Colegiul National "Moise Nicoara" Arad

A transdisciplinary understanding of prosody

“Rhythms for necessary interpretations”

                                                                                                        MIRELA MUREŞAN

                                                            “Rhythm is basis of life, not steady forward progress.

                                                              The forces of creation, destruction, and preservation have

                                                              a whirling, dynamic interaction”



Every teacher o Romanian language and literature is getting into difficulties when they have to “teach” prosody, (rhythm, foot-metrics, line) etc.: it is always a technical lesson submitting – which usually bores – but it is compulsory too, as it is “required in our final evaluation exams”. Middle school and high school students – in turn – put up resistance to this issue. For most of them – students and teachers as well – prosody is looked upon an outward, “formal” topic as it consists in some too technical compounds, it has no substance, so it seems to be senseless and meaningless. Moreover, even the competences that were checked up in national assessment were limited to the only identification or recognizing of several types of line, rhythm, foot-metrics without pretending any connection to the text ideas or content, to the type of the poetic imaginary or esthetical doctrine the text belongs to.

   The present paper aims to offer a different outlook on prosody; it is more precisely focused on the rhythm, in both theoretical and didactical standpoints. The theoretical point of view is based on trans-disciplinarity – in Basarab Nicolescu’s concept meaning (1999). Trans-disciplinary methodology is to be ahead for a new understanding of prosody: prosody is projected into wider significant systems that bring about a complex knowledge experience, which is not shutting out the feelings. So, an original, unusual outlook is offered in order to open, to extend its interpretation to surprising horizons in knowledge and investigation.

   The didactical experiment I shall describe further on is built up on the above mention theoretical ground and will try to bear out the remarkable didactical potentialities transdisciplinarity could bring in this field as well. A new-fangled didactical approach of the poetry rhythm will be introduced; such an approach is meant to attract students’ attention and interest in order to open new prospects on text interpretation and understanding. Such approach should give them a chance to look at the poetry rhythm as being something more than a form, a trick or an euphony instrument.

A TRANSDISCIPLINARY APPROACH OF THE RHYTHM. The theoretical premise What does rhythm mean?

    First, I should try to use some Dictionary definitions for this notion. According to DEX (1998), the rhythm is: The symmetrical and periodical setting (succession) of the accented and unaccented syllables into the verse / line or prose  or the setting of the tonic accent in a musical phrase: cadence, time; the outcome of this kind of setting **  2.  Gradual progress of an action, more or less rapid evolution of an activity as conditioned by certain factors ** Periodicity in some motion process, activity ** Regular/harmonious motion: tempo, cadence. 3. Periodical repeating of some architecture or decoration elements at a construction. From ngr. Rithmos, fr. Rythme, lat. Rhythmus.

In the “Dictionary of neologisms”/ “Dicţionarul de neologisme”(1978) the rhythm is defined as: 1. Harmony that comes out from the regular accenting of certain syllables in a verse / line or in a musical phrase. 2. Gradual processing ** Regular motion: cadence, tempo. 3. (Arts) Proportion, harmony among the component/parts of a whole [Cf. lat. Rhythmus, gr. Rhythmos, fr. Rythme, it. Ritmo ].

   In the present-day on-line dictionaries the term of “rhythm” has about the same meanings, but a more detailed description of its sense is coming from various disciplines standpoints. Wikipedia points out the following senses: Rhythm (from Greek υθμός – rhythmos, „any regular recurring motion, symmetry” may be generally defined as a „movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions.” This general meaning of regular recurrence or pattern in time may be applied to a wide variety of cyclical natural phenomena having a periodicity or frequency of anything from microseconds to millions of years.(

   Dictionary definitions could be mention any further, e.g. taking into account the variety of disciplines that make use of the notion of rhythm: biology (cardiac rhythm, bio-rhythm/biological rhythm, respiratory rhythm, pulse, period/ menstrual cycle); physics  (frequency, cycle); arts ( musical rhythm, dance rhythm, tempo, poetry rhythm); religion   (prayer’ rhythm, ritual rhythm ); astronomy ( moon cycle, planets cycles); astrology ( astral, zodiacal cycles); history ( social, economical cycles, evolutionary rhythm of civilizations) etc.

