Shakespeare's Metrical Art

Shakespeare's Metrical Art

Shakespeare's Metrical Art

Shakespeare's Metrical Art

Synopsis

This is a wide-ranging, poetic analysis of the great English poetic line, iambic pentameter, as used by Chaucer, Sidney, Milton, and particularly by Shakespeare. George T. Wright offers a detailed survey of Shakespeare's brilliantly varied metrical keyboard and shows how it augments the expressiveness of his characters' stage language.

Excerpt

Poetry is language composed in verse, that is, language of which an essential feature is its appearance in measured units, either as written text or in oral performance. Although other units, larger or smaller, play an important part in poetry, in literate cultures the line is the indispensable unit of verse and the one by which we recognize its nature. Paragraphs of prose lack this essential feature: in different printed versions the separate lines may end at different words without injury to meaning or form; different printed versions of poems must retain the lines as they are. If a line is too long to print on a narrow page or column, the printer must use some conventional means to show that the leftover words belong with the ones they follow. Even when the sense of one line runs over to the next, it is important to the form of a poem that the lines be preserved intact.

If the line is the basic unit of a poetic text, meter and stanza measure the line in respect to units smaller or larger than the line. The meter of a line is its inner rhythmical structure, which in English we understand as a relationship between stressed and unstressed syllables. Since poems do not normally change their meter in every line but establish and confirm repetitive rhythmical patterns, often we must read several lines of a poem before we can hear a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that inheres in all of them, with or without variation. Once we can hear the basic pattern, we can recognize it as it is realized differently in all the succeeding lines; we listen for the returning pattern. Although the term stanza usually designates a particular arrangement of lines (a certain number of them in a design that may mix long lines and short, and with a specific patterning of rhymes), it is probably the best word we have to signify our more general interest in the way lines combine to form larger prosodic units. Meter lets us hear the line’s inner relations, stanza its outer connections.

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