Varieties of English Meter

Accentual Meter
(Only the accents are measured.)

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade;
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth
Obsessing our private lives. (W. H. Auden)

Syllabic Meter
(The number of syllables per line is measured without regard to the stress of the syllables.) In this example, every line except the last contains exactly nine syllables.

Dear Son, when the warm multitudes cry
Ascend your throne majestically,
But keep in mind the waters where fish
See sceptres descending with no wish
To touch them; sit regal and erect,
But imagine the sands where a crown
Has the status of a broken-down
Sofa or mutilated statue;
Remember as bells and cannon boom
The cold deep that does not envy you
The sunburnt superficial kingdom
Where a king is an object. (W. H. Auden)

Accentual-Syllabic Meter
(Both accented and unaccented syllables are measured in terms of "feet.")

Creatures of ev'ry Kind but ours
Well comprehend their nat'ral Powers;
While We, whom Reason ought to sway,
Mistake our Talents ev'ry Day.

Quantitative Meter
(Durational rather than accentual feet are measured.)

Now in wintry delights, and long fireside meditation,
'Twixt studies and routine paying due court to the Muses,
My solace in solitude, when broken roads barricade me
Mudbound, unvisited for months with my merry children,
Grateful t'ward Providence, and heeding a slander against me
Less than a rheum, think of me today, Dear Lionel, and take
This letter as some account of Will Stone's versification. (Robert Bridges)

Free Verse
(Often strongly rhythmical but unpredictable)

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars. (Walt Whitman)


Traditional Syllable-Stress Meters


The most common "base" feet in English poetry:

Iambic, as in Adele
Anapestic, as in intervene
Trochaic, as in Della
Dactylic, as in merrily

Line names:

one foot: monometer
two feet: dimeter
three feet: trimeter
four feet: tetrameter
five feet: pentameter
six feet: hexameter
seven feet: heptameter
eight feet: octameter


Examples of Lines

iambic pentameter: When I | consi|der how | my light | is spent |
anapestic trimeter: In the mis|ty mid re|gion of Weir |
anapestic tetrameter: And he tapped | with his whip | on the shut|ters, but all |
dactylic tetrameter: laugh at the | stupid, but | cry for the | weaker one |
trochaic pentameter: lovely, | fair, and | wise and | kind to | children |

     Iambic Monometer
     Iambic Dimeter
     Iambic Trimeter
     Iambic Tetrameter
Thus I
Pass by
And die
And gone.
Most good, most fair,
Or things as rare
To call you's lost;
For all the cost
Words can bestow
So poorly show . . .
O let the solid ground
Not fail beneath my feet
Before my life has found
What some have found so sweet;
Then let come what come may,
What matter if I go mad,
I shall have had my day.
I saw a fly within a bead
Of amber cleanly burièd.
The urn was little, but the room
More rich than Cleopatra's tomb.
     Trochaic Dimeter
     Trochaic Trimeter
     Trochaic Tetrameter
Could I catch that
Nimble traitor,
Scornful Laura,
Swift-foot Laura,
Soon then would I
Seek avengement.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire
The blue deep thou wingest.
Honor, riches, marriage-blessing,
Long continuance, and increasing,
Hourly joys be still upon you!
Juno sings her blessings on you.
     Anapestic Trimeter
I am monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
     "Dactylic" Tetrameter 

After the pangs of a desperate Lover,
When day and night I have sigh'd all in vain,
Ah what a pleasure it is to discover
In her eyes pity, that causes my pain!
When with unkindness our love at a stand is,
And both have punish'd our selves with the pain,
Ah what a pleasure the touch of her hand is,
Ah what a pleasure to press it again!
When the denyal comes fainter and fainter,
And her eyes give what her tongue does deny,
Ah what a trembling I feel when I venture,
Ah what a trembling does usher my joy!
When, with a Sigh, she accords me the blessing,
And her eyes twinkle 'twixt pleasure and pain;
Ah what a joy 'tis beyond all expressing,
Ah what a joy to hear, shall we again?


