All posts by Stephen Stofka

About Stephen Stofka

Writer, blogger, critic. Moonlighting as an engineering student when I've got the cash.

Towards Better Meter

While there are no fewer than twelve two- and three-syllable metrical feet — the pyrrhic, iamb, trochee, spondee, tribrach, dactyl, amphibrach, anapest, bacchius, antibacchius, cretic, and molossus — only four are normally seen in the context of spoken English. These are the — in order of decreasing frequency — trochee, dactyl, iamb, and amphibrach.

This is a natural result of English’s linguistic characteristics. A plain short-long division is unable to carry verse, as English is stress-timed, and therefore trochees and dactyls (and iambs and anapests as well) take the same amount of time to recite. While it is not short on long vowels,* stress trumps** vowel length in scanning, to such an extent that a stressed short vowel between a pair of unstressed long ones e.g. “to bug me” would still be realized as an amphibrach rather than a cretic. And phrasal stresses are harder to come by in prosody than syllabic stresses.

Because English’s stress-timed rhythm telescopes unstressed syllables into each other, the regular meter of classical scansion seems somehow less important. But that isn’t really the case — the most famous couplet of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” agrees in neither rhythm nor rhyme:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

where the first line sets up an iambic pentameter, only for it to be shattered by the second. It is, however, shattered in a very specific way —

o x x | o x | o x x | o x
Look
 on my | works, ye | might-ty, and | des-pair!

— a repeating dactyl-trochee pattern, a pattern which is metric in and of itself. This is a scansion that suggests normal English prose rhythm, with its relatively free alternation between dactyls and trochees, and use of iambs for emphasis. However, this couplet also is a symbolic breaking of iambic pentameter’s longtime dominance over English poetry — Shelley surveys “lone and level sands” around its “colossal Wreck”. Observe that none of this sonnet’s final four lines are strictly iambic — the last three

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

all have a trochee in the fourth foot (round the, bound-less, stretch far), a diminuendo in the cadence that exacerbates the sense of loss, ruin, and loneliness. In “Ozymandias”, Shelley intimates the possibility of playing with meter for dramatic effects, techniques verse playwrights did subconsciously and were perhaps last used in a conscious manner by Golden Age Latin poets, such as Ovid and Virgil.

Poets at the time, however, did not necessarily care for the possibilities entailed in playing with meter. Iambic pentameter had been so dominant for so long that it had become a prison. Is it any wonder, then, that as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass became increasingly influential, the poets of the time began experimenting more and more freely with free verse, unto the point where only two lines in the entire “Idea of Order at Key West” can be said to be iambic pentameter?

I submit we have reached a point where free verse has largely played itself out, and we need to come back to meter. But iambic pentameter is a prison most poets refuse to reshackle themselves to. Rather, the English language sings best in more complex and structurally varied meters — meters which mainly derive from the dactyl.

Polydactyly

Like all Germanic languages, English trends towards word-initial stress. Unlike other Germanic languages, its large inventory of Latinate words yields vocabulary with variable stress, but most recent borrowings — and most Anglicized ones — tend to develop Germanic stress patterns. On the whole, English vocabulary looks like this:

  • 2-syllable words are mostly trochaic; a handful of words (again, around) are iambic, and compounds (boathousemakeup) are spondaic.***
  • 3-syllable words tend to be dactylic; this is because the majority of trisyllables are adjectivized trochees. Those that aren’t, usually with unstressed prefixes, are amphibrachs. Anapests are rare.
  • 4-syllable words tend to develop a secondary stress on the fourth syllable.
  • Tertiary stress occurs on words that exceed six syllables in length. This implies that English defaults to dactyly — that is, speech’s natural scansion is a rise and fall between dactyls, with trochees and amphibrachs natural derivatives of the fundamental dactyl.

When we look at it this way, we can also see that syntactic words tend to convert a trochee into an amphibrach:

x + o x  ->  x o x,

e.g. levee -> the levee, and that syntactic words added to a dactyl will tend to convert the dactyl chain into an amphibrachic one:

x+ o x x | o x x | o x x  ->  x o x | x o x | x o x | x …

We can also see that the natural substitution between trochee and dactyl in a stress-timed language (which is controlled by beats between stresses, leading to elision in unstressed syllables) breaks this substitution pattern:

x + o x x | o x | o x x  ->  x o x | x o x | o x x

and will tend to expand bisyllabic feet into trisyllabic ones.

The takeaway here, though, is that English’s natural scansion, as a spoken language, defaults to the trochee and dactyl because trochees and dactyls both have metric shifts available that, for a trochee, expands into amphibrachs or dactyls, and for dactyls, shifts into amphibrachs or telescopes into trochees. Individual words defaulting to trisyllabic feet point to dactylic, not trochaic, primacy, however.

Naturally, analysis of free verse should show this pattern.

Dodecasyllabic flexibility

If, however, we want to develop a modern meter, we also have to think mathematically. Iambic and trochaic pentameters only allow ten syllables, which seems to preclude trisyllabic feet. A better solution is assert the primacy of the dodecasyllable — the twelve-syllable line. Such a line has the flexibility to develop

  • trisyllabic tetrameters, that is, four feet to the line;
  • bisyllabic hexameters, that is, six feet to the line; and
  • nonmetric scansion as a change of pace.

This offers primacy to dactylic (and amphbrachic) tetrameters, in line with English’s spoken scansion, as well as trochaic hexameter as an uptempo option and iambic hexameter for emphatic lines. Dodecas

yllabic free verse (i.e. mixed scansion) is also always an option, and because these lines, as in the French alexandrine, tend to develop caesuras, midline metric changes are also available due to the caesura break. For example, a line can blend from amphibrachic bimeter in the first half to a trochaic trimeter in the second half — or even have trochaic trimeter resolve as a nonmetric diminuendo (e.g. dactyl + anapest) or even crescendo (e.g. antibacchius + bacchius or anapest + dactyl).

Foot interplay also modifies syllable counts — for example, amphibrachs can elide into either iambs or trochees, and dactyls into trochees, yielding a dactylic tetrameter that actually interweaves the two feet e.g. Shelley’s “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!“. Similarly, iambs expand into anapests and amphibrachs, and trochees into dactyls and amphibrachs, which can extend the line to some extent. This is in line with classical dactylic hexameter, which in Latin poetry often saw dactyls elide into spondees.****

Traditional metric forms developed power from the repetition of meter across lines. This does not seem so satisfying to modern audiences, however, and the mixed-meter dodecasyllable I’ve just proposed offers a significant flexibility of metric variation both between and within lines, as well as the ability to stretch and telescope line lengths (within reason).

Further Developments

Beyond actually writing poetry in this proposed scansion? Understanding relative stress weights in Germanic languages is a good start, as well as developing a more comprehensive theory of foot transformations and how feet can and cannot transform in a meter. Other avenues of pursuit include how to incorporate traditional elements of formal poetry, such as alliteration and end-rhyming, and what metric balance yields the best scanning. This is an interesting and fresh idea — a new universe to explore.


