By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today we’re waxing poetical about the difference between verse and prose!
So, the most characteristic feature of poetry is that it is written in verse as opposed to prose. There are many different ways to define poetry, but that’s another video! In this video, we’re going to examine some technical elements of verse—and in English poetry, many of the terms we use to discuss those elements go back to Greek and Latin poetry. Now what verse actually is is a little hard to define, but perhaps it is easiest to say that when composing verse, the poet is paying particular attention to the rhythm of the language, whether or not it’s following a set repeated rhythmical pattern, whereas prose instead mainly follows the natural flow of speech and grammatical structure. The word verse literally means “turned”, from Latin vertere “to turn”, and the metaphor this employs is one of ploughing, reflecting the way the plough is turned at the end of each row, so Latin versus originally referred to furrows in a field and thus metaphorically lines of poetry on a page. When combined with the Latin prefix pro- “forward”, versus also leads to the form provorsus then prorsus and finally prosa, literally “straightforward” referring to straightforward or direct speech without the sophisticated ornamentation found in poetry, so turns out that the English word prose in fact comes from the same root as verse! Interestingly, Latin vertere can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root *wer- “to turn, bend”, which is also the source of Greek rhaptein, which gives us rhapsode, a Greek word for reciters of poetry. Sometimes, by the way, the word verse is used to refer not just to a line of poetry or as a synonym of poetry in general, but to specific groupings of lines in a poem, also known as a stanza, which literally means a “stopping place” from the idea of the stop at the end of each stanza in a poem, and comes through Italian ultimately from Latin stare “to stand”. Verse is also used to refer to the parts of song lyrics that aren’t the chorus.
Now what often defines a stanza or verse are elements like rhyme scheme and metre. Rhyme is a kind of repetition often found in poetry, in this case the repetition of the sounds at the end of words, and so a regular pattern of rhyming sounds at the end of lines of poetry can be used to organize it, as in “there once was a man from Nantucket, who…”, uh well, you get the point. However, this isn’t the only way you can use repetition of sounds to organize poetry. When you repeat the sounds at the beginning of words it’s called alliteration, literally “to the letter”, as in “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”. The oral poetry of the Germanic tradition, for instance, was organized that way, with specific regular patterns of where those alliterating words should fall in the line of poetry. The basic rule was that each line of for instance Old English poetry had to contain four stressed syllables and at least four unstressed syllables, and one or both of the stressed syllables in the first half of the line had to alliterate with the first stressed syllable but not the second stressed syllable of the second half of the line. Here’s an example from The Battle of Maldon: “rad and rædde, rincum tæhte”; which can be be translated into Modern English: “rode and counselled, taught the soldiers”. There can be more than four unstressed syllables and their positions in each half-line can vary according to five different patterns, and therein lies the artistry and variation of the metrical structure in Germanic alliterative verse. But getting back to rhyme, the word partly comes from Old English rim “number, counting, reckoning”, from Proto-Indo-European *re- “to reason, count”, a variant of *ar- “to fit together”, which also by the way gives us the word harmony. The other source of the word rhyme is Old French rime meaning “rhyme”, which ultimately comes through Latin from Greek rhythmos meaning “rhythm”, thus making rhyme and rhythm etymological doublets. In fact the Modern English spelling of rhyme was a conscious partial etymological restoration of the Greek to make it match the word rhythm. The Greek noun rhythmos comes from the verb rhein “to flow”, from the same Proto-Indo-European root that gives us the word stream — making it very appropriate that the term ‘flow’ is used to describe the rhythm and rhyme of rap lyrics. Greek rhein also gives us a number of other English words, such as diarrhea, rhinorrhea (a fancy word for a runny nose), and logorrhea (the excessive flow of words). This last one is sometimes used to simply referred to verbosity and excessive use of jargon and “big” words. Another word used to describe this kind of verbosity is sesquipedalian, an intentionally ironically long word. Meaning literally “a foot and a half long” (and that’s foot in the poetic sense of a metrical foot), the word comes from Latin sesquipedalis, a word used humorously by the Roman poet Horace in his Ars Poetica to criticize poets who use overly long words.
