Rhythm:

Excerpts from
John Frederick Nims' Western Wind

Detail from "The Voice of the Ancient Bard" by William Blake

Though rhythm is not easy to define, we could agree that it's a pattern of recurrence:
Something happens with such regularity that we can resonate with it, anticipate its return,
and move our body in time with it. The Elizabethan George Puttenham said that the effect
of rhythm was "to inveigle and appassionate the mind"--to involve and excite us. A
rhythm that we can hear can sets up sympathetic reactions--we tap a foot, etc. Rhythm is
contagious, hypnotic. We find it difficult, by the ocean, to count to a hundred waves
without feeling our mind drift away into a kind of trance. Rhythmical speech has also
been thought of as distancing or framing the material it deals with. Its sustained cadence
--not exactly what we are used to in actual speech--tells us we are in another world, a
make-believe world like that of the theater, in which experience is presented to us
without the obligations it involves in real life.

One of the simplest forms of rhythm is repetition. Probably no poet has made more
systematic use of repetition as a rhythmical principle than Walt Whitman. Such repetitions
consist of patterns of word arrangement. Other elements of design can be repeated, so
that we have a rhythm like that of a painting, repeating motifs like triangles, circles,
colors, etc. Thomas' "Fern Hill" has not only an elaborate rhythmical structure for the
ear but also a painterly use of thematic materials. The colors green and gold (for
grass and sunlight) are used throughout. Five of the six stanzas make mentions of singing
or music. There are many echoes in syntax or diction:

"green and carefree," "green and golden," "green and dying";
"happy as the grass was green," "happy as the heart was long."


A few definitions and generalizations

A trochee among iambs gives the effect of strain or abrupt dislocation.

meter--like the abstract idea of a dance as a choreographer might plan it with no particular
performers in mind; rhythm is like a dancer interpreting the dance in a personal way.

pyrrhic --less than we expect.

spondee--more or muchness.

A trochee (though they are so common at the beginnings of lines, we hardly feel them as
variations.) among iambs sometimes gives the feeling of shock or dislocation; an anapest
which adds an extra syllable can be pleasant in itself as a change of pace, burst of speed,
something impulsive or capricious.

Good poets do not write iambic pentameter as a meter; they use it as a rough gauge for
their rhythms.

There are as many rhythms based on iambic pentameter as there are individual writers.

No one would confuse the iambics of Shakespeare with those of Pope or Milton or
Tennyson or Cummings. Some poets prefer end-stopped lines; Milton's Paradise Lost
shows a strong preference for run-on lines: In over 2/3 of the lines the sense carries us
over to the next line without a pause. The rhythmical effect is very different. Poets also
differ in how they handle the caesura. Individual style is largely a matter of the interplay
between meter and rhythm (an interplay that is also called "variation," "tension,"
"substitution," "counterpoint.")


REMEMBER, AS WITH SOUND ITSELF, CORRESPONDENCES BETWEEN
EXPRESSIVENESS AND IDEA IS ONLY OCCASIONAL.


When variations are meaningful they strike a double effect. Some change of speed or
mass or energy in the flow of sound dramatizes what is being said. Four-stress
(tetrameter) lines typically give a faster, crisper feel to the line. Marvell's "To a Coy
Mistress," which tells us time is of the essence.

An Alexandrine (six foot, or hexameter line) comes from an Old French poem on
Alexander the Great and can drag in English. In "The Cold Heaven," Yeats uses the long
line to dramatize the stretching winter landscape and the vistas of the past and future it
evokes. Alexandrines also show up often in the lyrics of blues songs.

 

 

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