Summary · Introduction · Metrics and their terminology · The verse and the verse · Metre, rhythm, prosody · Regulated, free, mixed metric forms · Poetic genres and metrical forms:
lyrical forms and discursive forms

The metrics of poetry

When it comes to metrics, the first impression is almost always that of a tedious technical approach, debasing the artistic beauty of a poem.

And yet studying and applying metrics to the texts being read is fundamental if they are to be appreciated in their entirety: ignoring the metrical aspect in fact deprives one of total possession of a composition in the same way as what happens when one does not know the language, the author or the historical-cultural context. It will be useful, indeed, to emphasise in this regard that metrics, as an integral part of poetic culture, cannot be dealt with as a reality separate from history, and it is by virtue of this interconnection between the elements mentioned that it is necessary to divulge a subject that is usually ignored.

💡 Did you know? The first to deal with metrics in history was Damone, active in Athens in the 5th century BC. C. He was followed in importance by Cesio Basso (1st century AD) with his famous treatise De metris. For Italian metrics, the merit goes instead to Antonio da Tempo (late 13th cent. -?), who in 1332 published the Summa artis rytmici vulgaris dictaminis.

Cover of the book 'The Practicing Poet: Writing Beyond the Basics'

About The metrics of poetry:

The Practicing Poet: Writing Beyond the Basics

The book includes thirty brief craft essays, each followed by a model poem and analysis of the poem's craft, then a prompt based on the poem. Ten recyclable bonus prompts are also included.

poem, livre des arts, poëzie

Metrics and their terminology

Metrics is a technical matter, and as such it has its own sectoral lexicon, made up of specific terms that it is good to know.
Perhaps what a verse or a strophe, a syllable or a rhyme is, is information already present in the cultural consciousness of many. But what we mean when we speak of prosody, the difference between metre and rhythm, the categorisation of metrical forms and their distinction from poetic genres, or how metre and syntax relate to each other are, all together, notions that are undoubtedly little or not at all known.

The verse and the strophe

One could define the verse as the basic unit, or rather, the minimum unit on which a complete poetic discourse is built.

Depending on the spatio-temporal dimension in which a text is analysed, it can also be described - more simply - as a series of syllables constructed according to precise rules (if we look at what happens in a large part of the literary tradition) or freely elaborated but presented and perceived by the reader as verse because the cultural conception of the moment allows it (and this is what happens with free versification in the 20th century).

Un insieme di versi compone invece una strofa, misura di base dell' organizzazione versale di un testo poetico.

Come le singole sillabe, anche i versi seguono determinati codici di raggruppamento, i quali variano dalla riproduzione di uno schema di rime ben preciso (come nel distico, i cui versi risultano accoppiati per rima baciata - AABBCC…) a quella di una specifica sequenza di metri (ad esempio nella strofa saffica, composta sistematicamente di tre endecasillabi e un quinario), per arrivare alla combinazione di questi due elementi (come l'ottava rima, che impiega endecasillabi rimati ABABABCC) o - nella versificazione libera - ad una modulazione totalmente affidata all'arbitrio stilistico dell'autore (per cui le strofe saranno unità riconoscibili come tali solo dallo stacco grafico che il poeta interporrà fra di esse).

A set of verses, on the other hand, makes up a strophe, the basic measure of versal organisation in a poetic text.

Like the individual syllables, the verses also follow certain codes of grouping, which vary from the reproduction of a precise rhyme scheme (as in the couplet, whose verses are coupled by rhyming couplets - AABBCC... ) to that of a specific sequence of metres (e.g. in the sapphic strophe, systematically composed of three endecasyllables and a quatrain), to the combination of these two elements (such as the octave rhyme, which uses rhymed endecasyllables ABABABCC) or - in free versification - to a modulation totally entrusted to the author's stylistic will (whereby the stanzas will be units recognisable as such only by the graphic break that the poet will put between them).

Beyond these cases, by convention, we speak of strophic forms only in reference to those organisational typologies based on a regular use of an exclusive rhyme scheme, on a peculiar sequence of verses and on an exact coincidence between syntax and metre (the poetic discourse must necessarily conclude near the end of the stanza, in an autonomous whole).

ancient pen

Metre, rhythm, prosody

Often confused with each other, metre and rhythm are two different but complementary aspects of poetic discourse.

Starting from a practical example with the sonnet, the metre of the sonnet will be the size and number of lines, the organisation into verse groups, the use of certain rhyme forms; in terms of rhythm, on the other hand, we will look at the disposition of tonic and atonic syllables (hence the accents), the recurrence of certain sounds within the lines or in the rhyme, and the pattern dictated by the new lines that divide lines and stanzas.

