receives speech-stress, but in the quan- titative scheme it functions as short:.

As Attridge points out: "The effect of [the] rules. The reader is expected to register intellectually and perhaps perceptually the tension generated by this conflict. In addition, the Latin hexameter could fulfill its metrical requirements with an enviable versatility, for each of the first four feet could consist either of two long syllables or of one long one and two short ones.

The line's final syllable, too, might be either long or short; if it was short, the final foot would register a difference from all the other feet in the line. Such wide and subtle options, it was held, made it possible for Latin poets to achieve the grandest poetic effects. In contrast, English poetry could make no claim to greatness so long as it lacked a meter capable of such variety. And what did it have? A "rustick rythmery" , pro- duced by "the uncountable rabble of ryming Ballet makers and compylers of sencelesse sonets" , "wooden rythmours" , a "Gotish kinde of ryming," "rude versifying" , "our rude beggerly ryming" And surely I can lament that wee are fallen into suche a playne and simple manner of wryting, that there is none other foote used but one; wherby our Poemes may justly be called Rithmes, and cannot by any right challenge the name of a Verse.

Smith, vol. In such a state of affairs, Attridge imagines, an Elizabethan humanist might have found "the rhythmic beat of English verse. End-rhyme, too, would provide further evidence of English barbarism, and the English language itself "would seem crude and disorganised, without rules, without constant orthography, and most important as far as verse was concerned without any agreed division of syllables into long and short" Not one of the poets or commentators on poetry before Sidney ap- pears to have had an inkling of the potential splendor of English pen- tameter as a medium for some of the greatest poetry ever written in any language.

They would probably all be astonished to hear that it could be so, that one of their own countrymen then livingnot a university hu- manist, but a grammar-school boy from the provinceswould take this crude meter and, building on hints provided by other poets even closer in age to the doubters, construct a series of magnificent literary works in an iambic pentameter fully as brilliant as the verse of Virgil or Homer.

Such a result would have seemed delusory to them, for nothing in the practice of iambic pentameter in their day could have led them to imagine a verse accomplishment of such magnitude in so poor and trivial a meter: a meter with only two syllables per foot, lacking the extensive possibilities of varia- tion offered by the Latin hexameter, and without the intellectually per- ceived structure of long and short syllables that gives every line of Latin verse its differently devious way of fulfilling the metrical paradigm. For Elizabethan readers, in fact, iambic pentameter was perceived essentially as a line whose pattern was entirely defined when you stated that it had ten syllables.

Although they understood that the line was iambic, not until late in the eighteenth century did prosodists begin to talk about the alternating accent that seems to us so palpable a feature of iambic pentameter practice and that poets and readers had obviously aimed at and responded to from Surrey on. The critical emphasis on the number of syllables, however, be- comes understandable when we realize how much the humanists and scholars admired the capacity of the Latin verse line to vary the number of syllables and, by so doing, to achieve expressive effects.

In comparison with these, an unvarying ten-syllable meter of regularly alternating stresses seemed poor indeed. In desperation, some Elizabethan poets, including Sidney and Spenser, tried to devise an English quantitative verse that would function on the same principles as the Latin. Essentially, the system regards as long any vowel and syllable which is followed by more than one consonant, and it permits the composition of such memorable lines as the following quoted from Attridge, ,, :. All travellers do gladly re port great prayse of U lys ses This creeke with run ning pas sadge thee channel in haunteth.

The first of these lines has an unusual spriteliness, but clearly this way of writing is, for an accentual language like English, a dead end. If quantitative Latin verse offered some poets an alluring example, what has usually been called "the native tradition"that is, accentual allit- erative versepresented an alternative model. Many Old English and Middle English masterpieces from Beowulf to Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight belong to this tradition, and a more homely version of it could still be heard in the rhymed "tumbling verse" of the popular stage in the sixteenth century see below, Chapter 6, for examples.

If in quantitative verse a varying number of syllables in the foot and in the line were thought to produce harmony and a pleasing flexibility, the same uncertainty about numbers of syllables in tumbling verse produced the entirely different effects of roughness and an exaggerated emphasis on stressed syllables. By the same token, poets who by writing in strict iambics fixed the number of syllables in foot and line, while conceding a loss in subtlety when compared to Latin quantitative verse, could reduce the thumping that necessarily results when several unstressed syllables pre- cede a stressed one, especially when the stressed ones alliterate.

