Poetry: Metre

I am not a poetic genius – far from it, and to be honest, thinking about the mechanics of poetry can be enough to put me off writing poetry in the first place. Today I take a look at metre: what it is and how it works.

When I began writing poetry as a child, it was simple – as long as each two lines ended with a rhyme I couldn’t go wrong…right? It took me a long time to realise there was more to poems than simple rhyme, and an even longer time before I started to play around with the basics of poetry composition: metre, rhyme and form. So what’s it all about?


Today I’m exploring metre.

When we speak, we naturally give words and syllables within any sentence a lighter or heavier stress or emphasis. Compare the iconic computerised voice of scientist Stephen Hawking to most spoken English and you will have an idea of what I’m talking about. Computer speak gives each word and syllable equal stress. I say ‘English’ here because that’s what I speak and not all languages use this kind of stress: some languages, like Thai for example, are tonal languages.


Let’s take a quick look at a line from Macbeth’s Shakespeare, with a backslash above indicating where the stress is placed:


         /            /              /        /                  /

But get thee back; my soul is too much charged. (v.8.5.)


You can get a feel of this if you read it out loud and tap your foot in time with the beat of the stress.


footprint-in-sandThe stress placed on words and syllables is what forms the rhythm of a poem. In the above line from Macbeth, there are five beats – five light words or syllables and five stressed words or syllables. We call these beats: feet. Here’s that line again with an ‘x’ for the unstressed or unaccented word or syllable:


  x     /        x     /        x     /     x    /      x           /

But get | thee back; | my soul | is too | much charged. (v.8.5.)


You can see above that I have also separated each foot: each comprising of one unstressed and one stressed word or syllable. An iamb is one metric foot with the stress on the second word or syllable – as with that line from Macbeth. There are other kinds of metre, but we’ll stick with this one for the moment.


Shakespeare is one writer who used iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is simply the iambic foot used five times. Go back to that line from Macbeth again, count up those feet…five in all!


Have a go at writing a few of your own lines of iambic pentameter, but be warned, this can become an addictive pastime! Start just writing one line of iambic pentameter, and see if you can build up to four. I’d love to read what you come up with: feel free to post in the comments box below!


Photo credit: Footprint in Sand

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