Cretics are a type of three-syllable metrical foot that is uncommonly used in English. There are a few hard-to-find examples, but overall, it’s far more likely that a poem will be composed of iambs, trochees, or even dactyls or anapests before it uses a single cretic. It’s also sometimes known as an amphimacer.
Definition of Cretic
A cretic is a three-syllable metrical foot that uses one unstressed syllable between two stressed syllables. These metrical feet date back to Greek and Roman verse and are very hard to find in contemporary poetry. But, the most commonly used examples today are in folk poetry.
Meter and Feet in Poetry
Cretics are far from the only meter used in poetry. They are one type of metrical foot (and an uncommon one at that) a reader might stumble upon while exploring English-language poetry. There are several other metrical feet, like iambs, that one is far more likely to see. For example, some metrical feet that might be used alongside cretics are:
- Iamb: occurs when two syllables are placed next to one another, the first is unstressed or short, and the second is stressed or long. A poet might use iambic pentameter as the overall metrical pattern.
- Trochees: the exact opposite of an iamb, meaning that the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed. A poet might use trochaic tetrameter as the overall pattern.
- Anapest: depends on three-syllable sections of verse or words. An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
- Dactyl: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is the opposite of an anapest. A poet might use dactylic pentameter as the overall pattern.
Examples of Cretics in Literature
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
As noted above, examples of cretics in literature are very rare. But, this example from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the better known. These following lines are found at the beginning of Act II Scene 1 and are spoken by a fairy describing their work for the Fairy Queen.
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire;
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon’s sphere.
And I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
The first line, “Over hill, over dale” is composed of two cretics. To break it down (with the stressed syllables bolded):
Ov-er hill, ov-er dale
There is another example only two lines later. The poet wrote:
Ov-er park, ov-er pale
The cretics make a very obvious up and down, musical-sounding rhythm in these lines that is well-suited to the overall musicality of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Read Willian Shakespeare’s poetry.
Spring by William Blake
‘Spring‘ is one of the best-known examples of cretics being used in Romantic poetry. The poem is composed of mainly three-word lines that follow the metrical pattern of a cretic. Blake’s ‘Spring’ celebrates innocence through images associated with spring. He uses the image of a child and a lamb (giving the poem distinct religious undertones). Here are a few lines that use cretics:
Sound the Flute!
Now it’s mute.
Day and Night.
In the dale
Lark in Sky
This poem was first published in Songs of Innocence in 1789 and then appeared later in the combined volume, Songs of Innocence and Experience, in 1794. To break it down (with the stressed syllables bolded):
Now its mute
Day and night
In the dale
Lark in Sky
The poet repeats this pattern throughout the entirety of the poem. Blake’s choice to use cretics consistently makes them very easy to spot.
Read more William Blake poems.
Cretics are incredibly uncommon in English-language poetry. There are a few examples, but the very distinct sound of the beats, and the difficulty of consistently using them, makes it uncommon to find them purposefully used in poetry.
A cretic is a metrical foot that is made up of three syllables. These three syllables follow a pattern of stressed, unstressed, and stressed. The syllables might be contained within one long, three-syllable word like “Nightingale,” or they might be spread out across three different words, like “In the dale” or “Now its mute.”
Meter is the arrangement of syllables in each line. A poet might use sets of iambs, trochees, anapests, and more when composing their verse. If the poem consistently uses the same metrical foot (the same number of times in each line), then the poet may be conforming their lines to a specific metrical pattern like iambic pentameter.
There are a few different metrical feet that use three-syllable arrangements. The most commonly used are anapests and dactyls. An anapest uses two unstressed beats followed by a stressed beat. The dactyl is the exact opposite. This means it contains on stressed beat followed by an unstressed beat. There are also cretics, which contain one unstressed beat between two stressed beats (also known as amphimacers), and then there are amphibrachs which are the exact opposite.
Related Literary Terms
- Poetic Foot: a foot refers to a unit of meter in poetry. It is a grouping of stressed and/or unstressed syllables.
- Accent: the word “accent” refers to the stressed syllable in a word. Metered lines of verse are made up of different groups of syllables.
- Trimeter: one type of meter used in poetry, in which each line has three metrical feet.
- Cadence: the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.
- Meter: the pattern of beats in a line of poetry. It is a combination of the number of beats and the arrangement of stresses.