* The irony of this phrase, with while and vowels being the only long vowels in eight syllables, is not lost on me. Also, dactyl-dactyl-iamb.

** A word sorely needing a replacement anymore.

*** Which seems to be due to compounds having equal weight on constituent word stresses. This is perhaps part of English’s “noun train” effect, where noun trains act as single synctactic units despite being made up of x number of constituent words.

**** This is because in classical meter, syllable weight was a function of vowel length. Long vowels are enunciated for double time relative to short ones in these types of languages; hence two short vowels would have the same syllabic weight as a single long vowel. This isn’t very useful for English, which sees overweening ictic weight, however.

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Continuing Where I Left Off…

Okay, For Real This Time

While classical ideas of meter are not all that optimized for English as she is spoke, being based, as they are, on syllabic length rather than stress,* the basic idea behind scansion remains valid. Any English sentence can scan. For example:

A-ny English sentence can scan

which resolves into a (stressed) spondee, two trochees, and an iamb. This is because English words and phrases really do tend to hew to two- and three-syllable feet, and the interplay between them yields the natural rise and fall of the language.

But if iambs aren’t really all that appropriate for the language as spoken, then the question becomes: what is? There are four two-syllable feet and eight three-syllable ones — the pyrrhic, iamb, trochee, and spondee are the two-syllable feet, and the tribrach, dactyl, amphibrach, anapest, bacchius, antibacchius, cretic, and molossus the three-syllable ones.

Let’s Look at the Feet

The pyrrhic is the first available foot, and is just two unstressed syllables:

x x
of a.

This is rare to find in English, however, because a sentence must have at least one syllable stress, and even naturally unstressed words may see emphatic stress from time to time (usually italicized in orthography). Pyrrhics may, however, occur along side spondees (where they’re probably better thought of as four-syllable extensions of iambs and trochees), as x x | o o or o o | x x, respectively.

The next one is the iamb which we’ve already beaten to death.

The counter of the iamb, the one that English seems to default to, is the trochee, a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one:

o x
trochee

The vast majority of two-syllable words resolve as trochees, as English, like all Germanic languages, places word stress on the first syllable. The tendency is so strong that unstressed prefixes often hyphenate in order to emphasize the word’s natural stress.

Finally, we have the spondee, which is two stressed syllables in a row:

o o
Look! Look!

Natural spondees are rare in English. Some compounds (e.g. boathousebeat-box) constructed of two monosyllabic nouns may count as them**, but otherwise they may develop out of emphatic stress, which would raise any emphasized disyllable to a spondee (e.g. the any above), or noun trains (like so). If anything, sustaining a spondee is even harder than a pyrrhic.

Next we have the tribrach, three unstressed syllables in a row

x x x
into a

The problems with pyrrhics are exaggerated here. For all intents and purposes, tribrachs never as feet in their own right, but can occur as diminuendos between e.g. a dactyl and an iamb (e.g. you can analyze the -tyl and an in “a dactyl and an iamb” as a tribrach if you willfully ignore bracketing stresses; that said, as a seven-syllable sequence with only two stresses, there is at least a pyrrhic in there).

Then the dactyl. This is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones:

o x x
dactylic

Most English trisyllabic words are dactylic. Indeed, words that are longer than that usually develop secondary stresses — not uncommonly by developing a new (Germanic) first-syllable stress and retaining the original (usually Latinate) stress as a secondary stress: revelation is an example.

English dactyls also seem to occur as trochaic extension. This makes sense for a stress-timed language, where all of the syllables between stresses condense to fit the same space in the beat: trochees stretch into dactyls as the words get longer.

The amphibrach follows. This is a long syllable bracketed by two short ones:

o x
trochee

Like dactyls, amphibrachs seem to be a natural extension of a basic trochaic foot, only this time through additions of prefixes and grammatical words (e.g. “a”) instead of telescoping the words. Amphibrachs can contract into trochees at the beginning of lines and iambs at their ends as well; all of this is to say that amphibrachic tetrameter

x | x o x | x o x | x o x

is vastly underrealized as a vehicle for English poetry, which is a pity because Shakespeare’s famous

rose is a rose is a rose

is in amphibrachic trimeter. Amphibrachs may also be used line-initially in trochaic meter and line-finally in iambic meter (though I’ve never seen an example of either) due to their being natural extensions of same.

Next we have the anapest. This foot consists of two short syllables and a long

x x o
in the void

Anapests can be thought of as iambic extensions using the same grammaticalization*** that amphibrachs use on trochees. They are rare in poetry and uncommon in prose, where the impulse is to add another stressed syllable and so break the anapest either into iambs or a trochee-iamb pair.

The bacchius next: short-long-long:

o o
beat-box

Just as spondees are rare in English, so must the bacchius be. Bacchii (bacchiuses?) would naturally occur as grammaticalization of a spondaic phrase, which is the same with the …

… long-long-short antibacchius

o o x
beat-boxes.

Both feet are metric extensions of spondees and therefore difficult to pull of in a single line, much less as an entire poem!

While English has many more unstressed than stressed syllables, the cretic is perhaps the most likely two-long foot to pull off. With its long-short-long tempo

oo
things he said

it can perhaps best be thought of as a broken iamb (at the start of a line) or trochee (at its end) merging into the preceding / succeeding foot. Cretics can also be used to impressive effect in their own right, such as in t.a.T.U.’s

All the things he said
(all the things he said)
Runin’ through my head
(runnin’ through my head)

which is perhaps best analyzed cretic-iamb // trochee-cretic, yielding a positively frenetic couplet — albeit a difficult (if not impossible) one to sustain for longer than a dance song.

Lastly we have the molossus, three long syllables in a row:

o o o
beat-box phrase

This just exaggerates the difficulty of maintaining even a spondaic foot. Even the phrase “beat-box phrase” wants to de-stress “box”, decaying the example foot into a cretic. If pyrrhics and tribrachs are difficult feet to even create, much less maintain, then — despite the word’s molasses-sounding sweetness — molossi (molossuses?) are all but impossible. The only way I can think of would be a maintained noun train.

Next Steps

Now that we the twelve basic feet in hand, the next step is to consider how to use the four most common in our language — that is, the iamb, trochee, dactyl, and amphibrach — in a matter that suits English’s native metrical needs.


* In classical prosody, syllable stress was called the ictus, and much of the beauty of classical poetry came from interplay between meter and ictus. For example, the Aeneid’s first line

Árma vírumque cáno, Trói-ae qui prímus ab ó-ris

where I’ve marked the icti (ictuses? ictic stresses?) with acute accents and boldfaced long syllables. As Latin has a preponderance of spondaic words (here Troiaeoris), I’ve hyphenated their syllable breaks. As you can see, the word stresses in virumque cano (“and the man I sing”) occur on metrically short syllables, while the icti resolve onto long syllables (Troiae qui primus ab oris) at the end of the line. This is an impossible effect to replicate in English, where it is usually translated

Arms and the man I sing, who first from the shores of Troy

which can best be thought of as dactyl-trochee-trochee-dactyl-cretic or perhaps dactyl-cretic-iamb-anapaest-iamb (depending on how you want to treat the caesura), neither of which, of course, can come close to capturing the interplay between metric and syllabic stress, because in English prosody, metric stress is syllabic stress. Attempts to force things otherwise result in e.g. misheard lyrics, such as the line

Got a long list of ex-lovers

which naturally resolves into two dactyls and a trochee (Got a long list of ex-lovers) but which is sung in trochaic tetrameter (Gotlong list of ex-lovers), yielding the misheard lyric “All the lonely Starbucks lovers”.

