Prosody and Blank Verse Prosody involves the organizing principles of verse, namely rhythm and rhyme. These two concerns cover both the physical and sonic qualities of poetry. The term “meter” describes the system a poet uses to organize the syllables and accents of his words. In formal poetry, such as blank verse, meter becomes a valuable tool for the poet. He uses the form to establish meaning. Blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, lends itself to study using the tools provided by prosody. In its strictest terms, blank verse presents little variation. Ten syllables create five feet with an unrelenting pattern of unstressed syllable followed by stressed syllable. To relieve the tedium of the clip- clopping that springs forth, a poet will use substitution, using another type of poetic foot, to break the pattern. As Paul Fussell writes in Poetic Meter and Poetic Form: 1. A succession of stressed syllables without the expected intervening unstressed syllables can reinforce effects of slowness, weight, or difficulty; 2. A succession of unstressed syllables without the expected intervening stressed syllables can reinforce effects of rapidity, lightness, or ease; 3. An unanticipated reversal in the rhythm...implies a sudden movement, often of discovery or illumination; or a new direction of thought, a new tone of voice, or a change or intensification of poetic address. (35) The meter, while still remaining an organizing principle, creates meaning. Fussell presents these lines from Paradise Lost to illustrate the power of substitution. ...through many a dark and dreary Vale They pass'd, and many a region dolorous O'er many a Frozen, many a Fiery Alp, Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death. Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens all receive an accent, giving the last line a ponderous feeling that matches the fallen angels' situation. Rhythm can be either falling or rising. Falling rhythm emphasizes feet with initial stressed syllables. Rising rhythm, which English naturally follows, emphasizes an initial unstressed syllable. Fussell again references Paradise Lost: Drove them / before him Thunder-struck, pursu'd With terrors and with furies to the bounds And Crystal wall of Heav'n, which op'ning wide Roll'd in / ward, and spacious Gap disclos'd Into the wasteful Deep; the monstrous sight Strook them / with horror backward, but far worse Urg'd them / behind; headlong themselves they threw Down from / the verge of Heav'n, Eternal wrath Burnt af / ter them to the bottomless pit. The falling nature of the first feet reinforces the power of the forces ranged against the rebel angels. Another variation in blank verse comes with the placement of the caesura. The caesura is pause in the poetic line. Traditionally, the caesura occurs in the middle of line or at its end. However, pauses also reinforce meaning by creating space around an idea. Punctuation often indicates a caesura: On th' other side, Adam, soon as he heard The fatal Trespass done by Eve, amaz'd, Astonied stood and Blank, while horror chill Ran through his veins, and all his joints relax'd; From his slack hand the Garland wreath'd for Eve Down dropp'd, and all the fades Roses shed: Speechless he stood and pale, till thus at length First to himself he inward silence broke. Note the effects of the caesura in this poignant passage.
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