With this focus on meter, the lines in an accentual verse can have any number of syllables and unstressed syllables, but of those, there should be the same number of stressed syllables per line. For example, a poem might use lines that vary from 5-10 syllables per line, but of those 5-10 syllables, there are always four stressed syllables per line. There will be 1-6 unstressed syllables per line in this example—a big variation. Often, this pattern is not the most obvious, and it takes some work to figure out when and where it’s being used.
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Definition of Accentual Verse
Accentual verse is a kind of poetry that has the same number of stressed syllables per line. This could range from one up to ten or more. This kind of verse is known as “stress-timed,” meaning that the rhythm is based on the stresses. It is opposed to syllabic verse, which focuses on the number of syllables per line. The most common examples of accentual verse today are found in nursery rhymes (see an example below). This is due to the fact that the stressed syllables are easy to create and help to drive the rhythm forward in a simple way. It is a flexible way to write.
The vast majority of the poems written using this type were penned in Old English, using something known as alliterative verse. Anglo-Saxon poetry is filled with examples in which the accents in the lines were the most important elements. Contemporary examples are far rarer.
Examples of Accentual Verse
‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’ is a famous example of a nursery rhyme that uses the same number of stressed syllables, two, in each line. Consider the following:
Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full;
In these first four lines, there are four, five, four, and three syllables total in each line. But, in those, there are a total of two stressed syllables. In the first line, they are “Baa” and “black,” in the second line, “Have” and “wool,” in the third line, “Yes” and “yes” then in the fourth line, “Three” and “full.” The same pattern continues into the next lines:
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.
In these lines, there are also two stressed syllables per line, despite the fact that they’re longer, with five, five, seven, and five syllables.
Read more popular nursery rhymes.
Christabel by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Christabel,’ is a more recent example of a poem that uses accentual verse. The first part of this poem was composed in 1797, and it is made up of 337 lines. The poem was to be published according to the poet’s intention, in the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, in 1800. The poem wasn’t actually published till 1816, alongside ‘Kubla Khan.’ Here are a few lines from the verse:
‘Tis the middle of night by the castle clock,
And the owls have awakened the crowing cock;
And hark, again! the crowing cock,
How drowsily it crew.
Sir Leoline, the Baron rich,
Hath a toothless mastiff bitch;
When writing about this poem (As noted in The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), Coleridge penned the following:
I have only to add that the metre of Christabel is not, properly speaking, irregular, though it may seem so from its being founded on a new principle: namely, that of counting in each line the accents, not the syllables. Though the latter may vary from seven to twelve, yet in each line the accents will be found to be only four. Nevertheless, this occasional variation in number of syllables is not introduced wantonly, or for the mere ends of convenience, but in correspondence with some transition in the nature of the imagery or passion.
He essentially uses accentual verse throughout this piece, although it is certainly not as regular as some examples in nursery rhymes.
Explore Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry.
Often, when writing about accentual verse, scholars have considered the ways that sprung rhythm, as defined and used by Gerard Manley Hopkins, relates to the form. Sprung rhythm is concerned with mimicking natural patterns of speech within verse. Or, more complexly, it refers to the arrangement of stresses rather than syllables in a line of verse. The first syllable is stressed and is followed by a number of unstressed other syllables. That number can vary but be usually between one and four in Hopkins’s work.
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing.
The lines vary in speed and stress arrangement allowing Hopkins greater control over the verse while at the same time making the lines seem natural.
Read more Gerard Manley Hopkins poems.
Junk by Richard Wilbur
‘Junk’ is a commonly cited contemporary example of a poem that uses accentual verse. As time has progressed and writers have moved away from structured meters, examples of poems with this style of meter are far less common. In ‘Junk,’ Wilbur uses lines split in half. These contain the same number of stressed syllables but a great deal of variation in unstressed syllables and the total number of syllables. Consider these lines:
An axe angles
from my neighbor’s ashcan;
It is hell’s handiwork,
the wood not hickory,
The flow of the grain
not faithfully followed.
Wilbur’s poem is incredibly interesting to read through and try to figure out where the stressed syllables fall. His is also one of the best examples of a contemporary poem written using what is mostly accentual verse.
Read more Richard Wilbur poems.
Why Do Writers Use Accentual Verse?
Accentual verse is rarely used today. But, when it is used, it’s often done so in order to craft nursery rhymes. These are the most common examples of this style of writing today. But, there are others, such as in poems that use sprung rhythm or focus on the pattern of stressed syllables, such as in ‘Junk.’ Some writers find that accentual verse has the ability to mimic the natural sound of speech in a way that other metrical patterns cannot.
It refers to a focus on the use of stressed syllables in writing.
It is verse that is based around the distribution of stressed syllables rather than the total number of syllables.
Accentual-syllabic verse is a type of accentual verse in which the writer uses the same number of syllables and stresses within each line.
To write an accentual poem, one has to determine how many stresses they want per line and craft the right words around those stresses.
It is verse that contains the same number of syllables per line.
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.