I is for the Iamb

I’m terrible at scansion. I have a degree in English and I’m still not even sure I understand what that word means. I feel that somewhere along the way, someone should have satisfactorily explained to me how to scan a line of verse, how to differentiate stressed and unstressed syllables, how to tell a dactyl from an anapest, a trochee from an iamb. And my guess is that someone probably did, and I either wasn’t paying attention or I am just too rhythmically impaired to truly understand how meter works. The only person I can think of who’s come close is Stephen Fry, whose “The Ode Less Travelled” is one of the most helpful books on poetry I’ve ever read. To scan a line means to read it for its metrical properties (and then to map out these properties graphically via a series of very confusing dots, dashes and lines). One can distinguish verse from prose by dividing measured language (verse) from unmeasured language (prose). This measurement of language is called meter. In English language poetry, meter is determined by syllabic stress (as opposed, for example, to syllabic length, which determines meter in Greek and Latin verse) and different patterns of stress are delineated as sequences of feet, feet being the basic unit of meter. Still with me? I promise I am getting to the iamb. In fact, I’ll introduce the iamb now: an iamb is a particular type of metrical foot – it denotes a specific unit of stressed and unstressed syllables, namely an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (as in delay, trapeze, or “I wandered lonely as a cloud.“). The iamb is a very common metrical foot in English, and iambic pentameter (iambic pentameter: meter of 5 iambic feet) is one of the most popular metric lines in English verse, made famous by Shakespeare and Marlowe and regularly appearing all over the place, from Frost to xkcd:

iambic pentamenter is colloquial! says xkcd

“Well, I / can meet / the plane / at ten / of six.” “I’ll meet / him at / the stairs / before / the gate.” Pretty natural, right? And it’s not such a stretch to feel that same rhythm beating in these lines from Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus: Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Illium? But even there things get a bit dicey in the second line…how to scan “towers of Illium?” My best guess is as I have it, though I wonder whether that final “um,” in Illium should be stressed as well, to complete the pentameter line, instead of letting in a line of tetrameter. See, I told you I’m not very good at this. The part of scansion where I have always struggled is exactly this: differentiating stressed and unstressed syllables. For the life of me I cannot do this — I don’t know if it is that I just don’t trust the cadence of my own speech patterns, but if I read a line of poetry more than twice, chances are the stresses come out differently at least two times out of three. (Unless it’s Dylan Thomas: even I can scan “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Hear him read this poem here.) In high school, I solved this problem by ruling stress unnecessary to scansion: I just counted syllables and left it at that. A ten syllable line? Iambic pentameter, obviously. Wrong. A 10 syllable line might be iambic pentameter, just like a two syllable word might be an iamb. There. It looks like I’ve learned something. Not very much, but enough for now. Maybe “S is for Spondee” will clear this all up once and for all…stay tuned.

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4 thoughts on “I is for the Iamb

  1. That final “um” of Illium? Hmmmm, could it be the final “ium” (as in “yum”) of Illium. And isn’t part of the glory of scansion that occasionally, irregularly the verse doesn’t fit the meter; as in music, it is the unexpected sharp, flat or natural that varies from the key signature that somehow sharpens our ear to the tune? Not an English major and it’s been decades since I studied iambs, etc., so these are just thoughts that emerged on reading your delightful piece on the iamb and scansion and poetry versus prose.

    • You’re totally right, it could absolutely be “yum.” And right again, part of the glory of scansion is that occasionally, and often intentionally, lines are irregular and don’t fit the meter. In fact, perfectly regular verse is the exception, not the rule. Or rather, the exception and the rule, if that makes sense: regular is the rule, but it’s a rule rarely upheld continuously, and aren’t we lucky for that?

      This holds for poetic form as well as meter — they’re adaptable and irregular and often the best examples of a certain form don’t uphold the strictest elements of its base structure. I’m reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s altered villanelle, “One Art” (as compared with an extremely regular villanelle, like Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.”).

  2. Pingback: Syllabic stress | Dinsersfarm

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