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Metrical Foot

Metrical foot sounds like an interdenominational nightmare! Worry not! Metrical feet are the basic rhythmic structure of a verse in poetry. Each metrical foot consists of a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, an 'iamb' is a type of metrical foot that consists of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in the word 'believe'. We’ll be looking at one of the most elementary building blocks of poetry as well as the types of metrical feet and examples of a specific metrical foot in poetry!

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Metrical Foot

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Metrical foot sounds like an interdenominational nightmare! Worry not! Metrical feet are the basic rhythmic structure of a verse in poetry. Each metrical foot consists of a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, an 'iamb' is a type of metrical foot that consists of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in the word 'believe'. We’ll be looking at one of the most elementary building blocks of poetry as well as the types of metrical feet and examples of a specific metrical foot in poetry!

Metrical Foot: definition

Most poems, especially ones we would call ‘formal poems’ or ‘metrical poems’, have some sort of meter. The ‘metrical’ part of metrical foot refers to meter, as metrical feet are what comprise the meter of a poem.

Meter is the part of the poem that gives it its rhythm, its rise-and-fall, songlike cadence. There are two main aspects of meter:

  • The stressed and unstressed nature of the syllables.
  • The number of syllables in each line.

When we’re looking at the metrical foot, we’re thinking mainly about that first aspect. A metrical foot is simply a collection of stressed and unstressed beats – usually two or three syllables. There are several types of metrical feet in English poetry, including iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, spondee, and pyrrhic, each with its own distinctive pattern of stress.

Metrical Foot: types

Metrical shoes aren’t one-size-fits-all – there are many types of metrical feet in different shapes and sizes. The most common kinds of metrical foot are disyllables (2 syllables) and trisyllables (3 syllables).

Disyllables

Disyllables are the smallest kinds of metrical feet; they are made up of two syllables.

Iamb

dee DUM | dee DUM | dee DUM

We’re starting with an absolute classic. Iambic verse has been around since the days of antiquity, and for a good reason – out of all the metrical feet, iambic verse resembles regular human speech the closest. An iamb is made up of just two syllables – an unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat.

  • A-gain
  • Be-spoke
  • Ce-ment
  • To be

Iambs make up the most famous type of metric line in the English language, Iambic Pentameter. Iambs can be found in most English formal poetry in various forms, from writers such as William Shakespeare, John Milton, Emily Dickinson and Christina Rosetti.

Iambic pentameter is a line of poetry made up of five iambs, hence ‘penta’ (penta is Greek for five).

Trochee

DUM dee | DUM dee | DUM dee

A trochee is the opposite of an iamb – a stressed beat followed by an unstressed beat. This can often be inserted into a line of iambic verse to put emphasis on a certain word or two words. This technique is known as an ‘inverted foot’. Trochees are not quite as ubiquitous as iambs, but they are still extremely common. One notable case is Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ (1845), which is written almost exclusively in trochees.

  • Sha-dow
  • Eng-lish
  • Da-vid
  • Stel-lar

Spondee

DUM DUM | DUM DUM | DUM DUM

Spondee is made up of two stressed syllables. Spondee is an interesting one because it’s pretty much impossible to make an entire poem out of it. It is often found in commands or phrases made up of two words, as most words in English are made up of stressed and unstressed syllables. Here are some examples:

  • Let’s go!
  • Tom Jones
  • Big deal

Trisyllables (three-syllable feet)

Don't worry, these aren't any more complicated, just one syllable longer!

Dactyl

DUM dee dee | DUM dee dee| DUM dee dee

The dactyl is our first three-syllable foot, and it is made of a stressed beat followed by two unstressed ones.

  • Po-et-ry
  • E-le-phant
  • Ann-a-belle

Like trochee, a dactyl foot is often used for effect. For instance, it could be used to break up a line of iambic pentameter. It can also be used on its own to great effect – Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854) is written in dactylic meter.

Anapaest

Dee dee DUM | Dee dee DUM | Dee dee DUM |

The anapaest is the last of the five most important metrical feet and the second least common of the five (after spondee). It creates a lolloping, casual rhythm, so it’s often found in more casual or comic verse. If you’ve read a limerick, you’ll be very familiar with the anapaest, as they are almost exclusively written in anapaestic verse.

A limerick is a poem that is usually comedic and always in the rhyme scheme AABBA, with the third and fourth lines shorter than the others.

Anapaestic words and phrases:

  • Un-der-stand
  • Rec-og-nise
  • Gra-vi-ty

Appended here is a list of a few more metrical feet. The ones we've listed will be the most common ones you'll come across and want to talk about, but it never hurts to know even more.

Types of Metrical Foot
Stress PatternName of Metrical Foot
dee deePyrrhus
DUM DUM DUMTribrach
dee dee deeMolossus
dee DUM deeAmphibrach
dee DUM DUMBacchius
DUM DUM deeAntibacchius
DUM dee DUMCretic

Metrical Foot in poetry

In poetry, metrical feet are used to create a rhythmic structure. This structure is integral to the composition and reading of the poem. The type of metrical foot used, and its frequency within a line of poetry, determines the metrical pattern of that line. For instance, a line of iambic pentameter, a common metrical pattern in English verse, has five iambs - five sets of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables - in each line. This can be seen in the opening line of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'

Now that we know the various types of metrical feet, we can have a look at the different ways in which they are used in poetry.

