Study Guide

Adam's Curse Form and Meter

By William Butler Yeats

Form and Meter

Heroic Couplets

Heroic couplets, most popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, are rhyming pairs of verse in iambic pentameter. Say what? Don't worry; we'll break it all down for you Shmoopers, starting with meter.

Meter

Meter is the rhythm of the syllables and words in a line. For example:

We sat together at one summer's end (1)

Notice where the syllables are stressed? It sounds like "daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM" when read aloud. Try it again:

We sat together at one summer's end (1)

Each "daDUM" is considered a foot in the line—the building block of the line's rhythm. There are many types of feet, but one made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable is called an iamb. Since there are five feet in each line, it's written in iambic pentameter (penta- means five). There are many types of meter, but iambic pentameter is the most widely used in poetry.

So why use it here? Well, the popularity of this form in some ways make perfect sense for a poem about how unappreciated poetry and poets are. Iambic pentameter is the classic poetic meter, so Yeats is putting forth his lament with all the force of poetry's tradition behind it. He's invoking all the greats with this choice: Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser—you name it.

This form also allows him to put the poem together with something called heroic couplets. No, they aren't rocking capes or shooting lasers out of their eyes. So, what makes these so heroic? Rhyme—read on all about it…

Rhyme

First up, a couplet is just two lines of poetry. In "Adam's Curse," each couplet rhymes. Check it out:

Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
(7-8)

Two lines of rhyming iambic pentameter are called a heroic couplet, a testament to a perfection of form—as well as the hard work of writing well-wrought poetry, as our speaker points out. Sometimes, however, the words are slant rhymes, or half rhymes. For example:

That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
(36-37)

"Strove" and "love" aren't quite rhyming, but they're almost there. In much the same way, the speaker seems to be subtly emphasizing how his love for the girl also doesn't quite get there. Sure, they "seemed" happy, but they were really just "weary" in the end—bummer. The perfect end rhymes give us a sense of that happiness, and of poetry's perfection. The slant rhymes remind us, though, that this love was never quite attained, and that people have no time for poetry these days anyway. Thanks for cheering us up, W.B.

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