Four + three


What do these lines of verse:

      The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
      In a beautiful pea-green boat,
      They took some honey, and plenty of money,
      Wrapped up in a five pound note.

have in common with these:

      Oh, beautiful for spacious skies
      For amber waves of grain,
      For purple mountains’ majesty
      Above the fruited plains.

or with these:

      There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
      And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
      And when she gets there she knows if the stores are closed
      With a word she can get what she came for

or these:

      Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
      A tale of a fateful trip
      That started from this tropic port,
      Aboard this tiny Ship.

They all use the four+three meter: lines containing four beats alternate with lines containing three beats. Technically this is heptameter – a line with seven beats – also known as the “ballad line” (it shows up in a lot of ballads), with a short pause after the fourth beat to break up the line into two parts.

The wonderful thing about four+three meter is that it really has the same timing as four+four meter – so it’s easy to follow the rhythm – except that the eighth beat is a silent “stealth” beat, a place for you to catch your breath before going on to the next verse.

Contrast this with lyrics that are deliberately designed to be difficult to recite:

      I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
      I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
      I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
      From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical

That’s the opening verse of The Very Model of a Modern Major General, the great patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. It goes on like that too, for verse after merciless verse, the inexorable rhythm requiring the singer to soldier bravely onward without a pause for breath. This is high art indeed! To properly sing the part of the Major General (not just to muddle through it, but to really nail it) requires a combination of natural talent and many hours of serious training.

In contrast, Edward Lear, Katherine lee Bates, Robert Plant and Sherwood Schwartz (the respective authors of the first four examples above – wouldn’t you want to be invited to that dinner party?) were clearly taking the position, by writing in the four+three meter, that theirs was a populist art: The underlying message is that this is a song or poem for everyone, an invitation to please join in.

I happen to love the four+three meter, and I sometimes use it for composing verse just because it’s so darned fun. One of the wonderful things about it is that you can combine the music of any four+three song with the lyrics of any other. A perfect illustration is the following ingenious music/lyric mash-up, written in 1978 by Roger Clark and Dick Bright:

Stairway to Gilligan


4 thoughts on “Four + three”

  1. heh, funnily, the Owl an the Pussycat was the first poem my daughter learned to recite by heart – for her father and step-mother’s wedding quite a few years ago. She’s so fond of memorising things (poems, the table of elements, songs) she takes on quite complicated ones now and is currently working very hard to learn Modern Major General.

  2. The name of the second guy that did the Stairway to Gilligan sounds like a personal hygiene product.

  3. You’re way ahead of me here Troy. I only just realized last week that “Demi Moore” is an oxymoron. 🙂

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