Iambic pentameter & the principles of metrical variation: part 3 – double trochees, hexameters, epic caesuras in shared lines, missing syllables, emphasis on a non-beat syllable & the false choriamb

Note to new readers: Please read parts 1 & 2 of this article first! They make a lot more sense when read in the correct order!

In this post I will be exploring some less common, but very intriguing variations. In all these examples, I will not split up figures into separate feet. I will also continue to indicate radical variations (variations that contain displaced beats) with red type, and feminine endings (end-line or mid-line) with pink type.

But first, I would like to talk briefly about iambic and trochaic rhythm (I have also written a Quora answer that is largely related to this subject: What-are-the-differences-between-iambic-and-trochaic-meters).

Firstly, it is very important to distinguish between iambic and trochaic feet, and iambic and trochaic words and phrases. Take a look at this line:-

Which alters when it alteration finds

Which al | ters when | it al | tera | tion finds

Metrically this is an unvaried line of five iambs. However, the rhythm is trochaic! That’s because the line is made up of trochaic words and phrases (alters; when it; alteration) which span the foot divisions. Note how, in this example, the contrariness described in this line, with it’s references to altering and alteration, is mirrored by the contrariness of the trochaic rhythm!

Much of the texture of Shakespeare’s verse derives from the interplay of iambic and trochaic rhythms.

Here’s the opening line of Shakespeare’s first sonnet:-

From fairest creatures we desire increase

From fair | est crea | tures we desire | increase

It starts off with the falling, trochaic sound of ‘fairest creatures’, and then, through the run of light syllables, rises into the iambic ‘desire increase‘ – and, of course, the rising rhythm provides an aural sensation of ‘increase’.

What a wonderful line, and what a perfect way to start the sonnet sequence!

And now for some more variations!

1. The double trochee(exclusive to dramatic verse)

The double trochee is a trochee followed by a choriamb. It is, in effect, a stuttered choriamb: dum-di-dum-didi-dum!

Villains, answer you so the Lord Protector?

Villains, | answer you so | the Lord | protector?

Brothers, help to convey her hence away

Brothers, | help to convey | her hence | away

And I can’t resist adding this example from Keats’ The Eve of St Agnes:-

The arras, rich with horseman, hawk, and hound
Fluttered in the besieging wind’s uproar

The arr | as, rich | with horse | man, hawk, | and hound
Fluttered | in the besieg | ing wind’s | uproar

The double trochee was not normally used in poetic verse; but here, uniquely, Keats chooses to use the fluttering effect of the double trochee to mimic the fluttering of the arras!

2. Hexameters

A hexameter contains six feet instead of five. You will find that Shakespeare’s plays are peppered with the occasional hexameter, which adds texture and variety to the verse (incidentally, some people will tell you that long lines in Shakespeare’s plays should be delivered faster, on the principle that they should be delivered within the same space of time it would take to deliver a standard pentameter line. This is not true, and you should ignore such advice!).

This example is from Measure for Measure:-

To have what we would have, we speak not what we mean

To have | what we | would have, | we speak | not what | we mean

Count the feet. Six iambs!

This next example is from Richard II. Henry Bolingboke is about to fight a duel to the death, and his father, John of Gaunt, delivers these last rousing words to his son:-

Rouse up thy youthful blood, be valiant and live.

Rouse up | thy youth | ful blood, | be val | iant | and live.

For the sake of clarity, I have marked every foot division; but note that the second half of this line is a 6-syllable figure – the spondee-paeon:-                


Did you notice that both these lines have a break slap bang in the middle of the line? It is this tendency for hexameters to break in the middle (though not all do) that makes the hexameter so particularly well suited to shared lines (and in fact, even in the two examples I’ve just given, the second half of the line in some way answers or builds on the first half). An example par excellence can be found in Richard III. At this point in the play, Richard is wooing Lady Anne, whose husband and father-in-law (Edward, Prince of Wales, and his father, Henry VI) he had murdered. Richard lays his life on the line: he gives her his sword and demands that she either takes him or takes his life; she moves to do so, but can’t go through with it, and says that though she wishes his death, she will not be his executioner. Richard then takes up the sword himself, and tells her he will kill himself if she gives the command! It is at this point that we now join them:

Anne:       I would I knew thy heart.

Richard:  ‘Tis figured in my tongue

Anne:       I fear me both are false.

Richard:  Then never was man true.

Anne:       Well, well, put up your sword.

Richard:  Say then my peace is made.

