A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on my blog about metrical poetry, specifically, the line in Romeo and Juliet, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” and how the scansion of the line could support the meaning of the words. (What can I say? It was a nice break from the usual posting about truly important things like underwear and cramps.) I don’t claim to be an expert on this subject by any stretch of the imagination, even though many long years ago, I wrote an article for LitKicks about villanelles, sonnets and meter, (appropriately titled “Villanelles, Sonnets and Meter”) but it is something that fascinates me.
Like many good English majors, I had to study forms of poetic meter in school, and the most telling exercise (I still think about it) was having to write a perfect Elizabethan sonnet. It was a pass/fail assignment — it either was 14 lines of iambic pentameter or it wasn’t. It was surprisingly difficult, mainly because it’s amazing how often we try to force words to scan the way we think they ought to, instead of using words that fit naturally within the flow. (I suppose we have to give the word “amazing” a limited definition in this context.) But I have found since then that when I read metrical writing, I scan things in my head, and if I were to be a stickler, I’d say that there are an awful lot of poems out there that, in terms of scansion, aren’t true sonnets.
What I mean is that an iamb is a heartbeat — ba-DUM — and there are many words and phrases that are iambic (oddly enough, the word “iamb” is not one of them — it’s a trochee), and when scanning a line of poetry, the natural rise and fall of the syllables is what counts. If you place the stress on the wrong syllables to make the lines scan, then it’s not working. So, for example, if you’re writing a metered line and you’re reading the word “desire” as “desire” just to make it fit, then you’re forcing the scansion instead of letting it work naturally.
To help clarify my point, I’ll scan Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII, which is one of his most famous. One of the myths surrounding Shakespeare’s writing is that everything he wrote was in perfect iambic pentameter, especially the sonnets (this particular form is named for him, after all), but does it really work? Based on my own reading of the poem out loud to myself, without paying attention to what the scansion should be, this is how I scanned it:
Shall I/ compare/ thee to/ a sum/ mer’s day?
Right off the bat, the poem doesn’t scan iambic. I came up with Spondee/Iamb/Trochee/Iamb/Iamb
So, from a pure scansion standpoint, this line is a mess. Certainly, I can read it as iambic pentameter, but it’s forcing it a little; I don’t read the syllables falling naturally into that pattern.
Thou art/ more love/ ly and/ more temp/ erate:
I had a little trouble with this line. The last foot reads to me like a pyrrhic (two unstressed syllables in a row), though it’s said that pyrrhics usually only exist in a spondee/pyrrhic pattern, so technically, I guess the stress can fall on the final syllable of the last foot, but reading it that way sounds kind of fake and forced to me.
Rough winds/ do shake/ the dar/ ling buds/ of May,
And sum/ mer’s lease/ hath all/ too short/ a date:
Sometime/ too hot/ the eye/ of heav/ en shines,
And of/ ten is/ his gold/ complex/ ion dimmed,
I keep debating with myself as to whether or not the third foot of this line is a spondee or an iamb. I think I’ve read it too much to come to a strong conclusion, so I’m calling it iambic.
And ev/ ery fair/ from fair/ sometime/ declines,
By chance,/ or na/ ture’s chang/ ing course/ untrimmed:
But thy/ eter/ nal sum/ mer shall/ not fade,
Nor lose/ possess/ ion of/ that fair/ thou ow’st,
Nor shall/ death brag/ thou wan/ der’st in/ his shade,
I’m a little iffy about this one, because just as someone who’s done a fair share of poetry reading out loud, I wouldn’t normally read two continuous lines that begin with the same word with the same vocal pattern, but in the end, I think it scans.
When in/ etern/ al lines/ to time/ thou grow’st,
So long/ as men/ can breathe,/ or eyes/ can see,
So long/ lives this,/ and this/ gives life/ to thee.
So that’s my take on it, anyway. Definitely not perfect iambic pentameter, but interestingly, I think that in each case where the meter scans differently, the places where the stress falls on the syllables emphasizes the meaning of the line. I guess this means that Shakespeare was pretty crafty. Go figure.