British and Irish Literature Prosody and Meter: Early Modern to 19th Century
Meredith Martin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0164


Both of the terms prosody and meter have shifting and contested definitions in the history of English literature. Historically, prosody was a grammatical term adopted from early translations of Greek and then Latin grammatical models, forming part of an overarching structure: orthometry, etymology, syntax, prosody. In this structure, meter was not always named, but versification covered “the measure of language” and was a subsection of prosody, after “pronunciation, utterance, figures, versification” (or some variation on these) in most 19th-century grammar books. Therefore, prosody contains within it changing approaches to the study of pronunciation and versification. In the 20th century, prosody has become synonymous in linguistics with pronunciation, and in literary study with versification. Scholars of the history of versification are legion. The versification manual or poetic forms handbook is a genre unto itself. The beginning of these books usually accounts for inadequate predecessors; consequently, many manuals are also bibliographies. Historical discourse about versification is not limited to the manual or handbook, however, and is found in studies of poetry, school textbooks, grammar books, introductions to collected works by individual poets, addendums to dictionaries, articles and reviews of poetry in periodicals and newspapers, pronunciation guides, histories of language, and studies of translation. Because the history of the study of pronunciation in English and Irish studies is so vast, this bibliography will only consider a few key texts that consider pronunciation and versification together as prosody. The development of historical linguistics in the 19th century is concurrent with the largest proliferation of studies of prosody-as-versification, and therefore is an important context for the narrative of prosody’s dual fate in the 20th century, hovering between literary study and the science of linguistics. To provide a history of even the ways that these terms themselves have shifted is outside the scope of this bibliography. As T. V. F. Brogan rightly claimed in 1981, “In studies of the structure of verse the use of terms such as poetry, verse, accent, quantity, Numbers, Measure, rhythm, meter, prosody, versification, onomatopoeia, and rhyme/rime/ryme historically and consistently has been nothing short of Pandemonium.” (Brogan 1981, p. ix, cited under Histories of Prosodic Criticism) Indeed, any modern attempt to define prosody must wrestle with the terminological confusion that Brogan narrates. Following Brogan, this bibliography will highlight the confusion without attempting to correct it. Here, I consider both prosody and versification in their widest sense to mean “verse-theory” and not solely “linguistic prosody,” and will discuss texts that have been considered “canonical” as well as texts that consider prosody in all of its historical and cultural valences.

General Overviews

This section introduces histories of the discipline: meta-histories about the study of prosody and meter, histories of versification itself (in which the presentation of a particular historical arc also argues for a particular theory), and pedagogical handbooks. Whenever a scholar attempts to write a history of prosody, he or she is also advancing a theory, since there is no general agreement about the history and development of English prosody. General overviews exploded in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries as classical education gave way to the study of English literature, and the story of English metrical form was told as either a translation of classical meter, an evolution from Anglo-Saxon and/or Germanic meters, or even a version of syllabic meter. No history, then, is complete, and very few collections venture outside of the history, theory, or approach it seeks to promote. Handbooks and manuals provide overviews but are generally limited to poetic forms and often do not talk about poetic forms as historical objects, though I have included a few important academic exceptions to this rule. Primarily pedagogical, handbooks and manuals might present a historical approach to scansion and collect materials, but often present materials without context. Histories, collections, and handbooks are in some ways interchangeable, but each provide, in their own way, a general overview of the topic.

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