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Tetrameter

Don't worry. We know that poetic meter can be confusing. Syllables, feet, meters and stresses can be puzzling on their own and even more challenging when we have to combine them all. But stick with it! With practice comes perfection, and with a grasp of poetic meter comes a deeper understanding of all the poetry you will ever read. This article discusses tetrameter, one of history's most well-known, exciting meter styles.

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Don't worry. We know that poetic meter can be confusing. Syllables, feet, meters and stresses can be puzzling on their own and even more challenging when we have to combine them all. But stick with it! With practice comes perfection, and with a grasp of poetic meter comes a deeper understanding of all the poetry you will ever read. This article discusses tetrameter, one of history's most well-known, exciting meter styles.

Let's recap the basic concepts of poetic meter, dive into the meaning of tetrameter, and explore some examples in relation to iambic and trochaic stress patterns.

Tetrameter meaning

What is tetrameter? Here's a basic definition:

Tetrameter occurs when a verse contains four metrical feet.

While this may seem complex, let's recap some essential poetic terminology and then return to make sense of this definition.

Recap: meter and feet

Before we explore the concept of tetrameter, we need to go back to the beginning. Let's learn what a poetic meter is. Here's a simple definition:

A meter is the basic rhythmic structure in a line of poetry.

To state what a line's meter is, we consider the number of beats (syllables) in the line and on which syllables the poet places stress. We refer to each syllable as either stressed or unstressed. Placing stress on certain syllables may seem unusual, but we do it naturally every day. Here's an example to prove it:

Let's look at the word 'table'.

  • First, break the word down into its syllables (ta-ble).

  • Now, say the word out loud and notice which syllable you emphasise more.

  • You should find that more emphasis is placed on the first syllable (TA-ble). This means that the first syllable is stressed, and the second is unstressed.

To find out where the stresses in a word or sentence lie, the best policy is to say it out loud. Try saying the word 'table' while placing stress on the second syllable instead of the first (ta-BLE). Notice how unnatural the word sounds? This is why stressed and unstressed syllables play a considerable role in making poetry sound rhythmic.

We group different combinations of these stressed and unstressed syllables into 'feet'.

A foot is the simplest rhythmic unit in a line of poetry. It consists of two or three syllables. Feet combine to make the overall rhythmic structure known as meter.

There are multiple different categories of metrical feet. We know which category to place a group of syllables in based on their combination of stressed and unstressed sounds.

For example, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable is called an iamb. Say the word 'escape' out loud, and you'll find the second syllable is more pronounced than the first (da-DUM). Every instance of this 'unstressed/stressed' pattern is one iambic foot. If a line features three unstressed/stressed patterns, it contains three iambic feet.

The most common categories of metrical feet are:

  • Iamb: Unstressed/Stressed (da-DUM)
  • Trochee: Stressed/Unstressed (DA-dum)
  • Spondee: Stressed/Stressed (DA-DUM)
  • Anapest: Unstressed/Unstressed/Stressed (da-da-DUM)
  • Dactyl: Stressed/Unstressed/Unstressed (DA-da-dum)

Let's understand what this means in relation to tetrameter.

Tetrameter

As we know, a specific combination of syllables makes up a foot, and feet make up the meter of a line. The more feet a line has, the longer the meter. A line of poetry with two feet is known as a 'dimeter', and a line with three a 'trimeter'.

Knowing that 'tetra' is the Greek word four 'four', this makes four feet in a line an example of 'tetrameter'.

Now it starts to make sense! For a line to be tetrameter, it doesn't matter which type of feet are in the line. All that matters is that there are four of them. If the line is made up of four iambs, then the line is an example of 'iambic tetrameter'. If the line is made up of four trochees, it would be named 'trochaic tetrameter'.

Here's how tetrameter fits in with other meters:

  • Monometer = one foot
  • Dimeter = two feet
  • Trimeter = three feet
  • Tetrameter = four feet
  • Pentameter = five feet
  • Hexameter = six feet
  • Heptameter = seven feet
  • Octameter = eight feet

Tetrameter examples

Remember that tetrameter always consists of four feet. All that changes is the category of feet that the syllables fit into. Let's look at some different examples to help us better understand this:

In all examples, stressed syllables are bold and underlined.

Come live with me and be my love.

- Christopher Marlowe, 'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love' (1599)

This line features four repetitions of unstressed then stressed syllables (da-DUM). As we know, this is the stress pattern for an iamb, making this poem an example of iambic tetrameter.

As every iambic foot contains two syllables (one unstressed and one stressed), every instance of iambic tetrameter contains exactly eight syllables.

