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Poetic Meter
This powerpoint is an adaptation of the following work:
Lovell, Linda, Ph.D. “Poetic Meter.” Powerpoint. 15 April 2008
Poetic Meter
Meter is the rhythm of a poem.
There are specific ways to analyze meter
so that we can say something clear about
a poem’s rhythmic pattern.
This lesson will show you how!
Scanning a Poem
We “scan” a poem to determine its basic
rhythm and to consider the relevance of that
rhythm to the meaning of the poem.
Poetry has much in common with music, and
both have mathematical foundations.
When we scan a poem, we begin by saying
the poetic lines aloud, paying careful
attention to the syllables which seem to be
stressed (pronounced with more emphasis).
Let’s Look at One Poem
“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”
by Adrienne Rich (1951)
Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens in a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.
A Scan of Lines 1 and 2
To “scan” a poem, we mark each stressed and each
unstressed syllable with a mark. Here, we’ll use /
for stressed and ~ for unstressed.
/ ~ ~
/ ~
~ /
Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across the screen
/ ~
/ ~ ~
/ ~
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
Then we count the stressed syllables in a single line.
Here there are 5 stressed syllables in each line.
Counting Stressed Syllables
Once we have taken a count of the stressed syllables in each
line, we have a good idea of what the dominant meter of
the poem is. Every line may not be the same, but usually
there will be one dominant pattern. In Rich’s poem, we
could scan all the lines and we would see that there are
generally 5 stresses (5 stressed syllables) to each line.
Poetry scansion makes use of some Greek-derived words to
label the meter of a poem. Let’s take a look at those.
We measure the meter of a poem using the measurement of
poetic feet. A foot in poetry is one stressed syllable + the
unstressed syllables that seem to go with it.
Poetic Meter
These terms show number of stresses or feet to a line:
One stress (foot) per line = mono + meter = monometer
 Two =
di + meter =
 Three = tri + meter =
 Four =
tetra + meter =
 Five =
penta + meter =
 Six =
hex + a + meter =
 Seven = hep + a + meter =
 Eight = oct + a + meter =
Since Rich’s poem has 5 stresses per line, or five poetic
feet per line, we can say that its meter is pentameter.
One More Step
Finally, we try to determine the dominant type of stressed
+ unstressed syllable combination which seems prominent
throughout the poem.
In Rich’s poem, there are many alternations back and forth
between unstressed and stressed syllables. Many look like
this: ~ /
This pattern of
~ / also has a name derived from
Greek: it is called an iamb.
Although there are some exceptions -- notably the pattern
~ ~ / in Rich’s lines -- we can say that the dominant, most
common pattern is the iamb, or the
iambic pattern.
Iambs and other weird patterns
Along with the iamb, there are other possible patterns:
A line is described by its pattern and # of poetic feet:
5 iambs = iambic pentameter
4 trochees = trochaic tetrameter
Describing Poetic Meter
About Rich’s poem, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,”
then, we could say that its meter is
iambic pentameter
This tells readers that the dominant meter of the
poem is 5 stresses to a line (pentameter) and
that the dominant pattern or “foot” of syllable
stress is ~ / (iambic).
But Why?
Poetry is a musical art form. Its impact depends on
its rhythm as well as on its language.
Being able to describe the pattern of a poem’s meter
can help us to analyze its meaning.
Sometimes, however, especially with more modern
poetry, you will find that there is no clear dominant
meter, that the poet has written the line as it would
be spoken, in a more casual mix of syllables, a more
conversational tone.
Common rhythms
The iamb is very common in the English language.
We often speak in iambic pentameter without
realizing it:
~ / ~ / ~
/ ~ / ~ /
I’d like to have you meet a friend of mine.
/ ~
/ ~ / ~
/ ~ /
 Did you take out the garbage yesterday?
Rhythm and Meaning
While the iamb (~ /) easily represents a natural rhythm
and emphasis often used in English, the trochee (/ ~) gives
a feeling of pressing forward, of more urgency or insistence:
/ ~
/ ~ /
~ / ~
Charging down the King’s path steady
On to meet our death charge ready
The anapest is used for a galloping kind of rhythm (~~/) or
for a light, almost comic feeling:
/ ~ ~ / ~~ /
There once was a fellow at Drew
Who spotted a mouse in his stew,
Told the waiter about it, who said “Well don’t shout it”
Or the rest will be wanting one too!”
Works Cited
Rich, Adrienne. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers. Literature: An
Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed.
X.J.Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 7th ed. New York:
Longman, 1999. 657.