Posts Tagged ‘Tintern Abbey’

Measuring rhythms in English verse

September 7, 2016

Taking a break from history for a while, I’ve decided to revisit territory I covered closely several years ago and then set aside, knowing someday I would pick up the thread again, but still unsure where it would all lead. Out of nostalgia for a very energetic period of creative writing, and to take advantage of two book length poems I’ve since been able to acquire my own copies of – Robert Browning’s Fifine at the Fair, and Cayley’s (notably obscure) translation of the Iliad. I quickly found myself making notes in their margins.

When I first began experimenting with quantitative meters in poetry, I had a very definite goal in mind – to write an epic in Homeric hexameters myself. But the more I learned about these exotic classical verse forms, the more academic my interest became. Ultimately, I became reserved about the possibilities of using such a meter (although I am still happy with some of the experiments I produced with it then).

In graduate school, I undertook a self-study course on the subject with the permission of a poetry instructor who had introduced me to Tennyson’s Ulysses and Dryden’s verse. I studied Renaissance and Victorian poetry in classical meters, and learned the Latin rules of quantitative scansion that they had adapted, with difficulty and with no consensus on the best approach, to the English language. The Latin rules, in turn, had been developed in imitation of the Greek classics.

Interestingly, neither Latin or Greek vernacular poetry or spoken language resembled, in rhythm, the movement of the hexameter line so well known from Homer and Virgil. Although the Latin rules bore some correspondence to what is now understood to have been Latin pronunciation, in each instance the rules were orthographic rather than auditory in application – an artifact of written literature that could only be reproduced aurally by artificial elongation of the “long” syllables (a foot scanned according to stress in accentual-syllabic versification is scanned according to duration in quantitative meter; in quantitative music two short syllables equal one long in duration). To complicate matters further, Renaissance and Victorian authors were educated in a Latin that had lost correspondence to classical pronunciation (which has been more successfully reconstructed since then). So to the extent that Virgil’s hexameters could be heard in Latin, these students of classical poetry were at a loss as to how.


Instead, they arranged their quantitative lines orthographically – that is, according to the arrangement of letters into diphthongs, digrams, pairs of consonants, and types of vowels. Syllables with “tense” vowels do tend to be pronounced “long” in English as in Latin, and diphthongs and consonant clusters can also lengthen the duration of a syllable, but often silent consonants were scanned identically to other consonants, and the tendency for English pronunciation to lengthen certain syllables in a line in connection with syntax or word prominence was long ignored.

e.g., the long e in “The scene was beautiful” is longer than the long e in “The scenery was beautiful” (Schuman 1977)

The first English poets to achieve audible quantitative meters were those who exploited coincidence, that is, the tendency of an accented syllable to sound longer in duration than an unaccented syllable. Here the Victorian poets experimenting with classical meters were aided by the phenomenon of isochronism – the tendency of English verse to give equal time intervals between stressed syllables in a line, so that in a line running

/ ‘ ‘ / ‘ / ‘ / ‘ ‘ / ‘ ‘ / ‘

the duration of the first two unstressed syllables is one beat, and the duration of the second syllables in each of the second and third feet is the same as the stressed syllables. Hence in quantitative meter, you have a dactyl and two spondees – spondaic substitution being permissible in all but the penultimate foot in an epic hexameter line, whereas the last two feet must be a dactyl followed by a spondee. This is important for the quantitative hexameter at least, because trochees and iambs are excluded in this verse form, whereas they are almost inevitable in English accentual-syllabic scansion (some experts would argue that there is no such thing as a true accentual-syllabic spondee in English, due to the rising and falling pattern of our speech habits, which strongly favor iambic pentameter lines).

I remember in my term paper on Tennyson’s Ulysses for this same professor, I introduced an alternate approach to scansion which distinguished between strong stress and weak stress to account for the difference between prominent stressed syllables and words that only acquired stress by virtue of their position in the line (i.e., because of rising and falling speech patterns and the momentum of the iambic pentameter rhythm).

My teacher found this system very confusing, but I still find it very useful, because in iambic pentameters, I very often feel I have come across a dactyl-iamb pair that violates the sing-song conventions of versification and introduces a sense of relief from the constrictions of blank verse without interrupting the regularity of ten syllable lines. Take this line – here the downhill movement of the water carries the stress away from the second foot, but the need for a break from the unstressed syllables and the mid-point of the line assigns prominence to a word that would not normally be emphasized (“from”):

e.g., “These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs”

u S u s u S u S u S

Tintern Abbey, Line 3

In contrast, had the waters been rolling breakers on the open sea, the second foot would have laid more stress on “rolling”, I think. Here there are opportunities to introduce tension between verse forms within blank verse, with some lines having a triple rhythm, some a tetrameter, and some passages evoking ballad meter (tetrameter alternating with trimeter for a seven beat enjambed line). The following line, for instance, can be reduced to three beats:

“With a sweet inland murmur.—Once again”

u u S u u S u s u S

Here listening for the beat, in particular for isochronism, as opposed to counting the syllables and enforcing an iambic rhythm on the line, yields a more complex sense of movement and pause to a very familiar poem.

I’ll return to Tintern Abbey later, but first, I want to focus on Browning’s poem. Unfortunately, just introducing the subject has taken up most of my time (and a great deal of space), so I will get to Fifine at the Fair in my next blog entry.