John Frederick Nims on Rhythm
Our very existence, like that of the universe we live in, is a system of rhythms. Biologists know
of more than a dozen human rhythmical cycles, from that of the heart pulsing 100,000 times a day
to that of alpha waves of the brain pulsing almost ten times as fast. Even before we were born,
consciousness may have come to us as an awareness of rhythm-the hammocklike swinging as our
mother walked, the intimate beating of her heart and our own matching hers in double time. This
first sound we hear is the basis of our sense of rhythm. As a writer in Scientific American puts it:
"From the most primitive tribal drumbeats to the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven there is a
startling similarity to the rhythm of the human heart." Long ago people guessed that the heartbeat
might be the source of our speech rhythms as wel1. The Greek physician Galen quotes an earlier
medical writer as saying that the heart's weak-strong diastole and systole, whose sound is described
as lub-DUBB or ka-BOOM, is like the weak-strong iambic foot (as in the word "alive"). By "foot"
we mean one of the units whose repetition will give us a rhythm; the word goes back to primitive
times when the swing of a rhythm might be accentuated by a stamping foot. This particular unit,
a weaker syllable followed by a stronger one (ka -BOOM), has been called "iambic" since the
Greeks identified and named it more than 2,000 years ago.
A basic rhythm in many languages, it may indeed be echoing the most basic of physical rhythms.
The emotional importance we attachto the heart is shown by our taking it as the symbol of love, although it is not the heart but the
hypothalamus at the base of the brain that is the physical source of our emotions. A shepherdess
in Elizabethan poetry can rejoice that
My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange, one for the other given. . . .
There is less demand among lovers for the hypothalamus. Researches have shown that the
heartbeat rhythm, even produced mechanically, has a soothing effect on babies; not only Madonnas
in art but live mothers in the superman prefer to hold their babies so that the child's head is to the
left, close to the beating heart of the mother.
Hunched in the dark beneath his mother's heart,
The fetus sleeps and listens; dropped into light,
He seeks to lean his ear against the breast
Where the known rhythm holds its secret place.
Some have even held that, since the beat of the accents in most poetry is a little faster than the
heartbeat, the rhythm acts as a tonic. In The Emperor Jones, Eugene O'Neill assumes such a
relationship between external rhythms and the pulse rate:
From the distant hills comes the faint, steady thump of a tom-tom, low and vibrating. It starts
at a rate exactly corresponding to normal pulse beat-72 to the minute-and continues at a
gradually accelerating rate from this point uninterruptedly to the very end of the play.
We know that excitement, anticipation, emotion can speed up the heart or cause it to spark
contractions so close together we get the sensation of a skipped beat. Grief and depression can
slow it down. One of Shakespeare's young women says of a false lover, "he grieves my very heart-strings . . . it makes me have a slow heart." We will see that all these effects have their correlation
with the rhythms of poetry.
Walking, too, with our legs and arms swinging in pendulum time, has developed our feeling for
rhythms. Goethe composed many of his poems while walking. So did the young Robert Frost,
swinging as his pendulum the schoolbooks he carried at the end of a strap. The kind of work that
men and women did for countless centuries-sowing, mowing, woodchopping, spinning, rocking
the cradle-encouraged rhythmical expressions. Robert Graves believes that our most vigorousrhythms originated in the ringing of hammers on the anvil and the pulling of oars through the sea.
We feel rhythms also in the world outside, with its alternations of day and night, its revolving
seasons, its pulsing of waves on the shore, and its swaying of trees in the wind. There are times
when rhythm has a stronger hold on us than our most sacred concerns. Through rhythm, an
authority on the dance has said, we reunite ourselves with the ecstasy and terror of a moving
universe. No wonder people have been fascinated by the nature of rhythm. Thomas Jefferson,
while serving as minister to France, even took time out from his diplomatic duties to write about
it in his "Thoughts on English Prosody."
Though rhythm is not easy to define, we could agree that it is a pattern of recurrence: Something
happens with such regularity that we can resonate with it, anticipate its return, and move our body
in time with it.