When only one unstressed syllable precedes each stressed one, the need to pounce on each stressed one is materially lessened. At first, however, as poets became accustomed to a new sort of verse in which both the number of syllables and the number of accents mattered, the syllables occupying the stressed positions had to be firmly accented in order for the verse to be heard as verse. In effect, the accentual character of accentual-syllabic verse had to be heavily audible for a time, and this necessity temporarily hooded the new meter's capacity for variety and differencespecifically, its capacity for expressive and pleasing metrical variation.

Given this situation, Glenn S. Spiegel may be right in suggesting that the main problem for poets lyric as well as dramatic in the generation or so before Shakespeare began to write was to mitigate the force of the native tradition. To do this, to soften the pounding accentualism that was charac- teristic of most forms of early Tudor verse, Spiegel claims, they reduced excessive alliteration on stressed syllables, regularized the number of syl- lables in a line, and varied their stanza forms. All of these steps were means of asserting the difference of iambic pentameter from the hypnotically repeated series of frequently alliterating stressed syllables, with an in- determinate number of unstressed syllables between the stressed ones.

The "smooth- ness" that poets aimed at in their meter could be achieved by two related but apparently opposed means: on the one hand, the poet had to be sure that the five beats of his line were heard as such, that every second syllable was audibly more prominent than the one it followed though the avail- ability of some metrical variations made this a flexible requirement ; on the other hand, he had also to make the successive beats neither too consis- tent in their stark contrast to the weak syllables nor exactly isochronous.

As readers, we must measure a lapse of syllables as well as a lapse of time. And, though we must hear the beat insistently enough to establish it as a recurrent pattern, we must enjoy as well a repertoire of variations, of de- partures from the pattern. It took a long time for these variations to become established, no doubt partly because the need for an audible beat was at first so imperious.

This need may help to explain the popularity of other iambic meters like poulter's measure and fourteeners, with their long lines that trip from beat to beat with little subtlety or capacity for expressive variation. One decisive advantage of iambic pentameter over such meters lay in its readiness to combine into stanza forms, as the longer-line measures could not conve- niently do. Every stanza-shape gave a somewhat different feeling, and even though poets at first usually preferred to write in such time-tested forms as rime royal, the versatility of iambic pentameterits adaptability.

It could be written in continuous lines or molded into quatrains, seven-line stanzas, sonnets, or stanzas of anyone's devising, and even be mixed with shorter or longer lines. It could be rhymed or blank, and it could be used on the stage or in the studyfor dramatic produc- tions or for heroic, tragic, or satiric poetry.

All these capacities were not shared by the more single-minded poulter's or fourteeners, and they helped to insure a privileged position for iambic pentameter even at a time when its full potentialities were not yet audible to the innocent Eliza- bethan ear. By , then, when Shakespeare began to write the works we know, the chief features of his central meter had already been set: i the ten- syllable iambic line; 2 a conventional midline break in phrasing; 3 line- integrity most lines were endstopped ; and 4 a "smooth" reconciliation of English phrasing and the metrical pattern.

The regular pentameter line comprised these features, along with the standard variations trochaic, pyrrhic, and spondaic which poets used with increasing skill to make their lines more graceful, varied, and expressive. Sixteenth-century writers speak of the line as having ten syllables or, occasionally, an eleventh that constitutes a "feminine ending".

Although they do not discuss the stress-pattern in detail, it is understood that the pattern is iambic, a two-syllable pattern that occurs five times pen- tameter. By the nineteenth century, poets had begun to admit anapests into pentameter lines for the sake of variety, but here at the beginning it was important to the poets to keep the strict syllable count. Anapestic variations leaned in the direction of the crude tumbling rhythms of folk verse, and composers of iambic pentameter evidently aspired to a more dignified species of composition.

The regular beat, of course, did not always make for authentic dignity. Beholde alas this wicked cruell wall, Whose cursed scyte, denayeth us perfect sight: Much more the hap, of other ease at all. What if I should by force, as well one might: And yet deserves, it batter flat to ground, And open so, an issue large to make: Yet feare I sore, this sooner will redownde, To our reproche, if it I undertake: As glad I would, then us to helpe or ayde "The History of Pyramus and Thisbie, Truely Translated," in A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions, The insistent stress on every second syllable is maintained at exorbitant cost to sensible grammar.

This foot-by-foot progress is matched by an equally obsessive phrase-by-phrase and line-by-line accumulation. A remarkable proportion of the iambic verse between Surrey and Sidney is written in just such regular iambs; and even when, unlike this passage, it has other poetic virtues to recommend it, it is likely to grow wearisome to our later, more accomplished ear.

