Rhythm and Meter in English Poetry
English poetry employs five basic rhythms of varying stressed (/) and unstressed (x) syllables. The meters are iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests and dactyls. In this document the stressed syllables are marked in boldface type rather than the traditional "/" and "x." Each unit of rhythm is called a "foot" of poetry.
The meters with two-syllable feet are
Meters with three-syllable feet are
- IAMBIC (x /) : That time of year thou mayst in me behold
- TROCHAIC (/ x): Tell me not in mournful numbers
- SPONDAIC (/ /): Break, break, break/ On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
Each line of a poem contains a certain number of feet of iambs, trochees, spondees, dactyls or anapests. A line of one foot is a monometer, 2 feet is a dimeter, and so on--trimeter (3), tetrameter (4), pentameter (5), hexameter (6), heptameter (7), and octameter (8). The number of syllables in a line varies therefore according to the meter. A good example of trochaic monometer, for example, is this poem entitled "Fleas":
- ANAPESTIC (x x /): And the sound of a voice that is still
- DACTYLIC (/ x x): This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlock (a trochee replaces the final dactyl)
Here are some more serious examples of the various meters.
iambic pentameter (5 iambs, 10 syllables)
- That time | of year | thou mayst | in me | behold
trochaic tetrameter (4 trochees, 8 syllables)
- Tell me | not in | mournful | numbers
anapestic trimeter (3 anapests, 9 syllables)
- And the sound | of a voice | that is still
dactylic hexameter (6 dactyls, 17 syllables; a trochee replaces the last dactyl)
- This is the | forest pri | meval, the | murmuring | pine and the | hemlocks