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Thread: Is this in iambic pentameter or not?

  1. #1
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    Is this in iambic pentameter or not?

    My room sits staring in pitch black light in twilight
    Each night I feel a figure observes me as night.
    A light aid seizes shadows from whole bed right.


    The rhyme scheme is supposed to be ABBAC, but I only got the first 3 lines. The last word on line 3 "right" doesn't make much sense with the line though, but I can't find anything that rhymes with night and makes sense. Any suggestions and help will be appreciated. ^^.

  2. #2
    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    No, it's not. A quick way to tell is to count the syllables per line. There should be ten syllables per line (that's what the "pentameter" part means). This one has decidedly more than ten per line.

    Also, iambic pentameter does not have to rhyme.

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    Wild is the Wind Silas Thorne's Avatar
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    Also, in basic iambic pentameter there should be five stressed syllable units per line, usually on the second syllable, though sometimes with minor variation. Most of Shakespeare is in it, read it aloud.

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    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    There is lots of confusion actually. In reality, many scholars have argued, with a large point, that iambic pentameter is a fallacy, and in truth, it isn't really a common, or practiced thing in English (an Iamb is a reference to syllable length, a short syllable followed by a long one, but in English, such quantitative metres are ridiculous) The real term for the line is The Heroic Line in English without Rime, coming from Milton, but really, in truth, it is a 10-11 syllable line, generally, with usually 5 stresses, though not necessarily. I believe somewhere in Paradise Lost Milton Uses 8 stresses (the line ends with "bogs" but I'm too lazy to look it up).

    In truth, these are not. They are 12 + syllables a piece, and generally, unless one is really bending the line, one shouldn't exceed 11. It's closer to Hexameter. Also, in case this is of use, there is only a half-rhyme, because of the stress on Twilight and "As Night". Perhaps you scan those differently, but I scan the stresses as to be opposite.

    Hope this helped. If you want probably the best guide on the subject, get Stephen Adams's Poetic Designs. It is probably the most user friendly and practical introduction to prosody.

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    Wild is the Wind Silas Thorne's Avatar
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    Thanks for the information JBI, that was interesting.

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    rat in a strange garret Whifflingpin's Avatar
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    "If you want probably the best guide on the subject, get Stephen Adams's Poetic Designs. It is probably the most user friendly and practical introduction to prosody."

    I'm currently reading Stephen Fry's "The Ode Less Travelled" which is also a pleasant, painless and practical introduction to prosody.

    "an Iamb is a reference to syllable length, a short syllable followed by a long one, but in English, such quantitative metres are ridiculous"
    True enough, but the Greek terms are commonly applied to English, by equating unstressed to short syllable, and stressed syllables to long. That may not be proper use of the classic terms, but it is convenient.

    Allowing the use, then the OP's lines are not, in general, iambic, any more than they are pentameters. I guess this is a school exercize, and what the teacher is expecting is a line of five iambs (or, for JBI, five feet of weak/strong)

    ti tum/ ti tum /ti tum /ti tum/ ti tum.


    My room sits/ staring in/ pitch black /light in/ twilight.
    ti tum tum /tum ti ti/ tum tum /tum ti /tum ti

    That could be a pentameter, allowing the first unstressed syllable, but there is no iamb in it. (2 spondees, 2 trochees and a dactyl, but not in that order)

    In twilight black my room sits staring stark

    I think that's what Miss wants, and "dark" is an obvious rhyme for line 4.
    Voices mysterious far and near,
    Sound of the wind and sound of the sea,
    Are calling and whispering in my ear,
    Whifflingpin! Why stayest thou here?

  7. #7
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    You miss the point though. The Greek line was used differently, especially in Latin times. Shakespeare, from what I recall, only wrote one sonnet that was pure unstress stress for 10 syllables, and 14 lines. The truth is, poets break the line constantly - it doesn't serve the same function as it did before. In truth, it is better used to refer to the number of stresses in the line, and the ratio which is 1/1 or 5/6 depending on the end of the line.


