Phew! Metre. Or Meter, for the dear readers from the former colony. Such a laden term, which reminds you of hours spent huddled over a god-forsaken poem during rainy school days, trying to determine whether Hamlet’s ‘To Be or Not to Be’ speech is trochaic or iambic and what on earth the teacher meant by pentameter or tetrameter and…
Yes. I get it. Metre is difficult – or at least, it appears to be difficult at first. But, Greek terminology aside, it is actually one of the most straight-forward aspects which you can learn about poetry, once you understand the way it works. I found, throughout my years at school, that it is generally taught in a very poor fashion. Not to disregard my teachers – they were all wonderful, for sure – but the general approach is often to provide you with the Greek term and what it means, and then to try and make you figure out for yourself what metre a certain poem has… not ideal, if you ask me.
But, if you start from the beginning (a very good place to start!) and look at the simple language blocks which make up the way of how we speak, you can see what the whole fuss is about – hopefully without falling into despair.
I must note, however, that prosody (that’s just a fancy term we use to describe the practice of analysing patterns of rhythm and sound in poetry) is never an exact science. Depending on your regional accent or dialect, some people tend to pronounce things differently, which can lead to a variety of ways of scanning the metre of a poem. Nevertheless, the differences are usually only minute and based on individual cases, and do not detract from the basic simple nature of prosody.
Why should I care?
Why indeed? Of course, everyone is perfectly capable of understanding a poem without understanding metre. You can even write plenty of good (even very good!) essays without a single reference to a poem’s rhythm or metre. But, while you might subconsciously enjoy the metre of a poem, understanding its metrical structure can enable you to become aware of the music behind the craft. It can allow you to feel and hear the work which went into its creation, and thus it allows you to enjoy it more. And, if you are a practising poet, you will find that understanding metre gives you much more room to improve your own writing since you begin to understand how rhythm works in speech. So even without writing in traditional metrical forms, it will let you feel and understand the process, and give you the tools to write better poems. In order to break the rules, after all, you need to know the rules – otherwise, you’re doing the equivalent to a five-year-old drawing a picture of his or her parents…
Syllables, and why they matter
Without wanting to sound patronising, the logical place to start with metre is with individual words. And words are made up of syllables – starting with simple monosyllables (words which have one syllable) such as car, hat, cat, up to insanely long words containing twelve syllables, such as floccinaucinihilipilification (best not to mention that word to anyone – it does exist, however; feel free to google it if you dare).
In natural speech, we emphasise certain syllables in any given word more than others. This act is known as stressing a syllable. In some words, only one syllable contains a stress; in others, multiple ones can be stressed. To give a few examples (the stressed syllables are marked in bold):
As you can see, certain words of the same length in syllables contain varying degrees of stress. Monosyllabic strong words (nouns, verbs or adjectives) are usually stressed, such as ‘can’, ‘fan’, ‘dumb’, ‘wrong’, ‘strong’. Monosyllabic weak words (articles, pronouns) are usually unstressed, such as ‘me’, ‘you’, ‘the’, ‘a’. However, if you form them in a sentence, they might be stressed.
The only source you require to determine the stress of a word is to speak it – and listen to yourself. There is no magic involved, and it is quite straight-forward, provided you have grown up in an English-speaking country or else received a formal education in English.
Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t ambiguities, and, as mentioned above, there are regional differences. Take the word ‘fire’ for instance – where I am from, it is monosyllabic, but there are many, many regions in the world where it is a disyllabic (two syllables) word, and the ‘fi’ would be stressed, whereas ‘re’ would not be stressed.
At this point you’re probably asking, ‘so what?’ Don’t worry – I was just about to get to that!
What metre essentially is
Metre is nothing more or less than the arrangement of syllables into a pre-defined pattern to create a certain effect. You know which syllable to stress in any given word – and if you order them in a certain pattern, say, stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed, you have written a line in a perfect metre.
This can, of course, be immensely difficult since it involves toying with varying ways in which you can order your syllables. Thank goodness, throughout the centuries of English poetry, several specific patterns have established themselves as the most effective ones.
The dominant patterns in English metre
This is where the Greek terminology comes in. You certainly don’t need to use the Greek terms when scanning by yourself, but if you ever write an essay on poetry in which you decide to discuss the metre, it is essential that you use it. There are four main types of metrical patterns (or what we call a metrical foot – yes, you’re allowed to laugh at that term):
This is the most commonly used one in English. It is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Iambic lines are the closest we have to a regular metre which sounds like natural speech – hence its popularity. This also gives the metre a wide flexibility; it can be used for comedic, melancholic, contemplative, heroic, dramatic verse and more. The word means ‘one-step’; it’s best to imagine that you’re taking one step ahead, thus going from the unstressed standstill to one stressed step ahead. Here some examples of words which are, by their very nature, iambic:
The trochee is less common than the iamb, and is the reversal of the latter, i.e. a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. Because of its similarity with the iamb, it is also quite popular, but by starting out on a stress it often sounds more aggressive and strong. For this reason, it is the perfect metre for, say, the Hags’ speeches in Shakespeare. The word means ‘wheel’, which means you can remember it as a twist or turn on iamb. Words which are by nature trochaic include:
The dactyl is the first of the three-syllable feet, and it contains a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones. It is a lot less common than the iamb and trochee because it is difficult to find a lot of different words which would be able to sustain a dactyl throughout an entire poem in English; in many cases, it forces the reader to sustain it artificially. It has a very musical quality to it because the two stresses after the stress create a form of motion; in music, therefore, it is more common than in regular poetry. One example (which I’ve nicked from Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled) is the song ‘I want to be in America’ from West Side Story. Note that ‘want’ would ordinarily be stressed, but the music enforces the stress. The word means finger; it is best to remember dactyl by looking at your index finger: the longest part of it is closest to the hand, followed by to shorter parts, so long-short-short or stress-unstress-unstress. Words which are naturally dactylic include:
The anapaest is the final of the ‘big-four’ to know about and by far the least common. It contains two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one. By being the reversal of the dactyl, it can feel delayed, maybe even cumbersome. The word means ‘struck back’. It might be helpful to remember it by imagining it as the one where the stress is delayed by the most, hence ‘struck back’. There aren’t many pure anapaests in the English language, although the word anapaest itself is a strong example.
