Metre & Mnemonics

Metre is the rhythm of a poem: a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. The most well known is iambic pentameter, the metre favoured by Shakespeare.

An iamb is a two syllable pattern consisting of one unstressed and one stressed syllable: ba-DOOM. Like a heart beat. Pentameter simply means that there are five (pent) of these iambs per line, making a total of ten syllables: Shall I compare thee tosummer’s day? Of course, it doesn’t always work out quite so precisely. Poetic licence.

My HSC English teacher, Mrs McLean, introduced me to this little rhyme: “Iambic feet are firm and flat, / and come down heavily like that.” It’s lucky for me that she did, because it’s made iambic pentameter very easy to remember. I teach that mnemonic to my students when we study Shakespeare, as we do every year, and they seem to really like it too. It’s easy to remember, especially after a bit of choral repetition which, although I wouldn’t want to be doing it all day, is fun for a change.

The writer of this very useful mnemonic is the redoubtable Marjorie Boulton (The Anatomy of Poetry, 1954) and the full verse is below:

Iambic feet are firm and flat

And come down heavily like THAT.

Trochees dancing very lightly

Sparkle, froth and bubble brightly.

Dactylic daintiness lilting so prettily

Moves about fluttering rather than wittily.

While for speed and for haste such a rhythm is the best

As we find in the race of the quick anapest.

Bigfoot Spondee thumps down,

Stone slab, dead weight, lead crown.

There came an old Amphibrach tripping

And fell in a basin of dripping.

I can’t remember all of it…yet. But my students and I are all over the iambic pentameter. One building block at a time!

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