Definition of Cadence

When used in poetry, cadence is the natural rise and fall of sound that contributes to a melodic pattern. Cadence often depends on the inflection of a person’s voice and the place where a writer chooses to end a line, as well as reflecting where a line speeds up and slows down. For example, a question in English will generally end with the inflection going up; the cadence of a question is what signifies to the listener that it is indeed an interrogative statement.

Cadence combines the aesthetic influence of other literary devices such as meter, rhythm, and enjambment. Cadence can either be classified as “imperfect” or “half” cadence if there is enjambment that carries the meaning of a phrase over more than one line, or “perfect” or “authentic” cadence if there is an end stopped line.

The word cadence comes from the Old Italian word cadenza, which came from the Latin word cadere, meaning “to fall.” The definition of cadence sprang from the same word that lead to the contemporary English word “chance.” While the two words do not seem related now, there is a similar sense of capriciousness in both definitions.

Common Examples of Cadence

Beyond poetry, cadence is a part of every sentence we say. Cadence might reflect an individual’s personality, or, indeed, an entire language. Some languages are considered to have more rise and fall in a normal sentence (English, Italian), while others are fairly monotone (Portuguese, Russia). Some languages are based on tones (Chinese, Zulu) and thus contain a natural cadence that is necessary to convey meaning rather than reflect the individual’s personality.

In English it’s possible to say the exact same words, but convey the meaning based only on cadence. For example, think of the following sentence: He’s quitting his job. Someone could say this with intonation going up at the end, expressing disbelief. Someone else could repeat the same sentence back, but with intonation falling at the end of the sentence, conveying certainty.

Significance of Cadence in Literature

From the time of Ancient Greek drama and oral storytelling, cadence has played an important part in many world literatures. Trends have changed over time with how necessary it is for literature to mimic the natural speech patterns that humans use in a particular language, and certainly there are some languages in which cadence does not have too much significance. However, in English poetry and drama it is hard to find an example that does not use cadence to some degree in order to produce a more melodic line. Authors may use rhythm and meter to assist in providing aural unity, but the natural rise and fall of the human voice always has an important role.

Examples of Cadence in Literature

Example #1

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

(“Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare used relatively formal meter and rhyme scheme in his plays and poetry. However, cadence still has an important role in his works of literature. In the excerpt of his “Sonnet 18” above, each line is an example of perfect cadence, as each line is end-stopped. There would be a clear pause after each line if someone were reading this poem aloud. However, Shakespeare also made the interesting choice of beginning the sonnet with a question, which changes the cadence of the line and adds some extra interest on the part of the reader.

Example #2

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe had a particular flair for melodic cadence, which we can see in the first stanza of his poem “The Raven.” Indeed, even if someone were trying to read this poem aloud and avoid the sense of melody it would be difficult to work against the rolling cadence of his lines. He uses the strict, if rare, meter of trochaic octameter. Though all of the lines in the above excerpt are end-stopped, lines one and three end in a softer way than lines two and four, which call for a pause in speaking.

Example #3

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

(“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman)

Walt Whitman was a poet who worked against some traditions, meter and rhyme being a few of them. While every line is of a different length in his poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman uses other literary techniques to distinguish his work. In the above excerpt Whitman uses consonance and assonance to create a more aesthetic pleasing sound. Cadence is important above all. The beginning of the poem is triumphant, and calls for a triumphant sound in the reader’s voice.

Example #4

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

(“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost)

Robert Frost experimented with the effect of many different literary devices during his career as a poet. Some of his poems use strict meter and rhyme, while others, like his famous “Mending Wall,” are a bit freer. Frost uses natural speech patterns in the above excerpt, and shows the power of alternating between perfect and imperfect cadence to create interest.

Example #5

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking
for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking
in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating
across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

(“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg)

The brilliance of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” is that he never lets the cadence of his lines fall completely. His lines might end with a comma, but in general the reader is left feeling overwhelming, gasping for air, and slightly maddened by the onslaught of Ginsberg’s images. While most poets choose cadence that allows for a natural break, Ginsberg’s poetry keeps whirling forward.

Test Your Knowledge of Cadence

1. Which of the following statements is the best literary cadence definition?
A. The speech at which someone walks.
B. The melodic configuration that ends a piece of music.
C. The rise and fall of sound in a poem or work of literature.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following groups of lines from Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” would be considered an example of imperfect cadence?

And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.


Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.


There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following sets of lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” contains perfect cadence throughout?

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;


So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—


Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”

Answer to Question #3 Show

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