The metre (American English: meter) of a poem is the basic, recurring pattern of some countable attribute of the lines of the poem. Some systems of metre count syllables (e.g., in French); some count patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables (e.g., in English and German); some count patterns of long and short syllables (e.g., in Latin); some count alliterating words (e.g., in Old English); and some, in languages like Chinese in which words have formalized tones, count patterns of tone.
Not all poetry is metrical; nonmetrical poetry is often called "free verse." Metre is only one aspect of prosody, which Charles O. Hartman defines as "the poet's method of controlling the reader's temporal experience of the poem" Line breaks, line length, word length, pauses, patterns of consonants and vowels, are among the many prosodic devices available to poets in addition to metre.
Even in metrical poetry, not every line of a poem will necessarily have a rhythm that conforms exactly to the poem's overall metrical pattern. In English poetry, for example, over the centuries poets and readers have worked out a generally-accepted set of expectations about how much variation from strict metrical regularity, and of what kinds, is "permissible"; but of course these "rules" are flexible, and there are many examples of poets' deliberately "breaking" them to achieve a particular effect.
Although the features of different languages lend themselves to different metrical systems -- it would be difficult to use a system relying on tones or syllable length in English, in which tones are not as formalized as in Chinese nor syllable length as formalized as in Latin -- it is possible to use more than one metrical system in many languages. Although in English, the dominant system is the accentual-syllabic (which takes both stress and syllable count into account), many English-language poets have used syllabic metre (which counts only syllables and ignores the variable of stress) and other systems.
An Example: Iambic Pentameter
One specific metre that is familiar to many English speakers is iambic pentameter, a member of the accentual-syllabic family, used by William Shakespeare in most of his plays and poems, by John Milton in Paradise Lost and other poems, and even by E.E. Cummings in many of his otherwise experimental and avant-garde sonnets.
In the accentual-syllabic system, each line of a poem is considered to be made up of small units of speech called feet, a certain number of which make up a line. The word "pentameter" comes from the Greek for "five measures," so an iambic pentameter line contains five feet.
A foot consists of one stressed syllable and either one or two unstressed, in a specific pattern; the pattern "unstressed, stressed" (ta-TUM) is called "iambic"; so five such feet (ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM) make up the pattern of an iambic pentameter line. Several other types of foot are of course possible: TUM-ta, ta-ta-TUM, etc.
An example of a strictly iambic-pentameter line is the opening of Shakespeare's Sonnet 65:
Sǐnce bráss, | nǒr stóne, | nǒr éarth, | nǒr bóund- | lěss séa...."
(The acute accent mark, as in á, indicates a stressed syllable; the breve accent, as in ǎ, an unstressed one; and the vertical line, the division between two feet. The process of analyzing and marking the pattern of stress in a line is called scanning or scansion.)
But most of the rest of that poem's lines do not stick strictly to the regular pattern. Line 3, "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea," begins with the opposite of an iambic foot -- Hów wǐth -- though the rest of the line adheres to the metre. Line 10,
Whěre tíme's | bést jéw- | ěl frǒm | Tíme's chést | líe híd,
only the first foot is an iamb; the second, fourth, and fifth all contain two stressed syllables and no unstressed ones, while the third foot contains only two unstressed syllables. Yet even such a line is generally considered to be within the limits of iambic pentameter. (Different readers may scan a line differently. It could be argued that the fourth foot here is an iamb. Scansion is not an exact science.)
Some lines in an iambic-pentameter poem may be missing a syllable, or have an extra one. One of Shakespeare's most famous lines, from Hamlet, has eleven syllables, with an extra unstressed one tacked on at the end; the last foot, then, has three syllables, not two:
To be, or not to be: that is the question.
The many different ways poets can depart from strict metre, and the uses of such departures, will be discussed below under "Variation."
The most commonly-used category of metre in modern English, the accentual-syllabic system organizes the poetic line into a recurring pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Each two- or three-syllable repeated unit is called a metrical foot; each of the possible types of feet has its own technical name, although in practice some of them rarely occur. Each line of a poem using this system, moreover, contain a specified number of feet. For example, iambic pentameter contains five (penta-) repetitions of the type of foot called an iamb, which is one unaccented syllable followed by one accented syllable. The play Macbeth by Shakespeare is mainly written in iambic pentameter.
