This paper was commisioned By Patricia Oxley, editor of `Acumen' magazine,
from Fred Beake and will be published in `Acumen' in the near future.
I was so interested in it that I have asked Fred if I can distribute
advance copies on the Internet. Nobody knows more about verse rhythms
in English than Fred. `Acumen' is available from "6 The Mount,
Higher Furzeham, Brixham, South Devon TQ5 8QY."
NOTES AND COGITATIONS ON THE LINE AND THE FOOT IN FREE VERSE /Fred Beake
A poem moves in time from a point to a point, whether it is read aloud or
silently. Our perception of it is as much in the memory of what has just
passed as in the immediate words passing before our eyes and ears.
The force of the poem builds up by the wave patterns that are occasioned by
the movement of the breath, and we call lines. Breath however is not the
whole of it. When William Carlos Williams in a late poem talked of "the ear
and the eye lieing down together in the same bed" he was putting his finger
on a basic process that applies to all poetry written in a culture that has
gone beyond the purely oral. This applies equally to the way we read a
Keats ode, and a twentieth century free verse poem, such as Williams
himself might have written.
So far so good, but what is a line? Historically of course it is finite
unit composed of a group of feet. However, the actual definition of foot is
very various. The Romans and Greeks used a highly sophisticated patterning
by long and short syllables i.e. time duration. This was a result in all
probability of either Latin and Greek lacking the heavy accentuation that
characterises English for most of its history, or (possibly) to fit in with
various musical systems we now know little about. Thus, to take a very
simple example of what quantity sounded like, here are two lines from Hesiod
, written in the six foot line that the ancients called the Hexameter
Take notice when you hear the voice of the crane
Phracksesthai d', eut'an geranou phonen epakouseis
highup from the clouds making its annual shriek
upsothen ek nepheon eniausia kekleeguees.
The Roman/Greek system however only used one form of long, and one of short
syllable. One idea which is hard to cope with at first is that a syllable
is short or long, as much by what comes after it, as by its own time value. Long
vowels are always long. Thus"I cry" is two long syllables, and "a book"
with no words after is two short syllables. However, if "book" is followed by
another consonant it becomes long e.g. in "a book makes" "book" is long,
but in "a book is" it is short. In simple terms two consonants before a
vowel, whether in the same word or not, create a long.
The value of this to a modern poet is not in recreating the classic meters,
which rarely seem to work in English, but as a useful guide to the
patterning of a free verse line. Often to scan a line into its syllable
lengths is I find very helpful, in some way it seems to clarify what is
wrong. This is especially so, given the tendency of modern english to
become much more like American, and much flatter in tone, i.e. with much
less accentuation of syllables. Try it, but remember a modern English line
is not necessarily a conjunction of classical feet: English has its own
patterns. Short, short, long, seems comon to my ear in modern speech, but
there are others I am sure.
After the classical scanning by quantity, which arguably never had great
relevence to English poetry before free verse, the story is dominated by
two systems with quite seperate histories.
Firstly, there is scansion by syllable groups, or lifts, allied to
alliteration. This is called the Alliterative line, and has four groups to
a line . It has a long history from before Beowulf in the Dark Ages through
to the Fifteenth century. One of its greatest periods was just before its
close with the Gawaine Poet and Langland in the last part of the Fourteenth
Century. Thus from Gawaine and the Green Knight
After,/ the sesoun/ of somer/ wyth the soft wyndes
Quen Zeferus/ syfles himself/ on sedes/ and erbes
or from Piers Ploughman
In a somer/ seson,/ whan softe/ was the sonne,
I shoop me/ into shroudes/ as I/ a sheep were
One interesting result of this system is that (while there are exceptions)
most syllable groups are two or three syllables, occasionally four.
This we will return to because it seems to me that this sort of English in
many ways is closer to ours than anything in between.
