In poetry, metre (Commonwealth spelling) or meter (American spelling; see spelling differences) is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order.
The study and the actual use of metres and forms of versification are both known as prosody. (Within linguistics, “prosody” is used in a more general sense that includes not only poetic metre but also the rhythmic aspects of prose, whether formal or informal, that vary from language to language, and sometimes between poetic traditions.)
Qualitative versus quantitative metre:
The metre of most poetry of the Western world and elsewhere is based on patterns of syllables of particular types. The familiar type of metre in English-language poetry is called qualitative metre, with stressed syllables coming at regular intervals (e.g. in iambic pentameters, usually every even-numbered syllable). Many Romance languages use a scheme that is somewhat similar but where the position of only one particular stressed syllable (e.g. the last) needs to be fixed. The metre of the old Germanic poetry of languages such as Old Norse and Old English was radically different, but was still based on stress patterns.
Some classical languages, in contrast, used a different scheme known as quantitative metre, where patterns were based on syllable weight rather than stress. In the dactylic hexameters of Classical Latin and Classical Greek, for example, each of the six feet making up the line was either a dactyl (long-short-short) or a spondee (long-long): a “long syllable” was literally one that took longer to pronounce than a short syllable: specifically, a syllable consisting of a long vowel or diphthong or followed by two consonants. The stress pattern of the words made no difference to the metre. A number of other ancient languages also used quantitative metre, such as Sanskrit, Persian, Old Church Slavonic and Classical Arabic (but not Biblical Hebrew).
Finally, non-stressed languages that have little or no differentiation of syllable length, such as French or Chinese, base their verses on the number of syllables only. The most common form in French is the Alexandrin, with twelve syllables a verse, and in classical Chinese five characters, and thus five syllables. But since each Chinese character is pronounced using one syllable in a certain tone, classical Chinese poetry also had more strictly defined rules, such as thematic parallelism or tonal antithesis between lines.
In many Western classical poetic traditions, the metre of a verse can be described as a sequence of feet, each foot being a specific sequence of syllable types – such as relatively unstressed/stressed (the norm for English poetry) or long/short (as in most classical Latin and Greek poetry).
Iambic pentameter, a common metre in English poetry, is based on a sequence of five iambic feet or iambs, each consisting of a relatively unstressed syllable (here represented with “˘” above the syllable) followed by a relatively stressed one (here represented with “/” above the syllable) – “da-DUM” = “˘ /”:
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
This approach to analyzing and classifying metres originates from Ancient Greek tragedians and poets such as Homer, Pindar, Hesiod, and Sappho.
However some metres have an overall rhythmic pattern to the line that cannot easily be described using feet. This occurs in Sanskrit poetry; see Vedic metre and Sanskrit metre. It also occurs in some Western metres, such as the hendecasyllable favoured by Catullus and Martial, which can be described as:
x x — ∪ ∪ — ∪ — ∪ — —
(where “—” = long, “∪” = short, and “x x” can be realized as “— ∪” or “— —” or “∪ —”)
|iamb (or iambus or jambus)|
|trochee, choree (or choreus)|
If the line has only one foot, it is called a monometer; two feet, dimeter; three is trimeter; four is tetrameter; five is pentameter; six is hexameter, seven is heptameter and eight is octameter. For example, if the feet are iambs, and if there are five feet to a line, then it is called an iambic pentameter. If the feet are primarily dactyls and there are six to a line, then it is a dactylic hexameter.
Sometimes a natural pause occurs in the middle of a line rather than at a line-break. This is a caesura (cut). A good example is from The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare; the caesurae are indicated by ‘/’:
It is for you we speak, / not for ourselves:
You are abused / and by some putter-on
That will be damn’d for’t; / would I knew the villain,
I would land-damn him. / Be she honour-flaw’d,
I have three daughters; / the eldest is eleven
In Latin and Greek poetry, a caesura is a break within a foot caused by the end of a word.
Each line of traditional Germanic alliterative verse is divided into two half-lines by a caesura. This can be seen in Piers Plowman:
A fair feeld ful of folk / fond I ther bitwene—
Of alle manere of men / the meene and the riche,
Werchynge and wandrynge / as the world asketh.
Somme putten hem to the plough / pleiden ful selde,
In settynge and sowynge / swonken ful harde,
And wonnen that thise wastours / with glotonye destruyeth.
