Definition of Meter

Meter is the rhythm of syllables in a line of verse or in a stanza of a poem. Depending on the language, this pattern may have to do with stressed and unstressed syllables, syllable weight, or number of syllables. Many older and more formal poems contain strict meter, which either continues throughout the entire poem or alternates in a specified rhythm. The study of meter forms as well as the use of meter in one’s own poetry is called prosody.

Difference Between Qualitative and Quantitative Meter

The definition of meter differs slightly depending on which language the poetry is written in. Poetry written in English uses qualitative meter, which is based on the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, iambic pentameter is popular in English language poetry, which has a pattern of ten beats starting with each odd-numbered syllable being unstressed and each even-numbered syllable being stressed.

Other languages do not have as clear of a distinction between stressed and unstressed syllables, and therefore use quantitative meter. For example, French and Chinese do not put as much import into the stress of syllables, and thus meter in French and Chinese poetry has to do just with the number of syllables per line.

Writers of ancient languages such as Classical Latin, Classical Greek, Classical Arabic, and Sanskrit also also used quantitative rather than qualitative meter in their poetry. In these languages the pattern of meter depended on the syllable weight. The stress pattern did not matter in these examples of meter, but instead whether a syllable was “long” or “short” (longer or shorter to pronounce, respectively).

Common Forms of Meter in English

Many forms of meter are broken into feet, which is a specific group of syllable types. In English, these feet are combinations of two to three stressed and unstressed syllables, which are then repeated to form a line of verse. In Classical Latin and Classical Greek, a metrical foot contains a combination of long and short syllables. Here are the most common metrical feet in English:

  • Iamb: Two syllables, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. For example, comPUTE, disPEL, aGREE.
  • Trochee: Two syllables, the first of which is stressed and the second of which is unstressed. For example: ARgue, BISHop, DOCtor.
  • Spondee: Two syllables, both of which are stressed. For example: ICE CREAM, HOT LINE, CELL PHONE.
  • Dactyl: Three syllables, the first of which is stressed and the next two of which are unstressed. For example, ELephant, POSSible, TRINity.
  • Anapest: Three syllables, the first two of which are unstressed and the third of which is stressed. For example: of a KIND, souvenIR, underSTAND.

English language poets often combine these feet in standard patterns, such as the following:

  • Trochaic Tetrameter: Four metrical feet of two syllables each (for a total of eight syllables) alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables. For example: “BY the SHORES of GITche GUMee” (“The Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
  • Iambic Pentameter: The most common meter in English language poetry, iambic pentameter has five feet of two syllables each (for a total of ten syllables) alternating between unstressed and stressed syllables. For example: “Shall I comPARE thee TO a SUMmer’s DAY?” (“Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare)
  • Double Dactylic: Two metrical feet of three syllables each (for a total of six syllables) alternating between one stressed syllable and two unstressed syllables. For example: “HIGgledy PIGgledy, / BACon, lord CHANcellor.” (By Ian Lancashire)
  • Anapestic Tetrameter: Four metrical feet of three syllables each (for a total of twelve syllables) which alternates between two unstressed syllables and one stressed syllable. For example: ’Twas the NIGHT before CHRISTmas, when ALL through the HOUSE. (“A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore)

Common Examples of Meter

Meter is a formal element of poetry (e.g., contributing to a structured form), and thus it is not so common to find in normal speech patterns. However, every word in English can be analyzed to break it down into what kind of metrical foot it could be, as we saw in the examples of different metrical feet above. Also, there are many examples of meter in common idioms and nursery rhymes, such as in the following:

  • Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?
    The big bad wolf, the big bad wolf.
  • Hickory, dickory, dock,
    The mouse ran up the clock.
  • Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
    Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
    All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
    Couldn’t put Humpty together again!
  • Jack, be nimble,
    Jack, be quick,
    Jack, jump over
    The candlestick.

Significance of Meter in Literature

The earliest known example of meter is in a collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns called the Rigveda, which dates back to between 1700 and 1100 BC. There are many other examples of meter from the Iron Age in multiple cultures. All poetry from the Medieval period was written in meter, regardless of the literary tradition, from Tang Dynasty Chinese poetry to Classical Persian poetry to the Bardic poetry of Europe. It is unknown why meter became so ubiquitous at this period in world history, but this fact certainly leads many literary scholars to determine that meter is indeed a fundamental element of poetry. Not all poetry contains meter, especially in more contemporary times. However, it contributes a rhythmic unity to the verse and highlights the difference between the elevated language of poetry and normal speech patterns.

Examples of Meter in Literature

Example #1

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

(“Sonnet 130” by William Shakespeare)

As with the majority of William Shakespeare’s poetry and his plays written in verse, “Sonnet 130” is an example of iambic pentameter. We can see this meter example at work in the first line: “My MISTress’ EYES are NOTHing LIKE the SUN.” However, Shakespeare was not always completely strict with his meter, and in the second line he briefly breaks the meter, starting with the trochee “coral.” In general, though, Shakespeare chose iambic pentameter to give his poetry and plays metrical form.

Example #2

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)

In his famous poem “The Raven,” Edgar Allen Poe uses a very interesting example of meter. In each stanza, the first five lines are in the relatively rare trochaic octameter, which means that there are eight feet, each of which is a trochee, resulting in sixteen syllables. This is a difficult meter to maintain, and yet Poe does it amazingly well throughout the entire poem contributing a dizzying and singsong effect. Each stanza ends with a sixth line of trochaic tetrameter, another rarer form.

Example #3

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

(“Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost)

Robert Frost uses the meter example of iambic tetrameter in his poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Frost holds to this meter throughout the entire poem, and we can choose any line to find the example of meter: “His HOUSE is IN the VILLage THOUGH.” Like Shakespeare and Poe, Frost combines a strict meter with rhyme to form poetic unity.

Test Your Knowledge of Meter

1. Which of the following statements is the best meter definition?
A. The basic rhythmic structure of a line of poetry.
B. A line of poetry with five feet, each of which is an iamb.
C. The weight of a syllable in a stanza.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. What is the difference between qualitative and quantitative meter?
A. Qualitative meter depends on the number of syllables per line, while quantitative meter refers to the pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables.
B. Qualitative meter occurs in English language poetry with a focus on syllable stress, while quantitative meter depends on the weight or number of syllables.
C. Qualitative meter refers to how well done the meter is, while quantitative simply describes the type of meter.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following lines is an example of iambic pentameter?
A. The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
B. And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
C. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. This is a line from William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18.” A is from Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and is an example of iambic tetrameter, while B is a line from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” and is an example of trochaic octameter.[/spoiler]