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607. The essence of Rhythm in poetry is the regular recurrence of syllables pronounced with more stress than those intervening. To produce this effect in its perfection, precisely equal times should occur between the recurrences of the stress. But, in the application of rhythm to words, the exactness of these intervals is sacrificed somewhat to the necessary length of the words; and, on the other hand, the words are forced somewhat in their pronunciation, to produce more nearly the proper intervals of time. In different languages these adaptations take place in different degrees; one language disregarding more the intervals of time, another the pronunciation of the words.

The Greek language early developed a very strict rhythmical form of poetry, in which the intervals of time were all-important. The earliest Latin, on the other hand, —as in the Saturnian and Fescennine verse,—was not so restricted. But the purely metrical forms were afterwards adopted from the Greek, and supplanted the native forms of verse. Thus the Latin poetry with which we have to do follows for the most part Greek rules, which require the formal division of words (like music) into measures of equal times, technically called Feet. The strict rhythm was doubtless more closely followed in poetry that was sung than in that which was declaimed or intoned. In neither language, however, is the time perfectly preserved, even in single measures: and there are some cases in which the regularity of the time between the ictuses is disturbed.

The Greeks and Romans distinguished syllables of two kinds in regard to the time required for their pronunciation, a long syllable having twice the metrical value of a short one. But it must not be supposed that all long syllables were of equal length, or even that in a given passage each long had just twice the length of the contiguous shorts. The ratio was only approximate at best, though necessarily more exact in singing than in recitation. Nor are longs and shorts the only forms of syllables that are found. In some cases a long syllable was protracted, so as to have the time of three or even of four shorts, and often one long or two shorts were pronounced in less than their proper time, though they were perhaps distinguishable in time from one

short (see § 608. c, d). Sometimes a syllable naturally short seems to have been slightly prolonged, so as to represent a long, though in most (not all) cases the apparent irregularity can be otherwise explained. In a few cases, also, a pause takes the place of one or more syllables to fill out the required length of the measure. This could, of course, take place only at the end of a word: hence the importance of Cæsura and Diæresis in prosody (§ 611. b, c).


608. Rhythm consists of the division of musical sound into equal intervals of time called Measures or Feet.

The most natural division of musical time is into measures consisting of either two or three equal parts. But the ancients also distinguished measures of five equal parts.

Note.--The divisions of musical time are marked by a stress of voice on one or the other part of the measure. This stress is called the Ictus (beat), or metrical accent (see § 611. a).

a. The unit of length in Prosody is one short syllable. This is called a Mora. It is represented by the sign ˘, or in musical notation by the eighth note or quaver ().

b. A long syllable is regularly equal to two moræ, and is represented by the sign ¯, or by the quarter note or crotchet ().

c. A long syllable may be protracted, so as to occupy the time of three or four moræ. Such a syllable, if equal to three moræ, is represented by the sign (or dotted quarter ); if equal to four, by (or the half note or minim, ).

d. A long syllable may be contracted, so as to take practically the time of a short one. Such a syllable is sometimes represented by the sign >.

e. A short syllable may be contracted so as to occupy less than one mora.

f. A pause sometimes occurs at the end of a verse or a series of verses, to fill up the time. A pause of one mora in a measure is indicated by the sign ^; one of two moræ by the sign [macrcirc].

g. One or more syllables are sometimes placed before the proper beginning of the measure. Such syllables are called an Anacrūsis or prelude. 1

The anacrusis is regularly equal to the unaccented part of the measure.

609. The feet most frequently employed in Latin verse, to gether with their musical notation, are the following:—


  1. Trochee (): as, rēgĭs.
  2. Iambus (): as, dŭcēs.
  3. Tribrach3 (): as, hŏmĭnĭs.


  1. Dactyl (): as, cōnsŭlĭs.
  2. Anapæst (): as, mŏnĭtōs.
  3. Spondee (): as, rēgēs.


  1. Ionic ā mâiōre (): as, cōnfēcĕrăt.
  2. Ionic ā minōre (): as, rĕtŭlissent.
  3. Choriambus (): as, contŭlĕrant.


  1. Cretic (): as, cōnsŭlēs.
  2. Pæon prīmus(): as, cōnsŭlĭbŭs.
  3. Pæon quārtus (): as, ĭtĭnĕrì.
  4. Bacchīus (): as, ămīcōs.

Note.--Several compound feet are mentioned by the grammarians, viz. Pyrrhic(˘ ˘); Amphibrach(˘ ¯ ˘); Antibacchīus (¯ ¯ ˘); Proceleusmatic (˘ ˘ ˘ ˘); the Molossus (¯ ¯ ¯); the 2d and 3d Pæon, having a long syllable in the 2d or 3d place, with three short ones; 1st, 2d, 3d, and 4th Epitrĭtus, having a short syllable in the 1st, 2d, 3d, or 4th place, with three long ones.

