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Meter (poetry)

In poetry, the meter or metre is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse meter, or a certain set of meters alternating in a particular order.

Prosody is a more general linguistic term, that includes poetical meter but also the rhythmic aspects of prose, whether formal or informal. The scansion of a poem is the analysis of its metrical structure.

Fundamentals

The meter usually depends on acoustic properties of the spoken words, such as the length or stress of their syllables, independently of their meaning. The sound attributes that determine the meter may vary from language to language, and sometimes also between poetic traditions.

Feet

In most Western classical poetic traditions, the meter of a verse can be described as a sequence of feet, each foot being a specific sequence of syllable types—such as stressed/unstressed (the norm for English poetry) or long/short (as in most classical Latin and Greek poetry).

For example, the most common meter in English poetry, the so-called iambic pentameter, is a sequence of five iambic feet or iambs, each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one ("da-DUM") :

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
da
DUM
da
DUM
da
DUM
da
DUM
da
DUM

This approach to analyzing and classifying meters originates from the ancient Greek tragedians and poets such as Homer, Pindar, Hesiod, Sappho.

Caesurae

Another component of a verse's meter are the caesurae (literally, cuts), which are pauses or other breaks inserted between certain syllables of the verse. In Latin and Greek poetry, a caesura is a break within a foot caused by the end of a word. In English poetry, a caesura refers to a break within a line.

Metric variations

Poems with a well-defined overall metric pattern often have a few lines that violate that pattern. A common variation is the inversion of a foot, which turns an iamb ("da-DUM") into a trochee ("DUM-da"). Another common variation is a headless verse, which lacks the first syllable of the first foot. Yet a third variation is catalexis, where the end of a line is shortened by a foot, or two or part thereof - an example of this is at the end of each verse in Keats' 'La Belle Dame sans Merci': 'And on thy cheeks a fading rose (4 feet) Fast withereth too' (2 feet)

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 according to their weight as either "long" syllables or "short" syllables (indicated as daa and duh below). These are also called "heavy" and "light" syllables, respectively, to distinguish from long and short vowels. 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. Various rules of elision sometimes prevent a grammatical syllable from making a full syllable, and certain other lengthening and shortening rules (such as correption) can create long or short syllables in contexts where one would expect the opposite.

The most important Classical meter is the dactylic hexameter, the meter of Homer and Virgil. This form uses verses of six feet. The first four feet are dactyls (daa-duh-duh), but can be spondees (daa-daa). The fifth foot is almost always a dactyl. The sixth foot is either a spondee or a trochee (daa-duh). 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:

Armă vĭ | rumquĕ că | nō, Troi | ae quī | prīmŭs ăb | ōrīs
("I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy. . . ")

In this example, the first and second feet are dactyls; their first syllables, "Ar" and "rum" respectively, contain short vowels, but count as long because the vowels are both followed by two consonants. The third and fourth feet are spondees, the first of which is divided by the main caesura of the verse. The fifth foot is a dactyl, as is nearly always the case. The final foot is a spondee.

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, which counts as a half foot. In this way, the number of feet amounts to five in total. 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 in the elegiac distich or elegiac couplet, 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:

Vergĭlĭ | um vī | dī tan | tum, nĕc ă | māră Tĭ | bullō
Tempŭs ă | mīcĭtĭ | ae dērĕ mĕ | ae.

("I saw only 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 an homage to Sappho 31):

Illĕ | mī pār | essĕ dĕ | ō vĭ | dētŭr;
illĕ, | sī fās | est, sŭpĕ | rārĕ | dīvōs,
quī sĕ | dēns ad | versŭs ĭ | dentĭ | dem tē
spectăt ĕt | audĭt

("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 Charles 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. . .

See also the list of classical meters.

Old English

The metric system of Old English poetry was different from that of modern English, and more related to the verse forms of most of the older Germanic languages. It used alliterative verse, a metrical pattern involving varied numbers of syllables but a fixed number (usually four) of strong stresses in each line. The unstressed syllables were relatively unimportant, but the caesurae played a major role in Old English poetry.

Modern English

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 characteristic feet of English verse are the iamb in two syllables and the anapest in three. (See Foot (prosody) for a complete list of the metrical feet and their names.)

