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Metri Gratia (for the sake of meter).

If the poet has bread and butter, it is meter.

Prosody is a linguistic term that in its relationship with poetry describes the study of the mechanics of verse. It is commonly separated into three sections- isochrony, intonation and stress. Of these three, isochrony is the most critical for the written word. It is the postulated (or claimed) rhythmic division of time into equal portions by language.

Or in other words… meter.

Poetry without meter is like music without a beat. In music the phrase “tempo rubato” means “robbed of tempo”. It is the playing of music without a strict adherence to the composed cadence. Used by an experienced musician, this freedom from rhythm may produce a performance that is both stylized and emotional.

To the untrained musician it is chaos.

Poetry without rhythm is turmoil.

So where did this begin?

The oldest poem known to man is the epic Gilgamesh. It exists in twelve clay tablets and comes to us from the Sumerian Empire of Mesopotamia. Though the story told is surely older than the poem, the limited number of versions extant were likely written during the third dynasty of Ur about 2150-2000 BCE.

If there is meter in the poem’s construction, it is unrecognizable to modern scholars. We consider it poetry as opposed to prose for two reasons. One is that the vast majority of other writings from that period are of the mundane- merchant lists, sacred texts and the like. Gilgamesh stands alone in its construction. The second is the use of “repetitive parallelism”, the repeating of important lines for the purpose of impact such as this from the Enuma Elish 4. 3-6 (the Babylonian New Year’s Hymn)-

“You are the most important of the great gods;
Your destiny is unequaled, your command is Anu.
Marduk, you are the most important of the great gods;
Your destiny is unequaled, your command is Anu.”

Because Gilgamesh was written at a time that relied on oral transmission, it is all too probable that the poem was sung. Whatever meter that could be attributed to the piece arose in the music which has not survived.

The first time meter as we understand it appears in a poetic work is the Chinese Shijing or The Book or Odes. These are a collection of 305 “songs”, the majority of which date from the Western Zhou period (1046-771 BCE) with five of them from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). These works are thought to have been compiled by Confucius and used not only a repetitive rhythm, but rhyme as well.

In ancient India the Sanskrit Vedas are the earliest known sacred writings and the first time that meter was described in a set fashion known as “mantra”.

A mantra is a sound, word or group of words that are capable of causing transformation in those who utter them or hear. It was a central tenet of the Hindu religion and the concept has found its way into many other belief systems for its purported musical or incantatory (chanted) effects.

Meter that can save the soul.

In Iranian religious poetry is found one of the earliest known forms of standardized meter. The Gathas are seventeen hymns alleged to have been written by the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra) himself. In these hymns was used a syllable count varying from seven to thirteen which had spiritual connotations due to their placement.

It is in the poetry of the ancient Greeks however, that we are introduced to the various modes used by western languages presently. The works of Homer, Euripides, Sappho, Dionysius Chalcus and more systematized what are now referred to as the classic Greek modes (meters), but to better understand the similarities to modern poetry we must understand their differences.

The form of meter used by the ancient Greeks is known as Quantitative meter in which the duration of sound in each syllable, rather than stress, determines the meter. It is common in Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and Arabic, but almost unheard of in English. This is the meter of Homer and his contemporaries.

Accentual meter or “strong stress” meter fixes the number of stressed syllables in a line to a strict limit while the unstressed syllables have no such restriction. This is the meter of Beowulf, the oldest poem in the English language.

Syllabic meter is precisely the opposite of accentual and is extremely rare in English.

Accentual-Syllabic meter fixes both unstressed and stressed syllables in a line to a set number and since the poetry of Chaucer ( d. 1400) has been the most common meter of English language poetry.

Although there are a multitude of modes handed down from the Greeks, the four most common are Iamb, Trochee, Anapest and Dactyl. Originally the iamb was used to describe a “foot” of quantitative meter. Therefore, a “short” syllable followed by a “long” one. All of the Greek modes when concerning the English language are now describing a foot of accentual-syllabic meter. Thence an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed.

Trochee is the opposite of iamb and is a two syllable foot comprised of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed.

Anapest is three syllables- two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed (or accented) syllable. The term anapest means literally “struck back” referring to its being the opposite of dactyl.

Dactyl is from the Greek word “dactylos” which means “finger”. There are three bones in the index finger, one long and the other two together equaling the length of the long. Hence, one “long” syllable followed by two “short” syllables or one stressed followed by two unstressed.

The number of poetic feet in a given line completes the meter. A single foot of iamb (two syllables) being unimeter, two feet is bimeter and so on with the most common metric length in English poetry being pentameter or five poetic feet. These lengths are consistent whether one is writing in trochee, anapest, dactyl, iamb or a combination of two or more.

This conversation does not begin to scratch the surface of meter, its mechanics and what it means to poetry. Although meter is often most closely associated with structured western poetry, its use (or lack thereof) influences all poetry from the simplest lullaby to the most sophisticated free verse.

The poet has a specific advantage over almost all creation artists in that the poet may actually, through careful metric arrangement, cause his/her audience to “hear” the written word precisely as it was conceived. Only the musician/composer has a greater degree of control.

Therefore meter, used judiciously or not, is the core of poetic dynamics.

It is the poet’s bread and butter, whether the poet breaks bread or not.


How blessed we are to have you describe this development of rhyme Wesley, wonderfully clear, concisely described for us to understand.

Music (rhythm) dance, and as the Indian's have the same word for the two I was told, are the core of life's expression, and poetry can be the heartbeat of its exposition, I hear the music of a poem even when there is silence around me, it speaks to me like sound and if I trip in the flow then it is not good.

Thank you, thank you, thank you indeed for this blog surely we shall all be joyful at this piece.


"The image of yourself which you see in a mirror Is dead,
but the reflection of the moon on water, lives." Kenzan.

Thank you young lady. wesley

W. H. Snow

A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds. Percy Bysshe Shelley

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author comment

Wow! Your comprehension level is way beyond me. I confess, I have not much experience with metered poems (writing them) but I enjoy reading. I have a question: Is Anu related to the Egyptian Jakal headed God Anubis, who leads the dead to their fated judgement?

always, Cat

When you fling poo, some of the stink sticks to you!

"The Book of Styx" can be ordered and purchased on line at:

but in this case you're comparing apples and oranges. Anu is Mesopotamian and Anubis is Egyptian. They may hold the same place in their respective pantheons, but they are different cultures. Same time periods, though Anu is likely a little older.

W. H. Snow

A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds. Percy Bysshe Shelley

Learn how, teach others.
The NeoPoet Mentor Program

author comment
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