Syncope refers to a literary device that involves the shortening of a word by removing or omitting letters.
This usually occurs within the middle of words and can refer to the removal of consonants, vowels, and multiple letters one after another. The letters dropped might be the unstressed pars of the word, as the most commonly the case, or the stressed, or a stressed, portion of the word. In the place of the dropped letter, the poet uses an apostrophe. This punctuation stands in for the letter and lets a reader know that it was intentionally removed.
Some of the most common examples of words shorted with this technique are “never” shortened to “ne’er” and “over”, shortened to “o’er”. These two words are also examples of syncopic words that have made their way into everyday speech. For example, in some dialects, the word “never” would be pronounced as “ne’er”. This is a part of the other way that syncope is used, in informal speech. It is connected with the colloquial contractions of specific words and phrases.
Purpose of Syncope
The technique is usually used as a poetic device. By removing syllables, a poet can conform to a specific metrical pattern. The meter will remain the same, as long as the reader knows how to navigate the syncopic word. When one grows used to the use of syncopic letters in poetry it becomes quite natural to read the lines without getting tripped up on missing letters. Because the lines are part of a specific meter it often makes more sense to naturally follow the syncope rather than try to reinstate what’s missing.
History of Syncope
Syncope became popular in the Chaucerian age but didn’t reach its peach until the Elizabethan. During this period, writers like Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare were all writing around the same time. Each of these writers made use of this technique and many more that connect their works.
Examples of Syncope in Poetry
Example #1 Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day by William Shakespeare
As is often the case, William Shakespeare’s poems and plays provide some of the best examples of this literary technique. Syncope can be seen throughout his body of work, such as within sonnet number 18. This is one of his most famous and widely read sonnets for its clever use of characterization and imagery. The poet asks his lover in the first lines of the poem if he should compare them to a “summer’s day”. This answer to this is surprising for anyone who has never read the poem. No, he decides. “Thee,” the lover, are more lovely than that. Take a look at these lines from the third quatrain:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
In this section of the pome, a reader comes across three examples of syncope. Shakespeare’s sonnets were known for their steady rhythm, conforming to iambic pentameter throughout. This is when each line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. In order to fit the words he wanted onto the ends of these lines, Shakespeare used syncope.
Example #2 The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
Poe is another famous example of a poet who frequently made use of syncope. His haunting works are often very clearly structured. The meter is usually sustained throughout, as are the rhymes and any other structural patterns such as refrains and examples of anaphora or epistrophe. Therefore, it was often necessary for him to utilize syncope to finish the lines in the chosen meter. Take a look at this section from his most famous poem, ‘The Raven’:
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
The word “over” is shortened to “o’er” twice in this passage. here, Poe decided to remove the hard consonant sound in the middle of the word, but it is still very clear which word is being used.
Example #3 De Profundis by Christina Rossetti
A short, yet still powerful poem, Rossetti’s ‘De Profundis’ describes a speaker’s longing for the joy and beauty of heaven and the impossibility of reaching it during one’s lifetime. Here are a few lines from the poem. They were taken from the third stanza.
I never watch the scatter’d fire
Of stars, or sun’s far-trailing train,
But all my heart is one desire,
And all in vain:
In this section of the poem, in which she uses the syncopic word “scatter’d,” the poet is speaking about the durability of her longing for Heaven and the nature of her desire.