Meter in Poetry


Meter is the pattern of stressed and unstressed beats in a line of poetry. Basically, this is what we call rhythm. It is often very hard to identify rhythm, especially because poets dont always follow a set rhythm in every line. Even if you do identify a regular rhythm pattern it can be harder still to come up with a plausible effect that the poet might have been trying to create by using that pattern. As such, I tend not to write about rhythm all that much. However, I do look for the following things:

  • obvious repetitive rhythms which might suggest organisation, control and regularity
  • obvious changes in rhythm which might suggest a change in mood or a disruption
  • if the words that are stressed have anything in common / are more important than other words


The following information is, in reality, far too technical to be required at either GCSE or IB level but it can be useful to see how many different patterns of rhythm there are. The only one that is really important is the Iambic pattern, which is often used by both Shakespeare and Seamus Heaney because it is the natural rhythm of English speech. This poem, called Metrical Feet, was written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to help explain the concept to one of his children. Hardly my idea of a fun birthday present!


The shapes represent unstressed syllables while the --' represent stressed syllables:


-- -- -- --

Trochee trips from long to short;

-- -- -- --

From long to long in solemn sort

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

Slow Spondee stalks; strong foot! yet ill able

-- -- -- --

Ever to come up with Dactyl trisyllable

-- -- -- --

Iambics march from short to long; -

-- -- -- --

With a leap and a bound the swift Anapaests throng;

-- -- -- --

One syllable long, with one short at each side,

-- -- -- --

Amphibrachys hastes with a stately stride; -

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

First and last being long, middle short, Amphimacer

-- -- -- -- -- -- --

Strikes his thundring hoofs like a proud high-bred racer.




A more modern example is the following lines from the song Mosh by Eminem: note that he is writing using Anapaestic rhythm. This should be proof enough to convince even the most sceptical parents that Eminem truly is a poet. The regular march like rhythm here conjures up images of the army of people that he is singing about leading against the corrupt officials in Washington. Pay attention also to some of the words that are stressed: me I lead spark hope strength. Clearly these are some of the most significant words in these four lines.



-- -- -- --

Come along follow me as I lead through the darkness

-- -- -- -- --

As I provide just enough spark that we need to proceed
-- -- --

Carry on, give me hope, give me strength
-- -- --

Come with me and I won't steer you wrong