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The power of poetic meter

Many factors contribute to how a hymn shapes its theological content. Here is one example of how the poetic meter of a text can shape its content in powerful ways.

Consider this content: It is quiet in a house on Christmas Eve. Depending on poetic form, a poet can shape that content to feel either light and frivolous or serious and foreboding. Here is a well-known example that expresses the former by using an anapaestic (weak-weak-STRONG) pattern:

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

This meter gives “a feeling of lightness” resulting from “the use of the basic triplet movement.” ((Lovelace, 14.)) By use of anapaestic feet, the author shapes the content to prepare us to expect something fanciful and charming.

Yet what if the author had written the same basic content using an iambic pattern (weak-STRONG)?

‘Twas Christmas eve, the house was still,
And not a creature stirred.

how-the-grinch-stole-christmas-originalInstead of giving a feeling of fun, an iambic pattern shapes the same content to feel more series. Combining a serious meter with such content about a quiet Christmas Eve, we might expect the Grinch to show up at the house rather than Jolly Old St. Nick!

The point is this: form shapes content. It is not enough to ask about a hymn text: “Is the basic content of this hymn true?” Rather, we must also ask, how does the form of this hymn shape the content? Is the result a right way to imagine God or feel about him?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.

38 Responses to The power of poetic meter

  1. Matt Phenix says:

    The poetic meter does not shape the content of the hymn or the theology of the hymn; it only enhances it. Well crafted poetry has a way to bring the text to life. This heightened use of English that must be well thought can make things either boring or give it a great sense of life. Such as an iambic meter can give a general idea of a topic, but if you make the same phrase trochaic it can add the weight of a command and exuberance such as “Come, Christians, join to sing!”

  2. Megan M. says:

    Poetic meter doesn’t necessarily directly affect the content, but it affects how the content is interpreted. The content of a quiet house on Christmas Eve remains the same in both examples, but the difference lies in how we are lead to interpret those statements. The meter affected the mood of the statements, making one seem fanciful and the other quite ominous, despite both phrases simply claiming that a house was quiet on Christmas Eve. It changed the context of the text rather than the content itself.

  3. Janis Felts says:

    I heartily agree that the form of the music shapes the content. Years ago, I heard a song that had to do with inviting the Holy Spirit and His power to work in lives. The music was, in my opinion, beyond frivolous. The song had the effect of inviting the Holy Spirit to a party. The hymns I was accustomed to like “Holy Spirit, Light Divine” approach this invitation of the Holy Spirit from a humble and even a contrite heart. I believe in each of these extremes, the congregants are given a representation, from the hymn writer’s perspective, about the character of the Holy Spirit and of the reverence He is due or in the first instance, the lack thereof. We must represent God in the way that aligns with how He is presented in His Word.

  4. Keji L. says:

    Usually when people singing hymns, they do not pay attention to the poetic meter and I have never thought the power of poetic meter in hymns before. Learning that surely opened my mind to understand better about how does one hymn content really brings out. It can definitely shape the content of a hymn, and affects how the content be interpreted. Different poetic meter can make people understand the different layers of the content.

  5. Debbie Lamb says:

    Yes, we should be asking not only about the truth of the hymn content, but also about how the form affects our understanding of the truths in the hymn. I think we do a fairly good job of making sure the words convey biblical truth, but we seldom, if ever, ask questions about the form of the hymn we are singing. I often cringe at some of the new worship music we do – the words are pretty good, but the form is dissonant or jarring to my spirit. I sometimes wonder what God thinks of it. My husband listened to a new worship cd a few weeks ago and it was so dissonant our 7 month old puppy started howling until my husband shut it off. Even a puppy knows when something is not good!

  6. Mana Amy Hiroshima says:

    The form of the music shapes the content. Even children or foreign people who are not familiar with English can feel the shape of the music through Poetic meter. It helps us to understand the contents better, also to envision the scenes of the music; however, when we use poetic meter in wrong way, the music could be trifling, also cause of losing the real beauty of the music. Especially for leading scared songs, we need to ask God for knowledges to comprehend the power of the poetic meter better. Because if the sacred song lost its meaning, it is nothing.

