Exploring Rhythm and Meter: The Essence of English Poetry

Characteristics of English Poetry

Rhythm-Rhyme and meter

Rhythm in poetry isthe patterned recurrence, within a certain

range of regularity, of specific language features, usually features of sound. Although difficult to define, rhythm is readily discriminated by the ear and the mind, having as it does a physiological basis. It is universally agreed to involve qualities of movement, repetition, and pattern and to arise from the poem’s nature as a temporal structure. Rhythm, by any definition, is essential to poetry; prose may be said to exhibit rhythm but in a much less highly organized sense. The presence of rhythmic patterns heightens emotional response and often affords the reader a sense of balance.

, although often equated with rhythm, is perhaps more accurately described as one method of organizing a poem’s rhythm. Meter is a unit of rhythm in poetry, the pattern of the beats. It is also called a foot. Each foot has a certain number of syllables in it, usually two or three syllables.Unlike rhythm, metre is not a requisite of poetry; it is, rather, an abstract organization of elements of stress, duration, or number of syllables per line into a specific formal pattern. The interaction of a given metrical pattern with any other aspect of sound in a poem produces a tension, or counterpoint, that creates the rhythm of metrically based poetry.

Compared with the wide variety of metrical schemes, the types

of metrically related rhythms are few. Duple rhythm occurs in lines composed in two-syllable feet, as in Shakespeare’s line

In metrical schemes based on three-syllable feet, the rhythm

is triple:

Rising rhythm results when the stress falls on the last syllable

of each foot in a line:

The reverse of this is falling rhythm:

Running, or common, rhythm occurs in metres in which

stressed and unstressed syllables alternate (duple rhythm, rising or falling).

The rhythms of free verse derive from the systematic repetition of language elements other than metrical stress patterns. Differentiation between the rhythmical basis of free verse and that of metrical verse involves a relative, rather than an absolute, distinction regarding the range of language features considered and the extent to which they are patterned. Since metrical verse is principally concerned with the distribution of relative stress values, it does not account for the significance of other linguistic features that may contribute to rhythmic effect. In free verse, rhythm most commonly arises from the arrangement of linguistic elements into patterns that more nearly approximate the natural cadence of speech and that give symmetry to the verse. The rhythmical resources available to free verse include syntactical patterning; systematic repetition of sound, words, phrases, and lines; and the relative value of temporal junctures occasioned by caesura (a marked pause in the middle of a line), line length, and other determinants of pace. Some authorities recognize in the highly organized patterning of imagery a further source of poetic rhythm.

Exploring Rhythm and Meter: The Essence of English Poetry

consonance, the recurrence or repetition of identical or similar consonants; specifically the correspondence of end or intermediate consonants unaccompanied by like correspondence of vowels at the end of two or more syllables, words, or other units of composition.

As a poetic device, it is often combined with assonance (the

repetition of stressed vowel sounds within words with different end consonants) and alliteration (the repetition of initial consonant sounds).

Rhyme, also spelled rime, is the correspondence of two or

more words with similar-sounding final syllables placed so as to echo one another. Rhyme is used by poets and occasionally by prose writers to produce sounds appealing to the reader’s senses and to unify and establish a poem’s stanzaic form. End rhyme (i.e., rhyme used at the end of a line to echo the end of another line) is most common, but internal, interior, or leonine rhyme is frequently used as an occasional embellishment in a poem.

There are three rhymes recognized by purists as “true

rhymes”: masculine rhyme, in which the two words end with the same vowel–consonant combination (stand / land), feminine rhyme (sometimes called double rhyme), in which two syllables rhyme (profession / discretion), and trisyllabic rhyme, in which three syllables rhyme (patinate / latinate). The too-regular effect of masculine rhyme is sometimes softened by using trailing rhyme, or semi rhyme, in which one of the two words trails an additional unstressed syllable behind it (trail / failure). Other types of rhyme include eye rhyme, in which syllables are identical in spelling but are pronounced differently (cough / slough), and pararhyme, first used systematically by the 20th-century poet wilfred owen, in which two syllables have different vowel sounds but identical penultimate and final consonantal groupings (grand / grind). Feminine pararhyme has two forms, one in which both vowel sounds differ, and one in which only one does (ran in / run on; blindness / blandness). Weakened, or unaccented, rhyme occurs when the relevant syllable of the rhyming word is unstressed (bend / frightened). Because of the way in which lack of stress affects the sound, a rhyme of this kind may often be regarded as consonance, which occurs when the two words are similar only in having identical final consonants (best / least).

Another form of near rhyme is assonance, said previously, in

which only the vowel sounds are identical (grow / home). Assonance was regularly used in French poetry until the 13th century, when end rhyme overtook it in importance. It continues to be significant in the poetic technique of romance languages but performs only a auxiliary function in English verse.

