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Poetic Meter: A Complete Reference Manual

Earlier in the week BeccaJS posted an A-Z of Poetry Forms which received a great response from the community. This time around, we're bringing you a comprehensive list of meter. Even later in the week, LaBruyere will be bringing you a guide on how to make your fixed form poetry a reality. This article is a (complete as can be) reference for reliable patterns of poetic meter with a widely-accepted method of scansion used to define them. This article is intended for those who have somewhat of a grasp on what fixed form is! So before we dive into the article know what you're in for (lots of terminology and patterns). Here are some terms and symbols you should be aware of:

Prosody Terminology

Caesura - A complete pause within a line of poetry, sometimes provoked by a mark of punctuation.

Cola - A unit of meter with a pattern of 5 syllables or more consisting of syllables that are stressed, unstressed or are anceps (see Scansion Symbols). Cola typically do not go past twelve syllables in English and other similar languages. In Vedic (or Hindu) poetry however, cola can traditionally be as long as forty-eight syllables per line!

Foot - A unit of meter with a pattern of 1, 2, 3 or 4 syllables that are either stressed or unstressed.

Hemistich or Half-line - A hemistich is a part of a line that is split by a pause or pauses, otherwise known as caesurae. The first and second half of the scansion example below are each their own hemistich as shown by the comma splitting the line into two parts.
x x x x x , x x x x x
Here is a two line written example with both lines containing two hemistichs. Commas represent the pauses, or caesurae, and aren't necessarily part of the poem. For those who are curious, it is written in Alcaic Verse, which will be explained further on.
Prior to this 'twas , irreligious to waste
Old Caecuban wine , whilst for the Capitol
—Translated Odes
from Horace
The hemistichs could add up as multiple caesurae split the line, as they can do. A hemistich is also commonly referred to as a half-line, and that's what we will be calling it (for the most part).

Meter - The basic rhythmic structure of a line of poetry consisting of units of feet, cola and/or caesurae and hemistichs.

Prosody - The science or study of poetic meters and versification.

Scansion - A method of marking the metrical patterns of a line of poetry. Many different systems have been established to mark the scansion of a poem.

Stress - The relative emphasis that may be given to certain syllables in a word, or to certain words in a phrase or sentence. In English, a syllable is usually considered stressed or unstressed. In some methods of scansion there are varying levels of stress.

Strophe - (Referring to poetry with meter) A metrically fixed stanza that may or may not vary the meter for each line of the stanza. A Shakespearean Sonnet and Alcaic Verse are examples of strophes.

Scansion Symbols

˘ - The breve is a mark for scansion in poetry that signifies an unstressed syllable.

/ - The ictus (or forward slash) is a mark for scansion in poetry that signifies a stressed syllable.

, - In scansion, a comma represents a caesura within a line.

x - The lower-case "x" is used in scansion to indicate an anceps, which is a syllable that may be either stressed or unstressed in that unit of meter.

A notable and complex method of scansion is Attridge's method of Single-Line Scansion, which takes into account many other elements in poetry. We will only be using the four symbols mentioned above.

The Meter Directory: Feet

In the examples below we will only be using two marks to represent our meters: the breve (˘) for unstressed syllables and the ictus (/) for stressed. I will not be providing examples for any of the metrical units for feet. There are many examples of poetic feet out there that you can find through browsing deviantART literature or entering the term into a search engine. However, if you have or know of an example, and would like for it to be up here, feel free to comment and I'll add it immediately.

Monosyllabic Feet

There are two types of monosyllabic feet, and they are used to describe a line of poetry in unique situations, specifically a line of poetry that is only one syllable or a syllable pattern split with a caesura.

  • Name: Tailless iamb
    Scansion: ˘
  • Name: Headless iamb
    Scansion: /

Disyllabic Feet

There are four types of disyllabic feet, one of which is contested as a valid form of meter (pyrrhic or dibrachic), even in cases of two syllables alone on a line.

