View Full Version : A Crash Course in Meter

the cat came back
02-04-2015, 09:09 PM
I put this together for someone who asked for a crash course in stressed and undressed syllables (due to an autocorrect fail which created an expression that is enough fun to preserve, I think), so I am presenting it for your consideration in its own thread.

This is, I believe, the third time that I have been asked for this and furnished what was asked for.

Perhaps the moderators would consider making this a "sticky"?

A Crash Course in Meter

Have you heard a robot talk? Every syllable is the same length and volume as every other syllable. Take a second to hear that inwardly.

I'll wait . . .

It's pretty unnatural; nobody talks like that. Syllables have different volumes and durations. You can hear that in individual words: EL-e-phant, TEL-o-phone, ac-COUNT-ant, TEACH-er, HURR-i-cane, an-NOINT, be-LOW. If you are having trouble with that, try saying them oppositely: el-e-PHANT (or el-E-phant), teach-ER, BE-low, etc. If you are unsure of any of the accents, they are given in any dictionary.

The same applies to phrases and sentences, which is a little more complicated, but let me first digress . . .

Scansion or prosody (the analysis of word rhythms in poetry) recognizes two qualities: stressed (strong) and unstressed (weak). In reality, you can have all manner of syllables strengths. If you looked at human speech on an oscilloscope screen, the amplitudes (waves size, which indicates volume) would be all over the place. In addition to strong and weak, you would have to add medium, and then . . . where would you stop? So we stick, somewhat artificially, to strong and weak.

When you string words to together, and you want to detect where the stressed and unstressed syllables are, and it takes a little practice.

Here is a sentence in iambic rhythm in which the pattern of weak followed by a strong syllable is repeated (WS/WS/WS, etc. ) Don't get too concerned about the terminology at this point.


If you're having difficulty feeling that, try the opposite, and note how "wrong" it feels.

I want TO take A walk AND feel THE breeze U-pon MY face.

If it's still not clear, do it again.

Assuming that you're okay with that, notice how it falls into a pattern of "sting, weak, strong, weak . . . " Each of those "strong weak" units is called a poetic "foot". This one is iambic or an iam. Divisions into feet are indicated by slashes:

i WANT / to TAKE / a WALK / to-DAY / and FEEL / the BREEZE / u-PON / my FACE. /

There are other kinds of feet with different patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, and each has a different feel.

SW iamb (noun) or iambic (adjective)
WS trochee or trochaic

These two feel quite different. Iambic feet are very natural and most closely resemble normal human speech. They are, by far, the most common rhythm in formal verse.

Trochaic rhythm can sound like a witch's incantation, and Shakespeare uses it for that purpose in Macbeth when the three witches chant:

Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble . . .

Scanned, it looks like this:

DOU-ble, / DOU-ble, / TOIL and / TROU-ble, /
FI-re, / BURN and / CAUL-dron / BUB-ble . . .

Again, if you have any trouble sensing the rhythm, trying doing it oppositely, and feel how "wrong" it sounds.

dou-BLE, / dou-BLE, / toil AND / trou-BLE, /
fi-RE / burn AND / caul-DRON / bub-BLE /

"Fire" is a one syllable word in the dictionary, but here it would feel like two - trust me on that.)

There are two other kinds of two-syllable feet:

WW pyrrhus or pyrrhic
SS spondee or spondaic

Those last two cannot be sustained as a regular meter, but are used to substitute for other, regular feet in order to relieve the monotony. A poem written in unrelenting iambic rhythm, for instance, would quickly become tedious, so some variation is necessary, especially to cause an effect - but now I'm getting ahead of myself.

There are also two common types of three syllable feet:

SWW dactyl or dactylic
WWS anapest or anapestic

There are others but they are quite rare in English poetry. Dactyls and anapaests can be base meters of poems, and they can also be used as infrequent substitutes in iambic or trochaic poems.

Dactylic example: GAL-lop-ping, / GAL-lop-ping / O-ver the / PLAINS . . .
Anapestic example: in the BLINK / of an EYE, / you can CHANGE / who you ARE /

So those are the types of feet that are most usually encountered in English poetry.

Formal poetry is written with line divisions. The number of feet in a line can also be described using terms:

monometer - one foot per line
dimeter - two . . .
trimeter - three . . .
tetrameter - four . . .
pentameter - five . . .
hexameter - six . . .
heptameter - seven . . .
octameter - eight . . .

Most common are three, four and five felt per line.

If the terminology is confusing, just remember "strong", "weak" and "foot" - those are the important ones. Remember that, in formal verse, regularly recurring patterns of weak and strong syllables (feet) are the norm, but can be varied (metrical substitution) to relieve monotony and create effects.

A brief word about metrical substitutions:

Extra weak syllables create a feeling of lightness or increased speed. Extra strong syllables create a feeling of heaviness or decreased speed.

Here is a passage from "Metrical Feet" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the different kinds of poetic feet. (Note that pyrrhus is not included. The poem goes on to illustrate others that are not commonly used.)

TROCHEE trips from long to short;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow Spondee stalks, strong foot!, yet ill able
Ever to come up with Dactyl's trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long.
With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng.

Here is the same passage with my added notes:

Trochee trips from long to short; (trochaic line with "missing" final weak syllable)
From long to long in solemn sort (iambic line)
Slow Spondee stalks, strong foot!, yet ill able (I have underlined the spondees - notice how the first one slows the rhythm down, just as the poet says)
Ever to /come up with / Dactyl's tri/syllable. (I have shown the division into dactylic feet)
Iam/bics march/ from short / to long. / (I have shown the divisions into iambic feet)
With a leap / and a bound / the swift An/apests throng./ I have shown the division into anapaestic feet)

Finally, here is another poetic excerpt from "An Essay on Criticism" by Alexander Pope which is known as "Sound and Sense" where he uses various effects. Its base rhythm is iambic pentameter with substitutions of other types of feet to create effects (which he is good enough to name). Also, he creates various effects with long and short vowels, hard and soft consonants, etc.

