Literature: A Student's Guide

Literature: A Student's Guide


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A seasoned professor invites students into the great conversation of literature through the centuries and shows how the study of poetry draws us closer to God and his work in the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433531439
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 06/08/2012
Series: Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition Series
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 889,557
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Louis Markos (PhD, University of Michigan) is professor of English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of twelve books and has published over 120 book chapters, essays, and reviews in various magazines and journals. He lives in Houston with his wife, Donna, and their two children.

David S. Dockery (PhD, University of Texas) is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also is the chancellor of Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, following five years as president. He is a much-sought-after speaker and lecturer, a consulting editor for Christianity Today, and the author or editor of more than thirty books. Dockery and his wife, Lanese, have three sons and seven grandchildren.

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Until the twentieth century, nearly every poem written in English was built upon the framework of a set rhythmical scheme. Though many poems were written that did not rhyme, very few were written that did not adhere to a fixed pattern of stresses. This recurring metrical pattern formed the blueprint for traditional poetry: a blueprint that was as rigid as it was supple, as systematic as it was inexhaustibly flexible. In the best poetry, this blueprint combined the logical order of the mathematical proof with the gentle undulations of the lullaby.

Though many link traditional meter to the counting of syllables, a true and proper understanding of meter rests not on counting syllables but on hearing stresses (or accents). Every word we write or speak has at least one stress. In a one-syllable word, the stress falls on the one syllable. But in 99 percent of two-syllable words, and in the vast majority of three-syllable words, only one syllable will carry a stress. In the words today, because, and intervene, the stress falls on the final syllable; in the words joyous, season, and yesterday, the stress falls on the first syllable. There are two ways to write this out. Either we can place an accent mark (') over the stressed syllable and a line (- or ?) over the unstressed syllable, or we can simply write the stressed syllable in ALL CAPS. In this book, I will adapt the second method. The six words mentioned above would be written thus: to-DAY, be-CAUSE, in-ter-VENE, JOY-ous, SEA-son, YES-ter-day.

Though few people realize it, when we say that a person from another state or country speaks with an accent, we often mean, literally, that he puts his accent on an unexpected syllable. Thus, whereas the standard pronunciation of the words cement and insurance are ce MENT and in-SUR-ance, most people in my home city of Houston shift the accent to the left and pronounce these words as CE [SEA]-ment and IN-sur-ance. Interestingly, when the accent is changed, it often forces some of the vowels to change as well. Thus, in the first example, the first "e" changes its sound quite dramatically, while, in the second example, the change in the "u" sound is a bit more subtle.

Here are three more examples: (1) Americans watch AD-ver-tise-ments on TV, while the British watch ad-VER-tise-ments (note that the "i" changes its sound); (2) if a secretary suffers ha-RASS-ment on the job, her lawyer will sue the boss for HAR-ass-ment (note that the first "a" changes its sound); (3) students refer to the author of The City of God as AU-gus-tine, while their theology professors call him Au-GUS-tine (note that the "i" changes its sound).


Only once we have learned to distinguish the stresses in the words we use can we begin to understand poetic rhythm (or meter). In prose writing and in normal speech, the stresses come at us helter-skelter, in no set pattern; in traditional poetry, however, the stresses fall into a series of recurring metrical units known as feet. A poetic foot (pl.: feet) is a twoor three-syllable unit with one stressed syllable (S) and one or two unstressed syllables (U). The four basic feet on which traditional English poetry is built are as follows:

iamb (adj.: iambic) U/S to-DAY trochee (adj.: trochaic) S/U JOY-ous anapest (adj.: anapestic) U/U/S in-ter-VENE dactyl (adj.: dactylic) S/U/U YES-ter-day

Note that there is no foot that looks like this: U/S/U. There is, however, one type of foot that breaks the one-stress-per-foot rule. It is called a spondee (adj.: spondaic), and it is composed of two stresses (S/S), as in the word football (FOOT-BALL). Though I have used one-word examples to illustrate each poetic foot, the foot can be composed of more than one word, or it can be composed of parts of one or more words. The phrase "at the FAIR" is an anapest; the first two syllables of "be-COM-ing" form an iamb.

