The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Meter (poetry)

In literature, meter or metre (sometimes known as prosody) is a term used in the scansion (analysis into metrical patterns) of poetry, usually indicated by the kind of feet and the number of them. For instance, "iambic pentameter", "dactylic tetrameter", etc. The origin of all meters is ancient Greek poetry from Homer, Pindar, Hesiod, Sappho, and the great tragedians of Athens.


Technical terms in poetic meter

  • caesura: A caesura (literally, a cut or cutting) refers to a particular kind of break within a poetic line. In Latin and Greek meter, caesura refers to a break within a foot caused by the end of a word. In English poetry, a caesura refers to a sense of a break within a line. Caesuras play a particularly important role in Old English poetry.
  • Inversion: When a foot of poetry is reversed with respect to the general meter of a poem, it is referred to as an inversion. This term is usually only used for the first foot in a line.
  • Headless: A headless meter is one where the first foot is missing its first syllable.


  • pyrrhus or dibrach: two short syllables
  • iamb: Consisting of a short syllable followed by a long one, or of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented; as, an iambic foot.
  • trochee or choree: A metrical foot of two syllables, the first long and the second short, as in the Latin word ante, or the first accented and the second unaccented, as in the English word motion; a choreus.
  • spondee: A poetic foot of two long syllables


  • tribrach: short-short-short
  • anapest: short-short-long
  • amphibrach: short-long-short
  • bacchius: short-long-long
  • dactyl: long-short-short
  • amphimacer or cretic: long-short-long
  • antibacchius: long-long-short
  • molossus: long-long-long


  • tetrabrach or proceleusmatic: short-short-short-short
  • quartus paeon: short-short-short-long
  • tertius paeon: short-short-long-short
  • minor ionic, or double iamb: short-short-long-long
  • secundus paeon: short-long-short-short
  • diamb: short-long-short-long
  • antispast: short-long-long-short
  • first epitrite: short-long-long-long
  • primus paeon: long-short-short-short
  • choriamb: long-short-short-long
  • ditrochee: long-short-long-short
  • second epitrite: long-short-long-long
  • major ionic: long-long-short-short
  • third epitrite: long-long-short-long
  • fourth epitrite: long-long-long-short
  • dispondee: long-long-long-long

The most important Classical meter is the dactylic hexameter, the meter of Homer and Virgil. This form uses verses of six feet. The first four feet are dactyls, but can be spondees. The fifth foot is always a dactyl. The sixth foot 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 Ęneid is a typical line of dactylic hexameter:

/ \ \ \ x \ \ \ x,/ \ \ \ \ x \ \ \ x,\ / \ ||\ \ x,/ \ \ \ \ x, \ \ \ / \ \ x \ \ x, \ / \ x
\operatorname{ Arma \ virumque \ can\bar{o}, \ Tr\bar{o}jae \ qu\bar{i} \ pr\bar{i}mus \ ab \ \bar{o}ris }
("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 vīdī tantum, nec amāra Tibullō
    /  x  x / x x/ | / x  x / x  x /   
   Tempus amīcitiae fāta dedźre 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 (itself a translation of Sappho 31):

/  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. . .

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.

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, in which the norm is five iambic feet per line, though many kinds of substitution are common. John Milton's Paradise Lost, most sonnets, and much else besides in English are written in iambic pentameter. Stanzas of unrhymed iambic pentameter are commonly known as blank verse. Blank verse in the English language is most famously represented in the plays of William Shakespeare, although it is also notable in the work of Tennyson (e.g. Ulysses, The Princess ).

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 (although see Pale Fire for a non-trivial case).

Another important meter in English is the ballad meter, also called the "common meter", which is a four line stanza, with two pairs of a line of iambic tetrameter followed by a line 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.  

Another poet who put this form to 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.

