Elements of Poetry: Rhythm

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  • 00:05 Rhythm, Meter, and Feet
  • 01:30 Breaking Down a Line
  • 02:00 Digging Deeper
  • 02:51 Example One - Sea Fever
  • 04:00 Example Two - An Essay…
  • 05:02 Example Three - Wild Nights
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Poetry often has a defined beat or rhythm. In this lesson, you'll review the most common forms of poetic rhythm before diving deeper into how those rhythms influence the overall effect of the poem.

Rhythm, Meter and Feet

The advanced placement test for English literature is a tough one. Over the course of a morning, you'll have to answer over 50 multiple choice questions and write three essays. What makes it even more challenging is the fact that over 50% of the test will be on poetry, and the typical high school student has read much more fiction than poetry. Don't be intimidated; sometimes all you need to get started on a poem is a way in, and rhythm can be the place to start.

Let's start with a quick review of the technical aspects of rhythm. Meter is the term we use for a regular pattern of beats in a poem. Those patterns are made of feet, the basic unit of meter. You can name the meter of a line by figuring out what kinds of feet are in the line and then counting how many are there. For instance, the most common foot is the iamb, two syllables following the pattern unstressed, stressed. In other words, the first syllable is soft, while the second is loud. The word 'destroy' is an iamb because it has two syllables. The first one is quiet, and the second one is loud.

Once you've figured out the type of foot, you count how many appear in the line and that gives you the name of the meter. Trimeter has three feet per line, tetrameter has four feet and pentameter contains five feet per line. Most metrical lines have three to five feet, although there are some rare examples that go longer or shorter.

Breaking Down a Line

Let's take a look at a line of poetry. Wordsworth wrote, 'I wandered, lonely as a cloud'. If you listen closely, you'll hear the pattern of soft-loud-soft-loud. 'I WANdered, LONEly AS a CLOUD'. Each line in his poem has four iambs, so we call it iambic tetrameter. If it had five iambs - like, 'But soft! What light through yonder window breaks' - we'd call it iambic pentameter.

Digging Deeper

Unfortunately, being able to identify the meter won't get you very far on the AP literature test, so you'll have to do a little more. If the poem is written in strict iambic meter that never deviates once, then meter is not the place to start your interpretation, but if the poem ever breaks meter or uses a different foot, then you can use that to launch your interpretation.

Here's the technique in a nutshell. First, find the place in the poem where the meter is not strict iambic, and start there. Ask yourself the question every AP student learns to ask, 'What is the effect of this on the reader?' Don't worry about trying to find the DHM (deep hidden meaning) of the poem; just think, 'What does this change in rhythm do for me as a reader?' Let's look at a few examples.

Example One - Sea Fever

John Masefield wrote the poem Sea Fever 100 years ago. Here's the first line, 'I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky'. This line starts off iambic, 'I MUST go DOWN,' but then it does something different. It adds some extra unstressed syllables, 'to the SEA aGAIN, to the LONEly SEA and the SKY'.

Even if you don't know the word for a foot that follows the pattern unstressed/unstressed/stressed, you should recognize that it's not iambic and ask yourself how it affects you. By the way, that type of foot is called an anapest. These feet give the line a rolling, galloping rhythm. It almost sounds like waves lapping onto the shore. Hey, remember, these things don't happen by accident! It's no mistake that Masefield happened to write a poem that goes iamb/iamb/anapest/iamb/anapest/iamb/anapest. That's hard to do! The rhythm creates a galloping roll, much like ocean waves, and it takes a poem about longing for the ocean and makes the reader feel that longing in the very beat of the lines.

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