Elisions and Expansions

There are times when unstressed syllables which are normally pronounced are not pronounced in a particular line in order to make the line fit the metre. In such cases one talks of elision. Elisions occur mostly when two non-stressed syllables follow each other in a metrical pattern that demands only one. Sometimes elisions are marked by an apostrophe:

The silenc’d Preacher yields to potent strain,
And feels that grace his pray’r besought in vain,
The blessing thrills thro’ all the lab’ring throng,
And Heav’n is won by violence of Song.
(From: Pope, Imitations of Horace)

At other times readers themselves have to decide whether or not to elide a syllable. In most cases, however, it comes quite naturally, as one tends to continue in the established rhythmical or metrical pattern. Indeed, one tends to elide syllables in every-day utterance to accommodate certain rhythms of speech (for a more complete discussion of elision see especially Attridge 1995: 126-131.). Some syllables are always elided in English, for instance most of the past participle ‘-ed’ endings as in ‘turned’, ‘talked’, ‘achieved’, etc. Other elisions used to be common in everyday speech, and thus also in poetry, but are no longer elisions today, for instance words like ‘o’er’ (pronounced like ‘or’) for ‘over’ or ‘‘tis’ instead of ‘it is’.

Elisions that occur in verse but do not normally occur in everyday speech create interplay. Often, such places of interplay make an additional point. In the following example the words “chariot” and “hurrying” which have three syllables are squeezed into an iambic tetrameter, the second and third syllables are pronounced as one:

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
(From: Marvell, To His Coy Mistress)

These elisions are entirely appropriate in this context, since they speed up the rhythm and thus literally convey the hurry of time which worries the speaker.

As can also be seen from this excerpt, syllables that would normally be elided are not always elided in metrical verse (“winged” in this example), partly because that is an older common pronunciation, partly to fit the metre. In such cases one speaks of an expansion. Some editors mark such places with an accent mark, but others simply assume that the reader will accommodate the pronunciation of words to the metre.

Vowel Length and Consonant Clusters

A change in rhythm and speed can be achieved with a change of metre. Consider the following example:

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her equal would be hard to find, she likes the warm and sunny spots.
All day she sits beside the hearth or on the bed or on my hat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits – and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun.
As she finds that the mice will not ever keep quiet,
She is sure it is due to irregular diet;
And believing that nothing is done without trying,
She sets right to work with her baking and frying.
She makes them a mouse-cake of bread and dried peas,
And a beautiful fry of lean bacon and cheese.
(From: Eliot, Book of Practical Cats)

The change from a pleasantly sauntering iamb in the first stanza to a more bouncing and bustling anapaest in the second stanza speeds up the rhythm of the poem and adequately conveys the change from the Gumbie Cat’s sedate day-life to her active night-life. The increase of speed is supported by the easier catenation (the way the words are linked in pronunciation, as in a chain) in the second stanza.

Apart from metre there are other elements that influence the speed of a line of verse. Some critics argue that certain metrical arrangements have a tendency to support certain rhythms and thus certain topics better than others. Dactyl and anapaest, for instance, tend to have a fairly light and playful rhythm. But there is no general rule for the connection between metre and rhythm and there are certainly plenty of examples where dactyl or anapaest have anything but a playful effect (in Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade for instance). Especially iamb and trochee can be used for a wide variety of rhythms and speeds. Depending on word choice and the arrangement of vowels and consonant clusters they can support very fast as well as very slow rhythms. Consider the following example which describes the effect of heavy rain in eighteenth-century London. The poem begins quite slowly with

Careful observers may foretell the hour
(By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower:
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o’er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.

As the water begins to flood the streets and washes along various, mostly smelly, items, the rhythm is perceptibly increased:

Now from all part the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.
(From: Swift, Description of a City Shower)

While in the poem by T.S. Eliot above an iamb was used for a fairly slow rhythm, in Swift’s poem, particularly in the last three lines, the iambic is used to convey the speed and chaos with which various items are swirled down the street. The increased speed in the last three lines is achieved through the use of mainly short vowels in: dung, guts, blood, puppies, stinking, sprats, drenched, mud, dead, cats, turnip, tops, etc. (compare the beginning, which still has a number of long vowel sounds and diphthongs as in Careful, foretell, hour, shower, rain, o’er, more, dine, hire, wine). A series of double consonants (swelling, kennels, puppies) and alliteration with plosives and unvoiced fricatives (sailed / sight / smell, turnip / tops / tumbling, stinking sprats, drowned / drenched / dead / down) increase the impression of quick movement.

A different combination of vowels and consonants can achieve a marked slow-down of rhythm:

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resigned,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind.
(From: Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard)

Also in iambic metre, the very long vowels in this passage and in particular the l-alliteration combined with four repetitions of the consonant combination ‘ng’ (“longing lingering”) draw the sounds out into a pensive slowness, as indeed is suitable to the theme of the poem: a meditation in a churchyard. Notice also how the elision “e’er” in this case actually contributes to slow down the rhythm, since it makes the reader dwell on a long drawn-out vowel sound.


The discussion of rhythm so far should have made clear that simply the metre of a poem does not account for a variety of rhythmical effects. The aspect of modulation also deserves some consideration in this context. Compare the following stanzas:

FOR God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love ;
Or chide my palsy, or my gout ;
My five gray hairs, or ruin’d fortune flout ;
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve ;
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his Honour, or his Grace ;
Or the king’s real, or his stampéd face
Contémplate ; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.
(From: Donne, The Canonization)

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
(From: Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, Palgrave ed.)

Both poems are in iambic metre but they support a very different rhythm. Donne’s lines assume an almost conversational tone (audio1). If, on the other hand, one tries to read Marlow’s lines in such a conversational modulation it is quite obviously wrong (audio2). Marlowe’s lines seem to demand a reading with a sort of sing-song rhythm (audio3) which in turn would not suit the Donne stanza. The concept of metre is obviously insufficient to account for this phenomenon, since both excerpts are in the same metre. Why then is there such a difference?

There appear to be two main reasons: The irregular length of Donne’s lines (he alternates between pentameter and tetrameter, the last line is a trimeter) jolts the reader out of any rhythmic pattern he might be tempted to fall into. The frequent caesuras at different positions within the lines further disrupt any regular rhythmical development. The regularity of Marlowe’s song on the other hand encourages the emergence of a regular rhythmical pattern, there is almost a danger that the lines start jingling. The second reason for the difference in modulation is probably the choice of diction. Donne’s poem starts out with an impatient colloquial expression (“For God’s sake!”) which immediately asks for a fairly colloquial modulation. Marlowe’s cheerful invitation to be unrealistic uses more ‘artificial’ or poetic expressions (“pleasures prove”, ”melodious birds sing madrigals”) which support a modulation of more amplitude.

Obviously, the difference in rhythm makes a considerable difference in the effect of the two poems. Such rhythmical effects must not be ignored in the analysis of poetry since they constitute an important part of the poem’s meaning.