Form and Meter
Iambic Meter and Regular Rhyme (Well, Kinda…)
This is a pretty long poem, so maybe it makes sense to start out by looking at how it's broken up. Are you with us? Good. There are two major sections of this poem. The first part is narrated by an unnamed speaker. It's made up of five sections (or stanzas) that are each nine lines long.
After that, the rest of the poem is taken up by the song the sailors sing (which Tennyson calls the "Choric Song"). There are eight stanzas in the Choric Song (some handy Roman numerals are included to help you keep count). Unlike in the opening section, these stanzas are all different lengths, and they generally get longer as the poem goes on. The first stanza of the song is 11 lines long, and the last one is 29.
The change in the form of stanzas helps to drive home the difference between the narrating speaker and the sailors. The narrator of the first stanzas seems calm, cool, collected, and, well, totally sober. The sailors… eh, maybe not so much. So it makes sense that the stanzas where they speak are a little more irregular, a little looser in their length and structure.
Bust a Rhyme
Now let's tackle the rhyme. Again, there's a big difference between the regular, tidy opening stanzas and the looser, more free-form Choric Song.
Each of the first five stanzas of the opening has the same rhyme pattern. Here's an example:
Branches they bore of that enchanted stem, A
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave B
To each, but whoso did receive of them, A
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave B
Far far away did seem to mourn and rave B
On alien shores; and if his fellow spake, C
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave; B
And deep-asleep he seem'd, yet all awake, C
And music in his ears his beating heart did make. C(28-36)
See how that goes? If we wrote out all those capital letters the pattern of end rhymes (called the rhyme scheme) would look like this: ABABBCBCC.
In the Choric Song, there's a ton of rhymes, but, well, they don't follow a steady pattern. Sometimes three lines in a row will rhyme (50-52), and sometimes there will be a line that doesn't rhyme with anything (71). We think Tennyson is using this kind of messy (but still pretty) rhyme pattern to give us a sense of the weird state of mind the sailors are in. They've entered a world that looks a lot bit like ours, just… you know, twisted a little bit.
So Tennyson gives us plenty of rhymes, but he also doesn't let us get too comfortable with them. By constantly switching the rhyme patterns, he always keeps us a little off balance.
Feed the Meter
The basic rhythm of this poem is iambic (that means that the syllables come in pairs, with the emphasis on the second syllable). Lines 16-17 are a good example of that rhythm:
Three silent pinacles of aged snow,
Stood sunset-flush'd: and, dew'd with showery drops,
Hear that? It should sound like daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. That's the sound of five iambs hanging out together in a line of poetry. More commonly, this is known as iambic pentameter. In essence, this just means that a line has five iambs ("penta-" = five), but it's also probably the most popular meter in English poetry. (Can someone say Shakespeare?) For telling this classic tale, Tennyson chooses a very classic meter to hold his lines together.
At least, he does so for the most part. Sometimes, though, Tennyson mixes it up a little and does the opposite of an iamb, opening a line with a trochee (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable: DUMda). In line 28, for example, the word "branches" is trochaic, but the rest of the line is in iambs. Here, we'll show you what that looks like with the syllables all split up and the stresses marked:
Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
See how that goes? You should hear DUMda, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. You get the very same thing in the opening word of the first line: "Courage"—DUMda. These little tweaks keep the poem's meter from becoming boring and predictable, and they let Tennyson create different effects. In the line that begins with "Courage," he's pulling us right into the world of the poem—he wants to surprise us, to excite us, so it makes sense that he starts with a stressed syllable that, on a rhythmic level, grabs us by the collar and shouts "Heads up!"
As with the rhyme, Tennyson wants us to feel pretty much at home in this world, but also to feel a little strangeness, a little edge that keeps us guessing. For that reason, he sets up regular patterns, and then abruptly alters them without warning. In doing so, he never quite lets us relax into that comfy iambic groove—the occasional trochaic curveball makes sure of that.
So what do all these patterns and disruptions add up to? If you think about it, the form and meter of this poem do a great job of mimicking the content of the story itself. The regular patterns start to lull us into a dreamy comfort. We're almost in singsong-y mode when—blammo, random variations start to trouble our lullaby. Technically, then, the poem is suggesting that perhaps a nice, smooth descent into Lotus land is not the best course of action. There's something troubling about that blissful state, as this poem reminds us on many levels.