10 of the Best Examples of Meter in Poems

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Metre (or meter) is a key building-block of poetry. Often used synonymously with the term ‘rhythm’, the metre of a poem is the pattern of the poem’s rhythm: the ground-plan, if you will, which determines the overall pattern of the poem’s rhythmic structure. The term ‘metre’ is from the Latin for ‘measure’.

There are numerous examples of poetic meter. Some of these, such as iambic pentameter, are well-known and ubiquitous. Others, such as anapaestic meter, are rarer, although one of the most famous verse forms in the English language makes use of anapaestic meter, as we will see.

Let’s take a look at ten of the most prominent examples of meter in various classic poems.

1. Iambic pentameter: Christina Rossetti, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’.

Iambic pentameter is the most ubiquitous meter in all of English literature. We find it in the plays of Shakespeare, in the sonnet, and in the blank-verse poems (that is, poems written in unrhymed iambic pentameter) of Wordsworth, Tennyson, and many others.

As the ‘penta-’ prefix suggests, a line written in ‘iambic pentameter’ consists of five iambs. But what’s an iamb? Put simply, it’s a metrical foot or unit comprising a light stress followed by a heavy stress, such as we find in the words ‘about’, ‘become’, ‘again’, and so on.

It’s a popular metre in English poetry not least because the five iambs arranged in a line approximate fairly closely to the ordinary rhythms of English speech. It’s one reason why it worked so well in the pioneering Elizabethan verse dramas of the 1580s and 1590s, where characters often have long speeches delivered in iambic pentameter. Shakespeare’s soliloquies are one example.

Here’s an example of iambic pentameter: Christina Rossetti’s sonnet, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’, written in the 1850s. You can heard the iambic rhythm in the first line: ‘One FACE looks OUT from ALL his CAN-va-SES’.

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less …

2. Unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse): John Milton, Paradise Lost.

Blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter, so it gives the poet a greater freedom. Indeed, run-on lines (where the syntax of a particular phrase or sentence continues over one line and into the next) are more common in blank verse poems, so that we can easily forget we’re reading verse at all.

Here’s a masterly example, from the opening of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667):

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos …

3. Heroic couplets: Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man.

Another important type of verse form which utilises iambic pentameter is the heroic couplet: iambic pentameter rhyming couplets. The form readily lends itself to pithy, epigrammatic statements, such as these from Alexander Pope’s eighteenth-century didactic work, An Essay on Man:

The bliss of man (could pride that blessing find)
Is not to act or think beyond mankind;
No pow’rs of body or of soul to share,
But what his nature and his state can bear.
Why has not man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, man is not a fly.

4. Iambic tetrameter: Tennyson, In Memoriam.

Iambic pentameter is so popular, as we said, because it comes close to the rhythms of ordinary English speech. But iambic tetrameter – which, as the name implies, is a foot shorter than iambic pentameter – comes pretty close, too. The slightly briefer line lengths create a brisker pace when reading.

Here’s a fine example, from Tennyson’s long Victorian elegy for his friend, In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850):


Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.

The seasons bring the flower again,
And bring the firstling to the flock;
And in the dusk of thee, the clock
Beats out the little lives of men.

5. Iambic trimeter: William Blake, ‘Song (I Love the Jocund Dance)’.

Among the rarest forms of iambic meter are iambic trimeter (three feet) and dimeter (two feet). Here’s an example of a poem largely in iambic trimeter, from William Blake:

I love the laughing gale,
I love the echoing hill,
Where mirth does never fail,
And the jolly swain laughs his fill.

6. Iambic dimeter: Thomas Hardy, ‘The Robin’.

It’s harder still to write a memorable poem in iambic dimeter (two iambs per line) because the line is so short. However, this form can be used to create a flighty and quick-moving poem, as in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Robin’:

When up aloft
I fly and fly,
I see in pools
The shining sky,
And a happy bird
Am I, am I!

7. Iambic hexameter: Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella 1.

Of course, you can also go to the other extreme and have a long iambic line comprising six iambs. A hexameter line is also known as an alexandrine, most probably (nobody can be quite sure) because a 12th-centry French collection of romances about the adventures of Alexander the Great was one of the first works to popularise the form.

There are few poems in English written entirely in hexameters, iambic or otherwise, but Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86) boldly opens his pioneering sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella, with a whole sonnet written in alexandrines:

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe …

8. Trochaic tetrameter: Mary Wroth, from Pamphilia to Amphilanthus.

Trochaic meter is the opposite of iambic meter. Instead of comprising one light stress followed by a heavy stress, a trochee is a heavy stress followed by a light one, as in the words ‘dancing’ or ‘madness’ or ‘apple’ (you get the idea).

Trochaic pentameter is not exactly common, and probably the most famous type of trochaic meter in English verse is trochaic tetrameter. It’s popular in songlike poems, such as this song from Mary Wroth’s Pamphilia to Amphilanthus:

Loue as well can make abiding
In a faithfull Shepheards brest
As in Princes: whose thoughts sliding
Like swift riuers neuer rest.

Change to their minds is best feeding,
To a sheapheard all his care,
Who when his loue is exceeding,
Thinks his faith his richest fare.

9. Anapaestic meter: Robert Browning, ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’.

Here’s a rare but interesting kind of meter: anapaestic meter. An anapaest consists of two lightly stressed syllables followed by a heavy syllable.

In this poem, Robert Browning conveys the speed and energy of a horse-ride, with the longer lines and jaunty rhythms of anapaestic meter suggesting the galloping of horses:

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through …

10. Dactylic meter: Wendy Cope, ‘Emily Dickinson’.

A dactyl is, in many ways, the flipside of the anapaest, comprising a heavy stress followed by two light ones. Perhaps the most famous example of dactylic meter in English poetry is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, which uses this to hauntingly powerful effect (‘Half a league, half a league …’), but we’ve opted for a more contemporary poem by Wendy Cope, the British poet who has written wittily about other poets.

In this poem, Cope plays on the fact that the name of the American poet Emily Dickinson is itself dactylic (‘EM-i-ly DICK-in-son’), offering a brief precis of the hermit poet’s idiosyncratic style.

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