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Poetry: Meter and Related Topics

Tip Sheet
POETRY: METER AND RELATED TOPICS

Metrical analysis is the study of the rhythm of poetry. Generally, this analysis measures (in feet) lines of structured poems. Feet are combinations of accented and unaccented syllables. For instance, the word "candle" has two syllables, the first being accented (or spoken louder than the second) and the second being unaccented (or spoken softer than the first). To show this accentual pattern, we can write "candle" like this:

!      x                      x    !   x  x    !
can/dle.       Likewise, He ran to the coast

where the exclamation mark (!) denotes accent and the ex (x) denotes no accent. Small prepositions and articles are usually not accented in metrical analysis because they normally receive less stress (voice volume) than the other words. Furthermore, as the sentence "he ran to the coast demonstrates," "he" has considerably less stress than "ran," so it is considered unaccented. Of course, if the writer were trying to emphasize that "he" (as opposed to "she" or "I") had run, then he would receive an accent, and "ran" would not be accented because it would be spoken much softer than "he." You determine whether a word or syllable receives an accent by ear and by dictionary: your ear can tell you that "he" in the above example isn't spoken very loudly, and both your ear and your dictionary can tell you which of the syllables in a multisyllabic word are spoken loudly (have accent).

All poetry except "free verse" takes account of accentual pattern. There are three broad categories of poetry: traditional, blank verse, and free verse. Traditional poetry has some pattern of rhyme at the end of the line-for example, the first line might rhyme with the third line, the second might rhyme with the fourth, etc. Also, traditional poetry has a pattern to the number of syllables per line. For instance, a traditional poem might have eight syllables in most of its lines. Finally, a traditional poem has a pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. This pattern of accented and unaccented syllables is the primary component of metrical analysis. Blank verse poetry (from the French "white or pale verse") also has a pattern of accented and unaccented syllables-in fact, it must have ten syllables per line, but it doesn't rhyme at the end of the lines. Free verse, by contrast, does not have any regular pattern to accented and unaccented syllables, does not have the same number of syllables in its lines, and usually does not have a regular pattern to any rhyme it may (or may not) have.

In traditional English poetry, most poetic feet fall into the following categories:
(iamb)                       (trochee)                        (spondee)
iambic foot x   !       trochaic foot   !  x                spondaic foot !     !
a man                       women                          bright red


(anapest)                      (dactyl)                         (amphibrach)
anapestic foot x  x !        dactylic foot !   x   x            amphibrachic foot x  !  x
of the north                                   happiness                                   invention

 

Of course, most lines of poetry have more than one foot. A one-foot line, however, is called a monometer. A two-foot line is called a dimeter; three-foot, trimeter; four-foot, tetrameter; five-foot, pentameter; six-foot, hexameter. So, after you mark the accented and unaccented syllables, you can often see that most of the syllables will group into one type of foot. Here are four lines of a poem (of sorts) on which you can practice counting syllables and marking accented and unaccented:

The sunrise bright in brilliant green
beneath a pine I hadn't seen,
your arms around me close and tight
I felt my strength's dissolving flight.

How many syllables are in each line? Reread the poem silently; then read it aloud. Do not pause for line endings, only for punctuation. Mark the syllables as accented or unaccented. Now, divide each line into feet. Did you mark (or scan) the first two lines like this?

x    ! / x      !  /    x    !  / x      !               / connotes separation between feet
The sun/rise bright/ in bril/liant green

x    !  /  x   !    / x  !   / x   !
beneath/ a pine / I had/n't seen,

Each of these lines has an unaccented-accented pattern to its syllables. Look at the
previous section to find out what this two-syllable pattern is called. Divide each line into feet; you should have four feet of this pattern.
If the poem has four iambic feet, it is written in iambic tetrameter. (This is a more
logical division of accented and unaccented feet than, say, scanning the line as
1 amphibrach, 1 trochee, and 2 iambs.) Now, scan the last two lines of the poem. Are they the same as the first two?
Sometimes people disagree about whether a particular syllable is accented. For example, is it

x      !          !       !       x       !    x  !     x  !

The hoarse rough verse should like a torrent roar
or

x       !        x       !         !       x   x !     x   !
The hoarse rough verse should like a torrent roar
or

something completely different? In any event, "the," "a," "-rent" are unaccented, and most people would claim "hoarse," "verse," and "tor-" are accented. However the accents fall, the line can be divided into 5 feet, four of which are iambic, so the overall feel of the line is iambic. It is, therefore, iambic pentameter.
Whether a word receives spoken accent sometimes depends of the meaning of the
sentence. For example, compare

!      x     !   !
That which is, is
with

!     x     x   !    x   !
That which is not, is not.
Notice how "is" receives an accent sometimes, but not other times.
Another complication is that critics sometimes talk about lines of poetry missing a
beginning or an ending syllable, claiming that the line is, for instance, iambic tetrameter but missing an initial syllable:

(x)    !      x    !  x  !        x  !
What you do I must protest (where it can be seen that if an unaccented syllable started the line, it would be a line with four iambic feet). Or a line might be scanned as trochaic tetrameter missing a final syllable:

!   x  ! x     !   x !           (x)
Dictionary work allows
These variations may occur regularly or infrequently. However, first look for
another explanation of the line before using phantom syllables in your analysis.
Many traditional poems regularly vary the number of syllables per line and the
accentual pattern. Sometimes, the variations themselves have a pattern to them. For example, "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep" by Robert Frost (below) alternates between 6-syllable and 7-syllable lines. Also, a couple anapestic feet and one spondaic foot pop up.

