Rhythm is intrinsic to all the arts. One of my favorite photographs is of three gulls flying overhead. Their wings are in the same position, their distance from each other is the same, the direction of their flight is the same. The picture is rhythmic, as are music and dance obviously, and also painting, sculpture. architecture, and poetry. The essence of rhythm is repetition that suggests forward movement. In poetry, metrical verse may be as repetitious as a metronome; free verse may be as various as speech or the wind. The quality of rhythm in prose is more subtle than in poetry, but surely it is there. A strictly observed line exists between prose and poetry. The repetition in meter and rhyme are outlawed in prose. Even alliteration is discouraged. Prose seems devoted more to the straight communication of thought; the indirectness of poetic effects distracts the reader. Still, writers of prose obviously pay attention to the effect of rhythm. They especially pay attention to repetition that is ineffective or inappropriate rhythm. Unless the context and their purpose call for it, they avoid jerky or dragging rhythm, jarring effects, monotonous or boring repetition. An important task in revising is removing distracting rhythm. (I should remove at least one of the "-ings" in that sentence.)

Not all the rhythmic effects in poetry and prose are derived through sound. Repetition of images, ideas, and even grammatical structures may be rhythmic. "Of the people, by the people, and for the people" repeats prepositional phrases together with the repeated words they convey. Had Lincoln repeated only the prepositions,"of, by, and for the people," the expression would not have become so classic. Does a silent reading of prose contain rhythm? I have already said that I hear the words I am writing; I hear its spoken rhythm. Do I perceive its visual/linguistic repetitions? If I am writing a series of phrases, for example, do I perceive their parallelism? Of course. Moreover, I sense that the series has movement--inherent in the sense of rhythm--a climax in the last phrase, that I have built toward. For example: "The sports he loved were golf, tennis, and intercollegiate football. " For its rhythmic effect, I put the heavy phrase last. I am not unique in this linguistic perception: "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." "Their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. "

As we read, I'm sure we perceive the repetition of ideas and images. If a certain color or noise or emotion is repeated even in different words, we may sense rhythm. Even a summary paragraph at the end of a chapter or essay is a repetition that we may perceive as rhythmic. I suspect that the most important rhythmic effects in prose transcend the bounds of the single sentence. Any element that conveys movement, suspense and fulfillment, or logical or temporal progression may give the reader the sense that he has experienced rhythm--and beauty.

E-mail and comments to:   Arnold Nelson

Proceed to the next section or return to previous section.

Return to Table of Contents