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims along the main.
Hear how Timotheus' varied lays surprise,
And bid alternate passions fall and rise!

Rather than painstakingly analyze what Pope already analyzes in this quote, I'll leave it to you to you and Pope.

If all of this is overwhelming (and it's a lot to take in), just start off with iambic rhythm (weak strong). Try to write sentences in it. Post them here if you want, and I will comment.

We can go from there . . .

This is obviously about craft, and it is valuable to any poet, including those who write in free verse. Remember when "they" talked about "safe sex", and then, realizing that there is always some risk, retreated to "safer sex"? I think that the same thing is true, in a sense, of "free verse": there's no such thing; "freer verse" would be a more logical term because even in so-called "free verse" the poet manipulates word rhythms at least part of the time, and this is all about such manipulation. And knowledge of the craft can only make the poet better at that.

As Pope says:

"True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance."

And here's the punch line (admittedly open to some debate, for what isn't), almost a definition of what poetry is (including "free" and formal verse:

"'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense."

02-05-2015, 01:22 AM

the cat came back
02-05-2015, 02:47 AM
You are most welcome.

02-05-2015, 02:49 AM
This is fabulous, ccb. My hat's off to you. I'll make this thread a sticky, to keep it top of page.

the cat came back
02-05-2015, 03:21 AM
How nice!

Does this mean I'm published? ;-)

Robert Dawson
02-05-2015, 04:40 AM
There are other theories/models of scansion too... Hopkins revived the idea, used in Old English verse, of stress-count meters, where a line might have the form


where ' represents a stressed syllable, [-] zero or more unstressed syllables.

I've also thought that there was some evidence for "continuous" meters in English. For instance, in a limerick you can get away with considerable variation in the number of unstressed syllables at the beginning and end of lines. So arguably it's not dactyl ('--), amphibrach (-'-), or anapest (--'), but a sort of yard-goods cut from a pattern of ...--'--'--'--... making sure to include the right number of stresses. (It would become one of the above if (a) the end syllables were observed strictly and (b) word breaks tended to line up with feet, rather than enjambing. The Charge Of The Light Brigade is definitely dactyl, even when it varies the rhythm ( NO, THOUGH the SOLdier knew...)

As a final hare-brained idea, I think one can argue for at least one three-level meter in English. Consider the line from Gilbert:

"I am the very model of a modern Major-Gineral"

or Gordon Lightfoot's

"Through the woodland, through the valley, comes a horseman wild and free".

The first could be second paeon (-'--) or iamb (-'). The most natural way to read it (let alone sing it) is with three levels of stress: (-!-').
"I AM the very MODel of a MODern Major GINeral."

The second is probably closest to trochee ('-) but again the stresses aren't equal, and it makes a good case for third paeon (--'-). My theory (probably not new, possibly not right) is that this is actually a separate family of meters in English, corresponding to the stress pattern of 4/4 time. (I note that most of the examples that come to my mind are song lyrics. Harris's "The ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus" is another example.)

In either case, trying to force either of the competing classical feet strictly onto the line creates a very "dead" and metronomic feel - evidence of something lacking.

the cat came back
02-05-2015, 05:09 AM
I agree that syllabic scansion is a very artificial system, but it is a useful tool which represents the beginning of understanding. For one thing, syllables are not strictly weak or strong: there are, as they say, fifty shades of grey in between. ;-)

To me, that is very apparent in your Lightfoot example:

THROUGH the WOOD-land, / THROUGH the VAL-ley, / COMES a HORSE-man / WILD and FREE. /

Using different sizes of capital letters along with the lower case, I indicate what feet to me like strong, medium and weak syllables, which fall into the accent patterns of 4/4 time in music.

But how complicated shall we get? If we were to accurately indicate all levels of stressed and unstressed syllables, the system would be so complex as to be self-defeating.

I might be a little fuzzy on the exact history, but I believe that old English poetry was accentual whereas later poetry was syllabic. English poets imported the syllabic system from Latin poetry and it eventually became dominant. The accentual has enjoyed at least one revival, but the syllabic approach prevailed.

Prosody/scansion is a fascinating field, and I cannot pretend to do it justice in this thread, just to give a simplified and, I hope, useful introduction to those who are trying to get a better grasp of meter.

Robert Dawson
02-05-2015, 07:12 AM
I feel most English prosody works with two values, in the sense that if read aloud that way it does not sound wrong. Any individual reader will, in practice, add their own bounce.

This "common time" system seems to be the exception - to my ear, this verse really does not want to go into two levels.

This can't be new. Anybody know a reference, official name, or whatever?

the cat came back
03-08-2015, 06:11 AM
The meter is not a straightjacket; it is like the time signature in music: the musical parts move with it, around it or even against it.

03-04-2016, 08:31 PM
This is a fantastic read...brain-tightening, yet wonderful!

the cat came back
03-05-2016, 01:05 AM
Thanks, cj. I appreciate it.

If you or anyone else would like some practice in one or more or the meters and get feedback, do feel free to post them, and I will be happy to comment.

12-24-2016, 01:40 AM
Thank you! Very informative and clearly stated! When I get my feet wet a bit on this site, would love to get your feedback on my use of meters!

12-24-2016, 03:14 AM
This is such a wonderful help, thank you! When I started writing poetry in middle school, I always aspired to write in meter (well, sonnets, really). It wasn't until my senior year of high school that meter finally clicked with me (well, I think I'm doing it right now!) :)