Irrational Feet

e. Feet with these apparent quantities do not always occupy equal time, but may be contracted or prolonged to suit the series in which they occur. They are then called irrational, because the thesis and arsis do not have their normal ratio.5 Such are:—

Irrational Spondee: (in place of a Trochee) [acutemacr] > (in place of an Iambus) > [acutemacr]

Cyclic Dactyl (in place of a Trochee):

Cyclic Anapæst (in place of an Iambus):

The apparent dactyl > [acutebreve] ˘, as a substitute for an iambus, and the apparent anapæst [acutebreve] ˘ >, as a substitute for a trochee, occur frequently in the dramatic writers.

Note.--Narrative poetry was written for rhythmical recitation, or chant, with instrumental accompaniment; and Lyrical poetry for rhythmical melody, or singing. It must be borne in mind that in ancient music—which in this differs widely from modern—the rhythm of the melody was identical with the rhythm of the text. The lyric poetry was to be sung; the poet was musician and composer, as well as author. To this day a poet is said conventionally to “sing.”

Thus a correct understanding of the rhythmical structure of the verse gives us the time, though not the tune, to which it was actually sung. The exact time, however, as indicated by the succession of long and short syllables, was varied according to certain laws of so-called “Rhythmic,” as will be explained below. In reading ancient verse it is necessary to bear in mind not only the variations in the relative length of syllables, but the occasional pause necessary to fill out the measure; and to remember that the rhythmical accent is the only one of importance, though the words should be distinguished carefully, and the sense preserved. Poetry should not be scanned, but read metrically.


610. In many cases measures of the same time may be substituted for each other, a long syllable taking the place of two short ones, or two short syllables the place of a long one.

In the former case the measure is said to be contracted; in the latter, to be resolved:

a. A Spondee (¯ ¯) may take the place of a Dactyl (¯ ˘ ˘) or an Anapæst (˘ ˘ ¯); and a Tribrach (˘ ˘ ˘) may take the place of a Trochee (¯ ˘) or an Iambus (˘ ¯). The optional substitution of one long syllable for two short ones is represented by the sign ˘˘.

b. When a long syllable having the Ictus (§ 611. a) is resolved, the ictus properly belongs to both the resulting short syllables; but for convenience the mark of accent is placed on the first:—

núnc ex|p˘´rĭar | sítne ă|cē´tō | tĭ´bĭ cŏr | ā´crein | péctŏ|rĕ´.—Pl. Bac. 405.

The Musical Accent

611. That part of the measure which receives the stress of voice (the musical accent) is called the Thesis; the unaccented part is called the Arsis.6

a. The stress of voice laid upon the Thesis is called the Ictus (beat). It is marked thus: [acutemacr] ˘ ˘.

b. The ending of a word within a measure is called Cæsura. When this coincides with a rhetorical pause, it is called the Cæsura of the verse, and is of main importance as affecting the melody or rhythm.

c. The coincidence of the end of a word with that of a measure is called Diæresis.

1 The same thing occurs in modern poetry, and in modern music any unaccented syllables at the beginning are treated as an anacrusis, i.e. they make an incomplete measure before the first bar. This was not the case in ancient music. The ancients seem to have treated any unaccented syllable at the beginning as belonging to the following accented ones, so as to make with them a foot or measure. Thus it would seem that there was an original form of Indo-European poetry which was iambic in its structure, or which, at least, accented the second syllable rather than the first.

2 Called diplasic, the two parts (Thesis and Arsis) being in the ratio of 2 to 1.

3 Not found as a fundamental foot, but only as the resolution of a Trochee or Iambus

4 Called hemiolic, the two parts being in the ratio of 1 to 11/2, or of 2 to 3.

5 It seems probable that both thesis and arsis of an irrational foot were affected by the necessity of preserving the rhythmical time of the foot.

6 The Thesis signifies properly the putting down (θέσις, from τίθημι, put, place) of the foot in beating time, in the march or dance (“downward beat”), and the Arsis the raising (ἄρσις, from ἀείρω, raise) of the foot (“upward beat”). By the Latin grammarians these terms were made to mean, respectively, the ending and the beginning of a measure. By a misunderstanding which has prevailed till recently, since the time of Bentley, their true signification has been reversed. They will here be used in accordance with their ancient meaning, as has now become more common. This metrical accent, recurring at regular intervals of time, is what constitutes the essence of the rhythm of poetry as distinguished from prose, and should be constantly kept in mind. The error mentioned arose from applying to trochaic and dactylic verse a definition which was true only of iambic or anapæstic.

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    • Plautus, Bacchides, 3.3
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