A Bit on Fourteeners

I don’t know why I was thinking about this most amusing of meters this morning, but it occurs to me that our good readers might help me add to the arsenal that I deploy when I teach Emily Dickinson, George Herbert, and other users and abusers of the fourteener.

For those who don’t remember, the fourteener is a poetic form, most common in English-language poetry, that has an iambic tetrameter line, then an iambic trimeter, then an iambic tetrameter, then an iambic trimeter.  In other words, there are fourteen poetic syllables that get accented, thus the fourteener.

If you haven’t thought about it before, you probably didn’t realize just how many familiar English-language tunes use this form.  Just a few of them are the following:

  • “Amazing Grace” (hymn)
  • “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” (Eagles–verses only)
  • “The Mickey Mouse Club Song”
  • “Theme from Gilligan’s Island”
And that’s where I’d like your help: what other famous fourteeners could I bring to class when I teach introductory literature classes?  If you’ve got some, put ’em in the comments section.  Until then, try out each of the tunes above on the Dickinson poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz– When I Died.”  You’ll see why I enjoy this little tidbit so much and why a generation of students think of me as the teacher who ruined “Amazing Grace” and Emily Dickinson.

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

(If it helps, when you do the Dickinson-Eagles, try this out for a chorus:  “And I’ve got a peaceful, easy feeling/ And that old fly won’t get me down/ ‘Cause I’m already buried underground.”  If I played guitar, I could probably also ruin the Eagles for my classes.)

2 thoughts on “A Bit on Fourteeners

  1. Lewis Carroll’s stuff tends to fit this pattern, most notably “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (one of my personal favorites), though it has an extra couplet at the end of each stanza, so maybe it’s a twenty-oner. But “How Doth the Little Crocodile” (which Wikipedia tells me is a parody of Isaac Watts’ “Against Idleness and Mischief”) should work.

    Plus I bet there’s a ton of nursery rhymes that work:

    “A diller, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar”
    “Queen of Hearts”
    “Jack and Jill”
    “Little Jack Horner”
    “Old King Cole”
    “Little Miss Muffet”
    “Hey Diddle Diddle”
    “Itsy Bitsy Spider”
    “Jack Sprat”
    “Little Bo Peep” (maybe)
    “Old Mother Hubbard”
    “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”
    “Rub-a-Dub-Dub”
    “Simple Simon”
    “Sing a Song of Sixpence”
    “The Lion and the Unicorn”
    “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”

    And maybe “I Never Saw a Purple Cow”?

    The total syllable count varies a lot with nursery rhymes, so they may not fit as well with the melodies you listed, but I think they all fit the fourteener pattern. I know nursery rhymes are not really the stuff of great, highbrow poetry, but that’s my two cents’ worth.

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