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A study of Metrical Writing, Part 9: Spondees, the great lie.

Published by OJB in the blog OJB's blog. Views: 176

Welcome to part 9 of my Study on Metrical writing, today we will be looking at the Spondee. Originally I was planning on doing Rising and Falling Rhythms, but I felt that we need to explore the Spondee before doing so.

A Spondee is a foot that has two stressed Syllables, but with demotion and word importance, one must ask, do spondees exist in English? See, most metrical feet are taken from the Greek and Latin metrical systems, however, Those systems are based off a duration-based language, while English is a Stress-based language. What most people call a Spondee is really a heavy Iamb, example:

Bright (3) Star (4). The reason they are not equal goes beyond stress- it involves word importance; A noun is more important than an adjective.

But let's look at a Noun + a Verb.

Mike (3) fought (4). While nouns and verbs are equal in a word importance sense, in a rhetorical sense, wouldn't you put the stress on the 'action' of the beat to give it a little more force? I would, however -and not to get too far off subject- Mike fought could be a Trochee.

Mike (4) fought (3).


If I ask 'Who fought?' and you said 'Mike (4) fought(3).' The beat is less about the action, and more about the 'who.'

But back to The Spondee (More of rhetorics and trochees later). In either example, neither one is equally stressed.

What about a Noun plus a Verbal?

Mike(?), Stand(4)ing next ....

The above is actually debatable, and I might mark this as a spondee. However, a lot of people (The majority) will have Mike as a (3) because 'stand-' is a stressed syllable. Still, I would consider this a Spondee in my own writing and would keep the line regular after such an opening.

What about A Noun (subject) + Verb + Noun (Object)?

Example: The (1) boat (4) /broke (3) waves (4).

Demotion comes into play here. We know, based on that linguistic study from the 50s (See Trager and Smith) that Demotion occurs in English when a speaker is faced with three stressed words, so 'broke' becomes a 3.

To dive even deeper into the theory behind Spondees, we are going to look at one of the most discussed lines from paradise lost.

'Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death,' - John Milton's Paradise Lost, Book II line 621,

A lot of people would scan the above line as 'Spondee/Spondee/Spondee/Iamb/Iamb,' but there is no way that this is correct as having more Spondees than Iambs destroys the Rhythmic pattern of the poem. No, John Milton was much more clever in his design on this line than just throwing 6 nouns in a line; no, each word is carefully picked and put in a certain order for a reason. Let's break down this line so you can see that there is, in fact, no spondees in this line.

Say the line out-loud. What is the first thing you notice?

Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death,

Fens & Dens rhyme. This is so important. Why? Because the definition of a rhyme is two stressed sounds that share the same vowel and ending consonant. Notice the word 'Stressed'? So understanding that we know that Fens and Dens NEED to be stressed.

Next (and this takes a little more thinking).

Rocks, Caves,

If you looked at a rock on the ground in your front yard, then you went and explored a cave, which one would you say was more impressive? I'd be willing to wager 'the cave.' 'Cave' is just a far more important word than rock, especially when comparing one to the other in the same beat.

What about Lakes and Bogs? The rule of Demotion makes these two words a 3.

In the end, this line reads like this.

Rocks (3), Caves (4), /Lakes (3), Fens (4),/ Bogs (3), Dens (4),/ and(1) shades(4)/ of (1) death (4),


So do Spondees exist in English then?

The Metrical community is somewhat divided on the subject. Some people believe that Spondees exist and we should mark them when seen, others believe that they don't and teaching them does nothing but make learning Metrical writing far more difficult than it needs to be.

My personal feeling is that they exist under certain 'conditions.' (By the way, what I am about to type is personal theory only. You're going to have to make your own decision on the subject and write your meter based on that decision.)

1. Spondees can only exist in the first foot or following a trochee (This prevents the problem of Demotion).

2. List of Nouns or Verbs, or the Noun + Verbal opening would be the only thing I'd call a Spondee.

3. Any beat with the word 'God' (or any other religious mono-syllable name.) 'God Bless' would be a Spondee only because of its significance. Rather you are religious or not, isn't the point. I know I would want such a foot called a Spondee if anyone scanned my writing, and any poem I read that had anything like this in it (despite the religion) I would call it a Spondee.

Examples of a list:

Bob, Mike & Dan went to the store to buy (Spondee/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb) [List of nouns/subjects]
Beef, pork, and Chicken. Dinner would be good! (Spondee/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb) [List of noun/Direct objects.]

Kicked, Punched, and Bit the people in the bar. (Spondee/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb) [List of verbs]

Remember, if you choose to use Spondees, you can only use two of them within a line.


I hope my exploration of Spondees proves insightful to those of you wanting to learn metrical writing. If you have any thoughts or questions on the subject, please leave a comment or a like!

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