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Meter and Foot in Poetry

Meter in poetry is a way of measuring a line of poetry based on the rhythm of the words. The meter of much poetry of the Western world and elsewhere is based on particular patterns of syllables of particular types.

Foot in poetry is a unit of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, look at this line from Shakespeare: "No longer mourn for me when I am dead." The rhythm is, "bah-BAH bah-BAH bah-BAH bah-BAH bah-BAH. We read it like this: "no LON-ger MOURN for ME when I am DEAD." The type of foot Shakespeare used here is called an iamb. An iamb or an iambic foot has the rhythm bah-BAH. An unstressed syllable, then a stressed one. The iamb is the most common kind of foot in English poetry.

Chart below ©1999 H. T. Kirby-Smith

IAMBIC TROCHAIC ANAPESTIC DACTYLIC OTHER
monometer
* /
monometer
/ *
monometer
* * /
monometer
/ * *
amphimacic monometer
/ * /
dimeter
* / | * /
dimeter
/ * | / *
dimeter
* * / | * * /
dimeter
/ * * | / * *
amphimacic dimeter
/ * / | / * /
trimeter
* / | * / | * /
trimeter
/ * | / * | / *
trimeter
* * / | * * / | * * /
trimeter
/ * * | / * * | / * *
amphibrachictrimeter
* / * | * / * | * / *
tetrameter
* / | * / | * / | * / |
tetrameter
/ * | / * | / * | / *
tetrameter
**/ | **/ | **/| **/
tetrameter
/** | /** | /** | /**
tetrameter
pentameter
* /|* /|* /|* /|* /
pentameter
/ *| / *| / *| / *| / *
pentameter
**/|**/|**/**/|**/
pentameter
/**|/**|/**|/**|/**
amphibrachicpentameter
hexameter
*/|* /|* /|* /|*/|*/
hexameter
/* |/* |/*|/* |/* |/*
hexameter
(six feet)
hexameter
(six feet)
hexameter
heptameter
*/|* /|* /|* /|*/|*/|*/
heptameter
/*|/* |/*|/* |/* |/*|/*
heptameter
(seven feet)
heptameter
(seven feet)
heptameter
(seven feet)
octameter
(eight feet)
octameter
(eight feet)
octameter
(eight feet)
octameter
(eight feet)
octameter
(eight feet)
alternating iambic tetrameter and dimeter trochaic tetrameters with one dimeter per stanza anapestic dimeters and trimeters dactylic tetrameters and trimeters
alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter (common measure, ballad meter) anapestic tetrameters and trimeters dactylic tetrameters and dimeters alternating amphibrachic tetrameter and trimeter (sort of)
iambic trimeter lines 1,2,4; tetrameter in 3 (short measure)

Please note that the templates above almost never fit an actual poem exactly. If we use this foot-based method to describe poetic meter in English, we have to allow for abundant "substitution," where any iamb ( * / ) can become a trochee ( / * ), a spondee ( / / ), or a pyrrhic ( * * ). Trochaic rhythm tends to be somewhat more regular, but substitutions occur there as well. Sometimes poets introduce three-syllable feet into a line of iambs or trochees, and three-syllable (or "triple") footed meters often shift from anapests ( * * /), to dactyls ( / * * ), amphibrachs ( * / * ), amphimacers ( / * / ), and other combinations.

Note that spondaic meters or pyrrhic meters (as opposed to individual feet) in English are impossible because of the constant alternation of stressed and unsrtessed syllables. Despite this obvious truth, some discussions of English metrics speak of spondaic meter and even attempt to illustrate it with lines isolated from poems written in iambic or anapestic meters.