Rhythm

All languages make use of rhythm, and poetry exploits these rhythms to create additional meaning. Rhythm generally is “a series of alternations of build-up and release, movement and counter-movement, tending toward regularity but complicated by constant variations and local inflections.” (Attridge 1995: 3)

While poetic metre and metrical deviations contribute to the rhythm of a poem, rhythm itself is a more general phenomenon, relating mainly to the variations of speed in which a poem is likely to be read. This speed is influenced particularly by

• pauses
• elisions and expansions
• vowel length
• consonant clusters
• modulation

Pauses at the End of Lines

The fact that poems are presented in lines which do not fill the space on the page, coupled frequently with rhymes at the end of the line, invites the reader – and often also the performer – to pause for a moment at the end of each line. Such pauses are especially pronounced for end-stopped lines, lines where a syntactical unit comes to a close at the end of the line. These pauses at the end of a line cause a poem to have a different rhythm than prose. They also encourage the reader to dwell on individual words and sounds more than he or she would in prose; they promote a perception of the text in question as poetry. Compare the effect of the following text excerpt, once written as continuous prose, once as poetry (best to read it aloud!):

The sea is calm to-night. The tide is full, the moon lies fair upon the straits; on the French coast the light gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. Come to the window, sweet is the night air! Only, from the long line of spray where the sea meets the moon-blanched land, listen! you hear the grating roar of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, at their return, up the high strand, begin, and cease, and then again begin, with tremulous cadence slow, and bring the eternal note of sadness in.

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
(From: Arnold, Dover Beach)

One tends to pause in mid-sentence at a line break which considerably slows down the speed of reading and thus brings the individual words more to the notice of the reader. When the lines are written as prose, the effect of the rhyme words is almost completely lost (fair/air, to-night/light, stand/land, bay/spray, fling/bring, begin/in) and also the fact that the “grating roar” remains without a rhyme word in this section (it is actually taken up further down in the poem), which creates a situation where “roar” is literally “grating”, because it does not blend in harmoniously with the rhyme scheme. Further, the effect of the framing (redditio) with the word “begin” in line 12, which visually – and through the pauses at the end of each line also audibly – emphasises the return of the new beginning, is also reduced in the prose version.

The additional effect achieved through the line break in this example is increased because many of the lines are not end-stopped but run-on-lines (enjambment), that is, the syntactical unit carries over into the next line. On the one hand, run-on-lines tend to diminish the pause one naturally makes at the end of a line. In this sense they speed up the rhythm of the poem. On the other hand, the slight pause that often remains despite the run-on-line – especially when the poem is read silently, since the eyes have to travel from the end of one line to the beginning of the next – introduces a pause one would not normally make. Such pauses can be employed for surprising effects. Consider the following excerpt from a poem where an African, looking for a flat, is talking to a potential landlady on the telephone. He is momentarily confused when the landlady asks him for details about his skin colour:

“ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?” Revelation came.
“You mean – like plain or milk chocolate?”
Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
I chose. “West African sepia” – and as afterthought,
“Down in my passport.” [...]
(From: Soyinka, Telephone Conversation)

The run-on-line “crushing in its light / Impersonality” puns on several possible meanings of the word “light”, both as noun and as adjective. At first he does not understand what she means by the question “Are you dark?”, then he realises what she is asking (“Revelation came”). He reformulates her question and in the line “Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light”, the word “light” first appears to be a noun, repeating the meaning of “revelation” two lines earlier. It is easy to imagine a glaring and unkind (“crushing”) light in the context of “clinical”, as in the lights of an operating theatre. For a brief moment, the line means that the speaker is crushed because he fully realises the extent of the landlady’s colour-prejudice. As the sentence is completed in the next line, “light” actually becomes the adjective modifying “impersonality”. In this grammatical context it could mean the opposite of ‘heavy’. It could also be taken to refer to her skin colour, which is presumably white. The pun on “light”, mainly effective through the run-on-line, thus contrasts the way she treats a question which affects him on an intensely personal level with the impersonal detachment of someone who has the light skin colour which is here given preference. The simple fact that the words are arranged in lines achieves additional meaning.


Pauses within Lines

A pause can also occur within lines and then it is called caesura. A caesura can serve simply to break the monotony of the metrical pattern but it usually emphasises particular words or a contrast within the line. Consider another excerpt from Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation:

                      [...] ”Madam,” I warned,
”I hate a wasted journey – I am African.”
Silence. Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding. [...]

The caesura after ”I hate a wasted journey” creates a moment of suspense, one is waiting to hear what he has to tell her. The caesura after ”Silence” in fact acts out the meaning of the word ‘silence’ and thus intensifies its effect.


Key-Terms:


rhythm
end-stopped    lines
run-on-lines    (enjambment)
caesura