When things that we see or hear are repeated in identical or similar patterns the result is rhythm. In prose there are two patterns, both involving words, or more exactly the sounds of words. The most obvious is syllabic consisting of loud and soft syllables. Loud syllables are said to be stressed and for purposes of analysis are marked by /; soft syllables are unstressed and marked Writers create syllabic rhythm by arranging stresses and nonstresses in more or less regular patterns, as in:
A lucky few escaped the fire.
The second pattern is rhythmic intonation. Intonation is a change in the pitch of the voice, a kind of melody important in speaking. Think, for example, of how many shades of meaning you can give to the words yes and no, not only by loudness and softness but by altering the rise and fall of your
1. Distinguishing only two degrees of loudness and softness is arbitrary. In actual speech innumerable gradations exist. However, limiting the number to two is convenient. Sometimes an intermediate stage, called secondary stress, is distinguished and marked. The process of analyzing syllabic rhythm is called voice. Rhythm based on intonation is created by repeating phrases or clauses of similar construction so that the same "melody" plays several times. Here is an instance from a poem by Alfred Tennyson:
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep moans round with many voices.
We hear this sentence as a three-part construction with an identical pattern of intonation in the first two clauses. The third repeats the melody in the four words but varies it in the concluding phrase. Intonational rhythm coexists with syllabic. Thus Tennyson's lines also show an almost perfect alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables:
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices.
Finally a word of caution: there is an inevitable subjective element in rhythm, which is, after all, something we hear. Even sensitive, experienced readers do not all "hear" the same sentence in exactly the same way. We cannot say, however, that rhythm is purely a matter of perception, different for each one of us. Writers good writers what their readers hear, not completely, but within clear limits.
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