What Is Meter?

Meter is any pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem. The meter can be fixed and regular, like iambic pentameter, or it can be irregular. When a poem neither rhymes nor follows any regular metrical patterns, it is called free verse.

Meter must be distinguished from rhyme in poetry, however. All English language poems contain meter, but not all poetry rhymes. In fact, the English language relies heavily on meter to produce meaning; speeches, sermons, and even prose narratives use metrical patterns to reinforce ideas.

How Do You Identify Meter in Writing?

You identify meter through scansion, the process by which a reader identifies the stresses, or beats, that occur in each line of a poem. The stressed syllables and unstressed syllables together form what is known as a metrical foot. The most common forms of metrical feet in English poetry are as follows:

  • Iambs: an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Examples: indeed, Noel, the End. Identify an iambic foot with this notation: /U
  • Spondee: two syllables that are equally stressed. Examples: watch out, New York, football. Identify a spondee with this notation: UU
  • Trochee: a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. Examples: mother, father, hero. Identify a trochee with this notation: U/
  • Dactyl: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. Examples: merrily, roundabout, furthermore. Identify a dactyl with this notation: /UU
  • Anapest: two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one. Examples: interrupt, Baton Rouge, pollinate.  Identify an anapest with this notation: UU/

You determine poetic form by noting the number and type of metrical feet in each line. For instance, iambic pentameter is a poem composed of five iambic feet in each line. Trimeter consists of three metrical feet, tetrameter has four, and hexameter has six. Thus, trochaic tetrameter is a poem composed of four trochees to a line.

Examples of Meter

Meter Example 1.”She walks | in beau |ty like | the night.” This line from Byron’s poem contains four iambic feet.

Meter Example 2William Blake’s poem “Tyger” contains many trochaic feet: “Tyger! | Tyger! | Burning | bright!”

Meter Example 3. “Twas the night | before Christ | mas, when all | through the house,” the popular Christmas poem by Clement Clark Moore uses anapests throughout.

Meter Example 4. “This is the | forest pri |meval, the | murmuring | pines and the | hemlocks.” This line from Longfellow’s “Evangeline” contains five dactylic feet.

Meter Example 5. Renaissance sonnets, like John Donne’s “O might  |those sighs  |and tears | return | again” are written in iambic pentameter.

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