Meter in poetry refers to the regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of verse. It establishes the rhythmic structure of a poem, creating a musical quality that guides the reader through the text.
In classical poetry, meter is often highly structured, with specific patterns like iambic pentameter (ten syllables alternating between unstressed and stressed) or dactylic hexameter (six metrical feet per line). Each unit of rhythm, called a foot, can be made up of various combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables, giving rise to different meters, such as iambic, trochaic, anapestic, or dactylic.
See below for definitions of each type listed here.
Role of Meter in Verse and Free Verse Poetry
In traditional verse poetry, meter provides a stable framework, enhancing the poem’s musicality and emphasizing its themes. It contributes to the overall flow, creating a predictable pattern that aids memorization and oral recitation. On the other hand, free verse poetry deliberately rejects strict metrical patterns, allowing poets to experiment with rhythm, enjambment, and word choice. In free verse, the absence of a predetermined metrical pattern can create a sense of freedom and informality, allowing poets to focus on other poetic elements like imagery, metaphor, and other various tools. Some modern poets, however, combine elements of both structured meter and free verse, creating a nuanced rhythmic quality in their work.
Meter can often be a complex and confusing part of poetry. For our purposes in writing prompts, we often forego formal metrical requirements. At the end of the day, writing poetry should be fun, personal, and engaging. We find that strict metrical requirements often put new poets off or intimidate them from writing in certain forms, like sonnets. Do not let the confusing vocabulary and history of this aspect of poetry dissuade you from participating. Writing, ultimately, should be fun. If you are a writer who finds these terms interesting, we will provide a few of the most common versions of meter in poetry below. There are great resources out there that delve into this topic further, but here are a few good starting points.
Iambic meter is a metrical pattern in poetry consisting of lines containing iambs. An iamb is a metrical foot consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. Iambic meter is one of the most common metrical patterns in English poetry and closely resembles the natural rhythm of spoken language. It is often used in various forms, including iambic pentameter, where each line contains five iambs.
Trochaic meter is a metrical pattern characterized by lines containing trochees. A trochee is a metrical foot with one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable, the opposite of an iamb. Trochaic meter creates a distinctive rhythmic pattern and is less common in English poetry than iambic meter.
Anapestic meter is a metrical pattern in poetry consisting of lines containing anapests. An anapest is a metrical foot with two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. Anapestic meter often creates a flowing and light rhythm and is commonly used in lighthearted or humorous poetry.
Dactylic meter is a metrical pattern characterized by lines containing dactyls. A dactyl is a metrical foot with one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. Dactylic meter often has a bouncy and energetic rhythm and is frequently used in classical poetry and in some forms of ballads and hymns.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
(From William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18)
In this line, the unstressed-stressed pattern (da-DUM) of the iambic meter is evident: “Shall I / com-PARE / thee TO / a SUM- / mer’s DAY?”
“Double, double, toil and trouble,”
(From William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”)
Trochaic meter is demonstrated in this line. The stressed-unstressed pattern (DUM-da)
“DOU- / ble, DOU- / ble, / TOIL and / TROU- / ble.”