By contrast with caesura, enjambment is incomplete syntax at the end of a line; the meaning runs over from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation. Also from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale:
I am not prone to weeping, as our s-e-x
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown.
Poems with a well-defined overall metric pattern often have a few lines that violate that pattern. A common variation is the inversion of a foot, which turns an iamb (“da-DUM”) into a trochee (“DUM-da”). A second variation is a headless verse, which lacks the first syllable of the first foot. A third variation is catalexis, where the end of a line is shortened by a foot, or two or part thereof – an example of this is at the end of each verse in Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci”:
And on thy cheeks a fading rose (4 feet)
Fast withereth too (2 feet)
Most English metre is classified according to the same system as Classical metre with an important difference. English is an accentual language, and therefore beats and offbeats (stressed and unstressed syllables) take the place of the long and short syllables of classical systems. In most English verse, the metre can be considered as a sort of back beat, against which natural speech rhythms vary expressively. The most common characteristic feet of English verse are the iamb in two syllables and the anapest in three. (See Foot (prosody) for a complete list of the metrical feet and their names.)
The number of metrical systems in English is not agreed upon. The four major types are: accentual verse, accentual-syllabic verse, syllabic verse and quantitative verse. The alliterative verse of Old English could also be added to this list, or included as a special type of accentual verse. Accentual verse focuses on the number of stresses in a line, while ignoring the number of offbeats and syllables; accentual-syllabic verse focuses on regulating both the number of stresses and the total number of syllables in a line; syllabic verse only counts the number of syllables in a line; quantitative verse regulates the patterns of long and short syllables (this sort of verse is often considered alien to English). The use of foreign metres in English is all but exceptional.
Frequently used metres:
The most frequently encountered metre of English verse is the iambic pentameter, in which the metrical norm is five iambic feet per line, though metrical substitution is common and rhythmic variations are practically inexhaustible. John Milton’s Paradise Lost, most sonnets, and much else besides in English are written in iambic pentameter. Lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter are commonly known as blank verse. Blank verse in the English language is most famously represented in the plays of William Shakespeare and the great works of Milton, though Tennyson (Ulysses, The Princess) and Wordsworth (The Prelude) also make notable use of it.
A rhymed pair of lines of iambic pentameter make a heroic couplet, a verse form which was used so often in the 18th century that it is now used mostly for humorous effect (although see Pale Fire for a non-trivial case). The most famous writers of heroic couplets are Dryden and Pope.
Another important metre in English is the ballad metre, also called the “common metre”, which is a four-line stanza, with two pairs of a line of iambic tetrameter followed by a line of iambic trimeter; the rhymes usually fall on the lines of trimeter, although in many instances the tetrameter also rhymes. This is the metre of most of the Border and Scots or English ballads. In hymnody it is called the “common metre”, as it is the most common of the named hymn metres used to pair many hymn lyrics with melodies, such as Amazing Grace:
Amazing Grace! how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
Emily Dickinson is famous for her frequent use of ballad metre:
Great streets of silence led away
To neighborhoods of pause —
Here was no notice — no dissent —
No universe — no laws.
Versification in Classical Sanskrit poetry is of three kinds.
Syllabic (akṣaravṛtta) metres depend on the number of syllables in a verse, with relative freedom in the distribution of light and heavy syllables. This style is derived from older Vedic forms. An example is the Anuṣṭubh metre found in the great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which has exactly eight syllables in each line, of which only some are specified as to length.
Syllabo-quantitative (varṇavṛtta) metres depend on syllable count, but the light-heavy patterns are fixed. An example is the Mandākrāntā metre, in which each line has 17 syllables in a fixed pattern.
Quantitative (mātrāvṛtta) metres depend on duration, where each line has a fixed number of morae, grouped in feet with usually 4 morae in each foot. An example is the Arya metre, in which each verse has four lines of 12, 18, 12, and 15 morae respectively. In each 4-mora foot there can be two long syllables, four short syllables, or one long and two short in any order.
Standard traditional works on metre are Pingala’s Chandaḥśāstra and Kedāra’s Vṛttaratnākara. The most exhaustive compilations, such as the modern ones by Patwardhan and Velankar contain over 600 metres. This is a substantially larger repertoire than in any other metrical tradition.
