Spondee: Definition and Examples from Poetry

A Look at the Spondee Metrical Foot

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A spondee is an irregular poetic foot and is far less common than an iamb. Andrej Godjevac / Getty Images

A spondee is a metrical foot in poetry, composed of two stressed syllables. A poetic foot is merely a unit of measure based on stressed and unstressed syllables, usually made up of two or three syllables. There are a number of arrangements possible for the stresses within these syllables, and all of these arrangements have different names (iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, etc.). A spondee (coming from the Latin word for "libation") is a foot made up of two stressed syllables.

 

Spondees are what we call "irregular" feet. A regular foot (like an iamb) is often used throughout a whole line or poem. Since spondees are singularly stressed, every single syllable in the line or poem would need to be stressed in order for it to be considered "regular." This very rarely happens, since English largely relies on both stressed and unstressed syllables. Mostly, spondees are used for emphasis, as a foot or two in an otherwise regular (iambic, trochaic, etc.) poetic line.

How to Identify Spondees

Just as with any other metrical foot, the easiest way to identify spondees is to over-emphasize a word's or phrase's syllables. Try putting emphasis on different syllables to see which one feels the most natural (For example: do "GOOD morning," "good MORning," and "good morNING" all sound and feel the same? Which one sounds the most natural?). Once you figure out which syllables in a poetic line are stressed (and which are unstressed) you can then figure out if there are any spondees present.

Take this line from William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 56":

Which but to-day by feeding is allay’d,
To-morrow sharpen’d in his former might:

Scanning this line (checking out its stressed/unstressed syllables) we can write it out as:

"which BUT toDAY by FEEDing IS allAY'D, 
to-MORrow SHARPen'd IN his FORmer MIGHT" 

Here the capital-letter blocks are stressed syllables and lowercase are unstressed. As we can see, every other syllable is stressed--this line is iambic, and there are no spondees to be found. Again, it would be very unusual to find a whole line composed of spondees; there might be one or two in an entire poem. 

One common place to find a spondee is when a one-syllable word is repeated. Think “Out, out—” from Macbeth. Or someone shouting "No no!" It’s hard to pick one of the words to be stressed in cases like this: would we say “NO no!” or “no NO!”? Neither one feels right, whereas “NO NO” (with equal stress on both words) feels the most natural. Here's an example of that working really nicely in Robert Frost's poem "Home Burial":

...'But I understand: it is not the stones,

But the child’s mound—’

 

                             ‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried.

She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm

The majority of this poem is fairly tight iambic pentameter (five feet per line, with each foot made of unstressed/stressed syllables)--here, in these lines, we find variation on that.

'but i UNderSTAND: IT is NOT the STONES,
but the CHILD'S MOUND

This portion is largely iambic (even more so if you, like I do, pronounce "child" with two syllables).

But then we get to 

'Don't, don't, don't don't,' she cried.

If we were following and enforcing strict iambs here, we would get the weird and awkward

don't, DON'T, don't, DON'T

which sounds like an old junky car driving too fast over a speed bump. Instead, what Frost is doing here is a much more intentional slowing of the line, an inversion of the traditional and established meter. To read this as naturally as possible, as the woman would be speaking these words, we need to stress every single one.

'DON'T, DON'T, DON'T, DON'T,' she CRIED

This immediately grinds the poem almost to a halt. By stressing each one-syllable word, we are forced to take our time with this line, really feeling the repetition of the words, and, consequently, the emotional tension created by that repetition.

More Examples of Spondees

If you have a poem of metered verse, you'll probably find a spondee or two within the lines.

Here are two more examples of spondees in some lines you might recognize. Stressed syllables are capitalized, and spondees are in italics.

BATter my HEART, three-PERson'd GOD, for YOU 

As YET but KNOCK, BREATHE, SHINE, and SEEK to MEND; 

("Holy Sonnet XIV" by John Donne)

OUT, DAMNED SPOT! OUT, I SAY! - ONE: TWO: why,

THEN 'tis TIME to DO't.

(from Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

Why do Poets Use Spondees?

The majority of the time, spondees are unintentional. At least in English, which is a language based on stressed and unstressed syllables, you're likely to speak or write spondees on a regular basis without even knowing it. Some are just unavoidable; anytime you write "Oh no!" in a poem, for example, it's probably going to be a spondee. 

But, in all of the above examples from Frost, Donne, and Shakespeare, these extra weighted words do something for the poem. By making us (or an actor) slow down and accent each syllable, we, as readers (or audience members) are tuned in to pay attention to those words. Notice how in each of the above examples, the spondees are emotion-heavy, crucial moments within the lines. There's a reason words like "is," "a," "and," "the," "of," etc., are never parts of spondees. Accented syllables have meat; they have heft to them linguistically, and, more often than not, that weight translates into meaning.

A Final Note

It's helpful to remember that scansion (determining the stressed/unstressed syllables in poetry) is somewhat subjective. Some people may read some words/syllables as stressed in a line, while others might read them as unaccented. Some spondees, like Frost's "Don't don't don't don't" are clearly spondees, while others, like Lady Macbeth's words, are more open to different interpretations. The important thing to remember is that, just because a poem is in, say, iambic tetrameter, doesn't mean that there are no variations within that poem. Some of the greatest poets know when to use spondees, when to shake up the meter a little for maximum impact, for greater emphasis and musicality.

When writing your own poetry, keep that in mind—spondees are just one tool you can use to make your poems come alive.

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Wager, Liz. "Spondee: Definition and Examples from Poetry." ThoughtCo, May. 14, 2017, thoughtco.com/spondee-definition-and-examples-from-poetry-4136272. Wager, Liz. (2017, May 14). Spondee: Definition and Examples from Poetry. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/spondee-definition-and-examples-from-poetry-4136272 Wager, Liz. "Spondee: Definition and Examples from Poetry." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/spondee-definition-and-examples-from-poetry-4136272 (accessed September 20, 2017).