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In poetry, meter (metre in British English) is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific meter, or a specific set of meters alternating in a specific order.

The study of meters and forms of versification is known as prosody. (In linguistics, "prosody" is used in a more general sense that includes not only poetical meter but also the rhythmic aspects of prose, whether formal or informal, which vary from language to language, and sometimes between poetic traditions.)

Qualitative vs. quantitative meterEdit

The meter of much poetry of the Western world and elsewhere is based on particular patterns of syllables of particular types. The familiar type of meter in English-language poetry is called qualitative meter, with stressed syllables coming at regular intervals (e.g. in iambic pentameter, typically every even-numbered syllable). Many Romance languages use a scheme that is somewhat similar but where the position of only one particular stressed syllable (e.g. the last) needs to be fixed. The meter of the old Germanic poetry of languages such as Old Norse and Old English was radically different, but still was based on stress patterns.

Many classical languages, however, use a different scheme known as quantitative meter, where patterns are based on syllable weight rather than stress. In dactylic hexameter of Classical Latin and Classical Greek, for example, each of the six feet making up the line was either a dactyl (long-short-short) or spondee (long-long), where a long syllable was literally one that took longer to pronounce than a short syllable: specifically, a syllable consisting of a long vowel or diphthong or followed by two consonants. The stress pattern of the words made no difference to the meter. A number of other ancient languages also used quantitative meter, such as Sanskrit and Classical Arabic (but not Biblical Hebrew).


Main article: Foot (poetry)
Metrical feet
˘ ˘ pyrrhus, dibrach
˘ ¯ iamb
¯ ˘ trochee, choree
¯ ¯ spondee
˘ ˘ ˘ tribrach
¯ ˘ ˘ dactyl
˘ ¯ ˘ amphibrach
˘ ˘ ¯ anapest, antidactylus
˘ ¯ ¯ bacchius
¯ ¯ ˘ antibacchius
¯ ˘ ¯ cretic, amphimacer
¯ ¯ ¯ molossus
Number of feet per line
one Monometer
two Dimeter
three Trimeter
four Tetrameter
five Pentameter
six Hexameter
seven Heptameter
eight Octameter
See main article for tetrasyllables.
v · d · e

In most Western poetic traditions, the meter of a verse can be described as a sequence of feet, each foot being a specific sequence of syllable types - such as unstressed/stressed (the norm for English poetry).[1]The following are the four most common metrical feet in English poetry:

  1. Iambic (the noun is "iamb"): an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Note line 23 from Shelley's "Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples":
And WALKED / with IN/ward GLOR/y CROWNED.
  1. Trochaic (the noun is "trochee"): a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable, as in the first line of Blake's "Introduction" to Songs of Innocence:
PIPing / DOWN the / VALleys / WILD
  1. Anapestic (the noun is "anapest"): two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, as in the opening to Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib":
The AssYR / ian came DOWN / like the WOLF / in the FOLD
  1. Dactylic (the noun is "dactyl"): a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, as in Thomas Hardy's "The Voice":
WOman much / MISSED how you / CALL to me / CALL to me
Foot type Style Stress pattern Syllable count
Iamb Iambic Unstressed + Stressed Two
Trochee Trochaic Stressed + Unstressed Two
Spondee Spondaic Stressed + Stressed Two
Anapest Anapestic Unstressed + Unstressed + Stressed Three
Dactyl Dactylic Stressed + Unstressed + Unstressed Three
Amphibrach Amphibrachic Unstressed + Stressed + Unstressed Three
Pyrrhic Pyrrhic Unstressed + Unstressed Two

Source: Cummings Study Guides[1]

Meter also refers to the number of feet in a line. A line of one foot, is called monometer ; two feet, dimeter ; three is trimeter ; four is tetrameter ; five is pentameter ; six is hexameter , seven is heptameter and eight is octameter . For example, if the feet are iambs, and if there are five feet to a line, then it's called iambic pentameter .[1] If the feet are primarily dactyls and there are six to a line, then it's dactylic hexameter.[1]

Iambic pentameter , the most common meter in English poetry, is a sequence of five iambic feet or iambs, each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one ("da-DUM") :

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This approach to analyzing and classifying meters originates from ancient Greek tragedians and poets such as Homer, Pindar, Hesiod, and Sappho.

