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What is Meter?

    what is meter in poetry

    There’s no denying that poetry can be challenging for students, especially when it comes to learning all the terms. But the more they know, the more they can understand (and maybe even appreciate) the literary form. Consider this your ultimate guide to everything you need to know about one of those vital elements: meter, the heartbeat of any poem.

    Meter Definition

    In poetry, meter refers to a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that help define the poem’s rhythm. Similar to the beat of a song, a poem’s meter creates a sense of structure and tempo that guides the flow of the poem. It’s what turns a simple string of words into a musical, rhythmic work of art. Poems can stick to one meter throughout, or incorporate various metrical patterns throughout.

    The basic unit of meter is the metrical foot, which refers to a specific combination of stressed (´) and unstressed (˘) syllables. Different patterns of metrical feet have different names. The one students are most familiar with is likely the iamb (˘´), in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable.

    Meter Pronunciation

    Wondering how to pronounce the term meter? Break it down into two syllables, with the stress on the first syllable: MEE-TER

    Understanding the Difference: Rhythm vs. Meter

    Meter and rhythm are closely intertwined, but not exactly the same. Meter provides the specifics of a rhythmic pattern by determining which syllables are stressed vs. not stressed. On the other hand, rhythm refers to the overall flow, pace, and beat of a poem. Therefore, meter is just one aspect of rhythm, creating the patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables.

    There are four patterns of poetic meter that are most commonly used or referenced in literature:

    • Iamb (˘´): A pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, such as in the word “de-LIGHT.”
    • Trochee (´˘): An invert of the iamb, this pattern is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, such as in the word “HIGH-way.”
    • Anapest (˘˘´): A three-syllable pattern of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, as with the word “un-der-STAND.”
    • Dactyl (´˘˘): Opposite of the anapest, a dactyl meter is a pattern of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, such as the word “poetry” (PO-eh-tree).

    Each specific type of meter, or metrical form, is named using a combination of two elements: the type of metrical foot and the number of feet in a line. For example, iambic pentameter refers to a meter that contains five (penta) lines following the iambic pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. This can be seen in the famous first line of  Shakespeare’s sonnet 18:

    Shall I   | compARE |  thee TO  |  a SUM  | mers DAY?

    Other Types of Meter

    Other types of meter include:

    • Spondee (´´), following a pattern of two stressed syllables in a row
    • Pyrrhic (˘˘), following a pattern of two unstressed syllables in a row
    • Amphibrach (˘´˘), following a pattern of one stressed syllable between two unstressed syllables
    • Choriam (´˘˘´) is essentially a trochee followed by an iamb, or a pattern of stressed, unstressed, unstressed, stressed

    Meter vs. Metrical Form

    Okay, so this is where it can get a little complicated. Not all poems that use meter technically have a metrical form. While meter refers to the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, metrical form encompasses the broader metrical structure of a poem.

    In fact, some poets deviate from the patterns of defined metrical forms to create their own rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables. In these cases, the poet may rely on meter as a rhythmic device to add structure and flow to their poem, but it doesn’t necessarily fit into the confines of a metrical form. But hey, that’s the kind of freedom that makes poetry fun, right? After all, what student isn’t allured by the freedom to “break the rules” once in a while?

    Qualitative vs. Quantitative Meter

    While we often refer to qualitative meter in the English language, there is also quantitative meter. Let’s take a look at the difference:

    • Qualitative Meter focuses on the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Popular in English poetry, this form of meter is more about the emphasis of a syllable rather than the length of the syllable.
    • Quantitative Meter is based on how long a syllable lasts, or its symbolic weight. This form of meter is typically found in classical Greek and Latin poetry, where long and short syllables create the meter rather than stressed and unstressed syllables.

    What Is the Purpose of Meter in Poetry?

    Meter plays a vital role in poetry as it contributes to the overall impact and effectiveness of a poem. Let’s take a closer look at some of the specific ways poets use meter and how it impacts a poem and its audience:

    • Creating Rhythm: Metrical patterns establish a foundation for a poem’s rhythm, giving it a “musical” quality often associated with the literature form.
    • Providing Structure: Meter gives a poem a formal structure that can help organize the content while allowing writers to emphasize deviations from the pattern for added emphasis or the highlight significance.
    • Engaging the Audience: Poetic rhythm creates an engaging and enjoyable experience for readers, drawing them in with a melodic and often memorable flow.
    • Emphasizing Meaning: The placement of stressed and unstressed syllables in a metrical pattern can draw attention to significant words or phrases and any key moments that stray from the pattern.
    • Establishing Mood and Atmosphere: Different metrical patterns can evoke different emotions and atmospheres, allowing poets to set the tone for their work and influence the readers’ experience.
    • Enhancing Memory: Metric patterns make poems easier to memorize and recite, which was especially useful when word of mouth was the main way to pass down poems and stories.

    How To Identify Meter in a Poem

    Identifying meter in poetry can be challenging for students as we don’t tend to notice stressed and unstressed syllables in our daily language. However, recognizing patterns of meter becomes a lot easier when you slow things down and take it step by step.

