About Poetry: English Prosody
Plus: Selected Literary Terms

     The main feature that distinguishes poetry from other written genres is succinctness (精鍊), a tight structure and higher concentration of content – crowded into fewer words – than you usually find in ordinary prose.
     Poetry can be analyzed as to its form and its content. Ideally, the two should reflect and reinforce each other in expressing the message of the poem.


     Number of lines: The number of lines may be a clue that a poem belongs to a special verse form, for example, a sonnet (see below), which has 14 lines and in Chinese is simply called a 十四行詩, or a limerick, which normally has five lines. A poem or stanza with one line is called a monostich, one with two lines is a couplet; with three, tercet or triplet; four, quatrain. six, hexastich; seven, heptastich; eight, octave. Also note the number of stanzas.

     Meter: English has stressed and unstressed syllables. English is considered a stress-timed language, unlike French, which is a syllable-timed language. In poetry, stressed and unstressed syllables are often put together in specific patterns. In poetry these patterns are called meter, which means 'measure'. The meters you find in poetry are the same ones we use in everyday speech. The main difference is that in ordinary conversation these patterns tend to occur spontaneously and without any special order; in poetry they are usually carefully chosen and arranged.
     Here are the most common meters you find in English poetry. / represents a stressed, long syllable;stands for an unstressed, short syllable (not to be confused with 'long' and 'short' vowels), also called a mora (
短音節; pl. morae, sometimes moras). The first word of each meter below (e.g. 'iambic') is the adjective form, the one in parentheses is the noun form.

iambic (iamb; L. iambus, Gk iambos; a pre-Hellenic word)
trochaic (trochee; Gk. trochaios 'running')
dactylic (dactyl; Gk. daktylos 'finger' with one long, two short joints)
anapestic (anapest; Gk. ana 'back' + paiein 'to strike', i.e., a reversed dactyl)
。/ 。/ 。/ 。/
/。 /。 /。 /。
/。。 /。。 /。。 /.。。
。。/ 。。/ 。。/ 。。/

     A fifth kind of meter is called spondaic (spondee; Gk sponde 'solemn libation', which was accompanied by a solemn melody) and consists of two consecutive long, stressed syllables: / /; and a sixth is caled pyrrhic (from a word for an ancient Greek war dance); this is a metrical foot having two short or unaccented syllables 。。. In addition, there are two even lesser-known meters, amphibrach, which has a short-long-short pattern: 。 /。 (e.g. delicious) and amphimacer, a long-short-long one: /。/ (e.g. eighty-eight). There are still other meters, but these are mostly from Greek and Latin poetry (the preceding are also found in Greek and Latin poetry), and they are not very applicable to English poetry.
     Sometimes there will be one, two or more unstressed syllables at the beginning of a line, e.g. "It at last grew so small, He knew nothing at all". These are considered "extra" beginning syllables that do not "count" when trying to determine the meter of the verse; in this case the limerick is still considered to have a dactylic meter. These extra unstressed syllables at the beginning of a line of verse are called anacrusis
弱起小節. And if there are some beats "missing" at the end of the line, resulting in an incomplete metric foot it is referred to as catalexis (adjective: catalectic 音步不完全).
    Often the same rhythm will not be used throughout a whole poem, or even a whole line; there may be an extra beat here, one omitted there; or the meter may simply change. Poets often seem to establish a regular pattern, but then put in something 'unexpected' to startle the reader, or to achieve some special effect.
     If the meter of a poem seems to fall into none of the above categories, it may simply have an irregular, or unpredictable, meter that does not follow any set pattern.
     You can divide the rhythms above into parts. Circle each group of symbols containing just one long, stressed syllable / in each example above. You will find that each line has four such groups. Each one of these groups is called a foot 音步, and counting the number of feet is one way of determining the length of a line of poetry. Here are the literary terms for each line length as regards number of feet: one foot: monometer; two feet: dimeter; three feet, trimeter; four feet, tetrameter; five feet, pentameter; six feet, hexameter; seven feet, heptameter.

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caesura: a caesura is simply a pause. Absence of sound is also an important element of poetry. Make sure you insert caesuras where they are called for. Not all caesuras are the same length; some are quite long, others are very short. Normally there is a fairly long caesura at the end of every line of poetry. There is usually also a very short caesura after every 'foot'.

punctuation and capitalization
: An important thing to remember is that almost any kind of punctuation you see in a poem tends to signal a pause or caesura. Some poets use very conventional punctuation, some use none at all. Some follow their own special rules in the use of punctuation, e.g. E. E. Cummings, who is also noted for seldom using capital letters in his poetry. You know from your experience with Chinese that different ways of punctuating a phrase or sentence (i.e. 斷句) can sometimes result in different meanings.

