Common metre

Most modern poetry is written in free verse, i.e. without any formal restrictions, or sometimes in metre but still without rhymes or particular lines lengths. This is art, but it is a very different art from what I’m doing. The results are also called poems, but they’re as different from the Seven Secular Sermons as watercolor paintings are different from a knotted carpet. So here is a sketch of how I do my carpet knotting.

I like to write in double rhyme
and meter just like this.
This seems more worth my readers’ time
than free verse ever is.

The Seven Secular Sermons are entirely in the common metre format.  The reason why will not be apparent until they’re finished. Here are a few facts about the common metre.

The rules

The common metre is a traditional format of English language poetry. An equivalent format exists in German language poetry and I assume probably also in a few others. It is defined by the following rules:

  • iambic: a unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable, and vice versa
  • tetrameter and trimeter: an eight syllable line is followed by a six syllable line, and vice versa
  • four lines: each stanza consists of four lines, i.e. 8+6+8+6=28 syllables
  • alternating rhymes: the first line of each stanza rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth

In other words, it goes like this:

ta-DAH ta-DAH ta-DAH ta-DEH
ta-DAH ta-DAH ta-DUH
ta-DAH ta-DAH ta-DAH ta-DEH
ta-DAH ta-DAH ta-DUH

Relative difficulty

Among the various stanza schemes, the common metre is one of the most restrictive ones. This makes it difficult and time-consuming to write. I understand this difficulty in the following way. There is a vast space of possible English language stanzas. Each rule of the format excludes most of this space, and a valid common metre stanza is in the comparatively small space of stanzas that aren’t excluded by any of the rules.

The rhymes are the most severe restriction. English has about 500 rhyme groups (groups of words with all rhyme with each other) depending on how you count, and almost every word is in exactly one of them. So if you have a line and you need another line to rhyme with it, the words in the 499 other rhyme groups can’t be at the end of that line. Of course the rhyme groups have very different sizes and you’ll tend to be using the big ones that give you more options. But still, any rhyme precludes something like 99% of words from ending that other line.

I don’t quite understand how, but I found alternating rhymes (like ABAB) are considerably more difficult to write than couplet rhymes (like AABB). Something about having to keep both of the rhyme pairs in memory at the same time during the process of crafting the stanza?

The iambic metre additionally forbids all non-iambic words, where two unstressed syllables follow each other, such as in the word “syllable”. This is much less of a problem than the rhymes, because English (unlike German) is a fairly iambic language, but it does constitute extra work making a line iambic and sometimes you just can’t make it fit.

The combination of these two restrictions, rhymes and iambic meter, means that only stressed rhymes are permitted. All rhymes that end in unstressed syllables are ruled out. This includes most two-syllable words. So most lines in the Seven Secular Sermons end with one- or three-syllable words.

If the rhyme and meter rules act on the level of individual words, the rules about the number and length of lines restrict the sentences assembled out of them. English (unlike Latin, for example) is quite flexible about sentence structure. For any given English language sentence, it is trivial to make a synonymous sentence that is longer, and usually easy to make one that is shorter. So getting any statement into exactly 28 syllables isn’t usually a problem. It is harder to get it into 4 lines of exactly 8 or 6 syllables each. (Of course the end of each line has to be the end of a word.) Writing heptameter couplets, with 14 syllables per line, would be easier, even disregarding rhymes. Again, the space of stanzas that fulfill these conditions is much smaller than the space of stanzas that don’t.

With multiple conditions needing to be fulfilled simultaneously, the space of possible solutions is the intersection of all the smaller spaces that fulfill each conditions. The difficulty of writing like this is in the solution space being much, much smaller than the space of free verse stanzas. Someone writing in free verse can find a way (or one of many ways) to express what they want to express from the entire space of possible English language stanzas. I have to find one from the tiny subsection of this space where all the restrictions are satisfied simultaneously. I call this section the solution space.

The Seven Secular Sermons have other rules. They use (pretty much) correct grammar, the only personal pronoun they use is “we”, and so on. But this page is about the common metre and the difficulty of that alone.

This difficulty is an essential part of the project. The things I’m saying have basically been said before, but never in this fashion. In fact, nothing of this length has ever been said in this fashion. Each of the Seven Secular Sermons is much longer than any poem previously written in the common metre, and this difficulty is why nobody else has done this.

Musical quality

Besides common metre, there is ballad metre, which is the same except the first and third lines need not rhyme. (Again much easier.) This has been used for a lot of, you guessed it, ballads. Any poem written in the common metre or ballad metre can be sung with the melody of any song with common metre or ballad metre stanzas.

Some songs like that are: