Analysis of Texts–poetry module–handout 1–versification and rhythm

Kukorelly - Analysis of Texts–poetry module–handout 1: Versification
Rhythm is conveyed by the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables. In English
poetry, this produces metre based on variation of stress, not number of syllables, and is
called accentual metre, as opposed to, say, classical (Greek and Latin) poetry, in which the
pattern is based on quantity of syllables and is hence called quantitative meter.
Metre is expressed by the repetition of a rhythmic unit called the (poetic) foot. In
“traditional” poetry the arrangement tends to be regular; thus, a poem can be characterized
by its foot and the number of feet to a line, for example, iambic (referring to foot)
pentameter (referring to number of feet).
After feet and lines, the next structural unit of poetry is the stanza.
A. Common Feet:
(NB: x = unstressed, / = stressed)
• Iambus or iamb (iambic foot): one unstressed followed by one stressed (x /)
x /
x / x /
x /
x /
again, unveil, reverse, diskette, molest
• Trochee (trochaic foot): one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed (/ x)
/ x
/ x / x
/ x
/ x
happy, never, manly, carving, stapler
• Anapaest (anapaestic foot): two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed (x x /)
x x / x x /
x x / x x /
/ x
expertise, entertain, hurry up, human rights (but note, human)
• Dactyl (dactylic foot): one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed (/ x x )
x x
/ x x
/ x x
/ x x
handkerchief, Matterhorn, absolute, pulverise
• Spondee (spondaic foot): two successive stressed syllables
checkmate, Mont Blanc, Big Mac, flow chart
Handy mnemonic for memorising feet:
Trochee trips from long to short.
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow spondee stalks; strong foot yet ill able
Ever to come up with the dactyl trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long.
With a leap and a bound the swift anapaests throng.
(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Metrical Feet)
B. Lines
A line of poetry are defined by the number of feet it contains:
Monometer: 1; dimeter: 2; trimester: 3; tetrameter: 4; pentameter: 5; hexameter: 6;
heptameter: 7; octameter: 8.
Foot type and number gives metre, a regular rhythmic pattern that is the called the base of
the poem or line. Iambic pentameter, for example:
/ ‫ ׀‬x
/ ‫ ׀‬x / ‫ ׀‬x / ‫ ׀‬x /
Now lapdogs give themselves the rousing shake,
/ ‫ ׀‬x
/‫ ׀‬x / ‫ ׀‬x / ‫ ׀‬x /
And sleepless lovers, just at twelve, awake
(Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, I, 15-16)
Poems hardly ever contain only regular lines, that is, lines that conform precisely to their
metric scheme. Such rhythmic regularity would be boring, as Samuel Johnson (18thc.)
demonstrates in this parodic poem, alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter:
I put ‫ ׀‬my hat‫ ׀‬upon ‫ ׀‬my head
And walked ‫ ׀‬into ‫ ׀‬the Strand,
And there ‫ ׀‬I met ‫ ׀‬ano- ‫ ׀‬ther man
Whose hat ‫ ׀‬was in ‫ ׀‬his hand.
Caesura is a pause in the middle of the line, sometimes indicated by punctuation.
Enjambment occurs when there is no punctuation at line-end, in other words, when the
sense-producing unit (a sentence) extends further than the end of the line. These are also
called run-on lines. The opposite is an end-stopped line.
C. Rhyme schemes and stanzaic forms
The simplest stanza is the couplet, two consecutive rhyming lines (aa). The quatrain, the
commonest English verse form, consists of four lines, and can have varying rhyme schemes.
In ballads, for example, the rhyme is abab or abcb. Then come the quintain or cinquaine
(rarely used), the sestet, the septet, the octave, etc.
The sonnet is a 14-line poem in iambic pentameter using an intricate rhyme scheme. The
English or Shakespearean sonnet falls into three quatrains with a concluding couplet,
rhyming abab cdcd efef gg. The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet has an octave consisting of two
quatrains rhyming abba abba and a sestet consisting of two tercets rhyming cdc dcd or cde
Sources in this and subsequent handouts:
Furniss, Tom and Michael Bath. Reading Poetry: An Introduction. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.,
Pichaske, David. Beowulf to Beatles: Approaches to Poetry. New York: The Free Press, 1972.
Preminger, Alex and T.V.F. Brogan. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. 1993.
Yelland, H.L., S.C. Jones and K.S.W. Easton. A Handbook of Literary Terms. London and Sydney:
Angus and Robertson Publishers, 1983.
As well as help and advice from my colleagues.