History of Poetry
- we value poetry for many reasons. It involves philosophy & feeling, it
is a cultural record, it both concentrates & extends language. It is
also, like singing, an art that centres language in our bodies.
- until well into the 19th century, the poet could presume on the
familiarity of many readers with the classical myths found in Homer, Virgil,
Greek drama, & in the Metamorphoses of Ovid.
Rhythm, form & metre:
- is of prime importance in the speaking of poetry - even in the
speaking of a silent reading.
- in poetry formalises & tightens ordinary speech rhythm, & like
the rhythm of all spoken language is learned by hearing.
- the discussion of rhythm applies to all speech, while that of rhythm
in metre applies to poetry alone.
- the effects of rhythm are delicate but we use them all the time. They
give resiliency & expressive point to our daily conversations, &
we instinctively improvise our speech to take advantage of them. Poetry
works on the same principle as all speech, that of creating interesting
& expressive tension out of the variations on a basic rhythm,
although the organisation is more complex as is the rhythm of dancing
compared with that of walking.
- the beat of the rhythm in English is normally carried by stressed
- stressed syllables are those which we give an extra squeeze of air
from our lungs resulting in lengthening or raising the pitch, or
- emphatic stress - stress depending on the nuance being
signalled - "You can go" or "You can
- normal stress - stress required for the pronunciation of
the word & usually words cannot lose their normal stress, unless
we under-emphasise a normally stressed one-syllable word ('go',
'two'), or a two-syllable preposition ('between', 'into'), or an
auxiliary verb ('cannot', 'doesn't') in order to throw emphasis onto
the following word.
- of two neighbouring stresses, one is usually more prominent than
the other. Within a phrase, the 2nd of two stresses is usually the
more prominent. In a compound word, the 1st stress is always more
prominent ('eyesight'). In a single word, either stress may take the
more prominent normal stress ('incubator', 'electricicity').
Importantly, the less prominent stressed syllable is still stressed
- it does not become non-stressed.
- thus stresses make the beat, while non-stressed syllables make the
- beats are normally indicated by underlining, while stressed
syllables have an accent marker above them, and non-stressed
syllables have an x above them.
- the timing of the beat occurs at approximately equal intervals,
to achieve this, we may lengthen a stressed syllable or shorten a word
or phrase with increased numbers of syllables between stressed
- we keep a beat in ordinary speech by occasionally slurring (or
'eliding') unstressed syllables.
- we keep a beat when we articulate more carefully, as in public
speaking & speaking of poetry.
- timing is usually broken by pauses & hesitations.
- when a single beat (stressed syllables) alternates with a single
off-beat (non-stressed), this is called a duple rhythm which is
usually full of small quickenings & slowings. Even so an unrelieved
duple rhythm would be monotonous. In practice it is varied structurally
in two ways: by double off-beats (becomes light and quick) & double
beats. If 3 stresses or 3 non-stresses occur together, the mind usually
will maintain the feeling of the duple rhythm by stressing the middle of
3 non-stresses to make an "unstressed beat" as it still
is light, & making the middle of 3 stresses an off-beat - a "stressed
offbeat" as it still has the weight of a stress but is felt as
an off-beat. We usually signal this by raising or lowering the voice on
the offbeat syllable
- a line of poetry is a short piece of evocative prose
- the rhythmic shaping of each line echoes subtly in our reading of the
- line is measured against line, making palpable any shifts, contrasts
or parallels of rhythm or phrasing.
- in reading, it is thus important to register each line ending, either
by a pause, or by holding on slightly to a final syllable. In this way,
the line that follows will begin with its proper cadence
(the particular rhythm of a group of words).
- end-stopped line - natural pause at its end, its closure
coinciding with closure of a phrase or clause.
- enjambed line - line closes in the middle of a phrase or
clause. This creates strong tension between our sense that the line has
finished and our sense that the phrase has not. By registering this
tension in our reading, we can produce delicate effects.
- caesura - a pause within a line at the completion of a phrase
or clause, or for emphasis.
- groupings of lines:
- stanza - a regular grouping of 3 lines or more, marked off
on a page by a space.
- in rhymed, metrical verse, each stanza usually repeats the
same rhyme-scheme & metre.
