The finest writing seems to have a way of catching both the reader’s eyes and ears, so that the natural resonance of words constructs a rhythm in the reader’s mind. That rhythm, if used well, will generate not just a pleasant feeling to the prose, but bears within the line the logic of its own semantic weight, by which I mean that rhythm points up emphasis, and meaning will emerge as a result. Not only does the rhythm guide the mind, it generates a sense of expectation, so when that rhythm breaks or is disrupted, the reader feels the shock of it subconsciously, which heightens still the power of the words.
Let me break those ideas down and see if we can make them work for us.
Permit me an indulgence. Read that first paragraph again aloud and see what you notice.
It’s almost entirely iambic, and if we broke the lines up after ten syllables, it would also be pentameter, thus:
The finest writing seems to have a way
Of catching both the reader’s eyes and ears,
So that the natural resonance of words
Constructs a rhythm in the reader’s mind.
Hardly Shakespeare, but the verse works in metrical terms.
If you can’t hear the rhythm, compare the following:
“Then the little Hiawatha learned of every bird its language.”
This is Longfellow doing native drums with trochaic meter in which the first syllable of each pair is stressed. There’s only so much of that the English language can stand.
Because English is a naturally iambic language it only takes a little heightened awareness for us to make that natural inclination work for us. So, fellow word nerds, let’s put it to work for us.
As most of you will dimly recollect, iambic pentameter is a ten syllable line in which the syllables alternate in unstressed/stressed pairs. It’s hard to see when dealing with monosyllables like “the” but multi syllable words have a natural stress pattern which, though there are variants based on usage and dialect, are generally agreed. So “finest” can only be said one way, with the stress on the first syllable. “FINEst,” not “finESTt.” This means that all words have a natural stress pattern which a writer can use to his or her advantage in creating a rhythmic smoothness, an ease or grace to the line that might be helpful.
Before I go any further, let me state the obvious: graceful, rhythmic prose might not be what you want generally and will often not suit a particular scene or moment but, like any other writerly device, it’s a good tool to have. Better yet, it’s a way of making yourself aware of how your prose feels to others whose reading is based on the words themselves, not on what you know is coming or the investment you have placed in the characters etc. You may want other rhythms, and you will almost certainly not want to rely on one like that first paragraph does, but it’s good to be able to hear it.
I’m not suggesting we all start writing verse novels. I’m merely reminding you of a tool which can both create a useful effect and can help refocus your attention on the sound of the words themselves.
As that first paragraph suggests, there are other advantages to using verse to create rhythm. One is for semantic effect. Shakespeare’s iambic is not merely an aesthetic device; it aids comprehension and emphasis. Consider the following:
What light through yonder window breaks
It is the East and Juliet is the sun.
Now break the lines down iambically and see how the stressed (2nd) syllables bear all the meaning of the lines.
Light, yon, win, breaks
Is, East. Jul, is sun.
It’s not the entire sense of the utterance, but there’s a lot of it there. By contrast, consider the unstressed syllables:
What, through, der, dow
It, the, and, iet, the
There’s almost nothing there. So the natural stress pattern of the iambic line helps the ear get a sense of what is being said. This is especially useful in the theatre which is an auditory medium, but most of us “hear” the words in our heads even as we read silently. Being aware of the natural sound of your words as you write can give you greater control of how they read in terms of emphasis, so that, for instance, changing word order or inserting a filler syllable can alter the feel of the line.
This takes a little practice, but it’s more a matter of training your ear to be aware of the sound of the words than it is developing any real skill.
Another useful trick is that when you establish a rhythm, derailing it on purpose creates a subconscious sense of alertness in the reader’s mind. If you look again at that first paragraph, the iambic breaks on “emphasis” as it must, since the word is three syllables, only the first of which is stressed (in metrical terms, it’s a dactyl). The two unstressed syllables break the rhythm of the line thereby creating emphasis on the word “emphasis”! The rhythm is broken again on “subconsciously” which also ends with two unstressed syllables, jarring the reader out of the metrical pattern and, hopefully, making them recognize what the language is doing.
It will be said, of course, that most readers don’t notice such things or don’t care about them. To that I would say that an attentive reader is aware of them, though generally not consciously, and that readers and writers should care. Words are what we do. We should pay attention to them.
Okay. So (you knew this was coming), give me 2-4 lines of iambic pentameter (ten syllables each line, with an alternating pattern of unstressed/stressed), just to flex your verse muscle. Any content you like. Go.