On Prosody

First, in response to the connection Emily made in tutorial between the lines “And I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you” and a John Donne poem, here is a link to Donne’s (as usual) gorgeous and dense poem “A Lecture upon the Shadow” (1635).

Thanks for that connection, Emily.

Onto prosody, a bit of misleading name: it isn’t the science of prose, but the science of poetry.

Anyway, T.S. Eliot gives us an excellent opportunity to pick up or review some basic elements of prosody; like any specialized lexicon, it can easily steer into esoterica. But used correctly it can turn a so-so analysis of a poem into something truly inspired. Why? Because thoughts are not separate from the words we use to articulate them. So if you have precise, specific words at your command, then you can have thoughts and come up with interpretations that might be impossible without those words (this goes for any field, including literary analysis but also mathematics and business administration).


What is the difference between poetry and prose? As far as I can tell, the only objective difference that can consistently be maintained between them is that poetry, unlike prose, has line-breaks.

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow

might be prose or poetry. What is poetic about it in this arrangement? Well, for one thing, even though the poem I’ve taken this from is considered to be free verse, there is an evident, regular metre here (broken only at the end);


But it might be prose in the sense that it’s hardly “poetic” in its subject matter or expression. By contrast, To the Lighthouse, which is definitely a work in prose, is far more “poetic” in its language. Now here is the clause above as William Carlos Williams wrote it:

So much depends


a red wheel


This line is highly enjambed (from the French enjamber, which means to step across): that is, a single syntactical unit (the clause) is broken up by line breaks. To give a comparative example, here are some lines from a poem I wrote for a creative writing exercise some years ago:

With Ruth gone

who can say

I’m ruthless?

With Ruth


who can

say I’m ruthless?

It’s not great poetry, I’ll admit. But it’s a good illustration of various degrees of enjambment. In the first stanza, there is arguably no enjambment at all: each line is a syntactical unit with its own complete logic (even if only the third line could actually stand as a complete sentence). The second stanza is highly enjambed: line breaks separate words that syntax would want to keep together. The experience of reading the two stanzas is very different. One way to explain this is that a line break is a kind of punctuation; and like a comma or semi-colon, moving a punctuation mark into different places in a sentence can create very different meanings–for example, see this). You can see this effect of enjambment in action in the opening of The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

             –T.S. Eliot. The Waste Land, Prufrock and Ohter Poems. New York: Dover, 1998. 31.

With no enjambment, the lines would look like this:

April is the cruellest month,

Breeding lilacs out of the dead land,

Mixing memory and desire,

Stirring dull roots with spring rain.

This version is not enjambed; it is end-stopped, meaning that the line-breaks coincide with a break in syntax. It still works as poetry, but I’d say that the enjambment in Eliot’s version creates a kind of tension between the poetic form and lyrical expression of the lines (which is much more emphasized with the enjambment removed–note that pop songs very rarely use enjambment for this reason) and the more prose-like aspect of the passage, which is the continuous, argument-like nature of the nature (paraphrased, it might say “April is like this: for example…”) . Importantly, too, the enjambment creates a far more complex rhythm (this is not necessarily a good thing, but here I’d say it suits Eliot’s purpose). To see similar comparisons, you could read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets besides one of Milton’s (the former tends to use little enjambment, the latter a lot). The most enjambed passage in The Waste Land is


“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember

“Nothing?” (Ibid. 34)

Here you can clearly see one of the great effects that enjambment can create, which is a temporary ambiguity in meaning that persists in the reader’s mind even after the ambiguity has been resolved. The end of the second line above, “Do you remember” leaves us temporarily thinking that the woman is asking about whether the man remembers a particular event in their past, say, or something like that. And it’s only once you move to the next line that you realize the full statement is not “Do you remember?” but, rather, “Do you remember nothing?”–these are rather different things to ask someone, to say the least. But enjambment allows the two readings to exist simultaneously.


Meter indicates a regular rhythmic structure to poetic lines, and its presence or absence is essentially the difference between traditional verse and free verse (though other elements, like the absence of rhyme and the absence of regular stanza structure, is also fairly characteristic of free verse). In English, metric is measure mainly by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllabus (some other languages use pitch or syllable length instead of stress to dictate meter). Recognizing which syllables are stressed can be difficult at first. So here’s brief illustration:

The noun “object” (as in “a solid object”) puts the stress or accent on the first syllable: OB-ject.

