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Lexicon Relating to Poetic Metre

by Suzette Richards


Most English words consist of a combination of consonants and vowels. There are very few exceptions, for example, ‘crwth’. Crwth is the Welsh name for an ancient Celtic instrument that is similar to a violin. In Middle English, the instrument’s name was spelled ‘crouth’ before metamorphosing to ‘crowd’, a word still used in some dialects of England to refer to a violin. The word facetious [3 syllables] contains all the vowels in sequence; ~ly [4 syllables]—y is NOT a vowel, but acts like one in poetry for the purpose of scansion.n.

On the other hand, quite a number of words consist purely of vowels. For example, aa (pronounced ‘ah-ah’) is a type of lava; and the longest word consisting entirely of vowels is uoiauai, meaning twin in old English. Combinations of vowels:

ai: (ah’-i) n. (rhymes with ‘cry’) Three-toed sloth of South America.

This word consists of two vowels (‘a’ and ‘i’) and the stress is on the last vowel. Both vowels are pronounced separately. Similar to ‘diary’: di’a-r????y.

bait: v. (rhymes with ‘sate’) Worry animal by setting dogs at it, etc. ‘Bait’ has two vowels that are NOT pronounced separately, ie the diphthong ‘ai’ is pronounced as one sound.


Quantitative verse, in prosody, is a metrical system based on the duration of the syllables (the amount of time it takes to pronounce) that make up the feet, without regard for the accents or stresses.

Syllable counts should be merely an aid in the composition of poetry. We lose the very essence of poetry when we slavishly count syllables like beads on an abacus.

bait: This word consists of two vowels (‘a’ and ‘i’) and two consonants (‘b’ and ‘t’). The diphthong ‘ai’, gives us one syllable count for this word.

baited: v. (Past tense) The additional ‘-ed’ is pronounced in this case and it, therefore, results in an additional syllable count.

atone: (at O’ ne: stress on the ‘o’ ) v.i. Meaning to make amends. This word has three vowels (‘a’, ‘o’ and ‘e’), but only the ‘a’ (un-stressed) and the ‘o’ (stressed) are pronounced, resulting in a syllable count of two.

every: (‘e-vri) a. This word has two vowels (‘e’ X 2) with the stress on the first vowel. However, in poetry, the ‘y’ is also reckoned as a vowel sound. As the second ‘e’ is NOT pronounced, and the ‘y’ counts as a vowel sound in poetry, ‘every’ is seen to have two syllables. Further example: The word ‘very’ has 2 syllables.

poetry: (pronounced ‘poh-i-tree’) Both vowels and the ‘y’ are pronounced [3].

To assist with the pronunciation of words in the English language, symbols are used in a dictionary, for example, an unstressed vowel = ?   ; a stressed vowel = ' ; and to indicate a long sounding vowel = ¯ , for example,  age, ABOVE each syllable. For example, the word poetry would be noted: Po’étry (‘e’ = stressed, ‘y’ = unstressed, & ‘o’ would be a long sound), and it is generally accepted to have three syllables.

Unusual words/foreign words need to be sounded out, for example, nebulæ [3]; négligé [3]; façade [2]; bona fide [3]; bona petit [4]; blasé [2]; clichés [2]; etc.


The Iambic-Trochaic Law, first described by Thaddeus Bolton in 1894, is when every other sound is loud, we tend to hear groups of two sounds with an initial beat. When every other sound is long, we hear groups of two sounds with a final beat. In a 2021, paper Professor Michael Wagner from McGill University, Canada, shows that the rhythm we perceive is due to the two-dimensional parsing of the acoustic stream.

The foot in literary terms refers to two or more syllables that together make up a unit. The smallest unit of rhythm in a poem is the iamb, a metrical foot consisting of an unstressed, followed by a stressed syllable (a short, followed by a long syllable, or one unaccented, followed by one accented syllable). This is known as an iamb metre, and written in poetry notations as: */. The word ‘atone’ (as per my previous example) would be written as: */|. Acephalous refers to the missing first syllable of an iambic foot. The trochaic (opposite to */) is the other short unit: /*.

Much lyric poetry depends on a regular metre based either on the number of syllables or on stress. The most common metrical feet are as follows: 

· Iambic—two syllables, with the short or unstressed syllable followed by the long or stressed syllable: */

· Trochaic—two syllables, with the long or stressed syllable followed by the short or unstressed syllable. In English, this metre is found almost entirely in lyric poetry: /*

· Pyrrhic—Two unstressed syllables: **

· Anapaestic—three syllables, with the first two short or unstressed: **/

· Dactylic—three syllables, with the first one long or stressed: /**

· Amphibrach—three syllables, with the first and last one unstressed: */*

· Amphimacer—three syllables, with a short syllable between two long syllables: /*/

· Spondaic—two syllables, with two successive stressed syllables: //



Some poetic forms have a combination of metres, often using a different metre for the refrain, as discussed under the requirements of certain poetic forms.

Why do we concern ourselves with the design of a particular poem? Unless you are writing in open form, even if you Rap, metre lends rhythm to the poetry penned. You would not dance the foxtrot to waltz music—similarly, metre in poetic forms varies in the rhythm it wishes to attain. Metres are regularised rhythms, an arrangement of language in which the accents occur at apparently equal intervals in time.

The number of metrical feet in a line is described as follows:

· Dimeter—two feet

· Trimeter—three feet

· Tetrameter—four feet

· Pentameter—five feet

· Hexameter—six feet

· Heptameter—seven feet

· Octameter—eight feet


A sequence of lines within a poem is often separated into sub-units, the stanza, or also called a verse. A poem might consist of a single stanza or numerous stanzas. Verse uses line breaks creatively, while prose doesn't.


When a number of lines in a stanza are written in a text format the forward slash [/] is used to donate the line breaks, with space before and after the sign. An example from my poem, With Fresh Eyes, the first stanza:

As we’ve become accustomed t’ crime, / we don’t see anymore— /

a dicey business it could be / when going out your door.


Single syllable content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) are stressed, eg earth, time, ball, see, seen, loud, soft, fast, slow, etc. In two-syllable root words, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs are usually stressed on the first syllable; two-syllable verbs are usually stressed on the second syllable. Therefore, examples of a possible spondee [//] ‘tail’ in a curtal sonnet would be: ‘soft sound’, ‘high clouds’, ‘run fast’, ‘sit still’, etc.

Extract from my book © The Eutony of Words, by Suzette Richards 2021.

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