   The above mentioned meanings of the term are less important in the context of the present work. However, it is to point out rhythm is a specific element of the human; i.e. it was proved that animals have no sense of rhythm (see the neuroscientist/ neurologist Oliver Sacks’ experiments with chimpanzees). It seems that the rhythm sense or need proceed even from the   intrauterine life, where the fetus perceives his mother cardiac rhythms (see Howard Goodall, How Music Works). According to Kabbala’s text, “rhythm is the life essence” so it is not only a steady forward progress. Creation, destruction and conservation forces are continuously turning (cyclically) into a stunning dynamical interaction. In other words, rhythm is a complex construct, able to transcend disciplines borders and so it demands a transdisciplinary approach in order to facilitate a deeper understanding.

   Some special features of the rhythm were underlined in the above mentioned definitions since they could be considered upon definition-invariants. These invariants are as following: succession, regular intervals repeatability,periodicity. No matter the area of the domain or the  disciplinary application, these peculiar features are still valuable for the rhythm definition. The poetry rhythm definition complies with these mentioned peculiar features as a distinct element of the prosody: the regular repetition of the accented and unaccented syllables, or the pauses the reprtitions of isometric linguistic units. So, the poetry rhythm is only a specific case of the general notion of rhythm.

The evolution of the cultural paradigms and the rhythm

The paradigm notion refers to an unitary ensemble, that is defined as a distinct and coherent features sum that characterizes it and gives its specific aspect; I shall make use of the same concept in order to refer to the distinct and coherent features of a historical and cultural period  (e.g. the modernity paradigm, post-modernity paradigm etc. )

A cultural paradigm has a ternary design: it is based on three distinct interacting pillars: the overview on the knowledge, on the world/existence (Weltanschauung), on the human being – society, culture, education etc. (M. Muresan, J. Flueras, 2010).

The knowkedge paradigms marked some great and distinct periods in the mankind evolution: pre-modernity, modernity, post-modernity; today one speaks about a cosmodernity – in the transdisciplinary view. All these paradigms have built up and elaborated the concept of a  specific relation between the knowledge  subject and object. To elucidate the novelty brought about by transdisciplinarity as a methodology concerning this relation, a short account is needed: how subject-object relation was conceived until present days. (Basarab Nicolescu, cf. Gabriel Memelis, Adrian Iosif si Dan Răileanu, 2010, pp. 105-106.)

 # Pre-modernity conceived Subject-Object relation as a part-whole relation: The Subject is a part of the Object; the latter includes the former, the former is merged one with the latter. Their identification ensures the mythic-magic knowledge. So, the Subject is integrated into the “great whole”, it belongs to.

# Modernity marks the Subject-Object breaking off; they become “two wholes” independently. The accent on this distance between them becomes a major obstacle for knowledge as it minimizes the subject status and proclaims the “objective”, detached and exclusively rational knowledge.

# Post-modernity keeps the distance, but upholds as absolute the role of the Subject of knowledge and minimize the Object towards a total dissolution of it. The accent on the Subject can lead to the object dissolution; the attempt to rebuild the Object by the Subject goes to the strengthening of the knowledge relativity and subjectivity.

# Cosmodernity produces a new understanding of this relation due to the trans-disciplinarity. The Subject and the Object are distinct ( as in the case of the modernity), but they are – in turn – included into a greater “whole” which unifies both due to the Hidden Middle, without their dissolution. They keep to stay into a dynamic relation, without the loss of their identity.

(B. Nicolescu,1999).

   There is no room here for a deeper explanation concerning the Hidden Middle. (It can be found in Basarab Nicolescu’s works – as  quoted in the bibliography). However, in order to facilitate its understanding, see the graphic picture below:

A legitimate question arises: what is the relation of the rhythm with this? The Subject/Object relation – a significant feature of the various knowledge paradigms – has an essential impact on the cosmological and ontological models set up by every paradigm concerning the view on the world and on the place human being has into the “Big Whole”. This view on the world implies – in its turn – the specific ideology of the cultural and literary currents/orientations that evolved in the course and “designs” their outline in a peculiar way as it could be seen in their esthetical principles.

