Analysis: Form and Meter
Iambic Tetrameter and Rhyming Couplets
Housman may get into some pretty big ideas here, but he keeps the form of the poem pretty simple and regular. You definitely wouldn't call this an experimental poem. The poem's rhythm makes a great example—it almost never changes. The meter of this poem is called iambic tetrameter. That just means that each line has four pairs of syllables ("tetra-" = four), with the stress falling on the second syllable of each pair, like this:
You eat your victuals fast enough; (2)
Try reading that aloud—can you hear the rhythm? It should sound something like daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. It's like that in pretty much every line. The only exception is when the line starts on a stressed syllable. In that case there are only 7 syllables (3 and a half pairs, or feet) per line. The very first line is a good example of that:
'TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
For other examples of that kind of short line, check out lines 11, 13 and 20. Even the exceptions to the rule are pretty regular in this poem. Housman's not trying to rock the boat when it comes to meter.
The rhyme scheme is even simpler. The lines in this poem are matched up in rhyming pairs, one after another. We'll show you how that works in the first few lines by putting the rhyming sounds in bold, and noting each sound with a capital letter:
'TERENCE, this is stupid stuff: A
You eat your victuals fast enough; A
There can't be much amiss, 'tis clear, B
To see the rate you drink your beer. B
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make, C
It gives a chap the belly-ache. C
Pretty simple huh? The pattern of the rhyme goes AABBCC, two by two, right to the end of the poem. In oh-so-official poetry terminology, we call that pattern rhyming couplets.
So why did Housman choose such a regular, traditional pattern for his rhymes and his meter? Well, for one thing, we think he's trying to pick up on traditional forms that you might have heard in the countryside in England. After all, this poem takes place in a pub in England, full of ordinary, beer-drinking folks, so it wouldn't make sense to make it sound like it came out of some hip French coffee shop. This poem is all about the strength and power that comes from tradition, from old stories, and the simple pleasures of poetry. The regular, simple form of these verses fits right in with that.
One other thing worth noticing about this poem's form is the way the stanzas are broken up. Here Housman breaks away from the patterns we see in other aspects of the poem. Instead of making all the stanzas the same length, he uses them to help us understand the story he's trying to tell. Those little "paragraph" breaks give us important clues about what's changing in the poem.
In fact, each section of the poem is pretty different from the other ones. The first stanza gives us the opinion of Terence's friend. The second stanza is taken up with Terence's drinking story. The third is a defense of the value of poetry and the last is the story of King Mithridates. It's almost like four separate little poems hooked together. Pretty cool, huh?