On Meter

by Andrew Mattison

At its simplest, meter in English is the use of patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables to order poetic lines.  The basics of meter can be found in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, M. H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms, and any good introductory poetry textbook; in-depth treatments include Paul Fussell’s classic Poetic Meter and Poetic Form and Thomas Carper and Derek Attridge’s more recent Meter and Meaning.  Applying it in a more advanced way, however, can be complicated; meter has a long and tangled history, having meant very different things to different eras and schools of poetry, and there is no consensus on what precisely it is, how it works, and how different metrical practices across literary history relate to each other.

There is no doubt, however, that most poetry in English written before 1900, and a fair amount of it after, was intended to sound in the reader’s ear as metrical, and most commonly as iambic pentameter, a metrical form in which each line has five stressed syllables, most of which follow an unstressed syllable.  There is also no doubt that in these poems meter exists in an inextricable relationship to meaning; a poet chooses his form and his sound based on the idea the poem is trying to convey but also recognizes that form and sound will lead the reader in the direction of a particular interpretation.  On the other hand, sometimes a needed word or phrase just sounds the way it sounds, and what matters about it is the image or sense it conveys.  If we analyze only the sound of a poem, we haven’t done much at all until we see how sound is conveying meaning—which we only can see when we recognize that sometimes it isn’t.  So with these many qualfications, I’ll suggest a few things about the role meter can have in the explication of poetry.

The first important distinction to make is between scansion and metrical criticism.  Scansion (the verb is to scan) is the act of going through part or all of a poem to figure out which syllables are meant to be stressed and which are unstressed, and secondarily understanding the relationship between the combination of stresses in any given line and the overall pattern of the meter the poet is relying on.  Metrical analysis is devoted to the function of accent or stress in sense.  Neither of them necessarily involves the other.

Most of the time, scansion is fairly straightforward, but, depending on the theory of meter behind it, it can have endless variations and can be quite subjective.  Good practice is always to scan multiple lines together; it is the pattern that matters, and the pattern only emerges in multiple lines.

I’m going to consider a couple of examples from a thorny poem, in order to think about what scansion can tell us and what it can’t.  Here are two short groups of lines from the first two books of Milton’s Paradise Lost:

  • Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
    Th’infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
    Stirred up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d
    The Mother of Mankind. . .
  • . . . through many a dark and dreary Vale
    They passed, and many a Region dolorous,
    O’er many a Frozen, many a Fiery Alp,
    Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death,
    A Universe of death. . .

Particularly since Milton has marked with an apostrophe the vowel he doesn’t want us to pronounce, it’s fairly easy to scan the first passage:

As is typical for Milton and many poets, variations from standard iambic pentameter are more likely to occur toward the beginning of the line, and we see some variation here in the first line.  That line is a good indication of why scansion needs context; we might imagine the stress here on “first,” if this were a poem in which lots of people had seduced Adam and Eve and Milton wanted to know the first one.  But context suggests “who” is better emphasis, meaning this is a variation (but a common one) from iambic: stressed unstressed unstressed stressed.  More subjective is that “them” I have marked as stressed; I hear it that way because otherwise the “to” seems more prominent than I think Milton would want it; the point here is the unfortunate association between “them” and “foul revolt”; “to” is just the short distance it took to get there.

In quoting the second passage above, I’ve started it midline for the purpose of sense, but for scansion let’s add the beginning back in:

We have various issues here.  One is the repetition of the phrase “many a,” each iteration of which has three syllables taking what would normally be the place of two.  I’ve dealt with this by marking the ‘y’ in each “many” with an X, as if it doesn’t count.  But that’s a simplification—the reality is just that the speediness of the phrase means that both syllables will fit into the space the ear marks for that unstressed syllable.  The repetition reinforces that speed—by the last one, we’re going even faster than we were at first.

Then we come to what is actually a famously unscannable line: “Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death.”  Some people have insisted that this is still a five-stress line, and that some of those heavy Anglo-Saxon monosyllables are actually heavier than the others.  But in my view that won’t work—the commas, if not the sound and sense of the word, prevent it, slowing the line down to the point that it simply cannot exist in the ear as iambics.  Others use the term “spondee,” a word that derives from Greek and Latin scansion, which measures length of syllables rather than stress: in those poetries a spondee is two long syllables in a row.  Calling these spondees, though, solves nothing, but is merely putting a word (awkwardly I think) on an impossible situation: we should have five stresses, but we seem to have eight.