  • Name: Pyrrhus or Dibrach
    Scansion: ˘ ˘
  • Name: Iamb
    Scansion: ˘ /
  • Name: Trochee
    Scansion: / ˘
  • Name: Spondee
    Scansion: / /

Trisyllabic Feet

There are eight types of trisyllabic feet, one of which is again a controversial meter. The existence of the tribrach, like the pyrrhus or dibrach, is hotly contested and dismissed among some linguistic circles; proponents for the tribrach often cite Greek literature that relies on quantitative accent as proof of its existence (think of when someone speaks in a slow, monotonous voice).

  • Name: Tribrach
    Scansion: ˘ ˘ ˘
  • Name: Anapest
    Scansion: ˘ ˘ /
  • Name: Amphibrach
    Scansion: ˘ / ˘
  • Name: Dactyl
    Scansion: / ˘ ˘
  • Name: Bacchius
    Scansion: ˘ / /
  • Name: Antibacchius
    Scansion: / / ˘
  • Name: Cretic
    Scansion: / ˘ /
  • Name: Molossus
    Scansion: / / /

Tetrasyllabic Feet

The last units of poetic feet are composed of four syllables and have twelve variations used for many forms of rhythm.

  • Name: Primus Paeon
    Scansion: / ˘ ˘ ˘
  • Name: Secondus Paeon
    Scansion: ˘ / ˘ ˘
  • Name: Tertius Paeon
    Scansion: ˘ ˘ / ˘
  • Name: Quartus Paeon
    Scansion: ˘ ˘ ˘ /
  • Name: Minor Ionic
    Scansion: ˘ ˘ / /
  • Name: Major Ionic
    Scansion: / / ˘ ˘
  • Name: Choriamb
    Scansion: / ˘ ˘ /
  • Name: Antispast
    Scansion: ˘ / / ˘
  • Name: First Epitrite
    Scansion: ˘ / / /
  • Name: Second Epitrite
    Scansion: / ˘ / /
  • Name: Third Epitrite
    Scansion: / / ˘ /
  • Name: Fourth Epitrite
    Scansion: / / / ˘

The Meter Directory: Cola

In the examples below we will be using three marks (plus one instance of a caesura) to represent our meters: the breve (˘) for unstressed syllables, the ictus (/) for stressed, and the lowercase x (x) for syllables that can vary between stressed and unstressed. When syllables can vary between stressed and unstressed, it is known as an anceps. As we get higher in syllable count patterns, previous cola and feet begin to repeat themselves, and others are dismissed as downright ineffective. We will not be listing those cola. I will try to include as many examples as I can find. :meow:

Pentasyllabic Cola

There are two legitimately recognized cola that consist of five syllables, but there are others that are not listed here. The adon cola is used with an unstressed end syllable to end a "Sapphic Verse" stanza and the dochmius is used to end a stanza in a sea shanty (see Hendecasyllabic Cola or Sapphic Verse and Hexasyllabic Cola further down the article).

  • Name: Dochmius
    Scansion: ˘ / ˘ / /
  • Name: Adon
    Scansion: / ˘ ˘ / x

Adonic Line in Sapphic Verse
I'll never write them.
by John Lee
Dochmius in a Sea Shanty
She'll give you a shag!
—Sea Shanty
by Laurence Thompson

Hexasyllabic Cola

Of all my research on the subject, I could only turn up a form of song that uses hexasyllabic cola. The form of song, known as a sea shanty, consists of one or more stanzas of 4 lines each, with the first three lines being six syllables each; the first and third lines being two identical hexasyllabic cola each and the second line being written in amphibrach dimeter split by a caesura (meaning the line consists of two feet that are considered "half-lines" with a pause between them: ˘ / ˘ , ˘ / ˘ ). The fourth line is a pentasyllabic cola, specifically the dochmius shown above. The sea shanty format is a great example of a stanzaic form, or strophe.

  • Name: Sea Shanty Lines 1 & 3
    Scansion: / ˘ ˘ ˘ / /

Sea Shanty Verse (Lines 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 are hexasyllabic)
If our song sounds too coarse
About this auld war horse
Go and ask about her
In pubs near the bay

Most girls'll get frisky
At one or two whiskies
Or at the jingle of
a dock worker's pay

But if you're in rehab
Buy Charley a kebab
And soon you will be soaked
In her [expletive]
—Sea Shanty
by Laurence Thompson

Heptasyllabic Cola

There are two cola in use that contain seven syllables, both named after their originator.