** This is because nouns have the highest metric stress in Germanic languages, and these types of nouns treat their constituent parts equally, in this interpretation.

*** A seven-syllable word, incidentally: gram-ma-ti(c)-cal-i(z)-za-tion. If primary stress occurs on the gra- and secondary on the -tion, then tertiary stress should fall on the -cal-, yielding a word that can be analyzed as trochee-amphibrach-iamb: grammaticalization. Practically an entire line of amphibrachic trimeter in its own right.

Another way to interpret it is that this word adds the anapest -ization onto the trochee-iamb grammatical.

The Art of Scansion

When I was an angsty adolescent poet (don’t lie, we all were), I free-versed. “Iambic pentameter” and “hexameter” were terms encountered in Lit textbooks, and not really applicable to the practice of poetry, where the only real distinction was between rhymers and non-rhymers (usually angsty teenage males forewent rhyming).

At that time I thought that just making a 10-syllable line counted as “iambic pentameter”. This is, of course, not true; French poesy is syllabic because French doesn’t have useful stress or syllable timing, but English is a stress-timed language. You can’t just put together a 10-syllable line and call it “iambic pentameter”.

But I was a kid without any real knowledge of line construction or ways to find information about it. I played it purely by ear. So, ultimately, I gave up. Free verse or nothing, it seemed like. Eventually, I got bored of free verse — as one does — and stopped writing poetry in any sort of “serious” way, mostly because I wanted to focus my effort on work I could get paid for.

Lately, perhaps under the influence of a significant other, I’ve been getting back into writing poetry. I am a poet, it turns out; my prose draws its power from an almost subconscious command of poetic language. But, for older and wiser me, subconscious command isn’t good enough, anymore. I want to have better control of rhythm over my work. To this end, I’m looking to learn about scansion.

Keep in mind here, I’m no expert; I’m just sharing the things I know.

Alliterative meter

The first widespread English meter wasn’t iambic or end-rhyming; it was an alliterative meter common to all Germanic languages. Each line has four natural beats — phrase stresses. Germanic stress is word-initial, but this does not mean that the line’s first syllable must be stressed; instead, the beat must be on the natural stress of the phrase’s most important word. Alliterating the beats guides you to them, as English, like all stress-timed languages, elides all unstressed syllables between beats so that they take about the same time to recite as a single stressed syllable.

It should follow — hypothetically — I haven’t done any analysis to support or disprove my hunch — that most English “free verse” is in actuality a loose tetrameter or perhaps pentameter without the alliterative pointers to the beats. I would also augur that these “feet” are trochaic (o-x) or dactylic (o-x-x), with relatively free alternation between them, due to the spoken language’s natural scansion (e.g. “due to the spoken language’s natural scansion” is dactyl-trochee-dactyl-trochee-trochee; natural being trochaic because the spoken language elides it into two syllables: NATCH-rule).

Iambic Pentameter

What teenage me knew was that an “iamb” is a two-syllable foot; hence a line that is ten syllables long should resolve into five two-syllable feet — iambs — right?

Wrong.

An iamb is actually a type of two-syllable foot, specifically a foot that goes short-long. “A foot” in isolation, for example, is iambic. Thus, an iambic pentameter would look like

footfootfootfootfoot

or

o | x o | x o | x o | x o

Scansion like this emphasizes rhymes, as rhymes are always put on foot-stress. This is in contrast with Germanic alliteration, where alliteration is a means of marking syllabic stress and creative a regular pattern — a drumbeat — to drive the poem forward. That is to say, the development of iambic pentameter occurred for two reasons: (1) imitation of Romance-language poetry, often driven by naturally iambic words, and (2) rhyme stress. Iambs are an odd choice for a language whose words — and word phrases — tend to resolve into trochees and dactyls. E.g.

Iambs are an odd choice for a language whose words — and word phrases — tend to resolve into trochees and dactyls,

where we see the possible resolution dactyl-iamb-dactyl-trochee-iamb / iamb-trochee / dactyl-dactyl-dactyl-trochee, or

o x x | x oo x x | o x | x o || x o | o x || o x x | o x x | o x x | o x

which is almost certainly why adolescent me, who knew almost nothing about meter, just assumed that an “iambic pentameter” meant a ten-syllable line. It isn’t so much that iambic meters are disharmonious — indeed, they’re used in English poetry because they’re harmonious — but it’s a harmony you have to contort the language to fit, rather than one that naturally arises from everyday spoken scansion.

We found three iambs in the example above. One immediately proceeds a trochee (“–and word | phrases–“), which occurs as a natural extension of the spondee “word phrase”, with the first part of the spondee acquiring a conjunction and the second part a plural. The second occurs before a dactyl (“an odd | choice for a”), which may be due to a “missing foot” in cadence yielding an emphasis on “odd”. Finally, the third is a naturally emphatic position (“whose words) immediately preceding an em-dash’d caesura, where the cadence naturally sets off the phrasal pause by stressing the immediately preceding syllable. Thus, in one example we see an iamb occur as half of a broken spondee, and in the two others as emphatics in the cadence. This is probably why the most emphatic individual line in English poetry,

Ramón Fernández, tell me, if you know,

from Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West”, is one of two iambic pentameters in an otherwise decasyllabic free verse.

Further Development on the Idea of Emphatic Iambs

However, if the iamb is emphatic in cadence and therefore of use in developing emphatic lines, then, by making a whole poem iambic, this natural emphasis is lost. We can see this in one of the most perfectly composed sonnets, “Ozymandias”, which is largely in iambic pentameter:

mettraveler from an antique land 

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed 

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings …

Emphasis, then, comes about from breaking iambic pentameter. In fact, none of the last four lines are fully iambic at all:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In this case, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” has only one iamb in it — it scans trochee-iamb / amphibrach / amphibrach

o x | x o || x o x || x o x

functioning as a clean rhythmic break from the first ten lines, fully realized in iambic pentameter, and introducing the “broken” iambic pentameter of the last three lines, with a trochee in the fourth foot

o | x o | x oo x | x o,

yielding a repeating diminuendo cadence and thereby emphasizing the feeling of loneliness, emptiness, and vastness. This diminuendo is further emphasized by caesuras before the trochees in two of the three lines — “…remains. / Round…” and “…Wreck, boundless…” — and the two that don’t mark the end of the poem being enjambed, even when they should logically be end-stopped. It is a masterful metric subversion to achieve what the poet was looking for.

Beyond the Iamb

So if not iambs — what other feet are available? Meters?

