Impressions on Feet in Modern English Prosodic Iambic Poetry

I am attempting to understand what makes a certain meter sound good; what the characters of different feet are; how one may deviate from an established meter, or why one may choose not to; how to design a scansion for one’s own poem which elevates instead of weighing down the words. This is an attempt to understand by the medium of putting into words the use of variation in feet in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde. What follows are my impressions of the feet appearing in this work. Is this on the right track? What is the right track? Anything stand out as clearly in error, or clearly true? Where can I find information on this?

The iamb provides the backbone, the rhythm, and the expectation of the piece. Any deviation from it is felt, and the cadence disrupted from its unswerving course. Nearly always does the stress fall upon the more meaningful or significant of the two syllables composing it. It reflects the character of a preceding anapest, and is a dark and foreboding chant after a trochee. The majority of feet are iambs, and this establishes a baseline from which the anapest and trochee may vary. This baseline is deviated from to emphasize certain words and phrases.

The anapest is both lighter, faster, more emotional, and more frivolous than the iamb, but the transition from anapest to iamb can lend the iamb and by extension the anapest a gravitas born from the heightened emotion of the anapest informing the gravity of the iamb, and vice versa. The unstressed syllables of the anapest feel compelled to rush on out of the way of the stressed, not only in speed of diction, but in semantic force: the stressed syllable again nearly always, though perhaps not so ubiquitously as with the iamb, containing the more prominent in semantics and pragmatics. The anapest magnifies whatever emotion is conveyed through the words it holds.

The trochee is the thud of a drum. It snaps into focus the stressed syllable, which is as ubiquitously meaningful as for iambs. It upends the cadence and twists the prosody about it. It cannot be missed. It is the dark cousin of the anapest. Even long after the trochee has passed, its impact is felt in the subsequent feet. Even iambs may feel each one more prominent following a trochee, as the impact reverberates through successive feet.

If anyone knows of any good resources on this topic, I would be most appreciative. One question begged by this post, is what of dactyls? I have said nothing on them as they do not feature, as far as I saw, in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, but such absence is in itself curious. Certainly the anapest seems alone without its counterpart.

Another question begged by English poetry, is why the prevalence of disyllabic and trisyllabic feet? I suspect it is because any number n >= 2 can be expressed as 2x + 3y for some x, y \in \{mathN}, and that it thus takes an extraordinary reason to preserve longer feet when they may be expressed as combinations of disyylabic and trisyllabic feet.

Another question begged by English poetry, is why are the feet which are largely ignored, ignored so? Does the molossus live up to its name and feel slow? Wikipedia claims the dibrach has a monotonous effect which explains its disuse; could dibrachs and tribrachs be used liberally to underscore a description of monotony?

Failing resources explaining feet in modern English prosodic poetry, does anyone know of any poems which may be of didactic value for this sort of analysis and greater understanding of feet as they pertain to modern English prosodic poetry?


What makes a sunset beautiful?

Like most literary youths, I was keen on poetry. That usually fades after 25 or 30. But I have found my interest reviving in my old age (a second childhood, as they say?). I have been casually revisiting Cummings, Frost, and Dylan Thomas in particular. Never thought I would talk about this subject on OGS.

Best technical book on poetry I’ve ever read is An Introduction to Poetry by X. J. Kennedy, which was the text for a college course I took. Also outstanding for its unique perspective is I. A. Richards’s Practical Criticism. Richards conducted an experiment by soliciting students’ reactions to a variety of poems and then analyzed a wide range of misconceptions in their comments. I was very impressed with this book in my late teens, but my reading of Richards’s famous Principles of Literary Criticism a few years ago leaves me wondering what I would think of Practical Criticism today. Richards was the inventor of “close study,” expounded in Principles, and I hated it. His student William Empson carried it on with his famous Seven Varieties of Ambiguity, which I also hated. “Close study” is pretentious, makes many shaky assumptions, and, worst of all, is founded on a hyper-materialist viewpoint (the kind of thing Lewis decried in The Abolition of Man). In contrast, Lewis’s own Studies in Words is an outstanding work, although very difficult.

To get back to poetry: Alexander Pope wrote a clever poem, “Sound and Sense,” part of his great Essay on Criticism, which embodies a bunch of observations and principles in a short space. The idea that the sound and the sense should somehow align is, I think, the essence of poetry, and you seem to have a fine understanding of that already.

Dactyls are a falling meter and trisyllabic; they are hard to sustain because they are not very natural in English.

A book that looks tremendous is How Does a Poem Mean by John Ciardi. I picked it up a couple years ago but haven’t read it yet. Ciardi produced what is widely considered the best English translation of The Divine Comedy, a work that I prize highly, and he was himself a fine poet and critic.