Anne:       That shalt thou know hereafter.

Richard:   But shall I live in hope?

Anne:       All men, I hope, live so.

Richard:   Vouchsafe to wear this ring.

Anne:       To take is not to give.

Note how the exchange begins with Richard completing Anne’s half lines, but halfway through it reverses into Anne completing Richard’s half lines – Richard ends up taking the lead! This is a blistering scene, which is rarely done justice on the stage.

3. Epic caesuras in shared lines

As I mentioned in my first post, an epic caesura is an extra unstressed syllable in the middle of the line before a break (a mid-line feminine ending). Here’s an interesting example that contains both a mid-line feminine ending and a feminine ending at the end of the line:

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant

His acts | being se | ven ages. || At first | the infant

Here the extra mid-line syllable is the last syllable of the word ‘ages’, and it produces a break in the rhythm: di-DUM di-DUM di-DUM di, di-DUM di-DUM di 

Occasionally you will find an apparent epic caesura in a shared line. Take these two examples from King Lear (again, I mark the epic caesuras with two vertical lines):

Kent: Thy safety being motive.

Lear:  Out of my sight!

Kent: Thy safe | ty be | ing motive.||

Lear:  Out of my sight!

(Lear’s half line is a choriamb)


My Lord, i am guiltless as i am ignorant
Of what hath moved you.


It may be so, my Lord.


My Lord, | i am guilt | less as | i am ig | norant
Of what | hath moved you.||


It may | be so, | my Lord.

(In both instances of ‘I am’, the two words are glided together to count as one syllable)

In the first of these quotes, Kent is admonishing his King for turning on his youngest daughter, Cordelia, and dividing the Kingdom between the eldest two. In the second quote, a befuddled Albany is attempting to calm down his father-in-law as Lear vents his incredulous rage at his daughter, Goneril, after she has just given him a dressing down; immediately after cutting Albany short, he proceeds to call on Nature, the Goddess, to bring vengeance down upon his daughter in the most visceral language he can muster.

An alternative to interpreting the extra-metrical syllable in such shared lines as an epic caesura is to interpret it as an acting clue: perhaps the implication is that Lear, in both these examples, talks over the other person (cuts them short) at the end of their line.

{Edit: I originally took this idea from ‘Rhythm & Meaning in Shakespeare’ by Peter Groves (which I review here). Peter Groves has since published an article which explores this idea in much greater depth: “Unheedy haste”: interruptions, overlaps, and Shakespeare’s directing hand. This is a fascinating article that I would highly recommend.}

4. Missing syllables (exclusive to dramatic verse)

Some lines of dramatic verse are simply short, which may, in turn, indicate a pause to fill up the remaining pentameter beats (this can frequently serve a dramatic purpose in Shakespeare’s plays. Modern editors have a horrible habit of relineating the verse to remove all the short lines! Sometimes relineation is justified, but a lot of the time it’s not – in this, and other respects, modern editors adapt the originals far too readily).

However, occasionally you will come across a line that is not short, but has a missing syllable or syllables within the line. In all these examples I shall use an underline _ to indicate the syllable pauses.

a) The broken-backed line has a single missing non-beat syllable at the break.

Your Grace mistakes: _ only to be brief

Your Grace | mistakes: | _ on | ly to be brief

Break open shops, _ nothing can you steal

Break open shops, | _ no | thing can | you steal

Note how in these examples the line opens with an iambic rhythm, and then reverses into a trochaic rhythm after the break.

However, that is not always the case:-

Is’t lost? Is’t gone? _ Speak, is’t out o’ th’ way?

Is’t lost? | Is’t gone? | _ Speak, | is’t out | o’ th’ way?

At this point in the play, Othello’s whole world depends on finding the handkerchief in Desdemona’s possession. Just before Iago started working on him, he said to himself ‘-when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again’; the hope of finding the handkerchief in Desdemona’s possession is the only thing holding back the ‘chaos’ of a complete emotional disintegration. In this line, Othello’s extreme agitation is communicated firstly by the extreme terseness of his questions (this is an example of how elision – the contraction of words – can produce dramatic effects: consider how much less effective this line would have been had it begun ‘Is it lost? Is it gone?’). And secondly, by the short pause and abrupt resumption – Speak, is’t out o’ th’ way?’ – when Desdemona doesn’t immediately answer his question.

b) The headless line is missing the opening non-beat syllable, so it commences with a strong, clear beat syllable!

_ Where the devil should this Romeo be?

