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versification, principles of metrical practice in poetry. In different literatures poetic form is achieved in various ways; usually, however, a definite and predictable pattern is evident in the language. In ancient Greek poetry, the pattern was in the quantity of the syllables, i.e., the duration of the time required to express a syllable. Intricate metrical patterns were devised by the Greek poets and adapted by the Romans. Greek terminology is still used in the analysis of metrics.

In modern languages, stress has been substituted for quantity. The line or verse of poetry is a fundamental unit of meter and is divided somewhat arbitrarily into feet according to the major and minor stresses. In the stanza beginning, “Thirty days hath September,” there are four stresses in the first line; there is no unstressed syllable between the second and third stressed ones. The types of feet retain the ancient Greek names: iambus ˘¯; trochee ¯˘; spondee ¯¯; pyrrhic ˘˘; anapest ˘˘¯; and dactyl ¯˘˘ (each “¯” representing a long syllable; each “˘” representing a short syllable). Accordingly the number and type of feet determine the name of the meter, e.g., iambic pentameter, five iambic feet; iambic hexameter (see alexandrine), six iambic feet; and dactylic hexameter, six dactylic feet.

A patterned arrangement of lines into a group is called a stanza. Rhyme, which developed after the classical period, perhaps to reinforce rhythm when the old quantitative verse was no longer used, is an important element in stanzaic structure. Rhyme was developed to a high degree in Romance languages, especially in Provençal and French.

Germanic poetry, entirely unrelated to Greek origins, developed characteristics of its own, many of which are reflected in modern poetry. Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic poetry have strong accents or stresses, usually four to a line; a caesura or definite break in the middle of the line; and a pattern of alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds), usually of three of the stressed syllables of the line, or sometimes of only two. Much of Middle English poetry is alliterative verse, while the rest follows the French forms of rhyme and rhythm.

Chaucer is credited with inventing the first characteristically English stanza form, the rhyme royal. Later popular English forms were the ballad, the sonnet, and the stanza developed by Edmund Spenser, called Spenserian. Blank verse became the great dramatic line in the 16th cent., while the heroic couplet was the dominant form in 18th-century English verse. Modern poets, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, have recognized both the time and stress measures of verse and have experimented with assonance, alliteration, sprung rhythm, and free verse.


See G. Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody (3 vol., 1906–10); J. B. Mayor, Chapters on English Metre (2d ed. 1968); W. K. Wimsatt, Versification (1972); J. McAuley, Versification: A Short Introduction (1983); P. Kiparsky and G. Youmans, ed., Rhythm and Meter (1989).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the organization of sound structure in metrical language (verse). The content of metrical language, in contrast to that of prose, is divided into relatively short sections, or verses, that are commensurable and mutually related. Prose as well may be divided into intonational units, or cola, but in prose the division fluctuates: a group of words may constitute two short cola or one long colon. In prose, division into cola always coincides with the syntactic division of the text. In poetry, the division into sections is fixed. In oral poetry it is fixed by the melody, and in written poetry it is generally fixed by the manner of graphic representation (that is, by division of the text into lines). The division into sections in poetry does not necessarily coincide with the syntactic division of the text; the lack of coincidence between the syntactic pause and the rhythmic pause is termed enjambment.

Fixed division into lines is an essential feature of a verse text. Texts with only this form of organization are still perceived as poetry (free verse) and have a typical verse intonation—pauses at line boundaries regardless of syntax, a rising intonation at the beginning of a line, and a falling intonation toward the line’s end. In addition, the lines of verses are generally structured and made uniform in terms of sound elements in order to emphasize the verses’ commensurability. This uniformity may be precise or approximate; it may be successive or may alternate every other line or every few lines. Poems belong to one or another system of versification depending on which elements are the basis of commensurability.

