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Prosody (poetry)

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Prosody has been defined as that part of the study of language which deals with the forms of metrical composition. It was once considered as a subdivision of grammar. This article therefore considers the various forms, the effects they are intended to achieve, and the extent to which poets conform to them.

Verse forms

A verse form, in European prosody, is a combination of metre, length of line, and, rhyme scheme, or, in the case of alliterative verse, the rules for alliteration. There may also be important conventions such as the use of a caesura, though some conventions, such as end-stopping (a significant pause at the end of a line or couplet), are likely to be more ephemeral than the main forms.

Common forms in Western European culture

Blank verse is normally considered to be verse which conforms to a metrical scheme, but not to a rhyme scheme or alliterative scheme.

Heroic verse, in post-classical poetry is normally blank verse in iambic pentameters (five feet of two syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed) or alexandrines (six iambic feet). It is normally considered suitable for narrative verse. Each line normally has a caesura.

Heroic couplets are heroic verse rhymed in couplets. There is a tendency for the lines to be end-stopped, with each couplet regarded as a complete unit, and at one time some critics regarded this as a rule to be followed.

The Sonnet is a rhymed verse form of fourteen lines. It is used for poems intended to be intense and lingered over.

Rhyme royal is verse (normally iambic pentameters) made up of stanzas rhymed ababbcc. This is another form that has been frequently used for narrative in Italy, France and Britain.

The villanelle is a rhyme scheme not associated with any particular metre. It consists of five stanzas of three lines each, with a final quatrain. There are only two rhymes throughout. The first and third lines of the first stanza alternate as the third line of the others until the final quatrain, when they appear as the final couplet. (A well-known example is "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas, but many others are more light-hearted.)

The Spenserian stanza is of eight iambic pentameters and an alexandrine, rhyming ababbcbcc.

The haiku is a Japanese form which has been adopted in the west. Though not always conforming to the original rules, it does usually keep to the format of five, seven and five syllables. See main article.

Ottava rima has eight-line stanzas rhyming abababcc.

Adherence to the forms

Until quite recently, poets considered themselves obliged to adhere to one of the known forms, or to devise one which would impose a comparable discipline. Sometimes the skill in adherence to the form constitutes part of the pleasure. The old nordic poets proved themselves by improvising apt pieces which kept to strict rules, as the occasion demanded. A poet would naturally choose a form which suited him or the piece which he was composing.

Over the length of an extended composition, it would be rare for poets to conform completely to the rules. It would be enough for them to know they were getting the effects they wanted from the rules. Byron, when he still considered himself to be writing in the classical tradition, wrote:
"But hold!" exclaims a friend, here's some neglect:
This—that—and t'other line seem incorrect.
"What then? the self-same blunder Pope has got,
And careless Dryden— "Ay, but Pye has not." —
Indeed!—'tis granted, faith!—but what care I?
Better to err with Pope, than shine with Pye.

The quotation, for all its apparent looseness, is a good example of end-stopped heroic couplets, the model that Byron was using.