# The pre-modern human being feels himself as a part of a whole, named Cosmos; he is harmoniously integrated in, he is identical with and – consequently – he will feel the cosmic rhythms he would try to “harmonize” with, to synchronize with and to respect them. The poetry productions of that time were expressing this harmonic view/perspective and were respecting strictly the rhythm rigors of the lines; the text will get remarkable euphonic features.

# The modern human being is separated from the cosmic whole, from the “Big Whole”, he could not perceive its rhythms anymore, he “lost” them due to the ontological breaking off. He will hardly try to “retrieve” them, to get back the echo with the “Big Whole”. Sometimes he will succeed, sometimes he will not succeed to retrieve the lost harmony; sometimes he will “get” these rhythms, sometimes he will not: he will stay out as exiled, as alienated being. The poetry of that period will express this view, so it will obey only sporadically to the prosody rigors – both as for the rhythm and for rhyme. All will depend on the ideologies of the various literary tendencies (see the emergence of the white and free line).

# The post-modern human being – which makes absolute the Subject place/role and minimizes the Object – will remain the prisoner of its own rhythms which are inconstant, random, relative and deeply subjective. Human being will never obey to and will never feel them; from this state comes out the subject confusion and disorder and his need to search continuously for a synchronization with something he does not see any longer. The post-modern poetry will express this view – at the text level – and will be inconstant as for the rhythm (it will quote and imitate). It will try in vain to find out its own cadence, rhythm and the object rhythms to synchronize with.

   Having these theoretical premises – as a base for my work in the classroom – I tried to insert them by didactical scenarios and strategies I considered suitable for the students understanding level. The theoretical frame remained only a background to legitimate this enterprise. I mentioned these theoretical topics only for the Romanian language and literature teachers in order to offer them a deeper understanding of the notion of rhythm as prosody element; I also intended to justify my own theoretical start point for the didactical enterprise I shall describe further. The didactical experiment of this transdisciplinary approach of the poetry rhythm will be exposed as following.


DIDACTICAL SCENARIOS – put into practice –

The first lesson is meant to introduce students in this matter, to be interested in the rhythm problem. It starts from the students personal life experience, from concrete to abstract level, from particular to general.

The ”warm-up” preparation sequence

–          Students are asked to find some expression / phrases containing the word rhythm: to keep the rhythm, to stay in the rhythm, to have rhythm, to get in / to get out of the rhythm, to lose the rhythm etc. (Romanian language is very generous in these expressions)

–          Students are asked to beat rhythmically on the desk (in different ways) trying to imitate the examples given by the teacher: tango, march, waltz rhythms etc.

–          An intuitive definition of the rhythm is then tried, by a brainstorming exercise (succession, accent, repetition)

Entering the context:

–          A frontal discussion is initiated; it aims to call up some personal experiences of the students: applause at the theatre (the audience tends to applaud in the same rhythm), rowing a boat, pairs dance (timing is necessary), the regular sound of bells, the chronometer function, the pulsing, writing verses/lines experience ( it needs to respect/to conform  to a certain  syllables number) etc.

–          The guided discussion should lead to the following issues:

# Two intimately connected notions of rhythm arise: the rhythm and the                                      a-rhythmical/unrhythmical (loss, absence of rhythm)

#   To get out/getting out of the rhythm is perceived as a turning off, a deviation, as a negative sign (powerlessness, incapacity, anomaly, disease etc.)

#    The rhythm is perceived as expressing order, harmony that comes out by timing “with the other (person)”; it sends to the idea of stability, constancy, cadence, cycle, something predictable

#    The rhythm is the pattern, the law, and the a/rhythmical is the anomaly, exception to the rule/pattern/law.


Case study

The proposed didactical project conforms to the well-known case study as a learning method: documentation, presentation, evaluation and reflection on the conclusions that have been drawn. This approach can be applied to Romanian and universal literature classes.

