For Better for Verse: An interactive learning tool that can help you understand what makes metered poetry in English tick.

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To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing(1913)

W. B. Yeats

Now all the truth is out,
MeterNow all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
MeterBe secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
MeterFrom any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
MeterFor how can you compete,
Being honour bred, with one
MeterBeing honour bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
MeterWho, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
MeterWere neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbours’ eyes?
MeterNor in his neighbours’ eyes?

Note on line 8: While it’s acceptable to scan this line as straight iambic trimeter, a couple of reasons conspire to make a trochee the better bet in the first foot. “Nor” attracts stress from its partner “neither” one line above. Besides, “in” isn’t stressed in that line, so why stress it here? Furthermore, Yeats has set up a nice undercurrent of variable double-slacks across the middle lines of the poem, whether by anapestic substitution or, as here, by putting a trochee before an iamb. The resulting skip livens things up and helps keep the poem from turning into a heavy scold.

Bred to a harder thing
MeterBred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
MeterThan Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
MeterAnd like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
MeterWhereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
MeterAmid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
MeterBe secret and exult,
Because of all things known
MeterBecause of all things known
That is most difficult.
MeterThat is most difficult.

Note on line 16: It seems right that this line asserting difficulty should be the most difficult in the poem to scan. The sense of obstacles overcome is heightened when the initial trochee here follows the spondaic ending of the line before it: four consecutive stressed syllables, in a poem as short and taut as this one, amount to something! And then there’s the almost reluctant perseverance of the stress on the poem’s final syllable, obligated by rhyme. Though in ordinary parlance it might wind down into a mutter, the syllable as Yeats has set it up requires a final push to the end: tired but proud, a bit spitefully spat out.


Rhyme
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