  • Name: Lesser Hemiepes
    Scansion: / ˘ ˘ / ˘ / /
  • Name: Pherecrat
    Scansion: x x / ˘ ˘ / /

Octasyllabic Cola

There are five octasyllabic cola with unique and effective metrical patterns. From here on out, cola begin to share names. The Glyconic cola is considered a significant cola in Greek verse and has several variations.

  • Name: Glycon
    Scansion: / ˘ ˘ ˘ ˘ / ˘ /
  • Name: Glycon
    Scansion: x x / ˘ ˘/ ˘ /
  • Name: Glycon
    Scansion: x x / / ˘ ˘ ˘ /
  • Name: Greater Hemiepes
    Scansion: / ˘ ˘ / ˘ ˘ / /
  • Name: Anacreont
    Scansion: ˘ ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / /

Enneasyllabic Cola

There are six remarkable enneasyllabic cola to choose from that consist of nine syllables.

  • Name: Glycon
    Scansion: / ˘ ˘ / ˘ ˘ / ˘ /
  • Name: Glycon
    Scansion: x x / ˘ ˘ / / ˘ ˘
  • Name: Glycon
    Scansion: x x / / ˘ ˘ / ˘ /
  • Name: Hipponact
    Scansion: x x / ˘ ˘/ ˘ / /
  • Name: Lesser Greek Alca
    Scansion: x / ˘ / x / ˘ / /
  • Name: Lesser Latin Alca
    Scansion: / / ˘ / / / ˘ / /

Decasyllabic Cola

We've hit the double digits with cola, and here's where the rhythms start becoming much more malleable to smooth out natural patterns for your poetry.

  • Name: Glycon
    Scansion: x x / ˘ ˘ / ˘ ˘ /
  • Name: Greek and Latin Alca
    Scansion: / ˘ ˘ / ˘ ˘ / ˘ / /

Hendecasyllabic Cola

Hendecasyllabic cola are cola that consist of eleven syllables. Sapphic Verse is also a form of strophe and is named after Sappho herself, though it is up for debate if she was the originator of the form. Alcaic Verse, with its differing lines of meter referred to as alcas, was named after its believed creator, Alceus. In Greater Latin Alcaic Verse, a caesura separates the line into two half-lines. Interesting tidbit: The excerpt of Sapphic Verse below refers to the island of Lesbos where Sappho is from, and not the slang term you are thinking of.

  • Name: Sappho (Sapphic Verse)
    Scansion: / ˘ / x / ˘ ˘ / ˘/ /
  • Name: Greater Greek Alca
    Scansion: x / ˘ / x / ˘ ˘ / ˘ /
  • Name: Greater Latin Alca
    Scansion: / / ˘ / / , / ˘ ˘ / ˘ /

Sapphic Verse (excerpt)
Making sapphics isn't that easy, shackling
Our reluctant language with trochees. Since you
First begot them, songstress of Lesbos, keep them:
by John Lee

Asclepiad Cola

An asclepiad cola is a cola with a simple, rhythmic pattern that has its roots in Latin literature and at its most basic, consists of twelve syllables. At its most complex it typically consists of sixteen syllables, but the pattern in this cola can be repeated onward. In linguistics, it has been designated as a "choriambically expanded glyconic." Asclepiads were most notably used in Latin by Horace in thirty-four of his odes.

