The number of syllables remains the same throughout with an accentual-syllabic verse. But, the number of unstressed and stressed syllables, and the metrical feet they create, can change. This style of writing was common up until the 19th century. Around this period, Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Tennyson started experimenting with different forms of writing and changed the number of syllables, and the metrical feet, in their lines. Popular structures in poetry continued to change until the Modernist poets got rid of form altogether. This doesn’t mean that writers never use accentual-syllabic verse today. Some still experiment with this kind of writing.
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Definition of Accentual-Syllabic Verse
Accentual-syllabic verse is a metrical arrangement of syllables and stresses. Poets who use this kind of verse depend on the same number of syllables per line. They are grouped into feet, which can change, but the number of syllables stays the same. For example, each line of a poem has ten syllables, but the lines alternate between starting with an iamb and a trochee. In some examples, writers use the same metrical pattern throughout.
Examples of Accentual-Syllabic Verse
She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron
‘She Walks in Beauty’ is a classic example of a poem written in accentual-syllabic verse. In this poem, Byron describes a beautiful woman who scholars have determined was his cousin, Mrs. John Wilmont. Her looks so moved him that he had to write this poem to express himself. Here are the first lines:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
This piece is incredibly consistent. Each line is written in iambic pentameter. This means that there are five sets of two beats per line. The first of which is unstressed, and the second of which is unstressed.
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In ‘Sonnet 114,’ one of Shakespeare’s Fair Youth poems, the reader can find a great example of an accentual-syllabic verse. This particular sonnet is a poem about how one speaker interprets the world. Everything he sees and experiences is filtered through images of the person he loves. Consider these lines from the poem and count the syllables:
Or whether doth my mind, being crowned with you,
Drink up the monarch’s plague, this flattery?
Or whether shall I say, mine eye saith true,
And that your love taught it this alchemy,
To make of monsters and things indigest
Such cherubins as your sweet self resemble,
Creating every bad a perfect best,
As fast as objects to his beams assemble?
The poet uses iambic pentameter throughout the poem, except for a few moments, such as at the ends of lines six, eight, nine, and eleven, which use feminine endings and break the pattern. But, throughout, he maintains ten syllables per line, the main feature that denotes a poem written in accentual-syllabic verse.
Read more William Shakespeare poems.
‘The Waking’ is a villanelle. This means that it is made up of nineteen lines. They are separated into five tercets or sets of three, and one quatrain, or set of four lines. This is the standard pattern for a villanelle. Readers can also spot the classic villanelle rhyme scheme in these lines. There are two refrains in the text. The first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated, alternatively, in the next five stanzas. This helps to establish a very consistent pattern. Consider these lines:
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
In this section of the text, it’s clear how Roethke’s villanelle will come together. The line “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow,” which has ten syllables, is repeated in line three of the second stanza.
Explore more Theodore Roethke poems.
One Word More by Robert Browning
‘One Word More’ by Robert Browning is a great example of a poem that’s written in accentual-syllabic verse. This piece is written in trochaic meter, meaning that the syllables are grouped into sets of two feet. The first of which is stressed, and the second of which is unstressed. This is fairly consistent throughout the poem, as are the 10 syllables that make up the poem. Consider these lines:
There they are, my fifty men and women
Naming me the fifty poems finish’d!
Take them, Love, the book and me together.
Where the heart lies, let the brain lie also.
The second line is a great example of how a writer can use techniques like syncope to ensure that their writing conforms to the pattern of meter they need it to.
Read more Robert Browning poems.
Why Do Writers Use Accentual-Syllabic Verse?
Writers use accentual-syllabic verse when they want to create a poem with a consistent meter. It can help maintain a specific rhythm throughout the piece even if the poet changes the arrangement of the stresses. It has its pros and cons, and today writers generally choose not to use a meter, preferring the freedom of “free verse” poetry.
The most common metrical system in English-language poetry. It’s concerned with the number of stresses and accents in a poem, as well as how many syllables there are.
It refers to the emphasized stress in poetry. Poems that are “accentual” are based around the use of stressed and unstressed syllables rather than the number of syllables. For example, if a poem uses iambs or trochees.
A line with ten syllables is written in pentameter.
They usually have a softer sound and feel less emphasized when read out loud among the other syllables. They’re pronounced softer and for a shorter period of time than stressed syllables.
The “pi” in “pizza” and the “qui” in “quiet.”
Related Literary Terms
- 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.
- Sprung Rhythm: a rhythmic pattern used in poetry that mimics natural speech.
- 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.