Meter in Poetry and Verse
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 comPARE thee TO a SUMmer’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..|..comPARE..|..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 five types of feet:
...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
The length of lines–and thus the meter–can also vary. Following are the types of meter and the line length:
..Monometer One Foot
..Dimeter Two Feet
..Trimeter Three Feet
..Tetrameter Four Feet
..Pentameter Five Feet
..Hexameter Six Feet
..Heptameter Seven Feet
..Octameter Eight Feet
.......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. Consider now the following two lines from William Blake’s poem “The Tyger”:
Tyger Tyger burning bright
In the forests of the night
These lines contain trochaic feet–stressed + unstressed, as in TY ger and BURN ing–but the final foot of each line is incomplete, containing only a stressed syllable. The absence of the unstressed syllable 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.