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I'm currently teaching myself to scan, and I'm practicing with Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" at the moment. You can read the entire poem online. I've arrived at line 32: "Floated midway on the waves;" and I'm confused about where to place the feet.

It's pretty obvious to me that the stress of the line looks like this:

Floated midway on the waves;

However, I'm not really sure where the feet should go in this line. Should they be positioned like this:

Floated| midway| on the| waves;

which is a catalectic trochaic tetrameter, or like this:

Float|ed mid|way on| the waves|;

which is an acephaleous iambic tetrameter.

  • Hmmm. I'm not really sure if quote blocks are the way to go here. Any advice on formatting would also be helpful. – user111 Jul 23 '17 at 1:23
  • You can always take the point of view that English-language poems don't actually have feet; just stressed syllables. In that case, you've already solved the problem. – Peter Shor Jul 23 '17 at 17:22
  • @PeterShor that could make for an interesting self-answered question "do English-language poems actually have feet?" – user111 Jul 23 '17 at 17:31
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    Gerard Manley Hopkins doesn't seem to have thought so. (Or at least, in his "spring rhythm" poems, he defined feet so they always started with a stressed syllable, which completely erases any difference between iambic and trochaic meters.) Of course, you could argue that he didn't know what he was talking about. Or that his analysis only applies to some poems. – Peter Shor Jul 23 '17 at 17:34
  • @PeterShor just found your answer on the subject here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/384735/… – user111 Jul 24 '17 at 3:40
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In a case like this, it is partly a matter of personal preference, and partly a matter of determining the meter used by the rest of the poem. To quote from Turco's The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics (pp. 41-42):

Epiploce. This is a term used to describe a situation when, in scansion, a line of verse may be viewed in either of two ways, that is, as a catalectic trochaic tetrameter line (/^|/^|/^|/), or as an acephaleous iambic tetrameter line (/|^/|^/|^/). Generally, the matter can be settled by a scansion of the rest of the poem to determine the normative meter.

This rule of thumb easily settles the case for Kubla Khan: given that most of the poem is written in iambic meter, it makes sense that "Floated midway on the waves" should be scanned as "Float|ed mid|way on| the waves|;" to avoid conflicting with the rest of the poem.

At the same time, there isn't really a difference in how "Float|ed mid|way on| the waves|;" and "Floated| midway| on the| waves;" are pronounced, so it's also a matter of personal preference.

Hartman's Verse: An Introduction to Prosody (which is a fantastic read) explains the contradiction between catalectic trochaic tetrameter and acephaleous iambic tetrameter by citing Derek Attridge, a scholar who argues that there aren't feet in English poetry, but beats. The complexities of this argument are outside the scope of this answer, but anyone interested in learning more should take a look at Verse: An Introduction to Prosody, which provides a useful summary, or any one of Attridge's books on the subject.

  • You've found a reference that answered your question really well. Now, I'm wondering whether the same ambiguity existed in Latin and Greek poetry, which aren't in a stress-timed language. – Peter Shor Jul 24 '17 at 22:25
  • @PeterShor my impression, based on my perusal of Verse: An Introduction to Prosody, is that the concept of feet came to English poetry through the study of Latin poetry, so my guess is that the ambiguity didn't exist. But while I can't answer that question with any degree of certainty at the moment, it would make a really interesting question, either for this site or for the Latin Stack Exchange. (preferably this site, since I'm trying my hardest to make this a good place for scansion questions). – user111 Jul 24 '17 at 22:55
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I think your self-answer is correct. The application of the division of feet can have a degree of subjectivity--ultimately it doesn't matter where you divide the foot because the line will still have the same number of stresses to syllables.

That said, in heavily regularized verse, the method is used to determine the normative meter, and it's helpful to have some standardization.

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