Saturday, February 6, 2016

Limerick Meter

In my last post, I composed a limerick to illustrate the use of catalexis in the opening beat of the limerick. Most commonly, limericks open with an iamb that should really be thought of as a catalectic anapest. Here is the limerick in question:

There once was a lass named McGoo
Who had met her true love at the zoo.
   He'd the face of her Ma
   And the breath of her Pa
And was hooked by her Mulligan stew.

This is what the rhythm looks like with all else removed:

Ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM
ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM
Ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM
ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM
ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM.

The very first foot is an iamb. An iamb is a foot (a foot is a unit of rhythm in poetry, which, overall, is called meter) that consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable: "There ONCE" (ta-TUM). The rest of the limerick is composed of anapests. An anapest is a foot composed of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (ta-ta-TUM).

Technically, any line in a limerick can begin with an iamb. But the remainder of the line must be composed of anapests. From a purist perspective, all the feet in a limerick should be anapests; but having said that, Edward Lear, the popularizer of the limerick, was not strict about the first foot at all--and his limericks are great fun.

To contrast the lines with initial iambic feet, I composed another limerick that is exclusively constructed of anapests. I feel that this is the more pure form of limerick. Compare the rhythms and see what you think. However! Before you assume that I have presented the basic form of the limerick in its optimum application of metrical strictures, I have thrown in another twist: The primary rhyme is a "feminine" rhyme--a rhyme that ends with an unstressed syllable. A "masculine" rhyme ends on a stressed syllable, as above.

There are two ways to vary a masculine to a feminine rhyme; to choose, say, a different foot for the place on the line where the rhyme occurs, or to add an extra syllable. What I chose to do was to add a syllable. I chose to count feet rather than syllable counting; more on that below. Here is the second limerick:

In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit
Who had sought out a dragon to rob it.
   When he came to its lair,
   There was gold everywhere--
And a skull that was missing its jaw bit.

This is what the rhythm looks like with all else removed:

Ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM-ta
ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM-ta.
Ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM,
ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM--
ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM-ta.

In the realm of classical poetry, ancient Greek verse had more types of metrical foot available because Greek could have more vowels in sequence than modern English can. We tend to want to place consonants between vowels, and the Greeks were perfectly happy to have three fully weighted vowels in a row with no intermediate consonants. The very word from which we get our word "poetry"--"poeia"--consisted of a single consonant followed by four vowels. So tetrasyllabic feet were common in Greek ("poeia", for example); but as you might expect, not so common in English. There is a term for the rhythm of the final foot on the first, second, and fifth lines of the "hobbit" limerick above, but it is outdated and more precisely referential when considering classical Greek meter. I would consider what I employed, in this case, to be a feminine anapest rather than a "tertius paeon".

We do have in English a trisyllabic foot that could be made to fit, called an amphibrach. An amphibrach proceeds unstressed-STRESSED-unstressed (ta-TUM-ta). But I don't want to replace an anapest in a limerick with an amphibrach, because the almost waltz-like lilt we expect in a limerick is provided by the stuttering unstressed syllables that proceed the strong beat of the triplet [of course, in triple time in music, putting the strong beat on "three" would syncopate the measure: it would be one-two-THREE, one-two-THREE rather than the standard ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three of the Viennese waltz, but the limerick relies on the third syllable being stressed].

Here is an example of a limerick in which I did exactly that: I replaced all five final anapests with amphibrachs. I think you will feel that the meter falters and the lilt that makes the limerick both rollicking and euphonious is lost.

In a hole in a hill a hobbit
Met a quest to find hoard and rob it.
   There were gems quite tiny,
   Though a few were shiny--
So the hobbit replied, "Go sod it."

This is what the rhythm looks like with all else removed:

Ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-TUM-ta
Ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-TUM-ta
Ta-ta-TUM   ta-TUM-ta
Ta-ta-TUM   ta-TUM-ta
Ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-TUM-ta

Beside the importance of maintaining the form of the verse, what I would like to convey in this post is that meter is also more than mere syllable-counting. Syllable-counting is the lowest level of versifying; the greatest poets were foot-counters. Ten syllables per line do not blank verse make; five feet per line of primarily iambic pentameter does. But a masterful poet will vary lines to keep them from becoming monotonous. I think others will agree; the feminine-rhymed limerick is more beautiful in sound and more true to the form than the catalectic, initial-iamb limerick. There was an extra syllable per line, but the feet remained true.

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