Tuesday, 25 February 2014

On Rhythm and Melody in Poetry

Speech is not random noise. It is organized sound; it is, more specifically, a culturally tempered system of regularly recurrent and structured sounds. It has its equally tempered tones and intonations, its rhythm and melody, and these, in their turn, have their social function and cultural significance. These supra-segmental features of speech are as much integral to it as are its segmental sounds, and no less systematic in their make-up. Poetry organizes the sound and their above mentioned attributes afresh into a pattern of higher order in which the graded structures of the first order register at every level an overall heightening of significance. In order words, the sounds of speech are heightened in their musical expressiveness, the tones and intonations are tempered into a new poetic scale, the rhythm and melody are intensified and built into a new complex. Poetry can achieve all this simply because its whole being is charged with a tension between its rootedness in speech and its instinctive urge towards music. This tension is active in every element of a given speech, and we can heighten the significance of these elements and enhance their value in proportion to our knowledge of their nature and function. It is not possible to add any sound, tone or intonation to the given repertory of them. All that one can hope to do is to finger them into a new pattern or lilt them into new chords. The less schematic, and more richly nuanced the pattern, the more charge it will carry, semantic as well as musical.

Speech is an event in time, it is essentially movement. Written speech renders this movement visually through graphic symbols arranged in a sequence. Succession of words in space is the closest approximation to the essentially temporal relation between words in utterances. Even a single word, an instance of speech, shows the same structure; only it is a succession of phonemes rather than morphemes. Moreover, the temporal sequence or succession constituting utterances, whether phonemic, morphemic, or phrasal, is not haphazard; it has its grammar, its set of governing rules. We should like to maintain that the movement of speech is controlled and regulated by the same set of rules as govern the movement in a piece of music. The only difference between the two is that the operation of these rules in speech is rather free and not quite so conscious and regular as in music. Also, these rules operate with musical sounds in music, but with speech sounds in speech. However, poetry comes nearer music in making these operations more conscious, regular and purposive. The music or poetry has the same constituent elements as the ‘music’ of music itself, i.e. , rhythm, melody and timbre.

The definition of rhythm in poetry and music as given by Sidney Lanier in his book The Science of Verse is: “When the ear exactly co-ordinates series of sounds and silence with primary reference to their duration, the result is a conception of RHYTHM”. The point worth stressing is that rhythm is essentially temporal and is based upon that physical feature of sound we call duration. It needs stressing because academically respectable authorities on the subject deny it and make accent, that is to say, intensity or articulate energy, the basis of rhythm in poetry. Without going into the genesis of this misunderstanding and with due regard to the importance of the role of accent in rhythm, we maintain that it does not generate rhythm. Owing to its regular, isochronic recurrence, it simply registers, as accurately as is possible in such cases, the changes in intensity at the relevant points in rhythm. Accents are ictus metricus, so to speak, responsible for reinforcing the primary rhythm. They signalise the change in intensity or articulate energy, demarcate the boundaries of the rhythmic beats, and group them into bars and measures. While we are at it, it would not be mere padding if we quote I.A. Richards’s opinion on the subject and take note of his positive stand. He considers metre “a more complex and more specialized form of temporal rhythmic sequence”, but assets that “temporal sequence is not strictly necessary for rhythm though in the vast majority of cases it is involved.” It is obvious that Richards, too, considers temporal sequence to be necessary for rhythm but his ‘not strictly necessary', the phrase that qualifies his assertion, is prompted by his anxiety to build a theory of rhythm comprehensive enough to include rhythm in architecture, painting, and other plastic arts in which rhythmic elements may not be successive but simultaneous. Moreover, his analysis of rhythm as a texture of expectations, satisfactions, disappointments surprisals is too psychological and intuitive for our frankly physical analysis. Richards’s general, very general aims are at the root of this hesitant and a little misleading pronouncement on the temporal basis of rhythm in poetry.

