Poetic Feet and Meter and Their Usage

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Are you a poem lover or love to write poems? Then you must read this article. There are a lot of parts in a poem, and this article will discuss an important part, that is a poetic foot. It is important to understand the feet and their use in the poem.

Poetic feet are created by the number of syllables in a foot, in which a stressed and an unstressed syllable are used variably. The types of the foot are identified by the difference in the sequence and the number of stressed and unstressed syllables.

What is meter in poetry

A poetic meter contains a number of poetic feet in each line, and are named by using Greek prefixes based on which we can know the number of feet used in a line of the poem.

A poetry meter contains two parts. First part is a poetic foot in which the syllables are in unaccented or unstressed and accented or a stressed sequence. Meter is the second part of the poetic meter and refers to the length of the line in the poem. Depending on the number of poetic feet in a meter, there are eight types of line length. They are as shown below.

Monometer – This refers to a line which is consisted of one foot.

Dimeter – This refers to the line containing two poetic feet.

Trimeter – This type of line contains three feet.

Tetrameter – This type of line contains four feet.

Pentameter – A line containing five iambic feet is called a pentameter.

Hexameter – This meter refers to a line containing six feet.

Heptameter – This refers to the line containing seven feet.

Octameter – This type of line contains eight feet.

According to the meter poetry definition, a meter contains various poetic feet with different syllabic sequences to create the lines of a poem.

 Primary feet in the poetry

Two most popular and dominantly used poetic feet are iamb and trochee and are consisted of just two syllables. The other two commonly used poetic feet are dactyl and anapest which uses three syllables. These two are often used with the other two feet to make a meaningful poem with easy to complex lines depending on the subject. Understanding them will also help you understand what is a line in a poem since they make a line meaningful.

We have discussed each of these four primary feet in detail below.

Iamb

An iamb is a metrical foot that is also called iambus and is used in various poem types. When a sequence of a short syllable and a long syllable, as in delay, is used, it is referred to as a foot of the quantitative meter of prosody. This metrical foot is composed of an unstressed and a stressed syllable. Iamb was adopted as a terminology in the accentual-syllabic verse description in English.

The accentual-syllabic verse has a rhythmic pattern of

daDUM

which is similar to the heartbeat of human and denoted by using the symbols / and x as a system of scansion or representing the metrical pattern graphically, as

x/

An example of rhythm created using this foot is the opening line of the Sonnet 12 written by William Shakespeare mentioned below.

When I do count the clock that tells the time

Another example iambic meter can be a line from the poem “Ulysses” created by Alfred Tennyson, as below.

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

One more example would be a line, mentioned below, from the poem “To Autumn” created by John Keats, an English romantic poet.

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

The lines mentioned above from different poems are good examples of iambic pentameter. As per the Iambic pentameter definition, this poetic meter which uses iambic feet five times in a line. The use of Iambic pentameter is most common and popular in English and German poetry, and it contains 5 iambic feet in a sequence, which can be written as below.

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

Trochee

This metrical foot is the reverse of an iambic foot and contains a long (also called stressed) syllable followed a short (also called unstressed) syllable. It is also called to as “choree”. In Latin or Greek, it is referred to as a metrical foot consisting of a heavy syllable that is followed by a light syllable or referred to as long and short syllables instead of accented and unaccented. The trochee is not used much in the Latin poetry.

The term Trochee originally referred as a French term trochée, which is also taken from the Latin word trochaeus. This word means running as according to an ancient tradition, trochaic rhythm is faster than an iambic rhythm and It is used to dramatize the lively situations.

The rhythmic pattern of a trochee is;

DAdum

It has an emphasis in the beginning and it is exactly opposite to the iambic foot.

Some of the examples of meters using trochee in popular poems are as below.

One of the great works of William Shakespeare contains Trochaic meter as mentioned below.

Double, double, toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Another example of this foot can be seen in the lines of “The Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The meter in these lines was taken from an epic poem Kalevala compiled by Elias Lönnrot. They are mostly written in trochees with some instances of other feet like iamb, spondee, and pyrrhic. See below.

Should you ask me, whence these stories?

Whence these legends and traditions,

With the odours of the forest,

With the dew and damp of meadows,

While these part of the poem mostly contains the trochee foot, some are other foot also, for example,  “and tra-” in the second line, “of the” in the third line and “with the” in the third and fourth lines are pyrrhic foot. However, this poem contains the trochee foot as the dominant foot throughout all the lines.

Since trochaic meter in poetry is more simple and easy, it is used in many rhymes written for children. An example of such rhymes is as below.

Peter, Peter pumpkin-eater

Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.

It can also be seen as dominant in many Latin poems and was very popular in the medieval period. This is because the Medieval Latin does not have stress in the final syllable, this language is very comfortable with trochaic verse. The trochaic meter is also very popular Finnish, Polish and Czech poetry.

