English poetry has always captivated me. I think I seriously began to take note of English poetry only after having to learn Palanquin Bearers by Sarojini Naidu in high school. That poem had a beautiful, swaying rhyme and I guess that’s what got me hooked. Over the years, I read other poets and have been dumbfounded by the range of some of the poets. I’m a firm believer that the meter of the poetry adds greatly to its beauty. One of my favorite meters happens to be iambic pentameter which incidentally is one of the most popular meters ever adopted in English poetry. Even Shakespeare used it, especially in his world-famous sonnets.
Iambic pentameter uses a type of foot called iamb which results in a stressed syllable following an unstressed syllable. Pentameter denotes that there are five such feet. I’m no expert on meter in poetry but for some reason have been immensely fascinated by the use of iambic pentameter. And one of my favorite lines happens to be in this meter as well. This is from Thomas Gray’s beautiful work titled Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste it’s sweetness wasted on the desert air.
The entire poem follows the iambic pentameter and I think if the poet had used any other meter, it wouldn’t have been as well acknowledged as it was. The poem is lifted altogether to a special intensity. The stress at the right place incalculably aids in interpreting the poet’s intentions. The flow is smooth, the words are at the precise place and the intonation faultless. If written in any other meter, tetrameter for example, the lines I quoted before would perhaps have looked something like this:
Numerous gems of serene ray purest,
Bear the unfathom’d caves of ocean:
Many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
It’s sweetness wasted on the desert air.
As you can see, the whole beauty of the lines is robbed when the meter is changed and there is undoubtedly a grimace at the end of it all. The rhythmic beat is nowhere to be found, there is a cacophony of sound, the words appear terribly out of place and intonation is far from fitting. The solemn theme that the poet establishes is quite lost as well. That makes the choice of the meter by the poet all the more important and Thomas Gray did an extremely brilliant job of this.
No wonder then that iambic pentameter is considered the most gratifying to the ear and have been used by so many poets. Today’s poets do not probably use this meter, or any meter for that matter. One can only have a high regard for the knowledge possessed and the pains taken by the English poets of the past centuries – they were truly masters of the form!