Old English alliterative verse:

The verse unit is the line, and alliteration is the organizing device.
The two half lines are linked by the alliteration of stressed syllables: a a | a x. (N.B.: No rhyme)
The line has no fixed number or distribution of unstressed syllables--or rhyme.

feorh-bealo frecne | fyra gehwylcne
Sceal se hearda helm | hyrsted golde
gesawon sele-dreamas. | Nah hwa sweord wege

Middle English alliterative verse (Alliterative Revival--or Survival):

All four stressed words may alliterate. (N.B.: No rhyme)
A line may contain five or even six alliterating words.
A caesura ( | ) is possible but not necessary.
Many a cliff must he climb | in country wild
A fair field full of folk | found I there between

Rhymed verse:

A French import, rhyme and alternating stress patterns became popular in the fourteenth century, with the rise of English usage among the literate classes, and have run parallel with older verse forms (frequently predominating) to the present day.

This type of verse has aquired terminology appropriate to (ancient) Greek verse, to wit,

iambic: having the stress pattern - ' (an iamb) [unless]
trochaic: ' - (a trochee) [pizza]

anapestic: - - ' (an anapest) [on your mark]
dactylic: ' - - (a dactyl) [treasury]

spondaic: ' ' (a spondee) [fruitcake]

[N.B.: ' = a stressed syllable; - = an unstressed syllable.]

Each of these is called a foot.
Five feet of iambic ( - ' ) verse is called: iambic pentameter: - ' / - ' / - ' / - ' / - '

So, three feet = trimeter
four feet = tetrameter
five feet = pentameter
six feet = hexameter, or an Alexandrine, (one seldom meets more)

A perfect iambic pentameter line: When I do count the clock that tells the time

Iambic pentameter is the most common metrical form in English (ever since Chaucer); this is because English naturally falls into this form:
The college catalogue is far too long.
How far is California from New York?
I think I want a cup of tea or coffee.

(the final syllable, which is extra, would make this a feminine rhyme if this were a line from a poem; if the last word were "Sprite," the rhyme would be masculine--as most lines are).

Iambic tetrameter probably comes second in popularity, but is less used because it tends to jingle along too fast for serious poetry (have a look at Sir Orfeo for an early composition in this form).
A line of anapestic tetrameter would run - - ' | - - ' | - - ' | - - ' :
and he ran and he ran and he ran and he ran
In the dead of the night came the awfullest sound.

Trochaic trimeter? ' - | ' - | ' - :
"What a rotten final!"

The Early Modern period (the Renaissance) was full of metrical innovation, that is, poets kept experimenting with new forms, most of which did not survive to be used by later poets. One of the most effective and beautiful forms was "invented" by Edmund Spenser for his Faerie Queene; in fact it now goes by the name of Spenserian stanza. Here's is Spenser's account of the death of the great dragon near the end of Book I:

So downe he fell, and forth his life did breath,
That vanisht into smoke and cloudes swift;
So downe he fell, that th'earth him underneath
Did grone, as feeble so great load to lift;
So downe he fell, as an huge rockie clift,
Whose false foundation waves have washt away,
With dreadfull poyse is from the mayneland rift,
And rolling down, great Neptune doth dismay;
So downe he fell, and like an heaped mountaine lay.
Now, if you want to describe the verse form, what do you say? First of all the meter: it is iambic pentameter except for the final line of every stanza, which is iambic hexameter. (Can you "feel" the effect of the longer final line when you read it out loud?) You would also want to give the number of lines: Spenser uses a 9-line stanza.

Think you're done? Not quite. You also have to indicate the rhyme scheme, which is usually done by assigning a letter of the alphabet to each rhyme, beginning with a: ababbcbcc. So what you have here is two quatrains (abab and bcbc) followed by an alexandrine (that rhymes with the previous line). This may seem fairly technical, but you should be able to do this with any poem rather quickly.

A sonnet is a 14-line poem made up of an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines), or, to put it another way, 4 quatrains (4 lines with a rhyming pattern) and a couplet (2 lines of any length that rhyme with each other). The Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet form differs from that of the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet.

Now, poetry can be end-stopped or enjambed. Pope is the master of end-stopped lines; he writes heroic or closed couplets (good for heroic poetry, often with a clear caesura), in which the thought ends at the end of the line (note the punctuation). Milton is the master of enjambment; he writes in verse paragraphs that can be read like prose (his form--like Shakespeare's in his plays, is blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter).

Never confuse blank verse with free verse (which has no traditional metrical form, i.e., no meter).

SO, the Beowulf poet wrote unrhymed verse;

the Gawain poet wrote unrhymed verse;

Shakespeare wrote unrhymed verse;

Milton wrote unrhymed verse

--and we think we just discovered unrhymed verse in the twentieth century. It's an old, old English language tradition that, in many ways, suits English (with its limited rhyme-pool) better than rhyme does.

Having said all this, we have actually said nothing about poetry--only about theory, that is, about the theoretical constructs that poets may use in composing poems. Language doesn't work like a clock (thank goodness!); if it did, it would be dead (as many student readings of great poems make clear). Look, for instance, at my "perfect" iambic pentameter line:
When I do count the clock that tells the time
Now look at the first lines of other Shakespeare's sonnets:
When I consider every thing that grows (#15)
When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes, (#29)
When my love swears that she is made of truth (#138)
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought (#30)
' - - ' - - ' ' - ' ??

Other stanza forms to consider: terza rima (Dante), Rime/Rhyme Royal (Chaucer, James I, Kingis Quair).

Now for some examples:

Sonnet 12

When I do count the clock that tells the time
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night,
When I behold the violet past prime
And sable curls all silvered o'er with white,

When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard:

Then of thy beauty do I question make
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake,
And die as fast as they see others grow,

And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defense
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (Shakespeare)

(Shakespeare's sonnets rhyme abab cdcd efef gg.)

Heroic couplets

This day black omens threat the brightest fair,
That e'er deserved a watchful spirit's care;
Some dire disaster, or by force or slight,
But what, or where, the Fates have wrapped in night:
Whether the nymph shall break Diana's law,
Or some frail china jar receive a flaw,
Or stain her honor, or her new brocade,
Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade,
Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball;
Or whether Heaven has doomed that Shock must fall.
. . . . . . . . . . . (Pope, Rape of the Lock, 2.101-10)

Blank verse

Which when Beelzebub perceived, than whom,
Satan except, none higher sat, with grave
Aspect he rose, and in his rising seemed
A pillar of state; deep on his front engraven
Deliberation sat and public care;
And princely counsel in his face yet shone,
Majestic though in ruin. Sage he stood
With Atlantean shoulders fit to bear
The weight of mightiest monarchies; his look
Drew audience and attention still as night
Or summer's noontide air, while thus he spake: . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . Milton, Paradise Lost, 2.299-309)

Free verse

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
. . . . . . . . (Langston Hughes, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers")

And then there's. . .

The potion with the poison's
In the flagon with the dragon;
But the vessel with the pestle
Has the brew that is true.

Rhyme (internal, single, double)
?Unrhymed couplets

Return to Course List

Rev 2/98