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Understanding Rhythm and Rhyme in English Poetry for the IB English Literature Exam

So, let’s say you’re pretty confident in the basics of English grammar and structure.

You know the tenses, the rules with participles and whatnot, maybe even the idioms and expressions.

You’re able to keep up a consistent conversation in English, and can even read through articles and books.

But, you’ve come across an issue: Poetry

Even if you have a fundamental grasp on the language itself, taking on English poetry can feel like learning a completely new language.

Even for those of us who are native English speakers, there’s so many different types and senses to poetry that makes analysing it a bit of a challenge!

In particular, knowing the literary devices that make up English poetry can be difficult.

Two such devices common in English poetry are rhythm and rhyme.

Rhythm and Rhyme


Though it’s not necessarily essential to be able to identify these devices when analysing a poem—-in fact, you may even find yourself analysing a poem that does not even make use of rhythm or rhyme!—-being able to recognise the usage of these devices is important.

In this article, we’ll be going through some things to look out for using some excerpts from the poetry of William Wordsworth, an eighteenth/nineteenth century Romanticist poet Wordsworth.

Wordsworth is a great way to hone your poetry analysis skills, and much of his work covers topics such as the relationship humans have with nature, spirituality, and industrialism - which may make him the prime subject to discuss for the new curriculum’s Individual Oral Assessment.

Rhythm and rhyme are by no means exclusive to English poetry...

..but the ways in which they are used are ever so slightly different than other languages. In particular, understanding the stress of certain syllables is important to understanding rhythm and rhyme in English poetry.

In English, certain portions of words are more emphasized than others. For example, take the word “emphasized!” We pronounce the first syllable, “em,” a bit more than we do the “pha” or “sized.” If you yelled out “em-PHA-sized,” it would sound a lot more wrong than if you yelled “EM-pha-sized.”

Rhythm refers to the feeling of the poem - or, in less pompous terms, the poem’s beat and pace. It’s not at all unlike the beat of an actual song; in fact, rhythm is practically found in all media of art, as well as in nearly every action.

In his paper, “Rhythm and Meaning in Poetry,” Patrick Suppes lists tons of examples of rhythm: the pendulum of a clock, a person’s breathing, the running of a dog.

Suppes asserts that the defining point of rhythm is its regular periodicity. When a poet establishes a strong continuous rhythm, the audience is given a beat to follow along to - and when a poet breaks that rhythm, the audience can be taken out or shaken!

In English poetry, the rhythmic structure of a poem is called its meter. The meter of a poem refers to not just the number of syllables, but also the emphasis of them.

Poets use patterns of syllables with different stresses to create different meters. One of the most well known meters is iambic pentameter, which you may or may not have heard of.

William Shakespeare, for example, often used iambic pentameter in his sonnets and plays. The first part of the phrase, “iambic,” refers to iambs, which is the pattern of using unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables—-think of the human heartbeat (da-DUM).

The opposite of an iamb is a trochee - a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.

The second part of the phrase refers to the amount of iambs we’ll find in one line of poetry; the meter is titled “pentameter” because in each line, there is five pairs of unstressed-then-stressed syllables (or, ten syllables total!)

Iambic pentameter is not the only type of meter, but understanding it makes understanding other meters fairly easy. For example, if each line has three iambs, it’s labelled “iambic trimeter.” If each line has four trochee, it’s labelled “trochaic tetrameter.”

A poem that does not use rhythm (or at least, does not have a set meter) is called free verse, which is in and of itself something to take note of!

Meanwhile, rhyme refers to the sound of the poem—-more specifically, using similar sounds in two or more words.

There can be a lot of variability in exactly what syllables the poet chooses to rhyme, but traditionally in English poetry a rhyme occurs between the last syllables of two lines: “I had a small cat/He sat on my hat.” The exact pattern of rhymes in a poem is known as its rhyme scheme.

If a poem does not have any consistent rhyme whatsoever, we tend to call it blank verse—-and, again, if you notice that, feel free to point it out!

Now you know the basic meanings of these two devices, let’s jump into a Wordsworth poem to actually apply our knowledge.

Below is a stanza of “Strange Fits of Passion I Have Known.” In the poem, the speaker is making his way to his lover’s house on horseback, quickening his pace all while the moon hangs in the sky.

The poem goes:

Upon the moon I fixed my eye,
All over the wide lea;
With quickening pace my horse drew nigh
Those paths so dear to me.

As you can see, the poem has both a set rhyme scheme and meter.

The poem alternates between iambic tetrameter (four pairs of unstressed-stressed syllables) and iambic trimeter (three pairs of unstressed-stressed syllables) with every line.

f you’re having trouble identifying this, try yelling out different parts of the sentence. “UH-pon THE moon I fixed MY eye” doesn’t roll of the tongue quite as well “up-ON the MOON I FIXED my EYE.”

Practice makes perfect, so experiment with how the words sound...just, don’t do it in a library…

As for the rhyme, every other line rhymes with one another. “Eye” rhymes with “nigh” while “lea” rhymes with “me.”

When we mark out rhyme schemes, we tend to do so with letters, marking the lines that rhyme with the same letters; in this case, the rhyme scheme is ABAB.

But what does this actually mean? Why use rhyme or rhythm here?

Rhyme and rhythm are literary devices, like metaphor and simile. There’s not one reason a poet would use rhyme or one meaning that a rhythm could hold, much like there isn’t one singular reason/meaning for every metaphor in existence.

Sometimes it’s to sound nice, sometimes it’s to create an atmosphere, sometimes it’s to aid a certain thematic point.


Poetry Literature


Wordsworth was a romanticist; he explored the importance of nature, humanity, and emotions by depicting detailed and beautiful scenes and atmospheres.

The continuous, alternating pace of the poem given by the meter combined with the poem’s constant rhyming gives the poem an almost song-like quality.

In addition, the poem’s beat is quick, sharp, and present throughout the entire work—-it mimics the galloping of a horse, which is exactly what the speaker is hearing throughout the poem!

This may sound like a bit of a stretch, but Wordsworth was known for paying close attention to the rhythm found in everyday life, even writing his poems to the pace of his own footsteps!

Rhythm and rhyme can also be purposefully broken for certain sections of a poem 

As an audience, we’re very receptive to changes like this—-think of how we can notice when a singer messes up a line, or when two words don’t sound quite right.

Typically, if rhythm and rhyme are broken, the poet wants us to take notice—-they’re practically holding up a sign saying “Hey! Look at this part!”

Wordsworth does this a lot. Most notably, he does this in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798,” which, aside from having maybe the longest title in the history of poetry, is typically considered to be one of his best works.

The first stanza of “Tintern Abbey” is a beast at twenty-two lines long, all written in iambic pentameter—-except, that is, for the very last line of the stanza: “The Hermit sits alone.”

It’s a drastic change in the rhythm of the poem that has been building up, and, as a result, the audience notices this and is drawn to it. The line becomes more poignant.

Make sure to point out not just when the rhythm and rhyme is set up, but also when it’s broken!

Rhythm and rhyme are simple concepts to understand, but they can be super difficult to master

Be sure to practice a lot by reading the poem out-loud and hearing others perform it as well!

If you need further help, consider literature tutoring services.

Good luck, and happy reading!

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