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Dipodic Verse

By A.E. Stallings

What is it? Is it catching, is it common, is it rare?
Is it something you have heard, and maybe uttered, unaware?


Steve has broached a subject close to my heart—dipodic meter—and I thought it might deserve a little space of its own here on Harriet.
What is it? In English scansion it refers to a meter than can be scanned according to two different “feet” (thus di-podic), verse that can be heard two ways.
It is all very well to talk about pseudo-classical iambs, marching daDum, daDum across the page. But in performance, something else can happen in English altogether. Especially in a long (six or seven foot) line, maybe because of breath and pacing, certain strong beats come to the fore, and weaker beats get subsumed. This is often true in lyrics that are sung—or spoken–over a driving rhythm. Gilbert and Sullivan has many examples, but also, as Steve mentions, this happens in ballads—(such as, well, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”)
There is G&S’s “Modern Major General” (or Tom Lehrer’s “Elements,” sung to the same tune–there’s a terrific animation of it here!), which you can scan thus:
I am the very model of a modern major general
That is, as seven iambs (da-DUMs). But in performance, four strong downbeats are felt—
I am the very model of a modern major general
Little stresses on words like “of” are easy to drop—but look, whole words (“very,” “major”) get “demoted”, innate word-stress and all! This doesn’t happen in iambic verse—you can’t have a two syllable word with no stress at all.
So, how to scan it? You might scan it thus, the bold AND capitalized syllables representing those strong beats:
I AM the very MOD el of a MOD ern major GENeral
A lot of poems in the Victorian and Georgian eras start playing with these long lines. Perhaps there is even something of a music hall backdrop to some of those by Kipling and Housman.
Take (read aloud) these stanzas of “The New Mistress” from A Shropshire Lad (1896):
Oh, sick I am to see you, will you never let me be?
You may be good for something but you are not good for me.
Oh, go where you are wanted, for you are not wanted here.

And that was all the farewell when I parted from my dear.
‘I will go where I am wanted, to a lady born and bred
Who will dress me free for nothing in a uniform of red;
She will not be sick to see me if I only keep it clean:
I will go where I am wanted for a soldier of the Queen.

Notice all those light monosyllables that allow you to skim across the line, and quickly get into that dipodic swing. You can hear this being sung—or chanted—as a drinking song—the hands coming down on the table in four strong beats per line, while the iambs underneath drive rhythm forward. (I love the colloquial voice here, with its “free for nothing”.)
Another, by Kipling, again in a barracks voice:
They are hangin’ Danny Deever, you must mark ‘im to ‘is place,
For ‘e shot a comrade sleepin’—you must look ‘im in the face;
Nine’underd of ‘is county an’ the regiment’s disgrace,
While they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.
(The last line has only 3 strong beats.)
These examples have a military marching rhythm to them, but it is possible, with alliteration, assonance and heavier syllables in those unstressed positions, to give the verses a more ambiguous feel, so that they seem to go back and forth more readily between a straight iambic (or trochaic) and a dipodic sound—such as the Hardy poem Steve discusses in his post. And though you might think this effect, which can tend towards the sing-song, is best suited for humorous poems, or marching songs, it can be incantatory (as Poe’s “The Raven” or Tennyson’s Locksley Hall), or its sing-songiness even put to serious satiric effect. Here’s Housman again, in a poem that obliquely confronts the criminalization of homosexuality
Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.
Rap songs are often dipodic in nature—again, words spoken or chanted over a rhythmic ground—Greek rap (yes! it exists!) certainly is. Interestingly—at least to me, meter geek—Greek rap is in essentially the same meter as Greek folk poetry (as the four-hundred year old romance, The Erotokritos, which I am currently translating from)—a fifteen syllable line that resembles ballad meter in English. But speeded up, you will get four strong beats with three or so light syllables in between each beat instead of seven iambic “feet”.
Dipodic meter is alive and well in lyrics and performance—I’d love to see more people keeping it alive on the page.

Comments (13)

  • On November 8, 2007 at 11:39 am Steve wrote:

    Note the difference between (a) descriptions and examples of dipodic metre as a particular kind of metre– one that goes with, or can also be scanned as, long and rapid iambics– and (b) claims that English or English-language verse or metre is always “really” dipodic (rather than being always “really” iambic, as Frost thought, or always “really” nothing in particular, with metrical bases that may vary completely among possible groupings of poems).
    I suspect that (b) is a product, and not an especially credible one, of a particular kind of classical education– though I should really read Dennis Taylor’s book before I shame myself with further guesses in the place of informed claims.

