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When I first read Dante's Divine Comedy in high school, I remember once being puzzled at what I thought were strained rhymes in the translation, and mentioned it to my English teacher. In reply, she told me that it had to be so, as Dante wrote in a terza rima rhyme scheme that was much more easily accommodated by Italian, and that writing in the iambic pentameter that English poetry "naturally" favored required breaking some of the very easy internal rhyme presented in the original. I left it at that then, but afterwards she repeatedly invoked the same idea of iambic pentameter's "naturalness" to English when we read Shakespeare and I think William Blake.

Is she correct? Is iambic pentameter indeed "natural" to English? What linguistic characteristics of English make it so? I know many of these things boil down to, "that's just the way it is", but I guess in this question I'm just looking for a deeper explanation than just giving the simple fact.

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Hm. I had thought that normal English speech tends to favor trochaic foot structure rather than iambic. –  Kosmonaut Apr 5 '11 at 22:25
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Also: obligatory xkcd :-P –  PLL Apr 5 '11 at 22:33
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@Alenanno I am from the US, and yes, we studied Dante and his Comedy in my junior English class. –  Uticensis Apr 6 '11 at 1:36
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If you put a gun to my head and asked me what the natural meter for English was, I'd have to answer common meter, just because of the number of folk songs in it, not to mention its name. –  Peter Shor Apr 6 '11 at 3:37
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I cannot say that normal English speech would favor iambs more than other schemes. Although it does prevail in poetry, it takes much work, or so to me it seems. –  Dan Apr 6 '11 at 4:55
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6 Answers 6

up vote 10 down vote accepted
+200

There is an interesting argument that none of the classical rhyme schemes is natural to English, and that instead alliterative verse is the most natural form. JRR Tolkien is well-known for his work on this theory (in addition to some other, more obscure works).

Alliterative verse is characterized by (1) the use of head-rhymes or alliterations and (2) meter based on accent, not on feet (accentual verse).

(1) Alliterations are based on sound, not spelling, and some sounds are considered to alliterate even if they are not identical. All vowels alliterate with each other. So center alliterates with sin, elf alliterates with antler, and victor can alliterate with fern.

(2) In meter, stressed syllables are counted, and unstressed syllables are not counted at all. So the following lines have 2 stresses per line, even though the first line has 4 syllables and the 2nd has 5.

Baa baa, black sheep
Have you any wool?

Much of the poetry of Anglo-saxon was alliterative verse, notably Beowulf. Its popularity as formal poetry waned after the influence of Norman French and classical forms. It is still apparent in modern forms like cowboy poetry and rap. Tolkien's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a good example of alliteration in modern English. Here is an excerpt from Langland's Piers Plowman in modern translation:

Among them I found a fair field full of people
All manner of men, the poor and the rich
Working and wandering as the world requires.

The arguments in favor of its naturalness to English are

  1. English does not have many inflectional endings, so end-rhymes are less natural than in languages that do use such endings.

  2. English is a stress-timed language, not a syllable-timed language or a mora-timed language. Accentual verse matches the patterns of stress-timing more naturally.

There are some problems with the above analysis, to be sure: if alliterative verse is so natural, why isn't it more widely used? Is the stress/syllable/mora-timing distinction even real? However, I thought that this question does merit a discussion of this lesser-known but important verse form.


Natural verse is very vexing
To define: Dante’s Divine Comedy
In terza rima’s rhythmic mode
Apprehends Italian’s essence perfectly;

The dactylic hexameter of Homer’s distichs
Gave us Greek and Roman rhymes,
The prosodic feet which our fathers professed
As the Classical model for modern poetry;

But the uncouth consonant clusters
Of Anglo-Saxon speech are served
Better by a blunter form;
Alliteration loves our letters' patterns!

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I read the pages you linked for "Sir Gawain", which I considered quite interesting (there's only the original Middle English text, though). Still, I think it is misleading to mention Tolkien's "Sir Gawain", as people less versed than you in English literature might believe that Tolkien is actually the author of this poem, whereas I suppose Tolkien made a "translation" of this work in modern English and succeeded in keeping its alliterative structure. –  Paola Jun 27 '12 at 23:03
    
@Paola I tend to be charitable and assume that people will click links. :) However, to your point I shall make a note of the nature of the authorship. –  Mark Beadles Jun 28 '12 at 1:17
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Thank you for the clarification, and +1 –  Paola Jun 28 '12 at 17:25
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While this answer brings a high-quality and unexpected angle into the discussion, it doesn't address why iambic pentameter is so popular among both English teachers and poets. –  Ahmed Fasih Jun 18 '13 at 14:50
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English is naturally spoken Iambicly, that is we tend to pair stressed and unstressed syllables. Such a pairing is an Iamb, from the Greek for foot, Iambic meaning step. Like left-right,left-right.

