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Versification - Types of Basic Rhythm

Updated on March 18, 2011

The conventions which govern the creation of such patterns and, indeed, the particular quantifiable elements which may be patterned, vary from language to language and even, at times, from period to period of the same language. In Indo-European a basic type of meter seems to have utilized the lengths of speech sound and this mode developed into the "durational" or so-called "quantitative" meters of Sanskrit and Greek. A basic principle affecting these meters in Greek was the distinction between short and long syllables, the latter considered twice the length of the former. Various combinations of long and short syllables were possible; the resulting elementary units (feet) could then be repeated to form a longer rhythmic series. In Greek epic verse, for example, the dactylic foot (one long syllable followed by two shorts: -~~) was repeated with only occasional variations by other feet of equal duration, like the spondee (two long syllables: --). The regular patterned effect of alternating long and short durations was further formalized by the division of the whole metrical series into lines which, though they might vary from 12 to 17 syllables, had an equal durational value (namely, 24 short syllables). Other common feet besides the dactyl and spondee were the iamb (~-), anapaest (~~-), trochee (-~), pyrrhic (~~), cretic (-~-), paeon (-~~~), and choriamb (-~~-). More complicated than the regularly repeated dactylic verses of epic or the iambic lines of dramatic dialogue were the meters of Greek lyric. In these, different feet were combined in large rhythmic phrases (cola) and then arranged in stanzas.

Early Latin meters, in particular the Saturnian verse of Lucius Livius Andronicus and Gnaeus Naevius, appear to have been constructed on the basis of syllabic intensities rather than durations. But under the prevailing influence of Greek culture the "quantitative" system was adopted some time before the end of the 2nd century B.C. Thereafter one finds Virgil imitating the dactylic verse of Homer, and Horace and other lyric poets the stanzas of Sappho and Alcaeus.

In the first centuries of Christianity, however, the linguistic distinction of long and short syllables fell into decay. At the same time, poets like St. Augustine and St. Ambrose introduced hymn meters in which lines had an equal number of syllables and concluded with simple rhymes. In addition, rhythmic figures similar to the end patterns of classical prose (clausulae or cursus) occurred in the middle and end of these lines. It was, perhaps, the extension of these patterns, based now on the intensities of regular word accents rather than on the duration of syllables, that led to a fully accentual meter. The transition, observable in hymns like the Pange Lingua Gloriosi and Vexilla Regis Prodeunt of Venantius Fortunatus (530-600), was completed by the 10th century; the earlier quantitative system, however, continued an artificial existence into the Renaissance. The versifications of the various Romance languages inherited from medieval Latin the principle of stable line length maintained by count of syllables. Their fundamental rhythmic effects, though, depend more on the manipulation of pauses and of stronger and weaker syllables in the phrases created by pauses, than on the regular recurrence of an accentual foot. In its long history, therefore, Latin verse utilized different aspects of sound as the basis of its verse rhythms. Originally this basis was intensity, in the classical period it became duration, and later it returned to intensity. (The other quantifiable element of sound, pitch, is never used as the basis of rhythm and meter; but in some languages, notably Chinese, it is used as an important adjunct to a rhythm the basis of which is count of syllables.)

Versification - Total Rhythmic Design

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