The kind of metre which has dominated English prosody for the past six centuries is strictly known as 'accentual syllabic'; that is, it is a pattern of regularity both in the number of syllables and in the number of stresses. It is to be distinguished from the purely 'accentual metre' of Anglo-Saxon poetry, in which the number of syllables, but not the number of accents per line, is variable; and also from the purely 'syllabic metre' of (say) French verse, in which the number of syllables per line is constant, but not the number of accents.
Stripped of all subtleties, conventional English metre is nothing more than rhythmic parallelism: a patterning of the succession of stressed and unstressed syllables with greater regularity than is necessary for spoken English in general. (Notice that this is parallelism, not complete repetition, because although the rhythm is repeated, the actual sounds, of course, are not.) One type of metrical parallelism consists in the strict alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, as in these last two lines of Milton's
We can go further, and point out that English verse is a hierarchical edifice of parallelisms, of which parallel segments of rhythm are the building bricks. The patterns of rhythm organize themselves into lines, which in turn enter into further structures of parallelism: couplcts, stanzas, etc. Verse form, with its layers of structure, imitates the hierarchical organization of language itself into units of phonology, of grammar, etc. The difference between them, obviously enough, is that the constraints of verse form are adopted by the poet of his own free will, as a matter of convention, whereas the unit-by-unit grammatical and phonological organization of English
is inescapable and unalterable, except by abandonment of the language itself as a system of communication.
If for the moment we consider the measure to be the basic unit of metrical parallelism, as distinct from the 'foot' of traditional scansion, we may set up four general types of metre, based on measures consisting respectively of one, two, three, and four syllables:
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