It can be deduced, therefore, that while metre is a concrete fact insofar as it relates to all those normative aspects of the formal canon, rhythm is more of an abstract fact, linked to the dimension of time along which the poem develops by sound and movement. Everything about metre describes the textual structures of poetry, the so-called metrical forms. Below this 'higher level' are the rhythmic features, which can be traced back to the general whole called prosody.

Regulated, free, mixed metric forms

There are many formal approaches through which a poetic text can be composed, and even more so if we consider that each of them tends to change according to the author's use, multiplying into as many variants characteristic of each era.
An authoritative directive is therefore necessary. Pietro Bembo, one of the most important codifiers of the Italian language, offered it: in his famous Prose della volgar lingua, he divided metrical forms into regulated, free and mixed.

💡 Did you know? Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) was an Italian cardinal and humanist, best known for his normative contribution to the (written) Italian language formulated in (full title) Prose nelle quali si ragiona della volgar lingua, published in 1525: in these he proposes Boccaccio as a model for prose writing, and Petrarch for verse writing, rejecting Dante because he was too compromised by an excessive variety of registers and lexicons.

Regulated forms have a fixed structure, dictated by well-defined rules, without which they would lose their metrical identity. A relative example is the bthird rhyme, strictly made up of endecasyllables ordered in groups of three by the chained rhyme (ABA BCB CDC...).

The free forms follow the personal inventiveness of the author, who arranges verses and rhymes without reference to any constraint, and in stanzas that are not in the least bit related to shared canonical forms. An exemplary case is the 16th century madrigal, in single short stanzas in which endecasyllables, septenaries and rhymes are placed differently each time.

The mixed forms are only partially subject to rules, beyond which all external aspects of them are variable. Paradigmatic, in this sense, are the Petrarchan song (fixed in the metric-rhyme scheme but changing in the number of stanzas) and the sonnet (constant on the metric-strophic level but open to different rhyme schemes).

San Girolamo in the study - by Antonello from Messina

Poetic genres and metrical forms: lyrical forms and discursive forms

Just as we speak of romance genres (historical, detective, pink, etc.), so too poetry is distinguished by poetic genres, forming its own parallel and complementary repertoire to the metrical one just displayed, with which it intersects densely. But their relationship is not symmetrical: if each genre, in fact, operates a restricted choice of metrical forms, on the contrary, these lend themselves to numerous poetic typologies, thus hosting a rather vast quantity of subjects but always within the same formal container.

In this respect, the two categories of lyrical forms and discursive forms can be identified. The former refer to those metrical forms that are more or less 'short', endowed with a stylistic and thematic compactness and therefore mostly linked to a refined and very poetic lexicon (rich in rhetorical figures, aimed at a strong expressiveness) and to a circumscribed set of topics such as love, morals, politics, to which are added compositions of occasion or entertainment. Songs and all their variants, sonnets, ballads and madrigals are lyrical forms.

💡 Did you know? The adjective 'lyrical' associated with these metrical typologies refers to their original musical destination. If, however, the question of the relationship between poetry and music in the tradition of the Provençal troubadours and French troubadours is by now fairly well established, it is still controversial and discussed for the Sicilian School and the first Tuscan poetic production.

The latter, on the other hand, are usually referred to as 'long' metrical forms, in which epic narratives or didactic disquisitions (so-called poems) find their place. These include third rhyme, octave rhyme, quatrains of Alexandrian septenaries, or sequences of couplets with rhymed couplets or loose endecasyllables.

By Vincenzo Canto
painting with angels
The division into syllables

The fundamental principle, in all regular Italian versification, which is looked at in relation to the definition of the measure of a verse, is based on the syllable, or rather, on the number of syllables. But what is a syllable, how is it defined? And how is it identified? But above all, how is metrication carried out?

portrait of the italian poet Giovanni Pascoli
Pascoli and onomatopoeia

Thinking about Pascoli's poetry inevitably brings to mind a whole series of lyrical images of great visual and sound suggestion. But how the 'child poet' arrives at these extremely fine elaborations is a subject that is little discussed and, in reality, very important: the music of the words, the phonic and analogical links that weave between them, the visionary dynamics that spring from them, are at the basis of Pascoli's poetic discourse that rests on this dense network.

portrait of Dante Alighieri
Dante: anecdotes and legends about the Supreme Poet

Alongside the rich manuscript and critical tradition linked to the name of Dante, there is another equally copious one of a strictly anecdotal nature, which undoubtedly has the merit of contributing in the first place to increasing the already considerable importance of the figure of the Florentine Supreme Poet.