All language has a certain rhythm, which means that it repeats basic sound patterns that differ from language to language. Poetry differs from prose in that it organizes the elements of those patterns into much more regular patterns, called meter. In English speech, rhythm depends on repeating patterns of syllables. English poetic meter thus relies on how many syllables a line has, on which syllables in a line are stressed or on both.
Since the three kinds of poetic meter in English depend on syllabic rhythm, an understanding of syllables is crucial to recognizing them. Words divide into syllables depending on how many vowel sounds they have: “Horse” has one syllable, while “balloon” has two. In words with more than one syllable, a single syllable will carry the greatest stress, also called accent or emphasis; for example, the second syllable is stressed in “bal-LOON,” and the first syllable is stressed in “CHRIST-mas-time,” while the third syllable receives secondary stress.
Syllabic meter largely ignores stresses, and instead develops a rhythm by counting the number of syllables in each line. Dylan Thomas’ poem “In My Craft or Sullen Art” is a famous example of syllabic meter, with seven syllables to each line and six in the final line. The narrator says that he writes “Not for the proud man apart,/ …But for the lovers, their arms/Round the griefs of the ages,/Who pay no praise or wages/Nor heed my craft or art.” Haiku is another example of syllabic meter, with three lines that have five, seven and five syllables. If elegantly executed, syllabic meter doesn’t draw attention to the number of syllables in each line.
Accentual-syllabic meter combines a regular syllable count with attention to where the stresses, or accents, on those syllables occur. This has been the most common kind of meter in English poetry since the Middle Ages. It divides syllables into different kinds of “feet,” units of two or three syllables with a regular stress pattern. For example, iambic feet, or iambs, have two syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed, like the word “be-CAUSE.” The various types of accentual-syllabic meter are described by the kind of feet and the number of feet per line. For instance, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Pains of Sleep” is in “iambic tetrameter,” meaning that it has four iambs per line. With capital letters marking stressed syllables, it includes the lines, “My SPIRit I to LOVE comPOSE,/In HUMble TRUST my EYElids CLOSE.”
Nursery rhymes commonly use purely accentual meter, and their readers utter unstressed syllables more quickly than stressed ones so that the lines all take about the same time to say. For example, the rhyme “PEASE porridge HOT,/PEASE porridge COLD,/PEASE porridge IN the pot,/NINE days OLD” stresses two syllables per line. The third and fourth lines have different numbers of syllables than the first two lines do, but the chanted rhythm of the poem is the same for each line. Similarly, “Little Miss Muffet” has an accentual meter in which the first and third lines have four stressed syllables, and the second and fourth lines have three stressed syllables, although the poem is irregular in terms of syllable count.