Rhythm in Literature: Definition, Examples, and How to Create Your Own Image

When you read aloud poems, lyrics, and nursery rhymes, it’s often that singsong sound that grabs your attention and really conveys the mood of the piece.

It uplifts the soul with an unexplainable beauty, and, like music, it makes lines from a poem easier to memorize than some boring old prose!

The well-crafted lines can propel us to heights of ecstasy or bring us crashing down with sorrow. Many a writer hopes to wield this almost unnatural power.

The secret behind this beauty in writing is called rhythm.

What Is Rhythm?

Rhythm is the use of stressed and unstressed syllables, which creates what you experience as a pattern of beats in the sound of the words. The word rhythm comes from the Greek word rhythmos, which can be translated as “measured motion.”

The best poems roll over our tongues with a tested and proven pathway, and that’s clearly not by accident: the writer intentionally crafted each line, designed to lure our souls into its magic.

Experts in literature highly recommend young children be exposed to nursery rhymes and poetry from an early age because instills an appreciation for language that they will carry into adulthood. But if you have not had that privilege, it’s definitely not too late to learn how to write with rhythm.

How Is Rhythm Created?

First, you should learn the most common rhythms utilized in English literature. Since rhythm uses a pattern of stressed (/) and unstressed (x) syllables, we must understand how each word plays a part in a line.

When we speak, certain syllables are stressed, while others are unstressed. For example, when we say the word father, we stress the first syllable, father.

The key is being able to string the words together so that they form a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, repeated line after line. Each pair of stressed and unstressed syllables is called a foot.

Examples of Common Rhythms Used in English Literature

The following are the most common rhythms found in English poetry. We will show you how each rhythm sounds using the symbol “x” to indicate an unstressed syllable, and “/“ to indicate a stressed syllable.

1. Iamb (x /)

The iambic measure is the most common rhythm pattern. It is made by alternating unstressed and stressed syllables. Each foot in iambic meter is called an iamb.

Natural conversation makes a sound similar to the iambic rhythm, so using this rhythm helps a poem sound more natural or conversational.

The most common type of iambic rhythm is called the iambic pentameter. Penta is a Greek word meaning “five,” and pentameter refers to five iambs put together into one line. Since each iamb is made up of one unstressed and one stressed syllable, the iambic pentameter has ten syllables in each line.

For example, try reading the lines below, with the words in bold indicating the stressed syllables and those not in bold being the unstressed syllables.

My heart was heavy, for its trust had been

Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong;

—”Forgiveness” by John Greenleaf Whittier

We live by Faith; but Faith is not the slave

Of text and Legend. Reason’s voice and God’s,

Nature’s and Duty’s, never are at odds.

—”Requirement” by John Greenleaf Whittier

2. Trochee (/ x)

The trochee rhythm starts with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, and the pattern repeats itself throughout the line. Its main difference from the iamb is that it starts with a stressed syllable instead of the iamb’s unstressed first syllable.

An example of trochaic meter is shown below:

Bread and milk for breakfast,

And woolen frocks to wear

—From Christina Rossetti’s Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book

3. Spondee (/ /)

The spondee rhythm is made up of two or more consecutively stressed syllables. This combination gives a poem a sense of urgency.

However, the English language depends highly on stressed and unstressed syllables in words of more than one syllable. Therefore, poets normally use the spondee as a dramatic start or break into poems written in iamb or trochaic rhythm.

Poor Tired Tim! It’s sad for him.

He lags the long bright morning through.

—”Tired Tim” by Walter de la Mare

These three rhythms are great starting points to experiment different “beat” sounds in writing a poem.

What Is the Importance of Rhythm?

Just as different beats in music have a different effect on listeners, different rhythms in literature also have a different effect on readers.

When you read aloud a poem, you tend to notice these differences. This gives a poet exceptional power in evoking the emotions that he or she wants. A marching-beat type of rhythm is commonly used in poems about battles or war.

For example, read the passage below from the poem “Charge of the Light Brigade,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.

Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.

Notice how the spondee rhythm’s consecutive stressed syllables evokes the sound of a soldier marching into battle, matching the theme of the written words.

Another example of the effective use of spondee is this line from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:

Cry, cry! Troy burns, or else let Helen go!”

The use of double spondees gives an unmatched urgency to the line.

Then there’s this excerpt from Hiawatha’s Childhood, a portion of the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called The Song of Hiawatha:

Then the little Hiawatha

Learned of every bird its language,

Learned their names and all their secrets,

How they built their nests in Summer,

Where they hid themselves in Winter,

Talked with them whene’er he met them,

Called them “Hiawatha’s Chickens.”

The trochaic flow gives a sense of the relaxed explorations and fun of childhood. That’s why trochee is a favorite tool among children’s verse writers, because it is so simple and engaging for young readers.

In William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, most of the characters speak in iambic rhythm, giving them a conversational feel. In contrast, Shakespeare created the witches’ dialogue in trochees, or trochaic rhythm, as shown below:

Double, double toil, and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.’

This gives us an impression that they are not like the other characters, creating suspense and mystery by changing the rhythm of the words they speak.

The trochee is a rhythm that Shakespeare often used for supernatural characters in his plays. For example, the same rhythm is used in the words of the fairy creatures in Midsummer Nights Dream.

Recognizing Rhythm in Literature

Starting with these three patterns, why not try your hand at identifying the rhythms in the passages below?

Read each passage aloud, and see if you can start to notice the stressed and unstressed syllables.

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you

But make allowance for their doubting too

—”If” by Rudyard Kipling

If we put the stressed syllables in bold, it would look like this:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you

But make allowance for their doubting too

Here is another example for you to try:

Little Lamb who made thee

Dost thou know who made thee

Gave thee life & bid thee feed.

By the stream & o’er the mead;

Gave thee clothing of delight,

Softest clothing wooly bright;

—”The Lamb” by William Blake

Just like most poems for children, “The Lamb” follows a basic trochaic rhythm.

How Do You Write Rhythm?

Now that we’ve studied some examples, it’s time to try your hand at writing your own verses. Here’s how.

1. Choose the theme you want to write about.

Do you want to write a poem about a childhood memory? A difficult experience you’re going through? A sonnet for someone you miss badly? Start by picking one of these subjects that you feel most passionate about.

2. Decide which pattern fits the theme.

One tip is to use the pattern that other writers have proven effective. For example, if you are writing about a childhood experience or about something light and fun, the trochee may be your best choice. If you are writing something more warlike or to boost people’s morale, the spondee may work better.

3. Write each line according to the rhythm you have chosen.

Write down your initial thoughts, and edit out words to fit your pattern. If you need help finding alternative words to use, a good thesaurus may help.

4. Finally, read your new poem out loud, first to yourself, and then to a trusted friend.

Reading a poem aloud uses rhythm to bring you to the world of the poet. And reading your own poem aloud to a friend will help you gauge if you have achieved your goal when you first set out writing.

It may take some time and effort at first, especially if you have always been used to free verse. But press on. You will find that, even when the last words don’t necessarily rhyme, putting your words into a set pattern helps them to form a musical rhythm.

Before long, you’ll be able to experiment with the different rhythms and use varying beat patterns to call out the emotions you wish to convey to your readers or listeners.

Understanding Rhythm

Once you can understand the different types of rhythm and their functions, you’ll be better able to enjoy and analyze poems, music, nursery rhymes, and more.

You’ll also be able to create more entertaining and memorable poems of your own, so you can practice writing a poem today.

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