More here:
(1) How to Scan a Poem; (2) Scansion 101 (YouTube);  (3) How to read a poem out loud (with audio by poet Billy Collins)
(4) Scansion in Poetry: Definition & Examples (with video)

These resources will help you uncover the poem's meaning and analyze the form by yourself:
(1) Looking at a poem: Som questions to ask  (.doc file)
(2) Analysis of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" for form and content

     Rhyme (rime):

    Rhyme is the effect created by matching sounds at the end of words. Ordinarily this includes the last accented vowel and the sounds that follow it, but not the sound of the preceding consonant(s).
     Masculine rhyme falls on one syllable: fat, cat; repair, affair. Feminine or double rhyme includes two syllables, of which only the first is stressed: better, setter; pleasure, treasure. Triple rhyme, often reserved for light verse and doggerel, involves three syllables: practical, tactical.
     There are different kinds of rhyme: exact rhyme (perfect, full, true, complete, whole), which repeats end sounds precisely, e.g. cap, map; slant rhyme (half, approximate, imperfect, near, off, oblique) provides an approximation of the sound: cat, cot; hope, cup; defeated, impeded. Identical rhyme repeats the entire sound, including the initial consonant, sometimes (as in rime riche) with two different meanings and/or spellings, e.g. two, too. Eye rhyme looks as though it should rhyme, but does not, e.g. great, meat; proved, loved. Apocopated rhyme pairs a masculine and feminine ending, rhyming on the stress: cope, hopeless; kind, finder. In mosaic rhyme, two words rhyme with one, or two with two: master, passed her; chorus, before us; went in, sent in.
     Most rhyme occurs at the end of the line and is called terminal rhyme. Initial rhyme comes at the beginning of a line, and is sometimes combined with end rhyme. Internal rhyme occurs within one or more lines. Crossed or interlaced rhyme combines internal and end rhyme to give a long-line couplet the effect of a short-line quatrain. Enclosed rhyme envelops a couplet with rhyming lines in the pattern abba. In interlocking rhyme a word unrhymed in a first stanza is linked with words rhymed in the next to create a continuing pattern, e.g. aba bcb cdc.
     The functions of rhyme are essentially four: pleasurable, mnemonic, structural and rhetorical. Like meter and figurative language, rhyme provides a pleasure derived from fulfillment of a basic human desire to see similarity in dissimilarity, likeness with a difference. As a mnemonic aid, it couples lines and thoughts, imprinting poems and passages on the mind in a manner that assists later recovery. As a structural device, it helps to define line ends and establishes the patterns of couple, quatrain, stanza, ballad, sonnet, and other poetic units and forms. As a rhetorical device, it helps the poet to shape the poem and the reader to understand it. Because rhyme links sound, it also links thought, pulling the reader's mind back from the new word to the word that preceded it.
      The effect of rhyme in a poem depends to a large extent on its association with meter. Rhymes gain emphasis in sound and rhetoric when they are heavily stressed. Rhyme is frequent in the poetry of many but not all languages. It is rare in Greek, Latin, and Old English, though it has been common in English since the 14th century. By a more extended definition it can cover the sound patterns of the poetry of all languages and periods, and may include any sound echo, such as alliteration (alliterative verse 雙聲詩 was briefly popular in China's Northern and Southern Dynasty period), assonance, consonance and repetition (definitions below).

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     A few verse forms:

(It. from L. sonus 'sound'): This is a special verse form with 14 lines, usually iambic pentameter in English. There are two main kinds of sonnet, Italian or Petrarchan and Shakespearean or English. An Italian sonnet is composed of an octave, i.e. an eight-line verse, rhyming abbaabba, and a sestet or six-line verse, rhyming cdecde or cdcdcd, or in some variant pattern, but with no concluding couplet (2-line verse). A Shakespearean sonnet has three quatrains (four-line verses) and rhymes abab cdcd efef gg. how to write a sonnet.

blank verse: Unrhymed iambic pentameter.

free verse: Poetry that is free of traditional rhyme, metrical, stanza patterns.

