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.

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.

Another possible example occurs in the exchange between Richard and Anne!

That shalt thou know hereafter.

But shall i live in hope?

That shalt | thou know | hereafter.

But shall | i live | in hope?

If Richard is jumping in here, this creates the effect of an even more heightened urgency on his part – perhaps with the aim of keeping Anne on the back foot.

{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.

Again, there is one more non-Shakespearean quote that I cannot resist adding. It is a famous line from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster. A character called Ferdinand has had his sister murdered, and has just had her dead body revealed to him (this is the line with no stress marking):-

Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle, she died young.

And this is how the line is always delivered by actors (a double line || will indicate a major pause):-

Cover her face. || Mine eyes dazzle, || she died young.

This is what the Arden editor of this play had to say about this line: “This line…is one of the most famous in the play but has caused difficulty for actors and is sometimes broken up onstage by action between each of the sentences”.

This ‘difficulty’ is caused by a failure to follow the meter. The key to reading this line – as is so often the case – lies with the assonance (repeated vowel sounds), and the alliteration (repeated consonant sounds at the beginning of words). The earliest assonance that arises in this line is between ‘Mine’ and ‘eyes‘ (and later repeated with ‘died‘); however, with all the emphasis on ‘eyes‘, the assonance is very weak. The only way the assonance can be strengthened is by placing the primary stress on ‘Mine‘. Once I noticed this, everything else fell into place (I will use italics to indicate a semi-stress):-

Cover her face. | _ Mine | eyes da | zzle, she died young.

This is a broken-backed hexameter (a line with six feet). After the opening choriamb, the missing syllable instigates the trochaic ‘Mine eyes dazzle…’; and the last syllable of ‘dazzle…’ then forms the first syllable of a minor ionic: ‘…zzle, she died young‘. Fine detail for those who are interested:- this is an example of a trailing syllable: the first syllable of the figure is also the last syllable of the previous phrase. You can find examples of this with all the figures that open with a light syllable (most 4th paeons have a trailing syllable: it is usually a connecting figure).

In dramatic terms, this scansion makes a world of difference: after the immediate reaction of ‘Cover her face‘, there is an intake of breath on the syllable pause as he takes in the enormity of what he’s done, and then the rest comes out in one flow: ‘Mine eyes dazzle, she died young‘. With this stress pattern ‘dazzle‘ and ‘died‘ are hit hard! What we have here is something visceral, a physical shock to the system. The usual way of delivering this line is very muted by comparison. This is dramatic verse; so, for God’s sake, let’s make it dramatic!

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: initially the rhythm is trochaic, and 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 (either non-beat + beat, or beat + non-beat). 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”!)

If you come across a nine-syllable line, that appears to be missing the final beat, one possible reading is that this line is missing two consecutive syllables within the line (the final syllable then becomes a feminine ending to a pentameter line). 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 Caesar. _ _ Mark him.

Look how he makes | to Cae | sar. _ | _ Mark him.

(Ends on a feminine ending!)

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, or raises a hand.

This could also apply to cases where the final beat appears to be missing – so an alternative interpretation of the line from Julius Caesar could be:

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

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 M| 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 semi-colon (:). However, the semi-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 semi-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)

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, 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 (‘green’) 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].


16 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

  1. “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she died young.”

    Reading this as a broken-backed hexameter is plausible. One could also read it as Iambic Pentameter with an extra syllable after the midline pause. Its possible Shakespeare has done the same thing, but usually his extra syllable came before the midline pause. That said, it’s not like meter was taught to Shakespeare or Webster. There’s no reason to think they were playing from the same rule book. What we do know is that they both intended to write Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter), which is probably why I would be less apt to call this line hexameter. Why make matters more complicated? Most of those playwrights weren’t exactly making it rich. They had to write fast and the niceties of meter probably took a back seat to just getting it done. My bet is that Webster was playing fast and loose with pronunciation:

    Cover’r face || mine eyes dazzle, she died young

    Normally, when saying “cover her”, most of us make “her” disappear. This keeps the line within the blank verse pattern. I like how you emphasized “mine”. After all, nobody else is covering her face. He’s saying her beauty is too much for his eyes. I think it’s also possible for an actor to stress she. Unlike other women in his experience, she died young. In other words, he’s explaining why his eyes dazzle. It’s that she died young and she in particular. If I were the director, at any rate, that’s how I would argue the line.


