The iambic pentameter is the basic rhythm of Shakespeare and Wordsworth. It is a walking rhythm. Some people say it is also the rhythm of your heart but I think that is a little far-fetched, unless you have bad arrhythmia. Think of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 where the orchestra starts off with the di-Dah-di-Dah-di-Dah rhythm that will go on to underlay the whole piece. It provides the flat sea surface the fish can jump out of and fall back into. Iambic pentameter is not a set of shackles that should hobble a performance, but when you read it you should be aware of that presence as a bedding, a supporting structure, a basso continuo for the melody to take shape against.
Let’s look at some lines from Wordsworth:
“O pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For great were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!” (The Prelude, x, 690-4.)
Look at the line-endings. Since line-endings take more stress, deviations from the pattern are more noticeable. We are looking for that classic iambic di-DUM di-DUM and short words give that effect- of hope and joy; which then stood; were strong in love; to be alive. Then notice how the rhythm is switched for the last line: very Heaven. You know instantly the emotional affect this has, the scansion only serves to show the technical reason behind that affect: a swift transition to wistful softness that suggests nostalgia.
Iambs come in all shapes and sizes. The first two lines of this passage are rhythmically standard but one’s awareness of the rhythm is clearly less with multi-syllable words such as auxiliars. Wordsworth loves to use long Latinate words that allow his verse to move sedately along like conversation. English is rich in single syllable words, which make it comparatively easy, compared with Spanish for example, to end a line Ti-DUM, comparatvely difficult to line DUM-ti. One-syllable words are flexible. Look at the line:
Upon our side,// we who were strong in love
Reflect on it. What is the effect of that “we who were strong” the sliding dip into a soft valley, the alliteration of we and were, picking up the iambic rhythm again at the end of the line to finish strong in love, the very sound of the words reflecting their meaning.
Wordsworth rewards close reading. It is occasionally a pleasure to pick apart a few lines and tease the threads apart. Wordsworth in the mountains, however, is a continuous reading. Continuous reading has an entirely different result. It is the difference between taking a stroll along a country lane and stopping to admire every flower along the way and stretching out your legs for a hike with your eyes on the horizon and your body settling into a deep rhythm. When you make a continuous reading you should be able to feel that underlying “Rachmaninov” rhythm pulsing beneath the text in a way that is difficult to appreciate when you stop to analyse and critique.
I like to have a bit of both. My materials for preparing the readings have ample notes so that you can get into the rhythm of the language before the performance. You will also have your sections assigned before you arrive so that you can prepare. In the meantime, keep checking back with the blog to follow these evolving thoughts and resources on metre.
To end here is Matt Toronto talking about iambic pentameter in Shakespeare: