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The widely held belief that Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameters is based on a misunderstanding, the result of a misguided attempt on the part of literary scholars to apply the rules of Greek and Latin prosody to English verse. Neither Shakespeare nor any of the other Elizabethan poets whose project was to reinvent not just English poetry but the English language itself would have felt those rules as anything other than an artificial constraint on their creativity. In spite of which, generations of English schoolchildren have grown up believing that the iambic pentameter is simply what comes out when we open our mouths. Not so much a metrical pattern as the natural rhythm of our speech, in much the same way that French people speak naturally in Alexandrines.
The first and most obvious problem with the traditional metrical patterns is that they are all based on feet, that is to say on basic units of two syllables, one of which carries more emphasis than the other, unless they both have equal emphasis, in which case it’s a spondee. Whatever might have been the case with Greek and Latin words, English words don’t behave like that. Take for example Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet, No. 18.
The first line – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ – comes out whole, with the cadence of a question, not as five separate feet jogging along one after the other. Nothing is to be gained by placing a metrical rule over it and trying to decide whether each foot is iambic or trochaic. What about ‘compare’? Is that a spondee? On its own it probably would be, but as it is joined indissolubly to ‘thee’ and is therefore half a foot too long, the question does not arise.
The basic unit in English poetry is not the foot, but the phrase. ‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade’ is a line made up, not of five feet, but of two phrases. In the balance between them, the line finds its rhythm. ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May’ sounds like a much longer line because there are three phrases, two short and one long. All fourteen lines are of course the same length in terms of syllables, as they must be to support the rhymes. If it were not for the rhymes, we would not be aware of the metre.
A distinction is often drawn between metre and rhythm. Metre is understood as regular, rhythm as more fluid. But that is far too simplistic. Both work in poetry as they do in music, where the time signature merely establishes a pattern within which there can be great variety. In Shakespeare’s plays, apart from the occasional rhyming couplet to mark the end of a scene, phrasing, not metre, remains the single most important element in the structure of the line.
On average, Shakespeare wrote in lines of ten syllables, but the effect of phrasing is to make the precise number irrelevant to the overall effect.
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burnt on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.
I have heard actors playing the part of Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra throw these lines away as if they are merely commonplace observations. They probably reason that an ordinary soldier like Enobarbus would not be capable of anything else. Or perhaps they themselves have formed the habit of trying to make poetry sound less like poetry and more like common speech. Perhaps that is how they are taught to read poetry at drama school, avoiding at all costs anything which might make it sound poetic.
Or perhaps, more profoundly, at a level beneath their consciousness, they have been infected by the iambic pentameter ear-worm, the invisible worm that flies in the night and destroys poetry with its insistence on the the jog-trot rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables which we have been led to believe is what poetry sounds like.
Our ears should be tuned instead to the rhythm of the phrases that make up lines of roughly equal length, regardless of the number and kind of feet that are supposed to be in them. It could hardly have been anything so mechanical that laid the foundations for the new English poetry that grew up in the Elizabethan era. So if it wasn’t the iambic pentameter, what was it?
Not free verse, which came a few hundred years later. Poetry then was not without form and void, like the world before God discovered it. Native English poetry, free of European influence, had its roots in alliteration, evidence of which can be felt everywhere among the Elizabethans (‘the barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, burnt on the water’) and was anything but formless.
If not free verse, blank verse perhaps. Without rhyme, which turns poetry into song, the Elizabethan dramatists were free to keep the alliterative and other poetic effects of their native tradition, their English cadences, their ‘dying falls’, the rhythm of their phrases in lines of roughly equal length which could otherwise as well have been written in prose, like the King James Bible or the Meditations of John Donne or the Sermons of Lancelot Andrewes or the Essays of Francis Bacon.
It was the discovery of blank verse, not classical prosody, that let the Elizabethans keep alive their old poetic traditions. All they had to do was fill in the blanks with sonorous phrases, letting them flow from one line to the next.
Lewis Carroll knew all about this when he wrote his great nonsense poem, Jabberwocky, in which he captured the essence of English poetry as it has existed, foot-loose and fancy free, for hundreds of years. The meaning is all in the phrasing, the words themselves being utterly meaningless.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Or as Shakespeare put it in Macbeth:
it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,