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What is Meter and its Types in Poetry

Introduction: Few Words about Meter

Poetry, often honored as the language of the soul, is a unique form of expression that eclipses traditional prose. Meter serves as one of the key contributors to confer the beauty and cadence to poetry. Meter, in the realm of poetry, is akin to the heartbeat that gives life to the verses. It is the systematic disposition of stressed and unstressed syllables that paints a picture with the sounds which shapes the poem's emotional impact and intellectual resonance. Meter functions as an apparatus for poetic expression, allowing poets to choreograph language with precision and artistry.

Definition: What is Meter?

Meter is a building block of a verse that serves tone, rhythm, pattern and flow of beats in a verse. Meter can be defined as

“Pattern, number and arrangement of beats in a line.”

Study of meter along with rhyme, accents, syllables, rhythm etc. is called Prosody. Number of beats in a line tells how lengthy a verse is like tetrameter, pentameter etc. and arrangement of beats in a line tells which meter is applied like iambic meter, trochee meter etc. In some poems meter is not used, in some rhyme is not used (Blank verse) and in some poems, both are not used (Free verse).

The Basic Building Block: What is Metrical Foot

The foundation of meter lies in the concept of the metrical foot, a fundamental unit composed of a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. Each foot represents a single rhythmic pulse within the poetic line, much like a beat in music. In poetry a syllable consists of a single vowel sound or a single vowel sound surrounded by one or more consonant sounds. Two syllables form a foot by combining together and two feet from a meter.

Types of Foot or Meter in Poetry (Sound wise)

Feet with two syllables are called disyllable.

  • Trochee:
    Pronounced DUH-duh, as in “ladder” Unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable.
  • Iamb:
    Pronounced duh-DUH, as in “indeed.” Stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.
  • Spondee:
    Pronounced DUH-DUH, as in “T.V”. Two stressed syllables.

Feet with three syllables are called trisyllable.

  • Dactyl:
    Pronounced DUH-duh-duh, as in “certainly.” Stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.
  • Anapest:
    Pronounced duh-duh-DUH, as in “what the heck!”. Two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. (Anapestic poetry typically divides its stressed syllables across multiple words.)
Types of Foot or Meter in Poetry (Length wise)
  • One foot = Monometer
  • Two feet = Dimeter
  • Three feet = Trimeter
  • Four feet = Tetrameter
  • Five feet = Pentameter
  • Six feet = Hexameter
  • Seven feet = Heptameter
  • Eight feet = Octameter
what is meter

what is meter

The above image shows how to count syllables.

The Rhythmic Symphony: Combination of Meters and Foot

By combining meter and feet in various patterns, poets create diverse types of meter, each imparting a unique rhythmic flavor to their poetic creations. Some of the most prominent types of meter in English poetry include:

Iambic Pentameter:

Five iambs per line, the most common meter in English poetry, often associated with a graceful, flowing rhythm. (e.g. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" – William Shakespeare). Iambic meter is a smooth, flowing in rhythm, flexible, adaptable, natural in speech pattern, suitable for expressing various tones, timeless and traditional meter in poetry. That is why it is the most commonly and widely used meter of poetry.

Trochaic Meter:

A series of trochees, often used to convey a sense of power, vigor, or briskness. (e.g., "From the land of corn and pumpkins, who in open cars come roaring," – Carl Sandburg). Trochaic meter is opposite to iambic meter and has a distinct rhythmic pattern with a strong-weak stress sequence. It creates a lively and upbeat rhythm, gives an energetic feel and lends a comic and playful tone to the poetic themes. Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem "The Raven" is an example of trochaic octameter.

Anapestic Meter:

A pattern of anapests, imparting a lighthearted, lilting rhythm, often associated with humor or nursery rhymes. (e.g., “The Destruction of Sennacherib"Lord Byron). With a weak-weak-strong stress sequence anapestic meter creates a lively and light rhythm, suitable for humorous, playful, or upbeat poetic themes. Two short syllables followed by a longer stressed syllable contributes to a bouncing or galloping feel. It is often used in narrative poetry due to its flowing and storytelling-friendly rhythm.

Dactylic Meter:

A dactylic meter is most commonly used in hexameter (six metrical feet per line), it can also be used in other forms, such as pentameter (five metrical feet per line) and trimeter (three metrical feet per line). (e.g., "In the days of old," – Alfred, Lord Tennyson). The dactylic meter has a galloping, rolling and energetic rhythm, it creates a sense of movement and momentum in poetry making it suitable for the classical hexameter used in the classical works like Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey". In tone it is lighthearted, comic and humorous, requires a high level of skill and craftsmanship and creates a wide range of effects in poetry.

