Accentual Verse

Accentual meter is the simplest, oldest, and most natural poetic measure in English. Its origins date back to the beginnings of our language. In one form or another it has been a constant presence in English poetry from Beowulf and Piers Plowman to the present. Perennially popular, it is the meter of most nursery rhymes and playground chants as well as many folk ballads. Even today stress meter provides the underlying structure for such forms as rap and cowboy poetry.

The traditional prosody of a language always selects phonetic features immediately audible to native speakers—such as pitch, quantity, syllable counts, accent, assonance, alliteration—and arranges one or more of them in expressive patterns. Compared to most other languages, English is very strongly stressed. Speech stress in English conveys meaning. The more meaningful a word the stronger speech stress it receives. It was, therefore, almost inevitable that stress would provide the basis for most English meters—first in purely accentual form then in later accentual-syllabic developments.

The basic principles of accentual verse are stunningly simple. There is, in fact, only one steadfast rule: there must be an identical number of strong stresses in each line. (If the poem is stanzaic in structure like a ballad, then there must be the same number of strong stresses in each line of the stanza.) All other rules of stress meter are only qualifications of this single principle. Stress verse does not require any set number of syllables per line or any set arrangement between stressed and unstressed syllables. Accentual verse demands only an audible and regular number of natural speech stresses per line. The direct and simple nature of accentual verse explains its central importance for oral poetry. Even a child can master the meter without recourse to pen and paper. No wonder most nursery rhymes are written in accentual measures. Nursery rhymes can have between one and seven stresses per line, but the most popular form—and indeed the most common measure for all English accentual verse—is the four-beat line with a medial caesura.

    /      /            /      /       (4 syllables)
Star light || Star bright,

    /      /            /      /       (6 syllables)
First star || I see tonight

       /      /            /      /       (8 syllables)
I wish I may || I wish I might

          /      /            /      /       (7 syllables)
Have the wish || I wish tonight

Although every line in this famous folk charm has a different syllable count, the meter is constant—four strong beats per line.

Prosodists, like all literary theorists, adore complexity, and they are liable to make distinctions where meaningful differences do not exist. Consequently, they have often been flummoxed and outwitted by the simple country sense of strong stress meter. Frequently they try to analyze accentual verse in terms of metrical feet, but the concept of the foot, which is derived from Greek and Latin verse, has no relevance to this Germanic form. The structural unit of accentual verse is the line or half-line. Dividing accentual verse into metrical feet can be done (just as it can be done to prose), but it reveals nothing essential about the generative principles of the form. Let’s analyze the same nursery rhyme in the conventional accentual-syllabic manner.

  —   |   —   |   —   |   —
Star | light | Star | bright,

—   |   —   |   —   |  ∪ —
First | star | I see | tonight

—   |   —   |   —   |  ∪ —
I wish | I may | I wish| I might

  —     |  —   ∪  |  —   ∪  |  —
Have the | wish I | wish to| night

This analysis would suggest that the poem is metrically incoherent. In accentual-syllabic terms, the meter seems to change in every line. By seeking too much metrical organization, an accentual-syllabic scansion misconstrues what is there. Yet the English-speaking ear immediately hears the underlying and unifying form, which is created by stress alone without regard to syllables.

Anglo-Saxon poets added two important acoustic elements to the basic rule of accentual verse—alliteration and the medial pause. They heightened the central sonic effect of their basic meter, the four beat lines, by pausing slightly midway and alliterating three of the four stressed syllables. One significant and often overlooked purpose of meter is to stylize poetic speech in a way that immediately differentiates it from ordinary speech. Such stylization is essential to oral poetry since meter must endow what is being said with the special status of art. Anglo-Saxon verse used alliterative stress to accomplish this stylization. In The Age of Anxiety (1947), a long poem written in the Anglo-Saxon measure, W. H. Auden demonstrates how even a wartime radio newscast can be transformed into poetry:

Now the news. Night raids on
Five cities. Fires started.
Pressure applied by pincer movement
In threatening thrust. Third Division
Enlarges beachhead. Lucky charm
Saves sniper. Sabotage hinted
In steel-mill stoppage. Strong point held
By fanatical Nazis. Canal crossed . . .

Auden’s example also illustrates the three standard variations of \ alliterative verse. First, he substitutes two paired alliterations (as in “Five \ \ \ cities. Fires started.”) for the usual triple alliteration per line. Second, \ \ \ Auden’s alliterations in “Pressure applied by pincer movement” demonstrate that alliteration does not necessarily fall on the first syllable of a word but rather the first strongly stressed syllable. Finally, even the ambiguous alliterations of line five (in which beach perhaps alliterates with charm) reminds one that Anglo-Saxon poets sometimes included only two alliterations per line—one on each side of the caesura.

Anglo-Saxon poets sometimes added other elements. There often were pervasive syllabic and quantitative elements in Old English verse. (Anglo-Saxon poets especially loved to arrange the second half of the line in particular shapes.) Those features, however, have not been adopted by modern poets using alliterative stress meter. Contemporary poets have generally followed only three basic rules:

  1. There should be four strong stresses per line.
  2. The line should have an audible medial pause or caesura with two strong stresses on each side.
  3. Three of the four strong stresses should alliterate (or there should be two pairs of alliterated stressed syllables).