    Whereas in Latin languages, the pattern was a form, in English the Iamb, if it can be called that, is really a skeleton. Milton himself opens with a line that has substitutions, and substitutes constantly. Shakespeare's Hamlet To Be Or Not To Be is an 11 syllable line, following a lose Pentameter, though really having 11 syllables a line.

    Look at this cutting from Wallace Steven's Sunday Morning for instance:

    Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
    Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
    And the green freedom of a cockatoo
    Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
    The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
    She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
    Encroachment of that old catastrophe,

    The line is iambic, but the feel of the iamb isn't there - the line bends severely. That is the condition of English "Iambic Pentameter". It isn't actually iambic, and not necessarily pentameter.


    I think that's the problem with English scansion. It ends up that the scanner is trying to break the line into feet, in order to try and understand the pattern, but it doesn't really work like that. Milton may scan well, and 17th century poets perhaps, but really, poetry is far more screwy than that. Substitutions are far more common, and I think the only significant thing about the "Iambic Pentameter" line, is essentially never has a dactylic substitution, and almost never an anapestic one, let alone a crytic foot, or a more obscure one, like a bacchius or something.

    There have been weird substitutions in English mind you, the strangest I can think of is in Yeat's Under Ben Bulben, though in "Trochaic tetrameter catalectic", he substitutes in a first Paean (note, I am scanning the and in as elided over to become one unstressed syllable).

    still the indomitable Irishry.


    But beyond that though, Iambic Pentameter is really a myth they teach school children to try and give people a sense of Prosody, without actually understanding it. Fry's book is somewhat violent in that sense, that it makes assumptions, and doesn't deal enough with the history behind the metre (a critique which can be applied to Adams too). Fry is more concerned with creating Iambic Pentameter, whereas I think Adams is concerned with understanding prosody - though, I must admit, Fry's wit is far more entertaining than Adams's scholarship.
    Last edited by JBI; 02-04-2009 at 10:49 PM.

  8. #8
    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JBI View Post
    There is lots of confusion actually. In reality, many scholars have argued, with a large point, that iambic pentameter is a fallacy, and in truth, it isn't really a common, or practiced thing in English (an Iamb is a reference to syllable length, a short syllable followed by a long one, but in English, such quantitative metres are ridiculous)
    JBI, that's interesting. I was aware that iambic pentameter is very flexible in practice (as you said, Milton is a good example). But I wasn't aware that some scholars have argued that iambic pentameter is, in essence, a fallacy. Is part of their argument that spoken English IS basically iambic pentameter? I mean, English is known for having that unstressed-stressed syllable pattern. In contrast, lots of other languages (for example, the romance langs) usually stress the penultimate syllable of a word.

    I'd be interested to read more on this. Could you recommend some sources?

  9. #9
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    I know Robert Bridges wrote extensively on this subject, as did others, but I think he is the most important and accessible, and he worked in depth with Milton, which makes things more familiar. I'm sure though, if you looked in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Literary Terms you would find a fantastic bibliography of sources on the subject.

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    Antique pentameter was suitable only with hexameter, so more modern P are totally different
    By the way, don't forget about caesurae

  11. #11
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by shud-shee View Post
    Antique pentameter was suitable only with hexameter, so more modern P are totally different
    By the way, don't forget about caesurae
    What?

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    The Body in the Library Thespian1975's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by shud-shee View Post
    Antique pentameter was suitable only with hexameter, so more modern P are totally different
    By the way, don't forget about caesurae
    Caesurae are breaks or pauses in lines yet keeping the iambic.

    To be, or not to be.<Caesurae> That is the question

    Also the Extra syllable at the end is known as a weak or feminine ending.

    Pentameters must have five stresses in the line with or without a weak ending.

