How to Determine the Meter in a Poem
Meter creates the rhythm of a poem and is shaped by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. The name of the meter combines the type of foot and the number of feet in each line. The process of determining a poem’s meter is called scansion and is easy to do once you know the steps.
The first step is to determine what kind of foot is used in each line. A foot consists of syllabic accents, or stresses. The most common feet are the iamb, the anapest, the trochee and the dactyl. An iamb consists of unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. The anapest’s pattern is unstressed/unstressed/stressed, and the trochee’s pattern is stressed/unstressed. Finally, the dactyl consists of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.
The second step is to count the number of feet in the line to create the second word in the meter’s name. Some common names are dimeter, meaning two feet; trimeter, meaning three feet; tetrameter, meaning four feet; pentameter, meaning five feet; and hexameter, meaning six feet. If the line has three trochees, for example, the meter is called trochaic trimeter.
In William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” the first line is “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Saying the line aloud allows you to hear the rhythm. For example, “Shall I” follows an unstressed/stressed pattern. Thus, we hear that the feet are iambs, and after counting, we see that the line has five iambs. Thus, the poem’s meter is iambic pentameter.
Melissa McDonald has been writing about education since 2006. Her work has appeared in “AdjunctNation,” “JCW” and “Honor Cord” e-zine. She holds a Master of Arts in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and currently works in higher education as a writing consultant. Beyond her work as educator and writer, McDonald volunteers as a judge in both local and national writing competitions for high school and college students.