Some accentual-syllabic metres exhibit even more complicated patterns; "common metre" or "ballad metre," for example, alternates lines of four and three iambs. (This is the metre used in many ballads and hymns, many of Emily Dickinson's poems, and popular songs such as the theme song to the television series "Gilligan's Island" -- the interchangeability of whose lyrics with Dickinson's poems is often the source of hilarity.)
As noted above, though, not every line in an accentual-syllabic metrical poem must strictly follow the exact pattern of the metre; many variations (see below) have long been generally recognized as acceptable within the metrical system.
In the table below, showing the most common types of feet in English accentual-syllabic verse, a slash (/) represents an accented syllable and an x an unaccented one:
|/ x||trochee (adjective: trochaic)|
|x x /||anapest|
|/ x x||dactyl|
|x / x||amphibrach|
Because, in practice, the different types of three-syllable feet are often substituted for each other throughout a poem, the term "triple metre" is sometimes used instead of the terms anapestic, dactylic, or amphibrachic.
There are also names for other possible feet:
|/ /||spondee (adjective: spondaic)|
These two terms are useful when discussing a specific poem's variations on iambic or trochaic metre, but in English no entire poem (except for some experimental or humorous novelties) are written entirely in pyrrhic or spondaic metre.
The other possible three-syllable feet, with two or three stresses each, also have names derived from the analogous feet in classical Greek and Roman poetry, but are almost never referred to in discussions of English poetry.
In addition to describing the type of foot used in a poem, there are word that give the number of feet in a line: for 1 through 8 feet, respectively: monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, heptameter, octameter. In modern English, metrical poems with only one foot, or more than 7 feet, per line are relatively rare.
Accentual metre counts only the stressed syllables in a line, ignoring how many unstressed syllables occur between them. In Old English poetry (for example, Beowulf), there were also rules requiring some of the stressed syllables to alliterate, that is, to begin with the same sound (or phoneme). In modern English, accentual verse is found in many folk ballads and popular songs, intentionally or unintentionally humorous doggerel, and the chants of crowds at sporting events and political rallies.
Syllabic metre counts the number of syllables (or, in some languages such as Japanese, similar units) in a line. The modern American poet Marianne Moore frequently wrote in syllabic metre, not necessarily with the same number of syllables in every line, but often with the same pattern of syllables-per-line in each stanza.
It is often found in languages that rely less on differences in stress levels than English does; the French alexandrine meter, for example, contains twelve syllables per line. Traditional Chinese poetry is also, in a sense, syllabic, although it often follows additional rules involving patterns of word tones (see "Chinese Systems," below).
Classical Greek and Latin Systems
These use the lengths of syllables in ways similar to the accents discussed above, with the same names as used above. For example, epic poems are written in dactylic hexameter, consisting of six feet. The first four may be either dactyl (long-short-short) or spondee (long-long). The fifth is regularly dactyl, and the last either spondee or trochee (long-short). A syllable is long if it contains a long vowel or ends with a consonant. If two consosnants occur between two vowels then usually they are regarded as divided between the syllables, so that the first syllable is long.
Classical Indian Systems
These are also quantitative, but work quite differently in detail. The standard epic metre, known as sloka or vatta, is in lines of 16 syllables, divided into feet of 4. The last foot is short-long-short-either. The 3rd can be anything, except that the two middle syllables should not be both short. The 2nd is most often short-long-long-either, in which case the 1st is as free as the 3rd. Various other patterns for the 2nd restrict the possibilities for the 1st.
While the above uses a fixed number of syllables, a different type of metre uses a fixed total length, counting a long syllable as equal to two short. For example, the metre known as giti or old arya has a line of seven feet plus an odd syllable at the end. A foot consists of two long syllables, four short, or a long and two short. The 2nd, 4th and 6th feet are usually short-long-short, or occasionally short-short-short-short. The 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th are anything except the former.
There are a variety of other types, including hybrids of these two types and metres where every syllable is specified except that at the end of a line.
Variation in Accentual-Syllabic Metre
- Charles O. Hartman, "Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody" (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), 13.