On Firting Feltonics and Flash-Fryed Feet

a Diatribe upon the Tyrrany of the ‘Iambic Pentameter’ and its Importunate Rabble of Ambiguous ‘Feet’

On Firting Feltonics and Flash-Fryed Feet

James Fenton’s book, An Introduction to English Poetry, first published by Viking in 2002, is a fairly modest 130 pages or so. It is an entertaining but in many ways inept little book.

It is concerned more with the question as to ‘what makes poetry’ than with the question as to ‘what makes good poetry’; that is, it may be fairly dealt with as a treatise on prosody.

Let us see how he goes about the business of introducing less and more fully initiated readers to the art or craft of English poetry. It will be of particular concern to us to see how Mr Fenton uses such terms, notions or concepts as ‘metre, rhythm, music and song, because we are particularly interested in how poetry may be best performed.

Stephen Fry’s book, The Ode Less Travelled, published by Hutchinson in 2005, is much larger, at about 350 pages, more thorough in some ways ~ indeed tediously so at time ~ but is quite as inept as Mr Fenton’s, and it is also rather silly and often distasteful at times.

Mr Fry’s book is also mainly concerned with prosodical matters, so we shall examine it from the same position, to watch how he too goes about his business.

It will be an enjoyable game, we hope, to see how these two writers coincide with or contradict each other in their prosodic exegeses.

May the best man win.

In his first chapter, ‘The History and Scope of English Poetry’, Mr Fenton tells us (p.3) that,

The simplest poems in most languages are its songs.

Later in the chapter (p.8) he says, in this matter of song and poetry:

The voice has to be raised. And it is raised in rhythm.

These are interesting remarks. We must set them in the context of his first paragraph, where he takes an extraordinary stance:

English poetry begins wherever we decide to say the modern English language begins, and it extends as far as we decide to say that the English language extends. We cannot expect everyone to agree with us when we make a decision in either case. Some people, for instance, think that English poetry begins with the Anglo-Saxons. I dont, because I cant accept that there is any continuity between the traditions of Anglo-Saxon poetry and those established in English poetry by the time of, say, Shakespeare. And anyway Anglo-Saxon is a different language, which has to be learnt like any foreign language. Anglo-Saxon poetry may be extremely exciting and interesting, but it excites and interests me (when it does) in much the same way as the Norse sagas excite. It is somebody elses poetry.

First, we must say that there is something in that opening sentence that doesn’t make sense. We or others may perhaps be in such a situation as to be able to reasonably suggest where the modern English language begins; but, surely, none of us is able to say how far it may be that the English language extends. We have a writer here with some strange notions.

Indeed, Mr Fenton’s position, as demonstrated in the paragraph as a whole, is somewhat strange to us. To him, then, the 12th century ‘Sumer is y-comen in’ cannot be considered to be a piece of English poetry at all. For Mr Fenton the terms Old English and Middle English are false, and the wealth of Anglo-Saxon ‘sanges’ that remain to us are certainly not to be considered English poetry. He may have a point: but we feel it is a self-defeating one.

In his second chapter, ‘Where Music and Poetry Divide’, it is not easy to see quite what case his is arguing. We will note, however, his early statements that

Poetry is language to which a special emphasis has been given,

one of the traditional means of doing which is

Reciting the words rhythmically. (p.10)

Mr Fenton’s third chapter is titled ‘The Training of the Poet’. We note here only that he introduces some technical terms for our consideration:

A sense of idiom, form, structure, metre, rhythm, line ~ all the fundamental characteristics of this verbal art. (p.21)

The terms metre, rhythm and line, and the relationships between them, will be of particular interest to us.

Chapter 4 is called ‘The Sense of Form’. The term rhythm occurs twice on page 22; first where he talks about a beating of rhythm, then where he says that

For the most part, in the reading ~ and I would say in the writing ~ of poetry, the handling of rhythm and form is instinctive rather than codified.

Mr Fenton now proceeds to a curious examination of Tennyson’s poem ‘Break, break, break’. First, he introduces a new term into the text with the word stresses (p.23), and analyses the poem’s form in terms of the number of such stresses in each line, in order to illustrate his idea of an instinctive formal process. In doing so Mr Fenton quite fails to consider the closely-measured, songlike nature of the piece, which ‘songlikeness’ is made so obvious by the occurrence in the poem of the lines

O, well for the sailor lad,
    That he sings in his boat on the bay!

and despite himself suggesting of Tennyson that

He follows the music in his head.

Something seems amiss here.

Chapter 5 is called ‘The Iambic Pentameter’, and it effects an abrupt introduction to classical or perhaps neo-classical Greek metrics. It begins with an extraordinarily casual bluntness:

A line of five feet, each of which is an iamb, that is to say each of which is a ti-tum. As opposed to a tum-ti.

Ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum

There is something rather childish about this; but it is also possessed of an adult rudeness. There is to be no explanation of this new term, feet, that has been introduced to we supposed neophytes. However, we are committed to proceed as submissively as we can in Mr Fenton’s authoritative charge.

He now tells us that reading metrically requires placing emphasis on certain syllables (p.26). He proceeds to ti-tum along for a while before introducing a new term for consideration, that of metrical accents; and then, in the next sentence he substitutes the previous term stresses for accents ~ and we shall now deem it sensible to treat these two terms as identical.

(Now that Mr Fenton has begun to use a system of neo-classical Greek metrics, we may consider his assertion that

The iambic pentameter owes it pre-eminence in English poetry to its genius for variation.

We note the tendentious nature of the discourse in this respect. Something called the iambic pentameter is not ‘in’ English poetry: it is an intellectual construct used in prosodical analysis of English poetry, and it is indeed a construct used in their compositional processes by some writers. Further, the iambic pentameter is in no way possessed of ‘genius’; and the ‘variation’ attributed to it by Mr Fenton may simply be a phenomenon of his inappropriate use, or misuse, of what is not the original iambic pentameter at all, but only an approximation to it as a construct ~ as he indeed acknowledges below.)

Now we are provided with a fuller metrical system, or ‘kit’:

An iamb goes: ti-tum
A trochee goes: tum-ti
A spondee goes: tum! tum!

This is a curious presentation. Mr Fenton has employed no mark of accentuation to allow us to determine which is the ‘stressed’ element in each ‘foot’; and he employs a novel mark of accentuation, the !. The spondee was arrived at by asking us to emphasise both words equally in the phrase, man comes, used in a poem by Tennyson. We may then, for the time being at least, regard ‘emphasis’, ‘accent’ and ‘stress’ as equivalent terms in Mr Fenton’s prosodical system.

Now we shall enter what we may call an informal, provisional and unproven ‘technical term’ into our own analysis of this book, to describe certain ‘discursive techniques’ used by Mr Fenton. These are the activities of what we would say is, metaphorically, a ‘fudging’ or ‘cheating’ sort in argument through an accidental or even deliberate lack of rigour in argument and in the use of terminology. Our single term for what is sometimes called ‘ducking and diving’ is ‘FIRTING’, which we derive in part from the initial letters of three of the words in Mr Fenton’s pronouncement on page 28:

These technical terms ~ iamb, trochee, spondee ~ which come to us from classical metrics, are used as a matter of convenience, but they can give a false impression of rigour when we use them in an English context.

We think that, in his employment of neo-classical metrics, Mr Fenton is, as he seems to admit, already giving a false impression of rigour; i.e. he is ‘FIRTING about’, or ‘with’ us.

Mr Fenton’s Chapter 6, ‘Variations in the Line’, offers little that we need comment on. He deals with such things as feminine endings and the occasional inversion, as he calls it, of an iamb to a trochee. We would, however, suggest that the term feminine endings or such was not used in classical Greek metrics, so that the term as used in an English context has a certain falseness about it.

Chapter 7 is called ‘Patterns of Stress’. Mr Fenton begins by talking about natural conversational stresses which, he would seem to allow, become the metrical stresses in any line of verse. This leads him to say:

Perhaps it is hard to imagine an iambic pentameter with only one stress, but only two stresses is perfectly feasible:

In Massachusetts, in Virginia

(Robert Frost, The Gift Outright) is a conventional iambic line.

Now, Mr Fenton as it were asks us to consent to becoming ti-tum ti-tum-mers. But it does not seem possible to us that Mr Frost’s line can be satisfactorily ti-tum-med into any sort of conventional iambic pentameter line. We rather suspect that Mr Fenton is ‘FIRTING about’ with us. Common sense tells us that his analysis is quite absurd. There are six spare unidentified ‘light’ syllables here. This is ‘piffle’.

We will make this further observation here: in the last three chapters there has been no use at all of the term rhythm.

Chapter 8, ‘Mysteries of the Trochee’, moves things forward in a fashion:

The iambic line with its characteristic forward movement from short to long, or light from heavy, or unstressed to stressed, is the quintessential measure of English verse. (p.39)

This an important point in the discourse. We are presented with two new pairs of terms or technical considerations which are in some way equivalent to a previously supplied pair of terms. This first pair, stressed and unstressed, differentiated between (presumably) metrically different syllables, but did not provide any sort of comparison by strict measurement: they conveyed no more than a notion of ‘contrast’. However, the other two contrasting pairs may be said to allow, in their more general use, of more specific quantification. ‘Weight’ and ‘length’ imply or entail the possibility of mensural qualification. This is perhaps less the case with the contrasting terms light and heavy, which have a more metaphorical element; but with the terms short and long, as applied to syllables or sounds, we may expect possible measurement of a temporal sort.

We and Mr Fenton of course know that the classical Greek system of metrics was temporally based not least because the ‘poetry’ of the time was closely associated with music and dance. We remember his pronouncement on page 28, and can only say that his failure thus far to deal with any ideas of measurement in time of lines of poetry leads us to a further charge of ‘FIRTING’ ~ particularly so, as he has himself used the term measure above.

We are now required to do some tum-ti tum-ti tum-ti tum-ti-ing through ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. There is, as we go, one small addition to the technical vocabulary and apparatus, where the term metrical pattern is twice used in the chapter. We will take this opportunity to observe that though the nouns metre and metric are used, there has been no use of any such terms as ‘iambic metre’ or ‘trochaic rhythm’ and such. We note that, in the sentence quoted above, there is a brief suggestion of a concern with rhythm. We are asked to consider that an alternation of short to long syllables imparts some sort of forward movement. Does this mean that an alternation of long to short syllables in a trochaic line would impart some sort of backwardmovement? Or will the two types of line each have a ‘different’ sort of forward movement or rhythm? We wait to see how the notion of ‘patterning’ may be developed.

There is one further objection that we might make concerning the mode of this discourse ~ though it is perhaps something of a variant upon an earlier objection. In this chapter, and elsewhere, Mr Fenton talks of the trochee as if it were a freely existing entity rather than simply a prosodical construct. Indeed, there is more to come in the next chapter.