  7. Aeil Park says:

    Poetic meter affects interpretation of a hymn. It is also a form that can determine the atmosphere and meaning of a hymn’s contents. Poetic meter can place emphasis on important words and can help us understad what the writer wants to tell us. Sometimes poetic meter reveals what is important to the writer.

  8. Ben Little says:

    I think I’m in agreement with Matt. However, I am continually thinking and praying on the subject. The FORM of the content is shaped by the poetic meter, but the content itself is left unchanged. The same idea is conveyed regardless of the stress, but one way may sing more easily than another. Put another way, the mood may change but the content remains the same.

  9. Brandon H. says:

    When thinking about how the form affects content, I am brought back to the analogy of graphic design and how the presentation of a certain word, can possibly change its meaning. When a certain poetic form (whether iambic, trochaic, etc…) is used with certain texts, it does affect that text. It is important to understand how the form affects the text though. I don’t believe that form can affect a text to where it changes the content in and of itself. It can affect how the text is perceived or interpreted. While I hold to this position now, I am becoming more and more aware of the influence that poetic form and music has when put with text.

  10. Leyi Ling says:

    Understanding this poetic meter’s importance helped me understand the reason why I feel something is wrong with some arrangements of hymns. Once I heard a contemporary arrangement of “Be Thou My Vision”, it was sung in a triple meter, which made the whole song very relaxing. I felt very uncomfortable with that arrangement because it made the content sounds like something not very serious and did not express the important message of the lyrics. Anther contemporary arrangement used duple meter, which made the message more firm and serious.
    As a future church musician, I think it is a very good reminder that when we choosing songs for church to sing, we need to pay attention to the poetic meter, to see if it really fit the content.

  11. John Gray says:

    The poetic meter can be a powerful tool to glorify God. Though this is the case, we must be attentive to hear what is truly being said. If someone does not use poetic meter appropriately, their work is not automatically wrong or bad. They, by our standards, may not be considered as talented, or their work may not be as effective, but we still must examine what is truly being said. My personal preference is to use hymns that use poetic meter well, but it does not make it inappropriate if it does not. We must understand that worship occurs “In Spirit and Truth.” In Dr. Aniol’s example, the wording does not truly change the meaning, but it is far less effective with a change in poetic meter. We should do our best in all the art we use to carry forth the message of scripture. By God’s grace, may the hymn writer use poetic meter to the best of their ability.

  12. ai-chin says:

    Debbie, your puppy’s example is awesome.
    Yesterday, after class, we were discussing about how to decide poetic meter. Whether it is triple or duple. Sarah shared with us that there was a worship song that accent on words there are not important such as, the, an, and etc.. This irritates her.
    I agree that poetic meter is important. But it does not shape the truth. Poetic meter is one of musical features; it responsibility is to assist us worship God. However, if a bad poetic is set to a hymn, it will affect worshipers’s worship.

  13. Jiazi Gao says:

    I think the poetic meter in shaping of the content is definitely a powerful tool. By using the poetic meter, the author first has to use compact words than the long and casual phrases to describe things. To use proper and accurate terms is important for shaping the content. Poetic meter also helped to emphasize the key points in a text. I think for music ministers to know the knowledge of poetic meter is important. By knowing this can help us to better distinguish and appreciate the hymns or the songs use in the worship.

  14. Keji L. says:

    I agree with that “we should be asking not only about the truth of the hymn content, but also about how the form affects our understanding of the truths in the hymn.” The poetic meter shows us the words writer wants to emphasis, it affect the message. I have heard some newly arranged hymns, same texts but new tune, and they changed the poetic meter. I can feel that they are not sending the same message anymore. So, the poetic meter do shape the content of a hymn. When we choosing hymns for worship service, we do need to pay attention to those poetic meter.

  15. Kyu Lee says:

    The poetic meter is the pattern in which syllables are arranged. There is a beauty in the pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Our human has natural tendencies/universal truth to know it is good or not. Even though theological contents are sincere, I still have to learn how to form it well for the listener. That needs training and discipline.
    We must learn how to shape content with form. Here is the question when we sing hymns: “Is the poetic meter gives the right way to know who God is? And also, how does the melody reflects the content?

  16. Kyu Lee says:

    Debbie, I would love to know what dissonant hymn was?