    1. One thing I would agree with you on is that it is perfectly legitimate metrically to accent ‘she’ as well as ‘mine’. Personally, I find my reading more satisfying, both aesthetically and dramatically, and it is also the reading that highlights the alliteration of ‘dazzle’ and ‘died’. But thank you for sharing this alternative possibility!

      To be honest, I am a little confused by your other comments. ‘An extra syllable after the midline pause’; do you mean the word ‘Mine’, unstressed, could be interpreted as a mid-line feminine ending? Forgive me, but that doesn’t make any sense to me at all! This reading in no way sounds metrical.

      As for gliding together ‘cover’ and ‘her’, to form two syllables: I agree that these kinds of elisions were used, but in this instance, that would not make the line metrical! It would reduce the syllable count to ten, but it does not make the line fit the meter. If the the opening four syllables are ‘Cover’r face. Mine’, and the stresses fall on ‘Cov’, ‘face’ and ‘Mine’, then you have a 2nd epitrite pattern, without the grammatical structure to support it.

      It is possible that I have just completely misunderstood your points; if so, please feel free to clarify them for me! Maybe use foot divisions and indications of stress, so I can see exactly what you’re trying to say.


      1. //‘An extra syllable after the midline pause’; do you mean the word ‘Mine’, unstressed, could be interpreted as a mid-line feminine ending? //

        No. An extra syllable before the midline pause is often referred to as an epic, lyric or feminine caesura. Shows up fairly frequently in Shakespeare’s practice and, according to George Wright, is descended, as he puts it, from a time when IA lines were more consciously “stitched together” half lines. One wouldn’t refer to these as broken-backed hexameters. Well, one could but in my view it unnecessarily complicates matters. My own practice is to go with the assumption that Shakespeare & Co. were writing blank verse and that variant feet were standard practice.

        //I agree that these kinds of elisions were used, but in this instance, that would not make the line metrical!//

        Why not?

        “Cover’r·|·face; mine|·eyes daz·|·zle:·she············|·died·young.”
        Trochee·|·spondee··|·Iamb······|·Iamb or pyrrhic···|·Iamb

        That’s a perfectly acceptable Iambic Pentameter line (if by Sidney and Donne’s standards rather than Jonson’s). It’s basically just a Trochee-Spondee pattern in the first two feet, less common but not unheard of. Here is ostensibly the same pattern from Sidney:

        Stella’s··|·fair hair,···|·her·face·|·he·makes·|·his·shield

        You can argue that there’s no there’s no midline pause interrupting Sidney’s line, but I doubt such niceties would have slowed Webster down. He was following the spirit of the law — of blank verse; and might have considered his line no different than Sidney’s.

        //then you have a 2nd epitrite pattern//

        Yes, I suppose you would if this were classical Greek or Latin poetry, but it’s not.

        But none of this is to say you’re wrong. It’s nice to you in the same business–nice not to be alone in this. And readers will benefit from more than one viewpoint. I’ll try to send readers your way. 🙂


      2. Thank you for your reply! I’m not sure if you’ve read my first two posts?

        As you quite rightly say, Shakespeare used the epic caesura fairly frequently, but I was confused by your comparing this practice to the notion of Webster adding an extra syllable after the break. As I know you know, an extra unstressed syllable before a beat might be added anywhere to form an anapest (di-di-DUM): an irregular variant foot. But if you’re suggesting that an anapest might be formed by the syllables ‘Mine eyes DAZZ | le’, I find this highly implausible! Normally, the unstressed syllables in an anapest are small connecting words: it does not seem likely to me that one would find a noun, such as ‘eyes’, as an unstressed syllable within an anapest. What is more, such a reading completely destroys the beautiful assonance created by ‘Mine eyes’ and ‘died’.