Metrical systems

The number of metrical systems in English is not agreed upon. The four major types are: accentual verse, accentual-syllabic verse, syllabic verse and quantitative verse. The alliterative verse of Old English could also be added to this list, or included as a special type of accentual verse. Accentual verse focuses on the number of stresses in a line, while ignoring the number of offbeats and syllables; accentual-syllabic verse focuses on regulating both the number of stresses and the total number of syllables in a line; syllabic verse only counts the number of syllables in a line; quantitative verse regulates the patterns of long and short syllables, this sort of verse is often considered alien to English.

It is to be noted, however, that the use of foreign metres in English is all but exceptional.

Frequently-used meters

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 Milton, Tennyson (Ulysses, The Princess) and Wordsworth (The Prelude).

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 (although see Pale Fire for a non-trivial case). The most famous writers of heroic couplets are Dryden and Pope.

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. In hymnody it is called the "common meter", as it is the most common of the named hymn meters used to pair many hymn lyrics with melodies, 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.

Emily Dickinson is famous for her frequent use of ballad meter:

Great streets of silence led away
To neighborhoods of pause;
Here was no notice — no dissent —
No universe — no laws.

French

In French poetry, meter is determined solely by the number of syllables in a line. A silent 'e' counts as a syllable before a consonant, but is elided before a vowel (where "h aspiré" counts as a consonant). At the end of a line, the "e" remains unelided but is hypermetrical (outside the count of syllables, like a feminine ending in English verse). The most frequently encountered meter in French is the alexandrine, composed of two hemistiches of six syllables each. 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.

Spanish

In Spanish poetry the meter is the determined by the number of syllables the verse has. Still it is the phonetic accent in the last word of the verse decides the final count of the line. If the accent of the final word is at the last syllable, then the poetic rule states that one syllable shall be added to the actual count of syllables in said line, thus having a higher number of poetic syllables than the number of grammatical syllables. If the accent lies on the second to last syllable of the last word in the verse, then the final count of poetic syllables will be the same as the grammatical number of syllables. Furthermore if the accent lies on the third to last syllable, then one syllables is subtracted from the actual count, having then less poetic syllables than grammatical syllables. Interestingly Spanish poetry uses poetic licenses, unique to romantic languages, to change the number of syllables by manipulating mainly the vowels in the line. For example:

Cuando salí de Collores,
fue en una jaquita baya,
por un sendero entre mayas,
arropás de cundiamores...
This stanza from Valle de Collores by Luis Llorens Torres, uses eight poetic syllables. Given that all words at the end of each line have their phonetic accent on the second to last syllables, no syllables in the final count is either added or subtracted. Still in the second and third verse the grammatical count of syllables is nine. Poetic licenses permit the union of two vowels that are next to each other but in different syllables and count them as one. "Fue en..." has actually two syllables, but applying this license both vowels unite and form only one, giving the final count of eight syllables. "Sendero entre..." has five grammatical syllables, but uniting the "o" from "sendero" and the first "e" from "entre", gives only four syllables, permitting it to have eight syllables in the verse as well. This license is called a synalepha (Spanish: sinalefa). There are many types of licenses, used either to add or subtract syllables, that may be applied when needed after taking in consideration the poetic rules of the last word. Yet all have in common that they only manipulate vowels that are close to each other and not interrupted by consonants.

Some common meters in Spanish verse are:

  • Septenary: A line with the seven poetic syllables
  • Octosyllable: A line with eight poetic syllables. This meter is commonly used in romances, narrative poems similar to English ballads, and in most proverbs.
  • Hendecasyllable: A line with eleven poetic syllables. This meter plays a similar role to pentameter in English verse. It is commonly used in sonnets, among other things.
  • Alexandrine: A line consisting of thirteen or more poetic syllables.

Italian

In Italian poetry, meter is determined solely by the position of the last accent in a line. Syllables are enumerated with respect to a verse which ends with a paroxytone, so that a Septenary (having seven syllables) is defined as a verse whose last accent falls on the sixth syllable: it may so contain eight syllables (Ei fu. Siccome immobile) or just six (la terra al nunzio sta). 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"). Even-syllabic verses have a fixed stress pattern. Because of the mostly trochaic nature of the Italian language, verses with an even number of syllables are far easier to compose, and the Novenary is usually regarded as the most difficult verse.

