Glossary

Term: Metre


Description

Metre is from the Greek word for measuring; at its most basic, metre is a system of describing what we can measure about the audible features of a poem. The systems that have been used in history to structure metres are: the number of syllables (syllabic); the duration of syllables (quantitative); the number of stressed syllables, or accents (accentual); and combinations of the above. English is not a language that works easily in quantitative metre (although this has not stopped people trying), and it has developed an accentual-syllabic metre for its formal verse. This means that, in a formal poem, the poet will be counting the syllables, the stresses, and keeping them to a pattern.

To describe the pattern, the stressed and unstressed syllables are gathered into groups known as feet, and the number of feet to a line gives a name thus:

1 foot: monometer
2 feet: dimeter
3 feet: trimeter
4 feet: tetrameter
5 feet: pentameter
6 feet: hexameter
7 feet: heptameter
8 feet: octameter

Lines of less than 3 or more than 6 feet are rare in formal poems.

The pattern of the syllables within a foot is also noted. A foot that is one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, for example, is an iamb; three of these in a row would be an iambic trimeter, while five make the famous iambic pentameter. All the common feet are outlined under 'Foot' in the glossary.

Like the rhythm in a piece of music, the metre is an underlying structure. Poets often slip in extra feet, or remove them, or change stress patterns around to prevent monotony, like playing rubato. (Sometimes a poem seems to be exploring how far a line can be pushed without losing all connection with the underlying metre.) This means that the discovery of a foot other than an iamb in the middle of what is otherwise iambic, say, does not stop the poem from being iambic; rather the attention ends up lingering at that point, so the word on the different foot ends up more powerful as it has the attention longer. An example of this can be found in Peter Dale's 'Half-Light'; he writes "I'm trying not to give another glance. / Lit window thirty years back up that path." The first line is a perfectly regular iambic pentameter, but the second introduces an extra stress on "Lit", so that what the speaker's trying not to be drawn to seems more powerful, perhaps helping us empathise with him when he does look back and "catch her eye an instant".

How to use this term

While Anthony Thwaite's 'Simple Poem' does introduce variations in almost every line, its underlying metre is still recognisable as iambic pentameter.

Pick a Letter...

Related Poems

Choosing a Name

Holy The Heart On Which We Hang Our Hope

Reading Stevens in the Bath

Translation Workshop: Grit and Blood

A Rose for Janet

A Subaltern's Love Song

For This

Geography Lesson

Miller's End

The Ride

The Yellow Palm

Ode to Didcot Power Station

Ave Atque Vale

Prelude to a New Fin-de-Siècle

Painting of a Bedroom with Cats

For Me

The Ice-Cream Man

Coming Home

Walking Wounded

Four Morbid Songs - an extract

Machines

Piano

Belfast Confetti

The Boneyard Rap

Corpse

Song of the Death-Watch Beetle

Urban Lyric

Enemies

Fundamentals

Ted Hughes is Elvis Presley

Between Hovers

For Meg

Sonnet for Dick

Don't Ask Me, Love, for That First Love

Marigolds

Sigma

On Going Deaf

The Living End

Life Is a Walk Across a Field

The Texas Swing Boys' Dadaist Manifesto

Mayflies

The Mulberry Tree

The Romans in Britain

Timothy Winters

Variation on an Old Rhyme

Granny Is

Holy The Heart On Which We Hang Our Hope

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

Bloodlines - an extract

Don't Ask Me, Love, for That First Love

The Lost Woman

Hypnopaedia

Sea Wind

Shantung

You Were Wearing Blue

You're Beautiful

Cracks

What Is Poetry

Ghazal

Razor

Strugnell's Haiku

A Removal from Terry Street

Ruins of a Great House

Simple Poem

A Supermarket in California

In praise of vodka

Leaving the Tate

Seashell

The Elwood Organic Fruit and Vegetable Shop

A Rose for Janet

Art Class

The Moon Upoon the Waters

Bluebottle

Dad

Mum [Polly Peters]

Waterslain: Diz, Shuck, Beachcomber

Three Limericks

A Given Grace

Belfast Confetti

Fox

Simple Poem

The Yellow Palm

Catmint Tea

Dad

Life Is a Walk Across a Field

The Elwood Organic Fruit and Vegetable Shop

Time

Veteran

Nine to Five

The Annals of Sheer

The Grain of Things

A Minute's Silence

Half-light

Simple Poem

America

At the Grave of Asa Benveniste

Ode to Didcot Power Station

Bats' Ultrasound

On the Ning Nang Nong

The Charge of the Heavy Brigade - an extract

Sniper

For Me

Strugnell's Haiku

The Passionate Pupil Declaring Love

Don't Ask Me, Love, for That First Love

Geography Lesson

Sonnet for Dick

Thief

Fundamentals

Monologue in the Valley of the Kings

Preston North End

Self Employed

Siren Song

Strugnell's Haiku

For John Clare

In The Colonie (an extract: 34)

Use Your Rains

Apologia pro vita sua

In Paris with You

Lord Neptune

The Uncut Stone

You're Beautiful

At the British War Cemetery, Bayeux

Marriage - an extract

Oxygen

Perfection Isn't Like A Perfect Story

Preston North End

The River

Well, Francis, Where's the Sun?

Bloodlines - an extract

Crapshoot

Jessica Learned to Kiss

Dreaming in the Shanghai Restaurant

Incident on a Holiday

The Conjuror

Two Lorries

Fork

Machines

Slow Reader

Thief

Catmint Tea

My Mammogram

Overblown Roses

Sonnet

Sonnet for Dick

The Happy Grass

Window

Hyena

Leaving the Tate

Prayer Before Birth

Reading Leaves

Parliament Hill Fields

The Articles of Prayer

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Considering the Snail

Incident on a Holiday

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

Beyond Decoration

For This

A Barred Owl

A blade of grass

The Happy Grass

The Master of the Cast Shadow - an extract from the sequence Consequences

Missing Dates

Villanelle for the Middle of the Way

Daljit Nagra

Term 1

Each term a different poet is in residence here, talking about poetry with anyone who wants to join in the conversation.

Comic Verse

I'm troubled, as you can tell by my introduction, about comic verse. Comic verse gets bad press because rigid notions of comedy foreground throwaway poems. Surely the best comedy is when the poem surprises us into laughter rather than setting up t... >