  17. Rick says:

    “It is not enough to ask about a hymn text: “Is the basic content of this hymn true?” Rather, we must also ask, how does the form of this hymn shape the content? ”

    Whoa! Come back to reality folks. So the people in blue-collar, back woods Louisiana small church (who may not even have a high school education) are supposed to examine the poetic meter of the song in order to determine if it is a song that should be sung?? How about the believers in Peru, high in the Andes Mountains that have no education and certainly no access to this website. They have to examine the poetic meter of the song they just wrote in order to see if they can use it? Are we to tell them that saying “I love the Lord because He saved me” is not good enough and that they must use an anapaestic pattern instead??

    Yes, we should strive to do our best, but it is taking it way too far to say that examining what the hymn says is not enough and that we have to examine the poetic meter to see how it shapes the content. That means that 90% of Christians (or more) in the world can’t figure out whether a song is good enough to sing. Please, continue teaching people how to express the greatness of God in song by writing better, but placing it on the same level of the truth of the text is going too far.

  18. Debbie Lamb says:

    I like what John says about the fact that all hymns are not as good as far as poetic meter go, but that does not make them ‘bad’ or untrue. They just aren’t as well-written. I am glad we are learning about poetic meter so that we can better analyze the hymns we sing. We can learn to differentiate between what is a great hymn and just a mediocre one.

  19. Jeri says:

    Scott, thanks, this is helpful. Rick, I don’t think Scott is saying that the average church member should know all this; rather, it’s that the meter of a song does have its effect, whether people understand why or not. I think that if you asked average people which meter sounded more serious to them, many would choose the second one. I’m learning about singing the psalms and have come to understand how important meter is in singing congregationally, at least in the west.

  20. Seung Joon Shin says:

    In my opinion, a poetic form does influence on shaping its content. When a song writer makes a content, it also generates mood in the content that the writer intends singers to feel. A proper poetic form makes the appropriate mood stand out. In other way, an improper form could interrupt its intended mood.

  21. David Barnhart says:

    I’m curious if anyone here thinks that the anapestic meter used in “How Firm a Foundation” gives it lightness or makes it seem something other than serious. Or is it still seen as serious, but the meter is working against that?

  22. Megan M. says:

    The other day, I remembered a hymn that’s sung quite frequently at a church I used to go to. “Love Lifted Me” (Celebrating Grace #618) has an upbeat tune and a strong meter, but the lyrics seem to hold a more solemn message. It’s been bothering me since I’ve remembered it, because I’m not sure if the meter and tune help express the joy of being saved from sin or make the hymn sound frivolous and carefree. Anyone have an opinion?

  23. ai-chin says:

    Rick, I believe when Dr. Aniol says “we” have to understand the function of poetic mete, who he means of “we” are his students and those who are musically educated. We have the responsibility to choose the best and most suitable poetic meter in order to best help God’s children responding their affections to God.
    God gives each one of us specific spiritual gifts to serve each other. God’s children who are not musically educated, might have spiritual gift of teaching. In this case, they can teach us who do not have.

  24. Sarah Teichler says:

    Absolutely, poetic meter affects the content! What we are really talking about it prosody (pross-uh-dee). Prosody has to do with the deeper meaning conveyed by the way something is said (stress, intonation, rhythm: aka poetic meter). If I said firmly, “Stop!” that means one thing, but if I was tickling my kids and they said, while giggling, “Stoooooooop!” (And then in the next breath they said, “Do it again!”) Totally different meanings. The way we say something (or sing it) conveys meaning. I might even argue that poetic meter conveys deeper meaning than words alone. It can convey joy, grief, humility, arrogance, irony, sarcasm, gravity or silliness. Used properly, poetic meter also helps us emphasize what is most important.

    Don’t agree? What about in the contemporary style? Consider these two popular praise songs:

    “Worthy is THE
    Lamb who was slain”
    “Holy, holy, holy
    Is THE Lord God Almighty”
    – Is “the” really the word we want to be emphasizing? The words are true, but how much better would this song be if the poetic meter were changed to emphasize “Lamb” and “Lord”?

    “OUR God is greater,
    OUR God is stronger”
    – Definitely true, but ironically, the emphasis is on us, not God, and so comes across as arrogant. It always sounds to me as if we’re saying to the heathen, “Ha! We got it right and you didn’t!” (Which is true, but not humble.) How about “Our GOD is greater, our GOD is stronger.”