Some common meters in Italian verse are:

  • Sexenary: A line whose last stressed syllabe is on the fifth, with a fixed stress on the second one as well (Al Re Travicello / Piovuto ai ranocchi, Giusti)
  • 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 accentations . It is used in sonnets, in ottava rima, and in many other works. The Divine Comedy, in particular, is composed entirely of hendecasyllables, whose main stress pattern is 4th and 10th syllable.

Ottoman Turkish

In the Ottoman Turkish language, the structures of the poetic foot (تفعل tef'ile) and of poetic meter (وزن vezin) were indirectly borrowed from the Arabic poetic tradition through the medium of the Persian language.

Ottoman poetry, also known as Dîvân poetry, was generally written in quantitative, mora-timed meter. The moras, or syllables, are divided into three basic types:

  • Open, or light, syllables (açık hece) consist of either a short vowel alone, or a consonant followed by a short vowel
    • Examples: a-dam ("man"); zir-ve ("summit, peak")
  • Closed, or heavy, syllables (kapalı hece) consist of either a long vowel alone, a consonant followed by a long vowel, or a short vowel followed by a consonant
    • Examples: Â-dem ("Adam"); -fir ("non-Muslim"); at ("horse")
  • Lengthened, or superheavy, syllables (meddli hece) count as one closed plus one open syllable and consist of a vowel followed by a consonant cluster, or a long vowel followed by a consonant
    • Examples: kürk ("fur"); âb ("water")

In writing out a poem's poetic meter, open syllables are symbolized by "." and closed syllables are symbolized by "–". From the different syllable types, a total of sixteen different types of poetic foot—the majority of which are either three or four syllables in length—are constructed, which are named and scanned as follows:

     

fa‘ ()

fe ul (. –)

fa‘ lün (– –)

fe i lün (. . –)
     

fâ i lün (– . –)

fe û lün (. – –)

mef’ û lü (– – .)

fe i lâ tün (. . – –)
     

fâ i lâ tün (– . – –)

fâ i lâ tü (– . – .)

me fâ i lün (. – . –)

me fâ’ î lün (. – – –)
     

me fâ î lü (. – – .)

müf te i lün (– . . –)

müs tef i lün (– – . –)

mü te fâ i lün (. . – . –)

These individual poetic feet are then combined in a number of different ways, most often with four feet per line, so as to give the poetic meter for a line of verse. Some of the most commonly used meters are the following:

  • me fâ’ î lün / me fâ’ î lün / me fâ’ î lün / me fâ’ î lün
    . – – – / . – – – / . – – – / . – – –

     

Ezelden şāh-ı ‘aşḳuñ bende-i fermānıyüz cānā
Maḥabbet mülkinüñ sulţān-ı ‘ālī-şānıyüz cānā

Oh beloved, since the origin we have been the slaves of the shah of love
Oh beloved, we are the famed sultan of the heart's domain

Bâkî (1526–1600)

  • me fâ i lün / fe i lâ tün / me fâ i lün / fe i lün
    . – . – / . . – – / . – . – / . . –

     

Ḥaţā’ o nerkis-i şehlādadır sözümde degil
Egerçi her süḥanim bī-bedel beġendiremem

Though I may fail to please with my matchless verse
The fault lies in those languid eyes and not my words

—Şeyh Gâlib (1757–1799)

  • fâ i lâ tün / fâ i lâ tün / fâ i lâ tün / fâ i lün
    – . – – / – . – – / – . – – / – . –

     

Bir şeker ḥand ile bezm-i şevķa cām ettiñ beni
Nīm ṣun peymāneyi sāḳī tamām ettiñ beni

At the gathering of desire you made me a wine-cup with your sugar smile
Oh saki, give me only half a cup of wine, you've made me drunk enough

Nedîm (1681?–1730)

  • fe i lâ tün / fe i lâ tün / fe i lâ tün / fe i lün
    . . – – / . . – – / . . – – / . . –

     

Men ne ḥācet ki ḳılam derd-i dilüm yāra ‘ayān
Ḳamu derd-i dilümi yār bilübdür bilübem

What use in revealing my sickness of heart to my love
I know my love knows the whole of my sickness of heart

Fuzûlî (1483?–1556)

  • mef’ û lü / me fâ î lü / me fâ î lü / fâ û lün
    – – . / . – – . / . – – . / – – .

