Sid's Poetry Challenge
In Bud Grace's Pirhana Club cartoon (9/26/01), Sid and Enos, attempting to steal the prize in a poetry competition designed for third graders, struggle with the Muses. Lacking confidence, "biting their trewand pens for spite," they call in a poetic consultant, Sid's wretched little nephew who happens to BE a third grader. His advice: "Sid, your poem mixes iambic pentameter with elegiac couplets. You'd be better off in pure dactylic hexameter."
My "alternate quiz" on that day asked students to define each of these three meters. Those who couldn't do iambic pentameter missed five easy points: u/ u/ u/ u/ u/ where "u" is an unstressed syllable and "/" is an accented syllable as in: "With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skys." (Sidney)
"Elegaic couplets" seems like a misnomer for classical Latin or Greek elegaic verse, which alternates pentameter and hexameter lines but whose pairs of 5- and 6-footed lines may not rhyme (i.e., won't be couplets). Since the nephew didn't specify the foot, you'd have to assume he meant dactylic pentameter mixed with dactylic hexameter since his advice argues for "pure dactylic hexameter" instead of the mixed metrical scheme, so the former would be:
/uu /uu /uu /uu /uu
/uu /uu /uu /uu /uu /uu
In English verse, good poets have attempted a rigorous adaptation of the 5/6 meter, but Milton's "Lycidas" used a variety of metrical schemes punctuated with hexameter lines at shifts in tone and subject. Shelley's "Adonais," on the death of Keats, does a far better job of maintaining a sober regularity by using a nine-line stanza composed of eight lines of iambic pentameter ending in a single hexameter line, rhyming ababbcbcc. It's borrowed from Spenser's Faerie Queene stanza, which similarly ends with a sonorous hexameter line and rhymes ababbcbcc.
"Pure dactylic hexameter" is a big, stately line like this: /uu /uu /uu /uu /uu /uu. Repeated at length it would sort of imitate Virgil's Aeneid, but in English it tends to come off sounding more like a funeral oration. Virgilian dactylic hexameter, like English meters, could introduce some variant feet for emphasis, but the typical Virgilian line introduced a strophe or double-stressed foot as number 6, like this: /uu /uu /uu /uu /uu //. If you are a drummer, or know a drummer, or just like the drums, this should start to make sense to you as a pretty cool marching rhythm. For Skidmore College Professor Dan Curley's nicely produced introduction to meter in Virgil's Classical Latin "quantitative verse," where you'll find out why "dactyl" is Latin for "finger," click here. Curley renders the hexameter's beat thusly: dum-diddy dum-diddy dum-diddy dum-diddy dum-diddy dum-dum.
I mention drumming in this context because my introduction to meter was musical, not poetic. I'll never forget the syncopated drumming of the percussion section of the All-Ohio Boys Band at the 1964 Ohio State Fair, whose signature marching-out rhythm took us from the barracks to the fair grounds like this:
dum-diddy-diddy dum-dum-di-dum-da-dum dum-dum-diddy-DUM-DUM CRANG-CLASH [pause/repeat]
That's 10 snare drums and 10 congas in syncopated counterpoint, with muffled, high-struck bass on the "dums," ending w/ two big center-struck bass drum notes (DUM-DUM), followed by two full cymbal flourishes (CRANG-CLASH) that ended with the cymbal player flinging both cymbals, violently vibrating, spinning up to the full extension of his arms' reach, and whipping them spinning back down in one second, a sound like steel shrapnel in the wind. People instinctively ducked while we sauntered ahead two paces and then the drummers hit 'em again. Some days, don't you need a percussion session to really go places?