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold

- Lord Byron, 'The Destruction of Sennacherib' (1815)

In this poem, Byron emphasises every third syllable. This gives the lines an 'unstressed/unstressed/stressed' pattern (da-da-DUM). He repeats this pattern four times, making The Destruction of Sennacherib an example of anapestic tetrameter.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

- William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1606)

Similarly to iambic tetrameter, Shakespeare emphasises every other syllable in these lines. However, because he stresses the first part of every two syllables, the pattern is 'stressed/unstressed' (DUM-da), making this an example of trochaic tetrameter.

Although a strict meter is most common in poetry, many of Shakespeare's plays use blank verse, a form of verse that doesn't rhyme but that follows a strict meter. Although Shakespeare is famous for his use of iambic pentameter, he switches his verse to trochaic tetrameter here to make the language sound more jarring, unnatural, and suitable for the three witches who speak the line.


Poets most commonly pair tetrameter with iambs or trochees. Let's look at a longer example of iambic tetrameter and trochaic tetrameter in more detail.

Iambic tetrameter

Iambic tetrameter is one of the most popular poetic meters and has existed in poetry in some form for thousands of years. The unstressed to stressed transition is said to closely resemble the natural cadence of everyday speech.

This makes the iambic meter sound pleasing to the ears and shows why it was a favourite among Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights!

Here's an example of iambic tetrameter:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o'er vales and hills.

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

- William Wordsworth, 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud' (1807)

Wordsworth's classic romantic poem is one of the more famous examples of iambic tetrameter. The calming, rhythmic cadence of the iambs reflects the relaxed nature of the poem; everything is at peace, and the poetic meter contributes to this sense of order.

Romantic poems are poems that came from the romantic era. They typically celebrated the natural world and human emotions over science and rationality.

You will notice that stress patterns can occur both in separate words (That floats on high) or within the same word (daffodils). This is because the pattern is based on syllables. Not words. While 'floats' and 'high' are single-syllable words, 'daffodils' contains three syllables, so a stress pattern can be contained entirely within it.

Trochaic tetrameter

While most traditional European poets and playwrights stick to an iambic stress pattern, some employ the opposite technique for effect. Trochaic tetrameter reverses the iambic pattern so that every line starts with a stressed syllable. This creates a more urgent, unnatural pattern of verse which maintains aggressive momentum from beginning to end. Let's look at an example from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,By the shining Big-Sea-Water,Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.Dark behind it rose the forest,Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,Rose the firs with cones upon them;

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 'The Song of Hiawatha' (1855)

As the poem features American indigenous people, Longfellow wanted to more accurately represent his perception of American indigenous singing. He also cited Elias Lönnrot's famous Finnish epic poem Kalevala (1835) as an influence on his writing style.

Trochaic poetry is especially suited to the Finnish language because the Finnish language always stresses the first syllable of a word!

Pentameter and tetrameter

Pentameter and tetrameter are very closely related. In short, while tetrameter contains four metrical feet per bar, pentameter contains five. Despite the minor difference between the two meters, pentameter has long been the more popular meter of the two for poets and playwrights alike. In particular, iambic pentameter is the most common meter in English poetry and was frequently employed by significant literary figures like Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare.

Why it has always been more popular to write in pentameter over tetrameter is still up for debate. Some argue that the additional metrical foot in pentameter helps it better resemble the typical pattern of human speech, making it sound more natural than poetry in tetrameter, which in contrast, can sound too hasty. This made pentameter the ideal choice for playwrights like Shakespeare, who wanted to write in blank verse while maintaining an authentic style of dialogue.

That said, the difference between pentameter and tetrameter is minuscule and not nearly as pronounced as the difference between pentameter and trimeter or tetrameter and hexameter.

Tetrameter - Key takeaways

  • Tetrameter is a line of poetry that contains four metrical feet.
  • Poetic meter is defined by the number of metrical feet in a line, and each metrical foot is defined by syllables.
  • All syllables in poetry are either stressed or unstressed, and different combinations of these syllables combine to form different metrical feet.
  • Iambic tetrameter is noted for its gentle, rhythmic quality, while trochaic tetrameter sounds more urgent and unnatural.
  • While tetrameter and pentameter are very closely related, pentameter remains by far the most popular choice for poetic verse, in part because it mirrors everyday human speech more closely.

Frequently Asked Questions about Tetrameter

Trochaic tetrameter is four instances of 'stressed/unstressed' poetic feet. For example:


By the shores of Gitche Gumee
By the shining Big-Sea-Water


- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 'The Song of Hiawatha' (1855)

Tetrameter occurs when a line contains four metrical feet. 

An example of an iambic tetrameter poem is I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (1807) by William Wordsworth.


Tetrameter is used to create an easily readable form of poetry. It is said that, similarly to pentameter, the length of the lines closely reflects natural human speech.

An example of tetrameter is:


Come live with me and be my love


- Christopher Marlowe, 'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love' (1599)


This features four iambic feet, making it an example of iambic tetrameter.

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