CASE STUDY: The rhythm in the poetry evolution

   Documentation. The students of the class are divided into nine working groups. Each group gets the working tasks and the poetry texts which are proposed for the rhythm analysis.

# every group has to  examine the rhythm problems of a poetry set of five texts

# every poetry set will belong to a distinct stage in the poetry evolution: the ancient Greek-Latin poetry, medieval poetry, Renaissance poetry, classical poetry, romantic poetry, symbolist poetry, expressionist poetry, vanguard, post-modernist poetry .

#  The students have to identify the existence or the non-existence of any rhythm in the given texts; they will examine the type of the existing used rhythm in the texts, the alternation of the rhythms, preponderance of certain rhythms; they will justify the presence or the absence of the rhythm, related to the poetical message of each text

# significant poetry texts will be used, from Romanian literature and the universal one as well.

Presentation. Two minimum classes are needed in order to reveal the investigation outcomes. The way of doing it is at the students’choice: each group has the chance to turn to account its own creativity (portofolio, presentation, power-point, inter-active enterprise, poster etc.). The teacher’s task is to keep, order and synthesize information he gets from the students, in the most concise, clear and attractive manner ( set-up on the blackboard, Venn diagram etc.) , then, to point out the conclusion to draw  from the presentation (one proposition, maximum, without nuances or extensions): the presence-absence of the rhythm in the studied poetical texts differs, depending on the epoch/period. This observation/conclusion will be related in detail and will be nuanced in the final stage of the reflection.

Evaluation. It can be done in one class. It can get an inter-evaluation form, on the base of an evaluation device that was previously accepted by the students or was given by the teacher. Criteria will focus on both the quality of the investigation outcomes and the public presentation manner.

Reflection. This is the most important/significant stage for all this didactical enterprise of the case study: the core standpoint is the transdisciplinary reading of the poetry rhythm. The absence of this stage or its inaccurate use by the teacher makes useless the entire enterprise, as it cannot get to its goals. Reflection needs two hours class and could be set up as a debate, moderated by the teacher.

The start point of the debate will be the conclusion from the students final presentations: the presence-absence of the rhythm in the poetry texts differs in function of the epoch/period they were written. From this point, the observed similitude and differences can be discussed: rhythm’s rigors are respected in the poetry texts of the ancient age, of the middle ages and Renaissance, in classicism and romanticism; poetical modernism produces a deviation from the rhythm norms and rigors – it can be noticed with the symbolism, expressionism, vanguard period and post-modernism (the deviation degree depends on the ideologies and esthetical principles of each literary current).

   The key-question of the debate is to face the problem: what are the possible explanations of such a conclusion? Why? How to explain the fact that the rhythm was present in all poetry creations till the classicism moment (and having a maximum rigor), it went on to the romanticism as well, but it lost its importance and rigor – even it was abandoned (e.g. the white verse/line) – in the context of the new literary era, when  the poetry expression was modernized? Is there any connection with the cultural paradigm of each epoch/period or simply an incident, a happening? Were possible explanations could be found and what kind of would they be?

   The teacher should guide discussions and ought to aim to the following conclusions:

  • Every cultural paradigm (epoch) proposed its own view of the world and human being, depending on the knowledge evolution and level: there was a specific cosmological and ontological model which was reflected also by the literature (poetry) of that time, into the esthetical principles that rule any age of artistic creation
  • The subject-object of knowledge relation harmonizes with this cultural paradigm as the latter sets the former up as well as the esthetical principles of the literary creation

–          The pre-modernity paradigm – focused on the subject-object harmony – will privilege the rhythm as an expression of the mentioned harmony (human being “gets” the world rhythms)

–          The modernity paradigm – focused on subject-object of knowledge separation-, will partially obey to and will sporadically practice the rhythm, depending on the human capacity of incapacity “to get into harmony with with the world” (human being loses the world rhythms)

