Best Foot Forward – Fixed Poetic Meters in the Renaissance Age

So, you slept through the poetry portion of your High School English class and you paid someone like me to write your sonnet for you, but now that you’re in the SCA you’re moved to create poetry. All is not lost. One of the things you’ll be happy to discover is that there are many examples of period poetry that don’t actually rhyme. Rhymed poetry seems to have come into fashion in English around the late 14th century; William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman published ca. 1360 isn’t rhymed, but Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales published about 20 years later, is. Much of Shakespeare’s work is unrhymed. The poetic feature you cannot duck, however, is rhythm.

Whatever other hallmarks a culture’s poetry might have, be it rhyme, alliteration, or fixed structure, they all have rhythm. Rhythm in speech or poetry is created because we don’t place the same emphasis on every syllable we speak. We stress, or emphasize, certain syllables, while other syllables remain unstressed, or de-emphasized. A lot of earlier poetic forms tended to ignore the placement of unstressed syllables in any line and only dealt with the stresses per line. Piers Plowman begins [1, 2]:

In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,

I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,

In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,

Wente wide in this world wondres to here.

Though there are a varying number of unstressed syllables (placed haphazardly), there are consistently four stresses per line:

In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,

I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,

In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,

Wente wide in this world wondres to here.

The stressed syllables also show alliteration, i.e., they begin with the same sound. Rather than rhyming the end of his lines, Langland “rhymed” the initial sounds of his stressed syllables; in this quatrain (four lines of poetry), he used only s, sh, h, and w for 16 stresses. The rhythm here is created by a regular pattern of stressed syllables.

Chaucer was a man ahead of his time. Whether Chaucer felt limited by the demands of alliteration, or whether he simply liked the sound of the more rhythmically fixed lines he was reading in foreign poetry, he chose to write in a style totally unlike Langland’s (and most earlier) work. This style quickly became the English standard [2, 3]:

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,

Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;

Of Atthenes he was lord and governour.

And in his tyme swich a conquerour.

Chaucer created an even stronger rhythm by placing stressed and unstressed syllables in a repeated pattern. This is a style referred to as a fixed meter. This particular meter is called iambic pentameter, with 10 syllables per line and five evenly-spaced stresses. This meter was to dominate English-language poetry through 1600 and beyond. But I’m jumping ahead (I get excited). First we need to talk about the revolutionary shift from stress-based verse to lines of a fixed meter, and to do that, we need to take off our shoes.

The basic unit of any fixed meter is called the foot. If you think about it, footsteps, especially marching steps, seem to naturally drive us into a set rhythm, as in, “Left, left, left-right-left!” (Notice no one thinks that they’re meant to hop on their left foot; they understand that the right step is simply unstressed.) Our journey into the wonderful world of feet begins with a single step, and indeed a single syllable, namely the…

Monosyllabic foot: one stressed syllable, like “day.” Usually, this foot occurs as an oddball in a line of a different meter, because as you can imagine it’s pretty artistically limiting. Here’s a line of monosyllabic tetrameter (tetra from the Greek for “four”, so a line of four monosyllabic feet):

Go. Seek. Find. Kill.

Not much to work with. I can’t think of a period example of monosyllabic foot poetry.

Most poetic feet contain more than one syllable, so a line will have more syllables than feet. It’s important to start thinking about feet rather than syllables, because the type of foot forms the rhythm. Lines composed of two-syllable feet are sometimes called “duple meter.” A line with four two-syllable feet will have 4×2=8, yes, eight syllables. There are four types of two-syllable feet:

Iamb: one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, like “today” and “before.” If you never know or understand any foot but the iamb, it won’t matter a darn. Iambic meter is the natural cadence of both English and French, so you’ll find that overwhelmingly most period English and French poetry is iambic. If you’re wondering what kind of word “iamb” is, it’s Greek, like most poetic terms. If you’re feeling like all these terms are too high-brow for you, you should know that Iambe was famous in Greek mythology for entertaining Demeter with bawdy stories, so instead of thinking about High School poetry class, think of what a saucy wench Iambe was and you’ll feel better.

