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Metrical Poetry

Rhythm – the art of implementing certain movements, notes of music, syllables in poetry, into a passage of time as one event succeeds another. And how can we create these movements in our writing? By using meter; patterns of stresses or accents within a line of poetry. Meter is incredibly useful in aiding a poem to flow in a certain way, read more easily, and keep a reader interested. There are countless types of meter that I could try to explain here, and I'm sure many more I haven't even come across. It isn't necessary for us to know all of them, particularly in a beginner's tutorial, and so I will outline the basics of metric feet and metrical lines of poetry - metric lines being made up of a certain number of metric feet. Hopefully this notion will become clearer as I explain and give examples...

Metric Feet

Iambic Meter - one of the most well-known of English versification. One iambic foot (called an iamb or iambus) is made up of two syllables, the second of which is stressed or accented. An iamb may be expressed as the sound "de-DUM"; an example of a single iamb is "parADE".
A line of iambic meter from Shakespeare's Sonnet 146 is: "Poor SOUL, | the CEN | tre OF | my SIN | ful EARTH" (And ONE | and TWO | and THREE | and FOUR | and FIVE)

Trochaic Meter - like the iamb, a trochee (single trochaic foot) is also made up of two syllables. In this case it is the first that is the more accented of the two, making a sound like "DUM-de". The word "CHILDish" provides us with an example of this.
A line of trochaic meter from Longfellow's Psalm of Life is: "TELL me | NOT in | MOURNful | NUMbers" (ONE and | TWO and | THREE and | FOUR and)

Anapestic Meter - this meter has a unit of three syllables, in which the third is the most heavily stressed. A single foot is known as an anapest, and may be expressed as "de-de-DUM", for example the word "interVENE".
A line of anapestic meter from Poe's Annabel Lee is:  "For the MOON | never BEAMS | without BRING | ing me DREAMS" (And a ONE | and a TWO | and a THREE | and a FOUR)

Dactylic Meter - similarly, the dactylic meter is also made up of units of three syllables. One foot can be called a dactyl, and the accent here is on the first syllable. We can express this as "DUM-de-de", and an example of the dactyl is the word "CELebrate".
A line of dactylic meter from Longfellow's Evangeline is: "THIS is the | FORest pri | MEval. The | MURmuring | PINES and the | HEMlocks" (ONE and a | TWO and a | THREE and a | FOUR and a | FIVE and a | SIX and) - note here that the final dactyl has been replaced with a trochee

Spondaic Meter - this meter is made up of metrical feet having two long (accented) syllables. A single foot is known as a spondee, and can be shown as "DA-DA". The phrase "TALL SHIP" gives us an example of a single spondee.
Two lines that make use of spondaic meter from Tennyson's Break, Break, Break are:
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!

Other classical meters include the ambhibrachic meter, in which the second of a unit of three syllables is the accented one; the paeon, in which the first of four syllables in a unit is accented; the bacchius, in which the last two syllables of a three-syllable unit are stressed, and several others all derived from Greek and Latin origins.

Metric Lines

Now that we've got our metrical feet - what are we going to do with them? We need to put them into lines of poetry. These lines are according to length and the number of metric feet we place in them.

Monometer (mo-NOM-e-ter)
This is the name of a line containing one metrical foot. Seldom is an entire poem written in monometer, as the lines are so short, and it is usually used as a type of refrain.
Iambic monometer:
"I dare
not scream
I fear
this dream"
(i DARE / not SCREAM / alTHOUGH / i FEAR / this DREAM)
Dactylic monometer:
"Dreaming of
monsters that
frighten me"
(DREAMing of / MONsters that / FRIGHTen me)

Dimeter (DIM-e-ter)
This is a line consisting of two feet. The phrase "I hear the sound" is an example of iambic dimeter, and a verse can be constructed upon it fairly simply as so:
Iambic dimeter:
"I hear the sound
of birds aflight
The world still sleeps
though it grows light"
(i HEAR the SOUND / of BIRDS aFLIGHT / the WORLD still SLEEPS / though IT grows LIGHT)
Trochaic dimeter:
"Something tells me
not to seek her
though the darkness
has not fallen"
(SOMEthing TELLS me / NOT to SEEK her / THOUGH the DARKness / HAS not FALLen)

Trimeter (TRIM-e-ter)
This is the name of the three foot line. An example of trochaic trimeter could be "Halloween is nearing" (HALLowEEN is NEARing).
Anapestic trimeter: "And the sound of a voice that is still" (And the SOUND | of a VOICE | that is STILL) - from Tennyson's "Break, Break, Break"
Dactylis trimeter: "Follow me, though you are slumbering" (FOLLow me | THOUGH you are | SLUMbering)

