by Christina Rossetti
Analysis: Form and Meter
Iambic Pentameter with Trimeter Variants
Alright Shmoopsters, it's time dust off those thinking caps because you are going to be in serious need of them if you plan on taking on this section. The metrics of "Up-Hill" are so tricky that—just because we care—we've even included this handy-dandy link to Shmoop's Literary Term Glossary, just in case you need a brief refresher on some of the things that are going to come up. Okay, now that you're briefed and ready to dive in, let's go.
We're starting small for any newbies out there. When you're thinking about the meter of a poem, what you're essentially trying to do is figure out how the syllables of a line of poetry correspond with certain predetermined "feet" or beats. Iambs—which are two syllable pairs with an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed one (daDUM)—are one of the most commonly found, but there are lots of other kinds of feet, too. We have trochees (pronounced tro-keys), for example, which sound more like iambs in reverse (DUMda) and anapests, which have three syllables per foot instead of two, sounding more like dadaDUM. Anywho, once you figure out which kind of foot you're dealing with, you simply count the number of feet in that line, and see if that pattern holds true for the rest of the poem. If it does, voila. You have your meter.
If only things were so simple with "Up-Hill." Let's look at the first line of this poem and see exactly what we're talking about.
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Try to count the feet in that line and see what you come up with. There are a few potential options, so don't be worried if you come up with something weird.
Option 1: Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Analysis: Here we have an anapest, followed by a different metrical pattern called a spondee, and then two iambs. In other words, we get a totally confusing non-meter, probably sent here by some evil, poetry-hating alien planet.
Option 2: Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Analysis: This interpretation gives us a case of iambic tetrameter, which is just four iambs ("tetra-" means four). To start us off, we get two unstressed syllables at the beginning.
Option 3: Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Analysis: Option 3 is almost perfect iambic pentameter, with a short (half) foot at the beginning of the line.
Okay, the votes are in. We think we can all agree that Option 1, although it could technically be considered an accurate reading of that specific line, is not going to become our meter. We're left, then, with Options 2 and 3, which are admittedly very similar and, as you might have guessed, represent the two most prominent interpretations of the meter in "Up-Hill."
If you've looked at the top of this section, you already know which of the two remaining choices we're going to pick. But play along with Shmoop and just assume, for now, we're going with Option 2 and we now want to see how the rest of the poem fits in with our theory. We'll use stanza 1 again for the example:
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole-long day?
From more to night, my friend.
So what we've got here is an alternating pattern. The lines spoken by Speaker #1 tend to be longer in length than the responses by Speaker #2. We'll save you a bit of time and just tell that what Rossetti is doing here is experimenting with what is popularly known as ballad meter, the meter traditionally used when writing ballads. Generally, ballad meter alternates between four-beat lines and three-beat lines, but Rossetti is mixing things around. Some of Speaker #1's lines, like line 3, have five beats instead of the traditional four. The problem with meter Option 2, though, is that there are just kind of a lot of lines that have 5 beats, which really makes Shmoop start to wonder if this poem might be written in iambic pentameter after all.
Let's roll, instead, with Option 3. We'll use stanza 2 this time, just to shake things up a little:
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
If we were still looking for ballad meter, the five-foot length of line 6 would cause us a few problems. If we assume the poem is, instead, written in iambic pentameter with trimeter (three-foot) variants (a fancy word for times when something that generally fits in a pattern happens to be different), it gets a little bit simpler. The problem with the iambic pentameter conclusion, however, is that if you read "Up-Hill" out loud, it just sounds more like tetrameter (four feet) than pentameter (five feet). This is because Rossetti uses lots of compound words ("whole-long" in line 3, "resting-place" in line 5, just to name a couple) and pauses (the pause after "Yes" in line 2 or "Yea" in line 16) which can—and should, technically—be read as pentameter. Because they either combine words that are usually separate, though, or pause after words in an unusual way, your ear blends everything together and eliminates syllables and beats. After all, no one would actually ever pause that aggressively in the middle of "resting-place" if they were reciting this poem for an audience, right?
It turns out, though, that Rossetti is up to something here. She's trying to draw attention to the fact that meter is not always the same as rhythm. This is really unique and unusual, because in the vast majority of English poems, the two are the same. It's often very easy to tell when a poem is written in iambic pentameter because they all sound that way when they're read out-loud. In "Up-Hill," though, what's actually metrical strictness comes off sounding very loose because there is a clash between the pentameter-based meter and the ballad-sounding rhythm of the poem. While this is enough to make any English major's head spin, we think that Rossetti's decision to conflict between meter and rhythm mirrors the conflicts already being discussed in her poem (uphill vs. downhill, light vs. darkness, morning vs. night). And that, folks, is pretty darn cool.