In my last post, I explored end-line & mid-line feminine endings, and simple variations formed by adjusting the stress of single syllables.
Here is a table of the metrical feet and figures I listed:-
Pyrrhic: di-di (created by destressing the beat syllable)
Spondee: dum-dum (created by stressing the non-beat syllable)
[incidentally, these are approximations: in practice, many pyrrhics have a slightly stronger stress on the 2nd syllable; and in many spondees within the 1st epitrite pattern (see below) the 1st syllable has a slightly weaker stress relative to the beat syllables either side of it. In fact, any degree of relative stress is possible, which is why some people will mark semi-stresses; my own personal notational system (which, unfortunately, I’m not sure how to imitate on a keyboard) allows for five different levels of stress! For more details, see the bottom of this post.]
4th paeon (pyrrhic-iamb combi):-
1st epitrite (iamb-spondee combi):-
3rd epitrite (spondee-iamb combi):-
We also saw that the spondee doesn’t always join with another foot (the isolated spondee); and that spondees can be laid next to each other (‘Rich gifts wax poor…’).
As I said, simple variations are formed by adjusting the stress level of single syllables. Radical variations are formed by swapping the stress level of two adjacent syllables. Such a swap creates a displaced beat. Please don’t worry if this sounds complex and abstract: we will explore this step by step! To help provide visual clarity, I shall indicate radical variations with red type (and as before, both mid-line & end-line feminine endings will be indicated in pink type).
First let’s look at what happens when we swap the syllables of an iamb. Instead of di-dum, we get dum-di:-
dum-di (inverted iamb)
This inverted iamb is called a trochee (rhymes with throw key). In an iamb the second syllable is the beat syllable; in a trochee the beat is shifted to the first syllable. In the following examples the trochee is placed at the beginning of the line (the most common placement for a trochee):-
Love is a spirit all compact of fire
Love is | a spi | rit all | compact | of fire
Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another
Look in | thy glass | and tell | the face | thou viewest
Now is | the time | that face | should form | another
And in this line there is both an opening trochee and a trochee after the break:-
Spur them to ruthful work, rein them from ruth
Spur them | to ruth | ful work, | rein them | from ruth
A trochee is nearly always placed either at the opening of the line, or after a break, otherwise the displaced beat is not clearly defined. However medial (or midline) trochees are not always placed after a punctuation mark – it can simply be a phrasal juncture:-
But let the famished flesh slide from the bone
But let | the fam | ished flesh | slide from | the bone
Say the line out loud, and you will probably automatically pause slightly after ‘flesh’.
In contrast to the pyrrhic (which produces a narrowing and speeding up of the forward flow of the line), or the spondee (which creates a widening and slowing down of the forward flow), the movement of the trochee is a drawing in, and a release (imagine the waterflow in a pipe being suddenly sucked backwards, creating a contained energy, which is then instantly released!).
When a trochee combines with an iamb (as in all the above examples) it forms a metrical figure called a choriamb: dum-di-di-dum! (dum-di + di-dum). The choriamb is a swing from one post to the next: the beat is drawn in and released, and swings to it’s final destination at the end of the figure: dum-di-di-dum! Try speaking the above lines out loud, and see if you experience the swinging movement between the two beats.
The mistake that’s most often made by actors when delivering a line that contains a choriamb is a tendency to linger too long on the first syllable: in practice there often is a slight suspension on the first syllable – but if it’s more than slight, it breaks off the rhythmical swing between the two beats. Instead of a cohesive rhythmical figure, we get an irregular monosyllabic foot (dum), followed by an irregular 3-syllable foot (di-di-dum. This is known as an anapest: there are examples of verse written in an anapestic meter, but within iambic verse the anapest is an irregularity – one used very rarely by Shakespeare). To deliver a line in this way is to ignore the metrical rhythm.
Let’s look again at the last quote I provided, because this is a particularly interesting example:-
But let the famished flesh slide from the bone
Most actors will probably linger on the word ‘sli-i-ide’, using the word to mimic the sliding motion (sli-i-ide from the bone; dummm, di-di-dum).However, the meter demands that the actor instead uses the sliding motion of the choriamb – the swing from one post to the next. By doing so, they not only preserve the forward momentum of the metrical rhythm, but the emphasis on the final word ‘bone’ will ring out just that little more sharply, setting it up for the alliteration in the next line: ‘Ere thou relieve the BEGGar‘. This is one illustration of how losing the rhythm can end up diluting the muscularity of shakespeare’s verse.