Dactyl

This is one of the four primary metrical foot that is consisted of trisyllables (Metrical pattern with three syllables), i.e. a long syllable and two short syllables as per syllable weight. It is often used in Greek or Latin in quantitative verse. Not different to this, when referred to in the English language poetry, it is called a stressed syllable which is followed by two unstressed syllables in accentual verse.

The English word Poetry is itself a dactyl (i.e. Po-e-try) as it contains a stressed syllable “Po” that is followed by two unstressed syllables i.e. “e” and “try”.

Same way, Greek word δάκτυλος and Latin word dactylus are also dactyls. An easy mnemonic, i.e. human finger, is used to remember the pattern of a dactyl foot. It contains a long bone beginning at the knuckle that is followed by two shorter bones. This is because the long-short-short pattern matches the relative lengths of the bones in the human finger.

The pattern in a dactyl foot is as below.

DUMDaDa

This pattern sounds heavy and more suitable for the poems about conquest, war, loss and other such subjects instead of light-hearted subjects. Due to this, there are very few poems written using this foot. Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Tennyson and “Evangeline” by Longfellow are two of the most popular and well-known poems in which these poets have matched the weighty dactyl rhythm with the heavy and grave subject matters respectively i.e. a fight to the death, in the poem by Tennyson, and a search for a long-lost love in the poem by Longfellow.

Below are some good examples of poetry using a dactylic meter.

See the opening lines of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1859) by Walt Whitman, the poem about the birth of his poetic voice:

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking

Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle

In the first line, there is a dactyl “Out”, followed by “cradle” which is a trochee, and then there is another dactyl “endlessly” followed by “rocking” which is a trochee.

In the second line, there are two dactyls “Out” and “mockingbird’s” followed by “throat” which is a trochee, and then there is another dactyl “musical” that is followed by “shuttle” which a trochee.

Though the poem is typical for Whitman, it is varied to a great extent and freely using the metrical feet to meter.

Another dactylic meter example is the first line in the poem Evangeline by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

This is the / forest prim- / eval. The / murmuring / pines and the / hemlocks,

The poem is in dactylic hexameter. The first line contains five dactyl feet and the sixth feet is a trochee, thus having two different parts of a poem.

The Lost Leader by Robert Browning can be taken as a great example which uses the dactylic meter as a dominant foot and creates a great verse.

Just for a handful of silver he left us

Just for a riband to stick in his coat

Note the dactyl feet taking the first three positions in both the lines.

Anapaest

This metrical pattern, used commonly in the normal poetry, contains three syllables, but the sequence is opposite to that of dactyl. There are two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable in accentual meters. In quantitative meters, it consists of two short syllables which are followed by a long syllable.

The word “anapaest” comes from the Greek ἀνάπαιστος, anápaistos, that means “struck back”. It can be said “a dactyl reversed” in a poetic context as the pattern can be seen as a reverse of the dactyl feet. A good example of anapest word is “Understand”, in which “un” and “der” are two unstressed syllables and are followed by “stand” which is a stressed syllable.

Anapest is a light rhythm, so it is very popular among the poets writing light-hearted and comic poems. Some of the examples of poems using an anapaestic meter are as below.

Some lines from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem The Triumph of Time.

I have given no man of my fruit to eat;
I trod the grapes, I have drunken the wine.

Had you eaten and drunken and found it sweet,
This wild new growth of the corn and vine,

You can see how many feet are used in these lines. Though this poem does not stick to a specific formal meter, you can find many anapaest feet patterns throughout the lines. You can see the anapaest example in the second line, i.e. “I have drunken the wine”. Since this poem contains multiple meters in the lines, it creates the complex rhythmic lines.

Below is another good example of a poem using anapaestic feet in each line.

On the fifteenth of May, in the jungle of Nool,
In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool,
He was splashing… enjoying the jungle’s great joys
When Horton the elephant heard a small noise.

These lines are from “Horton Hears a Who!”, a book by Dr. Seus. Note how the poet has used two types of meter, i.e. four anapaestic feet in each line till the third line and used an iambic foot at the beginning of the fourth line.

One more example of anapaest in “There was an Old Man with a Beard” by poet Edward Lear in which he has used one or two anapaestic feet in each line.

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!-
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.

Since an anapaest foot uses three syllables and ends with a stressed one, it makes the rhythm stronger and enables the poet to create longer lines with an internal complexity. Anapaests can have an independent role in a poem and even can be used as a substitute for an iambic verse.

We have tried to include the examples and detailed descriptions of each metrical feet in this article and hope it will be useful in understanding how a poem uses different patterns to sound different according to the types of poetry and meaning of the line and verse.