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Rhythm And Art

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


Art did not originate rhythm nor the satisfaction derivable from it. Long before the times of the first artists, men had had practical experience of its pleasures. Long before the age of poetry, or music, or dancing, or even of fences or schoolboys, the primitive man had sat upon a log and kicked with his heels, producing a rhythm as perfect, in its way, as that of his representatives of the present who in Africa take delight in stamping their feet and clapping their hands, and in America in playing upon drums and tambourines, in order to keep time to the movements of dancers and the tunes of singers.

When we come to ask why rhythm should be produced thus, either by itself or in connection with poetry or music— in short, why it should be, as seems to be the case, a natural mode of expression, we cannot avoid having it suggested, at once, that it corresponds to a method characterizing all natural movement whatever, whether appealing to the eye or ear, or whether produced by a human being or perceived in external nature. There is rhythm in the beating of our pulses, in the alternate lifting and falling of our chests while breathing, in our accenting and leaving unaccented the syllables of our speech, in our pausing for breath between consecutive phrases, and in our balancing from side to side and pushing forward one leg or one arm and then another, while walking. There is rhythm in the manifestations of all the life about us, in the flapping of the wings of the bird, in the changing phases of its song, even in the minutest trills that make up its melody, and in the throbbings of its throat to utter them; in the rising and falling of the sounds of the wind, and of the swaying to and fro of the trees, as well as in the flow and ebb of the surf on the seashore, and in the jarring of the thunder and the zigzag course of the lightning. In fact, rhythm seems to be almost as intimately associated with everything that a man can see or hear, as is the beating of his own heart with his own life. Even the stars, like the rockets that we send toward them, speed onward in paths that return upon themselves, and the phrase "music of the spheres" is a logical as well as a poetical result of an endeavor to classify the grandest of all movements in accordance with a method which is conceived to be universal. No wonder, then, that men should feel the use of rhythm to be appropriate in art-products modeled upon natural products. No wonder that, connected as it is with natural movement and life and the enjoyment inseparably associated with life, it should seem to the civilized to be—what certainly it seems to the uncivilized—an artistic end in itself.

Nor is this view of it suggested as a result merely of superficial observation. It is substantiated by the more searching experiments of the scientists. There have been discovered, for instance, in addition to the regular beat of the heart, and independent of it, rhythmical contractions and expansions of the walls of the arteries, increasing and decreasing at regular intervals the supply of blood. Such processes . . . may be checked by cutting the nerves connecting . . . the vaso-motor system; and this fact is taken to indicate that there is a rhythmic form of activity in the nerve-centres themselves. . . . The rhythmic character of nerve-action seems to indicate a possibility of the same in mental action. Acting upon this suggestion, Dr. Thaddeus L. Bolton, Demonstrator and Fellow in Clark University, conducted, a few years ago, a series of interesting experiments. "The first and most important object" of these experiments is said to have been to determine "what the mind did with a series of simple auditory impressions, in which there was absolutely no change of intensity, pitch, quality, or time-interval." As a result it was found that, out of fifty who were asked to listen to clicks produced by an instrument prepared for the purpose, two alone failed to divide these clicks into groups, the number in each group being determined, mainly, by the relative rapidity with which the clicks were produced. The groups were usually of twos or threes, though, with greater rapidity, they passed into groups of fours, sixes, and eights, always, however, when the members were many, with a tendency to divide into twos, threes, and fours. It was found, moreover, that, whenever a second, third, or fourth click was made louder than the others, the inclination to divide the clicks into corresponding groups of twos, threes, or fours was increased. —The Essentials of 'Esthetics, XVI.

Rhythm is an effect produced by a consecutive series of sounds, or multiples of sounds, which, in themselves, may be varied and complex; but each series of which is of like duration. In other words, it is a result, as is every-thing that is artistic, of grouping according to some one principle-to that of time in this case—the like partial effects of unlike complex wholes.—Rhythm and Harmony in Poetry and Music, v.

Speech we find composed of syllables each uttered with an individual stress, which separates it from other syllables; but, more than this, we find that every second or third syllable is apt to be accented, and, largely because accented, is apt to be prolonged more than are the other syllables. The reason for the accent is physiological. The vocalized breath flows through the throat—as water through the neck of a bottle-with what may be termed alternate active and passive movements. The former of these movements is that which, in every second, third, fourth, or fifth syllable, produces the accent. In our language all words of more than one syllable have come to have an accent that is fixed-as distingushed from variable, which may be affirmed of words in the French ; and all our monosyllabic articles, prepositions, and conjunctions are unaccented, unless the sense very clearly demands a different treatment. These two facts enable one to arrange any number of our words so that the fixed accents shall fall, as natural utterance demands that it should, on every second, third, fourth, or fifth syllable. . . . Let us turn to speech again. Here we find that certain smaller groups composed of combined accented and unaccented syllables are themselves combined into larger groups, which are separated from other larger groups of the same composite character by the necessity experienced of pausing at certain intervals in order to draw in the breath. . . . Nature, therefore, furnishes speech with two characteristics,—accents after every two, three, four, or five syllables, and pauses after every four, six, eight, nine, ten, twelve, or more syllables. Those who have read the former volumes of this series are now asked to recall what was said in "The Genesis of Art-Form," with reference to the necessity universally experienced by the mind of conceiving of effects —so as to have a clear apprehension of them-as a unity; also that grouping to be effective in securing a general result of unity, must be made in accordance with the principle of comparison, i. e., of putting like with like,—a principle which in science leads to classification, and in art to the analogous results of composition.' . Accent thus used has a tendency to form the larger rhythmic groups, such as are developed into poetic lines, before it forms the smaller ones, such as are developed into measures. The effect of each accent is that of one click, and, no matter whether many unaccented syllables or none come between the accented ones, a certain number of the latter, so long as all are separated by like intervals of time, constitute one group such as forms one line of verse.