We’ve discussed a few already: dactyls and trochees. Most English words are dactylic or trochaic (e.g. dactyl and trochee are both trochees; dactylic and trochaic are both dactyls), which presents some difficulty for working in iambs. In addition, English favors lax voice at the default end of a sentence, as raising the final syllable has an interrogative edge. For example, the phrase “an iamb” is an amphibrach (short-long-short), but “an iamb?” would become a bacchius (short-long-long) due to interrogative raising stressing (“lengthening” in this context) the final syllable.

This is perhaps part of long sentence lengths in traditional English verse: commas, dashes, semicolons, and close parentheses tend to command minor emphasis, which can better fit iambic meter, while periods and open parentheses favor the previous syllable being lax.

(Of course, much of this is that classical meters are based on languages where long vowels are held for double time; hence why a Latin dactyl can collapse into a spondee. Because English’s meter is responsive to syllabic stress, not length, e.g. both “stress” and “length” being stressed short syllables and therefore poetically “long”, there has always been a sense of subtle arbitrariness to English meter.)

Getting Tired

Let’s pick this up later …

A Few Thoughts on English Poetry

I took a sharp left turn while working on a post and decided to break it up.

Here I want to present a few thoughts on English poetry:

Alliterative meter

The first widespread English meter wasn’t iambic or end-rhyming; it was an alliterative meter common to all Germanic languages. Each line has four natural beats — phrase stresses. Germanic stress is word-initial, but this does not mean that the line’s first syllable must be stressed; instead, the beat must be on the natural stress of the phrase’s most important word. Alliterating the beats guides you to them, as English, like all stress-timed languages, elides all unstressed syllables between beats so that they take about the same time to recite as a single stressed syllable.

It should follow — hypothetically — I haven’t done any analysis to support or disprove my hunch — that most English “free verse” is in actuality a loose tetrameter or perhaps pentameter without the alliterative pointers to the beats. I would also augur that these “feet” are trochaic (o-x) or dactylic (o-x-x), with relatively free alternation between them, due to the spoken language’s natural scansion (e.g. “due to the spoken language’s natural scansion” is dactyl-trochee-dactyl-trochee-trochee; natural being trochaic because the spoken language elides it into two syllables: NATCH-rule).

Iambic Pentameter

What teenage me knew was that an “iamb” is a two-syllable foot; hence a line that is ten syllables long should resolve into five two-syllable feet — iambs — right?

Wrong.

An iamb is actually a type of two-syllable foot, specifically a foot that goes short-long. “A foot” in isolation, for example, is iambic. Thus, an iambic pentameter would look like

footfootfootfootfoot

or

o | x o | x o | x o | x o

Scansion like this emphasizes rhymes, as rhymes are always put on foot-stress. This is in contrast with Germanic alliteration, where alliteration is a means of marking syllabic stress and creative a regular pattern — a drumbeat — to drive the poem forward. That is to say, the development of iambic pentameter occurred for two reasons: (1) imitation of Romance-language poetry, often driven by naturally iambic words, and (2) rhyme stress. Iambs are an odd choice for a language whose words — and word phrases — tend to resolve into trochees and dactyls. E.g.

Iambs are an odd choice for a language whose words — and word phrases — tend to resolve into trochees and dactyls,

where we see the possible resolution dactyl-iamb-dactyl-trochee-iamb / iamb-trochee / dactyl-dactyl-dactyl-trochee, or

o x x | x oo x x | o x | x o || x o | o x || o x x | o x x | o x x | o x

which is almost certainly why adolescent me, who knew almost nothing about meter, just assumed that an “iambic pentameter” meant a ten-syllable line. It isn’t so much that iambic meters are disharmonious — indeed, they’re used in English poetry because they’re harmonious — but it’s a harmony you have to contort the language to fit, rather than one that naturally arises from everyday spoken scansion.

We found three iambs in the example above. One immediately proceeds a trochee (“–and word | phrases–“), which occurs as a natural extension of the spondee “word phrase”, with the first part of the spondee acquiring a conjunction and the second part a plural. The second occurs before a dactyl (“an odd | choice for a”), which may be due to a “missing foot” in cadence yielding an emphasis on “odd”. Finally, the third is a naturally emphatic position (“whose words) immediately preceding an em-dash’d caesura, where the cadence naturally sets off the phrasal pause by stressing the immediately preceding syllable. Thus, in one example we see an iamb occur as half of a broken spondee, and in the two others as emphatics in the cadence. This is probably why the most emphatic individual line in English poetry,

Ramón Fernández, tell me, if you know,

from Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West”, is one of two iambic pentameters in an otherwise decasyllabic free verse.

Further Development on the Idea of Emphatic Iambs

However, if the iamb is emphatic in cadence and therefore of use in developing emphatic lines, then, by making a whole poem iambic, this natural emphasis is lost. We can see this in one of the most perfectly composed sonnets, “Ozymandias”, which is largely in iambic pentameter:

mettraveler from an antique land 

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed 

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings …

Emphasis, then, comes about from breaking iambic pentameter. In fact, none of the last four lines are fully iambic at all:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In this case, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” has only one iamb in it — it scans trochee-iamb / amphibrach / amphibrach

o x | x o || x o x || x o x

functioning as a clean rhythmic break from the first ten lines, fully realized in iambic pentameter, and introducing the “broken” iambic pentameter of the last three lines, with a trochee in the fourth foot

o | x o | x oo x | x o,

yielding a repeating diminuendo cadence and thereby emphasizing the feeling of loneliness, emptiness, and vastness. This diminuendo is further emphasized by caesuras before the trochees in two of the three lines — “…remains. / Round…” and “…Wreck, boundless…” — and the two that don’t mark the end of the poem being enjambed, even when they should logically be end-stopped. It is a masterful metric subversion to achieve what the poet was looking for.

Reign of the Heroic Couplet

However, where Shelley, a Romantic, may have felt comfortable playing with meter, iambs were the unassailable king of English poetry for some four hundred years, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales codified English verse standards (i.e. end-rhyming iambic pentameter). Even by Elizabethan times, poems had become significantly more regimented than plays. Shakespeare could use blank verse or employ metrically unusual lines such as

rose is a rose is a rose

(in amphibrachic trimeter with a concluding iambic foot: x o x | x o x | x o ) in his plays, but the formal rigidity of the period’s poetics is probably no better seen than in the Spenserian stanza, with its total reliance on iambs to drive the poem forward, demanding rhyme scheme (especially for the rhyme-poor English language), and only a single hexametric break from pentamentric oppression. This extreme formal rigidity harks to medieval and late Latin poetry — such as Petrarch’s Africa and Nonnus’ Dionysiaca — an era when scholarship was required for versification and hence adherence to technical demands (rather than creative vision) held sway. Do not misunderstand me: the Faerie Queene is an incredible achievement. But it was one done in a form that was stilted from the get-go.

