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Meter

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English Literature

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.

Meter: definition

Meter

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

Iamb

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

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

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 night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

3. Trimeter

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.

Trochaic

Trochee

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—

Caesura

Caesura

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;

Enjambment

Enjambment

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 eaten
the plums
that were in
the 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 sun
For 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 cloud
That 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.

Meter

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

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

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

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. 

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. 

Final Meter Quiz

Question

True or false: Blank verse is always written in iambic pentameter.

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Answer

False. Most of the time blank verse is written in iambic pentameter, but not always. Poetry must be unrhymed and metered to qualify as blank verse. 



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Question

 True or false: Penta means ten in Latin.

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Answer

False. Penta means five in Latin.

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Question

 How many feet are there in line of iambic pentameter?


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Answer

There are five feet in a line of iambic pentameter.


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Question

What constitutes an iambic foot? 


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Answer

A foot, in poetic terms, is a repeated sequence of meters. Therefore, an iambic foot is made up of two syllables: unstressed followed by stressed.

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Question

 What rhythm has been used to describe iambic pentameter?


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Answer

Iambic pentamter is described as having a heartbeat rhythm: de / DUM de / DUM de / DUM de / DUM de / DUM. 

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Question

Which poet believed rhyme does not show literary talent? 

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Answer

Scholars believe Milton thought it does not take much literary talent to think of words that rhyme, it is such more of a skill to write in meter. He declares writing in rhyme is restrictive and limits the ideas you can explore as a writer.



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Question

Why does Shakespeare use caesura in his blank verse writing?


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Answer

Shakespeare employs caesura and enjambment to make the text seem more realistic and conversational, as we naturally pause when we speak. 

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Question

How does blank verse reinforce the meaning of Wordsworth's 'The Prelude'?


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Answer

The blank verse form supports Wordsworth in his journey between his childhood and adult self, as he ponders his past in relation to his future. We see him switching between his present and previous consciousness. The blank verse makes it easier to dip in and out of memories as there are few rules to follow, yet it remains impressive that he is able to write such an intricate narrative in regular meter. 



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Question

Why does Shakespeare use enjambment in his blank verse?


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Answer

Shakespeare uses enjambment to ensure the lines have the correct number of syllables long to fit iambic pentameter. For example, if the lines 'Our fears in Banquo stick deep, // And in his royalty of nature reigns that' was one long line, it would be longer than ten syllables and no longer classes as iambic pentameter.

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Question

How does iambic pentameter make 'My Last Duchess' by Rober Browning seem more sinister? 

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Answer

The upbeat rhythm of the poem (written in iambic pentameter) makes it slightly more sinister as it gives it a musical poetic feeling, which feels out of place given he is talking about how he killed his wife. 

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Question

True or false: Blank verse is popular among poets as it enables them to have the freedom of expression whilst maintaining a poetic rhythm following iambic pentameter or a similar metrical pattern.


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Answer

True. Blank verse is popular among poets as it enables them to have the freedom of expression whilst maintaining a poetic rhythm following iambic pentameter or a similar metrical pattern.

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Question

How does blank verse enhance Frost's poem 'The Death of the Hired Man'?


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Answer

If Frost was to explain the events in prose it would sound mundane, but the iambic pentameter gives it a poetic rhythm which makes it more interesting to read as he is able to embody the characters' emotions in the form. Their anticipation around discovering Silas is back is reflected in the frequent switch between lines broken up by caesura, and others left free-flowing with enjambment. 

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Question

How can blank verse represent character status?


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Answer

Blank verse can also represent high social status as it indicates certain characters are educated enough to speak following a certain rhythm without using rhyme.

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What is the difference between blank verse and free verse?


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Answer

Whilst blank verse and free verse are not restricted by rhyme, they are different in the fact that blank verse follows a metrical pattern, whereas free verse does not.

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Why does blank verse often contain caesura and enjambment?


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Answer

Blank verse often contains enjambment and caesura to stop it from sounding monotonous.

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Question

What are end-stop lines?

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Answer

Lines without enjambment are end-stopped because the sentence finishes at the end of the line. When a line is not end-stopped, it is likely to be an example of enjambment.

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Question

True or false: The word enjambment comes from the French word 'enjamber'

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Answer

True. The word enjambment comes from the French word 'enjamber' which means 'to stride over' or 'encroach', explaining how it links to the English definition of enjambment of words overrunning onto other lines of poetry.  



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Question

How does enjambment quicken the pace of poetry?


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Answer

The enjambment quickens the pace of the poem by reducing breaks between sentences. We read sentences quicker when there is no punctuation to break them up, explaining how enjambment can increase the speed at which poems are read.

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Question

True or false: Enjambment only occurs when a sentence runs onto another line of poetry with no punctuated break.


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Answer

False. Enjambment can also occur when a sentence runs from one stanza or one couplet to another.

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Question

Why do authors use enjambment?


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Answer

Authors use enjambment to control the pace of their poems. Whilst it can allow the poetry to flow freely and fast-paced, it can also be used to create a metrical rhyme scheme by controlling where words are placed to enable particular rhymes.



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Question

How can enjambment alter the rhyme scheme of a poem? 


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Answer

Enjambment can alter the rhyme scheme of a poem when it is used to prematurely break a sentence off, changing the placement on particular words. It could stretch two rhyming words in one sentence over two lines, creating an AA rhyme scheme. 

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Question

Why is enjambment an important poetic device?


