Meter (British English spelling: metre) describes the linguistic sound patterns of verse. In simpler terms, meter is what gives poetry its uniquely rhytmical, poetic sound. A poem is metered (sometimes also called "measured") if its sounds fall into a regular pattern when read aloud. The means by which these sound-patterns are made differ from language to language and culture to culture. For instance, in English poetry, it is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables which creates the meter; while in Latin, the meter is formed by a pattern of long and short vowels. Whatever the variation from language to language, almost all poetry written before the twentieth century was written in some form of meter, and even many examples of free verse fall into a looser form of rhythm that could be classified as a kind of meter.
In the literature of the West, the presence of meter, along with rhyme, is what fundamentally distinguishes verse from prose. Although meter fell out of fashion for some time during the early twentieth century, it has, within recent decades, re-emerged once again as one of the cornerstones of poetic style.
The units of poetic meter, like rhyme, vary from language to language and between poetic traditions. In European languages, they generally involve arrangements of syllables into repeated patterns called feet within a line. In English meter, a poetic foot consists of a set number of stressed and unstressed syllables. Any given meter has two fundamental characteristics: the number of feet per line, and the type of foot used. For instance, the most common type of foot in English poetry, the iamb, consists of one unstressed and one stressed syllable, in that order. This line from Robert Frost is made up of four iambs:
- Whose woods these are I think I know...
A line such as the above would be called iambic tetrameter, because there are four iambs for each line. Iambic pentameter, an iambic meter with five iambs per line, is perhaps the most famous and versatile meter in the English language. However, other types of meter are possible in English, as in this line:
- Hickory-dickory dockery...
Each stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed syllables: this type of foot is called a dactyl, and is common in humorous verse in English. Dactylic meters are also common in more serious poems in the ancient languages such as Greek and Latin.
Other languages use different linguistic patterns to create meter, but the fundamentals are essentially the same. In Latin verse, for instance, syllable lengths, not syllable stresses, are the component parts of meter. Old English poetry used alliterative verse, a metrical pattern involving varied numbers of syllables but a fixed number of stresses sharing the same initial consonants in each line. Meters in English verse, and in the classical Western poetic tradition on which it is founded, are named by the characteristic foot and the number of feet per line. Thus, for example, blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter: a meter composed of five feet per line in which the kind of feet called iambs predominates.
- iamb: A foot made up of one unstressed and one stressed syllable, in that order.
- trochee: A foot made up of one stressed and one unstressed syllable, in that order.
- spondee: A foot made up of two stressed syllables.
- dactyl: A foot made up of one stressed and two unstressed syllables, in that order.
- anapest: A foot made up of two unstressed and one stressed syllable, in that order.
- caesura: (literally, a cut or cutting) refers to a particular kind of break within a poetic line. In Latin and Greek meter, caesura refers to an actual pause within the line. In English poetry, a caesura more often refers to a sense of a breakage within a line. Caesurae play a particularly important role in Old English poetry, where the number of caesurae per line is a fundamental component of meter.
- Inversion: when a foot of poetry is reversed or otherwise does not obey the general meter of a poem.
- Headless: a meter where the first foot is missing its first syllable.
Meter in various languages
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 as either "long" syllables or "short" syllables. 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 meter.
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 moras. A long syllable contains either a long vowel, a diphthong, or a short vowel followed by two or more consonants.
The most important Classical meter is the dactylic hexameter, the meter of Homer and Virgil. As the name implies, this form uses verses of six feet per line. The first four feet are always dactyls, but can be spondees. The fifth foot is almost always a dactyl. The sixth foot is either a spondee or a trochee. 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 Æneid is a typical line of dactylic hexameter:
- Ármă vĭrūmquě cănō, // Trōiǽ quī prímŭs ăb óris
- ("I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy.")
The first and second feet are dactyls; their vowels are grammatically short, but long in poetry because both are followed by two consonants. The third and fourth feet are spondees, with two long vowels, one on either side of the caesura. The fifth foot is a dactyl, as it must be, with the ictus this time falling on a grammatically long vowel. The final foot is a spondee with two grammatically long vowels.
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.
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. 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, 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:
- Vérgĭlĭūm vīdī // tāntúm, něc ămāră Tĭbúllŏ
- Témpŭs ămī cĭtĭáe // fātă dĕdḗrĕ mĕáe.
- ("I only saw Vergil, greedy Fate gave Tibullus no time for me.")
The Greeks and Romans also used a number of lyric meters, which were typically used for shorter poems than elegiacs or hexameter. One important line was called the hendecasyllabic, a line of eleven syllables. This meter 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 a translation of Sappho 31):
- Ille mi par esse deo videtur;
- ille, si fas est, superare divos,
- qui sedens adversus identidem te
- spectat et audit. . .
