GCSE English poetry students frequently ask me how to talk about structure in their essays. One of the most fruitful ways is to analyse metre in Shakespeare and Poetry. This handy guide will consolidate the basics of metre – what it is, how to identify it, and how to analyse it.
Finding The Rhythm
Start by thinking about the words ‘HAPPY’ and ‘TODAY’. Say the words out loud. Even though both words have two syllables, they sound different. When we say ‘happy’, we naturally put more emphasis, or ‘stress’, on the first syllable: ‘HAP-py’. It wouldn’t sound right to stress the second syllable – try it!
Say ‘hap-PY’. By comparison, we say ‘to-DAY’, and stress the second syllable. Say it out loud and feel how you say each syllable differently. You may need to exaggerate the stressed syllable to really hear the difference. Try saying ‘TO-day’, with the same stress that you say ‘HAP-py’. It’s strange. So all words have natural rhythms as a result of stressed and unstressed syllables. You can work these out by saying them out loud, and you can mark the syllables of a word like this:
- Use a dash for a stressed syllable
- Use a u for an unstressed syllable
A word or ‘foot’ with two syllables, where the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed is called an IAMB. Quick, test yourself – which word is an iamb – ‘Happy’ or ‘Today’?
Conversely, a word that has a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable is called a TROCHEE.
So, we can see that ‘Happy’ is a TROCHEE, and ‘Today’ is an IAMB.
As the name would suggest, metre is a unit of measurement – we use it to measure the length and rhythm of a line of verse. Metre – or a line of verse – is made up of ‘feet’ (again, handily named for measurement). A foot is normally two or three syllables long.
If you said the word ‘Today’ five times in a row, you would get a regular rhythm, sounding like a heart beat – ‘dee-DUM, dee-DUM, dee-DUm, dee-DUM, dee-DUM’. This rhythm (or ‘metre’) is called:
- Pentameter – because there are 5 (PENT) feet in the METRE
- Iambic – because the feet used are IAMBS
If we said the word ‘Happy’ five times in a row, it would be called TROCHAIC PENTAMETER. Feel the difference between those two styles. Iambic may feel more flowing, more upbeat, more exciting, whereas trochaic may feel more clunky, slower, more downtrodden or more peaceful.
Both metres have ten syllables per line. When poets choose one style, it is often to achieve one of these effects. Shakespeare believed that the heart-like rhythm of Iambic Pentameter made it easier for audiences to listen to and understand, and more suited to love poetry.
You can change the number of feet per line, and that would change the rhythm.
- SIX feet per line = HEXameter
- FOUR feet per line = TETRAmeter
- THREE feet per line = TRImeter
- TWO feet per line = DImeter
Try marking or sounding out the following line: is it IAMBIC or TROCHAIC, and how many feet are there per line? (Remember, in this case a foot is two syllables long).
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the Sun”.
How To Analyse Metre
The main thing to bear in mind when analysing metre is that the metre itself isn’t normally the interesting bit – it’s when the poet breaks the metre that is worth talking about. This happens a lot: the poet sets up a consistent rhythm, then breaks the pattern, and it sounds weird; it will often make you pause without you even realising it (this is called a CAESURA – a pause created by the rhythm). Consider these lines:
- When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
- I all alone beweep my outcast state
- And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries
We have a lovely Iambic Pentameter going until ‘deaf heaven’, where suddenly ‘HEAVEN’, a trochee, is shoved into the middle, making it sound disjointed:
“I all alone beweep my outcast state
u / u / u / u / u /
And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries”
u / u / / u / u / u /
Notice that the word ‘TROUBLE’ is also a trochee, but because of the way it is placed, it still fits the iambic rhythm – the word is split across two separate feet:
| FOOT 1 | FOOT 2 |
| And trou | ble deaf |
u / u /
But ‘Heaven’ has intentionally been placed as its own foot, and it disrupts the line. Why? Why would it make sense for the speaker to stumble or draw particular attention to the word ‘Heaven’ in light of what is being said? T
his is up to you to decide – you might think it really emphasises ‘deaf’ and the exaggeration of a Heaven which doesn’t listen to your prayers. Perhaps it makes it sound like the word ‘Heaven’ is being shouted, so that it won’t fall on ‘deaf’ ears; perhaps it emphasises the ‘H’ sound, which sounds like an exhausted or desperate sigh. Whatever you decide, if you can identify the break in the rhythm, link it to what is being said, and suggest how it may have an effect on the reader/ listener, you’ll be earning high marks for structure.
A Few Other Things
Sometimes a poet may add one or more syllables (making a line HYPERMETRIC) or take some away (making it CATALECTIC). Think about how each of these might relate to the message and affect the reader.
We’ve only mentioned two types of feet, but there are many others:
TWO STRESSED syllables are called a SPONDEE, and are marked with two dashes:
“Two households, both alike…”
/ / u / u /
TWO UNSTRESSED syllables are called PYRRHIC, and are marked with two Us:
“When the blood creeps and the nerves prick”
u u / / u u / /
There are also three- and four- syllabled feet; you’re probably not likely to have to deal with these very much, but once you’re comfortable with the two-syllable feet, it may be useful to familiarise yourself with some of the three-syllable feet. Specifically:
AMPHIBRACH – u / u
ANAPAEST – u u /
DACTYL – / u u
And be aware that whilst IAMBIC PENTAMETER has ten syllables per line, DACTYLIC PENTAMETER would have fifteen syllables per line – because there are five feet, each made up of three syllables.
Keep practising, do some more research if you like (I can recommend ‘The Poetry Handbook’ by John Lennard), and get ready to earn those elusive structure marks in your next essay!