  • On November 8, 2007 at 1:35 pm Alicia (A.E.) wrote:

    Hmmm. I’m not really sure how English meter could always be “really dipodic”–unless it is another conception of dipodic–but I haven’t read the book in question!
    I think the mixing of classical terms with English prosody has always been hugely problematic and caused many misunderstandings where none need exist.

  • On November 8, 2007 at 4:09 pm Steve wrote:

    I’m sure I agree.

  • On November 9, 2007 at 9:21 am myshkin wrote:

    This seems to relate to that well-known Robert Penn Warren essay on Shakespeare’s line, which gathers it’s strength from an embedded older form–anglo-saxon alliterative verse, with its 2 beats, caesura, 2 beats, regarless of numer of syllables, with 2 or 3 of the beats alliterative–tugging against the current (17th century) iambic pent.

  • On November 10, 2007 at 6:39 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    That’s an interesting point to bring up, Myshkin.
    Actually, the prevailing wisdom that iambic pentameter is somehow ideal for relating the rhythms of English speech seems deeply flawed to me. It’s true that it is a wonderfully flexible meter (especially blank verse), capable of expressing an awful lot, but I don’t think English is innately iambic (or if it seems to be, it is because the more natural trochees get thrown into iambic position by the definite article). We’re just used to listening for ip. If you start listening for other meters, they are all over the place in everyday speech too. I hear natural adonic colons all the time–that “strawberry shortcake” rhythm at the end of Sapphic stanzas or classical dactyllic hexameter:

  • On November 10, 2007 at 8:44 am Don Share wrote:

    Folks interested in a fun explanation of native rhythm in English-language poetry should read Basil Bunting’s lecture called, “Thumps,” in Basil Bunting on Poetry. He finds, in the earliest English verse, four “thumps” to a line, and between the thumps, “or in front of them or behind them, the poets were free to cram as many less emphatic syllables as they could pronounce without gabbling, or as few as they liked — even none at all. [...] The moment poets began to count syllables, their difficulties began too – or the difficulties of the prosodist who tried to explain what the poet was doing. The notion was of a regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, or of one stressed and two unstressed. But that is not the way the English language comes to our lips…”
    Read the whole thing!

  • On November 12, 2007 at 8:57 am Alicia (A.E.) wrote:

    I very much agree with Bunting here… I certainly only worry about the thumps–or the downbeats as I think of them. Bizarrely exotic scansions–and one certainly sees them, even in the august pages of places like the TLS–can rationalize much, and may have their scholarly purposes I suppose, but don’t actually reflect how poets write–or think–in meter. Anxiety about things like “allowable substitions”–as if syllables were subject to official rationing–come from the over-intellecutalizing of what is, after all, a visceral process.

  • On November 14, 2007 at 1:52 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Let me ask you this, Alicia
    If onomatopoeic words are imitative of noises, then is there an onomatopoeic meter that is imitative of noises? For example, how would you scan this Frost couplet:
    The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
    I can remember when he was a pup.
    Here’s how I scan it:
    The OLD DOG BARKS BACKwards, without getting up.
    Can’t you just hear the old dog yapping: OLD DOG BARKS BACK
    Perhaps the rest is unscannable, because it’s so quiet and understated, more like an unspoken thought in the silence after the dog’s resounding bark (or thumps, as the case may be).

  • On November 14, 2007 at 6:17 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    PS: If onomatopoeic meter doesn’t already exist by some other term, maybe it could be called onomatopedic verse.

