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Meter: Characteristics, Overview

Instructor: Debbie Notari
Meter is the building block of poetry. When writing, a poet skillfully creates lines made up of stressed and unstressed syllables, otherwise known as meter.

Characteristics of Meter

Think how boring the world would be if we all spoke in monotone, like robots. Without vocal inflection, we cannot adequately express our emotions. We know that words are divided into syllables, and to avoid monotone, some syllables are accented while others are not. Take the word 'fantastic' for instance. We see that this word is divided into three syllables: 'fan-tas-tic,' and that the middle syllable is accented, as in 'fan-TAS-tic.'

Meter in Poetry

Meter is the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables that make up the lines in poetry. There are particular types of patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Each type is called a foot. The combination of feet in a line makes up the meter. We will explore the most common feet in poetry and take a look at examples for each.

The first type of foot is called the iamb. The iamb is the poet's use of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in the word 'ig-NITE.' It is common to find a pattern of five iambs in a line of poetry, and this is called iambic pentameter. Here is an example of iambic pentameter:

'But soft! What light through yonder window breaks!' (Romeo and Juliet 2.2).

We would read this Shakespearean line in this way: 'But SOFT! What LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS!' (Notice that the syllables may cross over from word to word and do not have to be contained within single words.)

The second type of foot is called the trochee. The trochee is the opposite of the iamb, and is a combination of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, as in the word 'DO-nate.' In the first four lines of this poem by Emily Dickinson, we see an example of poetry containing trochee:

'There's a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons--

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes--' (Dickinson).

We would read the first line in this way: 'THERE'S a CERtain SLANT of LIGHT,' and so forth. In this case, the final syllable is cut off, however.

The third type of foot is called the spondee, and it contains two stressed syllables. The phrase 'Go home!' illustrates this type of foot. The first stanza of the poem, 'Wind,' by the Victorian poet Sydney Thompson Dobell is a prime example of the perhaps overuse of spondee. He writes:

'Oh the wold, the wold,

Oh the wold, the wold!

Oh the winter stark,

Oh the level dark,

On the wold, the wold, the wold!' (Dobell).

And Then There Were Two

There are two more types of metrical feet used to make up lines of poetry. The first is the anapest, not to be confused with the city of Budapest in Hungary. The anapest contains two unstressed and one stressed syllables, as in the word 'entertain,' which we would pronounce, 'en-ter-TAIN.' An excellent example of the use of anapest is Lord Byron's poem, 'The Destruction of Sennacherib.' The first line reads:

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