It nevertheless seems prob- able that the aim of the best versifiers in this tradition was not merely to drum out the beats but to compose a sequence of words which, while establishing a definite rhythm, would still permit actors or reciters to speak them with some impassioned feeling. Certainly much of the verse written in this style has for its subject the strong emotion of the speaker, and there is no reason to believe that the Elizabethans thought any more than we do that a mechanical delivery was an effective resource for a despairing lover.

From Surrey to Sidney all poets break most of their lines after the fourth syllable, with either a strong pause signaled by punctuation or a. We have seen already how invariable this pattern was in Lydgate and how common in Wyatt. In Wyatt's successors it again becomes habitual. Chidiock Tichbourne's "Elegy," for example, com- posed, it is said, on the eve of his execution, pursues an implacable beat. Pentameter means that there are five metrical units in each line of verse, since penta is the Greek word for five.

Therefore, iambic pentameter is a line of five iambic feet, which contains ten syllables. For example:. Scansion is the orthographic or written attempt to represent the meter and stress of verse by noting the light and heavy stresses in the line. It seeks to capture the interplay of word and metrical stress. This interplay is often referred to as the rhythm of the language.

Rhythm, however, can neither be seen, nor heard, nor read. Rhythm is something that is felt. It is a pulse, a beat, a sense of movement through time. Rhythm is innate, yet invisible. It is a pattern or series of beats that produce energy. Rhythm goes through time as movement goes through space.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to portray rhythm on the page, though this is what scansion sets out to do. Capturing rhythm is like trying to capture breath. One can sense the act of breathing. One does not see the air that is the component of the breath. In order for the audience to sense rhythm, the actor must establish it. And, once established, it must be maintained so that the variants, which heighten the expressiveness of the verse, can be felt as opposed to observed or heard.

Shakespeare's Metrical Art by George T. Wright - Paperback - University of California Press

The variants need to be experienced as variants. The expressiveness and force of the language often stem from the variants to the iambic pentameter form employed by Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists. In the past, these variants were sometimes dismissed as an example of sloppy craftsmanship or ascribed to misguided typesetters. The actor should use and exploit variation and difference, not homogenize them.

An individual line does not stand on its own but must be considered, eventually, both in relation to the other verse lines and to the prose surrounding it. As the variants are discovered and explored, the actor will find that they provide a nap or sketch of the thought processes of the character, allowing the actor create the verse line in the present moment. It is important to note that Shakespeare and other writers of the period organized the arrangement of particular stresses -the beats and off-beats of the lines — not to fulfill arbitrary standards, but rather to reflect the emotional and psychological state of the character.

Shakespeare wrote his plays over an approximately twenty-year period. He and his contemporaries sought to achieve a theatrical reality through the use of language. Consequently, they experimented with iambic pentameter, the English language, and the best theatrical forms for the expression of their ideas. One of his first plays Titus Andronicus was almost entirely in verse. However, a later tragedy Antony and Cleopatra contains 90 percent blank verse, i. Blank verse then becomes the predominate means of expression in the later tragedies and romances. In addition to these larger categories, Shakespeare investigates changes to the iambic pentameter line in individual plays.

He experiments with long lines, epic caesuras, and short and shared lines, which are explained below. He was able to do this because iambic pentameter closely follows the rhythm of spoken English and, thus, has an extraordinary ability to accommodate a host of variations. The most common variant to the ten syllable line is the longer line, specifically that which contains an eleventh or extra syllable, which is never stressed. The most famous line in Shakespeare has an unstressed ending:. Some lines have twelve syllables. This type of line is referred to as either an alexandrine or a hexameter six metric units to the line.

An example is:. Whereas the iambic pentameter line of five units cannot divide itself in half, the hexameter line can. Two sections of three feet each give a sense of difference, perhaps a heightening of emotion or crisis in the character. When two characters share a twelve-syllable line, a sense of charged confrontation or heightened exchange exists between them. The twelve syllable line might also be reflective of a heightened emotional state in which the speaker is cramming twelve syllables into the time normally reserved for ten.

The twelve-syllable line does something new, perhaps something disturbing, to the established iambic pentameter rhythm that has been set down for us. It is also possible for a hexameter line to have an additional unstressed syllable at the end, resulting in a line of thirteen beats. Some lines when read appear to have more than ten syllables, but when spoken are actually regular iambic pentameter lines.

Doing so creates havoc with the rhythm of the verse. However, contraction and elision will allow the rhythm to be maintained. Sorry, but we can't respond to individual comments. Recent searches Clear All. Update Location. If you want NextDay, we can save the other items for later. Yes—Save my other items for later. No—I want to keep shopping.

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Early Modern English - Metrical Patterns in Shakespearean Sonnets

George T Wright.