If we want to determine the rhythm/meter of a poem, we do not count the number of syllables in each line but the number of feet; of course, in counting the number of feet, we are also counting the number of stresses (since each foot has one stress). Each line of the poem will consist of one or more feet. If the line has only one foot it is referred to as a monometer line. Here are the words to designate lines that are composed of more than one foot:

2 feet dimeter
3 feet trimeter
4 feet tetrameter
5 feet pentameter
6 feet hexameter
7 feet heptameter
8 feet octameter

Once we know the names of each foot (in its adjectival form) and the names used to designate the number of feet in the line, we can come up with formal names to describe each line of poetry. If the line is composed of three iambs, it is called an iambic trimeter line. Here are some other combinations:

4 trochees trochaic tetrameter
5 anapests anapestic pentameter
6 dactyls dactylic hexameter


If we are reading a traditional poem, and we would like to determine its meter, we must scan the poem (noun: scansion). We do this in the form of a three-step process. First, we must figure out where the stresses fall in the line. Consider this line from Alexander Pope: "Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!" Here are the syllables where the stresses fall:

e-TER-nal SUN-shine OF the SPOT-less MIND

Once we have written in the stresses, we need to study the line carefully and see if those stresses fall into a pattern. In this case, there is a clear iambic pattern of alternating unstresses and stresses. We then complete the scansion by putting a slash (/) between each foot:

e-TER / nal SUN / shine OF / the SPOT / less MIND

If we count up the number of iambs, we will find that we have here a line of iambic pentameter: not surprising, since iambic pentameter is the most common poetic line in English. Here are some other examples of scanned lines:

Be-CAUSE / i WOULD / not STOP / for DEATH (iambic tetrameter)
HAIL to / THEE blithe / SPIR-it (trochaic trimeter)
On the EIGH / teenth of A / pril in SE / ven-ty FIVE (anapestic tetrameter)
CAN-non to / RIGHT of them (dactylic dimeter)

Because of the important role that a set rhythm plays in traditional poetry, poets will sometimes "bend" their words in order to make them fit the meter. Consider these two lines from Martin Luther's great hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God":

His CRAFT / and POW'R / are GREAT And ARMED / with CRU / el HATE

Both of these lines are written in iambic trimeter; however, to make the meter work properly, Luther (or, more accurately, his translator) was forced to adapt a word in each line. In the first line, the two-syllable word "power" is condensed down to the one-syllable "pow'r" (by a process known as elision). In the second line, the one-syllable word "cruel" is stretched out into the two-syllable "cru-el." Anyone who sings hymns will have noticed how often hymns force us to pronounce the twosyllable word heaven as if it were one syllable (heav'n): to make it worse, we are often expected, somewhat unnaturally, to rhyme the onesyllable "heav'n" with "giv'n." Lovers of Shakespeare will no doubt have noticed how often the bard expects us to pronounce a past-tense verb such as loved as if it were two syllables: lov-ed. If the poet is nice, he will mark his elisions by using an apostrophe ("heav'n") and his extensions by using an accent mark ("lovéd"), but poets do not always do that, and the reader is often left to figure out when a word needs to be elided or extended.


Although nearly every line of poetry written before the modern period can be identified by its number of feet, poets rarely repeat a poetic line over and over again in the exact same way. While maintaining a set pattern of, say, iambic pentameter, poets will vary their meter through the use of poetic substitutions. At any point in the line, poets may substitute one foot for another. In this example from Richard III, Shakespeare varies his iambic pentameter line by substituting a trochee for the first iamb of the line:

NOW is / the WIN / ter OF / our DIS / con-TENT

The student who scans this line and notices that it begins with a trochee might at first be tempted to label the line "trochaic," but he would be wrong to do so. A line is defined by its dominant foot, not by its initial foot. In the example above, the first foot is a trochee, but it is followed by four iambs. The line is therefore not trochaic but iambic with a trochaic substitution. Here are some other examples with accompanying explanations:

she DWELT / a-MONG / the un-TROD / den WAYS
(iambic tetrameter; an anapest has been substituted for the third iamb)
a-WAY / in a MAN / ger no CRIB / for a BED
(anapestic tetrameter; an iamb has been substituted for the first anapest)
TEN-der-ly / TEN-der-ly / JE-sus is / CALL-ing
(dactylic tetrameter; a trochee has been substituted for the fourth dactyl)
(iambic pentameter; a spondee has been substituted for the second iamb)

