Kate Nash

ENLT 201M metrical variations worksheet

This is a handout I designed based partly on examples I found in various poetry handbooks and textbooks. The feet are written into the lines to help introduce students to scansion without making them consider both accents and feet at the same time. I have used this in three different classes to begin discussion of several poems the students have been assigned that day that use metrical variation to accomplish these and other goals.

ENLT 201-M: Metrical variations in poetry

Variations and especially substitutions in a poem’s meter call attention to themselves to signal a rhetorical change in the poem. It is safe to assume that if you notice a substitution, it is there for a reason, and it is well worth finding out what the reason is.

Here are three principles of expression through metrical variations. These three principles are the main rhetorical moves a variation can signal, though of course there are hundreds less often used.

1. A succession of stressed syllables without the expected intervening unstressed syllables can suggest slowness, weight, or difficulty.

Example from William Wordsworth, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”:

            No mo / tion has / she now, / no force, /

               She nei / ther hears / nor sees; /

            Rolled round / in earth’s / diur / nal course, /

               With rocks, / and stones, / and trees. /

Example from Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress” (674):

            Had we / but world / enough, / and time, /

            This coy / ness,  la / dy,  were / no crime. /

            We would sit / down and think / which way /

            To walk, / and pass / our long / love’s day. /

Example from William Shakespeare, Hamlet, the Ghost’s first address to Hamlet (1297-98):

            I could / a tale / unfold / whose light / est word /

            Would har / row up / thy soul, / freeze thy / young blood / . . . .

            So lust, / though to / a rad / iant an / gel linked, /

            Will sate / itself / in a / celes / tial bed, /

            And / prey / on / garbage. /

2. A succession of unstressed syllables without the expected intervening stressed syllables can reinforce effects of rapidity, movement, lightness, or ease.

Example from Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach” (671) implies the movement of waves:

            Listen! / you hear / the gra / ting roar /

            Of peb / bles which / the waves / draw back, / and fling, /

            At their / return, / up the / high strand, /

            Begin, / and cease,/ and then / again / begin /

Example from William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” (1010) contains pyrrics that lighten up a rhetorically heavy passage:

            An ag / ed man / is but / a pal / try thing, /

            A tat / tered coat / upon / a stick, || unless /

            Soul clap / its hands / and sing, / and loud / er sing /

            For ev/ ery tat / ter in / its mor / tal dress /

3. An unanticipated reversal in the rhythm implies a sudden movement, often of discovery or illumination, or a new direction of thought, a new tone of voice, or a change or intensification of poetic address. (Any substitution can work for this, but spondee is the most common.)

Example from Robert Frost, “Come In”:

            As I came / to the edge / of the woods,/

            Thrush music || —hark! /

Example from Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach” (671) implies horror and dread:

            And we / are here / as on / a dark / ling plain, /

            Swept with / confused / alarms / of strug / gle and flight, /

            Where ig / norant  arm / ies clash / by  night.