Definition of Prosody

A literary technique, prosody is the study of meter, intonation and rhythm of a poetic work. It is a phonetic term that uses meter, rhythm, tempo, pitch and loudness in a speech for conveying information about the meanings and structure of an utterance. In addition, prosody is an important element of language that contributes towards rhythmic and acoustic effects in a piece of writing. It includes different elements such as scansion, sound, pace and meaning.

Types of Prosody

There are four distinguishable prosodic metrical patterns which are:

  • Syllabic Prosody – Syllabic prosody counts a fixed number of syllables in each line, while accent, tone and quantity play a secondary role.
  • Accentual Prosody – It measures only the accents or stresses in a line of verse, while the overall number of syllables may vary in a line. It is very common in Germanic, old English and in modern English verses.
  • Accentual-syllabic Prosody – It counts both number of syllables and accents in each line. We commonly find it in English poetry.
  • Quantitative Prosody – It does not measure the number of syllables rather depends upon duration of syllables, which we can determine by amount of time used on pronunciation such as a free verse poem that consists of unmeasured lines. We find this type of prosody in Roman and classical Greek poetry while we find very rarely it in English poetry.

Prosody Examples from Literature

Example 1

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
W-ith all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light…
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

(In My Craft or Sullen Art by Dylan Thomas)

This extract is an example of Syllabic verse, which contains constrained or a fixed number of syllables. Here, in this poem each line consists of seven syllables except the final line. However, it does not follow a consistent stressed pattern.

Example 2

what if a much of a which of a wind
gives the truth to summer’s lie;
bloodies with dizzying leaves the sun
and yanks immortal stars awry?
Blow king to beggar and queen to seem
(blow friend to fiend: blow space to time)
—when skies are hanged and oceans drowned,
the single secret will still be man…

(What if a much of a which of a wind by E.E Cummings)

This poem is presenting a good example of accentual verse in which number of stressed syllables is four that remain constant. They are underlined, but the syllables in each line do not remain constant and change from seven to ten.

Example 3

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold

(To My Dear and Loving Husband by Anne Bradstreet)

This poem is a perfect example of accentual-syllabic verse, which focuses on both the number of syllables and number of accents in each poetic line. This iambic pentameter poem is one of the best examples of accented syllabic verse, as it contains five iambs in each line and follows strictly measured syllabic pattern.

Example 4

Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris…

(Aeneid by Virgil)

This opening line of Virgil’s poem is a classic model of quantitative prosody. Look at the stress pattern that is irregular, as this type of prosody does not have measured syllables, but it measures the meter according to duration of time to pronounce a line.

Function of Prosody

Prosody has multiple functions in literature. For example, poets incorporate it in matters like syntactic phrasing, word segmentation, sentence, accentuation, stress and phonological distinctions. Generally, authors use it to produce rhythmic and acoustic effects in poetry as well as prose. However, it has expressive and pragmatic functions, because a certain sentence in a given perspective expresses more than just its linguistic meanings. An expressive content could be an identity of a speaker, his mood, age, sex and other extra linguistic features. Whereas pragmatic function of prosody encompasses the attitude of speaker and listener and provides relationship between a speaker and his/her discourse, it also reflects different features of a speaker and his utterance, emotional state, a form of utterance, presence of sarcasm or irony and emphasis.

1 comment for “Prosody

  1. pekham
    December 22, 2015 at 8:56 am

    prosodic features of
    Thy way not mine, O Lord!
    However dark it be;
    Lead me by thine own hand
    Choose out the path for me.

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