  • The post-modernity paradigm –focused on ego, .i..e. the subject of knowledge, and having minimized the place of the object – does not find any rhythm to synchronize with; consequently, it  comes at disorder and confusion by an erroneously upholding as absolute the ”rhythms of the human being”
  • Rhythm is not only a technical composition element, a formal notion of the literary text, but it is an important element of the meaning, signification; rhythm expresses the way man has reference to the “cosmic  rhythms” of the Being, it is a way for man to understand his place and role in the frame of the great existence
  • Rhythm expresses harmony or disharmony with the “Great Whole” and also expresses the way we have reference to an Universe based on order or disorder
  • The rhythm is the formal expression poetry has over the world.


   The whole didactical enterprise which was proposed here could be looked upon as one alternative to approach and understand the concept of rhythm, without important reflections on the types of rhythm that could be met in the world poetry or in different cultural ages; a discussion on the latter aspects of the problem might be a topic of a future paper.

   A genuine advantage of  such an approach is the transdisciplinary perspective which – in its turn – generates challenges for didactical science. In this respect, I should conclude:

  • The literature didactics should acquire huge knowledge by its opening to the transdisciplinary methodology
  • The chance to bring up-to-date the rational knowledge and the feeling experience owing to the subtle dialectics of the “hidden middle”; this is an important base for students to get not only informations and competences but existential and axiological revelations
  • Thansdisciplinarity supplies huge potentialities for the reading act (as a hermeneutical act)
  • The transdisciplinary approach of the rhythm is only one of the great number of proofs in this respect.


The modernity/modernism distinction is necessary. Generally speaking, modernity refers to a paradigm (a characteristic feature for several centuries); on the other hand, modernism is an esthetical trend – typical of the XX-th century.

For other delimitations and nuances you may check:

H.R. Patapievici, Omul recent. O critică a modernităţii din perspective întrebării ”Ce se pierde
                             atunci când ceva se câştigă?, Humanitas, Buc.,2002
Ioana Em.Petrescu, Modernism/postmodernism. O ipoteză, Casa Cărţii de Ştiinţă, Cluj, 2003
Ioana Em. Petrescu, “Poetica infrarealismului” în Ion Barbu şi poetica postmodernismului,Cartea
                                   Românească, 1994

Modernity typically refers to a post-traditional, post-medieval historical period, one marked by the move from feudalism (or agrarianism) toward capitalism, industrialization, secularization, rationalization, the nation-state and its constituent institutions and forms of surveillance. (Barker, Chris,. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London, 2005)

Peter Osborne makes difference/distinction among three stages of the modernity: Early modernity: 1500–1789 (or 1453–1789 in traditional historiography);Classical modernity: 1789–1900 (corresponding to the long 19th century (1789–1914) in Hobsbawm‘s scheme);Late modernity: 1900–1989 ( Osborne, Peter. “Modernity Is a Qualitative, Not a Chronological, Category: Notes on the Dialectics of Differential Historical Time„. In Postmodernism and the Re-reading of Modernity, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen. Essex Symposia, Literature, Politics, Theory. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1992.)



 Basarab Nicolescu, Transdisciplinaritatea. Manifest, traducere de Horia Mihail Vasilescu, Iaşi, Ed. Polirom, 1999

Basarab, Nicolescu, Towards Transdisciplinary Education and Learning, paper prepared for „Science and  Religion: Global Perspectives, June 4-8, 2005, Philadelphia, PA, USA, a program of the Metanexus Institute.

Gabriel Memelis, Adrian Iosif şi Dan Răileanu, Realitatea transdisciplinară: o fuziune de orizonturi ale teologiei, ştiinţei si filosofiei, Editura Curtea Veche, Colectia Ştiinţă şi Religie, Bucuresti, 2010

Al. Săndulescu, Dicţionar de termini literari, Editura Academiei, 1976

Mirela Mureşan, Janina Flueras, Towards a New Paradigm of Education in the 21st Century Society, in International Journal of Learning, vol. 16, issue 8, 2010)