Unit Conversions * Introduction * The naming of feet * Table of feet * The naming of metres * Common metrical patterns in English poetry * Longer lines * Feet of clay?
For the benefit of the many who reach this page wanting only to know how many feet there are in a metre:
1 metre = 3ft 3.3701 in, or 1.093613 yards. Its original definition, by the Republican Government in France in 1793, was that it was one ten-millionth of the shortest distance from the North Pole to the equator via Paris. For a time, it was the length of a particular metal bar kept in a vault in Sèvres. The current definition is that it is the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299792458 seconds.
1 yard (scientific) = 0.9144 metres exactly (This is also the legal definition of a yard in the UK, by virtue of the Weights and Measures Act of 1963).
1 Imperial standard yard = 0.91439841 metres.
1 US yard = 0.91440183 metres (defined by the Mendenhall Order of 1893 as exactly 3600/3937 metres).
Having got that out of the way, let us feel free to talk poetry.
The metre is the rhythm of a poem. Repeating patterns in the metre are an important element - some would say the main element - in the structure of poetry. (Another important element is repeating patterns in the sound i.e. rhyme.)
Traditionally, the metrical structure of the poem is analysed in terms of feet. A foot is a small number of consecutive syllables - normally two or three, sometimes four or more. Within the foot, syllables are characterised as stressed or unstressed (or in some contexts short/long, high/low pitch, etc). The foot is then classified according to the pattern of stresses within it, and given a name such as dactyl or iamb.
This table of metric feet lists all possible feet of two, three or four syllables. The highlighted entries are the only ones you are likely to need to know about, in practice - the iamb, trochee, spondee, anapaest (anapest) and dactyl. You can safely treat the rest of the table as a source of obscure words with which to astonish your friends.
Academics are liable to argue tirelessly about whether there really is such a thing as a pyrrhic foot, or whether a particular 5-syllable pattern is best regarded as an amphibrach followed by a trochee, or as an iamb followed by an amphibrach. Such issues need not concern us.
A line of poetry will typically consist of a number of similar feet e.g. three trochees, or four iambs.
The line is described as monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter or heptameter according to whether it has 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 feet. (Longer lines will simply need you to know the Greek words for larger numbers.)
Our line of three trochees can then be described as trochaic trimeter, and our line of four iambs as iambic tetrameter.
Note that these words all end in "meter", whichever side of the Atlantic you hail from. This is another example of the quirky charm of English spelling.
A line of English poetry usually has either four or five feet.
Iambic pentameter is particularly common. It is used widely in rhymed poetry; it is also the metre of blank verse e.g. as used by :
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears...
Aspoint out (see poetry links), not all the even-numbered syllables are necessarily stressed; for a satisfactory line of iambic pentameter, it is sufficient that none of the odd-numbered syllables be stressed. You don't always need five fully-fledged iambs.
Iambic tetrameter is also common e.g. 's:
I wandered, lonely as a cloud That floats on high, o'er vales and hills...
Destruction of Sennacherib exhibits anapaestic tetrameter:'s
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold...
Hiawatha uses trochaic tetrameter (which a Finn would call Kalevala metre):'s
From the waterfall he named her, Minnehaha, Laughing Water.
Why anyone would want to write lines with six feet is hard to fathom. Until recently, The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich, which, like most of his work, is written in hexameters. These days the American poet is doing great things with long lines.(1819-1861) was virtually the only notable English poet with a marked preference for them - see e.g. his masterpiece
An alexandrine is (in English) an alternative name for an iambic hexameter. (In French verse, the definition of an alexandrine is slightly different.) The last line of a Spenserian stanza is an alexandrine.
The concept of the foot, and the names of specific kinds of feet, all come from the classical world i.e. Greek and Latin. My school Latin lessons used to include exercises in scansion - taking a piece of Latin verse, and identifying the feet, and phenomena such as the caesura (break) in the middle of a line. Sometimes, to make it more difficult, there was only a quasi-caesura. My enthusiasm for all this was vanishingly small.
These days, by no means everyone approves of analysing metre in terms of feet. Some modern prosodists prefer simply to count the number of beats or stresses per line. (I think this is what was driving at with his sprung rhythms.) Others apparently believe that a line must always begin with a stressed syllable, so any unstressed syllables at the beginning of a line aren't really there, or must belong to the previous line, or something. Depending on your point of view, this shows either an admirable willingness to take a fresh look at the subject, untrammelled by outdated conventions; or an unthinking rejection of our classical heritage, for reasons of perversity or political correctness.
Outside the English-speaking world, there are many places where our traditional ideas about metre definitely do not apply. There are important poetic cultures (such as Japan) where they simply - or not so simply - count syllables. As with rhyme, the nature of the language plays a part in determining what would be a sensible concept of metre in a given poetic culture. There could be no such thing as a dactyl in Japanese, since in that language all syllables are supposed to be stressed equally. Cultures using languages (such as Thai) in which pitch is important are liable to take account of pitch in their definition of metre, and so on.
In English culture, it remains helpful to know the meaning of terms such as iambic pentameter, whether one approves of them or not. Until quite recently - and possibly even now - all the great English-language poets have thought of their poetry in these terms. Certainly all the critics have used these concepts in their analysis of the poetry.
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© Bob Newman 2004. All rights reserved.
This page last updated 29/06/2006