Ultimately, the formal technical excesses of poetic constructs like the Spenserian stanza gave way to the “heroic couplet”, a pair of rhymed lines in iambic pentameter, and it was this form that ruled the poetic roost for nearly two centuries from the end of Elizabethan times to the Romantics’ rise. Heroic couplets are still formally demanding; trying to fit a thought into one (or a series of them) often requires significant grammatical elision and syntactic restructuring, yielding an unusually high amount of caesuras and end-stops in poetry such as Pope’s.

(This is in direct contrast with the classical dactylic hexameter, which sought to develop lines with frequent enjambment and a rich flowing quality to them.)

While the heroic couplet was governed by its pentameter and end-rhyme, it was allowed one form of emphatic variation: the English alexandrine, or iambic hexameter, a twelve-syllable line set off by the addition of an iambic foot before the inevitable end-rhyme.

Milton the Poetic Rebel

Needless to say, while geniuses like Alexander Pope could make the form limpid, for most of us, it was stultifying. It’s not for nothing that the most significant works of the period (other than Pope’s) are John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes — none of which are in heroic couplets.

Instead, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained are both in “blank verse” — unrhymed iambic pentameters — and Samson Agonistes seems to be in loosely-rhymed free verse (probably inspired by Greek trimeters). Which is to say, none of his major works are in anything remotely resembling a heroic couplet.

Oftentimes, critics denigrate artistic rebels as simply not being able to conform to the expected standards of the day — a classic example being the early panning of Picasso’s abstract art. Instead, like Picasso, Milton was a formal master, one of only a tiny handful of poets who could truly work the Petrarchan sonnet in English. For Milton — as Picasso — the point was never to open a medium befit “second-rate” talent; rather it was very much a conscious rebellion against standards of his day in pursuit of the freedom of speech (a freedom he passionately defended in his lengthy Areopagitica).

Thus, while Milton’s minor poems show formal mastery, his major works — Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained — are in blank verse, both as a statement of adherence to classical standards (the Greek and Latin epics in dactylic hexameter were unrhymed), and as a statement of freedom of expression (would Milton’s Lucifer be remotely as convincing if he’d been coaxed into heroic couplets?). Samson Agonistes — Milton’s “closet drama” — is by far his most daring and experimental poem, and like most experimental poetry of the day, it was presented as a play (albeit one meant to be read, not staged).

Ultimately, though, while Milton was appreciated in his own time, he was also far ahead of it — it wouldn’t be the rise of the Romantics that new strands of poetic experimentation occurred in English.

The Romantic Flowering

The flowering of English poetry in the late 1700s and early 1800s maybe matched only that of Elizabethan verse drama. In many ways it was a culmination of the poetic experimentation Milton a century or so earlier had begun: it was the era of Keats and Shelley, of sardonic Byron, and of the most avant-garde of them all, poet-engraver Blake. It was the era of Wadsworth and Coleridge, and just as fatefully, of the first major American poets — Poe and Longfellow. Nearly all American literature has thus developed from the Romantic tradition, from Whitman to Dickinson to Hemingway and Lovecraft — they’re all indebted, in some way or another, to the Romantics.

The role of the Romantics in redefining the process, goals, and aims of poetry, cannot be understated — the Romantic dictum that a poem is, at its heart, an expression of emotion — still predominates in the present day, but something that is underappreciated is the role of Romantic art in the undermining of Early Modern metrical norms. Wadsworth and Coleridge’s earliest efforts “fit to metrical arrangement a selection of the real words of men”, but as noted above, English’s meter naturally favors dactyls and trochees — not iambs.

So as the Romantic period further developed, the difficulty of such a project yielded increasingly experimental poetry, such as Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published at the tail end of the Romantic period, and after a Victorian interlude increasingly obsessed with the formalism the late Romantics had begun to reject wholesale, a key inspiration of the Modernist poets, ranging from Eliot to Pound to Stevens, who experimented with rejecting everything from rhyme and meter (yielding free verse) to development of ideas like concrete poetry.

The Modern Question

The end result of these changes has been a total deconstruction of poetry as understood prior to c. 1800. The problem modern poets face is — where to go from here? While there have been some breakthrough successes, like Ginsberg’s Howl, post-WWII poetry has become an increasingly niche artform. There have been some efforts toward formal revivals, but these have been stymied in large part by a poetic environment that has become just as stifling as the one in Milton’s day — a need to experiment über alles …

Avant-garde poetry is, in this sense, an apotheosis of angsty teen poetry.

What Were the Deuteronomists Up To?

If you’re anything like me, when you’re using a source, you want to know its history.

So I’ve been using 1 Samuel as a source for an extended project I’m doing lately, which naturally made me curious about its textual history. It turns out the book is associated with a school or group of authors called the “Deuteronomists”, so named because the first Bible book associated with them is Deuteronomy, and who contributed the majority of pre-Exilic history — Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings — and, interestingly enough, Jeremiah. As a school, the Deuteronomists are associated with covenant theology, and almost certainly play a role in the 2 Kings account of Josiah discovering a book of the Law in Jerusalem’s archives (commonly understood to be Deuteronomy’s core), which motivates a period of Judahite religious reforms.

Deuteronomistic scholarship generally follows Martin Noth, with textual criticism (as is common in Old Testament scholarship) primarily focused on peeling layer upon layer of redaction apart, as well as focusing on Deuteronomistic theology, which is (a) reasonably well understood, and (b) is foundational to modern Jewish theology (for obvious reasons). Because of this, scholarship generally considers the bulk of Deuteronomist texts to the Babylonian Exile.

However — while I am in agreement that the texts would have been redacted during the Exile — it is my contention that the Deuteronomists’ textual core is older: that analysis of their historiography reveals political motives that could have only been in play between the fall of Samaria to Assyria in 721 BCE and that of Jerusalem to Babylon in 586 BCE, a period of 135 years. It is also my contention that Jeremiah’s odd relationship with the rest of the Deuteronomist texts can best be understood in terms of political — not theological — disagreement.

Who Were the Deuteronomists?

According to Noth and his acolytes, the Deuteronomists were Yahwist priests who migrated from Samaria to Jerusalem after Assyria’s conquest of the former in 721 BCE. At the time, Yahwism was Israel’s state cult, and physical conquest in the early Iron Age was theologically understood to be the conqueror’s pantheon triumphing over the conquered’s; hence, from the perspective of an Israelite layman, Aššur — Assyria’s patron deity — had triumphed over Yahweh and there was no reason to continue the latter’s worship, especially in light of events of the day directly contradicting his law’s (at minimum) henotheistic demand. How could one obey the commandment “Thou shalt not have any other god before me” (Ex. 20:3; Deut. 5:7) when events of the day had made it quite clear that Aššur was, in fact, “before” Yahweh?

While this line of thinking might have been fine for a Samaritan layman, it was clearly not adequate for its priestly class, who soon migrated to Jerusalem. Deuteronomist scholarship suggests that this priestly class brought monotheistic Yahwism with it, implying that Jerusalem’s priesthood — at minimum — was henotheistically Yahwist (otherwise why accept Samaritan priests with open arms?). Over time, monotheistic Yahwism found favor with Judah’s landowning elite and eventually came to dominate the Temple, putting the Deuteronomists — descendants of the Samaritan priesthood — into positions of priestly power.