Here's a line of poetry.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art -

-John Keats, 'Bright Star' (1838)

To figure out what sort of meter this line is, let’s look back at the two aspects of meter that we listed earlier:

  • The stressed and unstressed nature of the syllables

  • The number of syllables in each line

So first, we look at the stressed and unstressed syllables, as we've been doing up until now.

'Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art'.

Recognise that? The unstressed-stressed-unstressed-stressed rhythm tells us we're dealing with iambs. So, we take iamb and add '-ic' to get the first part of our meter - iambic. This works the same with our other metrical feet:

Description of Metrical Feet
Metrical FootDescription of meter
IambIambic
TrocheeTrochaic
SpondeeSpondaic
DactylDactylic
AnapaestAnapaestic

So that explains the first half of our 'iambic pentameter', but what about the 'pentameter' part? That's where the number of syllables (or, more correctly, feet) comes in.

To find out what the second part of our meter description should be, we look at the number of feet there are in the line. We then take the Greek word for that number and add 'meter'. In the line from Keats, we have five iambs, so we call it pentameter. Here's how it works for the most common numbers of feet:

Number of Metrical Feet
Number of feetDescription of meter
OneMonometer
TwoDimeter
ThreeTrimeter
FourTetrameter
FivePentameter
SixHexameter

So with that in mind, let's look at some examples of poems that use different and interesting metrical foot systems.

Metrical Foot, The number five in white surrounded by a white circle. The design is the paint commonly found on tarmac, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Penta means five in Greek, meaning an iambic pentameter has 5 sets of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables.

Metrical Foot: examples

Some famous examples where metrical feet can be found are Edward Lear's 'There Was an Old Man With a Beard', William Shakespeare's Macbeth, and Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'Charge of the Light Brigade'.

With the following quotes, see if you can figure out what sort of metrical foot the author is using and whether you can name the line's meter using the words in the tables above.

There was an Old Man with a beard,Who said, 'It is just as I feared!Two Owls and a Hen,Four Larks and a Wren,Have all built their nests in my beard!

-Edward Lear, 'There Was an Old Man With a Beard' (1846)

If you've been paying attention, you might remember that limericks are almost always written in anapaests. In this example, we see that lines one, two and five are built of three anapaests, while lines three and four are made up of two anapaests each. Notably, the first syllable of the first foot of every line is cut off - we still call it anapaestic because the pattern is clearly visible. So, we can say that the lines with three anapaestic feet are in anapaestic trimeter, while the two shorter lines are in anapaestic dimeter.

Out, damned spot! out, I say!

-William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1623), Act 5 Scene 1

Here's an interesting one! Here we have an entirely stressed line, three spondees in a row! As we mentioned earlier, spondees are typically found in orders or exclamations to show fervour or passion. With our naming system in mind, we can tell that this sentence is in spondaic trimeter.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.

-Alfred Lord Tennyson, 'Charge of the Light Brigade', 1854

Simulating the heady, doomed charge into death of the Light Brigade, Tennyson here uses a meter of dactylic dimeter. Notice the six-syllable lines, each with the dactylic DUM dee dee pattern. This poem is a great example of how writers use meter to enhance the meaning and themes of their poems. The warlike, rhythmic meter sounds like a drum, urging the soldiers onwards.

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

- Emily Dickinson, '479' (1890)

Back to our old friends, the iambs! Here we've got alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. If you're a fan of Emily Dickinson, you'll know that this metric pattern, known as common meter, is a favourite of hers. Common meter pops up all over the place - look up the song 'House of the Rising Sun' (1964) by The Animals or even the Australian national anthem!

Metrical Foot - Key takeaways

  • Metrical feet are the building blocks of poems.
  • A metrical foot is a collection of stressed or unstressed syllables
  • The most common metrical foot is the iamb, followed by the trochee, dactyl, anapaest and spondee.
  • It is very easy to identify a poem's meter - just figure out what sort of metrical foot it has and how many feet per line.
  • Metrical foot can very often have a big impact on the way we read and respond to a poem, so it's something that anybody who reads poetry needs to know about!

Frequently Asked Questions about Metrical Foot

A metrical foot is a collection of stressed or unstressed syllables.

This excerpt from Emily Dickinson's '479' (1890) is an example of the metric pattern known as common meter (alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter):

'Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.'


The most common metrical foot in English poetry is the iamb, followed by the trochee, dactyl, anapaest and spondee.

Disyllables are the smallest (or shortest) kinds of metrical feet; they are made up of two syllables. Trisyllables (three-syllable feet) are one syllable longer than disyllables.

The different types of metrical feet can be used in different ways to impact on the way we read and respond to a poem.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Which metrical foot has the pattern DUM dee dee?

Which metrical foot has the pattern DUM dee?

Which metrical foot has the pattern dee DUM?

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