Spondaic Meter:

Spondaic meter is usually used in short poems because consistently stressed-stressed pattern creates lack of variation which feels monotonous if used in extended forms of poetry. (e.g., "This is the forest primeval," – William Cullen Bryant). A series of spondees, imparts a heavy, solemn rhythm, often used to convey gravity or seriousness and creates a sense of power and intensity expressing strong emotions or moments of emphasis in poetry. It may be used strategically to draw attention to specific words or moments in a poem. Its limited use can make words, feelings or meanings stand out when employed. Poets often mix and match metrical feet to create varied and expressive rhythms within a poem. Spondaic meter can be a handy and powerful tool when used deliberately to create such variation of rhythm in poems by the poets.

How to Identify or Recognize the Meter of a Poem?

To recognize the meter of a poem, first of all we have to learn sounds: vowels are 20 and consonant sounds are 24 according to the IPA chart. For example, in cat there are two consonants [k,t] and one vowel sounds. After identifying vowel and consonant sounds in a word.

Next, we have to identify syllables in a word and total syllables in a line. A combination of a single vowel along with one or more consonants is called syllable and a single, alone vowel is also called a syllable. For example, the first line of the poem DaffodilsI won dered lone ly as a cloud” has eight syllables. The last syllable cloud has one vowel sound [ou] along with three consonant sounds [k,l,d], this combination of vowel and consonant sounds is called syllable. After recognizing the syllables, now it is time to identify meter (length wise), two syllables together form a meter. We can count eight syllables or beats a line, make it tetrameter and ten syllables or beats make it a pentameter.

In the last step we identify the meter of a poem sound wise. For this we must know stressed and unstressed syllables. With the help of stressed and unstressed syllables different meters like Iambic, spondee, dactyl etc. are created. Stressed syllables are uttered long, loud and clear on the other hand unstressed syllables are uttered short, low and unclear. For example, in the phrase “I won | dered lone | ly as | a cloud “, first meter consists of two syllables ‘I’ and ‘won’ where the first syllable ‘I’ is unstressed and second syllable ‘won’ is unstressed. Unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable is called Iambic meter. In the above example there are four iambic meters in this line that is why it is called iambic tetramer.

what is meter

what is meter

The above image shows how to identify the meter of a poem.

Why Poetry is Difficult Genre of Literature

To write and understand poetry is often considered difficult because it demands brevity, precision, deep emotions, vivid imagery, complex ideas, figurative language, metaphors, similes, symbols, meter, rhyme, rhythm, sonic devices, cultural and historical references, personal and emotional expressions and above all choosing the right words and arranging them in a way that maximizes impact is challenging in poetry.

Despite all challenges, especially in writing poetry, to maintain rhyme and meter throughout the poem is most difficult to cope with. Writing a poem may take from a few days to a few weeks. During this time a poet has to take care of all above mentioned traits, still rhyme and meter will challenge the most if one is writing rhymed poetry. For example, “Daffodils” a poem by William Wordsworth has four sestets (stanzas with six lines) of iambic tetrameter and rhyme scheme of the said poem is ababcc. First difficulty for the poet in this poem is to maintain the same rhyme scheme in all four stanzas. A single line differing from the required rhyme scheme can take weeks as the poet would have to search such words which match the theme and meaning along with required sound.

Second meter can be challenging. For example, the poem “Daffodils” has four stanzas of six line each line has iambic tetrameter, it means in the whole poem, the poet had to write 96 iambic meters (first syllable stressed and second unstressed). To find such words which descend equal to the theme of the poem along with maintaining the sequence of unstressed and stressed syllables throughout 96 meters would have been greatly challenging for the poet.

Cultural and linguistic diversity, emphasis on sound and music, ambiguity and openness to interpretation, figurative language, conciseness and precision are the other elements for the poet to consider while writing a poem.

What is Difference between Meter from Rhythm Definition
Definition of Meter

Meter is the organized pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. It involves the arrangement of these syllables into metrical feet.

Definition of Rhythm

Rhythm refers to the pattern of sounds created by the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. It is the audible flow and cadence produced when the poem is read aloud.

In short, meter is the structural arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line, organized into metrical feet, while rhythm is the audible flow and pattern of sounds created by the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables. Meter contributes to the rhythm of a poem, but rhythm extends beyond the formalized structure of meter to encompass the overall musicality and expressive qualities of the language.

Metrical Variations in a Poem

Variations in poetic meter are essential tools for poets to create rhythm, musicality, and emphasis within their poems. While some poems adhere to a consistent metrical pattern throughout, many poets use variations in meter to add complexity, draw attention to specific words or ideas, or create a sense of movement and tension. Here are some common variations in poetic meter:

Some Common Variations: A common variation is the inversion of a foot, which changes an iamb meter into a trochee meter. A second variation is a headless verse, where the first syllable of the first foot lacks. A third variation is catalexis, where the end of a line is shortened by a foot, or two or part of it.

