Part 1: How to Analyse Metre | Beginner’s Guide to Poetry

In this article, we define metre, identify different types of metres and show you how to analyse metre step-by-step with provided examples.

guide-english-poetic-techniques-metre-mobile-1

Still unsure of how to analyse metre? Well, you came to the right place! We will explain what metre is, show you different types of metre in poetry and show you how to analyse metre, step-by-step, with an example from Rosemary Dobson.

 

Table of contents:

 

What is metre?

To understand what a metre is, you need to first know a ‘foot’ means.

 

What is foot?

A foot refers to the stressed and unstressed syllables in a word or words.

  • Stressed syllabus (DUM) are longer and higher-pitched sounds
  • Unstressed syllables (da) are shorter and lower-pitched sounds

In poetry, a foot can have either two or three syllables. When distinguishing between the two, you can use ‘/’ to represent stressed syllables, and ‘X’ to represent unstressed syllables.

Remember, you should always read the line out loud to help you figure out the stressed and unstressed syllables.

 

guide-english-beginners-guide-to-poetry-resource-poetic-techniques-metre-shakespeares-macbeth-unstressed-stressed-syllables

This is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Now that you understand the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables, let’s apply this to real words. Read them out loud and pay attention to the intonations:

  • HA-ppy
  • be-HOLD
  • con-TIN-ue
  • CAT-er-PIL-lar
  • ON-ion
  • STAY
  • PA-sage-ways

Now, that you understand what a foot is, let’s see what is metre.

 

What is metre?

Metre is a pattern of feet (plural for foot). So, when we write a line with feet, we create a metre.

da-DUM is a foot, and da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM is a metre.

You see, a poet is able to create a particular rhythmic structure by controlling the metre of the poem.

 

 

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Types of metre

In English poetry, there are a handful of common metre types that you may come across.

However, you can’t just refer to the metre to describe the poetry.

You have to refer to it as foot metre.

For example, Shakespeare’s favourite: iambic pentameter. Here, iambic is the foot – the type of rhythm and number of syllables in the foot, that is an iamb (da-DUM) – and pentameter – 10 syllables to a line – is the metre.

So, let’s examine the different types of feet and metre:

 

Types of feet:

Feet are harder to remember than metres (you’ll see why in a second). So, write them down in your notes and continue to memorise them!

Remember in English language poetry, a foot is either 2 or 3 syllables long.

Here are the different types of feet:

  1. Iambic: Unstressed-stressed (da-DUM)
    1. be-LIEVE, com-PARE
  2. Trochaic: Stressed-unstressed (DUM-da)
    1. EAT-en, AR-gue
  3. Spondaic: Stressed-stressed (DUM-DUM)
    1. BOOK-MARK, EARTH-QUAKE
  4. Anapest: Unstressed-unstressed-stressed (da-da-DUM)
    1. in-ter-RUPT, con-tra-DICT
  5. Dactyl: Stressed-unstressed-unstressed (DUM-da-da)
    1. PO-e-try, TY-pi-cal

 

 

Types of metre:

It is very easy to identify the metre if you know your numerical prefixes!

Here are the different types of metre: 

  1. Monometer: 1 foot per line
  2. Diameter: 2 feet per line
  3. Trimeter: 3 feet per line
  4. Tetrameter: 4 feet per line
  5. Pentameter: 5 feet per line
  6. Hexameter: 6 feet per line

Note: Pay attention to the spelling – metre vs meter. Metre is the UK and Australian spelling. in the United States, they use meter.

guide-english-poetic-techniques-metre-count

 

How does metre work?

A metre forms the rhythmic structure of a poem.

Poets can stick to 1 metre throughout the poem, switch between different metres or totally ignore metres.

These will create different rhythms which shapes the atmosphere and flow of the poem and subsequently, the reader’s emotions.

A good way to think about metre is the poet putting rhythms into your mouth to speak!

For example, TS Eliot follows iambic tetrameter for the majority of Preludes. This creates a sense of structure and flow.

guide-english-beginners-guide-to-poetry-resource-poetic-techniques-metre-ts-eliot-prelude-unstressed-stressed-syllablesHowever, he also frequently strays from it, which creates a sense of chaos. This irregular metre represents the persona’s inner conflicts and deterioration of the mind.

how to analyse metre-chaotic

 

 

How to analyse metre: Step-by-step process

Many times, students overlook metre in poetry because it’s too confusing or difficult to analyse. However, these steps will make analysing metre easy!

