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Meter

The meter is the pattern of beats in a line of poetry. It is a combination of the number of beats and arrangement of stresses.

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 iambic pentameter, blank verse (or unrhymed iambic pentameter,) and free verse. The latter refers to a poem that lacks a meter or rhymes entirely. 

Meter pronunciation: mee-ter

Poetic Meter definition and examples

 

Definition of Meter 

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 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 

 

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. 

  • 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.

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: 

‘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. 

Read more of Robert Browning’s poetry.

The first line of this excerpt is a particularly effective example. Other poems written in iambic pentameter include Ode to a Nightingaleby John Keats, ‘Sunday Morning’ by Wallace Stevens, and ‘Grief’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

 

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 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.

 

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.

 

Other Resources 

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