This Deuteronomist priesthood then began exerting political power after 640 BCE, when they and their aristocratic allies suppressed a coup that had resulted in King Amon’s death and installed Josiah on the throne. Priestly influence over Josiah — just eight when he assumed kingship — would eventually result in the finding of the Law during his reign and subsequent religious reforms, thereby permanently cementing Deuteronomist theological dominance over Judah.

This dominance would become permanent. After Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon in 586 BCE, according to Deuteronomist scholarship, the priestly class would collate a history to be added to the sacred texts, a history which would then be referred to in the composition of 1 and 2 Chronicles and the return from exile after Babylon’s fall to the Achaemenids in 539 BCE.

Exilic Composition — Problems

The major problem with exilic composition, especially in that era, is one of eclipsed legitimacy. Deuteronomist history is, at its heart, a statement of Israeli nationhood, and while conquered nations can and have produced works-in-exile (e.g. Sir Thaddeus, the great Polish verse novel/national epic, published in Paris due to Russian occupation of much of the Polish homeland), it is in an imperial nation’s best interest to integrate conquered peoples into the dominant mien, and one of the best ways to do that is to delegitimize pre-existing ideas of nationhood, something the Yahwists, with their insistence on henotheism (and later monotheism) in the face of vastly more powerful pagan empires, made quite easy.

Just as the Ten Lost Tribes became “lost” (or better put, fully integrated) in the Assyrian mien, without a powerful national anchor, the Judahites would have become “lost” in the Babylonian mien. Yahwism would have become a minor historical oddity, that is, if any of its texts survived at all. No doubt some — possibly the majority — of the Judahites did Babylonize, but without a powerful national backstop, there would have been no reason for the Judahites to retain and maintain their traditions in the face of a hostile occupying power for an extended period of time.

What I am arguing here is that the Torah and Deuteronomist history was that backstop. However, if Deuteronomist history was meant to act like Sir Thaddeus, its themes and concerns would much more explicitly deal with the topical exile. They do not. 1 and 2 Chronicles, whose references to “Samuel the seer, Nathan the prophet, and Gad the seer” (1 Chron. 29:29b) and e.g. “the book of the kings of Israel and Judah” (2 Chron. 35:27b) are almost certainly references to Deuteronomist history as was known at the time; 1 and 2 Chronicles are also linked to Ezra and Nehemiah, both of which deal primarily with the exile and return from it. In other words, 1 and 2 Chronicles can be understood as being more in accord with the types of conditions that prompt composition of texts like Sir Thaddeus, while the Deuteronomistic cycle responds to an entirely different set of conditions: ones that occurred in Judah immediately prior to its conquest by Babylon.

Decline and Fall of the Assyrian Empire

As was previously mentioned, Assyria’s conquest of Israel in 721 BCE precipitated the priestly migration to Judah. For the next century, Assyria remained preeminent in the region, while theological differences between Samaritan and Jerusalemite Yahwists resolved in favor of the Deuteronomist school. Then, in 627 BCE, everything changed: Ashurbanipal, the last of Assyria’s great rulers, died, and between a series of problems, including serious overextension, Babylonian insurrection, Scythian and Cimmerian raiding, and Median incursion from the Persian highlands, the empire fell apart. Egypt reasserted its sovereignty, as did Babylon; by 609 BCE — a mere eighteen years later — Assyria was no more.

Coincidentally, King Josiah found the book of Law in the Jerusalemite archives in 622 BCE — just five years after Ashurbanipal’s death, and a period in which Assyrian hegemony in the Mediterranean was well and truly in decline — which sparked a religious and national revival. With Assyria bogged down in civil war and campaigns on two frontiers, its former vassal Judah reasserted its independence and reasserted the supremacy of its Yahwist cult.

But the Deuteronomists were not content with Judahite nationalism. They wanted more. Recall that they were Samaria’s Yahwist priests originally, and would have been familiar both with the shared lore of Judah and Israel and with Samaritan lore. With the region thrown into disarray, the priests, along with their landowning-elite allies, had the perfect opportunity to reclaim Israel. They just needed a narrative that would justify it.

Deuteronomist Historiography, Summarized

We can now turn to Deuteronomist historiography. This historiography begins with the Law Josiah uncovered — commonly understood to be the core of Deuteronomy — and continues with:

  • an epic-scale conquest of Canaan (Joshua), fairly clearly meant to assert the supremacy of (Yahwist) Israeli landowning elites over a native (pagan) Canaanite underclass;
  • a collation of pre-monarchical folktales (Judges), presented with the Deuteronomists’ own theological spin and thus meant to illustrate its theme in their country’s history;
  • the consolidation of the Unified Kingdom’s monarchy (1 and 2 Samuel);
  • legends associated with the Temple’s building (the first half of 1 Kings), meant to legitimize it as Yahweh’s cultic center;
  • an account of Unified Kingdom’s bifurcation into Israel and Judah (the middle of 1 Kings), linking back to its formation (1 and 2 Samuel); and
  • a summarization of the combined annals of Israel and Judah (the rest of Kings), bringing this mythic history into the present day.

Noticeably, Joshua, Judges, and Samuel are thematically unified texts, while Kings’ first part, in particular, is characterized by aetiological “clutter” before transitioning into the summarized annals section that takes up about 2/3rds of the combined book. The net result is that the first three books can be understood as a cycle of myths, with the last one managing the inherently-awkward historiography-history transition.

All that said, each of the three books between Deuteronomy’s Law and Kings’ aetiology represents a different part of the Deuteronomists’ agenda: Joshua justifies the (pre-Exile) status quo; Judges justifies Yahwist theology; and Samuel justifies … a political goal of reclaiming Israel.

The Myth of a Unified Kingdom

Neither archaeological nor extrabiblical evidence supports Samuel’s account of a unified Israel kingdom c. 1000 BCE. Instead, archaeological evidence shows the development of two Yahwist kingdoms, those which we now call “Judah” and “Israel”; the northern kingdom is referred to in e.g. Assyrian documents by the exonym “land of the Omrites”.

The implication is clear. The Omrites’ founder, i.e. Omri, was understood to have founded the northern kingdom, most likely by unifying ten of the twelve tribes. In calling itself Israel, this kingdom also laid claim to Judah, but its independent consolidation into a unitary state centered around Jerusalem (rather than the presumed transition from a tribal confederation to a kingdom underlying Omri’s consolidation) made it a permanent thorn in the Israelites’ side.

Myths of a unified kingdom thus likely developed around Omri’s consolidation and the fraught relationship Israel and Judah had with each other. We don’t need to look back to the Bronze Age; indeed, doing so would be less than informative in this context as Bronze Age-era legends would have been Canaanite myths, and as Joshua reminds us, the Canaanites were a permanent underclass under their Yahwist feudal lords. Instead, considering its relative size, myths involving the development of a “unified kingdom” are almost certainly associated with consolidation of the northern kingdom under the Omrites.