Chapter 9 is called ‘The Genius of the Trochee’, thus adding a degree of false animation to the concept of this ‘foot’. It is a chapter in which Mr Fenton does the most wonderful ‘fudging’ and ‘FIRTING’.. He sets out a lullaby of Auden’s and compares it to a song of Shakespeare’s. For Mr Fenton they are two pieces in a metre that he calls trochaic tetrameter catalectic, where catalectic means lacking the final syllable. (We do not know where or from whom this term derives.)

Mr Fenton says that Auden’s

lullabyis particularly beautiful for its rhythms,

but does not further define or elaborate on the notion of rhythm here: it remains virtually meaningless. He then gives a distinctly false impression of rigour with regard to the poem’s second ‘stanza’:

Whispering neighbours, left and right,
Pluck us from the real delight;
And the active hands must freeze
Lonely on the separate knees.

Mr Fenton does not scan the lines and thus does not have to comment on the rhythmical nature of the trisyllabic whispering and separate. It is presumably inconvenient for him to consider any sort of ‘musical scansion’ in which a bar-line may be placed before each ‘beat’ ~ or accent, or long or heavy syllable ~ thus,

/ Lonely / on the / separate / knees

even though he used the word measure in his introduction to the poem: but this former Professor of Poetry does not descend or condescend to actual scansion let alone to proto-musical notation.

This lack of rigour is further pointed up when Mr Fenton deals with Shakespeare’s song:

Fear no more the heat o’th’sun,
    Nor the furious winter’s rages.
Then thy wordly task has done,
    Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust.

The ‘feet’ heat oth and taen thy are virtually as triple-rhythmed as furious: yet Mr Fenton refuses to consider that, as a ‘song’, it should reasonably be considered to have a consistent musical rhythm either in triple-time or common-time or perhaps ~ though it is unlikely ~ in a mixture of the two. It is, frankly, stupid or deceptive of Mr Fenton not to admit the possibility of such an analysis. It would seem that the man who talks so much in his book about song (there is a chapter to come on it) is rootedly or ignorantly unable to compare feet to ‘measures’. But then Mr Fenton doesn’t dare to mensurate. How long is long? How short is short? How may long and short be proportioned? In the final paragraph of this chapter (p.47) he talks about a ti-tum rhythm: but he doesn’t, of course, quantify it. This is a technical term of an absurd nature and of absurdly little value. This is the finest Feltonic ‘FIRTING about’. ‘Genius of the Trochee’? ‘Madness’!

Chapter 10, ‘The Shorter Lines’, does have in it a reference to trochaic rhythm, and a reference to metre; but there is no further development of these terms. We shall take up the matter of trochaic rhythm later. We also note the first and only reference to the anapaest, which goes ti-ti-tum. The anapaest is represented in the Glossary as:

Ti-ti-tum, a foot with two short syllables before a long one.

In Chapter 11, ‘The Iambic Tetrameter’, Mr Fenton talks of a more emphatic rhythm and of this sort of line itself as a measure. The first reference is undeveloped and thus lies meaningless; the second is confusing since it suggests some connection with musical measures.

Mr Fenton takes examples from Blake here, failing to consider them in any way ‘song-like’ when the idea of song was of such importance to Blake. Then, on page 54, he makes this interesting statement:

It is by looking at poems like this [Blakes The Mental Traveller], rather than by studying the algebra of metrical treatises, that we learn what a metre, what a measure is capable of, and what its chief virtues are.

This is in several ways a somewhat silly, ‘FIRTING’ sentence. First there is a clear confusion in the use of the terms metre and measure: does measure here mean an iambic tetrameter line (as the next sentence, When Robert Lowell turned to the iambic tetrameter, suggests) or does it mean, say, a single ‘iambic foot’ or ‘measure’? and thus does metre likewise refer to a single ‘foot’ or to an extended such set of ‘feet’? Secondly, in the composition and performance of music ~ and, indeed, of poetry; for the relationship between the arts was very close, and may still be ~ it is not a grasp of algebra that is required but a grasp of simple arithmetic.

Chapter 12 is on ‘The Longer Lines’, and in it the ‘fudging and FIRTING’ continue. The chapter begins:

At somewhere around ten syllables, the English poetic line is at its most relaxed and manageable. At less than eight syllables the rhythm becomes more pronounced and there is less opportunity for variation. At more than ten syllables we have to stress its metre as we recite it or read it. (p.56).

There is no development of, or meaningful connection made between the terms rhythm and metre. Questions are ‘begged’. We wonder if stress here means ‘to emphasise the stresses in a longer line so as to bring out its metricality’? This would be a more meaningful statement. However, we also wonder whether or not Mr Fenton may be entertaining some ideas of an ‘iambic metre or rhythm’ or ‘a trochaic metre or rhythm’ in the sense of a particular sort of ‘foot’ having a particular sort of rhythm? (In making these remarks we are in part looking ahead, as it were, to the way that Mr Fry deals with like terms.) This leads us to a further hypothetical consideration: If Mr Fenton (or Mr Fry) were to be given a long line in alternating long and short (or stressed and unstressed, etc.) syllables, say

˘  '  ˘  '  ˘  '  ˘  '  ˘  '  ˘  '  ˘

(where ' is long and ˘ is short), how would he determine if the sequence were in an ‘iambic’ or in a ‘trochaicmetre? As we have observed, Mr Fenton does not perform any actual scansion in his book: we wonder how he would scan this line from Shakespeare’s sonnet 56 (text: 1609 Edition):

The spirit of love, with a perpetual dullnesse.

Returning to the notion of rhythm: we note that Mr Fenton considers some lines by Kipling, calling them highly rhythmic; but we are not told what in practice this means; just as, above, we have not been told how it is that a rhythm becomes more pronounced.

He next moves on to a discussion of the classical hexameter (p.58) and introduces us to the dactyl, which is bluntly qualified as (tum-ti-ti). He talks of long and short syllables and represents the line, with possible ‘substitutions’, by the following notation:

‾‾ ˘˘ ‾‾ ˘˘ ‾‾ ˘˘ ‾‾ ˘˘ ‾‾ ˘˘
˘˘ ‾‾ ˘˘ ‾‾ ˘˘ ‾‾ ˘˘ ‾‾ ˘˘ ‾‾

The scheme has no algebraic content and no arithmetical content except in so far as there is the ‘spatial’ hint suggesting that a long syllable, ‾‾, may occupy the same ‘time’ as two short ones, ˘˘

It is obviously not possible or convenient or considered relevant by Mr Fenton to supply or suggest any mensural analysis. It may be that in classical and in neo-classical metrics the code or convention is that a short syllable has half the duration of a long one. Although he talks of quantitative metre he will give no quantities. This is ‘fudging’ it, or ‘cheating’, a further ‘FIRTING about’ with us.

Indeed, Mr Fenton more or less admits as much again, twice, in this chapter. He says first (p.59) that

The Latin hexameter, when used in English, has to adapt itself to English accentual metre, something it has never done successfully in my view.

Then, on page 60, he says:

Very few of the classical feet, the units of metre, have found a home in English, beyond the world of conscious metrical experiment.

In Chapter 13, ‘The Shorter Stanza’, there is no mention of rhythm or metre, or of song.

Nor are any such terms mentioned in Chapter 14, ‘The Longer Stanza’.

The same is almost true of Chapter 15, ‘The Sonnet’; but here we note how Mr Fenton manages a swift (‘slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim’) piece of ‘FIRTING’ in respect of Hopkinss Pied Beauty’. He says,

Leaving aside the curious accentual markings by which Hopkins attempted to explain his metrical system

It is not convenient ~ indeed, it would not be wise ~ for Mr Fenton to consider Hopkinss ‘musically-based’ theory of ‘sprung rhythm, for to do so would expose the inability of his own prosodical system to give an adequate description of Hopkinss achievements.

In Chapter 16, ‘Minor Forms’, the term rhythm is nowhere introduced; but the term metres appears three times in a short space when Mr Fenton is dismissing certain rare forms and metres as not having been successfully imported into English verse (p.92). It is something of a disappointment that the limerick, introduced early and briefly, is not examined for its rhythmical properties; but some reference is made to it in the Glossary, and we shall come to this later in this essay.

In Chapter 17, ‘Rhyme’, there is no mention of rhythm or metre.

Chapter 18 is on ‘Syllabics’, and it is here that we are at least introduced to a new term which may help us in our understanding of Mr Fenton’s use of the term rhythm. On page 99 the term iambic rhythms is used twice. This term is difficult to grasp because of the term’s pluralisation. We remember that in Chapter 10 Mr Fenton introduced the notion of trochaic rhythm. We must presume that in his prosodic system there may be ‘dactylic rhythm[s]’, ‘anapaestic rhythm[s]’ and ‘spondaic rhythm[s]’ (at least) and that these rhythms are, as suggested, [ ], pluralised. How may all these many rhythms be distinguished and taxonomised? Indeed, what may they actually be? A sequence of spondees would be simply

In the simple sense that ‘rhythm’ is ‘flow’ in ‘time’ this is a continuous flow; but in terms of ‘musical rhythm’ this is an arhythmic sequence of, well, tums. Mr Fenton makes no sense of his terms here. Indeed, he makes nonsense of them. To use an image: it is as if Mr Fenton’s prosodic theory has ‘flat-lined’.

We would add one further note on this Chapter: the word music occurs; but not with reference to matters of rhythm[s].

In Chapter 19, ‘Free Verse’, such terms as traditional metrics, metre, written metrically, new metrical understanding occur; but there is no linking or development of them. There is one reference to rhythms in a quote from a writer, Timothy Steele,

monotonous, polysyllabic, unchanging rhythms,

but Mr Fenton does not elaborate further on the term or on the example.

Mr Fenton’s next, short Chapter, 20, is ‘Writing for the Eye’. Neither metre nor rhythm are mentioned here.

We expect that Chapter 21, ‘Song’, will deal with matters of rhythm; but Mr Fenton is, of course, thorough and firm in his ‘FIRTING’. He is able once again to avoid the provision of any useful prosodic explication of a term so essential to any theory of poetry.

And this thoroughness is maintained through Chapter 22, ‘Poetic Drama and Opera’, so that his final paragraph in the book could be mistaken for a celebration of his ‘FIRTING’ success:

This is possible, we assert, because this is what I have just done. This is achievable because I wanted enough to achieve it.

This has proved to be a rather silly and unsatisfactory book.


Let us now see how Mr Fry goes about his work.

His book is in four parts or chapters: 1 METRE; 2 RHYME; 3 FORM; 4 DICTION AND POETICS TODAY. We are concerned with the first part only, except for a brief visit to the third part where he makes his initial examination of the limerick.

The first part of the book takes up a little more than a quarter of its pages. We suggested earlier that the book was tediously thorough.. In support of this view we would point to its ‘flashy’ Table of Metric Feet at the end of the first part: as in a sort of museum, this presents four BINARY, eight TERNERY and sixteen QUATERNERY feet. However, we will say that the presentation is ‘awesome’ in a way, and the proportions revealed are most interesting.

