Meters and Feet of the poetical kind
“Metre” (U.K. and non-American English) or “meter” in American English which I try to use throughout) is the metrical application of rhythm of a line of verse. I prefer “meter” to “metre” because “metre” is too close for me to the unit of distance. “Meter” is not the measurement of distance, but the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of verse. “Unstressed/stressed” syllables in the English language correspond to “short/long” syllables in classical languages. Stressed=long; unstressed=short. Call it the road markings of a poem.
A line can be divided either into syllables formed by words or a caesura, a complete pause or break between words in a line of poetry. So when counting syllables, you count more than single words – you count the entire interconnected phrase, as you would pronounce it, not as it is spelled.
Five basic meter patterns
English poetry basically employs five patterns of varying stressed (/¯) and unstressed (x) syllables. The meters are:
- anapests, and
So you could ask of any line in a verse, what meter are you? Are you an iamb? Or a trochee?
When these meter patterns are repeated in a line of verse, you get the “feet” of the line. Again, meter and feet, used here, have nothing to do with the measurement of distance. Any number of meters and any number of feet are possible in one line. It all depends on the effect the poet wants to achieve.
The more regular or classical the meter, the harder it is to write, and the more skill it takes from the author. However, having a classical meter and rhythm in a poem does not necessarily mean it’s better than a free-form verse. It is simply difficult to do in a different way.
Unstressed/short syllables can be indicated by a cross (x or˘ above it) and stressed/long syllables by a forward slash (/or a ¯ above it).
You can download a table of different meters in pdf format here: Table of metres/meters: Table of metres For an html version of the table, go here. But beware, there is nothing that will help you match the sound of a line to its type or name. That process of thinking is your alone. This table works for me up to a point. Sometimes, I can figure out part of a line, or a couple of lines, but every exception to the standard forms throws me a wobbly and it usually leads to some sort of conclusion or idea about a poem or lyrics – usually something that makes them unusual or atypical.
The combination of meter and feet can identify a poem or a poet. Each unit of rhythm is called a “foot” of poetry – plural of foot is feet:
- A line of 1 foot (or meter) is a monometre/monometer,
- 2 feet is a dimetre/dimeter,
- trimetre/trimeter (3),
- tetrametre/tetrameter (4),
- pentametre/pentameter (5),
- hexametre/hexameter (6),
- heptametre/heptameter (7), and
- octametre/octameter (8).
If you doubled, for instance in one line, the iamb; unstressed/stressed, or short/long, you would get a diamb: short-long-short-long. Or iambic dimeter.
Another major form of the iamb is the minor ionic, or double iamb: short-short-long-long, or the major ionic: long-long-short-short.
If you doubled up on a trochee, you would get a ditrochee: long-short-long-short. Or trochaic dimeter.
Some common metrical patterns, with notable examples of poets and poems who use them, include:
- Iambic pentameter (iamb repeated 5 times, or 5 feet) (John Milton in Paradise Lost, William Shakespeare in his sonnets)
- Dactylic hexameter (dactyl repeated 6 times or 6 feet) (Homer, Iliad; Virgil, Aeneid)
- Iambic tetrameter (iamb repeated 3 times) Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress; Aleksandr Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening)
- Trochaic octameter (trochee repeated 8 times) (Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven)
Other than in free verse, where no rhyming scheme or meter apply, when a poet tries to force a rhyming scheme on a poem, or a lyricist tries too hard to make meter work, the problem is that they alter the normal pattern of emphases in a word or phrase, and a mother tongue speaker of the language immediately notice it, and it makes the language uncomfortable.
For example, the word “UnCOMfortable” has the stress on the 2nd syllable, not the 1st, 3rd or 4th syllable. When you say “I live aCROSS the road”, the stress is normally on the 2nd syllable of the word “across” – in other words the most “normal” use or meaning of the phrase.
If the stress changes to “I LIVE across the road” – which some lyricists do when they get stuck – it emphasises “live” which means that, to make sense, there needs to be some indication of what else the person does across the road. If that is not there, well, it just sounds awkward.
Or if the lines are:
“I live across the road near-
by, where property is dear.”
OK, that is not an actual poem, but to make “dear” rhyme with “near”, I hyphenated “nearby”, letting the “by” drop over onto the next line. As you can see, it’s bad meter.
The meter gets especially thrown out when a phrase gets broken up in the middle of a word, where normally it wouldn’t be broken up, or a sentence gets broken up where it normally there wouldn’t be a pause or caesura.
You might well ask, why bother at all? Well, some poets don’t – then you get prose verse or free verse. But for practical purposes, like when you write lyrics or when you rap, you have to use rhyme and rhythm. And to do that, you’ve got to use meter.
Example of good irregular meter
For example, in Anecdote of the Jar, by Wallace Stevens, he uses broken or irregular meter ion purpose, and it is done wonderfully well. I learned his poem in university, and still today it pops into my head when I least expect it. But remember that Wallace Stevens did this on purpose – the poem “succinctly accommodates a remarkable number of different and plausible interpretations”, as Jacqueline Brogan observes. “It can be approached from a New Critical perspective as a poem about writing poetry and making art generally. From a poststructuralist perspective the poem is concerned with temporal and linguistic disjunction, especially in the convoluted syntax of the last two lines. (Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught, Introducing Stevens: Or, the Sheerly Playful and the Display of Theory, In Teaching Wallace Stevens, ed. John Serio and B. Leggett, 1994, University of Tennessee Press)
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill. [These two lines, for a start – what was round?]
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air. [OF a port IN air – what does that mean?]
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee. [Does he mean Tennessee does give of bird or bush, or does not?]
So, test yourself. What meter and feet are these lines from famous poems? (No cheating, answers on the next page, at the bottom.) The stressed syllables are in bold.
- That time | of year | thou mayst | in me | behold (Sonnet 73, by William Shakespeare)
- Tell me | not, in | mournful | numbers (A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
- And the sound | of a voice | that is still (Break, Break, Break by Alfred, Lord Tennyson)
- VADER “I want | the ship,| not thy | most weak | dismay”
PIETT “I un-der-stand, | my Lord, | and shall | obey.”
(William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back, by Ian Doescher, Quirk Books, Philadelphia, 2014, p. 62)
- Coun-try roads,| take me home | to the place | I be-long.
West Vir-gin-ia, | moun-tain mam-ma,
Take me home, | coun-try roads. (Country Roads, by John Denver)