The Elizabethan George Puttenham said that the effect of rhythm was "to inveigle and
appassionate the mind"-to involve and excite us. A rhythm that we hear can set up sympathetic
reactions-we tap a foot, drum with our fingers, nod in time to it. Rhythm can also affect the way
we feel: Psychiatric research has discovered that rhythmical body movements can lead to altered
states of consciousness. Rhythm is contagious. It is also hypnotic. We find it difficult, by the
ocean, to count to a hundred waves without feeling our mind drift away into a kind of trance. In
taking possession of us, it leaves less of our attention for other concerns. Its trancelike effect
explains its connection with magic; the language used in primitive ceremonies all over the world
is rhythmical. Its affinity with ecstasy (being outside oneself) is well known.
Rhythmical speech has also been thought of as distancing or framing (as in a picture or on a stage)
the material it deals with. Its sustained cadence-not exactly what we are used to in actual speechtells us we are in another world, a make-believe world like that of the theater, in which experience
is presented to us without the obligations it involves in real life.
One of the simplest forms of rhythm, and one of the most emphatic and passionate, is repetition. Among the most emotional paragraphs in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! is the last one, in which Quentin is asked why he hates the South:
"I dont hate it," Quentin said quickly, at once, immediately; "I dont hate it," he said. I dont hate it,
he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I dont I dont; I dont hate it! I dont hate
Whenever poetry begins, it seems to begin with repetition-which is a form of dwelling on something.
The African Bushmen have a song in celebration of the new moon, which is thought to bring rain:
New moon, come out, give water for us,
New moon, thunder down water for us.
New moon, shake down water for us.
Such repetitions are fundamental to poetry, as in a wedding song of the Gabon Pygmies:
Counting, counting your steps,
Today you go away.
With a large heart, with a weary heart,
Go away, go away below!
Counting, counting your steps,
With a large heart, with a weary heart,
Today you go away....
They are no less stirring in the poetry of our own civilization:
COUNTING THE BEATS
You, love, and I,
(He whispers) you and I,
And if no more than only you and I
What care you or I?
Counting the beats, 5
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.
Night, and a cloudless day, 10
Yet the huge storm will burst upon their heads one day
From a bitter sky.
Where shall we be,
(She whispers) where shall we be,
When death strikes home, 0 where then shall we be 15
Who were you and I?
Not there but here,
(He whispers) only here,
As we are, here, together, now and here,
Always you and I. 20
Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.
Probably no poet has made more systematic use of repetition as a rhythmical principle than Walt
1 am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul.
The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell are
The first I graft and increase upon myself .... the latter I
translate into a new tongue.
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man, 5
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
I chant a new chant of dilation or pride,
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough,
I show that size is only development. 10
Have you outstript the rest? Are you the President?
It is a trifle .... they will more than arrive there every one, and
still pass on.
I am he that walks with the tender and growing night;
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.
Press close barebosomed night! Press close magnetic nourishing night! 15
Night of south winds! Night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night! Mad naked summer night! ...
The repetition of words, images, or motifs gives us a kind of rhythm. But what we mean when speaking
of the rhythm of poetry is more often a pattern of sound in the syllables themselves.
If we were writing in a language like ancient Greek, in which the length of syllables was prominent, we could
make a pattern by alternating long and short ones, as if they were quarter notes and eighth notes. If we were
writing in a tonal language like Chinese, we could make a pattern by alternating pitch. But in English, in
which accent is more prominent than length or pitch, we generally make a pattern out of accented and
unaccented syllables. There are several ways in which we can o t is. The one we will consider first is the
commonest in our poetry. Called syllable-stress, it takes into account both the number of syllables in the
pattern and the arrangement of their accents.
Most of us have a practical grasp of what a syllable is, perhaps based on the way dictionaries divide up words: mo-le-cu-lar; syn-co-pat-ed; un-pre-ten-tious. We recognize syllables as the little lumps of sound words can be crumbled into-the vowel nucleus with whatever consonants may attach themselves to either side. There are occasionaloptions. Words like "fire" or "hour" are pronounced sometimes as one syllable, sometimes as two (fi-er, hou-er). Other words have a certain play or give: cu-ri-ous or cur-yus; sen-su-al or sench-wul; fa-vor-ite or fav-rite; murderous or murderous.
