Traditional metres in English verse

Syllables and stress

Before understanding metre, you need to understand what syllables are, and what stressed syllables are in particular.

Any word of more than one syllable (a polysyllable) in English, has one of its syllable stressed rather than the other(s). Thus, the word ‘beauty' has its first syllable stressed rather than the second. We mark this with an acute accent, thus: beáu-ty. We can mark the unstressed syllable with a cross over it as well. If you are not sure which syllable is accented, then try pronouncing the word with different syllables accented, and see which sounds normal. You will soon discover that beau-tée (sounding like boutique) sounds distinctly odd. Some polysyllables, especially those made up of separate words, appear to have both syllables stressed just about equally, like ‘manhole' or even ‘mousehole'. Some times this is called shared stress. In very long words, there may be secondary stress: that is, another of the syllables has some stress to it, but not as much as the main syllable. Thus ‘beautifully' has 4 syllables, and ‘ful' could be said to have a little bit of stress. After all, the word ‘fully' would have a stress on the ‘ful'. We mark secondary stress with a grave accent: beáu-ti-fùl-ly.

When it comes to monosyllables, we have to decide by what part of speech they are, whether we give them a stress or not:

  • sense bearing parts, like verbs, nouns, adjectives and many adverbs are prime candidates
  • whereas prepositions, conjunctions, articles and some adverbs and auxiliary verbs often don't carry much meaning - we could probably understand the sense even without them
  • for example, you could probably gain the sense of a sentence that read: ‘rich kings brought gifts Christ child', whereas a sentence containing ‘and so the their to the' would be incomprehensible. All the monosyllables in the first sentence would be stressed; none in the second.

Metrical feet

In any line of verse, there will be so many stressed syllables, so many unstressed. In traditional verse, poets have arranged these stressed syllables into similar ‘feet'. If you think of music, feet are not dissimilar to bars. There is only ever one stress to a foot, but there can be any number of unstressed syllables. Secondary stresses can be counted or not counted, depending on the poet. Certain patterns have been given names that you need to be able to recognise and label.

Iambic foot

By far the most common is the iamb, or iambic foot. This consists of two syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed.

For example:

‘So bé |begín|ning, bé |begín|ning...' (The Leaden Echo...)

As you see, we mark the feet like bars in music. ‘Be' is stressed because it is a command. Normally we would count it as an auxiliary verb and probably not bother.

Trochaic foot

If we invert this pattern, we have the trochee, or trochaic foot.


‘Rúck and| wrínkle,| dróoping,| dýing,| déath's worst,| wínding|..' (The Leaden Echo...) Anapaestic foot

The anapaest or anapaestic foot is like the iamb but has two unstressed syllables before the stressed. Thus:

‘Of a frésh| and fóll|owing fóld|ed ránk' (Binsey Poplars)

where anapaests alternate with iambs. The two are compatible, since they are both ‘rising' metres, rising to the stress at the end.

Or this:

‘Of the sódden|-with-its-sórr|owing héart' (The Wreck of the Deutschland)

where the ‘-en' part of sodden is really run into the stressed syllable.

Dactyllic foot

The reverse is known as the dactyl, or dactylic foot. This and the trochee are ‘falling' metres. Thus:

‘..wómb-of-all,| hóme-of-all,| héarse-of-all| níght.' (Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves)


Another falling metre not much used in English verse except by Hopkins is the paeon, where three unstressed syllables following the stressed syllable in the foot. Thus:

‘Ó is there no| frówning of these| wrínkles..' (The Leaden Echo)


Hopkins gave his own name to one unusual metre, which he called rocking, where a stressed syllable is surrounded by an unstressed on either side. Thus:

‘That dándled| a sándalled|' (Binsey Poplars)


The one-stress foot is called a spondee. It usually occurs where there is a number of monosyllabic verbs or nouns listed together. Thus:

‘...áll| in twó| flócks,| twó| fólds| - bláck,| whíte;| ríght,| wróng;|..' (Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves)

We have to stress ‘all' and ‘two' here, since Hopkins actually puts the accents over the words in his manuscript.

Line patterning

The number of feet per line is also important in the patterning of verse. They are named after the terms of Greek poetry. Thus from Stanza 2 of The Wreck of the Deutschland:

  • A 2-foot line is a dimeter
    • Eg. ‘I díd| say yés|'
  • A 3-foot line is a trimeter
    • Eg. ‘O at líght|ning and láshed| ród'
  • A 4-foot line is a tetrameter
    • Eg. ‘Thou héardst| me trú|er than tóngue| conféss'
  • A 5-foot line is a pentameter
    • Eg. ‘Thou knów|est the wálls,| áltar| and hóur| and níght:'
  • A 6-foot line is a hexameter
    • Eg. ‘And the míd|riff astráin| with léan|ing of, láced| with fíre| of stréss.'
    • Sometimes the hexameter is called the alexandrine when it only consists of twelve syllables, as in French poetry.

Regular metre

If each line has a regular pattern or metre, we can call the line after its metre and its length. Thus an iambic pentameter would be a line of five feet, all iambics.

Iambic pentameter

This is:

  • the standard length of line of the traditional English sonnet
  • the length of line of the heroic couplet, which are rhyming pairs of iambic pentameters, such as Pope's The Rape of the Lock
  • the length of line of blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameters, used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, in Milton's Paradise Lost, and in Wordsworth's The Prelude.

The predominence of iambic pentameter

There are two main reasons why the iambic is so common in English verse.

The requirements of rhyme

There is a preference in English poetry for masculine rhyme, that is, rhyme on a final stressed syllable. This means the final syllable will be stressed, and therefore the foot will have to be a spondee or a rising metre. Trochaic metres need feminine rhymes, where the last but one syllable is stressed and rhymes, but then the last unstressed syllable also has to rhyme, as in ‘falling/calling'. Where rhymes need to dominate, this is a less preferable option.

English grammar

Iambic metre naturally takes the form of the normal English sentence:

  • English sentences typically start with an article (a, the, some) or possessive adjective (my, his), which would not be stressed
  • This is then followed by a noun or adjective. More often than not, the stress for these is on the first syllable if polysyllables

Thus, a sentence would typically begin with an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable, the mark of the iambic.


‘The yellow puppy quickly followed at my heels'

– not an unusual word order or grammar.

If we scan this, it becomes:

‘The yéll|ow púp|py quíck|ly fóll|owed at my héels|.'

The iambic would demand a stress of some sort, even the smallest secondary, on ‘at', but it would be forcing the sound to put one there. On the other hand, many English poets like to give their iambic pentameters a bit of a rest like this, and not bother to really accent one of the middle feet, though the scansion needs it. It makes for variety and prevents too obvious a rhythm.

Older poets had a large selection of poetic diction to keep the metre regular, whereas Hopkins substituted diction of his own. He was moving away from strict regularity without quite moving into free verse, where all the old traditional patterns are simply discarded.

First foot inversion

Just having the first syllable of a line accented does not necessarily mean a falling metre. The iambic line frequently inverts its first foot, for emphasis or exclamation, for example. After the first foot, the metre returns to a rising one. Thus:

‘Crúshed, why| do mén| then nòw| not réck| his ród?' (God's Grandeur)


‘Lóok at| the stárs....' (The Starlight Night).

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