Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Trochee trips from long to short;
- The poem opens in a puzzling way. It tells us that something named "trochee" "trips" from long to short. So what's a trochee, and why on earth does it trip?
- Well, it helps to know that lines of formal poetry are usually divided into little groups called "feet" (cute, right?). There are usually anywhere from three to six of these feet (although there can be more or less.) The most famous unit or foot in English is the iamb, but we'll get to that in a minute.
- A trochee, which is the exact opposite of an iamb, is a type of foot that contains two syllables: it is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.
- In this case, Coleridge is referring to a stressed syllable as a "long" one, and an unstressed syllable as a "short" one. Why does he do this? To be honest, there are several explanations. First and foremost, Coleridge wrote this poem in order to help his son better learn his ancient Greek, a language in which meter is based on syllable length (long and short) rather than stress.
- But even though ancient Greek meter is based on syllable length, it isn't difficult to translate the terms into English. Basically, a long Greek syllable is the poetic equivalent of a stressed English syllable. And the same goes for short and unstressed.
- Coleridge illustrates this by writing the poem (in English) in the types of feet he describes. So, for example, the word "trochee" is trochaic. The first syllable (tro-) is stressed, and the second is not. As a matter of fact, the entire line is made up of four trochees, which makes it something we call "trochaic tetrameter." All this means is the line has four feet (that's where the tetrameter comes in), and that each of those feet is a trochee.
- Still with us?
- Okay, before we get lost in the meter, let's not forget the second part of our question: Why does a trochee trip? Here, the word "trips" doesn't mean fall. It's closer to something like "moves lightly or quickly," which makes perfect sense when you learn that many poets consider trochees a way of speeding up a line of poetry or giving it a rolling, tumbling feeling.
- You'll notice that, being a metrical foot, a trochee can't actually trip. This is the first of many personifications in the poem. In fact, for each foot he talks about, the poet personifies it by describing the way it moves in a poem in a human way. Keep your eye open for more examples of this, and check out our "Symbols" section for more handy analysis.
- And finally, check out the phrase "trochee trips." When consonants are repeated at the beginning of words like this, we call it alliteration, and it pops up a lot in this poem. See if you can spy other examples. Why do you think Coleridge uses it so much?
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow Spondee stalks, strong foot!, yet ill able
Ever to come up with Dactyl's trisyllable.
- The poem continues by explaining two other types of feet: the spondee and the dactyl.
- But before we tackle those, take a look at the end of line 2. The word "sort" rhymes with "short" from line one. When we get two rhymes in a row like this, we call it a rhyming couplet, and in this case, this pattern will continue through the rest of the poem.
- And while we're on the subject of sound, take a moment to say "long in solemn" aloud to yourself. Do you notice the repeated vowel sounds? That's called assonance, and it's another form of sound play that Coleridge makes use of in this poem. Can you spot any other examples of it?
- Okay, let's get down to the nitty-gritty. The spondee is a type of foot that contains two stressed syllables ("long"). The phrase "slow spond-" is an example of a spondee. There is at least one more spondee in line 3. Can you find it?
- The speaker describes the spondee as a "strong foot" that moves in a slow, dignified kind of way ("solemn sort"). The word "stalk" makes us think of monsters or serial killers; the spondee "stalks" in the way Frankenstein might, with lumbering, plodding footsteps.
- The speaker says that the spondee is slow and "solemn" but, unfortunately, "ill able" (i.e., unable) to "come up with Dactyl's trisyllable."
- Goodness. A dactyl? No, we're not talking about dinosaurs here. A dactyl is yet another a foot, and it contains three syllables (unlike the trochee, the iamb, and the spondee, which all have just two): a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (as in the word "com-e-dy").
- "Come up with" here means something like "catch up to" or "come up alongside." In other words, the spondee is too slow, in the poem's metaphor, to ever reach a length of three syllables.
- It's a cute way of saying the spondee can't reach the dactyl because the spondee is a two-syllable foot by definition, whereas the dactyl is a three-syllable foot. But it's also a way of clueing us into the fact that a spondee slows a line of poetry down, while a dactyl, with its two unstressed syllables in a row, quickens the pace.
- In keeping with the previous lines of the poem, the line "E-ver to come up with dac-tyl's tri-syll-able" is written in dactyls. Additionally, there are four of them, which makes this a line of what? That's right – dactylic tetrameter. For more, see "Form and Meter."
Iambics march from short to long.
With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng.
- In these lines, the speaker describes two more types of feet: the iamb and the anapest.
- Iambics, or iambs, contain an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. They march from an unstressed syllable to a stressed one, like "attempt" or "display."
- "March" suggests that iambs are regular and regimented, kind of like an army, or even like a marching band, which is fitting when you consider the fact that the iamb is the most common type of foot in English poetry.
- Of course, clever Coleridge has written the line "I-am-bics march from short to long" in iambic tetrameter, which means that the line contains four iambs, all in a row.
- And now, for the anapest! Like the dactyl, the anapest contains three syllables; however, the pattern is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.
- It is a bit puzzling when the speaker says the anapest moves with a "leap and a bound." He probably says this because a leap is a short jump, whereas a "bound" is a larger type of jump.
- So, the anapest makes two small leaps (the unstressed syllables) and then a larger "bound" (the stressed syllables). But he also might be referring to the fact that many poets use anapests to create a leaping, galloping rhythm. Lines of anapestic meter typically move quickly, because there are so many unstressed syllables.
- "Throng" is here a verb (though it can also be a noun), and it means "to collect in large numbers" or "crowd" – in this case, a crowd of four, as in, four anapests. Like the other lines of the poem, line 6 is composed entirely of four of the feet it describes. We can scan it in the following way:
- "With a leap and a bound the swift An-a-pests throng."
- For an example of a poem that uses a lot of anapests, see our study guide for William Blake's "The Sick Rose."
One syllable long, with one short at each side,
Amphibrachys hastes with a stately stride –
- The poem continues by describing the amphibrach, a three-syllable foot that contains an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable, and then concludes with another unstressed syllable. An example is the word "ro-man-tic."
- The word "amphibrach" is of Greek origin, and it means "short on both ends," hence the speaker's line, "one syllable long, with one short at each side."
- The speaker describes the amphibrach as a quick meter that "hastes" (i.e., moves quickly) with a "stately stride." Hmm, that sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, or contradiction. How can a metrical foot haste, or hurry, with a stately, or unhurried, stride?
- Of course, lines 7 and 8 just wouldn't belong if they both didn't contain several amphibrachs. As an example take line 8: "am-phi-bra-chys hastes with a state-ly stride." So what do you think? Does that line feel both hasty and stately? Is such a combination even possible?
First and last being long, middle short, Amphimacer
Strikes his thundering hoofs like a proud high-bred racer.
- Okay, take a deep breath. There's more.
- The speaker next describes the amphimacer, which contains a long syllable, a short syllable, and a long syllable, as in the word "for-ty-five." This is what the speaker means when he says "first and last being long, middle short." Essentially, it means that an amphimacer is the opposite of an amphibrach.
- The word "amphimacer" is of Greek origin, and it means "long at both ends."
- Why do you think Coleridge describes the amphimacer as being like a horse (a "racer") with "thundering hoofs"? We suspect it has something to do with the large number of stressed ("long") syllables involved, which gives lines with amphimacers a "loud" or "thundering quality."
- As we no doubt expect by this point, the lines make use of amphimacers: "First and last be-ing long, mid-dle short, Am-phi-ma-cer."