War Is Kind
by Stephen Crane
Analysis: Form and Meter
"War Is Kind" is written in free verse. No, not "Free Bird," like the Lynyrd Skynyrd song. Free verse. Vers libre.
Verse Free or Die
Okay, so does that mean the verse is, like, not in chains or something? Actually, that's exactly what it means. Up to a point. "War Is Kind" doesn't follow any strict metrical pattern or rhyme scheme. Seems simple enough, right?
Ah, but there's a catch (ain't there always?). Free verse isn't really free. As T.S. Eliot once remarked, "No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job."
So you might say that free verse is free-but-not-free. How's that possible? Well, while there's no dominant pattern to these lines like, say, iambic pentameter, some of the lines do have some rhythmic regularity. Take line 8, for example, which we can scan this way: "These men were born to drill and die." Eight syllables, four beats, nice and neat. The first foot contains two stressed syllables (it's called a spondee), but the other three are iambs (da-DUM). So, even though the first beat is a spondee, we could call this line iambic tetrameter, because it's got four feet, three of which are iambic. That's a metrical in a free verse poem.
But wait, there's more. The poem also contains a ton of lines that are weird, like line 1: "Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind." The first beat (Do not weep) contains an unstressed syllable sandwiched between two stressed syllables; this little guy is called an amphimacer. The next beat (maiden) is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, and it's called a trochee. The last two beats are iambs—unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
So we have three beat types in this line alone, so what do we call it? Trochaic-iambic tetrameter with an amphimacer thrown in? Eh, no. There's not really a good name for it. It's completely free, or exempt from any metrical categorization. And there you have it folks—free verse—a poem with no dominant or regular metrical scheme.
In addition to not complying with any rigid metrical patterns, "War Is Kind" doesn't rhyme regularly, either. Sure, a few lines rhyme (lines 1 and 5, 8 and 11, 12 and 16, and 19 and 22), but more often than not there are weird partial-rhymes. For example, in the poem's first stanza the long "i" sound in "kind"" and "sky" rhymes, but not completely. The same goes for the "t" in "regiment" and "fight" in the second stanza, and the "m" sound in "them" and "kingdom."
Now for an answer to that burning, searing, scorching question about the point of all this irregularity. Well, "War Is Kind" is about war, right? And war is chaos, right? Soldiers clash, people get murdered, rules and regulations and lines are all blurred and confused. Crane's refusal to confine his poem to one specific meter and one specific rhyme scheme, coupled with his deliberate use of weird slant rhymes, mimics the chaos and irregularity of war. That's pretty neat, right? Even the most regular-looking thing—the lengths of the stanzas—changes at the last minute. Stanzas 1 and 3 are five lines, stanzas 2 and 4 are six lines; we expect stanza 5 to be fives lines and… it's four. Such a sneaky little poet, that Stephen Crane.