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InVerse Theology

InVerse 151 - IVT Explained, Part 8 (Meter and Line)

We need to say a bit more about the role of meter and line and how they contribute to making verse an art form.

Meter and line provide the skeleton and sinews of a poem. They give shape and rhythm to the words that hang on them stanza after stanza. The more regular they are, the more the poem “feels” like a poem. Much of contemporary poetry has thrown off all requirements of regular structure and demonstrates very little regard for meter and line as these have been practiced over the centuries in traditional English verse. I find such poems more difficult to read and appreciate, and to recall or commend. Many very fine examples of what is referred to as “free verse” exist, but I regard them as the exception. For our purposes I want to consider as an art in the long-standing tradition of the arts, those poems that honor the value of regular meter and line length.

Moreover, it seems to me that art which has as its aim to convey truths about God and His will should itself reflect the ordered complexity and beauty of the divine Being. Thus, poems with meter and set line length have carried the entire burden of The InVerse Theology Project.

King Iamb
Poets acknowledge a variety of meters—or, poetic beats—but the most common is the iamb: duh DUH. A few common iambic words would be because, until, ambassador (2 iambs there). Repeating two-syllable iambic words in lines would soon get a little boring, so what poets do is use combinations of single words to make an iamb or spread iambs over more than one polysyllabic word in a line. Here are three lines from our verse translation of the book of Ecclesiastes, Comparatio, which we ran in one of our Biblical theology segments. You’ll note that the first line is made up strictly of single words combined to make iambs, while, in line 2 and again in line 3, a polysyllabic word is combined with another word to make an iamb:

As king, and young, I knew not what to do
to rule my people well. And so I set
my heart to seek out matters wise and true...

Here’s another example, this time from a creational theology segment reflecting on Homer’s Iliad. In this you can see not only how words can be combined into iambs to create a steady rhythm of verse, but also how that rhythm can be enhanced by end rhyme. Following the opening words of that great epic poem, as translated into rhymed couplets by Alexander Pope, we wrote:

These words commence the tragic story of
the fall of ancient Ilium, doomed by love
illicit to destruction at the hands
of warriors from throughout Achaia’s lands.
Here is the theme of this great epic: wrath
unbridled, rage unchecked, war’s dreadful path
long trod, where heroes fought and plain men died,
‘til vain men’s rage and lust were satisfied.

Obviously, the iamb is extremely versatile, and it is this versa-tility that makes writing poems in iambic meter both challeng-ing and fun.

If you read this excerpt carefully, honoring each syllable, you might have stumbled over the word “Ilium” in the second line. Ilium is the ancient name for Troy; and, typically, it is acknow-ledged as having three syllables. But when your reading is governed by iambs, you can elide weak syllables—like “ium”—into a single syllable: “yum”. Thus Il-i-um becomes Il-yum under the rule of the iamb, and the rhythm of the line continues undis-turbed.

Sometimes, especially at the beginning of a line of iambs, poets will reverse the order of the accent, placing it on the first word rather than the second, usually for emphasis. Here’s a line from our InVerse Theology Project series entitled “Vantage Point.” In this poem, we looked at Jonathan Edwards’ view of time as an installment in the practical theology category:

Time is a gift we must redeem each day,
wrote Edwards…

You wouldn’t read this line “Time IS a gift…” just for the sake of preserving a strict iambic rhythm. So we read it “TIME is a gift…” recovering the iambic rhythm in the second “foot” of the line after this opening trochee. A trochee is just an iamb in reverse, DUH-duh rather than duh-DUH, and poets use them in various places in a line to add a little emphasis and, frankly, break up the iambic flow—which, I find, helps you to appre-ciate the iambs a little more. Look back at the excerpt from our poem on Homer’s Iliad, and you’ll note that line 5 of the excerpt likewise begins with a trochee: HERE is, rather the Here IS...

