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

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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