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What is it called when a poetry stanza alternates between iambic tetrameter and triameter?

  1. If I shall wander into hell

  2. And die upon its coals

So we have one line of iambic tetrameter and one line of iambic triameter. Is there a name for structures like this? Or is it just really iambic heptameter that has been divided between lines?

8
  • To my ear, I'm pausing at the end of line 2. If so, that rest is a tacet fourth iamb, so the tetrameter repeats. May 4 at 12:12
  • 1
    @YosefBaskin I see. So you're saying it is simply two lines of tetrameter, with the last iamb of line two being left as a silent rest? Am I understanding that correctly?
    – FaerieFire
    May 4 at 12:27
  • Yes, to my ear: Mary had a little lamb, her fleece was white as snow. Mary had a little lamb, the doctor was surprised. May 4 at 12:42
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    It’s probably wander....
    – Jim
    May 4 at 13:50
  • @FaerieFire BTW, would you mind sharing the source of your example lines? It looks like a rendering of part of Ps. 139; I'd like to read the rest of it.
    – Conrado
    May 4 at 14:32
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This is called 'Common Metre'if it is repeated once, that is to say if the lines are : 8,6,8,6.

The Lord's my Shepherd, I'll not want.
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green : he leadeth me
the quiet waters by.

[Psalm 23, the first stanza. The Scottish Psalter 1929.]

Common metre or common measure 1 —abbreviated as C. M. or CM—is a poetic metre consisting of four lines that alternate between iambic tetrameter (four metrical feet per line) and iambic trimeter (three metrical feet per line), with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The metre is denoted by the syllable count of each line, i.e. 8.6.8.6, 86.86, or 86 86, depending on style, or by its shorthand abbreviation "CM".

Wikipedia - Common Metre


Just out of interest, the other forms which are usually met with are short metre 6,6,8,6 :

To thee I lift my soul :
O Lord, I trust in thee:
My God, let me not be asham'd,
nor foes triumph o'er me.

[Psalm 25 first stanza, The Scottish Psalter 1929]

. . . . then double common metre (which simply doubles the lines to eight lines), then long metre 8,8,8,8 then double long metre (doubling to eight lines).

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  • 1
    @BenjaminHarman I didn't know how, but Andrew Leach has edited and I see from that edit that the way to do it is to do two spaces at the end of the line, before hitting the return to go to the next line. Neat !
    – Nigel J
    May 4 at 15:18
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    Thanks, @Nigel J. That is extremely helpful information!!!! May 4 at 15:27
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    And thanks, @Andrew Leach, I wish I could give you an up-arrow on your edit, because in it, you've just taught me how to get past an issue that's been frustrating me forever. So, thank you, thank you, thank you!!! May 4 at 15:29
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    Short Metre (S.M.) is 6.6.8.6, not 6.6.6.6.
    – Rosie F
    May 5 at 6:28
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    @BenjaminHarman Another way is to end the line with a backslash.
    – Barmar
    May 5 at 14:45
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What @Nigel J said: common meter. I just wanted to add another example of common meter to try out something I just learned from @Andrew Leach's edit of @Nigel J's answer, how to single space:

"Because I Could Not Stop For Death"
by Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –

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  • 5
    It scans better as: "Because I could not stop for Death".
    – GEdgar
    May 4 at 15:53
  • @GEdgar I'm straight putting the edit in because I've never seen it without. May 4 at 22:22
  • Other famous examples include "Amazing Grace", "The Yellow Rose of Texas", and the Gilligan's Island theme song, with the consequence that any of these can be sung to the tune of any of the others. Personally I enjoy singing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of the Gilligan's Island theme song.
    – ruakh
    May 4 at 22:26
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    Notably one pair of lines have the 4/3 count reversed to 3/4, e.g.: "Or rather – He passed Us –/The Dews drew quivering and Chill –" I think she did that in several of her poems. @ruakh: Add "The Merry Old Land of Oz" to that list. May 5 at 15:57

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