You would measure the ingredients to bake a cake using a kitchen scale or a glass or a cup. But how would you measure the rhythm of a poem? This is where the 'meter' comes in. The meter is a unit to measure the rhythm of a poem.

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Table of contents

    Meter: definition


    A term used to refer to how syllables are arranged in a line of poetry

    Meter is created through the arrangement of syllables in a line of poetry. Meter is an essential element of poetry as it creates structure, which is because it dictates the length of every line in the poem. The meter of a poem is determined by two key factors – how many syllables there are and the pattern they create. In a line of poetry, syllables will be grouped together into metrical feet.

    Metrical foot

    A combination of unstressed and stressed syllables in one unit of a line of poetry, sometimes called a poetic foot.

    Types of meter in poetry

    Many types of metres can be found in English poetry. These include iambic pentameter, trimeter, tetrameter, ballad verse, trochaic meter and blank verse.

    Iambic meter


    A metrical foot consists of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable

    One of the most common types of metrical feet is the iambic. A line of poetry written in the iambic meter will be composed of iambs.

    There will be one unstressed syllable within each iamb, followed by one stressed syllable.

    An iamb can be made up of one word, for example, 'little' (lit-tle) or two words, for example, 'one man').

    A specific name is given to the number of iambs in each line. For example, there are five iambs in iambic pentameter.

    Below are three types of the iambic meter – iambic pentameter, iambic trimeter, and iambic tetrameter.

    1. Pentameter


    A line of poetry that consists of five metrical feet.

    Iambic pentameter refers to lines of poetry that have five iambs. Iambic pentameter is one of the most frequently used meters due to how the meter can mimic natural speech patterns. This meter is also commonly used in a sonnet. The frequency of this meter and form paired together has led the two to be thematically linked to love. An example of iambic pentameter is seen in the poem, 'Sonnet 18' (1609) by William Shakespeare,

    Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

    2. Tetrameter


    A line of poetry that consists of four metrical feet

    Iambic tetrameter is another form of iambic meter than is commonly seen in English poems. It is frequently used alongside other meters.

    An example of this is the ballad, which uses iambic tetrameter and trimeter.

    Many poets use iambic tetrameter as it allows for a quicker pace due to fewer iambs in the line than in a line of iambic pentameter.

    Iambic tetrameter is seen in Lord Bryon's poem, 'She Walks in Beauty' (1814).

    She walks in beauty, like the nightOf cloudless climes and starry skies;

    3. Trimeter


    A line of poetry that consists of three metrical feet

    Another popular iambic meter is the iambic trimeter, one of the shortest types of iambic meter, as there are only three iambs in each line. Alongside iambic tetrameter, this meter forms the ballad verse. Poets may use iambic trimeter to create a shorter, snappy tone in their poem.

    A notable example of iambic trimeter being used in poetry can be seen in 'The Only News i know' (1890) by Emily Dickinson:

    The Only News i know

    is bulletins all day

    From Immortality.



    A type of metrical foot that consists of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable

    A trochee is the opposite of an iamb, as it consists of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Lines written in the trochaic meter will end on an unstressed syllable, allowing lines of poetry to flow into each other, making it simple for the reader to follow. However, as they are less common than poems written in iambic meter, this meter can sound unnatural. Therefore, some poets will use this meter to create a tone of dread or discomfort in their work.

    An example of the trochaic meter being used in this way is seen in 'The Raven' (1845) by Edgar Allen Poe:

    Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—



    A break between words in one metrical foot

    Caesuras are a common poetic device used in different meters. The purpose of the caesura is to create an audible pause in a line of poetry, which is typically achieved by placing punctuation between metrical feet in a poem. Caesuras are used to emphasise the previous statement made in the poem. It will also create a disjointed meter that will be broken up.

    Caesuras are used frequently in the poem, 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' (1890) by W.B. Yeats:

    I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;



    When a line of poetry continues without a pause into the next line.

    Enjambment is another poetic device used in verse. Enjambment occurs when there is no clear punctuation break between the lines of a poem. The first line will continue into the next without a pause. Enjambment then creates a fluid meter that runs throughout the poem. Some poets use enjambment to give their poems a prosaic quality.

