Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to this thingy. The noble intention behind this monthly series of articles is to share the knowledge of metre, rhythm, and poetic form that I have acquired through unnecessary hard labour. This has driven me to insanity on at least four occasions, but the instructions contained herein should spare you from the frustrations I have suffered, and, indeed, the horror of the asylum.

This course will begin with a thorough examination of the Parnassian tradition, which is the preferred formal style of the Renaissance poets, the Augustan poets, the Romantics, and many of the Victorian poets. By studying the Parnassian tradition you will learn how to annotate metre in English and American poetry, and write metrical poetry with confidence. It is not my aim, however, to turn you into a Wordsworth, I merely hope to introduce, or refresh your memory, with a broad range of poetic styles. You may wish to pick and choose from the various poetic forms from around the world and use them to embellish your own style – this is what I do. Once metre and rhythm has been covered we will move on to Hopkins’s sprung-rhythm. This will involve looking at the metre and form of Beowulf and some other Anglo-Saxon poems, as well as Welsh poetics. You will then be ready to look at some difficult poetry by Thomas Hardy, the Modernists and Linguistically Innovative poets, such as Maggie O’Sullivan and Bill Griffiths. At the end of each article will be a glossary of the technical terms used, a solutions section for the half-arsed exercises that I have set, and a section of notes recommending optional, further reading.


We will begin with the form and rhythm of the Parnassians. Rhythm is a difficult kettle of fish. There are many texts on the subject, but none of them actually explain what a stress is. It would seem to be the assumption that we are born with an ear for that sort of thing, but I certainly wasn’t, and it has taken me years to get the hang of it. After sixteen years of getting to grips with stress I found the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English, ISBN 0-19-860772-5, edited by Clive Upton, and costing £19.99. (THIS HAS SOLD OUT, BUT LONGMAN DO ONE) This is a brilliant book, it gives the recitation stress of every word in British English and American English. This is the only book you will need for the duration of this course, and with it you will be able to write rhythmic poetry or mark the scansion on a poem that you are reading. This is not the ideal way to go about it, because stress can be affected in connective speech, but if you use this method for a poetry essay you will not be challenged. This is the method we will be using for the next few months. Later in the course we will start to use complex linguistic theory and speech analysis software, which you will be able to download for free. Apart from the Dictionary, all other teaching resources will be provided in these articles. So off you go to Waterstone’s or another leading purveyor of books.

Now you’ve made a successful trip to the bookstore, we will begin. According to the dictionary there are two levels of stressed syllable in the English language: a strong stress and a medium stress. There are also, of course, unstressed syllables. I will flick to random word in my copy and see what we come up with: Merrymaker. This word is represented in the dictionary thus: ˈmɛrɪ ̩meɪkә® This word is four syllables, as you can see. The higher mark that proceeds “mer”, or “ˈmɛr”, indicates that this is a strong stress. The lower mark that proceeds “mak”, or “ ̩meɪk”, indicates that this is a medium stress. The syllables “ry” and “er” are unmarked and are, therefore, unstressed syllables. Be careful, though, because when a word has only the one stress, and that is a medium stress, the dictionary gives it the higher mark. To make sure, you can look up other words that contain that syllable. An example of this is “in,” which is stressed in “inward,” but not in “inside.” The syllable “in”, then is a medium stress. Another problem is that the dictionary doesn’t always give the stress level of a monosyllabic word, but you can look up a polysyllabic word containing that syllable to determine whether it is stressed or not. There are some other phonetic rules that will help you as you start out. These will be explained in greater detail later in the course, but I will keep it simple for the moment. The first person pronoun “I” is rarely a stressed syllable, but “eye” is, because it actually sounds different to “I” when pronounced – say them out loud a few times and you will get the idea. The conjunction ‘and’ is rarely a stressed syllable. “The” is rarely a stressed syllable. Do not panic if this doesn’t make much sense yet. You will eventually develop an ear for stress whilst you mark the scansion using your dictionary as a crib. I struggled with stress for years before it suddenly became clear to me, but I think you will get it in a couple of months with these techniques. For the next few months we will be looking at the Parnassian tradition, and in this poetic model the secondary stress is less important than in other models. Therefore, a syllable is either stressed or unstressed – a medium stress counts as a stress. There are many methods for marking scansion, but for the moment we will use the traditional method for accentual rhythm, which is a “x” to mark unstressed syllables and a “/” to mark stressed syllables. Metric feet should be marked out with “|”, as shown bellow, but due to formatting issues I am going to use square brackets when we get to the poetry. When the scansion of “merrymaker” is annotated it will look like this:

/ x   / x


The metre here is trochaic. This will be explained in greater detail in the next section, which will focus on the sonnet.


