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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?

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.