English Literature


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Spondees: Decoding the Fundamentals of English Poetry

Spondees, trochees, pyrrhs, and iambs may seem like foreign concepts, but they hold great significance in the world of English poetry as essential components. These terms refer to the metrical feet that make up each line, and understanding their differences can enhance one's interpretation of a poem. This article will delve into the world of spondees and provide a comprehensive guide to their definition, usage, and impact in poetry.

Defining Spondees

A spondee is a metrical foot widely used in poetry, made up of two stressed syllables. It can occur in a single word or two words depending on the arrangement of syllables. The sound of a spondee is best described as "dum-dum" or "tum-tum," with the stressed syllables represented by "dum" or "tum" rather than the usual "da" or "ti".

Syllables In Poetry

A syllable is a unit of sound in a word, consisting of a vowel sound and surrounding consonants. For instance, "cat" has one syllable, while "xylophone" has three (xy-lo-phone). To distinguish between different poetic feet, one must be able to recognize stressed and unstressed syllables.

In this article, we will use a hyphen "-" to indicate syllables and a space " " to separate each foot. Stressed syllables will be displayed in bold.

Stressed syllables are enunciated with more emphasis, are louder, longer, and have elongated vowel sounds. On the other hand, unstressed syllables are quieter, shorter, lower in pitch, and have reduced vowel sounds.

For example, the word 'birthday' is considered spondaic as both syllables are stressed: birth-day.

Examples of Spondee

English has several spondaic words, such as 'bookmark' (book-mark) and 'come back' (come-back). Poets utilize spondees in their work to create variations in rhythm. In Lord Alfred Tennyson's 'In Memoriam' (1850), the first three lines of canto 50 contain several spondees:

Be near me when my light is low,When the blood creeps and the nerves prickAnd tingle and the heart is sick.

Similarly, Robert Browning incorporates spondees in 'My Last Duchess' (1842):

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old nameWith anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blameThis sort of trifling? Even had you skillIn speech--which I have not--to make your will

In Andrew Marvell's 'The Garden' (1681), despite being mostly in iambic tetrameter, one line stands out as it alternates between one foot and spondees:

To a green thought in a green shade

Rhythmic Impact of Spondees

Spondees are considered 'irregular' in their rhythm since the English language cannot solely rely on stressed syllables. Therefore, poets use spondees in conjunction with other metrical feet. A common example is in classical hexameter, which traditionally ends with a spondee after five dactyls. However, the first four dactyls can alternate between being a spondee (the only constant being the final dactyl and spondee).

An iambic foot has one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable and is commonly seen in English. An example of this is the mnemonic "down in a deep dark dell sat an old cow munching a beanstalk" (down-in-a deep-dark dell-sat-an old-cow mun-ching-a bean-stalk).

The Significance of Spondees

Using spondees in poetry not only adds a change in rhythm but also serves various purposes:

  • Emphasizes a specific word or phrase with vital meaning
  • Elicits feelings of melancholy, sadness, or nostalgia as the voice slows down
  • Brings musicality to the poem's rhythm
  • Introduces a shift in the poem's rhythm, marking a turning point
  • Emphasizes a point of high emotion
  • Improves the flow of the rhythm

After reading this article, revisit poems with spondees and contemplate the poet's intentions in using them.

Possible Confusions with Spondees

Spondees are relatively easy to comprehend, but there are instances where they can become perplexing. One concern is how spondees function in other languages, while another involves differentiating spondees from other poetic feet.

Spondees in Poetry: Exploring Other Metrical Feet Beyond Controversy

The world of poetry is rife with discussions and disputes over the existence of spondees. But let's delve deeper into this topic and discover other types of metrical feet that play a crucial role in poetic compositions.

In the English language, a spondee is a metrical foot consisting of two stressed syllables. However, in languages such as Latin and ancient Greek, spondees are composed of two long syllables instead.

The term "spondee" originates from the ancient Greek word for "libation", which refers to the music played while making an offering. Virgil, in his famous epic poem "Aeneid", artfully combines dactyls and spondees in the first line:

  • "arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab orbis"

Other languages also have two-syllable feet in poetry, which can cause confusion. Here are examples of other metrical feet:

  • A spondee is made up of two stressed syllables, such as "dum-dum" or "tum-tum."
  • A pyrrhic foot is the opposite of a spondee, consisting of two unstressed syllables, like "da-da" or "ti-ti."
  • An iamb is a foot with one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, like "da-dum" or "ti-tum."
  • A trochee is the reverse of an iamb, with one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, like "dum-da" or "tum-ti."

Famous poets have incorporated these metrical feet in their works, including Lord Byron in his poem "Don Juan" and Shakespeare in "Macbeth."

Despite this, some scholars argue that spondees cannot truly exist, as one syllable will inevitably carry more emphasis than the other. This debate extends to pyrrhs, which are defined as having two unstressed syllables.

The controversy surrounding spondees is rooted in the challenges of translating them from languages like Greek and Latin into English. Poet Robert Southey was among the first to question their legitimacy, proposing that trochees and iambs should replace spondees in meters due to the nature of English pronunciation.

In conclusion, spondees and other metrical feet are crucial components of poetry, contributing to diverse rhythms and tones in a poem. While there is debate surrounding their existence, they continue to be utilized and valued in the world of literature.

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