Poets use two other “feet” in their verse. The anapest—duh-duh-DUH—gives a kind of galloping feel to a poem. The poem seems to move faster. The dactyl is an anapest in reverse: DUH-duh-duh. It takes a considerable amount of poetic skill to make these longer feet work well throughout a poem.

The five-foot line
If the iamb rules the roost in rhythm, pentameter rules it in line length. The pentameter line contains five poetic beats, or feet, whether iambs, trochees, anapests, dactyls, or some combination of these. The most common poetic line is iambic penta-meter—a line of verse which contains five iambic feet, as in this example:

The Scriptures have authority, and ought
to be believed and followed. We are taught
to trust them, not by testimony of
mere men, or of the church; instead, above
these, God (Who is the truth itself), by His
authority persuades us, for He is
the Author of the Scriptures. We receive
them therefore as His Word; and we believe,
obey, and hide them deep within our heart,
because they are God’s Word, in whole and part.

This excerpt is from a series in systematic theology entitled “The Pattern of Sound Words”. Count the feet in each line and you will easily see that this is an example of iambic pentameter.

But why just five feet per line? Why not, say, six? Some poems set in iambic pentameter will add a line with six feet from time to time—called an Alexandrine—to stretch out a thought or emphasize a point.

Think back to the previous excerpt and you will notice some-thing interesting. None of the lines except the last one ends in a terminal punctuation mark. Instead, the lines wrap around at the end and the thought continues into the next line. Twice in this stanza the sentence—broken into two or more lines—concludes before the end of the line. Otherwise, the sentences wrap. This wrapping of thoughts and sentences is called enjambment, which just means carrying a thought from one line to the next without terminal punctuation. This device helps keep a poem from sounding stilted or “poemish”. A poem should be read line by line, pausing—called caesura—only where a pause is called for by punctuation. Many poets prefer not to use punctuation, but I think this makes for confusion more than music and meaning.

The iambic pentameter line is not the only iambic line used in poetry. Iambic tetrameter—four iambic feet to a line—is also useful. It makes for a line that is somewhat livelier and songlike, at least, as I see it. Here’s a line of iambic pentameter from a poem entitled, “Summer’s Passing”, which will be included in a forthcoming InVerse Theology Project series in creational theology entitled, “Seasons”:

Ah, summer dies a glorious death!
Impressive in her failing breath,
she yields her labor’s finest fruit
and dons a fiery burial suit.
No struggle knows, no loud lament,
no wailing her accompaniment.
What peace, what beauty she displays
as, coming to her end of days,
she looks ahead to winter’s paw
and hopes for springtime’s promised thaw.

The four beats to a line hurry the poem along, and the end rhymes in these rhyming couplets help to accentuate the brevity of the line. But don’t be fooled by pace or brevity; these ten short lines lead us from summer through fall and winter into spring before the poem returns to fall again beyond this point.

Here’s another example from that same forthcoming series. For me, the four-beat lines heighten the excitement and wonder I feel “When Snow Falls”:

When snow falls, as it is just now,
then I become transfixed somehow.
I stare in wonder and delight
as everything outside turns white.
Amid the falling flakes I seem
to part the veil of some bright dream,
as silence, like a welcome guest,
arrives, and with him, peace and rest. 

Lines and meters can provide a lively, lovely, and strong sup-port—like bones and sinews—for the other aspects and devices which make a poem a poem. Pay attention to them and get in step with the pace and rhythm they suggest, so that your reading flows like normal reading or conversation and is neither bouncy nor abrupt. Let the meter and line length of a poem work like a walking bass line under the thoughts, images, and various devices that also help to make poetry a powerful vehicle for conveying theological ideas.

Support for The InVerse Theology Project comes from our faithful and generous God, who moves our readers to share financially in our work. If this article was helpful, please give Him thanks and praise.

And please prayerfully consider supporting The Fellowship of Ailbe with your prayers and gifts. You can contribute online, via PayPal or Anedot, or by sending a gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 103 Reynolds Lane, West Grove, PA 19390.

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T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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