The Meter of the English Verse

The Metre of the English Verse


Poetry, it should be noted, is a disciplined endeavour. There are rules that govern the writing of a particular type of poetry like the epic, sonnet, haiku and limerick. Metre is one of such rules. It refers to the regular distribution of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of a poem. Each set of stressed and unstressed syllables is called a foot. The process of determining the pattern of distribution of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem is called scansion. The word ‘prosody’ can also be used to describe metre though it is more comprehensive as it accounts for the study and use of non-segmental or suprasegmental features in language and literature.There are four major or standard feet in English poetry. These are iamb, trochee, anapaest and dactyl.

Iamb: The iamb(ic) verse foot is made up of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. Examples of words with iambic syllable structure are: re-TURN, de-MAND, and be-TWEEN.

Trochee: The trochaic verse foot is made up of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Examples of words that have trochaic syllable structure are VIC-tor, GODS-will, AM-brose and LO-yal.

Anapaest: The anapaestic verse foot is made up of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. Examples of words with anapaestic verse structure are: guar-an-TEE, per-son-NEL, and com-mi-TTEE.

Dactyl: The dactylic verse foot is made up of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. Examples of words with anapaestic syllable structure are PER-son-al, WON-der-ful and BEAU-ti-ful.

If a line of a poem contains a foot, it is called monometer. If it contains two feet, it is called dimeter, 3 is trimeter, 4 is tetrameter, 5 is pentameter, 6 is hexameter, 7 is heptameter and 8 is octameter.

Meter results in rhythm which makes the poem musical and melodious.

Example of Iambic Verse

Scan the following poetry excerpt

A belt of straw and Ivy buds,

With Coral clasps and Amber studs:

And if these pleasures may thee move,

Come live with me, and be my love.

  • To determine if a poem has meter, one should first count the syllables per line for regularity in the number of syllables. If all the lines have the same number of syllables, that means the poem has metre.
  • For instance, the poem above has eight (8) syllables per line, which is an indication that it has metre. But note that this might not always be the case. There are instances in quatrains where the first line has the same number of syllables with the last line and the second and the third lines have the same number of syllables different from the first and the last line. In this, there is still regularity in the number of syllables and it suggests the presence of meter. 
  • The next step is to scan the poem for the distribution of stressed and unstressed syllables. Here, one should not expect to see words in structures similar to the words mentioned above in the examples of verse feet. Rather one should combine one’s knowledge of English stress with the flow of rhythm in the poem. For instance, articles such as ‘a’ and ‘the’ are never stressed. In the extract above, it is clear that the first syllable ‘a’ is unstressed, followed by ‘belt’ which is stressed and then followed by ‘of’ which is a preposition and cannot be stressed when used in a stretch of utterances. Thus, it can be said that the scansion of the poem is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable thus,
  • a/ BELT/ of /STRAW/ and/ I/-vy/ BUDS
  • The letters in capital constitutes the stressed syllables while those in small letters represent unstressed syllables. Recall that an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable has the iambic rhythm.
  • The next thing is to count the number of times that each set of unstressed and stressed syllables occur in a line. This is to determine the type of meter. In the excerpt above, the foot occurs four times, meaning that there are eight syllables per line. If a foot occurs four times in a line, it is called tetrameter. Thus, the poem is written in iambic tetrameter.

Example of Trochaic Verse

See in yonder manger low,

Born for us on earth below,

See the tender Lamb appears,

Promised from eternal years.

  • A careful examination of the extract indicates that it is different in word structuring compared to the first one. For instance, unlike the first extract, content words like ‘see’, ‘born’ and ‘promised’ begin this extract, which means that they are all stressed. After these content words, you can notice function words like ‘in’, ‘for’ and ‘the’ which cannot be stressed. This should immediately suggest that the scansion of the poem is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable thus,

SEE in YON-der MAN-ger LOW




  • The scansion of the poem shows that it is written in trochaic verse foot. The poem is written in catalectic trochaic tetrameter. It is catalectic because the syllables are incomplete, with seven (7) syllables instead of eight (8). The first excerpt is acatalectic because the syllables are complete.

Example of Anaepestic Verse

The Assyr/ian came down /like the wolf/ on the fold,

And his co/horts were glea/ming in pur/ple and gold/;

And the sheen/ of their spears/ was like stars/ on the sea,

When the blue wave rolls night/ly on deep/ Galilee/.

  • The poem is written in anapaestic tetrameter.

Example of Dactylic Verse

Eve, with her/ basket, was/

Deep in the/ bells and grass/,

Wading in/ bells and grass/

Up to her/ knees.

  • The poem is written in dactylic dimeter. It should be noted that, of the four metrical feet outlined, the iambic and the trochaic verse feet are the most popular, whereas the anapaestic and dactylic meters are rare and incidental, meaning that they tend to occur alongside other metrical types like spondees. A spondee is a metrical foot that comprises two stressed syllables. An instance of incidental metre is seen in William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’

O Rose/ thou art sick

The invi/sible worm,

That flies/ in the night

In the how/ling storm. . .

In the excerpt, ‘O Rose’ is a spondee while ‘thou art sick’ is an anapaestic foot. The second line is written in anapaestic dimeter. The third line combines iambic foot with a dactylic foot while the fourth line combines an anapaestic foot with an iambic foot. The opposite of a spondee is a pyrrhic, which is made up of two unstressed syllables in a line of a poem. The pyrrhic foot, like the spondee, is also incidental.


Determine the meter of each of the following expressions

  1. My hope is built on nothing less.
  2. Mother cannot pay her school fees.
  3.  Fly Hope! Cry fiend!
  4. In the dark was a man with a gun.
  5. Sing a song and clap your hands.
  6. When I survey the wondrous cross.
  7. The vulture eats between his meals.
  8. Count your blessing, name them one by one.
  9. Tell us pilgrims what ye hope for.
  10. You are the voice the world awaits.

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