How Rhythm works in English

Poetry, self,world


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The regular beat of the language.  It falls on the syllables that are uttered with the most force.  In causal speech this fall at roughly regular intervals.


Stress falls on

  • Single syllable lexical  words – i.e. words that have dictionary style meaning:  cat,  house, head,  book,  car  but not is, the, but, of  etc unless these are specially emphasised

  • One syllable of polysyllable words is stressed, varying according to the origin of the word,  because,   notice,   slobberingly,    absolutely                     



In poetry we use stress to make rhythmical patterns, but sometimes in metrical      poetry syllables get ‘promoted’  or  ‘demoted’ from their normal stress patterns for the sake of rhythm.   So we might get something like  ‘the dictionary says’  rather than ‘the dictionary says



 Stress-timed verse

is verse that is based on the number of stresses per line,  and the syllables don’t matter from the point of view of the metre (They do matter from the point of view of the overall rhythm of the verse, though).   A good way to begin composing in verse is to take any bit of speech or prose and arrange it into lines, each with the same number of stresses, let’s say 4.


‘When I woke up this morning I realised my wife had already gone to work, and my son was down in the kitchen.’


When I woke up this  morning I realised my wife

had already gone to work and my son

was down in the kitchen…



Syllables are the ‘puffs’ of energy from the throat and we need to be aware of them to work out stress, because  stress falls on syllables not whole words.    They are important in the overall rhythmical effect of a poem because they affect the ‘pace’ .  If there are a lot of unstressed syllables the verse seems to be fast.  If a lot of stressed syllables occur together it sounds slow.  


Most poems in English make use of both stress and syllable, creating a pattern.  The commonest is the iambic pattern,  in which a stressed syllable is preceded by one unstressed syllable. The number of syllables in the line can vary.  The commonest are eight and ten syllables.    The iambic metre stylises the tendency of stresses to fall at equal intervals, but having a numeral ‘back up’ to that.      The passage above would need reshaping to make it iambic.


This morning when I woke I  found my wife

had gone to work already and* my son

was downstairs in*  the kitchen


*places where I’ve ‘promoted’ normally unstressed syllables to stress status for the sake of the metre.  Can’t over do this!  Sometimes you can justify it by saying you wanted a special emphasis, but again, not too often.



are not the same.  The rhythm is like the ‘texture’ of the verse, whereas the metre sets out the basic drum beat.


in This passage from  Pope’s Essay criticism,  he illustrates the effect of syllables on  5 beat line.


True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,

As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.

’Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,

The sound must seem an echo to the sense;

*Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,

And the +smooth stream in smoother numbers flows:

But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,

The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.

When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,

The line too labours, and the words move slow;

Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,

Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.


*A common permitted variation is to allow the first two syllables of a line to be reversed, so that the line starts with a stressed syllable, and then the rhythm rights itself in the next ‘foot’.  So we get /x x/x/x/x/


+  but here Pope uses a ‘syncopation’ but putting two stressed syllables together in the middle of the line – connected to the mimesis he’s after her  ( smooth sound used to imitated smooth sense)



Rhyme is a structuring devises that vies a sense of control and the fittingness of sound and meaning.  It is not ‘necessary’,  but often helps the poet with composition, and (as metre does too) pushes the mind to greater invention.  The trick is not to settle for the easy rhyme, especially the one that sticks out and draws attention from the meaning of the poem to the poor skill of the poet.


Rhyme is a form of parallelism, where within the syllable the first sound (onset)  is different, and the final sound (rime) the same.



Is to do with the rhythm of the sentence or class, ‘grammatical rhythm’ .  In much verse the boundaries of

grammar and line are played with, sometimes coinciding sometimes not.


In Pope’s lines the couplet is usually both a grammatical and a verse unit, so the first line of the couplet musn’t seem more ‘final’ than the second.  In this passage from Shakespeare’s  The Winter’s Tale, written late in his career when he was getting much more free and easy with the blank verse line, he makes a fascinating interplay between grammatical and verse boundaries.


There may be in the cup
A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge*
Is not infected; but if one present
Th' abhorred ingredient to his eye, make known
What he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I +have drunk and seen the spider.


* an example of a ‘weak’ ending, where an extra unstressed syllable is added at the end of the line.

+ extra syllable ‘have’   This practice of sliding in unstressed extra syllables has become more common in modern poetry.  Robert Lowell likes to do this.



Cadence is often used to describe the non numerical measures of free verse which attempts to follow the intonation of ordinary speech, and can be compared roughly to the idea of ‘cadence’ in music, where you have a full cadence, half cadence and so on.  



English intonation has to do with things like the difference between a question and an answer,  the indication of items in the list, and so on, and poetry based on grammatical parallelism makes use of this particularly.  But a more common musical effect is the use of question and answer ‘music’ in poems.  Think of Edward.






This is a bit subject but it’s worth considering the main point that poetry is a kind of composition in which the physical substance of language is important (not only in poems, of course).   It’s worth remember that sound has meaning in language, but not the same sort of meaning as the dictionary meanings of words.   The intonation we used conveys what is sometimes called the ‘interpersonal’ aspect of language, how we feel about,  our attitudes,  our social relation to the listener,  our assertiveness, and so on.   Thus poetry is often to do with human feelings, not just with the ‘content’ of the text.  


The physical aspects of language are what allow language to survive in speech,  and in writing.   We couldn’t communicate at all without sound, writing, and also the grammatical and other features of language which, as it were, carry our unsubstantial meanings and feelings.   Poetry and its metrical rules has always been associated with memory (the mother of the muses), and hence with what it is to be a person and part of a civilisation.


It’s possible to see metrical structure also as a kind of ‘necessity’ – the necessity of our accepting the language given us -  against which we try to express our individual ideas, and responses.    Memory as the mother of the muses,  necessity as the mother of invention