View Full Version : poetic metre / stress

10-27-2018, 05:11 AM
Hey! Sorry for the homeworky question, but I'm drawing a complete blank on this. I find it extremely difficult to tell stressed from unstressed syllables. I'm writing something, and I know that the meter of this part is VERY important, but I can't figure out what to call it. I know it's a slightly weird question, but it's also extremely frustrating. So, two part question. What metre is this?

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

(It's the song from The Tempest.)

And how can you tell? I've read 'Metre Matters', which was useful, but was somehow not quite simple enough. Does anyone have any recommendations?

D. E. Wyatt
10-27-2018, 05:49 AM
I'm not much of a poet, but a lot depends on what type of verse it is.

As an example, this is something I wrote in the style of Old English alliterative verse. There are four stressed syllables, two each before and after the caesura. The first stress after the caesura alliterates with one or both of the stresses before it.

As the Fair Wheel fell, filled was the Medu
By the battle-rivers flowing, born of swords.
Ƿóden’s eagles circled, the eaters of corpses,
The maidens of the slain, with mounds to fill.
There Wolf and Ƿyrm, with weapon-thunder met,
Locked tooth and claw, tearing and rending
While battle-trees gathered, in bark of breast clad,
And the shooting-serpents, on shields beaten.

I don't think it's QUITE right, but I wrote this about 10 years ago and that particular work is on hold so I haven't gotten back to it yet.

So what you need to do is determine the metrical style, and that will go a long way towards establishing where your stress should be (IE, in iambic pentameter a stressed syllable follows a stressed syllable, and there's always five stressed syllables).

10-27-2018, 08:36 AM
Hi, The_Ink_Goddess,

Oooh, scansion! One of my favorite things! (This is not sarcasm. I love scansion. It's an amazing tool if you ever perform Shakespeare's work--or, for that matter, anything in verse.)

So, let's take a look at the poem from The Tempest and break it down:

If you're having trouble figuring out which syllables are stressed, it helps to read the passage aloud and overemphasize the stress. In time, you'll develop an ear for it--I scanned this in only a bit longer than the time it took to read it. But you won't have that ear at first, so REALLY exaggerating emphasis will help you.

Let's start with a single word: father.

Is it FATHer? Or fathER?

Pretty obvious when you say it aloud, right? So start with all the multisyllabic words.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

So far, so good, right?

I'm using bold for emphasized syllables rather than typical scansion notation because I have no idea how to get proper notation to show up in html. But when you do this with a poem, I recommend you print it out (double-spaced), then use a pencil (old school, I know, but it's actually faster than typing it for this). Over each stressed syllable, pencil in a slash (/). Over each unstressed, a dash or hyphen (-).

Okay, time to tackle the rest of the poem. Generally you expect a heartbeat rhythm in Shakespeare (and most verse): alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. But there are always exceptions. If something sounds weird, go with your gut. Again, for the "how can you tell?" part of your question, read it aloud, and over-emphasize the things you believe to be the stressed syllables. That will help.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

It's almost completely regular, but note how things go blippy at the end of the fifth line. I could go on and on about why (and it's pretty cool!), but for your question, you don't need to worry about the times the meter doesn't match the pattern, because you've now got enough of the pattern to figure out the meter.


Each line can be broken down into metrical feet. Each foot is (typically) two syllables. The most common feet are iambs and trochees. Let's not worry about the others for now; you don't need them.

In an iamb, the emphasis falls on the second syllable. For instance: apart, today, about, inside, return.
In a trochee, it falls on the first. As in: driven, father, wanted, coming, almost.

So first we need to figure out what we're dealing with. And here's where your sample is a little trickier than most Shakespearean verse: If you count the syllables, you'll see most of the lines have seven.

So how do we get that into feet which are generally two syllables?

Well, let's start with the first line, because it's easy:

Full fath/om five/ thy fath/er lies/

Four feet. All iambs. So: iambic tetrameter. (Tetra = four. Penta = five. And so on. Most of Shakespeare's verse is in iambic pentameter.)

Now the rest: We can either say it's headless iambic tetrameter (that is, it's iambic tetrameter, but the initial unstressed syllable is missing from each foot) or we can say it's trochaic tetrameter (with short lines, missing the final syllable--the fancy way of saying this is catalectic trochaic tetrameter).

Personally, I'd call it iambic tetrameter, but arguments can (and have!) been made either way. I tend to think iambic tetrameter would be the consensus, but it's not an issue I've done tons of reading on.

And if your head's spinning and you're thinking: "Wait! This is really hard" . . . you picked an unusually tricky poem. By the time Shakespeare got to The Tempest, he was playing around with rhythm and meter a lot. You know that thing people say about needing to know grammar rules to break them? It's the same with poetry. And in his later work, Shakespeare does all sorts of crazy, beautiful things by bending and breaking the rules.

So, back to your "how can you tell?" question: Let's take the same principles and apply them to something a bit more regular: a few of Hermia's lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

I do entreat your grace to pardon me.
I know not by what power I am made bold,
Nor how it may concern my modesty,
In such a presence here to plead my thoughts;
But I beseech your grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.

Ten syllables per line. Five feet per line. All iambs.
Iambic pentameter.