A less frequent mistake made with the choriamb is a failure to give the last syllable of the figure a full stress. In this example I will indicate a semi-stress with italics:-
Guilty thou art of murder and of theft
A metrical reading demands a full emphasis on ‘art‘:-
Guilty thou art of murder and of theft
The downward swing of the trochee needs to be met by the full upward swing of the iamb!
There is another metrical pattern I would like to mention: the choriamb followed by a 4th paeon (dum-di-di-dum-di-di-di-dum!), a common combination which lends great lift and energy to the line. For instance:-
Now is the winter of our discontent
Now is | the win | ter of | our dis | content
Or to make the combination of figures clearer:-
Now is the win | ter of our dis | content
– which launches us straight into Richard III!
Here’s some more examples from his Sonnets (I shall only mark the foot divisions after the choriamb and after the 4th paeon, so you can more readily see the combination of the two figures):-
Lo in the Orient when the gracious light
Lo in the Or | ient when the gra | cious light
(Orient is counted as two syllables)
Look what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Look what an un | thrift in the world | doth spend
Come in the rearward of a conquered woe
Come in the rear | ward of a con | quered woe
And here’s Hamlet expounding on his opening “question”:-
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
Whether ’tis no | bler in the mind | to suffer
So that’s the choriamb!
The Minor Ionic
The other way that two syllables can be swapped is by pushing a beat syllable forward. Instead of:-
This time the beat syllable, instead of being pulled back a space, is pushed forward a space! In the table below I have used (x) to indicate beat syllables, and (–) to indicate non-beat syllables:-
Two iambs – x – x
Choriamb x – – x
Minor Ionic – – x x
You can see how the first beat syllable is pulled back a space in the choriamb, but pushed forward a space in the minor ionic (whereas a choriamb is formed by swapping the stress levels of the 1st and 2nd syllables, the minor ionic is formed by swapping the stress levels of the 2nd and 3rd syllables. The end result is an indivisible 4-syllable unit. This figure is sometimes referred to as a ‘double iamb’, and in fact, it does have the features of an enlarged iamb! Instead of a non-beat followed by a beat, we have two non-beats followed by two beats!).
The minor ionic pattern came into use to accommodate a specific type of grammatical pattern (and, in fact, because the minor ionic is a lopsided figure, it actually needs the support of a grammatical structure if it is not to disrupt the metrical rhythm). Most typically, the final beat syllables will accommodate a monosyllabic adjective followed by a noun:-
Affection, puh. You speak like a green girl
Affec | tion, puh. | You speak | like a green girl
That unmatched form and feature of blown youth
That unmatched form | and fea | ture of blown youth
Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath
Nor windy sus | pira | tion of forc’d breath
Can you see the ‘di-di-dum-dum’ at the end of each line? And the last three syllables all follow the same grammatical pattern: a small connecting word (a, of, of); a monosyllabic adjective (green, blown, forc’d); and a noun (girl, youth, breath).
Here’s another example which I find particularly expressive in it’s employment of the figure:-
These present-absent with swift motion slide
These present-ab | sent with swift mo | tion slide
In combination with the preceding 3rd epitrite, the displaced beat of the minor ionic effectively conveys the sliding ‘motion’ the words describe.
Not all minor ionics accommodate exactly this same grammatical structure, but they do nearly all accommodate a grammatical structure of some kind. This, for instance, would be a misapplication of the minor ionic:-
With his tinct gilded thee.
The phrasal juncture comes after ‘tinct’:-
With his tinct gilded thee.
So the grammatical structure does not support a minor ionic, and metrically this sounds clumsy. Remember the effect when we linger too long on the opening syllable of a choriamb?: “instead of a cohesive rhythmical figure, we get an irregular monosyllabic foot (dum), followed by an irregular 3-syllable foot (di-di-dum)”. Here the effect is reversed: we have an irregular 3-syllable foot (di-di-dum), followed by a series of trochees (dum-di…).
The correct reading is to place the emphasis on ‘his‘ (to contrast with ‘thee‘):-
With his tinct gilded thee.
This reading also makes good sense in the context of the passage (it is from Anthony and Cleopatra).
