Tuesday, 17 November 2015

How to...Iambic Pentameter

  Iambic Pentameter is a line of poetry made up of five metrical feet; each foot comprising one short (weak) and one strong (stressed) syllable. This is the 'iamb' - di DUM. Iamb comes from the Greek iaptein, meaning to assail in words, and was originally used for comic poetry. 
  Examples of an iamb: Baked BEANS, hoo-RAH, un-DONE. 
  You can think of it as a heartbeat, or of galloping.  We had someone in to Guildhall to give a lecture on verse structure. Tweed jacket out at elbows, red hair out of control, crepe-sole desert boots out of a bin. Wafting patchouli and sobbing on the inbreath he said that iambic pentameter was the sound that Ivor the Engine made.  
  We Welshies were up in arms.  
  'He so doesn't!' Carys, contralto, was the first calm enough to speak. 'He goes Psssssssshhhh-ti-koom. Psssssssshhhh-ti-koom.  Psssssssshhhhh-ti-koom. Very occasionally he misses out the 'ti' syllable. And it's Eye-For, bud, not Eye-Ver. Welsh.'
  Example of a line in iambic pentameter:  Shall I com-pare thee to a summ-er's day?' 
  See, now, I wouldn't unduly stress 'day' there, as it sets up the idea that I might equally compare my beloved to a summer's night, evening, morning or afternoon...

  A feminine ending in iambic pentameter means one or two unstressed syllables after the fifth stress.  For example:
  To be or not to be that is the quest -ion. 
  Whether tis nob-ler in the mind to suf-fer.
  I researched the whole history and theory of iambic pentameter once.  I also researched rondo form, the anatomy of fugue and the structure of a classical ballet variation. None of it has ever helped me in performance. Well, how could it?  You must use the form, obviously, but without getting so far your own arse with it that it can be seen in your throat when your mouth's open.
  The Fairy of the Woodland Glade won't know that she's couru'd centre for her houblons temps de fleches; as far as she's concerned she's flown to a mediaeval French court to chuck breadcrumbs at the baby Aurora as a grubstake against future starvation.  
  The drama, always.
  When Nicola Rescigno asked Maria Callas to explain why musically she phrased certain things in Anne Boleyn's death scene, she answered, 'Because she is the queen of England. All of it.'  
  The drama, always. 
  When dreamiest of Dreamboys, Lotan Carter, sticks his thumbs down his waistband and mimes listening for louder applause before he'll show us some more good stuff, he knows full well that the reveal is pre-set in the choreography.
  The drama, always. 

  You must know the structure of iambic pentameter; where the poet should put the stress in each foot, and why he might not. 
  Take:  Shall I com-pare thee to a summ-ers day?
  The stress is on 'I' rather than on 'shall' because Shakespeare means himself specifically and not another poet. The stress is on 'to' because he is deciding as we listen to him what he will use for comparison.
  In the second line of the Hamlet speech above there can be no stress on 'ther' or 'in'; so we will cleanly hear 'nobler', 'mind' - and that flailing on 'suffer'. 
  Some say that Shakespeare wasn't going for screw-tightening with Hamlet's feminine endings: they were a mistake. 
  Likewise, some say that Jane Austen made a mistake describing apple-blossom flowering in mid-June...


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