Poetry: Rhythm and Meter

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rhythm and meter in poetry

Rhythm is in every single place: we hear it within the hum of automobiles and home equipment. We really feel it after we stroll or run. We see it within the very rising and setting of the solar. Even our hearts beat to a rhythm. Rhythm is constructed into the way in which we expertise and understand the world.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary affords a number of definitions for rhythm:

  • an ordered recurrent alternation of sturdy and weak parts within the circulation of sound and silence in speech
  • the side of music comprising all the weather (akin to accent, meter, and tempo) that relate to ahead motion
  • motion, fluctuation, or variation marked by the common recurrence or pure circulation of associated parts 

Poetry encapsulates all of those definitions of rhythm. However what about meter?

The phrases rhythm and meter are sometimes used interchangeably, however their meanings are barely completely different within the context of poetry. Perinne’s Sound and Sense (aff hyperlink) describes this distinction clearly and easily: “rhythm is the circulation of sound; meter is the patterns within the sounds.”


In poetry, meter is decided by accented (harassed) and unaccented (unstressed) syllables. Silence (or pauses) additionally contributes to a poem’s meter. Scansion is the observe of marking up a poem to disclose its meter. Here’s a conventional methodology of marking up a poem, utilizing Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” for example:scansion annabel leeThe character that appears like the underside half of a circle is named a breve. The breve signifies unstressed syllables, and the slash signifies harassed syllables. You gained’t discover the breve in your keyboard, however it’s obtainable in Microsoft Phrase through the use of the Insert –> Image operate.

Nevertheless, working with breves and slashes on a pc on this method is tedious and time consuming. Thankfully, there are another strategies obtainable to us.

Some dictionaries embrace pronunciation guides, which point out harassed and unstressed syllables. Dictionaries typically use citation marks for harassed syllables and apostrophes for unstressed syllables: PO”e’attempt’. This isn’t simple on the eyes. An alternative choice, which is far clearer, is to make use of all caps for harassed syllables and all lowercase letters for unstressed syllables: POetry; and we are able to add hyphens to additional denote every syllable: PO-e-try. Ah, that’s extra prefer it: simple to learn and simple to kind.

Metrical Models

We now know methods to present meter with scansion, however we additionally must know methods to discuss it. Right here is a few particular terminology that helps us talk when discussing meter:

A metrical foot is a unit of metrical measurement that features harassed and unstressed syllables. Listed here are a couple of forms of metrical toes:

  • Anapest: Two unstressed syllables adopted by a harassed syllable (da-da-DA). Instance: un-der-STAND.
  • Dactyl: One harassed syllable adopted by two unstressed syllables (DA-da-da). Instance: PROM-i-nent.
  • Iamb: One unstressed syllable adopted by one harassed syllable (da-DA). Instance: be-LONG
  • Trochee: One harassed syllable adopted by one unstressed syllable (DA-da). Instance: O-ver

We additionally use particular terminology to discuss with the variety of toes in a line of poetry:

  • 1 foot: monometer
  • 2 toes: dimeter
  • 3 toes: trimeter
  • 4 toes: tetrameter
  • 5 toes: pentameter

Let’s return to the primary line of “Annabel Lee” and present its metrical toes:

it was MA|ny and MA|ny a YEAR | aGO ||

This line consists of three anapests adopted by an iamb, or a mixture of anapestic and iambic toes.

However what in regards to the variety of toes? How do these issue into the language we use to speak about meter? Let’s take a look at a line from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” (please notice that I’ve modified the capitalization to accommodate scansion):

shall I | comPARE | thee TO | a SUM | mer’s DAY? ||
Thou ART | extra LOVE | ly AND | extra TEM | perATE:

Every line consists of 5 metrical toes, so this poem is written in pentameter. Every line additionally contains 5 iambs, one harassed syllable adopted by one unstressed syllable. These strains are due to this fact written in iambic pentameter.

Silence (Rests, Pauses)

In poetry, line breaks, stanza breaks, white area, and punctuation present cues for pauses. We’ll pause somewhat longer between stanzas than we’ll between strains. We’ll maintain on a interval longer than on a comma. Generally breaks and punctuation are a part of the aesthetic design of a poem, however their placement will nearly all the time have an effect on a poem’s meter and rhythm, as a result of they instruct the reader to pause.

Finish-stopped strains comprise a whole grammatical phrase (or clause) or terminate with a interval, closing parenthesis, colon, or semicolon. Enjambment happens when a line break happens in the midst of a whole phrase or clause or when terminal punctuation marks are absent. The primary two strains of “Annabel Lee” (above) are enjambed; the primary two strains of “Sonnet 18” (above) are end-stopped.

Let’s Get Again to Rhythm

Rhythm is finest understood because the circulation of sound, whereas meter is a sample of sound. If we mistakenly equate rhythm and meter, we would assume that free verse poetry lacks rhythm as a result of it doesn’t use metrical patterns. Let’s take a look at the primary stanza of “Spelling” by Margaret Atwood, which is written in free verse:

My daughter performs on the ground
with plastic letters,
purple, blue & onerous yellow,
studying methods to spell,
methods to make spells.

There’s no discernible sample within the meter, which is why the poem is named free verse. But the poem nonetheless has a circulation, a rhythm. If the rhythm isn’t coming from the poem’s meter, the place is it coming from?

Regardless that there aren’t repeated patterns, the accented and unaccented syllables nonetheless inform the rhythm. However so do the pauses. Contemplate the pause after “spelling” and earlier than “methods to make spells.” This pause influences the musicality of the poem. However the poem makes use of another tips to create rhythm. Take a look at the rhyme of “yellow” and “spell” (not an ideal rhyme, however a rhyme nonetheless). And take a look at the way it echoes into the subsequent two strains with “spelling” and the repetition of “spell(s)” within the closing line. There’s a sample of sound there, which creates rhythm.

As we are able to see, meter is just not the one contributing issue to rhythm.

How Rhythmical is Your Poetry?

If meter is a sample of sounds and rhythm is the circulation of sound, which of those parts is extra essential in poetry? Once you write poetry, do you examine for meter or rhythm? Do you favor metrical poems or are you drawn to poems with vivid rhythm? Share your ideas by leaving a remark, and maintain writing poetry!


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