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Meter means “measurement,” and in poetry, it refers to the repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in the lines of a poem. The unit of measurement in poetry is called a metrical foot, which is a set of syllables, usually two or three, with only one receiving a strong stress.
Scanning is the name for the technique of determining the meter of a poem. When scanning poetry, people use an ictus (') to mark a strong stress, and a breve (˘) to mark weaker stress. Another way to describe a metrical foot is to say that each is made up of a particular pattern of strong and weak stresses.
Each metrical foot has a name:
|Name of Metrical Foot||Description||Example|
|Trochee||2 syllables; strong weak||peacock|
|Iamb||2 syllables; weak strong||reprieve|
|Spondee||2 syllables; strong strong||Paul’s cat|
|Dactyl||3 syllables; strong weak weak||entropy|
|Anapest||3 syllables; weak weak strong||Illinois|
|Amphimacer||3 syllables; strong weak strong||M&M’s®|
The trochee, iamb, dactyl, and anapest are those in English that are most likely to form the main body of feet in a poem. The spondee and the amphimacer are generally found as occasional substitutes for an odd foot here or there in a poem that is mainly composed of one of the four other feet mentioned.
One way to help recall each major metrical foot is to connect each to a poem in which it predominates. For example, trochee is the primary form in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha,” in which the hero is introduced with the lines:
The iamb is the principal form in William Shakespeare’s plays. Here's an example from Julius Caesar:
Dacytls are used to begin the Mother Goose rhyme:
Anapests are well-known by many from the poem generally attributed to Clement Moore and titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” but also commonly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”:
While there are many kinds of metrical measurement for poems, the most commonly known is probably iambic pentameter, which as its name describes involved lines of 5 iamb feet, or ten syllables altogether. It is the one used by William Shakespeare in nearly all of his works, for two reasons. One that it sounds most like normal speech. Secondly, that normal speech pattern also most mimics the human heartbeat as well.
A poet named Samuel Taylor Coleridge made up a poem to remember the different types of metrical feet. I'm sure if you google his name you'll find it if you're interested.