Study Guide

Apparently with no surprise Form and Meter

By Emily Dickinson

Form and Meter

Subversive Hymns

The meter of "Apparently with no surprise" seems pretty straightforward at first glance, but Emily's got something else up her sleeve.

Let's dig in.

For starters the whole poem is iambic, which means that it's chopped up into… wait for it… iambs. What's an iamb? It's simple. An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Read the first line out loud, accenting the syllable in bold, and you'll pick up what we're putting down:

Apparently with no surprise (1)

Boom: iambs. The singsong rhythm moves us forward and keeps us rocking as we go through the poem. The meter of this line is called iambic tetrameter because it rocks it out with four iambs ("tetra" = four). Emily gives us something a little different in the next line, though. See if you can figure it out:

To any happy Flower (2)

The difference? It's shorter, right? This line has only three iambs, so it's in what we call iambic trimeter ("tri" = three). The poem goes on like this, alternating between tetrameter and trimeter till the bitter end. The whole thing may seem neat and tidy on a whole, but didn't we say something about the meter being subversive?

Hymning It Up

Well, this particular pattern of shifting between iambic tetrameter and trimeter is what's called ballad meter, or hymn meter. You can probably guess that hymn meter is a type of meter that was used in hymns—especially hymns written by Isaac Watts, whose hymns were big hits at the church Dickinson attended when she was growing up.

So Emily is getting subversive by using the meter of church songs in a poem that might just be questioning whether or not God is a major jerk who gives exactly zero hoots about death. We're guessing that one wouldn't go over to well in most churches.

Click here to read a great article about Emily's hymn meter obsession.

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