For Better for Verse

For Better for Verse: An interactive learning tool that can help you understand what makes metered poetry in English tick.

a project of the University of Virginia English Department

Resources

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal (audio):

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal

Click the link above to hear the poem read by Stephen Cushman.

Glossary

accent:

emphasis given a syllable in ordinary usage, as provided by a pronouncing dictionary. See also stress.

accentual-syllabic:

the prosodic mode that dominated English-language poetry 1400-1900, and that this tutorial exclusively addresses.  Alike distinct from verse that is quantitative (measuring duration, as in classical Greek and Latin), accentual (counting only beats, as in Old English), and syllabic (counting only syllables, as in certain: 20th-cy. experiments), accentual-syllabic verse is based on recurrent units (feet) that combine slacks and stresses in fixed sequence.

acephalous line:

a “headless” line in iambic or anapestic meter, which omits (a) slack syllable(s) from the first foot.  See also catalectic line.

alexandrine:

iambic hexameter line, usually with a strong midpoint caesura; most familiar in Romance-language poetry but not rare in English.

alliteration:

repetition of the same initial sound in nearby words.  See also consonance.

anapest:

metrical foot consisting of two slacks and a stress:  υ  υ  /

anaphora:

repetition of a word or phrase in initial position.

assonance:

harmonious repetition of the same vowel sound in nearby words.  See also consonance.

ballad meter:

a href=”#reference_quatrain”>quatrain in alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines rhyming abxb, traditionally used in folk narrative and during modern times adapted to lyric poetry

blank verse:

unrhymed iambic pentameter.  See for contrast free verse.

caesura:

mid-line pause, often marked by punctuation but not always. See also hemistich.

catalectic line:

line lacking one or more of the slack syllables that its meter strictly followed would specify.  Also called “defective.”  See acephalous line, terminal truncation.

common measure:

etrameter quatrain rhyming abab. Also called “hymn stanza.

consonance:

repetition of the same consonant sound in nearby words; also called “euphony.”  See also alliteration, assonance, dissonance.

couplet:

tersest of rhyming forms, a 2-line pattern of verse, whether free-standing (aa), gathered into stanzas (e.g., aabbcc), or extended at great length in narrative or deliberative poetry: aabbccddeeff. . . .”   “Open couplets” make free use of enjambed lines; “closed couplets” are end-stopped, and are called “heroic couplets” when in iambic pentameter.

dactyl:

metrical foot consisting of a stress and two slacks:   /  υ  υ

dissonance:

jam of inharmonious word sounds; also called “cacophony.”  See also consonance.

elision:

slurring of two syllables into one, across adjacent vowels or weak voiced consonants; includes conventional poeticisms (”o’er” for “over,” “e’en” for “even”) and  nonce phrases so marked (”th’ unseen”) or so treated in scansion, usually to contract an anapest into an iamb.

enjambed line:

a line of verse whose sense runs on, without terminal punctuation, into the next.

epigram:

a very short poem marked by pithy statement and witty turn.

feminine ending:

a line ending whose last syllable is a slack; normal in trochaic and dactylic verse, it also frequently arises in anapestic and even iambic verse.  “Feminine rhyme” occurs when like sounds appear in a line’s last stress and the succeeding slacks are repeated exactly, e.g. “gravity” and “suavity.”  See also masculine ending.

fixed forms:

strictly set patterns of meter and/or rhyme or word recurrence.  Some, such as the ballade and roundeau, sestina and Petrarchan sonnet, are centuries old; others are of recent invention or adoption, e.g. the clerihew, limerick, roundel, villanelle.

foot:

repeating pattern of slack and stressed syllables that forms the fundamental unit of meter.  The number of feet in a line gives their names to monometer (1),  dimeter (2),  trimeter (3), tetrameter (4), pentameter (5), hexameter (6, also called alexandrine), heptameter (7, also called “fourteeners”), octometer (8), nonometer (9), the very first and the last two being quite rare.  See also scansion.

free verse:

unmetered poetry, often exhibiting great rhythmic power and finesse in formal lineation, but outside the scope of this tutorial on metrics.  See also blank verse.

hemistich:

part of a line on either side of a caesura.

iamb:

metrical foot consisting of a slack and a stress:   υ  /

masculine ending:

line ending where the last syllable is stressed.  See also feminine ending.

meter:

the recurring, invariant pattern of slack and stressed syllables that a line of accentual-syllabic verse implies, and that the reader infers as an abstract, steady ground against which the actual verse rhythm plays its patterns of coincidence or counterpoint.  See also foot.

octave:

the first eight lines of a sonnet, almost always a complete rhyming unit.  See also sestet.

onomatopoeia:

the imitation of a sound by the word that denotes it.

ottava rima:

stanza rhyming abababcc.

