Poetic Technique and Structure

versification

versification, principles of metrical practice in poetry. In different literatures poetic form is achieved in various ways; usually, however, a definite and predictable pattern is evident in the language. In ancient Greek poetry, the pattern was in the quantity of the syllables, i.e., the duration of the time required to express a syllable. Intricate metrical patterns were devised by the Greek poets and adapted by the Romans. Greek terminology is still used in the analysis of metrics.

In modern languages, stress has been substituted for quantity. The line or verse of poetry is a fundamental unit of meter and is divided somewhat arbitrarily into feet according to the major and minor stresses. In the stanza beginning, "Thirty days hath September," there are four stresses in the first line; there is no unstressed syllable between the second and third stressed ones. The types of feet retain the ancient Greek names: iambus ˘¯; trochee ¯˘; spondee ¯¯; pyrrhic ˘˘; anapest ˘˘¯; and dactyl ¯˘˘ (each "¯" representing a long syllable; each "˘" representing a short syllable). Accordingly the number and type of feet determine the name of the meter, e.g., iambic pentameter, five iambic feet; iambic hexameter (see alexandrine), six iambic feet; and dactylic hexameter, six dactylic feet.

A patterned arrangement of lines into a group is called a stanza. Rhyme, which developed after the classical period, perhaps to reinforce rhythm when the old quantitative verse was no longer used, is an important element in stanzaic structure. Rhyme was developed to a high degree in Romance languages, especially in Provençal and French.

Germanic poetry, entirely unrelated to Greek origins, developed characteristics of its own, many of which are reflected in modern poetry. Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic poetry have strong accents or stresses, usually four to a line; a caesura or definite break in the middle of the line; and a pattern of alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds), usually of three of the stressed syllables of the line, or sometimes of only two. Much of Middle English poetry is alliterative verse, while the rest follows the French forms of rhyme and rhythm.

Chaucer is credited with inventing the first characteristically English stanza form, the rhyme royal. Later popular English forms were the ballad, the sonnet, and the stanza developed by Edmund Spenser, called Spenserian. Blank verse became the great dramatic line in the 16th cent., while the heroic couplet was the dominant form in 18th-century English verse. Modern poets, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, have recognized both the time and stress measures of verse and have experimented with assonance, alliteration, sprung rhythm, and free verse.

See G. Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody (3 vol., 1906–10); J. B. Mayor, Chapters on English Metre (2d ed. 1968); W. K. Wimsatt, Versification (1972); J. McAuley, Versification: A Short Introduction (1983); P. Kiparsky and G. Youmans, ed., Rhythm and Meter (1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Articulate Energy: An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry
Donald Davie.
Routledge & Paul, 1955
Poets' Grammar: Person, Time, and Mood in Poetry
Francis Berry.
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958
FREE! A Study of Poetry
Bliss Perry.
Houghton Mifflin, 1920
Librarian’s tip: Chap. V "Rhythm and Metre," and Chap. VI "Rhyme, Stanza, and Free Verse"
The Theory of Poetry
Lascelles Abercrombie.
Biblio and Tannen Publishers, 1968
Teaching the Art of Poetry: The Moves
Baron Wormser; David Cappella.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000
Modern English and American Poetry: Techniques and Ideologies
Margaret Schlauch.
Watts, 1956
The Poetry Handbook: A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism
John Lennard.
Oxford University Press, 1996
Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources of Poetry
Christopher Caudwell.
MacMillan, 1937
Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word
Charles Bernstein.
Oxford University Press, 1998
The Two Harmonies: Poetry and Prose in the Seventeenth Century
K. G. Hamilton.
Clarendon Press, 1963
FREE! Convention and Revolt in Poetry
John Livingston Lowes.
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VI "Rhyme, Metre, and Vers Libre"
Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry
Alice Fulton.
Greywolf Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Of Formal, Free, and Fractal Verse: Singing the Body Eclectic" begins on p. 43
Poetry for You: A Book for Boys and Girls on the Enjoyment of Poetry
C. Day Lewis.
Oxford University Press, 1947
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