Toward a Definition of “Poetry” Pt. III

Part III: Keeping of Accent

I. Iambic Pentameter’s Beginnings

The motivations behind the inception of Iambic Pentameter are widely available to be read online; one need only turn to Wikipedia for an accurate discussion on the matter. Less clear, however, is precisely when in the 14th century our English meter came into usage, and who may be claimed to have been the first of its long line of writers. It is commonly—and perhaps accurately—accepted that Chaucer first used the meter consistently. Explore his renowned General Prologue to Canterbury Tales for evidence of this:

    “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
      The droughte of March hath perced to the roote
      And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
      Of which vertue engendred is the flour;
      Whan Zephirus eek with this sweete breeth
      Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
      The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
      Hath in the Ram his half cour yronne,
      And smale foweles maken melodye,
      That slepen al the nyght with open eye
      (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages):
      Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages . . .”
    “When in April the sweet showers fall
      And pierce the frought of March to the root, and all
      The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
      As brings about the engendering of the flower,
      When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
      Exhales an air in every grove and heath
      Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
      His half course in the sign of the Ram has run
      And the small fowl are making melody
      That sleep away the night with open eye,
      (So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
      Then folk long to go on pilgrimages.”
             -Translated by Nevill Coghill

If the reader is uncertain of the prologue’s use of Iambic Pentameter, he need only seek out the correct pronunciation of Middle English and then accept the first line as beginning with a headless iamb. After Chaucer’s exploration and consistent usage, the meter came into fame. However, it is present in what we may call an Ur-Iambic meter, just before Chaucer’s great career.

Merely fifty or so years, as conjectured, prior to Chaucer’s composition of the General Prologue, the author commonly refereed to as the Gawain Poet—but whom I prefer to name the Pearl Poet—flourished. The Pearl Poet was best known for an alliterative and heavily iambic verse, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in a flowing structure dominated by hexameter:

    “Sithen the sege and the assaut watz sesed at Troye,
      The borgh brittened and brent to bronde and askez,
      The tulk that the trammes of tresoun there wroght
      Watz tried for his tricherie, the trewest on erthe . . .”

However, turning to another masterwork by the great poet, Pearl, one sees more clearly evidenced this Ur-Iambic meter, though lacking the precise formality which would later develop, and still relying heavily upon alliteration. I offer translation of the following excerpt, but I urge my readers to restrain their straying eyes until first reading the associated line in the original text, as it is truly a joy to read.

    “Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye
      To clanly clos in golde so clere;
      Oute of oryent, I hardyly say.
      Ne proved I never her precios pere.
      So rounde, so reken in uche araye,
      So smal, so smothe her sydes were,
      Quere-so-ever I jugged gemes gay,
      I sette hyr sengely in synglere.
      Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere;
      Thurgh gresse to ground hit fro me yot,
      I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
      Of that pryvy perle wythouten spot.
    “Pearl, to delight a prince's day,
      Flawlessly set in gold so fair
      In all the East, I dare to say,
      I have not found one to compare.
      So round, so radiant in array,
      So small, so smooth her contours were,
      Wherever I judged jewels gay
      I set her worth as truly rare.
      I lost her in a garden where
      Through grass she fell to earthen plot;
      Wounded by love beyond repair
      I mourn that pearl without a spot.”
            -Translation by Bill Stanton

The blend of alliterative verse and iambic feet is delectable in the hands of a great master. We shall return to Pearl later in our series as we discuss both poetic images and stanza structure; for the nonce we must strive to confine ourselves to an analysis of the Pearl Poet’s meter. As Chaucer, the Pearl Poet begins his piece with a headless iamb. I am rather fond of this device—the opening of a long piece with such a substitution—as it hints at the pause and breath one must take before reciting a lengthy tale. It is also fascinating to witness the use of variations which would later make their way into common and canonical handling; the Pearl Poet implements the choriamb ( / x x /), the feminine ending, and cross-word elision. In the following scansion I have marked such devices with brackets. As last week, my scansion marks unstressed syllabes with an “x” and stressed syllables with a forward slash.

Aside from the use of anapests, the meter never strays from substitutions which, as Iambic Pentameter would grow from its raw infancy into the proper English Meter, would come to be accepted as established rules. The poet also appears to possess an instinctive understanding of the amount of substitution a line may sustain without collapsing its metrical structure: he never uses more than two substitions in a line of five feet. Another slight fascination in the excerpt appears in the second line, with the apparent use of what I call the short feminine ending: an exclusion of the final stressed syllable concluding a line of Iambic Pentameter. In reading this Ur-Iambic meter, we see the rhythm and guidelines which would be set—for centuries—as more strict rules and, in the case of Shakespeare and the early “free verse,” devices which would later return with incredible energetic force.

