Rhythm in Poems
Rhythm in poems is best described as a pattern of recurrence, something that happens with regularity. Poets use the following to create rhythm:
- Repetition - the repeating of words creates rhythm. Examples: Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!"and “Beat! Beat! Drums!” are two examples of repetition creating rhythm in poems.
- Line Length - Standard line lengths allow a poem to flow smoothly; breaking up the flow with shorter lines or longer lines interrupts the flow and creates a rhythm of its own. For example, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” varies line lengths to enhance the mood of sadness.
- Meter and Line Length - Poets don’t have to vary line length to create a specific rhythm. Pentameter, five sets of two syllables following a stressed unstressed pattern (called an iamb), is the most common meter, followed by tetrameter, four sets of the aforementioned iambs. Compare the rhythm in a Shakespearean sonnet, written in iambic pentameter, to that of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress." If this stuff really excites you, rewrite each poem in the other’s form and note the differences. When you get to the point where you think nothing about rhythm and meter in poetry will amaze you, check out Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz," written in iambic trimeter, the same meter as a waltz (I told you you’d be amazed).
- Pauses - Poets manipulate rhythm with end-stopped lines–when the poems’s sentences end naturally at the end of lines; run-on lines-when the sentence carries over into the next line; and enjambments–when the sentence ends midway through the line.
Rhythm vs. Meter
It’s easy to confuse rhythm and meter in poetry. Meter is the basic plan of the line; rhythms are how the words actually flow, often with the meter, but sometimes varying from it.
I’ll use a football analogy. In football, the coach calls a play–that’s meter. As the play develops, players may make individual adjustments–a running back may cut inside, a wide receiver may break off his route, or a quarterback may scramble, for example–that’s rhythm. Just like a football team that makes no adjustments would lose every game, a poet that makes no adjustment in his meter turns out losing poems.
Meter is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem–each set of syllables is referred to as a foot. The name of the meter is based on this pattern and the length of the line–trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, and heptameter. Following are the most common feet:
- iamb - an iamb consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Because it mimics the natural rhythm of language, it is the most common. Any poetry anthology will contain more iambic pentameter than any other meter.
- pyrrhic - a pyrrhic is a foot with two unstressed syllables.
- spondee - a foot with two stressed syllables is a spondee.
- trochee - a foot with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable is a trochee.
- anapest - an anapest consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.
- dactyl - a dactyl consists of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.
Many thanks to John Frederick Nims and David Mason for their unrivaled explanation of poetry in Western Wind. For more poetry analysis, check out the study guide on poetic devices or other articles in this series on sound devices in poetry.
This post is part of the series: Sound Devices in Poetry Study Guide
Sound Devices and form are powerful tools in the poet’s tool belt. Here’s how the masters use them.