Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Pleasing Power of the Poetic Pentameters

                    Put your hand on your heart. Just for a short while. Feel how it beats. Take notice of what you feel. Can you feel it going di-Dum, di-Dum, di-Dum, di-Dum, di-Dum? A short beat and a long beat; a weak beat and a strong beat. di-Dum. 


In poetry – or prosody - that di-Dum, that short syllable and that long syllable, is called an iamb. Put five di-Dums together and that’s a line of iambic pentameter. Pentameter because there are five of them; pentameter like pentagon, something with five parts. Five meters or what are called five poetical ‘feet’. 

Five Feet

Poets use iambic pentameter a lot, just because it’s so natural, like a heartbeat. di-Dum, di-Dum, di-Dum. Poets use these ten syllables, these five iambs, because it’s just so very powerful. It speaks to us, deep in our hearts. Take a word like ‘declare’ - we say de-CLARE not DE-clare, it’s a weak, unstressed syllable followed by a strong, stressed syllable. We say re-LEASE, not RE-lease, to-NIGHT not TO-night, a-BOUT not A-bout. Let’s look at a line of poetry – the opening line of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.  The curfew tolls the knell of parting day

Gray's Elegy

Now read that and clap on the second of each pair of syllables. the CURfew TOLLS the KNELL of PARTing DAY.  That’s how iambic pentameter works. Weak followed by strong. di-Dum, di-Dum, di-Dum, di-Dum, di-Dum. Ten syllables in five pairs, five iambs. Shakespeare uses it in blank verse, in the plays. He also uses a slight variant, when the final strong syllable of the line is left off – this is called the feminine form – in lines like this one from Hamlet, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ – ‘to BE or NOT to BE, that IS the QUESTion’. 

to BE or NOT to BE

He does this for dramatic effect – uncompleted, this pattern is slightly unsettling, it plays on our minds because it’s not quite as it should be, reflecting Hamlet’s own wondering about his continuing to be. This is why Shakespeare is such a fine poet. He takes the form and adapts it to his own intention. Let me illustrate how. When he wants to unsettle us, he reverses the form. Instead of having that natural di-Dum rhythm, he does the opposite – he uses the Di-dum, Di-dum – what in prosody is called the trochee, the strong syllable followed by the soft – he wants us unsettled by the witches in Macbeth, so he has them say, “When shall we three meet again” – ‘WHEN shall WE three MEET aGAIN’. 

Blake - The Tyger

William Blake does the same in The Tyger – “TYger TYger BURNing BRIGHT”, he wants us to be afraid of the tiger, and uses the feminine form again, leaving off that final syllable once more, when our ear expects it to be there. We feel that something is wrong here, something that is scary. Tennyson does it using another poetical foot, the dactyl, which uses a strong syllable followed by two weak syllables. Dactyl is Greek for ‘finger’ – look at your knuckle on your hand and follow that look along your finger. From the knuckle is a long bone followed by two short bones. It’s a dactyl. You know the word, even if you think you don’t. 


That flying dinosaur, the pterodactyl that enchanted you when you were a child – well ptero means winged, and dactyl means finger (the word poetry is, coincidentally, a dactyl – PO–et-ry). 

In The Charge of the Light Brigade, Tennyson uses dactyls, a foot one step stronger than the trochee, to make use feel uneasy – ‘Half a league, half a league, half a league onward’ – ‘HALF a league, HALF a league, HALF a league ONward’. It’s that feminine ending again. These lancers shouldn’t be riding into that valley of Death, they really shouldn’t be going that deadly half a league onward towards those cannons. 

HALF a league HALF a league

It’s really not going to turn out well at all. The dactyl reflects the pounding of the horses’ hooves, Dum-di-di Dum-di-di, but it also doesn’t sit well on our ears, we know instinctively that ‘someone has blundered’ – SOMEone has BLUN-dered’. And obviously, if iambs are the opposite of trochees, then dactyls must also have an opposite, which they have – it’s an anapaest. The anapaest can be used in some serious poetry – Byron uses it in his The Destruction of Sennacherib - The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold – but it turns up more usually in comic verse. Limericks often use the anapaest as a matter of course, and Lewis Carroll uses the anapaest in The Hunting of the Snark (more of which on another day).

The Hunting of the Snark

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