A study of Metrical Writing, Part 1: Introduction.

Published by OJB in the blog OJB's blog. Views: 420


I've been getting a fair amount of questions on Metrical writing and I thought it would be wise to start a blog series on the subject. While I had planned on doing Theme Next, I have a love for Metrical Writing and would really like to dive into this very complex and academic subject. (@Lifeline @Stormburn @zoupskim @MulberryWriter @Arktaurous34 I've tagged you cause you've all had some interest in Meter.)

I NEED TO STRESS two things.

1. This study only pertains to ENGLISH Metrical writing. You cannot take the Information from this blog and apply it to German, Russian, Japanese, or any other foreign language.

2. You must have a strong understanding of Grammar. If you don't, you will suffer on this.

So, ready to learn?

What is Metrical writing?

Metrical writing is where you place stressed and unstressed Syllables and words in a certain pattern in order to give your writing a Rhythm.

Why would anyone do that?

For poets, it gives their poems a music-like quality.

For Prose, some Authors employ the device when they write dialogue in order to give a character's speech a type of Rhythm in order to reveal subtext. My favorite example of this is from the Sci-fi Novel Dune, Where the Baron speaks in Iambic Pentameter.

Metrical writing has a long history of being used in some of the most famous works ever written.

Examples: The Illiad, The Odyssey, Paradise Lost, The Idylls of the King, anything Shakespeare, and a whole lot more.

Why should I learn Metrical writing?

Well, Why should you learn proper Grammar and how to employ Irony and Foreshadowing? Because it is another tool you have to use when you write. That is all Metrical writing is, a tool for you to use when you need it.


So what is a Stressed Syllable and what is an unstressed Syllable?

In any multi-Syllable word, one of the Syllables will have more stressed than the others. This is where a Good dictionary comes in handy. Let's take the word Happy. When you look up the word 'Happy,' you will see this under the name:


As you can see, the Hap part is bolded; that is because this is the stressed Syllable in the word.

What about Single Syllable words?

Now some words have more stressed than others. We have 8 parts of speech, so let's look at what are important words vs non-important words.

Nouns, Verbs, and Interjections, would be the most stressed words out there. (Bear, Cat, Dance, Sing, YES! BOO!)

Adjectives and Adverbs would be a little less stressed. (Red, Big, Small, etc.)

Pronouns are kinda in the middle. They could be important words, or they could be unimportant words. You need to pay attention to how they are being used.

Prepositions, conjunctions: For the most part, I'd say these words are unstressed UNLESS you are starting a sentence with a conjunction for Dramatic effect, or you are using Prepositions in the adverbial poistion.

Articles: with just one exception (which I will give an example of coming up.) Articles are rarely stressed.


So, now that I've gone over stressed and unstressed syllables, let's give an example of Metrical writing. (I'll be using a mix of poems and horror stories to keep it interesting.)

The miracles that magic will perform
Will make thee vow to study nothing else. -C. Marlowe's Dr. Faustus.

The mir/ac-les /that mag/ic will /perform (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
Will make /thee vow /to stud/y noth/ing else. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)

As you can see, the above two lines there is a pattern of unstressed-stressed syllables that creates a Rhythm in the writing.


So, before you start Metrical writing there are two things you need to decide. Foot Type, and Length.

The above example is written in Iambic Pentameter (which will be the primary focus of these study). What this means is there is a unstressed-stressed pattern that repeats itself 5 times in the line. Take a look:

Will make /thee vow /to stud/y noth/ing else.

There are four types of patterns (also called feet) that appear in English.

Iamb (unstressed/stressed)
Trochee (Stressed/unstressed)
Dactyl (Stressed/unstreesed/unstressed.)
Anapest (unstressed/unstressed/stressed.)

Iamb and Trochee are the most common and are what we will be looking at. Now for you Prose writers, this is where knowing this stuff comes in handy.

The Iamb is the most natural foot, and everyday speech matches it the closest. So, if you were writing dialogue with a character that was calm, and being natural, I'd write it in Iambs.

Trochee, on the other hand, draws attention to itself and sounds artificial. If I was writing dialogue for a character who was lying (or trying to draw attention to themselves) I'd write it using Trochees.


The last thing I want to mention is line length.

The Most common length of a line in Poetry is Pentameter (5 feet), why?

Because the average human breath can pronounce 10 syllables. So, again Prose writers, if you wanted dialogue for a character that seemed more than human, I'd use 6+ feet. If you wanted to write dialogue for a character short on breath, sick, or panicked, I'd write in 4 or fewer feet. (We'll go into this subject in more detail later on.)

Here will be our poem for the day (I'll post a clean version and a studied version), 'The Waking' by Theodore Roethke. It is excellent poem to study to see Iambic Pentameter put into practice.

I wake to sleep and take my waking slow
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
to you and me; so take the lively air,
and, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

I wake /to sleep/ and take/ my wak/ing slow (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
I feel/ my fate/ in what/ I can/not fear. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
I learn /by go/ing where /I have/ to go. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/IAmb)

We think /by feel/ing. What /is there /to know? (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
I hear/ my be/ing dance /from ear /to ear. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
I wake /to sleep,/ and take/ my wak/ing slow. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)

Of those so close beside me, which are you? (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
God bless/ the ground! /I shall/ walk softl/y there, (Spondee/Iamb/Double Iamb/Iamb)
And learn/ by go/ing where /I have /to go. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how? (Spondee/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
The lowl/y worm /climbs up/ a wind/ing stair; (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)

Great Nat/ure has/ anoth/er thing to do (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)*
to you /and me; /so take/ the live/ly air, (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
and, lov/ely, learn /by go/ing where/ to go. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)

This shak/ing keeps/ me stead/y. I /should know. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
What falls /away /is al/ways. And/ is near. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
I wake/ to sleep,/ and take /my wak/ing slow. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
I learn /by go/ing where/ I have /to go. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)


So, anyone who is reading/following this blog series, I am going to start a thread where people can practice reading and scanning meter. We will be primarily be looking at Iambic pentameter, but we will venture into Trochee later in the series.

So, to become good at Meter one must practice writing it, study it, and read it. Here are some resources to go with this blog series if you want to really dive into this subject (which I will be doing.)

1. Mary Oliver -- Rules for the Dance. (Novice)
2. William Baer -- Writing Metrical Poetry (Novice)
3. John Hollander -- Rhyme's Reason (Novice)

1. Idylls of the King (READ OUT LOUD.)

Practice: https://www.writingforums.org/threads/metrical-writing-practice.152605/
1. I will be posting a practice thread for meter for anyone interested in learning this craft.

By the end of this Blog, I will have written 2100 lines on meter in order to perfect the craft. For anyone praticing, Lines 1-10 will be pure Imabic Pentameter.


On the next Blog we will be looking at 1 Syllable vs 2 syllable vs 3 syllable words and how they react to each other, and we will see the reasons for and against Ryhme.

Also, if you have any questions, please ask. Metrical writing is a VAST and complex subject and is easy to get lost, but once mastered, you can have a lot of fun using it.

Next post: https://www.writingforums.org/entry/a-study-of-metrical-writing-part-2-the-arguement-against-rhyme.63874/
Laurus, kite321, PoemNerd212 and 5 others like this.
You need to be logged in to comment