Metrical Feet Introduction
In A Nutshell
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one smart dude. He knew at least five languages, wrote some of the most famous poems in the English language ("The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan" chief among them), and taught himself all kinds of neat things (like philosophy).
He also had a lot of famous friends, like William Wordsworth, with whom he co-wrote one of the most famous books of poetry ever written – Lyrical Ballads. Mr. Wordsworth is one of the most important literary figures of the last couple centuries, so when we see his name on a poem, we can't help but pay attention.
Back to Coleridge: well, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Derwent Coleridge, the third child of Samuel, started learning ancient Greek before he was even seven years old. Now that's impressive! No wonder he had such a proud papa. Indeed, in 1807, Samuel sent his young son a letter in which he wrote: "I am greatly delighted that you are so desirous to go on with your Greek; and shall finish this letter with a short lesson of Greek"; about a month later, Samuel sent Derwent another letter in which he enclosed the poem "Metrical Feet – A Lesson for a Boy."
That's right: Coleridge wrote the poem in order to help his son learn about some of the different types of "metrical feet" (for more on just what those are, check out "Form and Meter") in ancient Greek poetry. But the metrical feet Coleridge discuses can also be found in English. In fact, the poem not only describes the different types of feet in clever and memorable puns, it also performs them – in English, of course. You have to see it to believe it.
The poem, which is now regularly anthologized, began as a small little poem for Coleridge's son, a simple device to assist him in learning about poetic meter. It was never intended for a wider audience, but it found one nevertheless. In 1835 it was published in Volume 2 of The Poetical Works of S.T. Coleridge and to this day it's used in English classrooms everywhere to give kids a leg up on the tough subject of meter.
Why Should I Care?
Here's a list of things that Shmoop tends to forget, and how we're able to remember:
- How many days are in the month of April? Well, "Thirty days have September, April, June, and November." Ta da!
- Is it recieve or receive? Hmm… "i before e, except after c." Nailed it!
- Which is closer to the sun, Jupiter or Saturn? Let's see: "My Very Energetic Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas" – Jupiter's closer! (Oh, and the pizzas aren't really a planet anymore.)
- Which way turns the hose off and which way turns it on? Oh yeah: "Righty tighty, lefty loosey." Done.
- Which one's Dylan McDermott and which one's Dermot Mulroney? Okay, let' s be honest: we still haven't figured that one out.
Anyway, you get the point. These kinds of things – rhymes and clever phrases that help us remember something – are called mnemonic devices. And they pretty much rock. Rhymes, puns, and repetition are often key to learning and remembering, and why not take advantage of that?
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, being such a smarty pants, was well aware of this, which is why he wrote "Metrical Feet" for his son. It was intended as a short rhyming device to help little Derwent Coleridge remember different kinds of "metrical feet." Luckily, we're now able to read it, too, and benefit from its cleverness.
Coleridge's poem proves that sometimes learning has to be fun and fanciful in order to stick. Frankly, it's really easy to forget what a spondee is, not to mention an amphibrach, but "Metrical Feet" at the very least gives us an imaginative and neat way to remember. After you read this poem a few times, we dare you to try to forget it.