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Versification - Line and Stanza Patterns

Updated on March 18, 2011

The names of metrical lines have traditionally indicated the basic foot and the number of times it is repeated or varied in the line: iambic dimeter, anapaestic trimeter, trochaic pentameter, and so forth. Stanzas combine lines of similar or different lengths and emphasize their unity by a pattern of end rhymes. The history of versification traces the rise and fluctuating popularity of a great variety of line and stanza patterns. In the verse of different languages, these patterns frequently become associated with special forms and genres of literature. The dactylic hexameter, for example, was associated chiefly with classical epic. It was combined with a dactylic pentameter in the elegiac distich, a couplet that was a staple of Latin love poetry. Among Romance poets, the troubadours of Provence were especially inventive in stanzaic patterns, sometimes with intricate rhyme schemes, like the ballade, rondeau, triolet, and sestina. Their followers in Italy produced the intertwining tercets called terza rima and the sonnet, a 14-line stanza with a slightly variable rhyme scheme. The latter was to have a distinguished history in most European literatures, and especially in English with Wyatt, Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, and others. Comparable to the popularity of the sonnet in Western literature is the hokku in Japanese poetry; this is a short "stanza" of 17 syllables divided into 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively. Among important lineal forms in the modern period have been the iambic pentameter in English (rhymed in couplets or "blank"), the 12-syllable iambic Alexandrine in French, and the hendecasyllabic in Italian. Major stanza forms utilizing the iambic pentameter in English are rhyme royal (rhyming a b a b b cc), the Spenserian stanza (a b a b b c b cc), which ends with an Alexandrine, and ottava rima (abababcc), borrowed from Italian narrative poetry, as, for instance, by Lord Byron for his Don Juan. These and numerous other types continue to flourish despite the 19th and 20th century experiments in free verse, which sought original effects outside the conventions of metrical, lineal, and stanzaic patterns.

The variety of contemporary English verse reflects a rich and complex history. Unfortunately the details of this history and even the fundamental nature of the rhythms involved are still matters of debate by prosodists. Existing differences of opinion can be surveyed in Thomas S. Omond's English Metrists (Oxford and New York 1921) and Pallister Barkas' A Critique of Modern English Prosody (Halle, Germany, 1934).

The nature of accentual meter is especially debated. Some maintain that its rhythm depends on recurring cadences of syllables more and less conspicuously stressed, others that it is a matter of recurring isochronous durations (that is, of feet or of intervals between stresses). It is generally agreed that in addition to metrical verse, there are at least two other varieties of English verse that demand a different kind of analysis. Old English stress verse or alliterative verse, practiced into the Renaissance and revived in the 19th century by S. T. Coleridge and G. M. Hopkins, had basically a loose rhythm of natural groups. In the repeated line unit, however, a sense of isochronous balance was created by the use of a determinate number of heavily stressed (often alliterated) syllables and by a strong medial pause. Free verse of the 19th and 20th centuries relies for its rhythmic effects on a simple combination of different but harmonious cadences of natural groups. In the poetry of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and their followers, it is influenced to some extent by the separate traditions of metrical verse and stress verse.

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      Brenda Barnes 6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      I know nothing about music but found this a great read. I love HubHopping. Never know just what I will find!