  • Name: Lesser Asclepiad (12 syllables)
    Scansion: x x / ˘ ˘ / / ˘ ˘ / ˘ /
  • Name: Traditional Asclepiad (12 syllables)
    Scansion: / / / ˘ ˘ / / ˘ ˘ / ˘ /
  • Name: Greater Asclepiad (16 syllables)
    Scansion: x x / ˘ ˘ / / ˘ ˘ / / ˘ ˘ / ˘ /

Lesser Asclepiad
Here wrong's name is unheard, slander a monster is;
Keep thy sprite from abuse, here no abuse doth haunt.
What man grafts in a tree dissimulation?
by Sir Philip Sydney
Traditional Asclepiad
Springtime, Summer and Fall: days to behold a world
—In Due Season
by W. H. Auden

The Meter Directory: Strophes

In the examples below we will be using these four marks: the breve (˘) for unstressed syllables, the ictus (/) for stressed syllables, the lowercase x (x) for syllables that are anceps and can vary between stressed and unstressed, and the comma (,) to indicate a caesura, which represents a complete pause in a line of poetry. These four marks will represent our meter for the strophes we will examine. A strophe is a metrically fixed stanza in poetry. We will be looking at these three strophes: Alcaic Verse, Catalectic Meter, and Stichic Strophe. Each of them has their own niche in metrical poetry.

There are a great deal more strophes however, including metrical forms such as Skaldic and Pindaric; various stanzaic forms including ballad stanzas and quintains; and miscellaneous forms like the Fibonacci poem. We will address Stichic Strophe first and Catalectic Meter last, as it is something special. :la:

Stichic Strophes

Stichic strophes are the simplest of all strophes. They are any strophe that consists of the same fixed meter in each line for a stanza. A Shakespearean Sonnet, which is written entirely in iambic pentameter (meaning there are five feet of iambs to a line, resulting in ten syllables with a pattern of unstressed and then stressed) with a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg for a total of fourteen lines, is a good example of a Stichic strophe because the form requires that you adhere to iambic pentameter throughout. That's not to say that some haven't broken the rules and that you can't either.

  • Name: Shakespearean Sonnet
    Scansion: ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /

Shakespearean Sonnet
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
—Sonnet 73 - That Time of Year Thou Mayst in me Behold
by William Shakespeare

Alcaic Verse

Alcaic Verse is a series of stanzas originating from Classical poetry and composed in a set meter. Alcaic Verse is believed to have been invented and popularized by Alceus, a Greek poet and lyricist. A single stanza of Alcaic Verse is referred to as an Alcaic Stanza. There are two types of Alcaic Stanza: the form as it orginated from the Greek and the derivative Latin form. A line of an Alcaic Stanza is called an alca and there are three types of alca for both the Greek and Latin variants: the lesser Greek alca (9 syllables), the lesser Latin alca (9 syllables), the greater Greek alca (11 syllables), the greater Latin alca (11 syllables), and the identical Greek and Latin alca (10 syllables). Unlike the Greek version of Alcaic Verse, the Latin Alcaic Stanza's poetic meter is fixed. The Greek Alcaic Stanza can be more flexible with the use of anceps that allow either unstressed or stressed syllables. Another characteristic difference between the two is the introduction of a caesura in the first two lines of a Latin Alcaic Stanza.

  • Name: Greek Alcaic Stanza
    x / ˘ / x / ˘ ˘ / ˘ / (Greater Greek Alca)
    x / ˘ / x / ˘ ˘ / ˘ / (Greater Greek Alca)
    x / ˘ / x / ˘ / / (Lesser Greek Alca)
    / ˘ ˘ / ˘ ˘ / ˘ / / (Greek and Latin Alca)
  • Name: Latin Alcaic Stanza
    / / ˘ / / , / ˘ ˘ / ˘ / (Greater Latin Alca)
    / / ˘ / / , / ˘ ˘ / ˘ / (Greater Latin Alca)
    / / ˘ / / / ˘ / / (Lesser Latin Alca)
    / ˘ ˘ / ˘ ˘ / ˘ / / (Greek and Latin Alca)

A Greek Alcaic Stanza written in English
O mighty-mouth'd inventor of harmonies,
O skill'd to sing of Time or Eternity,
God-gifted organ-voice of England,
Milton, a name to resound for ages!
by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Catalectic Meter

Catalectic Meter is special in that it modifies any poetic foot except for monosyllable feet. Catalectic Meter does not modify any cola however. This form of meter modifies existing lines of poetry by taking away the last syllable of a poetic foot in a line. It is typically done with feet of 2-3 syllables. The result can drastically change the feeling of the poem depending on the pattern of meter used and to what effect the poet uses it too. For example, cases of a poetic foot missing two syllables at the end of the line are known as brachycatalectic, and are not typically seen, but can have a profound effect. The most common examples of brachycatalectic lines are usually located at the end of poems. It is important to note that a brachycatalectic line can be used on a poetic foot of two syllables.

