What is prosody and its importance to poetry?
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Prosody, or the study of meter and rhythm, is crucial to the study of many poems. Consider, for instance, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12, which begins with a line of perfect iambicmeter. In an iamb, the first syllable is unaccented but the second is accented, like this: like this: rebel. A trochee is just the opposite, like this: rebel. Five iambs placed together make iambic pentameter, as here:
When I do count the clock that tells the time . . .
Iambic meter is perhaps the most common meter used in English poetry, partly because (it is sometimes argued) English speech and writing often reveal this rhythm. In any case, notice how appropriate iambic meter is to the meaning of this line: the line deals with the steady, predictable passing of time, and the line's rhythm is also steady and completely predictable, like the ticking of a clock.
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However, once Shakespeare has established this steady rhythm, he can now shift from it in order to strongly emphasize key words. These words get much more attention because they are not in the iambic rhythm the first line had led us to expect. Thus, consider the sonnet’s second line:
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night . . .
In this line, “brave,” “day,” “sunk” and “night” all receive strong metrical emphasis; the pattern of steady beats in the first line has been thoroughly disrupted. Similarly, the third line can be read as follows:
When I behold the violet past prime . . .
In this reading of that line, the last two words receive especially strong emphasis.
To take another example, consider the opening two lines of George Herbert’s poem titled “The Altar”, which might be prosodically analyzed (or “scanned”) as follows:
A broken A L T A R, Lord, thy servant reares,
Made of a heart, and cemented [or even, perhaps, "cemented"] with teares . . .
Here, as in Shakespeare’s poem, the opening line establishes a fairly regular iambic beat, but then that expected pattern is totally disrupted in the first half of line 2. In that line, the verb “Made” gets heavy emphasis because it is part of a trochee. This heavily emphasized syllable is then followed by two unaccented syllables, so that by the time we get to the word “heart,” that word is also very strongly emphasized. (John Donne achieves a similar effect in the very opening of his sonnet 14: “Batter my heart.” We don’t normally expect a poem to open with an accented syllable, and so Donne’s opening seems especially powerful, and the unusual force seems entirely appropriate to the vivid verb “Batter.”)
However, to come back to Herbert’s “The Altar” for a moment, consider the lines that follow the ones already quoted:
A H E A R T alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name . . .
Notice here that the iambic beat seems almost relentlessly predictable, and indeed some readers even hear it as a kind of heartbeat, especially because of the brevity of the lines. The only departure from the iambic pattern comes in “Meets” – the crucial verb and thus appropriately emphasized.
These are just a few examples of how talented poets can use meter skillfully and also how and why prosody is essential to the study of poetry.
Prosody is the analysis and description of meter, metrics and accent patterns of poetry. There are five generally distinguishable metrical systems; syllabic, accentual, accentual-syllabic or quantitative. Syllabic prosody measures the number of syllables in a line of verse, without concern for relative stress of the syllables. Accentual prosody counts only the stresses. Accentual-syllabic prosody measures poetic lines in terms of feetthat represent patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Iambic pentameter - a line of five pairs of unstressed/stressed pairs - is the most well-known form of accentual-syllabic meter. Quantitative prosody measures meter in terms of duration rather than syllable counts or stress. Free verse is an unmeasured line form that occurs in numerous varieties.
Prosody, or meter, is the most important characteristic of poetry; rhythm distinguishes poetry from prose fiction. Metrical patterns give physical and emotional meaning. Remember, though, that not all text rendered in verse form is poetry - just because it rhymes and jingles doesn't constitute poetry.
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