Thursday, September 10, 2009

Meter in English Poetry

Meter in English poetry consists of a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables which create rhythm. This combination can be further analyzed as a foot , a specific pattern of syllable types in each verse. However, it is important to note that many poems have a few verses which do not follow the overall pattern of the poem.

Meters that are common in English poetry include iambic and trochaic. To a lesser extent, English poems also use spondaic, anapestic, dactylic and amphibrachic. Iambic meter is the most common of all. This is the meter used in poems known as sonnets which consist of fourteen verses.

In iambic meter, the stress pattern is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. We see this pattern in the first verse of William Shakespeare's 18th sonnet: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" The verse has ten syllables divided into five feet, units consisting of unstressed and stressed syllables. Notice that "Shall" is unstressed and "I" is stressed. This pattern repeats itself throughout the verse.

Trochaic meter is the opposite of iambic. In trochaic meter, the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed. We see this pattern in the first verse of Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice": "Some say the world will end in fire". In this verse we have eight syllables and four feet.

Spondaic meter has no unstressed syllables. Here the pattern is two stressed syllables. This pattern is not so common in English poetry but can be seen in this verse from John Milton's Paradise Lost: "Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens." Each word in this verse is monosyllabic.

Anapestic meter consists of three syllables in which the first two are unstressed and the third is stressed. We see this pattern in the first verse of Clement Clarke Moore's "The Night Before Christmas." The first verse is" Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house". The verse consists of twelve syllables which can be further divided into four feet.

Dactylic meter can be considered the opposite of anapestic. It also consists of three syllables but the first syllable is stressed and the last two are unstressed. An example of dactylic meter can be seen in this verse from Lord Alfred Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade": "When can their glory fade?" This verse has six syllables which can be further divided into two feet.

Amphibrachic meter also consists of three syllables. The first and third syllables are unstressed and the second syllable is stressed. Thus the syllable in the middle of the foot is stressed while the other two are unstressed. This meter is not so common in English poetry but occurs in poems known as limericks. The first verse of this untitled poem by Edward Lear is an example of amphibrachic meter: "There was a Young Lady from Norway."

Meter is an important part of poetry. The types of meter that are used can vary from one language to another. The most common types of meter in English are those that consist of two syllables: iambic, trochaic and spondaic. Those that consist of three syllables such as anapestic, dactylic and amphibrachic are also used but not as frequently. In fact, poems may use these types of meter in part because many poems use a combination of meters.

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