Make sense? (It's okay if it doesn't. I know this is a super-long post; if anything's unclear, please ask!)

11-01-2018, 11:03 PM
Yes, I think I can help!

Firstly, in regards to recognising stress: stress is primarily defined by pitch: a stressed syllable has a higher pitch. Secondary factors are duration, volume and vowel quality (vowels in unstressed syllables tend to have a less defined sound).

So, for instance let’s take two words that are spelt the same, but pronounced differently: you “present” a “present”. If you can hear the difference between “present” and “present”, what you are hearing is the difference in stress placement. Let’s take the 2nd syllable: “-sent”. When this syllable is stressed it is pronounced with a higher pitch and with greater duration than the previous syllable (present). When this syllable is unstressed it is pronounced with a lower pitch and shorter duration than the previous syllable (present) - and the vowel sound changes: instead of the open “e” sound in “bed”, we have an “uh” sound, just like the vowel sound we usually pronounce at the the end of the word “the” (the name for this syllable is a schwa). In the case of the 1st syllable, “pre-”, in its unstressed form it makes a short “i” sound, as in “hit”.

You can find exactly the same principles with “rebel” and “rebel” (a rebel rebels).

Here’s a list of words with identical spellings but different stress placements: https://www.engvid.com/english-resource/35-words-stress-changes-meaning/ (not all the syllables change vowel sound depending on stress).

And here’s where the beats fall in the passage you quoted:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

The technical answer to your question, “what metre is this?”, is that these lines are headless iambic tetrameters - with the exception of the opening line, which is not headless, and the penultimate line, which is a headless trimeter, with a heavy feminine ending. Which I’m sure sounds horribly complex and technical, but I’m going to break it down very simply!

I don’t know if you’re familiar with any of the terminology, so I’ll assume you’re not.

Iambic refers to the undulating beat pattern where the beats land on every other syllable: di-dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum, etc.

A headless line is one that is missing the opening non-beat syllable. It has the same undulating beat pattern, but this time opens on a beat: dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum, etc.

A tetrameter is a line with four beats.

And a trimeter is a line with three beats.

So of the six lines you quoted, three are headless iambic tetrameters:

Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
Into something rich and strange.

They all have four beats, which makes them tetrameters. They all have an undulating beat pattern (i.e. the beats land on every other syllable), which makes them iambic. And they all open on a beat, which makes them headless.

Now let's look at the first line:

Full fathom five thy father lies

In terms of the beat pattern, the only difference between this line and the lines we've just looked at is that the first beat lands on the 2nd syllable: this line is not headless. Though there is another feature to this line which illustrates the difference between stress placement and beat placement: almost anyone reading this line out loud would pronounce the 1st syllable, "Full", with exactly the same level of stress (i.e. at the same pitch) as the 2nd syllable, "fa-". However, when we read the whole line, it is only the 2nd of these two syllables that we hear as a beat: it is because every 2nd syllable has greater or equal stress to the previous syllable that we hear a regular rhythm. When a stressed beat syllable is preceded by an equally stressed non-beat syllable, these two syllables together are called a spondee.

So if we mark beats in italics and stresses in bold (which means stressed beats are both bold and italic), this is the scansion:

Full fathom five thy father lies

I've run out of time to explore the interesting 5th line - to be continued!

11-05-2018, 10:34 PM
I ran out of time in my last response to discuss the 5th line:

But doth suffer a sea-change

So this line has three beats: it's an iambic trimeter.

There are two other interesting metrical features.

Firstly, there's an extra syllable before the final beat:

...ffer a sea...

That small extra syllable (the "a") adds a little ripple to the line. When you have two syllables before the next beat this is known as an anapest.

Secondly, it has a very particular kind of feminine ending. A "feminine ending" is an extra non-beat syllable after the final beat (here's a short video: https://youtu.be/YcS4o0nI--4). This line has a heavy feminine ending: though the final syllable, "change", drops in pitch, so it's plainly a non-beat syllable, it retains the emphasis provided by duration and volume (on a side note, Shakespeare only occasionally employed heavy feminine endings, and only in his later plays. They were employed with much greater frequency by his Jacobean successors).

The effect of both these variations together, directly before and after the final beat, is highly expressive: the anapest creates a little rush, a little surge, and then the heavy feminine ending that immediately follows creates the sense of a broad, heavy movement, such as that of a large body of water. Combined with the shortness of the line (three beats instead of four), these effects produce a highly appropriate shift, or "change".

If you want to know more about how the iambic rhythm can be varied, you might find this answer of mine interesting: https://qr.ae/TUhHXw

As you seem to be particularly interested in the expressive effect of different kinds of meter, you might find this post interesting: https://qr.ae/TUGVFJ.

And in this answer I thoroughly explore headless lines, specifically: https://qr.ae/TUhHXZ.

Any questions, or if there's anything I haven't explained with sufficient clarity, do feel free to ask!

11-05-2018, 10:44 PM
As you find scansion so exciting, you might find my responses interesting, starsknight!

In my second response I also provide links to some of my Quora answers (you can find links to most of them at the bottom of my Quora profile: https://www.quora.com/profile/Keir-Fabian. I also have a blog devoted to the study of meter in Shakespeare's work: https://versemeter.wordpress.com/).