Verse Forms: Definition & Analysis in English Composition

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      No pupil has passed through the graded schools without being told that he should not sing verses, though no one is inclined to sing prose. One can scarcely help singing verse, and one cannot well sing prose.

      What is there about the form that leads a person to sing verses of poetry? For example, when a person reads the first lines of “The Lady of the Lake,” he falls naturally into a sing-song which can be represented by musical notation as follows:—

If all these verses be observed carefully, it will be seen that in each group of syllables there is one accented syllable combined with one or two unaccented. Such a group of syllables is called a foot. The foot is the basis of the verse; and from the prevailing kind of foot that is found in any verse, the verse derives its name.
Verse Forms

      The second, fourth, sixth, and eighth syllables in each of these lines are naturally accented in reading, while the other syllables are read without stress. The eight syllables of each line fall naturally into groups of two, an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable, just as in the musical notation given, an unaccented eighth note is followed by an accented quarter.

      In “Hiawatha” the accented syllable comes first, and the unaccented follows it.

      So, too, there are groups in which there are three syllables. The accent may fall on any one of the three. In the following stanza from “The Bridge of Sighs,” the accent falls on the first syllable of each group.

      The accent may be upon the second syllable of the group. This is not common. The following is from “The Three Fishers.”

      Or the accent may be upon the last syllable of the group. This form is very common. It is found in the poem entitled “Annabel Lee.”

Poetic Feet:
      If all these verses be observed carefully, it will be seen that in each group of syllables there is one accented syllable combined with one or two unaccented. Such a group of syllables is called a foot. The foot is the basis of the verse; and from the prevailing kind of foot that is found in any verse, the verse derives its name.

      A foot is a group of syllables composed of one accented syllable combined with one or more unaccented. It will be noticed further that if musical notation be used, all of these forms are but variations of the one form, represented by the standard measure 3/8. They are:—

      Accordingly there are five forms of poetic feet made of this musical rhythm. Of these, four are in common use.

      An Iambus is a two-syllable foot accented on the last syllable. Verse made of this kind of feet is called iambic. It is the most common form found in English poetry. Example:— “The stag at eve had drunk his fill.”

      A Trochee is a two-syllable foot accented on the first syllable. Verse made of this kind of feet is called trochaic. Example:— “Stood the wigwam of Nokomis.”

      A Dactyl is a three-syllable foot accented on the first syllable. Such verse is called dactylic. Example:— “Touch her not scornfully.”

      An Amphibrach is a three-syllable foot accented on the middle syllable. It is uncommon. Example:— “Three fishers went sailing out into the West.”

      An Anapest is a three-syllable foot accented on the last syllable. Example:— “It was many and many a year ago.”

      A Spondee is a very uncommon foot in English. It consists of two long syllables accented about equally. It occurs as an occasional foot in a four-syllable rhythm. No English poem is entirely spondaic. The four-syllable foot and the spondee are so uncommon that there is little use in the pupil’s knowing more than that there are such things.

Kinds of Metre:
      A verse is a single line of poetry. It may contain from one foot to eight feet.  A line made of one foot is called monometer. It is never used throughout a poem, except as a joke, but it sometimes occurs as an occasional verse in a poem that is made of longer lines. The two lines which follow are from the song of “Winter” in Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” The last is monometer.

 “Then nightly sings the staring owl

      A line containing four feet is called tetrameter. Marmion is written in tetrameters. 

      A line containing five feet is called pentameter. This line is very common in English poetry. It gives room enough for the poet to say something, and is not so long that it breaks down with its own weight. Shakespeare’s Plays, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,”—indeed, most of the great, serious work of the master-poets has been done in this verse.

      A line containing six feet is called hexameter. This is the form adopted in the Iliad and the Odyssey of the Greeks, and the Æneid of the Romans; it has been used sometimes by English writers in treating dignified subjects. “The Courtship of Miles Standish” and “Evangeline” are written in hexameter.

      Verses of seven and eight feet are rare; they are called heptameter and octameter, respectively. The heptameter is usually divided into a tetrameter and a trimeter; the octameter, into two tetrameters. Poe’s “Raven” and Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” are in octameters, and Bryant’s “The Death of the Flowers” is in heptameters.

      A verse is named from its prevailing kind of foot and the number of feet. For example, “The Merchant of Venice” is in iambic pentameter, and “The Courtship of Miles Standish” is in dactylic hexameter. Stanzas. A stanza is a group of verses, but these verses are not necessarily of the same length. Monometer, dimeter, and trimeter are not often used for a whole stanza; but they are frequently found in a stanza, introducing variety into it.

      Scansion is the separation of a verse of poetry into its component feet. Poetry was originally sung or chanted by bards and troubadours. The accompaniment was a simple strumming on a harp of very few strings, and was hardly more than the beating of time. The chanting must have been much like the sing-song that some people fall into when reading verses now. The first thing in scanning a line of poetry is to drop into its rhythm,—to let it sing itself. When the regular accent is felt, the lines can easily be separated into their metrical feet. Read these lines from “Marmion,” and mark only the accented syllables.