Below are two poems, both written in Trochaic Tetrameter with a stanza of ten lines. The first poem is not modified to be Catalectic, but the second is. Further down is a line-by-line scansion of each poem to better compare and contrast the two.

Trochaic Tetrameter
By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.
—Song of Hiawatha
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Trochaic Tetrameter Catalectic
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
—Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love
by W. H. Auden

Can you hear the difference? Try looking at the scansion analysis of both poems below and see what you come away with.

  • Name: Song of Hiawatha in Trochaic Tetramter by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
  • Name: Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love in Trochaic Tetrameter Catalectic by W. H. Auden
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
    / ˘ / ˘ ˘ / ˘ / (a choriamb variation is used here)
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
    / ˘ / ˘ ˘ / ˘ / (Auden makes use of a choriamb again and we see the overall pattern emerge)
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
    / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /

By looking at the scansion of these two poems we can tell how meticulous these two poets were over their use of meter. And you should be too!

Let's make this even more complete! Got any suggestions that won't overload it?


Earlier in the week ^Beccalicious posted an A-Z of Poetry Forms which received a great response from the community. This time around, we're bringing you a comprehensive list of meter. This article is a (complete as can be) reference for reliable patterns of poetic meter. This article is intended for those who have somewhat of a grasp on what fixed form is!
Add a Comment:
Audley Featured By Owner Aug 8, 2013   Writer
You must have updated this in some form as it came up in my watch today; it reminded me of things I forgot I used to know and has taught me a few things I probably never knew. I will definitely revisit this as it's the kind of knowledge I will never recall off-hand unless I re-read it occasionally (; Thank you for posting it.
Nichrysalis Featured By Owner Aug 8, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Unfortunately it hasn't been updated. Someone brought it to our attention that all of the #projecteducate articles weren't located in the gallery folder where they supposedly were, so I did quick roundup of all pertinent articles to the gallery. I hope this doesn't upset you, but I'm glad you still found this useful. :)
Audley Featured By Owner Aug 11, 2013   Writer
Not at all - I wouldn't have known of it otherwise (;
Nichrysalis Featured By Owner Aug 11, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Glad to hear that!
phoenixleo Featured By Owner Mar 9, 2013
Uncharted territory! :fear:
Nichrysalis Featured By Owner Mar 9, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Vigilo Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2013  Student Writer
Metre, the bane of my life. :shakefist: Lovely article! :clap: :heart:
Nichrysalis Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Daghrgenzeen Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Ooooh. :o
Nichrysalis Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
AzizrianDaoXrak Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Wow. This is amazing. :applause:
Nichrysalis Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you. :D Let me know if you put this to use! :)
SubjugatedSandwich Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Wow, well this is pretty much a mind blowing amount of useful information. Here I was all this time just wingin' it. (I'm gonna have to bookmark this.)
Nichrysalis Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Glad you found it useful. :)
Parsat Featured By Owner Mar 6, 2013   Writer
A highly technical primer on meter. I've never been a fan of cola myself; I think a more in-depth look on some of the shorter patterns (anapestic, iambic, trochaic, amphibranchic) is of more practical use to the growing poet. Even a look at accentual verse could be of more value than Greek and Latin poetic meters. English can be such a crude language to work with. :P
Nichrysalis Featured By Owner Mar 6, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
I see your point, but I very clearly state in the beginning of this article that this is a more advanced take on meter. I also explain why I am focusing on the more complex meters. There are a great deal of articles available on 2-3 syllable feet, but hardly anything that covers the extensive subject I have here, let alone is it available in one organized index.
neurotype Featured By Owner Mar 6, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Nichrysalis Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
IKR? :la:

(I had so much fun putting it together :giggle: )
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