Certain syllables are made more prominent than others by being accented-we also say stressed or emphasized. We put noticeably more energy into pronouncing them than we do into syllables that have no accent. Nearly all of us (unless tone-deaf) recognize accents when we hear them: What we imPORT, we call "IMports"; what we reJECT, we call "REjects." Speech has a tendency to alternate accented and unaccented syllables, much as we tend to impose a rhythm on any series of sounds. The language likes to rhythmicize itself. We shift the accent in "reSTORE" to get a better rhythm in "RESTorAtion." Longer words, as Jefferson noticed, move in rhythm: tuberculosis, enthUsiAsticAlly, indUstriAlizAtion.
There are, of course, many degrees of the kind of emphasis we call accent. We need subtle differences to
distinguish, in speaking, between "What's in the road ahead?" and "What's in the road-a head?" Or, to take
two of the most hackneyed examples, between "the greenhouse," the green house," and "the Greene house";
and between "light-housekeeper," "lighthouse keeper," and "light [maybe blond] housekeeper." Linguists
admit four degrees of stress, though no doubt, for anyone sensitive enough to catch them, there are many in
between. But whether there are four or forty, all we need for the rhythms of poetry are two. Does a syllable
have more or less stress, mass, energy than the syllables around it? How much more does not matter. More
or less alone can make waves of sound. Like alternations of tension and relief, like the lub-DUBB of the
heartbeat, like inhaling and exhaling, like Yin and Yang and the antithetical play of existence, rhythm is an
interaction between two principles, two kinds of accent, not among three or more.
The writer who is using accents for his rhythm makes sure that they come in waves, as so much energy does in the physical world. What we feel in accentual rhythm is a regular surge of more and less in the natural flow of the language.
When we go surfing on a rhythm, we take the crests and hollows without particularly analyzing their
dynamics. We ride the lines like this:
CUR TOLLS KNELL PART DAY,
The few the of ing
very much as we would have pronounced the words anyway, even if we had not been riding the rhythm (which
ought to be in the natural pronunciation of the words, and not in any artificial singsong we impose on them).
We may be content to take these waves of rhythm as they come, as one can be happy merely watching the surf
along the shore. But if we really care about waves we have to immobilize the flux (as with a camera) to see
the wave as a surge of rotating particles that themselves move forward hardly at all.
If we could similarly immobilize the waves of the commonest English rhythm (called "iambic"), we would find every unit of trough and crest to be made up of a dip and swell in the accents-of an unstressed
syllable and a stressed one, as in "reJOICE," "to LOVE...... at HOME."
The unit whose repetition makes up any rhythm is called a foot, a term that, as we said, takes us back to the
supposed association of poetry with the dance, when each rhythmic unit was marked by a beat of the dancer's
If we are to isolate any unit of rhythm-particles for our inspection, we need a set of symbols-some would say
signs-to stop the action and show what is happening. The process of applying these symbols is what we call
scansion. Many find it a dreary affair. It seems pedantic and destructive to represent a living line of verse
by anything so lifeless as ~/ ~/ ~/ ~/~/ ~/. This is certainly not the same thing as a line of poetry. Agreed.
But we take for granted the utility of such simplified schemes in many activities. Compared with the color
and drama of a football game, the diagram of a play is also dry andpedantic. Yet it is difficult to imagine a professional quarterback looking at the diagram and snarling, "Who
needs that kind of stuff? I just want to get out there and throw!" Our line of scansion is misleadingly stiff:
It'suggests that all accented syllables are exactly the same and all unaccented ones exactly the same, rigid as
the stone ups and downs along a battlement. In fact they may be quite uneven, like a series of waves on the
lake or the undulations of a hilly horizon or any profile in nature.
Musical notes are sometimes used with poetry to show how the particles of rhythm are related. The first two
lines of George Meredith's "Love in the Valley" might be analyzed as:
@ @ I i i @ @ @ I i i (imagine quarter and half notes!!!)
