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The poem is in iambic pentameter and employs a feminine ending to the odd lines; but there are a few lines whose rhythm confounds me:

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools

And —which is more— you’ll be a Man, my son!

What is happening with the meter of these lines?

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  • The bottom two, at least, seem to clearly fit iambic pentameter. AND which IS more YOU'LL be A man MY son.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Mar 5 at 9:49
  • @Matt Thrower isn't 'twisted' a trochee?
    – Pearl
    Commented Mar 5 at 10:07
  • 1
    See the section "Exceptions in iambic metre" in this answer, and note Ransom's exception 3. Commented Mar 5 at 10:41
  • @MattThrower You're using capital letters for unstressed and small letters for stressed syllables?
    – user14111
    Commented Mar 5 at 22:44

1 Answer 1

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The lines fit iambic pentameter well enough. To take each in turn:

 x   / |  x    /  |  x   /  |  x   /   |  x   /   |  x
If you | can wait | and not | be tired | of  wait | ing

The line is hypermetric, but is otherwise regular. As you note in the question, the hypermetricality is a feature of the odd-numbered lines of each verse, so this line fits the pattern established by the poem. As a pronoun, ordinarily you would be unstressed. But here, the stress is for emphasizing the addressee in contradistinction to the others: you, specifically, not anybody else.

  /  x  | x   /    |  x   /  | x   /  |  x    /   |
Twisted |by knaves | to make | a trap | for fools |

The point of meter is not to maintain a rigid pattern. The point is to establish a pattern and use variations to make meaning. This line is an example. The trochee at twisted is semantically apt, since it twists the iambic rhythm out of regularity.

 /  ||     x    x   /    ||   x     / | x  /   |  x  /   |
And || — which is more — || you’ll be | a Man, | my son! |

The cæsuræ do make this line somewhat irregular, but again, there are still five stresses and their distribution of the stresses emphasizes the meaning. One could argue that you'll be should be scanned as trochaic rather than iambic, since "you" is often stressed in this poem. But since "be" is the main verb, I think an iamb works better. Also, given the irregularity of the first half of the line, having three regular feet to end reëstablishes the iambic pattern.

So while none of these lines fits a strictly regular da-DUM da-DUM iambic pentameter, the variations are well within accepted conventions, and seem meaningful in context.

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  • 1
    Thanks for the explanation. The 1st line tripped me up because I thought there were 2 syllables in 'tired', but I now learned there's only 1 technically.
    – Pearl
    Commented Mar 6 at 15:08

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