Definition of Meter

Meter is a literary device that works as a structural element in poetry. Essentially, meter is the basic rhythmic structure of a line within a poem or poetic work. Meter functions as a means of imposing a specific number of syllables and emphasis when it comes to a line of poetry that adds to its musicality. It consists of the number of syllables and the pattern of emphasis on those syllables. In addition, meter governs individual units within a line of poetry, called “feet.” A “foot” of a poetic work features a specific number of syllables and pattern of emphasis.

Perhaps the most famous example of poetic meter is iambic pentameter. An iamb is a metrical foot that consists of one short or unstressed syllable followed by a long or stressed syllable. The structure of iambic pentameter features five iambs per line, or ten total syllables per line. All the even-numbered syllables in this metric form are stressed. Shakespeare is well-known for his use of this literary device, especially in his sonnets. Here is an example from Sonnet 104:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,

Each line features five iambs that follow the pattern of unstressed/stressed syllables.

Common Examples of Metrical Feet

For English poetry, metrical feet generally feature two or three syllables. They are categorized by a specific combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. The most common examples of metrical feet include:

  • Trochee: stressed syllable followed by unstressed syllable, as in “custom”
  • Iambunstressed syllable followed by stressed syllable, as in “describe”
  • Spondeeequal stress for both syllables, as in “cupcake”
  • Dactylstressed syllable, followed by two unstressed syllables, as in “bicycle”
  • Anapesttwo unstressed syllables, followed by a stressed syllable, as in “understand”

The repetition of metrical feet in a line of poetry creates poetic meter, like beats in music. The length of a poetic meter is labeled with Greek suffixes:

  • one foot = monometer
  • two feet = dimeter
  • three feet = trimeter
  • four feet = Iatetrameter
  • five feet = pentameter
  • six feet = hexameter
  • seven feet = heptameter
  • eight feet = octameter

Therefore, the term Iambic Pentameter signifies that a poetic line contains five repetitions of iamb, or a unstressed syllable / stressed syllable pattern repeated five times, as illustrated in the sonnet lines above.

Examples of Meter in Well-Known Words and Phrases

Meter is found in many well-known words and phrases. The English language lends itself to accenting or stressing particular syllables as elements and patterns of speech. Here are some examples of meter in well-known words and phrases:

Trochaic (stressed, unstressed)

  • Gently down the stream
  • Hold your horses
  • Happy birthday
  • Merry Christmas
  • Nice to meet you

Iambic (unstressed, stressed)

  • I pledge allegiance to the flag
  • Your wish is my command
  • It came upon a midnight clear
  • No pain, no gain
  • The buck stops here

Spondaic (stressed, stressed)

Dactylic (stressed, unstressed, unstressed)

  • Where do you think you are going?
  • Easy come, easy go
  • Go forth and conquer
  • Let them eat cake
  • Live long and prosper

Anapestic (unstressed, unstressed, stressed)

  • In the blink of an eye
  • Hit the nail on the head
  • At the drop of a hat
  • Costs an arm and a leg
  • In the blink of an eye

Famous Examples of Meter

Meter is found in many famous examples of poetic works, including poems, drama, and lyrics. Here are some famous examples of meter:

  • Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (iambic pentameter)
  • Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, (trochaic octameter)
  • Out, damned spot! Out, I say! (spondaic trimeter)
  • The itsy, bitsy spider (iambic trimeter)
  • Stop all the clocks, / Cut off the telephone (dactylic dimeter)
  • I wandered, lonely as a cloud (iambic tetrameter)
  • “Forward, the Light Brigade! / Charge for the guns!” he said. (dactylic dimeter)
  • Fair is foul and foul is fair. (trochaic tetrameter)
  • But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? (iambic pentameter)
  • ‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house (anapestic tetrameter)

Difference Between Meter and Rhythm

Many people use the words meter and rhythm interchangeably due to their similarities. However, as literary devices, they are different. Rhythm is a literary device that sets the overall tempo or pace of a literary work. Rhythm can be applied to poetry, free verse, or prose. Meter is a literary device that creates a measured beat, often in a work of poetry, that is established by patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables.

