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Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Foot of Iamb

In Table above notice how the symbols for “long and short vowels” in disyllable of the Quantitative Meter equate with the “stressed and unstressed disyllable of Accentual-Syllabic forms in Qualitative meter with respect to the Iamb, the most common metrical foot in English and other languages as well.

The Iamb is called a rising meter because its sound rises from unstressed sound to a stressed sound. The four verses in Stanza 50 of Lord Tennyson’s poem "In Memoriam" provide examples of iambs used in English poetry.

In Memoriam
Stanza 50

1 Be near me when my light is low,
2 When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
3 And tingle; and the heart is sick,
4 And all the wheels of Being slow.

And show the results from the four verses scanned as follows:

The scansion of these four verses has provided some basic clues as to the structure and form of the verses in the poem. Verses 1 and 3 of stanza 50 make use of the iamb and other foot types but still measures four feet each in Non-Standard Iambic Tetrameter verse. Verse 2 has no iambs but still measures four feet; without any iambs present it cannot be called an Iambic Tetrameter verse, but simply a Tetrameter Verse. Verse 4 is made up entirely of iambs and measures four iambic feet and is rightly called a Standard Iambic Tetrameter verse. The iamb is clearly recognized for its monotonous rhythmic tone (da-dum, da-dum, da-dum); probably the reason why Lord Tennyson mixed iambs with other foot types like the spondee, pyrrhic to shake up the rhythmic flow.

A Standard iambic verse regardless of the length of the foot is a verse containing all its feet made up of iambs.

A Non-standard iambic verse regardless of the length of the foot has the iambs mixed with other foot types for example the, trochee, spondee, dactyl, anapest and pyrrhic. This structure counteracts the metronomic effect by substituting for an iamb another type of foot whose stress is different. The first foot in the verse is the one most likely to change. The second foot is almost always an iamb. This is where the “inversion technique” is used. This technique allows iambic tetrameter verses (and other types of iambic feet, example iambic pentameter) to retain their dominance in spite of being invaded by other foot types. The inversion technique imposes strict compliance in that there must be no compromising on the required length of feet; so an iambic tetrameter must measure four feet, the iambic pentameter must measure five feet, iambic hexameter must measure six feet and so on. Most inversions tend to fall on the trochee.

In the poetic world, no one goes around saying Non-standard and Standard Iambic Tetrameter as the case may be; so long as the verses measure four feet the qualifier is not needed, just simply Iambic Tetrameter, Iambic Pentameter, whatever the case may be is the acceptable term used in poetry analysis.

Attention must be drawn to the fact that in addition to having poems written in classical Hexameter, over centuries English poems have shifted from classical Hexameter to Iambic Hexameter. An example of this shifting is seen in poems written by Michael Drayton and other eminent poets through the ages. Drayton used iambic hexameter couplets way back in 1612 in his “Poly-Olbion”. Here is an example from his works:

Classical English poets have experienced great difficulty in writing poems with Dactylic Hexameter verses. The position taken on this is that English leaves vowels and consonants out from words, thus becoming a problem because the Hexameter relies on phonetics, and sounds always have fixed positions. Several attempts were made in the 18th century to adapt Dactylic Hexameter into English Iambic Pentameter. An example of this is found “Couplets on Wit” by Alexander Pope where he used Heroic Couplets (a pair of rhyming verses written in iambic pentameter) an example is shown in Stanza VI taken from the poem where he use quite effectively iambs in the creation of Iambic Pentameter verses in heroic couplets; and disregarded the use of the Dactylic Hexameter. The Dactylic Hexameter has never been popularly used in English, where the standard meter is iambic pentameter. Take a look:

Couplets on Wit (Stanza VI)

Wou’d you your writings to some Palates fit
Purged all you verses from the sin of wit
For authors now are conceited grown
They praise no works but what are like their own

Have you noticed that in verse 3 of the exampler that the last foot is incomplete, that is, there is a syllable missing? In poetry this is exceptable. What the poet has done is to shift the feeling of the poem, a technique so often used to achieve a certain effect.  So in addition to this verse being an iambic pentameter, it is also a catalectic verse in iambic pentameter. A safe definition for this type of verse probably would go like this: A catalectic verse is a metrically incomplete verse, lacking a syllable at the end or ending with an incomplete foot.

Heroic Couplet

A pair of rhyming verses written in Iambic Pentameter is termed a Heroic couplet. It was so called for its use in the composition of epic poetry in the 17th and 18th centuries. The couplet is formed with the use of two successive verses of poetry with equal length and rhythmic correspondence with end words that rhyme.

Geoffrey Chaucer created the “heroic couplet” easily recognized in his “Canterbury Tales”. A couplet for special purposes, is the shortest stanza form, but is frequently joined with other couplets to form a poem with stanzas of four verses with each verse having ten-syllables. So it is easy to figure out why the “heroic couplet” bears such names as the decasyllabic quatrain also known as the “heroic stanza”, or “heroic quatrain”. Thus, the decasyllabic quatrain consists of four verses with a rhyme scheme of aabb or abab.

Note however, that “heroic couplets are also formed with no stanza divisions, as in Roberts Browning’s “My Last Duchess”. See excerpt of poem scanned below:

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