  • On November 15, 2007 at 4:33 am Alicia (A.E.) wrote:

    Meter is often mimetic, of course, but I wouldn’t confuse it with rhythm, which, for me, has to do with the heaviness of syllables and the speed or lack thereof with which they trundle across the page. There can be an infinite amount of discussion of how to “scan” this Frost couplet (and I am sure there are scholars who would disagree with me), but I imagine Frost means both lines to be bouncy (triple–i.e. amphibrachic, dactyllic, anapestic, what have you) tetrameters:
    The OLD dog barks BACK wards with OUT get ting UP
    I can re MEM ber when HE was a PUP.
    Read it this way: I think you’ll find it works. Remember that monosyllables are always anceps in English–they can take a stress or shrug it off, no matter how “important” they may seem. Frost pushed those demoted syllables as much as he dared–this is on the extreme end–but see how those heavy demotions (including the main noun and verb of the first line) slow the line down to a crawl–the line can’t be bothered to get up to bark; whereas the second on skims along, with the “thumps” all landing on important things like nouns and verbs, the emphatic pronoun “he” and, of course “pup”, while unstressed syllables are on light syllables (“was” “a”) that we hardly need here at all.
    Meter tells us how to read a line, not the other way around–we don’t go picking out what is important in a line and determine that that must therefore has a stress. Meter tells us what to stress. That’s what gives meter its enormous expressive range–how it pulls against the way we might “naturally” want to read a line. It’s that tug of war that makes it interesting. Otherwise, it would all be a matter of daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. Clock-work metrical poems slot all the interesting and heavy words into the stressed positions.

  • On November 15, 2007 at 4:10 pm Don Share wrote:

    Alicia makes a fine point here about meter, stress, and rhythm – another good way to test the distinction she makes is to read the first line of Frost’s “Mending Wall” as pure iambics! What I wonder about, and am sure Alicia can explain, is how imabics work in modern Greek poetry. Stratis Haviaras recently translated “The Canon” of Cavafy into loose iambic lines, and I wonder if this establishes a useful analog, e.g.,:
    In a Town of Osroine
    Last night, around midnight, they brought back to us
    our friend Remon, who’d been hurt in a taverna brawl.
    The moon, through a window we’d thrown wide open,
    set his gorgeous body aglow, as he lay there on the bed.
    We’re a real stew here: Syrians, Greeks, Armenians, Medes.
    Remon’s one of us. And yet, last night, as the moon washed over
    his lovely face, our thoughts drifted back to Plato’s Charmides.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 3:26 am Alicia (A.E.) wrote:

    Maybe the second line of “Mending Wall” would be an even better example–that “swell” pushing up in its “un”-stressed position–(it is after all not uncommon to start a traditional ip line with a trochee.)
    Meter in modern Greek poetry appears to work surprisingly like English meter–stress based. I am no expect here, and I have been unable to get anyone to sit down and “explain” Greek meter to me, but from the standpoint of an autodidact, it appears to work in exactly the same way. Modern Greek is a heavily stressed language, more so even than English–you can get away with mispronouncing a word if you get the stress right; on the other hand, if you pronounce it exactly correctly but get the stress wrong, it will be unintelligible, a verb might be in the wrong tense, etc.. The fifteeners of Greek folk poetry are really no different metrically from fourteeners in English, but with feminine endings. It’s ballad meter.
    Cavafy, as in most things, is another matter–he writes in iambic lines of varying lengths, but apparently some of them scan according to demotic rules of elision and others according to katherevousa (the academic Greek register located somewhere between spoken and ancient Greek). Though the majority of his poems are unrhymed, a significant minority, as you know, are rhymed, often intricately so–a lot of use of rime riche rather than straight rhyme, which is perhaps too easy and jangly in Greek. It’s an almost impossible effect to get across in English (the effect seems to me something like Owen’s pararhyme, as one thing transforms into another by the shift of a vowel–with the difference that in modern Greek u, ei, oi, i, and e all actually sound the same), though I do wish more translators would at least try to get across some of his formal elements. Haviaras does this admirably (Walls, Che Fece, An Old Man, etc.), though he does not rhyme all of the rhymed ones (The City, for instance). I don’t know that there has been a definitive study of C.s prosody in English–or Greek, for that matter. If there has, please let me know so I can get it!
    Do you know, by the way, Cavafy’s brother’s translations of his work? Rather Victorian in flavor (“fanes” for temples, and so on), but sometimes successful, and he always keeps the rhyme schemes. A worthwhile curiosity!

  • On November 17, 2007 at 9:45 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    Thanks, Alicia. I grant you the triple tet in all but OLD DOG BARKS BACK, which meter be damned, I can’t help hearing as barking. I’ll be studying your post about this. Meanwhile, if the shoe fits – that’s me – clock-work meter. But my last two poems are about clocks – I’m going somewhere with this, you’ll see.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, November 8th, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.