The Third Paeon

Share this essay on:

Although I knew what it was, I had never actually heard the third paeon until one afternoon forty years ago.  I was listening idly to the TV while doing something in the kitchen.  An ad for smokeless tobacco (“chew”) came on, and then a voice was saying:  “When I’m not out making music with the Charlie Daniels Band, you can find me at my ranch in Tennessee.”  I was elated!  Anyone who isn’t passionate about poetry won’t understand this, but I would like to try to explain.  The third paeon is a four-syllable poetic foot which has the rhythm:  [dih dih DAH dih].  There are four paeons, each named for the position of the strong stress:  it is on the third syllable here, so this is the third paeon.  What is really interesting is that this foot is almost completely ignored.  The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics goes so far as to say that it “exists only in ancient metrical theory” (“ancient” being Greek and Latin).  To help you see its structure, let’s set the ad’s text in columns.


when                    I’m                         NOT                      out

mak                       -ing                        MUS                      -ic

with                      the                         CHAR                    -lie

dan                        -iels                       BAND,

you                        can                         FIND                     me

at                            my                         RANCH                in

ten-                        nes                         -SEE.


Read this aloud two or three times to hear its rushing, steam-locomotive rhythm.


Did the ad-writer know that he was writing poetry?  I doubt it.  After all, George Saintsbury, a great student of poetics, says that the paeon is the most common metrical foot occurring in rhythmical prose, but he adds that it is unnecessary in English poetry.  I find this latter judgment very odd—but in fact, the third paeon is usually claimed to be a dipodic element (one made up of two feet [di-two, pod-foot]).  Supposedly, some of the stressed syllables in dipodic poetry are too weak to be considered as part of a pattern, and this has always seemed to me to be a strange make-shift idea.


But before examining dipody, let’s look at one of Gilbert’s wonderful patter songs from the Mikado.

[And the LA-dy] [from the PROV-in] [-ces, who DRES-ses] [like a GUY],

[And “who DOES-n’t] [think she WALTZ-es] , [but would RATH-er] [like to TRY]”


This is clearly written in the third paeon.  The last foot in each line is an anapaest [dih dih DAH], a substitution that allows the lines to end on a strong syllable, which makes them more emphatic.  Such substitutions are perfectly normal in traditional poetry.  Now, let’s turn to dipody.


Harvey Gross uses several lines of The Mikado to define dipody in his book, The Structure of Verse.   I’ve simplified his example a little but retained the sense of his notation:


[as SOME] [day it] [may HAP] [-pen that] [a VIC] [-tim must] [be FOUND]

. . . . .

[of so-ci-e] [-ty of-fend-ers] // [who might well be] [un-der ground]


The strongest stresses in the first line are capitalized, and the italics identify syllables that he says are even weaker than those marked with lower-case.  The double slash [// ] is supposed to be a pause in the line.  (I’m sorry for all of this claptrap, but I’ve kept it because it is important to Gross’ argument—and he is wrong on all points.)  He says that the first line is made up of iambic feet [dih DAH], as shown, and that the other line is dipodic.  Let’s see what we really have.


[as SOME day] [it may HAP-pen] [that a VIC-tim] [must be FOUND]

. . . . .

[of so-CI-e] [-ty of-FEND-ers] [who might WELL be] [un-der-GROUND]


The first foot in the first line is an amphibrach [dih DAH dih].  Any foot can be substituted for another in a line of poetry if it fits in rhythmically and if the underlying pattern remains clear.  Moreover, this substitution is quite natural because this is the beginning of the song and the note values of the music show that “as” is prolonged and takes up the same time as “of so” in the other line.  (I suspect that Gross was reading mechanically, failed to recognize the amphibrach, and treated the whole line as iambic.)


At this point we should probably say something about stress in English poetry.  Stress can come from the tonic accent required by our English pronunciation (“AC-cent,” for example) and this cannot be altered; it can come from quantity, the length of time spent in pronouncing the syllable, and this often works with the tonic accent we have been talking about (“op-POSED,” for example);  it can come from the rhetorical needs of a statement (“do it NOW!”); it can come from the relative syntactic importance of neighboring words (“at HOME”); and it can come from whimsy.  It is a curious fact of English pronunciation that any weak syllable can be stressed, just as long as it isn’t stressed more strongly than the tonic accent in the same word.  “GOOOOD NIIIIGHT, A-MER-i-CA,” as an old-fashioned newscaster might have said.


Moreover, American linguists recognize four levels of stress in English, although we can only distinguish these in individual words.  [op³-er¹-a⁴-tion²] for example has the strongest stress on “a,” the second strongest on “op,” the weakest on “er,” and the second-weakest on “tion.”  English prosody (the study of the mechanics of poetry) takes account only of “relative stress,” recognizing just two levels—strong and weak—as they exist in adjacent syllables.  Thus, we will certainly hear:  “the OP-er-A-tion FAILED” as being made up of three iambs:  [dih DAH] [dih DAH] [dih DAH].