Now speaking of poetry and diarrhea, or at least the unexpected flow of bodily fluids, we have the Old Norse myth of the Mead of Poetry. The two groups of Norse gods, the Æsir and the Vanir, ended their war with each other with the ritual of each spitting into a vat to symbolically seal the truce (as one does). From their spittle was created the wise being Kvasir, who could answer any question. He travelled around to spread his wisdom to humans, and one day encountered the dwarfs Fjalar and Galar, who killed him, drained his blood and turned it into mead which could make anyone who drank it into a poet or scholar. But the dwarfs’ killing days weren’t over yet; they also killed two giants, and when Suttungr, the son of those giants, came for revenge, the dwarfs bought their safety by giving him the mead. Later the god Odin came in disguise to recover the mead, and after a series of adventures broke into Suttungr’s mountain fortress with the help of Suttung’s brother Baugi using the drill Rati, and there encountered Suttung’s daughter Gunnlöd who was supposed to guard it. Odin seduced Gunnlöd, and slept with her three times in exchange for three sips of the mead, which, being a god, was all he needed to drain all of the mead. Odin then transformed into an eagle to escape with the mead, but Suttungr also transformed into an eagle to chase him, and with Suttungr in hot pursuit Odin accidentally, well, allowed some of the mead to leak out behind him. I’ll leave you to ponder what exactly that means. When Odin reaches Asgard he spews up the rest of the mead into containers set out by the other gods. And so the mead of poetry was given to the gods and those humans who were gifted at poetry. As for Odin’s, uh, droppings, that’s called skáldfífla hlutr “the rhymester’s share”, the portion of poetic ability given to the poetic hacks of the world.
Now getting back to rhythm and rhyme, and the formal properties of verse, although not all poetry has to follow a regular set pattern in the rhythm, we often talk about poetry in terms of its metre, also sometimes called prosody. The word prosody, by the way, looks a bit like prose, and they are in part distantly related, as the first part of prosody comes from Greek pros “toward”, which comes from the same root as Latin pro. But the second element of prosody is the Greek word oide meaning “song”, which is also part of that word rhapsode we saw before. As for the word metre, it comes through Latin and Greek ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *me- “to measure”, which has a number of other derivatives in English like measure, immense, and month. Now different poetic traditions from around the world have different systems for their metrics, but the one you’ll most likely come across in an English literature class is essentially the one borrowed from the Greeks, though I’ll make one caveat that Greek metrics is quantitative, that is it’s concerned with long and short syllables, literally how long it takes to say each syllable, whereas English metrics is accentual and depends on which syllables are stressed or unstressed. Nevertheless, we tend to use the terminology from the Greeks (also used by the Romans) to refer to English metre.
