Quantitative metre in English

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In almost all English poetry the metre or poetic rhythm is constituted by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of verse. This is in contrast to the poetry of Classical Greece and Rome in which the metre is constituted by the pattern of long and short syllables in a line of verse. In other words, Greek and Latin poetry employs quantitative metre, i.e., metre based on the quantity (or 'length') of syllables, whereas English poetry almost always employs stress or accentual metre.

However, from time to time English poets, influenced by their admiration for the classical tradition of Greece and Rome, have written English verse based on quantitative metre. In the sixteenth century Edmund Spencer (1552-1599), Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), and Thomas Campion 1567-1620) all wrote some poetry in quantitative metres; and later poets to have done so include Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), and Robert Bridges (1844-1930). But, despite the efforts of these and other poets, the use of quantitative metres in English poetry has never become widely established, and English verse based on quantitative metres is usually characterised as 'experimental' or as a poetic tour de force.

Here are two examples of English verse based on quantitative metres. In both cases the long syllables - for the rule determining whether a syllable is long or short see the final paragraph on this page - are printed in bold type, and the feet are divided by a vertical line.

The first example is from Edmund Spencer's Iambicum Trimetrum and, as the title of the poem implies, illustrates the classical iambic trimeter:

Now do | I night|ly waste | wanting | my kind|ly rest:
Now do | I dail|y starve | wanting | my live|ly food:
Now do | I al|ways die | wanting | thy time|ly mirth.

The second example is from Robert Bridge's Epistle1' (from his Poems in Classical Prosody) and illustrates the classical dactylic hexameter:

We, whose | first memo|ries reach | half a | century | backwards,
May praise | our for|tune to have |outliv'd | so many | dangers -
Faultiness | of Na|ture's un|ruly mach|inery | or man's -
For, once | born, whate | ver tis' | worth, Life | is to be | held to

In fact the use of quantitative metres in English is problematic for a number of interconnected reasons. In the first place, although the rule determining the length of a syllable in Greek and Latin poetry is clear and uncontroversial - summarily stated, it is that a syllable is long if it contains either a long vowel or a diphthong or a vowel followed by two consonants - the adaptation of this rule to English is not straightforward, and the way in which it is to be applied in particular cases is often disputable. For example, in Latin and Greek the distinction between long and short vowels is very clear - long vowels take significantly longer to pronounce than short vowels - but this distinction is less marked in English, and there are many cases in which there will be disagreement whether a particular vowel counts as long or short. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, since in English the distinction between long and short vowels is less marked than in some other languages, and the stress is as likely to fall on a short as on a long syllable, it is possible that a line of verse may clearly conform to a particular quantitative metre and yet the ear will be quite unable to detect the relevant rhythmic pattern.

See further metre, quantitative metre, iambic, trochee, anapaest, dactyl, spondee.