It's Not About the Syllable Count
Teaching English Majors that they should approximate Iambic Pentameter by counting ten syllables per line is as inaccurate and potentially damaging as teaching Math Majors that Pi is approximately equal to three. Our universities should be encouraging poetry students to develop an ear for rhythm, regardless of their affinity for formal or free verse. To do that they need to understand what predominantly iambic rhythm is, and how substitutions can be made such that the number of syllables can fluctuate between nine and fourteen without unduly changing the underlying stress pattern.
Unfortunately the misconception that IP is ten syllables is a convenient one, and one which is true more often than not because a line of IP with no substitutions at all is indeed ten syllables. So, too, are many lines which have the more basic kind of duple substitution. As Paul Fussell explains in his excellent book Poetic Meter and Poetic Form "Although the best poets of the early eighteenth century (poets like Dryden, Prior, Gay, Swift and Pope) largely maintained the Renaissance tradition of expressive variation, they carefully observed a uniformity in the number of syllables per line" (Page 70). Thus there is a huge body of excellent formal poetry in English wherein the syllable count per line does not vary from ten.
It is however logically flawed to assume that because many lines of IP have ten syllables, most ten syllable lines will be IP. The natural meter of a ten syllable line could just as easily be anapestic tetrameter. Consider the fourth stanza of Elizabeth Bishop's "For C.W.B.":ALL/ of our DREAMS/ will be CLEAR/er than GLASS. (10)
CLAD/ in the WA/ter or SUN/ as you WISH, (10)
The underlying rhythm is unmistakably anapestic tetrameter. The simple substitution of a headless iamb for the first anapest of each line brings the syllable count down to ten.
Furthermore, many free verse lines with no noticeable stress pattern at all also have ten syllables. It's a line length that looks good on the page—neither flimsy nor verbose. Here are the first two lines of Hal Sirowitz's "Lending Out Books":You're ALways GIVing, my THERapist SAID. (10)
You HAVE to LEARN how to TAKE. WhenEVer (10)
In accentual syllabics it is more permissible to vary the syllable count than the number of accents, or stresses, which in IP can almost always be designated as five. Spondees, or feet with two hard stresses, rarely add a true sixth stress to an IP line. Typically a foot which could be marked as a spondee is preceded either by a pyhrric (pair of unstressed syllables) or an iamb. In the first case, this is known as a double iamb and clearly invokes no additional stress e.g. from Pope's "Essay On Criticism":'Tis not a lip or eye we beauty call
But the/ JOINT FORCE/ and full result of all.
In the second case, the construction places three hard stresses consecutively, and as it is impossible in English to say three stressed syllables in succession, the middle one is demoted to a syllable of lesser stress e.g. from Yeats' "The Statues":And PRESSED/ at MID/night IN/ some PUB/lic PLACE
Live LIPS/ uPON/ a PLUM/met MEAS/ured FACE.
Here "Live" would normally be stressed but is demoted. Interestingly this couplet also demonstrates the opposite principle: it is impossible to say three consecutive unstressed syllables and therefore "in" is promoted in the first line.
Thus the important device in the maintenance of an IP rhythm is those five hard stresses. In a regular line of IP with NO substitutions the rhythm is precisely this: daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. We will not concern ourselves with trochaic substitution, which simply reverses one of those feet into a DUMda, but only with the substitutions which affect the number of syllables. These are the already mentioned headless iamb, the anapest, and the feminine ending.
The headless iamb always occurs in the first foot of the line, and is an omission of the first unstressed syllable e.g. Hayden Carruth, Sonnets: "2":/ ^ WO/ man I'M/ not SURE/ of MUCH/ are YOU/ (9)
Clearly, this reduces the syllable count, barring other substitutions, to nine.
In loose IP it is generally acceptable to substitute one anapest (dadaDUM) for one of the iambs. Robert Frost was one of the first to legitimize loose IP in serious poetry:We KEEP/ the WALL/ betWEEN/ us AS/ we GO. (10)
To EACH/ the BOUL/ders THAT/ have FALL/en to EACH (11)
Light verse or very modern IP may even go a step further and substitute two anapests e.g. Byron's Don Juan (Canto II:1)Oh YE/ who TEACH/ the inGEN/uous YOUTH/ of NATions (13)
Here we also have an example of the feminine ending—the final unstressed or hypermetrical syllable of the line is ignored, and thus this line, although clearly IP to my ear, has thirteen syllables.
Byron took this principle one further (and I would argue this is probably only permissible in light verse) by ending lines with two unstressed syllables e.g. (Canto I:17)Her GUAR/dian ANG/el had GIV/en UP/ his GARRison (14)
In the surrounding context of more regular lines of IP, this too sounds well within the bounds of the rhythm, although as we can hear if fully enunciated it has fourteen syllables.
Thus an IP line can have as few as nine or as many as fourteen syllables. Teachers and students need not deliberately try to recreate these effects in their own formal exercises, but what they should do is practice listening for those five hard stresses, and rejecting lines as imperfect IP not on syllable count, but if when spoken aloud the stress pattern is noticeably missing or surplus a stress.
Pi is approximately equal to 3.14. Approximations are useful in all branches of academia. Over-approximations, on the other hand, are not.Anna Evans is a British citizen but permanent resident of NJ, where she is raising two daughters. She has had over 80 poems published in journals including The Formalist, Light Quarterly, The Absinthe Literary Review, Asphodel and One Trick Pony. She occasionally dreams in Iambic Pentameter. Read Anna's Blog
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