The basic unit of metre is the foot (as we saw in the word sesquipedalian) made up of some small number of syllables, usually two or three, and though I can’t say for certain, it seems likely that the sense comes from the idea of dancing or tapping your feet, when you raise your foot and when you lower it. The English word foot in the metrical sense is simply a translation of Latin pes “foot”, which is a translation of Greek pous “foot”, and in fact all three words come from the same Proto-Indo-European root *ped-. Each foot in this Greek system, therefore, has a part where the foot is raised and and a part where it’s put down, in Greek arsis literally “lifting” and thesis “setting, placing” (though there’s disagreement about how to use these terms in English, depending on whether you’re talking to a metricist or a musician). The point being, a foot will involve a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in Modern English metre. So an iamb is a foot that consists of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, such as the word because. And I should point out that a metrical foot does not need to correspond to individual words: longer words might be made up of more than one foot and short words might form only a part of a foot. The full etymology of the word iamb, from Greek iambos, is uncertain, but it might be connected with Greek iaptein “to attack, assail” or more literally “to put forth, send forth” with the metaphor being that you send forth words of attack as you might send forth arrows or spears, since invective and satirical poetry was typically written in iambic metres in Ancient Greece. As for iaptein, its further etymology is unknown. The word iambos has also been connected to the mythological figure Iambe, who used vulgar humour to cheer up the goddess Demeter when she came to Attica searching for her missing daughter Persephone, thus accounting for the humorous aspects of the festivals for Demeter in Attica. Next, the trochee is the opposite of an iamb, a foot made up of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, as in the word unit. The word trochee comes from Greek trokhaios pous, literally “running foot” from the verb trekhein “to run”, presumably because it was felt to be a very quickly moving metre, ultimately from the root *dhregh- “to run” from which we also get the word truck, originally in the sense of a little wheel but later being used to refer to a wheeled vehicle for carrying heavy loads. A dactyl, which comes from Greek dactylos “finger”, is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, like the word internet, and may have come from the idea that, just like a finger has one long segment followed by two short ones, in Greek quantitative verse a dactyl is one long foot followed by two short ones. We don’t know where Greek dactylos comes from, but some have suggested a connection with the Latin word for finger, digitus, which comes from the root *deik- “to show”, which also interestingly gives us the English word toe. The opposite of a dactyl, that is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable as in the word absolute, is called an anapest, literally “struck back” from Greek ana- “back, against” and paiein “to strike”, so called because it’s the opposite of a dactyl. And the final main type of foot is the spondee, made up of two stressed syllables, as in the phrase “big mood” Spondee comes from Greek spondeios, from the verb spendein “to pour a libation”, in other words to make a ritual offering of a drink, from the Proto-Indo-European root *spend- “To make an offering, perform a rite, hence to engage oneself by a ritual act”, which also gives us such words as sponsor, spouse, and respond.
Now these various feet can be combined in different numbers to make a line of poetry, so monometer has one foot, dimeter has two feet, trimeter has three feet, tetrameter has four feet, pentameter has five feet, hexameter has six feet, and so on. So when you say iambic pentameter, that’s a line made of five iambs. And though typically a line of poetry will be made up entirely or predominantly of one type of foot in English prosody, a good poet will sometimes substitute one foot for another for special effect or emphasis, as in this line of iambic pentameter by Edmund Spenser in which the word love is emphasized by the substitution of a trochee in the first foot: “Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught”.
The traditional study of metrics involving stresses and feet is theoretical and abstract, but in the 19th century and beyond some researchers began to bring new scientific approaches to the study of prosody. In our previous video about poetry, we saw how Hermann von Helmholtz studied sound perception in music—how some sounds were perceived as musical while others were just noise—using a complex array of instrumentation, an approach he got from Gustav Fechner, the founder of psychophysics, an experimental approach to studying the relationship between physical stimulus and perception. Well, Helmholtz’s student Wilhelm Wundt, who became known as the father of experimental psychology, was the first person to call himself a psychologist, and is probably the most important figure in psychology, combined psychology with this physiological approach, which had a major impact not only on the the study of music but also on metrics. Wundt’s student Edward Wheeler Scripture, who helped to bring experimental psychology from Germany to America, focused on prosody and speech, and began to develop a scientific approach to studying metre, using various specialized equipment for examining speech with a high degree of accuracy and precision. He found for instance that in recitations of trochaic verse “the emphatic syllable [was] usually longer than the unemphatic one” and that “in English at least, increase in duration and rise in pitch are ordinarily associated with increased stress, and that these associations are essentially mental ones and not interdependent physical or physiological phenomena”. So maybe quantitative verse and accentual verse are not as separate as they first appear.
Now in addition to rhythm, poetry is also notable for its heavy use of figurative language, in part to allow poetry to carry a lot of meaning in relatively few words. Figurative language is also used to make poetry more memorable, in that it can have a more dramatic impact on the audience, and this is all loosely described as part of a poem’s imagery, a word which is now often used more broadly than just a description of physical appearance. In its most basic sense figurative language is constructed in such a way as to convey extra meaning beyond its literal sense. That’s the difference between literal and figurative language. Literary scholars have divided up figurative language into two types: there’s tropes, meaning literally “turns” from Greek trepein “to turn” from the root *trep- “to turn”; and there’s schemes, meaning “figure, form” from Greek ekhein “to have, hold” from the root *segh- “to hold”, which also gives us the word school through Greek skhole originally meaning “leisure”.
