A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part II (Meter)
by Tina Blue
November 22, 2000
The word meter, which comes from the Greek word for "measure," refers to the regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem. A poem's metrical pattern is determined by
scanning the poem. SCANSION is the process of marking the stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem. A slant line (/) is used to mark a stressed (accented) syllable. An x or a flattened out u-shape is used to mark an unstressed (slack) syllable. (I will use x for slack syllables, since I can't make the other symbol here.)
Not all poems are metrical. Free verse (vers libre) is poetry without an identifiable meter or rhyme scheme. Blank verse, though unrhymed, is metrical, because it has a specific metrical pattern--iambic pentameter.
The basic unit of meter is the foot. A metrical foot usually (though not always) consists of one accented syllable and one or two slack syllables. There are other types of feet, but the feet most commonly used in English poetry are as follows:
iamb-- x / . . . . . . . . . (adjective form = iambic)
trochee-- / x . . . . . . . . (adjective form = trochaic)
anapest-- x x / . . . . . . . (adjective form = anapestic)
dactyl-- / x x . . . . . . . . (adjective form = dactylic)
pyrrhic-- x x . . . . . . . . (adjective form = pyrrhic)
spondee-- / / . . . . . . . . (adjective form = spondaic)
The metrical pattern of a poem depends not only on the poem's most commonly used foot, but on the number of feet per line. The following lines (with an approximate pronunciation guide, based on what is possible at this site) are the ones most commonly used in English poetry:
dimeter (DIM a ter)--two feet per line
trimeter (TRIM a ter)--three feet per line
tetrameter (teh TRAM a ter)--four feet per line
pentameter (pen TAM a ter)--five feet per line
hexameter (hex AM a ter)--six feet per line
heptameter (hep TAM a ter)--seven feet per line
octameter (ahk TAM a ter)--eight feet per line
You will want to make sure that you pronounce these words correctly if you ever need to discuss meter with someone. Don't say "pentameter," or similarly mispronounce the other words!
Other metrical lines exist (for example, monometer, or one-foot lines), but they are not all that common, so you don't really need to learn them. Lines longer than eight feet--in fact, lines longer than six feet--tend to break down into shorter lines, simply because it is difficult to say more than ten or twelve syllables without pausing to breathe.
The number of syllables per line will be determined by the number of syllables in the line's predominant foot. Iambs and trochees are two-syllable (disyllabic) feet; anapests and dactyls are three-syllable (trisyllabic) feet.
Thus a line of iambic or trochaic pentameter will have ten syllables; a line of anapestic or dactylic pentameter will have fifteen syllables. In fact, trimeter and tetrameter lines are much more common when the predominant foot is anapestic or dactylic, because an anapestic or dactylic trimetrical line will have nine syllables, and a trisyllabic tetrametrical line will have twelve syllables.
Here are the symbolic markings for a few metrical lines, followed by the line names:
x / x / x / x / x / . . . iambic pentameter
x / x / x / x / . . iambic tetrameter
/ x / x / x / x / x / x . . . trochaic hexameter
x x / x x / x x / . . . anapestic trimeter
/ x x / x x / x x / x x . . . dactylic tetrameter
x x / x x / . . . anapestic dimeter
/ x x / x / x / x / . . iambic pentameter with an initial trochaic substitution
The metrical pattern of a poem is determined by the poem's predominant meter. Metered poems will usually be quite regular, but in order to provide special emphasis in some places or to avoid monotony, poets often use substitutions in some of a poem's lines. Spondees and pyrrhics often occur as substitutions. When, for example, the accent would fall on a word like "in" or "a," which are not normally accented in speech, a pyrrhic will leave the word appropriately unaccented. Technically, the word probably gets a slight degree of stress because of its position in the line. It is possible to mark secondary and tertiary (third-level) stress, but seldom is such a degree of analysis needed. I always treat a syllable with tertiary stress as if it were unstressed. Occasionally I treat secondary stress the same way, if the line clearly seems to warrant it, but I am more likely to treat a secondary stress as if it were a primary stress.
Some substitutions, such as a trochee for the first foot in an iambic line, are so common that they are considered conventional--so that, for example, a critic might refer to the "initial trochaic substitution" as conventional rather than meaningful in an iambic poem. Such a substitution is meaningful only if it is used to add emphasis to a certain word or syllable by departing from the expected meter. For example, in John Donne's Holy Sonnet 14, the opening line, "Batter my heart three-personed God, for You," uses an initial trochee to reinforce the onomatopoeic* effect of the word "batter":
Batter my heart three-personed God, for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend.
Notice that the second line includes a spondaic substitution in the third foot, adding strong emphasis to the series of actions being described. In this case, "Breathe" probably has a fairly strong secondary stress rather than a true primary stress, but since emphasis is clearly intended, I treat it as a primary stress for ease of discussion.
Even if a poem's meter is almost perfectly regular, that does not mean that there are no variations in its rhythm. In my poetry classes I use Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" to illustrate how remarkably varied the rhythm can be even when all of the poem's lines follow a regular meter. The poem is written in iambic tetrameter, with a couple of pyrrhic substitutions, as in the lines, "His house is in the village, though" (2) and "But I have promises to keep" (14). We would not normally stress "in" or the final syllable ("es") of "promises," so the pyrrhic substitution is obviously necessary. But the pyrrhic in "promises" also serves to shake up that line, as if the persona, who has been slipping into a trancelike state, literally shakes himself awake with the realization that he can't just sit there and stare at the snow:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Except for those two pyrrhics, however, there are no variations in this poem's meter. Nevertheless, the fact remains that some words take longer to pronounce than others because of the arrangement of phonemes (individual units of sound) or the length of vowels and diphthongs, and some are said quickly or slowly because of their meaning. Thus in the third stanza of the poem the lines "He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake" (9-10) have a very different rhythm from the two lines that follow them in the same stanza, "The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake" (11-12), despite the fact that the metrical pattern remains the same. (Try reading those two pairs of lines out loud and you will see exactly what I mean about how different their rhythmic patterns are.)
Now, when you are writing a metered poem, you are entering into an implicit contract with your reader. As the poet you get to choose the poem's meter, but once you have chosen it, you must maintain it throughout the poem, unless your variation is set up regularly and clearly as part of the poem's metrical pattern. If you can't figure out a way to say what you want to say without violating the meter of your line, then you will be tempted to cram a few extra syllables into the line, or to leave one or two out, because you think what you are trying to say is more important than how you say it.
But in a metered poem that is simply not the case. The meter is part of the poem's form, and if you violate it you will be revealing yourself as a careless poet at best, and an incompetent one at worst. (Your reader will also suspect that you cheat at solitaire.) If someone tells you your poem doesn't scan, what he is saying is that you have screwed up the meter. If that happens, don't just leave it as is--go and fix it. It may take time to figure out a way to match your meter to your meaning, but if you are going to write metered poetry, you really should try to write metrically.
*onomatopoeia = when the sound or rhythm of a word or phrase imitates or embodies what it
**The other articles in this series are "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody"; "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part III (Blank Verse); and "A Beginner's guide to Prosody: Part IV (Anglo-Saxon Accentual Meter).