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just.a.willow.tree

Poetic Meter: Or, Finally Understanding What "Iambic Pentameter" Means

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just.a.willow.tree
Posted (edited)

[Written with @Rumpelstiltskin]

Identifying meter (or metre) in terms of poetry can be a confusing and frustrating process. It takes a keen eye (and ear, as it often helps to repeat the lines aloud) to find the patterns of the stressed and unstressed syllables. 

What is meter, anyway?

Put simply, meter is the rhythm of the poem. Good questions to ask when unscrambling meter are: How many stressed (or emphasized) syllables are in each line? And how many other syllables are in between each emphasized syllable? After all, meter is really just the repetition of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry.

But how do you determine which syllables are stressed or unstressed? It's easiest to figure this question out by reading the lines aloud.

Here is a quick example, using a basic sentence.

There once was a girl named Mary.

If you speak this sentence aloud, chances are, you will naturally emphasize your syllables like this:

There once was a girl named Mary.

Simplifying it further, we can look at individual words.

Chrysanthemum. Leviathan. Silvery.

Every word in the English language has a natural emphasis, usually on a single syllable. In this instance, the words would be stressed on the following syllables:

Chrysanthemum. Leviathan. Silvery.

Meter is essentially finding these sorts of patterns in each line of the poem, and determining a name for it. The main difficulty with meter is figuring out where the stressed syllables are when there are multiple words involved. (We chose an easy sentence to examine above; there are many cases when the meter can seemingly be taken multiple ways.) After a bit of practice, though, it’ll be easier to understand!

Onto important terminology!

METRICAL FEET

The length of a rhythmic line is usually expressed in terms of the number of feet (a unit of rhythmic measurement). So, a dimeter has two feet, a trimeter has three feet, a tetrameter has four feet, a pentameter has five feet, a hexameter has six feet, a heptameter has seven feet, etc.

So what are metrical feet, exactly?

A foot is a short sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. Metrical feet can be found in two main categories: duple meter or triple meter.

DUPLE METER

Duple meter essentially means that each foot in the line contains two syllables, with only one syllable stressed.

One type of foot used in duple meter is the iamb, which is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. This following example (from the lovely Shakespeare) contains three iambs:

to be | or not | to be

Lines that are composed of iambs (such as the example above) are known to be in “iambic meter.” Which makes sense.

Another common type of foot is the trochee, which is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (the opposite of an iamb). We have three examples of trochees below:

beat it
apple
bucket

Lines that are composed of trochees are in “trochaic meter.”

Note: while iambic meter and trochaic meter would ideally contain perfect two-syllable iambs or trochees, there will occasionally be exceptions, such as a random three-syllable foot thrown into the middle. However, so long as the line consists mostly of iambs (or trochees), we can still call it iambic (or trochaic) meter. This is one of the aspects of meter that makes it more difficult than it needs to be. :P

We will look at more examples later on, so don’t fret if you still don’t quite understand!

TRIPLE METER

Triple meter consists of feet made up of three syllables. Similarly to duple meter, there is only one stressed syllable in each foot.

One type of foot used in triple meter is known as dactyl, in which a stressed syllable precede a pair of unstressed syllables. Here are some examples of dactyls below:

poetry” [po-e-try]
difficult” [dif-fi-cult]
half a league”
*

*line taken from Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade'

Lines that are composed of dactyls are in “dactylic meter.”

Another type of triple meter foot is known as an anapest, which consists of a pair of unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (the reverse of a dactyl). Below is a line from Verses Supposed to be Written by Alexander Selkirk by William Cowper that contains a sequence of anapests:

“from the centre all round to the sea

Lines, like the one above, that are composed of anapests are in “anapestic meter.”

Note: like iambic and trochaic meter, dactylic and anapestic meter would ideally contain perfect three-syllable dactyls or anapests, but there will occasionally be exceptions. In fact, since these two forms are far less common than their two-meter relatives, oftentimes you’ll see them paired with an iamb or trochee.

APPLYING YOUR KNOWLEDGE :D

Once you understand this, the terminology won’t seem so intimidating. So, when you see the word “iambic pentameter,” you’ll know that it is simply a line of poetry composed of five iambs. Because of this, it is idyllically made up of 10 syllables. Of course, we already know that some of these syllables may not fall perfectly in line with the rules, but we let them slide so long as the line is primarily made up of iambs. 

Perhaps the easiest way to understand how meter works is to see it in action, as the rules alone may seem menacing. In the spirit of keeping things simple and relatable, let’s take a look at a few examples from some well-known works.

First, we shall look towards the rhyming king: Dr. Seuss. :P Here is an excerpt from his masterful poetic story, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

Oh, the places you'll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.

Look at the pattern of stressed syllables. (If you read it aloud, this is how you'll naturally emphasize the syllables.) There are two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, which means that each foot has a total of three syllables. As a result, we can safely say we are in triple meter.

What are our options? Looking back at the two types of feet underneath “triple meter,” we see that this is either in dactylic meter or anapestic meter. However, anapestic meter is the right answer, because the stressed syllables in this Dr. Seuss example are on the third syllable of each foot, as opposed to the first.

Now count how many stressed syllables are in each line! Because there are four, we’ll use the prefix “tetra,” and we can say that this excerpt is in anapestic tetrameter. And that’s that! (Though if you’ll notice, the meter in the last line isn’t perfectly in anapestic tetrameter. But because the majority of the poem does fit anapestic tetrameter, that is the answer we’ll go with.)

Next, check out this (significantly more difficult) example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss

As you can see, this verse is written in iambic pentameter -- each line contains five iambs. (In fact, the vast majority of Shakespeare’s works are in iambic pentameter, which is largely said to be the natural way of speaking the English language.) The first two lines are perfect examples of iambic meter, keeping strictly to the rules. However, as we reach the third line, you’ll see that the iambic meter is interrupted by a spondee (a two-syllable foot where both syllables are stressed). 

“My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

Once we reach the fourth line, the rhythm is interrupted again with a trochee. See it here?

“To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss

These interruptions are actually quite debatable; it is clear that the rhythm is broken up differently here, but there are different ways people can go about seeing it. Of course, as we’ve mentioned before, even though there are small interruptions, it is categorized as iambic pentameter because it is primarily made up of iambs and each line contains 10 syllables.

Let’s look at a verse from The Destruction of Sennacherib by Lord Byron, next, as another example.

“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea

Can you see the anapests (the sequence of three syllables that follow this pattern: unstressed, unstressed, stressed)? This verse is written in perfect anapestic tetrameter (simply meaning that there are four -- as in tetra -- anapests per line. If you break it down into individual syllables, it becomes much more apparent.

“the as-SYR-ian came DOWN like the WOLF on the FOLD
and his CO-horts were GLEAM-ing in PUR-ple and GOLD
and the SHEEN of their SPEARS was like STARS on the SEA

---

And that's it! This has been our guide to poetic meter! Hopefully now when you see terms like “iambic pentameter” being thrown around, you’ll understand what’s happening. If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below, or just let us know what you think! ^_^ 

Edited by just.a.willow.tree
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