William Cowper

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What are the prosodic features of this segment from W. Cowper's poem "The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk?"

"How fleet is the glance of the mind!
Compared with the speed of its flight:
The tempest itself lags behind
And the swift winged arrows of light."

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Prosody is defined as...

...the study of poetic meter and of the art of versification, including rhyme, stanzaic forms, and the quantity and stress of syllables.

Prosody is also defined as...

...the mechanics of verse poetry--its sounds, rhythms, scansion and meter, stanzaic form, alliteration, assonance, euphony, onomatopoeia, and rhyme… This is also called versification.

Versification refers to...

...the technical and practical aspect of making poems as opposed to purely theoretical and aesthetic poetic concerns.

In Cowper's "The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk," there are several aspects of prosody that one recognizes. The poem is written in eight-line stanzas, but two complete thoughts are presented, each separately in the first four lines of verse, and the second set of lines, within the larger stanza. There are three iambs made up of two-syllable feet (unstressed then stressed syllables—"closest to the natural rhythm of human speech").

For example, with the rolling motion of poetry, the stress in the first line falls on the words "fleet," "glance" and "mind." Subsequently, the second line's stress rests on "-pared" (the second part of "compared"), "speed" and "flight," and so forth.

The meter or rhythm of each line (iambic trimeter) is like that of a waltz. Aloud the rhythm would sound like bah-BUM, bah-BUM, bah-BUM.

How fleet is a glance of the mind!

Compared with the speed of its flight,

The tempest lags behind,

And the swift-wingèd arrows of light.

The use of assonance (the repetition of a vowel sound in a group of words, used for effect) can be found first in the long vowel sounds in the words "fleet" and "speed", and then in "mind," "flight," "behind" and "light;" its use occurs in each of the four lines of this segment. Because poetry was originally written to be read aloud, one's ear picks up quickly on the use of these repetitive long vowel sounds.

The vowel sounds lend themselves to the imagery created in the poem that is describing how much faster the "glance of the mind" and "the speed of its flight" are than the slower pace of tempests [worry, conflict, etc.] that "lag behind." Speed is central to the contrast of the two situations being compared.

The reader will also notice that there is end-rhyme that finishes each line. That is, the last word in the first line rhymes with the last word in the next line, and so forth.

Finally, notice the importance of punctuation. The most important line in this segment is the first. The remaining [3] lines relate to the very first:

How fleet is a glance of the mind!

Notice the use of the exclamation point. This draws our eye (and the speaker's voice) to the emphasis of this line. Beyond the stress of the syllables in the four lines of poetry, the exclamation point draws our attention to the significance of this line and the essence of its meaning: the glance of the mind is astounding in its swift passage or occurrence.

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