Reading the pas de deux

For you to read, as you are reading now, may seem most ordinary: words across a page, and nothing very formidable said. But if, with one more phrase or two, you feel an urge to stretch, go walking -- or perhaps to hum a song you haven't heard for several years -- don't blame the lack of thought in what you're reading here. In fact, the rhythm, not the message of the words, has caught you: words like these have meaning in the music they perform.

You've just read a paragraph written (more or less) entirely in iambic meter. Iambic meter is a kicky little number that's been around in English at least since the time of Chaucer. It's easily identifiable: it consists of one lightly accented syllable ("da") followed by one heavily accented syllable ("DA"), resulting in the irrepressible "da-DA."

If you read that first paragraph again, you may actually feel a small surge of energy within you, or hear certain words in your mind more forcefully than others -- which makes perfect sense, since it's highly rhythmic language. But, at the same time, it's very ordinarym language -- words we all use every day. The paragraph is a good example of the influence of rhythm in our daily stockpile of words -- an influence that we tend to take largely for granted.

However, writers, and particularly poets, don't take rhythm for granted. They know that certain metrical patterns (iambic, for example) can actually enhance the meaning of the words they use. Different rhythms in language encourage different moods in listeners, just as different rhythms in music do. Thus, with a judicious choice of rhythms, an author can create an emotional "setting" for his words -- a setting that the words then help to define.

Let's take a couple of famous examples. The first is the last line from Tennyson's Ulysses:m

". . . To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." This is one of the most perfect iambic lines in English. It's called iambic pentameter ("pentameter" meaning five "feet," or five repetitions of "da-DA"). The pentameter line is the most widely used metrical line in traditional poetry. All sonnets, for example, are written in iambic pentameter, and so, for better or worse, is Paradise Lost.m Tennyson's line is a straightforward "da-DA da-DA da-DA da- DA da-DA."

But look where the heavy accents fall -- right on all those active verbs, and on the one crucial negation in the line. "Strive," "seek," find," "not," and "yield" are the rhythmic high points of the line; they constitute the line's memorable beat. But these words also carry the line's powerful meaning. The accents and the denotations of the words combine to create a vigorous, poundingly confident statement. Although the meaning wouldn't greatly change, the whole force of the line would be dissipated if the accents were irregular, or didn't coincide with crucial words, as in this intentionally dreadful revision:

"Striving to find what we can, while not yielding to adversity."

Another, and quite different, example is the beginning of John Keats's Ode on a GRecian Urn.m The first two lines attempt, and achieve, a meditative, almost other-worldly atmosphere: Thous still unravished bride of quietness, Thou foster child of silence and slow time. . . .

And again the rhythm supports the meaning, in a quiet rather than an overpowering manner. The poet creates the sensation of unhurried reflection by varying the rhythm of the lines -- lines that are still basically iambic pentameter. The first line begins, not with the expected "da-DA" -- "thou STILL" -- but rather with two heavily accented syllables -- "THOU STILL." This heavily accented beginning immediately directs the reader to the urn, the subject of the poem. But more important, it makes the last two words of the line seem, by contrast, exceptionally calm and quiet. Technically these last two workds -- "of quietness" -- are the last two iambic feet of the line ("of QUIet-NESS"). But because "quietness" is a single word, we tend to say it much more quickly and smoothly than we say, for example, separate one-syllable words (such as "to strive, to seek . . ."). Thus "quietness" seems to be not quite iambic, slightly defying the reader's expectations; and, in contrast to the forceful beginning of the line, it offers an unexpected placidness. These sounds fit nicely with the actual meaning, which moves from direct address -- "Thous still" -- to a kind of timeless mystery.

Iambic meter is, of course, not the only meter in English. There's the opposite of iambic, for example, called trochaic -- "DA-da" -- as well as six other standard forms. Moreover, there's the great rhythmic subtlety of good free verse, which relies on two main techniques: the stresses that we place naturally on words as we pronounce them; and the emphasis that we tend to place on the ends and beginnings of lines. In Summer Hay,m a free-verse poem by Janet Lewis, for example, the rhythm is as subtle and enduring as in the best metrical poem: Like summer hay it falls Over the marshes, over The cranberry flats, Places where the wild deer lay. Now the deer leave tracks Down the pine hollow; petals Laid two by two, brown Against the snow.

But iambic, trochaic, free verse or whatever, language is imbued with rhythms that move us -- rhythms that we should come to know. Rhythm in language is the dance of words, the dance of our thought with our life.

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