There is also a full Glossary on which to draw..


We will use Mr Fry’s section-headings as we go.

i. Some very obvious but nonetheless interesting observations about how English is spoken ~ meet metre ~ the iamb ~ the iambic pentameter

The first remark by Mr Fry that takes our attention is on page 2 in the sub-section, How We Speak:

English is what is known as a STRESS-TIMES language.

What may this mean? The statement is not repeated or developed. Might it have something to do with metre? We note the reference to ‘time’.

There is soon, though, some development of the notion of stress:

This accent, push or stress is also called ictus.

We note the equivalence of the four terms, and move on to the next remark of special interest to us, that

The rhythms of English poetry are ordered by SYLLABIC ACCENTUATION.

We note the term rhythms, and wonder what may be the meaning of SYLLABIC ACCENTUATION: it is a term that is new to us. Surely, accent or push or stress or ictus will always be a function of some spoken syllable or other?

The next remark that particularly interests us comes at the end of this sub-section where Mr Fry says:

But prose, rhythmic as it can be, is not poetry. The rhythm is not organised. (p.5)

The notion of ‘organised rhythm’ is an important one, and one that Mr Fenton did not arrive at. We look to see the idea further developed.

Mr Fry attempts to do so in the next sub-section, Meet Metre. He says (p.6):

…metre can be reserved precisely to refer to the poetic technique of organising rhythm, while words like ‘beat’ and ‘flow’ and ‘pulse’ can be freed up for less technical, more subjective and personal uses.

However, here he is making a false antithesis, as he himself shows when, three paragraphs later, he says:

We know what rhythm is in music, we can clap our hands or tap our feet to its beat. In poetry it is much the same:

ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum

Say that out loud. Tap your feet, drum your fingers or clap your hands as you say it. It is a meaningless chant, certainly. But it is a meaningless regular and rhythmic chant.

Ten sounds, alternating in beat or accent. Actually, it is not very helpful to say that the line is made up of ten sounds; we’ll soon discover that for our prosodic purposes it is more useful to look at it as five repeating sets of that ti-tum heartbeat. My old cello teacher liked to do it this way, clapping her hands as she did so:

and one and two and three and four and five

In music this would be five bars (or five measures if you’re American). In poetry such a bar or measure is called a foot.

Five feet marching in rhythm. If the foot is the heartbeat, the metre can best be described as the readout or cardiogram trace.

ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum,

Let’s give the metre meaning by substituting words.

He bangs the drum and makes a dreadful noise

…The line has a rising rhythm, that is the point: from weak to strong, terminating in a fifth stressed beat.

Finally Mr Fry chooses symbols for his own use,

To indicate the accented and the weak syllables. Here I have chosen   to represent the off-beat, the depressed, unaccented syllable, and   for the beat, stress or accented syllable.

The above paragraphs constitute a sort of core or foundation for Mr Fry’s prosodic demonstrations. He boldly and rightly makes a full and explicit connection between prosody and musical disciplines in respect of rhythm and bar-structures. This is not an analogy: these are related disciplines which have certain technical elements in common as well as having analogical similarities. But, further, we note how, despite his indication on page 6, he time and again uses the term beat as a ’technical’ and not a ‘subjective’ term.

However, having ‘drawn the parallel’, Mr Fry immediately begins to weaken and obscure it by talking about rising rhythm. This is not a musical term and not a reasonable prosodic one. (It inevitably appears together with its ‘opposite’, ‘falling rhythm’.) First, in a sequence of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ syllables, to talk of ‘rising’ or ‘falling’ is a metaphorical, not a technical, consideration. Secondly, in such a sequence there is, metaphorically, as persistent a falling rhythm as a rising rhythm, and there is no good reason to choose between them. This is a matter that we shall return to.

It may now be pointed out that, in ‘drawing the parallel’ between prosodic and musical disciplines, Mr Fry quite fails to consider that basic part of the theory of musical rhythm, the matter of time-signatures. This is perverse. He has said quite categorically above that

In poetry such a bar or measure is called a foot.

We shall now find that, having ’laid’ his partial foundations, Mr Fry will ‘build’ poorly and intermittently upon them, so that his construction will inevitably ‘tumble into a heap’. We put on our ‘hard yellow plastic hats’ and proceed into the next sub-section.

This sub-section is headed The Great Iamb (and other binary feet) and begins:

The word for a rising-rhythm foot with a ti-tum,    , beat like those above is an iambus, more usually called an iamb. (p.10)

We note that beat is again used as a precise technical term, and note how it here refers to a combination of two rhythmic elements. Now we are told that

The TROCHEE is a backwards iamb, a falling rhythm, tum-ti

We note the absurd term, a backwards iamb, and move on to

The SPONDEE is of equal stressed units:    

Of course, Mr Fry does not attribute any particular sort of rhythm to the SPONDEE. How could he any more than Mr Fenton could? But we cannot treat him any differently; and so we present this sequence of ‘SPONDEES’ for his rhythmical interpretation, using his own notation:


And we follow it with a matching PYRRHIC sequence:


We come now to the subsection, The Iambic Pentameter, of which it is said that it is the very breath of English verse. Mr Fry provides a selection of pairs of lines each of which

is an example of ‘perfect’ iambic pentameter, having exactly ten syllables, five iambic feet (five stresses on the even-numbered beats) to the line.

Something is badly wrong here. All of a sudden we have ten ‘beats’ to an iambic pentameter, five even-numbered ones and five ‘odd-numbered’ ones…Further, we are encouraged to read Mr Fry’s examples noting the ti-tumrhythms ~ a meaningless term ~: and then to read them OUT LOUD, exaggerating the stresses on each beat ~ all ten of them presumably. This is absurd nonsense.

Mr Fry’s next section-heading is

ii. End-stopping ~ enjambment ~ caesura ~ weak endings ~ trochaic and pyrrhic substitutions

and its first sub-section is End-stopping, Enjambment and Caesura. The first remarks that take our attention occur on page 23:

The fact is, enjambment and caesura…are crucial liberators of the iambic line. They either extend or break the flow, allowing the rhythms and hesitations of human breath, thought and speech to enliven and enrich the verse.

The notion of rhythm propounded in this book is ill-defined enough. These statements serve to broaden and weaken it further. Then the matter of rhythm is further complicated on the next page:

Meter is the primary rhythm, the organised background against which the secondary rhythms of sense and feeling are played out.

For this statement to be of any prosodic and technical significance we need to know the number and nature of these various primary ‘metre-rhythms’ and of the secondary rhythms: but no such analysis is made anywhere in the book.

Weaknesses of another sort appear in Mr Fry’s prosodic system when he comes to his sub-section Weak Endings, Trochaic and Pyrrhic Substitutions on page 34. The classical metrics is misused so that its use begins to break down. Mr Fry takes lines from plays by Shakespeare (which are not poems, it must be objected) to introduce the idea of a weak or feminine ending. The terms themselves, used by Mr Fry to account for what he calls this orphan or ‘rogue’ unaccented syllable at the end of the line, are simply convenient imports into the classical system which thereby falsify its use in the analysis of the rhythms in English poetry. To put it another way: a line of English poetry with a so-called ‘feminine ending’ may be presented as like to a classical iambic pentameter: but it will not be one.

Further, Mr Fry erroneously states that such words as question, where they occur in Shakespeare’s verse, are disyllabic; but this may well not have been the case in the dialects and literary diction of the day, and Mr Fry’s claim saves him, of course, from pointing such a thing as ‘a double feminine ending’ in such lines as

To be or not to be that is the question

But Mr Fry has already got himself into a mess earlier with a line from ‘Macbeth’:

Vaulting ambition which o’er leaps itself

He refuses to consider that ambition may be quadrisyllabic or that in o’er there are two distinct movements of the vocal apparatus. He is also claiming that Shakespeare

is starting an iambic line with a tum-ti, a trochee.

Mr Fry is unable or unwilling to consider that the line may be delivered in a pronounced ‘triple-rhythm’:

Vaulting ambition which oer leaps itself

Mr Fry returns to this line when he comes to his sub-section, Substitutions on page 42:

To prick the sides of my intent, but only
ing ambition, which overleaps itself
And falls on th’other ~ how now! What news?

He does not scan the lines, which means that he does not demonstrate how his dogmatic, neo-classical metrical habits cope with the third line, which he would presumably present to us thus:

And falls on thother ~ how now! What news?

The line would seem to be most ‘uniambic’ and not to be a pentameter at all. Could this be incompetence on the part of Shakespeare? Might it be that the text is corrupt? Or may it be that Shakespeare didn’t write in ‘iambic pentameters’ at all?

Be that as it may, in Mr Fry’s text we are returning to the notion of trochaic substitution. The matter of such substitutions is worth examining theoretically. Was such a technique practised at all by writers or ‘prosodists’ in classical time? We do not know. We are not told. Substitution would seem to be a device introduced into neo-classical metrical systems by we do not know whom, or when, which are systems now employed by such as Mr Fry and Mr James Fenton. We also note that Mr Fry says:

You could call it a trochaic substitution, or the inversion of an iamb ~ it amounts to the same thing. (p.43)

It would seem from this that we may devise what terms we like to ensure that our neo-classical metrical systems work ‘lawfully’. Hey ho!

Now that we have raised our concerns about the validity of substitution as a prosodic tool, we may return to the text to consider Mr Fry’s use of it.

Mr Fry now ‘thickens the mix’. Taking up the matter of trochaic substitution, or the inversion of an iamb, he gives some lines ‘containing’ examples, the last of which is the first line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. This is how he proceeds:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

That’s an interesting one, the last. Shakespeare’s famous sonnet opens in a way that allows different emphases. Is it Shall I compare thee, Shall I compare thee or Shall I compare thee? The last would be a spondaic substitution. You remember the spondee, two equally stressed beats? What do you feel? How would you read it out? There’s no right or wrong answer. (p.43)

We note this down here to draw attention for the time being to Mr Fry’s uncertainty and ‘open’ approach to possible scansion, and will return to it later. Now we will press on with this passage on page 44:

Trochaic substitution of an interior foot is certainly not uncommon either. Let’s return to the opening of Hamlet’s great soliloquy:

To be or not to be: that is the question

We remember Mr Fry’s remarks above: What do you feel? How would you read it out? There’s no right or wrong answer. We would suggest to him another way of looking at things, one that might even have found favour with Shakespeare. If we were to treat the first ‘light’ syllable as an ‘up-beat’ as in music (in the same spirit that the ‘extra’ syllable at the end of some lines of verse has been called a ‘feminine ending’), and treat the last word as trisyllabic (rather than Mr Fry’s kweschən), we might arrive at this possible ‘scansion’:

To / be or / not to / be:    that is the / question

Where we have put a musical pause-mark we might propose an unspoken light ‘syllable’. Then, after our ‘up-beat’, we would have three ‘bars’ that could by analogy be called three trochees, and two ‘dactyls’ (one of the ‘feet’ that we shall come to later). However, this possibility of a ‘songlikeness’ is not one that Mr Fry lights upon ~ though sometimes, in the course of this book he seems more likely to do so than Mr Fenton. What we have suggested above is not quite the sort of trochaic substitution that Mr Fry has in mind ~ though he does say (p.45):

Just as it would be pointless to disallow unstressed endings to a line, so it would be to forbid stressed beginnings.