In addition, it is irregular for the 2nd & 3rd syllables of the minor ionic to belong to the same word. So, for instance, in this line from Richard III:
The supreme seat, the throne majestical,
we can be fairly sure that the accent is meant to be placed on the first syllable of ‘supreme’ (‘The supreme seat…’, instead of ‘The supreme seat…’). This is known as ‘recession of accent’.
I will give one more example of a minor ionic (in this case, preceded by a choriamb, creating another very striking combination of figures) to illustrate that they don’t always end on a noun; they can, for instance, end on a second adjective before a noun:-
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
When to the sess | ions of sweet si | lent thought
Some fine detail, for those who are interested! This is an example of a deferred closure: the last syllable of the figure does not act as a resting point; instead, the momentum carries through to the next beat syllable. Any figure may have a deferred closure, and in fact, we’ve already come across a choriamb with a deferred closure:-
Spur them to ruth | ful work…
and a 3rd epitrite with a deferred closure:-
Nor windy sus | pira | tion…
(Also, see the last entry in the Glossary, on “Deferred closures & trailing syllables”)
There is another metrical pattern that looks like a minor ionic, but actually isn’t! This is the appended pyrrhic followed by a spondee:-
Uncertainties now crown themselves assured
Uncer | tainties | now crown | themselves | assured
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
And beau | ty ma | king beau | tiful | old rhyme
Like as, to make our appetites more keen
Like as, | to make | our app | etites | more keen
Ay, do! Persever: counterfeit sad looks
Ay, do! | Persev | er: coun | terfeit | sad looks
The last syllable of an appended pyrrhic has a stronger connection backwards than it does forwards, because it belongs to the same word as the previous beat syllable (beautiful, uncertainties, appetites, counterfeit). As a result, in these examples, there is no displaced beat: the two light syllables do not run into the two heavy syllables in the way that they do in the minor ionic, so the second syllable of the appended pyrrhic is still heard as a beat syllable, as is the second syllable of the following spondee. Here is the beat placement of a line with a minor ionic (with beats underlined):
Affec | tion, puh. | You speak | like a green girl
And here is the beat placement of a line with an appended pyrrhic followed by a spondee:
Like as, | to make | our app | etites | more keen
Whereas the minor ionic is an indivisible 4-syllable unit (it cannot be broken down into individual feet), the appended pyrrhic followed by a spondee is just that: one foot followed by another foot. I would compare this metrical configuration to the dispondee (two spondees laid next to each other: ‘Rich gifts wax poor…’): like the dispondee, this pattern provides the effect of two blocks being laid next to each other; but unlike the dispondee these are contrasting blocks – one light, one heavy. It’s an aesthetically appealing pattern, and one which you will find most frequently in Shakespeare’s poetic verse (the sonnets and his two narrative poems).
The last thing I would like to mention about the minor ionic is that a 6-syllable figure is formed if it follows a spondee: dum-dum-di-di-dum–dum. This is not a figure you will encounter with great frequency – which makes it all the more striking when you do encounter it! It is used to highly expressive effect by Gertrude when she expresses her impatience with Polonius’ blatherings:-
More matter with less art.
The 2nd Epitrite
And, finally, there is yet one more radical figure! This is the strangest one of all because it combines the displaced beat of the trochee with the simple variation of the spondee:-
(dum-di + dum-dum)
This figure is actually a cross between the choriamb and the minor ionic: like the choriamb, the beat syllables are the first and last syllables, and it can only be placed at the beginning of the line, or after a line break or phrasal juncture; but like the minor ionic, it also needs the support of a grammatical structure, due to it’s lopsided nature. Being the least flexible figure, it is also the least frequently used.
This figure is called the 2nd epitrite (an epitrite because it contains three stresses, a 2nd epitrite because the 2nd syllable is unstressed). The 2nd epitrite came into use to accommodate an even more specific pattern of syntax than the minor ionic. This is typically:-
Verb / small connecting word / monosyllabic adjective/ noun
Claps her pale cheek, till clapping makes it red
Shows his hot courage, and his high desire
Mark the poor wretch to over-shut his troubles
Can you see the dum-di-dum-dum at the beginning of each line, and the same grammatical pattern being repeated? The 2nd epitrite is placed at the opening of the line the vast majority of the time, and usually accommodates this very specific pattern of syntax; once you are familiar with it, you will have a little shock of recognition every time you see it.