These facts render the notion of dipodic feet suspect.  The Princeton Encyclopedia says that the dipodic metrical unit is made up of two “related but slightly dissimilar feet, one of which normally has a stronger stress than the other [the word, “dissimilar” is puzzling here].”  Such talk ignores the “relative stess” I mentioned in the last paragraph.  Lewis Turco, in his book, Poetry, unwittingly shows how redundant the idea of dipody is by saying:  “to put it as simply as possible, a dipodic unit is nothing more than a couplet made of two rhyming stichs [lines] of Anglo-Saxon prosody.”  Gross also says, “its descent from Old English strong stress meter should be noted.”  (Old English and Anglo Saxon are the same, here.)  There is no evidence for these sorts of statements, but this explains why Gross insists on the imaginary pause in the middle of the Mikado line:  he is trying to fit it into an inappropriate Anglo-Saxon context.


None of this makes any sense.  In Old English stress prosody there are four stresses per line separated by a medial pause, and there is an undetermined number of weakly stressed syllables.  If we are to say that the Mikado example is written in such stress prosody with four stresses to the line, we must ignore the fact that the number of unstressed syllables is not “undetermined,” and that they exist in a fixed pattern together with the stresses—something that isn’t at all true of Anglo-Saxon poetry.  In the lines we have been looking at, the number of unstressed syllables is counted out, just as the number of stressed syllables is, and the units in which they are counted are paeons.  This means that it is not stress prosody at all.  Beyond that, it is absurd to say that one line of a poem is iambic and another, comparable line is dipodic as Gross did!


Let’s look at a bit of Kipling’s poem, “The Explorer”:


[there’s no SENSE in] [go-ing FUR-ther] — [it’s the EDGE of] [cul-ti-VA-tion.”]

[so they SAID, and] [i be-LIEVED it] — [broke my LAND and] [sowed my CROP]—

[built my BARNS and] [strung my FEN-ces] [in the LIT-tle][bor-der STA-tion]

[tucked-a-WAY be-] [low the FOOT-hills] [where the TRAILS run] [out, and STOP].


Read this several times, noting the rhythm.  This example is made up of four lines consisting of four third-paeons each.  An anapaest or an amphimacer [DAH dih DAH] is substituted for the last paeon in alternate lines.  This provides a strong stress at the ends of these lines, producing a sense of finality.  In an actual reading, I would probably add stress to “go” in “going” in the first line.  This amounts to substituting a ditrochee [DAH-dih-DAH-dih] for the second of the paeons [GO-ing FUR-ther].  A few other such substitutions are easily made, but the paeonic pattern remains in the background.  (The other most likely substitution to be used in these lines would be the ionic a minore [dih-dih-DAH-DAH].  Together with the ditrochee, this would give variety to the lines.)


In describing any poem we look for a simple, clear framework that can be varied according to the circumstances, but which will provide an underlying unity.  There is nothing clear about dipody, and the only other possibility would seem to be one of the other paeons, perhaps the fourth [There’s no SENSE] [in go-ing FUR] [-ther it’s the EDGE] . . . etc., which seems clearly wrong.  An iambic reading [THERE’S] [no SENSE] [in GO][-ing FUR] [-ther IT’S] . . .  etc. produces an unpleasant rocking-horse rhythm that has little to do with any sensible reading.  Let’s face it:  the poem is written in paeons, and dipody is a useless fiction.



Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Alex Preminger (Princeton:  Princeton Univ. Pr., 1974).  I am ambivalent about this work, but it remains the only place in which to quickly find articles on such topics as “Eskimo Poetry” or “Rhopalic Verse”—if you are ever inclined to do so.

The Structure of Verse, Harvey Gross (New York:  Fawcett Publications, 1966).  This is not, as its title suggests, an organized treatment of verse, but a very uneven collection of essays, most of them (such as Ezra Pound's) of little value.  I have used the definition of dipodic verse in Gross’s glossary because it clearly demonstrates the problems with the notion.

Poetry:  An Introduction through Writing, Lewis Turco (Reston:  Reston Publishing Company, Inc., 1973.)  I disagree with Turco on many points—this remains a useful reference.

Historical Manual of English Prosody, George Saintsbury (New York:  Schocken Books, 1966.)  This was originally published in 1910.  It is a compressed treatment of the material Saintsbury presented in his three-volume A History of English Prosody, which is a survey of the development of the resources of traditional English poetry from its beginnings.  Anyone interested in the subject should have a copy of the Manual.  I must warn you that Saintsbury has an old-fashioned Classical background, which means that he thinks in terms of Greek and Latin feet; thus he says that the modern definition of a four-foot line as tetrameter is “grossly unscholarly.”  He would call it “dimeter,” and you should look up his definitions in the glossary before beginning to read.  (It is ironic that Harvey Gross wrote the introduction to it.  In it he mischaracterizes Saintsbury’s work and demonstrates that he doesn’t really understand it.  This failing probably originates in his interest in prose libre—free “verse.”)