Prosody, in context of poetry, is the study of the basic elements of verse: meter, rhythm, and intonation.

Basics of meterEdit

Main article: Meter (poetry)

Prosody is the study of the meter, rhythm, and intonation of a poem. Rhythm and meter, although closely related, should be distinguished.[1] Meter is the abstract pattern established for a verse (such as iambic pentameter), while rhythm is the actual sound that results from a line of poetry. Thus, the meter of a line may be described as being "iambic", but a full description of the rhythm would require noting where the language causes one to pause or accelerate and how the meter interacts with other elements of the language. Prosody also may be used more specifically to refer to the scanning of poetic lines to show meter.

Methods of creating rhythmEdit

Main article: Timing (linguistics)
See also Parallelism, inflection, intonation, foot

The methods for creating poetic rhythm vary across languages and between poetic traditions. Languages are often described as having timing set primarily by accents, syllables, or moras, depending on how rhythm is established, though a language can be influenced by multiple approaches.[2] Japanese is a mora-timed language. Syllable-timed languages include Latin, Catalan, French and Spanish. English, Russian and, generally, German are stress-timed languages. Varying intonation also affects how rhythm is perceived. Languages also can rely on either pitch, such as in Vedic or ancient Greek, or tone. Tonal languages include Chinese, Vietnamese, Lithuanian, and most subsaharan languages.[3]

Metrical rhythm generally involves precise arrangements of stresses or syllables into repeated patterns called feet within a line. In Modern English verse the pattern of stresses primarily differentiate feet, so rhythm based on meter in Modern English is most often founded on the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (alone or elided). In the classical languages, on the other hand, while the metrical units are similar, vowel length rather than stresses define the meter. Old English poetry used a metrical pattern involving varied numbers of syllables but a fixed number of strong stresses in each line.[4]

The chief device of ancient Hebrew Biblical poetry, including many of the psalms, was parallelism, a rhetorical structure in which successive lines reflected each other in grammatical structure, sound structure, notional content, or all three. Parallelism lent itself to antiphonal or call-and-response performance, which could also be reinforced by intonation. Thus, Biblical poetry relies much less on metrical feet to create rhythm, but instead creates rhythm based on much larger sound units of lines, phrases and sentences. Some classical poetry forms, such as Venpa of the Tamil language, had rigid grammars (to the point that they could be expressed as a context-free grammar) which ensured a rhythm.[5] In Chinese poetry, tones as well as stresses create rhythm. Classical Chinese poetics identifies four tones: the level tone, rising tone, falling tone, and entering tone. Note that other classifications may have as many as eight tones for Chinese and six for Vietnamese.

The formal patterns of meter used developed in Modern English verse to create rhythm no longer dominate contemporary English poetry. In the case of free verse, rhythm is often organized based on looser units of cadence than a regular meter. Robinson Jeffers, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams are three notable poets who reject the idea that regular accentual meter is critical to English poetry.[6] Jeffers experimented with sprung rhythm as an alternative to accentual rhythm.[7]

Scanning meterEdit

Main article: Scansion
Metrical feet
˘ ˘ pyrrhus, dibrach
˘ ¯ iamb
¯ ˘ trochee, choree
¯ ¯ spondee
˘ ˘ ˘ tribrach
¯ ˘ ˘ dactyl
˘ ¯ ˘ amphibrach
˘ ˘ ¯ anapest, antidactylus
˘ ¯ ¯ bacchius
¯ ¯ ˘ antibacchius
¯ ˘ ¯ cretic, amphimacer
¯ ¯ ¯ molossus
Number of feet per line
one Monometer
two Dimeter
three Trimeter
four Tetrameter
five Pentameter
six Hexameter
seven Heptameter
eight Octameter
See main article for tetrasyllables.
v · d · e

Meters in the Western poetic tradition are customarily grouped according to a characteristic metrical foot and the number of feet per line. For example, "iambic pentameter" is a meter composed of five feet per line in which the kind of feet called iambs predominate. The origin of this tradition of metrics lies in ancient Greek poetry, and poets such as Homer, Pindar, Hesiod, Sappho, and the great tragedians of Athens made use of such a metric system.

Meter is often scanned based on the arrangement of "poetic feet" into lines.[8] In English, each foot usually includes one syllable with a stress and one or two without a stress. In other languages, it may be a combination of the number of syllables and the length of the vowel that determines how the foot is parsed. For example, in Greek, one syllable with a long unstressed vowel may be treated as the equivalent of two syllables with short vowels. In Anglo-Saxon meter, the unit on which lines are built is a half-line containing two stresses rather than a foot.[9] Scanning meter can often show the basic or fundamental pattern underlying a verse, but does not show the varying degrees of stress, as well as the differing pitches and lengths of syllables.[10]

As an example of how a line of meter is defined, in English language iambic pentameter, each line has five metrical feet, and each foot is an iamb, or an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. When a particular line is scanned, there may be variations upon the basic pattern of the meter; for example, the first foot of English iambic pentameters is quite often inverted, meaning that the stress falls on the first syllable.[11] The generally accepted names for some of the most commonly used kinds of feet include:

File:Forks and hope.jpg
  • spondee - two stressed syllables together
  • iamb - unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable
  • trochee - one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable
  • dactyl - one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables
  • anapest - two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable

The number of metrical feet in a line are described in Greek terminology as follows:

There are a wide range of names for other types of feet, right up to a choriamb of four syllable metric foot with a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables and closing with a stressed syllable. The choriamb is derived from some ancient Greek and Latin poetry. Languages which utilize vowel length or intonation rather than or in addition to syllabic accents in determining meter, such as Ottoman Turkish or Vedic, often have concepts similar to the iamb and dactyl to describe common combinations of long and short sounds.

