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Meter - Measuring the Line


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Measuring the line

Meter is the rhythmic measure of a line of verse. The emphasis being on the word measure. "Meter is so not rhythm, because rhythm is way beyond and above meter. (Metric) scansion is merely a way to begin to reveal just how the pleasing effect of sounds in speech is augmented by stress patterns.” Ikars Sarma

“Think of meter as an underlying beat, a poem's regular beat, like the beat in a piece of music. Think of the variations (the substituted feet, choice of syntax, rhyme, etc.) as the music superimposed over that beat. The meter, the beat, is there; even with substituted feet, the underlying beat is there in the backdrop.

The beat -- the regular rhythm -- must be there in metrical poems. While all poems have musicality (or should) metrical poems, unlike free verse, have regular rhythm. Free verse has rhythm, but not regular rhythm. The lines may be different lengths and line breaks, stanza breaks, natural cadences of the English language (which is primarily iambic, even if one reads prose), and other poetic devices make up the poem's musicality. Free verse does not have meter, a regular rhythm from line to line, and we don't scan it to analyze it's rhythm." Tõnis Veenpere

It was the Greeks who were the first to measure and name poetic meters and in English we still refer to the various units of measure by their Greek names. There are different measures used in poetics. The four major measures in English are Accentual Verse, Syllabic Verse, Accentual Syllabic Verse and Quantitative Verse. Here is my simple understanding of the basics of meter. I also include an index for the various meters found in poetic cultures around the world. There are many more metric terms (rarely used and rarely understood) that I do not include here.

The most popular metric line in the English language is the "iambic pentameter" line. One of the best explainations of the iambic pentameter line that I have ever read is right here at this site written by our own Tony Veenpere Iambic Pentameter.

"I would sooner write free verse as play tennis with the net down." "There are only two meters "strict and loose iambic." Robert Frost


accentual                        accentual syllabic anapest                      amphibrach                    amphimacer  basit
beit choriamb choree dactyl


dodecameter hazaj hexameter hendecameter heptameter iamb
monometer mutagarib                           nonometer octameter pentameter pyrrhic or phirach            



spondee syllabic


tetrameter tribach trimeter trochee wafir  
  • Accentual Verse measures heavy stresses without any specific pattern and sometimes measures unstressed syllables, but not always. This is folk verse, it carries the rhythm of normal speech. It might be described as written with 4 stresses or 3 stresses and 4 unstressed syllables. Podic Verse is rhymed Accentual Verse.
  • Syllabic Verse simply measures the line by number of syllables. A syllable is a unit of pronunciation uttered without interruption, It forms the whole or part of a word.

    Japanese poetry measures the line by onji which means "sound syllable" for which there is no true translation in English, therefore we are reduced to simply counting syllables as we understand them.

    The Chinese and some other Asian poetics include the measure of pitch or tone in their count. This is language specific and impossible to duplicate in English and again we are left with the syllable. Probably the accurate term for measurement, especially when emulating the Chinese forms, would be to count characters. Since most Chinese words written in characters are a single syllable. one way to equate the transition to English is to simply count syllables. Another way would be to recognize that a single syllable word in Chinese could translate into multi syllables in English and therefore converting character count to word count. I've seen it done both ways. Word count makes more sense to me.
  • Accentual Syllabic Verse measures the line by dividing it into metric feet as well as counting syllables. Accentual Syllabic measures are made up of a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. A book I have found very helpful in the understanding of meter, specifically Accentual Syllabic meter, is Rules for the Dance by Mary Oliver, 1998, ISBN 0-395-85086-x. Tony provides a wonderful explaination of how the patterns and metric measures fit together in this forum thread.
  • Quantitative Verse also measures the line by dividing it into metric feet as well as counting syllables. However, Quantitative measures are made up of a combination of long and short vowel sounds. There was a failed attempt in 16th century England to emulate Greek meters using long and short vowel sounds by the Classists. But the English ear doesn't readily recognize the long and short sounds as easily as stressed and unstressed sounds. In English, quantitative verse is sometimes difficult to discern and we transition to Accentual Syllabic by default which warps the intent a bit. Or we will often attempt to reduce to the lowest common denominator and simply count syllables, still a little warped.

    Middle Eastern poetry often uses quantitative verse as a measure but then again, it is sometimes described in syllabic terms. Like the Asian languages, Middle Eastern prosody sometimes requires measure of other factors. Heavy or light sounds can become part of the equation. Of course in English it cannot be duplicated.  It is all language specific but interesting to me how words are delivered in so many different ways.
  • Both accentual syllabic and quantitative verse use the same metric terms to indicate number of feet and syllabic combinations.

    1 metric foot = monometer
    2 metric feet = dimeter
    3 metric feet = trimeter
    4 metric feet = tetrameter
    5 metric feet = pentameter
    6 metric feet = hexameter
    7 metric feet = heptameter
    8 metric feet = octameter
    9 metric feet = nonometer
    10 metric feet = decameter
    11 metric feet = hendecameter
    12 metric feet = dodecameter

    Accentual Syllabic Patterns

    u = unstressed syllable ---S = stressed syllable
    uSu = amphibrach = for-ev-er
    SuS= amphimacer = look and see
    uuS = anapest = through the night
    Suu = dactyl = hol-i-day
    SuuS = choriamb = light in the east
    uS = iamb = to-day
    SS = spondee = 2 heavy stresses night-mare
    Su = trochee or choree = Moth-er
    uu = pyrrhic or phirach = 2 unstressed syllables = of the
    uuu = tribrach = 3 unstressed syllables
    Try an excercise verse form to flex your metric muscles.

    Quantitative Verse Patterns  To show an example of long and short sounds, would be like the long sound in book vs the short sound of buck. I know it is suptle but if you listen very carefully you can hear the longer and shorter vowel sounds.

    s = short syllable L = long syllable
    sLs = amphibrach = short syllable followed by a long syllable followed by a short syllable
    ssL = anapest = 2 short syllables followed by a long syllable
    Lss = dactyl =long syllable followed by 2 short syllables
    sL = iamb = short syllable followed by a long syllable
    LL = spondee = 2 long tresses
    Ls = trochee or choree = long syllable followed by short syllable ss = phirach = 2 short syllables
    sss = tribrach = 3 short syllables

Now that I have thoroughly confused you, here are a couple of Links with more detailed examples on meter found at Poetry Free For All?

Handy Dandy Vestpocket Guide to Iambic Pentameter by HowardW at PFFA

Normative Meter, Two-Syllable Feet and Three-Syllable Feetby Howard Miller at PFFA

~~ © ~~ Poems by Judi Van Gorder ~~

For permission to use this work you can write to Tinker1111@icloud.com

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