    Consider teaching your students the following steps to help them identify meter:

    1. Read Aloud: Whether it’s a sentence, a word, a line, or an entire poem, reading aloud helps students hear the stressed and unstressed syllables.
    2. Slow It Down. Since we don’t always notice the stressed or unstressed syllable when talking (or reading) normally, it can help to read it again—this time a little slower, really paying attention to the sound of each syllable.
    3. Mark the Syllables: As they read, have students use symbols (˘ for unstressed, ´ for stressed) to mark each syllable. Alternatively, you can have them simply underline or highlight the stressed syllables. Whatever marking method they use, it’s all about creating a visual representation.
    4. Identify the Pattern: Review the markings, looking for evidence of any repeating patterns of syllables.
    5. Count the Feet: Determine how many metrical feet are in each line. Have students identify each foot by drawing a vertical line (|) after the metrical foot.
    6. Name the Meter: In the final step, have students consider the meter pattern and the number of metrical feet to identify the metrical form(s) used in the poem.

    For younger students, it may be helpful to go through this process together, starting with one line or stanza of a poem written on the board.

    Tips for Teaching Meter

    • Focus on Syllables: Begin by helping students recognize and count syllables in words and phrases, providing a baseline for understanding and identifying metrical patterns.
    • Relate to Everyday Speech: Show how meter can be found in common words and phrases used in everyday speech to demystify the concept of meter.
    • Provide Various Examples: Show examples of different types of meter from classic poetry, allowing students to see the impact of various metrical patterns on a poem’s rhythm, flow, mood, and overall impact.
    • Use Music: Make the concept of meter in poetry more relatable (and engaging) by drawing a connection to the rhythm and beat in music.
    • Analyze Song Lyrics: If you’re already incorporating music, consider having students decode meter in a more modern context using popular song lyrics
    • Clap It Out: Have students clap to the stressed syllables of the poem to help them physically feel the meter and reinforce the rhythmic structure of meter.
    • Use Visual Aids: As you analyze poetry for meter, think of ways to provide visual representations of the patterns, making it easier for students to grasp the abstract concept.
    • Listen to Poetry: After identifying the meter in a classic poem, play a reading of the poem aloud so students can listen for the natural rhythm and meter. This can also help students understand how meter shapes the delivery of a poem.
    • Read Aloud: Encourage students to read poems aloud to better grasp the rhythmic patterns, as speaking the words helps them identify where the syllables are stressed vs. unstressed.
    • Write in Meter: Have students write their own poems using specific meters, encouraging them to apply what they’ve learned in their own creative writing.
    • Discuss Other Poetic Devices: Explore how meter interacts with other poetic devices like rhyme and alliteration as well as how it impacts poetic elements such as theme and mood.

    Examples of Meter in Poetry

    1. Iambic Pentameter in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18”

    William Shakespeare’s famous poem, “Sonnet 18,” is a perfect example of iambic pentameter. A classic Shakespearean sonnet, the poem is made up of 14 lines of iambic pentameter, or five feet of the iambic pattern (˘´) of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

    The poem is divided into three quatrains followed by a couplet. It also has the characteristic rhyme scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. This rhyme scheme, combined with the sing-song feel of the iambic pentameter, helps create a rhythmic flow that naturally moves from one word to the next. Additionally, this rhythm creates a pleasant sound while mirroring the beauty being described.

    Let’s take a closer look at the first quatrain, or the first four lines:

    Shall I | compare | thee to | a sum | mer’s day?

    Thou art | more love | ly and | more tem | perate:

    Rough winds | do shake | the dar | ling buds | of May,

    And sum | mer’s lease | hath all | too short | a date;

    2. Trochaic Octameter in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”

    “The Raven” is Poe’s well-known narrative poem following the ABCBBB rhyme scheme. Made up of 18 stanzas, each stanza has six lines of trochaic meter. Some are octameter, with each line containing eight “feet” of the trochee meter pattern (´˘) of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. However, the lines following the ‘B” rhyme scheme drop the last unstressed syllable. Additionally, the final line of each stanza follows trochaic tetrameter, with only four metrical feet trochee meter.

    Like much of Poe’s work, this poem engages readers with its sense of mystery and hauntingly melancholic mood. He uses carefully crafted meter to hook the audience with powerful figurative language and an easy-flowing hypnotic rhythm. This rhythm creates a musical effect that stands in stark contrast to the eerie language and images used throughout, creating a sense of tension and suspense for the reader.

    Let’s take a look at the meter in the poem’s first stanza to compare the various patterns used:

    Once up-| on a | mid-night | drear-y, | while I | pon-dered, | weak and | wear-y,

    O-ver | many a | quaint and | cur-ious |vol-ume | of for- | got-ten | 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—

                On-ly | this and | noth-ing | more.”

    More Resources for Teaching Poetry and Meter

    This article breaks down Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter.

    Introduce your students to poetry using this done-for-you poetry lesson.

    Access my full poetry unit for middle school here.

    Spice up your lesson plans with the following videos:

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