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Old 07-25-2001, 01:34 AM
Jerry Wielenga Jerry Wielenga is offline
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Thank you very much for this great opportunity to learn from you!

This is probably a beginner's question, but I'll ask it anyway: how does one determine that a syllable is stressed or unstressed? I've read an article on Timothy Steele's website which talks about demotion and promotion of stressed and unstressed syllables. I gather that some syllables are naturally stressed and others are naturally unstressed but depending on their context with a foot, they can be promoted from unstressed to stressed or demoted from stressed to unstressed (is this brief interpretation correct?). But how do I know whether a syllable is stressed or unstressed in the first place? Is there a rule of thumb for this?

- Fugwozzle
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Old 07-25-2001, 09:34 AM
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R. S. Gwynn R. S. Gwynn is offline
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I have some disagreements with Tim Steele on the matter of metrical promotion. Which is to say that I find the pyrrhic and spondaic feet useful in scansion. Having said that, I should add that for me scansion is only a very inadequate way of visually rendering what is purely auditory. I scan with only two marks, stressed and unstressed, and while I admit that some stresses are stronger than others I find methods that employ up to four levels of stress too subjective. In other words, you pays your money and you takes your choice. If I scan a typical line of Shakespeare, here's what I come up with:

u / u / u u u / u /

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

"The ex" is elided into a single syllable. Tim would probably argue that "in" is promoted because of its central position between unstressed syllables and because an accent is "expected" there. But I don't hear it. To my ear "in" is a low on the scale as "-it" and "a."

In lines by Robinson, the opposite occurs:

And bowered as few may be, their joy recalls

/ / / / u / u / u /

No snake, no sword, and over them there falls

I hear both "no"'s as roughly equal to the nouns that follow and will admit that "them," while not particularly strong is closer to a stress than an unstressed syllable.

My "rules," such as they are, are very simple:

Any word of two syllables or more will have at least one stressed syllable. Compounds like "bedroom" or "sideways," while the stress "hovers" over both syllables, will generally have one syllable (the first in both cases here) that is stronger. Thus, you can't rhyme "bedroom" with "gloom" effectively; you'd have to use a double rhyme like "headroom." Promotion does occur in words of three syllables or longer, especially at the ends of lines. It's common to use, say, "memory" as a full three syllable word with stresses on the first and third syllables so that it rhymes with "sea." In the middle of the line, however, the poet has the option of contracting (syncope) words like this into two syllables (mem'ry).

Unimportant one-syllable words like articles, conjunctions, and prepositions rarely are stressed, regardless of position. If one wishes them to be stressed they must either be italicized ("You're not theAlan Sullivan from Fargo?") or they must be placed in a position where stress is absolutely required (a rhyming position usually).

The message came to Tarzan from
The beating of a distant drum.

One-syllable words like descriptive adjectives ("red" "cold"), intensifiers ("too" "not"), and demonstratives ("this" "these") are in a gray area. I would generally stress the adjectives and would consider the others toss-ups. I feel that there's a rhetorical emphasis on "No snake, no sword" in the Robinson quote above, so I give the "no"'s stresses. But I wouldn't fight over the question.

Of course, these rules apply primarily to the double meters, iambic and trochaic. In triple meters, anapestic and dactylic, the rules are slightly different.

The metaphors that multiply at will.

Here both the first and third syllables of "metaphors" and "multiply" get a stress because of the iambic metrical base.

Metaphors multiply willfully

In the dactylic line, only the first syllables of these words get a true stress. In general, in double meters we tend to be stress-heavy; a line of iambic pentameter often has more than five stressed syllables (though sometimes as few as three). Triple meters tend to be stress-light; words (particularly single-syllable words) that would tend toward stress in an iambic line are skipped over, possibly an effect of the "quickness" of the triple meter.

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Old 07-25-2001, 09:53 AM
Alan Sullivan Alan Sullivan is offline
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On the metrical board that I moderate, fug posted a poem whose final stanza goes:

We care no more nor mourn,
our ash-clothes are our dress-suits;
we dance to notes from death-flutes;
our tumbled gods reborn.

A pattern of feminine rhyme was sustained in lines 2&3 of quatrains throughout the poem. One respondant complained of a metrical shift in the final stanza. I disputed this point, saying that the last syllables of those lines dropped stress in comparison with the preceeding ones. In such instances I find Steele's four-level scansion helpful to explain subtleties of rhythm that binary scansion cannot adequately convey. We scan a pattern of relative stress.

Alan Sullivan
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Old 07-25-2001, 01:45 PM
Carol Taylor Carol Taylor is offline
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I think of beat as metrical and stress as vocal, and believe they are two different animals. We use the terms interchangeably to the detriment of clarity.

What Sam Gwynn said about the underlying meter affecting stress is basically the same thing Tim Steele is talking about with his promotion and demotion theory. You may read a word one way in one meter and another way in a different meter. The only thing I don't believe can ever be promoted, no matter what the meter, is an unstressed syllable buried in a multisyllabic word such as iniquitous, where there are already designated primary and secondary stresses. You could not stress QUI if you tried. Neither could you put more stress on IN or TOUS than you did on IK.

Carol
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Old 07-25-2001, 02:05 PM
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R. S. Gwynn R. S. Gwynn is offline
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On the metrical board that I moderate, fug posted a poem whose final stanza goes:
We care no more nor mourn,
our ash-clothes are our dress-suits;
we dance to notes from death-flutes;
our tumbled gods reborn.

A pattern of feminine rhyme was sustained in lines 2&3 of quatrains throughout the poem. One respondant complained of a metrical shift in the final stanza. I disputed this point, saying that the last syllables of those lines dropped stress in comparison with the preceeding ones. In such instances I find Steele's four-level scansion helpful to explain subtleties of rhythm that binary scansion cannot adequately convey. We scan a pattern of relative stress.

Alan Sullivan


No, these are all trimeters, though I'd probably call the b-rhymes "double" rather than "feminine." In the latter a stressed syllable rhymes with another stressed syllable; both are followed by an indentical unstressed syllable. Rhymes like these put equal stress (more or less) on both syllables.

As I've said, I personally don't care for four-level (or five or six) scansion methods. I'll admit that stress is relative and that some stresses are not stressed as much as other stresses, but it stresses me out to have to assign relative stress-levels to them. I have students scan and do scansions for them, but I have never scanned a line of my own verse as part of the practice of composing it. Or maybe I did, once, when I tried to write hendecasyllabics.
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Old 07-25-2001, 02:07 PM
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R. S. Gwynn R. S. Gwynn is offline
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Carol is right here. The dictionary gives us the accents for multi-syllabic words and we can't depart from them. Occasionally there are alternative pronunciations, especially between British and American usage ("laboratory," for example).
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