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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.