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Meter in Verse and Poetry
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Table of Contents

Definition      Types of Feet and Meter      Examples of Metric Formats      Catalexis
Acatalexis      Common Meter     Terms to Know


Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings
...© 2006, 2011


Definition

In verse and poetry, meter is a recurring pattern of stressed (accented, or long) and unstressed (unaccented, or short) syllables in lines of a set length. For example, suppose a line contains ten syllables (set length) in which the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed, the third is unstressed, the fourth is stressed, and so on until the line reaches the tenth syllable. The line would look like the following one (the opening line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18) containing a pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. The unstressed syllables are in blue and the stressed syllables in red. 

    Shall I com PARE thee TO a SUM mer’s DAY?
Each pair of unstressed and stressed syllables makes up a unit called a foot. The line contains five feet in all, as shown next:
    .. ..1...........   ... 2...........   ... ................4................ 5
    Shall.I..|..com.PARE..|..thee.TO..|..a.SUM..|..mer’s DAY?
Types of Feet and Meter

A foot containing an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (as above) is called an iamb. Because there are five feet in the line, all iambic, the meter of the line is iambic pentameter. The prefix pent- in pentameter means five (Greek: penta, five). Pent is joined to words or word roots to form new words indicating five. For example, the Pentagon in Washington has five sides, the Pentateuch of the Bible consists of five books, and a pentathlon in a sports event has five events. Thus, poetry lines with five feet are in pentameter.

Some feet in verse and poetry have different stress patterns. For example, one type of foot consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one. Another type consists of a stressed one followed by an unstressed one. In all, there are six types of feet:

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Iamb (Iambic) Unstressed + Stressed Two Syllables
Trochee (Trochaic) Stressed + Unstressed Two Syllables
Spondee (Spondaic) Stressed + Stressed Two Syllables
Anapest (Anapestic) Unstressed + Unstressed + Stressed Three Syllables
Dactyl (Dactylic) Stressed + Unstressed + Unstressed Three Syllables
Pyrrhic (Noun and Adjective) Unstressed + Unstressed Two Syllables
Amphibrach (Amphibrachic) Unstressed + Stressed + Unstressed Three Syllables
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The length of lines—and thus the meter—can also vary. Following are the types of meter and the line length:
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Monometer One Foot
Dimeter Two Feet
Trimeter Three Feet
Tetrameter Four Feet
Pentameter Five Feet
Hexameter Six Feet
Heptameter Seven Feet
Octameter Eight Feet
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Meter is determined by the type of foot and the number of feet in a line. Thus, a line with three iambic feet is known as iambic trimeter. A line with six dactylic feet is known as dactylic hexameter.  .


Examples of Metric Formats

Following are additional examples of feet and meter combinations.

Iambic Pentameter
From "On His Blindness," by John Milton

      1.............2............. 3...............4..............5
When I..|..con SID..|..er HOW..|..my LIFE..|..is SPENT

       1.................2.............. 3..................4...................4
Ere HALF..|..my DAYS..|..in THIS..|..dark WORLD..|..and WIDE

Mixed Meter With Iambic Feet
From "Intimations of Immortality," by William Wordsworth
 
 
.........1..........     .....2............   .....3..........    ...........4................     ......5
There WAS..|..a TIME..|..when MEAD..|..ow, GROVE,..|..and STREAM,
Iambic Pentameter
....   .....1............   ....2.......... .....3...........  .....4.
The EARTH,..|..and EV..|..ry COM..|..mon SIGHT,
Iambic Tetrameter
.....1............  ..2
To ME..|..did SEEM
Iambic Dimeter
... ...1........ ......2..........    ...3........   .......4
Ap PAR..|..elled IN..|..cel EST..|..ial LIGHT,
Iambic Tetrameter
......  ..1.......   .......2..........   .......3...........   .....4..........    .......5
The GLOR..|..y AND..|..the FRESH..|..ness OF..|..a DREAM.
Iambic Pentameter
. .1.............2......  .......3.......    ......4.........    .........5
It IS..|..not NOW..|..as IT..|..hath BEEN..|..of YORE;
Iambic Pentameter
...    .....1...... ..............2....  .........3
Turn WHERE..|..so E'ER..|..I MAY,
Iambic Trimeter
...  ....1...........   ...2
By NIGHT..|..or DAY,
Iambic Dimeter
......  ....1..........    .....2........    ........3..........   ......4...............5...........      ...6
The THINGS..|..which I..|..have SEEN..|..I NOW..|..can SEE..|..no MORE.
Iambic Hexameter

