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What are Metrical Feet?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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Meter means “measurement,” and in poetry, it refers to the repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in the lines of a poem. The unit of measurement in poetry is called a metrical foot, which is a set of syllables, usually two or three, with only one receiving a strong stress.

Scanning is the name for the technique of determining the meter of a poem. When scanning poetry, people use an ictus (') to mark a strong stress, and a breve (˘) to mark weaker stress. Another way to describe a metrical foot is to say that each is made up of a particular pattern of strong and weak stresses.

Each metrical foot has a name:

Name of Metrical FootDescriptionExample
Trochee2 syllables; strong weak peacock
Iamb2 syllables; weak strongreprieve
Spondee2 syllables; strong strongPaul’s cat
Dactyl3 syllables; strong weak weakentropy
Anapest3 syllables; weak weak strongIllinois
Amphimacer3 syllables; strong weak strongM&M’s®

The trochee, iamb, dactyl, and anapest are those in English that are most likely to form the main body of feet in a poem. The spondee and the amphimacer are generally found as occasional substitutes for an odd foot here or there in a poem that is mainly composed of one of the four other feet mentioned.

One way to help recall each major metrical foot is to connect each to a poem in which it predominates. For example, trochee is the primary form in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha,” in which the hero is introduced with the lines:

There the wrinkled old Nokomis, Nursed the little Hiawatha...

The iamb is the principal form in William Shakespeare’s plays. Here's an example from Julius Caesar:

The evil that men do lives after them;The good is oft interred with their bones.

Dacytls are used to begin the Mother Goose rhyme:

Hippity hop to the barber shop...

Anapests are well-known by many from the poem generally attributed to Clement Moore and titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” but also commonly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...
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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By hyrax53 — On Jan 29, 2011

While there are many kinds of metrical measurement for poems, the most commonly known is probably iambic pentameter, which as its name describes involved lines of 5 iamb feet, or ten syllables altogether. It is the one used by William Shakespeare in nearly all of his works, for two reasons. One that it sounds most like normal speech. Secondly, that normal speech pattern also most mimics the human heartbeat as well.

By habura — On Jul 02, 2008

A poet named Samuel Taylor Coleridge made up a poem to remember the different types of metrical feet. I'm sure if you google his name you'll find it if you're interested.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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