    Poetic meter matters, and a good song writer, whether educated or not, understands this intuitively. A good song writer will take care how they say what they say.

  25. Sarah Teichler says:

    Dr. Teichler has wrestled quite a bit with this idea of the poetic meter of a text diminishing its effectiveness. Consequently, he has composed a number of new settings of old hymns, which result in conveying a much different message. Take a listen to these:

    What a Friend We Have in Jesus: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSU6autf-F4

    I Am Not Skilled to Understand: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-ZrXmDz__g

    The First Noel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWTBl_8mJAQ

  26. Ben Little says:

    I was interested to listen to the links that Sarah posted, and I definitely see where she is coming from (the section on prosody was very interesting!). However, I’m still not convinced that emphasis in the poetic meter necessarily depicts the intent and focus of a song. Sure, the mood is affected, but content and meaning are not.

    I’m also trying to wrestle through Rick’s implications. It is definitely important for the minister of music (who should be educated IN music). This does imply that we are harkening back to the ancient Greeks as Plato insisted that only the musically educated (and even then, those over 50) are those who should be responsible for selecting what music is appropriate or not for any form of listening.

    This holds true with the biblical call on a minister to lead and care for the Body of Christ. However, if there is no trained minister, where does the responsibility fall? Good question and I’ll try to answer it from my opinion after more thought.

  27. Jesse B. says:

    Megan M. (Feb. 8 2014 at 6:09pm)
    That’s one of my favorite hymns and I agree with you. It doesn’t seem to match, the words and meter. I was given a cd of a bunch of hymns and that was on there. I think the choir director thought the same thing, but overemphasized the solemn-ness. It was a SLOW tempo and basically monotone. I found it to be kind of comical in that sense.

  28. Seung Joon Shin says:

    A lot of hymns have been arranged with different poetic meters, and we often prefer the arranged hymns. The hymns are sung and loved because all of musical factors, including poetic meter, tempo, key, and rhythm, are in harmony with the contents. We need to think about inverse case that it is possible a content could wear with an unmatched poetic meter. The hymn may not be sung often by congregation because of the uncomfortable matching.

  29. Jiazi Gao says:

    I also think that most of the members in the church do not know about the poetic meter. And it also does not mean that all of the church members need to learn about the poetic meter. However, the poetic meter does affect shaping of the content. Therefore, I agree with what ai-chin says that for us who are musically educated, “we have the responsibility to choose the best and most suitable poetic meter in order to help the congregation responding their affections to God”.

  30. Rick says:

    Thank you Ben for considering and thinking about my earlier post. There are a lot of people here that seem to be missing my point. It seemed that the original post equated poetic meter with the truthfulness of the text of the song. This would encourage exactly what has been expressed in the comments….only those educated in musical theory should determine what is suitable for worship. This is akin to someone educated in Greek stating that you simply cannot understand Scripture unless you have been trained in Greek. This simply isn’t based in reality. Of the millions of churches around the world, how many are able to have a music minister (or even anyone in the congregation) that is trained as suggested here? I would guess it is a pretty small percentage.

    Even if all churches could, I question the legitimacy of the assertion. Once again, should we seek to do our best musically within the church? Absolutely! But the poetic meter of the song is way down on the list of importance when it comes to selecting music for use in worship. As I said before, do we really want to go so far as to say that churches in the Andes Mountains of Peru (I’ve been there and worshiped with them) are not selecting proper music when they sing something a member wrote? Are they not honoring God with what they do if the poetic meter isn’t perfect yet it reflects the truthfulness of Scripture? Is my little 9 year old girl wrong by walking around the house singing a made up song saying “I love my God”? Am I dishonoring God because I select music to use in church that has poetic meter that may not be “up to par” in the opinion of those that are musically trained (yet it still reflects the truth of Scripture)?

    BTW, I happen to be one of those music ministers that is not musically trained. However, I do have theological training. In many ways, I see this as more advantageous in that I am more concerned about the truths that are expressed in our music than I am about the poetic meter of the text. There are certainly some songs I will pass over because there is another one I believe does a better job of expressing the theme of the service, but this has nothing to do with meter and has everything to do with what the text actually says.