- ("He seems to me to be like a god; if it is permitted, he seems above the gods, he who sitting across from you gazes at you and listens to you.")
The Sapphic stanza was imitated in English by Algernon 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. . .
Most English meter is classified according to the same system as Classical meter 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 meter can be considered as a sort of back beat, against which natural speech rhythms vary expressively.
The most common feet of English verse are the iamb in two syllables and the anapest in three.
The most frequently encountered line 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 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, although it is also notable in the work of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Wallace Stevens, and other poets.
A rhymed pair of lines of iambic pentameter make a heroic couplet, a verse form which was used so often in the eighteenth century that it is now used mostly for humorous effect.
Another important meter in English is the ballad meter, also called the "common meter," 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 meter of most of the Border and Scots or English ballads. It is called the "common meter" in hymnody (as it is the most common of the named hymn meters used to pair lyrics with melodies) and provides the meter for a great many hymns, 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.
Another poet who put this form to use was Emily Dickinson:
- Great streets of silence led away
- To neighborhoods of pause;
- Here was no notice — no dissent —
- No universe — no laws.
In French poetry, meter is determined solely by the number of syllables in a line. The most frequently encountered meter in French is the alexandrine, composed of twelve syllables per line. Classical French poetry also had a complex set of rules for rhymes that goes beyond how words merely sound. These are usually taken into account when describing the meter of a poem.
In Spanish poetry, meter is determined mainly by the position of the last accent in a line. Interestingly, a line whose last accent falls in the seventh syllable is invariably called an "octosyllable," regardless of whether it contains seven, eight or nine syllables.
Syllables in Spanish metrics are determined by consonant breaks, not word boundaries; thus a single syllable may span multiple words. For example, the line De armas y hombres canto consists of six syllables: "Dear" "ma" "syhom" "bres" "can" "to." Note how the vowel sounds in adjacent words combine into a single unit, as in the third syllable of the line: De armas y hombres canto.
Some common meters in Spanish verse are:
- Septenary: A line with the last accent on the sixth syllable.
- Octosyllable: A line with its last accent on the seventh syllable. This meter is commonly used in romances, narrative poems similar to English ballads, and in most proverbs.
- Hendecasyllable: A line with its last accent in the tenth and accents either in the sixth, or the fourth and the eighth. This meter plays a similar role to pentameter in English verse. It is commonly used in sonnets, among other things.
- Alexandrines: A line consisting of two heptasyllables.
In Italian poetry, meter is determined solely by the position of the last accent in a line. Moreover, when a word ends with a vowel and the next one starts with a vowel, they are considered to be in the same syllable: so Gli anni e i giorni consists of only four syllables ("Gli an" "ni e i" "gior" "ni"). Because of the mostly trochaic nature of the Italian language, verses with an even number of syllables are far easier to compose.
Some common meters in Italian verse are:
- Septenary: A line whose last stressed syllable is the sixth one.
- Octosyllable: A line whose last accent falls on the seventh syllable. More often than not, the secondary accents fall on the first, third and fifth syllable, especially in nursery rhymes for which this meter is particularly well-suited.
- Hendecasyllable: A line whose last accent falls on the tenth syllable. It therefore usually consists of eleven syllables; there are various kinds of possible accentuations. It is used in sonnets, in ottava rima, and in many other works. The Divine Comedy, in particular, is composed entirely of hendecasyllables.
- However, some poets disagree on the number and types of meters in English. For example, Robert Wallace, in his 1993 essay 'Meter in English (essay)' asserts that there is only one meter in English: Accentual-Syllabic. The essay is reprinted in Meter in English, A Critical Engagement (University of Arkansas Press, 1996, ISBN 1-55728-444-X).
- On the other hand, Paul Fussell argues that there are four types of meter extant in English: accentual, accentual-syllabic, quantitative, and alliterative. see Paul Fussel, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (McGraw Hill, 1969, ISBN 0-07-553606-4).
- Charles O. Hartman writes that meters based on syllable-length "continue to resist importation in English." Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (Northwestern University Press, 1980, ISBN 0-8101-1316-3), 34.
- Fussel, Paul. Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. McGraw Hill, 1969. ISBN ISBN 0-07-553606-4
- Hartman, Charles O. Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody. Northwestern University Press, 1980. ISBN 0-8101-1316-3
- Wallace, Robert. Meter in English, A Critical Engagement. University of Arkansas Press, 1996. ISBN 1-55728-444-X
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