Poetic Rhythm

Basic definitions
Common metres
Stresses matter more than feet
Stress-based or Sprung Rhythm
Types of Line
Types of Stanza


The exact metrical scaffolding of a poem doesn't have to (and perhaps shouldn't) be in the forefront of consciousness of either the poet or the reader, any more than the exact key of a song. However, it is sometimes useful to have a vocabulary to describe rhythmical effects.

Basic Definitions

English Metre is normally based on the more or less regular alternation of a given pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. The basic repeated unit is called a foot.

Lines can be scanned, using a notation such as 0 for an unstressed and / for a stressed syllable.

There are four feet in this line by Larkin:

... 0 ... / ...... 0 ... / ..... 0 .... / ...... 0 .... /
They fuck | you up, | your mum | and dad

Where words are of more than one syllable, word divisions don't always coincide with foot divisions, as in this line by Eliot is in the same metre:

... 0 ... / .... 0 ... / ..... 0 .... / ..... 0 .... /
The win- | ter eve- | ning sett- | les down..

Different metres are classified according to the kind of foot that predominates in a given piece of verse.

Common Metres

The most common metre is
iambic ( 0 / , unstressed followed by stressed, as in the above lines).
Others include
trochaic ( / 0 , stressed followed by unstressed).
anapaestic (0 0 / , two unstressed followed by one stressed).
dactylic ( / 0 0, stressed followed by two unstressed).

Iambic and anapaestic are rising rhythm (rising to a stress), trochaic and dactylic as falling rhythm (falling from a stress) but few poems are wholly one or the other.

The following poem can be scanned as rising rhythm with extra syllables at the ends of lines or as falling rhythm with extra syllables at the beginnings of lines.

The moun|tain sheep | are sweet[er]
...scanned here as rising (iambic)
But the vall|ey sheep | are fatt[er];
...scanned here as rising (iambic/anapaestic)
[We] therefore | deemed it | meeter
...scanned here as falling (trochaic)
[To] carry | off the | latter.
...scanned here as falling (trochaic)
T L Peacock: The War Song of Dinas Vawr

A more significant distinction is between a predominantly disyllabic (iambic or trochaic) metre and one which is predominantly trisyllabic (anapaestic or dactylic). The stanza above, whether defined as rising rhythm or falling rhythm, is undoubtedly and consistently disyllabic (except for the trisyllabic foot at the beginning of line 2). Because no line ends with more than one unstressed syllable, while there are occasionally two at the beginning of a line, I would if you held a pistol to my head class it as rising rhythm.

Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade is in a trisyllabic metre, predominantly dactylic (/ 0 0):

Half a league, | half a league,
Half a league | onward,
All in the | valley of Death 1
Rode the six | hundred....
Cannon to | right of them,
Cannon to | left of them
Cannon in | front of them
Volleyed and | thundered
[1 Notice the elision between adjacent vowels in line 3. Can Death be left unstressed?]

Extra syllables, like that in line 3, are always unstressed.

Stresses Matter More than Feet

Classical metre, based on syllable-length rather than stress, has a foot called the spondee (//)consisting of two heavy syllables, and one called the pyrrhic (00)consisting of two light syllables, but it can be argued that neither is possible in our stress-based metre, where the stressed syllable is like an atomic nucleus in every foot. Every alleged spondee is either two truncated feet or a normal foot with one syllable relatively stronger than the other.

Feet are useful to generalise with but tend to disappear when looked at close to. The following lines by Hopkins are more iambic than anything else, and each complete line may be divided tentatively into five feet, but the number of stresses (5 per line) is what really matters.

Oh the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here, creep....

I would describe the first four syllables as a pair of fused iambs, rather than as a pyrrhic followed by a spondee. The second line begins with a reversed foot (trochaic rather than iambic), and it isn't easy to say which of the following words are stressed and which are unstressed. Stress has to be considered as relative rather than absolute.

