(All examples are from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins)


Counterpointing' is where there are two or more sound patterns or tunes going on at once. The easiest poetic counterpointing to recognize is to take the line as the basic rhythmic unit (like a drum beat under a rock tune). That becomes one sound pattern.


If there is no punctuation at the end of a line of poetry (i.e., it is not ‘end-stopped'), the voice naturally runs on into the next line, and only pauses where the punctuation dictates. The device of over-running a line is called enjambement. Even though there may be rhyming words to re-enforce the visual ending of the line, the grammatical force of the sentence produces a second sound pattern, overlying the first.


Another example of counterpointing arises when when a break is made in the middle of the line. This is called a caesura. Use of the caesura is common in French, Welsh and Old and Medieval English poetry, where it often becomes the climax of the line. This sort of verse uses alliteration and caesuras to create its main rhythmic sound pattern.

  • In alliterative poetry, the caesura is part of the patterning: usually two alliterations before it, and one after
  • The caesura is marked by a full-stop

  • The rhythmic effect is to run the line upwards to its mid-point, then run it down again.

Using caesuras can set up a counterpoint rhythm, on top of the metric line, which usually looks towards the end of the line for its climax.

Beyond the metrical beat

Metre is the foundation for poetic rhythm, but of itself, the metre cannot fully determine whether the rhythm is going to be:

  • Slow or fast (its pace)

  • Soft and lyrical or loud, emphatic and dramatic (its genre)

  • Triumphant, celebratory, mournful and so on (its tone).

A number of other factors help us to decide the rhythm, the first of which is the meaning itself. While subject matter cannot force us to read something in a certain rhythm, it can set the tone and place it in a genre.

Vowel length and ‘colour'

The length of the vowels of the accented syllables helps determine pace:

  • In some poetry, called quantitative poetry, such as Latin verse, the poetry is patterned by long and short syllables

  • Short vowels, usually marked with a little ‘u' over them, have to be ‘hurried over'

  • Long vowels, marked by a ‘-' over them, can be lengthened indefinitely without losing the sense

  • Thus, the difference between ‘bad/bade'; ‘bed/bead'; ‘bit/bite'; ‘log/rogue'; ‘cut/cute'

  • Diphthongs are usually long, as ‘caught', 'loud'.

A line full of long vowels is bound to be read slowly, as

‘Hōpe had grōwn grēy hāirs' (The Wreck of the Deutschland),

whilst short syllables help us skip through a line, as

‘Thrõstle abõve her nĕsted' (The May Magnificat)

The unstressed syllables are also short, to re-inforce the effect, but of themselves would not affect the rhythm.

The colouring of the vowels of the accented syllables also affects the rhythm, though more subtly:

  • ‘i', ‘e' and ‘oo' are the front vowels, and give a lighter tone

  • ‘ă' (as in 'apple') is a mid-vowel

  • ‘ā' (as in 'ark'), 'o', 'au/ou' and ‘u' re the back vowels, and darker or heavier.


‘and the call of the tall nun' (The Wreck)

is heavy, all accented syllables being back, whilst

‘Nestling me everywhere' (The Blessed Virgin)

is much lighter, being front vowels.

Internal rhyme and assonance

The rhythm of a poem is also affected by internal rhyme and assonance.

  • In the line: ‘and the call of the tall nun' (The Wreck) ‘call/tall' is an internal rhyme and draws attention to itself and therefore its sound
  • Assonance is a repeating pattern of vowel sounds, as in ‘great grey drayhorse' (Felix Randal).


Consonants can also affect rhythm and pace:

  • A group of consonant clusters, difficult for the tongue to get round, will slow the pace

  • On the other hand, a series of open syllables (syllables with one vowel and one consonant) can be said very fast

    • E.g., ‘la la la la' (as opposed to ‘slosh froth briskly').

In densely packed poetry, such as that of Hopkins, we find:

‘bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded' (Duns Scotus' Oxford)

where the consonant clusters hinder us rushing through this line. We have to stop and savour each one of its compounds.

Compare this with:

‘Crying Whát I dó is me; for that I came' (‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire')

which is not necessarily to be said quickly, but has a lightness and a triumphant bright tone and rhythm.


We might not think of alliteration as rhythmically important, but when it is heavily patterned, it will necessarily bring attention to the initial consonants of accented syllables.

If the consonants or consonant clusters are hard or explosive (fricatives), this will affect their emphasis, just as soft consonants (sibilants, liquids) will soften the rhythm.


‘His rollrock highroad roaring down' (Inversnaid) Author G.M. Hopkins

The r-alliteration is quite onomatopoeic (sounding really quite like a motor-bike!), whereas the liquid consonants of:

‘Flutes and low to the lake falls home.'

mimic the sound of soft water.

Monosyllabic and polysyllabic words

Another obvious rhythmical device is the mix of accented monosyllabic and polysyllabic words:

  • A series of monosyllabic spondees will produce a slow emphatic rhythm

  • A line of polysyllables will probably produce 'hurried' feet.

However it's difficult to generalize.

Each of these devices, of themselves, are not sufficient to explain any particular rhythm. It is the particular combinations that do, just as in a band or orchestra, it is the combination of instruments that are needed to explain a particular effect.


Punctuation is a very visual indication of rhythm. If a poet uses many commas, full-stops, dashes and parentheses (brackets), the rhythm is bound to become fragmented and blocked, whereas an absence of these things will produce a flowing rhythm.

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