Sound Help: Meter, Rhythm, and Prosody

Posted: September 7, 2018 in Drama, English 12 AP

Having trouble figuring out the meter and sound stuff we’ve been doing in class?

1. Don’t worry, you won’t have to perform scansion on a test or quiz.  I just want you to have some experience with it and see just how much great poets put into their work — how  everything in a great work contributes to meaning.

2. There’s a pretty helpful survey of meter, rhythm, and prosody in the introduction to chapter 12 of Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense (the blue and red textbook we’ve been using in class) and I found a nifty outline of said intro here.

Aaaaaand, if you want to “go hard on that tetrameter” like M.C. Lars, the sound notes from class are chillin’ back here.: sound devices 2018

Thanks to Carl Runyon of Owensboro Community College, notes from Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense can be found after the break . . .

P12: Rhythm and Meter
I. Rhythm and meter
A deeply rooted in our human experience
1. related to
beat of our hearts,the pulse of our blood,

the intake and outflow of air from our lungs.

2. everything that we do naturally and gracefully we do rhythmically.
the way we walk,the way we swim,

the way we ride a horse,

the way we swing a golf club or a baseball bat.

3. So native is rhythm to us that we read it, when we can, into the mechanical world around us.
B. Rhythm: any wavelike recurrence of motion or sound.
1. In speech it is the natural rise and fall of language– all speech involves some kind of alternation between accented and unaccented syllables, but varies considerably, however, in the degree to which it exhibit rhythm
2. In every word of more than one syllable, one or more syllables are accented or stressed; that is, given more prominence in pronunciation than the rest.
a We say to DAY, to MOR row, YES ter day, in ter VENE.
b These accents within individual words are indicated by stress marks in dictionaries, and with many words of more than two syllables primary and secondary stresses are shown (in’-ter-vene”).
c When words are arranged into a sentence, we give certain words or syllables more prominence in pronunciation than the rest: We say: “He WENT to the STORE” or “ANN is DRIVing her CAR.”
d There is nothing mysterious about this; it is the normal process of language.
e The only difference between prose and verse is that in prose these accents occur more or less haphazardly; in verse the poet may arrange them to occur at regular intervals.
In poetry as in prose, the rhythmic effects depend almost entirely on what a statement means, and different intended meanings will produce different rhythms even in identical statements.
The same sentence with varying stresses:
“I don’t believe YOU,”I don’t believe you” or

“I don’t beLIEVE you.”

In speech, these are rhetorical stresses, which we use to make our intentions clear.
Stressing “I” separates me from others who do believe you;stressing “you” separates you from others whom I do believe;

stressing “believe” intensifies my statement of disbelief.

We must be able to recognize the meaning of a line of poetry before we can determine its rhythm.
Such rhetorical stressing comes as naturally to us as language itself, and is at least as important in poetry as it is in expressive speaking.
It is also basic to understanding the rhythm of poetry, for poetic rhythm depends on the plain, rhetorical stresses to communicate its meaning.
3. In addition to accent or stress, rhythm is based on pauses.
a. In poetry as in prose or speech, pauses are the result of natural speech rhythms and the structure of sentences.
Periods and commas create pauses, but so does the normal flow of phrases and clauses.
b. The poetic line is a unit that creates pauses in the flow of speech, sometimes slight and sometimes large. Poets have at their disposal a variety of possibilities when ending a line.
An end-stopped line is one in which the end of the line corresponds with a natural speech pause.
A run-on line is one in which the sense of the line hurries on into the next line.
There are of course all degrees of end-stop and run-on.
A line ending with a period or semicolon is heavily end-stopped.
A line without punctuation at the end is normally considered a run-on line, but it is less forcibly run-on if it ends at a natural speech pause-as between subject and predicate-than if it ends, say, between an article and its noun, between an auxiliary and its verb, or between a preposition and its object.
Caesuras are pauses that occur in the middle of lines, either grammatical or rhetorical.
4. The poetic line is the basic rhythmic unit in free verse, the predominating type of poetry now being written.
a. Except for its line arrangement there are no necessary differences between the rhythms of free verse and the rhythms of prose, so our awareness of the line as a rhythmic unit is essential.
b. Consider the rhythmic contrast between end-stopped lines and run-on lines in these two excerpts from poems presented earlier, and notice how the caesuras (marked /) help to vary the rhythms:
A noiseless patient spider,I marked where on a little promontory it stood isolated,

Marked how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,

It launched forth filament, / filament, / filament, / out of itself,

Ever unreeling them, / ever tirelessly speeding them.