THE SONNET Bill Griffiths once declared, or so I have been informed, that the sonnet was the worst thing that ever happened to the English Language. I happen to agree with this, to some extent, because I think that Anglo-Saxon and Old-English verse has greater versatility than iambic-pentameter and employes a combination of stresses to create sounds that are more charming to the ear. However, British poets have, unquestionably, composed wonderful poems in the sonnet form, and it is a form worth getting to grips with. I’m going to give a brief history of the sonnet as we know it in Britain, but for God’s sake don’t quote this in an academic essay. My advise on scansion is sound as a pound, but everything else is from memory, which has been somewhat clouded by the excesses of city living. Anyway, an Italian fellow named Francesco Petrarca (1304 -1374) created a sonnet form that was fourteen lines long and had the rhyme scheme: abbaabba cdecde; or abbaabba cdccdc. This has become known as the Petrarchan sonnet. During the Renaissance it became fashionable for English gentlemen to do the grand-tour of Europe. Among these gentlemen tourists were Henry Howard the Earl of Surrey (1517 - 1547) and Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 - 1542), who translated Patrarca’s sonnets into English. This is how the form became popular in Britain. Poor old Henry Howard found it difficult to stick to the original rhyme scheme, there are fewer rhymes in the English language than in Italian, and so devised a new rhyme scheme: ababcdcdefefgg. This is now known as the Shakespearian sonnet, Henry Howard must be livid. We are going to look at two sonnets, but before we do, let’s consider some myths about the sonnet that tend to cause no end of trouble for anyone attempting to learn scansion. First of all, forget that dum de dum de dum … nonsense you were taught at A-level.


Each line of a sonnet is composed in iambic pentameter. Every line contains ten syllables.


Poets vary the rhythm from iambic-pentameter to convey feeling or reinforce meaning. Lines are often longer or shorter than ten syllables. If it is longer it is hypercatalectic, if it is shorter it is catalectic.


You now have hypercatalectic and catalectic in your scansionist’s toolbox, I think we should add the names of some metrical feet to them. Now, remember that “x” is an unstressed syllable and that “/” is a stressed syllable:

iamb |x/|

trochee |/x|

spondee || pyrrhic |xx| dactyl |/xx| anapaest |xx/| amphibrach |x/x| There are other metrical feet, and you will find these listed in the glossary. I suspect we are now ready to look at the sonnets. We will begin with Shakespeare’s famous one: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? a Thou art more lovely and more temperate. b Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, a And summer's lease hath all too short a date. b Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, c And often is his gold complexion dimmed; d And every fair from fair sometime declines, c By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd; d But thy eternal summer shall not fade e Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st; f Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade, e When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st: f So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, g So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. g I don’t want to spend too long discussing this poem, because the next one we are to discuss is more appropriate for anyone wishing to compose a sonnet in twenty-first century English, but this wil give you a good grounding in the Shakespearian sonnet tradition. I have added the spaces between the lines myself so I can explain the parts of the Shakespearian sonnet with greater clarity, normally there would be no spaces. The rhyme scheme breaks the sonnet into four sections, or stanzas. The first rhyming group “abab” is four lines long, and is known as a quatrain. The second and third rhyming groups are also quatrains. The last two lines are a rhyming couplet. One of the things that characterises the sonnet form is that the mood of the poem changes after the eighth line. To simplify this to the extreme: the poet could discuss his love of cheese in the first eight lines, and then in the last six lines contemplate the dangers of cholesterol associated with cheese consumption. The moment at which the mood changes is known as the volta. In this sonnet the volta occurs when the poet reveals that the subject of the poem is not like summer after all, because their “eternal summer shall not fade”(l.8) into autumn. The first eight lines, before the volta, are known as the octave or octet. The six lines following the volta are the sestet. RHYTHM AND VERSE FORM WITH ALEC NEWMAN continuted