Meter In English Poetry The Metrical Foot

Scansion is the analysis of metrical foot, the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables a poetic line.

The word "meter" comes from the Greek word for "measure." The term refers to a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poetic line. In English poetry, meter is determined by the number of stresses per line, and usually a poem written in metrical verse will keep to a basic, identifiable pattern, though variation may be achieved through deliberate substitution of different metrical feet into the basic pattern.

The conventional symbols used in scansion are / , to indicate a stressed syllable, and either X or a curved line like a shallow U, to indicated an unstressed syllable.

The metrical foot is the basic unit of meter. The most common metrical feet and their patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables are as follows:

iamb: X /

trochee: / X

anapest: X X /

dactyl: / X X

spondee: / /

pyrrhic: X X

The meter of a poem is determined by the predominant metrical foot, and by the number of feet per line that predominates in the poem. The following terms indicate the number of feet per line:

monometer: one foot per line

dimeter: two feet per line

trimeter: three feet per line

tetrameter: four feet per line

pentameter: five feet per line

hexameter: six feet per line

heptameter: seven feet per line

octameter: eight feet per line

Although there are terms for longer lines, the fact is that if a line gets much beyond eight feet (and even if it approaches eight feet), it tends to break into two shorter lines, simply because the speaker must pause for breath.

This is how the terms are used to describe the meter of a poem: A poem written in predominantly iambic meter, with five feet per line, would be called "iambic pentameter." One written in primarily trochaic meter, with four feet per line, would be "trochaic tetrameter." One written in anapestic meter, with three feet per line, would be "anapestic trimeter."


The oldest metrical pattern in English poetry is accentual meter, also called strong-stress or alliterative-stress meter. In most Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poetry, each line is organized by stress and by alliteration. The line is divided into two half-lines (distichs), with a strong caesura (pause) in the middle of the line. Each distich is dominated by two heavily stressed syllables and contains a variable number of unstressed syllables. One or both stressed syllables in the first distich will alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the second distich. For example, take the first two lines of "Caedmon's Hymn," an eighth-century poem in Anglo-Saxon strong-stress meter:

He aerest sceop

aelda bearnum

Heofon to hrofe,

halig Scyppend.

After the Saxons were conquered at the Battle of Hastings (1066) by the Norman French under William the Conqueror, the native Saxon accentual meter was replaced by metrical patterns found in Old French poetry. Nevertheless, the Old-English alliterative-stress metrical pattern has continued to be used on occasion by English poets, right up to the present time.

The new poetry that began to emerge in England in the fourteenth century, as a consequence of the introduction of French metrical patterns, used the accentual-syllabic metrical structure, the basic unit of which is the foot. Accentual-syllabic meter accounts for the vast majority of poems in the English language, although non-metrical poetry, such as free verse, is currently much more in vogue.

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