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Versification - Total Rhythmic Design

Updated on March 18, 2011

The total design for the quantities of sound is, however, more complicated than the steady pulse of a meter or the looser harmony of a rhythm. Even in a very regular accentual meter, the simple alternation of light and heavy stresses has its variations. To begin with, there is some inequality in the stresses being patterned. For example, phrases like "and thus invoke" (o ó o ó), "another's hermitage" (o ó o ó o o), and "half-acre tombs" (ò ó o ó) all have iambic cadences, though various degrees of light and heavy stress occur. The iambic cadence requires simply that a less conspicuous sound precede a more conspicuous one. The measure of more or less is a relative one provided by the immediate context of syllables; it tolerates a certain range of difference. Another element of complexity is metrical variation, or the use of feet different from the one normally repeated. In English iambic meter, for instance, a trochee is frequently used to begin a line. This is the case in the first line of Shakespeare's Sonnet 30, which also has a pyrrhic and a spondee: "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought" (ó o o ó o o ó ó o ó).

More subtle variations are provided by the natural groups into which syllables fall as they cluster around strong stresses. Such groups are then separated by slight hesitations and pauses. For example, "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" (o ó o, ò o ó o, ò o ó o). Grouping occurs in all speech, but, with the greater delib-erateness used to enunciate verse, groups in verse tend to be smaller and more frequent. The boundaries of groups may coincide with or overlap the boundaries of feet and thus provide a play between the conspicuousness of the two kinds of units. One can contrast, for example, the two textures in these passages of iambic meter from John Donne's "Canonization":

And if unfit for tombes and hearse
Our legend bee, it will be fit for verse

o ó, o ó, o ó, o ó
o ó o, ó, o ó, o ó, o ó

As  well  a well wrought urne becomes
The greatest ashes, as halfe-acre tombs

o ó, o ò ó , ó, o ó
o ó o, ó o, o ò ó o, ó


Given the basic rhythmic effect with its consistent or varying textures, the total design for the quantities of sound is further developed by larger systems and balances. For instance, in metrical verse like Alfred E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young," the basic but varied pattern is iambic. This serial recurrence is sectioned into ones of four feet. (The lines in eight instances are varied by omission of a syllable and once by the suggestion of a run-on line, that is, a line in which a phrase is carried on to the next line.) The lines are then combined in couplets and the couplets repeated in seven four-line stanzas or quatrains:

The time you won your town the race We chaired you through the market-place; Man and boy stood cheering by, And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Thus, a total rhythmic design is usually a complex hierarchy of line and stanza patterns developed from the basic rhythm of the poem and elaborated within individualized norms of repetition and variation.

Versification - Line and Stanza Patterns

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