pitch:

igh or low quality of sounds in a syllable: a property of both consonants and vowels, it is one contributing factor in the determination of stress

promoted stress:

stress laid, in deference to the metrical pattern, on a word or syllable that would in ordinary speech be slack.  Rare in polysyllables since 18th century.

prosody:

tudy or practice or study of versification: what this tutorial is all about.  Also called “metrics” in the case of accentual-syllabic poetry

pyrrhic:

etrical foot consisting of two consecutive slacks:  υ υ .  Occurs only in conjunction with its complementary foot the spondee, which assumes or borrows its pyrrhic partner’s missing beat

quantity:

a metrical principle of Greek and Latin prosody tied to the length of syllables spoken or chanted.  In antiquity the permutation of long with short quantities gave rise to a veritable foot fetishism, whose taxonomy of terms from amphibrach to syzygy leaves this poor glossary in the dust.  The good news for us is that quantity proves practically useless for the analysis of accentual-syllabic verse.  Even where poets in English deliberately imitate such classical forms as alcaics and sapphics, they rely on stresses and slacks, not longs and shorts.

quatrain:

four-line stanza.  Variants include, in pentameter, the “heroic” or “elegiac quatrain” (abab) and “Rubáiyát quatrain” (aaxa); in tetrameter, the ballad, the common measure, the In Memoriam stanza (abba), and the “short measure” (abab, line 3 being pentameter).

quintain:

ive-line stanza; forms include the cinquain and limerick

refrain:

a line of verse that is repeated verbatim within or at the end of a stanza.

rhyme:

recurrence of like sounds in like verse position, especially the last stressed syllable of a line.  In “full” or “perfect” rhyme all sounds but the first are repeated exactly; “identical” rhyme (e.g., “goon” with “lagoon” or “see” with “sea”) is rare, and sounds odd.  Rhymes where sounds match only approximately (e.g., “goon” with “son”) are variously called “half,”  ”imperfect,”  ”near,”  ”slant.”  “Leonine” rhyme couples a line’s middle syllable with its last; “internal” rhyme may be more loosely distributed.  ”Eye” rhyme (e.g., “bough” with “rough”) privileges spelling over sound, though in some cases the spelling commemorates a long-lost acoustic resemblance.

rhythm:

the pattern of slack and stress that emerges from a poem as actually voiced, or imaginatively heard.  Rhythm implies the poem’s metrical norm, which it both generally observes and (as a rule) tactically disobeys here and there.  See also meter.

scansion:

the chief object of this on-line tutorial: an analytic process of mapping the convergence and divergence (reinforcement and counterpoint) between the meter of verse and its rhythm.  A poem is scanned by marking its stressed and slack syllables and dividing them into feet.

sestet:

the last six lines of a Petrarchan sonnet; often subtly discernible by tone or mood in a Shakespearean sonnet as well, although less distinctly marked there by rhyme scheme.  See also octave.

slack:

unstressed syllable in metered verse; scansion mark ∪

sonnet:

poem of 14 lines usually in iambic pentameter and subdivided by one of two rhyme schemes: “Petrarchan” (or “Italian”) abbaabba cdecde and “English” (or “Shakespearean”) abab cdcd efef gg.  See also octave, sestet, volta.

Spenserian stanza:

8 lines of iambic pentameter followed by a 9th hexameter line (alexandrine), rhyming ababbcbcc; named for the Elizabethan poet who inaugurated it in his romance epic The Faerie Queene.

spondee:

metrical foot consisting of two consecutive stresses:  /  / .  Often appears in conjunction with its complementary foot the pyrrhic, whose missing beat it borrows; but often arises independently, as well, to freight a line or retard it.

stanza:

group of lines whose meter and rhyme scheme follow a pattern that is exactly repeated, constituting the structural unit of a stanzaic poem.   See also strophe.

stress:

emphasis that a syllable receives in metered verse; scansion mark  Stress may be due to accent (as given in dictionaries for polysyllabic words), to grammar (monosyllabic nouns and adjectives, e.g., routinely taking stress), to context (where a word acquires dramatic or rhetorical force), or, infrequently, to the exigency of meter itself.  See also slack, promoted stress.

strophe:

group of lines forming a typographically discrete portion of a longer poem in irregularly rhymed, coupleted, or blank verse; also called “verse paragraph.”  See also stanza.

tercet:

3-line pattern of verses, usually aaa bbb. . . when rhymed, but common in free verse as well; also called “triplet.”

terminal truncation:

omission, at the end of a trochaic or dactylic line, of (a) slack syllable(s) that the meter strictly followed would specify.  See also catalectic line.

terza rima:

sequence of tercets, as devised for Dante’s Divina Commedia, with interlocking rhyme scheme aba bcb cdc ded. . . .

trochee:

metrical foot consisting of a stress and a slack: / υ

volta:

pivot point of a sonnet, usually at or near the beginning of the 9th line.

University of Virginia Department of English
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For Better For Verse is authored by Herbert Tucker, John C. Coleman Professor of English at the University of Virginia.