Here’s an example of a medial (mid-line) 2nd epitrite:-
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
From an | cient grudge | break to new mu | tiny
And here’s an example with a slightly different pattern of syntax (though one that supports the figure just as readily):-
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
Thou that art now | the world’s fresh orn | ament
And there is also a simpler version of this figure: this is where the first two syllables belong to the same word. In this version you can hear the two feet distinct from one another: a trochee followed by a spondee (occasionally, the same effect is created when there is a break after the 2nd syllable). Here is a very rare example of two consecutive 2nd epitrites (or at least, this is my reading!):-
Clarence still breathes, Edward still lives and reigns
Clarence still breathes, | Edward still lives | and reigns
(I have chosen only to mark the trochaic feet in red for these simple 2nd epitrites, in order to distinguish them from other 2nd epitrites)
Can you see the separations in this line?
Clarence / still breathes, Edward still / lives and reigns
If we do choose to follow the separations, it becomes impossible to stress mark the line any other way (otherwise they could, in principle, be choriambs), and it produces a pattern of repetition with difference [note: I am using underlines to indicate particular emphasis on a short, abrupt word; and bold italics to indicate particular emphasis on a drawn out word]:-
Clarence…still breathes, Edward still…lives and reigns
The same metrical pattern is repeated twice in succession – but the separation in the second 2nd epitrite comes later, and this late separation heightens the forward momentum from the following stress into the final iamb: ‘…and reigns‘. So while the second 2nd epitrite repeats the first, it also extends it: it produces a striking accumulative effect, whereby the second phrase builds on the first.
So, to recap, here are the radical variants I have covered in this post:-
Choriamb (trochee-iamb combi):- dum-di-di-dum
Minor ionic:- di-di-dum-dum
2nd epitrite (trochee-spondee combi):- dum-di-dum-dum
spondee + minor ionic:- dum-dum-di-di-dum-dum
[There are two more 6-syllable figures which I have not mentioned (one simple, one radical). I describe these separately in the glossary – in the entry on “6-syllable figures“]
So far, I have covered the most common basic patterns you need to familiarise yourself with in order to spot the metrical patterning of most passages of verse (and for a simple and concise summary of the most important technical principles I’ve covered so far, you can read one of my answers on Quora: What-is-a-good-way-to-check-iambic-pentameter).
If you come across a line you are unable to scan (read the meter of), or if you want to try scanning a piece of verse, and then run it by me (by Shakespeare, or any other poet!), please feel free to post a comment, and I will respond when I have time. Often it will be a matter of getting the syllable count right: Shakespeare expanded and contracted words to fit the meter, and you will need to familiarise yourself with the principles he used for doing so (for instance, pronouncing the ‘-ed’ at the end of a word, or contracting words with a medial ‘v’ – ‘heaven‘, for instance, was often contracted to one syllable: ‘heav’n‘). He would even glide two words together to be pronounced as one syllable (e.g. ‘I_had’, ‘she_was’, ‘thou_art’, ‘who_would’), or he would have the last unaccented syllable of a word glide into the next (e.g. ‘merry_as’, ‘carry_it); this sometimes served a dramatic purpose (it could, for instance, give the impression of urgency), and Shakespeare did this much more freely, and much more boldly, in his later works, which is why it is wrongly believed that his meter became more irregular. Contrary to what many people will tell you, Shakespeare hardly ever broke the meter – though he found any number of ways to play with it.
For practising scansion, I would recommend starting with a sonnet: they have none of the variations that might seriously confuse a beginner (e.g. epic caesuras, missing syllables), and they contain much less syllabic ambiguity (it’s easier to count the syllables!).
Update: I love this tumblr page:
These are pop songs rewritten as Shakespearean sonnets! They’re written by a man called Erik Didriksen, and having read some of his sonnets, it’s obvious to me he understands meter – so if you find a genuine Shakespeare sonnet too heavy going, feel free to use one of these for scansion practice! (His sonnets have also been compiled in a book, Pop Sonnets).
One final tip: if you’re having trouble making a line fit the meter, start from the end and work backwards!
Again, any feedback would be very welcome! I would love to know that everything I’ve covered has been clear and easy to follow – or if not, how these posts might be improved!
Here is a link to my glossary, covering some of the terms used in this post, the previous post and my analysis of Sonnet 1.