Greek and Latin:
The metrical “feet” in the classical languages were based on the length of time taken to pronounce each syllable, which were categorized according to their weight as either “long” syllables or “short” syllables (indicated as dum and di below). These are also called “heavy” and “light” syllables, respectively, to distinguish from long and short vowels. The foot is often compared to a musical measure and the long and short syllables to whole notes and half notes. In English poetry, feet are determined by emphasis rather than length, with stressed and unstressed syllables serving the same function as long and short syllables in classical metre.
The basic unit in Greek and Latin prosody is a mora, which is defined as a single short syllable. A long syllable is equivalent to two morae. A long syllable contains either a long vowel, a diphthong, or a short vowel followed by two or more consonants. Various rules of elision sometimes prevent a grammatical syllable from making a full syllable, and certain other lengthening and shortening rules (such as correption) can create long or short syllables in contexts where one would expect the opposite.
The most important Classical metre is the dactylic hexameter, the metre of Homer and Virgil. This form uses verses of six feet. The word dactyl comes from the Greek word daktylos meaning finger, since there is one long part followed by two short stretches. The first four feet are dactyls (daa-duh-duh), but can be spondees (daa-daa). The fifth foot is almost always a dactyl. The sixth foot is either a spondee or a trochee (daa-duh). The initial syllable of either foot is called the ictus, the basic “beat” of the verse. There is usually a caesura after the ictus of the third foot. The opening line of the Aeneid is a typical line of dactylic hexameter:
Armă vĭ | rumquĕ că | nō, Troi | ae quī | prīmŭs ăb | ōrīs
(“I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy…”)
In this example, the first and second feet are dactyls; their first syllables, “Ar” and “rum” respectively, contain short vowels, but count as long because the vowels are both followed by two consonants. The third and fourth feet are spondees, the first of which is divided by the main caesura of the verse. The fifth foot is a dactyl, as is nearly always the case. The final foot is a spondee.
The dactylic hexameter was imitated in English by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem Evangeline:
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of old, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Notice how the first line:
This is the | for-est pri | me-val. The | mur-muring | pines and the | hem-locks
Follows this pattern:
dum diddy | dum diddy | dum diddy | dum diddy | dum diddy | dum dum
Also important in Greek and Latin poetry is the dactylic pentameter. This was a line of verse, made up of two equal parts, each of which contains two dactyls followed by a long syllable, which counts as a half foot. In this way, the number of feet amounts to five in total. Spondees can take the place of the dactyls in the first half, but never in the second. The long syllable at the close of the first half of the verse always ends a word, giving rise to a caesura.
Dactylic pentameter is never used in isolation. Rather, a line of dactylic pentameter follows a line of dactylic hexameter in the elegiac distich or elegiac couplet, a form of verse that was used for the composition of elegies and other tragic and solemn verse in the Greek and Latin world, as well as love poetry that was sometimes light and cheerful. An example from Ovid’s Tristia:
Vergĭlĭ | um vī | dī tan | tum, nĕc ă | māră Tĭ | bullō
Tempŭs ă | mīcĭtĭ | ae || fātă dĕ | dērĕ mĕ | ae.
(“Virgil I merely saw, and the harsh Fates gave Tibullus no time for my friendship.”)
The Greeks and Romans also used a number of lyric metres, which were typically used for shorter poems than elegiacs or hexameter. In Aeolic verse, one important line was called the hendecasyllabic, a line of eleven syllables. This metre was used most often in the Sapphic stanza, named after the Greek poet Sappho, who wrote many of her poems in the form. A hendecasyllabic is a line with a never-varying structure: two trochees, followed by a dactyl, then two more trochees. In the Sapphic stanza, three hendecasyllabics are followed by an “Adonic” line, made up of a dactyl and a trochee. This is the form of Catullus 51 (itself an homage to Sappho 31):
Illĕ mī pār essĕ dĕō vĭdētur;
illĕ, sī fās est, sŭpĕrārĕ dīvōs,
quī sĕdēns adversŭs ĭdentĭdem tē
spectăt ĕt audit
(“He seems to me to be like a god; if it is permitted, he seems above the gods, who sitting across from you gazes at you and hears you again and again.”)
The Sapphic stanza was imitated in English by Algernon Charles Swinburne in a poem he simply called Sapphics:
Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
Saw the reluctant…