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I was told in my class that "They flee from me" is written in iambic pentameter, except for line number 6 in the second stanza in iambic tetrameter. However, some lines in my textbook have more than 10 syllables.

They flee from me that some-time did me seek (this is fine)
With na-ked foot stalk-ing with-in my cham-ber
...
That now are wild, and do not once re-mem-ber

I end up in in the previous two lines, and some others, with 11 syllables with the last syllable unstressed.

And this is the line that is supposed to be in tetrameter:

And therwithal, so sweetly did me kiss,

The extracts are taken from The Penguin Book of English Verse anthology. It is worth mentioning that I found the poem modified slightly on some websites.

How to justify this pattern in some lines of the poem? Is this a special kind of foot that I am not aware of? And how did my instructor conclude that the foregoing line is written in iambic tetrameter?

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    When Wyeth wrote, words weren't pronounced the same way they are today. Here is the original spelling of the poem, which may (or may not) give you some clues about how it was originally pronounced..
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 0:43
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    Let me point out that lines with 11 syllables with the last one unstressed are allowed in modern iambic pentameter. These aren't what Wyatt wrote, though — he wrote lines of 10 syllables with the last unstressed, and these were "corrected" by the same person who corrected line 6 in my answer below. For example, the original of the second line was With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 21:45

1 Answer 1

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TLDR: Somebody changed the line from Wyeth's original poem to add two syllables and turn it from iambic tetrameter to iambic pentameter. The line you quote in the post is iambic pentameter. The original line was indeed iambic tetrameter.

In the early 16th century, the rules of iambic pentameter were much looser, and poets experimented a lot with their meters. Nobody really knows exactly how Wyeth intended his poetry to be scanned, partly because we're unsure of the pronunciations of the words; scholars are still arguing over it. While Chaucer wrote in iambic pentameter long before Wyatt, it wasn't the standard meter when Wyatt wrote. The rules for what we recognize as modern iambic pentameter were developed in the second half of the century, with Philip Sydney, Edmund Spencer, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare. See Wikipedia.

But your question about why that line is said to be in iambic tetrameter is fairly easy to answer. Here is the original, with the original spelling, of Wyeth's poem. In this version, the line goes:

Therewith all swetely did me kysse,

(Therewith all sweetly did me kiss in modern spelling.) There are only eight syllables in it, and it scans very well as iambic tetrameter.

At some point, somebody added two syllables to the line to make it iambic pentameter and thus conform with our modern sensibilities. If your professor told you that the updated line:

And therwithal, so sweetly did me kiss,

was in iambic tetrameter, they were mistaken.

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    The line was probably "corrected" by Richard Tottel, who included Wyatt's poem in his anthology Songes and Sonettes (1557). Here's an 1870 reprint. Luckily we have Wyatt's own manuscripts for comparison: here's a 1913 edition based on the manuscripts. Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 10:26
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    Here's Wyatt's manuscript, courtesy of the British Library. "They fle from me" is on folio 26v (with what looks like a trigonometry problem in the margin!) Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 10:41
  • @Gareth: that "correction" shows that the modern rules of iambic pentameter were already established by 1567, before Sydney could have written much poetry (he was 13 at the time). So either I'm missing something or Wikipedia is wrong when they say Sydney "is often considered to have reinvented iambic pentameter in its final form".
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 13:15
  • It wouldn't be surprising if Wikipedia has over-simplified its source (Duffell's A New History of English Metre in this case). On the other hand, regularizing the length of a single line in a poem is something an editor might do even in the absence of a detailed metrical convention. Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 13:25
  • @Gareth: it wasn't just a single line. He also regularized the 10-syllable lines ending with an unstressed syllable (there were a lot of them) to be 11 syllables long, as well as some 9-syllable lines that started with a stressed syllable.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 14:53

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