Rhyme seems to have developed in western poetry as a

combination of earlier techniques of end consonance, end assonance, and alliteration. It is found only occasionally in classical Greek and Latin poetry but more frequently in medieval religious Latin verse and in songs, especially those of the Roman Catholic liturgy, from the 4th century. Although it has been periodically opposed by devotees of classical verse, it has never fallen into complete disuse. Shakespeare interspersed rhymed couplets into the blank verse of his dramas; Milton disapproved of rhyme, but SamuelJohnson favoured it. In the 20th century, although many advocates of free verse ignored rhyme, other poets continued to introduce new and complicated rhyme schemes.

Rhythm and Meter in English Poetry

English poetry employs five basic rhythms of varying stressed (/) and unstressed (x) syllables. The meters are iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests and dactyls. In this work the stressed syllables are marked in boldface type rather than the tradition al «/» and «x.» Each unit of rhythm is called a «foot» of poetry.

The meters with two-syllable feet are

  • IAMBIC (x /) : That time of year thou mayst in me behold
  • TROCHAIC (/ x): Tell me not in mournful numbers
  • SPONDAIC (/ /): Break, break, break/ On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!

Meters with three-syllable feet are

  • ANAPESTIC (x x /): And the sound of a voice that is still
  • DACTYLIC (/ x x): This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlock (a trochee replaces the final dactyl)

Each line of a poem contains a certain number of feet of

iambs, trochees, spondees, dactyls or anapests. A line of one foot is a monometer, 2 feet is a dimeter, and so on–trimeter (3), tetrameter (4), pentameter (5), hexameter (6), heptameter (7), and octameter (8). The number of syllables in a line varies therefore according to the meter. A good example of trochaic monometer, for example, is this poem entitled «Fleas»: Adam


Here are some more serious examples of the various meters.

IAMBIC PENTAMETER (5 iambs, 10 syllables)

  • That time | of year | thou mayst | in me | behold TROCHAIC TETRAMETER (4 trochees, 8 syllables)
  • Tell me | not in | mournful | numbers

ANAPESTIC TRIMETER (3 anapests, 9 syllables)

  • And the sound | of a voice | that is still

DACTYLIC HEXAMETER (6 dactyls, 17 syllables; a trochee replaces the last dactyl)

  • This is the | forest pri | meval, the | murmuring | pine and the | hemlocks

Stanza and lines-scansion

Stanza is a division of a poem consisting of two or more lines

arranged together as a unit. More specifically, a stanza usually is a group of lines arranged together in a recurring pattern of metrical lengths and a sequence of rhymes.

The structure of a stanza (also called a strophe or stave) is

determined by the number of lines, the dominant metre, and the rhyme scheme. Thus, a stanza of four lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming ABAB, could be described as a quatrain.

Scansion is the analysis and visual representation of a poem’s

metrical pattern. Adapted from the classical method of analyzing ancient Greek and Roman quantitative verse, scansion in English prosody employs a system of symbols to reveal the mechanics of a poem—i.e., the predominant type of foot (the smallest metrical unit of stressed and unstressed syllables); the number of feet per line; and the rhyme scheme. The purpose of scansion is to enhance the reader’s sensitivity to the ways in which rhythmic elements in a poem convey meaning. Deviations in a poem’s metrical pattern are often significant to its meaning.

There are three major types of English scansion: the graphic,

the musical, and the acoustic. The primary symbols used in graphic scansion, the most common type of scansion, are: (— or ´) to represent a syllable that is stressed in context; (˘) to represent a syllable that is unstressed in context; a vertical line (|) to indicate a division between feet; and a double vertical line (‖) to show a caesura, a pause within a line of verse. Using these symbols, graphic scansion begins by marking the accented, then the unaccented syllables according to the natural rhythm of speech. It cannot, however, record the subtle variations of language, and is, therefore, a highly simplified analysis.

Because few poems are absolutely regular, metre is usually

determined by the type of foot that appears most frequently, as iambic pentameter or trochaic tetrameter. Following are the last two lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which are written in iambic pentameter; the lines are scanned in the graphic method. The spondaic foot (two stressed syllables) in the first line is a common variation in iambic rhythm.

Both musical and acoustic scansion, highly complex systems,

are more sensitive than graphic scansion to the tonal and accentual variety of speech. Musical symbols (e.g., eighth notes for unstressed syllables, quarter or half notes for stressed syllables, and musical rests for pauses) record accentual differences. Machines such as the oscillograph are used by modern acoustic linguists to catch even slightly varying degrees of stress.

Pour citer ce mémoire (mémoire de master, thèse, PFE,...) :
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English poetry and Lingala songs: a contrastive study
Université 🏫: Institut supérieur pédagogique de Kisangani ISP - Section: Lettres et sciences humaines
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LOBOLO Amuri Edouard

LOBOLO Amuri Edouard
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