Rhythm and Metre in English Poetry: At a Glance


The paper focuses on rhythm and metre in English poetry. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines ‘Rhythm’ as- “a strong regular repeated pattern of sounds or movements”. (“Rhythm” Oxford).It is the measured flow of words and phrases in verse or prose as determined by the relation of long and short or stressed and unstressed syllables. Prosody is the notion of poems. It is the systematic division of lines of a poem to make them fall into a proper arrangement, giving it symmetry. The word ‘Prosody’ comes from the Greek word ‘Prosodia’, which means a song sung with music. A poem has proper structure called its metrical arrangement, and the part of prosody which deals with it is called metrics. In the paper basic notions about rhythm and metre are clarified. Various types of metres are explained with examples.


Etymologically the word ‘Rhythm’ is derived from Greek word ‘rhythmos’ which means "measured flow or movement”. The words are spilt into syllables. A syllable is a group of alphabets which has only one vowel sound. A metrical structure is made up of syllables which are stressed or partially stressed. A word may be monosyllabic e.g. heat, bit etc., Disyllabic e.g. re-fer, in-fer etc., Tri-syllabic e.g. ex-pan-sive, ut-er-ly. etc., multi-syllabic e.g. ma-na-ger-ial, adventurous etc. The syllable which is stressed is called the accented (or Stressed ) syllable.

Word Rhythm

Words spelled alike but with different meanings are often distinguished by their rhythms. ‘Desert’ with the accent on the first syllable is a noun, but with the accent on the second syllable it is a verb, and the meanings are quite different. Produce, export, conduct, ally, record, are nouns, or verbs according to stress, and here the meanings are akin. We produce produce, and export exports and so on.

When the stress comes at the beginning of a word we say the word has a falling rhythm; e.g. laughter, misty, pelican, beautifully. When the stress comes at the end, the word has a rising rhythm. e.g. dismay, reduce, interrupt.

Sentence rhythm

In conversation and writing, words interlock to produce sentences .A Sentence rhythm is much more important than word rhythm. It is more complex. It can fuse falling and rising rhythm. e.g.
- - - -
Are you going to school today ?
The word or syllables marked – are stressed, and the others are unstressed. ‘Are you’ and ‘going’ have a falling rhythm; ‘to school’ and ‘today’ have a rising rhythm.


Metre is the organization of rhythms into regular and recurring patterns. Rhythm is unconscious, metre is conscious. Metre is form a Greek word meaning ‘measure’. Feet are the units of measurements or scansion.

English poetry employs five basic rhythms of varying stressed (/) and unstressed (x) syllables. The meters are iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests and dactyls. The stressed syllables are marked in boldface type rather than the tradition al "/" and "x." Each unit of rhythm is called a "foot" of poetry.

The meters with two-syllable feet are-
(1) IAMBIC (x /) : This is the most common of English feet. An iamb is made up of two syllables, the first unaccented and the second accented. Words like rebuke, delight are iambs.
One more example is
That time of year thou mayst in me behold.

(2) TROCHAIC (/ x): It is opposite of Iamb. The word never is a Trochee. And by putting five nevers together, Shakespeare produced the most famous of his lines in ‘King Lear’.
One more example is -
Tell me not in mournful numbers.

(3) Pyrrhic: It is a disyllabic measure; having no stressed syllables. It is not a predominant foot but is found in an isolated manner among other feet.

(4) SPONDAIC (/ /): It is opposite of Pyrric. Both the syllables are stressed.
e.g. Drop,drop/slow tears.
Break, break, break/ On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!

Meters with three-syllable feet are -
(1) ANAPESTIC (x x /): It is a trisyllabic foot, having a rising rhythm with two shorts leading to a long. Words like disagree,supersede and phrases like on the run , at the time etc. are Anapests. Example:
And the sound of a voice that is still.

(2) DACTYLIC (/ x x): It is the reverse of the Anapest. A falling rhythm, long followed by two shorts. Words like emperor,skillfully etc and phrases like master it, forced to be are Dactles.
This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlock (a trochee replaces the final dactyl). Each line of a poem contains a certain number of feet of iambs, trochees, spondees, dactyls or anapests. A line of one foot is a monometer, 2 feet is a dimeter, and so on--trimeter (3), tetrameter (4), pentameter (5), hexameter (6), heptameter (7), and o ctameter (8). The number of syllables in a line varies therefore according to the meter. A good example of trochaic monometer, for example, is this poem entitled "Fleas":

Here are some more serious examples of the various meters.
Iambic pentameter (5 iambs, 10 syllables)
Iambic pentameter, a common metre in English poetry, is based on a sequence of five iambic feet or iambs, each consisting of a relatively unstressed syllable (here represented with "×" above the syllable) followed by a relatively stressed one (here represented with "/" above the syllable) — "da-DUM" = "× /" :
× / × / × / × / × /
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
× / × / × / × / × /
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

• That time | of year | thou mayst | in me | behold
Trochaic tetrameter (4 trochees, 8 syllables)

• Tell me | not in | mournful | numbers
Anapestic trimeter (3 anapests, 9 syllables)

• And the sound | of a voice | that is still
Dactylic hexameter (6 dactyls, 17 syllables; a trochee replaces the last dactyl)

• This is the | forest pri | meval, the | murmuring | pine and the | hemlocks
("—" = long, "∪" = short)

The metres discussed above may be classified as under to understand.


Foot type


Stress pattern

Syllable count



Unstressed + Stressed




Stressed + Unstressed




Stressed + Stressed


Anapest or anapaest


Unstressed + Unstressed + Stressed




Stressed + Unstressed + Unstressed




Unstressed + Stressed + Unstressed




Unstressed + Unstressed


Metres are poetic embellishments are used by poets skillfully to add charm and rhythmic pattern.


  1. 1. Blackstone, Bernard. Practical English Prosody A Handbook for Students. Hyderabad: Orient Longman Limited. 1994.Print
  2. 2. Mallik,Nilanko. Compact English Prosody and figures of speech. New Delhi: Macmillan.2010.Print.
  3. 3. “Rhythm”,Oxford. .http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/rhythm
  4. 4. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/meter.html

(1) Nikhatjahan M. Sipai and 2) Chauhan Vaibhavi, Students B.A. Sem VI, Gujarat Arts & Science College, Ahmedabad Email ID: nikhatsipai2310@gmail.com