In Poetic Meter and Form, Paul Fussell, Jr. explains three ways in which meter can “mean,” by itself, apart from the meaning imparted through the particular words of a metrical poem, and apart from the melody, rhythm and musical arrangement of a hymn:
Meter Is a Ritual Frame That Points to Something Beyond
Imagine a hymn’s meter as a picture frame—an artifice that reminds us we are not experiencing a real object (the actual story or teaching that the lyrics describe) but are experiencing the real object “transmuted into symbolic form.”
In this way, hymns point to something larger than themselves: the truth of the gospel. “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts drives us to the story of the cross in the Bible, and our own feelings about it. It does so through the utilization of Long Meter (lines of eight syllables each). One look at the text tells us we are getting the story of the cross and one man’s response to it, in a format that breaks each line off at the same length as the other lines. We instinctively know there must be more to the story than can be contained in those chiseled lines.
Meter Is a Force That Allows for Variation, Which Provides New Context
Great writers frequently break “the rules,” but what separates these writers from amateurs is that they know the rules, and they have developed a feel for when, why and how to break them. Too much metrical precision can produce a “greeting card” sing-song effect. Variation, in the right place, creates powerful emotional effects.
As I write in my Modern Hymns page, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty’s “In Christ Alone” does this by shifting the syllabic emphasis on even-numbered lines. The odd numbered lines deliver a truism in a stately fashion that begins with an unaccented syllable and crescendos to an accented final syllable at line’s end (we call this an iambic line). Then the even lines provide a pattern (called “trochaic“) that breaks those stately bonds and exclaims further truth from the very first syllable, which is strongly accented:
Then BURsting FORTH in GLOrious DAY
UP from the GRAVE He ROSE aGAIN!
Getty’s music carries the pattern of Townend’s lyric (I believe Getty wrote the music first).
A Given Meter Transmits Certain Meanings Regardless of the Words Used
This is why a limerick is a bad choice for a song about the cross:
There once was a man on a cross,
He paid such a horrible cost
Was battered and bruised
He died there to save all the lost
The form itself is so ideal for light or humorous topics that it makes the crucifixion seem flippant. Do you see that? Read the limerick aloud. Even with words like “horrible,” “battered” and “abused,” it doesn’t feel devastating.
Contrast this with the trochaic 77.77.77 meter of James Montgomery’s “Go to Dark Gethsemane”:
See Him at the judgment hall,
Beaten, bound, reviled, arraigned,
O the wormwood and the gall!
O the pangs His soul sustained!
Shun not suffering, shame or loss;
Learn of Christ to bear the cross.
This meter is a vastly superior choice for such a topic. We feel the passion right from the start with those trochaic imperatives and declaratives: SEE! BEAten! O! O! SHUN! LEARN!
The skilled worship songwriter and the careful hymn tune composer will study the hymns of the past to learn what kind of meters work best for different topics, moods and melodies.