In any line of verse, there will be a number of stressed syllables, and a number unstressed. In traditional verse, poets have arranged these stressed syllables into similar ‘feet'. In music, feet are not dissimilar to bars. There is only ever one stress to a foot, but there can be any number of unstressed syllables. Secondary stresses can be counted or not counted, depending on the poet. Certain patterns have been given names that students need to be able to recognise and label.
The examples used here have been taken from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The most common is the iamb, or iambic foot. This consists of two syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed.
‘So bé |begín|ning, bé |begín|ning...' (The Leaden Echo...)
The feet are marked like bars in music. ‘Be' is stressed because it is a command. It would often be counted as an auxiliary verb and therefore not stressed.
If the pattern is inverted, we have the trochee, or trochaic foot.
‘Rúck and| wrínkle,| dróoping,| dýing,| déath's worst,| wínding|..' (The Leaden Echo...)
The anapaest or anapaestic foot is like the iamb but has two unstressed syllables before the stressed. Thus:
‘Of a frésh| and fóll|owing fóld|ed ránk' (Binsey Poplars)
where anapaests alternate with iambs. The two are compatible, since they are both ‘rising' metres, rising to the stress at the end.
‘Of the sódden|-with-its-sórr|owing héart' (The Wreck of the Deutschland)
where the ‘-en' part of sodden is run into the stressed syllable.
The reverse is known as the dactyl, or dactylic foot. This and the trochee are ‘falling' metres. Thus:
‘..wómb-of-all,| hóme-of-all,| héarse-of-all| níght.' (Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves)
Another falling metre used rarely in English verse except by Hopkins is the paeon, where three unstressed syllables follow the stressed syllable in the foot. Thus:
‘Ó is there no| frówning of these| wrínkles..' (The Leaden Echo)
Hopkins gave his own name to one unusual metre, which he called rocking, where a stressed syllable is surrounded by an unstressed on either side. Thus:
‘That dándled| a sándalled|' (Binsey Poplars)
The one-stress foot is called a spondee. It usually occurs where there are a number of monosyllabic verbs or nouns listed together. Thus:
‘...áll| in twó| flócks,| twó| fólds| - bláck,| whíte;| ríght,| wróng;|..' (Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves)
‘all' and ‘two' have to be stressed here, since Hopkins actually puts the accents over the words in his manuscript.
The number of feet per line is also important in the patterning of verse. They are named after the terms of Greek poetry. Thus from Stanza 2 of The Wreck of the Deutschland:
A 2-foot line is a dimeter
- Eg. ‘I díd| say yés|'
A 3-foot line is a trimeter
- Eg. ‘O at líght|ning and láshed| ród'
A 4-foot line is a tetrameter
- Eg. ‘Thou héardst| me trú|er than tóngue| conféss'
A 5-foot line is a pentameter
- Eg. ‘Thou knów|est the wálls,| áltar| and hóur| and níght:'
A 6-foot line is a hexameter
- Eg. ‘And the míd|riff astráin| with léan|ing of, láced| with fíre| of stréss.'
Sometimes the hexameter is called the alexandrine when it only consists of twelve syllables, as in French poetry.
Scan and go
Scan on your mobile for direct link.