Bits of Verse – Poetic Metre 101

Some of you had asked me to do a post on poetic metre a while ago. I have only been sharing bits and pieces on the subject on my posts and the glossary. So I guess it makes sense to have a entire post dedicated to it. So here I am, due to heavy and popular demand (a girl can dream :)) with a post that will hopefully demystify poetic metre for you.

As per Wikipedia, metre is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. It is what gives an even and measured cadence to the words of a poem. Try reading the following line out loud.

To meet, to know, to love – and then to part..

Can you almost hear an accompanying tempo to the words?

To meet, to know, to love – and then to part

da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum

That is what poetic metre is all about!

It probably made sense to have such a system in place, since early poems were mostly lays and ballads that were almost always sung. Rhythmically measured syllables are always easier to set to music, I suppose. Since no one saw any reason to change it (although poets did take a few liberties and used quite a bit of leeway when their muse demanded it), the tradition carried on for ages. Well, at least until the free verse movement “broke the pentameter”, of course.

Not just in English, but almost every language that has had a serious song writing and/or poetic tradition has its own metric system in place. Readers of Tamil will see a parellel to this in Yaappilakkanam, an entire grammar unto itself that describes form and metre of classic Tamil poetry. Similarly, Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Japanese, among many others, all have their own metric systems for poetry, at least in their classic versions.

Right! Back to our topic. As I was saying, every line of verse is made up of repetitions of a rhythmic pattern of syllables. This repeating pattern of syllables is what is known as a metric foot (funny name, I agree – it immediately conjures up an image of a row of feet standing on a line of verse. :)). The foot is the basic unit of measurement of poetic metre. It is made up of 2 or more syllables in a sequence. The syllables may be measured by the length of their sound (long and short) or by the amount of stress on them (stressed and unstressed). While some of the other poetic traditions use the long/short classification, English poetry uses the stressed/unstressed method.

There are several different types of metric feet in use. Each type of foot is given a distinct name that kind of mimics the stress pattern of syllables it represents. Here are the names of the metric foot types commonly used in English poetry, their stress patterns and the style they each lend to the poem’s meter.

Type of FootStress PatternMetric style
IambUnstressed, StressedIambic
TrocheeStressed, UnstressedTrochaic
SpondeeStressed, StressedSpondaic
AnapestUnstressed, Unstressed, StressedAnapestic
DactylStressed, Unstressed, UnstressedDactylic

Now, a poem’s metre is decided based on not just the type of metric foot but also the number of those feet in each line of verse. If there is one foot per line, it is a monometer. If there are two feet per line, it is a dimeter. If there are three feet per line.. you get the drift. Thus, based on number of feet per line, we have trimeter (3), tetrameter(4), pentameter(5), hexameter(6), heptameter(7) and octameter(8). (Thank God, they stopped with that! :))

Combining the foot and the number gives us the metre of a poem. Thus, the metre of a poem with two dactyls per line is dactylic dimeter, three trochees per line is trochaic trimeter (very alliterative, I know :)) and so on.

The iambic pentameter is probably the most popular of them all as far as canonized English poetry is concerned. Shakespeare seems to have loved it. He used it for almost all his sonnets. He wrote his plays almost entirely in iambic pentameter, albeit as blank verse (unrhymed).

Most poems are entirely made up of one type of metric foot or the other, though there some glorious exceptions, like how we saw in The Tyger – mostly trochees with a few lines in iambs.

There are other variations to poetic metre too. A catalexis is where a line of verse drops a foot or two or a part of it, usually at the end of the line. We saw this too in The Tyger where the last trochee in each line dropped the unstressed syllable. A headless verse is a line of verse where the first syllable of the first foot in the line is dropped. (Very funny, I know! A verse becoming headless because it lost a part of its foot. :))

Anyway, I hope that gave you a fairly good idea about the metre used in English poetry. If not, you know where to throw the brickbats at. 🙂 So long, folks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *