Rhythm: Accentual-Syllabic Rhythm and Iambic Pentameter

Rhythm gives your sentences momentum, carrying the reader along. Rhythm can create poetic effects -sentences that feel a particular way, that convey an energy appropriate to the content. Rhythm can make sentences come to life -more vivid imagery; words we can feel.

There are lots of ways to create rhythm with words. One of them is by using the stresses that fall on different syllables. This is called “accentual-syllabic” rhythm, because the rhythm is a product of the distribution of accents among the syllables.

Learning Goals

Develop knowledge and understanding of accentual-syllabic rhythm and iambic pentameter; to understand various ways that accentual-syllabic rhythm can improve writing; to understand the the use of rhythmic variation to achieve different effects; to develop skill with accentual-syllabic rhythm and rhythmic variation, and to practice writing applications.

Scansion

To scan the accentual-syllabic rhythm of a line is called “scansion“. To keep things simple, we’ll only distinguish between a “strong” and a “weak” syllable. We’ll use a slash(/) for strong/stressed and a dash(-) for weak/unstressed.

Consider the line: “To be, or not to be […]”. Looking at just the first two syllables, one of them feels more stressed than the other. Say the syllables out loud and one should feel stronger: “be”, as it turns out. If we move along the syllables, marking the stressed syllables, we arrive at a pattern like this:

-/-/-/

That paired grouping “-/”, with the pattern “tiDUM”, is called an iamb. A line that conforms to this general pattern is called iambic (the adjectival form of iamb). Each grouping is called a foot (so these are iambic feet). If the pattern holds across five iambic feet, then it is in iambic pentameter (penta for five, and meter for measure).

Our line so far has just three “feet”. But Shakespeare was writing in iambic pentameter, so we are expecting two more feet (I left them off). The line with the missing two feet looks like this:

“to be, or not to be, that is the question:”

Try scanning the line yourself, and marking the stresses. It scans like this:

-/-/-//–/-

The pattern has been broken. Is it still iambic? We can say as a rule that if the majority of the feet are iambic then the line is iambic. Here, three out of five feet -the first three- are iambic, so the line is iambic. But the important thing is not a simple count of feet; what really matters is whether the reader feels the line as iambic -whether they sense the rhythm underlying the line. Here, they clearly will, since it has been so firmly established by the first three feet, which fall perfectly into the iambic pattern. The reader will feel the pattern: tiDUM tiDUM tiDUM.

Because this rhythm has been so firmly established, the reader will feel it when the pattern has been broken -which is done very much on purpose, and is part of what gives the line its strength. Rhythmic variation brings the line to life, and draws attention to words that break the rhythm.

Consider the line (The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1):

The solemn temples, the great globe itself—

This line scans as -/-/–//-/

Here, the variation results in strong syllables on “great globe”, preceded by two weak syllables, which makes that phrase -“great globe”- really pop out of the sentence. Quite by design, as it turns out. Because in that line “great globe” didn’t just mean the Earth, but also the Globe Theatre. So these two words are symbolic for one of the key themes in The Tempest -that the stage is a reconstruction of the world. It makes sense that Shakespeare would focus our attention on those words by way of accentual-syllabic effects.

Rhythmic variation

Shakespeare’s line -“to be, or not to be, that is the question”- breaks the iambic pattern in the last two feet. What would happen if we changed the line to better fit iambic? Consider the following variation:

“The question is to be or not to be.”

This scans like this:

-/-/-/-/-/

Perfect iambic, and it means the same thing. But the line isn’t good. It feels flat. It’s the variation from the established rhythm that brings the line to life. By making the line fit iambic perfectly, I broke it. It’s better with the variation.

Variation can only be felt if the rhythm is also felt (we can’t sense a rhythm breaking if we can’t feel it in the first place). So the writer’s job -if they intend to exploit this feature of language- is to establish a rhythm but also to judiciously deviate from that rhythm.

