Prosody Primer: The Basics of Writing Metrical/Rhymed (Traditional) Poetry — Part One
Prosody: The Techniques of Verse
© 1988–2021 by Frank Coffman, all rights reserved
Let us begin with some definitions:
Poetry: Language which demonstrates that the author has paid attention to the sound of words as well as their sense, to the music of language as well as its meaning. It differs from Prose in its measuring of the sounds and rhythms of language, and, frequently, in its use of formal diction, figurative language, and imagery.
Verse: Poetry which makes use of Meter: a set or measured pattern of rhythm. Frequently, verse also uses Rhyme: the noticeable repetition of the same or similar sounds in language.
Free Verse: Poetry which does not use Meter and rarely uses Rhyme. Nonetheless, it is still more regular in its rhythms than prose, and follows some of the conventions of poetry on the printed page.
Poetic Conventions: Accepted traditions in the presentation of poetry on the printed page. Poems are arranged in Lines and Stanzas instead of Sentences and Paragraphs like Prose, for example. The conventions of Verse include Meter and Rhyme:
Meter: A set or measured pattern of rhythm in language. Obviously, this can only be based upon having an “ear” for the spoken language and its variety of sounds and accents.
There are three (3) basic types of Meter (measured rhythm): Accentual, Syllabic, and Accentual-Syllabic.
a) Accentual Meter: A type of rhythm measurement which counts the number of accented or stressed syllables to the poetic line.
Our earliest poetry in English was accentual. Examples are from the Old English epic Beowulf in which the two “half-lines” each have two accented syllables:
NOTE: The italicized syllables are accented.
Hwaet we Gar-Dena // in gear dag-um
Theodcyninga // thrym gefrunon
Hu tha athelingas // ellen fremedon. [NOTE: all vowels alliterate with one another in this system]
Also, the medieval Ballad was written in Accentual Meter. The first and third lines each had four accented syllables; the second and fourth had each three:
The king sits in Dumferling toon (A)
Drinking the blud-red wine (B)
“Oh whar will I get guid sailor ( C)
To sail this schip o’ mine?” (B)
b) Syllabic Meter: A type of rhythm measurement which counts the number of syllables to the poetic line.
This is a very free type of rhythm in English and allows for much variety.
of sound (the “free verse” poet would do well to at least experiment with syllable-count poetics). Examples are the Japanese forms like the Haiku: a complete poem in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables which tries to capture a seasonal image or a striking or interesting observation:
Example of a Haiku in English translation from the Japanese original by Basho:
The falling flower (5 syllables)
I saw drift back to the branch (7syllables)
was a butterfly (5 syllables)
Another syllable-count form is the Cinquain which is a five-line poem of 2,4,6,8, and 2 syllables:
(2) These be
(4) Three silent things:
(6) The falling snow. . . the hour
(8) Before the dawn. . .the mouth of one
(2) Just dead.
— Adelaide Crapsey, “Triad,” from her book Cinquains
c) Accentual-Syllabic Meter: A type of rhythm measurement which counts BOTH the number of accents to the line AND the number of syllables to the line.
Usually, this is done by measuring the line into Metrical Feet, units of two or more syllables with a set pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.
•(NOTE: This is usually denoted by the following marks used in the Scansion or Scanning of a verse poem):
•Unstressed/Unaccented — shown by a horseshoe mark or U
•Stressed/Accented — shown by an oblique slash line or /
The common Metrical Feet used in English are:
i) the Iambic Foot — U/ (Iamb/Iambus): A two-syllable foot consisting of an unstressed/unaccented syllable followed by a stressed/accented syllable. Example: (Iambic Tetrameter)
NOTE: The italicized syllables are stressed.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep, [NOTE: the “-es” in “promises” gets PROMOTED to a half accent, due to its position in the line.]
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.
— Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
ii) the Trochaic Foot — /U (Trochee): A two-syllable foot consisting of a stressed/accented syllable followed by an unstressed /unaccented syllable.
Example: (Trochaic Octameter)
NOTE: THE ACCENTED SYLLABLES ARE IN ALL-CAPS
ONCE upON a MIDnight DREARy, WHILE I PONdered WEAK and WEARy
SUDdenLY, there CAME a TAPping, AS of SOMEone GENTly RAPping
— selected lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”
iii) the Anapestic Foot — UU/(Anapest):A three-syllable foot consisting of two unstressed/unaccented syllables and one stressed/accented syllable.
