Study Guide

Alone (Poe) Form and Meter

By Edgar Allan Poe

Form and Meter

Iambic Tetrameter

What's the form of one hand clapping? Our lonely speaker actually has a lot of formal surroundings in this poem. For example, "Alone" is made up entirely of couplets and is mostly composed in a meter called "iambic tetrameter." Before you run away in horror (this is Poe, after all), let us explain:

You may be thinking: "I've heard of iambic pentameter, but not iambic tetrameter." No worries—if you know your pentameter, understanding tetrameter is cake. It is exactly the same as iambic pentameter, except each line has four beats (or iambs) instead of five (tetra- means four). And what is an iamb, you ask? Oh, it's only the most common beat type in English poetry, one composed of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (daDUM).

Let's look at a few examples. Here is line 4:

My passions from a common spring.

This is nothing fancy, just some plain old iambic tetrameter: 8 syllables, 4 iambs, totally regular. When you read it out loud, you should hear daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM.

Now, while line 4—along with many other lines—is pretty "normal," "normal" can get boring for poets like Poe. To that end, take a look at line 13:

From the torrent, or the fountain.

Hmm, now wait just a minute here. That line looks almost exactly like the ones we just looked at, except the pattern is reversed. The line is composed of beats that contain a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Instead of daDUM, we have DAdum. The really neat thing is that this type of line has a name too: "trochaic tetrameter." It's just like iambic pentameter, except there are four trochees (DAdum) instead of four iambs.

There are a few things you need to know about this trochaic tetrameter business. First, while line 13 is nice and neat, some of the others, such as line 16, are not so neat:

In its autumn tint of gold.

Everything is cool except that last little beat ("gold") is missing its unstressed partner. But can you do that? The short answer is yes. It is perfectly acceptable in poetry to leave off a syllable here and there. The fancy name for this omission is "catalexis" (how's that for a 10 dollar word?). Just think of a cat and a Lexus, and you'll have no problem remembering it.

Now if catalexis and trochaic tetrameter aren't really your thing, you can take a slightly different approach. Without going into too much detail, we'll just tell you that it is possible to think of lines 13-22 as trimeters, or three-beat lines. If you're of the three-beat school, you need to know that the first foot of each line is almost always going to be an anapest, while the remaining two will (usually) be iambs. Try your hand at scanning line 22 and see what you come up with.

Now, it's okay if your head is spinning because ours is too. We bet that there's totally a point to all this confusion. But what might it be? Why are there so many different ways to scan these seemingly simple lines? And why does Poe change things up around line 13 anyway? These are all good questions. The good news is that they all have answers.

Think about it: as the poem gets closer and closer to line 13, the tone starts to shift. Right when the speaker says "then," there are suddenly trochees (DAdum) popping up all over the place. It's not quite like the speaker is yelling, but he definitely starts to sound less depressed and more confident. Look at lines 13-15. Each one of those lines starts with "from" (that's called anaphora), and you can hear the poem building to the climax that is the last line: "Of a demon in my view." Yikes, dude.

So the poem's meter is actually a subtle, but powerful, way to reinforce the speaker's mood and the poem's meaning. There was definitely a method, then, to Poe's metrical madness.

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