Iambs in Fours, Iambs in Threes
Iambic pentameter? Don't make us laugh. This poem is written in iambic tetrameter—surely the best of all the iambic meters. That's right—your teachers have been filling your minds with outrageous lies all this time.
Ha—just kidding. Iambic pentameter has a lot to be said for it, no doubt. Some dude named Shakespeare apparently liked it, which is fine—but, here, we're all about Blake. And Blake went with the tetrameter (at least, in this case). But, what's the difference? What are we even talking about?
Don't worry, we're going to break it down. An iamb is just two beats—like daDUM. These two beats equal one poetic foot. So, if you go daDUM five times, that's iambic pentameter—five iambic feet (penta- means five). Now, if you go daDUM four times, that's iambic tetrameter—four feet (tetra- means four). In other words, iambic pentameter uses five metrical feet, and iambic tetrameter uses four.
Do we have examples? Oh, yes. We have a vast array of examples (…or just this one—but it's all you need):
He who the Ox to wrath has mov'd
Shall never be by Woman lov'd. (31-32)
Hear those four iambs? daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. (Blake replaces the E in "loved" with an apostrophe—rendering it "lov'd"—just to make sure that you're pronouncing it as one syllable.)
But the first stanza isn't an iambic tetrameter couplet—the "to see a world in a grain of sand" part is actually a quatrain (a four-line stanza), written in ballad meter. In this case, we're not counting the strict number of syllables—just the beats, the emphasized syllables. Try to tap your foot in time.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. (1-4)
Ballad meter is an extremely common kind of meter, and we think it appears here to allow the speaker time to set the ground rules for the poem. Before we dive in, we have to get a sense of this project—to put on our big-picture goggles and see how small things have big consequences. This choice of meter lets the speaker present his case more formally before diving into the more sing-song-y meter and rhyme scheme.
Now, about that rhyme scheme: once we're clear of the ABAB introduction of lines 1-4 (where each letter stands for that line's end rhyme, we move into an even simpler AABBCC pattern that, coupled with the shift to iambic tetrameter, makes the couplets seem, well, a bit nursery-rhyme-y. Of course, that also fits with this poem, since each couplet seems like a bit of wisdom, an aphorism to live by, you young whippersnappers, you. Essentially, the poem is announcing a set of philosophies on life and how it should be lived, and to that end each couplet uses a simple, memorable form to relay this advice.
One last question you might want to ask when it comes to this poem's form: "What is up with all that capitalization?" No, there's no set pattern to Blake's use of capital letters here. It seems most likely the case that he's using capital letters for emphasis, to call attention to words he wants to pop off the page for his readers—no big-picture goggles necessary this time.