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USAGE: The Native Measures (part 1)

From:John Cowan <cowan@...>
Date:Saturday, January 29, 2000, 20:01
Formal English verse has since the Norman Conquest been dominated by the
borrowed conventions of foot-verse and rhyme that are pan-European.
They completely displaced (except for occasional revivals such as
Tolkien's) the earlier convention of alliterative verse that we
discussed at length a few weeks ago.

However, there is another set of conventions for English poetry
that are so deeply backgrounded that they are rarely discussed or
explained; most of the theory was developed incidentally by the
makers of hymn-books, who needed a system for explaining which
hymns could be sung to which tunes.  I will call this system the
Native Measures; a brief explanation of the system follows.
(ObConlang: some people may wish to try writing verse in their
conlangs in accordance with it.)

The Native Measures have a characteristic stress pattern of four
stressed syllables per line, and the number of unstressed syllables
is not formally important, as inthe alliterative line.  However,
rhyme, typically in the form of rhymed couplets, is a major formal
element that crosses line boundaries.  A unique characteristic
of the Native Measures is the possibility of displacing the fourth
stress by a *pause*: not a sense-pause, like a caesura, but an
actual rhythmical pause, corresponding to a rest in music.

I will notate Native Measures verse by putting 1, 2, 3, or 4
after each stressed syllable.  A 4 by itself represents the pause.

The Native Measures show up most easily in naive verse, such as
nursery rhymes:

        Jack1 and Jill2 went up3 the hill4
        To fetch1 a pail2 of wa3ter, 4
        Jack1 fell down2 and broke3 his crown4
        And Jill1 came tumb2ling af3ter. 4

Note that 1 and 3 are more prominent stresses than 2 and 4 are;
this feature provides the characteristic "backbeat" of the
Native Measures:  ONE-two-THREE-four.  This feature will become
formally important later.

The individual Native Measures are as follows:

        Long Measure (LM) has 4 stresses in each line and no pauses.
        Short Measure (SM) has 3 stresses plus pause in each line.
        Common Measure (CM) alternates 4-stress and 3-stress-plus-pause.
        Poulter's Measure (PM) is organized into 3-, 3-, 4-, 3-stress.

"Jack and Jill" above is CM, which indeed is the most common form.
Limericks are usually treated as anapestic foot-verse with 2-foot and
3-foot lines, but the recitation pattern is that of PM:

        There was1 a young la2dy named Bright3,  4
        Who trav1elled much fas2ter than light3.  4
                She took1 off one day2
                In a rel3ative way4
        And returned1 the prev2ious night3.  4

(Later: dipodic measures, extended lines, other applications)

John Cowan                         
       I am a member of a civilization. --David Brin