4 - Versification

4.1 - What is meter?

In this section on versification, we will concentrate our energies on understanding only one of the many different conventional patterns that enable and constrain poetic composition, namely the meter traditionally referred to as iambic pentameter. The reasons for forsaking Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter, Hopkins' sprung rhythm, triple meters, falling duple meters, etc. here are both practical (time and space) and conceptual. Iambic pentameter has been, since the Renaissance, the meter of choice for most English-language poets. Our aim here is both to understand what it is and to suggest some of the reasons for its dominance, or some might say, hegemony. At a practical level, if you can understand iambic pentameter, you will find it relatively easy to analyze other types of metrical and even non-metrical poetry.

But before moving to the specifics of iambic pentameter, let's revisit briefly the whole idea of METER. What is meter? Cureton offers this definition: "Meter represents our rhythmic response to (relatively) regular pulsations in a perceptual medium, to moment-to-moment alternations of inactivity and activity, stasis and change--a response that seems to be deeply embedded in all biological organization. Technically, meter divides the text into a hierarchy of measures articulated by a hierarchy of metrical beats" (RPEV 123-124). There are several features of this definition worth drawing out. First, by talking about a "perceptual medium" rather than poetry specifically, the definition emphasizes the deeply physiological basis of rhythm. Meter is a part of animal as well as human life and present throughout a wide range of human experience, not just in literature and music. Second, the alternations of stasis and change have no set beginning or ending points. To quote a graphically apt metaphor coined by some music theorists, "meter is like wallpaper: it can begin and end anywhere" (Lerdahl and Jackendoff as quoted in RPEV 125). Thus, meter has no inherent teleology or sense of direction; it groups events or pulses in a local and objective manner without regard for their purpose or direction. There is nothing inherent in meter itself to make it begin or end. As we will see in the section on rhythmic phrasing (section 5), it is only through rhythmic grouping and prolongation that readers gain a sense of direction, anticipation and resolution. Finally, with specific reference to poetry, the definition indicates that meter segments a text into hierarchical patterns of beats that we can call measures.