Example: (Anapestic Tetrameter)
NOTE: AGAIN, THE ACCENTED SYLLABLES ARE IN ALL-CAPS.
The AsSYRian came DOWN like the WOLF on the FOLD,
And his COhorts wereGLEAMing in PURple and GOLD,
And the SHEEN from their SPEARS was like STARS on the SEA
As the BLUE wave rolls NIGHTly onDEEP GaliLEE.
— George Gordon, Lord Byron “The Destruction of Sennacherib”
iv) the Dactylic Foot — /UU (Dactyl): A three-syllable foot consisting of one stressed/accented syllable followed by two unstressed/unaccented syllables. Example: (Dactylic Dimeter)
AGAIN: STRESSED SYLLABLES IN ALL-CAPS
CANnon to RIGHT of them
CANnon to LEFT of them
CANnon in FRONT of them
VOLleyed and THUNdered
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson “The Charge of the Light Brigade”
Finding and naming an accentual-syllable meter measured in metrical feet is accomplished by Scansion or “scanning the line”.
This is done by reading the line aloud or softly to oneself and annotating the accents or unaccents in the above manner. Some pattern will appear and be predominant — whether iambic, trochaic, anapestic, or dactylic. NOTE: Iambic meter makes frequent use of anapests and vice versa, and trochaic meter makes frequent use of dactyls and vice versa. The iambic and anapestic meters are “rising meters,” and the trochaic and dactylic are “falling meters.”
Once the basic meter is determined, count the number of feet to the common line and apply the following nomenclature:
one foot per line: Monometer
two feet per line: Dimeter
three feet per line: Trimeter
four feet per line: Tetrameter
five feet per line: Pentameter
six feet per line: Hexameter
seven feet per line: Heptameter
eight feet per line Octameter
NOTE: Iambic meter is by far the most common measure used in the verse poetry of the English language. This is primarily due to the fact that our language falls quite naturally into iambic rhythm. We tend to put stress toward the front of multi-syllable words and to precede important words with unaccented articles, prepositions, and conjunctions. Example:
The DAY was BRIGHT and SUNny AND the BIRDS [NOTE: The second “and” gets “promoted” to a half-accent due to its position.
Were SINGing IN the TREES. The SKY was BLUE. [Same with the “in” — promoted to half accent.
MORE PERFECT IAMBIC EXAMPLE:
IAMbics FLOW like HONey FROM the TONGUE.
We SPEAK them FROM the TIME we’re VERy YOUNG.
Rhyme is the noticeable repetition of exact or similar sound in language.
There are many types of rhyme, and there are many interesting and unrestrictive ways to use them.
English is a rhyme-poor language. By this we mean that English (since the dropping of inflections and case endings still common in many other languages) has relatively few rhyming words for any given sound. Some words, of course, are “richer” than others in terms of rhyme words.
One result of this relative lack of rhyme words is that writing end-rhymed poetry is therefore more of a challenge in English than in many other languages. But there are many rewards for those who seriously accept the challenge (more on this later).
The Types of Rhyme:
A) True Rhyme or Full Rhyme is the exact repetition of the last vowel sound of a word and any succeeding consonant sounds.
Examples: “cat,” “hat,” “rat,” “fat” // “blue,” “true,” “through,” “dew.”
1) Masculine Rhyme occurs when the rhyming syllable is the accented syllable at the end of a line. Examples: all monosyllable words; “stone,” “bone,” “tone” // and “collect,” “respect.”
2) Feminine Rhyme occurs when the rhyming syllable is the unaccented syllable at the end of a line. Examples: “spiteful,” “rightful” // “merrily,” “warily.”
3) False Rhyme is the use of the same word or syllable to achieve the effect of true rhyme. Examples: “fun,” “fun” // “mention,” “attention.”
4) Initial Rhyme (rare in English) is rhyme at the beginning instead of the end of lines:
Wind the whirlpool
Blind and certain;
Dark as the dark there,
Stark, you shall disturb.
5) Internal Rhyme occurs when a word within a line rhymes with the word at the line’s end. Example from Poe’s “The Raven”:
Ah! distinctly I remember. It was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
6) Cross Rhyme occurs when a word within a line rhymes with the end word of another line — as in “ember” and “December” in the lines by Poe above.
Used quite often in Welsh poetry, this is somewhat rare in English. In its precise meaning, it refers to the actual “crossing” of rhyme between two lines. often involving other nearby words and syllables. Example:
I love the singing of the meadowlark
As darkness breaks and birds are winging,
The soft spring breeze, the sound aloft
As oft the morning sun sets shadows flinging,
And the brave sun’s green glory through the trees.
