What is Pyrrhic Substitution in Poetry?

by WiseFool

What is pyrrhic substitution, how do you identify it in a poem, and how do you use it in your own poetry?

Although it might sound complicated and, let's be honest, a little bit like some sort of painful disease, pyrrhic substitution is actually quite simple.

At least, the answer to the question, ‘what is pyrrhic substitution?’ is quite simple.

However, using and/or identifying it in a poem can be a little trickier.

What is a Pyrrhic Foot?

To understand what pyrrhic substitution is, it is important to first get to grips with what the ‘pyrrhic’ refers to.

Pyrrhic is quite simply a metrical foot which has two unstressed, or unaccented, syllables.

In other words, unlike an iambic foot, which is ‘de dum’, or a trochaic foot, which is ‘dum de’, a pyrrhic foot is ‘de de’.

The same two beats, with no emphasis placed on either syllable.

What is a pyrrhic foot?
What is a pyrrhic foot?

What is Pyrrhic Substitution?

So, a pyrrhic substitution is made when a foot of poetry has these two unaccented beats despite the fact that the rest of the line dictates that it should be otherwise. It is used when a syllable that should be stressed according to the iambic or trochaic meter does not need or want that emphasis.

Learn More About Pyrrhic Substitution and Other Poetic Devices

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Examples of Pyrrhic Substitution

An example would be this line from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’:

“Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes.”

Now, when read aloud, it would sound something like this:

NOT in / the HANDS / of BOYS / but in / their EYES

The keen-eyed will notice that the first foot is a trochaic substitution, meaning that the ‘de dum’ rhythm has been replaced by a ‘dum de’, to emphasise the ‘NOT’. But the pyrrhic substitute can be found in the fourth foot.

Now, these syllables both need to be unstressed, because ‘but IN their EYES’ would not sound quite right and, more importantly, the emphasis of the word is completely unnecessary.

Similarly, if Owen had plumped for a trochee and had “BOYS BUT in their…” the result is actually quite ugly. So, because it is neither desirable nor necessary to have these syllables stressed, they are the unstressed beats of the pyrrhic meter.

The Collected Works of Wilfred Owen
The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen (New Directions Book)
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Where to Find Pyrrhic Substitution in a Poem

Typically, pyrrhic substitution will occur in the third of fourth foot of a line, this is because, if it is positioned any earlier, it can cause too much disruption to the primary rhythm, which in Owen’s case is iambic pentameter.

In addition, it cannot be placed any later in the line, because a pyrrhic substitution results in three unstressed beats “but in their”.

Therefore, it is necessary to follow the pyrrhic with an iamb to break this rhythm of unaccented beats with an accented one.

Moreover, the effect is that there is even more emphasis placed on this accented syllable, which in the case of Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is ‘EYES’.

More Examples of Pyrrhic Substitution

Another good example of pyrrhic substitution can be found in the fifth line of Shakespeare ‘Sonnet One’.

“But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes”

But THOU / con TRACT / ed to / thine OWN / bright EYES

Again, there is no sense in stressing the ‘TO’, so this foot consists of two unaccented beats.

In Shakespeare’s case, ‘OWN’ which is the next stressed syllable has the additional emphasis to it.

It’s worth remembering that pyrrhic substitution is not simply used when the stress of a particular syllable seems ugly (although that’s a great way to identify a pyrrhic foot). It serves a larger purpose within the line and the poem as a whole.

Updated: 07/05/2014, WiseFool
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LizMac67 on 08/18/2014

Thanks for this. I write poetry but am woefully ignorant of the theory behind it all. I am dismayed at how little we were taught at school. Now I am trying to catch up.

JoHarrington on 07/05/2014

Alice has nothing on the amount of impossible things that I can believe I can do before breakfast. Mind you, prolonging the moment before I actually have breakfast helps...

WiseFool on 07/05/2014

Thanks, Jo. I agree, 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' is a beautiful piece of work. All of Owen's are great, but Anthem really stands out.

Ooh, good for you! I can imagine when you hear the words, "it can't be done", you get in your 'game on' mode. Good luck with it.

JoHarrington on 07/05/2014

'Anthem for Doomed Youth' is one of the most perfect poems I've ever read. Thanks for this article, it's always good to be reminded of things I'd half-forgotten.

I'm currently trying to write poetry in English according to Welsh bardic metres, because it apparently can't be done. I'm beginning to see why.... but challenge on!

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