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What is prosody and its importance to poetry?

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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...

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jennifergromada | Student

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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