In tropes, words are used in such a way that the figurative meaning departs from the literal meaning. The most well-known tropes are metaphors, from Greek literally “carrying over”, and similes, from Latin literally “comparison, likeness” in other words “similar”, both types of comparison, like the explicit comparison in the simile used by Robert Burns “O my Luve’s like a red, red, rose”, or the implied comparison in the metaphor used by William Shakespeare “All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players”. There are many other tropes, so I’ll give just a few more: in metonymy, from Greek literally “change of name”, a word is used to refer to something that is closely associated with it, so you could say “the crown” to refer to a king or queen or “Hollywood” to refer to the film industry. And synechdoche, from Greek literally “receiving together or jointly”, uses a part to refer to the whole, like when a ship’s captain says “all hands on deck” he doesn’t mean the sailors’ disembodied hands, he means the whole sailors. A conceit, related to conceive and concept, from Latin concipere “to take in, take hold of”, had the original sense of a “thought, notion, something mentally conceived” but in literary contexts came to refer to a figure of speech in which there is a striking and elaborate parallel between two very dissimilar things, basically a special type of metaphor or simile, such as comparing the state of a lover to a ship caught in a storm as Sir Thomas Wyatt does in translating into English one of Petrarch’s sonnets. These are often known as Petrarchan conceits since Petrarch uses this trope extensively, and Shakespeare parodied this kind of figure when he wrote “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, an idea picked up by Sting in his 1987 …Nothing Like the Sun album. An extreme version of the conceit is the metaphysical conceit, used by the so-called metaphysical poets of the 17th century, such as John Donne, who compared sex to a flea bite in his poem “The Flea”, in a totally-not-weird-at-all attempt to convince his girlfriend to sleep with him. The 20th century musical theatre composer Cole Porter used this trope in his song “You’re the Top” which starts out “At words poetic, I'm so pathetic” and continues with such wild comparisons as “You're the Nile, You're the Tow'r of Pisa, / You're the smile on the Mona Lisa” along with “You're Inferno's Dante”, “You're Pepsodent”, “You're a Botticelli, You're Keats, You're Shelley, You're Ovaltine” and well go listen to the rest of the song yourself! By the way, the sense progression for the word conceit goes from “something formed in the mind” to “fanciful or witty notion, ingenious thought” to “vanity, exaggerated estimate of one's own mental abilities” which is the sense most commonly known today. And finally there’s irony, which occurs when there is a gap between one thing and another, such as the gap between what you literally say and what you actually mean when you say “Good job” to someone who has just knocked over their glass of wine, or the gap between what a character knows and what the audience knows, like the way we know Peter Parker is really Spiderman, or Clark Kent is really Superman, but no one in the story does. Irony is all about that gap. As for the etymology of the word irony, once again, the term comes from Greek, ultimately from the word eiron meaning “dissembler, one who says less than he thinks”, which probably comes from the verb eirein “to say” from the root *wer- “to speak”, also source of words such as word, verb, and rhetoric. Now people often complain about the word ironic being misused to mean something more along the lines of “coincidental” or “incongruous”, most famously in the Alanis Morissette song “Ironic”, but it should be noted that the sense of “condition opposite to what might be expected, contradictory circumstances” goes back a long way, perhaps as far back as the 17th century. What’s more, the sense that those pedants insist on isn’t even the original sense of the word, since in Greek the philosopher Plato used the word irony to describe his own teacher Socrates’ tactic of deliberately pretending to be ignorant as a rhetorical device to get the better of his opponent in an argument. Ironically, language changes.
