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Meter (poetry)

In literature, meter is a term used in the scansion of poetry, usually indicated by the kind of feet and the number of them. For instance, "iambic pentameter", "dactylic tetrameter", etc.

Table of contents
1 Greek and Latin Poetry
2 Technical terms in poetic meter
3 English Poetry
4 French Poetry
5 Spanish Poetry

Greek and Latin Poetry

The metrical "feet" in the classical languages were based on the length of time taken to pronounce each syllable, which were categorized as either "long" syllables or "short" syllables. The foot is often compared to a musical measure and the long and short syllables to whole notes and half notes. In English poetry, feet are determined by emphasis rather than length, with stressed and unstressed syllables serving the same function as long and short syllables in classical meter.

The basic unit in Greek and Latin prosody is a mora, which is defined as a single short syllable. A long syllable is equivalent to two moras. A long syllable contains either a long vowel, a diphthong, or a short vowel followed by two or more consonants. Various rules of elision sometimes prevent a grammatical syllable from making a full syllable.

Technical terms in poetic meter




The most important Classical metre is the
dactylic hexameter, the metre of Homer and Vergil. This form uses verses of six feet. The first four syllables are dactyls, but can be spondees. The fifth syllable is always a dactyl. The sixth is either a spondee or a trochee. The initial syllable of either foot is called the ictus, the basic "beat" of the verse. There is usually a caesura after the ictus of the third foot. The opening line of the Æneid is a typical line of dactylic hexameter:

("I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy. . . ")

The first and second feet are dactyls; their vowels are grammatically short, but long in poetry because both are followed by two consonants. The third and fourth feet are spondees, with two long vowels, one on either side of the caesura. The fifth foot is a dactyl, as it must be, with the ictus this time falling on a grammatically long vowel. The final foot is a spondee with two grammatically long vowels.

The dactylic hexameter was imitated in English by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem Evangeline:

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of old, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.

Also important in Greek and Latin poetry is the dactylic pentameter. This was a line of verse, made up of two equal parts, each of which contains two dactyls followed by a long syllable. Spondees can take the place of the dactyls in the first half, but never in the second. The long syllable at the close of the first half of the verse always ends a word, giving rise to a caesura.

Dactylic pentameter is never used in isolation. Rather, a line of dactylic pentameter follows a line of dactylic hexameter in the elegiac distich or elegiac couplet, a form of verse that was used for the composition of elegies and other tragic and solemn verse in the Greek and Latin world. An example from Ovid's Tristia:

 /  x  x   / x  /  x    /  x / x  x /  x  
Vergilium vîdî tantum, nec amâra Tibullô
    /  x  x / x x/ | / x  x / x  x /   
   Tempus amîcitiae fâta dedêre meae.

("I only saw Vergil, greedy Fate gave Tibullus no time for me.")

The Greeks and Romans also used a number of lyric meters, which were typically used for shorter poems than elegiacs or hexameter. One important line was called the hendecasyllabic, a line of eleven syllables. This meter was used most often in the Sapphic stanza, named after the Greek poet Sappho, who wrote many of her poems in the form. A hendecasyllabic is a line with a never-varying structure: two trochees, followed by a dactyl, then two more trochees. In the Sapphic stanza, three hendecasyllabics are followed by an "Adonic" line, made up of a dactyl and a trochee. This is the form of Catullus 51:

/  x  /  x  /  x  x/  x / x
Ille mi par esse deo videtur;
 / x   /  x  /     x x / x  / x 
ille, si fas est, superare divos,
  /  x /   x  /  x  x /  x /   x 
qui sedens adversus identidem te
     /  x  x   / x 
   spectat et audit. . . 

("He seems to me to be like a god; if it is permitted, he seems above the gods, he who sitting across from you gazes at you and listens to you.")

The Sapphic stanza was imitated in English by Swinburne in a poem he simply called Sapphics:

Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
   Saw the reluctant. . .

English Poetry

Most English meter is classified according to the same system as Classical meter with an important difference: stressed and unstressed syllables take the place of long and short syllables. The most frequently encountered line of English verse is the
iambic pentameter, five iambic feet per line. The verse portions of Shakespeare's plays, John Milton's Paradise Lost, most sonnets, and much else besides in English are written in iambic pentameter. A rhymed pair of lines of iambic pentameter make a heroic couplet, a verse form which was used so often in the eighteenth century that it is now used mostly for humorous effect.

Another important meter in English is the ballad meter, also called the "common meter", which is a four line stanza, with two lines of iambic tetrameter followed by two lines of iambic trimeter; the rhymes usually fall on the lines of trimeter, although in many instances the tetrameter also rhymes. This is the meter of most of the Border and Scots or English ballads, and a great many hymns, such as Amazing Grace:

Amazing Grace! how sweet the sound
  That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found;
  Was blind, but now I see.  

but perhaps the poet who put this form to best use was Emily Dickinson:

Great streets of silence led away	
To neighborhoods of pause;	
Here was no notice — no dissent —
No universe — no laws.

Old English poetry has a different metrical system. In Old English poetry, each line must contain four fully stressed syllables, which often alliterate. The unstressed syllables are less important. Old English poetry is an example of the alliterative verse found in most of the older Germanic languages.

French Poetry

In French poetry, meter is determined solely by the number of syllables in a line. A silent 'e' counts as a syllable, except at the end of a line. The most frequently encountered meter in French is a line of six feet called the alexandrine.

Spanish Poetry

In Spanish poetry, meter is determined solely by the number of syllables in a line. Syllables in Spanish metrics are determined by consonant breaks, not word boundaries, so a single syllable may include multiple words. For example, the line De armas y hombres canto consists of 6 syllables: "De ar" "mas" "y hom" "bres" "can" "to."

Some common meters in Spanish verse are:

See also: Alexandrine, Dactylic hexameter, Elegiac couplet, Hendecasyllable, Heroic couplet, Iambic pentameter