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Meter in poetry

In literature, meter is a term used in the scansion of poetry, usually indicated by the kind of feet and the number of them. For instance, "iambic pentameter", "dactylic tetrameter", etc.

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Greek and Latin Poetry The metrical "feet" in the classical languages were based on the length of time taken to pronounce each syllable, which were categorized as either "long" syllables or "short" syllables. The foot is often compared to a musical measure and the long and short syllables to whole notes and half notes. In English poetry, feet are determined by emphasis rather than length, with stressed and unstressed syllables serving the same function as long and short syllables in classical meter.

Technical terms in poetic meter:

  • dactyl: A poetical foot of three syllables, one long followed by two short, or one accented followed by two unaccented
  • iamb: Consisting of a short syllable followed by a long one, or of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented; as, an iambic foot.
  • trochee: A metrical foot of two syllables, the first long and the second short, as in the Latin word ante, or the first accented and the second unaccented, as in the English word motion; a choreus.
  • spondee: A poetic foot of two long syllables
  • anapest: A poetic foot of two short syllables followed by a long one.
  • caesura: A caesura (literally, a cut or cutting) refers to a particular kind of break wtihin a poetic line. In Latin and Greek meter, caesura refers to a break within a foot caused by the end of a word. In English poetry, a caesura refers to a sense of a break within a line, sometimes indicated by extra whitespace between words. Caesuras play a particularly important role in Old English poetry.
  • Inversion: When a foot of poetry is reversed with respect to the general meter of a poem, it is referred to as an inversion. This term is usually only used for the first foot in a line.
  • Headless: A headless meter is one where the first foot is missing its first syllable.

English Poetry Most English meter is classified according to the same system as Classical meter with an important difference: stressed and unstressed syllables take the place of long and short syllables.

Old English poetry has a different metrical system. In Old English poetry, each line must contain four fully stressed syllables, which often alliterate. The unstressed syllables are less important. Old English poetry is an example of the alliterative verse found in most of the older Germanic languages.

French Poetry In French poetry, meter is determined solely by the number of syllables in a line. An silent 'e' counts as a syllable, except at the end of a line.

Spanish Poetry In Spanish poetry, meter is determined solely by the number of syllables in a line. Syllables in Spanish metrics are determined by consonant breaks, not word boundaries, so a single syllable may include multiple words. For example, the line De armas y hombres canto consists of 6 syllables: "De ar" "mas" "y hom" "bres" "can" "to."

Some common meters in Spanish verse are:

  • Heptasyllable[?]: A line consisting of seven syllables.
  • Octosyllable[?]: A line consisting of eight syllables. This meter is commonly used in romances, narrative poems similar to English ballads.
  • Hendecasyllable: A line consisting of eleven syllables. This meter plays a similar role to pentameter in English verse. It is commonly used in sonnets, among other things.
  • Alexandrines[?]: A line consisting of twelve syllables. This is frequently used in epic poetry.

See also: Alexandrine, Dactylic hexameter, Elegiac couplet, Hendecasyllable, Heroic couplet, Iambic pentameter



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