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Spondees, trochees, pyrrhs, and iambs may sound like completely different languages, but this is far from the truth. In fact, they are key parts in English poetry that make up the metrical feet of each line. But how do words like ‘birthday’ and ‘bus stop’ differ from others like ‘begin’, ‘delay’, and ‘poet’? Thankfully this isn’t some weird riddle; they differ through their syllables. The first two examples are spondaic, while the last three are pyrrhic, iambic, and trochaic, respectively. This article will help you to distinguish the difference between them.
A spondee is a type of metrical foot for measuring poetry. A spondaic foot is two syllables long and features two stressed syllables.
A spondee may occur in one or two words, depending on how the syllables work. It has the general sound of dum-dum or tum-tum (where the stressed syllables are the dum and tum sounds (rather than da or ti)).
A syllable is a unit of sound in a word. It is made from a vowel sound with surrounding consonants. The word cat has one syllable, while the word xylophone has three (xy-lo-phone).
In order to recognise the differences between spondees and other poetical feet, we need to learn how to distinguish the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables.
In this article, we distinguish syllables with a hyphen ‘-’ and each foot with a space ‘ ‘. We also show the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables by presenting stressed ones in bold.
Stressed syllables often:
have more elongated vowel sounds,
and are said with more emphasis.
Unstressed syllables often:
have more reduced vowel sounds,
and are said with less emphasis.
The word ‘birthday’ is spondaic, as the syllables are stressed: birth-day.
There are many spondaic words in English, such as ‘bookmark’ (book-mark) or ‘come back’ (come-back).
Many poems also use spondees to alter the rhythm slightly. For instance, the first three lines of canto 50 in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ (1850) use several spondees:
Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps and the nerves prick
And tingle and the heart is sick.
(Be-near, is-low, blood-creeps, nerves-prick, is-sick)
Robert Browning also uses spondees in his poem ‘My Last Duchess’ (1842):
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
(dred-years old-name, who’d-stoop, have-not)
Although much of Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ (1681) is in iambic tetrameter, one line stands out from the rest as it alternates between one foot and spondees.
To a green thought in a green shade
Spondees are called ‘irregular’ in their rhythm because the English language cannot fully function without a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables, which a spondaic metre would depend on in a poem.
An example of a set metre with spondees is a classical hexameter, which traditionally ends with a spondee after five dactyls. That said, the first four dactyls could alternate between being a spondee (the only constant is the final dactyl and spondee).
A dactyl is a metrical foot of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.
An example of this in English is the mnemonic made for learning this type of metre:
‘Down in a deep dark dell sat an old cow munching a beanstalk’.
(Down-in-a deep-dark dell-sat-an old-cow mun-ching-a bean-stalk)
As spondees are ‘irregular’, many poets combine other types of metrical feet with spondees.
Using spondees in this way allows a poet to change the rhythm of a line. This then may:
Draw emphasis to a specific word or phrase with essential meaning.
Create a sense of melancholy, sadness, or nostalgia as the voice slows down.
Make the poem more musical in the rhythm.
Create a turning point in the poem by altering the dominating rhythm.
Stress a point of high emotion.
Help the rhythm flow better.
Once you’ve read this article, go back and look at examples of the poems with spondees. What do you think the poet intended to use the spondee for?
Although spondees are fairly easy to get your head around, there are ways that they can become confusing. The first concerns how spondees work in other languages, while the other is to do with the differences between spondees and other poetical feet. There is also some potential controversy over the existence of spondees that we will briefly touch upon.
In English, the definition of a spondee describes a metre consisting of two stressed syllables. However, in other languages like Latin and ancient Greek, spondees are made from two long syllables instead.
Etymologically, the word spondee hails back to the ancient Greek for libation and refers to the music performed during that event.
In the first line of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ (ca. 29–19 BC), the poet weaves dactyls and spondees together:
arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab orbis
(I sing of weapons and the man who first came from the shores of Troy)
(ar-ma-vir um-que-ca no-Troi ae-qui pri-mus-ab or-bis)
Owing to the fact that there are other feet in poetry with two syllables, it is easy to get confused. Here is a list of other feet.
As you know already, a spondee refers to a foot consisting of two stressed syllables. Words that are spondaic sound like dum-dum or tum-tum.