The basic unit of the commensurability of verses in all languages is the syllable. The main phonetic features of the syllable (syllabic vowel) are pitch, duration (length), and intensity. Versification may be divided into different types according to the number of syllables (syllabic versification) and according to the number of syllables of a certain pitch (melodic versification), a certain length (quantitative, or metric, versification), or a certain intensity (tonic versification). Since these phonetic features are generally interrelated to a greater or lesser degree, the use of one syllabic feature as the basis for a system of versification involves the other syllabic features to some extent as well. Consequently, systems of versification may be based on two or more features.

Most commonly, the number of syllables in a line and the appearance of syllables of a certain pitch, length, or intensity in certain positions in this syllabic series are regulated simultaneously (syllabomelodic, syllabometric, and syllabotonic versification). This ordered arrangement of dissimilar (strong and weak) positions in a line is called meter. Each type of versification is thus a system regulating the abstract sound features of a text. As a rule, this system is reinforced by a system of repetitions of sounds (alliteration and assonance), syllables (rhyme), words (refrain), and grammatical constructions (parallelism).

An example of syllabic versification is Serbo-Croatian folk-epic verse. This type of verse has ten syllables to a line, a compulsory caesura after the fourth syllable, an arrangement of stresses that is arbitrary but that tends toward stress on odd syllables, and an arbitrary arrangement of syllabic length and rising tonality; the line ending (clausula) is indicated by the length of the penultimate syllable.

Early Germanic verse is an example of tonic versification. It has four stresses to a line (two hemistichs, each containing two stressed words), an arbitrary number of unstressed syllables, and an arbitrary arrangement of stresses and syllabic length. The two words of the first hemistich and the first word of the second hemistich are united by alliteration of the initial sounds.

An example of melodic (or, more accurately, syllabomelodic) versification is the Chinese five-syllable line of the Tang era. This type of verse has four lines to a stanza. Within each line the tone of the odd, or weak, syllables is arbitrary. One of the two even, or strong, syllables has a level tone, and the other an uneven (rising or falling) tone. The level syllable in the first line corresponds to the uneven syllable occupying the same position in the second and third lines and to the level syllable in the fourth line (and vice versa); the first, second, and fourth lines rhyme.

An example of metric (or, more accurately, syllabometric) versification is the classical Greek hexameter, each line of which has 12 metrical positions. The odd (strong) positions are occupied by one long syllable, and the even (weak) positions, by one long or two short syllables; the last position is occupied by one arbitrary syllable. A long syllable is equal to two units of length, and a short syllable, to one unit. Consequently, the line, which consists of 12 to 17 syllables, contains 24 units of length.

The Russian iambic tetrameter is an example of syllabotonic versification. Each line has eight syllables. The odd (weak) positions are occupied by unstressed syllables or by one-syllable stressed words, and the even (strong) positions, by syllables with arbitrary stress. The final (eighth) syllable has compulsory stress. This final stress may be followed by additional unstressed syllables, that is, the line may have a feminine or dactylic clausula.

It is apparent from the above examples that a description of versification must include two types of classification. The first type—prosody—deals with the structured sound elements: which sound combinations constitute a syllable, and which syllables are level and uneven, long and short, and stressed and unstressed. The second type of classification—metrics and rhythmics, in the true sense of the word—deals with the structuring of the sound elements. It indicates which positions various types of syllables or caesuras must occupy as a constant, which positions they must occupy (with exceptions permitted) as a dominant, and which positions they occupy only preferentially, as a tendency. An example of the last is stressed syllables in arbitrarily occupied positions. As versification develops, the constants, dominants, and tendencies may become stronger or weaker and change into one another, thus causing shifts in systems of versification.

In different languages, systems of versification develop to varying degrees, owing to linguistic and cultural and historical factors. Linguistic causes largely determine which systems of versification are avoided in a given language and which prosodic features are acquired in the systems permitted in that language. Systems founded on a sound feature that is not phonemic (that is not se-mantically relevant) in the given language are generally avoided. In Russian, for example, where the pitch and length of sounds are not phonemic, versification of the melodic and metrical types did not develop. In French, which does not have phonemic word stress, tonic and syllabotonic versification did not develop.

