Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.
What's a Trochee?
You don't have to be a poetry expert to hear the rhythms of the English language. To see what I mean, read the following words and phrases out loud:
Now, read the list again, and listen to the ups and downs in each word and phrase. Which syllables in each word and phrase sound stronger? For all the visual learners out there, here's the list again:
See a pattern? Each strong syllable is followed by a weak syllable. A strong syllable followed by a weak syllable is called a trochee.
Mirrors in Meter: Trochees and Iambs
In poetry, the pattern of strong and weak syllables in a line is called meter. The units that make up these patterns are called metrical feet. A trochee is just one of the many types of metrical feet. In fact, it's almost impossible to talk about the trochee without discussing its relationship to another metrical foot: the iamb.
The iamb is a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable. In other words, the iamb is the mirror image of the trochee. To get a better sense of how these two kinds of metrical feet work, let's look an example from Green Eggs and Ham.
First, we have Sam-I-Am's classic question:
Do you like green eggs and ham?
Notice how the last foot of the line is different than the first three? The first three feet ('Do you,' 'like green,' and 'eggs and') are perfect trochees, but the last foot ('ham') is just one strong syllable. By leaving the weak syllable out of the last trochee, Dr. Seuss has created a catalectic line. A catalectic line is simply a line of trochees that ends with a single strong syllable.
Next, let's consider the equally famous response to Sam-I-Am's question:
I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
Unlike Sam-I-Am's question, these lines are in perfect iambs. In a way, this strict meter reflects the speaker's stubbornness, which is essential to the story of Green Eggs and Ham. Also, because iambs begin with weak syllables, they tend to sound slower than trochees. Consequently, as Sam-I-Am's questions become longer and more complicated, the steady iambs in the responses add to the contrast (or difference) between the characters.
Spicing It Up: Trochees and Metrical Substitution
Still, trochees aren't only found in the whimsical lines of Dr. Seuss. Although trochees tend to give a line a bouncier feel, they can also be used to add to the drama of a line. Take, for example, the following lines from Shakespeare's tragic King Lear. King Lear delivers these lines right after his youngest daughter dies, so the rhythm Shakespeare uses imitates Lear's emotional state:
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
The first two lines are in perfect iambic pentameter (each line has five perfect iambs), and the third line is in perfect trochaic pentameter (the line has five perfect trochees). Now, read these lines aloud, and listen to the change that takes place in the last line. It's interesting enough that King Lear says the same word five times in a row, but the fact that word 'never' is a trochee is crucial to the line's dramatic effect. Because of the shift in where the strong syllables fall, this line sounds much faster and more frantic than those before it.
These lines are an excellent example of metrical substitution. In most cases, metrical substitution just means switching one metrical foot with another. This case is unique because all the metrical feet in the line have been substituted. This extreme use of metrical substitution only adds to the increasing sense of madness that defines King Lear as a character.
A Falling Rhythm: Trochaic Meter
Of course, trochees aren't just a 'substitute' for other metrical feet. Even though iambic meters dominate English poetry, many poems use trochaic meter. Unlike the steady, 'rising' rhythm (weak to strong) of iambs, the 'falling' rhythm (strong to weak) of trochees can make a poem seem to accelerate. However, because of this 'acceleration,' poets using trochaic meter rely on catalectic lines to create pauses. Edgar Allan Poe's famously creepy poem 'The Raven' is a beautiful example of trochaic meter:
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!
Only the first and third lines are in perfect trochaic meter. The trochees at the end of these lines ('sitting' and 'dreaming') keep pushing the poem forward, which fits the fear and anxiety of the speaker. The single strong syllables at the end of the catalectic lines ('door,' 'floor,' 'floor,' and 'more') slow this forward motion with slight pauses, giving us readers a chance to take everything in. Imagine how the poem would sound without any catalectic lines at all. It would speed right by us, and it probably would take a few seconds to realize that the poem had ended!
Let's recap what we've learned about trochees. A trochee is a kind of metrical foot that uses a strong syllable followed by a weak syllable. Trochees are often used as 'substitutes' for iambs (a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable). When writing poems in trochaic meter, poets use catalectic lines (a line of trochees ending in a single strong syllable) to create pauses.
When you finish this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define meter and metrical feet
- Compare trochee and iamb
- Describe catalectic lines
- Give examples from poetry of these rhythmic patterns
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