2 - Some Introductory Concepts and Terms

To come to an understanding of how rhythm creates time, it is necessary to make clear what is meant by "rhythm," as well as a set of companion terms, "prosody" and "versification," that have been used variably and sometimes interchangeably, leading inevitably to confusion (DM 3). The central concern of PROSODY is prominence and non-prominence and it involves linguistic features such as stress, syllabification, quantity, phrasing and intonation. To give an example, to which we will return shortly in more detail, STRESS is simply the prominence given to certain syllables in a sequence. It is this prominence that allows us to determine the difference, both rhythmic and semantic, between these two phrases, "the white house" and "the White House." The first is a noun phrase with the strongest stress falling on house; the second is a compound noun with the strongest stress on "White." The prominence studied by prosody can be seen as parallel to types of prominence in other domains of language, including "phrasing in syntax, subordination in discourse, and deductive argumentation in rhetoric" (DM 4). Thus, we can begin to see that rhythm is not simply a limited aspect of poetry or more narrowly, of metrical poetry, but a or perhaps, the central feature of language.

If prosody provides the grammar of rhythm, VERSIFICATION "deals with those conventionalized language patterns that develop in specific cultural traditions in order to enable (and constrain) poetic composition" (DM 4). In English we most often refer to these conventionalized patterns as METERS which involve "the perception of beats into regular patterns" (A, BM 11). It's important to realize that our perception as readers of the regularly recurring beats operates despite the fact that the language meter orders frequently does not correspond directly to the prosodic structure of the language. That is, prosodic ordering and versificational or metrical ordering, as well as rhythmic phrasing which we'll come to in a moment, are related but distinct. Part of the pleasure of reading poetry is our ability to experience and understand this complex interaction among these orders. But because students and critics often think that to have identified the meter of a poem is to have understood its rhythm, it's worthwhile to spend a moment here at the outset, with the distinction between prosody and versification.

You have each, perhaps unknowingly, been aware of the difference between prosody and versificational structure since an early age. If you think through the most common nursery rhymes, for instance, "Humpty Dumpty," you will see that we maintain a strong sense of four recurring beats in every line, despite the fact that the number of syllables occurring between beats is variable. I have marked each metrical beat below the line with a "B." Above the line I have indicated the initial prosodic domain by marking each stressed or strong syllable with an "s" and each unstressed or weak syllable with a "w." Throughout the nursery rhyme, the beats fall on stressed syllables.


 s   w  s   w  s  w  w  s
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
 B      B      B        B

 s   w  s   w  s  w   w    s
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
 B      B      B           B

s    w   w      s  w   w   s   w   w      s
All the king's horses and all the king's men,
B               B          B              B

 s    w   w   s   w  w s  w  w  s
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
 B            B        B        B

Each pair of lines has the same pattern of unstressed syllables between beats but notice that the two pairs differ from one another, with the second pair seemingly speeding up the action with the triple rhythm created by double unstressed syllables between stressed ones. Despite the differences in their prosody, we tend to hear the lines as ISOCHRONOUS, that is, as taking the same amount of time between beats. We hurry and slow down the pulses between the beats to fit the constraints of the meter.

Another striking example of the way the prosodic structures of language are organized by versification is the English COMMON METER. Common meter, used for many hymns, BALLADS and nursery rhymes, consists of alternating lines of IAMBIC TETRAMETER and IAMBIC TRIMETER (an iamb is an unstressed or weak syllable (w) followed by a stressed or strong one (s)). A trimeter consists of three of these units in a line; a tetrameter of four. In the following anonymous, traditional example (taken from A, PR 58), the poem is written in QUATRAINS, i.e., four line stanzas of these alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines. As in Example 1, the metrical beats are marked below the line with a "B" and the stress is shown above the line.


w  s    w    s    w   s   w  s
A man whose name was Johnny Sands
   B         B        B      B

 w   s   w   s  w  s
Had married Betty Haig,
     B       B     B        (B)

 w    s     w    s      w   s    w   s
And though she brought him gold and lands,
      B          B          B        B

 w    s    w  s   w     s
She proved a terrible plague.
      B       B         B           (B)

If you recite this poem aloud, perhaps clapping to keep the beat, you'll see that the gravitational pull of the four-beat line is so great that we automatically add a fourth beat in the trimeter lines. Such implied beats are commonly called unrealized, unvoiced or silent beats (DM 4) despite the fact that nothing in the actual verse corresponds to this beat. Thus, not only is it possible that meter and prosody may be distinct from one another, there also may be meter without any actual VERSE INSTANCE at all.

RHYTHM is "a global term covering all relations of strength and weakness" (BM 11). Therefore, like prosody, it involves prominence but rhythmic events are distinguished by phrasing or grouping which is relative and hierarchical (RPEV 121; DM 4). The hierarchical quality of rhythm is essential. "A rhythm consists of a series of local events, perceived as more or less prominent elements within longer events, which are themselves perceived as more or less prominent elements within even longer events" (BM 11). While we will work much more extensively with phrasing and hierarchy later on, it's worth noting here that rhythmic phrasing rather than meter will turn out to be the most interesting and important dimension of poetry, the area where we will most clearly see how rhythm creates time and gives it meaning. For rhythmic phrasing involves ever larger groupings, moving from syllables, words, phrases and lines gradually up to the poem as a whole. Further, we will see that phrasing and meter are often strongly opposed to one another. While meter is "physical, continuous, repetitive, rigid, local, and retrospective," phrasing is "emotive, divisive, shaped, flexible, and centering / climactic" (DM 6). Indeed, it is rhythmic phrasing, with its emphasis on anticipation, prolongation and arrival, rather than meter that gives readers the distinctive sense of voice in a given poem. Our task as readers and one of the fundamental aims of this tutorial is to understand how that voice takes shape and form.

Having provided you with a sense of the aims of rhythmic analysis and some basic terms and concepts, we will revisit prosody, meter and rhythmic phrasing each in turn to develop your conceptual and analytical tools. In each section there will be self-checking exercises for you to practice and use that will allow you to monitor your understanding. The aim will be to move you from the simple to the complex, from individual syllables and words to whole poems, from the rules of phonology to complex, multi-faceted interpretation of poems.