Prosodic Features: Metre and Rhythm

Prosody is the study of speech rhythms and versification. Most poetry is a rhythmical utterance, that is to say, it makes use of rhythmic elements that are natural to language: alternation of stress and non-stress, vowel length, consonant clusters, pauses and so on. Various rhythmical patterns have different effects on those who read or hear poetry. The central question for the analysis of metre and rhythm is to determine the function which these rhythmical elements perform in each poem. Unfortunately, there are no general rules about these functions. Once a specific pattern has been identified, its function needs to be determined for each text and context individually.


Metre is the measured arrangement of accents and syllables in poetry. In any kind of utterance we stress certain syllables and not others. For instance most people would probably stress the phrase ‘And how are you this morning’ something like this: And HOW are YOU this MORNing? Or possibly: And how ARE you this MORNing? Poetry employs the stresses that occur naturally in language utterance to construct regular patterns.

There are various possibilities for metrical patterns in poetry.

each line has the same number of stresses, but varies in the total number of syllables
each line has the same number of syllables but the number of stresses varies
each line has the same number of stressed and non-stressed syllables in a fixed order. This is by far the most common metrical system in English verse
irregular patterns of stress and syllables

The visual representation of the distribution of stress and non-stress in verse is called scansion. In the following the notation suggested by Helmut Bonheim (1990) will be used: 1 to mark a stressed, o to mark a non-stressed syllable.

Accentual Metre

In accentual metre each line has the same number of stresses, but varies in the total number of syllables. It is found in nursery rhymes and it was commonly used in Old English poetry. In the late nineteenth century Gerard Manley Hopkins developed the so-called sprung rhythm, in which again only stresses are central. A system of accentual metre very similar to the medieval pattern has recently re-emerged in rap poetry.

Nursery rhyme: In this example there are six stresses in each line and a varying number of non-stressed syllables between the stresses.

There was a crooked man and he went a crooked mile
He found a crooked sixpence beside a crooked stile
He had a crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse
And they all lived together in a little crooked house
(From: Christie, Crooked House)

Old English poetry usually has between two and four marked stresses in each line and a marked pause (caesura) in the middle, indicated by the gap in the printed line. Alliterations emphasise the stress pattern (alliterations are underlined):

Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard
Now we must praise heaven-kingdon’s Guardian
Meotodes meahte and his modgeÞanc
the Measurer’s might and his mind-plans,
weorc Wuldor-Fæder swa he wundra gehwæs
the work of the Glory-Father, when he of wonders every one
ece Drihten or onstealde
eternal Lord, the beginning established
(From: Cædmon’s Hymn, seventh century, text and translation Abrams et al. 1986)

The system has been memorably explained in modern English by John Hollander:

The oldest English
Of four, unfailing
Strongly struck
Attended to anything
Definite downbeats:
Unstressed upbeats
Mattered not much;
With low leaps
Handily harping
(Echoing equally
Consonant cousins
accented meter
fairly audible
stresses seldom
other than
how many dim
in any line
motion was measured
of alliteration
on heavy accents
all vowels
coming together)
(Hollander 2001: 22)

Rap music relies on a similar pattern; four heavy beats with a marked pause in the middle of the line. Apart from alliterations, rap tends to rely on rhyme patterns to mark the line and provide a kind of climax on the fourth beat (see Attridge 1995: 90-94). The following example uses internal rhyme (axe / Max / Tracks / Cadillacs / Wax), t-alliteration and m-alliteration, assonances on ‘a’ and the short German ‘i’ sound. The main stresses are bold (listen to the recording):

T-T-T-Trick-Text, Battle-Axe, Gauner 's Max – Wollt Ihr Tracks
fett wie Cadillacs oder wollt Ihr Airbag-Raps auf Wax?
Trick-Tracks, Battle-Raps – Gauner am Mikrofon.
Mick Mac Tizoe Rap – Du steppst in die Battle Zone.
Da machst dick Wind, bist blind, mehr Plastik als Synthetik.
Trick-Tracks, Battle-Raps, schlachten Dich, Du Rindvieh!
(© Gauner 2001, Mikrokosmos Booking Berlin)