 And motion slight of eyes and head,
 And of her bosom, warranted
 That neither sense nor pulse she lacks,
 You might have thought a form of wax
 Wrought to the very life was there;
 So still she was, so pale, so fair.”

      The marked verses have an accented syllable preceded by an unaccented syllable. Such a foot is iambic. There are four feet in each verse; so the poem is written in iambic tetrameter. In the same way, one decides that “The Song of Hiawatha” is written in trochaic tetrameter.

Variations in Metres:
      In music the bar or measure is not always filled with exactly the same kind of notes arranged in the same order. If the signature reads 3/8, the measure may be filled by any notes that added together equal three eighth notes. It may be a quarter and an eighth, an eighth and a quarter, a dotted quarter, or three eighth notes. So, in poetry the verses are not always as regular as in “Marmion” and “Hiawatha,” although poetry is more regular than music and there are usually few variations of metre in any one poem. A knowledge of the most common forms of variation is necessary to correct scansion.

      The commonest variation in verse is the substitution of three eighths for the quarter and the eighth, or the eighth and the quarter. And the very opposite of this often occurs; that is, the substitution of the two-syllable foot for the three-syllable foot. The following, from “The Burial of Sir John Moore,” illustrates what is done. Notice, however, that the beat is quite regular, and the lines lilt along as if there were no change.

      In reading this the first time, a person is not likely to notice that there are three feet in it containing but two syllables. The rhythm is perfectly smooth, and cannot be called irregular. The accent remains on the last syllable of the foot.

      In the following selection from “Evangeline,” trochees are substituted for dactyls, yet there is no break in the rhythm. It does not seem in the least irregular.

      “Walking from side to side with a lordly air, and superbly
 Waving his bushy tail, and urging forward the stragglers.”

      These examples are enough to illustrate the fact that one kind of foot may be substituted for another and not make the rhythm feel irregular. So long as the accent is not changed from the first syllable to the last, or from the last to the first, there is no jar in the flow of the lines. The trochee and the dactyl are interchangeable; and the iambus and the anapest are interchangeable.

      We may take a step further. There are many times when some sudden change of thought, some strong emotion forces a poet to break the smooth rhythm, that the verses may harmonize with his feeling. Such a variation is like an exclamation or a dash thrown into prose. The following is taken from “Annabel Lee.” The regular foot has the accent on the last syllable. It is anapestic, in tetrameters and trimeters. But note the shudder in the third line when the accent is changed on the word “chilling.” The music and the thought are in perfect harmony.

 “And this was the reason that, long ago,
 In this kingdom by the sea,
 My beautiful Annabel Lee;
 So that her highborn kinsman came
 And bore her away from me
 To shut her up in a sepulchre
 In this kingdom by the sea.”

      Another beautiful example is found in the last stanza of the same poem. It is in the first two feet of the fifth line. Here the regular accent has yielded to an accent on the middle syllable and there are two amphibrachs. Notice, too, how it is almost impossible to tell in the next foot whether the accent goes upon the second or upon the third syllable. It is hovering between the form of the first two feet and the anapest of the last foot.

 “For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
 Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
 And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
 Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
 Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
 In her sepulchre there by the sea
 In her tomb by the sounding sea.”

      As has already been said, the iambus is the common foot of English verse. It is made of a short and a long syllable. At the beginning of a poem an unaccented syllable seems weak; and so very frequently the first foot of a poem is trochaic; often the first two or three feet are of this kind. At such a place the irregularity does not strike one. The following is an illustration:—

 “The smith, a mighty man is he,
 With large and sinewy hands;
 And the muscles of his brawny arms
 Are strong as iron bands.”

      In this stanza the prevailing foot is iambic, but the first foot is trochaic. In the following beautiful lines by Ben Jonson, there is the same thing:—

 “And I will pledge with mine;
 Or leave a kiss but in the cup
 And I’ll not look for wine.
 The thirst that from the soul doth rise
 Doth ask a drink divine;
 But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
 I would not change for thine.”

      A similar substitution may occur in any other verse of the stanza; but we feel the change more than when it is found in the first verse. The second stanza of Jonson’s song furnishes an example of the substitution of a trochee for an iambus:—

 “I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
 As giving it a hope that there
 It could not withered be,
 But thou thereon didst only breathe
 And sent’st it back to me;
 Since when it grows and smells, I swear,
 Not of itself, but thee.”

      Of all the great poets, but few have been such masters of the art of making musical verse as Spenser. The following stanza is from “The Faerie Queene;” and the delicate changes from one foot to another are so skillfully made that one has to look twice before he finds them.

First and Last Foot:
      From the lines on “The Burial of Sir John Moore,” another fact about metres may be derived. The second and fourth lines apparently have one too many syllables. This may occur when the accent is upon the last syllable of the foot; that is, when the foot is an iambus or an anapest.

      Again, the last foot of each line may be one syllable short. This may occur when the accent is on the first syllable of a foot; that is, when the foot is trochaic or dactylic. The scheme is like this:

      The last foot of a verse of poetry, then, may have more or fewer syllables than the regular number; still the foot takes up the regular time and cannot be deemed unrhythmical.