Lanier’s definition of rhythm categorically states that the ear must co-ordinate series of silence as exactly as series of sounds with reference to their duration for rhythm to arise from the arrangement of words in verse-lines. The emphasis should be laid on the function of necessary, almost inevitable, silence in the interstices of syllables, words, and bars. It is as integral to the structure of verse lines as the sounds themselves. Negatively, it has nothing to do with the silence about which Eliot grows so philosophically lyrical in one of his gloomy, metaphysical outpourings:

Words move, music moves
only in time; but that which is only living
can only die. Words, after speech, reach into
the silence…

We appreciate his awareness of the similarity underlying the movement in poetry and in music, but we should like to distinguish the silence into which the words, after speech, reach from the silence without which the words, through sounds alone, cannot create rhythm. Eliot’s silence is the eternal sink of speech. It is the inevitable end of all speech. This suggests to us that in the beginning was only silence, but man by his infinite labour carved the word out of it, and thus made it eloquent. It is this eloquent silence that we are stressing together with the sounds, whereas Eliot is primarily preoccupied with the stillness of silence, which precedes or follows and utterance. In his critical evaluation of the voice of Milton, Francis Berry rightly emphasizes the acoustic as well as semantic value of the pauses of silences, and observes: “Now the pauses, those medial, or terminal, creative silences… are an acoustical necessity granting the special kind of voice assumed, and required, by the poetry with its “sense variously drawn out from one verse into another. A pause or suspension at the end of each line is acoustically required for a sufficient absorption. – or dying away – of the resonance generated. Without such a pause, the opening sounds of the following line or half-line would be ‘drowned’ or blurred. But what is required by acoustics is also required semantically. During the silence the listeners are left to ponder the associations roused or speculate their own continuation of a sense which has been suspended.” He then illustrates the function of the Miltonic pause of “cliffhanger” thus:

  1. At last //
  2. Far/in th’ Horizon // to the North / appear’d//
  3. From skirt to skirt / a fierie Region, // stretcht
  4. In battalions aspect …
Berry’s comments on the lines: “After (1) ‘at last’ (the vowel of ‘last’ is very long, almost disyllabic, beginning deep-pitched it rises slightly in scale to terminate in the forward sibilant [s], and following plosive [t], there is a pause//. During that pause the resonance generated by the [a] diminishes and dies away. (The longer, the more forcefully it is sounded, the lower its tonic pitch, the greater the resonance generated and the longer the pause needed for its absorption.) But during that pause, while the resonance dies away, each member of the audience – and this applies to each reader if he is hearing Milton’s voice and not simply perusing the lines with his eyes – is creating for himself his own object of expectancy…”

The nature of the terminal, creative pauses or silences has been thoroughly explored by linguists, and it is now generally held that English language has three clause terminals. What we call pause is designed as ‘clause terminal’ by the discipline of modern linguistics. These clause terminals are of three kinds:

FADING: a rapid trailing away of the voice into silence. Both the pitch and volume decrease rapidly .
RISING: a sudden, rapid, but short rise in the pitch. The volume, does not trail off so noticeably but seems to be comparatively sharply cut off.
SUSTAINED: a sustention of the pitch accompanied by prolongation of the last syllable of the clause and some diminishing of volume.
These terminal pauses may be illustrated in given order with the help of the following extracts:
Fading terminal pause after ‘loss’ :
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss ;
Rising terminal pause after ‘behind’:
The trumpet of a prophecy : O wind ;
If winter comes, can spring be far behind?
Sustained terminal pause after ‘thee’:
There be none of Beauty’s daughters
With a magic like thee