_ Where | the dev | il should | this Rom | eo be?

(Romeo can be pronounced with either two or three syllables; in this example it’s two)

_ Stay, the king has thrown his warder down

_ Stay, | the King | has thrown | his war | der down

_ Bootless home and weather beaten back

_ Boot | less home | and weath | er beat | en back

Never, never, never, never, never

_ Ne | ver, ne | ver, ne | ver, ne | ver, never

(this line, with a feminine ending, maintains a trochaic rhythm all the way to the end!)

c) The headless line with an epic caesura! This line pattern is the inverse of the broken-backed line: the most common tendency is that initially the rhythm is trochaic, and that it then reverses into an iambic rhythm after the break (for clarity I will place two lines || after the epic caesura):-

_ Marriage Uncle? Alas, my years are young

_ Ma | rriage Uncle? || Alas | my years | are young

_ O my follies! Then Edgar was abused

_ O | my follies! || Then Ed | gar was | abused

_ Give me, give me, O tell not me of fear

_ Give | me, give me, || O tell not me | of fear

d) Consecutive missing non-beat syllables. This creates a series of emphatic monosyllables, with a syllable pause before each one:-

Blow winds, and crack your cheeks; _ rage, _ blow

Blow winds, | and crack | your cheeks; | _ rage, | _ blow

Nay, send in time. _ Run, _ run, O run!

Nay, send in time, | _ Run, | _ run, | O run!

Is goads, _ thorns, _ nettles, tails of wasps

Is goads, | _ thorns, | _ nett | les, tails | of wasps

You can even have all five non-beat syllables missing:-

Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him

_ Kill, | _ kill, | _ kill | _ kill | _ kill him

(the last syllable is a feminine ending!)

And this line from Cymbeline is delivered by the villain, Iachimo. At the end of the scene where he has successfully tricked his way into the bedchamber of the heroine, Imogen, he stands and listens to the chiming of the clock:

One, two, three, time, time.

_ One, | _ two, | _ three, | _ time, | _ time.

For the first three feet, the chimes of the clock stand in for the missing syllables!

e) A missing non-beat syllable within a phrase. This creates a drawn out effect (in stark contrast to the sharp jolt provided by syllables missing at the breaks):

But why commands the King
That his chief followers lodge in towns about him
While he himself keeps in the cold _ field?

But why | commands | the King
That his chief foll | owers lodge | in towns | about him
While he | himself | keeps in the cold | _ field?

(the second line in this quote contracts ‘followers’ to two syllables)

He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long _ stayed he so.

He falls | to such | peru | sal of my face
As he | would draw | it. Long | _ stayed | he so.

f) Two consecutive missing syllables. This creates a foot-long pause within the line:-

Must give us pause. There’s the respect

Must give us pause. | _ _ | There’s the respect

(from Hamlet‘s most famous speech. Here we have a foot-long pause after the word “pause”; earlier in the speech we also have a line that ends on the word “end”!)

g) A single missing beat syllable. This line type is much rarer than the broken-backed line, and, obviously, contains a more emphatic pause:-

My father, _ methinks see my father

My fa | ther, _ | methinks | i see | my father

It is possible that a missing beat syllable is an acting cue – for instance, in this example, perhaps Hamlet draws in his breath on the missing beat, and maybe raises a hand in a longing gesture.

This could also apply to cases where the final beat appears to be missing. In this example, from Julius Caesar, Brutus fears that a man making his way towards Caesar through a crowd may be about to betray their plans to assassinate him:-:

Look how he makes | to Cae | sar. Mark | him _ (grabs his co-conspirator’s arm, and points!)

Following on from Hamlet’s line, there is, intriguingly, a matching line from Ophelia later on:-

And with a look so piteous in purport,
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors: _ he comes before me.

And with | a look | so piteous in purport,
As if | he had | been loo | sed out | of hell
To speak | of ho | rrors: _  | he comes | before me.

(The first line ends on a spondee-paeon, in which ‘piteous’ is contracted to two syllables)

At this point Ophelia is relating to her father how Hamlet came bursting into her chamber – however, she uses the present tense “comes”, instead of the past tense “came”. In recalling him so vividly, he evidently appears to be very much present to her – in her “mind’s eye” (just as Hamlet’s father was to the young prince). At the missing beat there may be a similar drawing in of breath, and she might pull herself in as she braces herself. That’s how I picture it: an outward, gesturing, longing motion from Hamlet; a self-protective, fearful, drawing-in motion from Ophelia.

