Poetry – Feet and Meter

Poetry – Feet and Meter

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Why are lines of poetry measured in terms of feet? Will knowing this information be helpful in my understanding the rhyme and reason of poetry as an art form? A resounding YES! is my best response. Not only will you understand the why of the matter but also you will have the tools to create the what (poetry) by applying the all-encompassing how to words to make them sing and dance across the page.

The natural rhythm of language lends itself to be measured in some way that is logical if not memorable. Make the language deliberately rhythmic and it will seem creative and poetic and — perhaps even musical. Just as music has measurable entities in the form of numerically valued notes and measures, so also does language, especially the language of poetry, have valued measures in its lines of compiled verses. Music names its values in the form of fractionalized notes from the whole note to the penultimate hemidemisemiquaver, the 64th note, and more. But words are a different story. They need more than mere numerical values. They need substance from a classical heritage.

Hence, the measurements of poetic units are clad in the unique garb of Greek and Roman antiquity, a stable, unchanging system of labels that uniquely identifies and labels whatever combinations of literary poetry and prose that might exist now and forever more. They have feet. This is not in the sense of twelve inches to a foot nor any specific reference to extensions of limbs for mobility, the feet. It does refer to the fact that a foot is a standard unit of measure and those are the two requisites for definition and application: standard and measure. Voilà! The incomparable foot emerges triumphant.

How difficult must it be to find a viable system that is effective and yet simplistic? It doesn’t have to be complicated at all especially with a syllabicated language that allows the natural flow of stressed and unstressed syllables to flow trippingly from the lips. Just as music is divided into barred measures with valued notes, so also is poetry divided into measured lines with valued feet. Just as notes have names, so do feet have names. It is all logical and easy to recall once understood.

In this system, look at the number of syllables in a word; note the pattern of stress on each syllable both alone and in the context of some contrived sentence; assign a symbol to each syllable to indicate that it is stressed or unstressed. Then, find a pattern and give that pattern some recognizable and meaningful name. Attach that name to the established measuring device, the foot, and poetic lines can be measured, described and named for all posterity.

Remember that some words may have the stress on a different syllable dependent upon their multiple functions and/or pronunciations.

Take the word CONFLICT, for example. In one sentence, in may be a noun and the stress would be on the first syllable, CONflict. In another sense, it may be a verb and the accent would be on the second syllable, conFLICT. [In this example, the stress is on the capitalized portion of the word and the unstressed portion is in the non-capitalized portion of the word.]

So, where does the word feet come into play? Since each line of verse is being measured, it is only logical that it be measured through a recognizable measuring tool, the foot, which was used to measure distance. A mile was considered to be about a thousand paces, each pace being a stride of two steps. Therefore, a mile (short for mille passuum) stretched for about five thousand feet and was determined to be and measured as a Roman mile. Through the ages, the word foot became the measure of one of the kinds of labels assigned to a poetic unit. There are six that are in common use although there are others that I won’t even address.

Multi-syllable words will have an assigned stress to any one or more of the syllables in that word. That’s the way the alphabetic languages are constructed. The only question at hand is determining which syllables get the stress and which ones don’t. Look at the patterns that are possible. Two-syllable words can be stressed/unstressed, unstressed/stressed, both stressed, or in context, both unstressed. Or use the terms long/short to represent stressed/unstressed if that is more understandable. Whatever system that is contrived, make it consistent and easily recognizable. If its line/dot, string bean/pea, or banana/grape, it doesn’t matter. Something shows a stressed (long) syllable and something else indicates an unstressed (short) syllable. Make it viable for you. Nothing is etched in stone.

The names of the patterns are already firmly established by the powers that be. They are as follows:

The IAMB is the pattern that has a short syllable followed by a long syllable, or a stressed followed by an unstressed one. The following words have a naturally iambic pattern. Each one would comprise one (1) iambic foot in poetry. become, adult, remark, behave, assault, impart, detract, involve, suppress

The TROCHEE is the pattern that is the reverse of the IAMB; it has a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. It can also be considered long/short. These words have a naturally trochaic pattern. Each one of these forms a single trochaic foot. beaver, eager, apple, preface, forward, aspect, mindful, cherish

The DACTYL is a pleasant form that applies to three-syllable words with a pattern of stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones. Words that fit this pattern follow. Each one constitutes one (1) dactylic foot in poetic meter. uniform, pleasantry, interview, playfulness, tearfully, happiness, arrogant

The ANAPEST is the converse form of the dactyl. It has the pattern of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed one. Words that fit this pattern include the following one. Each one could be called in poetry an anapestic foot. intervene, seventeen, appliqué, incomplete, fiancé or fiancée, interrupt, understand

Since the occurrence of this pattern is relatively rare, it is best portrayed in the commonly known composition known as “The Night Before Christmas” throughout which the pattern becomes musically obvious.

“Twas the NIGHT before CHRISTmas when ALL through the HOUSE

not a CREAture was STIRring, not Even a MOUSE…

Note the pattern of stressed (non-caps) and stressed syllables characterized by CAPS.

The SPONDEE has its own relegated list of words that fit its pattern, but it is used mostly for transition or variation of effect within the line of verse. Its pattern is two consecutive long syllables. These patterns are in words like the following ones and are called spondaic. aircraft, deadlock, break-through, photo, jump-shot

The PYRRHUS or DIBRACH consists of only two (2) short syllables and is used for transition to other measures. Since all words by themselves have some accent, the elimination of the stress comes in context with other words within a single line.

To determine what pattern a particular line of poetry has, simply count the number of measures ( the poetic feet) in the line. Whichever one has the majority is the name of that line. One line can be IAMBIC and another DACTYLLIC or there may be three of one and two of another. The majority rules and always wins.

The final part of the measurement of poetic lines is to determine how many units of metrical feet there are in a line. The Greeks have the words for this. They gave us the word for measure, which is meter. They have also given the terms to describe the numbers of feet per line. These are monometer, dimeter, trimester, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, heptameter, octameter, nonameter and decameter.

Putting it all together results in an exact description of a line of poetry as it is scanned to determine its measure in number and kinds of metrical feet.

Thomas Herrick has one of the only well-known instances of iambic monometer. Here it is in its entirety, “Upon His Departure Hence.”

Thus I

Passe by,

And die:

As One,


And gon:

I’m made

A shade,

And laid

I’the grave,

There have

My Cave,

Where tell

I dwell,


“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas… ” is clearly an anapestic tetrameter having four anapest measures per line.

Poe’s “The Raven” is comprised of trochaic octameter having eight (8) trochees per line.

For you to compose and create, have your missive in mind, carefully select the words, put them together as if in a puzzle, and maneuver them to freely form what sounds to you the musical beat of your message, a symphony echoing from your mind, heart, and soul. There you have it. That is all you need to know about metrical feet and poetic measures.

Source by Larry Lynn

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Abhishek Raj

Portfolio site with words written from the back days and still going on.

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