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What Is Meter in Poetry?
Meter is the basic rhythmic structure of a line within a work of poetry. Meter consists of two components:
- The number of syllables
- A pattern of emphasis on those syllables
A line of poetry can be broken into “feet,” which are individual units within a line of poetry. A foot of poetry has a specific number of syllables and a specific pattern of emphasis.
Common Types of Feet in Poetry
In English poetry, the most common types of metrical feet are two syllables and three syllables long. They’re characterized by their particular combination of stressed syllables and unstressed syllables. They include:
- Trochee. Pronounced DUH-duh, as in “ladder.”
- Iamb. Pronounced duh-DUH, as in “indeed.”
- Spondee. Pronounced DUH-DUH, as in “TV.”
- Dactyl. Pronounced DUH-duh-duh, as in “certainly.”
- Anapest. Pronounced duh-duh-DUH, as in “what the heck!” (Anapestic poetry typically divides its stressed syllables across multiple words.)
Common Types of Meter in Poetry
Metrical feet are repeated over the course of a line of poetry to create poetic meter. We describe the length of a poetic meter by using Greek suffixes:
- one foot = monometer
- two feet = dimeter
- three feet = trimeter
- four feet = tetrameter
- five feet = pentameter
- six feet = hexameter
- seven feet = heptameter
- eight feet = octameter
Examples of Meter in Poetry
When you combine the stress patterns of specific poetic feet with specific lengths, you unlock the many possibilities of poetic meter. A good example of this is “iambic pentameter,” which can be found in English language poetry across many centuries.
Iambic pentameter contains five iambs per line, for a total of ten syllables per line. Every even-numbered syllable is stressed. William Shakespeare is the most famous practitioner of iambic pentameter in the English literary canon. Each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets features rhyming iambic pentameter—specifically adhering to an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG pattern. This is exemplified by “Sonnet 114”:
Those lips that Love's own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said 'I hate'
To me that languish'd for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
'I hate' she alter'd with an end,
That follow'd it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
'I hate' from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying 'not you.'
Other notable poets who favored iambic pentameter include John Donne and William Wordsworth.
Difference Between Qualitative and Quantitative Meter
Qualitative meter is characterized by stressed syllables coming at regular intervals—such as the consistent flow of five iambs in a line of a Shakespearean sonnet.
Quantitative meter, by contrast, is built on patterns based on syllable weight rather than stress. For instance, in quantitative meter, a line that is technically written in dactylic hexameter could contain not only dactyls (DUH-duh-duh) but also a spondee (DUH-DUH). What matters is not the “stress” on a syllable but rather the “length” of a syllable.
What Is Unrhymed Iambic Pentameter?
Unrhymed iambic pentameter is known as blank verse, and is also heavily utilized by Shakespeare—in his dramatic works rather than his poems. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic poem of blank verse and another hallmark of the form. (Note: Blank verse is not to be confused with “free verse,” which contains no metric consistency or rhyme scheme.)
Milton does not rigidly adhere to iambic pentameter in Paradise Lost. Nonetheless, it remains the overarching template for the poem:
High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshon the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showrs on her Kings Barbaric Pearl & Gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit rais’d
To that bad eminence; and from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue
Vain Warr with Heav’n, and by success untaught
His proud imaginations thus displaid.
Iambic Trimeter and Iambic Tetrameter in Poetry
Iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter are less common than their five-footed cousin, but they can still be found in poetry. John Keats primarily relies upon iambic tetrameter in “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” although not every line has four feet. For instance:
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
Dactylic Hexameter in Poetry
Dactylic hexameter is sometimes called “the meter of epic” and was popular in the construction of classical Greek and Latin epic poems. Virgil's Aeneid, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are all based upon dactylic hexameter.
The nineteenth-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also made ample use of dactylic hexameter, such as in his epic poem “Evangeline.” An excerpt reads:
Pleasantly rose next morn the sun on the village of Grand-Pré.
Pleasantly gleamed in the soft, sweet air the Basin of Minas,
Where the ships, with their wavering shadows, were riding at
Life had long been astir in the village, and clamorous labor
Knocked with its hundred hands at the golden gates of the
Longfellow varied his style, and also famously employed trochaic tetrameter. A good example is The Song of Hiawatha, which features the following passage:
By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.
Learn more about reading and writing poetry with US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.