Poets use rhythm for the same reasons that musicians do. Rhythm brings a musicality to poetry, a sense of order and repetition to the poem that is pleasing to the reader. Although readers may never say "It's got a great beat; you can dance to it," the study of a poem's rhythm will bring understanding on many levels to the reader.
Poetic rhythms are measured with a process called scansion, counting the number of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line of poetry. Each iamb consists of an unstressed/stressed syllable. Shakespeare is the master of iambic pentameter, which contains five sets of unstressed/stressed syllables. In Sonnet 49 he writes, "Against that time, if ever that time come,/When I shall see thee frown on my defects." The sonnets show five sets of iambs throughout. Another poem, "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke, contains iambic trimeter, a set of three unstressed/stressed syllables per line. This poem mimics the trio of notes in a waltz.
You can think of trochaic rhythms as the opposite of iambic. These contain sets of syllables that are stressed/unstressed. Edgar Allan Poe uses trochaic octameter in "The Raven," which features eight sets of syllables per line. He writes "Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,/ Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before," and readers can sense the rhythm as they count eight sets of trochees. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow uses trochaic tetrameter in "Song from Hiawatha" in these lines: "Should you ask where Nawadaha/Found these songs, so wild and wayward,/ Found these legends and traditions,/ I should answer, I should tell you." Hiawatha has four sets of trochees per line.
An anapest has a rhythm of unstressed/unstressed/stressed, and the most common occurrence is in anapestic tetrameter, or a set of four of anapests. Dr. Seuss shows a mastery over this technique in "Oh, The Places You'll Go!" and his other works. His lines “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes./You can steer yourself any direction you choose" show an anapestic tetrameter rhythm. Lewis Carroll uses this same technique in "The Hunting of the Snark" when he writes the lines "There was also a Beaver, that paced on the deck,/ Or would sit making lace in the bow." Although these authors enjoy light-hearted verse, there are also more serious poems that use anapests.
Other Details Surrounding Rhythm
In analyzing rhythm, there are several other elements to consider. Poets use pauses, or caesuras, to highlight certain moments in the poem. The length of lines is important: poets can break the rhythm by creating a very long or very short line. Poets also use repetition of words and sounds, as well as tools like assonance and consonance. Assonance is the repeated vowel sound in the middle of words, and consonance is the repeated consonant sounds in the middle of words.
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