Our attention is naturally drawn to words that break the established rhythm. When Shakespeare writes “that is the question” -breaking the rhythm that he has established- the reader’s attention is piqued, and they are subconsciously waiting for the beat to fall back into place. He holds off until “question”, which, consequently, creates added emphasis on that word. We feel the word “question” pop out of the line. (Another trick going on here is ending the line with a trailing weak syllable, which feels more tentative and therefore more like a question; an original version of this line said “that is the point“).

Exercises

  1. Practicing scansion.
    1. Write out the following lines (Shakespeare), with space above to do your scansion. Use a slash(/) for strong/stressed and a dash(-) for weak/unstressed.
    • From fairest creatures we desire increase,
    • That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
    • But as the riper should by time decease,
    • His tender heir might bear his memory
    1. Write out the following sentence, with space above to do your scansion.
  • The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn. (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde)
  1. Practicing Iambic Composition. Write out five lines that conform perfectly to iambic pentameter. Try to use at least one multisyllabic word per line. Write on whatever subject you like, or use the following prompts: scared of a spider, walk in the park, the last meal you ate, favorite show, a sporting event. Note: each line should have exactly ten syllables, five stressed and five unstressed; and they should all confirm to an iambic pattern.
  2. Practicing Rhythmic Variation. Write out five lines that conform to iambic, but have rhythmic variation on one or two of the feet. Note: in order to be iambic, there must be exactly five strong/stressed syllables. The variation in iambic comes in the distribution of weak/unstressed syllables. You can have anywhere from 8 to 12 syllables, but the deleted or added syllables must be unstressed. Use the same themes/prompts from the previous exercises: scared of a spider, walk in the park, the last meal you ate, favorite show, a sporting event.

Rhythmic variation in prose

We can use rhythmic variation to match the rhythm of our sentences to the sense we are trying to convey. Consider:

“the horses run fast”

This line scans as: -/-//

It’s a clear sentence. But it doesn’t feel quite right, because the double stress on “run fast” causes the words to slow down in our mouths just as the action of the sentence is supposed to pick up. Compare:

“the galloping horses”

This phrase scans as: -/–/-

Now the phrase better matches the content in its form -it is really galloping along with the horses, as we skip over six syllables, only two of them stressed. Consider now:

“the galloping horses slowed in the thick mud”

This line scans as -/–/-/–//

Now the sentence changes its pace to match the content of the sentence. We hit “slowed” a bit sooner than we would have if we had maintained the pattern of weak syllables, so it feels as if the sentence is slowing down. And then we hit the double stress on “thick mud”, two syllables packed together, which makes it feel like the sentence is grinding to a halt -just like the horses getting stuck in the mud. The subconscious effect of rhythm working in tandem with semantic content is a strengthened mental image; not only are we told about the horses slowing down, we feel it.

Exercises

For this exercise, you’ll use accentual-syllabic effects to complement the meaning of the sentence. Cluster strong/stressed syllables together when you want the sentence to feel heavy or slow, spread them out with weak/unstressed syllables when you want the sentence to feel light or fast. Note: the effect will be felt in contrast to the rhythm on the rest of the sentence; you have to establish a baseline for the reader to feel the variation.

  1. a sentence about a car, either speeding up or stopping.
  2. a sentence about glooping honey out of a jar.
  3. a sentence about a bird landing or taking off from a branch or telephone wire.
  4. a sentence about a play in a sport (you pick the sport and the play)
  5. a sentence about trying to pick up a heavy bag

Review

We looked at scansion, accentual-syllabic rhythm, and iambic pentameter. We practiced scansion on samples of poetry and prose, and we practiced using rhythmic variation to achieve different effects on the reader.

Bottom-line: the distribution of stressed syllables can create rhythmic effects to complement your writing. This is one of the tools in your writing toolbox.

Final Comments

I hope you liked this article on Rhythm. This site is updated at least once a week with articles about writing.

David

2 thoughts on “Rhythm: Accentual-Syllabic Rhythm and Iambic Pentameter

  1. Pingback: In a Station of the Metro – David F. Shultz

  2. Pingback: In a Station of the Metro – David F. Shultz

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