Monday, December 27, 2010

Prosody and Rules of Versification in English Literature

(A)  Metre and Rhythm
Metre may be defined as that ordered rhythm which results from a regular alternation of stressed and unstressed, or as they are sometimes called, long and short, syllables in a line of poetry. Just as a Yard, used for measuring cloth, consists of a number of feet, and each foot consists of a number of inches, so also metre by which we determine the rhythm of poetry, is sub-divided into a number of feet and each foot into a number of syllables (a syllable consists of one vowel sound and a word may have one or more vowel sounds, for example, “Home” is a word of one syllable while there are three syllables in ‘beautiful’), some of which are stressed or long drawn out (as in  music), – while others are unstressed or short. The ordered rhythm of poetry arises from a regular alternation of stressed or accented and unstressed or unaccented syllables.
It is the number of syllables in a feet and the position of the stressed and unstressed syllables which determines the nature of a metre or measure of English poetry.
The following are the five chief measures or metres used by English poets:
1.  The Iambic
In this metre each foot has two syllables of which the first is unaccented and the second accented. If there are five feet or ten such syllables in a line, it would be known as Iambic Pentametre and this is the metre in which most of the English verse has been written. It is the commonest of English measures. However, if instead of ten syllables (or five feet) there are only four feet or eight syllables in a line it would be called Iambic Tetrametre. Similarly, there can be dimetre (lines of two feet), trimetre (lines of three feet), octametre (lines of eight feet), etc.
Here is an example of Iambic Tetrametre:
     Awake/my soul/and with/the sun
(After each foot there is/, an unaccented syllable is indicated by, and an accented one by/).
2-         The Torchaic
In this metre also each foot in a line consists of two syllables, but the position of stress in each foot is reversed, so that the stressed or accented syllable comes first, and the unstressed or unaccented one afterwards. The number of feet or syllables in a line varies (from two to eight feet or four to sixteen syllables) as in the case of the Iambic.
            Here is an example of a Trochaic line:
/         /       /       *       /       *      /       *        *       */   / *      /      *
Comrades/ leave me/ here a/ little while/ as yet/ it is/ early morn
The use of Trochaic metre is not very frequent in English poetry. More frequently, a trochaic foot is introduced in an Iambic line to produce particular effects intended by the poet. The sudden change in the regular alternation of accented and unaccented syllables gives pleasure, avoids monotony, and captures attention.
3-         The Anapaestic
In this measure each foot in a line consists of three syllables, and not of two as was the case with Iambic and the Trochaic. Of these three syllables, the first two are unaccented, and the third alone is accented. The number of feet in each line varies as in the case of the other two metres and an anapaestic line may also be dimetre, trimetre, tetrameter, pentameter, etc.
*        *       /        *     *        /         *       *       /      *     *    /
And the sheen/ of their spears/ was like stars/ on the sea
The Dactylic
In this metre each foot has three syllables of which the first one is accented, and the other two are unaccented. The number of feet in each line may vary and accordingly it would be dimetre, trimetre, and so on.
The following line is Dactylic dimetre:
   /       *     *  /   *       *
Take her up/ tenderly
The Amphibrachic
In this metre also each foot has three syllables, but the middle syllable is accented and the first and third ones unaccented. It would be called dimetre, trimetre, etc., according to the number of syllables.
The following line is Amphibrachic Tetrametre:
*     /         /      *      /   *   *    /      *    *      /
O hush thee/my babe/thy sire was/a knight.
(B) Variations: Verse Libre
It should be noted that the last foot of this line is short by one syllable. At other times, a line may have one extra syllable. Such variations are introduced to impart variety. In this way, there is a change in the regular rhythm, and such unexpected change startles the readers and at once captures attention. Variations are also introduced by a change in the placing of accents and stresses. Thus in an Iambic line, the poet may introduce a trochaic foot, and this change comes as a surprise to the readers and heightens their sense of satisfaction. Monotony is thus avoided.
There are many other intricate variations and combinations which a skilled poet introduces in his versification, but the subject is so vast and involved that justice cannot be done to it within the scope of the present work. However, it should be noted that even by the most careful observances of the rules only verse is possible. True poetry is not a matter of rules, but of inspiration. Skilled poets in moments of inspiration, are able to modulate the rhythm of their poetry according to the requirements of thought and emotion. In the modern age, we have such a thing as verse libre or free verse, in which versification becomes so loose and flexible that it is hard to distinguish it from prose. Such flexibility is considered necessary to render ‘the stream of consciousness’ or the flux of ideas and sensations floating through the consciousness of some character. ‘Modern English poetry is certainly characterised by great metrical irregularity.’