In all accentual verse there is also an implied fourth rule—avoid metrical ambiguity by reducing or eliminating secondary stresses that might confuse where the beat falls. The passage from Age of Anxiety shows how extreme this reduction of secondary stresses can be; Auden has eliminated almost all possibly ambiguous secondary stresses. (He also avoids letting the lines consistently fall into any regular accentual-syllabic rhythms though any individual line might be entirely iambic, trochaic, anapestic, or dactyllic.)

English accentual poetry grew out of the oral tradition of pre-Christian Teutonic tribes, and the metrical practice was strikingly homogeneous from Germany and Scandinavia to Iceland and Britain. Accentual alliterative verse was the dominant English form until the Norman invasion, and it maintained a strong hold on native speakers for centuries afterwards. In some sense accentual verse still represents the core Germanic rhythm of basic English as opposed to the more cosmopolitan hybrid of French, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon that characterizes modern English. Only after the principles of accentual-syllabic verse were codified in the Elizabethan age did literary poets mostly abandon the purely accentual system. A great split then occurred in English-language poetry. For the next three hundred years literary poets worked almost exclusively in accentual-syllabic meters while accentual meters survived in popular oral poetry.

Most of this oral poetry has been lost. Only what was transcribed into writing (and perhaps thereby changed) has been preserved. The greatest single source of this popular oral poetry is probably Mother Goose’s Melody (c.1765). This volume, which goes unmentioned in many standard histories of English poetry, remains an indispensable classic of the language. The appearance of this rambunctious volume at the height of the Augustan age also demonstrates how the oral tradition preserved the older accentual meters that literary poets had discarded. Even today accentual verse survives in verse composed for oral presentation like cowboy poetry and rap. It remains a natural medium for spoken verse.

Accentual meter has proved influential among modern poets. In both its basic and alliterative forms, it provided innovative writers with a potent, audible measure that was immediately distinct from the traditional accent-syllabic meters that had dominated literary poetry since Sir Philip Sidney. Syllabic meters offered a similar novelty, but they could not be easily heard in English. Accentual measures gave poets auditory patterns that could easily capture speech rhythms without sounding conventionally literary. Coleridge, Tennyson, Longfellow, Dickinson, Kipling, Hardy, and others employed stress-verse on occasion, though almost never with alliteration, but the great nineteenth century pioneer was Gerard Manley Hopkins. While his personal practice of “sprung verse” proved too idiosyncratic to serve as a general paradigm, his work suggested the broad artistic possibilities of the method. Modern poets who have commonly employed accentual verse include William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Robinson Jeffers, Edith Sitwell, Theodore Roethke, Charles Causley, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Donald Justice. A few have revived the Anglo-Saxon alliterative line, but most have preferred the basic measure. Among contemporary poets three-beat and four-beat lines remain the most common measures, although longer and shorter lines sometimes appear. Used with skill and imagination, accentual verse sounds perpetually fresh.

Anonymous Author of Beowulf
(Translated by Tim Murphy and Alan Sullivan)
Beowulf’s Funeral (8th C.)

His people prepared him
a funeral pyre
hung with helmets
shields and hauberks.
Lamenting the hero,
their beloved lord,
they laid him lengthwise
laden with spoils.
His warriors woke
the woefullest fire
to blaze on the bier.
Loud was the burning,
woven with weeping,
and woodsmoke rose
black over the barrow,
blown with a roar.
The firewind faltered
and flames dwindled,
hot at their heart
the broken bonehouse.
Her hair waving,
a Geatish woman
sang for the Stalwart
a sorrowful dirge
foretelling a future
fraught with misfortune,
kinfolk sundered,
slaughter and slavery
even as heaven
swallowed the smoke.
High on a headland
they heaped his barrow
which seafaring sailors
would spy from afar.

Mother Goose
“Rich Man, Poor Man” (c. 1765)

Rich man,
Poor man,

“If Wishes were Horses” (c. 1765)

If wishes were horses
Beggars would ride;
If turnips were watches
I would wear one by my side.

Rudyard Kipling
“Harp Song of the Dane Women” (1913)

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

She has no house to lay a guest in—
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you—
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken—

Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.

You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables—
To pitch her sides and go over her cables.

Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow,
And the sound of your oar-blades, falling hollow,
Is all we have left through the months to follow.

Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

David Mason
“Song of the Powers” (1996)

Mine, said the stone,
mine is the hour.
I crush the scissors,
such is my power.
Stronger than wishes,
my power, alone.

Mine, said the paper,
mine are the words
that smother the stone
with imagined birds,
reams of them, flown
from the mind of the shaper.

Mine, said the scissors,
mine all the knives
gashing through paper’s
ethereal lives;
nothing’s so proper
as tattering wishes.

As stone crushes scissors,
as paper snuffs stone
and scissors cut paper,
all end alone.
So heap up your paper
and scissor your wishes
and uproot the stone
from the top of the hill.
They all end alone
as you will, you will.

Dana Gioia
“Vampire’s Nocturne” from Nosferatu

I am the image that darkens your glass,
The shadow that falls wherever you pass.
I am the dream you cannot forget,
The face you remember without having met.

I am the truth that must not be spoken,
The midnight vow that cannot be broken.
I am the bell that tolls out the hours.
I am the fire that warms and devours.

I am the hunger that you have denied,
The ache of desire piercing your side.
I am the sin you have never confessed,
The forbidden hand caressing your breast.

You’ve heard me inside you speak in your dreams,
Sigh in the ocean, whisper in streams.
I am the future you crave and you fear.
You know what I bring. Now I am here.