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Samuel Coleridge wrote this really fun poem, Metrical Feet: Lesson for a Boy, that names and gives examples of the various types of metric feet. I've included a copy and scanned the poem to make the various feet clearer.

Trochee trips from long to short;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow Spondee stalks; strong foot! yet ill able
Ever to come up with dactyl trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long;—
With a leap and a bound the swift Anapæsts throng;

I'm curious about the first line, which is supposedly an example of trochees. On one hand, there are three trochees in the first line ("Trochee trips from long to"). On the other hand, the first line isn't exactly trochaic meter--compare it to actual trochaic meter such as "Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn and caldron bubble." It's missing an unstressed syllable at the end of the line. Rather, the first line is acephaleous iambic tetrameter.

Why doesn't Coleridge omit the final unstressed syllable from his line about trochees, which makes it not quite trochaic meter? For every other line (iambic, dactyl, etc) he uses exactly the meter associated with that type of metric foot. (This is kind of the point of the poem.)

  • What is your basis for concluding that it is acephalous iambic rather than catalectic trochaic? – verbose Dec 20 '17 at 14:05
  • @verbose because the next line is iambic--see the linked answer here. – user111 Dec 20 '17 at 14:19
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    But that answer is about a completely different poem whose overall prosody is largely iambic. It’s contextual. In this context the line is clearly intended as trochaic. – verbose Dec 20 '17 at 15:38
  • @verbose either way, there is no functional difference between the two: acephalous iambic sounds exactly the same as catalectic trochaic. What I'm asking is why is it acephalous iambic/catalectic trochaic instead of just trochaic. I'll edit the question to make that clearer. – user111 Dec 20 '17 at 15:41
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    Then it’s an easy answer. Trochee in English is typically catalectic because feminine endings. – verbose Dec 20 '17 at 15:48
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It was very difficult to find analysis let alone explanation of this poem so I apologise for any unsupported reasoning.


It is in trochaic tetrameter, because there are four trochees in the first line, as you highlighted in your copy (numbers indicate stress number):

TRO(1)chee TRIPS(2) from LONG(3) to SHORT(4)

With scansion symbols it looks like this (- = stressed, ˘ = unstressed):

Trochee stresses

There are four stresses to the line (resulting in a tetrameter) each with the stress on the first, not the following, syllable (resulting in trochaic meter).

Iambic tetrameter is the reverse of trochaic tetrameter as the unstressed syllable comes before the stressed syllable. If it was iambic, the stresses would look like this:

troCHEE trips FROM long TO short

If you try to say the line with the stresses like this, it is really awkward. The trochaic tetrameter just fits better. (Using iambic stressing on the line would also only result in three stresses making it iambic trimeter.)

It is in fact the same rhythm and stress pattern and meter, as the lines from Macbeth:

DOUble, DOUble, TOIL and TROUble.

FIre BURN and CAULdron BUbble.

The stress is on the first syllables and there are four stresses to each line. However, there is an extra unstressed syllable at the end of these lines when compared to S. T. Coleridge's poem's line. Nevertheless, it is the stressed syllables which define the meter and the missing unstressed syllable at the end of the S. T Coleridge line therefore makes the meter catalectic trochaic tetrameter (a catalectic line is a metrically incomplete line of verse, lacking a syllable at the end or ending with an incomplete foot). In the question you linked, it can be deduced that catalectic trochaic tetrameter and acephalous iambic tetrameter are somewhat difficult to separate; however, since this poem's form is meant to mirror the content, it is (catalectic) trochaic tetrameter.

The next line of the poem does not correspond with the first but corresponds with the third because is it describing spondees:

From long to long in solemn sort

The definition for spondees is: a metrical foot consisting of two long or stressed syllables, which the line is describing with "long and long". The second line is also separate from the first with a semicolon at the end of the first, so they are definitely unrelated. The real question is why is the second line not in spondees? I cannot find any explanations for this, apart from that the stressed 'o' sounds in the line act to emphasise the spondees in the next line. Also, in old copies of S. T. Coleridge's poems, where the lines are scanned, line 2 is sometimes left unscanned (along with the second part of the poem, which deviates away from describing meter and addresses his son), so maybe it is not meant to have a definite meter (sort does make a rhyming couplet with short so that could be the reason for this rogue line). Regardless of line 2, the line about trochees is definitely in catalectic trochaic meter.

  • This isn't what I'm asking. Everything else in the poem: the dactyl, the iambic, etc. don't have a dropped syllable. I'm asking why the line with trochees has a dropped syllable, given that the other lines don't have this. – user111 Dec 20 '17 at 15:33
  • "Also, in old copies of S. T. Coleridge's poems" if you could tell me where to find this material I would appreciate it, it ounds interesting. – user111 Dec 20 '17 at 15:34
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    @Hamlet But isn't that the definition of catalectic trochaic meter? – Fabjaja Dec 20 '17 at 15:34
  • that's not what I'm disputing. Why is it catalectic trochaic meter instead of just trochaic meter? That's what the question is asking. – user111 Dec 20 '17 at 15:36
  • @Hamlet Sure, this edition demonstrates it. – Fabjaja Dec 20 '17 at 15:37
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If you continue the meter to the next line, you find it is unstressed (From), completing the trochee from the previous line's stressed syllable (short). Now, if you continue, you might find another problem with the ending of the second line, mainly that it is stressed. However, notice the next line, which starts discussing the spondee, two long stressed syllables. If you consider "sort" to be part of the first spondee, then you must consider "yet" to be the end of the last one, which allows "ill able" to be the first dactyl. The rest of the meters work out by line.

Trochee: Trochee trips from long to short; From long to long in solemn

Spondee: sort Slow Spondee stalks; strong foot! yet

Dactyl: ill able

Either that or it sounded better to Coleridge, and he wanted to confuse future generations.

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