(C)  Rhymed Verse and Blank Verse
Rhyme is the similarity in sound between words or syllables. Words or syllables at the end of two lines of poetry may have similar sounds, and then we would say that the two lines rhyme together, as in the following.
We think our fathers fools, as wise we grow,
Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so.
In these lines ‘grow’ rhymes with ‘so’. if only one syllable rhymes, it is called single or masculine rhyme, if two syllables rhyme it is called feminine or double, and if three syllables rhyme it is called triple. ‘Ring’ and ‘sing’ are single rhymes; ‘ringing’ and ‘singing’ are double, and ‘unfortunate’ and ‘unfortunate’ are triple. Writer Hudson in this connection, “These different kinds may be employed at the discretion of the poet in different ways. A poem may be entirely in single rime, or in double, or in triple; or different kinds may be introduced in regular alternation; or the alternation may be occasional and arbitrary. A large proportion of double or triple rimes unquestionably adds lightness and rapidity to the verse, and on general principles, therefore, we should expect to find them sparingly used in poems of a markedly serious or melancholy character. Yet no hard and fast rule can be laid down. Double and triple rimes which are too obviously ingenious and far-fetched, always produce a grotesque effect, and are therefore admirably adapted to the purposes of burlesque, as in Butler’s Hudibras. Browning’s frequent recourse to them in the treatment of high and solemn themes was a perverse habit, often attended with disastrous results.”
It is generally supposed that only the last words of two or more lines of poetry rhyme together. But such a view is erroneous. There is such a thing as medial rhyme in which a word in the middle rhymes with a word at the end of it, as in the following:
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.
‘Bright’ in the middle of the first line rhymes with “right” at the end of it. Such medial rhymes are frequently introduced by poets to make their verse musical.
While metre is an essential part of poetry, rhyme is to be regarded as only an accessory; yet it is so common an accessory in English verse, and in most of its forms, indeed, so nearly constant a feature, that its importance can hardly be overstated. It adds much to the beauty of poetry as ‘musical speech’, and therefore to the pleasure which poetry affords. “It has also frequently been pointed out that, by marked distinctly the close of lines and stanzas, it helps to emphasise rhythm.” It also has a disciplining effect, and serves to check and control the excesses and wilder fights of poetic imagination. But the necessity of finding suitable words with similar sounds puts undue strain on the poet hampers his efforts, and comes in the way of the free flow of poetic inspiration. Moreover it is something artificial and unnatural. Rhyme is not used in actual, everyday speech. That is why there are many competent critics and scholars who are opposed to the use of rhyme. As a matter of fact, the comparative advantages and disadvantages of rhyme have always been an object to much controversy. It is all a question of individual talent and inclination.
As has been mentioned about, rhyme is not essential to poetry though its use has many advantages. As a matter of fact there is a large body of English poetry which is without rhyme. The principal form of unrhymed verse is Iambic Pentametre, generally known as blank verse. It is ‘blank’ because it is devoid of rhyme. In other words, blank verse is simply Iambic Pentametre without rhyme. It was first used by dramatists including Marlowe and Shakespeare. As far as poetry is concerned, Milton was the first to use it for his immortal epic Paradise Lost. Other poets followed his example and today blank verse is generally preferred to rhymed verse which is considered artificial and unnatural.
(D)  Music and Melody
Poetry has been called ‘musical speech’, and various are the devices used by poets to make their verse musical. The more important of such devices may be listed as follows:
1.         Use of rhyme, both end rhymes and medial rhymes.
2.         Use of alliteration i.e. the introduction in a line of more than one word beginning with a similar sound.
3.         The use of liquid consonants ‘l’, ‘m’, ‘n’ etc. The use of liquid consonants contributes to the music of poetry.
4.         Avoidance or slurring over of consonants with a harsh, unpleasant sound. Thus ‘r’ has a harsh sound and so it is slurred over by skilled poets.
5.         Concentration of vowel sounds. If a large number of vowels are used together, verse becomes musical. This concentration of vowels is achieved by the use of monosyllabic words, or words with a single syllable. Since each syllable consists of one vowel sound, concentration of vowels is achieved by the use of such short words and the gain in sweetness is immense.
6.         The use of proper names with a musical sound. Often such names are imaginary, entirely the invention of the poet.
In the end it may be added, that the music of poetry is a matter of verbal felicity. It comes to some poets by nature, easily and spontaneously, while others fail to achieve it even after pains-taking efforts.

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