It is unknown if Chaucer ever read the Pearl Poet, though it is more likely than not that he had, as the work, aside from originating from the same location from which Chaucer hailed, was so widely read throughout England that painters of the time would make use of this master’s scenes. Could it be Chaucer saw in this poet, especially Pearl, the meter he would come to establish? Whatever the case, Iambic Pentameter would, after the Pearl Poet and Chaucer, survive two centuries of occasional usage and experimentation—seen in William Dunbar, Thomas Wyatt, and the like—before reaching its station as a set form in the latter part of the 16th century, in the hands of Sir Philip Sidney:

    “Queen Vertues court, some call Stellas face,
      Prepar'd by Natures chiefest furniture,
      Hath his front build of Alabaster pure;
      Gold is the covering of that stately place
      The doore by which sometimes comes forth her Grace,
      Red Porphir is, which loccke of pearl makes sure:
      Whose porches rich (which name of cheeks endure)
      Marble mixt red and white do enterlace.
      The windowes now through which this heav'nly guest
      Looks over the world, and can find nothing such,
      Which dare claime from those lights the name of best.
      Of touch they are that without touch doth touch,
      Which Cupids selfe from Beauties myne did draw:
      Of touch they are, and poore I am their straw.”
            -Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet IX from Astrophel and Stella

II. The Basics of Variation

As we have seen, Iambic Pentameter has, from its inception, consisted of a more fluid form than that of a simple and drab seesaw of five iambs; instead, our meter allows the poet many devices, such as substitution, to aid the musicality of his lines. Theories of substitution vary widely, yet all theorists come to nearly the same conclusion, despite disagreeing on jargon: at the peak of Iambic Pentameter’s rigor, there existed three accepted divergent units: the choriamb, the minor ionic, and the third epitrite. There were further, unwritten guidelines in Iambic methodology: substitutions were to be implemented at specific places in a line and the amount of substitutions per line were limited to two.

The sense of the three approved deviant units is evident if one only considers the necessity of sustaining the poetic line as Iambic while allowing the greatest amount of variation possible. When exploring the potential expressions within a foot of two syllables, we see the following:

The Iamb:X /duh DUM
The Syprrhus:X Xduh duh
The Trochee/ XDUM duh
The Spondeee/ /DUM DUM
The Basic Metrical Feet

Each deviant foot must be immediately followed by an iamb, as to sustain the poetic line as Iambic. Consider scanning a line a poetry which begins with a trochee followed by a spondee. Nearly half-way through the line the reader will have not encountered a single iambic foot, and will be uncertain as to what precisely is guiding the poet’s meter. Thus the English meter developed the substititions discussed previously:

The Minor Ionic (or Double Iamb):X X / /duh duh DUM DUM
The Choriamb:/ X X /DUM duh duh DUM
The Third Epitrite/ / X /DUM DUM duh DUM
Significant Variations of Metrical Feet.

All three of these are put to use by Sidney in the Sonnet IX:

      [ /      x   x    /]   x      /    x      /    x       /
      Gold is the covering of that stately place . . .
      [/      /     x    /]     x         /        x      /       x        /
      Red Porphir is, which loccke of pearl makes sure . . .
      [/          /       x    /]        [x     x     /      /]    x    /
      Looks over the world, and can find nothing such

In light of the existence of such variations—along with that of elision and the long feminine ending—we see even the most exacting rules of Iambic versification inherently allow for a world of musical expression, and, when properly understood, the Pentameter is far from the stuffy archaism many today imagine it to be. Furthermore, our meter allows for nearly all of those units which authors of Post-modern “free verse” offer as vindication for their shirking of meter. Anapests ( x x /), for example, naturally occur in Iambic Pentameter: in concluding one line with a feminine ending, then beginning the next with an iamb—and as part of the choriamb. It is also worth mentioning that a poem is not required to be composed as pentameter in order to retain the rules of Iambic versification, as in Frost:

How contlessly they congregate
      O'er our tumultuous snow,
Which flows in shapes as tall as trees
      When wintry winds to blow!—
            -Robert Frost, Stars

The sense of “control” free verse is supposed to offer its writers is already present in Iambic meters. One may compose a stanza consisting of fluctuating line lengths, lush with the musical variation of nearly all possible feet—without discarding metrical structure and thus compromising the poem’s place as poetry, rather than prose.

Next week we will continue our discussion of meter, in exploring an echo forward through time from the Ur-Iambic meter of the Pearl Poet to English verse’s great explorer and experimenter: William Shakespeare.

Published by Matt Wildermuth

Matthew Wildermuth is a father and poet living near the banks of the Missouri in North Dakota. His work may be read at

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