Rhythm usually applies to poetry, although there are examples in prose poetry and prose. It is the pace at which a reader moves through the next, where the stressed words/syllables are, and how those things affect the reader’s understanding of the poem. It can help make some words stand out while allowing others to fade into the background.
Definition of Rhythm
The word “rhythm” comes from the Greek meaning “measured motion.” It is the pattern of stresses in poetic writing. Writers use various types of rhythms and numbers of syllables in order to create these patterns. Some, like iambic pentameter, are extremely common and widely used. This particular pattern is quite regular, often sounding like a heart or drum beat. Other patterns, like trochaic tetrameter, are slightly less common but still widely used. Others poems that use dactyls and spondees throughout every line are very uncommon. These types are metrical feet that usually appear a few times, but are not consistently used when a writer applies them to their verse.
Types of Rhythm
- Iamb: the most common of all metrical feet. An iamb is a set of two syllables, the first of which is unstressed or short, and the second of which is stressed or long. If a line consists of iambs, it is “iambic.”
- Trochee: another type of metrical foot used in English verse. It is made up of two syllables, the first of which is stressed or long, and the second of which is unstressed or short. If a line consists of trochees, it is “trochaic.” Common forms are trochaic tetrameter and trochaic trimeter.
- Spondee: a type of metrical foot that is made up of two stressed, or long, syllables. Lines that use spondees are “spondaic.”
- Anapest: contains three syllables. The first two are unstressed, and the last is stressed.
- Dactyl: the opposite of an anapest. It contains three syllables. The first is stressed, and the next two are unstressed.
Examples of Rhythm in Poetry
Sorrow by Edna St. Vincent Millay
In this beautiful poem, Milly uses the trochaic meter. The poet uses a depressed, grief-filled tone throughout the poem, employing dark images and creating a fairly oppressive mood. There are many different examples of figurative language, all of which are enhanced by her choice of meter. Here are the first lines:
Sorrow like a ceaseless rain
Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain, —
Dawn will find them still again;
This has neither wax nor wane,
Neither stop nor start.
Trochaic meter is one of the most popular kinds of rhythms in poetry. It is composed of what is known as a “falling rhythm,” this refers to the fact that the stress happens first, and then the unstressed beat falls from it. This kind of meter is usually slower than iambs, but it can fill a poem with drama.
Explore more Edna St. Vincent Millay poems.
Iambs are an incredibly common unit of rhythm in English verse. When written out, an iamb sounds line du-DUM and is made up of one unstressed and one stressed syllable. This is the kind of pattern that can be found throughout much of William Shakespeare’s poetry, including within ‘Sonnet 18,’ also known as ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.’ Here are the first lines of the poem:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Iambs are often described as sounding like a heartbeat. They’re easy to use throughout an entire poem, as Shakespeare often did.
Read more William Shakespeare poems.
‘Annabel Lee’ is one of Poe’s best-loved poems. It is often quoted, memorized, and read out loud. This is in part due to the rolling, wave-like use of anapestic meter in the poem. The poem begins with a seemingly joyful description of the love between two people. But, in classic Poe style, it grows darker and darker until the speaker’s love has passed away. She’s taken into Heaven due to the seraph’s coveting of their love. Here are a few lines:
It was many and many a year ago
In a kingdom by the sea
The first lines combine iambs and anapests together. The first line is made up of three anapests followed by an iamb, while the second line uses two anapests followed by an iamb. More can be seen in these lines from later on in the poem:
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
Discover more poems by Edgar Allan Poe.
Why Do Writers Use Rhythm?
Rhythm is one of the most important features of poetry. It works to provide the poem with a pattern of beats, one that influences the way the reader hears the sounds and the speed at which they read them. The stressed and unstressed beats produce different results that make every poem different. They give poetry a song-like quality that makes it a pleasure to hear and to read out loud.
That all being said, not all poets choose to use rhythm in their poetry. Many contemporary poems are written in free verse.
The use of unstressed and stressed syllables in poetry as well as a certain number of syllables per line.
Rhythm is important because it allows poets to create a pattern of beats, one that gives the verse song-like qualities. It can influence a reader’s perception of the poem.
A set of two syllables in poetry. The first is unstressed, and the second is stressed. It is very common in English-language verse.
Related Literary Terms
- Cadence: the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.
- Sprung Rhythm: a rhythmic pattern used in poetry that mimics natural speech.
- Hymn Stanza: uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
- Meter: the pattern of beats in a line of poetry. It is a combination of the number of beats and arrangement of stresses.
- Poetic Foot: a foot refers to a unit of meter in poetry. It is a grouping of stressed and/or unstressed syllables.