Heterometric stanzas are those that use different line lengths and metrical patterns. Despite the complex-sounding designation, it is quite easy to find good examples of this stanza form. In contemporary poetry, it is far more difficult to stumble upon a perfect isometric stanza. As noted below, these stanzas were far more common prior to the 20th century.
Definition of Heterometric
A heterometric stanza is a set of lines that uses multiple lengths and meters. For example, some lines might use one metrical pattern, and some lines might use another. Or, each line might be written with a different meter in mind.
The term “heterometric stanza” sounds far more complicated than it is. In fact, some of the best-known stanza forms, like the Burns stanza and the Chaucerian stanza (also known as rhyme royal), are heterometric. Below, readers can explore a few great examples of this type of stanza.
Examples of Heterometric Poetry
A Bard’s Epitaph by Robert Burns
‘A Bard’s Epitaph’ was written a decade before the poet passed away and includes images that readers commonly consider as about Burns himself. Throughout, readers can also note Burns’ use of his characteristic Scottish dialect, written in a way that English readers could easily understand.
This poem is written using the rhyme scheme of AAABCB. Here, Burns makes use of a tail rhyme scheme as well as the heterometric stanza form. Consider how it’s being used in the first stanza:
Is there a whim-inspired fool,
Owre fast for thought, owre hot for rule,
Owre blate to seek, owre proud to snool,
Let him draw near;
And owre this grassy heap sing dool,
And drap a tear.
Throughout the poem, the poet uses some lines of iambic tetrameter and others that are more closely structured to iambic dimeter, such as lines four and six of this stanza.
Read more Robert Burns poems.
The Cricket Sang by Emily Dickinson
‘The cricket sang’ is a less commonly read Emily Dickinson poem. It is not written in the form she is best known for, that of the ballad stanza (which includes alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter). Instead, this poem uses a number of examples of iambic dimeter. Here are the first few lines:
The cricket sang,
And set the sun,
And workmen finished, one by one,
Their seam the day upon.
The first two lines are written in iambic dimeter. This means that they contain a total of four syllables divided into two sets of two beats. The first beat in each pairing is unstressed, and the second is stressed. The next line is far longer and should immediately let the reader know that the poem is heterometric not isometric. It is written in iambic tetrameter, meaning that the line is far longer, reaching eight syllables.
Explore Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
Last Post by Carol Ann Duffy
‘Last Post’ is a powerful poem that imagines a new ending to World War I and was commissioned by the BBC to honor the deaths of two World War I veterans. Here are a few lines from the first stanza that demonstrate the poem’s heterometric structure:
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud…
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home-
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
Duffy uses rhymes, iambs, and other elements of traditionally structured poetry, but there is no sustained pattern readers can hone in throughout the piece.
Discover more Carol Ann Duffy poems.
Heterometric vs. Isometric Stanzas
These two terms are often paired together because they are exact opposites. A heterometric stanza, as noted above, is a stanza that has lines of different lengths and structures. For example, the first two lines might be written in iambic pentameter and the following two lines in trochaic trimeter.
An isometric stanza is a set of lines that is completely consistent in length and structure. For instance, a stanza in which every line is written in perfect iambic pentameter. This type of stanza was far more common prior to the 20th century in which structured forms were the standard way of creating poetry. Since, authors have branched out, mixing and matching types of meter and even doing away with meter and rhyme altogether and writing in free verse.
A heterometric stanza is a stanza that uses lines of different lengths, or that conform to various meters. For example, the first two lines might be written in iambic pentameter, and the following lines might be in iambic trimeter.
Heterometric stanzas use lines of different lengths or that utilize different meters. Isometric stanzas contain lines that all use the same length/meter. The latter is far less common today than the former.
A few of the most common types of meter used in poetry are iambic pentameter, iambic trimeter, iambic tetrameter, trochaic tetrameter, and iambic dimeter. The first of these, iambic pentameter, is by far the most popular and historically important meter in the English language.
Any stanza that does not use a consistent meter or consistent line lengths throughout every line can be considered heterometric. For example, ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ by Emily Dickinson.
Related Literary Terms
- Chaucerian Stanza: also known as rhyme royal, is a stanza form introduced by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. It’s seven lines long and uses the rhyme scheme ABABBCC.
- Heptastich: a stanza that contains seven lines in poetry. These lines can be written in any rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
- Hymn Stanza: uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
- Ottava Rima: used to describe a particular type of stanza in poetry. It uses eight iambic lines and follows a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC.
- Quintain: used to describe a stanza that has five lines. It is one of several stanza forms that a poet might choose from.
- Stanza: one of the most important fundamental elements of a poem. It is the unit of writing poems are composed.
- Read: Everything You Need to Know about Rhyme Schemes in Poetry
- Watch: Free Verse Poetry
- Listen: What is Meter in Poetry?