A pyrrh (or pyrrhic foot) is the direct opposite of a spondee. It is a foot that is made from two unstressed syllables. Words that are pyrrhic sound like da-da or ti-ti.
They can also be named dibrachs. Lord Byron uses several pyrrhs in the first line of the first canto of the poem ‘Don Juan’ (1819).
My way is to begin at the beginning
(is-to and at-the)
A iamb is a foot with one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Words that are iambic sound like da-dum or ti-tum.
The word ‘describe’ is an example of an iamb: des-cribe.
Iambs are very common in metres, such as iambic pentameter, where each line has five feet of iambs. However, there are other types of iambic metre, such as the one Lord Byron uses in ‘She Walks in Beauty’ (1814):
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies
(She-walks in-beau ty-like the-night of-cloud less-climes and-star ry-skies)
Can you figure out what sort of iambic metre this poem is in? Is it dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, etc.?
A trochee is the opposite of an iamb. It is one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Words that are trochaic sound like dum-da or tum-ti.
The word ‘trochee’ itself is trochaic as it goes like this: tro-chee.
They can also be called a choree or a choreus.
Shakespeare sometimes uses trochaic metre in his works. For example, the witches’ lines in Macbeth (1606):
Double, double toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble
(Macbeth, IV: I 10-11)
(dou-ble, dou-ble, toil-and trou-ble fi-re burn-and caul-dron bub-ble)
While there are words with two stressed syllables, some scholars argue that it is not possible to have two equally weighted syllables. With this in mind, it is argued that a true spondee is theoretically impossible as one syllable will always be more accented than the other.
The difference between syllables might also change because of variations in accents and implied emphasis on words, which may also change the foot of a word or phrase. This argument also stems from the questionable transference of spondees into English poetry (from its Greek and Latin roots of being a long syllable rather than a stressed syllable). The debate can also be applied to pyrrhs, as they are defined as two unstressed syllables.
According to critical belief, Robert Southey was the first to question the reality of a spondee. He argued that trochees and iambs should replace spondees in the metre, as English pronunciation precludes the possibility of spondees.1
Spondees slow down the voice of a poem/speech owing to the fact that they are stressed syllables (long, drawn-out, and emphasised). This can create a more pensive, melancholic, and sad tone to the voice.
Spondees are considered irregular because of how difficult it is for an entire poem to be constructed with them.
Some scholars argue that a real spondee (and pyrrh) cannot exist because one syllable will always have more emphasis than the other (thus making them iambs or trochees).
In Latin and ancient Greek, spondees are defined as two long syllables (rather than stressed ones).
1 Robert Southey, A Vision of Judgement (1821).
A spondee is a type of metrical foot in poetry. It is made up of two syllables that are both stressed.
Words like bookmark and birthday are examples of spondees.
Spondees are made up of two syllables that are both stressed.
Trochees and spondees are examples of poetical feet that only have two syllables. A spondee has two stressed syllables, a pyrhh two unstressed syllables, an iamb is one unstressed followed by a stressed one, and a trochee is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one.
Yes, a spondee can be made of two words. For example, the words ‘come back’ are an example of a spondee. However, owing to the fact that a spondee has two syllables, it cannot be any longer than two words.
What is a spondee?
A spondee is a type of metrical foot. It only has two syllables and is made from two stressed syllables.
How is spondee defined in Latin and Greek?
It is still a metrical foot with two syllables, but now it is made with long syllable sounds rather than stressed ones.
What controversy is there with spondees?
Some scholars argue that a real spondee (and a real pyrrh for that matter) cannot exist as one syllable would be more stressed than another.
What's the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables?
Stressed syllables are often longer, louder, higher, more emphasised and more elongated than unstressed syllables.
What words are spondaic?
Words like birthday and bookmark are spondaic.
What's the relationship between pyrrhs and spondees?
They are opposites! A spondee is a metrical foot with two stressed syllables, while pyrrhs are ones with two unstressed syllables.
What is an iamb?
An iamb is another metrical foot with two syllables. It is made from an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
What is a trochee?
A trochee is another metrical foot with two syllables. It is made from a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.
What type of rhythm often has spondees in?
Classical hexameter uses both dactyls and spondees (it always ends with a dactyl and a spondee but the other four feet could be any order).
What is the impact of a spondee?
Spondees slow the voice down in a poem, creating greater emphasis to the tone of the poem, specific words, or a turning point.
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