I no expert on English or any other metre. I think that typical English metres work with an alternation of sequences of one accented syllable and one or more unaccented syllable. Only (so called) iambs, trochees, anapaests and dactyls fit such a scheme. What counts as accented for the metre can depend on what the neighbouring element contains, so that a normally non-accented syllable in a word of more than one syllable can count as accented for the metre, so long as the neighbouring syllables are not accented.


Use of classical models of feet (from poetry which is based on length of syllable) is problematic; and most attempts to do this have tended to fall between an accentual equivalent and an attempt to retain the syllable length. There is a good line in a Tennyson poem on the attempts to write classical style hexameters in modern languages: “Barbarous experiment, barbarous hexameters”. In this the speed with which one can say the syllables suits L(ong)S(hort)SLSSL, LSSLSSL, i. e. a classical dactylic pentameter; but a pronunciation bárbarous éxperiment etc. would against normal English pronunciation.


Wow, I suspected you might have a suggestion or two, but you’ve got a whole selection.

I’ll check out some of their poems.

Is close study in this sense involved with the “death of the author” idea, which I dislike when it is used to deny an objective interpretation when a certain interpretation, or at least narrower range of ones, were clearly intended? It seems to me that an interpretation not based on what the author intended, should not have claim to the meaning of a work, but rather to the effect the work had on people who had similar impressions on it to the theorist. In other words, the claim should not be, “The work means this, contrary to evidence.”, but rather “The work may produce, whether intended or not, the following impression on those who consume it.”. Then it may be argued that the impression produced by a faulty interpretation, has value in and out itself. It occurs to me that this may be not unlike the genesis of much good fanfiction. It also seems very flawed that poems should be seen without context which the original authors would have assumed their readers had. Are these [reasons] why you dislike close study in this sense, or some other?

Regarding the remaining suggestions, I will look them up.

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Empson, at least, was in no way a “death of the author” critic, although doubtless many of his interpretations (which could be very wayward) would have been rejected by the authors if they had lived to see them.

I have noticed that too, but I am unsure of why it is true. Why should a molossus be impossible? Also, amphibrachs would fit the pattern, no? As could cretics, in the right context.

One model for accounting for the different ways in which one could divide a single line of poetry into feet which I have heard, is that you can group stress into four levels, and then into stressed and unstressed on top. It seems a useful way of looking at things, though I am not sure if it’s supported by studies.

I tend to do this in an exaggerated fashion when reading poetry, especially to myself, pausing after each stress, and hurrying through each unstress. I love the sometimes complicated rhythm which is produced thereby, as these affectations interact with and are affected by the flow suggested by the English, the verse breaks, the line breaks, the punctuation, and the word breaks. I have been told this is not how one should read poetry, and I do not exaggerate it nearly as much when reading to another, but I just don’t like the sound of the other extreme as much (reading clearly metrical poetry as prose).

To modify this, looser English poetry (e.g. folksongs, where the tune shows where the rhythm goes) can occasionally allow more than two “unaccented” syllables between the accented syllables, so that that if you called the foot the combination of an element with no accent and an accented syllable, the result would be more than three syllables. In this case nobody has thought it made sense to name the foot. Gerald Manley Hopkins called this freer style “sprung rhythm”; and his poetry might interest you. I can’t remember where he wrote about his ideas on rhythm, probably in a letter to Robert Bridges.

I tend to do this in an exaggerated fashion when reading poetry, especially to myself, pausing after each stress, and hurrying through each unstress. I love the sometimes complicated rhythm which is produced thereby, as these affectations interact with and are affected by the flow suggested by the English, the verse breaks, the line breaks, the punctuation, and the word breaks. I have been told this is not how one should read poetry, and I do not exaggerate it nearly as much when reading to another, but I just don’t like the sound of the other extreme as much (reading clearly metrical poetry as prose).

The particular case I was quoting was one where the suggested pronunciation goes strongly against the norms of English, but in general I think you are right that a reading which emphasises the metre is good for bringing out subtleties in the poetry. (The trouble is that what we hear in our heads is not the same as what other people here, so that poets reciting their own work often sound like they are doing some kind of weird hieratic chanting.)

I find this pops out in songs to me as well.

Look at her, she’s wicked! (cretic, amphibrach)

He’s there, the phantom of the opera. (spondee, iamb, iamb, iamb, cut trochee)

We are friends, are we not, and our interests are the same. (anapest, anapest, anapest, iamb, iamb)

Have you heard what they sa-id on the news, today, have you heard, what is happ’ning to us all, (anapest, anapest, quartus paeon; trochee, anapest, anapest, quartus paeon)

I mentioned thus to my brother in law a few years ago, and to him, it’s the reverse. He can’t help but hear note lengths in poetry.