But we do not tend to speak in pentameter.

Pentameter is a specific measure of syllables, that is five sets of paired syllables, which tend to be pairs of one stressed and one unstressed syllables. So Iambic pentameter merely means 10 syllables which tend to alternate in the way that they are stressed.

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The most natural English prose meter is the limerick kind that you hear here. It's really a cinch to produce in a pinch and it always reads simpler than Shakespeare. This meter is based on a system. It's three tones that come in a rhythm. Two low tones surround a high tone that's found at some regular places within them.

.-..-..-.
.-..-..-.
.-..-
.-..-
..-..-..-.

Dr. Seuss when he wrote, and he wrote for a while, used a rhythm that's much like the limerick in style. It's not quite a limerick, though they're both the same kind. It's a high tone that comes with two low tones behind.

..-..-..-..-
..-..-..-..-
..-..-..-..-
..-..-..-..-

Why are these systems so easy? Because low tones in English are common. You can write blank verse too that scans much alike, but lacks rhymes to help readers to see this.

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Anapaest is the type of foot you describe here. Also: in English the differentiator is termed 'stress', not 'tone'. –  Mark Beadles Mar 3 '12 at 23:10
    
@Mark Beadles: It's annoying to have the same thing called by two different names. It makes Chinese unnecessarily difficult to learn for westerners. Hey, westerners, what they call tone is just what you call stress. –  Ron Maimon Mar 4 '12 at 0:10
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I'm sadly disappointed that this site
Should give its answers in prosodic ways
When of the poet's art we choose to write,
And rhyme and rhythm's secrets must display.

Does English ever to the iamb tend?
Not all perhaps, but much of what is there
To five full feet of short-long beats does lend
A certain credence to that theory bare.

But "natural beat" doesn't nat'rally meet the requirements of which the words speak.
Its rhythm's in three not in two, don't you see? So perhaps it's "dactylic" we seek.
And this verse, though amateur, is no pentameter, four feet then three is its bent.
So ask not "Who knows?" Maybe anything goes. But that's more than enough now, I'm spent.

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Amazing verse :) –  Uticensis Apr 8 '11 at 1:54
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@Billare It could be worse :) –  user1579 Apr 8 '11 at 2:11
    
the winner..... –  thesaundi Apr 8 '11 at 15:29
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Don’t stop there; the picture’s bigger! // Trochees also often figure. // (Slightly less, though, I’d agree, // pace this xkcd.) –  PLL Apr 9 '11 at 16:24
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Great question! Yes, many claim that the best prose that scans as iambic. I question the "pentameter" part, though: to me, most of the best English prose is in tetrameter.

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I expect the strained rhymes in Dante are merely from the fact that it's translated. If you're writing original poetry, you have much more freedom to change things around to make them rhyme than you do if you're translating poetry, and care about keeping it moderately faithful to the original.

Anyway, Dante's terza rima scheme is pretty much iambic pentameter with an unusual (for English) rhyme scheme1. Shelley wrote some great poetry in this scheme which rhymed perfectly well (e.g. Ode to the West Wind).

1 Each line ends with a feminine (two-syllable) rhyme, rather than a masculine (one-syllable) one, but that's just because of the way Italian words are accented.

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A feminine ending refers to a line that finishes on an unstressed syllable; the masculine finishes on a stress. That nitpick aside, +1 for a good answer. You should read Robert Pinsky's translation of The Inferno, if you haven't already. –  Robusto Apr 6 '11 at 1:01
    
@Robusto: Doesn't it naturally follow that if the last syllable is unstressed (feminine rhyme by your definition), it will also be 'two-syllable rhyme' (as Peter Shor defines it)? A pair of unstressed single-syllable elements wouldn't make much of a rhyme. –  FumbleFingers Apr 8 '11 at 1:32
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@FumbleFingers: But (say) recline and decline rhyme, and they can are stressed on the last syllable. So you could have two-syllable masculine rhymes. @Robusto's definition is the correct one. –  Peter Shor Apr 8 '11 at 1:46
    
You are correct of course. As is Robusto (but when is he not?) That's EL&U for you - you just have to live with ignoramuses butting in trying to defend the indefensible. –  FumbleFingers Apr 8 '11 at 1:56
    
I would like to add that it seems like the languages flow differently as well. Stressed and unstressed syllables, as well as rhymes, are different in each language. –  Joshua Nurczyk Apr 12 '11 at 15:07
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