Sorrow is my own yardwhere the new grass

flames / as it has flamed

often before / but not

with the cold fire

that closes round me this year.


5. There is another sort of poetry that depends entirely on ordinary prose rhythms–the prose poem–exemplified by Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel” (page 974).
a. Having dispensed even with the line as a unit of rhythm, the prose poem lays its claim to being poetry by its attention to many of the poetic elements presented earlier in this book: connotation, imagery, figurative language, and the concentration of meaning in evocative language.
6. But most often, when people think of poetry they think of the two broad branches, free verse and metrical verse, which are distinguished mainly by the absence or presence of meter.
C. Meter: the identifying characteristic of rhythmic language that we can tap our foot to–a consistent pattern.
1. In metrical language the accents are arranged to occur at apparently equal intervals of timea. Metrical language is called verse.

b. Nonmetrical language is prose.

2. Not all poetry is metrical, nor is all metrical language poetry: Verse and poetry are not synonymous terms
II General Observations about Meter
A In every word of more than one syllable, one syllable is accented or stressed, that is, given more prominence in pronunciation than the rest.
1. These accents are indicated in the dictionary, and only rarely are words in good poems accented differently
2. If words of even one syllable are arranged into a sentence, we give certain words or syllables more prominence than the rest.
3. The only difference between prose an verse is thata. in prose these accents occur more or less haphazardly;

b. in verse the poet has arranged them to occur at regular intervals.

III The study of meter: fascinating but highly complex
A. Introduction to Study of Meter
1. It is by no means an absolute prerequisite
2. But it has its value.
a It can make the beginning reader more aware of the rhythmical effects of poetry and of how poetry should be read.
b. It can enable readerto analyze how certain effects are achieved,

to see how rhythm is adapted to thought, and

to explain what makes one poet better than another.

3. Need an elementary knowledge–not so difficult as its terminology might suggest.
B. Examining Meter–The word meter comes from a word meaning “measure”–to measure verse
1. Foot: the basic metrical unit
a consists normally of one accented syllable plus one or two unaccented syllables
b occasionally no unaccented syllables
c rarely three unaccented syllables
d To diagram(a) a short curved line to indicate an unaccented syllable

[here indicated as regular type] and

(b) a short horizontal line to indicate an accented syllable [here indicated by boldface].

(c) a vertical bar indicates the division between feet

e The basic kinds of feet
Examples Name of foot Name of meter __
Duple Meters in-ter, the sun Iamb Iambic
en-ter, went to Trochee Trochaic
Triple meters in-ter-vene,              in a hut Anapest Anapestic
en-ter-prise,             col-or of Dactyl Datylic
true-blue Spondee Spondaic
truth Monosyllabic foot
f. Two kinds of examples are given here, whole words and phrases, to indicate the fact that one must not assumethat every individual word will be a foot,


that divisions between feet necessarily fall between words.