People often doubt that they speak in iambic meter most of the time, because they’ve been taught that Shakespeare wrote in iambic meter, and they know they don’t talk that way. Oh, but you do. We hate having too many stressed syllables in a row. Why do you think nobody in folk music ever rides a white horse, but a milk-white horse? “White horse” is two stressed syllables and sounds jerky to us, but “a milk-white horse” alternates stressed and unstressed syllables and flows more musically to our ears. Most English words of more than one syllable alternate stressed and unstressed syllables; the few words that have multiple stressed syllables together are typically compound words, or words made by sticking two smaller words together, like “handcuff” and “football.”

Once you’ve identified the type of foot, like iambic, the name of the meter does nothing more than tell you how many feet are in each line (it just tells you in Greek). Here are the lines you’re likely to run into, all illustrated in iambic feet:

1, Monometer: A horse! (One foot, two syllables, da-DUM)

2, Dimeter: A loaf of bread. (Two feet, four syllables, da-DUM da-DUM)

3, Trimeter: I need my coffee, please.

4, Tetrameter: My hovercraft is full of eels.

5, Pentameter: I think he went to Wal-Mart on his break.

6, Hexameter: But then he came back home and went to bed and slept.

7, Heptameter: You’d think that I’d have something more important to relate.

Okay, I had to use “relate” rather than “say” to preserve the meter, but you can see how little tweaking must be done to normal speech to even out the rhythm. You should be able to spot the iambic feet in those lines (just break the lines into two-syllable chunks and note that each chunk sounds roughly like da-DUM). Obviously, in normal speech, we don’t make quite as much distinction between stressed and unstressed syllables, and the longer the statement, the less distinct we get. Look at the natural stress in this line (here bold indicates a stressed syllable):

I need my coffee, please.

Without hearing it first, you’d naturally read this written line as three iambs, da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. Now, you COULD say it like this:

I need my coffee, please.

DUM da-da-DUM da-DUM. But you’d recognize it as unusual, and realize that I was trying to emphasize the word “I”, namely that I need my coffee more than the next person (probably true!). The longer a line gets, and the longer the words get, the more likely you’ll have a syllable that should be stressed but isn’t, or vice versa. If I’m speaking formally, I can read this line as follows:

I think he went to Wal-Mart on his break

But given no direction, you’re just as likely to say it:

I think he went to WalMart on his break.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Poetry that never deviates from the pure meter often sounds like a second-grader wrote it:

I think that I shall never see

A snail that wants to climb a tree

He might fall down and bump his head

Or take so long he’d still be dead.

Period poetry is lousy with variations from the pure meter, but it’s done consciously, for emphasis or effect. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are iambic pentameter, unrhymed, so the lines should sound like da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. But look:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glor‘ious summer by this son of York.

Whoa! Four real iambs out of ten chances! But this is an opening line, and it’s meant to have tremendous punch. So it does. To an ear expecting regular iambic, this feels like somebody stripped the clutch. And that’s my cue to introduce another scary term: scansion. Scansion describes how well the poet stuck to the meter. If a line “doesn’t scan” it means there is noticeable deviation from the expected rhythm, and without an obvious reason, like Shakespeare’s emphasis above. Here are two ten-syllable lines:

The night was cold, and darkness filled the sky

John jumped on the bed, and Susan said, “Hey!”

The first line scans perfectly in iambic pentameter, the second doesn’t, which is why the first sounds rhythmic and poetic and the second doesn’t. Bad poets can’t even count to ten (or whatever syllable count is appropriate to the line), so they often drop syllables or throw in extras. Middling poets can usually count to ten, but they just can’t perceive the difference between a line that scans and one that doesn’t, so their poems end up sounding like prose that happens to have lines of the same length. Just because you have 10 syllables per line does NOT mean you have iambic pentameter. It’s all about RHYTHM.

Really strong deviations from meter are often used in modern poems for comic effect. Consider these two limericks:

There was a young man of Japan,

Whose limericks never would scan.

When they said it was so,

He replied, “Yes, I know –

“But I always try to get as many words into the last line as ever I possibly can!”


A decrepit old gas man named Peter

While hunting around for the meter

Touched a leak with his light

He arose out of sight

And, as anyone can see by reading this, he also destroyed the meter.

You know the rhythm you expect in the last line of a limerick, and the unexpected quality of a line that varies wildly from that expected rhythm gets your attention. Again, I can’t think of a period example of this type of deviation, so save it for your open mic poetry.

