What is Formal Meter?

A Brief and Basic Overview

Formal meter refers to the basic rhythmic structure that separates a language’s poetry from its prose. In English, that structure is based upon the number and alternation of stressed syllables (accentual-syllabic). Other languages have their own forms, according to the : Japanese and Korean poetry, for example, is based upon syllable number; classical Greek and Latin poetry was based upon syllable length and number; and Old English poetry was based upon stress and alliteration (accentual-alliterative). These poetic properties emerge from the constraints of their language: English words, for example, have varying amounts of stress, with polysyllabic words having both stressed and unstressed syllables; in contrast, Korean words have all their syllables stressed equally, so number becomes recognizable where alternating stress is not.

Rhyme is a common accompaniment to English meter, but not a fundamental component. Poetry can be written in meter (alternating stress) without being written in rhyme; this is called blank verse—not to be confused with free verse, which does not bother with alternating stress. However, the rich vocabulary of English, being developed from German, French, and Classical sources, enables rhyme to feature more prominently in English poetry than in the poetry of other languages: in an inflected language like French or Latin, in which many words have the same endings, rhyme is less significant.

In English accentual-syllabic meter, poems are formed by what type of alternation they use (every other syllable, or every third syllable), and how many stresses are contained in each line. A sonnet, for example, is in iambic pentameter, meaning that every other syllable is stressed, and 5 stresses are in each line (-/-/-/-/-/). Some poems have lines of varying length: a limerick, for example, is written in anapestic meter (~~/), with its first, second, and fifth lines (which are rhymed with each other) with three stresses each, and its third and fourth lines (rhymed with each other) with two stresses each. But knowing the nomenclature isn’t necessary for hearing and feeling the meter of the poem:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary

Whether you call that trochaic meter or not, you can feel the beat. It feels different from the prose sentences in this paragraph. Why? Because the beat alternates (/-/-/-/-,/-/-/-/-). In contrast, if I scanned this sentence it would look like this: ~/~, ~~///~~~/~/. Consider another:

The water glides across her calves beneath her shortened jeans (scans -/-/-/-/-/-/-/)

or another pattern:

There never was knight like the young Lochinvar. (scans ~/~~/~~/~~/)

This is the essence of traditional English meter: crafting words in such a way that they naturally sound out rhythms of alternating stress. (If they are sounding them out unnaturally, being forced into the meter, that is a mark of bad prosody—all to common among song lyrics and preschool rhyming books today). When done well, the rhythm enlivens the content of the poem; when done poorly, it distracts from it.

Before the advent of free verse, meter (not content) was the defining feature of poetry (even Wordsworth, who defined poetry in terms of its content, wrote exclusively in metrical form). Since free verse appeared as an alternative to this poetic form, formal meter has become less popular, with more new free verse being published. And since free verse is not defined by its form, there has been some confusion about the nature of traditional poetry. I rather wish the two kinds of literary output had different names; but I am not the god of literature, so we shall have to make do with one name to share between both types of output. But hopefully, we can still recognize the difference between the two—and avoid trying to argue that one kind of poetry is the other.

All the poems on this site are in formal (traditional) English meter, for those who still enjoy that kind of thing—and for those who might discover a new enjoyment in it. So please, look around; and if it does bring you some delight, share it.


3 responses

  1. […] in Poe’s The Raven, or these other posts analyzing poetic construction. Or, if you are new to formal English meter (or just have to write about it for a school assignment), this post will give you a starting […]

  2. […] Poe’s The Raven, or these other posts analyzing poetic construction. Or, if you are new to formal English meter (or just have to write about it for a school assignment), this post will give you a starting […]

  3. […] If you enjoyed that, you can listen to some more anapestic meter here. If you have a Kindle, you can pick up my book, Visions, for only 99 cents! And if you’d like to learn more about meter, a good place to start is here. […]

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