Meter is considered a more formal writing tool, particularly as it applies to poetry. It can enhance the rhythmic quality of poetic writing. However, its purpose is to set steady timing in poetic lines with metrical feet, just as a time signature and metronome might set steady timing in a musical work.

Unlike meter, rhythm is less about a steady and measured beat of syllables. Instead, the purpose of rhythm is to create natural patterns and flow of words that enhance a poetic work’s tone and content. This is especially true for poets that write free verse. In this case, meter is not emphasized to give the verse poetic structure. Instead, poets of free verse focus on natural rhythm and pacing.

Writing Meter

Overall, as a literary device, meter functions as a means of creating structure and musicality in lines of poetry. This is effective for readers in that meter allows for specific patterns, or beats, of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry while simultaneously elevating artistic language. Meter enhances the enjoyment and meaning of poetic works for readers.

It’s important that writers understand the distinction between qualitative and quantitative meter:

  • Qualitative meter features stressed syllables in regular intervals, such as five iambs in a line of poetry. This type of meter creates a consistent flow for readers.
  • Qualitative meter features patterns based on the “weight” of syllables rather than which are stressed. This allows for combinations of meter that still create flow for the reader. For example, a spondee may follow a dactyl in order to facilitate meter in a line of poetry. Rather than the stress on syllables, it is their length or duration that is important.

Here are some ways that writers, and especially poets, benefit from incorporating meter into their work:

Creates Poetic Structure

Meter is an essential element of poetry. This literary device allows readers to understand and feel rhythm in relation to words and lines in poetic works, just as it would with notes in a line of music, providing melodic undertones to poetic compositions. In addition, meter allows writers to work within clearly defined structural elements when composing poetry as a means of providing cadence to the literary piece. Meter not only serves as a benefit to writers in their individual work, but it connects them to other poets as well by enhancing the legacy of poetic traditions such as sonnets, elegies, pastorals, and so forth.

Enhances Artistic Use of Language

Meter also enhances the artistic use of language, which is the foundation of poetry. As a literary device, meter can amplify the meaning of a poetic work by stressing and emphasizing certain syllables or words. This can invoke a pattern of feeling and emotion for the reader that may be lost without such rhythmic structure.

Examples of Meter in Literature

Meter is a very effective literary device, especially in poetic works. Here are some examples of meter and how it adds to the significance and musicality of well-known literary works:

Example 1: Sonnet LXV (Sir Edmund Spenser)

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,

But came the waves and washed it away;

Again I wrote it with a second hand,

But came the tide and made my pains his prey.

Spenser utilizes iambic pentameter in his sonnet, which is the most common meter found in English poetry. In this poem, the iambic pentameter enhances the beauty of the language and poetic lines. The flow of the meter reflects and underscores the imagery of the tide and waves, washing away the written name. This meter provides a natural flow for the subject of the poem in addition to the wording of the poetic lines.

Example 2: Yesterday and To-morrow (Paul Laurence Dunbar)

Yesterday I held your hand,
Reverently I pressed it,
And its gentle yieldingness
From my soul I blessed it.

In this poem, Dunbar uses dactylic dimeter which mirrors the beat of a waltz. This adds a level of musicality and almost a dance-like structure to the poem that is satisfying for the reader. In addition, this emphasizes the action in the poem of the poet holding someone’s hand in a reverent manner, as a dance partner might. The “gentle yieldingness” of the hand evokes a sense of dancing as well, which is supported by the rhythmic structure of dactylic dimeter. Therefore, the reader is able to enjoy a greater understanding of the poetic lines as the meter connects with both the artistic phrasing and action in the poem.

Example 3: When I Was One-and-Twenty (A. E. Housman)

When I was one-and-twenty

I heard a wise man say,

Give crowns and pounds and guineas

But not your heart away,

Housman utilizes iambic trimeter in this stanza to create a firm structure and poetic beat. This adds to the meaning of the poem in terms of the theme of value. For example, the poet assigns value to his age as “one-and-twenty,” which is then echoed by the value of “crowns and pounds and guineas” as currency. The sharp iambic trimeter creates a rhythmic structure and cadence that resembles counting, enhancing the “numeric” value of the poet’s words. This is especially effective as a contrast for the word “heart” in the last line of the stanza, which changes the interpretation of the meter to one of a heartbeat.