The Rhythm of Words

By David L. Brown

Only in dictionaries do words stand alone. They are not by nature solitary things but flock joyously together to make coherent phrases, sentences, paragraphs. Just as glorious cathedrals can be created from unremarkable stones, mere words can be crafted into memorable chapters, books and entire libraries.

But just as the construction of a cathedral requires the skill and experience of master architects, masons and sculptors, to achieve a fine piece of writing, words must not be thrown together helter-skelter. The art of the wordsmith is required to create writing that is dignified, pleasing to the eye and ear, and clearly expresses the intended message.

The choice of words and the order in which they are placed in a sentence make all the difference. There is a certain correctness about a well-crafted sentence. When words flow smoothly together, their meaning is revealed with deceptive ease. A good sentence knows where it is going and makes it its business to go there while carrying along the mind of the reader.

It is always incumbent upon the writer to use a word that is “right” in the sense of meaning. There is another way for words to be “right,” and that is in how they fit into the rhythm and flow of the sentence of which they are part. A word can be absolutely correct as far as its meaning, but if it stands in the middle of a sentence like a concrete block on a busy freeway it is nevertheless wrong.

That does not necessarily create a challenge to the accomplished writer. Fortunately, English is the most versatile language in human history. It contains myriad words with meanings that are similar or exact, words with roots in Latin, Old Norse, Celtic and a melting pot of other languages. If the first English word that comes to mind doesn’t fit the flow, we can always try an alternative. Another solution is to rearrange the words around the offending one, making it fit into the rhythm.

Rhythm and flow in the written word may have had their beginnings long ago in the days before the invention of writing. The ancient poet Homer composed his heroic tale to be recited  from the memories of the tellers. As I addressed in my essay “The Importance of Words,” human memory is frail. To help prevent the thread of the Homeric idylls from fraying and unwinding over time, the great storyteller used two tricks to help lock in his meaning.

First, as we all remember from high school English, the words were strung together in a fixed pattern or rhythm. Homer’s tales were told in a form known as Dactylic hexameter. That form presents each line as six pairs of syllables. It is difficult to replicate that style in English, so translators have fallen back on iambic pentameter, a style in which there are five sets of syllables. Here is an example of iambic pentameter from The Iliad:

Inflaming wine, pernicious to mankind,
Unnerves the limbs, and dulls the noble mind.

The alternating rhythm of the pentameter is clear, as you can see when the emphasized syllables of the first line are placed in boldface: “Inflaming wine pernicious to mankind.” The pattern is 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2.

By composing lines in a fixed rhythmic form Homer provided clues to hold reciters to the original words. If a bard inadvertently substituted another word, and if it did not fit the pattern, the mistake would often be obvious. For example, let’s say the line was changed to: “Inflaming whiskey pernicious to mankind.” The rhythm is broken, for “whiskey” has added an out-of-place syllable. Now the line scans 1-2, 1-2, 1, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2.

The example above, called a couplet, also demonstrates the second kind of memory cue Homer used, rhyming. Just as the pattern of syllables within the lines provided hints to future reciters, the rhyme helped them keep lines together. By requiring the rhyme, the first line cues the second. Today we call these internal clues mnemonics, things to assist the memory.

We seldom see the form of rhyming couplets today, but there is much that can be learned from a study of Homer’s craft. He may have wanted to make his poems easier to memorize, but there can be no question that his primary intention was to create words of power, giving his tales the ability to thrill listeners and rivet their attention. Putting together words in ways that flow is a vital skill, for otherwise you can end up with ugly prose, awkward phrases that butt against one another in chaos and disorder.

Look at the difference a few changes can make. Here is the final line of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” written in the same iambic pentameter form of Homer (and referring to one of the Homeric heroes):

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

What if Tennyson had written that line somewhat differently:

“To attempt, to look for, to come across, and not to capitulate.”

Not quite the same, is it? The words are “right,” as far as their meaning, for each substitution is a close synonym of the original words chosen by Tennyson. But the rhythm is atrocious and the meaning is clouded to say the least. What was a smooth, flowing sentence has become an ugly hash, a nasty knot of words ill-suited for each others’ company.

What applies to poetry applies as well to prose, but without the need for strict patterns of rhythm or rhyme. (Much of what is today called poetry has more in common with prose.) In fiction the ways in which characters use words are important clues to their nature. No writer today would want a character to speak lines that may have come from Homer or Tennyson. Sometimes, deliberately clumsy phrases add emphasis. The choice of an obviously ill-suited word can make a point that might otherwise be overlooked. And yet, the rhythm of a written piece, the way words flow and meet and mingle, is an all important element that distinguishes good writing from bad.

When I was young both William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway were still alive. Along with Albert Einstein they were my boyhood heroes. I read every one of their novels and short stories. Their special ways with words awakened in me the recognition that mere words could be used to craft written pieces having special qualities of energy, a kind of magic that sets them beyond the ordinary. But oh, what a difference between the two.

Faulkner was known for his stream of consciousness style, where words were allowed to flow in rich profusion like thoughts passing through the minds of his characters. Run-on sentences, fragmented phrases, Faulkner broke every rule in the English Teacher’s Handbook. And yet, there is rhythm and flow that make the words speak off of the page. Here is an excerpt, only the first part of a single sentence, from his 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust, describing the collective Southern memory of Pickett’s Charge:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….

Hemingway wrote in a far different style. He was known for the pithy simplicity and brevity of his sentences. Where Faulkner reached for flowery and complex garlands of words, Hemingway chose the bare bones of short sentences constructed of simple words. He was Yin to Faulkner’s Yang. He once advised: “Write poetry into prose.”

Here is a quote from Hemingway’s first novel A Farewell to Arms (1929):

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of those you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

Two very different writers, two quite separate styles, and yet the words are well-matched, the phrases flow, the meaning is clear. They engage the reader, make him or her think. And like all good writing, these examples ride on a wave of rhythm, a flow that carries us along from phrase to phrase, chapter to chapter. They weave from powerful words all that can be found in the human soul — emotions, ideas, sympathy, shame, pride, fear, hunger, desire, greed, kindness, good and evil. All of those and many more. For that is the power of words well wrought.