It is when Mr Fry comes to pyrrhic substitution that things get even more questionable. This is what he says:

Often in a line of iambic pentameter you might come across a line like this, from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 1:

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes

How would you scan it?

But thou, / contract / ed to / thine own / bright eyes

Contracted to thine own bright eyes’ is rather ugly, don’t we think? After all there’s no valuable distinction of meaning derived by hitting that innocent little particle. So has Shakespeare, by only the fifth line of his great sonnet sequence already blown it and mucked up his iambic pentameters?

Well no. Let’s scan it like this:

But thou, / contract / ed to / thine own / bright eyes 18

That third foot is now pyrrhic, two unaccented beats: we’ve taken the usual stress off its second element, we have ‘demoted’ the foot, if you like. We have, in metrical jargon, effected pyrrhic substitution.

This is wonderful, and is given a lovely bit of ‘icing’ as it were with the footnote, 18:

If you already know your feet and think that this is really an amphibrach, a dactyl and two iambs, I’m afraid I shall have to kill you.

Mr Fry is in one very obvious way ‘mucking things up’ again here. As we noted on Page 9, he identified the beat, stress, or accented syllable. Now the pyrrhic foot is said to have two unaccented beats. If it has twobeats, then so presumably does an iambic foot or a trochaic foot ~ as indeed we found him saying earlier on p10. So now we are in a ‘mire’ in which a beat can be unaccented and thus in any situation liable to be ‘demoted’ to some other sort of entity. Mr Fry’s abuse of his terms makes a nonsense. He is using the term beat in something like the way it is used in musical theory. Really he is just, indeed, ‘mucking about’ and doing what he likes. This is ‘kids’ stuff’.

Now we may return to the idea of ‘songlikeness’ in English poetry. We do not know what sort of delivery of the above line in Shakespeare’s sonnet might have been expected by ‘the Elizabethan ear’, or what delivery might have been intended by Shakespeare himself. It may well have been that, as in Chaucer’s day, a light ‘accent’ was acceptable and expected on such innocent little particles on occasions, in order to keep the ‘beat’, the rhythm going. Mr Fry may be too embarrassed to try it lest he be laughed off the stage and out of Equity; but, with a little practice, it is possible to modulate and organise the flow of the verbal stuff so that the word to rises a little above the –ed as the ‘energy’ in the line rises towards those eyes. (Indeed, if the words own and eyes were, in the dialect of the day, spoken with a more disyllabic emphasis ~ as were probably, for instance, the words ‘handes’ and ‘lippes’ in John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ ~ there are lovely, rhythmic possibilities for the line.

Further, Mr Fry must apply his same method to that other line quoted on page 43 from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18,

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Mr Fry said that There’s no right or wrong answer to the reading of it. However, some answers may be more likely or more in keeping with the practices of the times than others. Mr Fry did not show us how he would deal with the whole line himself, but we may assume that he would call the third ‘foot’ a pyrrhic substitution (which may well have been something quite unknown to Shakespeare). However, we would suggest that Elizabethan diction might have given near equal ‘stress’ to the two syllables of compare (after all, temperate in the next line was certainly stressed on its third syllable, demonstrating how different diction in those days could be from our own). The line might then be scanned like this (using Mr Fry‘s notation):

Shall I / compare / thee to a / summer’s / day?

To humour Mr Fry we might just be prepared to call it ‘a catalectic trochaic pentameter with one dactylic substitution’. Even if Mr Fry objected and performed a catalexis on our ‘dactyl’ and ended the line with two iambs, it would still be ‘a trochaic line’ for him to ‘put in his pipe and smoke’ or to put to some other euphemistic use.

Mr Fry’s prosodic system and metrical analysis is limited of course by his failure to deal thoroughly with the question of time, with temporality in poetry. Rhythm, as he himself points out on page 7, derives from a Greek word meaning ‘motion’ or ‘flow’. In technical terms flow is measured in quantity through time. Nowhere in the text of this book, so far as we can see, nor in the Glossary, does Mr Fry examine the important notion of isochronicity in lines of verse, the actual or apparently even ‘flow’ of ‘feet’, ‘bars’, measures’ or ‘beats’ in lines of poetry, except where he talks about a regular and rhythmic chant on page 7, when he is briefly considering the parallels between musical and poetical notions of rhythm ~ before botching the comparison. Mr Fry tells us how his old cello teacher would call out, clapping her hands as she did so,

and one and two and three and four and five

It would greatly interest us to have Mr Fry mensurate this utterance by first indicating a bar-structure, as in music, and then scanning it as a line of poetry.

It is Mr Fry’s failure to bring into his exegesis any consideration of simple, musical, mensural systems that restricts his effectiveness as a metrist, just as Mr Fenton fell short. But let us now return to his examination of what he calls pyrrhic substitution. He instances lines from Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’:

Not in / the hands / of boys / but in / their eyes

shall shine / the hol / y glimm / ers of / goodbyes

Mr Fry seeks to avoid what he calls wrenched accent on the words in and of. In the latter case we will in performance naturally take off much but not all of the ‘beat’ or ‘pulse’ on of so as still to be markedly aware of the ‘five-beat system’ that informs the lines. In the former case we may propose a rather different ‘foot-structure’, more of a ‘bar-based structure’ for the line:

/ Not in the / hands of / boys    / but in their / eyes

shall / shine the / holy / glimm-ers / of good / –byes

Our metrical reading of the first line suggests two ‘dactyls’ in it’, and we hope that our pause, , after boys is what Mr Fry might accept as a ‘caesura’. He might just be persuaded to allow that the final ‘foot’ in each line is catalectic; but he would probably not be happy with the ‘floating’ syllable at the beginning of the second line unless he could be persuaded to consider the musical notion of anacrusis.

We now come to the third section of Mr Fry’s first chapter:

iii. More Metres: Four Beats to the Line.. Mixed Feet

Before we set out, let us remind ourselves of Mr Fry’s earlier proposal, on page 6:

metre can be reserved precisely to refer to the poetic technique of organising rhythm, while words like ‘beat; and ‘flow’ and ‘pulse’ can be freed up for less technical, more subjective and personal uses.

We first note that ‘More Metres’ implies, following his earlier remarks, more rhythms. Secondly, we note that ‘Beats’ is apparently a technical term here rather than a subjective or personal one ~ Mr Fry has mucked up his terminology again even if he hasn’t yet quite blown it completely. We proceed with caution.

The first sub-section is, then, More Metres. Here Mr Fry is talking of metres as things, lines, ‘portions of poetry’ perhaps, differentiated by the number of feet or of beats they may be said to contain (and we remember how only a few pages back he has indicated that every syllable in every foot is a beat). He begins, page 55,

Why five feet to a line, why not four or six? Three or seven? Eight even.

Then he lays it out for us,

1 Beat ~ Monometer
2 Beat ~ Dimeter
3 Beat ~ Trimeter

and so on. This brings us to Mr Fry’s own re-statement on page 57 of a crucial difference between classical and English metrication in ‘poetry’. French poetry, he says,

Relies more on what is known as ‘quantitative measure’ ~ divisions based on the temporal duration of long and short vowels. This is how classical Greek and Latin poetry was constructed. Most English verse ~ as I hope you have discovered ~ is metred by syllabic accentuation, the rises and falls of stress.

It is at this point in the book that further ‘dissonances’ become apparent: there is a lack of correlation ~ or perhaps a false correlation between certain technical terms. On page 5 Mr Fry made this statement:

The rhythms of English poetry are ordered by SYLLABIC ACCENTUATION.

When we take this statement together with that on page 57 quoted above we find that the terms metres and rhythms become fully cognate with each other.

Another source of confusion ~ but one that we are becoming used to ~ is imparted by his switch above from feet in the first sentence of the sub-section to Beat in his scheme of Metres. (We must continue to avoid the distraction of Mr Fry’s switching his spelling of metre to metre to metre in this tiresome book.) He has told us that

English…is what is known as a STRESS-TIMES language. (p.2)

Here he tells us that most English verse works by a system of syllabic accentuation. Now, as we suggested earlier, Mr Fry makes beat a major technical term when he had originally set it aside for more ‘subjective’ and personal use. We have also seen how in part of his discourse the word beat has been used as a function of every syllable in every foot. It is becoming increasingly difficult to proceed with any confidence in Mr Fry’s terms at all.

We must proceed, however; but will first remind ourselves of the main purpose of our search. This is to discover, if we can, some explication or definition of the terms rhythm or rhythms in English poetry. Mr Fry has told us that

The rhythms of English poetry are ordered. (p.5)

So far we have been presented on page 10 with the term rising-rhythm foot, which is a ~ here we go again ~ ti-tum, and a falling-rhythm [foot], or a tick-tock, a trochee or backwards iamb.. This is the extent of our ‘knowledge’ of the organisation or ‘ordering’ of rhythm in English verse. With this scant information we move on.

So far in part iii of the chapter Mr Fry has given us examples of hexameters, octameters, and heptameters, and has briefly mentioned tetrameters and trimeters. It is when he moves into the new sub-section, FOUR BEATS TO THE LINE that the problem of technical terms is renewed. In the paragraph before opening the sub-section Mr Fry writes,

It is fundamentally daffy to scan lyrics [of, for instance ‘pop-songs’] since it is musical beat that determines emphasis, not the metrical stress. (p.61)

This is not good enough. We need to know how the term beat as used here in the phrase musical beat relates or compares to beat as used in the phrase four-beat tetrameters.. Mr Fry makes two further but unexplored references to music in this sub-section.. First he declares on page 61 that

the four-beat instinct is deep within us, much as in music the four/four time signature is so standard as to be the default.

Then on page 63 he says:

Tetrameters, even if they follow the ballad form and alternate with trimeters, don’t need to have the swing and narrative drive of a ballad.

The words swing and ballad are of particular interest. The term ‘swing’ is one relating to rhythm. There is no evidence in this book that Mr Fry understands ‘the four-beat instinct’ that informs much early English poetry; and he cannot do so if he will make no proper comparison of the methods of ‘timing’ in poetry and in music. Like a ‘daffy’ duck he dabbles tail-up in his neo-classical metrical pond.


As we move on, there is another sort of ‘swing’ to attend to, that between the terms stress and beat. They become interchangeable ~ as had been indicated earlier.