    In summary, I want to encourage those of you here that are musically trained to keep in mind that the truthfulness of the text is supreme. Yes, create songs that are excellent, but the poetic meter is secondary (or even farther down the chain) to whether the song is Biblical and edifying to the church.

  31. Leyi Ling says:

    I strongly agree with the point that a form of a hymn would shape the content, but I think Megan made the point more clearly by saying, “Poetic meter doesn’t necessarily directly affect the content, but it affects how the content is interpreted”. I think there are two kinds of people, who would not feel poetic meter directly affect content. (1) people do not have music “sense” in them, poetic meter really do not affect anything for them. For the two visions of “Be Thou My Vision”, my spiritual mentor, who honestly does not have any sense of music, thought both of them are great, as long as it is theologically correct. (2) people who have deep theological foundation and great musicianship, even if the poetic meter is not correct, this kind of people would be able to recognize it and find a better interpretation of it. Therefore, I think saying poetic meter would affect how the content is interpreted, is a clearer way to explain this discussion topic.

  32. Brandon H. says:

    Like Ben, it was interesting to analyze the poetic meter of the contemporary songs that Sarah posted. I have lead these songs a number of times in worship services that I have planned, and to be honest, have never really thought about the emphasis being on “the” instead of “Lamb” and “our” instead of “God”. Rather, both of these songs have been used greatly in my church to express the greatness of God, and I believe they do just that. It could be because I am new to the idea of relating the poetic meter directly to the content of the song that I have failed to recognize the supposed “arrogance” in these songs. It is something I will definitely continue to think about.

  33. Aeil Park says:

    During class was my first time to learn about poetic meter. Yes, even though we don’t know poetic meter in a hymn we can still praise God because worship is not just form but a condition of the heart. The poetic meter does affect the shaping of the content and affects interpretation of a hymn. I don’t think we have to use poetic meter form when we sing a hymn but it helps us to understand and brings us closer to the content in the hymn. When we have the opportunity to understand poetic meter, we are privileged to be able to know the author’s intent and emphahsis in the music so that we can grasp the full meaning of the worship intended.

  34. Kyu Lee says:

    I was really encouraged by Sarah’s post and Dr.Teichler’s rearranged hymn Text by Joseph Scriven (1820-1886). The text by itself has own powerful meaning but the original melody and rhythms and keys and tessituras were not that singable for the congregations. The rearrangements of Joseph Scriven’s hymn revives and touches different affections in our life through the musical forms.

  35. John Gray says:

    Rick, I agree with your point. We must put the doctrine, theology, scriptural accuracy first when selecting the music for the service. I think wisdom, that comes through the knowing of your congregation, is also important. Though I agree fully with your point (and think it is great that you studied theology), I do also believe that poetic meter can help to carry forth the text. As my earliest post will show, I do not feel like a bad meter makes a song unusable. Our inner man must be led by the Holy Spirit as we declare the truth of scripture (John 4:4). It is that fine line of presenting music to the best of our ability while knowing that our purpose is to glorify God as a body of born again believers.

  36. Janis Felts says:

    Sarah, I appreciate your sharing with us Dr. Teichler’s hymn tunes and arrangements of well-known texts. In “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” the message to me has always been the importance of going to Jesus in prayer. However, Dr. Teichler’s presentation really brings one to the posture of prayer, and causes one to sense the urgency to go to the Lord immediately! I still concur that form shapes content.

    I also believe that music ministers must take their selecting of hymn form seriously because of Dr. Aniol’s question: “Is the result a right way to imagine God or feel about Him?”

    A. W. Tozer in the first chapter of his book The Knowledge of the Holy states:
    “A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well. It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse. I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”
    http://www.full-proof.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Tozer-Knowledge-Of-The-Holy-b.pdf

  37. Jeri says:

    Scott, would you say that the tune that is wedded to the meter is just as important? I thought of “O Worship the King”… it’s written in an anapaestic pattern too, I think, but seems to work better because of the melody.

  38. Scott Aniol Scott Aniol says:

    Absolutely, Jeri. Many factors play into the feel of a hymn, and often a particular tune can “rescue” a text that would otherwise sound trivial due to its poetic meter. “O Worship the King” is a perfect example.

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