What are the metrical features in poetry?

Turn on some hip-hop and listen carefully. Next, read aloud a few verses of a Shakespearean sonnet. What do they have in common? Each one has a strong rhythmic pattern — or metrical feature — more commonly known as meter.

When you string a lot of words together, you start seeing patterns. Rhythm is the pattern of stresses (as in stressed and unstressed syllables) in a line of verse. Much of English poetry is written in lines that string together one or more feet. Feet, the individual building blocks of meter, are single rhythmical units that consist of two or more syllables.

Here are the most common types of feet, the rhythms they represent, and an example of that rhythm.

  • Anapestic: duh-duh-DUH, as in, Get away!
  • Dactyllic: DUH-duh-duh, as in, Honestly
  • Iambic: duh-DUH, as in Alas!
  • Trochaic: DUH-duh, as in Pizza

To build a line of verse, poets can string together repetitions of one of these types of feet. Such repetitions are named like this:

  • Monometer: one foot
  • Dimeter: two feet
  • Trimeter: three feet
  • Tetrameter: four feet
  • Pentameter: five feet
  • Hexameter: six feet

So, iambic pentameter is a string of five iambs, as in these lines from Shakespeare's Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Note the rhythm: Duh-DUH-duh-DUH-duh-DUH-duh-DUH-duh-DUH

In his plays, Shakespeare generally used blank verse — unrhymed iambic pentameter. Don't confuse this with free verse, which is poetry that is not written in a traditional meter but is still rhythmical. (The poetry of Walt Whitman is perhaps the best-known example of free verse.)