Metre in verse

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One of the differences between prose and most forms of poetry - the exception is free verse - is that poetry has metre: the words in a line of poetry have been arranged in such a way that they form a distinctive rhythmic pattern. Often all the lines of a poem have the same rhythmic pattern, but this does not have to be so. (Some commentators label this regular phenomenon rhythm, but AWE finds it useful to differentiate metre and rhythm.) The basic unit of metre (or poetic rhythm) is called a foot (or measure). A foot consists of two or more syllables, and different types of foot are distinguished according to the number of syllables in the foot and the syllable which has the stress. (A foot in poetry has sometimes been compared to a bar in music.)

Here are four of the more common types of foot:

a two-syllable foot with the stress falling on the first syllable - for example, 'slowly', 'picture', 'breakfast', 'pallid' - called a trochee;
a two-syllable foot with the stress on the second syllable - e.g. 'return', 'defend', 'design', 'support' - an iamb, iambus, or iambic;
a three-syllable foot with the stress on the first syllable - for example, 'heavily', 'dangerous', 'simpering', 'masculine' - a dactyl;
a three-syllable foot with the stress on the last syllable - for example, 'in a rush', 'intersect', 'for a bet', 'unopposed' - an anapaest.

There are many other types of foot producing many other distinctive rhythmic patterns. If you are interested, you may like to consult Less common metrical feet or Hobsbawm, 1995.

The metre of a line of poetry depends on the number and type of the feet in the line. So, for example, a line of poetry may contain five feet each of which is an iambic, or three feet each of which is an anapaest, or two feet each of which is a trochee ..., and there are clearly many other possibilities. (Often all the feet in a line of poetry are of the same type, but this does not have to be so.)

Here are examples of three different poetic metres, with the stressed syllables in each line printed in bold type:

Two feet in a line, each foot a dactyl - the technical name for this type of line is a dactylic dimeter:

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death's bitterness
from In Time of Pestilence by Thomas Nashe (1567-1601)

Five feet in a line, each of them an iambic - the technical name for this type of line is an iambic pentameter

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain
from When I have Fears that I may cease to be, a sonnet by John Keats (1795-1821)

Four feet in a line, each of them a trochee - the technical name for this type of line is a trochaic tetrameter:

Like a yellow leaf in autumn,
Like a yellow water lily
from Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882).

(The numbering system uses the Greek numerical prefixes for groups with the suffix -meter. See also Names of lines of verse by number of feet.)

This account of metre, as it stands, fits English poetry and most medieval and modern European poetry, where poetic rhythm is constituted by the patterned arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables. However, in the poetry of Classical Greece and Rome and in Classical Arabic poetry metre consists in the patterned arrangement not of stressed and unstressed syllables but of long and short syllables.


See further iambic, dactyl, trochee, spondee, anapaest.