Glossary Terms

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Accentual verse
Verse whose meter is determined by the number of stressed (accented) syllables—regardless of the total number of syllables—in each line. Many Old English poems, including Beowulf, are accentual; see Ezra Pound’s modern translation of “The Seafarer.” More recently, Richard Wilbur employed this same Anglo-Saxon meter in his poem “Junk.” Traditional nursery rhymes, such as “Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake,” are often accentual.

Accentual-syllabic verse
Verse whose meter is determined by the number and alternation of its stressed and unstressed syllables, organized into feet. From line to line, the number of stresses (accents) may vary, but the total number of syllables within each line is fixed. The majority of English poems from the Renaissance to the 19th century are written according to this metrical system.

Alcaic
A four-line stanza invented by the Classical Greek poet Alcaeus that employs a specific syllabic count per line and a predominantly dactylic meter. Alfred, Lord Tennyson imitated its form in his poem “Milton.”

Anapest
A metrical foot consisting of two unaccented syllables followed by an accented syllable. The words “underfoot” and “overcome” are anapestic. Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” is written in anapestic meter.

Blank verse
Unrhyming iambic pentameter, also called heroic verse. This 10-syllable line is the predominant rhythm of traditional English dramatic and epic poetry, as it is considered the closest to English speech patterns. Poems such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, and Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” are written predominantly in blank verse. Browse more blank verse poems.

Cadence
The patterning of rhythm in natural speech, or in poetry without a distinct meter (i.e., free verse).

Caesura
A stop or pause in a metrical line, often marked by punctuation or by a grammatical boundary, such as a phrase or clause. A medial caesura splits the line in equal parts, as is common in Old English poetry (see Beowulf). Medial caesurae (plural of caesura) can be found throughout contemporary poet Derek Walcott’s “The Bounty.” When the pause occurs toward the beginning or end of the line, it is termed, respectively, initial or terminal. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Mother and Poet” contains both initial (“Dead! One of them shot by sea in the east”) and terminal caesurae (“No voice says ‘My mother’ again to me. What?”)

Choriamb
Greek and Latin metrical foot consisting of two stressed syllables enclosing two unstressed; a trochee followed by an iamb. It is rarely used as a metrical scheme in English poetry, though Algernon Charles Swinburne imitated this classical meter in “Choriambics.”

Common measure
A quatrain that rhymes ABAB and alternates four-stress and three-stress iambic lines. It is the meter of the hymn and the ballad. Many of Emily Dickinson’s poems are written in common measure, including [It was not death, for I stood up]. See also Robert Hayden’s “The Ballad of Nat Turner” and Elinor Wylie’s “A Crowded Trolley Car.” See also Poulter’s measure and fourteener. Browse more common measure poems.

Cretic
Greek and Latin metrical foot consisting of a short syllable enclosed by two long syllables. Its use in English poetry is rare, though instances can be found in proverbs and idiomatic expressions such as “After a while, crocodile.”

Dactyl
A metrical foot consisting of an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables; the words “poetry” and “basketball” are both dactylic. Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is written in dactylic meter. (See also double dactyl.)

Dimeter
A line of verse composed of two feet. “Some go local / Some go express / Some can’t wait / To answer Yes,” writes Muriel Rukeyser in her poem “Yes,” in which the dimeter line predominates. Kay Ryan’s “Blandeur” contains this series of mostly dimeter lines:

               Even out Earth’s
               rondure, flatten
               Eiger, blanden
               the Grand Canyon.
               Make valleys
               slightly higher,
               widen fissures
               to arable land,
               remand your
               terrible glaciers

Double dactyl
A form of light verse invented and promoted by Paul Pascal, Anthony Hecht, and John Hollander. The double dactyl consists of two quatrains, each with three double-dactyl lines followed by a shorter dactyl-spondee pair. The two spondees rhyme. Additionally, the first line must be a nonsense phrase, the second line a proper or place name, and one other line, usually the sixth, a single double-dactylic word that has never been used before in any other double dactyl. For example:
         
          Higgledy piggledy,
          Bacon, lord Chancellor.
          Negligent, fell for the
          Paltrier vice.

          Bribery toppled him,
          Bronchopneumonia
          Finished him, testing some
          Poultry on ice.
                             (by Ian Lancashire)

Browse more double dactyl poems.