The implication, then, is that the Deuteronomists moved most of Omri’s legendarium onto David, perhaps completing a mythic replacement that had been ongoing in oral legends since the Omrites’ fall, leaving to the northern kingdom’s unifier just the bits at odds with their theological beliefs.

Why would they do this? Consider the current events around the time Josiah pushed through his reforms and entrenched the Deuteronomist priesthood. Assyria was in serious trouble, and no part of the empire was more more remote from Nineveh than the Samaritan region. Judah under Josiah was an island of peace and stability in the midst of a rapidly-disintegrating empire; the time was right to attempt a reunification of Yahwist lands. But, unlike the northern kingdom, which had laid implicit claim to all of Israel from its inception, with its very chosen name, Judah have never laid claim to anything beyond their ancestors’ own tribal lands. By transposing Omri’s legendarium onto David, Deuteronomists are giving Judah an implicit claim over all of Israel.

This is the reason the Deuteronomist core must predate the Exile. There is no reason to create a story whose ultimate goal is to lay claim over a fallen kingdom during the Exile; instead, the David legends are responding to a window of opportunity granted by Assyria’s fall by restructuring Judah’s own history to make the conquest of Israel a moral obligation on the their kings’ part.

This story also has other theological and political considerations. David’s mini-empire, with the neighboring kingdoms all in hock to a Yahwist overlord is, by early Iron Age standards, tantamount to a statement of Yahwist superiority over all comers. Not only that, but the state Samuel describes is one large enough to, at minimum, counterbalance Egypt, and possibly even work with them to keep the Mesopotamian powers in check — in short — the transformation of the tiny post-tribal kingdom of Judah into a regional power over the lower Levantine. A seductive dream! And one that may have been attainable … for all of about twenty years.

Jeremiah’s Relationship with the Deuteronomists

Now that we have an overview of the aims of Deuteronomistic historiography — (1) justification of the proto-feudal status quo; (2) justification of Deuteronomistic theology in the context of pre-monarchical folktales and legends; (3) justification of the importance of Jerusalem’s temple and hence their role in Judahite society; and (4) justification of an expansionary agenda for Judah by reframing their history as being half of a fallen “unified kingdom”, we can begin to analyze the odd relationship Jeremiah has with the other Deuteronomist texts.

Jeremiah was a theological Deuteronomist. That is, he (a) placed special emphasis on adherence to the Law as arbiter of divine favor and (b) emphasis on the preeminence of Jerusalem’s Temple and priesthood as arbiters of the Law and its interpretation. In this, he would have also supported the status quo, of a minority Yahwist feudal elite controlling the country’s affairs.

However, he does not go so far as supporting the Deuteronomists’ geopolitical agenda as outlined above, and in his first, most famous, and indisputably authentic (in terms of being the oldest textual layer) prophecy — that of the fall of Jerusalem (Jer. 2-6 incl.) — he predicts the inevitable outcome of the failure of an expansionary agenda, such as the expansionary agenda the Deuteronomists were pushing.

Make no mistake, this oracle is very much a break between Jeremiah (and likely a cadre of Deuteronomists he led) and the rest of Jerusalem’s priestly class. It informs us that Jeremiah and his acolytes were creatures of the Temple, trained by the Temple to be part of its priestly and administrative class, likely had risen to positions powerful enough to glimpse the upper echelon’s political machinations (i.e. pressuring Josiah and his descendants to press the Judahite claim over Israel implicit in Samuel’s Unified Kingdom narrative), and were well enough aware of world events to understand the price and consequence of failure.

It also informs us, by making this oracle as a rhetorical device, that Jeremiah thought such an agenda was doomed to failure — in other words, that pressing the claim would result in Judah’s military defeat and conquest by an outside power. Why he thought this does not seem to have come down to us (two of several possibilities: (1) he overestimated Assyria’s strength, or (2) he was well enough aware of world events to know of Babylon’s rise), but it seems Jeremiah’s oracle concerning the fall of Jerusalem is a statement that either (a) Judah’s opportunity to press a claim on Israel had come and gone, or (b) such a claim was foolhardy to begin with.

In any event, the reason Jeremiah is associated with the Deuteronomists but at the same time distinct from the rest of their works is because of his break with their political agenda, whatever his reasons for doing so may have been. Because he was cut from the same theological cloth as the Deuteronomists, he carried their priestly authority in his prophecies; by setting himself as in opposition to their expansionist program, he positioned himself in a strong position for his oracles’ future veracity. Jerusalem, as it turned out, did fall to Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, 64 years after Josiah’s ascendancy to the throne in 640 BCE, and Jeremiah himself, according to his lore, died in exile in Egypt.

Concluding Remarks

I hope this essay gets the point across why I think Deuteronomistic literature represents not an Exilic narrative in composition, but a unified historiography associated with a late Judahite state, and so the cores of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings should be understood as having been in circulation sometime between 640 and 586 BCE.

To date, Deuteronomist scholarship has focused excessively on their theology; by recognizing this theology as part of a broader program that includes (a) a justification of the status quo (Joshua, Kings), and (b) a literature meant to justify an expansionary agenda (Samuel), we can glean a better understanding of the world the Deuteronomists lived in, and the circumstances driving them to write as they did.

This interpretation is also supported by Jeremiah’s Deuteronomist connections, which justify reading him as being in broad agreement with their theology and social structure, but opposed to their expansionary agenda — an agenda that the prophet saw as suicidal for the Judahite state.

Did Judah fall because of ill-advised attempts at expansion? This seems unlikely: there are no late stories of warfare in Kings or Chronicles, and indeed, Jerusalem’s fall, according to Kings and maybe accorded in extrabiblical sources, occurred due to a popular revolt against Babylonian vassaldom.

However, for a period, howsoever brief, there was an opportunity for Judah to expand, reclaiming Israel, and from a historiographical standpoint it is impossible to read Samuel as anything but a justification for doing so. Indeed, the Deuteronomists’ vision, as articulated by Samuel, is of Judah becoming a regional power on par with the Omrists’ plans for Israel, bringing the neighboring small kingdoms of Moab, Edom, Ammon, Philistia, and Aram-Damascus to heel, a state able to marshal enough resources to defend itself from Egyptian and Babylonian/Assyrian influence.

This is not the vision of an exiled people. It is the vision of a people enjoying a nationalist resurgence — which is exactly what was happening in Judah during Assyria’s spectacular, and spectacularly rapid, decline and fall.

Ultimately, however, along with the Torah, this Deuteronomistic history was foundational to the development of the Judahites into early Jews during the Babylonian Exile. Israel’s ten tribes were lost, and without the literature handed down from Judah, no doubt the same would have happened to the Judahites. Instead, due to the power of the literature, the theology, and the community, the Babylonian exile metamorphosed Judahites into the first expression of — Jews.

And it could not have been done without the Deuteronomists’ historiographical collation, texts that responded to conditions present not during the Exile but rather during Assyria’s rather spectacular decline and fall.

