Effective Rhythm

Rhythm is effective when it pleases the ear. Even more important, good rhythm enters into what a sentence says, enhancing and reinforcing its meaning. A necessary condition of effective rhythm is that a passage be laid out in clear syntactic units (phrases, clauses, whole sentences) ; that these have something in common (length, intonation, grammatical structure); and that there be a loose but discernible pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Generally the syntactic units, while showing some similarities, are very far from exactly the same. Nor are the syllables laid out in precisely repeated patterns. In this respect prose rhythm is much looser than that of traditional accented poetry, which has a much more predictable arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables.

Here are two examples of rhythm in prose:

There was a magic, and a spell, and a curse; but the magic has been

waved away, and the spell broken, and the curse was a curse of sleep

We came up on the railway beyond the canal. 'It went straight toward

X / X / X / / XX / x / xx/x, the town across the low fields. We could see the line of the other

railway ahead of us. Ernest Hemingway sentence moves in carefully articulated parts: two primary clauses separated by the semicolon, and, within each of these, three secondary units marked by commas. Each of the six units has a similar pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, a pattern regular enough to be sensed, yet not so relentless that it dominates the sentence, turning it into song. In the passage by Hemingway the basic units are simple sentences. The syllabic rhythm is less obvious than in Duf-fus's case, partly because Hemingway's sentences are not further broken up and partly because the pattern of stresses and nonstresses is a bit more irregular.

Awkward Rhythm

Poor rhythm usually results from either or both of two causes: (1) the sentence is not organized so that phrases and clauses create a pattern out of which rhythm can evolve; (2) syllables are poorly grouped, being either so irregular that no pattern at all can be grasped, or so regular that a steady, obtrusive beat overrides everything else. Consider this example of poor rhythm:

Each party promises before the election to make the city bigger and better, but what happens after the election?

There are two problems: first, the initial clause does not break into well-defined groups. This fault can be corrected by changing the position of the adverbial phrase, using it as a sentence opener or as an interrupter, and in either case punctuating it:

Before the election, each party promises to make the city bigger and better. . . .

Each party, before the election, promises to make the city bigger and better. . . .

Now the clause is organized into potential rhythmic units.

The second fault is that the writer has mixed a statement and a question in the same sentence. The different intonations clash, leaving the ear dissatisfied. It would be wiser to place the ideas in separate sentences:

Before the election, each party promises to make the city bigger and better. But what happens after the election?

Other improvements might be made. For instance, shortening the question to "But what happens afterwards?" would make it less repetitious and more emphatic. But just as it stands, adding no words and taking none away, our revision shows that poor rhythm can often be improved simply by rearranging the words.

Sometimes, however, mere rearrangement is not enough. Consider this case:

The man was standing on the stairs and far below we saw the boy, who

wore an old, unpressed, and ragged suit.

The sentence has one of the same difficulties as the first example: it needs to be divided more clearly (or at least its first two clauses do). But it also has a different problem: its syllabic rhythm is too regular. With one exception the sentence scans as a series of unvaried iambs.2 The regularity dominates the sentence, obscuring shadings of emphasis.

If the iambic pattern is made less relentless the sentence sounds much better:

The man stood on the stairs; far below we saw the boy, dressed in an old, unpressed, ragged suit.

The changes—substituting "stood" for "was standing" and "dressed" for "who wore," and replacing two "ands" with a semicolon and a up the excessive sameness of the syllabic beat. Yet they leave pattern enough to please the ear. Furthermore, the clustered stresses now focus the reader's attention upon key points:

man stood ... boy dressed ... old, unpressed, ragged suit

Meaningful Rhythm

Good rhythm enters into the meaning of the sentence, not only reinforcing the words but often giving them nuances they might not otherwise have.

2. An iamb is a unit of two syllables, a nonstress and a stress, as in the word

XI . x above. The one exception in the example is the four syllables "-ing

on the stairs."