End-stopped
A metrical line ending at a grammatical boundary or break—such as a dash or closing parenthesis—or with punctuation such as a colon, a semicolon, or a period. A line is considered end-stopped, too, if it contains a complete phrase. Many of Alexander Pope’s couplets are end-stopped, as in this passage from “An Essay on Man: Epistle I”:

             Then say not man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;
             Say rather, man’s as perfect as he ought:
             His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,
             His time a moment, and a point his space.
             If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
             What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
             The blest today is as completely so,
             As who began a thousand years ago. 

The opposite of an end-stopped line is an enjambed line.

Foot
The basic unit of measurement of accentual-syllabic meter. A foot usually contains one stressed syllable and at least one unstressed syllable. The standard types of feet in English poetry are the iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee, and pyrrhic (two unstressed syllables).

Hendecasyllabic
A Classical Greek and Latin metrical line consisting of 11 syllables: typically a spondee or trochee, a choriamb, and two iambs, the second of which has an additional syllable at the end. The classical Latin poet Catullus favored the line. It is seldom used in English, although Algernon Charles Swinburne worked with the meter in “Hendecasyllabics”:

              In the month of the long decline of roses
              I, beholding the summer dead before me,
              Set my face to the sea and journeyed silent,
              Gazing eagerly where above the sea-mark
              Flame as fierce as the fervid eyes of lions
              Half divided the eyelids of the sunset . . .

Heptameter
A meter made up of seven feet and usually 14 syllables total (see Fourteener). George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s the Iliad is written in heptameter, as is Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” See also Poulter’s measure.

Hexameter
A metrical line of six feet, most often dactylic, and found in Classical Latin or Greek poetry, including Homer’s Iliad. In English, an iambic hexameter line is also known as an alexandrine. Only a few poets have written in dactylic hexameter, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the long poem Evangeline:

               Now had the season returned, when the nights grow colder and longer,
               And the retreating sun the sign of the Scorpion enters.
               Birds of passage sailed through the leaden air, from the ice-bound,
               Desolate northern bays to the shores of tropical islands.

Iamb
A metrical foot consisting of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. The words “unite” and “provide” are both iambic. It is the most common meter of poetry in English (including all the plays and poems of William Shakespeare), as it is closest to the rhythms of English speech. In Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking” the iamb is the vehicle for the “natural,” colloquial speech pattern:

       My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
       Toward heaven still,
       And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
       Beside it, and there may be two or three
       Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
       But I am done with apple-picking now.
       Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
       The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

Meter
The rhythmical pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in verse. The predominant meter in English poetry is accentual-syllabic. See also accentual meter, syllabic meter, and quantitative meter. Falling meter refers to trochees and dactyls (i.e., a stressed syllable followed by one or two unstressed syllables). Iambs and anapests (i.e., one or two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one) are called rising meter. See also foot.

Pentameter
A line made up of five feet. It is the most common metrical line in English. Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” is written in iambic pentameter. Hart Crane maintains pentameter lines made up of variable feet in The Bridge: To Brooklyn Bridge.” See also blank verse and iamb.

Poulter's measure
Couplets in which a 12-syllable iambic line (see Alexandrine) rhymes with a 14-syllable iambic line (see Fourteener). It was used frequently during the English Renaissance; see “Complaint of the Absence of Her Love Being upon the Sea,” in which Henry Howard breaks the couplets into quatrains. This is a common feature of hymn and ballad meter as well. Limericks can be scanned as Poulter’s measure. See also common measure.

Pyrrhic meter
A metrical unit consisting of two unstressed syllables, in accentual-syllabic verse, or two short syllables, in quantitative meter. Though regularly found in classical Greek poetry, pyrrhic meter is not generally used in modern systems of prosody: unaccented syllables are instead grouped with surrounding feet. Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” contains examples of pyrrhic meter, here in bold: “To a green thought in a green shade.”

Quantitative meter
The dominant metrical system in Classical Greek and Italian poetry, in which the rhythm depends not on the number of stresses, but on the length of time it takes to utter a line. That duration depends on whether a syllable is long or short—a distinction that is harder to hear in English pronunciation. Edmund Spenser attempted to adapt quantitative meter to English in his poem “Iambicum Trimetrum.”

