Rhythm

Definition of rhythm

The word rhythm is derived from rhythmos (Greek) which means, “measured motion”. Rhythm is a literary device which demonstrates the long and short patterns through stressed and unstressed syllables particularly in verse form.

Types of rhythm

English poetry makes use of five important rhythms. These rhythms are of different patterns of stressed (/) and unstressed (x) syllables. Each unit of these types is called foot. Here are the five types of rhythm:

1. Iamb (x /)

This is the most commonly used. It consists of two syllables. The first syllable is not stressed while the second syllable is stressed. Such as “compare” in

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

2. Trochee (/ x)

A trochee is type of poetic foot which is usually used in English poetry. It has two syllables. The first syllable is strongly stressed while the second syllable is unstressed, as given below.

“Tell me not, in mournful numbers”
(Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

3. Spondee (/ /)

Spondee is a poetic foot which has two syllables that are consecutively stressed. For example:

White founts falling in the Courts of the sun”
(Lepanto by G.K. Chesterton)

4. Dactyl (/ x x)

Dactyl is made up of three syllables. The first syllable is stressed and the remaining two syllables are not stressed such as the word “marvelous”. For example:

“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,”
(Evangeline by Longfellow)

The words “primeval” and “murmuring” show dactyls in this line.

5. Anapest (x x /)

Anapests are totally opposites of the dactyls. They have three syllables; where the first two syllables are not stressed while the last syllable is stressed. For example:

“Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,”

Examples of Rhythm in Literature

English literature is full of rhythmical poems and pieces of prose. There are many poets and authors who have used rhythm in their works. Just have a look at some examples:

Example #1

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
(Romeo Juliet by Shakespeare)

There are ten syllables in iamb pentameter, where the second syllable is accented or stressed. As in above mentioned lines the stressed syllables are expressed in bold.

Example #2

“And Life–blood streaming fresh; wide was the wound.”
(Paradise Lost by Milton)

Milton has used spondee in his entire epic poem. The spondaic meter is explicitly visible in the words like “wide was”. However, the remaining line is iambic pentameter.

Example #3

DOU-ble, / DOU-ble / TOIL and / TROU-ble;
FI-re / BURN, and / CAL-dron / BUB-ble.
(Macbeth by Shakespeare)

These two lines are taken from Macbeth. The chorus of the witches’ spell shows a perfect example of trochees. Stressed pattern is shown in capitals.

Example #4

Why so pale and wan, fond Lover?
Prithee why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee why so pale?
(Song by Sir John Suckling)

Sir John has written this poem in trochaic meter. Here the stressed or accented syllables of trochaic pattern are shown in bold-face types. This poem gives strong rhythmical effect.

Example #5

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
(Tiger by William Blake)

The trochees are perfectly used in this poem by William Blake; here first syllables in the words “tyger tyger burning, forests” are stressed; however the second syllables are unstressed.

Example #6

Half a League, Half a League”
(The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson)

This single line is an example of dactylic pattern as one stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed syllables like “HALF a league, HALF a league”.

Function of Rhythm

Rhythm in writing acts as beat does in music. The use of rhythm in poetry arises from the need that some words are to be produced more strongly than others. They might be stressed for longer period of time. Hence, the repeated use of rhythmical patterns of such accent produces rhythmical effect which sounds pleasant to the mind as well as to the soul. In speech, rhythm is used unconsciously to create identifiable patterns. Moreover, rhythm captivates the audience and readers alike by giving musical effect to a speech or a literary piece.

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