A study of Metrical Writing, Part 16: English Stress

Published by OJB in the blog OJB's blog. Views: 139

Today we will be looking at some of the finer and more confusing ideas behind English Stress, especially, in regards to compound words.

The first thing I want to address is words that can be used as either a noun or a verb and how they work in regards to Stress. Now in some languages, when a word is being used as a noun or a verb it is indicated by the end spelling for that word. In English, we don't change the spelling of a word, but we do change which syllable is STRESSED. To give you a few examples.

subject when used as a noun: SUB-ject.
subject when used as a verb: sub-JECT.

object when used a noun: OB-ject.
object when used a verb: ob-JECT.

desert when used as a noun: DES-ert
desert when used a verb: de-SERT.

We can see a pattern here, correct? Nouns have their stress on the first syllable, while verbs have their stress on the second syllable. This is a very important concept to understand when writing Metrically, and sometimes you will have to look at a dictionary to know where the stress falls depending on how you plan to use a word.


The next thing I want to look at is compound nouns. Be they one word, two words, or hyphenated, compound nouns follow that same rule: The primary stress falls on the first word.

Example: Grandmother

GRAND (4) moth (1) er (2)

Using the above word in metrical writing, you could see either of the following.

My(1) grand(4)/moth(1)-er(2) (Iamb/Iamb)


(4) moth(1)/er (2) went (4) (Trochee/Iamb)

Both options

are valid ways in using compound words.


The next thing I want to touch on is Idiomatic verbs/Verb phrases.

In my introduction, I informed you that prepositions are usually ranked low on the stress meter, and in terms adjectives, or by themselves, this is true. But in Idiomatic verbs (example: Pull out) the stress can fall on the preposition of the phrase, not the verb.

This is a handy tool to understand as it gives you some leeway when writing in Iambic Pentameter. Both of the following examples would be acceptable in metrical writing.

I pulled/ out Dan/ny's gun. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)


Pull out, my friend! (Iamb/Iamb)

Understanding that you can shift the preposition of a verb phrase either into a stressed foot or an unstressed foot gives you a little breathing room when writing.


The next thing to look at is compound Adjectives.

In compound adjectives, such as red-hot, the stress falls on the second adjective (red-HOT). The expectation to this rule is when you are using a noun as part of the compound adjective then the stress falls on the noun no matter what position it is in.

Example: airsick = AIRsick.


The last thing I want to address is the word 'into.' 'Into' is such a great word for metrical writing, as it is one of the few words in English where you can switch the stress to either syllable, IN-to, or in-TO. Learn to love this tool.

Today I want to scan the poem St. Judas by James Wright. It uses some of the principles we talked about today.

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

When I/ went out/ to kill /myself, /I caught (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)*
A pack /of hood/lums beat/ing up a man. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
Running/ to spare/ his suff/ering, I/ forgot (Trochee/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/IAmb)
My name,/ my num/ber, how /my day /began, (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
How sold/iers milled /around/ the gard/en stone (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
And sang /a-mus/ing songs;/ how all /that day (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
Their jave/lins meas/ured crowds;/ how I /alone (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)
ained /the prop/er coins, /and slipped /away. (Trochee/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)

Banished/ from heav(en), I found/ this vict/im beat(en,) (Trochee/Iamb (Midline-hyper)/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb (Hyper))

Stripped, kneed,/ and left /to cry. /Drop-ping/my rope (Spondee/Iamb/Iamb/Trochee/Iamb)
Aside,/ I ran, /ignored /the un/i-forms: (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/iamb)
Then I/ remem/bered bread /my flesh /had eat(en), (Trochee/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb (hyper))
The kiss/ that ate/ my flesh./ Flayed with/out hope, (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Trochee/Iamb)
I held /the man/ for noth/ing in /my arms. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)

*As we can in the first line, an Idiomatic verb -went out- appears and the stress falls on the 'out.'

This concludes me look at the more trickier uses of compound and stress in the English language. If you have any questions, or thoughts, please leave a comment or a like!

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