In the Thomas Hardy poem "The Darkling Thrush", one line seems to scan quite jarringly compared to the even iambic meter of the others:

The land's sharp features seemed to me
The Century's corpse outleant,
Its crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind its death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervorless as I.

All of these lines have a nice clear even rhythm, save only "And every spirit upon earth".

  1. The natural way I would read this as prose would be:

    And every spirit upon earth

    But that has two adjacent stressed syllables and sounds weird in the context of the poem.

  2. The best way to make it fit in with the surrounding lines would be:

    And every spirit upon earth

    But the word "upon" normally has the stress very firmly on the second syllable.

Which of these is the better way to scan the line? Perhaps it was intended to stand out from the rest by its different rhythm for some reason? Or perhaps "upon" was pronounced with the stress on the first syllable in Hardy's time? Any light thrown upon this would be much appreciated.

  • You have a few mistakes in your scansion here. For example, the sharp after land is also stressed. It helps to listen to someone else read the poem: try m.youtube.com/watch?v=8BQDH2W4aq0 – user111 Jan 11 '18 at 1:22
  • And every spirit upon earth – user14111 Jan 15 '18 at 3:43
  • An occasional spondee or (in this case) pyrrhus may be substituted for the iamb. – user14111 Jan 15 '18 at 3:45

You say in the question,

The natural way I would read this as prose would be:

And ev- | ery spi- | rit up- | on earth

The natural way to read the line is nearly always the best way, and you should have the courage to stick to your guns! The last four syllables of the line form a double iamb, which is a common feature of English verse.


I’ll give six examples of the double iamb, but once you are familiar with it you’ll find it everywhere.

Let me | not to | the mar- | riage of | true minds

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 116, line 1.

At the | round earth’s | ima- | gined cor- | ners, blow

John Donne. Holy Sonnets VIII, line 1.

That Shep- | herd, who | first taught | the cho- | sen Seed

John Milton. Paradise Lost, book I, line 8.

Bright star, | would I | were stead- | fast as | thou art—

John Keats. ‘Bright star’, line 1.

In his | first splen- | dour, val- | ley, rock, | or hill

William Wordsworth. ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’, line 10.

I shall | go back | again | to the | bleak shore

Edna St Vincent Millay. ‘I shall go back again’, line 1.


The double iamb does not seem to have been properly recognized until the mid-20th century. At the beginning of the century, the phenomenon was doubtful enough for C. M. Lewis to prefix it with a cautionary disclaimer, “Metrists usually say”:

Metrists usually say that the pyrrhic is sometimes admitted in iambic verse; and some leading authorities point out that it generally is found with a spondee immediately afterwards.

C. M. Lewis (1907). The Principles of English Verse, p. 42. New York: Henry Holt.

Robert Bridges noted it as “a common irregularity” in Milton:

The matter stands thus: in all Milton’s verse there is a frequent occurrence of the following rhythm, that is, a foot of two unstressed short syllables preceding a foot composed of two heavy syllables, as in these lines from Shakespeare’s Midsummer-Night’s Dream,

The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn.

Before milkwhite, now purple with love’s wound.

Love takes the meaning in love’s conference.

It is common in Milton’s early verse, which is much influenced by the verse of Shakespeare’s first style; and he always made use of it. Whatever the account may be, it is pleasant to the ear in the smoothest verse, and is so, no doubt, by a kind of compensation in it. In typical cases there is no possibility of stress in the first short foot, and the first heavy syllable of the next foot seems to carry what has been omitted, with an accentuation bearing relation to the sense.

Instances occur everywhere in Milton.

Robert Bridges (1901). Milton's Prosody, p. 58. Oxford University Press.

The double iamb was, I think, first stated in the form of a rule by American poet John Crowe Ransom:

These are substantially the exceptions as codified by Bridges in The Prosody of Milton [sic], the best handbook we have on iambic pentameters. What Bridges codified was Milton’s code, as it had been for several generations the code of Milton’s predecessors, and would be for his successors over a century and a half; since then it has been well known to poet-prosodists, and adhered to systematically when they pleased. But it is not quite complete, in my judgment. I wish Bridges had added:

  1. Any two successive iambic feet might be replaced by a double or ionic foot.

John Crowe Ransom (1956). ‘The Strange Music of English Verse’. The Kenyon Review 18:3, pp. 470-471.

The name “double iamb” was not introduced until the 1990s:

We should drop the pyrrhic foot and accept in its place the double-iamb, as one of the six foot-terms necessary: iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, spondee, double-iamb.

This change was suggested by John Crowe Ransom […] Ransom uses the Greek term “ionic foot”, but plain English seems preferable, carrying with it a reminder that a double-iamb counts as two feet, and having the advantage of suggesting that this pattern is quite normal to the iambic base.

Robert Wallace (1993). ‘Meter in English’. In David Baker, ed. (1996). Meter in English: A Critical Engagement. University of Arkansas Press.

Some metrists objected to “double iamb” on the grounds that the term was also used for a pair of iambs. But it seems to have stuck, perhaps due to the advantages noted by Wallace.