This was however gradually replaced from Chaucer on with a system, derived
from France of lines of fixed number of syllables, divided into usually two
syllable feet, each foot having one stress. The positioning of stresses is
much more regular in some generations than others. One has only to go from
Marlow to Webster to realize this, and Milton is much more irregular than Pope
or Dryden. Nevertheless I think it is fair to say that English poetry from
Chaucer and Gower on is dominated by ten and eight syllable measures, using
two syllable feet i.e. the octosyllabic and decasyllabic rhymed couplets,
and the ten syllables of blank verse. Lyric measures were of course more
complex, but as a general rule, because of the dominance of the two
syllable foot, they compose measures of six, eight,ten, and occasionally
twelve or four syllables. The odd poem of course has lines of three or
five or seven.
This is a system of chant, that makes lines fall and rise with
extraordinary inevitability, and as such works marvellously well aloud.
Witness Absolom and Achitophel, Ode to the West Wind, Paradise Lost. etc,
etc. Nevertheless it came to seem monotonous to the Nineteenth century, who
seem instinctively (rather than from any scholarly concept) to have reached
away from the two syllable foot into something more irregular, and more
like the medieval. Thus Browning's once popular anthology piece
Your ghost/ will walk/ you lover/ of trees
(If our loves/ remain)
In an/ English lane
By a/ cornfield side/ aflutter/ with poppies.
Hark,/ those two/ in the /hazel coppice -
A boy/and a girl/, if the good fates /please
Now one could get into all sorts of arguments about correct stresses, but
this simple scansion by foot does show Browning (while in some ways
sounding quite like the late eighteenth century) breaking away from two
syllable feet into irregular measures of one to four syllables. Browning
probably got the idea from Chatterton's experiment with medievalise, or
from the recently revived ballads,but at least he was breaking the mold.
Yet the Nineteenth century revolution was dominated by Hopkins and Whitman.
Hopkins, for all his irregularities, was using a highly coherent system. If
you will bother to read his preface he was thinking of a sprung foot of
usually one to four syllables with one primary stress i.e. syllable
pronounced harder than the rest. It does not seem to be true that his
his system ignored feet, and worked by stress count only. This indeed is an idea
that comes not from Hopkins, but from the practice (often very interesting)
of many late Nineteeth and early Twentieth century english poets, following
on from what Browning in the above extract or Swinburne say were doing. The
popular music of Drake's Drum for example seems to alternate lines of six
and five stresses, with little evidence of any thought about feet in
Browning or Hopkins' sense. Yet Hopkins was important.
This is because he got into what happens when lines are composed
of irregular syllable groups, and the traditional rhythms of the two
syllable foot, are ignored.
Whitman though broke through into the possibilities of irregular feet,
without regarding stresses, driven by the breath of the chanter. Possibly
he was led in this direction by the natural flatness of American.His
practice is interesting for two reasons today. 1.it is breath driven 2. His
lines are highly irregular in the numbers of syllables in the feet, but
often seem to have something like six feet e.g.
When/ lilacs/ last/ in the/ dooryard/bloomed
And the/ great star/ early drooped/ in the/ western sky/ in the night
I mourned/ and yet/ shall mourn/ with ever/ returning/ spring.
This leads back to the classical hexameter that we glimpsed in Hesiod.
Though the method is different in everything except the fact of six feet to
a line, the governing principle of the foot in Whitman and Hesiod seems
similar. In both poets' system each foot takes a similar time to speak.
In the Twentieth century many flowers have bloomed prosodically speaking in
England and America. Nevertheless the arguments we have just glimpsed
emerging in the Nineteenth century have in many ways remained central to
Free Verse. There have been two opposite tendencies, which are nevertheless
1. To use lines of syllable groups e.g. the Wasteland's brilliant opening
in four foot lines
April/ is the / cruellest month/, breeding
Lilacs/ out of/ the dead land,/ mixing
Memory/ and/ desire,/stirring
Dull/ roots/ with spring/rain.
