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Tom's Home   First Year English

Week 7: Rhythm and Metre

1. Lineation is the major difference between poetry and prose; lines are 'measured' according to rhythm and metre ('metre' is etymologically related to 'measure').

2. In childhood, we absorb poetic rhythm through nursery rhymes, songs, chants – as in Mary Queen of Scots when 'Wee Knoxy' tries to console himself against the taunts of other children:

I'm H.A.P.P.Y.
I'm H.A.P.P.Y.
I know I am, I'm sure I am,
I'm H.A.P.P.Y. (p.65)

3. Rhythm occurs whenever there is regular and repeated alternation between recognisably different events (left-right, left-right; on-off, on-off, etc).
3.1 Duple rhythm: left-right, left-right; on-off, on-off.

3.2 Triple rhythm: one-two-three, one-two-three.
3.3 Falling rhythm: beat-offbeat; one-two-three.
3.4 Rising rhythm: offbeat-beat; one-two-three, one-two-three.
3.5 Thus, there are four basic kinds of rhythm:

(a) rising duple: one-two, one-two (iambic)
(b) falling duple: one-two, one-two (trochaic)
(c) rising triple: one-two-three, one-two-three (anapestic)
(d) falling triple: one-two-three, one-two-three (dactylic)

4. Words are built out of syllables; syllables are the basic element of rhythm in language.
4.1 A syllable is 'a vocal sound or set of sounds uttered with a single effort of articulation and forming a word or an element of a word.' It is composed of 'a vowel or vowel equivalent ... with or without one or more ... consonants or consonant equivalents': 'arid' = a-rid (2 syllables).
4.2 Rhythm in English speech is built out of alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables: e.g., we automatically vary the stress in multisyllable words (the stress is marked over the vowel – which is always the 'core' of a syllable):

/   -                  /    -    (/)
a-rid              cer-tain-ly          twen-ty-two      in-dig-na-tion

4.3 Stressed and unstressed syllables in multisyllabic words and sentences tend to alternate:

    -  -    /   -   -  (/)         /      -  -     /  - -   /   -
This is partly because speech is a physical action.

4.4 In normal speech, stresses come at roughly regular intervals (regardless of the number of unstressed syllables in between). Try working out the stress pattern of the following sentence:

These gifts from the people of Scotland have improved the lives of thousands.

5. Since 'everyday' language is rhythmical, the difference between poetry and 'ordinary' language is not that one is rhythmical while the other is not. Instead, poetry shapes the natural rhythms of the language through lineation (often into metrical patterns).

6. Metrical poetry: organises the rhythmical units in each line to create a regular pattern.
6.1 In English poetry there are two basic measures: four beats per line (tetrameter), and five beats per line (pentameter) – though there are other metres (eg, three-beat and six-beat).
6.2. To analyse a poem's metre: (i) count total number of syllables per line; (ii) mark and count number of stresses per line; (iii) identify the rhythmic units (e.g., rising duple?) (iv) check to see if the lines follow a four-beat or five-beat pattern.

7. Four-beat metre is the dominant form in popular or oral poetry, found in nursery rhymes, hymns, songs, ballads, pop songs etc. It also features strongly in the literary tradition.
7.1 The four-beat form tends to shape group chanting and songs (as in 'The Lads'):

The lads, the lads, away the lads
we are the Boys who make this Noise (1-2).

7.2 In songs, the four-beat form is typically reinforced by the musical beat. In The Beatles' 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds' (1967), the triple (waltz) rhythm of the verses segues into the duple rhythm of the chorus.

7.3 The four-beat form often comes in four-line stanzas and is generally reinforced by end rhymes - as in the first stanza of A.E. Housman's 'Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now' (1896):

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

7.4 Four-beat poetry may vary between rising and falling metre at beginning of lines, but often resolves into rising at the end (i.e., the last word/syllable in these lines is stressed).
7.5 The number of syllables between beats can vary without destroying the metre: the four-beat form does not always keep to a regular duple or triple pattern.

8. What is the metre of A.D. Hope's 'Inscription for War' (1981)?

Linger not, stranger; shed no tear;
Go back to those who sent us here.

