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Meter in Poetry and Verse
A Study Guide
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By Michael J. Cummings... 2006
 
 



.......In verse and poetry, meter is a recurring pattern of stressed (accented, or long) and unstressed (unaccented, or short) syllables in lines of a set length. For example, suppose a line contains ten syllables (set length) in which the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed, the third is unstressed, the fourth is stressed, and so on until the line reaches the tenth syllable. The line would look like the following one (the opening line of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18") containing a pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. The unstressed syllables are in blue and the stressed syllables in red. 

    Shall I com PARE thee TO a SUM mer’s DAY?
Each pair of unstressed and stressed syllables makes up a unit called a foot. The line contains five feet in all, as shown next:
    ....1.............. 2.................3..............4................ 5
    Shall.I..|..com.PARE..|..thee.TO..|..a.SUM..|..mer’s DAY?
.......A foot containing an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (as above) is called an iamb. Because there are five feet in the line, all iambic, the meter of the line is iambic pentameter. The prefix pent in pentameter means five (Greek: penta, five). Pent is joined to words or word roots to form new words indicating five. For example, the Pentagon in Washington has five sides, the Pentateuch of the Bible consists of five books, and a pentathlon in a sports event has five events. Thus, poetry lines with five feet are in pentameter.
.......Some feet in verse and poetry have different stress patterns. For example, one type of foot consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one. Another type consists of a stressed one followed by an unstressed one. In all, there are six types of feet:
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Iamb (Iambic) Unstressed + Stressed Two Syllables
Trochee (Trochaic) Stressed + Unstressed Two Syllables
Spondee (Spondaic) Stressed + Stressed Two Syllables
Anapest (Anapestic) Unstressed + Unstressed + Stressed Three Syllables
Dactyl (Dactylic Stressed + Unstressed + Unstressed Three Syllables
Pyrrhic Unstressed + Unstressed Two Syllables
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The length of lines—and thus the meter—can also vary. Following are the types of meter and the line length:
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Monometer One Foot
Dimeter Two Feet
Trimeter Three Feet
Tetrameter Four Feet
Pentameter Five Feet
Hexameter Six Feet
Heptameter Seven Feet
Octameter Eight Feet
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.......Meter is determined by the type of foot and the number of feet in a line. Thus, a line with three iambic feet is known as iambic trimeter. A line with six dactylic feet is known as dactylic hexameter. .

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Examples From Poems

Following are additional examples feet and meter combinations.
 

Iambic Pentameter
From "On His Blindness," by John Milton

      1.............2............. 3...............4..............5
When I..|..con SID..|..er HOW..|..my LIFE..|..is SPENT
       1.................2.............. 3..................4...................4
Ere HALF..|..my DAYS..|..in THIS..|..dark WORLD..|..and WIDE
Mixed Meter With Iambic Feet
From "Intimations of Immortality," by William Wordsworth
 
.........1...............2.................3.....................4......................5
There WAS..|..a TIME..|..when MEAD..|..ow, GROVE,..|..and STREAM,
Iambic Pentameter
.........1................2...............3................4.
The EARTH,..|..and EV..|..ry COM..|..mon SIGHT,
Iambic Tetrameter
.....1..............2
To ME..|..did SEEM
Iambic Dimeter
......1..............2.............3...............4
Ap PAR..|..elled IN..|..cel EST..|..ial LIGHT,
Iambic Tetrameter
........1..............2.................3................4.................5
The GLOR..|..y AND..|..the FRESH..|..ness OF..|..a DREAM.
Iambic Pentameter
..1.............2.............3.............4..................5
It IS..|..not NOW..|..as IT..|..hath BEEN..|..of YORE;
Iambic Pentameter
........1....................2.............3
Turn WHERE..|..so E'ER..|..I MAY,
Iambic Trimeter
.......1..............2
By NIGHT..|..or DAY,
Iambic Dimeter
..........1...............2.................3................4................5..............6
The THINGS..|..which I..|..have SEEN..|..I NOW..|..can SEE..|..no MORE.
Iambic Hexameter

Anapestic Tetrameter
From "The Destruction of Sennacherib," by George Gordon Lord Byron

........1.......................2..........................3......................4
The As SYR..|..ian came DOWN..|..like the WOLF..|..on the FOLD,
........1.......................2..........................3....................4
And his CO..|..horts were GLEAM..|..ing in PUR..|..ple and GOLD
.........1.........................2.............................3.......................4
And the SHEEN..|..of their SPEARS..|..was like STARS..|..on the SEA
Trochaic Tetrameter
From "The Tyger," by William Blake
    ....1.............2...............3.................4
    TY ger..|..TY ger..|..BURN ning..|..BRIGHT
    ....1...............2...............3............4
    IN the..|..FOR..ests..|..OF the..|..NIGHT
These lines contain trochaic feet—consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. But the final foot of each line is incomplete, containing only a stressed syllable. An incomplete foot at the end of a line is called catalexis, and bright and night are called catalectic feet. The meter of these lines is trochaic tetrameter—tetrameter because they each contain three complete feet and one incomplete foot, for a total of four feet. A complete foot at the end of a line is called acatalexis. The final feet in the stanza under Mixed Meter With Iambic Feet are all acatalectic.
 

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