Each of these types of feet has a certain "feel," whether alone or in combination with other feet. The iamb, for example, is the most natural form of rhythm in the English language, and generally produces a subtle but stable verse.[12] The dactyl, on the other hand, almost gallops along. And, as readers of The Night Before Christmas or Dr. Seuss realize, the anapest is perfect for a light-hearted, comic feel.[13]

There is debate over how useful a multiplicity of different "feet" is in describing meter. For example, Robert Pinsky has argued that while dactyls are important in classical verse, English dactylic verse uses dactyls very irregularly and can be better described based on patterns of iambs and anapests, feet which he considers natural to the language.[14] Actual rhythm is significantly more complex than the basic scanned meter described above, and many scholars have sought to develop systems that would scan such complexity. Vladimir Nabokov noted that overlaid on top of the regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of verse was a separate pattern of accents resulting from the natural pitch of the spoken words, and suggested that the term "scud" be used to distinguish an unaccented stress from an accented stress.[15]

Common metrical patternsEdit

Main article: Meter (poetry)

Different traditions and genres of poetry tend to use different meters, ranging from the Shakespearian iambic pentameter and the Homerian dactylic hexameter to the Anapestic tetrameter used in many nursery rhymes. However, a number of variations to the established meter are common, both to provide emphasis or attention to a given foot or line and to avoid boring repetition. For example, the stress in a foot may be inverted, a caesura (or pause) may be added (sometimes in place of a foot or stress), or the final foot in a line may be given a feminine ending to soften it or be replaced by a spondee to emphasize it and create a hard stop. Some patterns (such as iambic pentameter) tend to be fairly regular, while other patterns, such as dactylic hexameter, tend to be highly irregular. Regularity can vary between language. In addition, different patterns often develop distinctively in different languages, so that, for example, iambic tetrameter in Russian will generally reflect a regularity in the use of accents to reinforce the meter, which does not occur or occurs to a much lesser extent in English.[16]

Some common metrical patterns, with notable examples of poets and poems who use them, include:

Rhyme, alliteration and assonanceEdit


The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse and in paragraph form, not separated into lines or stanzas.

Main article: Rhyme

Rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance are each methods for creating repetitive patterns of sound. These methods may be used as an independent structural element of a poem, to reinforce rhythmic patterns, or as a merely ornamental element of poem.[24] Rhyme consists of identical ("hard rhyme") or similar ("soft rhyme") sounds placed at the end of lines or at predictable locations within lines ("internal rhyme").[25] Languages vary in the richness of their rhyming structures, so that Italian, for example, has a rich rhyming structure where it is possible to maintain a limited set of rhymes throughout a lengthy poem. The richness results from having word endings which follow regular forms. English, with irregular word endings adopted from many other languages, is less rich in rhyme.[26] The richness of rhyming structures in a language plays a significant role in determining what poetic forms are commonly used.

Alliteration and assonance played a key role in structuring early Germanic, Norse and Old English forms of poetry. The alliterative patterns of early Germanic poetry interweave meter and alliteration as a key part of their structure, so that the metrical pattern determines when the listener expects instances of alliteration to occur. This can be compared to an ornamental use of alliteration in most Modern European poetry, where alliterative patterns are not formal or carried through full stanzas.[27] Alliteration is particularly useful in languages with less rich rhyming structures. Assonance, where the use of similar vowel sounds within a word rather than similar sounds at the beginning or end of a word, was widely used in skaldic poetry, but goes back to the Homeric epic. Because verbs carry much of the pitch in the English language, assonance can loosely evoke the tonal elements of Chinese poetry and so is useful in translating Chinese poetry. Consonance occurs where a consonant sound is repeated throughout a sentence without putting the sound only at the front of a word. Consonance provokes a more subtle effect than alliteration and so is less useful as a structural element.

Rhyming schemesEdit

Main article: Rhyme scheme

In many languages, including modern European languages and Arabic, poets use rhyme in set patterns as a structural element for specific poet forms, such as ballads, sonnets and rhyming couplets. However, the use of structural rhyme is not universal even within the European tradition. Much modern poetry avoids traditional rhyme schemes. Classical Greek and Latin poetry did not use rhyme. Rhyme entered European poetry in the High Middle Ages, in part under the influence of the Arabic language in Al Andalus (modern Spain).[28] Arabic language poets have always used rhyme extensively, most notably in their long, rhyming qasidas. Some rhyming schemes have become associated with a specific language, culture or period, while other rhyming schemes have achieved use across languages, cultures or time periods. Some forms of poetry carry a consistent and well-defined rhyming scheme, such as the chant royal or the rubaiyat, while other poetic forms have variable rhyme schemes.