However, most of the feet are iambs, so the poem scans as iambic trimeter:
x   ! / x  x   ! /  x    !
The people along the sand
x   ! /    x     ! /   !     !
all turn and look one way.
x    !  /   x     !   /  x   x    !
They turn their back on the land.
x    ! /   x   x     ! / x   !
They look at the sea all day.

Here again, some variation in interpreting the scansion is possible, especially
because a good poet will vary his or her meter somewhat. Rather than being metronome-like, the rhythm in a poem changes to show a change in the poem. Explaining why a poet used a particular meter and shifted that meter is an important part of metrical analysis.
Explain in your essay what the theme of the poem is; explain how effective the meter is in forwarding that theme, and show how the tone is conveyed by the diction and meter. For instance, a poem might shift from an intellectual to an emotional emphasis:

My friend, to be your friend I do pretend
that stocks and bonds and all the dividend
can stain my skull like fragrant lavender,
missing your current, your cooing purr,
tearing my eyes with diamonds.

The first three lines are (almost) regular iambic pentameter, and the thought of those lines is not personal. A bantering tone is initiated in the first line, sustained in the second, yet begins to shift because of the connotations of "lavender" at the end of the third. But the last two lines pull emotion from the author. Therefore, switching the first foot of each of these final lines (from iambs to trochees) appropriately reflects a change in mood. (Changing the syllable count also mirrors the mood change.)
Closely related to metrical analysis are pause, rhyme, stanza structure, assonance, and consonance. Your instructor may ask that you write about these poetic devices as well as about metrical analysis. Pauses, which occur after commas, periods, semicolons, exclamation marks, and some phrases, are part of the structure of all language. A pause inside a line of poetry is called a caesura. If the end of the line has a pause, it is called an end-stopped line. (If the line does not have a natural pause at its conclusion, begin reading the next line without a noticeable pause. This lack of a pause at the end of a line is called enjambment. Enjambment can give a hurried or breathless feel to a section of verse (which is sometimes appropriate). Take for example, William Carlos Williams' poem, "The Dance":

In Breughel's great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles

The poem opens in amphibrachic trimeter, which gives syncopation and a majestic feel. This is an apt opening for discussing a "great" picture. (A kermess was a medieval fair.) The second line sustains the amphibrachic meter, reinforcing the established rhythm, but the enjambment at the line end creates a tension between the syntactical unit (which ends with the comma on line 3) and line two's end. Line two ends before the listener expects it to end, thus creating an expectant mood in the listener; the tension and unfinished feeling mimics the effect of watching dancers swirl around in a country dance-a dizzifying scpectacle. The enjambment of line three continues this off-balancedness. Because the poem is representing off-balance, slightly drunken revelry, it is apt that the poet makes the reader feel out of kilter while reading. (One could also talk about the onomatopoeic words "squeal," "blare," and "tweedle," and the echoes of those words in "bugle" and "fiddles." Furthermore, the noises [music?] are appropriately recreated in the verse by that diction.) Another device related to rhythm is rhyme. Rhyme magnetizes the mouth because the mouth takes the same shape it just had. Internal rhyme occurs inside a line of poetry, such as
Now in this season of mellow fruit
Our reason remains in fallow groups.
where "season" and reason" are feminine internal rhyme; "mellow" and "fallow" and "fruit" and "groups" are near rhymes. Feminine rhyme is two-syllable rhyme. Masculine rhyme is one-syllable rhyme, such as "turn" and "burn." Masculine end rhyme is often marked to show a pattern. For example, if the first line rhymes with the second line and the third line rhymes with the fourth, then the verse is called "aabb" rhyme scheme. If the first and third, the second and fourth, and the fifth and seventh and the sixth and eighth lines rhyme, it is called an "ababcdcd" rhyme scheme. Triple rhyme, such as "numinous" and "luminous," is the rhyming of three syllables and often has a humorous effect.
Poetry also uses assonance and consonance, the two categories of alliteration. Assonance is a recurrence of vowel sounds; consonance, of consonant sounds. Assonance: boats oared the lonely ocean (long o sound); consonance: the triply forked trail sharply turned (t sound).
Whatever musical devices you explore in your essay, be sure to explain how well and why those devices work with the message the author presents and/or the images the author shows. Although you may be fluent in English, it may still take some practice to sharpen your awareness of the many breathtaking lyric flows in poetry. Persevere, for then brilliant but subtle poetic language will gently electrify your sensibilities.

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