A study of Metrical Writing, Part 3: Variations and Substitutions

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Welcome to part 3 of our study on Metrical writing. Today we will be looking at Variations and Substitutions that appear in Iambic Pentameter.

If one was to write page after page of strict Iambic Pentameter, the 'sound' of the poem or story would become monotonous. Thankfully, there are a few Variations and Substitutions you can insert in to give your Metrical writing a bit of variation. A few rules first.

1. Your first line/sentence needs to be strict IP (Iambic Pentameter) in order to set up the Rhythm of your writing.

2. You may only use two Substitutions per line. If the Substitutions outnumber the Iambs, then the Rhythmic pattern is destroyed. Now, let's take a look.

Trochee (Stressed-Unstressed): There is one special rule for using this Substitution, it cannot be used in the 5th foot of a line. (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Trochee) This would be wrong.

Here is example of a Trochee being used from 'Parable' By Richard Wilbur

Whither /to fare, /but wished/ his horse /to choose. (Trochee/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)


Spondee (Stressed-Stressed): Shakespeare used this one a lot, and it can be used in any foot. Here is an example of one from 'Written on a Blank page in Shakespeare's poem, Facing "A Lover's Complaint." by John Keats

Bright Star, /would I/ were sted/fast as/ thou Art- (Spondee/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb.)


A Double Iamb (unstressed-unstressed/Stressed-Stressed): For me, Double Iambs are the greatest accomplishment one can achieve in Iambic Pentameter, they are true Rhythmic music. A few things about the double Iamb; 1st, they can be used in any foot; 2nd, they DO NOT count as a substitution. So if a line had 2 Trochees, 2 double Iambs, and 1 iamb, the Rhythm of the line is not broken. We will explore the reason why for this much later, but for now here is an example.

From J.V Cunningham, "A letter," 26.

Made Hum/an by/ old Sym/bols of/ Man's worth. (Iamb/Double Iamb/Double Iamb.)


Feminine ending/Hpyer-metrical ending: A Feminine Ending is not a substitution, but a variation that occurs sometimes in Iambic Petrameter. It is where the last foot of a line has a 'left-over' unstressed syllable. Shakespeare used them a lot as well.

From Romeo and Juliet
Act 1, Scene 5
By William Shakespeare

[Juliet] Ay, pil/grim, lips /that they /must use/ in pray(er) (Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb (Hyper))


The Headless Iamb: (^ stressed): A rather new convention in modern and contemporary Metrical writing, The Headless Iamb is where the first foot has no unstressed syllable, just a stressed. A few beginner rules when using this bad boy. (Note: Once you mastered meter you can start bending the rules.)

1. The Line MUST have 9 Syllables (So no Feminine ending.)
2. No other substitution can be used in the line.
3. A Headless Iamb can only be used in the first foot.

Here is an example of one I wrote.

^ Grace /did not/ release/ the pres/sure --bitch!-- (Headless/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb)


(Looking for poem that makes use of all the substitutions.)

I wanted to note that these are just basic guidelines. Each of these substitutions has subtleties and nuances that we will be exploring later on, but for now, this is a good list for beginners.

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