Under yonder beech-tree single on the greensward
Couched with her arms behind her golden head,
But speech has nothing like so metronomic a regularity. Music is in the world of chronometric time; the
metronome, even though the performer may tease and worry it now and then, sets the standard. But the
rhythm of poetry exists also in the free-flowing world of psychological time, the kind of time in which, as
Romeo says, "Sad hours seem long," or in which happiness, to paraphrase Goethe, can make the day race by
on flashing feathers. Time, in the rhythms of poetry, is subjective-as elastic as Dali's famous watch, drooped
like a pancake over its tree branch. One could pause for a couple of seconds after a word in poetry ("beech-tree," for example, in the first line of Meredith's poem) and not affect the basic rhythm. Musical scansion is
not of much use to us.
A more modern type of scansion, that of structural linguistics, attempts to show four degrees of stress, four
degrees of pitch, and four kinds of connective pauses between words. But a system that turns a simple line
of Yeats into
2 / \ ~ / ' / ~ ' ^ ~ / 3 '
^Speech + after + long silence; it + is + right... (Approximately)
is more complex than we need. Readers do not listen that way; poets do not write that way. When Theodore
Roethke quotes from a nursery rhyme:
Hinx, minx, the old witch winks,
he says he feels it as "five stresses [accents] out of a possible six." He
does not say he feels it as "three primaries, a secondary, and a tertiary...
All that matters is more or less; an easy way to indicate the two
is the traditional one-a firm straight line for the accented syllable and a sagging little curve
for the slack one... We generally get
enough pieces of the pattern from the known words to complete the rest of it for ourselves by filling it in with
matching parts-testing them by means of natural pronunciation to see if they really fit. Once we get into the
swing of a rhythm we are pretty sure how it is going to continue. But scansion is not an exact science like
mathematics. Stressed and unstressed syllables are not always as instantly identifiable as even and odd
numbers are. Occasionally we come across a line that no two of us will scan in exactly the same way; we
might even scan the same line a little differently on different days or in different moods. But even when we
differ about details, we are generally in agreement about the basic rhythm.
The rhythmical line we will be using for the examples that follow in this section is the commonest line in the
poetry of our language, the iambic pentameter. Iambic because for over twenty centuries that has been the
name of the trough-and-crest unit (,a -), as in "to dance" or enjoy." If the word sounds classroomy to us now,
we might recall that it originally meant something violent and abusive. In ancient Greece a girl named Iambs
personified the obscene songs (in iambics) sung to relieve emotional tension at religious mystery rites.
Pentameter because there are five of these iambs to a line. Among all people five is the natural unit of
counting off (a glance at the hand will show why). The fiveness of the line may have another physiological
basis. Since the ratio between a somewhat excited pulse rate and the normal rate of breathing (seventeen
breaths a minute) is about five to one, we would not be too far off in thinking of iambic pentameter as a
breathful of heartbeats. Hugh Kenner imagines Homer in the throes of composition: "the muse singing as his
chest contracted, his breath governing the line, his heart beating against the stresses." Recalling this rhythm
might even help us save a life. In cardiopulmonary resuscitation-the technique for keeping alive victims of
"sudden death" by mouth-to-mouth breathing and rhythmical pressure on the chest-one breath is given for
every five of the chest-compressions, which are substitute heartbeats.
Pick up any anthology that covers poetry in English, and you will find that at least two-thirds of it is in this
cadence. It has been called the most important meter in the North European world. Chaucer, who got it from
the ten- or eleven-syllable line of French and Italianpoetry, is given credit for establishing it in English,
though there was a basis for it in our earlier native verse.
lambics, to be so thoroughly accepted, must have seemed natural like the way people really talk. Aristotle
heard them in the language of everyday Greek. Hopkins commented, "and the same holds for English."
Richard Blackmur once said, after listening to recorded poetry in thirty-odd languages, that he could hear the
iambic base in all but one.
More iambic pentameters are uttered every day here in America than Shakespeare and all his fellows wrote
in a lifetime. When George Starbuck wonders:
Whaddaya do for action in this place?
he is writing in a cadence we often fall into without knowing it.
I'd like to introduce a friend of mine.
Please fill 'er up-and better check the oil.
Suppose you take your damn feet off the chair.
Deposit fifty cents for overtime.
Cheeseburger special and a glass of beer.
For rent: one-room apartment near the lake.
You ever been in Albuquerque, hey?
Eleven times eleven comes to what?
I'd like to know exactly what she said.
it's easy to find lines as natural as this in the poets; in Conrad Aiken, for example, lines like
I'll meet you Thursday night at half past ten.
