a resource for studying literary theory

Prosody and Poetic Form

Prosody and Poetic FormProsody is a term which can mean slightly different things depending on its context. It can be seen as an aspect of linguistic study, relating to ‘a three-dimensional model of speech’: articulatory, auditory and acoustic (Couper-Kuhlen, 5). For linguistics, prosody is primarily about pronunciation, intonation and stresses. It is worth bearing these ideas in mind, but in relation to poetry, the theory of prosody has a more specific application, as a way of examining metrical form. Poetic form is a complex subject with many specialist terms, and it will help your understanding of the subject if you read a fuller introduction to it such as one of those listed in the bibliography. Some of the basics will be discussed, but it is not possible to do justice to all aspects of prosody and form here.

Metrical prosody helps us to understand how a poem is put together, syllable by syllable. Discovering this is not an end in itself, however, but points the way to a different approach to a poem and a fresh insight into the art of the poet. Whether a poem is metrically-balanced and precise, or appears to ignore all the rules of prosodic composition, you can be sure that the poet intended it to be that way, for a certain effect.

Feet and Metre

A line of poetry consists of a certain number of syllables, and how these syllables are arranged determines the metre. It is possible to divide the syllables into units, which are known as feet, and each foot is determined by where the stressed syllable is placed. The best way to work this out is to read the poem aloud.

  • A foot is an element of a poem which is made up of either two or three syllables
  • The foot is used to provide stresses/emphases to the poem
  • The foot provides the rhythm of the poem and shows the reader where to lay emphasis
  • It has a number of purposes, such as emphasizing certain words
  • If you read a poem aloud, counting and marking up the syllables, you can usually work out what the feet are.

The feet that you are most likely to find in English poetry are:

The iamb, which is the most common foot.

  • The iamb is called a rising rhythm foot, because the stress  is on the second syllable
  • The word iamb is itself iambic
    • ‘That time of year, thou mays’t in me behold
    • When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang’ (Shakespeare, Sonnet 73)
  • The iambic rhythm seems to follow natural speech – usually one would place more stress on nouns and verbs, for example, rather than the linking words such as that, of, or, in
  • The feet here are therefore in units of two syllables:
    • ‘That time/of year/thou mays’t/in me/behold
    • When yell/ow leaves/or none/or few/do hang

Another common foot is the trochee.

  • The trochee is called a falling rhythm foot, because the stress is on the first syllable
  • The word trochee is itself trochaic
    • Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
    • Jumping from the chair she sat in;
    • Time, you thief, who love to get
    • Sweets into your list, put that in!’ (Leigh Hunt, Jenny Kiss’d Me)
  • The trochaic rhythm gives the lines a rapid sound, perhaps because it begins on a stressed syllable. The apparent speed of this poem is increased by the first and third lines being cut off before the final syllable.
  • The feet here are also in units of two syllables:
    • Jenny /kiss’d me/ when we/ met,
    • Jumping /from the /chair she/ sat in;
    • Time, you/ thief, who/ love to/ get
    • Sweets in/to your/ list, put /that in!’

A less frequently used, but still important, foot is the anapaest.

  • The anapaest has three syllables to a foot, with the emphasis on the third syllable.
    • And the sheen/ of their spears /was like stars/ on the sea,
    • When the blue /wave rolls nigh/tly on deep/ Galilee. (Byron, ‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’)
  • The effect of this is a kind of rolling rhythm, which is not often maintained for a whole poem, but has a kind of heroic or rousing effect, as seen here.

Other feet to be aware of include:

  • The spondee – two stressed syllables
  • The dactyl – three syllables with the stress on the first one
  • The Pyrrhic – two unstressed syllables
  • The Amphibrach – three syllables with stress on the middle one.

The number of feet in a line of poetry determines the metre. The most common is iambic pentameter: 10 syllables and 5 iambic feet.

  • One foot – monometer
  • Two feet – dimeter
  • Three feet – trimeter
  • Four feet – tetrameter
  • Five feet – pentameter
  • Six feet – hexameter
  • Seven feet – heptameter
  • Eight feet – octameter.

A poem does not have to be all the same: where there is a deviation from, say, an iambic foot, this is called a substitution. This is something one might often see at the start of a poem, for example:

  • The first foot here is a trochaic substitution; the rest of the line is iambic.
    • Leave me/o love/ which reach/est but/ to dust (Philip Sidney, ‘Leave Me, O Love’)

It is worth noting that a comma or other pause in the poem is known as a caesura, while a sentence which goes over the end of the line of poetry and continues on the next is an enjambment.

This kind of detailed study of metrical form will usually include a study of poetic form more broadly, including rhyme and verse forms. It is worth studying one of the books mentioned in the bibliography in order to familiarize yourself with the terms used for describing these aspects of a poem, and to understand which verse forms tend to use which metres (for example, sonnets tend to use iambic pentameter; trimeter tends to appear in ballads; amphibrachs are used for limericks).

When studying a poem’s form, it is important to focus on why the poem is constructed in a certain way. It is never enough to say that a poem is, for example, a sonnet written in iambic pentameter with an ABAB rhyme scheme. Think about why the poet might want to write in a traditional verse form, taking the subject matter into consideration, and look at the effect of the regular rhythm. Does this make the poem move fast or slowly? Why is this significant for the subject matter? Does the metre force the reader to pause or stumble at a certain point, or strongly emphasize particular words? Poems are intricate objects in which every syllable is carefully considered, and reading a poem for prosody and form permits us a new perspective on that art. Above all, make sure you relate your prosodic analysis to the content of the poem: the form is not a vessel into which words are poured: think of the form and content as one object, with one literary purpose. If the two seem to work against each other, think about why that might be, and you might find you have a very different view of the poem.


Image ‘Magnetic Poetry’ by TJCoffey (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via Flickr