Meter means “measurement,” and in poetry, it refers to the repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in the lines of a poem. The unit of measurement in poetry is called a metrical foot, which is a set of syllables, usually two or three, with only one receiving a strong stress.
Scanning is the name for the technique of determining the meter of a poem. When scanning poetry, people use an ictus (') to mark a strong stress, and a breve (˘) to mark weaker stress. Another way to describe a metrical foot is to say that each is made up of a particular pattern of strong and weak stresses.
Each metrical foot has a name:
|Name of Metrical Foot||Description||Example|
|Trochee||2 syllables; strong weak||peacock|
|Iamb||2 syllables; weak strong||reprieve|
|Spondee||2 syllables; strong strong||Paul’s cat|
|Dactyl||3 syllables; strong weak weak||entropy|
|Anapest||3 syllables; weak weak strong||Illinois|
|Amphimacer||3 syllables; strong weak strong||M&M’s®|
The trochee, iamb, dactyl, and anapest are those in English that are most likely to form the main body of feet in a poem. The spondee and the amphimacer are generally found as occasional substitutes for an odd foot here or there in a poem that is mainly composed of one of the four other feet mentioned.
One way to help recall each major metrical foot is to connect each to a poem in which it predominates. For example, trochee is the primary form in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha,” in which the hero is introduced with the lines:
The iamb is the principal form in William Shakespeare’s plays. Here's an example from Julius Caesar:
Dacytls are used to begin the Mother Goose rhyme:
Anapests are well-known by many from the poem generally attributed to Clement Moore and titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” but also commonly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”: