Often, these four syllables are divided into pairs, creating two sets of two syllables. There are a variety of ways that the line can then be structured in regard to stressed and unstressed syllables (explored more below). As one might assume, a line with only four syllables is quite short. While there are poems written entirely in dimeter, they are far less common than poems that include a few lines of dimeter.
Dimeter pronunciation: dye-mee-tur
Dimeter is a type of meter. It refers to lines that contain a total of four syllables or beats. These are usually divided into two sets of two beats and structured in iambic dimeter or trochaic dimeter, although there are other choices.
There are many different reasons a writer might choose to use dimeter. But, it’s uncommon to find an entire poem written in this metrical pattern. There are examples, but they are far rarer than those which feature dimeter at the end of stanzas or sporadically for emphasis.
Types of Meter
Besides dimeter, there are several other types of meter one might encounter. They include:
- Trimeter: a line with a total of six syllables. These are usually separated into three sets of two beats. Sometimes, they are divided into two sets of three beats.
- Tetrameter: a line with a total of eight syllables. These are usually separated into four sets of two beats.
- Pentameter: a line with a total of ten syllables. These are usually separated into five sets of two beats. Often, they are structured as iambic pentameter.
Examples of Dimeter in Poetry
Virtue by George Herbert
‘Virtue’ is a spiritual poem that is similar to much of Herbert’s best-known poems. In it, he stresses the need of keeping one’s soul virtuous. He also contrasts earthly passions with spiritual ones. He touches on a rose, spring, and the day as beautiful things of nature and compares them to “a sweet and virtuous soul.” Here is the first stanza:
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky;
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night,
For thou must die.
The fourth line is a clear example of dimeter. It stands out in length from the rest of the poem. It’s short and to the point. Its brevity is one of the ways that the poet ensures that readers pay additional attention to it. Plus, the emphasis on death makes considering this line unavoidable.
Discover more George Herbert poems.
Pussy-Cat by Spike Milligan
‘Pussy-Cat‘ by Spike Milligan is a short, four-line children’s poem. Readers familiar with Milligan’s work will recognize his characteristic use of rhyme and humor. The poem rhymes ABAB and uses lines with three, four, and five syllables. Milligan began the poem with “Pussy-cat” and continued on to say:
What are vices?
And eating mices.
The second line, “What are vices?” is a great example of dimeter. In fact, this line is written in trochaic dimeter. This means that the first and third syllables are stressed. “Are” and “-ces” are unstressed. This is one of the most common ways that dimeter is used.
Explore more of Spike Milligan’s poetry.
The Sick Rose by William Blake
Within ‘The Sick Rose,’ readers can find another example of lines that sometimes use dimeter. As stated above, this is more common than the alternative. It’s hard and somewhat tedious to use dimeter throughout an entire poem. In ‘The Sick Rose,’ Blake makes use of what is known as anapaestic dimeter. The seventh line of the poem is the best example. It can be read, within the second stanza, below:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
In these lines, “Of crimson joy” contains four beats. It is surrounded by lines that are slightly longer, with five or six beats. The entire poem is quite short, with no lines longer than six syllables.
We Are Seven by William Wordsworth
‘We Are Seven’ is yet another poem that uses dimeter in its lines. It begins with the speaker asking what a child, who is clearly full of life, could possibly know about death. The following stanza is a good example of how an author can include one line within a stanza with this particular form:
———A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
The poet ensures that readers remember the first line, “——A simple child,” due to the unusual way it’s structured. This is not an uncommon feature.
Read more William Blake poems.
Dust of Snow by Robert Frost
Robert Frost’s ‘Dust of Snow’ is an interesting example of his work. It is a simple tale of how a speaker was influenced by the snow. His love of nature was enough to elevate him into a happier state of mind. All the lines are quite short, with three written in perfect iambic dimeter. They are also the first three lines of the poem. They read:
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
The pattern is broken when he uses “From a hemlock tree” and other five-syllable lines.
Explore more Robert Frost poems.
Poets use this type of meter when they want to write sharp, punchy lines. Sometimes, they will end a stanza with a line of dimeter in order to drive home a specific point. When the other lines are longer, this can be quite effective.
Iambic dimeter occurs when a poet structures a line with two sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed, and the second is stressed. This same pattern can be used when there are six, four, five, and more beats per line.
Sometimes contemporary poets still choose to use a meter, but it is far less common than it was during the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, poets generally prefer to write in free verse. That is a verse that does not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
Related Literary Terms
- Sound Devices: anything writers use that improves or emphasizes the sound in a piece of writing.
- Cadence: the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.
- Euphony: a literary device that refers to the musical, or pleasing, qualities of words.
- Scansion: the analysis of a poem’s metrical patterns. It organizes the lines, metrical feet, and individual syllables into groups.
- Iamb: a metrical unit. It occurs when two syllables are placed next to one another, and the first is unstressed or short, and the second is stressed or long.