Trimeter is one type of meter used in poetry in which each line has three metrical feet. Poets use trimeter in a variety of different poems. Sometimes consistently and sometimes less so. It is only one of several metrical patterns that can be found in historical and contemporary poetry. Although it is not the best-known (that would be pentameter), trimeter is quite popular. Trimeter takes its name from its shape, usually in the iambic form of three metrical units. The six-syllable line that is created is short, and it is unusual to see an entire poem written in trimeter.
Definition and Explanation of Trimeter
Trimeter is one metrical pattern that’s used in poetry. A line written in trimeter has three sets of two beats within it. Usually, these beats are iambic, meaning that the first is stressed, and the second is stressed. But, there are examples in which poets use trochaic trimeter, meaning that the first beat is stressed, and the second is stressed. The same can be said for anapests, spondees, and dactylic, although they are much less common.
Usually, poets alternate iambic trimeter with iambic tetrameter. This is seen most commonly in ballad stanzas or hymn stanzas, such as those used by Emily Dickinson.
Why Do Writers Use Trimeter?
Writers use this metrical pattern, as they use others, to create a regular beat in a poem. This is especially useful when a writer wants their lines to come off as sounding formal or artistic. Often, a meter is also useful to emphasize certain parts of the poem. If a writer only puts specific lines in the trimeter, the reader will automatically know that these lines deserve more attention. Most of the time, contemporary poets do not worry about using a meter. This relates to the overhaul of traditional poetic subjects and styles after the Second World War.
Examples of Trimeter in Poetry
Tell all the truth but tell it slant by Emily Dickinson.
‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ is an eight-line poem separated into two sets of four lines or quatrains. As was common within Dickinson’s poetry, this piece is structured in the form of a traditional church ballad. Take a look at these lines from the poem:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
The lines alternate in meter between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. This means that the odd-numbered lines contain four sets of two beats, the first syllable of which is stressed and the second unstressed. The even-numbered lines contain one less beat, making them iambic trimeter.
My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke
In which the speaker describes the confusing and presumably partially abusive relationship he had with his father, this striking poem is written in trimeter. Roethke made this choice in part to correspond with the “dance” in the text. Here are a few lines from the poem:
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The lines are all quite short since they only contain six syllables each. Readers should also note how the stresses change from line to line, something that’s quite common. It’s often more work than it’s worth committing to writing every poem line in precise iambic beats.
To a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley
‘To a Skylark’ is one of Shelley’s longest and best-loved poems. It is a twenty-one stanza ode with a consistent rhyme scheme. The meter is just as strict as the rhyme scheme. Take a look at these lines from the poem:
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Each stanza’s first four lines are written in trochaic trimeter, meaning that a stressed syllable comes before an unstressed. Additionally, each of the first four lines has three of these beats. The fifth longer line of each stanza is written in iambic hexameter. This means that each line has six beats of unstressed syllables preceding stressed.
Some related words are meter, triple meter, three iambs, and three trochees.
Related Literary Devices
- Iambic Pentameter— lines that contain five sets of two beats, the first of which is stressed and the second unstressed.
- Hymn Stanza–uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
- Trochaic Meter–trochees are the exact opposite of iambic pentameter, meaning that the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed.
- Dactylic Meter— one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is the opposite of an anapest.
- Anapestic Meter–three-syllable sections of verse or words. It is two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
- Spondee Meter–an arrangement of two syllables in which both are stressed.
- Watch: How to Write in Iambic Meter
- Watch: Identifying Meter in Poems
- Watch: Scansion 101
- Read: Poetry 101: What is Meter?