Schemes, on the other hand, are a type of figurative language which departs from standard usage not in terms of the meanings of the words but in the order and syntactical patterns of the words. This can include things like rhyme and alliteration and repetitions of the sounds of words, but also includes many other types of repetition and rhetorical devices. While these devices occur with much greater frequency in poetry, they can also turn up in prose; for instance, anaphora, from Greek literally “carrying back”, in which one or more words are repeated at the beginning of successive clauses, is used by Martin Luther King to great effect with the phrase “I have a dream”, and chiasmus, Greek for “crosswise” or shaped like the letter chi, in which the syntactical structure is reversed or mirrored, can be seen in John F. Kennedy’s famous line “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”. And in zeugma, from Greek zeugnymi “to yoke”, a word is used simultaneously with two different meanings as in Ben Franklin’s line “If we don’t hang together, we shall hang separately” or Rihanna’s line “Only thing we have on is the radio”. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge remarked to his nephew and son-in-law Henry Nelson Coleridge (yes they’re the same person) as reported in the younger Coleridge’s Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Prose [is] words in their best order; poetry [is] the best words in the best order”. The elder Coleridge said this in the context of making a snarky remark about Edmund Burke’s popular essay “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, saying it was “neither profound nor accurate”, but if you want to known more about the sublime in poetry, you can check out our previous video “Sublime”.
Now returning to the word trope, that same root also made it into English poetic vocabulary through another more circuitous route. In Latin, in addition to meaning “a figure of speech”, it also came to mean a “song” (one presumably using various figures of speech), and from that it became the Vulgar Latin verb *tropare “to invent, find” from the idea of composing a song. This eventually leads to modern French trouver “to find”, but it also produced the Old Provençal form trobar “to find” and trobador, which becomes English troubadours, itinerant composers and singers of lyric love poetry in 12th and 13th century southern France. They were the ones who kicked off the whole courtly love thing, drawing especially on the love poetry and pick up guide by the Roman poet Ovid; you know, lovesick young men secretly pining for often unattainable women, going on adventures or performing services for their beloveds to win their favour, and all the while composing love poetry in which they worship the ladies using quasi-religious language. It’s where we get the modern trappings of romantic love, including much of the language of modern love songs. Well, that Provençal love poetry became very influential throughout medieval Europe, and was taken up and adapted to Italian by the poet Giacomo da Lentini, who is also credited with inventing the poetic form of the sonnet. The word sonnet means literally “little song” from Italian sonnetto, Old Provençal sonet, ultimately from Latin sonus “sound”, which can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root *swen- “to sound”, also the source of the words sound and swan, on account of the sound the bird makes (though you might not exactly consider that a song). Well, if the Sicilian poet Giacomo da Lentini invented the sonnet, it was the Tuscan poet Petrarch, who is also credited for helping kick off the Renaissance, who perfected it, after Guittone d’Arezzo introduced the form to Tuscany. As we know it today, the sonnet consists of a single 14 line stanza in iambic pentameter with an intricate rhyme scheme, and features a volta or dramatic turn in the middle marking a shift in thought or emotion. Petrarch’s sonnets were structured as an 8 line octave with a rhyme scheme of abbaabba and a 6 line sestet with a rhyme scheme of cdecde separated by the volta in between. As you can imagine, such a strict and complex rhyme scheme required much skill to pull off. The form was eventually transported to England and taken up by many English poets, including Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare. The English sonnet took on the structure of three quatrains and a final rhyming couplet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. From the earliest sonnets of Giacomo da Lentini and Guittone d’Arezzo, to the influential sonnets of Petrarch and Shakespeare, the form had always been associated with erotic love, though later poets would experiment with writing sonnets on other topics as well. The sonnet form with its complex 14 line structure is just long enough to be able to explore a complex idea with dramatic development but short and intricate enough to require considerable ingenuity on the part of the poet to really show off their mad skillz, so it’s not surprising that it became one of the most popular and preeminent poetic forms.
