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Stanzas and Mechanics


Figures of Speech and Devices of Sound

These are basic definitions of the following terms, and none of them needs to be confined to poetry. People use them in everyday speech and thought to help make sense of what they encounter.

metaphor: direct comparison between two things, without intervening “like” or “as”; e.g., love is a rose.
simile: indirect comparison between two things, with intervening “like” or “as”; e.g., love is LIKE a rose.
symbol: something that represents some other thing and gives it properties that it would otherwise not possess; e.g., the color red represents a command to stop when driving, or represents a sports franchise in context, or symbolized Roman Catholicism to people in early modern England or communism to Americans in the middle of the twentieth century.
image: word picture that appeals to the five senses, language that makes one see, hear, smell, feel, or taste something.
imagery: loose term to describe the use of images.
conceit: comparison that tends to extend itself and become complex; e.g., Donne’s “The Flea.”
alliteration: repetition of initial consonantal sounds.
assonance: repetition of vowel sounds in neighboring words.

Stanzas and Mechanics

rhyme scheme: regular pattern of rhymes in a poem, established by giving the rhyme words at the ends of lines a letter value beginning with “a.” An English Sonnet rhymes ababcdcdefefgg. Like blank verse, it was invented by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and first appeared in Songes and Sonets, i.e., Tottel’s Miscellany (1557).
stanza : a section of a poem set off from the rest of it by spacing or rhyme scheme and felt to be a unit in and of itself, always created by rhyme scheme in the early modern period.
couplet : two lines that rhyme together.
tercet : three-line stanza.
quatrain : four-line stanza.
cinquain: five-line stanza.
sestet:  six-line stanza.
octet: eight-line stanza.
feminine or double rhyme: rhyme on an unstressed syllable; e.g. double / trouble.


It would have been difficult for an early modern writer to conceive of composing poetry without the use of a regular, sustained meter.  Most verse written before 1850 (and much after) depends heavily on this device—to some, it is what makes poetry what it is.  Although there is no unified opinion on the matter, some think that regular stress-oriented meter becomes regular in the fourteenth century in the work of Chaucer—others see this development occurring much earlier in romances such as King Horn (thirteenth century), which is made up of trimeter couplets.

meter: rhythm in poetry.
prosody: the analysis of meter in poetry.
scan / scansion: the act of finding out what the meter is in a poem or a line.
metrical foot: unit of metrical measurement with syllables.
iamb: the most common metrical foot, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, e.g. ex-plain.
trochee: the second most common metrical foot, often described as a reversed foot, a stressed syllable followed by a unstressed syllable, e.g. foot-ball.
trimeter: a line with three metrical feet.
tetrameter: a line with four metrical feet.
pentameter: a line with five metrical feet.
hexameter: a line with six metrical feet.
fourteeners: either a couplet made up of fourteen metrical feet or a seven-foot line with fourteen syllables. A device of Tudor drama, seen as hopelessly rustic by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, later becomes the standard meter of hymns, and is called English Common Meter, used expertly by Emily Dickinson, when broken into lines rhyming x4a3x4a3, e.g., “Because I could not stop for Death, / He kindly stopped for me, / The carriage held but just ourselves / And Immortality.”
iambic pentameter: the line that English poetry adopts as semi-official, a line of five iambs
blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter, the verse form that becomes the staple of Elizabethan drama and works such as Paradise Lost.
enjambment: a phrase that runs over multiple lines and is not end-stopped; or, more simply, a line that ends in the middle of a clause. 
caesura: the natural break in a line of verse, often toward the middle, since the native English tradition from Anglo-Saxon times tends to place it here, dramatically and emphatically.
metrical modulation: changing line length in a poem for dramatic effect—sometimes the longest and shortest lines fulfill this function.

The scansion of an enjambed blank verse passage.  x denotes an unstressed syllable, / and boldface is stressed, // is caesura

                                            x     /      x     /
                                   //    That handkerchief
  x    /    x   /   x        /    x     /   x      /
Did an Egyptian  // to my mother give;
  x      /    x   /    x         /       x        /   x         /
She was a charmer, // and could almost read
   x         /         x   /   x
The thoughts of people.
                                       (Othello 3.4.55-58)