how to write about rhythm in poetry

How to write about rhythm in poetry

Like repetition, rhythm is another one of those seemingly innocent literary devices: simple in concept, but surprisingly challenging to analyse.

I’ve also come across learners who tend to confuse ‘rhythm’ with ‘rhyme’, which are related, but slightly – and it is important to point out – different: 

Rhythm:

A strong regular repeated pattern of sounds or movements

Rhyme:

The use of words in a poem or song that have the same sound

While rhyme is solely concerned with sound, rhythm relates to both sound and movement.

For most people, it’s probably easier to discern the presence of rhyme than it is to describe the pattern of rhythm in a poem. That’s expected: it’s clear to us when words sound similar, but something as visceral as verbal ‘movement’ is perhaps less easy to grasp, let alone describe. 

So, how can one go about describing rhythm in poetry, and more importantly, how does rhythmic pattern shed light on themes and ideas

Now there are two ways to do this: there’s what I call the ‘intuitive’ approach, and then there’s the ‘systematic’ approach.

The former is where you read the lines of a poem (aloud) and just allow yourself to feel the pace with which the words roll off your tongue. 

Does it feel like a quick or a slow poem? 

Did you have to stop a lot because of punctuation marks? 

Or were you at one point out of breath because there was very little punctuation? 

In fact, your answers to these questions would suffice for a fair description of a poem’s rhythm. But, of course, there’s always room for our response to take on more analytical rigour, which is where the word scansion comes in. 

What is ‘scansion’, and how does it relate to rhythm?

In the simplest terms, scansion is counting the number of syllables in each line of a poem and identifying on which syllables the natural stresses fall.

To use the first line of Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18 as an example: 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? 

There are a total of 10 syllables in this sentence. Now, using graphical markers for stress ( \ ) and unstress ( ⏑ ) (more details on this here), this is how the stresses would fall if we were to read the line aloud: 

To better understand why the stresses would fall the way they are marked above, try to flip the stress pattern around and read it the other way – it would sound weird.

Notice that this rhythmic pattern comes naturally, i.e. it’s just the way we would normally read the sentence. There’s also a term for this rhythmic pattern, called the iambic pentameter, which is frequently seen in Shakespearean verse (both plays and sonnets) and deemed the most natural pattern of speech in the English Language.

Probably 80% of the poetry you’ll ever read features iambic pentameter in one way or another. 

Below are two tables that respectively summarise rhythmic units and metrical feet, the combination of which yields rhythmic patterns

Rhythmic units

different units of rhythm and examples, iamb, trochee, spondee, dactyl, anapest, amphibrach

There’s also a double unstressed unit called the pyrrhic ( ⏑  ⏑ ), but it’s not very common in modern prosody, and you can usually cover most units with the 6 types listed above.

The adjectival forms of each unit are: iambic, trochaic, spondaic, anapestic, dactylic and amphibrachic. 

Metrical feet

different types of meter in poetry, monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, heptameter, octameter

Let’s now quickly revisit the first line from Sonnet 18.

Because there are five iambs (unstressed-stressed units) in the line, we know that this line is an example of iambic pentameter:

what is iambic pentameter

Don’t worry too much if it all seems a bit overwhelming at this stage; you don’t necessarily have to know all of the terms to be able to comment intelligently and persuasively about the rhythm of a poem.

That said, they can certainly be useful in offering a more schematic way of thinking about something as fluid as rhythm, pace and movement. 

For now, just remember:

Rhythmic unit + Metrical foot = Rhythmic pattern

Now that we’ve got the technical basics out of the way, it’s time to apply our prosodic knowledge by close reading the rhythmic patterns of a poem on solitude – courtesy of the #COVID-19 quarantine that humanity is experiencing as I write this post: 

Ode on Solitude’ (1700), Alexander Pope

Happy the man, whose wish and care 
A few paternal acres bound, 
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground. 

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread, 
Whose flocks supply him with attire, 
Whose trees in summer yield him shade, 
In winter fire. 

Blest, who can unconcernedly find 
Hours, days, and years slide soft away, 
In health of body, peace of mind, 
Quiet by day, 

Sound sleep by night; study and ease, 
Together mixed; sweet recreation; 
And innocence, which most does please, 
With meditation. 

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown; 
Thus unlamented let me die; 
Steal from the world, and not a stone                         
Tell where I lie.