Now, as long as we’re discussing technical aspects of verse, let’s look at some of the other major genres of poetry, starting with what is probably the oldest, the epic. Indeed the oldest surviving work of literature is the originally Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, but perhaps the most influential and well known epics are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and it’s from Greek that we get the word epic. Epic is derived from the adjective form epikos of the Greek noun epos “word, story”. This can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root *wekw- “to speak”, which also produced the Greek word ops meaning “voice”, which when combined with the word kallos “beauty” produced the name Calliope, literally “beautiful voice”, the Greek Muse of epic poetry. Today the English word calliope is also used to refer to a kind of steam organ, now most associated with merry-go-rounds and other carnival rides, invented by beekeeper Joshua C. Stoddard, who also invented various agricultural machines such as a kind of hay rake and hay tedder, as well as a fruit paring machine and a fire escape system. Epic indeed! The epic is a long narrative poem in elevated style that generally focuses on the exploits of heroic figures whose actions have a bearing on a whole people. The particular poetic structure or form of the epic depends on the poetic tradition it comes from, but in Greek, epic poetry was always written in dactylic hexameter (Greek poetry was never rhyming, by the way). In fact, for the Greeks, poetic genre was primarily determined by the metre, and only somewhat by the content. English epics have been written in a number of metres over the years, such as heroic couplets (rhyming pairs of lines in iambic pentameter), rhyme royal (iambic pentameter 7 line stanzas rhyming ababbcc), or unrhymed iambic pentameter known as blank verse. Other poems we would today refer to as epics include the Old English heroic poem Beowulf and the Homer-inspired Roman Aeneid by Virgil, which in turn inspired John Milton’s Christian epic Paradise Lost, which itself influenced William Blake’s epic Milton: A Poem in Two Books.
Another genre English poetry gets from the Greeks is the lyric. The word lyric refers to its original musical accompaniment, the lyre or lyra in Greek, which ironically, though it’s kind of the prototypical and national instrument of ancient Greece, with a myth about its creation from a turtle shell as a peace offering gift from the god Hermes to Apollo apologizing for stealing his sacred cows, seems to be a non-Greek loan word from some previous language spoken in the area. It’s ironic then that today we mainly think of lyrics at the words of songs, but originally they were the musical accompaniment. Greek lyrics were written in a variety of often quite complex metres that involved the combination of different feet and line lengths, but excluded metres that were strongly associated with other genres, such as the dactylic hexameters of epic and didactic poetry; and Greek lyric could be about a wide range of topics, from war to drinking to philosophy to love. When we talk about lyric poetry in the English tradition, we usually mean poems written in the first person that express personal emotions and points of view, and that are usually relatively shorter and not narrative but more descriptive, and unlike Greek lyric there isn’t really a set form or metre associated with it. One particularly influential set of lyric poems is found in the Lyrical Ballads, a joint work by the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The title is actually kind of paradoxical, which reflects the differences between the two poets, because a ballad is a kind of narrative poem or narrative folk song usually originally transmitted through an oral tradition and not expressing a personal point of view. Wordsworth wrote mainly lyric poems for the collection, whereas Coleridge’s main contribution was the long narrative poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written in the style of a medieval ballad. The ballad has its origins in the later Middle Ages, and often features folk heroes such as Robin Hood and is structured in stanzaic forms such as quatrains in alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines. Ironically, the word ballad comes ultimately from the Late Latin word ballare “to dance”, which also gives us the words ballet and ball, as in a fancy dancing party. In Old French, a ballade is a kind of dancing song, and it was only later that the word developed its sense of a narrative song.
