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Spondees are fun to use in poetry—once you understand their unique effect on poetic meter.
What Is Spondee?
A spondee is a metrical foot consisting of two stressed syllables. The word itself is Old French, and it comes from Latin spondēus (in turn derived from the Greek spondeios). It originally referred to the music that was made alongside libations, or offerings to gods. Spondaic meter—an entire poem based on spondees—is rare, but writers regularly use spondees as part of other metrical patterns to change the rhythm of a line.
How Is Meter Measured?
In the poetic meter, a foot is a basic unit of measurement. Feet measure rhythm using stressed and unstressed syllables. An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable in a metrical foot. Other types of metrical feet include:
- Spondee: Two stressed syllables
- Pyrrhic: Two unstressed syllables
- Iamb: One unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable
- Trochee: One stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable
- Dactyl: One stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables
Metrical patterns are defined both by how many stressed and unstressed syllables are in a foot, and by how many feet are in a line. For example, verse written in iambic pentameter features five iambs, anapestic tetrameter consists of four anapests, dactylic hexameter is made up of six dactyls, and trochaic tetrameter consists of four trochees.
2 Examples of Spondee in Poetry
To determine where the emphasis is placed in a word, say the word out loud. To hear an example of a spondee, say the words “bus stop” out loud and notice how both syllables are stressed. Other spondee examples include “toothache,” “bookmark,” and “handshake.”
The best way to learn how to use spondee in your writing is to read some examples aloud.
1. “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1918)
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet features several examples of spondee, including “rose-moles,” “all trades,” “spare, strange,” “swift, slow,” “sweet, sour,” “fathers-forth,” “past change,” and “Praise him.” These sensory words stand out in contrast to the first line of the poem, which is made up of trochees and sounds smooth and gentle in comparison to the active and exciting spondees.
2. “Break, break, break” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1842)
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
O, well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!
Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.
The first and second lines of Tennyson’s poem follow a spondaic meter. “Break, break,” “cold gray,” and “O Sea!” are all spondees, giving the very beginning of this poem an aggressive energy.
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