Besides iambic pentameter, other common meters in period poetry include iambic tetrameter, as in the Agincourt Carol (ca. 1415) [4]:

Owre kynge went forth to Normandy,

With grace and myyt of chivalry;

The God for hym wrouyt marvelously,

Wherefore Englonde may calle, and cry

and “alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter” also known as “ballad meter,” as in The Battle of Otterburn (ca. 1550, spelling modernized for clarity) [5]:

Wherefore, shoot, archers, for my sake (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM)

And let sharp arrows flee (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM)

Minstrels, play up your warison

And well quit it shall be

Lines of four feet alternate with lines of three feet. Hence the name.

I’ve spent so long on iambs, that you’ve probably forgotten the category: two-syllable (duple) feet. We’ll move one now, but I’ll take one more opportunity to say that the importance of the iamb can’t be overemphasized. Unless you’re writing poetry in a language other than English (of course iambs also turn up in Italian, German…) and/or you’re recreating a poetic style from a period earlier than the 14th century, you should be working in iambs most of the time, if not exclusively.

Trochee: one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable, like “daily” or “quiet.” Interestingly, the fashion of rhyming poetry seems to have gone hand-in-hand with a shift in preference for iambic over trochaic meter. This makes a good deal of sense, since trochaic feet leave an unstressed syllable at the end of the line, and a rhyme of an unstressed syllable makes far less impact on the ear than a rhyme of a stressed syllable. Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry, though it was often irregular in its placement of unstressed syllables, frequently started a line with a stress and ended a line with a trochee:

Many men are singing (singing, DUM-da)

Making songs to Odin (Odin, DUM-da)

Or in the mother tongue, as these lines by 10th century Norwegian skald Eyvindr Finsson skaldaspillir [6]:

Barum Ullr of alla

imunlauks a hauka

fjollum Fyrisvalla

frae Hakunar aevi

I’m assuming you can figure out that is a trochee (think “Allah”), DUM-da. Since the hallmarks of Anglo-Saxon and Norse verse have little to do with fixed-foot meter, they’re outside the scope of this article, but it’s helpful to know that if you want to start writing them, you’re better off thinking in trochees than iambs.

Spondee: two stressed syllables, like “daybreak” or “ballpark.” This is another foot that you’ll find thrown into a line of iambic or trochaic verse for emphasis. Like monosyllabic feet, your listeners would feel like they were being shouted at if you kept it up too long, but again, you’ll find them often in Anglo-Saxon and Norse verse as kennings, or compound words used to poetically replace another word, like “swan-road” for ocean or “corpse-beer” for blood.

Pyrrhic: two unstressed syllables, for which I can’t think of a single-word example. (“Monopoly” can be thought of as an iamb followed by a pyrrhic foot.) As a pyrrhic battle is one with no winner, a pyrrhic foot is one with no stress. Pyrrhic feet are not uncommon in forms of poetry (like Anglo-Saxon) whose lines are typically defined by number of stressed syllables rather than the absolute number of syllables; they also occur frequently with spondees in iambic or trochaic verse to control the number of stresses in a line.

Congratulations! You survived. Armed with a full knowledge of the duple meters, we can now assess the scansion of the worst poetry. Here are two lines of 12 syllables each:

The trouble with a rainy day lies mainly in

Knowing the time to use umbrellas and rain boots.

The trou- ble with a rai- ny day lies main- ly in

(iamb) (iamb) (iamb) (iamb) (spondee) (pyrrhic)

Know- ing the time to use um- brel- las and rain boots

(trochee) (iamb) (iamb) (iamb) (pyrrhic) (spondee)

That’s six stressed and six unstressed syllables per line, and seven out of twelve are iambs, so you’d have to call this iambic hexameter, but it doesn’t sound like poetry, does it? That’s the bad scansion caused by varying the feet without a good reason (unless you intend to call attention to the rain boots). What happens if we fix those odd feet?

The trouble with a rainy day is very clear: To know the time when your umbrella should appear (Okay I rhymed it, too. What can I say, I’m an overachiever.) Now it has unbroken rhythm. It sings. It sounds like poetry (inane poetry, but we’re not discussing content at the moment). Yes, I left out the boots. Sometimes to preserve the rhythm of the piece, you have to make the tough choices, but that’s what makes poetry different from prose. Rhythm has to come first. If you prefer the boots, you ditch the umbrella:

The trouble with a rainy day no man refutes: To know the time when you should don your rubber boots

Notice how changing “rain boots” to “rubber boots” got rid of that nasty spondee (it’s the milk-white-steed thing again). At first you may have to sacrifice content to protect the meter, but as you get better at it, you’ll learn how to work in everything you want to say AND have a piece that scans.

