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!

Bits of Verse – Poetic Licence

I had an interesting discussion with some of my college buddies the other day. It basically stemmed from my last post about “The Tyger” by William Blake. One of them wanted to know why I did not mention the lines below in my commentary.

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears

These lines follow the poet’s musings on what human tools that the Creator might have used in forging the magnificent tiger. For some reason, I felt they did not fit into the flow of my commentary and had not called out to them, beautiful though they are.

Then all of us weighed in on what we each felt that the lines meant. My take had been that the stars were so moved by the Creator’s efforts and the spectacular result at the end of it, that they wept.

One friend wondered, “if the stars were overwhelmed with emotions both fear and awe.. threw [down their] spears and cried too”. Another friend agreed, saying, “[even] stars so powerful threw down their spears and wept in fear”.

Yet another friend thought “of [the] tiger in starlight and the rays being like fierce spears that want to hunt it but only make it look mightier”. She wondered if there might be a hunting reference in there somewhere. So, “when the tiger got hunted (hunters being the stars among animals) and the heavens wept for the loss, did the creator still smile with the pride of its creation?”

It was amazing to see how we could make so many different readings from the same bit of verse.

Then I thought, that is indeed the beauty of poetry (of all art, I should say). You can interpret it in any number of ways that call out to you personally. It does not have to be what the poet meant it be while he wrote it. The possibilities are really, endless!

Just as a poet has the artistic licence to bend the words of a language to his vision, so have the readers the licence to interpret them in a way that speaks the most to them. As my friend summed it up, the more the possibilities for interpretation, the richer the poem.

Bits of Verse – The Wondering Minstrels

Back in the late 1990s and through most of the 2000s, there was a daily poetry mailing list called the Wondering Mintrels. It was maintained by a couple of poetry enthusiasts from MIT. The moderators, Thomas Abraham and Martin DeMello, used to post a poem a day along with a personal commentary on it and invited readers to weigh in too. It gave way to some really amazing discussions of poetry in their comments section. They even started posting guest poems sent by regular readers too. The archives can still be found here.

I used to be a huge fan of the mailing list, and spent hours lurking in the comments section, enjoying the hell out of the discussions. I learnt a lot about poetry appreciation on those discussions, though I did not participate in them. For a long time, the list was my daily fix before starting on my work day. There is nothing like the beauty of the words, the vividness of the imagery, the quirk of some of the humorous poems to lighten you up and brace you for a long day at work.

The site moved a few times, from its original repository in the MIT network to a yahoo groups mailing list and eventually moved on to its own blog space. I faithfully followed it all through it many avatars. But for the some reason, the posts stopped coming sometime in early 2007, never to be revived again.

With this blog, I can’t even begin to try recreating that massive body of work. But I am going to be posting my favourite poems, song lyrics, bits or whole thereof (despite what the title promises)or maybe even bits of prose that I totally enjoyed reading. I am not planning to stick with only English either. So, be forewarned.

I am going to be posting one poem at a time, along with a note on my own personal experience with reading it.

I hope you enjoy reading the bits of verse too!