Up to this point in the book Mr Fry has been methodically building up some sort of ‘neo-classical metrical system’ of a sort which is unexceptional ~ a reiteration of ‘received wisdom’ shall we say. What concerns us is that so far there is no indication that he can or will deal effectively with matters of rhythm and temporal mensuration. Mr Fry is now coming towards the last sub-section, MIXED FEET of this third part of his first chapter, and something rather peculiar is about to happen.

It starts on page 64 after he has compared lines which he calls iambic four-beats with trochaic tetrameters. He says:

Now look at the following two four-stress lines which reiterate the point I made earlier about question and answer: the obvious but crucial difference in the way each foot as it were distributes its weight.

Trochees end their lines in weakness

Iambic lines resolve with strength

But as we know, iambic lines don’t have to end with a stressed syllable: you can add an extra weak syllable (hypermetric addition). Similarly, trochaic lines can have their weak ending dropped (catalectic subtraction). In both cases you’re adding or subtracting a weak syllable: the number of stresses stays the same.

At this juncture, seeking enlightenment within our own skulls, as it were, and enthralled by Mr Fry’s shall we say ‘flexible thoroughness’, we find a playful idea developing. We propose a sequence of ‘syllables’ alternately ‘strong and weak’ or ‘heavy and light’ or ‘stressed and unstressed’ or ‘long and short’ or ‘accented and unaccented’ or ‘tum and ti’:


Our own sonic representation of this is

bim bum bim bum bim bum bim bum.

This might be said to represent ‘a trochaic tetrameter’ in Mr Fry’s system; but it could also be described as ‘an iambic tetrameter’ with a catalectic subtraction and a hypermetric addition.’ We could represent the line as

Let us try a line that’s dodgy

from which we have subtracted, for our own prosodic purposes, the word ‘so’ at the beginning, thus:

(So) let us try a line that’s dodg-y

There cannot be said to be any essential difference in rhythm between the two versions.

Mr Fry now considers what he calls MIXED FEET. He says (p.67):

What about mixing up whole lines of iambic and trochaic metre in the same verse?

He bangs the drums and makes a noise
Scaring girls and waking boys

Nothing necessarily wrong with that either. Don’t’ get hung up on writing perfectly symmetrical parades of consistent rhythm. Utterance, sung or spoken underlies poetry… No one could say that the above two lines are wrong, it is surprisingly rare, however, to find two metres mixed in this fashion (in ‘literary’ verse, as opposed to popular ballad and song lyrics, at least)So long as you are in control of the metre, using its swing and balance to fit the mood, motion or story of your poem there is no reason not to use a variety of beats within the same piece.

We will go to the end of the paragraph first, to consider the phrase a variety of beats. We must presume that here Mr Fry is making beats stand for metres. This is a further corruption of the term beat. However, the main issue in the paragraph is a broader one. Mr Fry describes the two lines above as a case of having two metres mixed: but is it actually anything of the sort? Taking up from our experiment a little earlier, we may continue the same sort of projective process. We can take the same little word, ‘so’, and rewrite the lines thus:

He bangs the drum and makes a noise
[So] scaring girls and waking boys.

By doing so we demonstrate that in effect Mr Fry’s two lines have a consistent rhythm and should therefore be said to be in one consistent metre and not in two metres mixed. Of course, in his use of the words song and swing and beats Mr Fry is coming close to some consideration of musical notions, terms and structures: but not close enough to save his ‘tottering edifice’.

It is here that Mr Fry begins to examine some of the poetry of Blake. We shall present a page and a half of his analysis here, on pages 68 and 69:

Having said that, let’s look at the whole first stanza of Blake’s ‘The Tyger’.

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

As we observed earlier, these are trochaic four-stress lines (docked of their last weak syllable). That holds true of the first three lines, but what’s afoot with the last one? It is a regular iambic four stress line. Here’s the third stanza:

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when they heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

Trochaic first and last lines ‘enveloping’ two central iambic lines; and the poem’s penultimate stanza runs:

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile this work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

In this case we alternate between trochaic and iambic tetrameters. The rest of the poem is trochaic. With a little casuistry one could, I suppose, make the argument that Blake’s shift between metres ‘stripes’ the verse as a tiger is striped. I think that this is more than a little tenuous: there is no plan to the changes between metre, no apparent design at work: certainly, poets in the past and present have employed metre, rhyme and even the shape of the words on a page further to conjoin form with subject matter, but I do not believe that applies here.

Nonetheless, the variations can hardly be said to spoil the poem: the docking of a final trochaic foot matches the standard male endings of the iambic. After all, one could look at it this way: are the odd lines out really iambic, or are they trochees with an extra weak syllable at the beginning? Trochees are the opposite of iambs: if you can pop a weak syllable at the end of an iambic line, why not shove one on to the beginning of a trochaic one? If you read those stanzas above, missing out the unstressed syllables at the start of each iambic line, you will see what I mean. It is finally a matter of nomenclature and one’s own ear. For many modern metrists there’s no such thing as the iamb or the trochee at all, there are only lines with a set number of beats or stresses to them. Where the weak syllables come is for them irrelevant. They would have us believe that English verse should be treated as if it is accentual, but not accentual syllabic. I can’t go that far myself.

So, no, unfortunately Mr Fry can’t go that far himself. It is as if the neo-classical prosodic system which he has himself flexed to point of absurdity is his Nanny; and little Stephen, banging his drum, can’t let go of Nanny’s hand and walk on his own and with both hands play more subtle rhythms with two drumsticks.

However, it must be said that there is an air of more adult ‘spin’ and evasion about these paragraphs that amounts almost to a ‘stink’. We notice that there is to be no examination here of what might well be what were earlier called wrenched accents (p.47) which could lead to the necessity of considering pyrrhic substitution.. Further, we wonder if it is just an oversight by Mr Fry that leads him to say that The rest of the poem is trochaic. He must know that the last line reads

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry.

Could a man of Mr Fry’s sensibility not consider that ‘Dare’ should carry as much stress (or weight or ictus or beat or accent) as ‘frame’, so imparting a spondaic opening to the line? (And would a man to whom wrenched accent (p.47) was such anathema be prepared to put weight, beat, stress or ictus on the last syllable of symmetry ~ as is surely required?)

No: Mr Fry has more on his mind as he strives to hold up his ‘tottering edifice’ like some strange Sampson even as he himself is shaking it to bits as he declares, It is finally a matter of nomenclature and one’s own ear.

Mr Fry has ~ to put it not too impolitely, we hope ~ ‘stuffed’ himself like a headless chicken ready for the oven (even as marble blocks of classic columns crash around him).


Mr Fry now returns to consider some more lines of Blake’s poetry.

Here is a well-known couplet from Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’:

A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.

This is metrically identical to my made-up hybrid line

He bangs the drums and makes a noise
Scaring girls and waking boys

Indeed, it might be said to be so. Mr Fry goes on.

Heartless to quibble with Blake’s sentiment, but to most ears, trained or otherwise, it’s a bid of a dud isn’t it?

And he adds:

…and from any poetic sensibility but his one might wrinkle one’s nose at such childlike versifying. If the poem went on alternating in regular fashion…one could understand it. In fact the next lines are:

A dove house filled with doves and Pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all it regions

That couplet does conform with the plan, the second line is completely trochaic with weak ending and all,…

We must pause here: isn’t it the first ‘iambic’ line that has the weak ending? He goes on:

but now Blake continues with:

A dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State

Those are both iambic lines.

We must pause here also.. We might allow that, under Mr Fry’s ‘flexibly rigid system’ these could be called iambic lines: but surely dog and starv’d carry about the same stress, etc? We are pleased to have noticed what could be a trochaic substitution; but we are still uneasy about this.. We perform the line in our own isochronous style to spread the ‘beats’ comfortably, and a ‘hole’ seems to occur between dog and starv’d, an elapse of real time. We move on, and Mr Fry continues:

And the next couplet?

A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human Blood

Well, I mean, I’m sorry, but that’s just bad. Isn’t it? The syntax (grammatical construction) for a start: bit wobbly isn’t it? Does he really mean that the horse is calling to heaven: the other animals don’t, surely he means the misuse of horses calls to heaven? But Blake’s sentence structure invites us to picture a calling horse. And, my dear, the scansion. Presumably Blake means to elide Heaven into a monosyllable Heav’n (a perfectly common elision and one we might remember having to sing in school hymns), but it is odd that he bothers in earlier lines to put apostrophes in ‘starv’d’ and ‘misus’d’ and even shortens through to thro’ 24 yet fails to give us an apostrophe here where it would really count: he has already used the word Heaven once without elision, as a disyllabic word, six lines earlier: perhaps, one might argue, he felt that as a holy word it shouldn’t be altered in any way. I think this unlikely, he tends not to use capitals for God, although he uses them for ‘Me’ and ‘My’ and just about every word he can (incidentally, why does Horse deserve majuscules here, but not dog, I wonder? Why Pigeon and not dove?). Well, perhaps the unelided ‘Heaven’ is a misprint: if so, it is one that all the copies of Blake I have seen repeat. It is fairly obvious that this is how he wrote it in his manuscript.

No, I think we can confidently state that there is no metrical scheme in place here… (p.71)

No: I think that we can confidently state that Mr Fry, beneath his silly, theatrical posturing, just doesn’t ‘get it’. This is in part because he seems to have no grasp of what we might call ‘dialect and diction’. How did Blake actually declaim his lines to himself or to another? We do not know; but we can bring some assumptions and approximations to bear on the matter. In some English ‘dialects and dictions’ at some times, and particularly in some ‘literary’ situations, the word ‘starved’ would have been pronounced as ‘starvéd’. Blake would have wanted his readers to reduce that ‘stress’ or ‘accent’ on the second syllable so that the line would literally flow most easily. Likewise there were ‘dialects and dictions’ where ‘through’, as we might say it simply, was actually pronounced more like ‘thorough’, with two fairly distinct and definite movements of the vocal apparatus. Mr Fry’s footnote 24 actually says:

24 A common but metrically meaningless convention.

No, Mr Fry just ‘doesn’t get’ Blake’s passionate ‘singing’. Yes, sometimes the syntax and the majuscules are a bit ‘mad’, my dear; but Blake isn’t ‘scanning’, he is ‘singing’. It is rather as if Mr Fry is in a ‘scansional dinghy’ on his own Lake Galilee willing the waves to pass in neat iambic or trochaic order while neglecting to notice Blake’s fluent yet ‘rock-sure’ musical measures underneath him, which then stove in the bottom of his boat. We see a patriarchally-bearded Mr Fry, his swiftly water-logging robes spreading about him, ‘not waving, but drowning’ and crying out for ‘Nanny!’.