Substitution: In metrical poetry, substitution occurs when a poet replaces the expected metrical foot with another. For example, in iambic pentameter, where each line typically consists of five iambs (unstressed followed by stressed syllable), a poet might use a trochee (stressed followed by unstressed) or anapest (two unstressed followed by a stressed) for variation.

Enjambment: Enjambment is the continuation of a sentence or phrase beyond the end of a line or stanza. It disrupts the regular rhythm of the meter and can create a sense of motion or tension. It encourages the reader to move quickly from one line to the next without pause.

Caesura: A caesura is a pause or break within a line of poetry. It can be used to disrupt the regular meter and emphasize a specific word or idea. Caesuras can occur at any point in the line but are often found near the middle.

Spondee: A spondee is a metrical foot consisting of two stressed syllables. It is used infrequently in many metrical forms but can be used for emphasis or variation. For example, in iambic pentameter, inserting a spondee can break the regular rhythm.

Pyrrhic Foot: A pyrrhic foot consists of two unstressed syllables. It is fairly used on its own but can be employed within a line of meter to create a momentary softness or pause.

Irregular Meter: Some poems intentionally break from traditional metrical patterns to create irregular or "broken" meter. This can be used to evoke a sense of chaos, discord, or emotional turmoil.

Meter Shift: A poet might shift from one metrical pattern to another within a poem, creating contrast or highlighting changes in tone, mood, or subject matter.

Stanzaic Variation: Poets can also vary the meter between stanzas, creating a dynamic structure where each stanza has its own metrical pattern

Mixing Meters: Poems can combine different meters within the same poem to achieve specific effects.

Variations in poetic meter allow poets to play with rhythm, pacing, and emphasis, adding depth and musicality to their work while also conveying subtle shades of meaning and emotion.

Features that Meter Lends to the Poetry

Meter, the rhythmic structure in poetry, serves as a fundamental and enriching element, contributing various features that enhance the overall aesthetic and expressive qualities of the verse. Here are some key features that meter lends to poetry:

Rhythmic Cadence:

Meter establishes a rhythmic cadence within a poem, providing it with a musical quality that captivates the reader or listener. This cadence creates a flow that carries the reader through the verses, making the poem more engaging and memorable.

Emotional Resonance:

The choice of meter influences the emotional resonance of a poem. Whether it's the contemplative pace of iambic pentameter or the urgent beat of trochaic meter, the rhythmic pattern contributes to the overall emotional tone, allowing poets to evoke specific feelings in their audience.

Pacing and Tempo:

Meter plays a crucial role in determining the pacing and tempo of a poem. The arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables controls the speed at which the poem is read, influencing the reader's experience and emphasizing certain moments or ideas.

Structural Unity:

Meter provides a structural unity to a poem, offering a framework that organizes the verses. This organized structure aids in the coherence of the poem, allowing readers to follow a consistent pattern that contributes to the overall artistic expression.

Enhanced Memorability:

The repetitive nature of meter contributes to the memorability of poems. The consistent rhythm aids in the retention of verses, making them easier to remember and recite. This quality has historically played a significant role in the oral transmission of poetry through generations.

Expressive Nuances:

Meter allows poets to convey expressive nuances by manipulating the stress patterns. Through variations in meter, poets can create emphasis, tension, or resolution within a poem. This flexibility adds depth and complexity to the emotional and thematic layers of the work.

Aesthetic Pleasure:

The rhythmic patterns of meter contribute to the aesthetic pleasure of poetry. Just as music appeals to the ear, meter in poetry appeals to the sense of rhythm, creating a harmonious and pleasing experience for the audience.

Cultural and Historical Significance:

Different cultures and historical periods have favored specific meters, and the choice of meter in a poem can carry cultural or historical significance. For instance, the use of iambic pentameter is often associated with classical English poetry, while other cultures may have distinct rhythmic traditions.

Symbolic Impact:

Meter can be used symbolically to enhance the thematic impact of a poem. A shift in meter can signify a turning point or a change in perspective, adding layers of meaning to the verses. Poets use this symbolic impact to convey subtle messages and create a more profound connection with the audience.

Artistic Flexibility:

Meter provides poets with artistic flexibility, allowing them to experiment with different rhythmic patterns to suit the mood and theme of their work. Whether it's the free verse of Walt Whitman or the structured sonnets of Shakespeare, poets can choose a meter that complements their artistic vision and creative intent.


To conclude, meter in poetry is a versatile and powerful tool that contributes significantly to the richness and depth of poetic expression. Its rhythmic features enhance the emotional impact, create structural unity, and offer a timeless and memorable quality to the art of poetry.