Metrical Feet: Characteristics, Overview

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  • 0:00 What Is a Metrical Foot?
  • 1:13 Common Types
  • 2:31 Making Meter
  • 3:49 Examples of Meter
  • 6:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

Did you know that poems have feet? Come learn about the metrical feet that give a poem its rhythm. We'll look at the different kinds of metrical feet, and we'll discuss how these feet shape a poem's meter. We'll even make sense of the difficult-sounding phrases poets use to describe meter.

What Is a Metrical Foot?

'In the house and on the street,
how many different feet you meet!'
-Dr. Seuss, The Foot Book

This quote isn't just a pun on the subject of this lesson; in fact, it's a fine example of what gives formal poetry its special sound. When most people hear the phrase 'formal poetry,' the first thing that comes to mind is rhyme. While it's true that most formal poems do rhyme, there's another element that's essential to the music of poetry, whether it rhymes or not. This element is meter.

Meter is what gives a poem its unique rhythm. In traditional English poetry, meter has two main parts. The first part is the number of syllables in each line. The second part is which syllables sound stronger than others. Because it depends on both of these factors, English poetry is often called accentual-syllabic verse.

It's easy enough to count syllables, but we still need to listen for patterns in the strong syllables in each line. This kind of focused reading is called scansion. When we scan a line of poetry, we're looking for the smallest pieces of the pattern. These pieces are called metrical feet. A metrical foot is simply a grouping of strong and weak syllables.

Common Types

Now, let's take a crash course in the most common types of metrical feet. In order to show the patterns more clearly, the strong syllables will be bolded.

Iamb: An iamb is a weak syllable followed a strong syllable. Words like 'guitar' and phrases like 'to sleep' are iambs.

Trochee: A trochee is a strong syllable followed by a weak syllable (the exact opposite of an iamb). Words like 'baseball' and phrases like 'Thank you' are trochees.

Anapest: An anapest is two weak syllables followed by one strong syllable. Words like 'understand' and phrases like 'in the dark' are anapests.

Dactyl: A dactyl is one strong syllable followed by two weak syllables (the exact opposite of an anapest). Words like 'camera' and phrases like 'This is a...' are dactyls.

Of course, these aren't the only metrical feet. Any combination of strong and weak syllables can be considered a metrical foot. For example, a foot made of two strong syllables is called a spondee, and a foot made of two weak syllables is called a pyrrhic. Still, because we tend to emphasize one syllable in a word more than others, spondees and pyrrhics occur very rarely in English.

Making Meter

To get a better sense of how metrical feet actually work, let's discuss how metrical feet shape the meter of a poem. To describe the meter of a poem, we use a two-word phrase, such as 'dactylic hexameter.' Now, if someone were to say the phrase 'dactylic hexameter' in the middle of a conversation, you might look at him as if he had two heads. However, the phrases we use to describe different meters aren't as complex as they sound.

The first word in the phrase refers to the kind of metrical foot the meter uses. This is accomplished by turning the name of the metrical foot into an adjective, like so:

'Iamb' becomes 'iambic.'
'Trochee' becomes 'trochaic.'
'Anapest' becomes 'anapestic.'
'Dactyl' becomes 'dactylic.'

The second word in the phrase refers to how many metrical feet there are in each line. This is accomplished by attaching a prefix to the word 'meter,' like so:

A meter with two feet is called 'dimeter.'
A meter with three feet is called 'trimeter.'
A meter with four feet is called 'tetrameter.'
A meter with five feet is called 'pentameter.
A meter with six feet is called 'hexameter.'

So, when someone says 'dactylic hexameter,' he's just talking about a meter that has six dactyls per line. That phrase is still a mouthful, though!

Examples of Meter

Now, let's take a look at a few types of meter. Once again, the strong syllables are bolded.

Iambic pentameter has five iambs per line. Iambic pentameter is one of the most dominant meters in English poetry, and it is used in many traditional poetic forms (such as blank verse, the heroic couplet, and the sonnet). Here is an example of iambic pentameter that may sound familiar if you've seen the movie Dead Poets Society:

One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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