What Makes Up The Meter Of A Poem?

by Amy

Meter is the rhythmic structure of a poem, created by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line. It is a fundamental aspect of poetry that contributes to its musical quality and flow. Understanding meter is essential for both reading and writing poetry, as it shapes the way a poem sounds and feels.

Components of Meter

Stressed and Unstressed Syllables

In the context of meter, syllables are either stressed (accented) or unstressed (unaccented). A stressed syllable is pronounced with more emphasis and a higher pitch, while an unstressed syllable is spoken with less force. The arrangement of these syllables forms the foundation of a poem’s meter.

For example, in the word “poetry,” the first syllable is stressed (POE), and the remaining syllables are unstressed (e-try). Recognizing these patterns helps in identifying the meter of a poem.

Metrical Feet

Metrical feet are the building blocks of meter. A metrical foot is a unit of rhythm, consisting of a specific combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. The most common types of metrical feet include:

Iamb (Iambic): An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (e.g., “de-LIGHT”).

Trochee (Trochaic): A stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (e.g., “TIG-er”).

Anapest (Anapestic): Two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (e.g., “in-ter-VENE”).

Dactyl (Dactylic): A stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (e.g., “BEAU-ti-ful”).

Spondee (Spondaic): Two stressed syllables (e.g., “FOOT-BALL”).

These metrical feet combine in various ways to create the overall meter of a poem.

Types of Meter

Common Meters

Certain meters are more commonly used in poetry, each creating a distinct rhythm:

Iambic Pentameter: This is perhaps the most famous meter, especially in English poetry. It consists of five iambs per line (e.g., William Shakespeare’s sonnets). Each line has ten syllables with alternating unstressed and stressed syllables:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Trochaic Tetrameter: This meter consists of four trochees per line, creating a rhythm that starts with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one:

“Tyger Tyger, burning bright” (William Blake).

Anapestic Tetrameter: This meter has four anapests per line, resulting in a lighter, more galloping rhythm:

“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house” (Clement Clarke Moore).

Dactylic Hexameter: Often used in classical epic poetry, this meter consists of six dactyls per line:

“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow).

Specific Examples

Iambic Pentameter

William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18″ provides a classic example of iambic pentameter:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

Trochaic Tetrameter

In William Blake’s “The Tyger,” trochaic tetrameter creates a strong, driving rhythm:

“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night.”

Anapestic Tetrameter

Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is an example of anapestic tetrameter:

“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

Role of Meter in Poetry

Rhythmic Structure

Meter gives a poem its rhythmic structure, much like the beat in a piece of music. It provides a predictable pattern that can be soothing, exciting, or meditative. The choice of meter can greatly affect the reading experience and the poem’s overall impact.

Emotional and Expressive Impact

Different meters evoke different emotions and atmospheres. For instance, the steady rhythm of iambic pentameter often lends itself to formal, serious, or reflective subjects, while the lilting pace of anapestic meter can create a sense of lightness or whimsy. Trochaic meter, with its initial stress, can convey urgency or intensity.

Historical and Cultural Significance

Meter has evolved over literary history, reflecting cultural shifts and artistic trends. In classical Greek and Latin poetry, dactylic hexameter was the standard for epic tales. During the Renaissance, English poets like Shakespeare popularized iambic pentameter. Understanding these historical contexts can deepen appreciation for how meter shapes and is shaped by cultural moments.

See also: What Poem Is Langston Hughes Most Famous For?

Analytical Tools


Scansion is the method of analyzing a poem’s meter by marking the stressed and unstressed syllables. This process involves dividing lines into metrical feet and identifying the pattern. Scansion helps readers see the structure and rhythm of a poem, making it easier to understand and appreciate.

Reading and Interpretation

Recognizing and interpreting meter enhances the reading experience. It allows readers to appreciate the poet’s technical skill and how the meter contributes to the poem’s meaning and emotional impact. For instance, the slow, deliberate rhythm of a poem in dactylic hexameter can underscore themes of grandeur and heroism, while the quick pace of anapestic meter might highlight joy or playfulness.


Understanding the meter of a poem is crucial for both readers and writers of poetry. Meter provides the rhythmic structure that gives poetry its musicality and emotional resonance. By examining stressed and unstressed syllables, identifying metrical feet, and exploring common meters, readers can gain deeper insights into a poem’s form and function. Additionally, tools like scansion can help demystify meter, making it accessible and enjoyable for everyone. Appreciating the role of meter in poetry not only enhances our understanding of individual poems but also connects us to the broader historical and cultural contexts of literary traditions.

FAQs about Poetic Meter

1. What Determines the Metre of a Poem?

The meter of a poem is determined by the pattern of stressed (accented) and unstressed (unaccented) syllables in each line. This rhythmic structure is created by repeating units called metrical feet. Each type of metrical foot consists of a specific combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. The arrangement of these feet in a line, and the number of feet per line, define the poem’s meter.

2. What Are the 5 Meters in Poetry?

Iambic Meter: Consists of iambs, which are metrical feet with one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (e.g., “de-LIGHT”).

Trochaic Meter: Consists of trochees, which are metrical feet with one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (e.g., “TIG-er”).

Anapestic Meter: Consists of anapests, which are metrical feet with two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (e.g., “in-ter-VENE”).

Dactylic Meter: Consists of dactyls, which are metrical feet with one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (e.g., “BEAU-ti-ful”).

Spondaic Meter: Consists of spondees, which are metrical feet with two stressed syllables (e.g., “FOOT-BALL”).

3. What Is Metrical in Poetry?

Metrical in poetry refers to the aspect of a poem’s structure that relates to its meter. It encompasses the rhythmic pattern created by the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables into metrical feet. This pattern gives the poem its distinct rhythm and musicality. Poems that adhere to a regular metrical pattern are considered metrical, as opposed to free verse, which does not follow a consistent meter.

4. How to Write a Common Meter Poem?

Writing a common meter poem involves following a specific rhythmic pattern. Common meter, also known as ballad meter, consists of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (four iambs per line) and iambic trimeter (three iambs per line). Here’s how to write a common meter poem:

Choose a Theme or Subject: Decide what your poem will be about. Common meter is often used in hymns and ballads, so it suits a wide range of themes.

Set Up the Structure: Plan your poem with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. This means your first and third lines should have eight syllables (four iambs), and your second and fourth lines should have six syllables (three iambs).

Write in Iambic Meter: Each line should follow an unstressed-stressed syllable pattern (iamb). For example:

Line 1 (iambic tetrameter): “The sun sets in the westward sky”

Line 2 (iambic trimeter): “As shadows start to grow”

Maintain the Rhythm: Ensure that each line adheres to the iambic pattern. Read your lines aloud to check the rhythm and make adjustments as needed.

Revise and Refine: Edit your poem for clarity, coherence, and adherence to the meter. Ensure that the meter enhances the poem’s meaning and musicality.

By following these steps, you can create a poem in common meter that is rhythmic and engaging.

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