A metrical foot usually consists of two or three beats. They appear in an arrangement of unstressed and stressed syllables. For example, an iamb and trochee contain two beats while a dactyl and anapaest contain three. The most common patterns are used throughout English poetry. They include iambic pentameter, blank verse (or unrhymed iambic pentameter,) and free verse. The latter refers to a poem that lacks a meter or rhymes entirely. Another common meter includes iambic trimeter. Less common patterns include anapestic tetrameter, dactylic hexameter, iambic dimeter.
There are many different types of poetic meters in poetry that have been used by poets as different as Emily Dickinson, Virgil, John Milton, Homer, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, uses lines of unrhyme iambic pentameter, known as blank verse.
Explore the Meter in Poetry
Meter Poetry Defintion
The study of meter or the arrangement of beats (and how many there are) is known as prosody. When analyzing the meter of a particular poem, it’s important to count how many beats there are in a line and how they sound.
It helps to read the line out loud, ensuring that the stressed beats are clear. It should also be noted that accentual meter, as described here, is how the verse is arranged in English.
But, that is not always the case. Quantitative verse is another option. It comes from the length of a syllable, meaning the amount of time it takes to pronounce it. It’s also quite normal to find a poem in which the writer changes the meter multiple times throughout.
Sonnets traditionally use iambic pentameter. This can be seen in the sonnets of William Shakespeare (known as Shakespearean sonnets) as well as Petrarchan, Miltonic, and other common forms. But, as poetry changed during the modernist movement, writers moved away from these traditional sonnet forms.
Types of Meter
Below are the most common types of meter. Writers can select one of these patterns, or more, to use in their poems. Depending on the selected meter, it may be easier or hard to consistently use it throughout a poem. These patterns all have a specific number of syllables.
- 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 unstressed syllable.
- Pyrrhic: two unstressed syllables.
The above patterns refer to the arrangement of stresses. Below, readers can find a few of the most common number of feet.
- Trimeter: three beats per line
- Tetrameter: four beats per line
- Pentameter: five beats per line (one of the most popular in the English language)
Examples of Meter in Poetry
A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore
This well-known poem, commonly known as ‘’Twas the night before Christmas,’ is usually attributed to Moore is a great example of anapestic meter. Specifically, it is written in anapaestic tetrameter. Consider these lines: from the first stanza:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
While it’s not the case in this example, anapestic is often used to make a poem feel humorous. It appears in limericks, in the work of Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll.
Explore Clement Clarke Moore’s poetry.
My Last Duchess by Robert Browning
In Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess,’ the poet uses iambic pentameter. There are five sets of syllables per line, with a clear emphasis on each set’s second syllable. Here are the first four lines of the poem:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
The first line of this excerpt is a particularly effective example. Other poems written in iambic pentameter include ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats, ‘Sunday Morning’ by Wallace Stevens, and ‘Grief’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Read more of Robert Browning’s poetry.
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
Poe’s best-known poem, ‘The Raven,’ is written in another type of meter—trochaic tetrameter. While it doesn’t remain consistent throughout the entire poem, it is fairly regular. Consider the first lines of the poem:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door
The first line is a great example. It’s clear how each pair’s first syllable is emphasized, creating four pairs of two syllables.
Explore Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.
The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson
‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is a famous example of a poem written with dactyls. These syllables are divided into sets of three, with the first stressed and the second unstressed. Consider these lines:
Half a league, half a league
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of death
It’s very uncommon to find examples of dactylic meter, but it does happen. This is primarily due to the way that the emphasis is arranged. It’s hard to write this kind of line in a natural-sounding speech.
Read Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry.
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth
‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ is another famous example of a poem that uses iambs. In this case, the poem is written in iambic tetrameter. Meaning each line contains four sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
In these first lines of the poem, readers can find some good examples of the metrical pattern. It helps to create an even rhythm, mimicking the swaying of the breeze and movement of the daffodils.
Explore William Wordsworth’s poetry.
The meter is the arrangement of syllables in a poem. They can be grouped into pairs or sets of three. The arrangement can include stressed and unstressed beats or those that carry the most and least emphasis.
The best way to identify poetic meter is to count the syllables in a line. Then, it’s easiest to read those words out loud and see which syllables are the most important.
The rhythm and meter refer to the musical qualities in a poem. Poets are capable of speeding poems up or slowing them down in regard to the arrangement of the syllables.
Poets use the meter when they want to conform their poems to a specific format. This could be in order to slow the poem down, speed it up, make it sound more or less like a song, and more.
Sonnets traditionally use iambic pentameter. This can be seen in Shakespearean, Petrarchan, Miltonic, and other common forms.
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.