5. Emphasis on a non-beat syllable

Occasionally you will find it necessary to place special emphasis on a non-beat syllable for rhetorical purposes. Here are a few examples (I have italicised the syllables in question):

To make them Kings, the Seeds of Banquo Kings

To make them Kings, | the Seeds | of Ban | quo Kings

If I quench thee, thou flaming Minister,
can again thy former light restore,
Should i repent me. But once put out thy Light

If I quench thee, | thou flaming Mi | nister,
can | again | thy for | mer light | restore,
Should i repent me. || But once | put out thy Light

(The opening of the third line is a choriamb with a mid-line feminine ending, or epic caesura).

                                    …Get you to your Lord:
I cannot love him: let him send no more,
Unless (perchanceyou come to me again,
To tell me how he takes it: Fare you well:
thank you for your painsspend this for mee.

                                   …Get | you to | your Lord:
I cannot love | him: let | him send | no more,
Unless | (perchance) | you come | to me | again,
To tell | me how | he takes | it: Fare | you well:
I thank you for your pains: | spend this for mee.

The question is, how to provide greater emphasis to the non-beat syllable than the beat syllables either side of it while keeping the meter? The answer is very simple. Normally, when you get to the last word of a sentence or phrase (unless it’s a question), if that word ends on a stressed syllable you will automatically pronounce the very end of that syllable with a downward fall in pitch. This same pronunciation is all you need to provide special emphasis to the words I’ve italicised (the more exaggerated the downward fall, the greater the emphasis).

Incidentally, I have copied these three quotes from the Folio texts to illustrate the changes modern editors make which sometimes, perhaps, result in losing some of the nuance and texture of the original texts. There are four differences that are illustrated by these quotes:

1. Some words are Capitalised, even though they are not at the beginning of a line or sentence. If the Folio is an accurate transcript of what Shakespeare actually wrote (and that’s the big ‘if’) then this would seem to indicate that a particular importance or emphasis should be placed on the capitalised words. In the quotes above, one that stands out particularly to me is the capitalisation of the word ‘Seeds’ in the Macbeth quote

2. The Folio uses fewer full stops. Quite a lot fewer, in fact. This produces a much swifter, smoother forward flow. One punctuation mark that is frequently used in the Folio (and frequently turned into full stops by modern editors) is the colon (:). However, the colon appears to have been applied differently in Shakespeare’s day than it is by us today: they used it as a flexible hinge joining phrase to phrase – often in an extended sequence. In the last quote above, from Twelfth Night, all but one of the colons (the second one) are replaced by full stops in a modern edition.

3. You occasionally find parentheses (brackets, like these) in the Folio. They are nearly all omitted in modern editions, but obviously they would not have been included in the Folio for no reason at all; they appear to indicate that the words in parentheses should be treated, in some way, differently. In the last quote above, the word ‘perchance’ is placed in parentheses (which are omitted in a modern edition); to me, personally, this indicates a thoughtful hesitancy – which then makes the emphasis on ‘you‘ all the more effective and expressive.

4. The spellings in the Folio, as well as sometimes being indicative of different pronunciations in Shakespeare’s time, may sometimes indicate a particular emphasis. In the last quote above, the final word, ‘mee’, is spelt with an extra ‘e’! This may indicate an emphasis or lingering on this word. In this instance, this may indicate a more intimate tone: Olivia wants ‘Cesario’ (the disguised Viola) to remember her!

I do not have complete faith in the Folio (or the older Quartos), but I do feel that modern editors miss a lot of the nuances.

6.The false choriamb

Occasionally you will come across a line in Shakespeare which appears to contain a choriamb without any break in the line beforehand. I believe that there is an alternative, and far more satisfying way to pronounce these lines.

But first, a short (and slightly simplified) history lesson!

The first person ever to write in iambic pentameter was Chaucer. However, it was much easier for Chaucer to make the words fit the meter than it was for later poets, because he had the option of pronouncing silent e’s. Here’s an example:-

And smale foweles maken melodye

And smal | e fowel | es mak | en mel | odye

This pronunciation was archaic even in Chaucer’s day, and once it became obsolete, it left later poets with a particular problem: how to accommodate the grammatical pattern:-

Small connecting word / monosyllabic adjective / noun

This creates the stress pattern: di-dum-dum. How were they to accommodate this stress pattern within an iambic meter?

They eventually adopted two new metrical figures to accommodate this pattern: the minor ionic and the 2nd epitrite (figures which Chaucer never had need of). But how did they accommodate this pattern before then?