Tetrameter (Te-TRAM-e-ter)
The tetrameter is a line with four metrical feet.
Trochaic tetrameter: "And bats went round in fragrant skies" (And BATS | went ROUND | in FRA | grant SKIES) - from Tennyson's "In Memoriam"
Trochaic tetrameter: "Tell me not in mournful numbers" (TELL me | NOT in | MOURNful | NUMbers) - from Longfellow's "Psalm of Life"

Pentameter (Pen-TAM-e-ter)
Probably the most well-known of metric lines, and the most widely used in the English language, the pentameter is made up of five metrical feet. It is the "heroic line" used by Shakespeare and other dramatists, Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales and many other classic poets and writers.
Iambic pentameter: "In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes" (In FAITH | i DO | not LOVE | thee WITH | mine EYES) - from Shakespeare's "Sonnet 141"
Iambic pentameter: "I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night" (i WAKED | she FLED | and DAY | brought BACK | my NIGHT) - from John Milton's sonnet, "Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint"

Hexameter (Hex-AM-e-ter)
This metric line has...yes...six feet! Hexameter written in certain metric feet, particularly anapestic and trochaic, is rare. However it is quite often used to vary the movement of a stanza written mainly in iambic pentameter. A line of iambic hexameter is also known as alexandrine. Some use it also to extend blank verse or in heroic couplets. The hexameter usually carries a slow, stately movement.
Dactylic hexameter: "Faint was the air with the odorous breath of magnolia blossoms..." (FAINT was the | AIR with the | Odorous | BREATH of mag | NOlia | BLOSSoms...) - from Longfellow's "Evangeline"
Iambic hexameter: "For I have known them all already, known them all" (For I | have KNOWN | them ALL | alREAD | y, KNOWN | them ALL) - from Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

Other meters include heptameter, with seven feet to a line, and octameter with eight feet to a line. The heptameter is often used in writing ballads, and is indeed frequently known as "the ballad line". It is usually broken into two lines of four and three feet by the placing of a pause (caesura) after the fourth foot of the line. Octameter is the longest line included in the system of named metrical lines, although longer can occur. With longer lines, the tendancy is to break into two sections which may as well be written as two seperate lines. However, the poet who chooses to write in octameter may do so for the reason that the mid-line break is less strong than the full line break, and so it may be written and read as one unit with minor pauses. Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem "The Raven" opens with a line of trochaic octameter: "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary"...

Of course, meter does not have to be a strict set rules to be applied to poetry. Often by mixing two or three meters (forming an irregular meter) a writer can gain an effect that reads just as smoothly. It is important to think of the spoken word when writing metrical poetry: read it out aloud, smooth out the rough edges by tweaking here and there and perhaps dropping a stress or two and adding one in somewhere else. A mixed trochaic and didactic verse would read as so:

Out of the darkness voices of mystery
Come to me from forgotten centuries.
OUT of the | DARKness | VOIces of | MYstery
COME to | ME from for | GOTten | CENturies.
dactyl | trochee | dactyl | dactyl
trochee | dactyl | trochee | dactyl

Meter is of course not something every writer chooses to use in their poetry. Free verse, for example, uses the rhythm of cadenced language or prose, rather than the regular pattern of stresses and accents in metric lines. It is quite often set out in stanzas, but seldom written in perfect rhyme; refrains and repetitions are often used.

Meter may not just be used for creating rhythm and movement, but also for giving a piece of poetry a certain mood. Iambic meter is often used to convey seriousness and solemnity, although it is perhaps the only meter that is virtually unlimited in its use. It lacks some of the swing of the other meters, although as it is the most natural English meter, it can be used in a number of ways. Trochaic meter is often used in the ballad, with its "tripping" movement, conforming to the swing of this particular style. Anapestic meter is an uplifting, galloping style - perhaps fitting a quick-paced, lively poem. Dactylic is a more waltz-like meter, with its slow movement and dying fall. It usually gives the feeling of sadness and melancholy. Mood can also be portrayed through the length and quantity of syllables, although we can only say that generally shorter vowels and syllables give a lighter feel, and longer ones convey a more solemn approach.

Try playing around with a few poetic forms and see how you can implement these meters into a poem. It's definitely something I think all writers should have a go at, even if you decide to stay away from metrical poetry on the whole. Have fun!
Article written by =the-beastie

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Nerdiboy's avatar
It's difficult trying to learn meters and metric lines, as well as scansion (when to stress), but I think that if I got my hands on a dictionary, it could help, sorta... also, thanks for writing this.