Stress-based or Sprung Rhythm

The lines by Hopkins in the previous section could also be considered as sprung rhythm, the term he used for lines with a set number of stresses but a varying number of unstressed syllables.

Coleridge took a similar approach in Christabel, and some of Shakespeare's late blank verse at times almost struggles free of its basic iambic rhythm.

Not everyone will agree with my stress-placings in the examples below, and the foot divisions are not meant to be definitive; indeed the concept of the foot is not really applicable to this kind of verse, although there is no clear dividing line between verse that counts stresses and verse that measures feet.

'Tis the middle | of the night | by the castle | clock

If by | your art, | my dear|est father, | you have
Put the | wild wat|ers in | this roar, | allay them.
The sky, | it seems, | would pour | down stink|ing pitch
But that | the sea, | mounting | to th'welk|in's cheek
Dashes | the fire | out. | O! I | have suffered 2
With those | that I saw | suffer; | a brave | vessel....
The Tempest

[2 fire could be scanned as two syllables]

Types of Line

Lines in metrical and sprung rhythm can be described according to the number of feet or stresses.
2. Dimeter: When I | descend Hardy, The Robin)
3. Trimeter: When I | was one-| and-twenty (Housman)
4. Tetrameter: Had we | but world | enough | and time (Marvell, To His Coy Mistress)
5. Pentameter: To be | or not | to be, | that is | the question (Shakespeare, Hamlet)
6. Hexameter: A peri|phrastic | study || in a worn-out | poetical | fashion (Eliot, East Coker)

All are predominantly iambic except the last, which is stress-based, but in no case is the actual rhythm fully defined by the notional metre. Metre is a digital analysis imposed on analog material. In each of the first two examples, the syllables of the first foot are almost equal in weight, causing the stress to hover. The second example has an extra syllable at the end. The tetrameter line has a reversed foot at the beginning. The pentameter has a reversed foot in the middle and an extra syllable at the end. In most of them the metre plays against the word-divisions and the syntactical or expressive pauses, as well as the differing weights and lengths of syllables. Longer lines, especially hexameters, tend to fall into two sections divided by a caesura.

As a test, the following lines contain examples of a) dactylic dimeter b) iambic trimeter c) iambic tetrameter d) trochaic tetrameter e) anapaestic tetrameter f) dactylic tetrameter g) iambic pentameter and h) iambic(?) hexameter, but not in that order.

1. Earth, receive an honoured guest!(Auden)
2. The stranger from the noisy inn (De La Mare)
3. Just for a handful of silver he left us!(Browning)
4. 'Tis the voice of the lobster; I heard him declare (Carroll)
5. The hop-poles stand in cones (Blunden)
6. Wondering, listening (Hodgson)
7. When I consider how my light is spent (Milton)
8. Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces(Owen)

Types of Stanza

A rhyme scheme can be defined by using identical letters for rhyming lines. Half-rhyme can be treated similarly.
  • Couplets are always aa,bb,cc, etc.
  • Quatrains may be abab, abcb, abba, etc.
  • Ballad Metre consists of abcb quatrains with tetrameter for the first and third lines and trimeter for the rhymes.
  • Terza Rima has interlaced triplets ending with a quatrain: aba bcb cdc efe fgf ghg-h.
  • A Petrarchan Sonnet has an octave rhyming abba abba and a variously rhyming sestet (e.g.cdecde).
  • A Shakespearean Sonnet has three quatrains (abab cdcd efef) and a couplet (gg).

Some poets, such as Donne and Hardy, invent their own intricately rhyming stanzas.

Answers to Test

1. trochaic tetrameter
2. iambic tetrameter
3. dactylic tetrameter
4. anapaestic tetrameter
5. iambic trimeter
6. dactylic dimeter
7. iambic pentameter
8. iambic(?) hexameter

© Brian Fewster,
Leicester Poetry Workshop, 2001

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