EN 1105: Introduction to Literature
An Online Course


Sound & Structure in Poetry
Music & Metrics

You might say that a poem is anything that sounds like a poem. In fact, sound is one of the most important (and often least understood) elements of poetry. Accents and pauses, and to a lesser extent rhyme, account for much of what we think of as the way a poem sounds -- these are the rhythmical effects in poetry made available by the English language.

Pauses Meter Rhyme

Important terms: caesura; end-stopped; enjambed; free verse; iambic; anapestic; dactylic; trochaic; feet; tetrameter; pentameter; scansion; perfect rhyme; masculine rhyme; feminine rhyme; end rhyme, internal rhyme; initial rhyme; near rhyme.

I. Pauses.

In poetry, as in traditional prose and spoken language, pauses are usually indicated by traditional marks of punctuation such as commas and periods. When a pause occurs in the middle of a line of poetry it is called a caesura. Varying the location of the caesura was traditionally a way of preventing a monotonous rhythm. But poets have the additional benefit of determining the length of a line. Consequently, the end of a line of verse may be thought of as a kind of punctuation.

A particular vocabulary has grown up to define pauses in verse. We say a line is end stopped if a line ends with a regular mark of punctuation. In this case, the line end reinforces the punctuation, and we often see the line as a contained unit of thought. We say a line is enjambed (or run-on) if the last word of a line is followed by no punctuation (and technically, if the last word in a line is part of a continuing grammatical unit such as a clause). In this case, the line end is something different from a comma and thus works against the punctuation to add a kind of poetical punctuation -- certain words are given more prominence, with the poet sometimes highlighting words or images.

Pauses are often important in free verse, which is used to describe the form of a poem that does not follow any set metrical pattern. (Note: free verse should not be confused with blank verse, which is technically defined as unrhymed iambic pentameter.)

Let's look briefly at the first stanza of "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Notice that the first two lines, like the fourth, are end stopped. Notice that the third line is enjambed. Notice the one caesura, which in this case is a comma in the second line. This allows Frost to control the rhythm of his poem, the sound of his poem.

II. Meter

The sound of a poem is also affected by a system of accents. In its simplest form, language consists of stressed and unstressed syllables. Also called heavy and light, or long and short, stressed and unstressed syllables are given traditional grammatical markings in a dictionary to help you with the traditional pronunciation of words.

In poetry, as in our spoken language, the most common metrical pattern simply alternates unstressed and stressed accents; a short or unstressed syllable followed by a long or stressed syllable:

Whose woods these are I think I know

This rhythmical pattern, which you can hear as "da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. . ." is called iambic. The opposite of iambic is trochaic, where a stressed syllable comes before an unstressed syllable. An example of the trochee is William Blake's "Tiger":

Tiger, Tiger burning bright

The second major rhythmical pattern, much less common than the iamb, is called anapestic. This consists of two unstressed syllabus followed by a stressed syllable. The word cig-a-RETTE is an anapest. The opposite of anapestic is dactylic, which consists of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The word WON-der-ful is a dactyl. There is a third rhythmical pattern in English poetry which consists of two stressed syllables, a spondee or spondaic meter, and its opposite of two unstressed syllables--a pyrrhic meter.

When discussing meter in poetry, it is useful to have a term for the units that are repeated to make a pattern. These are called feet. In poetry, a meter is a unit of stressed and unstressed syllables as determined by its recurrence in a line; in poetry, this unit is called a foot. Meter is based on units called feet, each foot usually being a set relationship between one accented syllable and one or two unaccented syllables. In other words, these are the units that are repeated. For example, the line from Robert Frost that is quoted above (Whose woods these are I think I know) consists of four feet -- a metrical pattern that repeats four times.

Describing metrical patterns, then, involves stating the number of feet in the standard line and naming the standard foot in each line. The number of feet corresponds to numerical prefixes from the Greek:

 The art, then, involves a poet's ability to generate and maintain a consistent meter without destroying normal patterns of grammar and syntax. This art becomes perceptible only when we have the terminology to recognize it. Marking each syllable in a poem according to whether it is accented or not and analyzing the pattern is called scansion.

III. Rhyme

Rhyme is defined as the repetition of identical or similar accented sound or sounds. Full rhyme or perfect rhyme occurs when differing consonant sounds are followed by identical, accented vowel sounds, and any sounds that may come after are also identical. June, moon; foe, toe; rougher, buffer: all are perfect rhymes.

Rhyme is classified according to the number of syllables contained in the rhyme. Masculine rhyme is where the final syllables are accented and after differing initial consonants the words are identical (lark, star; support, resort). Feminine rhyme is where accented, rhyming syllables are followed by identical unaccented syllables (revival, arrival; flutter, butter). Triple rhyme is a kind of feminine rhyme in which accented, rhyming syllables are followed by two identical syllables (machinery, scenery; tenderly, slenderly).

Rhyme is also distinguished according to its position in the poem. End rhyme names when the rhyme occurs, as you might expect, at the end of lines. Internal rhyme occurs when at least one rhyme occurs within the line ("Each narrow cell in which we dwell" wrote Oscar Wilde). Initial rhyme is when the rhyme occurs as the first word or syllable of the line. Cross rhyme is when the rhyme occurs at the end of one line and in the middle of the next. Random rhyme is when the rhymes seem to occur accidentally in any combination.

Near rhyme or slant rhyme is the repetition of similar sounds instead of identical sounds (or, more technically, also the coupling of accented-unaccented sounds that would be perfect rhymes if they were both accented.) Alliteration, assonance, and consonance are considered near rhymes. Alliteration is the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of words in the same line or adjacent lines. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same lines or adjoining lines. Consonance is the repetition of consonants in the same lines or adjacent lines.

It is standard to indicate the rhyme scheme of any given poetic selection by assigning letters of the alphabet to each rhyming sound, repeating each letter as the sound is repeated. The rhyme scheme of Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" for instance, would be: a b a b c d c d e f e f g h g h. Here the a is standing for breath and death, the b for dizzy and easy, and so on.

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