I told him straight, if he touched me, just once more,
That way, you know,-I'd kill him. And I did.
How do you like the way I've done my hair?
Boy, if I told you half of what I know....
In Frost, lines like:
I didn't make you know how glad I was
To have you come and camp here on our land. .
I didn't want the blame if things went wrong....
He burned his house down for the fire insurance....
I might have, but it doesn't seem as if.
It's knowing what to do with things that counts.
Leonard Bernstein thinks that iambic pentameter was in on the birth of the blues, out of which jazz and so much modern music was to evolve. The writers of blues lyrics did not use it because it was
46 classic"; they used it for the same reason that Shakespeare and the
Elizabethan dramatists did-it embodies a basic speech pattern.
I hate to see that evenin' sun go down....
Goin' lay my head right on the railroad track,
[Be]cause my baby, she won't take me back....
Mr. Crump won't 'low no easy riders here....
The man I love's got low-down ways for true. . .
Woke up this mornin', blues all round my bed....
The model in our head against which we are measuring our examples in this section is schematized as
~/ ~/ ~/ ~/ ~/
What we say about it will hold for other metrical patterns as well. But we will not expect lines of living
poetry to match this or any other model exactly. There is no merit, as we will soon show, in mere regularity;
even the heartbeat departs from its 72 beats a minute tomeet the needs of life situations. We can sometimes find perfectly regular iambics, as in Shakespeare's
In "Sonnet 66" we have almost eleven consecutive lines (from the "behold" of line 2 through line 12) with
only one variation from strict meter-the little stumble that comes in, appropriately enough, with the "tongue-tied" of line 9.
Tired with all these, for restful death I cry:
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimmed in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honor shamefully misplaced, 5
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill, 10
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill.
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
But nothing so regular is to be found elsewhere in the sonnets, or rarely anywhere in good poetry. Shakespeare has a reason here for his unvarying rhythm: He is writing about the monotony of the world's injustice, which has its own dreary pattern of recurrence.
If we were tapping our fingers to music and the music suddenly stopped, we could go on tapping without breaking the rhythm, just as we could continue a wavy line, if it ended, with a dotted line of similar
2/desert: true merit 3/needy nothing: a penniless nonentity
3/trimmed in jollity: showily dressed
6/strumpeted: treated like a harlot "/limping sway: defective authority "/simplicity: idiocy
---- (Imagine a wave-line moving from solid to dotted) ---
Our expectation of continuing rhythm is so strong that we can even feel an accent where perhaps there is
none, as we imagine we hear a ticktock pattern in the undifferentiated ticks of a clock. If we expect an accent
on syllables 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10, we are inclined to stress these syllables. When Shakespeare, in "Sonnet 68,"
complains about such "bastard signs" of beauty as the wearing of wigs from the hair of persons now dead, he
Before the golden tresses of the dead,
The right of sepulchers, were shorn away
To live a second life on second head....
Our anticipation of the rhythm we are now moving in leads us to expect an accent on "of" (the eighth syllable)
in the first line, and on the last syllable of "sepulchers" (the sixth syllable) in the second line. There is no real
accent on either; but since we expect to hear one, and since nothing insists we cannot hear one, we assume
that we do.
But sometimes an apparently misplaced accent is too strong to ignore, and then we have a genuine variation
in the rhythm. When Shakespeare begins a line with "To the wide world," we cannot imagine that it should
be pronounced, "To THE wide WORLD . . ." or any other way except "To the WIDE WORLD. Such
variations are the life of rhythm.
The iambic foot is made up of two particles or syllables, the first having less mass or energy than the second
(~/). But, in place of the normal foot, we find that four options are possible.
1. Pyrrhic ( ~~ )
The first option is a foot of two syllables, neither of which has an accent, as in the lines from "Sonnet 68"
discussed above. This foot is called a pyrrhic ( ~~ ).
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advan / tage on/ the king / dom of/ the shore....
~ ~ ~ ~
A horse! A horse! My king/dom for/ a horse! ...
I feel the ladder sway/ as the/ boughs bend. . . .
