Rail yard background, from the Library of Congress

Connections

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Feet

When we scan poetry, we are looking not only at stresses but also at how those stresses make up poetic feet. Poets often establish the meter of a poem with a regular first line. (A regular line follows the pattern of the meter without much variation.) For example, take the opening line of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard":


  The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

Gray tells us with that line that the poem means to establish iambic pentameter as the meter (or at least a meter) it will be using. We would scan the line like this, using slashes between to indicate divisions between feet:


    u  /   u   /       u   /    u   /   u    /

  The cur/few tolls/ the knell/ of par/ting day,/

Much of Gray's poem consists of regular iambic pentameter. Knowing that about the poem helps us to understand the effect of an irregular line such as line 50, "Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll." Before dividing it into feet, we might mark the stresses of that line thus:


   /    u     u    /   u   /    u   /    u  /

  Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;

Out of context, the first three syllables might look like a dactyl, a three-syllable foot with a stress on the first. We know, however, that the poem is in iambic pentameter, so we can see that Gray has simply substituted a trochee for the first iamb of the line, leaving the last four iambs intact. (Logically enough, this technique is called substitution.) Therefore, we can divide the line into feet:


   /    u      u    /    u   /     u   /     u  /

  Rich with/ the spoils/ of time/ did ne'er/ unroll;

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