In my next post I explore some less frequently used (but very interesting) variations, and also explain how to deliver certain lines that might not appear to be metrical at first sight. I also touch on the interplay between iambic and trochaic rhythms within iambic verse – which is one of the things that is key to understanding the texture of Shakespeare’s verse. Here it is: 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
Postscript on notation
For those who are interested, I will summarise the standard method of marking stress patterns, and introduce some elements of my own personal notational system (I add even more fine detail in my review of ‘The Strict Metrical Tradition‘ in Resources & further reading).
The standard symbol for a stressed syllable is: /
The standard symbol for an unstressed syllable is: U
The standard symbol for a semi-stress is: \
Some of the differences in my own personal notational system are as follows:
- For the 4th paeon I draw an arrow over the three light syllables: —> / . I find this conveys far more effectively the swift forward movement, and how the run of light syllables provide emphasis to the final stressed syllable.
- If there is a slight stress on the 2nd syllable of a 4th paeon (less than a semi-stress), I will draw a semi-circle on top of the arrow above that syllable (if it’s a semi-stress, I draw a full circle over the arrow above that syllable).
- I use red pencil for marking radical variations.
- For the minor ionic I draw an arrow over the two light syllables: –> / /
- Because the appended pyrrhic is a very distinct type of pyrrhic, I mark it differently. I personally mark it, quite simply, with a dot over each syllable.
- If it’s an appended pyrrhic followed by an iamb without a break, I will still mark it the same way as any other 4th paeon, but will add a vertical line to mark off the appended pyrrhic: –|-> / . I will also place the dots over the arrow above each syllable of the appended pyrrhic.
- If the first syllable of a spondee has a slightly lighter stress than the second syllable (something between a semi-stress and a full stress), I mark a dot either side of the stress mark. So for instance, if I come across a 1st epitrite (U / / /), and the syllable I’ve marked in green is slightly weaker than the beats either side of it, I put a dot either side of that stress mark (so it looks like a tilted division symbol). If it’s a semi-stress, I simply mark the semi-stress: U / \ /
- For the choriamb, I draw a line between the two stresses, to indicate the swing from one post to the next: / — /
- I mark feminine endings and epic caesuras with a closed bracket:-
To be or not to be that is the question)
Wake Dun can with thy knocking,) I would’st thou could’st
Note that, with this notation, you can mark five different gradations of stress, while still maintaining visual simplicity (I have found five gradations to be the optimum number: you don’t need more than five, but anything less isn’t quite adequate).
I also do not mark individual iambs: I only mark metrical variations. However, initially, when practicing scansion, you may well feel the need to start by segmenting the line into individual feet; with practice, you will no longer need to do so.
It can also be very useful to uncover patterns in the placement of phrasal junctures. This is my suggestion of how to do so:-
- Mark enjambed lines (lines which end in the middle of a phrase) with a downward pointing arrow at the end of the line.
- Mark phrasal junctures within the line with a vertical line in blue pencil. This serves to highlight the interaction between the meter and the phrasal units. Mark weak phrasal junctures with a dotted vertical line.
- Then number the junctures (for instance, if there is a phrasal juncture after the 4th syllable of a line, I write the number ‘4‘ in the left hand margin at the beginning of the line; if there is more than one phrasal juncture in the same line, I write both numbers – so for instance, if there is also a juncture after the 7th syllable, I write ‘4 / 7‘. To indicate a weak phrasal juncture, I place brackets around the corresponding number, e.g. (4) to indicate a weak juncture after the 4th syllable). This serves to highlight patterns in the placement of phrasal junctures. (Once you are practised at recognising phrasal junctures, you can simply number them, without bothering to mark them off).
Look out for early and late junctures, and look out for masculine or lyric caesuras (masculine caesura = a juncture after an even syllable; lyric caesura = a juncture after an odd syllable. ‘Caesura’ is a fancy word for ‘juncture’!). As a lyric caesura lands in the middle of a foot, it creates a play-off, a distinctive interaction, between the meter and the phrasal units.
The strongest rhythmical cohesion in an iambic pentameter line is created by a juncture after the 2nd beat, to split the line into two groups of 2 & 3 beats respectively; and as it is the masculine caesura (a break after an even syllable) that reinforces an iambic rhythm, the most regular lines contain a juncture after the 4th syllable (which is both masculine and splits the line into groups of 2 & 3 beats).
Early Elizabethan poets strongly favour breaks after the 4th syllable; later poets, including Shakespeare, experimented much more freely with the placement of phrasal junctures, creating a meter that is much more flexible and sinuous. One knock-on effect was a much freer employment of enjambment: late breaks often lead to enjambment.