Irregular Iambic Pentameter and Complex, Variable Rhymes
Matthew Arnold is experimenting with some of the conventions of traditional poetry. Sure, it's not a real crazy experiment, but the freedom he takes with form, meter, and rhyme can still give us a lot of insight into the poem's meaning. Think of it like remodeling an old house rather than tearing it down. We can still see the traces of old techniques, like iambic rhythm and rhyming lines, but they've been loosened up and reimagined.
So how does this actually work in the poem? Well, let's start with the poem's rhythm. The basic meter of this poem is iambic. An iamb is a group of two syllables where the second syllable is stressed or emphasized, and the first is not. For example, the word "return" in line 11 is iambic. Hear that? Return—daDUM. Iambic meter just repeats that daDUM pattern over and over. Some lines in this poem are in consistent iambic meter. Others, not so much. Let's look quickly at two examples. Lines 34-35 are in perfect iambic pentameter:
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
See? daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. That's just like the meter Shakespeare was writing 250 years before. But then look a couple of lines down at line 36:
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
At first, the meter is trochaic (that's just reverse iambic: DUMda). Then, on the word "alarms," the rhythm stumbles, and the rest of the line breaks the trochaic pattern. In other words, the line itself starts to "struggle" The chaos that Arnold is describing in the world shows up in his poem, too.
That's the payoff for this experimentation. Breaking the iambic traditions passed down from Shakespeare and Milton helps him to make us feel how the world itself is changed and broken. Pretty cool, huh?
Rhyme, No Reason
We get more or less the same effect with the rhyme. There's a ton of rhyme in this poem, but it doesn't follow a regular pattern from one stanza to the next. Let's look first at the second stanza (we'll put the rhyming sounds in bold and match them up using capital letters).
Sophocles long ago (A)
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought (B)
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow (A)
Of human misery; we (C)
Find also in the sound a thought, (B)
Hearing it by this distant northern sea. (C)
So in this stanza the rhyme scheme is ABACBC. Every line has a rhyming partner Now let's look at the next stanza:
The Sea of Faith (A)
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore (B)
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. (C)
But now I only hear (D)
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, (B)
Retreating, to the breath (A?)
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear (D)
And naked shingles of the world. (C)
See how different the rhyme pattern is? In addition, take a look at the pair marked with "A" and "A?" As we've seen in the stanza above, Arnold is capable of making perfect rhymes. But here he chooses not to. The match between "Faith" and "breath" is close at best—a kind of near rhyme. Again, this choice of form fits naturally with Arnold's larger point in this poem. In this dark new world, faith is out of place, it has no natural partner. Just like with the meter, he needs a new kind of poetic form to represent this new experience.