Calliope Corner #4

Metre is a device used in poetry.

“The metre of most poetry of the Western world and elsewhere is based on patterns of syllables of particular types. The familiar type of metre in English-language poetry is called qualitative metre, with stressed syllables coming at regular intervals (e.g. in iambic pentameters, usually every even-numbered syllable). “

“In many Western classical poetic traditions, the metre of a verse can be described as a sequence of feet,[1] each foot being a specific sequence of syllable types — such as relatively unstressed/stressed (the norm for English poetry) or long/short (as in most classical Latin and Greek poetry).

Iambic pentameter, a common metre in English poetry, is based on a sequence of five iambic feet or iambs, each consisting of a relatively unstressed syllable (here represented with “-” above the syllable) followed by a relatively stressed one (here represented with “/” above the syllable) — “da-DUM” = “- /” :

 -  /   -   /   -    /      -  /     -   /
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
 -  /    -      /   -     /   -     /    -   /
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This approach to analyzing and classifying metres originates from Ancient Greek tragedians and poets such as HomerPindarHesiod, and Sappho.

However some metres have an overall rhythmic pattern to the line that cannot easily be described using feet. This occurs in Sanskrit poetry; see Vedic metre and Sanskrit metre. (Although this poetry is in fact specified using feet, each “foot” is more or less equivalent to an entire line.) It also occurs in some Western metres, such as the hendecasyllable favoured by Catullus and Martial, which can be described as:

x x — ∪ ∪ — ∪ — ∪ — —

(where “—” = long, “∪” = short, and “x x” can be realized as “— ∪” or “— —” or “∪ —”) “


Foot typeStyleStress patternSyllable count
IambIambicUnstressed + StressedTwo
TrocheeTrochaicStressed + UnstressedTwo
SpondeeSpondaicStressed + StressedTwo
Anapest or anapaestAnapesticUnstressed + Unstressed + StressedThree
DactylDactylicStressed + Unstressed + UnstressedThree
AmphibrachAmphibrachicUnstressed + Stressed + UnstressedThree
PyrrhicPyrrhicUnstressed + UnstressedTwo

“Sometimes a natural pause occurs in the middle of a line rather than at a line-break. This is a caesura (cut). A good example is from The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare; the caesurae are indicated by ‘/’:

“By contrast with caesura, enjambment is incomplete syntax at the end of a line; the meaning runs over from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation.”

“Most English metre is classified according to the same system as Classical metre with an important difference. English is an accentual language, and therefore beats and offbeats (stressed and unstressed syllables) take the place of the long and short syllables of classical systems. In most English verse, the metre can be considered as a sort of back beat, against which natural speech rhythms vary expressively. The most common characteristic feet of English verse are the iamb in two syllables and the anapest in three. (See Foot (prosody) for a complete list of the metrical feet and their names.)”

“The number of metrical systems in English is not agreed upon.[2] The four major types[3] are: accentual verseaccentual-syllabic versesyllabic verse and quantitative verse.[4] The alliterative verse of Old English could also be added to this list, or included as a special type of accentual verse. Accentual verse focuses on the number of stresses in a line, while ignoring the number of offbeats and syllables; accentual-syllabic verse focuses on regulating both the number of stresses and the total number of syllables in a line; syllabic verse only counts the number of syllables in a line; quantitative verse regulates the patterns of long and short syllables (this sort of verse is often considered alien to English).[5] The use of foreign metres in English is all but exceptional.[6]

Roman Outposts by Derek Walcott

For Pat Strachan

The thought-resembling moonlight at a cloud’s edge
spreads like the poetry of some Roman outpost
to every corner of the Silver Age.
The moon, capitol of that white empire, is lost
in the black mass. Now, the hot core is Washington,
where once it was Whitehall. Her light burns
all night in office like Cato’s ghost,
a concentration ringed with turbulence.
The wet dawn smells of seaweed. On this seawall
where there was a pier once, the concrete cracks
have multiplied like frontiers on a map
of Roman Europe. The same tides rise and fall,
froth, the moon’s lantern hung in the same place.
On the sea road skirting the old Navy base,
the archaeologist, with his backpack, crouching
to collect cowries, startles the carbon skeleton
impressed on earth like the gigantic fern
of Caterpillar tracks. By Roman roads
along the sea grapes, their leaves the size
of armor-plates, the stripped hangars rust
where once the bombers left for target practice;
breakers bring rumors of the nuclear fleet
to shells the washed-out blue of pirates’ eyes.

What poems are you reading/writing this week?

Prompt: Winter/summer poems