Monday, 5 December 2011


Generations of students have struggled with the analysis of rhythm in poetry. They are aware of it and can sense its effect, but can they think of anything meaningful to write about it? Not usually, no. I don't know how many times I have heard students (and teachers come to that) say "the rhythm really helps the poem to flow", as if that actually told anyone anything useful.

In fact I believe there are quite simple but effective ways students can understand and analyse rhythm if they first understand more about the structure of language. English is a stress-timed language. This means that, unlike in a syllable-timed language such as French, syllables are pronounced differently depending on whether they are stressed or unstressed (this is called vowel reduction) and the interval between the stressed syllables is roughly regular, however many (or few) unstressed syllables there are in between. You can hear this fairly clearly when you compare two simple sentences:
"Jóhn hít mé" and "Jónathan hít mé". The accents above the vowels indicate the stressed syllables and you can clearly hear that they are reasonably evenly spaced in both sentences. However in the second, the two unstressed syllables that complete Jonathan's name have to be crammed into the time between the stressed "o" and the stressed "i", so we (completely unconsciously) say them faster. You can also clearly hear that those two syllables are not pronounced as written. The "a" is reduced to "ə" or schwa- the phoneticians' name for the unstressed English vowel sound- so Jonathan is actually pronounced Jonəthən.

Before getting on to the analysis of rhythm in poetry it is worth pointing out the role of this feature of English in creating errors in spelling. Take one of the most commonly misspelt words: "definite." The problem is that pronunciation gives no clue to the spelling of the final syllable. The word is actually pronounced defənət, so it is not surprising that so many spell the last syllable "-ate", presumably unconsciously echoing aurally very similar words like "detonate" (where the final syllable is stressed, and therefore not reduced). The odd thing is that the misspellers actually DO know which vowel is in the third syllable- I have yet to hear anyone mispronounce "definition" as "defination". The problem is that when writing they forget the clear structural connection between the words and hence the spelling of the third syllable. This is, I believe, another illustration of the fact that the more subconscious functions of our brains are actually far more reliable and capable of processing complex structures and interactions than the "higher order", more conscious functions. Speech is clearly a more instinctive and "lower order" function than writing, yet here as elsewhere the part of our brain that processes speech is more accurately able to process the complexities of language than the part that processes writing.

So what has all this got to do with analysing rhythm in poetry? Well, in a general sense, the regular pattern of stressed syllables is what creates the rhythm in all spoken English, and it is through playing (whether consciously or unconsciously) with that rhythm that poets create many of their effects. I have always believed that great poetry can only be truly appreciated when read aloud and we become subliminally aware of the beautiful rhythmic structures of its sound.

All of the above paragraph is of course utterly useless to the average student analysing rhythm in poetry (though it does not stop plenty of them putting in an equally pretentious paragraph into an essay on Keats to cover up their inability to say anything specific). Thankfully though, understanding the stress-timed nature of English can enable us to make very specific and meaningful points about rhythm in poetry. Take the central line in one of the most powerful poems ever written, Dulce et Decorum Est:
"Gas! Gas! Quick boys! An ecstasy of fumbling. Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time."
I have often read essays that confidently stated that the rhythm speeds up on this line, after the slow "trudging" rhythm of the previous lines. Well, yes and no. Listen carefully to which are the stressed syllables:
"Gás! Gás! Quíck, boys! An écstasy of fúmbling, Fítting the clúmsy hélmets júst in tíme"

The line actually starts with three stressed syllables, with no unstressed syllables between. Automatically this slows the rhythm. However between the stressed syllables "Quick" and "ecst..." there are two unstressed syllables, and between "ecst..." and "fumb..." there are three, all having to be packed into the same period as that between "Gas!" and "Gas!" at the start of the line. So the rhythm actually slows almost to a standstill with the dropping of the shells, only then immediately to accelerate as the weary soldiers try to react. The line also demonstrates another of the subtle effects poets can use with rhythm, namely the internal rhyme between "fumbling" and "clumsy". This serves further to stress the stressed syllables of those words, which slightly reduces the stressed syllable in "Fitting" in between. It is almost as though you have to fit all of "-ling. Fitting the " (four syllables) in between the two stresses.

As in many areas, perhaps the greatest master of rhythm in poetry is Shakespeare. Take Macbeth’s justly famous "Tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquy. English blank verse at Shakespeare's time was forced into a rhythmic pattern (the iambic pentameter) taken from Classical Latin. In less skilled hands this becomes a straight-jacket that forces the reader into the dreadful sing-song of "The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled". However Shakespeare has the confidence and skill to let the stress-timed rhythms of English shine through. He uses a similar technique to Owen's to slow up the rhythm (though typically of Shakespeare goes that little bit further) with the four stressed syllables of “Oút, oút, bríef cándle…” in contrast to the almost doggerel-like alternation of stressed and unstressed in“this pétty páce from dáy to dáy.”

However, effectively as he uses rhythm to reinforce meaning the real artistry of Shakespeare is the way he plays with the rhythms of speech, creating beautiful syncopated music. The base rhythm of blank verse, the iambic pentameter, consists of five “bars” of an unstressed and a stressed syllable. It is vocalised with the classic “de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum.” This is the base rhythm of Shakespeare’s verse too- unsurprisingly as it is the rhythm of a lot of our natural speech. However, especially in his later plays, sometimes he disrupts it with almost strident syncopation. One example is the audacious line from the end of King Lear (act 5 scene 3, line 365) where he reverses the order of stressed and unstressed, forcing this syncopated rhythm on us through the extraordinary device of repeating one word five times: “Néver, néver, néver, néver, néver.” However perhaps my favourite example is from the Macbeth soliloquy, and another audacious piece of repetition. The line is so familiar that we barely notice its radical rhythmic brilliance:
Tomórrow and tomórrow and tomórrow”

On paper it’s an iambic pentameter, and if you (unnaturally) stress the “and”s then that is how it sounds too. Yet read well, the line has three stresses, not five. Read well, the three unstressed syllables between the stressed “..mó..” syllables (“..rrow and to..”) have to be rushed through, so you get to the end of the line quicker than the normal line length would allow you to. So what happens then? Without being conscious of doing so, you pause to let the normal iambic pentameter line length catch up. So time rushes on, through tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and then it stops. That’s what I mean by brilliance.

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