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Poetical rhythm and metre
rhythm: the pattern of stressed and
unstressed syllables in a line.
metre: the number of feet in a line.
scansion: Describing the rhythms of
poetry by dividing the lines into feet,
marking the locations of stressed and
unstressed syllables, and counting the
Common metre
• The most common metre is
– iambic ( 0 / , unstressed followed by stressed, as in the above lines).
Dadum dadum dadum dadum
• Others include
– trochaic ( / 0 , stressed followed by unstressed).
– anapaestic (0 0 / , two unstressed followed by one stressed).
– dactylic ( / 0 0, stressed followed by two unstressed).
– spondaic ( / / , two stressed syllables)
• Iambic and anapaestic are rising rhythm (rising to a stress),
trochaic and dactylic as falling rhythm (falling from a stress) but
few poems are wholly one or the other.
How many feet in a line?
2 feet = Dimeter: When I | descend (Hardy, The Robin)
3 feet = Trimeter: When I | was one-| and-twenty
4 feet = Tetrameter: Had we | but world | enough | and
time (Marvell, To His Coy Mistress)
5 feet =Pentameter: To be | or not | to be, | that is | the
question (Shakespeare, Hamlet)
6 feet= Hexameter: A peri|phrastic | study || in a wornout | poetical | fashion (Eliot, East Coker)
Anticipate exceptions
• Like the rhythm in a piece of music, the metre is
an underlying structure. Poets often slip in extra
feet, or remove them, or change stress patterns
around to prevent monotony
• This means that the discovery of a foot other
than an iamb in the middle of what is otherwise
iambic, say, does not stop the poem from being
iambic; rather the attention ends up lingering at
that point, so the word on the different foot ends
up more powerful as it has the attention longer
Examples of different metre and
1. Earth, receive an honoured guest!
trochaic tetrameter
2. The stranger from the noisy inn (De La
iambic tetrameter
3. Just for a handful of silver he left us!
dactylic tetrameter
4. 'Tis the voice of the lobster; I heard him
declare (Carroll)
anapaestic tetrameter
5. The hop-poles stand in cones (Blunden)
iambic trimeter
6. Wondering, listening (Hodgson)
dactylic dimeter
7. When I consider how my light is spent (Milton)
iambic pentameter
Further practice
• This university website offers interactive activities for
developing confidence identifying metre. It provides a
poem and you have to identify the metre and rhythm.
You click once above the syllable to identify a stressed
syllable and twice for an unstressed. You can check if it’s
right at the end of the line. It is quite tricky but useful.
History of iambic pentameter
• Iambic Pentameter originated as an attempt to develop a meter for
the English language legitimizing English as an alternative and
equal to Latin (as a language also capable of great poetry and
literature). Since meter was a feature of all great Latin poetry, it was
deemed essential that an equivalent be developed for the English
Language. But poets couldn’t simply adopt Latin’s dactylic
hexameter or dactylic pentameter lines. Latin uses quantitative
meter, a meter based on alternating long and short syllables.
English, on the other hand, is an accentual language – meaning that
words are “accented” or stressed while others are, in a relative
sense, unstressed. (There are no long or short syllables in English,
comparable to Latin.)
• Blank verse (as found in Shakespeare) uses iambic pentametre
The Fall of Iambic Pentameter
By the end of the Victorian Era (1837-1901), and in the hands of the
worst poets, Iambic Pentameter had become little more than an
exercise in filling-in-the-blanks. The rules governing the meter were
inflexible and predictable. It was time for a change. The poet most
credited with making that change is Ezra Pound. Whether or not
Pound was, himself, a great poet, remains debatable. Most would
say that he was not. What is indisputable is his influence on and
associations with poets who were great or nearly great: Yeats, T.S.
Eliot (whose poetry he closely edited), Frost, William Carlos
Williams, Marriane Moore. It was Pound who forcefully rejected the
all too predictable sing-song patterns of the worst Victorian verse,
who helped initiate the writing of free verse among English speaking
poets. And the free verse that Pound initiated has become the
indisputably dominant verse form of the 20th century and 21st
Effects of using iambic
• It is a natural sounding rhythm in the English
Language – it conversational
e.g.‘I may as well go back and go to bed’
• It is measured and dignified
• Composed and controlled.
• Contemplative and reflective
• Slow
• Look for exceptions within a line which will draw
attention to specific words
Have a look at these and figure out
the metre and rhythm…
• ‘On his Blindness’ John Milton
• ‘The Tyger’ William Blake
• ‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’ Lord