In detail, how do I mark the syllables in a poem?  

Expert Answers
James Kelley eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think you've marked the feet correctly in those four lines that you quote from the poem "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd." Each foot contains two syllables; the first of those syllables is unstressed and the second is stressed. Put what you're calling the breve over the unstressed syllables and the ictus over the stressed syllables.

The first line thus will look like this:

 ˘      ˊ     |  ˘       ˊ   |   ˘    ˊ   | ˘       ˊ

But could youth last, and love still breed,

(NOTE: I can't seem to get the items to line up correctly. The breve goes over "but," "youth," "and," and "still." The ictus goes over "could," "last," "love," and "breed.")

The trick to finding the unstressed and stressed syllables is to say the line in a very natural way several times over, listening each time for the beats or stresses. When speaking normally, English speakers tend to use an iambic meter (the same meter that is used in this poem), so the alternation of unstressed and stressed syllables is the first thing that you might listen for.

NOTE: It doesn't matter exactly what letter the accent goes over. The accent should go over the middle of that syllable. Some syllables have just one letter, some have several letters. "Telephone" has three syllables: tel - e - phone. The first and third syllables get some stress; the middle syllable does not. The accents would go over the "e" in "tel," over the "e," and over the "o" in "phone." 

James Kelley eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I've updated my answer to address your follow-up question. I would have sent you a message, but your profile appears as "hidden."

zachmack | Student

Stress and Syllables

Do you know a syllable when you hear one? Say the word “Poetry”, slowly. How many syllables do you hear? If you said “three” then you probably understand what a syllable is. You don’t need a technical definition. It’s enough that you’re able to hear syllables.

Now say the word “Poetry” again. Which syllable do you put the most force on, say the loudest? If you answered “the first”, then you probably understand stress. You understand that the first syllable receives more emphasis than the second and third syllable. So, meaning these last two syllables are unstressed.

Listening for syllables and stress

 Say the following words aloud, slowly. How many syllables does each word have? Which syllable in each word is stressed? Which syllable or syllables are unstressed? The stressed syllables are marked with the symbol (‘), the unstressed, with the symbol (ᵕ).









Note: Try to look up on the dictionary to recognize the stress and syllable of a word. Then, you can easily find the answer to your question. Actually, you've marked the feet correctly in those four lines. The only you can do now is put an stress and syllable right? Here...

1. The first line thus will look like this:

 ˘ ˊ | ˘ ˊ | ˘ ˊ | ˘ ˊ

But could youth last, and love still breed,


 A foot with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one is called an iamb. A line with five feet in it is called pentameter. So, by putting the name for the foot and the name for the line together, you get iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter is not the only metrical combination in English. If you wrote poetry with six iambs in each line, you would have iambic hexameter; with four iambs, iambic tetrameter. What’s more, the iamb isn’t the only foot you could use. Here are some other feet:

             │  ʹ      ᵕ │

Trochee (hopeful): a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable

             │ᵕ       ᵕ      ʹ     │

Anapest (in the woods): two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable

          │   ʹ    ᵕ ᵕ    │

Dactyl (promising): a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables

rosegold | Student

Does it matter which letter in the word the accent mark goes over?

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The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd

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