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The question Catalectic trochaic tetrameter or acephaleous iambic tetrameter? Scanning "Kubla Khan" describes an interesting case when the placement of feet has no effect on the pronunciation of a line of verse.

The line in question is "Floated midway on the waves;" it's ambiguous whether the line should be scanned as /^|/^|/^|/ or /|^/|^/|^/. The important take away is that either scansion sounds exactly the same; how the feet are placed doesn't change the pronunciation.

In my mind, this raises a question: what are feet actually for? Do English language poems actually have feet, or are feet just a convention, or a stand in for another concept? After all, if feet are important, shouldn't there be a difference in how /^|/^|/^|/ and /|^/|^/|^/ sound?

  • This is a very good question, and is essentially the reason why I didn't like your "Kubla Khan" question. AFAICT, feet often aren't really relevant in English-language poetry, so it doesn't make much sense to ask how the syllables are divided into feet, any more than to ask how the consonants in a word are divided into syllables. – Rand al'Thor Jul 24 '17 at 20:48
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    @Randal'Thor I'm not sure if that's a reason to dislike a question: regardless of whether one personally believes in feet, feet are a convention used by a lot of poets/scholars, so it seems like a question about the placement of feet would be a useful question to have on this site. – user111 Jul 24 '17 at 21:17
  • @Rand: feet are a very natural concept in Elizabethan-era iambic pentameter, which usually has occasional trochaic substitutions. – Peter Shor Jul 24 '17 at 22:35
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I feel like there are two questions here. (1) Does English language break down into metrical feet and (2) are metrical feet used in English poetry.

The American Poetry Foundation defines a foot as a measurement of accentual-syllabic meter, which is just a way of saying English speech regards stresses and syllables distinctly. The breaking up of large rhythmic structures into feet is natural. In analysis of poems with strongly regularized rhythm, feet are used to determine the normative meter.

We can apply them to Blake, which will comment on the Coleridge question, and highlight the potential ambiguity in metrical interpretation. Specifically, the second stanza of Blake's London can be delivered variously in conjunction with the normative Iambic Tetrameter of the poem:

In ev/ery cry / of ev/ery Man,
In ev/ery In/fants cry / of fear,
In ev/ery voice: / in ev/ery ban,
The mind-forg'd / manacles / I hear

(I broke up the final line into three feet for ease of reading, utilizing first a bacchius and second a dactyl to set up a final iamb, although it can certainly be done with four feet.)

Alternately, the stress on "forg'd" can be suppressed to result in a spondee on the final foot:

The mind-forg'd / manacles / I hear

Utilizing an amphibrach for the first foot. It seems less graceful to try to impose a four foot structure on the 4th line, and there is a case for a polyrhythmic approach because the last line can also be delivered with only three stresses, by suppressing the stress on the "I":

The mind-forg'd / manacles / I hear

Preference of the reciter is the driving motivator.


The more regularized a poem in English, the more apparent the feet will be. Shakespeare is famous for iambic pentameter but it's not always fully regularized. One of my favorite pentameter poems begins with a trochees which morph to iambs:

Thou hast / made me, / and shall / thy work / decay?

and which I render entirely trochaic in recitation:

Thou hast / made me-- / shall thy / work de/cay?

In this Holy Sonnet of Donne's, iambic pentameter is the normative meter and strongly manifests itself to an English speaker after the first line. Breaking it in the 9th and 10th lines adds power to the poem, but requires analysis in terms of where the stresses might go. Thus feet are useful.

I think feet do appear even in modern poems:

I saw / the best minds / of my / generation / destroyed by / madness, / starving / hysterical / naked, / dragging /themselves / through the / negro / streets at dawn / looking / for an / angry / fix

but that it's more rarely applied as an analytic or compositional tool in free verse, as the previous line could be delivered with a different number of stresses, or different stress positions.

Eliot demonstrates that meter can still be strongly imposed on freer verse that resembles prose, save for the strong rhythm, making a case that meter is the fundamental distinction of poetry:

That was a / way of / putting it -
not very / satis/ factory:
A peri/phrastic / study / in a / worn-out / poetical / fashion,
Leaving / one still / with the / intolerable / wrestle
With words / and meanings.

Note that "intolerable" does not fit neatly into a tetrasyllable, having five syllables unless contracted, which is part of the tension Eliot is comenting on. Again, like Ginsburg, there are numerous way to break these lines into feet. (It's an art, not a science! ;)

But it is difficult to contextualize certain famous modern poems without a recognition of meter:

This Is / Just To / Say
I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox
and which you were / probably / saving / for breakfast
Forgive me they / were delicious
so sweet and / so cold

How it is broken up into feet is less important than that there is a strong, underlying meter which renders this a poem as opposed to a mere note on the refrigerator.

The further we get from the Elizabethan period, the more unruly the phrasing becomes, and by the modern poems, definitive application of scansion is problematic because the poems rarely have a discernible normative meter.

But to demonstrate unequivocally that feet do exist, and have application even in modern English poetry I'll use a work from the poet widely regarded as the greatest of the 20th century:

Turning / and turning / in the / widening / gyre

The fal/con can/not hear / the fal/coner;

Again, my breakdown of the first line is in no way definitive, (and I'm not entirely happy with my choice, though the intent is readability and as a guide for delivery--it has been pointed out that a case can be made for a stress on the "in", which I personally feel is sub-optimal;) but it's indisputable that the second line is in perfect iambic pentameter.