Named hymn meters

English hymnody uses named meters to pair lyrics with melodies. Those used the most often are:

  • C.M. - Common Meter; a quatrain (four-line stanza) with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, which rhymes in the second and fourth lines and sometimes in the first and third (8/6/8/6); also called Ballad Meter.
  • C.P.M. - Common Particular Meter; a six-line stanza of which the first, second, fourth and fifth lines are iambic tetrameter, and the third and sixth lines are iambic trimeter (8/8/6/8/8/6).
  • D. - Doubled; indicates an eight-line stanza instead of four, as in C.M.D. or D.C.M. - Common Meter Doubled or Doubled Common Meter, (8/6/8/6/8/6/8/6).
  • H.M. - Hallelujah Meter; a six-line stanza of which the first four lines are trimeter and the last two are tetrameter, which rhymes most often in the second and fourth lines and the fifth and sixth lines (6/6/6/6/8/8).
  • L.M. - Long Meter; a quatrain in iambic tetrameter, which rhymes in the second and fourth lines and often in the first and third (8/8/8/8).
  • L.P.M. - Long Particular Meter; a six-line stanza of iambic tetrameter (8/8/8/8/8/8).
  • M.T. (or 12s.) - Meter Twelves; a quatrain in anapestic hexameter (12/12/12/12).
  • P.M. - may stand for Psalm Meter (more commonly known as 8s.7s), Particular Meter, or Peculiar Meter (each indicating poetry with its own peculiar, non-standard, meter).
  • S.M. - Short Meter; iambic lines in the first, second, and fourth are in trimeter, and the third in tetrameter, which rhymes in the second and fourth lines and sometimes in the first and third (6/6/8/6).
  • S.P.M. - Short Particular Meter; a six-line stanza of which the first, second, fourth and fifth lines are iambic trimeter, and the third and sixth lines are iambic tertameter (6/6/8/6/6/8).
  • 8s. - Eights; used to distinguish an eight syllable quatrain that does not contain the iambic stress pattern characteristic of Long Meter (8/8/8/8).
  • 8s.7s. - Eights and sevens; a trochaic quatrain with alternating lines of four feet and three and one-half feet, which rhymes in the second and fourth lines and sometimes in the first and third (8/7/8/7); also called Psalm Meter.
  • 7s.6s. - Sevens and sixes; a quatrain with alternating lines of three and one-half feet and three feet, which rhymes in the second and fourth lines and sometimes in the first and third (7/6/7/6).

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 before a sounded vowel or at the end of a line. The most frequently encountered meter in French is a line of six feet called the alexandrine. Classical French poetry also had a complex set of rules for rhymes that goes beyond how words merely sound. These are usually taken into account when describing the meter of a poem.

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:

  • Septenary : A line consisting of seven syllables, the sixth being always stressed.
  • Octosyllable : A line consisting of eight syllables, the seventh always being stressed. This meter is commonly used in romances, narrative poems similar to English ballads.
  • Hendecasyllable: A line consisting of eleven syllables; the sixth and the tenth or the fourth, the eighth and the tenth always being stressed. This meter plays a similar role to pentameter in English verse. It is commonly used in sonnets, among other things.
  • Alexandrines: A line consisting of two heptasyllables.

Italian poetry

In Italian poetry, meter is determined solely by the number of syllables in a line. When a word ends with a vowel and the next one starts with a vowel, they are considered to be in the same syllable: so Gli anni e i giorni consists of only four syllables ("Gli an" "ni e i" "gior" "ni"). Moreover, syllables are enumerated with respect to a verse which ends with a paroxytone: an heptasyllable may so contain eight syllables (Ei fu. Siccome immobile) or just six (la terra al nunzio sta).

Some common meters in Italian verse are:

  • Septenary : A line consisting of seven syllables, the sixth being always stressed.
  • Octosyllable : A line consisting of eight syllables, with the main stress on the seventh and secondary accents on the first, third and fifth syllable. This meters is commonly used in nursery rhymes.
  • Hendecasyllable: A line consisting of eleven syllables; there are various kinds of possible accentations, but the tenth syllable has always the main stress. It is used in sonnets, in ottava rima, and in many other works.

See also

Alexandrine, Dactylic hexameter, Elegiac couplet, Hendecasyllable, Heroic couplet, Iambic pentameter

Last updated: 05-07-2005 15:49:02
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04