Saturday, July 3, 2010


In the Western poetic tradition, meters are customarily grouped according to a characteristic metrical foot and the number of feet per line. Thus, "iambic pentameter" is a meter comprising five feet per line, in which the predominant kind of foot is the "iamb". This metric system originated in ancient Greek poetry, and was used by poets such as Pindar and Sappho, and by the great tragedians of Athens. Similarly, "dactylic hexameter", comprises six feet per line, of which the dominant kind of foot is the "dactyl". Dactylic hexameter was the traditional meter of Greek epic poetry, the earliest extant examples of which are the works of Homer and Hesiod. More recently, iambic pentameter and dactylic hexameter have been used by William Shakespeare and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, respectively.

Meter is often scanned based on the arrangement of "poetic feet" into lines.[35] In English, each foot usually includes one syllable with a stress and one or two without a stress. In other languages, it may be a combination of the number of syllables and the length of the vowel that determines how the foot is parsed, where one syllable with a long vowel may be treated as the equivalent of two syllables with short vowels. For example, in ancient Greek poetry, meter is based solely on syllable duration rather than stress. In some languages, such as English, stressed syllables are typically pronounced with greater volume, greater length, and higher pitch, and are the basis for poetic meter. In ancient Greek, these attributes were independent of each other; long vowels and syllables including a vowel plus more than one consonant actually had longer duration, approximately double that of a short vowel, while pitch and stress (dictated by the accent) were not associated with duration and played no role in the meter. Thus, a dactylic hexameter line could be envisioned as a musical phrase with six measures, each of which contained either a half note followed by two quarter notes (i.e. a long syllable followed by two short syllables), or two half notes (i.e. two long syllables); thus, the substitution of two short syllables for one long syllable resulted in a measure of the same length. Such substitution in a stress language, such as English, would not result in the same rhythmic regularity. In Anglo-Saxon meter, the unit on which lines are built is a half-line containing two stresses rather than a foot.[36] Scanning meter can often show the basic or fundamental pattern underlying a verse, but does not show the varying degrees of stress, as well as the differing pitches and lengths of syllables.[37]

As an example of how a line of meter is defined, in English-language iambic pentameter, each line has five metrical feet, and each foot is an iamb, or an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. When a particular line is scanned, there may be variations upon the basic pattern of the meter; for example, the first foot of English iambic pentameters is quite often inverted, meaning that the stress falls on the first syllable.[38] The generally accepted names for some of the most commonly used kinds of feet include:
A Holiday illustration to Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark", which is written mainly in anapestic tetrameter. "In the midst of the word he was trying to say / In the midst of his laughter and glee / He had softly and suddenly vanished away / For the snark was a boojum, you see."

* iamb – one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable
* trochee – one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable
* dactyl – one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables
* anapest – two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable
* spondee – two stressed syllables together
* pyrrhic – two unstressed syllables together (rare, usually used to end dactylic hexameter)

The number of metrical feet in a line are described in Greek terminology as follows:

* dimeter – two feet
* trimeter – three feet
* tetrameter – four feet
* pentameter – five feet
* hexameter – six feet
* heptameter – seven feet
* octameter – eight feet

There are a wide range of names for other types of feet, right up to a choriamb of four syllable metric foot with a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables and closing with a stressed syllable. The choriamb is derived from some ancient Greek and Latin poetry. Languages which utilize vowel length or intonation rather than or in addition to syllabic accents in determining meter, such as Ottoman Turkish or Vedic, often have concepts similar to the iamb and dactyl to describe common combinations of long and short sounds.

Each of these types of feet has a certain "feel," whether alone or in combination with other feet. The iamb, for example, is the most natural form of rhythm in the English language, and generally produces a subtle but stable verse.[39] The dactyl, on the other hand, almost gallops along. And, in the manner of The Night Before Christmas or Dr. Seuss, the anapest is said to produce a light-hearted, comic feel.[40]

There is debate over how useful a multiplicity of different "feet" is in describing meter. For example, Robert Pinsky has argued that while dactyls are important in classical verse, English dactylic verse uses dactyls very irregularly and can be better described based on patterns of iambs and anapests, feet which he considers natural to the language.[41] Actual rhythm is significantly more complex than the basic scanned meter described above, and many scholars have sought to develop systems that would scan such complexity. Vladimir Nabokov noted that overlaid on top of the regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of verse was a separate pattern of accents resulting from the natural pitch of the spoken words, and suggested that the term "scud" be used to distinguish an unaccented stress from an accented stress.[42]

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