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Versification - Design for Quantities of Sound

Updated on March 18, 2011

The study of the sound patterns usually called rhythm and meter has generally been more systematic and detailed than the corresponding analysis of rhyme and other design of the qualities of sound. The term prosody is often applied to the former study, as is metrics and, less frequently, rhythmics. Prosodic study began quite early in the West. Aristotle, for example, already invokes a tradition of such study as he discusses in The Poetics (the appropriateness of certain meters to satire, tragedy, and epic, and in the Rhetoric, the use of less obtrusive rhythms by the orator. The philosopher is important, too, for drawing a clear distinction between the art of poetry, with its own patterning of sound, and the arts of music and 'dance with which it had been and would continue to be closely associated. Aristotle's pupil Aristoxenus of Tarentum wrote a treatise on rhythm; part of the second book survives. The earliest complete treatise on metrics extant is by Hephaestion (130-169 A.D.). Like most of his predecessors, Hephaestion offers more information on types of metrical feet than on the precise basis of Greek meter.

From the beginning, however, there has been general agreement about the large object of prosodic study: it is the quantitative aspects of sound (length or duration, relative pitch, and intensity or force) and, in particular, the harmonious patterning of these elements in the flow of speech. For a poet creates a rhythm or meter by arranging the elements of conspicuousness or emphasis operating in his ordinary language. Rather than the haphazard prose arrangement of emphases, though, in a sentence like "The plowman is plodding his weary way homeward" (o ó o o ó o o ò o ó ó o), a poet like Thomas Gray may create a more formal and stylized pattern with "The plowman homeward plods his weary way" (o ó o ó o ó o ó o ó).

Versification - Types of Basic Rhythm

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