Definition of Spondee

A spondee is a unit of meter comprised of two stressed syllables. The spondee is an irregular metrical foot, unlike the trochee or iamb, and is not used to compose full lines of poetry. Instead, spondee examples can be found occasionally substituting in for other prosodic feet in a metrical poem. However, sometimes it is hard to tell whether a pair of syllables in English is a spondee, a trochee, or an iamb because stress can be a bit subjective. For example, William Shakespeare generally wrote his poetry and plays in iambic pentameter, but even in his famous line from Hamlet “To be or not to be; that is the question,” most contemporary readers would break the iambic pattern in the second half of the line emphasizing “that” rather than “is.”

Originally, the definition of spondee was a metrical foot with two long syllables, as classified in Greek and Latin. Whether a syllable is long or short is clear in Greek and Latin, unlike the matter of whether a syllable is stressed or unstressed in English. Thus, the role of spondees substituting for other feet was more unambiguous. The word spondee comes from the Greek word σπονδή (spondē), which means “libation.”

Common Examples of Spondee

Commands often are examples of spondees because they are short, staccato, and forceful.

  • Sit down!
  • Shut up!
  • Go home!
  • Stop that!
  • Come back!

There are also many compound words in English which are spondee examples, such as the following:

  • Bookmark
  • Sunset
  • Toothache
  • Browbeat
  • Busstop
  • Earthquake
  • Cloudburst
  • Handshake
  • Car park
  • Rainstorm

Significance of Spondee in Literature

Many works of classical literature, such as Vergil’s Aenid, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Ovid’s Metamorphosis, are written in dactylic hexameter, also known as heroic hexameter due to its use in epics. It was common for these writers to substitute a spondee in for a dactyl throughout the lines, without compromising the meter at all.

Usually, in the contemporary definition of spondee that applies to English poetry, the presence of a spondee signals that the author or character in question is crying out or feeling a strong emotion. The use of spondee can also be employed to mimic the sound of something, such as the waves in Example #2 below.

Examples of Spondee in Literature

Example #1

CAPULET: How, how, how, how? Chopped logic! What is this?
“Proud,” and “I thank you,” and “I thank you not,”
And yet “not proud”? Mistress minion you,
Thank me no thankings, nor proud me no prouds,
But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next
To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
Out, you green sickness, carrion! Out, you baggage!
You tallow face!

LADY CAPULET: Fie, fie! What, are you mad?

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

In the above excerpt from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s parents, Capulet and Lady Capulet, are trying to understand why Juliet is refusing to marry Paris. Both parents use examples of spondees in this excerpt. First comes Capulet’s repetition of the word “how,” which demonstrates his disbelief. He is so upset with Juliet that his thoughts become more broken up and less articulate. His wife answers him in a way that we would expect her to finish a line of iambic pentameter that starts with “your tallow face.” Instead, however, she also uses repetition of the word “fie” to express her extreme emotion in this scene.

Example #2

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

(“Break, Break, Break” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

It is often noted that Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Break, Break, Break” contains the repetition of that one-syllable word in order to mimic the sound of waves breaking alone the shore in a rhythmic way. Each time he repeats the word it is necessarily stressed. In fact, because there are three stressed syllables in a row this counts as a very rare metrical foot known as the molossus (indeed, “cold gray stones” is another molossus example). However, there are other spondee examples here, such as “O Sea” and “thy crags.”

Example #3

Slow, slow, fresh fount, keep time with my salt tears;
Yet slower, yet, O faintly, gentle springs!
List to the heavy part the music bears,
Woe weeps out her division, when she sings.
Droop herbs and flowers;
Fall grief in showers;
Our beauties are not ours.
O, I could still,
Like melting snow upon some craggy hill,
Drop, drop, drop, drop,
Since nature’s pride is now a withered daffodil.

(“Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount” by Ben Jonson)

Ben Jonson uses many one-syllable words in his short poem “Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount” that, when together, form spondees. Indeed, the opening line of the poem contains four examples of spondees (“slow slow,” “fresh fount,” “keep time,” and “salt tears) connected by a pyrrhus, which is a metrical foot with two unstressed syllables (“with my”). Jonson uses a few more spondees throughout the poem, such as “woe weeps,” “droop herbs,” “fall grief,” and then the repetition of the word “drop” four times in the tenth and penultimate line.

Example #4

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

(“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Like Jonson, Gerard Manley Hopkins combines several strong one-syllable words into spondee examples in his poem “Pied Beauty.” We find these spondee examples in both stanzas of the poem. In the first stanza we find “rose-moles” in the third line, as well as “all trades” in the final lines of the stanza. In the first line of the second stanza we find the spondee example “spare, strange” and in the third line there is “swift, slow” and “sweet, sour.” The final line of the poem necessarily brings a lot of attention to itself because it is set apart and acts as the end of a prayer. Unsurprisingly, it is also an example of a spondee: “Praise him.”

Example #5

Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

(“After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost)

In his poem “After Apple-Picking,” Robert Frost ends with a few examples of spondees. The word “woodchuck” is a compound English word, and is comprised of two stressed syllables. Frost also uses another example of a spondee with the words “long sleep.” The stress on these two words slows down this line just enough to correspond to the concept of a long sleep.

Example #6

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

(“Diving Into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich)

This contemporary poem by Adrienne Rich does not contain any meter or rhyme, and thus her use of spondees is not to substitute for a different metrical foot in a standardized line. However, we can still find examples of spondees, such as in the first line of this stanza where Rich iterates, “WE ARE, I AM, YOU ARE,” all of which can be taken to be stressed syllables. Also, due to Rich’s use of enjambment, the words “in which” in their own line take on extra stress and become a spondee together.

Test Your Knowledge of Spondee

1. Which of the following is the best spondee definition?
A. A metrical foot with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
B. A metrical foot with two short syllables, as understood in Greek and Latin.
C. A metrical foot with two stressed syllables.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following words is a spondee example?
A. Heartburn
B. Endear
C. Darling
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. B is an iambic word and C is a trochaic word.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following lines uttered by the character of Cassandra in William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida contains an example of spondee?
A. Our firebrand brother, Paris, burns us all.
B. Cry, Trojans, cry! a Helen and a woe:
C. Cry, cry! Troy burns, or else let Helen go.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. The lines are written in iambic pentameter, and you can see how to impose this pattern on the other lines “our FIREbrand BROther PARis BURNS us ALL” and “cry TROjans CRY a HELen AND a WOE.” However, the third line of these must start with a spondee, and finishes in iambs.[/spoiler]