is the study of speech rhythms and versification. Most poetry is a rhythmical
utterance, that is to say, it makes use of rhythmic elements that are
natural to language: alternation of stress and non-stress, vowel length,
consonant clusters, pauses and so on. Various rhythmical patterns have
different effects on those who read or hear poetry. The central question
for the analysis of metre and rhythm is to determine the function which
these rhythmical elements perform in each poem. Unfortunately, there
are no general rules about these functions. Once a specific pattern
has been identified, its function needs to be determined for each text
and context individually.
Metre is the measured arrangement of accents and syllables in poetry. In any kind of utterance we stress certain syllables and not others. For instance most people would probably stress the phrase ‘And how are you this morning’ something like this: And HOW are YOU this MORNing? Or possibly: And how ARE you this MORNing? Poetry employs the stresses that occur naturally in language utterance to construct regular patterns.
There are various possibilities for metrical patterns in poetry.
visual representation of the distribution of stress and non-stress in
verse is called scansion. In the following the notation
suggested by Helmut Bonheim (1990) will be used: 1
to mark a stressed, o to mark a non-stressed syllable.
In accentual metre each line has the same number of stresses, but varies in the total number of syllables. It is found in nursery rhymes and it was commonly used in Old English poetry. In the late nineteenth century Gerard Manley Hopkins developed the so-called sprung rhythm, in which again only stresses are central. A system of accentual metre very similar to the medieval pattern has recently re-emerged in rap poetry.
Old English poetry usually has between two and four marked stresses in each line and a marked pause () in the middle, indicated by the gap in the printed line. Alliterations emphasise the stress pattern (alliterations are underlined):
The system has been memorably explained in modern English by John Hollander:
Rap music relies on a similar pattern; four heavy beats with a marked pause in the middle of the line. Apart from alliterations, rap tends to rely on rhyme patterns to mark the line and provide a kind of climax on the fourth beat (see Attridge 1995: 90-94). The following example uses internal rhyme (axe / Max / Tracks / Cadillacs / Wax), t-alliteration and m-alliteration, assonances on ‘a’ and the short German ‘i’ sound. The main stresses are bold (listen to the recording):
Hopkins’ sprung rhythm has a varying number of syllables but an equal number of stresses in each line. In this example each line is supposed to be read with five stresses. Obviously, there is some room for interpretation. The scansion provided is a suggestion:
Syllabic metrical systems have a fixed number of syllables in each line, though there may be a varying number of stresses. They are named, quite simply, according to the number of syllables in each line, using Greek numbers. A line with seven syllables is called heptasyllabic and so on.
William Blake, for instance, liked the so-called fourteener, a line with fourteen syllables:
This, it may be noted, is also . Pure syllabic verse is comparatively rare in English and what there is, is mostly imported from foreign forms of poetry, such as the Japanese Haiku. The Haiku, in its conservative definition, has three lines, the first and the last line have five syllables, the middle line has seven, as in the following example:
By far the largest number of poems in English use accentual-syllabic metre. In this metrical system both the number of stresses and the number of syllables between the stresses are regular. Each single unit of stress and non-stress is called foot. Strictly speaking, the number of syllables should be identical for each line, but it is very often the case that a line leaves one metrical foot incomplete, thus varying the number of syllables as a whole.
The system of accentual-syllabic metre derives from metrical patterns of classical (Greek and Roman) poetry, even though it cannot easily be transferred from classical languages into English, since in classical languages metre depends on syllable length, whereas in English it depends on word stress. There are a large number of different types of metrical foot measurements but the most common ones are the following (for a more comprehensive list see Fussell 1967: 26):
Notice that some feet have two syllables (iamb, trochee and spondee) and others have three (dactyl and anapaest). For obvious reasons, spondee is a metrical pattern which does not occur throughout a whole poem. One simply does not stress every single syllable of an utterance for any length of time. But it sometimes occurs in a single line or within otherwise regular lines of different metrical patterns.
To name the metre of a poem one usually combines the terms giving the stress pattern and the number of stresses per line: A line of poetry that is written in iambic metre and has four accents or stresses is called iambic tetrameter:
A link to more examples of nursery rhymes...