  1. Read the poem aloud, twice!
  2. Identify the poem’s metre
    1. Pay attention to rhythmic patterns – how does it feel in your mouth? Does it feel like a tongue twister in parts?
    2. Count the stressed & unstressed syllables to determine the metre
    3. Identify any changes in metre throughout the poem
  3. Figure out the significance of the metre (or metre changes)
    1. What is the subject being discussed? Refer to the poem’s themes.
    2. How does the metre make you feel? Structured, chaotic, calm, uncomfortable etc.
    3. Link the two findings – What is the poet’s intention for using a particular metre (or changing metres)?
    4. Do this to all metre changes throughout the poem
  4. Discuss in TEEL paragraph

So, let’s see what each of these steps require you to do.

Note: In the next section, we go through these steps with an example from Rosemary Dobson’s Young Girl at a Window. 

 

1. Read the poem aloud

In the first reading, you must read the poem as a whole ALOUD without writing anything down.

Pay attention to:

  • What the poem is about – theme, storyline, topic etc.
  • The rhythmic pattern
  • How does the rhythmic pattern make you feel?

This will help you better understand the poem as a whole and determine why the specific metre is used.

 

If you’re struggling to understand the poem, break it down into smaller parts:

  1. Read the whole poem to get a feel of the themes
  2. Now, read the poem stanza by stanza to have a general understanding of what is happening in each section
  3. Then, read the poem line by line to understand the minute details of the poem. Define any words you don’t know.
how to analyse metre-read

 

 

2. Identify poem’s metre

Now that we have a feel of the poem, it is time to identify the poem’s metre. For longer poems like Eliot’s ” The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock”, this could take ages

To do this, you need to:

1. Pay attention to the rhythmic patterns. 

Remember, we want to be efficient when we analyse metre. You don’t want to count every line in the poem.

So, get out a pen, and draw brackets around stanzas or set of lines with prominent/different rhythmic patterns. This includes any structured metres, irregular metres, stanzas that don’t follow metre etc.

 

2. Count the stressed & unstressed syllables to determine a metre

Once you’ve identified these stanzas/set of lines, start counting the number of feet in 1 line. Use your fingers to help you do this.

Remember, a foot usually refers to 2 syllables eg. da-DUM, but sometimes poets use a tri-syllabic metre like dactyls and anapests.

Then, start figuring the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in the line. You can put dots above stressed syllabus and underline unstressed syllables to help you figure this step.

Take note of your findings.

Note: Remember, you don’t need to do this for all the lines. Just select one line of each identified stanza/set of lines to save your time. However, if you feel the need to count more lines, then feel free to do so.

 

3. Identify any changes in metre throughout the poem

After you identified the metre for the stanzas/set of lines, you need to identify any metre shifts throughout the poem.

Does it change from a structured metre to an irregular one? Does the metre stay consistent throughout the poem?

Write down your findings.

how to analyse metre-stray

 

 

3. Find the significance of the metre

When we determine the significance of metre, we figure out its effect on the readers.

This refers to the composer’s purpose and the audience reception. How does the metre help the poet convey meaning and how does the audience receive it?

We need to do this step for all your important stanzas and set of lines.

 

1. What is the subject being discussed? Refer to the poem’s themes.

You need to know what is happening in each important stanza/set of lines. Break down the lines to help you do this.

Then, figure out how the poem’s events link back to the themes.

 

2. How does the metre make you feel?

Remember, different rhythmic patterns will have a different effect on the reader. So, pay attention to how the rhythm makes you feel as you’re reading the stanza/set of lines.

Do you feel uncomfortable, free, anxious etc?

 

3. Link the two findings

Now, we need to find a link between the subject of the poem and your feelings to figure out the effect of the metre.

To help us do this, we need to ask ourselves:

  • What is the poet’s intention for using a particular metre?
  • Why did the author shift between different metres? (If applicable to your poem)

Usually, poets will use metre to make you feel a certain way towards the subject being discussed. It is up to you to figure out why!

how to analyse metre-emotions

 

 

4. Discuss in TEEL paragraph

Now, we have all the necessary ingredients to put together a T.E.E.L paragraph.

T.E.E.L stands for:

  • Technique: The technique used in the example
  • Example: The example
  • Effect: Your explanation of the effect of this technique and how it develops meaning
  • Link: An explanation of how this example supports your argument.

You can find a more detailed explanation of using T.E.E.L in our post on paragraph structure (this post is part of our series on Essay Writing and shows you the methods Matrix English Students learn to write Band 6 essays in the Matrix Holiday and Term courses).

 

 

Metre example – Rosemary Dobson’s Young Girl at a Window

Let’s learn how to analyse metre with Rosemary Dobson’s Young Girl at a Window. 

“Lift your hand to the window latch:
Sighing, turn and move away.
More than mortal swords are crossed
On thresholds at the end of day;
The fading air is stained with red
Since Time was killed and now lies dead.

Or Time was lost. But someone saw
Though nobody spoke and nobody will,
While in the clock against the wall
The guiltless minute hand is still:
The watchful room, the breathless light
Be hosts to you this final night.

