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Meter

Modern American Poetry
From Modern American Poetry, Copyright © 2002 by The Great Books Foundation

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In this passage from Shakespeare's sonnet 73, we have the most complex organization of rhythm possible: meter. Meter is the combination of syllable count and accentual pattern into a musical system. Meter of this sort is ancient, too, going back at least to the Greeks, from whom we derive our terminology.

According to this system, there are several different rhythmical patterns, each consisting of two or three syllables. These patterns are called feet. This term can be distracting at first, given the familiarity of the word. But if you consider that what we are doing is measuring a line of poetry, the term seems to fit better.

In English poetry, you will find four standard types of feet. Each contains one accented and one or two unaccented syllables:

Symbols                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         1.  Iamb (iambic): An unaccented syllable            U /
followed by an accented syllable.    

2.  Trochee (trochaic): An accented syllable            / U
followed by an unaccented syllable.    

3.  Anapest (anapestic): Two unaccented syllables        UU /
followed by an accented syllable.    

4.  Dactyl (dactylic): An accented syllable            / UU
followed by two unaccented syllables.    

You might also hear of the pyrrhic foot, which has two unaccented syllables (UU), and the spondaic foot or spondee, which has two accented syllables (/ /). The ancient Greeks measured their feet of these same names as "long" and "short" according to the duration of the vowels. Because English has no equivalent for measuring duration, but rather measures stress, it is difficult to imagine feet with no accents or, to a lesser degree, feet with two equally accented syllables.     

A metric line is measured and named according to the number of feet it has:

Monometer:   one foot    
Dimeter:        two feet    
Trimeter:       three feet    
Tetrameter:   four feet    
Pentameter:   five feet    
Hexameter:    six feet    
Heptameter:  seven feet    
Octameter:    eight feet     

A line that consists predominantly of iambs (some feet may vary) and contains five total feet is called iambic pentameter. The vast majority of English metrical poetry is iambic. And if you look at everyday speech, you'll notice that it, too, frequently falls into iambic patterns. Pentameter is also the most widely used line length that you'll encounter, turning up in the poems of such diverse poets as Shakespeare, John Milton, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the contemporary poets Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Donald Hall. You might wonder, why pentameter? In her book A Poetry Handbook, poet Mary Oliver suggests that our English-language breath capacity is about that long. Of course the amount of breath that a ten-syllable line can take is quite variable; nevertheless, it seems likely that we have a physiological preference for pentameter.

Rhythm and Meter