Break, break, break, On thy cold gray stones, oh sea. And I would that my tongue could titter The thoughts that arise in me. Break, Break, Break—Tennyson.

Later, however, but only later, it is perceived that the effect of each syllable too is that of one click, and that, by attaching a certain fixed number of unaccented syllables to each accented one, smaller groups can be formed, such as constitute poetic measures. That this is the natural order of development of the tendencies that lead to lines and measures, can be confirmed by the slightest observation of ordinary talking and reciting. In these we always find an inclination to introduce the accented syllables with approximate regularity. This inclination needs only a little artistic development, and they can be introduced with absolute regularity. When this has been done, the form seems made up of equal parts determined by the emphasized syllables. Idem, II.


In the volume entitled "Rhythm and Harmony in Poetry and Music," as also in the present volume, this method of putting like with like, as modified by the conditions of variety everywhere characterizing the materials with which art has to work, is shown to be at the basis of all the different developments of form as form with which the art of our times is acquainted. Rhythm and proportion are traced to effects produced by a grouping, of which the mind is conscious, of like or allied measurements, or multiples of measurements, in time or space; and harmony, whether of spoken words, of musical notes, of outlines, or of colors, is traced to a grouping, of which the mind is not conscious, of like or allied measurements, or multiples of measurements, in vibratory movements. To exemplify the truth of this statement, as evinced in every detail of the forms of these arts, has necessitated much explanation and no little repetition. But these are excusable if they have suggested any important considerations not before recognized. For instance, the latest, and perhaps the best, book produced in our country which discusses poetic form, is developed from the same limited conception of it indicated in the definition of Poe in his essay on "The Poetic Principle, " namely, "the rhythmical creation of beauty." No one would say that in "Rhythm and Harmony in Poetry and Music" there is any lack of thoroughness in the treatment of rhythm in poetry or of its various applications and possibilities,--to say nothing of the freshness of the treatment, owing to the circumstance that a year before the book was published, the scientific investigations that suggested, perhaps, the most important conclusions in it had not been made. At the same time, no one can read that book carefully and not recognize that harmony, too, as distinctly differentiated from rhythm, plays as noteworthy a part in the general effects of poetry as in those of music; that, different as are both factors and effects as used in poetic and in musical harmony, nevertheless, the methods of it in both arts illustrate identical principles. That an analogous fact is true, not only in these arts, but also in painting, sculpture, and architecture, has been shown in the present volume, concerning the line of thought in which, however, nothing need be added here. Proportion and Harmony, XXVI.


Rhythm is a result of making, by series of noises, or strokes, certain like divisions of time-small divisions, and exact multiples of them in large divisions. But the moment that the smaller divisions become so numerous that the fact that they exactly go into the larger divisions is no longer perceptible-as, often, when we hear more even than eight or ten notes in a musical measure, or more than three or four syllables in a poetic foot,-the effect ceases to be rhythmical. A like fact is true of proportion. Owing to the very great possibilities and complications of outlining, as in squares, angles, and curves, its laws are intricate and difficult to apply; but, as is shown in the volume of the author entitled, "Proportion and Harmony of Line and Color in Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, " the effects of proportion all result, in the last analysis, from exact divisions and subdivisions of space in every way analogous to the divisions and subdivisions of time that produce rhythm. Essentials of esthetics, II.


In this life, it usually takes very little to start that which may develop into very much. Rhythm is apparently of little importance. If one knew nothing about art, what could appear more absurd than for an intelligent man to think it worth while, when wishing to say something, to count the syllables that he utters, so that they shall reveal exact divisions and subdivisions of time, such as the negro makes when be beats his hands and feet for dancers? Yet it is out of this simple method of counting, that art has developed the most important element in the form of poetry, as well as an element extremely important in the form of music. When we come to examine the different combinations of effects attributable to rhythm, we find that we are by no means dealing with a subject so simple as at first appeared. The same is true of proportion. Before deciding, for instance, that a foot or a nose is disproportionately large or small, it must be compared not only with other feet and noses, but with the sizes of all the other surrounding features in the animal or man in which it appears. The same feature may look too large with small surroundings, and too small with large ones. Indeed, the number and variety of measurements that any extensive knowledge or application of proportion involves are almost incalculable. When we try to determine exactly what it is that causes its results to be satisfactory, in the human form then we begin to perceive that this characteristic, as is true of every other entering into the effects of beauty, is capable of complexities as well as possibilities almost infinite.—Pro portion and Harmony of Line and Color, II.

Savages and young children with no musical training, and their elders who have no ability to appreciate changes in quality or pitch, all show appreciation of rhythm. Nothing could be more perfect than that in the poetry of Pope, Scott, or Byron. Yet it is said that neither of these was able to distinguish one tune from another. So with many dancers. One need not be able to follow a tune as a tune, in order to keep time to its rhythm.-Rhythm and Harmony in Poetry and Music, VI.


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