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Accent

In poetry, the word “accent” refers to the stressed syllable in a word. Metered lines of verse are made up of different groups of syllables.

The metrical pattern of a piece of poetry is dependent on the arrangement of and the number of stressed syllables per line. To create one metrical foot, the writer uses a combination of unstressed and stressed syllables. Below, readers can see examples of a few of the most common metrical patterns as well as the feet they’re composed of. These include iambs, trochees, and dactyls.

Accent pronunciation: ahk-sent

Accent in poetry definition and examples


 

Definition of Accent

The accented syllable is the stressed syllable. It’s the one that has the most emphasis when read out loud. Sometimes it can be hard to determine due to the different ways that writers write, and readers read. But, when used well, the stressed or accented syllables should come through clearly. Writers are concerned with which syllables are stressed and which are unstressed because the arrangement of those syllables creates the metrical pattern in a piece of writing. If the writer wants to use iambic pentameter, they’re going to need to know which words to use and how to arrange them so that every other syllable is stressed.

Metrical Feet

The types of metrical feet are listed below, from most to least common. When these feet are combined into lines of poetry, they create more complex patterns. For instance, if a line of poetry has five iambs, then it’s known as iambic pentameter. It’s important to note that the combinations rely very much on what order the stressed and unstressed syllables come in. Both iambs and trochees consist of one stressed and one unstressed syllable, but if the latter comes first or second it changes the type of foot.

  • Iamb: contains one unstressed and one stressed syllable.
  • Trochee: contains one stressed and one unstressed syllable.
  • Spondee: contains two stressed syllables.
  • Anapest: consists of three beats, two unstressed and one stressed.
  • Dactyl: consists of three beats, one stressed and two unstressed.
  • Amphibrach: one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable and ending with another stressed syllable.
  • Pyrrhic: two unstressed syllables.


Common Metrical Patterns

Below are a few of the most common metrical patterns. Each of these uses stressed or accented syllables.

  • Iambic pentameter: composed of five sets of two beats, the first of which is stressed or accented and the second of which is unstressed.
  • Trochaic tetrameter: composed of four sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is accented.
  • Iambic tetrameter: composed of four sets of two beats, the first of which is accented and the second of which is not.
  • Iambic trimeter: composed of three sets of two beats, the first of which is accented and the second of which is not.
  • Trochaic trimeter: composed of three sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is accented.
  • Iambic dimeter: composed of two sets of two beats, the first of which is accented and the second of which is not.


Examples of Accents in Poetry

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

In this well-loved, haunting poem, Poe mainly uses trochaic lines. This means that usually, the stressed or accented syllable comes before the unstressed syllable. Consider these lines:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,

And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

Shall be lifted—nevermore!

In these lines, words like “Raven” and “flitting” are great examples of trochees. The first syllable in both words is accented. This piece is also filled with catalectic lines, meaning that the final syllable is dropped to create a pause due to the difficulty of rhyming an unstressed syllable.

Explore more Edgar Allan Poe poems.

Break, Break, Break by Alfred Lord Tennyson

In this piece, the poet makes use of some great examples of spondees, or metrical feet made up of two accented syllables. The poem can also serve as an example of how complicated lines of verse can get when sorting out the accented syllables. Consider these lines:

Break, break, break,

         On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!

And I would that my tongue could utter

         The thoughts that arise in me.

In the second line, readers can find an anapest, an iamb, and a spondee. The ending, “O Sea!” is an example of two accented syllables placed next to one another. The line starts with two unstressed syllables, and one stressed, then in the middle, “gray stones,” is an iamb or an unstressed and stressed syllable. Plus, the refrain “Break, break, break” is a clear example of three accented syllables next to one another.

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson

‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is another remarkable poem by Tennyson. In this piece, the poet demonstrates dactylic dimeter. Consider these lines:

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Each of these lines contains two sets of three syllables. The words “Cannon,” “right,” “left,” and “front” are all stressed. Every other word is unaccented. This is a very unusual arrangement and is very hard to sustain. That is why only this section of verse uses it consistently.

Read more Alfred Lord Tennyson poems.

Why Do Writers Use Accents?

Accents are important because, without them, there would be no metrical patterns. They are equally important for readers to understand so that they might analyze the meter correctly and place the emphasis where the writer intended it to be. Sometimes, a writer will use stressed and unstressed syllables to emphasize certain words or events in a poem. For example, ending a line with a stressed syllable and enjambment so that the reader moves quickly to the next line. This can increase the feeling of drama in a piece of writing.

FAQs

What does accent mean in poetry?

In poetry, accent refers to where the stressed syllables are in words and within longer lines of poetry. It is important for understanding the metrical pattern.

How do you identify the accented syllables in a poem?

The easiest way is to read the words out loud and see where the emphasis falls. They’re usually on the first syllable of a two-syllable word and on the first or second syllable of a three-syllable word.

What do you call a poem with eight syllables per line?

A line with eight syllables is usually written in tetrameter.

How are one-syllable words accented in poetry?

It depends on the word and how they’re used. Some are going to be stressed, and some are going to be unstressed.

How can you tell if a syllable is strong or weak?

The best way is to read the words out loud and trying to focus on which part of the word sounds the most important. That will be your stressed syllable.


  • Free Verse: lines are unrhymed, and there are no consistent metrical patterns. But, that doesn’t mean it is entirely without structure.
  • Blank Verse: poetry that is written in unrhymed lines but with a regular metrical pattern.
  • Anapest: two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
  • Iambic Pentameter: one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. The most popular metrical pattern.
  • Dactyl: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is the opposite of an anapest.
  • Spondee: an arrangement of two syllables in which both are stressed.


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