Sunday, 24 September 2017

The Rules of Poetry

There was a moment this week when I was talking to a class about free verse and its benefits for poetry. During it, I had a thought. A thought about rules. How important it is to understand the rules of a particular poem? Whether a poem is free verse or not, there is still a set of rules guiding the writing. Not having rhyme is a rule. Not having a regular rhythm is a rule.

I have analysed ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ umpteen times and I thought I’d view it differently. I thought I’d view it from a set of rules. I started with a few rules and then things snowballed.


1.       Sound effects are repeated three times

2.       End each stanza with the ‘six hundred’

3.       Visual details are repeated twice

4.       All dialogue starts with ‘Forward, the Light Brigade’

5.       The last verb in first fours stanzas is ‘rode’

6.       Verbs are paired when action takes place

7.       Stanzas three and five repeat the same five lines at the start

8.       The first word in every line is stressed

9.       One word in the whole poem is three syllables long

10.   All words, apart from one,  in the poem are one or two syllables long

11.   Dactylic diameter used throughout

12.   The number of times the imperative ‘forward’ is used matches the number of times the imperative ‘honour’  is used at the end

13.   Exclamations are followed by questions at the start but this is inverted at the end of the poem

I could go on and on looking for rules. This, by no means, is an exhaustive list. But, when you have rules down on paper you can start exploring the meaning in greater detail. What is the significance of a rule? (Incidentally, you have some rules to help them create a poem.)

Rule 13 – Nobody questioned the orders until after the event. Therefore, the last stanza reflects that need to question first before action. The poem subtly wants a change in the structure of the military organisation.

Rule 9 – Battery is the one three syllable word in the whole poem drawing attention to the key difference between the light brigade and their enemy.

Rule 1 and 3 – Greater emphasis is placed on the sound effects rather than the visual aspects to give a level of distance and confusion. The events are heard more than they are seen. Reflects how the public experienced

Rule 12 – The poet replaces the officer giving orders at the end of the poem. His commands equal that of the officers in the event.

These aren’t definitive interpretations, but they present a starting point to enable a focused discussion of the poem. Tomorrow’s lesson with my Year 10 is about the Ted Hughes’ rules in ‘Bayonet Charge’.  

Thanks for reading,



  1. Poems have rules?
    Embedded in,
    Cadence and content,
    Rhythm and rhyme,
    Texture and time.
    Presence in the mind.

  2. 'Form' (ballad / sonnet /whatever) is a set of rules by which assumptions can be made/applied as to the content and intention of the poem. Even the notion of it being in poetic form attaches rules. (Poetry = meter so even in free verse, as you say yourself, the poet is choosing to ignore the rules - for a reason. It doesn't mean they don't still apply - they do it for a purpose.) On top of this, as we all know, rules are there to be broken and, in my view, it is often by diverging from a fixed metrical framework that the most profound bits of meaning are gleaned from a rule-based analysis of poetry. i.e When Shakespeare chooses to put a trochee there instead of an iamb."Most arts effect their meaning by using a fixed element and a variable." Ezra Pound. All this aside, I personally think it is essential to remember (especially at school level): that all literature (poetry especially) has rules and they, like all else (word choice, structure etc.), have no intrinsic value, they are simply used to serve and assist in imparting meaning. Especially when you break them! Thanks for your blog.