Breaking Down Rhythm

Rhythm refers to the flow of words and phrases as measured by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllablesOpens in new window in verseOpens in new window or proseOpens in new window.

Rhythmic Direction

In poetryOpens in new window, each individual rhythm is made up of pattern of stressed and unstressed syllable called a footOpens in new window. A line of verse is made up of one (foot) or more feet (plural).

A collection of premeasured patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables are called meters. Foot is a unit of meterOpens in new window. Meters are the pattern of feet within a line of verse.

Types of Meter

There are five main types of beats, or meter, that we use in poetry. Here, we will take a brief look at each type. In poetry, rhythm is expressed through stressed and unstressed syllables. Take the word, poetry, for example. The first syllable is stressed, and the last two are unstressed, as in PO-e-try. Here are the most common types of meter in the English language:

  1. Iamb: The Iamb is a pattern of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, as in the word: en-JOY.
  2. Trochee: The trochee is one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable, as in the word: CON-quer.
  3. Spondee: The spondee is a pattern of two stressed syllables in poetry. The pattern may cross over from word to word in a poem. An example of spondee might be: GO! GO! Both 1-syllable words are stressed.
  4. Anapest: The anapest is a combination of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. Take this phrase: to the NORTH. The first two syllables are unstressed, while the final syllable is stressed.
  5. Dactyl: The dactyl is the opposite of the anapest, in that it has one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables as in the phrase: FLY a-way.
Examples of rhythmic verses includes:
  • Shall I comPARE thee TO a SUMmer’s DAY? Thou ART more LOVEly AND more TEMPerATE:
    Rough WINDS do SHAKE the DARling BUDS of MAY,
    And SUMmer’s LEASE hath ALL too SHORT a DATE:

    So LONG as MEN can BREATHE, or EYES can SEE,
    So LONG lives THIS, and THIS gives LIFE to THEE.
  • — Williams Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

There are ten syllables in iamb pentameterOpens in new window, in which the second syllable is emphatically stressed. As snugly expressed in Williams Shakespeare’s Sonnet above. For easier identification, the stressed syllables are capitalized.

  • Whose WOODS these ARE I THINK I KNOW.
    His HOUSE is IN the VILLage THOUGH;
    He WILL not SEE me STOPping HERE
    To WATCH his WOODS fill UP with SNOW.
  • —Robert Frost, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Above lines of verse depicts iambic tetrameter, in which there exists four iambs per line. Here again the stressed syllables are capitalized.

Further Readings:
Wikipedia Rhythm Opens in new window
Young Writers: What Is Rhythm & Meter Opens in new window