Mr Fry tries to ‘massage’ Blake’s lines in order to get them to scan according to his ‘rigid yet flexible Nanny system’, by rewriting the lines, adding and subtracting words’; but he cannot satisfy himself. Finally, posturing even more ridiculously, he claims, on page 73:

I have mocked the scansion, syntax and manifold inconsistencies; I have had sport with these lines, but the fact is I love them.

However, then he ‘changes his tune’ and as it were stuffs himself further as he spins on the spit:

Am I saying this because Blake is Blake and we all know that he was a Seer, a Visionary and a unique Genius? If I had never seen the lines before and didn’t know their author would I forgive them their clumsiness and ill-made infelicities? I don’t know and I don’t really care.

Could it be that Stephen is really ‘sulking’ because Blake won’t allow him a lick of his lollipop?

Mr Fry hasn’t quite finished yet:

It is a work concerned with innocence after all. And, lest we forget, this is the poem that begins with the quatrain (a quatrain is a stanza of four lines) that might usefully be considered the Poet’s Credo or Mission Statement.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

The metre is shot to hell in every line, but who cares. It is the real thing. I think it was worth spending this much time on those lines because this is what you will do when you write your own verse ~ constantly making series of judgements about your metre and what ‘rules’ you can break and with what effect.

Mr Fry here ‘shabbily’ abandons what authority his exegesis might have pretended to. Even his ‘rigid but flexible’ prosodic system can’t cope with Blake’s rhythmical method. He admits to his ‘students’ that he has no reliable rhythmical method of his own, and that they need not look for one. He suggests that they may achieve whatever ‘effects’ they want in whatever manner they choose.

It would seem that ‘Nanny’, all got up rather ‘battily’ in her funny, fusty, old Greek clothes, has never taught him to sing. If she had, he would have known instinctively that the opening ’quatrain’ of Blake’s poem ~ indeed the whole thing ~ is a ‘song’.. We would say that it is in this ‘songlikeness’ that it is the real thing.

Mr Fry does not scan the ‘quatrain’ for us, merely tells us that the metre is shot to hell in every line. We will present it here in a way that indicates ‘beats’ and ‘lighter syllables’ within a framework of ‘musical measures’:

To / see a / World in a / Grain of / Sand
And a / Heaven in a / Wild / Flower,
/Hold In/finity in the /palm of your / hand
And E/ternity / in an / hour.

These lines are surely in the ballad form that Mr Fry dealt with earlier. It is futile to try to scan them into ‘feet’, but easy to ‘play’ each one out in a musical fashion with isochronous accents, as are indicated, so that the lighter syllables ‘dance’ between them. The first, second and fourth lines each have an ‘anacrusis’. In the third line, the second ‘bar’, as I have set it, with its five syllables, would actually have to be accounted for by Mr Fry as a ‘foot’ of some sort. Wisely, he doesn’t try. The lines move in what in music would be called triple-time, 3/4, or perhaps in something like a slow 6/8 measure. But such a sense of rhythm is not one that Mr Fry has brought us anywhere near, and he will not do so in this inadequate and misleading book.

In the lines which follow, Blake is changing to a ‘four-beat’ line which still ‘sings’ in triple-time while giving a stronger ‘pulse’ (p7) to his ‘indignation’.

No, Mr Fry just doesn’t ‘get it’.


That he doesn’t is ‘tragi-comical’. We come to the fourth part of this long chapter on METRE,

iv. Ternery Feet: we meet the anapaest and the dactyl, the molossus, the tribrach, the amphibrach and theamphimacer.

It is in this part that Mr Fry comes closest to bringing musical mensural considerations directly and usefully into his discourse; but again the inadequacies of the ‘Nannyish’ approach are demonstrated.

The first sub-section is Ternery Feet. Mr Fry begins by offering us one of his ‘home-made’ couplets’, asking us to

try to work out what is going on metrically in the next line.

In the dark of the forest so deep
I can hear all the animals creep

Did you get the feeling that the only way to make sense of this metre is to think of the line as having feet with three elements to them, the third one bearing the beat. A kind of Titty-tum, titty-tum, titty-tum triple rhythm? A ternery foot in metrical jargon, a triple-measure in music-speak.

Mr Fry tells us that such a       is called an anapaest and that it is a rising foot. We will not take up the challenge of rising again here.

We are prepared to do some titty-tum, titty-tum, titty-tum-ming with him ~ especially so if it leads to a more useful outcome than did having to go ‘ti-ti-tum, ti-ti-tum, ti-ti-tum’ with Mr Fenton. (In fact we didn’t actually do that; but he did have us going tum-ti-ti once.)

Of course a ‘musical measure’ (in music-speak) is a mensurated thing with an arithmetical basis. Mr Fry’s statements above clearly make a ternery foot equivalent in a fundamental way to a triple-measure in music. However within a couple of pages Mr Fry is ‘backing away’ from this. He re-presents his couplet,

In the dark / of the for / -est so deep
I can hear / all the an / -imals creep

He says of it now:

It is the beats that give the rhythm. Who could have thought poetry would be so arithmetical? It isn’t of course, but prosodic analysis and scansion can be. Not that any of this really matters for our purposes: such calculations are for the academics and students of the future who will be scanning and scrutinising your work. (p.79)

We must protest that it does matter. Mr Fry is again showing a disgraceful lack of thoroughness, and is abandoning his duties. Surely, if prosodic analysis and scansion can be … arithmetical, then the lines so scanned must in some way share that arithmeticality. Further, we hold that scansion should always demonstrate some sort of arithmeticality: notions of some sort of more or less fixed mensuration and proportionality were necessarily entailed in the original Greek system. The fundamental weakness in ‘neo-classical’ prosodic systems derives from this failure to provide any sort of mensural scheme equivalent to that which must have obtained in the original classical system.

Now, in some stories, especially ‘fairy’ stories, there may come the moment when the narration takes this sort of turn: ‘No sooner had he spoken, than…’ There is a moment like that in the ‘story’ of this essay; because, when we turn two more leaves of Mr Fry’s book we are unexpectedly presented with this:


No, these are not symbols from Mr Fry’s usual system for indicating long and short or stressed and unstressed etc. syllables or elements in feet, which symbols have somehow ‘germinated’ like radish seeds: this is a small piece of true musical notation. However, before we deal with this unusual turn of events, we must consider other weakening developments in Mr Fry’s discourse.

There are two matters to take up before we reach the next sub-section.

The first is Mr Fry’s use of a new technical term. He considers these ‘anapaestic’ lines from Browning’s ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’:

I sprang to the stirrup and Joris and he
I galloped, Dirk galloped, we galloped all three.

For Mr Fry these lines have an

initial weak syllable docked in each line. This is called a clipped or acephalous (literally, ‘headless’) foot. (p.80)

That a ‘foot’ may be so ‘clipped’ seems to us a rather convenient activity or prosodic approach. Where does it come from? Was it practised in ancient Greek verse? It seems a little perverse to call an imaginary weak syllable in an ‘acephalous foot’ its ‘head’. Then we remember how Mr Fry dealt with the penultimate stanza of Blake’s ‘The Tyger’:

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Mr Fry says that this is an alternation between trochaic and iambic tetrameters. We return to what he said on page 69:

After all, one could look at it this way: are the odd lines out really iambic, or are they really trochees with an extra weak syllable at the beginning?

Or are the first and third lines not just clipped iambic tetrameters, so that Blake’s stanza may be accounted a ‘perfectly regular one’? Or are these not really ‘feet’ here at all? Indeed, when we return to page 80 we find Mr Fry saying that a clipped anapaest and an iamb are precisely the same thing.

The second matter of concern is on page 81. Mr Fry presents some lines from Byron’s ‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’ for our attention, beginning with that old favourite

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold

Mr Fry magisterially instructs us:

TAKE OUT YOUR PENCIL AND MARK THE ANAPAESTS HERE (Assyrian is three syllables, by the way, not four)..

We can only say of this suggestion that it is simply devious nonsense, rather than use the sort of tasteless jibe that Mr Fry himself uses on page 177 in response to something that is in his view nonsensical.

We would add that we are now firmly of the opinion that Mr Fry, like Mr Fenton, is a ‘FIRTER’ who is ‘FIRTING with common sense‘.


It is in the next sub-section of part iv, where Mr Fry introduces us to THE DACTYL, that we find the unusual configuration mentioned before,


He is dealing with the tum-titty that Mr Fenton has as a tum-ti-ti. Mr Fry, however, is going to show a boldness, shall we say, that Mr Fenton does not. Mr Fry has this to say:

In reality Greek metrical units are closer [than what, or in what way, is not said]to musical notes [clearly unit above means syllable and notfoot] in that they tell you their duration [quite how they tell anything is a mystery]: a long syllable takes exactly twice as long to utter as a short one [we must accept this categorical statement], hence you could say a dactyl for Greek-style quantitative verse [is that, Greek-style quantitative verse in Greek, or in English?] should be written thus:


Homer’s verse didn’t swing along in a bouncy rhythmic way, it passed in gentle lo-o-o-ng short-short waves [‘waves’?], each line usually ending with a spondee.. As I hope I have made pretty clear by now, that sort of metrical arrangement isn’t suited to the English tongue. We go, not by duration, but by syllable accentuation.

This serves to focus our dissatisfaction, and we will return to a number of matters here.

If a metrical arrangement involving dactyls, which notionally have three components of a fixed proportional duration isn’t suited to the English tongue; and if all feet in the Greek system likewise contained components of a fixed proportional duration; then no metrical arrangement involving Greek feet is likely to be suited to the English tongue. Or, to present the problem in another way: if the various feet used by Mr Fry in his prosodic analysis of lines in English verse do not have the same durational elements as the original Greek feet, then they are not true iambs or trochees or dactyls etc. at all.

There is another way of approaching the matter. We understand that some Greek poetry was sung and danced at the same time. We ourselves know nothing of the music; but we may develop some propositions on the basis of common sense and on the authority of the one piece of information that Mr Fry has given to us, that the mensural structure of the Greek dactyl may be presented thus:


Under our modern ‘Western’ musical system this suggests a musical ‘bar’ in a 4/4 time-signature; and a sequence of dactyls ~ or, indeed, a sequence of anapaests ~ would give a simple, repeating rhythm in this measure. Mr Fry does not tell us this, but we must assume that the long and short syllables in any foot are always in the proportion of 2:1, or


In this case a sequence of trochaic feet ~ and, indeed, a sequence of iambic feet ~ would give what could be called a repeating triple rhythm in a 3/4 or perhaps even a 6/8 time signature in a flow of more or less isochronous ‘bars’. However, on page 71 Mr Fry describes these feet in a different and even quite contrary way. For him the iamb and the trochee is each a two-syllable, binary (or duple as a musician might say) foot. Further, as we have seen, an anapaest (and by a sort of ‘reverse assumption’ shall we say, a dactyl) is, he says, a triple measure. Perhaps Mr Fry has just got himself confused in his terminology. However, it is a mess.

