Poetry in the English language seems to settle—when it settles down at all, given the modern distaste for rhyme and meter—into a series of mostly two-beat measures, like a continuous handclap: dee-DAH, dee-DAH. Or sometimes DAH-dee, DAH-dee. Kind of like a heartbeat: lub-DUB, lub-DUB.1
Compare the stressed and unstressed syllables in two pieces of poetry. One familiar from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, like all his plays written in iambic pentameter:
To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished! To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
Five measures to the line, and the second syllable in each measure stressed.2
Now read a piece from Rudyard Kipling’s The Explorer, written in trochaic octameter:
“There’s no sense in going further—it’s the edge of cultivation,”
So they said, and I believed it—broke my land and sowed my crop—
Built my barns and strung my fences in the little border station
Tucked away below the foothills where the trails run out and stop:
Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”
Eight measures to the line, and the first syllable stressed in each measure.
The words are so chosen and placed, as if naturally occurring, that the lines can only be read in one way. Try reading them with the stresses reversed, and your tongue gets tangled up.
In the Shakespeare, you have to place the stress and the importance on the second syllable:
To BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUES-tion
For IN that SLEEP of DEATH what DREAMS may COME
In fact, you could drop out the unstressed words and you would still have the sense of the verse surviving in telegraphic form, almost like a text message.3
In the Kipling, the words and structure force you to pay attention to the first syllable:
BUILT my BARNS and STRUNG my FENC-es IN the LIT-tle BORD-er STA-tion
SOME-thing HID-den. GO and FIND it. GO and LOOK be-HIND the RANG-es—
Here again, the stressed words and syllables carry the sense of the poem. And the stress itself conveys the urgency of the whisper: “Go and find. … Go and look.”
It makes me think that these two opposite forms of reading—stress first versus stress second—almost define two separate approaches to life.
In the Kipling style, life is full of trochees, with that impetuous initial stress that leaves the second almost unvoiced. The tone is imperative, commanding, insistent, thrusting, and sure of itself. It is the voice of a British serving officer. It is the voice that drives men into battle or sends them overseas to seek their fortunes.
In the Shakespeare style, life is made up of iambs, with that hesitant initial stress and the second firming up the sense of the matter. The tone is reflective, contemplative, associative, conjoined with lots of “ands,” “fors,” and “ifs,” and yet ultimately resolute. It is the voice of a mature person weighing consequences—and not just in young Prince Hamlet considering suicide but in all of Shakespeare’s plays. It is the voice that invites us inside the character’s thinking.
When I think back on various people I have known, both in life and in literature—for yes, we readers have invisible friends—I believe many would line up under one banner or the other, the iambic types and the trochaic types.
The trochees are direct and obvious in their life and attitudes: slam-dunk, there-you-are, and sometimes in-your-face characters. For them, life is simple and unquestioned. Hit the ground running. Take the shot. Make your move. Accept the facts as they are presented. This might mean they sometimes jump to conclusions and precipitate hostilities that might better be avoided. But so be it. They also tend to win gun battles and, through their decisiveness and audacity, get the biggest piece of cake.
The iambs are more subtle and reasonable in their approaches: on-second-thought, but-what-about?, and sometimes oh-let’s-not! characters. For them, life is complex and full of questions. Pick and choose. Consider all the angles. Try to understand. Examine the facts before accepting them. This might mean they sometimes miss out on the best items in a holiday sale and fail to stand up to bullies. But they also win chess games by seeing three or four moves ahead and, through their thoughtful and sensitive natures, savor the piece of cake they do finally get.
Which personality is better? That depends on the circumstances. A trochee makes a good soldier and a competent administrator of complex systems that resolve into obvious patterns, like running a railroad or an electric-power grid. These are activities where the hesitations and second thoughts of an iamb can cause no end of trouble. But you don’t want a trochee for a military strategist or judge in a court of law. Those are activities where critical examination, questions, and playing three or four moves out are more reliable. Which makes the better and more lasting friend? That depends on whether your taste runs to playing football with its rough-and-tumble, block and tackle, or fencing with its subtle weave of parries and ripostes while respecting an opponent’s personal space. One kind is good at playing poker, the other tends to play bridge.
Do these opposites attract? In this case, I think not. The tendency for trochees to pounce and for iambs to react would lead the pair to get on each other’s nerves. The iamb would end up nursing hurts that the trochee might never perceive. Or the iamb would get back at the trochee in ways the latter would never see coming.
Are men trochaic and women iambic? Only in your dreams. I know women who are deadly quick and not at all subtle—and men who need to walk three times around the house before opening a drawer. These are not masculine and feminine characteristics played against type. They are basic approaches to life belonging to the species H. sapiens without gender distinction.
In The Iliad, Achilles and Agamemnon are blunt trochees, while Hector and Odysseus are subtle iambs. Anna Karenina and her impetuous cavalry officer, Count Vronsky, are a pair of trochees, while Stepan Oblonsky and his wife Dolly are, for all their frivolousness, more iambic. Ellen Ripley, in the Alien series, is an iamb despite her tough-gal heroism, because her basic attitude is stop-wait-and-look, and she sees right through Lieutenant Gorman or the Company’s devious Carter Burke. In the Dune series, the Fremen, despite their reputation as fierce fighters, “were supreme in that quality the ancients called ‘spannungsbogen’—which is the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.” That is an iambic trait: wait and see. Americans are generally considered to be trochaic, while Europeans, the Chinese, and Japanese are thought to be more iambic.
Of course, human beings in specific cases, taken one by one, are far too complex to exist under such a crude dichotomy of characteristics. That is why most of my examples above come from literature, where the author emphasizes one approach, one mindset or trait, to prove a point. And yet, in real life, some people still consistently hit that first syllable hard, while others pause and reflect on that second syllable. Dah-dee, or dee-dah, the beat of life goes on.
1. This may have something to do with the fact that English, as an amalgam language, drew on Celtic, Norse, and Germanic roots that were formalized and spread by bards and poets reciting their verses in the lord’s banquet hall, rather than by written records.
2. There are already exceptions to this formula, of course. For example, the first four lines demand that the final words—“question,” “suffer,” “fortune,” “troubles”—be partially swallowed on the second syllable in order to maintain the beat. Well, nobody’s perfect—and a perfectly restrictive meter would eventually become boring, like riding a rocking horse.
3. And now that I think of it, the actors in a noisy Elizabethan theater—where the patrons and groundlings are calling to one another and chatting among themselves—might have to shout their lines. Only the stressed words would cut through the noise, and they would have to carry the sense of the play.