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Answer

Enjambment is an important poetic device as it allows the author to have control over the flow of their poem, enabling them to replicate the meaning of the poem in the rhythm of the text.

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Question

What is the difference between enjambment and caesura?


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Answer

Caesura is a pause within a line using a full stop, comma, colon, or another type of punctuation. Enjambment is when a sentence spans over more than one line of poetry, stanza, or couplet. 

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Question

How can enjambment and caesura be used together to disrupt the flow of sentences?


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Answer

Both enjambment and caesura are able to disrupt the flow of sentences when used together. For example, in 'Me, Covered in Ash' Brown offsets traditional sentence structure by including full stops in the middle of lines ('for no apparent reason. Maybe to prove we all') and continuing sentences across multiple lines of poetry. It feels more natural for a sentence to end at the end of the poetic line rather than in the middle.

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Question

What is an example of how enjambment has been used to emphasize free-flowing verse? 


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Answer

Rosetti exclaims her happiness through the free-flowing verse made up of enjambment, quickening the pace, emulating the liberated nature of a singing bird. Readers read quickly through the poem learning of her happiness before they are ground to a halt with the full stop at the end of the stanza. 

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Question

What is an example of how enjambment has been used to regulate the rhythm of a poem?


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Answer

The lack of punctuation in Poem "À la recherche d 'Gertrude Stein" by Frank O' Hara in combination with enjambment helps create a consistently fast pace, as though the speaker is racing through time in order to spend time with his lover. 

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Question

True or false: Caesura is only used in poetry.

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Answer

False. Whilst caesura is considered a poetic technique, it is not limited to poetry. It can also be used in free verse, for example, Shakespeare uses caesura in his plays, many characters have pauses in their lines.

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Question

True or false: Feminine caesura is followed by a stressed or long syllable 

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Answer

False. Masculine caesura is followed by a stressed or long syllable. 



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Question

 How many types of caesura are mentioned in this article, can you list them?


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Answer

4. Masculine and feminine caesura, and medial and terminal caesura. 

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Question

What is a terminal caesura? 


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Answer

A terminal caesura is a caesura used at the end of a text / line, typically following a medial caesura. 

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Question

Where did caesura commonly appear in romantic and neoclassical literature?


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Answer

In neoclassical and romantic verse caesura commonly appears in the middle of the line (medial caesura). 

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Question

How can caesura emphasize certain parts of a poem? 


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Answer

By forcing readers to pause at a particular place in the poem, the author draws their attention to a specific point in the poem. 

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Question

How does the following quote from 'A Proud Blemish' (2017) by Kayo Chingonyi use caesura to highlight the idea of his mum's death?


She's dying but I won't call her dead, can't let mum

Become a body, a stone, an empty hospital bed. 


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Answer

The caesura singles out the imagery of a stone as the phrase 'a stone' is isolated by commas. We are left with the startling image of a stone-cold dead woman, a mother, who meant so much to her son. 

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Question

How does caesura help replicate the natural flow of language?


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Answer

When we talk, we pause to consider our thoughts and think about what to say next. Authors use of caesura makes the speaker's speech seem more authentic / realistic as it leaves them space to consider their word choices.

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Question

How can caesura be used to disrupt the flow of language?


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Answer

Too many pauses in one line disrupt the natural flow of language. If an author employs multiple pauses in one line they may be attempting to create a disjointed feeling in the text. 

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Question

What is an example of how caesura has been used to create a disjointed feeling in a text? 


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Answer

Wendy Cope's use of caesura in the second line disrupts the flow of the text, mirroring the jaunty awkwardness of trying to avoid eye contact with another person. 


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Question

True or false: Caesura is always indicated with a comma, colon, or full-stop.


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Answer

False. Whilst we can spot caesura when we see a comma, colon, or full-stop in the middle of a of line poetry, caesura can sometimes be expressed by the use of lines, either slashed (//) or upright (||). 

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Question

What effect does caesura have on Iago's soliloquy in Othello, Act 2, scene 1?


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Answer

Shakespeare's use of caesura makes Iago's speech seem more authentic and realistic and it leaves him space to ponder how his plan will unravel. 



Show question

Question

True or false: Caesura is always a definitive pause. 


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Answer

False. Caesura doesn't have to be a definitive pause, it can be anything between a momentary stop or an illusion to a break in a line. 



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Question

What is medial caesura?


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Answer

Medial Caesura is when caesura occurs in the middle of a line 

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Question

How has the placement of caesura changed in modern literature?


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Answer

Throughout history, caesura has differed in its placement in poetry. In neoclassical and romantic verse caesura commonly appears in the middle of the line (medial caesura). However, in modern contexts the placement of caesura is more changeable, occurring at the start, middle, or end of a line (terminal caesura).



Show question

Question

How many syllables does the iambic pentameter contain?

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Answer

10

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Question

Which is the most frequently used meter in English poetry?

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Answer

Iambic pentameter

Show question

Question

Iambic pentameter begins with...

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Answer

An unstressed syllable

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Question

Which of the following is NOT true of the iambic pentameter?

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Answer

It must be an end-stopped line

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Question

Which of the following word is NOT an example of the iambic foot?

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Answer

Impossible

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Question

In a line of the iambic pentameter, the iambic foot is repeated how many times?

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Answer

5

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Question

Which of the following is NOT an effect of the iambic pentameter?

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Answer

It evokes fear

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a line in iambic pentameter?

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Answer

Tyger Tyger! Burning Bright!

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Question

Which type of poem typically features the iambic pentameter?

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Answer

A sonnet

Show question

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