This with all the variations, not least the absense of formal alliteration,
is not that far from Langland and Gawaine. Yet it is more various than
them, not least because Eliot's system works by periodic extension or
diminution e.g. in the Four Quartets The Dry Salvages seems to open with
lines of six feet.
An interesting problem with some lines is whether they scan as five feet or
four. Thus the late Jon Silkin in his book The Life of Metrical and Free
Verse in the Twentieth Century believed the opening of Lawrence's The Ship
Of Death to be a clear five foot line with iambic overtones because ofthe
placement of its stresses.
/ / / / /
Have you built your ship of death, O have you
In fact I think the whole of the opening of the Ship of Death scans as
four foot lines, and Silkin's attempts to introduce an irregularity by
mixing four and five stress lines is a confusion based on ignoring groups
of four syllables e.g.
Have you built/your ship of death,/O/ have you
This does however lead to the point that alternative scansions of the same
line by different systems is possible, and sometimes it is a question of
which system it is most useful for the poet to scan his work by.
2. To use syllable groups as self contained units, in often very short
lines. This leads to very tight control, which is arguably easier to
maintain than in 1. This is a large topic and not easily illustrated by one
example. I suggest those that are interested read their way through William
Carlos Williams, whose work prosodically speaking is a constant variation
of the possibilities of this. However here is an example from Lorine
Neidecker, that is more immediately obvious than Williams.
not all 'delirium
as were the forests
It seems little noticed by either her friends or enemies that much of late
Plath uses highly intelligent variations on this system. Thus (from Ariel)
Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.
However by approximating her lines to a breath (like William) but making
the line longer than Williams, Plath manages to retain something of the
older systems, rather like a tonal composer such as Malcolm Arnold
introducing twelve note elements into tonal composition e.g. from Morning
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsole, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements
The essense of any writing in breath related measures is awareness of the
movement of the breath, but also of the eye on the page. Personally I think
Plath, Williams and the Objectivists offer the most real way forward for
free verse today.
Yet not everything in the Twentieth Century is free verse. There has been
good deal of innovation in lyric forms, which is in danger of being
forgotten. For example Dylan Thomas fused the motion of the new free verse
with more fixed forms. These may have been based on the number of syllables
in the line, which may have owed something to his early reading of Blake's
Prophetic Books, which often seem to be irregular syllabics (though did
Thomas have at least the idea of the classical scansion by length of
syllable at the back of his head?). Thus Fern Hill seems to be composed of
lines of 14, 9, or 6 syllables. Structurally the poem turns on the
possibilities of three and two syllable feet. The nine syllable lines have
to have three syllable feet e.g. "In the sun/born over/ and over". The six
syllable are ambiguous, but are usually three feet of two e.g. "Time
held/me green/and dying". The fourteeners are a mixture of the two e.g
"Nothing/ I cared/, in the lamb/white days/, that time/would take me". The
rhythm seems partly at least out of the old ballads, which (like the
Alliterative poets) also regularly mix two and three syllable feet. Analysis
by standard stress pattern seems inappropriate. And in the same vein I
would mention the little known Edward Boaden Thomas' refashioning of lyric
form to fit modern English speech.
Finally I speak as a practicing poet and critic. It seems to me that free
verse increasingly is being taken to mean what its enemies originally
called it i.e. "chopped up prose". The reason is that all the basic tools
of rhythmic procedure are being tossed to one side. Nobody scans for
quantity, few listen to the length of their syllables in time. Nobody
bothers to break their lines down in to the smaller units of 1-4 syllables
that Hopkins identified, and the medieval poets used. Hence the
confusion about what is poetry and what prose. Why cannot we write poetry
out as prose, etc? This would not matter, except that when we read great
poetry, whether it is Milton or Dryden, Shelley or Williams, Eliot or Dylan
Thomas, we are reading something much better than prose. We get a music of
sounds and rhythms that amplifies the sense, and often subtly changes it
into something much better. The tools to do this in modern free verse
exist. We must rediscover our feet, and stand on them!.