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For over five centuries of English literary verse the pentameter line in iambic movement has been most employed of all verse patterns, It is the basis for the heroic couplet, blank verse, the heroic quatrain, rime royal, ottava rima, terza rima, the Spenserian stanza, the sonnet, many types of the ode, and various unnamed stanza forms. Though the line occurs sporadically, and probably by accident, in some early examples of tetrameter "tumbling verse," its first unmistakable use as a norm is Chaucer's in his poems in rime royal and in his early ballades. As pentameter had long been in use in Old French poetry, Chaucer probably borrowed the meter, as well as some of the manner and substance, of the continental poets who furnished his first inspiration.2 And since the time when Chaucer invented, or discovered, the use of the line in riming couplets, it has been the greatest of English meters.

There are several reasons for the overwhelming preference shown by poets and readers for this meter. The native English meter, tetrameter, by the irregular character of its rhythm, allowed much more variety in one respect than the iambic pentameter, but the unvaried symmetrical division of every line into two parts by the cesura made it extremely monotonous in another respect. The octosyllabic couplet, which was the fashionable form just before Chaucer's

1 See Chapter X, p. 163.

F. B. Gummere (“Beowulf and English Verse,” American Journal Philology. 1st ser., vol. 7) presents the theory that the pentameter line may have developed from an attempt to give an iambic movement to Middle English tumbling verse.


introduction of the iambic pentameter, was, even in Chaucer's own handling of it, in danger of the same objectionable monotony as the older tumbling verse, and held its own with difficulty against the more varied foreign innovation. The feet of the pentameter naturally break into groups of two plus three, or three plus two; but the tetrameter, even when the place of the cesura is varied by the punctuation or phrasing, is felt as two dimeters. This division may be purely subjective, but some effort seems to be required to hear or feel tetrameter lines not symmetrically divided. Another reason for our preference for the pentameter may be the greater opportunity for avoiding monotony by shifting the position of the light stresses from line to line. Pentameter can often bear one light stress in every line of a passage, but tetrameter is weakened by such a large proportion; the result is that perhaps half the lines in octosyllabic verse have their four full stresses.

Hexameter and octameter verses, like tetrameter, divide symmetrically in half, unless an effort of attention makes the reader or listener feel them in some other way. Heptameter very easily breaks up into the "common" or ballad meter, an alternation of tetrameter and trimeter. In fact, heptameter, octameter, and nonameter lines are too long to be heard by the ear as single rhythmic groups, for the psychology of rhythm shows that five or possibly six units in a group are the limit that we can perceive without regularly breaking them into smaller groups. In order to feel the lines in the long meters of Swinburne as distinct units, the ear must be assisted by the eye.

The pentameter line, then, seems to have been preferred in English to other lines, because it is the only form that has not a tendency to break up regularly into some shorter form.

* The alexandrine holds a corresponding place in French verse. It is not, however, like the English alexandrine, a hexameter with a tendency to break in the middle, but a twelve syllable line with a continually changing meter. It may be in turn trimeter, tetrameter,


The constant use of the line in successive ages of our poetry has given it a remarkably varied development in rhythm and phrasing. Examples of one or two light stresses occurring in different portions in the line have been given in Chapter II, examples of lines with light endings, and of passages with continual shifting of the position of the cesura have been given in Chapter III. The changes in rhythmic pattern exemplified in Chapter IV were chiefly the variations that the poets have used from the iambic pentameter norm. All the changes in the flow of rhythm that we found occurring in the octosyllabic couplet may also be found in the various uses of the pentameter line, with the advantage of the added scope for variety which five feet would give over four. A great many kinds of variation from the iambic rhythm have been practiced by slowing up the line with extra accents, or hurrying it with the ripple of one or two trisyllabic feet. The only limit in modern pentameters to such variation is that it should not occur frequently enough in a poem or passage to change the general character of iambic movement for more than a line or two; the distinct departure from this movement that is to be found in the tetrameters of Christabel has never been admitted in pentameter verse. Moreover, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, poets seem to have a distinct prejudice against lines of less than ten syllables, though trochaic lines of seven syllables are very common in many forms of tetrameter verse. All these points have been presented in Chapter IV.

One of the commonest variations in the use of pentameter lines is the introduction of a certain type of ten syllable tetrameter, which makes a complete break in the iambic movement. The most quoted line of Pope's Essay on Man is an example. This may be read as a pentameter,

The proper | study | of man- | kind is | man, or even pentameter, or hexameter; and thus have a complete change in rhythm from line to line. See M. Grammont: Vers Français, Paris, 1904.

with a light stress at the beginning of the third foot; but nine readers out of ten, reading naturally and without thought of metrical theory, will huddle the second and third foot together so that they have approximately the same time value as one foot; i. e., the line is read in four time parts instead of five,

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The proper | study of man- | kind is | man.

A natural reading of the two following lines from Hamlet will show by contrast how distinctive this type is:

For I have that within that passeth show

These but the trappings and the suits of woe. Any reader who does not read verse as prose would, of course, give the first line five time parts and a perfect iambic movement. The second line read after the same pattern sounds very stiff and awkward:

These / but the trappings and the suits of I woe. The usual reading will divide this into four time parts and completely upset the iambic movement that characterized the preceding line:

| These but the trappings and the suits of woe. The distinctive point of this tetrameter is that it must have four syllables in the second foot; it may always be read as pentameter by dividing this foot into two and adding a light stress, should anyone prefer such a reading. For some inexplicable reason no other type of tetrameter line may be substituted in a context of pentameters without a sensitive ear regarding it as a careless error on the part of the poet or reader.

* The theory that such lines in heroic verse are really read as tetrameters was first put forth by Professor C. W. Cobb in 1910 ("A type of Four-Stress Verse in Shakespeare," New Shakespeareana 10:1). He added objective evidence for the theory, based on experiments in the psychological laboratory of the University of Michigan in "A Scientific Basis for Metrics,” Modern Language Notes, May, 1913.

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This can be made clear by a study of ten lines of Pope's
Rape of the Lock:

Know further yet: whoever fair and chaste
Rejects mankind, is by some Sylph embrac'd;
For spirits, freed from mortal laws, with ease

Assume what sexes and what shapes they please.
5 What guards the purity of melting maids,

In courtly balls and midnight masquerades,
Safe from the treach'rous friend, the daring spark,
The glance by day, the whisper in the dark,

When kind occasion prompts their warm desires, 10 When music softens, and when dancing fires? Lines 4, 5, and 10 are of the type that nearly every reader will read in four time parts, and yet they fit most agreeably into the context of pentameters. If, however, we substitute three lines of other types of tetrameter, they will not go at all successfully with the pentameters, e. g.

For spirits, freed from mortal laws, with ease
Assume a sex or a shape as they please.
What guards the honor of melting maids,
In courtly balls and midnight

When kind occasion prompts their warm desires,

When music melts, when dancing fires? These underlined tetrameters have respectively ten, nine, and eight syllables, but all alike fail to combine pleasingly with the pentameters. The only type of tetrameter that can do this is the one that has four syllables huddled into the second foot."

6 I have heard a few readers also make tetrameters out of lines of the type,

The glance by day, the whisper in the dark (line 8, above), where the light stress in the fourth place makes them huddle the third and fourth foot into one:

The glance by | day, the / whisper in the dark.' This, however, in a pentameter passage I find very displeasing to my ear, and I think most readers will agree with me.

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