Meter is a stressed and unstressed syllabic pattern in a verse or within the lines of a poem. Stressed syllables tend to be longer and unstressed shorter. In simple language, meter is a poetic device that serves as a linguistic sound pattern for the verses, as it gives poetry a rhythmical and melodious sound. For instance, if you read a poem loudly, and it produces regular sound patterns, then this poem would be a metered or measured poem. The study of different types of versification and meters is known as prosody.
Meter and Foot
A meter contains a sequence of several feet, where each foot has a number of syllables such as stressed/unstressed. Hence, a meter has an overall rhythmic pattern in a line of verse, which a foot cannot describe.
Types of Meter
English poetry employs five basic meters including; iambic meter (unstressed/stressed), trochaic meter (stressed/unstressed), spondaic meter, (stressed/stressed) anapestic meter (unstressed/unstressed/ stressed) and dactylic meter (stressed/unstressed/unstressed).
Meter has two subdivisions:
It contains stressed syllables with regular intervals such as iambic pentameter containing even numbered syllables.
Quantitative meter, however, is based on syllabic weight, and not stressed patterns such as dactylic hexameters of classical Greek and classical Latin, however, classical Arabic and Sanskrit also have used this meter. Poets like Virgil used quantitative meter in Aeneid and Homer in Iliad.
Examples of Meter from Literature
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
(Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare)
This is an example of iambic pentameter, which contains first unstressed syllable and second stressed one. Shakespeare has played around on iambic pentameter a lot to create different effects. Here you can see each line consists of accented and unaccented syllables underlined.
Shadows pointed towards the pithead:
In the sun the slagheap slept.
Down the lane came men in pitboots
Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke
Shouldering off the freshened silence.
(The Explosion by Philip Larkin)
This extract contains trochaic meter in which stressed syllables are pronounced loudly. Larkin has written frequently trochaic (accented/ unaccented) tetrameter with four trochees.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
(The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson)
This excerpt presents an example of dactylic meter that contains one accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables.
“Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair…
There was also a Beaver, that paced on the deck,
Or would sit making lace in the bow:
(The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll)
Here you can see Carroll has used different types of anapestic meter, dimeter, trimeter and tetrameter. This type of meter has two unaccented syllables and a third accented syllable.
Cry, cry! Troy burns, or else let Helen go.
(From Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare)
If I do prove her haggard,
Though that her jesses were my dear heart-strings,
(From Othello by William Shakespeare)
Spondaic meter has two accented syllables. You can easily identify this type of meter because it contains both stressed syllables. In the first example, “Cry, cry! Troy burns,” and in the second example, “heart-strings” is showing spondaic meter.
Function of Meter
Though meter is a poetic device, playwrights as well as prose writers often use it to heighten the dramatic quality of the work, adding enchantment, mystery and emotion to their language. If you look carefully, you will notice metrical feet are not only suitable in poetry but also in plays to achieve dramatic purposes. However, its basic function is to provide rhythm, uniformity and give a rounded and well-formed structure to the poetic work. It makes the tone of a language more lyrical. When a situation requires heightened language, the poets use meter for artistic effects. Besides, a meter has importance and value to the readers, which could, however, be lost if paraphrased or translated.