Heroic couplet: Lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme in pairs (aa, bb, cc).

doggerel (打油詩): Silly, trivial poetry. A humorous poem may belong to a set form, for example, it may be a limerick (五行打油詩). A limerick has an aabba rhyme scheme; the first two and last rhymes are trimeter, the third and fourth, dimeter. It is usually dactylic.

triolet: A French verse form with this rhyme scheme: A B a - Rhymes with 1st line. A - Identical to 1st line. a - Rhymes with 1st line. b - Rhymes with 2nd line. A - Identical to 1st line. B - Identical to 2nd line. how to write a triolet (with links on the ballad, sonnet, villanelle) audio file on the triolet form

Spenserian stanza: A nine-line stanza with an ababbcbcC rhyme scheme; the capital "C" means the last verse is an Alexandrine, which has six feet instead of five, i.e. it is s a hexameter instead of pentameter.

Many more verse forms are defined and exemplified here: A Guide to Verse Forms      List of 100 Poetic Forms for Poets


When reading a poem, try to get to its intended message, what the poet is trying to communicate in this poem; this may be quite different from the apparent, literal meaning of the poem.
      Sometimes a poet is simply trying to communicate a certain feeling, and uses various devices to create that feeling or an understanding of it in the reader. Sometimes a poem is mostly form with little meaning; its main effect may be visual or auditory. This is called abstract poetry.

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alliteration (L. ad 'to' + littera 'letter''; 頭韻): Repetition of the same or similar consonant (子音/輔音) sound at the beginning of a word, e.g. 'Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.'

allusion (L. allusio 'a playing with'; 典故): A reference to another text or event.

ambiguity (L. ambi 'around' + agere 'act'; ambigere 'to wander'; 歧義): Something suggesting more than one meaning or interpretation.

anonymous (Gk. an 'without' + onyma 'name'; 不具作者姓名的、佚名): 'Without a name'; indicates that an author of a work is not known.

antithesis (Gr. anti 'against' + tithenai 'to place'; 對偶): A direct contrast or opposition.

antonym (Gk. anti 'opposite' + onyma 'name'; 反義語): A word opposite in meaning to another.

assonance (L. ad 'to' + sonare 'sound'; 'to sound in answer'; 半諧音): Repetition of vowel (母音/元音) sounds, e.g. 'They flee from me that sometime did me seek.'.

cacophony (Gk. kakos 'bad, evil' + phone 'voice' adj. cacophonous; 刺耳的聲音): 'Bad-sounding'.

cliché; (F. clicher 'to stereotype' from Gk. klitsch, 'clump, claylike mass'; 'to pattern in clay'; 陳詞濫調): A tired expression that has lost its original power to surprise because of overuse.

(L. com- 'together' + notare 'to mark'; 隱含意義): The implied meanings of a word; its overtones and associations over and above its literal, dictionary meaning.

consonance (L. com 'with' + sonare 'to sound'; 輔音韻): Repetition of inner or end consonant sounds, e.g. the r and s in 'broods with warm breast'.

context (L. com- 'together' + texere 'to weave'; 上下文、語境): The verbal or physical surroundings of a text.

denotation (L. de 'down' + notare 'to mark'; 本義): The basic dictionary meaning of a word without any of its associated meanings.

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ellipsis (Gk. elleipein 'to fall short [of a perfect circle]'; 省略法): Omission, a leaving out of something, which is nevertheless still implied.

enjambement, or run-on lines (Fr. en 'in' + jambe 'leg', enjamber 'encroach'; 跨行連續): In enjambement the grammatical sense runs from one line of poetry to the next without pause or punctuation; opposite of end-stopped line.

euphemism (Gk. eu 'good' + phanai 'to say'; 委婉語): An attractive substitute for a harsh or unpleasant word or concept; a less direct way of referring to something potentially offensive.

euphony (Gk. eu 'good' + phone 'voice'; adj. euphonious; 悅耳語音): 'Good-sounding', melodious.

expletive (L. ex 'out' + plere 'to fill'; 填充詞、語助詞、感嘆語、穢語): An unnecessary word or phrase used as a filler in speaking or writing ('you know') or as an aid to metrical regularity in verse ('oh'); an exclamation or oath.

explication (F. from L. ex 'out' + plicare 'to fold'; 作品分析): An explanation, analysis, or interpretation of a text.

genre (F. from L. genus 'kind'; 體裁、文體): A certain form or style of writing; e.g. poetry, novel, essay.

hyperbole (Gk. hyper 'over' + ballein 'to throw', i.e., 'throw too far; excess'; 夸張法): exaggeration, overstatement.