        The fact that I use Greek terminology to label the figures created by the combinations of individual feet, is not important: if you wish to substitute or invent some modern English names for these metrical patterns, I have absolutely no objection! The important point is that individual feet often have a tendency to combine with each other to form recognisable metrical patterns – and for my own part, I find it very useful to identify and label these metrical patterns.

        The reason I don’t find the reading you suggest metrically acceptable (COVer’r | FACE; MINE…) is something I’ve gone into in my second post (on ‘Radical variations’). The 2nd epitrite (or, if you prefer, the trochee-spondee) and the minor ionic (or pyrrhic-spondee, if you prefer; though in fact, for reasons I mention in my previous post, one should perhaps describe this pattern as a 4-syllable foot, rather than a combination of individual feet) are both lopsided figures; if the last syllable of the figure is also the first syllable of the next phrase, the result is exceptionally clumsy and confusing (more than just a ‘nicety’!). In this instance, the confusion is exacerbated even further by the elision (‘Cover’r’). Frankly, I find this reading horrible!

        Am I right in thinking that your understanding of meter developed primarily from reading George T Wright’s ‘Shakespeare’s Metrical Art’? I read this book too (after seeing it recommended by you on your blog page!), but, impressive though the book is, I still did not feel that the way I was scanning Shakespeare’s verse was satisfactory – which is why I delved further and came across ‘The Strict Metrical Tradition’ by David Keppel-Jones. It was only after reading his book that I felt I truly understood meter, and felt confident in my reading of Shakespeare’s verse. The technical detail he goes into is beautiful: whether or not you agree with everything he says, I think you would find it an interesting read!

        Honest disagreement and debate is very healthy, so thank you for your interest! And thank you for saying you will recommend my page to your readers!!😃


  2. //But if you’re suggesting that an anapest might be formed by the syllables ‘Mine eyes DAZZ | le’//

    I don’t think I did?

    //I find it very useful to identify and label these metrical patterns.//

    Try it. If readers/students respond positively, then why not?

    //…if the last syllable of the figure [foot?] is also the first syllable of the next phrase, the result is exceptionally clumsy and confusing…//

    I can open almost any page of Shakespeare and find that “the last syllable of the figure is also the first syllable of the next phrase”. Meter is simply a rhythm — just a way to regularize stress patterns (in English).

    //Am I right in thinking that your understanding of meter developed primarily from reading George T Wright’s ‘Shakespeare’s Metrical Art’?//

    Yes and no. I learned to write blank verse by reading him, but my understanding of meter (the way I explain it to others) is based primarily on my experience writing it. When I write meter I don’t think about or care where the foot fools in relation to the phrase. I’m primarily counting feet (subconsciously at this point); then deciding how and whether to vary them. As to Keppel-Jones’s book, I read him years ago (when the book was unaffordable) and my eyes glazed over. However, since I can’t responsibly discuss the book without owning it, I just ordered it five minutes ago. Got a used library copy for a song and dance.


    1. Hi Patrick!

      1. If you’re not suggesting that ‘Mine eyes DAZZ | le’ might form an anapest, then I am still really confused about what you mean by ‘an extra syllable after the midline break’!

      2. I’m not sure if you fully understood my comment. Also, have you read my previous post?

      ‘I can open almost any passage of Shakespeare and find that “the last syllable of the figure is also the first syllable of the next phrase”‘.

      My comment was only in reference to two specific figures, which both have unique qualities: the minor ionic (di-di-DUM-DUM) and the 2nd epitrite (DUM-di-DUM-DUM). With these two figures, and also with the choriamb (DUM-di-di-DUM), it does not make sense to only identify the individual feet in isolation.

