Study Guide

Bearded Oaks Form and Meter

By Robert Penn Warren

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Form and Meter

On the page, this poem looks very respectable indeed. It's composed of ten quatrains (those are four-line stanzas) and written (A) in something called iambic tetrameter. Now don't get all worked up, Shmoopers, you know we'll hook you up with the translation. Iambic refers to the presence of—anyone?— iambs. Those are two-syllable pairs in which only the second syllable gets the stress (they sound like this: daDUM). "Tetra-" means four, so something in iambic tetrameter will have—wait for it—four iambs in the line: daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. Check it out:

The oaks, how subtle and marine! (1)

Hear that regular daDUM, beat? You should—four times to be exact. Don't get too used to it, though. We said that this meter is present for the most part, not all the time. Warren isn't marching to any metronome, here. He's changes up those marching iambs from time to time. His favorite trick is to start with a stressed beat, instead of the expected unstressed beat of the iambic lines. That makes for what are called in the poetry biz trochees, which are pretty much iambs in reverse (DUMda). Take a gander at these lines:

Bearded, and all the layered light (2)


Ages to our construction went, (13)

The effect is a little unsettling, subtly keeping us out of a singsong-y or even predictable rhythmic pattern. And the same goes for this poem's rhyme scheme

The poem starts out with an ABAB pattern of end rhymes (where the letter represent the rhyme sound of each particular line),

The oaks, how subtle and marine,
Bearded, and all the layered light
Above them swims; and thus the scene,
Recessed, awaits the positive night. (1-4)

But then the poem almost immediately begins to mess with that scheme (and, by extension, you too):

So, waiting, we in the grass now lie
Beneath the languorous tread of light;
The grassed, kelp-like, satisfy
The nameless motions of the air.

Man, we were going along and feeling just fine in with our expected rhyme scheme. At the end of the second stanza, though, in line eight we get "air" which pretty much in no way rhymes with "light." (Trust us, we tried to make it work.) The effect of this sudden shift in pattern might bring you to conclude that while order is important to this poem, a feeling of shifting balance is more pivotal to its meaning. And—guess what?—you'd be right. Good is seen only in contrast to bad, light in contrast to dark, still in contrast to the fury before. And that plays out in this poem's shifts in both form and meter. Expecting a zig? This poem's liable to zag on you. Don't worry, though, it's zagging for a purpose, a much bigger purpose meant to draw our attention to cosmic contrasts. So pay attention there, Shmoopers.

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