Meter in English Poetry
A few years back Manu Lauria told me about Iambic Pentameters and other stuff
related to the metrical structure of English poetry. But I did not go very deep
into it. A few months back I started writing a bit of English poetry myself and
found myself surrounded with problems and facts related to the meter. I have
learnt a lot of stuff about it through trial, error and re-trial. I though I
should share that with MHFL and VERITAS readers in a joint mail.
First, let’s get to the basics. What is poetry? It is actually a funny
question to ask after 12 years of posting poetry in MHFL. But it is important!
Most people tend to think of poetry as a set of lines that rhyme in a certain
pattern- pairs of lines may rhyme forming a couplet, or lines may rhyme with
alternate lines etc. So most people tend to think of poetry in terms of rhyme.
Let’s examine the following lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost:
Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
There is no rhyme. But it is still a part of a poem. If you speak the lines
loudly you will feel a rhythm- a beat, a repetition of something. That is what
poetry is all about. The rhythmic structure of a poem is called meter.
Rhyme is not necessary. In fact Milton had to say the following about rhyme:
“no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works
especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and
lame meter. . . .”
Milton wrote a lot of his poems in blank verse. Blank verse is when the poem has a
meter but no rhyme. Milton did not consider rhyming necessary, “though it may seem
so perhaps to vulgar readers,”.
So we see that the meter is the music of verse- the rhythm that makes its recitation
pleasurable. Meter depends on the acoustic properties of words. In this post
we shall discuss the meters employed in English poetry. The meters of poetry in
different languages vary because of the way these languages are spoken.
English is a stress-timed language. That means that syllables in English may take
different amounts of time to be spoken. In every sentence certain syllables are stressed
and take more time to speak. A language like Hindi is syllable-timed- each syllable takes
approximately the same amount of time. Of course lots of Hindi speakers speak English
without putting stress at the right places. Stress is extremely important in English speech
Here is a very interesting example that I read from the internet. The sentence:
” The beautiful Mountain appeared transfixed in the distance.”
and the sentence:
“He can come on Sundays as long as he doesn’t have to do any homework in the evening.”
take the same time to speak because both sentences have the same number of stressed
syllables. So in a language like English the syllable stress decides the amount of
time the sentence takes while being spoken.
In English poetry the meter is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables and
their count. The unit of a meter is called foot. Lets take a look at some common
feet in English poetry:
1) Iamb: an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one ( will denote it by da-DUM)
2) Trochee: a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one ( DUM-da)
3) Anapest: Two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable( da-da-DUM)
4) Dactyl: A stressed followed by two unstressed( DUM-da-da)
So we have different kinds of feet. A line will have several feet. If a line has 4 feet
it will be called a tetrameter. A five foot line is called pentameter.
The most commonly used meter in English language is Iambic Pentameter i.e. lines
consisting of five feet, each Iambic( da-DUM). So a Iambic pentameter line would be like:
da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. All of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets and
Milton’s works are in this meter. Here is an example. I have marked stressed
syllables with capital letters and foot boundaries with | :
Love AL|ters NOT| with HIS| brief HOURS| and WEEKS ( 5 feet and each is an Iamb)
Note that sometimes the foot boundaries lies between words at places where syllables
are split. Anything more than six feet per line is too long to make it pleasurable
for recitation. So most english poems are between 2 and 6 feet in metrical length.
Here is an example of Trochiac(DUM-da) tetrameter:
PEter| PEter| PUMPkin| EAter ( 4 feet and each a Trochee)
I have found that writing free verse( without regard to meter) is not difficult at all.
The difficulty and thus the ultimate pleasure of writing poetry comes when you have
to balance the rhyme, meter and the idea. It can become as ecstatically enjoyable and
precise as solving a mathematical problem.
There is much more to poetic structures than just this. The study of meter is called
Prosody. People have devoted their entire careers to it. Great poets employ various
techniques to give their works a more pleasurable feel. Great poets don’t just sit
in gardens and write poems on their beloved’s eyes- they work hard to find words that
fit into meters and make them rhyme.
And I found the answer to something that I had always wondered about: why do poets
sometimes write ever as e’er, even as e’en and loved as lov’d etc? Are poets trying
to look cool? No! This technique is called elision. “Even” has 2 syllables so sometimes
it does not fit in a metrical line. Poets remove one syllable and make it “e’en”.
Poets don’t just think about rhyming the last word of a line! They are thinking
crazily about each syllable- not one more not one less and always maintain the meter!
The study of poetic structures is taking me into great depths of poetry. I have begun to
understand the works of great poets much better. I must invite you to these depths
with this promise; There is pure delight beyond the prose. POETRY! That’s where pure
beauty of words lies.
Here are a few lines that I wrote in Iambic Pentameter( almost, because there is
an extra feminine syllable at the last foot of each line da-DUM-da)
A thing of delight you at once may enjoy,
can open gifts of life with eager fingers,
or studied delay you may choose to employ,
draw pleasure filled drops as longing lingers
( A THING| of DE|light YOU| at ONCE| may EN-joy,
can OP|en GIFTS| of LIFE| with EA|ger FIN-gers,
or STUDIED|ied DE|lay YOU|may CHOOSE|to EM-ploy,
draw PLEA|sure FILL|ed DROPS| as LONG|ing LINgers. )
Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time and regulate the Sun;