Arthur Waley and stress time metre




It’s worth looking at Arthur Waley’s line because it provides a good example of  ‘the line’ as such.  If you’re writing poetry in lines (that is verse, versification) you are putting lines one below another in parallel.  In almost all verse, including free verse, there is some basis for counting a stretch of text as a line,  some principle on when you end one line and start another.  In most poetry this is a combination of some sort of counting: so many syllables, stresses, feet, alliterations per line, and usually there’s a combination of these, and also rhyme).   Elizabethan poets used to refer to their ‘numbers’ , or ‘measure’, the word ‘number’ at that time also having magical connotations, and it shows the historical connection between poetry and the counting involved in music.    In other traditions such as the Hebrew one, the line is based on grammatical parallelism, and to a certain extent on meaning.


Of course you can have no other principle but the space on the paper itself, or the ‘breath’, each line ending with a spatial or vocal pause.  And this happens in some kinds of free verse.   Some free verse is based on parallelism, as is much of Penelope Shuttle’s recent very moving verse (and interestingly she thinks in terms of ‘breath’ also).    All verse is based on one or other kind or kinds of parallelism (repetition with variation),  metre being a form of parallelism,  and parallelism is in part repetition, something which in language is associated with our feelings.  In poetry often the effect of parallelism and/or metre is to draw attention to the emotional act of uttering as such, to our relationship with our language, and it’s the sound of language which in everyday life we used to express feelings.  Of course the printed poem has no sound as it waits there on the page, and one of the skills of writing is to suggest intonation and emphasis, and parallelism/metre has this  function too.  So it both attunes us to the idea that feelings are in the ‘offing’ as it were, and draws attention to the sound (the emotion always there) in language as such.     Waley’s poem has an overall  feeling  -  reinforced in part by his his metre - of quietness, and philosophical contemplation, and then more local feelings to do with contrast and sadness.


Waley’s line is interesting because it is in some ways minimal.  He has no rhyme, and you can use any number of syllables.  It is based on stressed syllables only, and in this it is the same as ordinary conversational English.   The difference is that the ordinary flow of speech is cut off at regular intervals, every 5 beats.   In Waley’s line you have 5 stressed syllables.

A cup of wine, under the flowering trees;


It’s a worthwhile exercise to see what happens if you try writing in within this basic structure[ii]., which is why I’ve suggested we look at Waley’s work.  He does other things with his rhythms, of course, but his metre is basically this simple  5 beats to a line and very few frills.  You’ll see that in this version of Li Po’s poem he keeps pretty much to end-stopped lines, that is the line ends in a pause marked by some form of punctuation. 



A cup of wine, under the flowering trees;
I drink alone, for no friend is near.
Raising my cup I beckon the bright moon,
For he, with my shadow, will make three men.
The moon, alas, is no drinker of wine;
Listless, my shadow creeps about at my side.
Yet with the moon as friend and the shadow as slave
I must make merry before the Spring is spent.
To the songs I sing the moon flickers her beams;
In the dance I weave my shadow tangles and breaks.
While we were sober, three shared the fun;
Now we are drunk, each goes his way.
May we long share our odd, inanimate feast,
And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the sky.


There are some additional comments on syllables here


[ii] Take any sentence at random.  Here’s something from  a children’s booklet on puzzles.

“Have fun decoding secret notes and then use the codes to send messages to your friends.”

Suppose we adjust this to fit into a Waley type of line


Have fun decoding secret notes

and then use the codes to send messages

to your friends


We have an awkward overlap, ‘to your friends’ but  we’re lucky that the first clause fits a line neatly, and that the second line could end just on ‘messages’ .   Not too difficult to readjust, though


Have fun decoding secret notes

and use the codes to send messages to your friends


But now the second line is awkward with the rush of ‘-ages to your’


Have fun decoding secret notes

and use the codes to send your friends  messages


And also, there’s a lot of redundancy,  the idea of ‘secret message’ being said so many times.  How could we relate this to something ‘in’ us though.   Messages and secret codes have plenty of possibilities.


                                I have fun decoding your messages, using the code,

sending your lover an even more secret reply.



[iii] the milky way