Hold onto your hats! Now it’s time to have half again as much fun. Lines composed of three-syllable feet are called, you guessed it, “triple meter.” A line of duple pentameter will have ten syllables and a line of triple pentameter will have… Let’s not always see the same hands! Right, 3×5=15, that’s fifteen syllables. Here are the three-syllable feet you’ll want to know…

Dactyl: a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, like “yesterday,” “lavender,” and horribly (see following), “anapest.” Anything in waltz tempo, or 3/4, will be dactylic in meter. People often use it to evoke the feel of a galloping horse. Dactyls were common in Greek epic poetry; in fact, dactylic hexameter is known as “heroic meter” because of its use in Greek epics.

Anapest: two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, like “volunteer” and “entertain.” Sadly, the word “anapest” isn’t one; it’s a dactyl. This is another galloping horse meter; it’s also popular in sea chanteys. “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore (“‘Twas the night before Christmas…”) is written in anapestic tetrameter, as are most of the books by Dr. Seuss.

Amphibrach: two unstressed syllables with a stressed syllable between them, like “pajama” and “tomato.” The long lines of most limericks are amphibrachic trimeter, “There was a young lady of Niger…” Amphibrachs were used in both Latin and Greek verse.

There are other tri-syllabic feet, and even tetra-syllabic feet, but unless you’re going to delve into classics and dead languages, you’re unlikely ever to run across them. Because Latin and Greek feature a different concept of stress than modern English, they needed lots more types of feet. Believe me when I tell you that you DON’T. If you can gain a working knowledge of these few presented here, and train your ear to stick to them in your writing, you’ll have the tools to write a wide range of poetry. Good poetry.

“Oh, no, you didn’t say there’d be a TEST!!!!!!!!!”

Here are a few examples to test yourself. Try breaking the line into units of two (or three) syllables and match the unit with the descriptions of each foot, and the number of feet per line with the chart on page 3. Here’s a clue: count the number of stressed syllables; both iambic trimeter and anapestic dimeter have six syllables, but the iambic line will have three stresses (one per foot) and the anapestic line will have two (one per foot). Yes, monosyllabic dimeter and spondaic monometer will both have two stresses. Hey, if it were easy, everybody would do it! Answers appear after the Bibliography.

1. On the back of the box is the price A. monosyllabic hexameter

2. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound! B. trochaic pentameter

3. Something wicked coming nearer C. anapestic trimeter

4. Fight! Fight! Fight! Drink! Drink! Drink! D. dactylic tetrameter

5. She saw seesaws E. iambic trimeter

6. I went to the bank and withdrew my deposit. F. trochaic tetrameter

7. Darling one, follow me tenderly, lovingly G. iambic pentameter

8. And now the end is near and I’m alone H. spondaic dimeter

9. Poppycock! I. anapestic tetrameter

10. Wendy went with Peter rather quickly J. iambic tetrameter

11. It’s a sad situation when lovers grow cold K. dactylic monometer

12. Before the Queen he knelt L. amphibrachic tetrameter


[1] Langland, William, “The Vision of Piers Plowman,” Prologue, WWW: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia, 2005.

[2] Chaucer, Geoffrey, and Nevill Coghill (Translator), The Canterbury Tales, Penguin Classics, New York, 2003.

[3] Many Middle English words ending in were initially pronounced as two syllables, like ‘old’ and ‘time’, but eventually the terminal became silent or dropped off and the pronunciation became modernized. This often makes it difficult to go back to Chaucer and count syllables in a line, but trust me, there are 10.

[4] Bodleian Library MSS. Selden, B 26, “The Song of Agincourt”, 15th c.

[5] British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra, C.iv, ca. 1550.

[6] “The Prose Edda in Old Icelandic,” Skaldskaparmal, XLIII, part 2, WWW: Heithin Text Archive, 2005.

Perrine, Laurence. Sound and Sense, An Introduction to Poetry (4th edition). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Preminger, Alex, editor. Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Answers: 1-C, 2-J, 3-F, 4-A, 5-H, 6-L, 7-D, 8-G, 9-K, 10-B, 11-I, 12-E.

Source by Lisa Theriot

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