Note that some meters have an overall rhythmic pattern to the line that cannot easily be described using feet. This occurs in Sanskrit poetry; see Vedic meter and Sanskrit meter). (Although this poetry is in fact specified using feet, each "foot" is more or less equivalent to an entire line.) However, it also occurs in some Western meters, such as the hendecasyllable favored by Catullus, which can be described approximately as "DUM-DUM-DUM-da-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da", with some variation allowed in the first two syllables.


Another component of a verse's meter are the caesurae (literally, cuts), which are not pauses but compulsory word boundaries which occur after a particular syllabic position in every line of a poem. In Latin and Greek poetry, a caesura is a break within a foot caused by the end of a word.

For example, in the verse below, each odd line has a caesura (shown by a slash /) after the fourth syllable (daily, her, won'dring, mother) while each even line is without a caesura:

Daily, daily, / sing to Mary,
Sing my soul her praises due:
All her feasts, her / actions honor,
With the heart's devotion true.
Now in wond'ring / contemplation,
Be her majesty confessed;
Call her Mother / call her Virgin,
Happy Mother, Virgin blest.

A caesura would split the word "devotion" in the fourth line or the word "majesty" in the sixth line.

Metric variationsEdit

Poems with a well-defined overall metric pattern often have some lines that deviate from that pattern. A common variation is the inversion of a foot, which turns an iamb ("da-DUM") into a trochee ("DUM-da"). Trochaic inversion is perfectly fine, in iambic pentameter, at the beginning of a line or when following a caesura. Another acceptable substitution is spondaic: using a spondee rather than an iamb.

Other variations include headless verse (in which the first syllable of a line is omitted), catelexis (in which the last syllable is omitted), brachycatalexis (in which an entire foot is removed), and hypercatalexis (in which an extra syllable or foot are added).[2]

"Loose iambic pentameter" is IP containing extra unstressed syllables, and therefore with different feet (usually anapests) mixed among the iambs, but is still essentially iambic.


Metrical texts are first attested in early Indo-European languages. The earliest known unambiguously metrical texts, and at the same time the only metrical texts with a claim of dating to the Late Bronze Age, are the hymns of the Rigveda. That the texts of the Ancient Near East (Sumerian, Egyptian or Semitic) should not exhibit meter is surprising, and may be partly due to the nature of Bronze Age writing. There were, in fact, attempts to reconstruct metrical qualities of the poetic portions of the Hebrew Bible, e.g. by Gustav Bickell[3] or Julius Ley,[4] but they remained inconclusive[5] (see Biblical poetry). Early Iron Age metrical poetry is found in the Iranian Avesta and in the Greek works attributed to Homer and Hesiod. Latin verse survives from the Old Latin period (ca. 2nd c. BC), in the Saturnian meter. Persian poetry arises in the Sassanid era. Tamil poetry of the early centuries AD may be the earliest known non-Indo-European metered poetry.

Greek and LatinEdit

{Main|Classical meter}}

The metrical feet in the classical languages could have two, three, or four syllables. They were based on the length of time taken to pronounce each syllable, which were categorized according to their weight as either "long" syllables or "short" syllables. These are also called "heavy" and "light" syllables, respectively, to distinguish from long and short vowels. The foot is often compared to a musical measure and the long and short syllables to whole notes and half notes. In English poetry, feet are determined by emphasis rather than length, with stressed and unstressed syllables serving the same function as long and short syllables in classical meter.

