A spondee - pronounced SPON-dee, IPA: /ˈspɒn diː/ - is a metrical foot consisting of two syllables, both of them stressed - as in such words and phrases as 'downstream', 'mangetout', 'mixed grill', and 'new car' (where both syllables are stressed equally). The adjective is spondaic - pronounced spon-DAY-ik, IPA: /spɒn ˈdeɪ ɪk/.
Since a line of verse consisting entirely of spondees would have no distinctive rhythmic pattern but would simply be a series of stressed syllables, it is rare to come across a line composed entirely of spondees, let alone an entire poem composed of them. Typically a spondee forms part of a line composed of other metrical feet (such as dactyls, iambics, or trochees). An example is the first part of a line from Metrical Feet - A Lesson for a Boy, a poetic tour-de-force written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) to illustrate the different types of metrical foot. You will see that the quotation consists of three spondaic feet:
- Slow spondee stalks, strong foot ...
Sometimes a spondaic foot is substituted for a foot of some other type in order to create a particular effect. For example, in Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, which is written in iambic pentameters, we find the line:
- Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death.
Here the first three feet of the line (printed in bold type) are not iambics but spondees, and this serves to slow the rhythm of the line.
Again, in his Third Satire, which is also written in iambic pentameters, John Donne (1573-1631) has the lines:
- ...... On a huge hill
- Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
- Reach her, about must, and about must go.
Here the spondaic feet (printed in bold type) are one of the metrical devices Donne uses to convey a sense of the great effort sometimes needed if we are to discover the truth.
This account of spondee, as it stands, fits English poetry and most medieval and modern European poetry, where poetic rhythm is constituted by the patterned arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables. However, in the poetry of Classical Greece and Rome and in Classical Arabic poetry metre consists in the patterned arrangement not of stressed and unstressed syllables but of long and short syllables (see quantitative metre). In this context a spondee is a metrical foot of two syllables, both of them long.
- The words spondee and spondaic come from spondeios (σπονδεἲος‚), which was the word the Ancient Greeks used for a spondee. They chose this word because spondaic metrical feet were common in the solemn music which accompanied the libations (i.e., drink-offerings to the gods) which served to seal a treaty or truce. The word for a libation in Greek is sponde (σπονδὴ), and the plural of this word - spondai (σπονδαι) - means 'a solemn treaty or truce'.