Mr Fry is able to ignore or obscure the antimony between his neo-classical metric system and a possible prosodic system based on the idea of musical measures and mensural principles by failing, as we have repeatedly said, to deal adequately with the central notion of ‘rhythm’. We again recall his words on page 7:

We know what rhythm is in music, we can clap our hands or tap our feet to its beat. In poetry it is much the same.

Why then does he retreat from the simple, ‘childish’ perception of rhythm?

In part it is because he will not deal with rhythm as a feature of poetry as performed in real time and also in what we might call ‘psychological time’, and that he will not, as we have said before, consider the principle of isochronicity, the more or less even spacing of ‘beats’ in the lines of most English poetry. This failure is only pointed up more clearly by that declaration on page 2:

English…is…a STRESS-TIMED language.

Actual and imagined regularity of ‘beat’ or ‘stress’ is a primary element in our perception of music, a fact which, as we have already noted, Mr Fry points to himself; but in this book the use of such ideas as ‘regularity’, ‘patterning’, or ‘time’ is rare, and rarely, if ever, in any association with each other. Thus, as we will say yet again, there is no useful presentation or discussion of the concept of rhythm.


We will now commence to draw this examination of Mr Fry’s somewhat muddled prosodic meanderings to a close as best we can. In so doing we may observe how Mr Fry and Mr Fenton have been as it were playing in the same park ~ but not in the closest accord.

For instance, both these metrical practitioners deal with Tennyson’s ‘Break, break, break’. We noted how Mr Fenton quite failed to consider the simple, basic ‘songlikeness’ of the poem. We will consider the treatment given by each of these prosodists to the same pair of lines.

Mr Fenton quotes the whole poem, which begins:

Break, break, break
    On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!

He begins his discussion thus:

This is as clear a case as you could find of a poem whose form grows with its composition. The first line seems to be the given, the starting point for the creation of the form. But what kind of line is it? Three bleak repeated words, three stresses. In classical metrics there is such a foot. It is called a molossus.

We ask to be excused for exclaiming, ‘Mollossus? Schmolossus!’ before allowing Mr Fenton to continue:

But we can be pretty certain that Tennyson was not thinking, ‘Why don’t I start a poem with something really obscure, like a molossus?’ He had this bleak rhythm in his mind, and then he sought a line that would match it.. So he wrote the second line. And actually this line seems to have four stresses, although it can be read as a three-stress line (‘On thy cold gray stones, O Sea).

Let us begin at the end, as it were. We do not think that many people would seriously or for long consider that the second line of the poem had four stresses in it. The simple musical or proto-musical structure of it would quickly present itself in something that could be quite fairly described as triple-time in the musical terminology. After an ‘anacrusis’, the first ‘bar’ would start with the word cold.

Now to come to the ‘molossus’. Tennyson may well have had such a concept in his head as a ‘foot’ consisting of three long or perhaps stressed elements; but it is doubtful, to say the least, that he would have thought that he was ‘using one’ or that the had ‘hit on one’ here. In real recitational time the three elements of the first line occupy much the same time as the many more elements of the second line, however it may be scanned ~ and Mr Fenton does not do so. For one ‘foot’ of one sort to be equivalent in duration to three ‘feet’ of another sort seems both bizarre and unlikely. Such a ‘molossus’, were it to have a place in metrical theory and prosodic application, might be better called a ‘Kolossus’.

Somewhat ‘concussed’ as it were from our collision with Mr Fenton’s ‘molossus’, we turn our attention to Mr Fry’s treatment of the same poem by Tennyson.. In his witty way he has already remarked on the likeness of the word molossus to colossus. This is what he says about these lines towards the end of the poem;

I suppose Tennyson’s

Break, break, break
    At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!

could be said to start with a molossus, followed by two anapaests and a spondee.

Mr Fry, like Mr Fenton, fails to respond with a ‘three-beat’, or a four-beat instinct to these ‘songlike’ lines. It is a ‘double nonsense’ that these gentlemen engage in. They do not apply enough ‘rationality’ nor enough ‘feeling’ or ‘instinct’ to these lines. Indeed, they seem to be in the same park, with the same ‘Nanny’ carrying her basket of quaint little models of ‘feet’. ‘O Sea!’ does not seem to us, ‘reasonably’ or ‘instinctively’, to be even like a ‘spondee’.


We cannot bring this essay to its promised close until we have considered how Mr Fry and Mr Fenton have each applied their similar neo-classical metrical theories to the limerick.

Mr Fry deals with the limerick twice. On the first occasion he is considering Ternery Feet and has come to the amphibrach.

Another ternery, or triple, foot is the amphibrach.

We hesitate at triple; but we know that in Mr Fry’s scheme of things this generally simply means having three elements that are not necessarily of the same sort. However, what follows is somewhat crass. Mr Fry says (p.88):

…it is a triplet consisting of two short or unstressed syllables either side of a longer stressed one.

He says that the words ‘romantic’ and ‘deluded’ are both amphibrachic.. The crassness of course lies in the use of the word ‘triplet’, which means ‘a group or set of three similar things’. The long and the short elements of this foot are crucially dissimilar.

Mr Fry then proposes that,

You might think amphibrachs (with the weak ending docked) lurk in this rhyming proverb:

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride
If turnips were swords I’d wear one at my side.

But that’s just plain silly: it is actually more like the metre of Browning’s ‘Ghent to Aix’: anapaests with the opening syllable docked.

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride
I sprang to the saddle and Joris and he.

Some metrists claim the amphibrach can be found in English poetry. You will see it and hear it in perhaps the most popular of all verse forms extant, they say.

Then Mr Fry ‘gallops’ off on his own ‘hobby-horse’, saying:

I wonder if you can tell me what this form is?

Ti-tum-ti ti-tum-ti ti-tum-ti
Ti-tum-ti ti-tum-ti ti-tum-ti
Ti-tum-ti ti-tum
Ti-tum-ti ti-tum
Ti-tum-ti ti-tum-ti ti-tum-ti

It is, of course, the limerick.

In the piece of the book that we now quote, Mr Fry displays a distinct lack of taste. We all know that the limerick has a well-deserved reputation for lewdness. We all have our favourites. We think that it is undignified and indeed offensive of Mr Fry to present the examples that he does here; there are enough examples of a more innocuous sort that he could have used for the purposes of prosodic demonstration; and I apologise for any offence that the re-presentation of the material may cause here. This is what he tells us:

There was a young man from Australia
Who painted his arse like a dahlia.
    Just tuppence a smell
    Was all very well,
But fourpence a lick was a failure.

So, next time someone tells you a limerick you can inform them that it is verse made up of three lines of amphibrach trimeter with two lines of catalectic amphibrach dimeter. You would be punched very hard in the face for pointing this out, but you could do it. Anyway, the whole thing falls down if your limerick involves a monosyllabic hero:

There was a young chaplain from King’s,
Who discoursed about God and such things:
    But his deepest desire
    Was a boy in the choir
With a bottom like jelly on springs.

Ti-tum titty-tum titty-tum
Titty-tum titty-tum titty-tum
Titty-tum titty-tum
Titty-tum titty-tum
Titty-tum titty-tum titty-tum

You dont get much more anapaestic than that. A pederastic anapaestic quintain, in fact. Most people would say that limericks are certainly anapaestic in nature and that amphibrachs belong only in classical quantitative verse. Most people, for once, would be right. The trouble is, you vary an amphibrachic line even slightly (which youd certainly want to do whether it was a limerick or any other kind of poem), the metre then becomes impossible to distinguish from any anapaestic or dactylic metre or a mixture of all the feet weve ever come to know and love. Simpler in verse of triple feet to talk only of rising three-stress rhythms (anapaests) and falling three-stress rhythms (dactyls).

Mr Fry is here creating such a ‘FIRTING muddle’ it would take a lot of work to sort it all out. Some of the muddle results from his misusing notions to which we have already drawn attention. For instance, it is disgraceful of Mr Fry to talk about rising three-stress rhythms (anapaests). We noted before the nonsensical, metaphorical idea of rising or falling rhythms. And further: anapaests cannot be three-stress under any definition or normal use of the word ‘stress’ in prosodic discussion.

Now let us turn to the idea of amphibrachs themselves. (Even the use of the word ‘themselves’ is questionable.) How silly Mr Fry is about all this: ‘Let’s all pretend that we’ve found some amphibrachs, and then let’s throw them all in the park pond and run away giggling’. He cannot reasonably claim that his analysis of this particular limerick falls down just because another limerick may have a different structure. According to his own provision of ‘feet’ it makes perfect sense to say that the example given is fully amphibrachic (except in that Australia and dahlia each has an extra little syllable that Mr Fry conveniently ignores).

Next, let us suggest that there is no ‘rule’ or law in Mr Fry’s book (and remember that on page 73 he has told us that as we write our own verse we may constantly make a series of judgements about our metre and what ruleswe can break and with what effect) to prevent us from resetting Mr Fry’s second example, make it ‘our own’, like this,

There was a young chaplain from King’s, who
Discoursed about God and such things: but
    His deepest desire was
    A boy in the choir with
A bottom like jelly on springs,

to get a ‘pederastic amphibrachic quintain with a final catalectic trimeter’..

We would claim that we are not ‘firting about’ in providing the example given, only pointing out obliquely that, in truth, not only amphibrachs but all other feet belong only in classical quantitative verse.

We would like to leave it there; but Mr Fry has not finished, and so nor are we. Mr Fry returns to THE LIMERICK in section viii of his third chapter on FORM, where he is more concerned with giving further examples than with metrical theory. Mr Fry begins thus:

LIMERICKS, as we discovered when considering their true metrical nature (we decided they were anapaestic, if you recall), do and must scan. I am sure you need to be told little else about them. (p.264).

He does, of course, tell us a little more, and interestingly, about the history of the ’form’; but unfortunately this is something of an excuse, we feel , to lead his readers into what for some will be an unpleasant experience. Mr Fry delivers himself of some of the nastiest examples that he can find ~ but not before, in his arch and silly way urging us:

Please do not read these four examples.

The readers of this essay are spared or deprived of the experience of reading them; and we will fill the space, as it were, with our own further considerations of Mr Fry’s prosodic exegesis of the limerick form.

To put things somewhat indelicately, Mr Fry is ‘shafting’ his own metrical and prosodic system with his overblown conception of the rhythmic nature of the limerick. In its structural neatness, and in its usual rhythmic delivery by most people, the limerick is the most clearly proto-musical of all poetic forms and types. Anybody with any sense of musical rhythm and melody could be called upon to actually sing a limerick.

We will try to help Mr Fry help himself. He is very fond so his tum-s and his titty-s, as we have seen. On page 90 he sets out the limerick that began There was a young chaplain from Kings in this style, and then, as we recall, remarks,

You dont get more anapaestic than that.