Another variation that poets make in their lines to avoid monotony and to vary (without breaking) the set rhythm is to add an additional unstressed syllable to the end of the line. In the following example, the extra unstressed syllable is underlined:

To BE / or NOT / to BE / that IS / the QUES-tion WHE-ther / 'tis NOB / ler IN / the MIND / to SUF-fer
(note that in the second line a trochee has been substituted for the first iamb)
We GA / ther to-GE / ther to ASK / the Lord's BLESS-ing
(note that an iamb has been substituted for the first anapest)

This technique of adding an unstressed syllable to the end of the line is only used when the dominant foot is an iamb or an anapest, that is, in lines that end with a stress. When the dominant foot is a trochee or a dactyl, a different variation is used. Instead of adding an additional unstressed syllable, the final unstressed syllable is dropped. In the following trochaic tetrameter line, the expected unstressed syllable at the end of the line is dropped, leaving a strong-sounding line that both begins and ends with a stress (I've underlined the missing syllable):

TY-ger / TY-ger / BUR-ning / BRIGHT ___

The technical term for this variation is a truncation, for the last (unstressed) syllable has been cut off (or truncated). Truncation can also be used on dactylic lines, though in some cases, the truncation is indistinguishable from a substitution:

HALF a league, / HALF a league, / HALF a league, / ON-ward ___

It would be proper to describe this line either as truncated dactylic tetrameter or as a dactylic tetrameter line in which a trochee has been substituted for the fourth dactyl. There are, however, cases where a dactylic line will have both of its final unstressed syllables dropped (a sort of double truncation); in this case, the line has clearly been truncated, for only a single stressed syllable remains to make up the foot. Consider these two lines from a well-known hymn; the first line has had its last syllable truncated, while the second line has been double truncated:

GREAT is thy / FAITH-ful-ness / O God my /FA-ther ___ THERE is no /SHA-dow of / TUR-ning with / THEE ___ ___

It must be added here that there are some literary critics who, when confronted with a line such as "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright," insist on referring to it as truncated iambic. They do so because they prefer to scan the line thus:

___ TY / ger TY / ger BURN / ing BRIGHT

I myself am strongly opposed to this practice, for it violates the integrity of the trochee. The rhythm and "feel" of "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright" is fully trochaic and must be distinguished from the very different rhythm and feel of the iamb. And it is important to make this distinction, for the use of truncation in trochaic and dactylic verse is quite common. Aside from allowing a poet to begin and end his line with a stress, truncation also allows him to make use of a masculine, rather than a feminine, rhyme.

A masculine rhyme is one that ends on a stress. In most cases, a masculine rhyme makes use of one-syllable words: gold/told, free/tree, sing/bring, brave/gave. It is possible, however, for one or both of the words in a masculine rhyme to have two or three syllables: LET/forGET, BLEED/in-DEED, GREEN/in-ter-VENE. What makes it a masculine rhyme is that the stress falls firmly on the last syllable, giving the rhyme a strong, "masculine" feel. In a feminine rhyme, where the words must be at least two syllables long, the stress is followed by one or two unstressed syllables: FLY-ing/DY-ing, SINGing/BRING-ing, a-DOR-a-ble/de-PLOR-a-ble. (Note that even in the feminine rhyme, the actual rhyme itself still falls on the stress; the syllables that follow the stress must be exactly the same in sound for the feminine rhyme to work properly.) Here, the feel is more light and flowing (more "feminine") than in the harder, sharper masculine rhyme.

Although poets who write in Italian, French, and Spanish — languages in which many words have the same endings — make heavy use of feminine rhymes, most English poets prefer to use masculine rhymes. English, with its strong monosyllabic Germanic roots, naturally gravitates toward masculine rhymes; indeed, when an unskilled (or even a skilled) English or American poet uses too many feminine rhymes, he risks making his poem sound frivolous and "sing-songy." (Byron's satirical Don Juan, the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and comedy-driven Broadway musicals all make heavy use of feminine rhymes.) By truncating his trochaic lines, the poet ensures that his lines will end on a stress — thus allowing him to use masculine rhymes. Consider the difference in feel and gravity between the following two pairs of lines (truncated trochaic tetrameter, followed by trochaic tetrameter):

Nothing in my hand I bring, / Simply to the cross I cling Nothing in my hand I'm bringing / Simply to the cross I'm clinging

There is a firmness and nobility in the first pair of lines that is compromised in the second by the use of the less stately feminine rhyme, "bringing/clinging."


