Prepared by: David J. Birnbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Sibelan Forrester (email@example.com)
Last modified: 2010-04-03
This page provides a whirlwind introduction to poetic meter. It is not a comprehensive description of the subject; it is intended, modestly, to enable students in our course to read the assigned poetry and recognize its metrical organization.
Spoken language is organized into syllables, which typically consist of a vowel sound with adjacent consonant sounds. For example, the word “lesson” has two syllables: “less” (the vowel sound short e, preceded by the consonant sound l and followed by the consonant sound s) and “son” (which is pronounced identically to “sun,” with the vowel sound short u, preceded by the consonant sound s and followed by the consonant sound n).
Note that this organization is based on vowel sounds, not vowel letters. For example, the word “meant” has one syllable because the two vowel letters “ea” correspond to a single vowel sound, short e. Similarly, the word “pleasure” has two syllables even though it has four vowel letters because it has only two vowel sounds (the “ea” represent one sound and the final “e” is silent).
Syllables are typically stressed or unstressed. Stressed syllables are louder than unstressed syllables. For example, the word “combine,” which consists of two syllables, has stress on the first syllable when it refers to a particular piece of farm machinery (a harvester or thresher), as in “he drove the combine through the field.” With stress on the second syllable, the word is a verb that means “bring together,” as in “let’s combine our assets and buy something together.”
Identify 1) the number of syllables and 2) the stressed syllable in the following words. Mouse over the words to see the answers—but think about it first and try to get the answers yourself before peeking:
Poems can be organized in a variety of ways, and the poetry we read in this course is called syllabotonic. The syllabo- part means that part of the organization of the poem consists of a regularity in the number of syllables in a line (e.g., every line may have eight syllables). The -tonic part means that the place of stress is also part of the organization (see below). Other types of poetry include syllabic (the number of syllables in a line is important, but the place of stress isn’t) and tonic (the number and placement of stresses in a line is important, but the number of syllables in a line isn’t). Because both Russian and English poetry have a strong syllabotonic tradition, it is possible to translate Russian poetry into English in a way that reproduces fairly closely the metrical structure of the original.
Syllabotonic poetry (including the poetry by Pushkin that we read in this course) is organized into lines, which consist of feet. A foot is a fixed arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables. The most common types of feet can be divided into those that are binary or disyllabic (consisting of two syllables) and those that are ternery or trisyllabic (consisting of three syllables). Those categories are further subdivided according to which syllable in the foot is stressed; see the separate discussion of disyllabic feet immediately below, and of trisyllabic feet further down the page.
Because there are two syllables in a disyllabic foot, there are two principal types of binary meter, depending on which of the two syllables is stressed. These are:
When the second syllable is stressed and the first is not, the foot is called an iamb. The following lines from “Come live with me and be my love” (Christopher Marlowe, “Come live with me and be my love”) consists of four iambs. Here are the lines with vertical bars dividing the feet and the stressed syllables highlighted:
Come live | with me | and be | my love
And we | will all | the plea|sures prove
Note that the division of a line into feet is independent of the division into words. Thus, the two syllables of the word “pleasures” in the last line belong to different metrical feet: the first syllable of the word is the second syllable of the third iamb in the line and the second syllable of the word is the first syllable of the fourth iamb.
When the first syllable is stressed and the second is not, the foot is called a trochee. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” is written in trochees; here’s an example of the best-known section, with vertical bars dividing the feet and the stressed syllables highlighted:
By the | shores of | Gitche | Gumee,
By the | shining | Big-Sea-|Water,
Each line consists of four trochees.
Poetry in which every stress appears in its place can take on a tedious sing-song quality, and poets avoid that problem by introducing small variations into the meter of individual lines. A particularly common variation is the replacement of an individual iamb or trochee with a pyrrhic, a disyllabic foot in which neither syllable is stressed (or, at least, in which neither syllable is stressed very strongly). The following line from William Shakespeare’s Richard III is iambic, but with one pyrrhic substitution:
A horse! | a horse! | my king|dom for | a horse!
If you read this line naturally, as if it were prose, the preposition “for” would have no (or almost no) stress. The line thus consists of five two-syllable feet, all of which are iambs except the fourth, which is a pyrrhic. The line overall is felt to be iambic because of the overwhelming general iambic cadence, but sporadic pyrrhic substitutions here and elsewhere save that cadence from a relentless thumping and clunking that would distract from the natural rhythm of the language.