Anglo-Saxon meterEdit

In place of using feet, the purely accentual verse of old Germanic languages like Old English and Old Norse divided each line into two half-lines. Each half-line had to follow one of five or so patterns, each of which defined a sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables, typically with one stressed syllable per half-line. Unlike typical Western poetry, however, the number of unstressed syllables could vary somewhat. For example, the common pattern "DUM-da-DUM-da" could allow between one and five unstressed syllables between the two stresses.

The following is a famous example, taken from The Battle of Maldon:

In the quoted section, the stressed syllables have been underlined. (Normally, the stressed syllable must be long if followed by another syllable in a word. However, by a rule known as syllable resolution, two short syllables in a single word are considered equal to a single long syllable. Hence, sometimes two syllables have been underlined, as in hige and mægen.) The first three half-lines have the type A pattern "DUM-da-(da-)DUM-da", while the last one has the type C pattern "da-(da-da-)DUM-DUM-da", with parentheses indicating optional unstressed syllables that have been inserted. Note also the pervasive pattern of alliteration, where the first and/or second stress alliterate with the third, but not with the fourth.

Medieval meterEdit

Medieval poetry was metrical without exception, spanning traditions as diverse as European Minnesang, Trouvere or Bardic poetry, Classical Persian and Sanskrit poetry, Tang dynasty Chinese poetry or the Japanese Heian period Man'yōshū. Renaissance and Early Modern poetry in Europe is characterized by a return to templates of Classical Antiquity, a tradition begun by Petrarca's generation and continued into the time of Shakespeare and Milton.


Not all poets accept the idea that meter is a fundamental part of poetry. 20th-century American poets Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Robinson Jeffers, were poets who believed that meter was imposed into poetry by man, not a fundamental part of its nature. In an essay titled "Robinson Jeffers, & The Metric Fallacy" Dan Schneider echoes Jeffers' sentiments: "What if someone actually said to you that all music was composed of just 2 notes? Or if someone claimed that there were just 2 colors in creation? Now, ponder if such a thing were true. Imagine the clunkiness & mechanicality of such music. Think of the visual arts devoid of not just color, but sepia tones, & even shades of gray." Jeffers called his technique "rolling stresses".

Moore went even further than Jeffers, openly declaring her poetry was written in syllabic form, and wholly denying meter. These syllabic lines from her famous poem "Poetry"illustrate her contempt for meter, and other poetic tools (even the syllabic pattern of this poem does not remain perfectly consistent):

   nor is it valid
         to discriminate against "business documents and
school-books": all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
         however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry

Williams tried to form poetry whose subject matter was centered on the lives of common people. He came up with the concept of the variable foot. Williams spurned traditional meter in most of his poems, preferring what he called "colloquial idioms." Another poet that turned his back on traditional concepts of meter was Britain's Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins' major innovation was what he called sprung rhythm. He claimed most poetry was written in this older rhythmic structure inherited from the Norman side of the English literary heritage. Sprung rhythm is structured around feet with a variable number of syllables, generally between one and four syllables per foot, with the stress always falling on the first syllable in a foot.

See alsoEdit


  • Hollander, John. Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse (1981) Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-02740-0
  • Deutsch, Babette. "Poetry Handbook" (1957) ISBN13: 9780064635486 ISBN10: 0064635481
  • Ciardi, John. "How Does a Poem Mean?" (1959) Houghton Mifflin ASIN: B002CCGG8O


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Michael J. Cummings (2006). "Meter in Poetry and Verse: A Study Guide". Cummings Study Guides. Retrieved 2010-12-07. "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." 
  2. Samuel Tan, "Meter," Thinking Poetry, Web, July 13, 2011.
  3. "Metrices biblicae regulae exemplis illustratae", 1879, "Carmina Vet. Test. metrice", 1882
  4. "Leitfaden der Metrik der hebräischen Poesie", 1887
  5. the Catholic Encyclopedia s.v. Hebrew Poetry of the Old Testament calls them 'Procrustean'.

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