      In the case of the choriamb, the beat syllable is pulled back one space, necessitating a break before the commencement of the figure, and creating a swing from one post to the next (from the opening displaced beat to the beat syllable of the adjoining iamb) – and a full accented beat at the end of the figure is required, to compensate for the displaced beat. Very occasionally one comes across a choriamb that has a break or phrasal juncture in the middle, and in these cases one can hear the trochee followed by an iamb, distinct from one another; the rest of the time, one really does not hear two individual feet.

      The minor ionic is created when a beat syllable is pushed forward one space (di-di-DUM-DUM, as opposed to di-DUM-di-DUM). In this instance, one cannot even say that this figure is composed of a pyrrhic followed by a spondee (and some people call this figure a ‘double iamb’). Any foot contains one beat syllable: the first syllable in the case of the trochee, the second syllable in the case of the iamb, spondee and pyrrhic. In the case of the minor ionic, the first two syllables contain no beat, and the second two syllables are both beats! This is unique! Just as the choriamb requires the assistance of a break to be clearly defined, this lopsided figure requires the assistance of a grammatical structure to be clearly defined.

      Finally, the 2nd epitrite (DUM-di-DUM-DUM), is also unique! It uniquely combines a displaced beat (the trochee) with a stressed non-beat syllable (the spondee). This is why, unlike every other 4-syllable metrical figure, the 2nd epitrite differs in its stress pattern from two consecutive iambs in three out of the four syllables. Compare:


      This figure requires both the assistance of a break and the assistance of a grammatical structure to be clearly defined! (And being the least flexible figure, it is not surprising that it is also the least frequently used).

      I have no doubt you will disagree with me! All I can say is that I instinctively knew that something didn’t seem right about my scansion before I read Keppel-Jones’ book – this is not a case of my reading a book, and then blindly applying it’s advice, regardless of my own sense of rhythm. If we’re just hearing it differently, fair enough!


    2. It’s interesting, as well, that Keppel-Jones’ metrical theory is actually a half-way house between Wright’s and that of other writers I have read.

      If you take the minor ionic (di-di-DUM-DUM): the existence of this metrical pattern is either denied altogether (Stephen Fry), referred to as being extremely rare (Mary Oliver), or explained as being an increase in stress on each successive syllable (Timothy Steele). And the trochee-spondee (or 2nd epitrite as I refer to it) doesn’t appear to be credited by any of them!

      Keppel-Jones is unique, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, in stating on the one hand, that, yes, these metrical patterns do exist; and on the other hand, that (like the trochee-iamb, or ‘choriamb’ as I refer to it) these metrical patterns have certain requirements, and cannot just be applied arbitrarily. Perhaps a lonely position to take!


      1. //It’s interesting, as well, that Keppel-Jones’ metrical theory is actually a half-way house between Wright’s and that of other writers I have read. //

        I haven’t received the book yet. I’ll probably end up reviewing it for the blog. The editorial review (not yours) at Amazon states that unlike other metrists he doesn’t re-invent the wheel (which is usually a sure sign that he’s re-inventing the wheel).

        Mainly, what I’m going to be looking for is any sense that Keppel-Jones’s observations are in any way reflective of the poets’ intentions. If not, and I’m already sceptical, then its really just gilding the lilly. You can say, for example, that certain metrical features appear in certain contexts but is that simply due to the language? Is he constructing pour-quoi fables to explain otherwise normal occurrences within the language? The test will be to see if these features also occur in prose. If so, then the whole sand-castle goes out with the tide.