The verb “object” (as in “we object to that example”) stresses the second syllable: ob-JECT.

The name “Mary” sounds very different from the name “Marie” mainly because of the positions of the stressed syllable: MA-ry versus Ma-RIE. Same with DA-niel versus da-NIELLE.

With single words like few syllables, figuring out where the stress is is pretty easy; with longer words or groups of words, some of the work of scanning (assessing the meter) becomes more difficult and, to a certain extent, subjective.

As a French speaker, I’ve always struggled with pronouncing the word “quantitatively.” Why? Because I’m not 100% sure where to put the stress because there are so many syllables to choose from–and, to make matters worse, because there are two syllables that are relatively stressed, though one is more stressed than the other: QUAN-tiTA-tive-ly. The first and third syllables are stressed, but the main stress is on the third.

Poetic metre is more than just the rhythm of individual words, of course: it is measured by the line. So prosodists typically parse out syllables in groups of two or three, and these groups are called feet.

For our purposes, we need only consider a few of the possible configurations. We’ll encounter three kinds of two-syllable feet: the iamb, the trochee, and the spondee.

Iamb: unstressed syllable followed by stressed syllable: ma-RIE.

Iambic line: ma-RIE | ma-RIE | ma-RIE | ma-RIE | ma-RIE

The line above has ten syllables and five iambic feet; it is called iambic pentameter (penta- = five); if it had one foot less, it’d be called iambic tetrameter (tetra- = four). Now for real examples:

was THIS | the FACE | that LAUNCH’D | a THOU | sand SHIPS?

from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604)

i WANT | to LIVE, | i WANT | to GIVE |

i’ve BEEN | a MI | ner FOR | a HEART | of GOLD

from Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” (1971)

One thing you can see from the Neil Young quotation is that stress is not absolute, but rather relative. In the last quoted line, the word “FOR” is stressed relative to the second syllabus of “miner” and to “a.” But in the line “For HE’S | a JOL | ly GOOD | FELlow” the word “for” is unstressed relative to “HE’S.” You can also see a metrical inversion in the last foot of the jolly fellow song, where the last foot is not unstressed-stressed but stressed-unstressed, also known as a

Trochee: stressed-unstressed: Ma-ry

Trochaic line: Ma-ry | Ma-ry | Ma-ry | Ma-ry (this is trochaic tetrameter)

For a real example:

DOUble | DOUble | TOIL and | TROUble

from Shakespeare’s Mcbeth

Spondee: two stressed syllables. This is not really a common foot–or at least it’s not really possible to write using several sequential spondees. Why not? Well, because stress is relative, so even when you have two strong syllables side by side, one will be more stressed than the other, and you’ll have something either trochaic or iambic. But once in a while you get what seems to be two more or less equally stressed syllables in one foot: KILL BILL, for example, is a spondee, while ARgo is a trochee and the TRIP is an iamb.

CRY! CRY! | TROY BURNS, | or ELSE | let HE | len GO

–from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

The first two feet are arguably spondees (I say arguably because you could argue that even the two “CRYs” in a row have different stresses). You can see it gives the otherwise iambic line an urgency that is consistent with the threat expressed in the line.

Three-syllable feet. There are many variants here, but the most common are anapests (unstressed-unstressed-stressed) and dactyls (stressed-unstressed-unstressed).

Anapests: in the END | he is DRUNK | and de-PRESSED

Dactyls: JON-a-than | MAR-tin and | JESS-ie are | LIV-ing in | MAN-ches-ter

I focus on just these two because other three-syllable feet, in English at least, are not so different from a familiar two-syllable foot with an extra syllable. So an amphibrach (unstressed-stressed-unstressed, for example to-RON-to) is almost an iamb (to-RON) followed by the first half of another iamb (to). Also, let’s not get too complicated here.

As a challenge, you might try scanning a few lines from different parts of “Prufrock.” Having found several lines using different meters (or no obvious meter at all), read ’em aloud to see how differently they sound.


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