On “The Idea of Order at Key West”

img_0828Centerpiece to his 1934 Ideas of Order, “The Idea of Order at Key West” is perhaps Wallace Stevens’ most seminal poem. Despite Robert Frost’s criticism that Stevens, an insurance executive by day, wrote specifically for a C-suite audience — “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about bric-à-brac,” he is known to have said — “The Idea of Order at Key West” is decidedly not a mere ode to ice cream or futzing around with a blackbird. It is anything but. Instead, it is a deeply symbolic, ambiguous, and metaphysical poem. Continue reading On “The Idea of Order at Key West”

There’s More than One Way to Create a Story

I’ve been getting into the Souls series lately. No, not by playing the games, which are well known for being fiendishly hard — I don’t have the equipment to — but by watching other people play them.

Something that has really caught my interest is the very unorthodox way in which Souls stories are delivered. By this, I mean: Stories in games are almost always delivered as narrative. Whether in platformers or RPGs, action-adventures or FPS’s, the gamer in effect controls a character in a set narrative environment. There’s only ever one way to go, akin to a film or a novel.

This is not how Souls games approach stories. We often use “narrative” as a synonym for “strorytelling”, because narrative is overwhelmingly the most common form of storytelling, but it is not the only one. No: instead, Souls games elaborate their story and their world almost entirely through interaction. Much of the worldbuilding occurs in item descriptions, fragmentary nuggets of information we have to piece together and discern the story behind. It is Havel’s gear, for example — where and how it is found, and what is found nearby — that clue us into Havel himself having been locked away at the bottom of that watchtower in the Undead Burg and left to Hollow. It is the item descriptions on rings that clue us into Gwyndolin’s desperate illusion in Anor Londo. It is nothing more than the similarities in place that suggest that Darkroot is the lost ruins of Oolacile. And so on.

A similar note is struck by dialogue in this game. We need as much of it as possible to piece together as much of the lore as possible, because the lore in a Souls game is how we understand the world and our place in it. And because there are so few characters, there’s a lot of work put into making them rich and vibrant. We can understand and empathize with Solaire, with Siegmeyer, with the Crestfallen Warrior and even with less sympathetic characters like Petrus or Lautrec because we get a lot of interaction with them, and because so much effort has been put into making them complete characters.

So story in Souls games is not moved forward by our understanding of the grand narrative and our place in it, at all. We’re moved forward in the game armed mainly by a half-forgotten prophecy giving us a hopeless quest. And this is what makes Frampt’s appearance more than a little jarring — he’s the only character to give us Zelda-like advice that clearly relates to the grand narrative arc. He’s breaking the fourth wall, appealing to our sense of, our need for narrative in a game where there has hitherto been none — it’s transparently manipulative. More red flags are, of course, raised the more we learn about him and his role in the story. Is he Gwyn’s confidant as he says he is? Is he working with Gwyndolin? And so on.

The bottom line here is that Souls storytelling is not narrative; that it, in fact, represents a radically new and different way to tell a story. But to appreciate that, we have to first appreciate just how deeply our need for narrative storytelling runs.

Narrative in Storytelling

Storytelling has been about narrative from the dawn of humanity. Even in our oldest tales, the epics of the ancient world, there is a strong sense of narrative — not just a sense of connected events, but of pattern in these connections that are thematically laid bare in a temporal order. Take the oldest known epic, Gilgamesh, for example. Here we have the clear narrative around Gilgamesh’s life, how his friendship with Enkidu turned him from being an arrogant, uncontrolled demi-deity; how Enkidu’s death catalyzed his own quest for immortality. The underlying narrative of Gilgamesh is its hero’s increasing humanity.

This conception of story — as narrative, as a pattern or linked chain of events — thus goes back all the way to the dawn of records themselves. To this day, when we engage with any storytelling medium, we expect this interplay of pattern and theme. We expect things to be obvious, and this obviousness is really what we think of when we say “narrative”.

Take, for example, Zelda games. They’re usually quite obvious in terms of what your goals are, what the next step you have to do is to open up more of the game world. This is true in literally every video game ever — even in Elder Scrolls games, famed for their open-world gameplay, the next step in advancing the story is transparently obvious; it’s up to you whether to take it or not.

When we play these games, we are not making our own stories. We are instead interacting with a story already put together. A video game, in this sense, is little more than an interactive novel. But this is a cop-out, a device video games can lean on in a way their pen-and-paper kin cannot.

What is in a Game?

Final Fantasy, famously, got started as an 8-bit D&D port by a desperate company, Squaresoft, on its last legs and about to close up shop as a development house forever (hence the “Final”). So too did the first Elder Scrolls games. In fact, every RPG ever made can be traced, if you go back far enough, to D&D.

Video games can present to you a world in which the rules and narrative are defined. You are the hero out to save the day and you have these tools to do it. Getting better at it is represented with leveling, and so on. But the key here is: the world is defined.

D&D does not, in fact, define a world. Rather, like all card games or board games, it defines rules, and it is with these rules that you can in turn define and construct your own world. How could it define a world? The information in even a simple video game, such as the original Final Fantasy, would be far thicker than every D&D guidebook put together. Rather, what D&D sourcebooks or individual Magic cards or what-have-you all offer, is something to put into the world you’re creating, as well as defined ways that thing interacts with other things in the world. You, ultimately, create the world.

In this way, this type of game can be seen as a type of creation, rather than a type of narrative. You can add a narrative, but the narrative is not implicitly there in the source material; descriptions can suggest connections, and connections can suggest a story, but you have agency in the process.

So What Does this Have to Do with Souls?

Remember how I described Souls games’ primary storytelling mechanism? There is no clarity and only very hazy goals in this game. It’s through snippets of dialogue, through item descriptions, and through simply paying attention to your surroundings that the lore of the world comes into play, that your role in other characters’ lives becomes obvious, and that the story starts to form. This is essentially the same way that you worldbuild with D&D descriptions or with Magic cards — hints and pieces that slowly accrete into a cohesive whole. And you always have a choice in Souls games. In fact, in Dark Sous, five of them: You can choose to follow Frampt or betray him; to follow Kaathe or betray him; or to follow neither (though this route doesn’t lead to credits, and there isn’t as much piss-off-main-plot content in Souls games as there is in Elder Scrolls games).

It is also your skill at exploration, at putting pieces together, that is most rewarded in Dark Souls. Other than Anor Londo, the most visually impressive parts of the overworld (the Great Hollow and Ash Lake) are off the beaten track with no plot elements to send you there, ever. Put enough pieces together and you can dispel Gwyndolin’s illusions and reveal Anor Londo for what it truly is. Your choices determine whether any character you meet throughout the course of the game Hollows or not. It keeps going like this.

But there is very, very little handholding at all in this game. Goals are murky, rhetoric is self-contradictory, themes unclear at best. It isn’t a narrative-driven game. It isn’t driven by the sensation of playing out a novel at all. Instead, what Souls games give us is so much more: we’re just dumped into this world and have to make sense of it at the same speed our character does.

Kind of like being alive, really.