Thus far, I have considered individual lines of poetry in isolation. When we read actual poems, we encounter them not as individual lines but as members of a tightly knit group of lines known as a stanza. These stanzas are defined both by the meter of the lines that make them up and by the rhyme scheme that binds the lines together. Though it is possible to make use of a stanza that does not rhyme, in nearly all cases, the stanza will contain at least one pair of rhyming words. To designate the rhyme scheme of a stanza, we use the letters of the alphabet. If the four lines of a four-line stanza end with the words "may/sea/day/me," then the rhyme scheme would be written thus: abab. If the last four words were "may/day/sea/me," then the rhyme scheme would be aabb. If the last four words were "may/see/you/me," then the rhyme scheme would be abcb. Although the majority of rhymes are exact rhymes (feel/steal), poets often use rhymes that are not exact (known as off rhymes or eye rhymes): love/prove, bone/done, mind/thine, Lord/word, heaven/given.

Once a poet establishes a stanza form, he will repeat that stanza over and over again — though he will likely scatter metrical substitutions throughout the poem. (In the case of formal hymns meant to be sung, there can be no substitutions since each stanza must fit the same tune; if there is a substitution, it will have to be repeated faithfully in each stanza so as not to disrupt the singing.) If the poet does decide to vary either the meter or the rhyme scheme of one or more of his stanzas, he will do it for a very specific reason, usually to call attention to that specific stanza or to a specific line within the stanza. Still, the general rule is that each stanza maintain the same meter and rhyme — a rule that is only violated on the large scale when the poet sets out to write a specific kind of poem known as an ode. In odes, both the ancient Greek odes of Pindar and more modern ones like Wordsworth's "Intimations Ode" or Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode," each stanza varies in its meter, its rhyme scheme, and even its number of lines. Let us consider some common stanza forms.

Heroic couplets are formed of two iambic pentameter lines that rhyme aa. Alexander Pope, who lived and wrote during the Age of Reason, was the master of the heroic couplet, and he mined it for all its worth. Here is an example from his Essay on Man:

Say FIRST / of GOD / a-BOVE / or MAN / be-LOW, What CAN / we REA / son BUT / from WHAT / we KNOW?

Though Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley would occasionally write in heroic couplets, the form is strongly associated with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. As used by Pope, the heroic couplet is always tightly organized with a strong stop at the end of each couplet, marked by a period, a semicolon, or a colon (only occasionally a comma). The couplets are further arranged in the form of a mathematical proof that moves logically, step-by-step, from proposition to proposition to conclusion. In the movement of Pope's heroic couplets, we can feel the balance, the order, and the rationality that his Age of Enlightenment prized so highly.


Excerpted from "Literature"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Louis A. Markos.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Series Preface 11

Introduction: Why Literature Matters 15

1 Rhythm and Rhyme 23

2 Words and Images 43

3 Ages, Authors, and Genres 61

4 Theory and Criticism 103

Questions for Reflection 125

Timeline 127

Glossary 128

Resources for Further Study 135

Index 139

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Louis Markos not only possesses the wisdom of C. S. Lewis but also Lewis’s uncanny ability to put complex ideas into a succinct and simple language that is accessible to everyone. Such a gift is invaluable to the writing of a student’s guide to literature. Markos takes his readers through the principles and ages of literature on a tour of discovery that is also a tour de force. The wise and prudent student will read it avidly and then keep it near at hand as a constant companion and guide—a literary friend upon whom the student can always rely.”
—Joseph Pearce, Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of Literature, Ave Maria University; author, Through Shakespeare's Eyes and Literary Converts

“Louis Markos has produced an insightful digest of the most crucially important issues confronting the serious student of literature. All the tools for study are here, as well as an analytic account of literary commentary from Plato on up to the present day. Written from a frankly Christian point of view, the study reveals how essentially religious—until fairly recently—the Western literary tradition has been. Not only students will benefit from this learned and perceptive overview, but mature scholars of the discipline will also find The Student’s Guide a helpful and clarifying aid.”
—Louise Cowan, Professor of Literature, University of Dallas; author, The Epic Cosmos

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