Over the gently-turning hills
Travel a journey with your eyes
In forward footsteps, chance assault—
This way the map of living lies.
And this the journey you must go
Through grass and sheaves and, lastly, snow.”

 

Step 1: Read

What is the poem about? 

Dobson explores the themes of adulthood, change and acceptance in this poem. The young girl is faced with an obstacle, which she learns to slowly accept throughout the poem.

How does the metre make you feel? 

The metre feels very rigid, structured and constricting.

 

Step 2: Identify the poem’s metre

From our first reading, the metre of the poem already feels very structured and rigid.

However, we should still carefully examine the metre in each stanza to identify any changes.

So, let’s count the number of feet and the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables of a few lines of each stanza. Remember to select lines that have a strong rhythm.

 

Stanza 1: 

Notice how the first line of the stanza doesn’t follow a particular feet pattern.

Lift your hand to the window latch:”

However, when we look at the final 2 lines of the stanza…

“The fading air is stained with red
Since Time was killed and now lies dead.

We see that both lines are made of 4 feet (tetrameter) and follow the iambic feet pattern (unstressed-stressed)

Therefore, we see that Dobson only follows iambic tetrameter for the final few lines of the stanza 1.

 

Stanza 2: 

The first 2 lines of Stanza 2 doesn’t follow a particular metre pattern.

“Or Time was lost. But someone saw
Though nobody spoke and nobody will,”

However, let’s see if the final 2 lines follow the same metre as Stanza 1

“The watchful room, the breathless light
Be hosts to you this final night.”

Both lines are made of iambic feet (unstressed-stressed) and each line has 8 feet (tetrameter).

As such, we’re beginning to see a pattern; Dobson only uses iambic tetrametre in the final lines of the stanza.

 

Stanza 3: 

Let’s test our theory. Here are the first 2 lines of Stanza 3:

Over the gently-turning hills
Travel a journey with your eyes

Similar to the other stanzas, the first 2 lines of Stanza 3 does not follow a particular metre pattern.

Now, let’s examine the last 2 lines of this stanza:

“And this the journey you must go
Through grass and sheaves and, lastly, snow.”

It is an iambic tetrameter like the previous stanzas.

 

Collate findings: 

As such, we see that Young Girl At the Window has a very controlled and rigid structure. She has 6 lines in each stanza and always ends her last 2 lines in iambic tetrameter.

how to analyse metre-sheeves

 

 

Step 3: Find the significance of the metre

Now that we know the metre of Dobson’s poem, we need to analyse it. To do this, we must find the significance of the metre.

So, let’s answer these questions to figure it out.

 

1. What is the subject being discussed? Refer to the poem’s themes.

Stanza 1: The girl is approaching the end of a stage in her life. She is reluctant to accept this change.

Stanza 2: This stanza is more hopeful. The girl is now questioning her own perception and is opening up to the change.

Stanza 3: The girl accepts the change.

 

2. How does the metre make you feel?

As previously discussed, the structure of the whole feels very rigid and structured. This makes us feel like we’re stuck and we have limited freedom.

The fact that Dobson’s final couplets of each stanza follows an iambic tetrameter furthers this feeling of rigidity.

 

3. Link the two findings

The controlled and definite structure of the poem represents the rigidity of life. Individuals cannot simply reject changes in life because they will soon be stuck in the past.

This is especially represented through the symbolic use of metre. For every stanza, Dobson doesn’t follow a particular metre until the last 2 lines where she shifts to iambic tetrameter.

As such, the lack of a metrical pattern at the beginning of each stanza represents human’s attempts to challenge life and reject change. However, the fact that Dobson always returns to iambic tetrametre highlights how change is inevitable and the only options available is to embrace these changes or be left behind.

Therefore, her use of metre symbolises how changes in life is inevitable, regardless of the individual’s effort to challenge it.

 

Step 4: Discuss in a TEEL Paragraph

Now that we have our technique and analysis, it is time to put it in a TEEL paragraph!

Remember, TEEL stands for:

  • Technique
  • Example
  • Effect
  • Link

 

Rosemary Dobson explores the need to embrace and accept changes in life. This is demonstrated through the controlled and structured metre of Young Girl At the Window. Dobson begins every stanza without following a particular metrical pattern. However, the final couplets of every stanza is always written in iambic tetrameter, for example, “The fading air is stained with red / Since Time was killed and now lies dead” and “The watchful room, the breathless light / Be hosts to you this final night”. This creates an uneasy atmosphere because it feels very rigid and provides limited space for change. As such, the metrical pattern is symbolic of the inevitability of change as Dobson always falls back on iambic tetrameter in every stanza, despite straying away in the beginning. Therefore, this confronts her audience with the need to embrace these changes or they cannot continue to progress in life.

 

Let’s put your metre analysis to practice!

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