What Is Metre?
The English language is a stress-timed language. It is a mixture of weak and strong vowels, unstressed and stressed syllables. For example, a cat is a weak vowel and an unstressed syllable followed by a strong vowel and a stressed syllable. Another is weak-strong-weak, unstressed-stressed-unstressed.
Metre treats the stressed syllables as musical beats and arranges them in regular rhythmical patterns. For example:
A cat, a cat, another cat, a cat
It also intensifies the natural stress patterns of normal speech. Firstly, by paying attention to secondary stresses. For example, the word attitude has a primary stress on the first syllable and a secondary stress on the last syllable, which we may or may not hear in normal speech. Metre emphasises the secondary stress, as well as the primary stress, unless the syllable before or after it has a primary stress:
His attitude was bad
His attitude stank
Secondly, by paying attention to word stress, rather than sentence stress. For example, in normal speech we would probably say:
I went to work today
Work is stressed and the rest of the sentence is reduced to a fast slur. Metre keeps the word stress:
I went to work today
What all this does is, it energises the language, it makes it exciting. It gives words their full value, it lets them breathe. It makes a sentence into a musical line, it makes it a song. All of which has an effect on us, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
The regular beat of the metre, as its default, should match the natural stresses of the words. That is how we read it. A line of verse, though, is also flexible and supple. This may mean that a metric beat falls on an unstressed syllable. For example, of in:
the winter of our discontent
Or it may mean that we read a line and emphasise a syllable against the beat. For example, true in:
the marriage of true minds
I will now describe the standard metres in English verse. The names, from classical Greek poetry, may make them seem abstruse, but the names aren’t important. The metres themselves are quite simple and it is easy to get into the swing of reading them.
The number of beats in a line defines its length and the name given to it. So a pentameter, for example, has five beats. Each beat is part of a metric unit or foot. A foot contains one stressed syllable and a number of unstressed syllables. It has a different name depending on the number of unstressed syllables and their order.
The most common is the iamb, which is unstressed-stressed, as in this iambic pentameter:
If mus|ic be| the food| of love|, play on
Notice that the word music is stressed-unstressed, but its position in the line fits the iambic pattern.
A trochee is stressed-unstressed and is often used at the start of a line. An amphibrach is unstressed-stressed-unstressed and often appears at the end of a line (or before a caesura, a pause, which I will explain below). An example of both a trochee and an amphibrach is in this line:
Whether| tis nob|ler in| the mind| to suffer
An anapest is unstressed-unstressed-stressed:
The A-ssyr|ian came down| like a wolf| on the fold,
And his co|horts were gleam|ing in sil|ver and gold
These two lines have twelve syllables each, but only four beats, so they are tetrameters, one beat shorter than a pentameter. Another example of an anapest is the second foot of the second line here:
Now is| the win|ter of| our dis|content
Made glor|i-ous summ|er by| this sun| of York
A dactyl is stressed-unstressed-unstressed. There are three here:
Ro-me-o,| Ro-me-o,| wherefore| art thou| Ro-me-o
Finally, a monometer is a foot with only one syllable. This is rarely used in pentameter lines (I think because a longer line needs the impetus of the extra syllable at the beginning), but often starts lines with only three or four beats. For example:
Some| are born| to end|less night,
Some| are born| to sweet| delight
A caesura, which I mentioned above, is a pause in the middle of a line. It is especially used in alexandrine lines, which have six beats and divide naturally into three beats, a pause, three beats. For example:
And sing|ing still| dost soar,‖ and soar|ing ev|er singest
And here is an example of an alexandrine line with an amphibrach (unstressed-stressed-unstressed) before the caesura:
As from| thy pre|sence showers‖ a rain| of me|lody
The most common line in English poetry is the iambic pentameter. But when people say that a poem or a play is written in iambic pentameters, what they mean is that this is the default. The metre is often mixed, as you can see from the examples above. And in Shakespeare’s plays, for example, there are often longer or shorter lines as well as the typical pentameters:
And, deep|er than| did ev|er plumm|et sound,
I’ll drown| my book.
Then, joy|fully,| my no|ble Lord| of Bedford,
My dear| Lord Glou|cester, and‖ my good| Lord Ex|eter,
And my| kind kins|man, warr|i-ors all,| adieu!
Farewell, | good Sal|isbury; ‖ and good| luck go| with thee!
This notation may make poetry seem mechanical, but it is no more so than the notation of musical composition. What we hear is music. What we hear is poetry. And as I said above, the metre is supple and flexible, with some beats emphasised more than others or an emphasis against the beat. For example, how would you say this line?
Shall I| compare| thee to| a summ|er’s day?
The metre of a line is usually clear. But saying it is still open to interpretation and personal preference.
Metre is enjoyable. It is a non-intellectual way of approaching the meaning of a poem. A simple understanding of metre is essential to be able to read Shakespeare and the great tradition of English poetry. And an ability to write in metre is a way of keeping that contemporary and alive.
The metre of a poem is its pulse, its heartbeat. And if we measure the soul between heartbeats, it is a measure of the soul in language too.