Musical Verse

     The poem above by Dryden is described as "dactylic" with quotation marks because it is not strictly dactylic after all, for the final foot of each line lacks either one or both of the weak syllables that follow the stress in a true dactyl. We say that they are replaced by a pause. However, this explanation merely reveals the fallacy of using traditional foot scansion to analyze poems like this one. We would do much better using musical notation if pauses have metrical significance. There is no question that they do, of course. The time intervals between stresses are noticeably equal in poems like this one—and indeed in all meters other than iambic ones. In fact, as a buffer to separate beats, time becomes far more important than the number of weak syllables. The time intervals are of course created by weak syllables, but it is the time itself, not the counting of syllables, that we attend to in listening and composing, and it is very common for poets to substitute pauses for weak syllables. If this practice disrupts the scansion by seeming to "substitute" an iamb for an anapest (x/ for xx/) or a trochee for a dactyl (/x for /xx), no reader will object, for in fact the meter is not really anapestic or dactylic in the first place but rather musical, with equal time intervals between stresses. A reader's acceptance of a line containing such "substitutions" is evidence of this fact. The following is an example of a musical poem (four beats per line) which defies analysis into strictly regular feet of predictable numbers of strong and weak syllables.

        Parting of Morning

Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim:
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.
     (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Thus, in Dryden's "After the pangs" we don't miss the normal two weak syllables after the final stress; the pause makes up for the lack. Likewise, in Shelley's "To a Skylark," quoted above, the first four lines make very poor samples of trochaic trimeter for the same reason:

"Hail to thee, blithe spirit. / Bird thou never wert [pause]."

The truth is that these poems are written in musical meter, not in syllable-stress meter. If we are able to wring from them some apparent examples of "traditional syllable-stress meters," it is purely accidental, for except in deliberate experiments like those of Campion and Gabriel Harvey, only in iambic meters does stress matter without making time intervals a prime concern.
     Some poets clearly do care about both syllable count and time intervals, replacing weak syllables with pauses at only strictly predictable places, typically the beginning or the end of a line. Thus, Mary Wroth could have written the following stanza in her reply to Donne's "Sweetest love, I do not go / For weariness of thee":

My sweetest love, return again,
And make not too long stay:
Thus killing mirth and forcing pain,
With sorrow leading way.
No, let us not thus parted be:
For love and absence ne'r agree.

She might have omitted some of the bold-faced words while keeping others. Musical meter does so, and in fact her model, Donne's own poem, does so as well. Yet she chose to be consistent, omitting all of the initial syllables throughout her whole poem, yielding a poem that can be examined either as traditional syllable- and stress-counting verse (with one constant irregularity) or as musical verse:

Sweetest love, return again,
Make not too long stay:
Killing mirth and forcing pain,
Sorrow leading way,
Let us not thus parted be:
Love and absence ne'r agree.
But since you must needs depart,
And me hapless leave,
In your journey take my heart,
Which will not deceive.
Yours it is, to you it flies,
Joying in those lovèd eyes.
So in part we shall not part,
Though we absent be:
Time, nor place, nor greatest smart
Shall my bands make free.
Tied I am, yet think it gain:
In such knots I feel no pain.
But can I live, having lost
Chiefest part of me?
Heart is fled, and sight is crossed,
Those my fortunes be.
Yet dear heart go, soon return:
As good there as here to burn.

     The value of meter is that it provides a poet with a tool for guiding performance. Without any understanding of the metrical construction of the poem above, a reader might well read "But since you must needs depart," "But can I live, having lost," and "Yet dear heart go, soon return: / As good there as here to burn." Coming to these lines in the context of the poem as a whole, though, one finds oneself nudged toward the following performance: "But since you must needs depart," "But can I live, having lost," and "Yet dear heart go, soon return: / As good there as here to burn." Most lines of poetry would be capable of more various readings if they appeared in the context of prose, for there is never only one possible reading of any group of words.
     With this background, you should be able to interpret the following poem's metrical structure and defend it as completely metrical. It has been criticized, especially its last line. Lewis Carroll even suggests in Through the Looking-Glass that the line has too many syllables. What do you think?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Click here to learn what I think.