Posts Tagged ‘dactylic’

Syncopation and coincidence: a problem poem

September 15, 2016

Turning to Robert Browning’s Fifine at the Fair as an exemplar of quantitative meter in English verse requires a disclaimer. I have it only on authority that this poem scans in quantitative dactylic hexameter at all – while of course an alexandrine line can be divided into four groups of three syllables evenly, in no instance does the poem appear to actually use four dactyls in a line, be they accentual-syllabic or quantitative.

What Browning does instead is use syncopation, alternating iambs with anapests in symmetrical lines that scan like this:

The tumbling troop arrayed, the strollers on their stage

u S u s u S u S u s u S

_ __ _ _ _ __ _ __ _ _ _ __

Here there is perfect coincidence between syllables with a strong stress (S) and a long duration (__), but this is actually the exception to the rule – take the stanza this line appears in for example:

Oh, trip and skip Elivire! Link arm in arm with me:

Like husband and like wife, together let us see

The tumbling troop arrayed, the strollers on their stage

Drawn up and under arms, and ready to engage.

Each line again has four strong stresses, two iambs and two anapests, but in quantitative scansion there is no coincidence and no regularity. Take the last line for example:

Drawn up and under arms, and ready to engage.

s S u s u S u S u s u S

__ _ __ __ _ __ __ _ _ _ __ __

The alexandrine (iambic hexameter) line is in French poetry what iambic pentameter is in English – a virtual necessity for serious poets using meter and rhyme. Even Shakespeare’s plays make extensive use of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) for speeches and soliloquies. Browning’s justification for using the alexandrine is clear – his characters in this dramatic poem make up a love triangle drawn from Moliere’s Don Juan.

His short prologue to the poem is in the more familiar English verse form of ballad meter, or alternating four-foot and three-foot lines. These lines achieve syncopation instead by skipping initial unstressed syllables in places and alternating iambs with trochees, as in this meditation on a butterfly seen by a swimmer:

Does she look, pity, wonder,

At one who mimics flight,

Swims, – heaven above, sea under,

Yet always earth in sight?

S u S S u S u

u S u S u S

S S u u S s S u

u S u S u S

The third line might be said to have an iamb (or a trochee) with a skipped syllable, followed by a dactyl, a spondee and a trochee, and in quantitative meter there is almost perfect coincidence, again starting with an iamb or trochee with a skipped syllable:

Swims, – heaven above, sea under,

__ / __ _ _ / _ __ / __ _

Whereas the first two lines have a slightly more awkward pattern of near-coincidence, with perhaps too many skipped syllables for any sense of regularity:

Does she look, pity, wonder,

At one who mimics flight,

__ / __ __ / _ __ / __ _

_ __ / _ _ __ / __

The last line, however, has pleasing near-coincidence, this time without any skipped syllables:

Yet always earth in sight?

_ __ / __ __ / _ __

Overall, there are precious few dactyls to be found, but a triple rhythm is nevertheless evident and significant to the poem’s skipping and tripping style, which makes light of the traditional duple feet of English-language poetry, even though it does not take much forcing of the language to impose a sing-song iambic hexameter on each line. Indeed, if you remove the visual device that primes the ear for a rhythmic subtext, that is, the knowledge of the orthographic code, if you will, the hexameter is the remainder – the most obvious rhythm in each line.

All this leaves me curious as to whether Moliere used any triple rhythms to introduce variety to the twelve syllable lines in his Don Juan – but I have not studied French, so on this I cannot comment.