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    rat in a strange garret Whifflingpin's Avatar
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    JBI "You miss the point though."
    No I did not, and I was not disagreeing with you, but your comments, while true, seemed to me to be out of context of the original post. The poster seemed to be a beginner, in a classroom situation and concerned with English only. The (mis)use of the Greek names is so general that it is the de facto way of describing English poetry.
    I accept that endless strings of pure iambic pentameters would be very boring and would offer little help to meaning. Any competent poet would therefore enliven a poem with substitutions, caesurae etc. That, however, does not matter here. The OP, who is no Milton, was tasked with writing 5 lines of iambic pentameter, and clearly the teacher would expect 5 lots of "ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum"

    *****************
    Wilde Woman: "some scholars have argued that iambic pentameter is, in essence, a fallacy. Is part of their argument that spoken English IS basically iambic pentameter? I mean, English is known for having that unstressed-stressed syllable pattern. In contrast, lots of other languages (for example, the romance langs) usually stress the penultimate syllable of a word. "

    The main argument is that Greek and Latin are unstressed languages and that the word "iamb" strictly speaking describes a pattern of syllable lengths. Using it to describe a pattern of stresses is therefore improper. It is general to describe English poetry using the Greek words in an analogous way, (short->unstressed, long->stressed,) but that works only while we stick to English and remember the correct meanings when moving to other languages.
    [I'll risk an example, hoping that JBI will treat it gently. "di da di da di da" would be three Greek iambs, because "di" is short and "da" (pronounced "daa") is long. It would be three iambs in English (if said as in la-di-da) because the stress would be on the second syllable. But if you wanted the phrase, say, to imitate a machine juddering to a halt, the stress would swap syllables. In English usage that would make three trochees, but, because the syllable length would remain unchanged, it would still, in Greek usage, be three iambs.]

    The second argument is that few (no?) English poets stick rigidly to lines of five iambs. That would make for very dull, or irritating, poetry. So the poet might reverse the stress in a foot, or use two equally stressed syllables (substitution.) Or he might put a pause in the line (caesura) which, it could be argued, would turn it into two lines. Or he might extend it a little by having an unstressed syllable on the end. So it would be hard to find a poem written totally in iambic feet.

    shud-shee "Antique pentameter was suitable only with hexameter,"
    A pentameter is not a hexameter: whether in Greek or English a pentameter has five feet and a hexameter has six feet. The difference, as JBI has explained, is that the classic foot is described in terms of syllable lengths but the English foot is described in terms of stress.
    Voices mysterious far and near,
    Sound of the wind and sound of the sea,
    Are calling and whispering in my ear,
    Whifflingpin! Why stayest thou here?

  14. #14
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Thespian1975 View Post
    Caesurae are breaks or pauses in lines yet keeping the iambic.

    To be, or not to be.<Caesurae> That is the question

    Also the Extra syllable at the end is known as a weak or feminine ending.

    Pentameters must have five stresses in the line with or without a weak ending.
    I know that, I was commenting on the hexameter part, and was curious what the caesura had to do with anything. Caesura is more important in earlier English poetry such as Beowulf or Sir Gawain, and in French Poetry, such as anything by Racine. I just had no idea what the above poster was trying to say.

  15. #15
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Also, to build on your example, in classical Prosody, you could substitute three unstressed syllables for your Iamb, but in English, you really can't. You could also do similar things with other metres, but in English, you really can't. That is a big difference. di da di da di da di da di da is iambic pentameter, but according to traditional scansion, so is this: di di di di da di da di da, but in English, that's 11 syllables, and technical illegal, and unheard of. The substitutions in English generally involve substituting one syllable for another, or one "foot" for another, so you get a double stress instead of an unstress + a stress, or a stress + unstress instead of the opposite, but you don't get an elongation like that, which technically is the way to substitute in classical languages.

    In truth, the reason for this, I believe, is because poets didn't think of themselves as writing in 'iambic pentameter'. With the emergence of English against the classical education though, I think people started trying to make teaching it easier. If you told Milton he was writing in iambic pentameter he probably would have laughed at you.

    In truth, the sense of weak and strong endings is also an English phenomenon. In Greek and Latin, one could end a stress-ended line however they liked, (I think the term is Brevis in Longo), or could just shorten an dactylic foot by substituting a spondee.
    Last edited by JBI; 02-05-2009 at 02:08 PM.

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