- irregular groupings of lines also tend to be called stanzas if
short but are called "verse paragraphs" if long.
- couplet - a unit of two lines
- tercet or triplet - a stanza of 3 lines
- quatrain - a stanza of 4 lines
- sestet - a stanza of 6 lines
- octave - stanza of 8 lines
- sonnet - a 14-line rhymed poem, usually in pentameter and
usually divided into an octave and a sestet.
- Italian sonnet is usually rhymed abbaabba/cdcdcd
- English sonnet is usually rhymed ababcdcd/efefgg
- Spenserian sonnet is rhymed ababbcbc/cdcdee
- lyric - a fairly short poem that directly expresses or
explores an emotion.
- ode - a particularly formal lyric that has some length and
- ballad - a narrative poem in popular metre that tells a
story tersely through snatches of dialogue, & brief dramatic
- repetition of sound may bind words significantly:
- assonance - echoing of vowels in stressed syllables eg 'lay
- alliteration - echoing of consonants eg. 'table/tree',
- rhyme - where 2 words have identical final segments
- half-rhyme - echoing of final consonant but not preceding
vowel. Sometimes these were full rhymes when written and vowel
pronunciation was different.
- a regular & recurring pattern that can be abstracted from
rhythmical organisation of lines of poetry.
- scanscion - metrical analysis of a written line of poetry which
is done by marking stresses, non-stresses & beats.
- there are 2 broad categories of metre in poetry in English:
- stress metre:
- line has a fixed number of stressed beats (usually 4) with an
optional number of off-beats
- popular metre:
- principal form over last 7 centuries
- lines of 4 beats, stessed & strongly timed, arranged
in rhythmic quatrains
- 4th beat may be a silent rest beat.
- eg. children's rhymes, ballads, hymns, limericks & rap
- triple metre:
- the line gathers a busy & sometimes galloping
rhythm by the inclusion of double offbeats
- suits comical & children's poetry best
- conversational stress metre
- duple metre:
- line has equal number of beats & offbeats, usually:
- pentameter: 5 + 5 = 10 syllables, or,
- tetrameter: 4 + 4 = 8 syllables
- beats are not always stressed
- pauses usually break a rhythm but are not usually part of it.
- formalises the basic alternation in offbeat & beat in the
duple metre of conversational speech in English.
- allows occasional unstressed beat.
- the principle metre in the literary tradition from 16th to
late 19th centuries, and is still often used.
- pentameter is the metre of much of the poetry of Keats,
Wordsworth, Pope, Milton, Donne, Chaucer & many others as
well as being the metre of verse dialogue in Shakespeare's
plays, & of most sonnets.
- an iambic line is a line in the regular pattern of
duple metre beginning with an offbeat.
- a trochaic line is a line in the regular pattern of
duple metre beginning with a beat.
- pentameter is nearly always iambic (hence "iambic
pentameter"), while tetrameter may be either.
- free verse:
- a 3rd form which has no metre, the lines have no regular count
of beats or offbeats & are of irregular length.
- rarely used in poetry until Whitman took it up in the mid-19th
Famous poets in English:
- Geoffrey Chaucer (c1343-1400)
- William Dunbar (c1460-c1525)
- John Skelton (1460-1529)
- Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42)
- Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)
- Sir Walter Raleigh (c1552-1618)
- Edmund Spencer (c1552-99)
- Sir Philip Sydney (1554-86)
- Chidiock Tichborne (1558-86)
- Michael Drayton (1563-1631)
- Christopher Marlowe (1564-93)
- William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
- Thomas Nashe (1567-1601)
- Thomas Campion (1567-1620)
- John Donne (1572-1631)
- Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
- Lady Mary Wroth (c1586-c1652)
- Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
- John Milton (1608-74)
- John Dryden (1632-1700)
- Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
- Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
- William Blake (1757-1828)
- Robert Burns (1759-96)
- William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
- George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)
- John Keats (1795-1821)
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82)
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92)
- Emily Bronte (1818-48)
- Emily Dickinson (1830-86)
- Lewis Carroll (1832-98)
- Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
- A.B. Paterson (1864-1941)
- Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
- W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)
- Henry Lawson (1867-1922)
- D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)
- T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
- W.H. Auden (1907-73)