A pyrrhic foot, in giving us less than we expect, goes well with anything related to lessness-the erosion of the
shore, perhaps, or the sense of the boughs giving as the ladder leans against them. Its weakness e ps the very
line stagger as we read:
While through the window masked with flowers
A lone wasp stag/gers from/ the dead....
accent. This is called a spondee ( / / ). We hear it in expressions like "dead beat" (very tired), as opposed to"deadbeat" (one who avoids paying debts); or in expressions like "dead weight," "dead end...... Dead Sea," as opposed to "deadeye," "deadwood," "deadline," each of which accents the first syllable.
Since the spondee packs as much mass as possible into a two syllable foot, it can be expressive of any kind
of muchness, weightiness, or slowness. Since its very density makes it take longer to pronounce, it can
dramatize extent or duration.
Was it the proud full sail of his great verse
Bound for the prize of all / too pre /cious you. . . ?
Yet once more ere thou hate me, one / full kiss...
A. C. Swinburne
The long/ day wanes,/ the slow / moon climbs,/ the deep
Moans round with many voices. . . .
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
I laid down my /long net / in the / big tide
Clotted spondees have been used for frozen blood:
Spondees can also slow down the line so that details can be contemplated:
Reign in my thoughts! / fair hand!/ sweet eye/ rare voice!
Since the pyrrhic foot gives us less than we expect, and the spondee more, they are sometimes combined as
a kind of double foot in which the second half compensates for the first.
~ ~ / / ~ ~ /
The third option reverses the iambic foot from to "Happy," "token," "over" are examples of this foot (the
trochee.) Trochees are so common at the beginning of iambic lines that we hardly feel them as variations.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer...
. / ~
They also fit in easily after a strong pause within the line: (see italics for trochee effect)
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee! Naught that I am
But elsewhere, when a trochee substitutes for an iamb, the effect can be like that of strain or abrupt dislocation. A trochee among iambs is out of place, its movement going counter to the tilt of the line. In these examples from Shakespeare a trochee is found roughing the meter, calling attention to some violence
in the thought:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments ...
How weary, stale, / flat and / unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
His silver skin / laced with / his golden blood ...
Yeats provides us with an expressive example of a reversed foot:
0 she had not these ways
When all the wild / summer / was in her gaze.
Going along with the meter, we want to read "the WILD sumMER," but cannot. So, with some feeling of
strain, we do violence to the meter, which itself is made to rebel as the words recall the woman's rebellious
Perhaps it has taken our ear a few centuries to get used to this midline trochee. Even Jefferson, in so many
ways willing to declare his independence, did not easily go along with it. Of the reversed foot in Milton's
he -says, "it has not a good effect." What Jefferson disliked about the irregularity is probably what we like-the
shock value of the energetic dislocation. Milton's "never" stands out defiantly against accepted laws of meter,
as it would never do if placed tamely after "will."
We can also think of the trochee among iambs as a kind of backspin or underspin or reverse English, as in
The going years, / caught in / an after-glow,
Reverse like balls / englished / upon green baize...
Here the word "englished" is itself englished, its /~ spinning against the ~/'s of the line.
The fourth option is a foot of three syllables with the accent on the last ( ~~/ ), as in "disagree," "reproduce,"
"to the woods." This foot (the anapest) adds an extra syllable, as one would do in a series of de DUM de
DUM's if he occasionally slipped in a de de DUM. Pleasant in itself as a change of pace, it can be expressive
in suggesting a burst of speed, something impulsive and capricious, like a skip or little caper interrupting our
normal stride. Substitute anapests are common, as in Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi":
The world and life's too big to pass / for a dream . . ( ~~/) [also in the italics below]
Scarce had they turned the corner when a titter,
Like the skip / ping of rab / bits by moon / light--three slim shapes...
Shakespeare (like most good poets) freely makes use of all possible options, even writing lines in which four
of the five feet are non-iambic:
Pluck the / keen teeth / from the / fierce ti / ger's jaws...
/ ~ / / ~ ~ / / ~ /
Let me / not to / the mar / riage of / true minds...
/ ~ / ~ ~ / ~ ~ / /
But he does not let the number of syllables fall short of ten-f all short of five feet of at least two syllables.
