Within the texture of every poem beats a pulse like the throb of coursing blood in a living body; and this pulse or rhythm is the life of poetic form. Indeed rhythm is the very heart of the universe itself. No manifestation of the active principle in the great frame of things is so intimate or so pervasive. Day and night, flow and ebb, the perfect return of the seasons, the breath of our nostrils and the stars in their courses echo alike its mighty music. In the little practical affairs of life, no less than in earth’s orbic sweep through stellar spaces, rhythm is a law of movement, to which all sustained action instinctively conforms. It makes movement easier, as in labour—whether the quick tap of a smith’s hammer on his anvil or the long-drawn tug of a gang at a rope. Soldiers, marching to an ordered step, lighten the fatigue of weary miles. Rhythm also makes movement pleasurable, as in the dance. And, conversely, the perception of rhythm in things external to oneself is both easy and pleasurable. Alike in its subjective and its objective aspects, therefore, rhythm is in essential harmony with the spirit of man.

As the order of the universe is shot through with a living pulse, so emotion, too, if sustained, tends to express itself in rhythm. The emotional stimulus of the perception of beauty, or the excitement attending insight into the deeper truth of life, quickens the heart-throb; this heightened activity overflows to expression in words which reproduce the measured beat of the impetus out of which they spring. And so a poem comes to birth. In its most primitive forms, some scholars tell us, poetry is but the voice accompaniment to the rhythms of bodily movement in work and play.〖See F. B. Gummere, “The Beginnings of Poetry.”〗 A woman grinding corn back and forth between two stones, keeps time by the crooning of unreasoned words in endless repetition. A fragment of an old spinning song echoes in Ophelia’s ravings: “You must sing Down-a-down, An you call him a-down-a. O, how the wheel becomes it!” Lithe-bodied men shout in unison their war chant, as they tread the circle of the dance. Youths and maidens in common festival recite in turn the verses of a ballad, caught and flung back in the refrain. The principle holds true throughout the age-long evolution of poetry. From the earliest to the latest manifestations of the poetic impulse, in the instinctive voicing of physical movement and in the highly wrought creations of mature art, the great deep pulse at the heart of things finds utterance. Lo, with the ancient

Roots of man’s nature,

Twines the eternal

Passion of song.

Deep in the world-heart

Stand its foundations,

Tangled with all things,

Twin-made with all.

Nay, what is Nature’s

Self, but an endless

Strife toward music,

Euphony, rhyme?

God on His throne is

Eldest of poets:

Unto His measures

Moveth the Whole.〖William Watson.〗

This is the origin and reason-why of rhythm in poetry. Whatever the poet’s mood, whether it be an outburst of sheer joy or the chastened calm of meditation, his verse is the counterpart, made audible, of his emotion, and moves to an accordant rhythm. The swift but sustained flow of Homer’s dactylic hexameters, reciting the deeds of heroes; the stately procession of Milton’s iambic pentameter, unfolding a drama of Heaven and Hell; the soaring flight of Shelley’s skylark; the pounding hoof-beats of Browning’s mad ride, I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he, I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;〖H.C., xlii, 1066.〗 whether forward thrust or steady march or winged flight,—the lilt of the verse expresses the emotional stress and impetus within it.

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