Types of English Meter

A Brief and Basic Overview

There are 2 basic types of English meter: 2-beat and 3-beat. But I have never read a textbook that accepts that simplicity; instead they want to insist that there are at least 4 basic types (if not more): iambic, trochaic, anapestic, and dactylic. Well, technically this is the traditional description (which I am reducing), and you’ll need those terms to pass a college test introducing you to poetry—but study a little more and you’ll discover that these are actually descriptions of Latin meters, borrowed to describe English. Let us consider them:

2-beat meter (iambic and trochaic) consists of alternating the stress between every other syllable, like these lines from Wordsworth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud (-/-/-/-/)
That floats on high o’er vales and hills, (-/-/-/-/)

Although “as” only gets a stress because it falls between two unstressed syllables, and English speech patterns naturally apply a little more stress in such a situation—but only a little: it’s still less than the naturally-stressed syllables.

Here’s another iambic line:

The remnants of a dream escape my thoughts (-/-/-/-/-/)

We say the line is in iambic pentameter, because it has five iambic (-/) feet, stressing every other syllable. But trochaic meter also stresses every other syllable:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary (/-/-/-/-,/-/-/-/-)

As you can hear, the rhythm is the same; only in trochaic each line starts with a stress and ends with an unstressed syllable. Well—most of the time. For what are we to do with these lines from Scott:

I have strain’d the spider’s thread (/-/-/-/)
‘Gainst the promise of a maid; (/-/-/-/)

Shall we call them trochaic, since they start with a stress, or iambic, since they end with a stress? Beginning a line with “’gainst” instead of “against” seems to indicate a determination to start on a stressed syllable; but of the 16 lines in the full poem, only four end with a complete trochee (/-)… so most teachers will end up calling it iambic (because everything is iambic except Poe’s “The Raven”), and tell you that those lines begin with a “clipped” foot.

Meanwhile, the meaningful distinction between iambic and trochaic meter really comes from Latin poetry, where those terms measure syllable length instead of stress. So I say dash it all and just call refer to it as 2-beat meter. But that tends to annoy teachers of literature who insist that the two meters are different (and yet who are never able of articulating how that difference makes a difference).

Moving on to 3-beat meter—or as the teachers will insist, anapestic, dactylic, and (shudder) amphibrach and amphimacer. Listen to the anapestic from Sir Walter Scott:

O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west, (~/~~/~~/~~/)
Through all the wide Border his steed was the best; (~/~~/~~/~~/)

Or this example from my poem “Faye”—

Deep in the mountains, a maiden awaits, (/~~/~~/~~/)
Confined to a tower, a dragon at guard. (~/~~/~~/~~/)

All of those lines had hour beats, dominated by the anapest (~~/); the first foot was clipped in every line. Invert anapestic, and you get dactylic:

Higgledy piggledy (/~~/~~)

Sorry about the nonsense—dactyls (/~~) at the end of lines result in polysyllabic rhymes, which almost always sound comic in English; so dactylic is almost exclusively employed for comic verse, and often for nonsense verse.

You must be an alien (~/~~/~~)
Sesquipedalian (/~~/~~)

To enjoy such verse. (Actually, I do enjoy such verse.) Anyway, if the lines require polysyllabic rhymes, they get labeled dactylic, and if they don’t, they get labeled anapestic, so

Hickory Dickory Dock (/~~/~~/)

Counts as anapestic after seeming to start with two dactylic feet. Confused? Then your literature teacher makes it worse by telling you about amphibrach (~/~) and amphimacer (/~/)—but will provide you ZERO examples of English poetry written in those meters. Fortunately for you, I have an example:

The kids at the library love when he visits (~/~~/~~/~~/~)
To read to them poems and dramas and stories (~/~~/~~/~~/~)

Yes, I wrote “The Storyteller”—28 lines of natural amphibrach—as a game, to prove that first, it could be done, and second, that it sounds exactly like anapestic meter. In fact, my friend, appreciating the joke, declared it to be written in anapestic “with the first foot clipped and a feminine ending on each line” (yes, we’re nerds). Anyway, anapestic, dactylic, amphibrach—it’s all 3-beat meter, which tends to be more bouncy and quicker-tempo than 2-beat meter. 3-beat meter actually isn’t much used in English—maybe less than 5% of all English poetry, and most of that comic.

Meanwhile sustained amphibrach (/~/) doesn’t exist in English poetry. Neither does spondaic, for that matter, because

We. Do. Not. Talk. This. Way. (/ / / / / /)

Except very occasionally, for particular emphasis.

Of course teachers will continue to teach people about the 4 to 7+ different poetic meters—and bore many students to death, diverting them from the delights to be had in poetry. I think we would be much better off teaching only the two rhythms—2-beat and 3-beat—and letting students feel their impact upon the reader/listener.

Like the post if you agree, and if I haven’t bored you to death myself.

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3 responses

  1. […] new poet writes a short piece in iambic meter, then rewrites the poem in anapestic meter; and lo! they perceive how the change of one rule alters the feeling and impact of the subject […]

  2. […] And if you liked this post, you might also want to check out this one on Art 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 explanation. […]

  3. […] If you liked this post, you might also want to check out this one on Art 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 explanation. […]

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