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Give Me A Meter, I'll Take A Foot

by Tami Krueger

There are poetic conventions that poets who study the craft could benefit from. One such convention is the use of meter. Meter is defined as a system of stressed and unstressed syllables that create rhythm in metered verse.

The traditional units of stressed and unstressed metered verse are called feet. There are usually the same number of feet in each line of metered verse, as well as the same type of foot pattern throughout the poem.

Determining the metrical foot of a poem is termed scansion, and there are only six types of classical feet needed in order to determine the scansion of a line of English verse.

The chart below may help illuminate these classical feet. The two rows on the left are the terminology and the two columns on the right demonstrate their definition. Using this guide while reading a few favorite poems may help the poet better understand how meter is achieved in a poem.


FOOT           ADJECTIVE       STRESS PATTERN     EXAMPLES

Iamb           Iambic          da-DUM             ExCEPT, The DEER
Trochee        Trochaic        DUM-da             ASKing, LOST it
Anapest        Anapestic       da-da-DUM          UnderSTAND  
Dactyl         Dactylic        DUM-da-da          HEAvily, TALK to me
Spondee        Spondaic        DUM-DUM            Heartbreak, faithful
Pyrrhic        Pyrrhic         da-da              In the, On a

An Iambic foot in a line of poetry is a metrical foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. An example of the iamb can be found in the poetry of Shakespeare (such as Sonnet 18), John Donne (Holy Sonnet XIV), and many other classical English poets.

The stanza below is taken from a poem written by Edna St. Vincent Millay, titled "Renascence" and is a good example of the iambic foot. The symbols ~ and / represent unstressed and stressed syllables respectively.

 
~     /   ~     /     ~     /     ~      /
All  I  could  see  from  where   I    stood

 ~     /      ~     /   ~     /   ~    /    
Was  three  long  mountains  and  a  wood;

A trochaic foot is the opposite of an iambic foot in that it consists of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. It is a foot that is rarely perfectly followed throughout a poems entirety. Longfellow's "The Song Of Hiawatha," with a few diversions into iambic, spondaic and pyrrhic, is one of the few poems that come close. Also counted among these rarities is Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." The exception to this observation is that the trochaic foot is fairly common in children's rhymes.

 / ~   /  ~   /  ~    /
Eeny, meeny,  miny,  moe 
  /    ~   /  ~   /   ~    /
Catch  a  tiger  by  the  toe 

The anapestic foot is a foot that is made up of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, such as in sev en teen. Very few poems consist of a strict anapestic foot. Some such poems that are written in anapestic foot are Lord Byron's "The Destruction Of Sennacherib," as well as Will Cowper's "Verses Supposed To Be Written By Alexander Selkirk, During His Solitary Abode In The Island Of San Fernandez:"

    
~      ~   /   ~    ~      /   ~    ~    /
From  the  centre  all  round  to  the  sea,
~   ~    /   ~    ~    /     ~    ~      /
I  am  lord  of  the  fowl  and  the  brute.  

The dactylic foot is characterized by one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" is one of the most popular poems written in dactylic foot:


  /  ~   ~      /    ~    ~
Half a league, half  a league
  /  ~   ~      /  ~
Half a league onward,

The spondaic foot is one in which both syllables within the foot are stressed. It would be confusing at best to literate an entire poem consisting of purely spondaic feet due to the complete stress on each syllable. For this reason, the spondee is usually used to break up another foot such as the anapest. The example below is from Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Pied Beauty." The second line is marked by Hopkins to note the spondee:

"Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim."

Sometimes referred to as a dibrach, the pyrrhic foot contains two unaccented syllables. Due to the monotonous, or redundant sound, the pyrrhic foot is not used to construct an entire poem. Much like the anapest and the dactyl, the pyrrhic is often found within the framework of the poem, but does not make up the entire structure.

For instance, Lord Byron's "Don Juan," contains a fine example of pyrrhic feet:

"My way is to begin with the beginning."

Determining the scansion of poems is a good way to learn about meter and foot in poetry. This is helpful for poets who strive for a deeper understanding of the craft of poetry, with the additional benefit of fostering a greater appreciation for those who practice the art of metered verse.

Copyright © 2008 Tami Krueger
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Tami Krueger (tamikrueger@aol.com) is a freelance writer living in Oregon, USA. She has had articles published in 18th Century History, and is a contributing author for the magazine Brandlady. She has authored one book of poetry and is currently spearheading a website that showcases historical female characters.

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