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Poetic Meter in Christian Hymnody

This entry is part 4 of 14 in the series

"The Hymnody of the Christian Church"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

The next level of form is poetic meter and rhyme scheme. A poetic meter is basically how many syllables are in each line of the poem, and where the naturally stresses are. Consider this example:

A – MAZ – ing GRACE! How SWEET the SOUND
That SAVED a WRETCH like ME!
I ONCE was LOST, but NOW am FOUND;
Was BLIND, but NOW I SEE. ((John Newton, 1779.))

All hymns have some kind of meter like this, and we name the meters based on the syllable stress pattern. So, for example, with “Amazing Grace,” the pattern is weak-STRONG. This is the most common form in English poetry, called iambic. You have probably heard of iambic pentameter, a form which employs five iambic feet ((Each pair of weak-STRONG syllables is called a “foot.”)) (ten syllables) per line. Good poets know, as Lovelace relates, that this meter is “stately and noble and is best used for those texts which are propositional.” ((Lovelace, p. 13.))

Other hymns written in the iambic pattern include, “O GOD, our HELP in A – ges PAST,” “A MIGHT – y FOR – tress IS our GOD,” and “A – LAS, and DID My SAV – ior BLEED.” You can see how in each of these cases the content is sober or noble, and so the poets chose the iambic pattern to shape the content in that way.

The opposite metric pattern and second most common is trochaic. This pattern is STRONG-weak. Examples of these include “HARK the HER – ald AN – gels SING,” and “CHRIST the LORD is RIS’N to – DAY.” Lovelace comments that this pattern “is more direct than iambic and is used where directness of thought and excitement are desirable,” as can be seen in the two declamatory hymns listed above. A good poet will consider the content, decide what it should “feel” like, and choose an appropriate meter to shape the content in that direction.

Two other common patterns are rare in classic hymnody, although they have been used more frequently in the past 100 years, for reasons we will consider in a moment. The first is dactylic, which is STRONG-weak-weak. Its opposite, anapaestic, is weak-weak-STRONG. Probably the most famous example of this pattern in English poetry is “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”:

‘Twas the NIGHT before CHRIST – mas and ALL through the HOUSE
Not a CREA – ture was STIR – ring, not E – ven a MOUSE.

This meter is uncommon in classic hymnody because unlike iambic or trochaic patterns, which shape the content toward stateliness or directness, an anapaestic pattern gives “a feeling of lightness” resulting from “the use of the basic triplet movement.” ((Lovelace, 14.)) This pattern “feels” light and skippy, and so it has not traditionally been used to shape serious biblical content. There are certainly exceptions to this, ((The most popular example is probably “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” Although the text employs anapestic feet, the slower tempo in which the hymn is normally sung helps to hide the naturally light feel.)) and hymn writers over the past 100 years have certainly employed anapestic patterns with more regularity (the reason for this is a subject for the next chapter), but the point here is simply to understand how poetic form shapes its content.

Allow me to borrow one final example from Lovelace to illustrate how poetic meter can change the “feel” of a particular content. 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. The poem already mentioned, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” is an example of the former. By use of anapaestic feet, the author shapes the content to prepare us to expect something fanciful and charming:

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

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.

Instead 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?” If that were the only question to ask, then “God is Bigger Than the Boogie Man” would be a good hymn! 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?

But I am getting ahead of myself. We will discuss the process of evaluating hymns more thoroughly later. For next time, let us move on to the hymn tune itself.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.