The number and order of “feet” in a poem determine the rhythm and meter. A metrical foot is often described as a measuring unit. It is combined with other feet in order to create one of the many possible metrical patterns in poetry. These include iambic pentameter, trochaic tetrameter, dactylic hexameter, and more.
Depending on the arrangement of syllables, the metrical foot might be labeled as rising or falling. If the lines go from unstressed to stressed they’re known as rising (anapaests and iambs) but if they go from stressed to unstressed (trochees and dactyls) then they’re known as falling. Read more about the types of metrical feet below:
Explore the Poetic Foot
Definition of Foot in Literature
A metrical foot refers to the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. When these feet are combined, they sometimes create a pattern. It’s these patterns that writers use when they want to create rhythm in their poems.
Metrically organized poems are far more common in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries than they are today. They’ve fallen out of favor with modern and contemporary poets due to the restrictive qualities and traditional implications of the poems. When creating a poem with meter, a writer has to ensure that certain words have certain numbers of syllables, not to mention whether or not they’re stressed. This creates restrictions that most contemporary poets are uninterested in dealing with. The same can be said for rhyme schemes. When a poem uses neither a structure meter or rhyme it is written in free verse.
Types of Metrical Feet
From most common to least common, the types of metrical feet are listed below. When these feet are combined into lines of poetry, they create more complex patterns. For example, if a line of poetry has five iambs then it’s known as iambic pentameter. Or, if four trochees are combined into one line then it’s known as trochaic tetrameter. It’s important to note that the below combinations rely very much on what order the stressed and unstressed syllables come in. Both iambs and trochees consist of one stressed and one unstressed syllable but if the latter comes first or second changes the type of foot.
- Iamb: contains one unstressed and one stressed syllable.
- Trochee: contains one stressed and one unstressed syllable.
- Spondee: contains two stressed syllables.
- Anapest: consists of three beats, two unstressed and one stressed.
- Dactyl: consists of three beats, one stressed and two unstressed.
Two far less common types of metrical feet are:
- Amphibrach: one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable and ending with another stressed syllable.
- Pyrrhic: two unstressed syllables.
Examples of Metrical Feet in Poetry
In ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ Tennyson uses a very clear metrical pattern that’s also fairly unusual. He makes use of dactyl pentameter throughout this poem. It’s quite hard to maintain this kind of pattern but Tennyson does it skillfully. This means that the lines contain one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed. This happens twice per line. Take a look at the following excerpt:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
In the first lines, it’s clear that the first syllable/word “Half” is stressed. The following two words, “a league,” are unstressed. The same thing happens in the second half of the line. In the second line, “Half” and “on” are stressed. But, in the third line, things change. “All” and “Death” are stress while “in the valley of” are not. This is a good example of how a pattern is liable to change throughout a poem.
‘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. This is a very common metrical foot known as an iamb. Tetrameter consists of four feet. In this case, they are iambs. The even-numbered lines contain one less beat, or foot, making them iambic trimeter. Trimeter consists of three feet. In this case, they are also iambs. Her use of rhyme in these lines helps to emphasize the differences between the odd and even-numbered lines. (A feature that’s also common to a lot of Dickinson poems.)
Explore more Emily Dickinson poems.
In this poem, readers can find a great example of how trochees can be used. Just as the iamb can, they can be combined with any number of syllables. Let’s take a look at the first line from ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe which is almost entirely written in trochaic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four, rather than five, sets of beats. The first, as stated above, is going to be stressed, and the second is unstressed.
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
Poe’s skillful use of this pattern can be observed throughout these lines. It helps to create the haunting and strange tone he was looking for in this piece.
Read Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.
Related Literary Terms
- Free Verse: lines are unrhymed, and there are no consistent metrical patterns. But, that doesn’t mean it is entirely without structure.
- Blank Verse: poetry that is written in unrhymed lines but with a regular metrical pattern.
- Anapestic Meter: two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
- Iambic Pentameter: one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. The most popular metrical pattern.
- Dactylic Meter: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is the opposite of an anapest.
- Spondee Meter: an arrangement of two syllables in which both are stressed.