Scansion tells us a lot, here, but it also leaves a lot unsaid—in fact, in some ways it tells us what we don’t know.  One possible response to that is to start expanding the vocabulary of scansion, adding new marks to represent different kinds of sound-scenarios.  That can be a constructive approach, but we can also take a step back and start over, freeing ourselves from marking the lines so that we can think about them in different ways.

Metrical criticism
Analyzing meter can start with scansion, but it doesn’t have to—it is merely making observations, the same as any other form of criticism.  Let’s take another crack at that second passage from Milton:

  • . . . through many a dark and dreary Vale
    They passed, and many a Region dolorous,
    O’er many a Frozen, many a Fiery Alp,
    Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death
    A Universe of death. . .

One of the things I’d like to point out about this passage is how much there is going on in the sound of it apart from the meter.  I discussed the repetition of “many a” above, but note that the four instances of the phrase each includes part of an alliteration: “dark,” “dreary,” “dolorous” and “Frozen,” “Fiery” connect with each other across the uncertain metrical space created by those extra syllables.  It’s particularly noticeable in the line, “O’er many a Frozen, many a Fiery Alp,” with its remarkably heavy caesura (a caesura is a midline pause, though it has a much more specific meaning in medieval English, Greek, and Latin poetry), which puts extra emphasis on those f-words.  It is not a coincidence that the sense of those words are opposite each other—the sound of the line contains the violence of those two extremes placed so close to each other.  The whole line also serves to place extra emphasis on the word “Alp,” which is a surprising one—it can mean, as it does here, a high mountain in general, but to any European it still evokes a landscape completely different from the hellacious one described in the line.

Those extra little syllables running up to the “Alp” leave us wholly unprepared for the line that follows.  In fact, it’s a little difficult even to understand the basic grammar here: “they” passed through lots of vales and over lots of alps—so we expect a similar prepositional phrase to complete the parallel.  We don’t get it, though, so we don’t know whether the rocks, caves, etc. are part of the prepositional phrase that began with “O’er” (these are some of the things they passed over) or if it’s a new and jarringly non-parallel object of “passed.”  In both sound and sense, the line is hard to know what to do with.

The passage comes from the moment in Book 2 of Paradise Lost when Satan, having adjourned the meeting of the fallen angels at which he announced his intention to seduce and destroy humanity (us, Milton constantly reminds us), sends out his devils over the landscape of hell, to explore and understand it.  What they find is this jumble of the parts of a landscape, fitting together in ways that neither they nor (at least at this point in the poem) the reader can make sense of.  If our eye does not sufficiently contain the confusion of those former angels in hell, our ear will supplement it.

But there’s a larger point to make about this kind of suspension of the apparent patterns of iambic.  In order to get away with it, poets have to find some way of acknowledging it—telling us they know what they’re doing and doing it on purpose.  Consider the following lines, the opening of one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets:

  • Batter my heart, three personed God; for, you
    As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
    That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me,’and bend
    Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.

The first and third lines are actually pretty standard iambics—the first iamb in each is reversed, with the stress first, and that apostrophe before “and bend” indicates that the ‘e’ in “me” and the ‘a’ in “and” are supposed to run into one another (elision is the technical term), forming a single unstressed syllable.  If we allow for that those two lines are easy to scan.  In the other two, however, we have three monosyllables in a row, separated by commas.  It’s not by accident that Donne gives us the two sequences “knock, breathe, shine” and “break, blow, burn.”  If we had only the first, we would figure that “breathe,” though seemingly emphatic, must be enough less so than “knock” and “shine” to allow the iambic pattern to roll on.  So Donne gives us the same thing again, to show us he meant the first one.  We can’t explain them both away, and he doesn’t want us to: this is a representation through the sound of the words of the knocking of God on the heart of the poet (a knocking that is as yet unsuccessful—that is, hard to read), and it does—it is supposed to—disrupt the normal order of things.