For the two examples below, 1) identify the number of syllables in each line, 2) then determine which syllables are stressed and which are unstressed, and 3) then determine whether there is any regularity to the distribution of stressed and unstressed syllables in the line. Mouse over the lines to see the answers—but think about the problem first and try to get the answers yourself before peeking.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
a stately pleasure dome decree:
Water, water every where and all the boards did shrink;
Water, water every where nor any drop to drink.
Syllabotonic poetry is organized not only by the arrangement of stresses in the line, but also by the number of feet in the line. For example, a line that consists entirely of five iambs is called iambic pentameter (the Greek root pent- means ‘five’). Common lines include:
As was noted in the discussion of the word “pleasures” in “Come live with me and be my love” above, meter is identified on the level of the line, not on the level of the word, which is to say that foot boundaries are independent of word boundaries. For example, in isolation the word “Kubla,” like “pleasures,” would be a trochee, with stress on the first syllable, but in the context of Exercise #1 above, the first syllable of that word is the end of one foot (an iamb) and the second syllable is the beginning of a different foot (also an iamb). When we describe the meter of a poem, we describe the meter of the line, rather than the meter individual words would have in isolation.
Identify the meter of the lines from the last example by foot type (iambic or trochaic) and number of syllables (dimeter, trimeter, etc.). Mouse over this instruction to see the answers—but think about it first and try to get the answers yourself before peeking.
Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is frequently printed with each line from the example above split into two lines:
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The preceding layout suggests that this part of the poem may be understood as consisting of odd-numbered lines of trochaic tetrameter (with the final unstressed syllable omitted from the fourth foot; see the discussion of catalexis below) alternating with even-numbered lines of iambic trimeter. There are arguments that support both this layout and analysis and the earlier one, an issue that goes beyond the goals of this brief introduction, but it’s worth noting that the metrical tension between the two alternative interpretations helps draw attention to these lines as depicting a particularly important moment in the story.
As was noted above, lines that consist of disyllabic feet (iambs and trochees) are said to have binary meters. Lines that have stress on every third syllable are said to have ternary meters. The three principal types of ternary meter (distinguished by which of the three syllables bears stress) are:
The first of the three syllables in the foot is stressed. Here’s an example from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Evangeline” of dactylic hexameter, or six dactylic feet per line, with vertical lines dividing the feet and the stressed syllables highlighted:
This is the| forest pri|meval. The| murmuring| pines and the| hemlocks …
Note that the last foot of this line is missing its last syllable. This omission of a trailing unstressed syllable is common in poetry; it is called catalexis, and lines where catalexis occurs are called catalectic. Catalexis is common in trochaic lines as well as in dactylic ones; the Pushkin fairy-tale poems that you read are trochaic, but with frequent catalexis.
The middle of the three syllables in the foot is stressed. Here’s an example from Dr. Seuss’s, “If I Ran the Circus” of amphibrach tetrameter with vertical lines dividing the feet and the stressed syllables highlighted:
And NOW comes| an act of| Enormous| Enormance!
No former| performer’s| performed this| performance!
The last of the three syllables in the foot is stressed. Here’s an example from Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” of anapest tetrameter, or four anapest feet per line, with vertical lines dividing the feet and the stressed syllables highlighted:
The Assy|rian came down| like a wolf| on the fold
And his co|horts were glea|ming in pur|ple and gold
For the three examples below, identify the meter of the lines by foot type (dactylic, amphibrach, or anapest) and number of syllables (dimeter, trimeter, etc.). Mouse over the example to see the answers—but think about it first and try to get the answers yourself before peeking.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, "It is just as I feared!—
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!"
In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.
Pushkin wrote his fairy tales in verse in trochaic tetrameter. There will be a multiple-choice question on the last examination that will give you four bits of verse and ask you to identify the one that is in trochaic tetrameter. This means that you will not be asked to identify the other types of meter, except insofar as you will have to recognize that whatever they are, they aren’t trochaic tetrameter. With that said, we encourage you to learn to recognize the other types; they aren’t numerous, and developing a sensitivity to meter will make you more aware of the structural properties of poetry you may read in other courses, or simply for pleasure.