        My own preference is to keep things as simple as possible — Occam’s razor applied to scansion. When metrists start string together multiple feet then, I’m experience, we enter the world of metrists, not of poets. Stay tuned. 🙂


    1. My response, for the most part, can only be to repeat things I’ve already said:

      – I, personally, have a deeper appreciation for the texture and musicality of metrical verse as a result of reading Keppel-Jones’ book – so, on that basis, I am confident that his observations do, for the most part, ‘reflect the poets’ intentions’. Whether his book, on its own, will convince you of that, I don’t know: for the purposes of his book, he stays very technical and specific – he does not, as Wright does, analyse the expressive effect of long passages of verse.

      – For scansion to be as useful as possible, it certainly shouldn’t be unnecessarily complex; however, I see no gain in ignoring the fact that individual feet have a natural tendency to combine with each other to form recognisable metrical patterns. I have found the ability to immediately recognise these patterns, and to recognise where they are repeated, or contrast with other patterns, and to read the scansion of a passage of verse almost like a piece of music, delightful! (And of course the meter interacts with every other aspect of the verse). And, as I have spelt out, with metrical patterns that contain a displaced beat, it does not make sense, even on a basic technical level, to only look at the individual feet in isolation. This is why there is so much confusion over a pattern such as the minor ionic, and why even such such an experienced and informed a poet and academic as Timothy Steele fails to recognise that this pattern even contains a displaced beat, and feels obliged to come up with a very peculiar way of accounting for, and pronouncing, a line that contains this pattern.

      Yes, everything should be kept as simple as possible – but no simpler!!!


  3. // I, personally, have a deeper appreciation…. so, on that basis, I am confident that his observations do, for the most part, ‘reflect the poets’ intentions’.//

    Uh oh. That’s not a valid basis. That’s like saying that because you, personally, like a particular interpretation, it therefore must be what the poet intended (as if you or Keppel-Jones’s aesthetic opinions are valid indicators of the poet’s preferences). But the two have nothing to do with each other. What I expect to find is that Keppel-Jones’s book doesn’t add to what we reliably know.

    You say you found Wright’s analysis lacking. How?

    // these metrical patterns have certain requirements…//

    Can’t wait to read about it. Really don’t remember much from the first reading.

    //It was only after reading his book that I felt I truly understood meter…//

    But what’s to understand? Other people say that but I’ve never really understood the assertion. Meter isn’t like some masonic secret. Just count the syllables and accents.


  4. Well, I don’t suppose any of us know for certain what a “poet’s intentions” were – unless we’re mind readers, or have heard it straight from the poet! How do you know George T Wright’s analysis of meter reflects “the poet’s intentions”?

    To a very large extent this is not a matter of ‘aesthetic opinion’, but of technical understanding, and a practised ear for picking up metrical rhythm: anyone who previously understood nothing of meter will understand and appreciate metrical verse much more after reading and digesting Wright’s book; and I understood and appreciated metrical verse even more still, after reading Keppel-Jones’ book! But for now, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree!

    It’s interesting that you say ‘Other people say that…’. Does that mean you have spoken to other people who have read this book who have expressed a similar experience to me?


  5. //Well, I don’t suppose any of us know for certain what a “poet’s intentions” were…//

    Both Sidney and Samuel Daniel tell us that English differs from quantitative verses in that it strictly counts accents. Daniel writes that “[English] most religiously respects the accent”. And if I’m reading him correctly, he refers to feet as “measure”. Sidney uses the word “strictly”, I think (instead of religiously). We know that Elizabethan poets counted accents, five to a line when writing IP. The rest is speculation and, as Daniel himself writes, varies according to the author.

    //How do you know George T Wright’s analysis of meter reflects “the poet’s intentions”?//

    I don’t. But by what I can tell he’s the least speculative. There are some trivial spats (among critics of Wright) over whether a line should be scanned as having an epic caesura or an anapest, but that’s simply a matter of preference. I mean, who cares? Scanning a poem is only useful insofar as it promotes or demotes a word. The rest has nothing to do with the poetry really.