Similarly the medial creative pause can be shown to be functional in rhythmic structure of a verse line as integral to the living melodic lines of verses. After this brief statement of the general bases of rhythm in poetry we propose to do some illustrating and specifying. Read the following lines:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Each line consists of eight syllables, and takes nearly four seconds to utter or articulate them all at an average speed consistent with clear vocal articulation and equally clear aural perception. The increase in the intensity is marked at every second syllable, and is accompanied by a concomitant rise in the pitch. Thus the lines are grouped into four bars of equal duration, that is, a second each. There is obviously a simple and exact relation between any two syllables, or any two bars, and among all the eight syllables and all the four bars in the line. They are simple because they can be expressed in whole numbers; they are exact; the change in the speed cannot alter the proportion obtaining between them. In these lines the proportion between time and syllable may be stated as 1:2, i. e., two syllables every second. It is this simple and exact temporal relation which produces in us the sense of primary rhythm. The introduction of accent, and the consequent grouping of beats gives rise to another rhythmic flow, which is in intimate contact with the primary rhythm, but has certain individual features not perceptible in the primary rhythm. The active, vital presence of regularly recurrent changes is one such feature. All these six lines are extremely regular, but is not allowed to get tiresome and tedious; it is enlivened with a few artistic variations in the secondary rhythm, as in ‘Fluttering and dancing in the breeze’. The first bar is in duple falling rhythm (i.e., trochaic) which is different from the established norm of the duple rising. Another instance of variation is present in ‘a host, of golden daffodils’ and this variation indicated by the use of comma is realized by a truly artistic sliding of phrasal, medial pause a bar earlier. The normal phrasal pause is attested to very neatly in ‘Beside the lake, beneath the trees’ where the presence of comma at the end of the second bar is as striking as the existence of caesura in a heroic couplet. The metre of these lines may be described in terms of the traditional prosody as iambic tetrameter with variations.

Wordsworth’s lines are simple and graceful examples of regular poetry. Perhaps, this regularity is demanded by the mood and the theme of the poem; maybe the intentions informing and energizing these lines require the regularity. But there is another kind of poetry on which Ezra Pound cites the opinion of a musician. “The leader of orchestra said to me, ‘There is more for a musician in a few lines with something rough or uneven such as Byron’s

There be none of Beauty’s daughters
With a magic like thee
than in whole pages of poetry.” These are the opening lines of Byron’s Poem appropriately called “Stanzas for Music’, and here are some lines following them:
And like music on the waters
Is thy sweet voice to me;
When, as if its sound were causing
The charmed ocean’s pausing,
The waves lie still and gleaming,
And the lull’d winds seem dreaming.

The poem consists of two stanzas of eight verses each; and these eight lines are further divided into two groups of four verses each. But what is rough or uneven about them?

First, the lines do not consist of equal number of syllables; the first four lines are divided into two alternating sets of eight and six syllables, rhyming alternately; of the next four lines, the two at the beginning preserve the syllabic structure of the preceding lines, but the last two vary it by showing only seven syllables. Moreover, these lines exhibit two different rhyme schemes. This, then, is the unevenness Pound’s musician-informant noted with satisfaction: diverse, varied syllabic structure of the verse lines occupying different time periods, and equally varied rhyme schemes displaying a pleasant interplay of tone-colours. We notice similar unevenness in the arrangement of time-beats: duple rising beside triple rising, followed by a pure triple rising, alternating with a verse line tense with varied rhythmic pulsations. No two successive lines show the same syllabic structure, and even when it is so, they do not possess the same rhythmic structure and the same accentual groupings. The following two lines may be cited as an example:

The waves lie still and gleaming
And the lull’d winds seem dreaming;

The rhythm of the first line may be considered to be duple rising consisting of three bars with – ‘ing’ left out: the line is hypermetrical. But the second line opens with a triple rising followed by a duple rising, and then it closes with a duple falling. In other words, the poet deliberately counterpoints syntactical articulation with the metrical articulation, plays off silence against sound, falling against rising, so that the total rhythm of the poem is alive with the contrasting interplay of varied movements. It is the rhythmic ambiguities of this poem which are so inviting and delightful to a musician.