Mimetic Rhythm

Mimetic means "imitative." Mimetic rhythm imitates the perception a sentence describes or the feeling or ideas it conveys:

The tide reaches flood stage, slackens, hesitates, and begins to ebb.

Rachel Carson

The flowing tide is suggested by the very movement of this sentence, which runs smoothly and uninterruptedly to a midpoint, slows down, pauses (the commas), and then picks up and runs to its end. Here is a similar, somewhat longer, sentence about Niagara Falls:

On the edge of disaster the river seems to gather herself, to pause, to

lift a head noble in ruin, and then, with a slow grandeur, to plunge into xx/x/ XX / /xx/

the eternal thunder and white chaos below. Rupert Brooke

Mimetic rhythm may also imply ideas more abstract than physical movement, as in this passage describing the life of peasants:

Black bread, rude roof, dark night, laborious day, weary arm at sunset;

and life ebbs away. John Ruskin

The six unrelieved stresses at the beginning mirror the dreary monotony of the peasant's existence. Then nonstressed syllables become more numerous and the sentence picks up speed and runs to a close, just as life slips away (in Ruskin's view) from the peasant before he has held and savored it. •

Metrical Runs

A metrical run is a relatively regular pattern of stresses and nonstresses. This is, of course, a feature of traditional poetry, but not common in prose. It is, as we have seen, a fault when it is not controlled. But used with restraint and skill, metrical runs are effective. Though not specifically meaningful, like mimetic rhythms, they make a sentence memorable and intensify its mood and meaning:

t love to lie in bed and read the lives of the Popes of Rome.

Logan Pearsall Smith

This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with

the country. Joan Didion

Smith and Didion achieve their metrical runs in part by using prepositional phrases. A typical prepositional phrase consists of a one- or two-syllable preposition, a noun marker {a, an, the, this, that, and so on), and an object of (usually) one or two syllables. Neither the preposition nor the marker is stressed, while the object (or one of its syllables) is, so that one of these metrical patterns is likely:

at home

in the house

in the morning

in the event

Such metrical patterns (or "meters") are said to be rising since the stress comes at or near the end. By adding or doubling the objects of a preposition or stringing together several phrases, it is possible to sustain a rising pattern over the whole or a portion of a sentence:

x x / X / x x / % / about love and death in the golden land

Sometimes a metrical run occurs at the end of a sentence, bringing it neatly to a close:

Smoke lowering from chimneypots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full grown snow-flakes—gone into

mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

Charles Dickens

Beyond the blue hills, within riding distance, there is a country of

parks and beeches with views of the far-off sea. Logan Pearsall Smith There was the sea, sheer under me, and it looked grey and grim,

^iS^fftm^tfe^tM^if^^t be uncomnWftMffiM1 effect is subtly to draw our attention. Responding unconsciously to the rhythm, we feel that a sentence is important and we are more likely to remember it. Certainly a metrical run will not something silly, but it will help us to think about something important.

Rhythmic Breaks

One advantage of maintaining a fairly regular rhythm is that you can alter it for special effect:

The roses have faded at Malmaison, nipped by the frost.

Amy Lowell

There are four rising meters up to the comma, then an unexpected stress upon "nipped," which throws great weight upon that word, making it the center of the sentence. And it is a key word, for the sentence alludes to the sad story of Josephine, Napoleon's first wife, who was divorced by him for political reasons and who retired to her palatial home of Malmaison, famous for its roses.

And look, finally, once again at the sentence by Logan Pearsall Smith, quoted above:

(3) RHYTHM 231

Beyond the blue hills, within riding distance, there is a country of parks

and beeches with views of the far-off sea.

The rising meters which run throughout most of the sentence abruptly change at the end to three clustered stresses, making the "far-off sea" the climax of the vision.


Rhyme is the repetition of sounds in positions close enough to be noticed. It is not an aspect of rhythm; even so we shall glance at it. We associate rhyme chiefly with poetry, especially in the form of end closing of successive or alternate lines with the same sound:

The grave's a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace. Andrew Marvell

Poetry also often uses inner sounds within a line, as with the and i vowels and the p's of first line.

