Feet and Meter in Poetry

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Today, we’re continuing our look at writing poetry with a review of a couple of the basic elements of English poetry. Of course, there are a wide variety of forms and conventions in English poetry—from the Anacreontics to the villanelle—but a handful of elements are almost always present, such as the line and the foot.

The line and the foot are two organizational principles in English poetry. The line is a collection of metrical units known as “feet” and each foot is a grouping of stress and unstressed syllables organized in a repeating pattern. For example, consider the first line from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets:

Devouring time, blunt thou the lion’s paw.

As we learned last time, this line can be divided into a series of stressed and unstressed syllables:

Devouring time, blunt thou the lion’s paw.

Each foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, a type of foot called an “iamb”. The iamb is one of the most common of metrical feet, but there are others, including:

– Trochee: a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.

– Spondee: two unstressed syllables.

– Anapest: two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.

– Dactyl: a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllable.

The number of feet in a line determines the type of meter. The line from Shakespeare’s sonnet has five iambic feet, so it would be the most common metrical form: iambic pentameter. The types of meter can be broken down as:

– Monometer: one foot.

– Dimeter: two feet.

– Trimeter: three feet.

– Tetrameter: four feet.

– Pentameter: five feet.

– Hexameter: six feet.

– Heptameter: seven feet.

– Octometer: eight feet.

And so on. The most common types in poetry are tetrameter, pentameter, and hexameter, but there are plenty of famous poems and poets that work with other types of meter.

Different metrical lines provide different effects and a good poet trains themselves to know what tool is useful for what job. Iambic pentameter is closest to natural speech:

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound

While something like trochaic tetrameter is more lyrical and has an unnatural quality:

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,

in the forests of the night

The easiest way to learn the difference is to read a lot of poetry and experiment with different forms of meter. How does a poem sound in iambic tetrameter? Dactylic hexameter? By paying attention to the metrical structure, you’ll be better equipped to express emotion and feeling through the structure of the poem as well as the content.

That’s it for lines and feet. Next time, will be the final day of our look at poetry, where we’ll be practicing some simple tricks and techniques for composing your own poetry. Until then, stay safe and keep writing!

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