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Rosanna from Italy writes, "I'm an Italian student of English, dealing with learning literature. Introducing the Medieval ballad, after analysing Lord Randal, we're analysing Geordie, the English version. Our book text introduces the counting of stressed and unstressed syllables in medieval ballads but the answer seem to get me confused because it is said that there is a mixed of four and three stressed syllables lines without indicating the lines. Can you tell me what the lines are, what the stressed and unstressed syllables are and if we can specify if they are iambic or anapest feet? Thanks in advance, I really need your help!"

As I walk’d o’er London Bridge
One misty morning early
I overheard a fair pretty maid,
Was lamenting for her Geordie.

"O, my Geordie will be hang’d in a golden chain,
’tis not the chain of many,
He was born from King’s royal breed
And lost to a virtuous lady."

Go bridle me my milk-white steed,
Go bridle me my pony,
I will ride to London’s Court
To plead for the life of Geordie.

"O Geordie never stole nor cow, nor calf,
He never hurted any,
Stole sixteen of the King’s royal deer
And he sold them in Bohenny.

"Two pretty babes have I born,
The third lies in my body,
I’d freely part to them ev’ry one
If you’d spare the life of Geordie."

The judge look’d over his left shoulder,
He said, "Fair maid, I’m sorry,
So, fair maid, you must be gone,
For I cannot pardon Geordie."

O my Geordie will be hang’d in a golden chain,
’tis not the chain of many,
Stole sixteen of the King’s royal deer
And he sold them in Bohenny.

Hi Rosanna, you've got an especially interesting poem to decipher. Ballads are made challenging by the fact that they were originally intended to be sung rather than spoken. Song-writers often feel like they have more flexibility in their writing than poets who intend their poems to be spoken. The reason for this is that it's easier to cram extra syllables into a song; all you have to do is take a quarter note and change it into two eighth notes, and you've put an extra unaccented syllable between your accented syllables.

To see this illustrated, a good starting point is to find an audio recording of the ballad and listen to it. Here's one I found. The lyrics are not exactly the same as the copy you sent me, but they're fairly close. Geordie Ballad on YouTube.

One of the best lines to hear this "syllable cramming" that I mentioned above is the first line of the repeated chorus in the video:

"He never stole a cow, never stole a calf"

When you listen to that line, you can hear that the singer is really working to fit extra syllables in. In particular, "stole a" in the first half of the line and "never" in the second half are jammed together to make the line of music flow. If you focus your attention on what syllables get accented here, what you'll hear is:

'he NEV-er stole a COW, nev-er STOLE a CALF"

Interesting, isn't it, that the first time the word "never" shows up it has an accented syllable, but the second time it shows up, the entire word gets jammed into the space between two accented syllables. This sort of thing makes poetry both interesting and challenging!

If I were going to break this down by accented and unaccented syllables, I might replace each unaccented syllable by a lower case "x" and each accented by an exclamation mark. It would look like this:

x ! x x x ! x x ! x !.

This doesn't seem terribly helpful; the number of unaccented syllables does not stay consistent throughout the line. However, at the very least we can tell that there are four accented syllables in this line. Now let's look at the next line:

"He never murdered any."

This one is much more straightforward, and if you just simply read it aloud, you would hopefully hear the natural rhythm of it:

"he NEV-er MUR-dered AN-y"

So this one is: x ! x ! x ! x, which has three accented syllables.

The next line is "STOLE six-TEEN of the KING'S ro-yal DEER" , which is: ! x ! x x ! x x !

And finally: "and he SOLD them IN bo-HENN-ey" or: x x ! x ! x ! x.

Let's put it all together to make an accent "map" of the chorus:

x ! x x x ! x x ! x !
x ! x ! x ! x
! x ! x x ! x x !
x x ! x ! x ! x

If you count up the exclamation marks in each line, you'll find that the pattern for the number of accents in each line is 4 - 3 - 4 - 3, which answers the first part of your question.

Now to answer whether it's anapestic or iambic (or something else altogether), I looked at the second line and noticed that it is almost perfectly iambic (unstressed, stressed), except for the extraneous unaccented syllable. On the other hand, the very next line is missing an unaccented syllable at the beginning, which makes up for it. So my money is on this being iambic heptameter (because a line of four and a line of three add up to a total of seven iambs). To convince myself that I'm right about this, I go back and listen again, and everywhere I hear the singer doing "syllable cramming", I replace the crammed syllables with a single unaccented mark:

x ! x ! x ! x !
x ! x ! x ! x
! x ! x ! x !
x ! x ! x ! x

Aside from the fact that we have two lines that end with an extra unaccented syllable, this is iambic.

So now that you know this is a very "loose" iambic heptameter, you can go back to your version of the ballad, feeling confident of what the meter is. Your only challenges, then, are determining which syllables get stressed, and figuring out where the "syllable cramming" happens. Good luck!

Incidentally, as a side note, I think that the addition of those unaccented syllables at the end of each pair of lines gives it a sense of being unfinished, which adds to the melancholy feel of the piece.


After a few back-and-forth messages with Rosanna, here are a few more helpful tips for people trying to parse accented/unaccented syllables in a poem:

  • Once you think you've figured it out, read it out loud, strongly emphasising (speaking loudly) the syllables you marked as stressed. This may help you identify mistakes you've made.
  • If you know how many stressed syllables there are supposed to be in each line, that's very helpful information, because while a poet may mess with the unstressed syllables, they're less likely to change up the number of stressed syllables. 
  • You're unlikely to find two stressed syllables in a row.

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