    The poem 'This Is Just To Say' (1934) by William Carols Williams uses enjambement throughout the piece to represent a note:

    I have eatenthe plumsthat were inthe icebox

    Blank verse

    Blank verse

    A type of verse with no rhyme scheme.

    Blank verse is a specific form of meter that does not use a rhyme scheme. Poems that are written in blank verse will use iambic pentameter. However, it is possible to use other types of meters, such as iambic trimeter. Blank verse is an effective form of meter as it allows poets to follow a form without being restricted by a set rhyme scheme, which allows the poet to explore the themes of their work further.

    'Mending Wall' (1914) by Robert Frost is an example of a poem written in blank verse:

    Something there is that doesn't love a wall,That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

    Mixed meter poetry

    Mixed meter poetry

    Poetry that uses multiple meters within one poem

    Mixed meter occurs in poetry when a poem uses multiple meters. Typically this meter will use iambs or trochees, but it is possible to use both. One of the most common forms of mixed meter poetry is the ballad meter.

    Ballad meter

    Ballad meter

    A type of meter consisting of four-line stanzas, written as alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, sometimes referred to as a common meter

    Ballad meter (or common meter) is a type of meter found in lyrical poems and hymns. The ballad meter comprises alternating lines of iambic tetrameter followed by iambic trimeter. The alternating lines create a musical rhythm in the poem to hold the reader's attention. This form of iambic meter is used in longer poems, as the variation in the lines makes it easy to listen to.

    One of the most famous examples of ballad meter being used in a poem is found in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

    Water, water, every where,And all the boards did shrink;Water, water, every where,Nor any drop to drink.

    Rhythm and meter in poetry examples

    Have a look at the three poems below. Try and sound out each syllable to determine which meter is being used.

    Late August, given heavy rain and sunFor a full week, the blackberries would ripen.

    Seamus Heaney's poem 'Blackberry Picking' (2013) uses iambic pentameter. Each line in the poem is composed of five iambs, consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Heaney uses this meter to replicate a natural speech pattern, which creates a conversational tone to the poem.

    Earth, receive an honoured guest:William Yeats is laid to rest.

    'In Memory of W.B Yeats' (1939) by W. H. Auden is an example of the trochaic tetrameter, which is also an example of mixed meter poetry, as the trochaic tetrameter is only used in the final section of the poem. Here, trochaic tetrameter is used to create a tone of sadness and mourning that is felt throughout the section of the poem.

    I wandered lonely as a cloudThat floats on high o'er vales and hills,

    William Wordsworth's 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud' (1804) is an example of a poem that uses iambic tetrameter. Here, iambic tetrameter mimics the walking pace of the speaker as he wanders, helping bring movement to the image that the speaker is describing.

    Meter: effect

    Meter is an effective tool to convey meaning in a poem. It has the power to dictate how a poem is read and in what tone. When a meter is commonly used with a specific form of poetry, it can be used to convey a theme. Meters such as iambic pentameter have become tied to the theme of love due to their presence in the sonnet. Meter is an essential poetic device as it is used to create rhythm in a poem. This means that it is an effective tool for creating musicality in poems.

    Metre - Key takeaways

    • Meter is how syllables are arranged in a line of poetry.
    • Metrical feet are a combination of unstressed and stressed syllables in one unit of a line of poetry.
    • Two types of metrical feet are iambs and trochees.
    • Iambs consist of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable.
    • Trochees consist of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Meter

    What is a meter?

    Meter is a term used to refer to how syllables are arranged in a line of poetry.  

    How does a meter work in poetry?

    Meter is comprised of how many syllables are in a poem and what pattern they are arranged in.

    What are some examples of meters?

    Examples of meter in poetry include iambic pentameter, and trochaic tetrameter.  

    What are meter and rhyme?

    Meter is a term used to refer to how syllables are arranged in a line of poetry. Rhyme is the repetition of sounds in the end words of lines of poetry. 

    How do you identify a meter in literature?

    To identify a meter in literature, work out how many syllables are in a line of poetry. Then work out if the line starts with a stressed or an unstressed syllable. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which is not a type of meter?

    What two factors determine what a meter is in a poem?

    How many syllables are in one iamb?


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