The ode is another Greek form that has a somewhat different connotation in English. In Ancient Greece, the ode was a kind of lyric stanza that could be sung by a single poet or a chorus of singers and dancers. One form that influenced English poetry was that used by the Greek poet Pindar, which had a complex structure involving three parts, the strophe, antistrophe, and epode. Other types of Greek lyric, including those ‘solo’ odes, which were favoured by archaic Greek poets such as Sappho, Alcaeus, and Anacreon, were adapted into a Roman form by the poet Horace in a collection known in Latin as Carmina but in English as The Odes, and featured instead regularly repeating stanzas, and usually a direct address to someone. Though the subject matter of Greek and Roman odes could vary, Pindar’s odes tended to be encomiastic poems, that is they were written to praise and glorify someone, and that’s the sense that’s generally implied in English by the term ode, though English odes could also be written in complex stanzaic forms mirroring both Pindaric and Horatian odes. English odes include such notable examples as Andrew Marvell’s An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland praising Oliver Cromwell’s bloody and genocidal conquest of Ireland, and the more meditative Great Odes of John Keats such as Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn. We’ve already seen the etymology of the word ode, which comes from Greek oide “song”, also the second part of rhapsode. It can be traced further back to Greek aidein “to sing”, from the Proto-Indo-European root *wed- “to speak”.
Another Greek form that has shifted in sense from simply indicating the metre to later referring to the content is the elegy. Elegy, from Greek elegos, is a bit of a mystery word, possibly a borrowing from Phrygian, a now extinct Indo-European language that was spoken in Asia Minor, but its ultimate source is unknown. Originally it seems to have been a general word for song or perhaps specifically a song accompanied by the flute, but in terms of Greek poetry it refers to poems written in elegiac couplets consisting of a hexameter followed by a pentameter line. Greek elegies could cover a wide range of topics, including epitaphs on tombs, but Roman poets developed a specialized form of love elegies, and although some English poets continued to use the term in this general sense, such as John Donne who wrote elegies on often erotic topics, gradually the term became specifically associated with poems about death and mourning, such as Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, one of the first English poems to make the connection between elegy and death.
But English poetic forms have come from non-Greek sources as well, such as the haiku borrowed from a Japanese tradition. The Japanese word haiku is a contraction of haikai no ku “comic verse”, coined by the 19th century poet Masaoka Shiki, from the Middle Chinese words bej perhaps meaning “comic” and kju “line”. Originally a comic form, haiku came to refer to a short poem made up of 5, 7, and 5 on (roughly speaking syllables), featuring two images or ideas separated by a “cutting word” and a seasonal or nature reference. The form was adopted into English in the early 20th century and taken up by such poets as Ezra Pound, though both the form and the content of English haikus have been treated loosely.
A more homegrown English poetic genre is the largely oral and often bawdy genre, the limerick, which although it seems to date back at least as far as the early 18th century, doesn’t gain its name until the late 19th. The name may come from the county and city of Limerick in Ireland, possibly in reference to a parlour game in which participants make up a nonsense verse sung with the refrain line “Will you come up to Limerick?” The place name, Luimneach in Irish, means literally “bare ground of the horses” from lom “bare,” na “the”, and each “horse”, from the same Proto-Indo-European horse root *ekwo- that gives us the word equestrian. Alternatively the word for the humorous poetic genre might come from Learic in reference to Edward Lear who popularized the form in the 19th century. The limerick consists of a single 5 line stanza in anapestic meter, rhyming aabba, with the a-lines as trimiters and the b-lines as dimeters. Since I’ve already alluded to the bawdy “Man from Nantucket” limericks, here’s a limerick about the limerick form by scholar and humorist Professor Morris Bishop: “The limerick is furtive and mean; / You must keep her in close quarantine, Or she sneaks to the slums / And promptly becomes / Disorderly, drunk, and obscene.”