B) Slant Rhyme (Also called Near Rhyme, Oblique Rhyme, Off Rhyme, and Half Rhyme) has several variations. It provides an interesting wealth of possibilities for the verse poet and adds immeasurably to the supply of “rhyme words” for any given word — thus making rhyming easier.
Variation 1) The vowel sound of the final syllable is “sandwiched” between two sets of consonant patterns. Merely change the vowel and you have one variety of slant rhyme.
Or Variation 2) The final consonant sound remains the same, but the final preceeding vowel is changed.
The British poet Wilfred Owen (killed in action during the last week of WWI) not only coined the term “PARARHYME,” but wrote some of the best examples of its use:
[PARARHYME — BOTH “ENDS” of a word are identical, but they surround different vowels]
Let the boy try along this bayonet blade
How cold steel is and keen with hunger for blood,
Grim with all malice like a madman’s flash,
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.
[REGULAR “SLANT RHYME” — The ENDING consonant sounds are the same, but the vowels differ]
Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet heads
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads.
Or show him cartridges of fine zinc teeth
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.
— Wilfred Owen, “Arms and the Boy”
WITH Vowel Rhyme (ASSONANCE):
The final vowel sound of the word is all that is kept. The surrounding or final consonants can vary. This offers a great deal of flexibility to the poet. Examples:
“blink,” “blip,” “blitz” // “tide,” “like,” “spy,” // “deep,” “seek,” “seed.”
Other Variations are possible. The only requirement is that there is SOME consistent rule for the slanting pattern.
C) Alliteration is the repetition of beginning sounds of words, usually described to the beginning consonant sounds of words in close proximity, although it technically refers to the repetition of beginning letters (hence, any beginning sounds — vowel or consonant) of words.
Examples: The blue boat bobbed on the briny bay,
And the summer sun shone on the shore.
The old oak opened its oaken eyes,
Then fell fast asleep once more.
D) Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in words in close proximity (hence, it is sometimes considered equivalent to alliteration). But it applies to consonant sounds as they occur anywhere in words.
The moan of doves in immemorial elms
The buzzing of inummerable bees.
The MMM and ZZZ sounds are repeated, although hidden within the words.
E) Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in words in close proximity (occurring anywhere in words: initial, internal or final positions).
Examples: The moon moved smoothly through the blue sky.
OR “a Floor too cool for corn” — Emily Dickinson
(all of the “ooo” sounds assonate with one another
[note: the corresponding verbs are consonate with repeated consonant sounds and alliterate with repeated
A Rhyme Scheme is the pattern of rhymes used in a particular stanza or poem. Certain stanzas (and even entire poetic forms) have a traditional rhyme pattern. It is also true that certain patterns seem to work best to convey certain “sense divisions.” An example of this idea of sense divisions can be seen in the Shakespearian Sonnet, which also serves as a good introduction to the accepted method(s) of annotating a rhyme scheme. Example:
The Shakespearian Sonnet (as with all sonnets) is 14 lines long.
It rhymes: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (or) 1212 3434 5656 77
What this means is that the fourteen lines usually talk about three different subjects in each of the first three groups of four lines (the first three quatrains), and wind things up with a concluding statement in the last two (the couplet)[See Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 for a perfect example of this tendency]
In noting a rhyme scheme, what we do is assign the first letter of our alphabet “A” to the first end-rhyme sound. For every other line in the poem that ends with the A-rhyme, we assign it the letter “A” as well. If line two does not rhyme with line one, we go on to assign it the letter “B”, and use B whenever that rhyme repeats, and so on. Numbers (1,2, etc.) can also be used, and some people (especially poets) prefer this method because it tells them how many rhyme sounds they need for a poem.
NOTE: Slant Rhyme can be shown by using lower case letters or subscript numbers with letters (or even Greek letters) to indicate slight variations: Example:
hedge b or B1
lodge beta or B2
NOTE: Cross Rhyme and Internal Rhyme; even Alliteration, Consonance and Assonance can be notated by the following system:
1) Assign X to any unrhymed syllable and a letter to any rhyme
a) Cross Rhyme: X X X X B X X X X A
X X X X A X X X X B
b) Internal Rhyme: X X X A X X X A
c) Alliteration (example on letter “F”) FX X fX X X X fX A
2) In the above example, the first, third, and seventh syllables of the line are words beginning with the “F” sound.