We are the young they drafted out
To wars their folly brought about.

Go tell those old men, safe in bed,
We took their orders and are dead.

9. The second major metrical form in English poetry is the five-beat form in which the lines are measured into five units of duple rising rhythm (i.e., ten-syllable, five-stress lines).

10. Try to work out the metrical form of the first two lines of Shakespeare's Sonnet no. 12:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night (1-2).

10.1 Rising duple rhythm is called iambic; the five units are called pentameter (as in pentagon, pentathlon). Thus this metrical form is called iambic pentameter. A great deal of the major poetry and poetic drama of the literary 'canon' in English is in iambic pentameter.
10.2 Iambic pentameter was introduced (or reintroduced) into English poetry in the Renaissance (c.1500-1660) and was usually rhymed, often in rhyming couplets (aa, bb, etc).
10.3 Rhymed iambic pentameter characteristic metrical form of sonnets from Renaissance to present day; try to work out stress pattern of first lines of Sonnet X in Maiden Speech (p.23):

My caterpillar curiosity
that crept into your arms and took up there
a kind of temporary residence
wriggled this morning in its chrysalis (1-4)

10.4 Brown (like other modern poets) uses rhymed iambic pentameter in other kinds of poetry, sometimes in four line stanzas:

Away, the lads. Your deathless chants will be
heard in these bars and streets long after we
are dead (for lads are mortal too); your sons
will never feel the need for different ones. ('The Lads', 37-40)

10.5 Note here the use of caesura (Latin for 'cutting' = syntactic breaks in mid line), and enjambment (from French enjamber: to step over = run-on lines), where the sense doesn't stop at the end of the line: produces very different effect from rhymed four-beat verse.

11. While Renaissance poets wrote poetry in rhymed iambic pentameter (first major break with rhyme in poetry is Milton's Paradise Lost (1667)), they wrote large parts of their drama in unrhymed iambic pentameter (= blank verse); A Midsummer Night's Dream uses blank verse, rhymed iambic pentameter, and rhymed four-beat verse and song.
11.1 Blank verse is effective in drama because it: (a) can sound like real speech (unlike four-beat metre); (b) gives sense of dignity or passion to speech. Extremely flexible form: the pattern of the syntax (sentence structure) has a variable relation to the line through devices such as enjambment and caesura. After Milton, blank verse became a major form in poetry in English.

12. Free verse: name given to poetry that does not conform to any metrical pattern. Although free verse often discards rhyme, the absence of rhyme is not a sign of free verse.
12.1 Free verse is associated with the avant-garde poetry of European and American 'modernism' (c.1914-45), but it continues to be a significant alternative to metrical poetry.
12.2 Free verse is non-metrical, but its lines are rhythmical: we can work out rhythm of each line in usual way (though number (measure) of rhythmic units will vary from line to line). The natural rhythmic forms of the language are shaped in free verse, but not into regular patterns.
12.3 Metre allows interplay between normal speech rhythms, syntax and metrical pattern; free verse allows interplay between normal speech rhythms, syntax and individual line length - as in Jean Toomer's 'Face' (1923):

Hair -
like streams of stars,
Brows -
recurved canoes
quivered by the ripples blown by pain,
Her eyes -
mist of tears
condensed on the flesh below
And her channeled muscles
are cluster grapes of sorrow
purple in the evening sun
nearly ripe for worms.

12.5 'The Lads' uses passages of four- and five-beat verse; it also seems to use free verse:

I like the way you shout it all so loud,                [iambic pentameter]
revelling in the shamelessness                            [8 syllables, 4 stresses]
of its repetitiousness; the way it never stops       [13 syllables, 6 stresses?]
delighting                                                          [3 syllables, 1 stress]
you. You've every right to be proud                  [8 syllables? 4 stresses]
of your few, brief, oral formulae -                      [9 syllables, 4 stresses?]
any of which will do, for Match of the Day,       [11 syllables, iambic pentameter?]

Reading for next lecture

Furniss and Bath, Reading Poetry, chapter 12.

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