This part can be difficult to understand, of course. If you’re struggling, it might be best to write down the four terms and to look for other examples of words which are naturally of that stress. Feel free to send me a message if you require additional assistance.
Other types of feet
There are, of course, other variations, but scholars disagree strongly over their use, and whether they are even part of the English language. Two further examples include the Pyrrhus; the pyrrhic metre contains two unstressed syllables. Then there is the spondee, which contains two stressed syllables. In trisyllabic words, there is furthermore the amphibrach, which contains an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed one, and finally an unstressed one at the end; an example might be ‘placebo’. Stressed-unstressed-stressed can be called cretic; examples, again, are rare but might include Wetherspoon. Generally, it is probably not necessary to know these metres; certainly not if you are studying poetry on your own, or even at school. The basic knowledge of the other four, however, should be a given if you wish to understand metre.
How metrical feet form a metrical pattern
So! We now have our metrical feet, and we know that the syllables need to be arranged in a particular pattern to create a certain effect. Thus, we know that
Follows a trochaic pattern, and we know that
Follows an iambic pattern. Please note that the words’ positions within the line dictate whether the line is an iamb, trochee, dactyl or anapaest, NOT the ‘internal’ metrical foot of a word. For example, to take a few random words from above, ‘Demon’ and ‘heaven’ are both trochaic. But if I arrange them thus:
There are no demons lingering in Heaven
The line is iambic, even though there are no ‘internally’ iambic words in the line! This is because the line starts out iambic, with taTUM, and continues to do so throughout the line. As such, you hear an iambic pattern, regardless of the individual words which might, by their very nature, contain a different metrical foot.
Now, to complete the use of terminology, the number of metrical feet in any given line dictates the title we give it. Unfortunately, again, we use Greek words for it, consisting of Greek number + meter. Thus, a line with one metrical foot is a monometer, with two, dimeter, with three, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter etc. So, to take my example from above again, it has five iambic feet within the line – and thus it is an iambic pentameter.
Here another few simplistic examples of iambic pentameters:
I couldn’t think of anything to write;
Instead, I jotted down some useless lines.
Or, to write some trochaic tetrameters:
Coming home is always pretty;
Mum would cook while I’d be lazy.
So, as you can see, it is, in essence, quite a simple process, although it might be difficult to wrap your head around it. Coincidently, the best way to learn to read metre is to write it yourself. C’mon – it ain’t that hard. If you stick with it and just write, say, ten lines in iambs of varying lengths, you’ll soon have the process internalised and will be able to spot an iamb from a mile away.
Consistency in metrical patterns
You might be wondering – and rightly so! – why there are plenty of lines by renowned poets which, while conceding to the rules, nevertheless contain several irregularities within their lines. This is because it would both be very stifling if you could never, ever break the rules and because it would just sound dull – like a constant drum-beat without any variation. To solve this problem, poets throughout the centuries have come up with lots of different ways for a line to sound regular still, and yet keep it interesting – such as substituting the first foot in an iambic line with a trochee, making the line start stressed and sound quicker through the following two unstressed syllables. One example might be:
Come to the garden of my dreams
This is meant to be an introductory article, so I won’t go into detail right here; for now, just be aware that a line not adhering strictly to the rules does not mean that the poet is incapable or otherwise breaking the rules, but that he or she is usually using accepted irregularities.
This also means that there is a large difference between rhythm and metre. Metre is the strict outline of the beats, as discussed above, whereas rhythm is the actual stresses you hear when reading a line, which includes the irregularities. In my garden-laden example, the line is clearly an iambic tetrameter, but the rhythm you would hear would be:
TUM ta ta TUM ta TUM ta TUM
So: never confuse rhythm and metre! The rhythm can be in line with the metre, but it doesn’t have to. Lines not written in metre still contain a rhythm – such as the rhythm you have when you use natural speech.
It might also be useful to think in musical terms. There, too, you have a metre and a rhythm. The equivalent to the poetic metre would be the tact, such as 4/4, where, when listening to the metronome, you hear four regular beats. The actual rhythm of the music, on the other hand, works within the tact (or, in poetry, within the metre), but in such a way that you can still hear the beat of the metronome.
Exception: Free Verse
Free verse is the big exception to the use of metre in poetry, of course. Not all poems are written with a strict metre in mind, and free verse, as the name implies, does not adhere to strict metrical rules at all (and usually not to rhyming patterns, either). I’ll write about free verse at another time; but for now, it is important to note that not all poems are written in metre.
As you have seen, the whole issue of prosody is not too difficult to understand. With a bit of perseverance and patience, anyone can understand and hear metre, and thus help you enjoy poetry to a greater extent – and even begin crafting your own lines in iambic pentameter! That is not to say that it is completely easy – it does require taking time to study the craft.
If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to share it on your preferred social media platform using the tender buttons below, and please don’t hesitate to ask a question or provide feedback in the comments. If anything is unclear, I’ll be happy to write another blog post dedicated towards some of the more difficult aspects. Tada!