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A study of Metrical Writing, Part 8: The Numbering System.

Published by OJB in the blog OJB's blog. Views: 317

Welcome to part 8 of my study on Metrical Writing. Today we will be looking at the numbering system.

So how does the Numbering system work?

The system is based on a 1-4 numbering scale.
1. Weak stress.
2. Semi-Weak stress.
3. Semi-Strong Stress.
4. Strong Stress.

The reason that the numbering system exists is that not all Iambs are created equal. Here, let me give you some examples.

A standard Iamb: The(1) Toad (4).
A weak Iamb: -ing (1) the (2) (Notice how the word 'the' is a 1 in one example and a 2 in another? We'll get the why in a bit)
A heavy Iamb: Bright (3) Star (4) (Some people would call this a Spondee, but we will dive into spondees in depth in a few blog posts to really see what a spondee is.)

As you can see not all Iambs are equal in their stress levels. Now the part that makes people get lost with the numbering system is that they try to say 'All verbs and nouns' are 4s, or all Articles are 1s, etc. In truth, the numbering scale is very fluid. The number you assign a syllable is relevant to the other syllables that share the line. In other words, a word that might be a 4 in one line, might reappear and be a 3 in the line below, depending on what other syllables or words that appear with it.

The reason the numbering scale is important is that without it, you could not really dive into the brilliance of some of the Metrical poetry that has been written over the centuries.

To end this, I am going to scan Lord Tennyson's 'The Kraken' using the numbering scale. I will put notes on why I assigned syllables/word a certain number, and I will explain the brilliance of this poem (By the end of this, anyone reading this is going to discover a mind blowing poetic idea.)

Lord Tennyson's 'The Kraken'

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.


Be(1)low(4)/ the(1) thund(4)/ers(1) of (2)/ the (1) upp(4)/er(1) deep(4),
This line is pretty straight forward; however, by scanning this line we know the poem is Iambic Pentameter, meaning that it will be using the rules of IP.

Far(3), far(4)/ be(1)neath(4)/ in (3) the (2) /a(1)bys(4)1/mal(1) sea(4),
Any time you see double mono-syllable words, it will be a (3/4). The real genesis in this line is the 4/3-2/1 pattern that occurs with a mid-line trochee. The Rhythm is 'sinking' just how the poem is talking about sinking into the depths of the ocean. In other words, the Rhythm is Metaphoric and sharing the characteristics of the poem context. This is an advanced idea, but you can create Rhythmic beats that match the action of a poem. Prepositions, by the way, will always have a little more stress than Articles, but Articles will always have a little more stress than the unstressed syllables in a multi-syllable word. It is very rare for the word 'in' to have a 3 on the stress meter, but compared to the other feet in the line, there is no other number that works with it.

His(1) an(4)/cient(1), dream(4)/less(1), un(2)/in(1)vad(4)/ed(1) sleep(4)
The '-Less-un-in' is a great example of promotion. The 'un' is promoted to a (2) because of the surrounding unstressed syllables.

The(1) Krak(4)/en(1) sleep(4)/eth(1): faint(4)/est(1) sun(4)/lights(1) flee(4)
You can see all the feet in this line is 1/4. When talking about a poem having a monotone 'sound' this is what creates it. I am not saying having all 1/4 feet in a line is bad, I am saying having all 1/4 feet in every foot in a poem would be bad, and tells me that you only have the most basic understanding of meter.

A(1)bout(4)/ his(1) shad(4)/owy(1) sides(4);/ a(1)bove(4)/ him(1) swell(4).
I only want to note that -owy is being pronounced as 1 syllable. Later in this Blog, we are going to to dive deep into Elisions, the slurring/omitting on syllables.

Huge(3) spong(4)/es (1) of (2)/ mil(1)len(4)/nial(1) growth (4) /and(1) height (4);
The opening 3-4 gives the line a boost. Sondees/Heavy Iambs work very well at the beginning on a line.

And (1) far (3) /a(1)way(4)/ in(4)to(1)/ the(1) sick(4)ly(1) light(4),

1-3 is a rare type of Iamb. The reason I gave 'far' a 3 is because it is a adverb, and adverbs and adjectives are always less stressed than nouns and verbs.

From (1) man(4)/y(>) a(1) wond(4)/rous(1) grot(4)/ and(1) sec(4)/ret(1) cell(4)
(>) is the ellusion Symbol. Y+A is pronounced as 1 syllable. Today this practice is no longer done, but it something to be aware of when reading older poetry.

Un(1)num(4)/bered(1) and(2) /e(1)norm(4)/ous(1) pol(4)/y(1)pi (2)
This is the line that ends in a weak iamb 1-2.

Win(4)now(1) /with (1) gi(4)/ant(1) arms(4)/ the(1) slumb(4)/ering(1) green(4).
Trochee opening.

There(1) hath(2) /he(1) lain(4)/ for(1) ag(4)/es(1)/, and(2) will(3) lie (4)
The reason I gave 'will' a 3 is because it is part of the verb phrase. This Rising Rhythm (which we will be look at in-depth next blog post) is a common occurrence in English.

Batte(4)ning(1)/ u(1)pon(4)/ huge(3) sea(4) worms(1) in(2) his(1) sleep(4),
Trochee Opening. I need to stress that 'Huge' being a 3 is not a demotion. An adjective will never out-stress a noun. Also, Compound nouns (Sea worm) be they two separate words, one word, or a hyphenated word, The first 'word' is the stressed part. Sea (4) Worm (1).

Un(1)til(4)/ the (1) latt(4)/er(1) fire(4)/ shall(1) heat(4)/ the(1) deep(4);
Two lines up the word 'will' was a 3 because of it was part of a verb phrase. Here I have 'Shall' a 1 because the word before it is the noun 'fire.' This is a great example of what I mean that the numbering system is fluid, and open to interpretation.

Then (1) once(2) /by (1) man(4)/ and(1) ang(4)/els(1) to(2) /be(3) seen(4),

-els to be seen, is a rising Rhythm. These Rising Rhythms are what keep IP from being Monotone.

In(1) roar(4)/ing(1) he(2)/ shall(3) rise(4)/ and (1) on/(2) the(1) sur(4)/face(1) die(4).

This last line has 6 feet! The reason is that 6 feet are used in lines of great significance and importance. Also, There is a Rising Rhythm that matches the action of the poem (The Kraken rising out of the ocean!) The concept of Metaphoric Rhythm is super important if one truly wishes to tap into the power of Meter.


I hope you've enjoyed my scan and explanation of The Kraken using the numbering system. The next thing we will be looking into is the Rising and Falling Rhythm that occurs in English.


If you have any thoughts or questions, please leave a comment or a like!

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