Definition of Rhythm

In literature, rhythm is the pattern of stressed and unstressed beats. Rhythm is most commonly found in poetry, though it is also present in some works of drama and prose. The rhythm of a poem can be analyzed through the number of lines in a verse, the number of syllables in the line, and the arrangement of syllables based on whether they are long or short, accented or unaccented.

Rhythm is also closely associated with meter, which identifies units of stressed and unstressed syllables. When an author combines metrical units into a pattern, he or she creates rhythm.

Types of Meter

The definition of rhythm necessitates the presence of beats, or metrical units. There are five key metrical units in the English language, as described below:

  • Iamb—An iamb is comprised of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. There is a popular rhythm called iambic pentameter that Shakespeare often used, which is a line that consists of five iambs, otherwise known as ten syllables in a alternating pattern of unstressed and stressed beats. Examples of iambs: beGIN, aGAIN, aLIVE
  • Trochee—The opposite of an iamb, a trochee is one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable. Examples of trochees: ALtar, BRIDESmaid, MARRiage
  • Spondee—A spondee is a pattern of two subsequent stressed syllables. Examples of spondees in English are usually compound words or two one-syllables words: HOW NOW, RAINSTORM, SUNSHINE
  • Dactyl—A dactyl is comprised of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. A poem written with many dactyls has a very musical quality to it, such as in a limerick (There ONCE was a MAN from NanTUCKet). Examples of dactyls: ANimal, TERRible, DIFFerent
  • Anapest—An anapest is the opposite of a dactyl in that it has two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. Examples of anapests: souvenIR, a la CARTE, debonAIR. (Note that all of these examples have a clear French influence, in which anapests are much more common than in Germanic languages).

Common Examples of Rhythm

There is rhythm in spoken language, just as in written language. Consider the following common phrases. All of them can be analyzed by stressed and unstressed syllables, like in literature:

  • Good EVening, DEAR. (Iamb)
  • HOW’S it GOing? (Trochee)
  • CHECK, PLEASE. (Spondee)
  • BEAUtiful WEAther we’re HAving now. (Dactyl)
  • To inFINity and beYOND. (Anapest)

Significance of Rhythm in Literature

Rhythm is so important to human nature that it has been theorized that there is a link between rhythm and the human heartbeat, rhythm and evolution, and rhythm and emotion. While none of these theories is certain, rhythm is certainly found in all human cultures around the world and there is clear evidence of rhythm in early human existence. The majority of both music and oral poetry maintain a beat. For early oral literature, the presence of rhythm was a necessary aspect for the memorization of the lines and passing these poems on. Rhythm, therefore, was very significant in early literature. Much poetry now is written without strict rhythm, yet many lines can be analyzed due to their rhythms regardless of whether the poet used that rhythm throughout the entire poem.

Examples of Rhythm in Literature

Example #1

So. The SPEAR-danes in DAYS gone BY
And the KINGS who RULED them had COUrage and GREATness.
We have HEARD of those PRINces’ herOic camPAIGNS.

(Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney)

Seamus Heaney paid much attention to the rhythm of the original Old English when creating his translation of Beowulf. This rhythm example comes from the very opening of the poem, and already it establishes a very sing-song like pattern. All three lines open with an anapest (“So the SPEAR,” “And the KINGS,” and “We have HEARD”). The lines generally have two unstressed syllables between stressed syllables, creating a waltz-like rhythm.

Example #2

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:

So LONG as MEN can BREATHE, or EYES can SEE,
So LONG lives THIS, and THIS gives LIFE to THEE.

(“Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare wrote many sonnets, and generally used iambic pentameter in his lines. Arguably his most famous sonnet, “Sonnet 18,” indeed follows this rhythm. As explained above, iambic pentameter has ten syllables per line, starting with an unstressed syllable and alternating every other syllable with stress. This means that the lines end on a stressed syllable. This rhythm thus also makes the rhyme scheme more obvious, as Shakespeare’s sonnets followed an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme pattern. For example, in this excerpt Shakespeare rhymes “day” with “May” and “temperate” with “date,” and in the couplet he rhymes “see” and “thee.” The rhythm helps exaggerate the rhyme.

Example #3

He WILL not SEE me STOPping HERE
To WATCH his WOODS fill UP with SNOW.

(“Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost)

This is an example of iambic tetrameter, which means that there are four iambs per line. The rhythm in this poem can be equated to the sound of the man travelling by horse through the woods. Indeed, Frost is even more faithful to his chosen rhythm than the previous Shakespeare example; the rigidity of Frost’s rhythm is reminiscent of footsteps and creates a somewhat soporific effect on the reader.

Example #4

It was MAny and MAny a YEAR ag0,
In a KINGdom BY the SEA,
That a MAIden THERE lived WHOM you may KNOW
By the NAME of ANnabel LEE;
And this MAIden she LIVED with NO other THOUGHT
Than to LOVE and be LOVED by ME.

(“Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe)

The rhythm in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee” has a singing quality to it, like in Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. Poe creates this by alternating between anapests and iambs. Every line starts with an anapest (“In a KING…,” “By the NAME,” and “Than to LOVE,” for example) and continues with either another anapest or an iamb. Rather than the up-down rhythm of iambic pentameter, the rhythm in this poem creates a more melodic quality.

Example #5

SUNdays TOO my FAther GOT up EARly
from LAbor in the WEEKday WEAther made

(“Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden)

This is an interesting example of rhythm in that the rhythm varies greatly from line to line. The first line is a very straightforward example of trochaic pentameter. After that line, however, there are many shifts in rhythm. The shifts are even more interesting because the first line seems to set up a very standard rhythm. Yet then we see iambs and an example of a spondee, in “cracked hands,” and even sets of three stressed syllables in a row, such as “blueblack cold” and “banked fires blaze” (this more uncommon type of meter is called molossus). The end of this excerpt then returns to a trochaic meter with “No one ever thanked him.” The trochaic lines seem plodding in their straightforward meter and indeed refer to the father’s relentless work, whereas the spondee and molossus examples correspond to the intensity of his work and indeed the most vivid imagery. Hayden uses rhythm brilliantly to suggest the different aspects of the father’s work.

Test Your Knowledge of Rhythm

1. Which of the following statements is the best rhythm definition, as it applies to literature?
A. Rhythm refers to lines that alternate with one stressed syllable always followed by one unstressed syllable.
B. Rhythm is the pattern of accented and unaccented syllables.
C. Rhythm exists only in poetry and corresponds to the emotion of the poem.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

Consider the following line from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.

Which of the types of meter is present in this line?
A. Iamb
B. Trochee
C. Spondee
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following quote from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita:

If a roadside sign said VISIT OUR GIFT SHOP—we had to visit it, had to buy the Indian curios, dolls, copper jewelry, cactus candy. The words “novelties and souvenirs” simply entranced her by their trochaic lilt.

Are the words “novelties and souvenirs” really examples of trochees, as Nabokov implies?
A. Yes. The phrase, taken as a full line, represents trochaic meter: NOvel|TIES and |SOUven|IRS.
B. No. Both words are examples of anapests.
C. No. “Novelties” is an example of a dactyl, while “souvenirs” is an example of anapest.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]