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Versification - Design for Qualities of Sound

Updated on March 18, 2011

Rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and other figures usually associated with the "melody" of verse are basically repetitions of the qualities of sounds, of their inherent characters. The most important of these figures are repetitions of whole syllables or of parts of syllables. Thus rhyme may repeat a whole syllable (supplied . . . replied) or an essential part of a syllable (braid . . . jade)— normally, that is, the vowel and any consonant which may follow it. Complete repetition of syllables (braid . . . braid) has not been considered normal rhyme. As in other figurations and designs, a play of sameness and difference is expected. Hence, in normal rhyme, initial consonants contrast with syllabic elements otherwise repeated (raid . . . made).

Two major varieties of rhyme are traditionally distinguished: masculine, which repeats the final stressed syllables of words (arcade . . . brocade) and feminine, which begins the repetition on a syllable other than the last (tending . . . mending). Repetition of more than one syllable in masculine rhyme is unusual (recline . . . decline), but is normal, of course, in feminine (thundering . . . sundering). Such richness of repetition may extend to lines and whole stanzas of refrain. However, in modern verse, especially, even full single rhymes are sometimes avoided for more subtle figurations called imperfect or slant rhymes (blade . . . bled, cat . . . cad) which only approximate one of the elements of repetition. Between the extremes of complete sameness (braid . . . braid) and complete difference (braid . . . so), slant rhyme moves beyond normal rhyme in the direction of difference.

Taking the same direction are some of the simpler traditional figures, such as alliteration, consonance, and assonance, and the less formal patterns of repeated sounds which occur in verse. While there is not complete agreement about terminology, alliteration is the name usually given to the repetition of a consonant or vowel at the beginning of words: "Doom is dark and deeper." . Consonance repeats the same consonantal sound after different accented vowels, as in pressed . . . past, while assonance repeats the same vowel with different consonants following, as in man . . . hat. What also differentiates these simpler figures from the whole family of rhymes is the fact that the character of the syllable is not repeated. Even the repetition of p ... t in a slant rhyme like pit . . . pat creates the effect that part" of a syllable is being repeated. When only a single sound is repeated in contrasting syllabic contexts, as p in tip . . . pool or in pit . . . pool, the effect is quite different.

Beyond these figures, there are an indeterminate number of more random and casual phonetic echoes, as, for instance, the patterns of r, s, and n which support the alliteration of rains . . . ruins in Swinburne's line: "For winter's rains and ruins are over." While all these figurations are basically repetitions of qualitative or so-called "segmental" elements of sound, it is clear that "suprasegmental" features like stress affect the formalization and, in large measure, the conspicuousness of sound patterns. Thus, a stressed syllable is not ordinarily rhymed with an unstressed, and end rhyme (that is, rhyme at the end of metrical lines) is normally more conspicuous than internal rhyme (rhyme at the middle and end of the same line). Modern descriptive linguistics has provided the researcher with rather precise tools for weighing the effect of these factors.

In most cases, patterns of the qualities of sound present themselves as distinct but sporadic concentrations of similarity in a sequence of dissimilar syllables. The total design of sound qualities embraces, of course, the distinct patterns as well as their less organized background. Many of the finer effects of verse depend upon the poet's "ear" for the proper adjustment of pattern and background as much as on the conscious creation of the figures themselves.

Qualitative figures of sound play a role in the verse of all languages. End rhyme, for example, frequently contributes to the elaboration of larger metrical systems like stanzas. Rhyme was, however, practically unknown in classical Greek or Latin verse, though it became a familiar feature in medieval Latin and thence in the Romance languages. It is basic to Chinese verse, but generally avoided in Japanese. Arabic is peculiar in using a single rhyme throughout a poem. Assonance is also frequent in Romance verse of all periods, while alliteration is a prominent feature of early Germanic verse. The older forms of Celtic verse, especially Welsh, employ all the forms of qualitative figuration of sound in the greatest elaboration. The taste for richness in such figuration varies considerably; especially identified with this taste in English poetry since the early Renaissance are John Skelton, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Swinburne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dylan Thomas.

Versification - Design for Quantities of Sound

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