File:Paradiso Canto 31.jpg
Most rhyme schemes are described using letters that correspond to sets of rhymes, so if the first, second and fourth lines of a quatrain rhyme with each other and the third line does not rhyme, the quatrain is said to have an "a-a-b-a" rhyme scheme. This rhyme scheme is the one used, for example, in the rubaiyat form.[29] Similarly, an "a-b-b-a" quatrain (what is known as "enclosed rhyme") is used in such forms as the Petrarchan sonnet.[30] Some types of more complicated rhyming schemes have developed names of their own, separate from the "a-b-c" convention, such as the ottava rima and terza rima, discussed below. The types and use of differing rhyming schemes is discussed further in the main article.
Ottava rima
The ottava rima is a poem with a stanza of eight lines with an alternating a-b rhyming scheme for the first six lines followed by a closing couplet first used by Boccaccio. This rhyming scheme was developed for heroic epics but has also been used for mock-heroic poetry.
Dante and terza rima

Dante's Divine Comedy[31] is written in terza rima, where each stanza has three lines, with the first and third rhyming, and the second line rhyming with the first and third lines of the next stanza (thus, a-b-a / b-c-b / c-d-c, etc.) in a chain rhyme. The terza rima provides a flowing, progressive sense to the poem, and used skillfully it can evoke a sense of motion, both forward and backward. Terza rima is appropriately used in lengthy poems in languages with rich rhyming schemes (such as Italian, with its many common word endings).[32]

See alsoEdit



  1. Robert Pinsky, The Sounds of Poetry at 52.
  2. See, for example, Julia Schïlter, Rhythmic Grammar (2005).
  3. See Yip, Tone (2002), which includes a number of maps showing the distribution of tonal languages.
  4. Howell D. Chickering, Beowulf: a Dual-language Edition (1977)
  5. See, for exmample, John Lazarus (trans.), Thirukkural (Original in Tamil with English Translation) by W.H. Drew (Translator), ISBN 81-206-0400-8
  6. See, for example, Idiosyncrasy and Technique, Marianne Moore (1966), or, for examples, William Carlos Williams, The Broken Span, New Directions (1941).
  7. Robinson Jeffers, Selected Poems (1965).
  8. Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, McGraw Hill, 1965, revised 1979. ISBN 0-07-553606-4.
  9. Christine Brooke-Rose, A ZBC of Ezra Pound, Faber and Faber, 1971. ISBN 0-571-09135-0
  10. The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky (1998), 11-24.
  11. Robert Pinsky, The Sounds of Poetry
  12. John Thompson, The Founding of English Meter.
  13. See, for example, "Yurtle the Turtle" in Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, New York: Random House (1958); lines from "Yurtle the Turtle" are scanned in the discussion of anapestic tetrameter.
  14. Robert Pinsky, The Sounds of Poetry at 66.
  15. Vladimir Nabokov, Notes on Prosody (1964).
  16. Nabokov, Notes on Prosody.
  17. Two versions of Paradise Lost are freely available on-line from Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg text version 1 and Project Gutenberg text version 2.
  18. The original text, as translated by Samuel Butler, is available at Wikisource.[1]
  19. The full text is available online both in Russian[2] and as translated into English by Charles Johnston.[3] Please see the pages on Eugene Onegin and on Notes on Prosody and the references on those pages for discussion of the problems of tranlation and of the differences between Russian and English iambic tetrameter.
  20. The full text of "The Raven" is available at Wikisource[4].
  21. The full text of "The Hunting of the Snark" is available at Wikisource.[5]
  22. The full text of Don Juan is available on-line.[6]
  23. See the Text of the play in French as well as an English translation, Phaedra at Project Gutenberg
  24. Rhyme, alliteration, assonance or consonance can also carry a meaning separate from the repetitive sound patterns created. For example, Chaucer used heavy alliteration to mock Old English verse and to paint a character as archaic, and Christopher Marlowe used interlocking alliteration and consonance of "th", "f" and "s" sounds to force a lisp on a character he wanted to paint as effeminate. See, for example, the opening speech in Tamburlaine the Great available online at Project Gutenberg.
  25. For a good discussion of hard and soft rhyme see the introduction of Robert Pinsky's The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation (1994); his translation includes many demonstrations of the use of soft rhyme.
  26. Pinsky (1994).
  27. See the introduction to Burton Raffel, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1984).
  28. Maria Rosa Menocal, The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History (2003).
  29. Indeed, in translating the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward FitzGerald sought to retain the scheme in English. The original text is available from the Gutenberg Porject on-line for free.etext #246
  30. Works by Petrarch at Project Gutenberg
  31. The Divine Comedy at wikisource.
  32. See Robert Pinsky's discussion of the difficulties of replicating terza rima in English in The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation, Robert Pinsky, 1994.