[LMB] Levels of Bafflement
john.c.lennard at gmail.com
Wed Jan 17 13:41:54 GMT 2018
Micki: I think this must be true. We had some poetry, but very little
memorizing, and while words
like "iambs" and "trochees" flit inside my head like little bats, they
don't land and make actual
John: For 99% of English metrical poetry you only need to remember six feet:
1. iamb -- ti-TUM, and 2. trochee -- TUM-ti
conTRACT, the verb (the rock contracts as it cools), is an iamb ; CONtract,
the noun (he signed a contract), is a trochee.
3. pyrrhic -- ti-ti, and 4. spondee -- TUM-TUM
These never occur as basic metres, because speaking all spondees is to talk
like a Dalek, and speaking all pyrrhics is to whisper like a Dalek. They
do occur as variant (or distinguishing) feet in both iambic and trochaic
metres, and may occur as such elsewhere.
5. anapaest -- ti-ti-TUM, and 6. dactyl -- TUM-ti-ti
Relatively few English words are anapaests, but many phrases are -- hence
"a young man" and equivalents in limericks, and in those mixed metres
Catherine mentioned, "to the sea", "and the sky". Conversely, a lot of
words are dactylic -- EARN-est-ly, MENT-or-ship, HAP-pen-ing.
What's interesting about it all is the interplay between a fixed pattern,
set as a template, and actually words. So Milton, frex, has a line in
*Paradise Lost* --
With mazy error under pendant shade
that contains four trochaic words in a row -- MA-zy, ERR-or, UN-der,
PEN-dant -- and yet Milton's line is a wholly regular iambic pentameter,
because every one of those words is split between two feet --
With MA- / zy ERR- / or UN- / der PEN- / dant SHADE
John: With metre, there is correct and incorrect.
Micki: AH! so if someone tells me "That doesn't scan," to some extent it
might be just a personal or dialectic difference. "It doesn't scan to me."
John: Ye-es, but. Personal and dialectal matters may indeed matter, but
there are still things that do not scan.
Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate correct and incorrect metres is to
speak a line aloud, wildly exaggerating the stresses a metre
would prescribe. Sticking with Hamlet, for now, let's say someone claims
it's really trochaic pentameter ; so we take a line
O what a rogue and peasant slave am I
and if this is trochaic pentameter, then the supposed pattern of stress
O what / A rogue / AND peas- / ANT slave / AM i
and that's clearly nonsense. All else aside, peasant, a naturally iambic
word, PEASant, becomes a trochee, peasANT ; and the stresses on A and AND
are absurd. Oh, says our someone, I misspoke, and meant its anapaestic
trimeter with a hyperbeat. We try again.
o what A / rogue and PEAS- / ant slave AM / I
Nope. Also nonsense. So let's revert to iambs.
o WHAT / a ROGUE / and PEAS- / ant SLAVE / am I
And that's more like it. Nothing here is impossible -- but that does not
mean one has to scan the line as wholly regular -- "O what" might well be a
spondee, and so might "am I".
When someone says of a given line, "that doesn't scan", what they usually
mean is that rigidly observing the prescribed metrical pattern is wrenching
the natural spoken accents of one or more words in ways that are
unacceptable to their ears, and they may have very good reason to say so.
Thus, if you present me with a limerick beginning
A dilapidated old man from Peru
I can say it does not scan, because dilapidated (di-LAP-i-da-ted) cannot be
made to fit within an anapaestic pattern. We either have to stress 'ted',
which produces nonsense down the line
A diLAP- / i-da-TED / old man FROM / peRU
or we have to accommodate dilapidated as a row of medial hyperbeats
A diLAP- / i-da-ted old MAN / from peRU
Micki: INDEED! This difference between scansion and meter is difficult. You
say it's not necessarily wrong to scan something differently from the meter
but . . . . Is an actor supposed to use the meter, or are they allowed to
scan things to add nuance to their interpretation of the words?
John: It may well be the poet who introduces the variation quite
consciously. In *Macbeth*, frex, he has a line (Folio text) --
Listning their feare, I could not say Amen
and there is no way the first foot can be scanned as an iamb (listNING) ;
it has to be a trochee (LISTning), and that's not personal interpretation
-- the terminal -ing of present participles is almost never stressed in
English, and to do so is perverse.
In the middle ground, take our old friend Richard III, who says in
his famous opening soliloquy --
But I that am not shaped for sportive tricks
Now, the formal iambic metre would prescribe
but I / that AM / not SHAPED / for SPOR- / tive TRICKS
which is perfectly speakable ; but surely not right, because "not" is
screaming for a stress, and so is "but"
BUT I / that AM / NOT SHAPED / for SPOR- / tive TRICKS
Is an actor who speaks it thus interpreting? Yes. Are there serious
Shakespearean and other cues for that interpretation? You bet.
And finally, if scansion were never distinct from metre, then by definition
every line of iambic pentameter in Shax would go exactly ti-TUM ti-TUM
ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM, as undeviatingly as a metronome, and we should
shortly all begin swaying in place as we listened, before becoming
There is a metrical structure, as there are in music time signatures, but a
great deal of the fun comes with deviation/syncopation. The whole point of
establishing a pattern, and hence a set of rolling expectations, is to
play variants against it, to advance a beat, or retard one, or add
or subtract one ; not so much as to destroy the underlying pattern, but
nevertheless. So it isn't that "it's not necessarily wrong to scan
something differently from the meter", but rather that it is essential to
do so, and every poet other than Daleks and Vogons always has. The fun for
readers is in following them.
John Lennard, MA DPhil. (Oxon.), MA (WU)
Associate Member & Director of Studies in English, Hughes Hall, Cambridge
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