Put quite simply, metre is the rhythmic beat of poetry; its recognisable repeating rhythmic patterns. We can define metre as combinations of stressed and unstressed beats (a unit of metre is called a foot) and the most commonly repeating patterns of metric feet are given specific names. In the more formal poetic forms there are hard and fast rules about metre, but even free verse can be described in terms of metre (after all an absence of formality is still making a point, right?).
I will explore some of the more commonly used metres below, and provide you with examples. Don’t worry if you can’t hear the stresses straight away, like anything unpacking poetry can take a little bit of practice. If you’re struggling, try saying the sentences out loud and clapping the beats which seem to take more emphasis. These should be your stressed syllables.
I have a handy little verse I learned at school which acts as a little reminder for me, and is a good source to check against if I find a line of poetry I’m unsure about. Here is it, feel free to use it yourself:
Iambus comes with steady pace,
Swift the Trochee takes its place,
Following Dactyl on pattering feet,
The Amphibrach next with its stressed middle beat,
But the last in the line and not least is the rare Anapaest.
Can you hear the metre change with each line? Let’s have a look in more detail:
The iambus is the most simple and most commonly occurring metre. It is very similar to the normal English speech pattern and that is why we find it the easiest to write in and to recognise. It consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one and is usually transcribed as (/ X).
Let’s apply some annotations to the iambic bit of our rhyme:
This way of transcribing breaks up the line of poetry into feet, and in this case each foot is made up of one unstressed syllable (/) followed by one stressed syllable (X). We can see that iambic metre is disyllabic (consisting of two syllables per foot) and a rising metre (it ends in a stressed beat). Where there are four feet per line (as in our example above), we can describe this as tetrameter. The above line is therefore written in iambic tetrameter (please see my other article on line length and metre).
Famous lines of poetry written in an iambic metre include many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. One of my favourite poems, ‘She Walks In Beauty Like The Night’ by Lord Byron is written in iambic tetrameter. Here is the first verse.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
The trochee is a reverse iamb, it is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one and it is transcribed (X/).
To show it in our rhyme:
You can see that the trochee provides us with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. As you might expect it is also disyllabic, but it falls rather than rises (it ends on an unstressed beat). Because it is the iamb’s opposite it is often interspersed with iambic metre to create an effect.
As you can see the last foot in the line is unfinished. This is quite a common practice in poetry and is often used for added emphasis. The above line also contains four feet and it therefore written in trochaic tetrameter (even though it has one unfinished foot at the end).
An example of trochaic metre can be found in one of the witches’ speeches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
(Act IV, Scene I)
Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
The dactyl is a very distinctive metre and one which is often used to add pace to a poem. It has a pattering action and a poem with dactylic metre is likely to have polysyllabic words in it. It consists of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables and can be transcribed (X//):
As you can see the Dactyl is tri-syllabic (it has three syllables per foot) and it is a falling metre because it ends on an unstressed beat. In the line above the last two unstressed beats of the last foot have been dropped.
A famous example of dactylic metre is in the first few lines of ‘The Lost Leader’ by Robert Browning:
Just for a handful of silver he left us
Just for a riband to stick in his coat
The amphibrach is less used than the above three types of metre, but it is a useful one to know. It consists of one unstressed beat, one stressed beat and another unstressed beat and can be transcribed as (/X/).
The amphibrach is a tri-syllabic metre, with a rise in the middle. An example of amphibrachic metre is this excerpt from ‘Jinny The Just’ by Matthew Prior.
Releas’d from the noise of the butcher and baker
Who, my old friends be thanked, did seldom forsake her,
And from the soft duns of my landlord the Quaker
Limericks often contain an element of amphibrachic metre. You can hear it in this first line:
There once was a lady called Joan
(and I’ll leave you to pen the rest).
The Anapaest consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one. It is a rising tri-syllabic metre. It is transcribed (/ / X).
Because it is a tri-syllabic metre, like the amphibrach it can be used to comic effect and to generate a distinctive pace. It is also used in limericks. The famous ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ is written in anapaestic metre as you can see below:
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.’
Other types of feet
There are a number of other useful feet to know including the Spondee which consists of two stressed syllables (X X) and the Pyrrhus which consists of two unstressed syllables( / /). These feet are not generally used for a whole line of poetry but rather as interjections to break up or join other metres.
by Claire Jones