Meter is the rhythm of a poem. There
are specific ways to analyze meter so
that we can say something clear about
a poem’s rhythmic pattern. This
lesson will show you how!
Scanning a Poem
♦ We “scan” a poem to determine its basic rhythm
and to consider the relevance of that rhythm to
the meaning of the poem.
♦ Poetry has much in common with music, and
both have mathematical foundations.
♦ When we scan a poem, we begin by saying the
poetic lines aloud, paying careful attention to the
syllables which seem to be stressed (pronounced
with more emphasis).
Let’s Look at One Poem
“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”
by Adrienne Rich (1951)
Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens in a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.
A Scan of Lines 1 and 2
To “scan” a poem, we mark each stressed and each
unstressed syllable with a mark. Here, we’ll use /
for stressed and ~ for unstressed.
~ / ~ ~/ ~ / ~/~/
Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across the screen
~ / ~ / ~ ~ / ~ / ~ /
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
Then we count the stressed syllables in a single line.
Here there are 5 stressed syllables in each line.
Counting Stressed Syllables
Once we have taken a count of the stressed syllables in each
line, we have a good idea of what the dominant meter of
the poem is. Every line may not be the same, but usually
there will be one dominant pattern. In Rich’s poem, we
could scan all the lines and we would see that there are
generally 5 stresses (5 stressed syllables) to each line.
Poetry scansion makes use of some Greek-derived words to
label the meter of a poem. Let’s take a look at those.
We measure the meter of a poem using the measurement of
poetic feet. A foot in poetry is one stressed syllable + the
unstressed syllables that seem to go with it.
These terms show number of stresses or feet to a line:
♦ One stress (foot) per line = mono + meter = monometer
♦ Two = di + meter = dimeter
♦ Three = tri + meter = trimeter
♦ Four = tetra + meter = tetrameter
♦ Five = penta + meter = pentameter
♦ Six = hex + a + meter = hexameter
♦ Seven = hep + a + meter = heptameter
♦ Eight = oct + a + meter = octameter
Since Rich’s poem has 5 stresses per line, or five poetic feet
per line, we can say that its meter is pentameter.
One More Step
♦ Finally, we try to determine the dominant type of stressed
+ unstressed syllable combination which seems prominent
throughout the poem.
♦ In Rich’s poem, there are many alternations back and forth
between unstressed and stressed syllables. Many look like
this: ~ / ~ / ~ /
♦ This pattern of ~ / also has a name derived from Greek:
it is called an iamb.
♦ Although there are some exceptions -- notably the pattern
~ ~ / in Rich’s lines -- we can say that the dominant, most
common pattern is the iamb, or the iambic pattern.
Iambs and other weird patterns
Along with the iamb, there are other possible patterns:
Pattern Noun Adjective
~ / iamb iambic
~ ~ / anapest anapestic
/ ~ trochee trochaic
/ ~ ~ dactyl dactylic
/ / spondee spondaic
We describe a poetic line, then, by its type and number of
poetic feet. For example:
5 iambs = iambic pentameter
4 trochees = trochaic tetrameter
Describing Poetic Meter
♦ About Rich’s poem, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,”
then, we could say that its meter is
This tells readers that the dominant meter of the
poem is 5 stresses to a line (pentameter) and that
the dominant pattern or “foot” of syllable stress is
~ / (iambic).
♦ Poetry is a musical art form. It depends for its impact on
its rhythm as well as on its language.
♦ Being able to describe the pattern of a poem’s meter can
help us to analyze its meaning.
♦ Sometimes, however, especially with more modern poetry,
you will find that there is no clear dominant meter, that the
poet has written the line as it would be spoken, in a more
casual mix of syllables, a more conversational tone.
♦ The iamb is very common in the English language: we
often speak in iambic pentameter without realizing it:
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
♦ I’d like to have you meet a friend of mine.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
♦ Did you take out the garbage yesterday?
Rhythm and Meaning
♦ While the iamb ~ / easily represents a natural rhythm and
emphasis often used in English, the trochee / ~ gives a
feeling of pressing forward, of more urgency or insistence:
/ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
Charging down the King’s path steady
On to meet our death charge ready
♦ The anapest is used for a galloping kind of rhythm ~~/ ~~/
or for a light, almost comic feeling:
~ / ~ ~ / ~ ~ /
There once was a fellow at Drew
Who spotted a mouse in his stew,
Told the waiter about it, who said “Well don’t shout it”
Or the rest will be wanting one too!”
For more information
♦ Take a look at Jack Lynch’s web page on Meter:
Rich, Adrienne. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers. Literature: An
Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed.
X.J.Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 7th
ed. New York:
Longman, 1999. 657.