Before we rush into determining the rhythmic pattern of Pope’s poem, it’s worth starting on an ‘intuitive’ level and asking yourself the following questions:

Did your reading seem slow, or did it go quickly? 

Does the poem’s flow seem regular or irregular? 

Did you feel calm while reading, or did it feel like your vocal cords were riding on a bumpy road? 

By first answering these diagnostic questions, we set up a strong basis of understanding when we get round to actually ‘scanning’ the rhythmic pattern and thinking about how it all ties in to the poem’s message.

A close reading of rhythm in Pope’s ‘Ode on Solitude’

Let’s begin by scanning the first stanza:

first stanza of Alexander pope's 'ode on solitude' poem

If you want to listen to the way the stresses fall, feel free to click on the audio clips below.

 

In terms of rhythm, this stanza isn’t entirely regular, but here’s what we can tell:

  • There are four rhythmic units in the first three lines, which gives us a tetrameter pattern. The final line contains only two units – a dimeter pattern.
  • Apart from the first rhythmic unit (“Happy”) and the opening rhythmic unit in the final line of this stanza (“In his own”), all the other units in the stanza are iambs.

    “Happy” is, of course, a trochee, with a stress in front and an unstress that follows, whereas “In his own” forms an anapest, with two unstresses followed by a stress. 

If you scan the rest of the poem, you’ll notice that the second and the last stanzas are the ‘neatest’, in that their first three lines consist of iambic tetrameter and the final line of iambic dimeter. 

The third and fourth stanzas, however, contain interesting rhythmic anomalies, for reasons which we shall examine after scanning:

third stanza of Alexander pope's 'ode on solitude' poem

 

fourth stanza of Alexander pope's 'ode on solitude' poem

 

In general, it’s worth noting that any divergence from the overall prosodic structure marks a point of emphasis.

Unlike the rest of the poem’s stanzas, most of the lines in the third stanza start with a word or a syllable on which the stress falls (“Blest”, “Hours”, “Quiet”). This tells us that what’s conveyed in the stanza is probably central to the poem’s message. Here, the speaker is saying that men who can live through the “hours, days, and years” of their lives in good health, positivity and quietude are the most blessed – “Blest” – ones. 

Note, too, that the last line of the third stanza doesn’t conclude a sentence or an idea like the first and second stanza, but is instead connected to the first line of the fourth stanza (“Quiet by day,/Sound sleep by night; study and ease,”). 

Rhythmically, these two lines feature a mixture of trochees and iambs (“Quiet”, “Sound sleep”, and “study” are trochaic; “by day”, “by night”, “and ease” are iambic); this perhaps echoes the sentiment of “together mixed; sweet recreation”: be it day or night, labour or leisure, such combinations bring equal pleasure to the happy, solitary man. 

Finally, the extra unstressed syllables of “-tion” in “recrea-tion” and “medita-tion” in the fourth stanza yield feminine end lines (this means when a line ends with an unstressed syllable, whereas masculine endings end with a stress), which, despite diverging from the main rhythmic pattern of four units per line, come across more as pensive afterthoughts than as jarring additions. 

The final stanza then comes in to restore the regular iambic tetrameter pattern, which effectively ‘rounds off’ the poem’s rhythmic model.

The genius of Pope’s prosodic construction is clear, and reveals the central thematic thought of the ‘Ode’: while detailed scansion shows us that the poem’s rhythmic undulations are anything but monotonous, the syllabic and metrical divergences don’t come across off-kilter when we read the poem, but are harmoniously immersed into a general sense of balance and euphony. 

The message we can glean from this, then, befits the poem’s celebratory stance towards solitude: while life necessarily consists of small irregularities and is never perfectly uniform in its course, those who practise solitude are able to symphonise such irregularities and in turn, adapt them comfortably into the overall fabric of life. 


Scansion can be a tricky area in literary analysis, but the rewards of including it in your analysis can be incredible.

Not only does engaging with rhythm open up more room for critical engagement, it also allows you to show your awareness of poetry’s multifaceted nature. After all, it’s important to remember that poetry is a medium of literature that extends beyond the written word and into the visceral, aural and oral domains of interpretation. 

If you want to understand more about the iambic pentameter, check out this great post by ‘Interesting Literature’, another blog dedicated to literary learning.

What are your thoughts on writing about rhythm in poetry, and do you think it’s a necessary element in literary analysis? Comment below and let me know!  

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