The genius of this choice is a factor of the beats to syllables ratio between the first and second line--4/11 vs. 5/10. This creates an extraordinary effect that might be termed "metrical compression", and itself can be understood as the merging of traditional and modern English poetry.

Iambic pentameter might be taken as the normative meter in that in reappears in many important lines, and is used to set up or contrast the metrical variations of previous or subsequent lines. The other indisputably iambic pentameter lines is the poem are:

Mere an/archy / is loosed / upon / the world,

The best / lack all / convic/tion, while / the worst

The dark/ness drops / again; / but now / I know

And what / rough beast, / its hour / come round / at last,

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    Your scansion of the line Turning and turning is quite unconventional. If this were Shakespeare, the conventional scansion would be /Túrning / and túrn/ing ín/ the wíde/ning gýre/ – iambic with a trochaic substitution in the first foot. The very fact that people can advocate such disparate scansions argues for English poems not actually having feet. – Peter Shor Aug 9 '17 at 2:18
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    Continued: I don't mean to say your scansion is wrong, just that I would do it differently. I would recite this poem in nearly strict iambic pentameter until I reached the section Hardly are those words out ..., when the meter suddenly becomes much looser. (Something I suspect was done quite deliberately by Yeats, although I'm not entirely sure what to make of it.) – Peter Shor Aug 9 '17 at 17:49
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    @PeterShor Regarding the stress on the "in", I think using it diminishes the flow significantly, resulting in inferior delivery. This preference is based on memorization and recitation of the poem over many years. Hamlet might make the case that the "in" still carries a stress, even if it is suppressed, but to highlight it would result in over-emphasis. Since the poem is modern and clearly doesn't stick to a 2 syllable foot structure overall, I didn't feel constrained as I might with Shakespeare, Donne or Spenser. – DukeZhou Aug 9 '17 at 18:23
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    @DukeZhou I've thought about it, and I now fully agree with your scansion of Yeats. And I upvoted this answer, which I think does answer the question, although there are other possible answers as well. – user111 Aug 9 '17 at 18:36
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    The first 10 lines very nearly have a 2-syllable foot structure, with only one or two lapses (widening gyre, ceremony of innocence). This completely breaks down in the rest of the poem. I think Yeats may have done this to mirror the theme of the poem – things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. So I would put a small amount of stress on in to keep the meter regular in that part of the poem. – Peter Shor Aug 9 '17 at 18:53
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Yes, English language poems (at least ones that aren't in accentual meter) have feet.

One illustration of this is Masefield's poem Sea Fever. When he first published it in 1902, the first stanza ran:

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

He later changed the first line to start "I must go down ..."

Why? This explanation is pure speculation, but it shows that the meter of English poetry requires more than just knowing where the stressed syllables are.

I believe Masefield intended the scansion of his first line to be:

I | múst dówn | to the séas | agáin, | to the lóne|ly séa | and the ský,

where "I" is an anacrusis—an extra syllable that comes before the first foot—and must down is the first of the many spondees in the poem (e.g., tall ship, wheel's kick, wind's song, white sail's, grey mist, sea's face, grey dawn).

However, readers of English poetry were so used to iambs that most people read it:

I múst | dówn to | the séas | agáin, | to the lóne|ly séa | and the ský,

a scansion that stresses all the same syllables, but doesn't sound anywhere near as good. So Masefield added go so that the scansion would be

I múst | go dówn | to the séas | agáin, | to the lóne|ly séa | and the ský,

which isn't as good as his originally intended scansion, but much better than the unintended scansion that most people used.

Anyway, regardless of whether this is the actual reason that Masefield changed the poem, this is an example of a poem that has two scansions that are quite different even though they stress all the same syllables, showing that the foot is a meaningful concept in English poetry.

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Feet and (broadly speaking) meter are used in countless English poems by many poets. This is basically to develop symmetry in the poem. So that lines fall in a melody when recited. Of course it is best seen in Italian sonnets, but post the Shakespearan period, this has deviated. If we see the poem Ozymandias of Egypt by P.B. Shelly the lines are in perfect iambic pentameter but fail to develop a rhythm when recited. So, its a device to make the poem structured and (since most lack the ability to write in proper feet) unique. Hope this helps.

  • This isn't super helpful. The example of "Ozymandias" is interesting. But this answer doesn't come near to addressing the reason I asked this question, which is described in the first paragraph ("The question Catalectic trochaic tetrameter or acephaleous iambic tetrameter? Scanning "Kubla Khan" describes an interesting case when the placement of feet has no effect on the pronunciation of a line of verse."). So I would expect answers to at least talk about the example described in that related question. – user111 Jul 24 '17 at 16:32
  • @Hamlet Oops. I found the latter part of your question fascinating and answered to that. Tetrameter? I'm gonna have to do some serious research. – cinebird Jul 24 '17 at 17:29
  • No worries. This is still interesting. Looking forward to your answer. – user111 Jul 24 '17 at 17:37
  • I looked up tetrameter. Every other article on Kubla Khan on the web states that it's written in iambic tetrameter and pentameter. I don't see how the line can be read in trochees. Either way its bound to sound the same. Because English as a whole is am iambic language. There's usually more stress on the second syllable now that i notice it. I'm very confused with this line though. However, my conviction is that every other language has feet. Every two syllable word will have feet. One part would be stressed in such words. – cinebird Jul 25 '17 at 11:28
  • "Because English as a whole is am iambic language." I think if you could cite some sources about this, you could turn this into a decent answer. – user111 Jul 25 '17 at 15:46

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