Trochees and Iambs and Dactyls and Meters and Lines? Oh My! What are all these strange terms, and what do they have to do with reading and enjoying traditional poetry written in English? Each of these terms describes a characteristic of traditional “accentual-syllabic” poetry—that is, the kind of poems that have standardized line lengths, patterns of rhythms that recur, and often, patterns of rhymes.
All of these structures, things like Iambs or Dactyls, recurring line lengths, or rhyme patters give a poem particular kinds of sounds and rhythms. They also connect one poem to a long line of other poems that have been written in the same traditional forms. Knowing a bit about rhythm, meter, and stanza forms can help alert us to the wonderful and complicated designs built into traditional poetry.
Of course, poets who write in “free verse,” without using traditional poetic building blocks, also write beautiful poetry, although the structure of each free verse poem is different. When poets write in free verse, they devise many different means of creating rhythm and sound in their poems without recourse to any of the traditional structures.
However, some poets, even today, like the challenge of composing within a format whose tight structure in and of itself can help make their ideas more beautiful. Perhaps they agree with Robert Frost, who said that “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” If we know something about the format that traditional poets are trying to stay within and to conquer, it is all the easier to appreciate what a difficult thing it is to write a fine poem.
Screencasts Explain about Syllables, Accents, and “Feet”
So let’s go! I’m doing something a little different with this post today. Since the topic is about sound, it seemed appropriate to have spoken word be part of the message today. Therefore, I packaged a lot of the content for this post into the following three short screencasts. Some topics might seem a little technical at first, but I think hearing the explanations will make them much easier to understand.
Click the links to listen to and view these short screencasts on YouTube. When you have finished them, and have learned about syllables, accents, and types of poetic feet from the screencasts, you can continue reading the post for a little more explanation of meter and stanza form in traditional poetry.
Part 1: Syllables and Accents in Traditional Poetry:
Part 2: Poetic Feet and Duple Meter in Traditional Poetry:
Part 3: Triple Feet and Substitution Feet
How to Name the Meter of a Traditional Poem
When you have learned about, or refreshed your memory, on poetic feet, you are ready to start naming the meter of traditional poems you encounter.
Traditional poetic lines can be given names according to which feet they are built with, and how many of those feet occur in each line. First, decide which poetic foot is the dominant foot used to structure a particular poem. Then count the number of feet that occur in each line.
Here is a list of meter names according to how many feet are in a line:
1 foot monometer
2 feet dimeter
3 feet trimeter
4 feet tetrameter
5 feet pentameter
6 feet hexameter
7 feet heptameter (fourteeners)
8 feet octameter
To give a name to the meter, add the type of foot to number of feet in a line, and we have the meter of a given poem:
Four Iambs in each line is Iambic tetrameter.
Five Iambs in each line is Iambic Pentameter.
Four Trochees in each line is Trochaic Tetrameter.
Good Old Iambic Pentameter
The most common meter in poetry written in English is Iambic Pentameter: 5 iambs in each line.
Here is a famous Shakespearean sonnet as an example of iambic pentameter.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Many standard forms of poetry regularly alternate numbers of feet in different lines. Emily Dickinson wrote all her poems in ballad or hymn meter, a very old type of poem that has four lines in each stanza, or section. The first and third lines of each stanza fare iambic tetrameter (4 iambic feet), and the second and fourth lines are iambic trimeter (3 iambic feet). Note, though, that she bends the rhythm somewhat by leaving off syllables in the feet at the end of line 1, 3, and 4:
Success | is coun | ted sweet |est
By those | who ne’er | succeed. |
To com |pre hend | a nec | tar
Re quires | sorest | need.
Coleridge wrote “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in this same traditional ballad meter:
The Bride |groom’s doors | are op | ened wide,|
And I | am next | of kin;|
The guests | are met, | the feast | is set:|
May’st hear | the mer | ry din.’
He holds | him with | his skin |ny hand, |
‘There was | a ship,’ | quoth he. |
‘Hold off! |unhand | me, grey-| beard loon!’|
Eft soons | his hand |dropt he. |
What is a Stanza?
A Stanza is a group of lines that work as a unit. Stanzas are roughly comparable to paragraphs in a piece of prose—they are divided sections of a poem. Some kinds of regular and traditional stanza forms are given names depending on how many lines they have:
2 lines is a couplet. Usually couplets rhyme.
3 lines is tercet. If all three lines rhyme, it is a triplet.
4 lines is a quatrain.
5 lines is a cinquain.
6 lines is a sestet.
7 lines is a septet.
8 lines is an octave
Different types of poems are defined not just by their meters but also by their Rhyme Schemes. A rhyme scheme is simply the pattern of which lines in each stanza are supposed to rhyme with each other. We can label a rhyme scheme by using letters of the alphabet to show which lines of a stanza rhyme with each other.
For instance, for poems written in regular meter, it is very common to see them written in a series of quatrains (4-line stanzas) that have one of two rhyme scheme patterns: abab cdcd or aabb ccdd. The first rhyme scheme means that in each set of four lines, the first and third lines rhyme, and the second and fourth lines rhyme. The second scheme means that in each set of four lines, the first two lines rhyme, and the second two also rhyme.
Some Common Defined Types of Poems
Through the years, different forms of poems have been defined according to the types of stanzas they have, including rhyme scheme, metrical foot used, numbers of feet in the line, and how many lines in each stanza. Poets often study the rules and definitions of a form and write according to the rules, staying within the pattern but trying to see what unique effects and meanings they can achieve while still staying within a given form. Here are the names of some common kinds of poems:
Consists of 14 lines in iambic pentameter. Shakespearean sonnets have the rhyme scheme (pattern): ababcdcdefefgg. The rhyme scheme helps organize the poem into four quatrains and a couplet, which is what the last two rhyming lines are called.
Petrarchan or Italian Sonnets have this rhyme scheme: abbaabbacdecde (or the last 6 lines may be cdcdcd or cdccdc). This form is harder to write than the Shakespearean form because more words must rhyme. Example: Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”
Consists of iambic pentameter lines with no rhymes. It is used in long epics or dramas like Shakespeare plays. It is also common for a poet to finish a long blank verse stanza with a rhyming couplet (2 lines together that rhyme). Example: Paradise Lost
Consists of five tercets (3-line stanzas), in which the first and last lines of the first stanza alternately appear as the last lines of the subsequent stanzas, with a final quatrain repeating both lines together as the last two lines. The rhyme scheme is aba aba aba aba abaa, usually in iambic pentameter. Example: Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
Time to Relax and Listen to Some Great Poetry
Whew! Was that a lot of information? About time I offer that glass of iced tea for everyone to take a break!
If you didn’t pick up everything at once, that’s OK. Just start exploring some traditional poems and see if you can find any of the structures you remember. Then come back to this post to pick up some more. The main thing is to tune our ears to hear and enjoy the beautiful or stirring sounds and rhythms of great traditional poetry. If knowing a bit about poetic feet or stanza forms can prick up our ears, that’s reason enough to take a quick look at some of these technical-sounding terms.
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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.