I’m not sure what I’m doing isn’t exactly what you’re talking about.

I just thought of another tremendously instructive book about poetry. Unfortunately, I have no publication info about it, not even the exact title. It is a complete holographic copy of A.E. Housman’s manuscript of A Shropshire Lad. I discovered it in my college library when I was about 18 or 19. I don’t think it was an old book, so it may have been published in the 1960s. Housman was a perfectionist, and virtually every poem was massively marked up with deletions, additions, and rearrangements. The whole thing is a grand tutorial on usage, syntax, rhythm, imagery, etc.

The “death of the author” idea, or “let the text speak for itself,” was, I think, the principal tenet of the New Criticism movement. It had considerable value as a counter to the overly psychoanalytical interpretations that had become a fad at the time. However, as you observe in your objections, it quickly became highly dogmatic in denying any consideration of the author, which is ridiculous on its face. I don’t recall whether close study places much emphasis on “death of the author,” but it certainly presupposes it. The emphasis is on the words themselves and the alternative meanings they embody. It depends a lot on philology. The result is a variety of alternate interpretations, some which the author may not have thought of. This was the source of the idea that the author himself/herself may not know the meaning of the work.

In case you are wondering about my background on this subject… My father’s best friend (starting in high school) became a distinguished professor of literature and a classicist. He spoke eight languages and taught at several foreign universities. I met him three times and had some wonderful discussions with him. He and my father visited Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s in 1949 or 1950. Around the same time, my father organized and hosted a breakfast seminar with E. E. Cummings, who was his favorite poet.

Cummings is, of course, notoriously difficult, but he repays the effort. He had a superlative sense of sound and his typographic experiments are not arbitrary. He was not a poseur.

My dad had an incomparable understanding of Cummings’ poetry, as I learned when he helped me with some of them in my youth. Over many years, especially after he retired, I urged him to write a book explicating Cummings’s work. Alas, like many older adults, he no longer had any creative urge.

The key to Cummings, per my father, is to understand that he was an accomplished amateur painter and that his poems usually paint a picture, although sometimes symbolically camouflaged. He demonstrated this to me with several poems, and the result was amazing; suddenly obscurities became clear. Unfortunately, I am very far away from those days and cannot replicate that level of understanding. I struggle with Cummings, but remain a great admirer of his work.


Interesting. I must say, I’m not a huge fan of psychoanalysis either, at least the kind which goes beyond discovering things which influence our tendencies, and tries to claim that everything we do can be traced back to some external reason, which I do not believe, since I believe humans have free will, so while we may be influenced to varying degrees by our environment, we also have the capacity to act in a manner inexplicable by only our environment.

That sounds like several things which would annoy me.

I’ll look up some poems by him.


Okay can someone explain to me what is going on here?

It’s a discussion among some people who share a common interest, just like many other threads in the Forums.

Obviously in a sequence of iambs you get what are also amphibrachs and cretics, but the former are understood as one iamb + the beginning of another and the latter as the end of one iamb and the beginning of another. You can have a molossus too, where the outer syllables are the stressed part of the iamb and the inner one is the supposedly unstressed part of the second iamb, e. g. (Donne) “By our long starving hopes, by that remorse”. “Long” in this certainly gets more stress than the other unstressed syllables in the line, but it still counts as the unstressed element in its foot.

Why sequences of iambs are so predominant in English poetry, I don’t know. Even trochee sequences are relatively rare. It is possible to create verses with recognisably other metrical forms. For instance, I think most people would accept the following as a sequence of cretics: “Listen folks, want to make go a thing? Advertise!” But poems that try to go outside the model of an alternation of strong and weak elements are oddities in English.

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This touches on another thing, if the first syllable of a line is elided, or if it is shifted to the end, or if an extra unstressed syllable is added to the end of the line, are the feet in the line still the same? The following poem, if a foot is allowed to shift a line-initial unstressed beat to the end of the line, or elide a line-initial unstressed syllable, can be seen as purely composed of anapests.

When I was a young man, and very well thought of,
I couldn’t ask aught that the ladies denied.
I nibbled their hearts like a handful of raisins,
And I never spoke love but I knew that I lied.

But I said to myself, “Ah, they none of them know
The secret I shelter and savor and save.
I wait for the one who will see through my seeming,
And I’ll know when I love by the way I behave.”

First two verses of “When I was a young man” by Peter S Beagle

Yeah, that looks like a good example.

I think it is because the abundant articles, prepositions, and pronouns typically introduce major words, most of which are accented on the first (or only) syllable. After all, “The X…” is probably the most common beginning for a sentence.

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