irony (Gk. eiron 'dissemble ['disguise, pretend'] in speech'; also called antiphrasis; Gk. anti 'against' + phrazein 'to speak'; 反語法): In general, irony is the perception of a clash between appearance and reality, between seems and is, or between ought and is. Irony falls mainly into three categories: (1) verbal: meaning something contrary to what the words seem to say; this assumes a tacit understanding between speaker and listener as regards the true situation; (2) dramatic: saying or doing something while unaware of its contrast with the whole truth, i.e. verbal irony with the speaker's awareness erased; (3) situational: events turning to the opposite of what is expected or what should be (also called circumstantial irony or the irony of fate, or cosmic irony), as when it rains on the Weather Bureau's annual picnic; the ought is upended by the is. Situational irony is the very essence of both comedy and tragedy.

literal meaning (L. littera 'letter'; 逐字、照字面的解釋或翻譯): the precise, plain meaning of a word or phrase in its simplest, original sense, considered apart from its sense as a metaphor or other figure of speech; in translation, a rendering as close as possible to the word-for-word plain sense of the original.

litotes (Gk. litos 'smooth, simple, plain'; 反敘法、曲言法): A kind of irony: the assertion of something by the denial of its opposite; 'Not bad.', This is no small matter.'

lyric (Gk. lyrikos 'of a lyre [里拉]'; 抒情詩): A poem, brief and discontinuous, emphasizing sound and pictorial imagery rather than narrative or dramatic movement. Lyrical poetry began in ancient Greece in connection with music, as poetry sung for the most part to the accompaniment of a lyre.

metaphor (Gk. meta 'over' + pherein 'to bear'; 隱喻): The comparison of one thing to another, treating something as if it were something else; a metaphor can be plain, implied, or dead.

metathesis (Gk. meta 'over' + tithenai 'place'; 音位變換): Interchanging of letters, sounds or syllables within a word, e.g. Old English brid became Modern English bird through metathesis; a modern example would be pretty, purty.

metonymy (Gk. meta 'other' + onyma 'name'; 轉語、借代): 'Substitute meaning'; an associated idea names the item: "Homer is hard." for "Reading Homer's poems is hard."

mixed metaphor (混雜隱喻): Changed or contradictory metaphors in the same discourse:, e.g. The population explosion has paved the way for new intellectual growth. Mixed metaphors are considered a sign of poor writing in English, but not necessarily in Chinese. The lines: 蛻變的軌跡 and 飽受飢餓的折磨 are acceptable Chinese; a literal translation of them into English would not be.

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monologue (Gk. monos 'single' + legein 'to speak'; 獨白): A text recited by one person alone.

narrator (L. narrare 'to tell'; 敘述者): One who tells a story or narration.

neologism (Gk. neos 'young, new' + logos 'word'; 新詞): A newly coined word.

onomatopoeia (Gk onoma 'name' + poeia 'making'; 擬聲詞): The use of words formed or sounding like what they signify; examples: mew, mew; clang, clang; swish.

oxymoron (Gk. oxys 'sharp, acid' + moros 'foolish' ® 'a pointed stupidity'; 矛盾形容法、逆喻; An apparently self-contradictory figure of speech, e.g. 'a fearful joy', or 'the sonorous silence'.

paradox (Gk. para 'side' + dokein 'to think, seem', i.e., 'other than what you expect' 似非而是): An apparently untrue or self-contradictory statement or circumstance that proves true upon reflection or when examined in another light.

parody (Latin parodia, Gk. para- 'beside, subsidiary' + aidein to sing; a 'mock song'; 詼諧的改編詩文): A parody imitates the serious manner and characteristic features of a particular literary work in order to make fun of those same features. The humorist achieves parody by exaggerating certain traits common to the work, much as a caricaturist creates a humorous depiction of a person by magnifying and calling attention to the person's most noticeable features. The term parody is often used synonymously with the more general term spoof, which makes fun of the general traits of a genre rather than one particular work or author. Often the subject matter of a parody is comically inappropriate, such as using the elaborate, formal diction of an epic to describe something trivial like washing socks or cleaning a dusty attic. (source)

paralepsis (Gk. para 'side' + leipein 'to leave'; 假省?法(故意省略重要部分而引人注意) Mention of desire to omit something in order to emphasize it. Also called apophasis.

parallelism (Gk. para 'side by side', allelos 'one another'; 對仗、平行結構的運用): The comparison of things by placing them side by side; a one-to-one correspondence of form, meaning, or both in a text.

paraphrase (Gk. paraphrazein 'to say in other words; 變換措詞、意譯): A rendering in other words of the sense of a text or passage.

personification (F. from L. persona 'actor's face mask, character'; 擬人化): The technique of treating abstractions, things or animals as persons; a kind of metaphor; also called anthropomorphism (Gk. anthropos 'man' + morphe 'form').

