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What Is the Function of Meter in Poetry?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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The function of meter in poetry is to provide a rhythmic structure to a poem. Meter governs both the verses as a whole and each individual line or couplet within each verse. Traditional poetic forms have regular and often highly-structured meter, while modern poetry from the late 19th century onwards sometimes does away with meter entirely. This has led to modern poetry becoming more fluid and experimental, but also less structured.

Poetry does not have to use rhyme nor meter. It could use syllable counts or limit its length to that of a single breath as in Japanese Haiku and Tanka. Poems can also employ alliteration as in old English. Structure comes in many different forms from Homer and Virgil’s epic poetry to Matsuo Basho’s minimalist haiku.

There are two subdivisions of meter in poetry: qualitative meter and quantitative meter. Qualitative meter uses stressed and unstressed syllables at regular intervals. Iambic pentameter is a classic example of qualitative meter. Quantitative meter is used in the poetry of classical languages such as Greek and Latin. It is based on syllabic weight, which is determined by the length of a syllable.

Lines in both types of meter in poetry are divided into feet. A foot is a specific order of syllable types almost like a poem’s Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA). A foot, therefore, is the most basic metrical unit in poetry. There are many types of feet depending on what syllables they comprise; for example, a foot with two syllables could be an Iamb, one with three could be a dactyl and one with four could be a Choriamb.

Dactylic hexameter is a quantitative meter used by poets such as Homer in his “Iliad” and Virgil in the “Aeneid.” Each line is comprised of six feet, each of which is either a dactyl or a spondee. A dactyl is comprised of three syllables in the following order: long-short-short. A spondee is made up of two long syllables. The final foot of a dactylic hexameter line of meter in poetry is always a spondee.

Iambic pentameter, a staple of modern English poetry, is a qualitative meter in poetry. A pentameter has five feet in one line. Each foot is an iamb, meaning it has two syllables inside it. An iamb in Iambic pentameter is usually an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. There is some room for variation by having a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one, but the rhythm usually returns to normal in the next foot.

Skaldic and Old English poems use half-lines. They tend to have more variation in the order of stressed and unstressed syllables within each foot. With poems such as “Beowulf” and “The Battle of Maldon,” more importance is put upon alliteration.

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Discussion Comments

By Ruggercat68 — On Jul 22, 2014

@Reminiscence- The same holds true for the other meters in poetry. I had an English teacher who explained that when you scan a poem for meter, you're really listening for a pulse, like a heartbeat or a musical beat.

Iambic pentameter was always the easiest rhythm in poetry for me to hear. It's a loping kind of thing, like a heartbeat. I LOVE to SEE the TREES in BLOOM... You can hear that same beat in the word itself: "i AMB, i AMB". The opposite would be a trochee. TRO key, TRO key.

I think your way of comparing poetry meter to musical meter is the best way to go. I never forgot those poetry lessons from my English teacher over forty years ago.

By Reminiscence — On Jul 21, 2014

Whenever I'm teaching meter in poetry, I usually end up comparing it to musical meter. The different kinds of "feet" in poetry can be compared to rhythms found in music. A dactylic foot in poetry is much like a waltz in music, for example. The first beat in a waltz is strong, then the next two beats are light: "ONE two three, ONE two three..."

A dactylic foot in poetry expresses the same rhythm. The word "dactylic" itself can be pronounced "DAC' tyl lic", just like a waltz. The opposite poetry meter would be an anapest, with two light beats and a strong beat. Some music composer use this same "da da DUM" rhythm to create excitement. You can hear the short, short, long beat by pronouncing "an a PEST, an a PEST".

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