Literary Stylistics:
Workshop Notes no. 4

The Sounds of Poetry I

Some Key Terms in These Notes

The more important terms, which you ought to know, are indicated with asterisks.

alexandrine anapest classical metrics dactyl dimeter disyllabic duple
foot* graphometric unit* heptameter hexameter iamb* line* metre*
metrical_tension normative metre octometer pentameter* phonometric* pyrrhic scansion*
spondee stress* strong* substitution* syllable* tetrameter* trimeter
trisyllabic trochee* weak*        

*Essential readings for the workshops on poetry (this and the next workshop notes): pp. 5-17 of the first edition of Halliday's Introduction & pp. 89-130 of Leech's A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry (the treatment on metre on pp. 5-7 of the second edition of Halliday's Introduction is shorter than that of the first edition).

Traditionally, metre in poetry is analysed in terms of whether the syllables[1]* in a poem form themselves into significant units of two or three (sometimes called duple and triple beats respectively). These significant units are called feet. (If one wants to be meticulous in one's description, one may want to respectively call feet of two and three beats disyllabic and trisyllabic). The symbol '|' is used to indicate the separation of one foot from another. The feet in a poem are often seen in relation to the grapho-metric unit of the line; one can classify the lines in a poem in terms of the number of feet each line has. These are the traditional terms used with reference to the number of feet per line:

Table 4.1
monometer[2]* one foot pentameter five feet
dimeter two feet hexameter or alexandrine six feet
trimeter three feet heptameter seven feet
tetrameter four feet octometer eight feet

The syllables in a foot have only two degrees of stresses in traditional or classical metrics: weak and strong (the term stress is used interchangeably here with accent). For the purpose of our course, we will use the '/' symbol for strong stresses, and the 'X' symbol for weak ones.[3]* The main metres in the English language are the following:

Table 4.2
iamb X /
trochee / X
anapest X X /
dactyl / X X

The above may be the dominant metres, or what is also known as the normative metres for entire poems, but for the purpose of a more thorough analysis of metre, the following may also be useful at certain points of one's analysis:

Table 4.3
pyrrhic X X
spondee[4]* / /

To give a metrical description of a line in classical metrics, one combines the terms given in the above list, and those available in the earlier list: for example, iambic pentameter, trochaic tetrameter etc.

From a linguistic perspective, it is important for us to realise that the analysis or scansion of poetry in terms of its classical metres is really the superimposition of an artificial metrical pattern on a poem, and does not always represent the way that the syllables are actually or potentially stressed. Quite often, there is a discrepancy in one's reading between the artificial stress patterns which one tries to superimpose on the poem, and one's actual articulation of the strong and weak stresses in the poem (which may occur even after one has given some leeway to the fact that one is reading poetry). Interesting problems in the scansion of poetry arise here (sometimes described as metrical tension in literary criticism). In order to tackle this problem in scansion, one may want to arrive at two levels in the analysis of the metrical patterns of a poem: the normative metre is put down first, after which the feet in the poem which resist the normative metre are indicated. If for instance the normative metre of a poem is iambic, but there are other feet to be found in a particular line of the poem, one indicates the deviation from the normative iambic metre in the following manner:

| X X  |       |      | /  / |
| X / | X / | X / | X / |

The deviation from the normative metre in the first foot is known as a pyrrhic substitution, and that in the fourth foot as a spondaic substitution.

Linguistically, a third level of analysis is possible, as one may want to centre one's analysis on the stress patterns which may be realised if the poem is not read as poetry. When one does this, there may be more substitutions than those available from the type of scansion discussed above, as there are bound to be more differences from the normative metre.

In the analysis of stress patterns, another type of metrical scheme may be worked out. This type of metre relies primarily on the articulated stresses which occur when one reads a poem, and does not rely on the artificial construct of a normative metre. In this type of metrical scheme, which Halliday calls the phonometric, each foot begins with a stressed syllable. It does not matter if the foot has two, three or more beats; in fact, a foot with only one syllable is possible, so long as it is stressed, and is followed by another stressed syllable. Foot divisions in this type of metrical scheme thus resemble the bars in musical notation, as the first (unsyncopated) note in a musical bar is usually more accented than the other notes (unless indicated otherwise by the composer).

But this type of metrical scheme, in spite of Halliday's advocacy, may not be entirely satisfactory to all linguists (or for that matter, to all literary scholars who want a more satisfactory metrical system than the classical). One problem is the reliance, which is also found in classical metrics, on only two degrees of stress. Some linguists and literary scholars have proposed that three degrees of stress ought to be used, whilst others have advocated four. In the system proposed by George L Trager and Henry Lee Smith for instance, which is devised for the analysis of the English language in general, there are four degrees of stress: primary, secondary, tertiary, and weak.[5]* However, such a detailed analysis of stress in poetry may not be necessary, and there are virtues in classical metrics which have not been entirely super- seded by more recent metrical systems.


[1] As this is not a course in phonetics, you should not be too worried about the exact definition of syllable (or whether such a notion actually exists in the physical world). For some of the phonetic difficulties involved in the concept of the syllable, see for example pp. 11-12 of the second edition of Halliday's Introduction, or pp. 219-224 of Peter Ladefoged's A Course in Phonetics, second edition (New York: Harcourt, 1982). However, for the purpose of this course, we can depend on our intuition of the syllables of English, which after all, may be psychological, not phonetic entities. It may also be of interest to note here that stress in the actual articulation of poetry, may also involve duration and tone, and not merely stress as the term is understood in phonetics. Back to earlier position.

[2] Note the spelling of ....meter in monometer, dimeter etc. This is the way the terms are spelt in both British and American orthography. The word metre by itself however, is spelt 'metre' in British orthography. Back to earlier position.

[3] Other symbols have been used. Robert Einarsson, for example, uses '-' for the weaker stress. Back to earlier position.

[4] The adjectives of these terms are: pyrrhic, and spondaic; and for the earlier terms: iambic, trochaic, anapestic, and dactylic. Back to earlier position.

[5] An Outline of English Structure. Washington D.C., 1951. Back to earlier position.


Web Readings

For workshop notes 5 as well:

Texts to Analyse

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18
William Blake's 'The Tyger'
Robert Frost's 'Acceptance'

Click here for for the next workshop notes.

Click here for for the previous workshop notes.

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Last revised: 17 May 2017
Ismail S. Talib 1995-2017.