poetic license (L. licere 'to be permitted'; 詩的破格): The liberty taken by a poet who achieves special effects by ignoring the conventions (e.g. grammar) of prose.

point of view (敘事觀點): The vantage point from which a story is told or an account given. "I", or "he/she", etc.

prose (L. prosa, from prorsa (oratio) 'direct speech'; 散文體): Ordinary writing patterned on speech, as distinct from poetry (Gk. poiein 'to make').

prosody (Gk. pros 'to' + oide 'song, ode'; 詩體學、韻律學): The analysis and description of meters; metrics; the patterns of accent in a language.

pun (clipped form of It. puntiglio 'fine point'; 雙關語): A figure of speech involving a play on two or more words which sound similar but have different meanings, or refer to different things; usually humorous, but sometimes with serious intent

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redundancy (L. re(d) [an intensifier] + undare 'surge, swell' < unda 'wave'; 贅語): 'Overflowing'; repetitive, using many more words than necessary; also called pleonasm, tautology.

refrain (F. from Latin refringere 'to break off'; 副歌): A set phrase or chorus recurring throughout a song or poem, usually at the end of a stanza or at some other regular interval.

repetition (L. re 'again' + petere 'to demand, rush at, fall'; 重複): Using the same sound, word, etc. more than once; may be used for emphasis or other reasons.

rhetorical question (Gk. rhetor 'orator'; 修辭性疑問句): A question posed for rhetorical effect, usually with a self-evident answer.

rhyme scheme (ME, F. rime; Gk. schema 'a form'; 格律): The pattern created by the rhyming words of a poem or stanza. Usually Latin letters are used to designate the same rhyme, e.g. abab cdcd.

satire (L. satira or satura 'satire, poetic medley'; 諷刺、譏諷): Literature that ridicules vices and follies.

scansion (L. scandere 'to climb, mount'; 韻律分析): A system for analyzing and marking poetical meters and feet.

shaped poem (L. carmen figuratum; also called figure poem; 圖像詩): A poem constructed so that its shape on a page presents a picture of its subject.

simile (L. 'a likeness'; 明喻): The comparison of one thing to another using the word, or a word meaning, like.

sound symbolism (語音表義): A relationship between the sound structure and/or qualities of a word and its referent.

stanza (vul. L. stantia 'standing'; 節): Any grouping of lines in a separate unit in a poem; sometimes called a verse.

synaesthesia (Gk. syn 'together' + aisthesis 'sense-impression'; 聯覺): Close association or confusion of sense impressions. The result is essentially a metaphor, transferring qualities of one sense to another, e.g. a 'loud color'.

(Gk. synekdoche 'to receive together'; 提喻法、舉喻、以偏代全) Reference to something by just a part of it. "New York won the World Series," instead of "The New York Yankees won the World Series." See also: metonymy.

synonym (Gk. syn 'together' + onyma 'name'; 近義語): A word that means the same or almost the same as another.

(Gk. tonos 'stretching, tone'; 語氣): An author's revealed attitude toward his or her subject or audience: sympathy, longing, amusement, shock, sarcasm, etc.

understatement (輕描淡寫): An ironic minimizing of a fact in order to emphasize it; meiosis (Gk. meioun 'to make smaller').

verse (L. vertere 'to turn'): (1) (一行詩) One line of poetry; (2) (節) a stanza; (3) (詩 [總稱]) poetry in general; (4) (輕鬆幽默的詩) light poetry as opposed to serious.

(Gk. 'yoke'; 軛式搭配法): The technique of using one word to yoke two or more others for ironic or amusing effect, achieved when as least one of the yoked is a misfit, e.g. "He took leave and his hat."

     Much of the above information was taken from: The Harper Handbook to Literature. Northrop Frye, Sheridan Baker, George Perkins, ed. New York: Harper & Row. 563pp. Paper; also The Norton Sampler. Thomas Cooley, ed. New York & London: W. W. Norton. Paper. Both are available at Bookman. Dictionaries consulted: Webster's New World College Dictionary, 3rd ed. 1988. New York: Macmillan. and the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary.

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Didn't find what you were looking for? Try these pages:

A Unique Guide for the Study of Poetry

Literary vocabulary

Literaturwissenschaft-online: Glossar (Universität Kiel; German)

Retorica: Handboek filologie (Dutch)|

Lexique des termes littéraires (French)

Figuras Retóricas o Literarias

Dizionario di metrica e retorica (Italian)