The prosody in a piece of writing depends on the way that the writer uses accents, syllables, and sounds in their work. Rhythm also plays a major role in prosody. Traditionally, poetry was far more prosaic than it is today. In the past, writers use meter and rhyme regularity, focusing on creating perfect patterns that conveyed very specific sounds.
Definition of Prosody
The word “prosody” comes from the Latin “prosodia,” meaning “accent of a syllable.” It is the study of and the use of meter, rhyme, and other types of accents and sounds in poetry (as well as prose). The study of “versification” was first used in the 15th century in English. This corresponds with the use of well-established patterns, such as iambic pentameter, in poetry. In more recent times, free verse has become the standard for most poets. There are several different types of prosody. They can be explored below.
Types of Prosody
- Syllabic: focuses on lines that have a standard number of syllables. These lines use the same number of syllables in every line of poetry. For example, in a Japanese haiku. The use of stress is not important.
- Accentual: focuses on the use of accents or stresses in poetry. It is not concerned with the number of syllables a line of poetry has. This is most common in Old English poetry.
- Accentual-syllabic: focuses on both the number of syllables and the use of accents. It is the most commonly used type prosody in English verse.
- Quantitative: focuses on the length of syllables in one’s pronunciation. This type of prosody does not normally apply to English-language verse. Instead, it is seen in Greek and Roman poetry.
Examples of Prosody in Literature
This long poem is Wilde’s best-known piece of verse. It is 109 stanzas long and is separated into six sections. The sections all maintain the same rhyme scheme of ABCBDB. The poem feels quite consistent and regular due to this fact, as well as the numerous instances of repetition that Wilde makes use of. He was inspired to write it during his two years that he spent imprisoned at Reading Gaol on the charge of gross indecency. The moving and disturbing poem tells the story of a real man who “killed the thing he loved,” his wife and has to hang for it. Here is the famous refrain:
And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Here, readers might notice some similarities between Wilde’s writing and the ballad or hymn stanza. Wilde changes it up, uses six lines per stanza, known as sestets, rather than four. He uses perfect rhymes throughout the poem, creating a sing-song-life melody that emphasizes the very difficult subject matter. It is a wonderful example of how adding a rhyme scheme can make a poem all the more powerful.
Explore other Oscar Wilde poems.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In contrast to Wilde, Coleridge exemplifies the use of the ballad form. In this, his most famous poem, he uses hymn stanzas with a rhyme scheme of ABCB, alternating between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter. Take a look at these lines from his masterpiece, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’:
The very deep did rot – Oh Christ!
That ever this should be.
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs,
Upon the slimy sea.
This is a very common metrical pattern that lasts through most of the poem. There are some moments in the poem in which the number of syllables per line is altered. For example, some rhymes are perfect while other times they are closer to half-rhymes. Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, depends on parts of words corresponding rather than the whole world.
Read more poems from Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In this well-loved Keats poem, the poet makes use of one of the most famous English-language forms, iambic pentameter. This particular form has two parts. First, the iamb. It is one type of meter and is made up of two parts or two syllables. The first is an unstressed syllable, and the second is a stressed syllable (this might also be described as short/long). The sound these two parts make together is most often associated with the sound of a heartbeat. It sounds like, baBUM baBUM baBUM. Take a look at these lines from the poem as an example of this kind of prosody:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
In the first two lines of the poem, Keats uses iambic pentameter perfectly. Readers will also notice that there are moments in the poem where the pattern changes. It is exceedingly hard to write an entire poem, especially a long and complex poem, in one metrical pattern. It requires changes to the structure of lines and the use of different rhyming words that writers might not be able to use. There are also examples of iambic trimeter in the poem as well.
Discover more John Keats poems.
Why is Prosody Important?
Prosody is an incredibly important part of verse, and in some instances, prose as well. It is how writers include metrical patterns in their poetry, as well as rhyme, melody, and other types of rhythm. When it’s used, it can add a musical quality to a poem it wouldn’t otherwise have. This influences everything from the tone to the mood and atmosphere. But, not all writers want to use prosody in their writing. Contemporary poets who are influenced by the changes of the modernist movement most commonly write in what is known as free verse. This means that there is no set pattern to their lines. But, they can still use meter and rhyme in unstructured ways.
Related Literary Terms
- Lyric Poem: a musically inclined, short verse that speaks on poignant and powerful emotions.
- Alliteration: a technique that makes use of repeated sounds at the beginning of multiple words, grouped together. It is used in poetry and prose.
- Enjambment: occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point.
- Caesura: a break or pause in the middle of a line of verse. These breaks can be towards the beginning, middle, or the end of a line.
- Rhyme Scheme of Sonnets: usually conform to one of two different rhyme schemes, those connected to the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan sonnet forms.