What is Cadence? Definition, Examples of Literary Cadence

Definition of cadence: Cadence is the rising and falling rhythm that occurs when reading a piece of literature. Cadence is a more general concept than the stricter rhythms of meter.

What Does Cadence Mean?

What is cadence? Cadence is the rhythm that occurs when reading a piece of literature.

Cadence is created when reading the balanced words and phrases in free verse and prose. Writers choose their words carefully, and by choosing certain words, certain rhythms are created through one’s prose.

Cadence is also created by the inflection in a person’s voice as it rises and falls while reading and through changes in organization of the prose itself, such as punctuation, paragraphs or stanzas.

Example of Cadence

What is a cadence In Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz”, cadence is used to create rhythm by breaking up the lines with semicolons:

  • “We romped until the pans
    Slid from the kitchen shelf;
    My mother’s countenance
    Could not unfrown itself.”

By including the semicolon, Roethke transitions from the violent scene between the father and the son to the mother’s expression of disappointment.

Modern Examples of Cadence

We use cadence everyday in speech when we change the inflection of our voices.

Typically, we increase our inflection and stress the words/phrases that are most important. The meaning of what we say can be interpreted differently depending on one’s cadence.

For example, when asking a question, we place cadence at the end of the statement versus placing it at the beginning in a statement:

  • Cartoons are the best.
  • Cartoons are the best?

Even though we have the same statement, how we say that statement, i.e., cadence, affects the meaning.

The Function of Cadence

cadence what does it meanCadence is important when creating a rhythm to your words, which, in turn, makes your writing easier to read.

Because poetry is rhythmic writing, it is particularly important to be cognizant of using it when writing in that mode.

Examples of Cadence in Literature

Cadence is widely discussed and critiques throughout literature.

In Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son”, he includes cadence to create a rhythmic feeling of climbing stairs through his use of short lines that are divided by commas:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—

In Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking”, he creates cadence through his punctuation by ending his sentence before starting a new line.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.


Define cadence: Cadence is the rhythm that is created through the careful balance of words and phrases in written prose, through the inflection of a person’s voice, or through the use of punctuation or divisions such as stanzas.

Final example,

Shel Silverstein’s poem “Bear in There”, has cadence by making each line end-stopped. By doing this, it forces the reader of the poem to include a clear pause at the end of each line. This creates a singsong rhythm common with children’s literature.

There’s a polar bear
In our Frigidaire—
He likes it ‘cause it’s cold in there.
With his seat in the meat
And his face in the fish
And his big hairy paws
In the buttery dish.