    //‘Other people say that…’. Does that mean you have spoken to other people who have read this book who have expressed a similar experience to me?//

    No, but I’ve often heard the complaint from X,Y or Z that they don’t “truly” understand meter. That mystifies me. Meter is nothing more than keeping X number of accents in X number of lines. And if you’re poet, like me, then one studies how different poets vary this regularity. As I wrote earlier, I’ll be interested to see what kind of response you get to your various epitrites and ionics.


    1. ‘Meter is nothing more than keeping X number of accents in X number of lines’. This is obviously an inadequate definition of iambic pentameter by itself.

      Firstly, I assume you mean ‘beats’ rather than ‘accents’: a non-beat syllable can be stressed, and a beat syllable can be unstressed.

      Secondly, the beat syllables cannot be placed just anywhere.

      A simple (though incomplete) definition of iambic pentameter is that it is…

      1. …a meter composed of lines of five beats in which the beats land on every other syllable, and that…

      2. …a beat can be either pulled back one syllable or pushed forward one syllable under certain conditions.

      I actually don’t think there should be anything surprising in the idea that there should be certain conditions to ensure that displaced beats are clearly defined as being displaced beats! I certainly don’t see anything mysterious or ‘masonic’ about it!!

      Firstly, a beat that is pulled back one syllable (the trochee) needs to follow a break if it is to be clearly defined, otherwise it sounds like the second syllable of a displaced spondee (see my second post. And I don’t think this principle was fully appreciated by Wright). And the following beat needs to be fully accented to compensate for the displaced beat, and reassert the iambic rhythm (the trochee-iamb or choriamb. This principle was recognised by Wright, but isn’t by everyone).

      Secondly, a beat syllable that is pushed forward one space ( – – x x, as opposed to: – x – x) needs to be supported by a phrasal structure. If the beat immediately following the displaced beat is also the first syllable of the next phrase, it creates a fractured effect in which the displaced beat is not clearly defined: instead, it will sound like an anapest followed by a series of trochees!

      And the trochee-spondee (or 2nd epitrite) contains both a displaced beat and a stressed non-beat, creating plenty of potential for confusion! The first three syllables appear to be commencing a trochaic rhythm (DUM-di-DUM…), until we are abruptly met by an unexpected beat (DUM-di-DUM…DUM!?). This figure requires BOTH a break AND the support of a phrasal structure if the beats are to be clearly defined!

      To my ear, your scansion of Webster’s line really jars; but if it doesn’t to yours, fair enough! Keppel-Jones goes into more fine detail than I have time to here, but whether he will convince you or not, I don’t know!

      I suspect the other writers I have mentioned would be just as resistant to the idea that the minor ionic and trochee-spondee are perfectly legitimate, commonly found metrical patterns, as you are to the idea that these patterns require the support of a phrasal structure!

      And isn’t it interesting that the same stress pattern – di-di-DUM-DUM – has a very different effect if the two light syllables are an appended pyrrhic (see my second post)? I no longer hear a displaced beat, but a pyrrhic followed by a spondee (i.e. the beat lands on the second syllable of successive feet). Keppel-Jones actually doesn’t see this combination the same way I do: he describes it as an irregular and slightly awkward form of the minor ionic. And I completely disagree with him on this one: I find nothing awkward about it. Whether you hear it the same way I do, I don’t know: ultimately, after reading and discussing and practising as much as possible, all any of us can do is rely on our own ear for the sense of rhythm!

      As for the simple figures (combinations of feet that do not contain a displaced beat), while it is not essential to identify combinations of simple feet, it is useful. I would not, for instance, have picked up on the choriamb-paeon pattern (see my second post) had I stuck to only identifying individual feet. As I said, individual feet have a natural tendency to combine with each other; why ignore that in our scansion?

      P.S. I am not saying that any of these ‘rules’ are set in stone: one can find exceptions, for various reasons, or for the sake of various effects. When I say in my posts that something is ‘always’ the case, I am simplifying: I believe that if I went into ALL the nuances and exceptions, I would end up confusing my readers!


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