The metrical foot: Foot and meter in poetry

I just came across this poem by Coleridge explaining metrical feet, the unit of measurement in poetry. He wrote it for his son, Derwent.

 A metrical foot is a set of syllables, usually two or three, only one of which is normally stressed, as in the words, po´-em and po´-et-ry. The first syllable is stressed in both these words when we say them. Poetry was meant to be recited, read aloud, so syllables count. A set of two syllables is called a trochee when the first syllable is stressed, as in po´-em. A set of three syllables is called a dactyl when the first syllable is stressed, as in po´-et-ry. The words come from Latin and Greek, like poem and poetry.

Here is Coleridge’s poem.

Metrical Feet
Lesson for a Boy
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Tro´chee tri´ps from lo´ng to sho´rt; 
From lo’ng to lo´ng in so´lemn so´rt 
Slo´w Spo´ndee sta´lks, stro´ng foo´t!, ye´t ill a´ble 
E´ver to co´me up with Da´ctyl’s trisy´llable. 
I´ambics ma´rch from sho´rt to lo´ng. 
With a lea´p and a bou´nd the swift A´napests thro´ng. 
One syllable long, with one short at each side, 
Amphibrachys hastes with a stately stride – 
First and last being long, middle short, Amphimacer 
Strikes his thundering hoofs like a proud high-bred Racer.

If Derwent be innocent, steady, and wise, 
And delight in the things of earth, water, and skies; 
Tender warmth at his heart, with these meters to show it, 
With sound sense in his brains, may make Derwent a poet – 
May crown him with fame, and must win him the love 
Of his father on earth and his father above. 
          My dear, dear child! 
Could you stand upon Skiddaw, you would not from its whole ridge 
See a man who so loves you as your fond S.T. Coleridge.

Coleridge shows his skill in the first stanza. Each line is an example of the metrical foot mentioned in that line.

He mentions the trochee in the first line, so the first line is trochaic, with the stresses or accents falling on the first syllables. The spondee, mentioned in the third line, is a set of two stressed syllables, so successive syllables are stressed in the third line. The fourth line is dactylic, with the first syllable stressed in sets of three syllables. The iamb mentioned in the fifth line is a set of two syllables with the second syllable stressed. Accordingly, the fifth line is iambic. The anapest mentioned in the sixth line is a set of three syllables with the last syllable stressed. So the sixth line is anapestic.

I got this from A Dictionary of Literary Terms, which shows how Coleridge’s lines correspond to the various meters.

The metrical foot is the basic unit of measurement of a poem.

I got this from A Dictionary of Literary Terms, which shows how Coleridge’s lines correspond to the various meters.

The metrical foot is the basic unit of measurement of a poem.


A line with one foot — one stressed syllable — is called a monometer. For example,

is dandy
But liquor
is quicker
(Ogden Nash)

A line with two feet — two stressed syllables — is called a dimeter. The third and fourth lines of the limerick – a form of light verse with usually anapestic lines — are dimeters, according to A Dictionary of Literary Terms, which gives this example:

There was a young person of Mullion
Intent upon marrying bullion;
By some horrible fluke
She jilted a duke
And had to elope with a scullion.

A line with three feet — three stressed syllables — is called a trimeter:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert..
(Shelley, To a Skylark)

A line with four feet — four stressed syllables —  is called a tetrameter:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes
(Byron, She Walks in Beauty)

A line with five feet — five stressed syllables — is called a pentameter. The iambic pentameter used by Shakespeare is the most common meter in English poetry.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate
(Shakespeare, Sonnet 18)

 A line with six feet — six stressed syllables — is called a hexameter.

 Now had the season returned, when the nights grow colder and longer,
And the retreating sun the sign of the Scorpion enters.
Birds of passage sailed through the leaden air, from the ice-bound,
Desolate northern bays to the shores of tropical islands.
(Longfellow, Evangeline)

 Rhyme schemes

Then there are various rhyme schemes.

A couplet is a pair of rhyming lines.

This is the Night Mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order.
(WH Auden, The Night Mail)

A tercet is a stanza of three lines linked by rhyme:

A still small voice spake unto me:
‘Thou art so full of misery,
Were it not better not to be?’

Then to the still small voice I said:
‘Let me not cast in endless shade
What is so wonderfully made.’
(Tennyson, Two Voices)

A quatrain is a stanza of four lines, rhymed or unrhymed.

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
(Robert Burns, A Red, Red Rose)

 A quintain is a stanza of five lines.

 Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
(Philip Larkin, Annus Mirabilis)

 A six-line stanza is variously known as a sexain, sixain, sextain, sextet, sestet, and hexastich.

 The Petrarchan sonnet has an eight-line stanza (octave) rhyming ABBAABBA followed by a six-line stanza (sestet) rhyming CDCDCD or CDEEDE. Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses the same form in her sonnet, How Do I Love Thee?

 How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

 A seven-line stanza is called a septet.

 An eight-line stanza is called an octave or an octet. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet, How Do I Love Thee?, has both an octave and a sestet.

 There’s more: Blank verse, free verse, rhyme royal, terza rima, heroic couplet, sprung rhythm… Poetry comes in myriad forms.

 I don’t know half of it. That’s why I made these notes — to refresh my memory.

(See also Selected Poems.)


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