Now that the basis of the rhythm in poetry has been laid bare, and some illustrating and specifying have been done, we propose to inquire into the basis of melody in poetry. No word seems to be as widely misunderstood and misused as melody or melodious. No concept seems to be as grossly neglected in the field of literary criticism as that of melody in poetry. It is quite depressing to see unintelligent practice of literary criticism debase its currency, and change it into a mere label of vaguely pleasing sense of approbation. It is really deplorable when we come to know that this word possesses a precise significance and a well defined field of application in the science of linguistics and musicology. We feel that the use of this word should be made as precise as in music or linguistics, that is to say, it would not be allowed to lead two different lives in two such intimately related disciplines as poetry and music. The literary critic will gain much from disciplining the use of the word in a securely delimited and defined field of its validity. In this context I. A. Richards’s view of the problem should be given serious attention and sincere efforts should be made to remedy the situation. He writes: “A more serious omission is the neglect by the majority of metrists of the pitch relations of syllables. The reading of poetry is of course not a monotonous and subdued form of singing. There is no question of definite pitches at which the syllables must be taken, nor perhaps of definite harmonic relations between different sounds. But that a rise and fall of pitch is involved in metre and is as much part of the poet’s technique as any other feature of verse, as much under his control also, is indisputable.” This is a very precise and forward-looking statement of the case; it does not need any commentary. It simply demands that this serious omission, this gross neglect of the pitch relations of syllables should be replaced in literary criticism by an understanding of its significance and its indispensability.

Rhythm and melody are intimately related. Rhythm without melody is possible, indeed, all the simple rhythmic forms like the oscillation of a pendulum etc. are without melody. But melody without rhythm is unthinkable. We have seen that the basis of rhythm in poetry is the duration of sounds and silence in time. We should now know that the basis of melody in poetry is the pitch value of vowels, consonants, syllables and words. In music, melody consists of tones, differing in pitch; struck successively in poetry, it lies in the sequential arrangement of syllables or words uttered at different pitches. The pitch value of every note is fixed in music, and, therefore, the relations between different notes is mathematically determinable. But the pitch value of vowels or consonants, or syllables and words, are not fixed; they can be uttered at any pitch for any length of time. But it does never mean that there is complete absence of order and degree of pitch among the vowels of any language. Every language has its own scale of vowels, that is to say, vowels are graded along a scale with reference to their pitch value. Generally, the high front or back vowels are higher in pitch than the mid or low vowels, both front and back. The inherent pitch of [i] in ‘hit’ is higher (and shorter) than the inherent pitch of [a] in ‘father’. The tonic pitch of every vowel has maximal as well as minimal limits, but within these limits, they are far more supple and variable than the pitch of the musical notes. In fact, melodies, distinctly formulated patterns of tones varying in pitch, exist not only in poetry and music, but in all kinds of human communication by means of words. Rather dogmatically Lanier asserts that “every affirmation, every question, has its own peculiar tune; and such tunes are not mere accidents but are absolutely essential elements in fixing the precise signification of words and phrases.” Every shade of emotion may not have its tune, at any rate, may not be easily detectable and workable by all the members of a linguistic community. But the general import of his statement is worth exploring and elaborating. Every language has its peculiar scheme of intonation patterns or melodic lines appropriately correlated with meanings and intentions, emotions and feelings and such other metalingustic entities. In English, the constituent elements are the four pitches and the three clause terminals of final pauses mentioned above. The four pitches are numbered / 1 2 3 4 / and may be roughly outlined as follows:


Extra High







The commonest intonation patterns, that is, the permitted combinations of pitches and clause terminals, for every day linguistic communication are limited in number. And although a creative poet does, to a large extent, succeed in overcoming these limitations, and turn them to good account, his ultimate frame of reference may not shift and change, but remain unalterable. The intensity of his creative power will be judged and evaluated by the measure of expressiveness he achieves within these limits, by the degree of freedom he exhibits in felicitous, surprising juxtapositions of contrasting melodies, and above all, by the pervasive melodic tension which thrills the whole being of the poem, and which results from the opposite and contrasting pulls and pressures between the norm and the actual durations.


  1. The Science of Verse - S. Lanier
  2. The Principles of Literary Criticism - I.A. Richards
  3. Poetry and the Physical Voice - F. Berry
  4. Four Quartets - T.S. Eliot
  5. Literary Essays - Ezra Pound
  6. Paradise Lost”, ‘Ode on Nativity” – Milton
  7. Stanzas for Music” – Byron
  8. Ode to the West Wind” – Shelly 

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