In actual lines, one might for example find the word intervene constituting parts of two different feet:
I want / to in / ter vene.
As this example demonstrates, in diagramming meters we must sometimes acknowledge the primary and secondary stresses provided by dictionaries: the word intervene provides the stresses for two consecutive feet.
2. Line: The other basic unit of measurement in metrical verse.
It has the same properties as in free verse–it may be endstopped or run-on, and its phrasing and punctuation will create caesuras.
The difference between metrical and free verse lines is that metrical lines are measured by naming the number of feet in it.
Monometer one foot Pentameter five feet
Dimeter two feet Hexameter six feet
Trimeter three feet Heptameter seven feet
Tetrameter four feet Octameter eight feet
3. Stanza: consists of a group of lines whose metrical pattern is repeated throughout the poem–not all verse is written in stanzas. (Stanzas are discussed fully in a later chapter.)
4. Metrical Variations: Although metrical form is potentially uniform in its regularity, the poet may introduce metrical variations, which call attention to some of the sounds because they depart from what is regular.
a Three means for varying meter aresubstitution (replacing the regular foot with another one),

extra-metrical syllables added at the beginnings or endings of lines, and

truncation [anacrusis] (the omission of an unaccented syllable at the beginning of a line).

b Because these represent clear changes in the pattern, they are usually obvious and striking.
c But even metrical regularity rarely creates a monotonous rhythm because rhythm is the actuality in sound, not the pattern or blueprint of meter.
The rhythm of a line of poetry, like the actuality of a building, depends on the components of sound mentioned above-stress, duration, pitch, and juncture-as these are presented in rhetorically stressed sentences.
We may diagram the metrical form of a line, but because no two sentences in English are identical in sound, there can be no formulas or mechanical systems for indicating rhythm.
Rhythm must be described rather than formulated.
5. Scansion: the process of measuring verse; to scan we
a identify the prevailing foot,
b name the number of feet in a line–if this length follows any regular pattern, and
c describe the stanza pattern–if there is one.
III Application: Scanning “Virtue” by George Herbert
A. General Discussion of the Poem
1. Vocabulary:
bridal (2): wedding of the earth and sky, uniting them in light
brave (5): making a fine display; splendid
closes (11): has three relevant meanings:
brings to an end a certain period of time;shuts a container (box); and,

in music, a cadence or concluding strain

2. How are the four stanzas interconnected? How do they built to a climax? How does the fourth contrast with the first three?          Discussion
B. The Process for scanning a poem.
1. The first step in scanning a poem is to read it normally according to its prose meaning
a listen to where the accents fall–perhaps beating time with the hand.
b skip temporarily problem lines and go on to lines in which the accents fall unmistakably at regular intervals
2. In “Virtue” lines 3, 10, and 14 the accents clearly fall at regular intervals, as they also do in the short lines 4, 8, and 12.
a Lines 3, 10, and 14 may be marked as follows:
The dew / shall weep / thy fall / to night,A box / where sweets / com- pact- / ed lie;

Like sea- / soned tim- / ber, nev- / er gives.



b Lines 4, 8,and 12 are nearly identical:
For thou / must die.And thou / must die.

And all / must die.



c Surveying what we have done so far, we may with some confidence say:
FOOT: the prevailing metrical foot is iambic
1) the first, second and third lines of each stanza are tetrameter (four-foot) lines and
2) the fourth line is dimeter.
3. Examining the difficult lines
a Line 1
 Sweet day, / so cool, / so calm, / so bright.Sweet rose /

Sweet spring /



1)2) the last six are dearly iambic:the only question is whether to mark the first foot as another iamb or as a spondee.

a) Many metrists, emphasizing the priority of pattern, would mark it as an iamb.

b) Clearly, however, the word “Sweet” is more important and receives more emphasis in a sensitive reading than the three “so’s” in the line. Other metrists, therefore, would give it equal emphasis with “day” and mark the first foot as a spondee.

c) Neither marking can be called incorrect. It is a matter of the reader’s personal judgment or of his metrical philosophy.

c) Perrine chooses to mark it as a spondee, and mark the first foot in lines 5 and 9 correspondingly.