      The first foot of a line, too, may contain an extra syllable; a good example has been given in the lines on page 273, beginning,—

 “Ah, the autumn days fade out, and the nights grow chill.”

      And the first foot of a line may lack a syllable, as in the first line of “Break, Break, Break,” by Tennyson.

      In a line like the following, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether the syllable is omitted from the first or the last foot.

      Now if the whole of “London Bridge,” from which this line is quoted, be read, there will be found several lines that are trochaic beyond question; and the last line of the chorus is iambic. The majority of trochaic lines leads us to decide that the verse is trochaic. From this example one learns to appreciate how nearly alike are trochaic and iambic verses. Both are composed of alternating accented and unaccented syllables; and the kind of metre depends upon which comes first in the foot. In Blake’s “Tiger, Tiger,” there is not a line that clearly shows what kind of verse the poet used. If the unaccented syllable is supplied at the beginning the poem is iambic; if at the end, it is trochaic.

 “Tiger, Tiger, burning bright
 In the forests of the night,
 What immortal hand or eye
 Framed thy fearful symmetry?”

      Silences may occur in the middle of a verse of poetry as well as at the beginning or the end. In the following nursery rhyme it is clear that the prevailing foot is anapestic, though several feet are iambic, and in the first two lines and the last line a single syllable makes a foot. Silences are introduced here as rests are in music.

 “On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
 And I would that my tongue could utter
 The thoughts that arise in me.”

 In scanning, then, it is necessary—

      First. To determine by reading a number of verses the kind of foot that predominates, and to make this the basis of the metrical scheme.

      Second. To remember that one kind of foot may be substituted for another, at the will of the poet, introducing into the poem a delicate variety of rhythm.

      Third. To keep in mind that the first foot of a verse and the last foot may have more or fewer syllables than the regular foot of the poem.

      Fourth. That silences, like rests in music, may be introduced into a verse and give to it a perfect smoothness of rhythm.

Kinds of Poetry:
      It is a difficult thing to give a definition of poetry. Many have done so, yet no one has been fortunate enough to have his definition go without criticism. In general, it may be said that poetry deals with serious subjects, that it appeals to the feelings rather than to the reason, that it employs beautiful language, and that it is written in some metrical form.

      Poetry has been divided into three great classes: narrative, lyric, and dramatic.

      Narrative poetry deals with events, real or imaginary. It includes, among other varieties, the epic, the metrical romance, the tale, and the ballad.

      The epic is a narrative poem of elevated character telling generally of the exploits of heroes. The “Iliad” of the Greeks, the “Æneid” of the Romans, the “Nibelungen Lied” of the Germans, “Beowulf” of the Anglo-Saxons, and “Paradise Lost” are good examples of the epic.

      The metrical romance is any fictitious narrative of heroic, marvelous, or supernatural incidents derived from history or legend, and told at considerable length. “The Idylls of the King” are romances. The tale is but little different from the romance. It leaves the field of legend and occupies the place in poetry that a story or a novel does in prose. “Marmion” and “Enoch Arden” are tales.

      A ballad is a short narrative poem, generally rehearsing but one incident. It is usually vigorous in style, and gives but little thought to elegance. “Sir Patrick Spens,” “The Battle of Otterburne,” and “Chevy Chase” are examples.

      Lyric poetry finds its source in the author’s feelings and emotions. In this it differs from narrative poems, which find their material in external events and circumstances. Epic poetry is written in a grand style, generally in pentameter, or hexameter; while the lyric adopts any verse that suits the emotion. The principal classes of lyric poetry are the song, the ode, the elegy, and the sonnet.

      The song is a short poem intended to be sung. It has great variety of metres and is generally divided into stanzas. “Sweet and Low,” “Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon,” “John Anderson, My Jo, John,” are songs.

      An ode is a lyric expressing exalted emotion; it usually has a complex and irregular metrical form. Collins’s “The Passions,” Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” and Lowell’s “Commemoration Ode,” are well known.

      An elegy is a serious poem pervaded by a feeling of melancholy. It is generally written to commemorate the death of some friend. Milton’s “Lycidas” and Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” are examples of this form of lyric.

      A sonnet is a lyric that deals with a single thought, idea, or sentiment in a fixed metrical form. The sonnet always contains fourteen lines. It has, too, a very definite rhyme scheme. Some of the best English sonnets have been written by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Mrs. Browning.

      Dramatic poetry presents a course of human events, and is generally designed to be spoken on the stage. Because such poetry presents human character in action, the term “dramatic” has come to be applied to any poetry having this quality. Many of Browning’s poems are dramatic in this sense. In the first sense of the word, dramatic poetry includes tragedy and comedy.

      Tragedy is a drama in which the diction is dignified, the movement impressive, and the ending unhappy.

      Comedy is a drama of a light and amusing character, with a happy conclusion to its plot.

Exercises in Metres:
      Enough of each poem is given below so that the kind of metre can be determined. Always name the verse form and write the verse scheme. Some hard work will be necessary to work out the irregular lines, but it is only by work on these that any ability in scanning can be gained. Always read a stanza two or three times to get the swing of the rhythm. Remember the silences, and the substitutions that may be made.

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