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Anapestic Tetrameter
From "The Destruction of Sennacherib," by George Gordon Lord Byron
 

....  ....1................   .......2.....................     .....3...........    ...........4
The As SYR..|..ian came DOWN..|..like the WOLF..|..on the FOLD,
......
..... ...1..............       .........2..................    ........3.............   .......4
And his CO..|..horts were GLEAM..|..ing in PUR..|..ple and GOLD

....    .....1.........      ................2......................    .......3.............   ..........4
And the SHEEN..|..of their SPEARS..|..was like STARS..|..on the SEA 


Trochaic Tetrameter
From "The Tyger," by William Blake
 

      ....1.............2............ ...3.....     ............4
    TY ger..|..TY ger..|..BURN ning..|..BRIGHT

    . ...1...............2.........   ......3.........  ...4
    IN the..|..FOR..ests..|..OF the..|..NIGHT

    See Catalexis below for an explanation of why the fourth foot in each line has only one syllable.


Catalexis and Acatalexis

The lines from "The Tyger" (above) contain trochaic feet—consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Notice, however, that the final foot of each line is incomplete, containing only a stressed syllable. An incomplete foot at the end of a line is called catalexis. Thus, bright and night are called catalectic feet. The meter of these lines is trochaic tetrameter—tetrameter because they each contain three complete feet and one incomplete foot, for a total of four feet. A complete foot at the end of a line is called acatalexis. The final feet in the stanza under Mixed Meter With Iambic Feet are all acatalectic.

Common Meter

Common meter is a metric format consisting of a four-line stanza with four iambic feet in the first and third lines and three iambic feet in the second and fourth lines. Emily Dickinson used common meter in many of her poems. Following is an example:

Two swimmers wrestled on the spar
Until the morning sun,
When one turned smiling to the land.
O God, the other one!

The stray ships passing spied a face
Upon the waters borne,
With eyes in death still begging raised,
And hands beseeching thrown.

Here is graphic illustration of the verse format of the poem.
First Stanza

......1.....................2...................3...............4
Two SWIM..|..mers WREST..|..led ON..|..the SPAR.........................(iambic tetrameter)

....1..................2...............3
Un TIL..|..the MORN..|..ing SUN,....................................................(iambic trimeter)

.......1...................2.................3.............4
When ONE..|..turned SMI..|..ling TO..|..the LAND.............................(iambic tetrameter)

.....1................2..............3
O GOD,..|..the OTH..|..er ONE!........................................................(iambic trimeter)
 

Second Stanza

.........1..................2...................3.................4
The STRAY..|..ships PAS..|..sing SPIED..|..a FACE...........................(iambic tetrameter)

....1...............2..................3
U PON..|..the WAT..|..ers BORNE,....................................................(iambic trimeter)

........1..................2................3.........../.......4
With EYES..|..in DEATH..|..still BEG..|..ging RAISED,.........................(iambic tetrameter)

........1.....................2...................3
And HANDS..|..be SEECH..|..ing THROWN........................................(iambic trimeter)


Terms to Know

Ballad: Poem that tells a story, sometimes in common meter.
Blank Verse: Lines in iambic pentameter that do not rhyme.
Caesura: Pause or break in a line of poetry, often occurring in the middle of the line. 
Free Verse: Poetry written without a metrical or stanzaic format or a regular rhyme scheme.
Metrics: Art of writing in meter.
Prose: The language of everyday conversation and of novels, essays, and other forms of writing that differ from poetry and verse.
Prosody: The study of meter, stanza forms, and the structure of poems.
Refrain: In a poem or hymn, a line or several lines repeated at intervals. 
Stanza: Group of lines that make up one of the divisions of a poem.
Stave: Stanza.
Verse: (1) One line of a poem with meter. (2) Lines of a play written in a metric format. Poetry is often called verse; however, not all verse is poetry.

Poetry and Verse

For an explanation of how poetry differs from verseand how they both differ from proseclick here.