b Spondees seem appropriate also in lines 11, 15, and 16.
We may consider whether line 16 should be marked as a parallel to lines 4, 8. and 12.
But the word “Then”–emphasizing what happens to the virtuous soul when everything else has perished–has an importance that should be reflected in both the reading and the scansion, therefore the first foot as a sporidee:
 Then chief- / ly lives. 16
Also spondee in the third foot of line 15:
 But though / the whole / world turn / to coal 15
c Weak accents promoted to stressed syllables due to pattern: Lines 2 and 7
Most readers, encountering these lines in a paragraph of prose, would read them thus:
The bri- / dal of / the earth / and sky;Thy root / is ev /-er in / its grave. 27
But this reading creates problem:
1) we have only three accents where our hypothetical pattern calls for four.
2) we have three unaccented syllables occurring together, a situation almost never encountered in verse of duple meter.
3) From this situation we learn an important principle: though normal reading of the sentences in a poem establishes its metrical pattern, the metrical pattern so established in turn influences the reading.
4) In this poem the pressure of the pattern suggests we stress the second of the three unaccented syllables slightly more than those on either side of it, promoting it to an accented syllable
The bri- / dal of / the earth / and sky;Thy root / is ev- / er in / its grave. 27
d Other substitutions–Trochees and Anapests: Lines 5, 6, and 13
1) In line 5
the word “angry” occurs in a position where we would expect an iamb, according to the established pattern
but clearly it must be accented on the first syllable, and thus must be marked as a trochee:
 Sweet rose, / whose hue, / an- gry / and brave. 5
2) Line 6 line begins with a trochee in the first foot, followed by a spondee:
Bids the / rash gaz- / er wipe / his eye. 6
Line 13 begins with a trochee in the first foot and ends with an anapest instead of the expected iamb in the last foot (this is a modern reading; when the poem was written, the poet probably intended the pronunciation to be two syllables):
On- ly / a sweet / and vir- / tu- ous soul. 13
e Left-over Syllables:
1) Lines 9 and 11 in the third stanza differ from the other lines of the poem in two respects:
a) they contain nine rather than eight syllables;
b) they end on unaccented syllables.
 Sweet spring, / full of / sweet days / and ros- / es,My mu- / sic shows / ye have / your clos- / es. 911
2) Left-over unaccented syllables are not counted in identifying and naming the meter.
3) Metrical verse will often have one and sometimes two left-over unaccented syllables
a) In iambic and anapestic verse they will come at the end of lines;
b) In trochaic and dactylic verse they will come at the beginning.
C. Summary of metrical analysis of “Virtue”
1 written in iambic meter (meaning that most of its feet are iambs) and
2 composed of four-line stanzas,a. the first three lines tetrameter, and

b. the final line dimeter.

3 Based on the above analysis, the scansion can be shown as thus:
 Sweet day, / so cool, / so calm, / so bright.The bri- / dal of / the earth / and sky;

The dew / shall weep / thy fall / to night,

For thou / must die.


Sweet rose, / whose hue, / an- gry / and brave.

Bids the / rash gaz- / er wipe / his eye.

Thy root / is ev- / er in / its grave.

And thou / must die.


Sweet spring, / full of / sweet days / and ros- / es,

A box / where sweets / com- pact- / ed lie;

My mu- / sic shows / ye have / your clos- / es.

And all / must die.


On- ly / a sweet / and vir- / tu- ous soul.

Like sea- / soned tim- / ber, nev- / er gives.

But though / the whole / world turn / to coal

Then chief- / ly lives.