Effect in ‘The Darkling Thrush’

The general effect of a double iamb is to slow the rhythm by placing two stressed syllables adjacent to each other, and to alter the general iambic pattern, avoiding a metronomic regularity and making us pay a bit more attention to the stressed words.

In the case of ‘The Darkling Thrush’, we are led by the rhythm to interpret this line as saying that the spirits upon earth in particular seemed fervorless, with the implication that there are other spirits, not upon earth, that still seem fervored. And indeed, the poem goes on to describe one such spirit in the next two stanzas. Without the change in rhythm, we might miss this implication, interpreting the line as saying that the spirits, which happen to be upon earth, seemed fervorless.

Note on scansion

The rhythm of the poem is not quite as even as suggested in the question. When I read it, I find a stress on “sharp” in line 1, an anapest (“-tury’s corpse”) in line 2, and only one stress in “canopy”, so that the double iamb is not so surprising to me.

  • My concern about that way of scanning the line was not that it's "not a valid foot" or some such, but that it stands out so much from the rest of the stanza. Everything else is neat iambs, except that one line. If it is a double iamb, does that tell us anything about this line compared with the rest - is it supposed to stand out for some reason? – Rand al'Thor Apr 27 '20 at 18:04
  • @Randal'Thor: I added a note to this effect. – Gareth Rees Apr 27 '20 at 18:35
  • Great interpretation! +1, and I'll have to reread the other answer and think about switching the tick. – Rand al'Thor Apr 27 '20 at 18:38

Upon is a weird word because both "up" and "on" tend to be unstressed. Compare "on earth" with "uphold". Even though the word "upon", by itself, scans with the stress placed on the "on", the presence of a stronger syllable after the "on" ("earth") means that the "on" will also be unstressed.

There is a such thing as a "promoted stress" where a syllable that is normally slack (unstressed) has a slight stress because it is surrounded by syllables with even less stress. For example: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? scans with a slight stress on "to" because it helps for the passage into the normative meter and because relative to "thee" and "a" "to" has more stress. But that doesn't apply here because "up" has significantly less stress than the surrounding syllables so it would be a mistake to scan it as having stress.

So it's established that "it" and "up" don't have stress. That leaves "on" and "earth". This is very tricky. On one hand, as I've mentioned earlier, "on" has a slight tendency to be less stress relative to a word like "earth". But on the other hand, unusual meter can change that. The trochaic tetrameter "mighty online fighters fighting" is a really nice illustration of this: the trochaic meter of that sentence puts the stress on the "on" even though normally "line" would have stress instead of "on".

The choice is between "And every spirit upon earth" and "And every spirit upon earth". In terms of the mechanics of meter; I think both scansions are valid, as in if you read the poem out loud either way it works.

In terms of the greater context of the poem, I think there are a few differences between the two readings that the reader should keep in mind when making a decision. The main thing to keep in mind is that having three unstressed syllables in a row draws a lit of attention to that particular line. In contrast, spirit upon earth" draws a lot less attention: two unstressed syllables instead of three means you don't get that attention grabbing three short syllables, and the last syllable being unstressed makes the line less forceful, counteracting the attention grabbing effect of the two unstressed syllables.

Personally, I like having the extra emphasis on this line. The word spirit implies a certain sense of excitement, and I want the scansion to reflect the contrast between the spirit of the second to last line with the "fervorless" last line. This is a theme that does come up elsewhere in the poem so I think its reasonable to assume that the contrast is important: Hardy also contrasts the joyful "full-hearted evensong" with the "frail, gaunt and small" body of the thrush creating the song (and Hardy also has some interesting meter around that portion of the poem as well).

However, I can understand not emphasizing that line if you want to emphasize the bleakness of Hardy's description of winter in that stanza. It depends on what you're trying to accomplish.

  • I just listened to that Youtube video, and to me it sounds more like "And every spirit upon earth". Maybe "earth" is stressed too, but the "on" of upon definitely sounds stronger than "earth" to me. – Rand al'Thor Jan 11 '18 at 11:28
  • 4
    Fabjaja: And ev'ry spirit upon earth is tetrameter. The third foot is a pyrrhic foot. This isn't accentual verse, where you just count stressed syllables; it's an iambic meter. In iambic meters, you are allowed to have pyrrhic feet with two unaccented syllables (and trochees, and spondees—you just can't have very many of them). – Peter Shor Jan 13 '18 at 21:40
  • @Randal'Thor you do have a good point; hopefully my latest edit will address this. – user111 Jan 15 '18 at 3:36
  • Yes! Thank you: I've now upvoted this answer. Personally I prefer "And every spirit upon earth" and "And every spirit upon earth" (the latter sounds strange to my ear), but you have some interesting points about how either might be valid in different readings. (Not that it's relevant to this answer, but out of curiosity: where does the line "mighty online fighters fighting" come from?) – Rand al'Thor Jan 15 '18 at 23:32
  • @Randal'Thor i literally made it up myself as I was thinking through the question. – user111 Jan 16 '18 at 0:05

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