We look at things differently. We will set out Mr Fry’s scheme in a continuous flow, as it were; and we are going to add some material where the punctuation occurs at the end of the first, second and fifth lines, so that King’s, things and springs are ‘held’, as it is said in musical discourse, or where a pause might be marked in a musical score:

There was a young chap-lain from Kings,                   who dis-
-Ty- / tum titty- / tum titty- / tum [titty- / tum] titty-

coursed a-bout God and such things:-                   but his
/Tum titty- /tum titty- /tum [titty- / tum] titty-

deep-est de-sire was a boy in the choir with a
/Tum titty- /tum titty- /tum titty- / tum   titty-

bot-tom like jel-ly on springs.         
/tum titty- /tum titty- /tum [titty- / tum tit-]

(That final tit- is not spare, as it were; it completes a mensural scheme in ‘bars’ that begins with the ‘anacrusis’ –Ty-.)

So, we have put bar-lines in, as in music. At this stage they may be said to divide the ‘metrical flow’ up into portions more like Mr Fry’s dactyls. We then mentally ‘convert’ this into 3/8 time in order to sing them out as true musical ‘triples’ each of which consists of three musical ‘beats’ the first of which is considered to carry an ‘accent’.

Mr Fry’s metrical system is ‘shafted’ because he does not dare or he does not care to draw any sort of analogy between a dactylic foot and a bar in musical triple-time. He remains bound to the notion of a dactyl as ‘long, short, short’, which elements he declares were originally in the proportion of 1:½ :½ or


Mr Fry is unable to ‘feel’, or will not allow, that in performance a so called dactyl will actually be delivered in a temporal way which might be better represented thus:



Though we have a little more to deal with in this essay, we have at last come to the end of Mr Fry’s tum-s and ‘jelly-bums’ and titty-s. However we have to consider some further material in Mr Fenton’s book; and it is here that we find a host of titumti-s lying in wait for us, to leap out in front of us giggling.

Mr Fenton has proved no better at getting realistically to the rhythm of English poetry, however much he may talk about song and ‘music’.

We noted how he did not find space in his slighter book to deal with the limerick in any detail. However, there is an interesting entry in the Glossary for

amphibrach: Ti-tum-ti, a foot made familiar by the limerick, whose first line consists of three amphibrachs.

Given the neatness of the limerick form, this categorical statement must imply that the form is consistently amphibrachic. The limerick that Mr Fenton quotes on page 82 is a restrained one, which he does not scan, but which begins:

When / Gauguin went / visiting / Fiji   
He / said, ‘Things are / different / here, e.g.   
While / Tahitian / skin
Calls for / tan, spread on / thin,
You must / slosh it on / here with a / squeegee.

Of course, if we were to write the words out continuously without the line-breaks we could each of us demonstrate the consistency of our respective methods (though there is one ‘floating’ little syllable that our ‘musical scansion’ can cope with but which Mr Fenton might not find easy to explain away). However, if he had to scan the example that Mr Fry gave above, Mr Fenton would have to explain what happened during the pauses that are clearly suggested by the comma at the end of the first line and the colon at the end of the second; and then he would have to explain what has happened to the final ‘amphibrach’, on springs. He would probably say that it is ‘catalectic’: we would call it a ‘ho-hum-(ti)’.


It is time that we brought this consideration of the humble, potent limerick to an end. Neither Mr Fry nor Mr Fenton has a reliable scheme to account for its rhythm; but perhaps a time may come when they could find an example that they might happily sing together.

There is one other prosodic matter that we may deal with that both Mr Fry and Mr Fenton consider. This matter again proves the inadequacy of their respective closely-related metrical and scansional systems. We noted how Mr Fenton deals briefly with ‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. He refers to

the curious accentual markings by which Hopkins attempted to explain his metrical system.

It would seem that Mr Fenton does not understand Hopkins’s metrical system and that he cannot satisfactorily scan ‘Pied Beauty’. He avoids making any evaluative comments upon Hopkins’s poetical structure ~ but then, he doesn’t attempt to describe its form at all.

Mr Fry is bolder, but he is also unable to satisfactorily apply his neo-classical metrical system to ‘Pied Beauty’. On page 106 he considers the Sprung Rhythm of GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS..this mysterious Jesuit priest. He does make a quite thorough attempt to describe Hopkins’s poetics. He says that

Hopkins attempted to create a prosodic scheme that went beyond the regular certainties of iambs and anapaests. (p.109).

He calls this

Hopkins’s appropriation of indigenous pre-Renaissance poetics.

Later he says that

Hopkins backward leap-frogged the Romantics, the Augustans (Pope, Dryden et al.), Shakespeare, Milton and even Chaucer to forge a distinct poetics of stress-metre.

Now, what Mr Fry is saying is that, firstly, Hopkins’s poetics cannot be accommodated within Fry’s own neo-classical metrical system; and, secondly, he is saying that he cannot himself deal with it satisfactorily in any other way. Further indication of the inadequacy of his own prosodic system and methods is provided of course by the early statement, on page 2, that

English is what is known as a STRESS-TIMED language

by the statement above about


and by the new statement on page 114 that

English, however, is stress-timed.

These statements are put in perspective when we return to page 7, where we were invited to MEET METRE, and as Mr Fry gradually approached The Iambic Pentameter on Page 12. He involves us in the

regular and rhythmic chant


Ten sounds, alternating in beat and accent.

Accent, as we found, was the same as stress. Therefore it follows that an iambic pentameter or indeed any line in any regular or even ‘substitutedor mixed’ metre in Mr Fry’s neo-classical system is also ‘STRESS-TIMED’.

Thus, by another route, as it were, we have arrived at the same conclusion as on other occasions in this essay. Mr Fry’s own exergesis ‘breaks down’ because he has failed from the outset to deal sensibly with the notions of

the regular and rhythmic

movement of words in English poetry:

Break, break, break
On these cold, gray rocks, O Book!

It is interesting to watch, then, how Mr Fry deals with some pieces of Hopkins’s poetry. He presents the whole of ‘Pied Beauty’ but scans none of it. From what our ‘teacher’ has told us before, the first line could be presented, using his own system of notation, as a ‘trochaic pentameter catalectic’ and the next two lines as ‘iambic hexameters’:

Glory be to God for dappled things ~

For skies of couplecolour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

No, he doesn’t help us here. Nor does he suggest that Hopkins’s lines may be fundamentally ‘metrical’ or ‘metred’ in another way with five ‘beats’ in each line to be isochronously set as we read or recite the lines. No. What a disgracefully neglectful and inadequate ‘teacher’ we have . Instead, he says:

You probably don’t need to count syllables to be able to tell that there is no standard metric regularity here. His own accents on ‘áll tŕades’ reveal the importance he places on stress and the unusual nature of its disposition.

The clear implication is that the lines lack regularity of ‘stress’ or ‘beat’: and Mr Fry does not explain what he means by the phrase unusual nature of its disposition. We will take the sixth and seventh lines of the poem and suggest their fundamental ‘metricality’.

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange

We have placed ‘accents’ or ‘stresses’ to indicate the easy isochronous ‘flow’ or ‘rhythm’ of the lines. (Hopkins himself probably thought it necessary to put a mark on áll in line 6, just in case we might put ‘weight’ on And, or perhaps not put much weight on either And or all in that line. We will now present the lines in a proto-musical setting:

34  And / áll / trádes, their / gear and / tackle and / trim.
       .                           .

/All things / counter, o-/riginal, /spare, /strange
                       .     .

These are ‘pentameters’, but not of a sort that Mr Fry’s constricted and ‘con-stipated’ and constraining system can happily represent.

Further on, Mr Fry gives a sort of analysis of two lines from Hopkins’s poem ‘The Caged Skylark’, and again he shows how he is himself failing to find the fundamental musical rhythm of the piece in the same ‘three-time measures’. He gives us

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone house, mean house dwells.

Mr Fry sets the lines in a halting, ‘four-stress’ scheme when it is far more likely that Hopkins is still in his lilting, ‘five-stress’. Hopkins wasn’t daft enough to have a stretch of sixlight’ syllables between ‘heavy’ ones. For Fry to fail to stress either mounting or spirit is perverse. We would suggest

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage
Man’s mounting spirit In his bone-house, mean house dwells.

Man’s can have plenty of ‘energy’ without being fully ‘stressed’.


Yes of course Hopkins was ‘tuned in’ to what Mr Fry calls Anglo-Saxon modalities, to prosodic practices that influenced the making of English verse well past the time of Chaucer. (Beowulf’s ‘bone-house’ was ‘broken up’ by the flames of the pyre.) Mr Fry relies on a prosodic system that cannot account for all that medieval verse; cannot cope with Blake; cannot cope with Hopkins; cannot even give a reliable account of the limerick. He should rewrite the book, stop ‘firting about’ and find a more comprehensive and reliable system. He is a fraud.


Mr Fenton, despite all his ‘FIRTING about’, does all but admit that his own prosodic system is inadequate. We earlier noted two ‘reservations’ that he expressed, on pages 59 and 60. There are two further interesting ‘admissions’, ‘furtively’ placed in the Glossary of his book. The first comes in the entry for quantity, where he says,

In ancient Greek poetry, syllables are distinguished by being long or short, according to whether they contain long and short vowels, and whether they end in a consonant. Latin poetry, in a way that is hard to comprehend, imitated this Greek system. English poetry simply cannot do so. But during the centuries in which a classical education was dominant in Europe, the educated classes learned to write poetry in Latin and Greek, and there was a great desire to carry over classical forms into English. Effectively this means translating a quantitive system into an accented metre.

English poetry simply cannot do so. Quite so. We would point out that Mr Fenton cannot be sure which ‘educated’ makers of verse over the centuries actually tried to make a ‘translation’ when they wrote in English; nor can he be sure what mensural notions of long and short they may each have worked with if they did try. Further, how does he treat ‘uneducated’ poets who may not have tried to do any such thing? Should we scan their work according to a ‘translated’ system? We rather think that we ‘simply cannot do so’.

Mr Fenton’s second ‘admission’ comes in the Glossary entry, rhythm:

Note the difference between the vague use of this word in connection with the sense of movement, of stress or accent or beat, in poetry, and the precise use of the term in music. Musical rhythm takes place in time. One can count the beat [sic].

What can one say but, ‘Quite so, precisely’. The vague use of this crucial notion of rhythm that is perpetuated by these two writers is deplorable. It seems to have rather escaped them that rhythm in poetry also takes place in time. It is time that this silly, broken-backed but dangerous prosodic system was done away with.


We are ‘deplored out’. It would seem that Mr Fry and Mr Fenton share the same ‘Nanny’ with her basket of little model ‘feet’. We will leave them in the park with her, rather hoping that they may throw a mutual tantrum and start hair-pulling and bashing each other up ~ though we also hope that, in a later scene, they have been found a kindly tutor who teaches them to sing nursery-rhymes and other songs, in unison.