Rhyme
The repetition of syllables, typically at the end of a verse line. Rhymed words conventionally share all sounds following the word’s last stressed syllable. Thus “tenacity” and “mendacity” rhyme, but not “jaundice” and “John does,” or “tomboy” and “calm bay.” A rhyme scheme is usually the pattern of end rhymes in a stanza, with each rhyme encoded by a letter of the alphabet, from a onward (ABBA BCCB, for example). Rhymes are classified by the degree of similarity between sounds within words, and by their placement within the lines or stanzas.

-Eye rhyme
rhymes only when spelled, not when pronounced. For example, “through” and “rough.”

-End rhyme
, the most common type, is the rhyming of the final syllables of a line. See “Midstairs” by Virginia Hamilton Adair:
 
          And here on this turning of the stair
          Between passion and doubt,
          I pause and say a double prayer,
          One for you, and one for you;
          And so they cancel out.

-Feminine rhyme
applies to the rhyming of one or more unstressed syllables, such as “dicing” and “enticing.” Ambrose Bierce’s “The Day of Wrath” employs feminine rhyme almost exclusively. Half rhyme is the rhyming of the ending consonant sounds in a word (such as “tell” with “toll,” or “sopped” with “leapt”). This is also termed “off-rhyme,” “slant rhyme,” or apophany. See consonance.

-Identical rhyme
employs the same word, identically in sound and in sense, twice in rhyming positions.

-Internal rhyme
is rhyme within a single line of verse When a word from the middle of a line is rhymed with a word at the end of the line.

-Masculine rhyme describes those rhymes ending in a stressed syllable, such as “hells” and “bells.” It is the most common type of rhyme in English poetry.

-Monorhyme
is the use of only one rhyme in a stanza. See William Blake’s “Silent, Silent Night.” 

-Pararhyme
is poet Edmund Blunden’s term for double consonance, where different vowels appear within identical consonant pairs. For example, see Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”: “Through granites which Titanic wars had groined. / Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned.”

See also alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia. Browse poems with rhymed stanzas.

Rhythm
An audible pattern in verse established by the intervals between stressed syllables. “Rhythm creates a pattern of yearning and expectation, of recurrence and difference,” observes Edward Hirsch in his essay on rhythm, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” See also meter.

Scansion
The analysis of the metrical patterns of a poem by organizing its lines into feet of stressed and unstressed syllables and showing the major pauses, if any. Scansion also involves the classification of a poem’s stanza, structure, and rhyme scheme.

Spondee
A metrical foot consisting of two accented syllables. An example of a spondaic word is “hog-wild.” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty” is heavily spondaic:

          With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
   He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                   Praise him.

Sprung rhythm
A metrical system devised by Gerard Manley Hopkins composed of one- to four-syllable feet that start with a stressed syllable. The spondee replaces the iamb as a dominant measure, and the number of unstressed syllables varies considerably from line to line (see also accentual verse). According to Hopkins, its intended effect was to reflect the dynamic quality and variations of common speech, in contrast to the monotony of iambic pentameter. His own poetry illustrates its use; though there have been few imitators, the spirit and principles of sprung rhythm influenced the rise of free verse in the early 20th century.

Stress
A syllable uttered in a higher pitch—or with greater emphasis—than others. The English language itself determines how English words are stressed, but sentence structure, semantics, and meter influence the placement and perception of stress. See alsoaccentual verse, accentual-syllabic verse, foot, meter, rhythm, and scansion.

Syllable
A single unit of speech sound as written or spoken; specifically, a vowel preceded by zero to three consonants (“awl,” “bring,” “strand”), and followed by zero to four consonants (“too,” “brag,” “gloss,” “stings,” “sixths”).

Tetrameter
A line made up of four feet. See William Shakespeare’s “Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun” or “Channel Firing” by Thomas Hardy.

Trimeter
A line of three metrical feet. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark” employs trochaic trimeter in the first two lines of each stanza. See also Léonie Adams’s “The Mount.”

Trochee
A metrical foot consisting of an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable. Examples of trochaic words include “garden” and “highway.” William Blake opens “The Tyger” with a predominantly trochaic line: “Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright.” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is mainly trochaic.

Vers libre
A French phrase meaning “free verse.”

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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