Study Guide

The Nightingale Form and Meter

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Form and Meter

Blank Verse, Could Be Worse

Ask most people what they think a poem sounds like… and they'll probably tell you that it rhymes.

Well, not this one.

In fact, many of the most famous poems of all time, even those considered classics, don't rhyme. Everybody from Frost to Eliot eschewed traditional rhyme schemes for less… restrictive wordplay.

That doesn't mean that an unrhymed poem can't have form, though. You just have to dig a little deeper to find it.

Take a look at the following lines:

And hark! The Nightingale begins its song,
'Most musical, most melancholy' bird!
Try reading that first line out loud. It should sound something like this:

And hark! The Nightingale begins its song,
That repeating pattern (daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM) is called iambic pentameter. Let us explain. Each two-syllable pair is called a foot. In this case, the line's foot that is made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. That kind of pairing, friends, is called an iamb. And because each line has five iambs, the poem's meter is iambic pentameter (penta- meaning five).

Whew. But wait, there's more:

The poem is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is an even more specialized metrical form known as blank verse.

It's a style that mimics the way people speak, and that's why famous poets like Shakespeare and Milton were such fans.

There's one more key element to making sure blank verse sounds natural: enjambment, or breaking up a sentence in order to carry it over multiple lines. Check out the following example:

But some night-wandering man whose heart was pierced
With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
Or slow distemper, or neglected love,

See how the sentence moves from line to line? Enjambment keeps the poem moving fluidly, like a conversation.

In fact, it moves so fluidly, you may not even have noticed the carefully crafted form. In that way, this choice of meter is totally appropriate. The whole point of the poem is that poets are wrong for imposing their feelings onto the natural world. Form-wise, this poem uses an understated form—no rhyming or over-the-top rhythms—to draw us back to the main focus: the natural world itself. Tricky guy, that Coleridge.

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