Another genre is Satire, which in English literature is not generally considered a poetic form but rather a mode of writing in both poetry and prose; in Roman literature, however, it was a poetic genre written in dactylic hexameter lines. In fact, the Romans claimed to have invented the form, though in a sense there were forerunners in Greek iambic poetry, so called because it was written in iambic lines. What these various genres and modes have in common is that they are all “attack” poems: they use humour and wit to criticize vices, folly, and other shortcomings of everything from individuals to society at large. The two most notable Roman satirists are our old friend Horace, and Juvenal, and these two poets have lent their names to two categories of satire in the English tradition. Horatian satire is urbane and witty, and uses more gentle humour to point out human folly and failings. As Horace himself explained, he wished “to laugh people out of their vices and follies.” Juvenalian satire, on the other hand, is more serious in style, intending to evoke contempt and moral indignation in the reader. Now although the emotions sparked by satire range from wry amusement to downright contempt, it would be more appropriate if it sparked sadness. Actually, the word sad didn’t originally mean “sad”, but instead “sated, full”, going back to the Proto-Indo-European root *sa- “to satisfy” (also source of the word satisfy, from Latin satis “enough” and facere “to make”). The sense shift that happened from Old English to Middle English was from “sated”, to “heavy, ponderous” (both physically and through metaphor mentally), to “weary, tired of”, and finally to “unhappy” by around 1300. That Latin word satis, by the way, also comes into English with the prefix ad- “to”, first becoming Old French assez “sufficiency, satisfaction; compensation”, then Anglo-Norman French assetz, and finally English assets, which was a Norman legal term meaning “enough wealth to settle the claims made against a deceased person’s estate”, and was later taken as a plural form and backformed to asset referring to single item in the assets column in balance sheets by the 19th century, and now just means “property”. But for our purposes, it’s the related Latin word satur “sated, full” that’s important, because it was used in the phrase lanx satura literally “full dish”, and was thus used to mean “mixed dish, dish filled with various kinds of fruit”, which then in a metaphorical sense became the word satira meaning a “poetic medley”, particularly collections of poems in various metres by the Roman poet Ennius, and further gained the sense of “work intended to ridicule vice or folly”, perhaps by influence of the satyr plays of the Greece dramatic tradition, satyr referring to the goat-man creatures of Greek myth, whose etymology is unknown. And it’s from Latin satira that we get the word satire. If this whole etymology seems all a little far fetched to you, let me double down on it by pointing out that the root *sa- also came into Greek, but because of a sound change in which /s/ before a vowel becomes /h/ in Greek, as we can also see in Greek hepta meaning “seven” (as in heptagon) corresponding to Latin septem and English seven, the Greek derivative is hadros meaning “thick, strong, large”, which comes into English in such words as hadrosaur, a species of dinosaur, and hadron, of Large Hadron Collider fame. Productive little root, that Proto-Indo-European *sa-!
Although there are other forms we could mention, I’ll end with a final one, related to satire but also to epic, the first genre we looked at, that is parody. Also not strictly a poetic genre in the English tradition, parody goes back to that same Greek word oide “song”, along with the prefix para- meaning “beside, counter, against” or perhaps in this case “mock”. According to Aristotle in his Poetics, the Greek paroidia genre was invented by one Hegemon of Thasos, who took well known poems, particularly epics, and tweaked the wording to change the sublime into the ridiculous, in other words the mock-epic, and it’s in that sense that we get the modern genre of parody, in which there is a mismatch between the style and the subject of a work. Another word for this kind of thing is lampoon, which seems to come from a kind of scurrilous French drinking song which featured the refrain lampons “let us drink”, from lamper “to drink, guzzle”, ultimately from a Germanic word related to the verb to lap meaning “to lick up” as a cat does when drinking, stemming from the Proto-Indo-European root *lab- meaning “lapping, smacking of the lips, to lick”. So if you like surprising etymologies, lap that up!
And with that, we’ve taken a quick lap around the primary technical elements that help us divide poetry from prose; and while rhyme, rhythm, and figurative language may not be enough to make good poetry on their own, creating verse does turn on the way language, sound, and imagery can work together to make thoughts and ideas more memorable.
Thanks for watching! For more on the subject of poetry, there’s a companion video to this in which we talk about another definition of poetry, as a way the brain perceives the world, so check that out! If you’ve enjoyed these etymological explorations and cultural connections, please subscribe, & click the little bell to be notified of every new episode. And check out our Patreon, where you can make a contribution to help me make more videos. I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, and you can visit our website alliterative.net for more language and connections in our podcast, blog, and more!