Iambic pentameter cares about not only accent but also number of syllables-it may add one or two to the ten,
but it practically never drops any. On rare occasions, in what is called a "headless" line, the first syllable may
be dropped, as in T. S. Eliot's:
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh.
An extra syllable at the end of the line is so common it is hardly felt as an irregularity:
To be or not to be, that is / the ques / tion....
Sometimes we even find two unaccented syllables hanging over at the end of a line, as in Shakespeare's
I, that am rudely stamped, and want love's maj / esty...
Much of this chapter has been an account of the structure of iambic pentameter. If we wish to stop the flow of that rhythm to examine the mechanics of the individual wave, we should now be able to do so.
A pleasant poem for this kind of study is Edward FitzGerald's translation of The Rubaiyat (or Quatrains)
of Omar Khayydm, the twelfth-century Persian poet, mathematician, and astronomer ... Rhythmically, the
stanzas are easy to follow, since they have a more regular swing than most of the poems we have been
reading. And yet in them we can find all the variations described on the preceding pages.
in speaking of music, Igor Stravinsky stresses the distinction between meter and rhythm,
a distinction that holds also in poetry. In music, meter is what the metronome is doing; rhythm, what the
composer or performer actually gives us. In poetry, meter (from the Greek word formeasure) is the basic
scheme, the ~/~/~/~/~/ apartfrom any realization in words-what our mind could continue with if all sound stopped. Rhythm (from the
Greek word for flow) is the way the words of the poem move, often coinciding with the meter but sometimes
not. Meter is like the abstract idea of a dance as a choreographer might plan it with no particular performers
in mind; rhythm is like a dancer interpreting the dance in a personal way.
What we feel in the iambic line-or in the other strong-stress lines we shall consider in the next chapter-is an
interplay of two movements at once: that of the meter, which our mind holds and anticipates, and that of the
actual words of the poem as we hear them. The two are seldom identical. As Robert Frost, with the help of
a pun, puts it:
In expecting, in iambic verse, another iambic foot, the mind is right most of the time. When it
is not right, it does a double take, and the questionable foot gets more attention than if it were
As we brought out in our discussion of variations, iambic pentameter is monotonous if we think
of it merely as meter. Of course: Monotony is the only virtue of a metronome. But good poets
do not write iambic pentameter as a meter; they use it as a rough gauge for their rhythms. There
are as many rhythms based on iambic pentameter as there are individual-really individual-writers.
No one would confuse the iambics of Shakespeare with those of Pope or Milton or Tennyson or
Yeats or Cummings. Some poets prefer end-stopped lines, which conclude with a pause
generally marked by the punctuation. In the excerpt from Pope's "An Essay On Man" (p. 77),
every line is end-stopped. The excerpt from Milton's Paradise Lost (just below) shows a strong
preference for run-on lines: In over two-thirds of the lines the sense carries us over to the next
line without a pause. The rhythmical effect is very different. Poets differ also in the way they
handle the caesura (the word means a cut)-the pause that tends to fall near the middle of most
lines. In scansion it is marked by a double bar ( !!). In the passage from Book I of Paradise Lost
in which Milton describes Satan and the fallen angels we see how the poet varies his rhythm by
varying the internal pauses. The numbers to the left of the lines indicate the syllable after which
the caesura falls (the extra syllables of anapests are omitted from the count).
4 He scarce had ceased !! when the superior fiend
6 Was moving toward the shore; !! his ponderous shield
5,7 Etherial temper, !! massy, !! large and round,
4 Behind him cast; !! the broad circumference
8 Hung on his shoulders like the moon, !! whose orb 5
4 Through optic glass !! the Tuscan artist views
3 At evening !! from the top of Fiesole,
5 Or in Valdarno, !! to descry new lands,
5 Rivers or mountains !! in her spotty globe.
2 His spear, !! to equal which the tallest pine 10
6 Hewn on Norwegian hill, !! to be the mast
6 Of some great admiral, !! were but a wand,
3 He walked with !! to support uneasy steps
6 Over the burning marl, !! not like those steps
5 On heaven's azure, !! and the torrid clime... 15
[This is just the first of two chapters on rhythm in a wonderful teaching anthology of poems
entitled: Western Wind: an introduction to poetry, by John Frederick Nims and published by
Random House. Ask for a copy if you'd like to read more.]