Despite its association with poetry, rhyme occurs in prose, usually as inner rhyme (prose writers rarely end sentences or clauses with the same sound). Like rhythm, rhyme can affect the ear both pleasantly and unpleasantly, and it can enhance meaning.

It seems unlikely that sounds have inherent, culture-free significance in themselves. Particular sounds may acquire loose meanings; for example, we seem to associate the ee sound with smallness (teeny, weeny). But psychologists who have studied this phenomenon think that such "meanings" are culturally conditioned and will vary from one group to another.

Even if language sounds do not possess inherent universal it remains the fact that within a particular culture certain sounds can evoke particular attitudes. Even here, however, one must be careful in talking about "meaning." Such meaning is broad and resists precise interpretation. In the following description by Mark Twain of a town on the Mississippi, the frequent / sounds, the s's, the m's, and the n's probably contribute to the sense of peace and quiet. Words like lull, lullaby, loll, slow, silent, ssh, shush, and hush have conditioned us to associate those sounds with quietness. But that is about all we can say.

After all these years I can picture that old time to myself now, just as it was then: the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer's morning; the streets empty or pretty nearly so; one or two clerks sitting in front of the Water Street stores, with their splint-bottomed chairs tilted back against the walls, chins on breasts, hats slouched over their faces, asleep—with shingle shavings enough around to show what broke them down; a sow and a litter of pigs loafing along the sidewalk, doing a good business in watermelon rinds and seeds; two or three lonely little freight piles scattered about the "levee"; a pile of "skids" on the slope of the stone-paved wharf, and the fragrant town drunkard asleep in the shadow of them; two or three wood flats at the head of the wharf, but nobody to listen to the peaceful lapping of the wavelets against them; the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun; the "point" above the town, and the "point" below, bounding the river-glimpse and turning it into a sort of sea, and withal a very still and brilliant and lonely one.

If we do not insist upon interpreting their "meaning" too exactly, then, it is fair to say that sounds can convey or reinforce certain moods.

They may also contribute to meaning in another, less direct way. By rhyming key words, writers draw attention to them. Here, for instance, Virginia Woolf intensifies an image by repeating 5 sounds and by the alliteration of the h's and the c's:

Dust swirls down the avenue, hisses and hurries like erected cobras round the corners.

And in the following case the writer emphasizes "wilderness" by repeating and "decay" by repeating

Otherwise the place is bleakly uninteresting; a wilderness of windswept grasses and sinewy weeds wavrng away from a thin beach ever speckled with drift and decaying things—worm-ridden timbers, dead porpoises. Lafcadio Hearn

Yet prose rhyme is risky. Hearn succeeds, but the alliteration (and other rhyme) in these passages seems a bit much:

Her eyes were full of proud and passionless lust after gold and blood; her hair, close and curled, seems ready to shudder in sunder and divide into snakes. Algernon Charles Swinburne

His boots are tight, the sun is hot, and he may be shot.

Amy Lowell

Excesses like this have led some people to damn and blast all rhyme in prose. Undoubtedly a little goes a long way. But it does have a place. The trick is to keep the rhyme unobtrusive, • so that it directs our responses without our being aware of its influence. Certain things should be avoided: obvious and jingling rhyme or inadvertent repetitions of sound that draw attention to unimportant words. More positively, rhyme pleases the ear and makes us more receptive to what the sen; tence says, as in this passage by John Donne (a seventeenth-i century poet who also wrote great prose):

One dieth at his full strength, being wholly at ease, and in quiet, and another dieth in the bitterness of his soul, and never eats with pleasure; but they lie down alike in the dust and the worm covers them.

Thus rhyme can positive element in prose. It is less important, and less common, than rhythm, but it is far from negligible. Too great a concern with sound, too much "tone painting," is a fault in prose (in poetry too, for that matter). Controlled by a sensitive ear, however, the sounds of a sentence can enrich its meaning.


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