Metrical Feet: Characteristics, Overview

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Davis

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

Metrical feet are the grouping of syllables that give a poem its rhythm. Explore the characteristics of metrical feet. Discover common types of meter, how meter is formed and examples of different types of meter. Updated: 09/14/2021

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.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Procreation Sonnets: Characteristics & Overview

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
 Replay
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:00 What Is a Metrical Foot?
  • 1:13 Common Types
  • 2:31 Making Meter
  • 3:49 Examples of Meter
  • 6:57 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Timeline
Autoplay
Autoplay
Speed Speed

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

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Practice:
Metrical Feet: Characteristics, Overview Quiz

Instructions: Choose an answer and click 'Next'. You will receive your score and answers at the end.

1/5 completed

Which of the following lines is in anapestic tetrameter?

Create Your Account To Take This Quiz

As a member, you'll also get unlimited access to over 84,000 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed.

Try it now
It only takes a few minutes to setup and you can cancel any time.
Already registered? Log in here for access

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account