There were two tricks they used. One trick was to place a stressed word immediately after the noun to create what I shall call an abrupt spondee: one where the 2nd syllable of the spondee is also the first syllable of the next phrase.

So, for example, if I were to rewrite Chaucer’s line in modern English, using an abrupt spondee, I might write this:-

And small birds singing in the sunlit fields

And small birds sing | ing in the sun | lit fields

(I have underlined the abrupt spondee)

You can also find abrupt spondees in Shakespeare:-

Seem to besiege, and make his bold waves tremble

Seem to besiege, | and make | his bold waves tremble

What foul play had we, that we came from thence?

What foul play had | we, that | we came | from thence?

What harmony is this? My good friends, hark!

What harmony is this? | My good friends, hark!

(Opens with a spondee-paeonDUMDUM-di-di-di-DUM)

As with other 1st epitrites, the 3rd syllable in the figure (in these cases, the monosyllabic nouns) will tend to drop slightly in pitch relative to the stressed syllables either side of it.

The other trick they had to resort to – and this is the metrically troubling one – was the false choriamb: the noun became the first syllable of a choriamb, without the break that a choriamb requires. Here’s my version of a false choriamb, rewriting Chaucer’s line:-

And small birds of the air make lovely music

And small | birds of the air | make love | ly music

And here’s a 15th C. version!

For greit sorrow his hart to brist was boun

For greit | sorrow his hart| to brist | was boun

Can you hear how the two words I’ve underlined in each example are indistinguishable from a spondee? The awkward effect is one of a displaced spondee followed by an anapest (di-di-dum; ‘of the air‘; ‘-rrow his hart’). And that’s why it proved necessary to adopt two new metrical figures: the minor ionic and the 2nd epitrite.

And back to Shakespeare! Once in a while you will come across a line in Shakespeare that appears to contain a false choriamb. However, in all the Shakespearean examples I’ve come across, I have found a much more satisfying way of delivering the line. Here’s an example from Prospero‘s famous speech from The Tempest (without any stresses marked):-

And ‘twixt the green sea and the azur’d vault

And ‘twixt | the green | sea and | the az | ur’d vault

If you were to deliver this line with a false choriamb (which nearly all actors do), it would scan like this:-

And ‘twixt the green sea and the azur’d vault

And ‘twixt| the green | sea and the az | ur’d vault

My solution is much easier to communicate in person than on the page, though it’s actually very simple:-

  1. Allow the pitch of the noun to drop.
  2. Do not allow the pitch of the following word to drop.

Allowing the pitch of the noun to drop is not an artificial or forced thing to do: we do it all the time in ordinary conversation. For instance, the other day in a Costa, when I asked my daughter what size hot chocolate she wanted, her reply was iambic: “i want a large one”!

And dropping the pitch doesn’t mean the noun receives no emphasis: it still receives emphasis through duration. There are four different aspects to stress, in the following descending order of importance:-

  1. Pitch
  2. Duration
  3. Volume
  4. Vowel quality (vowels in unstressed syllables tend to be more indeterminate)

In this instance, it is only the pitch that is dropped; the emphasis provided by duration remains (and on a sidenote, fully dropping the pitch on the noun can also be an option with apparent ‘abrupt spondees’).

And then, by refusing to allow the following word to drop (in this case the word ‘and’), you will end up pronouncing it at just a slightly higher pitch than the noun, as if in anticipation of the rest of the line.

Try delivering Prospero‘s line in these three different ways, and see what result you get:-

  1. Give the noun (“sea”) a full stress.
  2. Allow the noun to drop, and also allow the following word (“and”) to drop.
  3. Allow the noun to drop, but do not allow the following word to drop: keep it buoyant in anticipation of the rest of the line.

You will likely find that it is only with the last delivery that you find yourself delivering the final word ‘vault‘ with a full upward lift – which also nicely contrasts with the drop in pitch on ‘sea‘! You might also notice that it is this delivery that most strongly highlights the contrast between the green seas and the azur’d vaults! Altogether, a far more satisfying and expressive interpretation of the line. And one achieved by committing to the metrical rhythm!

[An extra note on my own system of notation: I find it useful to underline nouns in non-beat positions, such as the nouns in the examples I’ve just given].

3 thoughts on “Iambic pentameter & the principles of metrical variation: part 3 – double trochees, hexameters, epic caesuras in shared lines, missing syllables, emphasis on a non-beat syllable & the false choriamb

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s