IV Four Generalizations about Scansion.
A. Good readers ordinarily will not stop to scan a poem they are reading; however, occasional scansion of a poem may help us to better understand its meaning–applied to “Virtue”
1. consists of three parallel stanzas concerning things that die, followed by a contrasting fourth stanza concerning the one thing that does not die.
2. The first three stanzas all begin with the word “Sweet” preceding a noun, and the first metrical foot in these stanzas is the same. The contrasting fourth stanza, however, begins with a trochee, thus separating from both the previous pattern and from the basic meter of the poem
3. This departure is significant, for the word “Only” is the hinge upon which the structure of the poem turns, and the metrical reversal gives it emphasis. Thus meter serves meaning.
B. Scansion only begins to describe the rhythmical quality of a poem.
1. It depends on classifying all syllables into either accented or unaccented categories and on ignoring the sometimes considerable difference between degrees of accent.
2. Whether we call a syllable accented or unaccented depends, moreover, on its degree of accent relative to the syllables on either side of it.
3. Scansion is thus incapable of dealing with the subtlest rhythrnical effects in poetry.
C. Scansion is not an exact science–good readers may disagree about the scansion of portions of a poem.
1. Readers who want scansion to reflect as closely as possible the underlying pattern tend to mark questionable feet as regular
2. Readers who wish the scansion to reveal more nearly the nuances of a sensitive reading tend to mark questionable feet with liberal substitutions
3. Although the designation of feet is somewhat arbitrary–the divisions between feet have no meaning except to help us identify the meter–the point is to place them where they display the metrical pattern most clearly–in other words, to reveal regularity. Otherwise, the basic pattern of the poem is easily obscured.
D. The most important generalization: perfect regularity of meter is no criterion of merit.
1. Beginning readers sometimes believe that perfect regularity is the sign of a great poet at work–if the meter is smooth and perfectly regular, they feel that the poet has handled the meter successfully and deserves all credit for it.
2. Actually, a moderately talented versifier can easily achieve this regularity of meter.
3. But there are two reasons why this is not generally desirable. Once a basic meter has been established, any deviations from it become highly significant1) it can provide a means by which the poet can use meter to reinforce meaning.

2) if I meter is too perfectly regular, the probability is that the poet, instead of adapting rhythm to meaning, has simply forced the meaning into a metrical straitjacket.

a all art consists essentially of repetition and variation.(1) If a meter alternates too regularly between light and heavy beats, no variation;

(2) the meter becomes mechanical and monotonous.

4. the poet can introduce variation into the meter by
a the substitution of other kinds of feet for regular feet
b simple phrasing and variation of degrees of accent.
c grammatical and rhetorical pauses.
V. Summary: the uses of rhythm and meter
A. Like the musical repetitions of sound, the musical repetitions of accent can be pleasing for their own sake.
B. Rhythm works as an emotional stimulus and serves to heighten our attention to and awareness of what is going on in a poem.
C. By choice of meter, and by skillful use of variation within the metrical framework, the poet can adapt the sound of verse to its content and thus make meter a powerful reinforcement of meaning.
D. CAUTION: avoid the notion that there is any mystical correspondence between certain meters and certain emotions–the choice of meter is probably less important for poets than how they handle it.
1. No “happy” meters and no “melancholy” ones2. Some meters are

swifter than others, some slower,

some are more lilting than others, sorne more dignified

3. Poets can choose meters that are appropriate or inappropriate to the content of the poem, and by their handling of them can increase or decrease the appropriateness.

4. A swift, lilting meter used for a serious and grave subject will probably keep the reader from feeling any really deep emotion, while a more dignified meter will intensify the emotion.

5. In all great poetry, meter works intimately with the other elements of the poem to produce the appropriate total effect.

E. NOTE: poetry need not be metrical at all–meter is simply one resource poets may use.
F. Do not confuse FREE VERSE and BLANK VERSE
1. If verse is defined as metrical language (i.e., language with a definite meter)
2. Then Free Verse is not verse at all; that is, it is not metrical. It may be rimed or unrhymed.
3. Conversely, Blank Verse has a very specific meter: it is iambic pentameter, unrhymed . (It is written in lines of five iambic feet without end rime).
a It has a special name because it is the principal English meter, that is, the meter that has been used for a large proportion of the greatest English poetry, including the tragedies of Shakespeare and the epics of Milton.
b Iambic pentameter in English seems especially suitable for the serious treatment of serious themes.
The natural movement of the English language tends to be iambic
Lines shorter than pentameter tend to be songlike, not suited to sustained treatment of serious material.
Lines longer than pentameter tend to break up into shorter units, the hexameter line being read as two three-foot units, the heptameter line as a four-foot and a three-foot unit, and so on.
Rime, while highly appropriate to most short poems, often proves a handicap for a long and lofty work
  1. […] devices and figurative language notes can be found way back here and here and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s