     

Şevḳuz ki dem-i bülbül-i şeydāda nihānuz
Ḥūnuz ki dil-i ġonçe-i ḥamrāda nihānuz

We are desire hidden in the love-crazed call of the nightingale
We are blood hidden in the crimson heart of the unbloomed rose

Neşâtî (?–1674)

Sanskrit

Classical Sanskrit and Vedic Sanskrit use meters for most ancient treatises that are set to verse. Prominent Vedic meters include Gayatri, Ushnik, Anushtupa, Brhati, Pankti, Tristubh and Jagati. The basic meter for epic verse is the Sloka. Sanskrit meter is quantitative, following the same general principles as classical Greek and Latin meter.

The Bhagavad Gita is mainly written in anustupa (with some vasanta-tilaka sections) interspersed with some Tristubh. For example, when Krishna reveals his divinity to Arjuna the meter changes to Tristubh. Tristubh is the most prevalent meter of the ancient Rigveda, accounting for roughly 40% of its verses.

History

Metrical texts are first attested in early Indo-European languages. The earliest known unambiguously metrical texts, and at the same time the only metrical texts with a claim of dating to the Late Bronze Age, are the hymns of the Rigveda. That the texts of the Ancient Near East (Sumerian, Egyptian or Semitic) should not exhibit meter is surprising, and may be partly due to the nature of Bronze Age writing. There were, in fact, attemtps to reconstruct metrical qualities of the poetic portions of the Hebrew Bible, e.g. by Gustav Bickell or Julius Ley, but they remained inconclusive (see Biblical poetry).

Early Iron Age metrical poetry is found in the Iranian Avesta and in the Greek works attributed to Homer and Hesiod.

Latin verse survives from the Old Latin period (ca. 2nd c. BC), in the Saturnian meter. Persian poetry arises in the Sassanid era. Tamil poetry of the early centuries AD may be the earliest known non-Indo-European metrical texts (with the possible exception of the Chinese Shi Jing). The oldest surviving fragment of Germanic poetry is the verse on one of the Gallehus horns (ca. AD 400). Irish and Arabic poetry both have early records dating from about the 6th century.

Medieval poetry was metrical without exception, spanning traditions as diverse as European Minnesang, Trouvère or Bardic poetry, Classical Persian and Sanskrit poetry, Tang dynasty Chinese poetry or the Japanese Heian period Man'yōshū. Renaissance and Early Modern poetry in Europe is characterized by a return to templates of Classical Antiquity, a tradition begun by Petrarca's generation and continued into the time of Shakespeare and Milton.

Dissent

Not all poets accept the idea that meter is a fundamental part of poetry. Twentieth century American poets Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Robinson Jeffers, were poets who believed that meter was imposed into poetry by man, not a fundamental part of its nature.

Moore went even further than Jeffers, openly declaring her poetry was written in syllabic form, and wholly denying meter. These syllabic lines from her famous poem "Poetry" illustrate her contempt for meter, and other poetic tools (even the syllabic pattern of this poem does not remain perfectly consistent):

nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books": all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry

Williams tried to form poetry whose subject matter was centered on the lives of common people. He came up with the concept of the variable foot. Williams spurned traditional meter in most of his poems, preferring what he called "colloquial idioms." Another poet that turned his back on traditional concepts of meter was Britain's Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins' major innovation was what he called sprung rhythm. He claimed most poetry was written in this older rhythmic structure inherited from the Norman side of the English literary heritage, based on repeating groups of two or three syllables, with the stressed syllable falling in the same place on each repetition. Sprung rhythm is structured around feet with a variable number of syllables, generally between one and four syllables per foot, with the stress always falling on the first syllable in a foot.

Notes

See also

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