Cultural and historical factors largely determine which versification systems permissible in a given language are realized in poetry. For example, the phonology of ancient Greek or of Serbo-Croatian permitted melodic, metrical, tonic, and syllabic versification, but only metrical versification developed in ancient Greek, and only syllabic (and to an extent syllabotonic) versification developed in Serbo-Croatian. The phonology of Russian permits syllabic, syllabotonic, and tonic versification, but these systems developed in very different ways and at widely differing times.

Cultural and historical factors sometimes prove stronger than linguistic factors. For example, the Turkic languages adopted a metric system of versification (the aruz system) from Arabic, although the length of sounds is not phonemic in the Turkic languages. Similarly, the development of certain verse meters in national versification is conditioned by cultural and historical factors. In the European languages, for example, longer meters such as the iambic pentameter and hexameter and syllabic lines of ten to 12 syllables are based on such classical models as the iambic trimeter. Shorter meters such as the iambic tetrameter and the eight-syllable syllabic line originated in modern literatures. Because of this, in poetic cultures directly influenced by the classical tradition, as in the case of Italian and French literature, longer meters prevailed. In cultures influenced only indirectly by the classical tradition, as in the case of German and Russian literature, shorter meters prevailed.

There are three major periods in the history of Russian versification: the period before the establishment of syllabotonic versification (17th and 18th centuries), the dominance of syllabotonic versification (18th and 19th centuries), and the dominance of syllabotonic and tonic versification (20th century). Before the establishment of written verse in the 17th century, there were three types of versification in Russian poetry. The first was the free verse of religious songs sung in church, sometimes called prayer-book verse (molitvoslovnyi stikh). The second type was epic and lyric sung verse, which apparently occupied an intermediate position between tonic and syllabotonic verse. The third type was tonic recited verse, sometimes called skomorokh (folk-minstrel) verse. This became the basic type of versification in early Russian poetry until the 1660’s, and remained prevalent even later in the lubok literature (cheap popular literature) of the lower social strata.

During the 17th and early 18th centuries, three attempts were made to adapt other systems of versification to Russian poetry. Meletii Smotritskii tried to introduce the metrical system, based on classical models; Simeon Polotskii attempted to introduce the syllabic system, based on Polish models; and an attempt was made to introduce the syllabotonic system, which was based on German models. Syllabic versification became the most prevalent system, but toward the mid-18th century it was being supplanted by syllabotonic versification; it later disappeared almost completely.

The foundations of Russian syllabotonic versification were developed between 1735 and 1743 by V. K. Trediakovskii and M. V. Lomonosov; this type of versification virtually dominated Russian poetry until the late 19th century. Outside of syllabotonic versification there were only a few experiments involving imitations of classical and folk-verse meters; examples were the hexameter or Pushkin’s Songs of the Western Slavs.

Russian syllabotonic versification became increasingly standardized during the 18th and 19th centuries. Rhythmic tendencies sought to become dominants, and dominants to become constants. The three-syllable meters (dactyl, amphibrach, and ana-pest), which were relatively incapable of rhythmic variations, became more widespread, whereas the use of two-syllable meters (iamb and trochee) decreased the number of rhythmic variations that had been used earlier.

In reaction to this situation, an opposing tendency arose at the turn of the 20th century that attempted to weaken the organization of verse. Syllabotonic versification remained predominant, but other types of versification occupying an intermediate position between syllabotonic and tonic versification, the dol’nik and taktovik, were developing. Also in the process of development were tonic versification (accentual verse) and free verse, which is used in contemporary versification as well.

Throughout its history, Russian versification has exhibited tendencies toward strictness of rhythm, as seen in the evolution from presyllabic verse to syllabic verse and the syllabotonic verse of the 18th and 19th centuries. These tendencies have alternated with tendencies toward the weakening of rhythm, as seen in the syllabotonic verse of the 19th century and the syllabotonic and tonic verse of the 20th century. In the present state of comparative prosody, it is difficult to ascertain to what extent this alternation typifies the evolutionary principles of all systems of versification.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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