Hopkinssprung rhythm has a varying number of syllables but an equal number of stresses in each line. In this example each line is supposed to be read with five stresses. Obviously, there is some room for interpretation. The scansion provided is a suggestion:

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells-
That bird beyond the remembering his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.
[...] (From: Hopkins, The Caged Skylark)

Syllabic Metre

Syllabic metrical systems have a fixed number of syllables in each line, though there may be a varying number of stresses. They are named, quite simply, according to the number of syllables in each line, using Greek numbers. A line with seven syllables is called heptasyllabic and so on.

seven syllables heptasyllabic
eight octosyllabic
nine enneasyllabic
ten decasyllabic
eleven hendecasyllabic
twelve dodecasyllabic

William Blake, for instance, liked the so-called fourteener, a line with fourteen syllables:

‘Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two & two, in red & blue & green,
Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames’ waters flow.
(From: Blake, Songs of Innocence: Holy Thursday)

This, it may be noted, is also iambic. Pure syllabic verse is comparatively rare in English and what there is, is mostly imported from foreign forms of poetry, such as the Japanese Haiku. The Haiku, in its conservative definition, has three lines, the first and the last line have five syllables, the middle line has seven, as in the following example:

Printer not ready
Could be a fatal error
Have a pen handy?
(Error-Message Haiku)

Accentual-Syllabic Metre

By far the largest number of poems in English use accentual-syllabic metre. In this metrical system both the number of stresses and the number of syllables between the stresses are regular. Each single unit of stress and non-stress is called foot. Strictly speaking, the number of syllables should be identical for each line, but it is very often the case that a line leaves one metrical foot incomplete, thus varying the number of syllables as a whole.

The system of accentual-syllabic metre derives from metrical patterns of classical (Greek and Roman) poetry, even though it cannot easily be transferred from classical languages into English, since in classical languages metre depends on syllable length, whereas in English it depends on word stress. There are a large number of different types of metrical foot measurements but the most common ones are the following (for a more comprehensive list see Fussell 1967: 26):


o1 da-DUM A man put on his hat
And walked along the strand
And there he met another man
Whose hat was in his hand
(Samuel Johnson’s example of bad poetry)

1o DUM-da Hark, the hour of ten is sounding
Hearts with anxious fears are bounding
Hall of Justice crowds surrounding
Breathing hope and fear
(Gilbert and Sullivan, from: Trial by Jury)

1oo DUM-da-da

Cannon to right of them
Cannon to left of them
Cannon in front of them
    Volleyed and thundered.
(Tennyson, from: Charge of the Light Brigade)


oo1 da-da-DUM I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in without impropriety
(Gilbert and Sullivan, from: Iolanthe)

11 DUM-DUM Bark bark bark bark
Bark bark BARK BARK
(T.S. Eliot, Book of Practical Cats)

Notice that some feet have two syllables (iamb, trochee and spondee) and others have three (dactyl and anapaest). For obvious reasons, spondee is a metrical pattern which does not occur throughout a whole poem. One simply does not stress every single syllable of an utterance for any length of time. But it sometimes occurs in a single line or within otherwise regular lines of different metrical patterns.

In accentual-syllabic verse; lines are named according to the number of accents they contain, again the Greek numbers are used.

1 accent
2 accents

To name the metre of a poem one usually combines the terms giving the stress pattern and the number of stresses per line: A line of poetry that is written in iambic metre and has four accents or stresses is called iambic tetrameter:

Had we but world enough, and time
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
(From: Marvell, To His Coy Mistress)

A line written in dactyl with two accents is called dactyllic dimeter:

Cannon to right of them
Cannon to left of them
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d
(From: Tennyson, Charge of the Light Brigade)

Some combinations of metre and line length have a special name. An iambic hexameter for example is called alexandrine.

She comes, and straight therewith her shining twins do move
Their rays to me, who in her tedious absence lay
Benighted in cold woe; but now appears my day,
The only light of joy, the only warmth of love.
(From: Sidney, Astrophil and Stella)


    • accentual
        • nursery            rhymes
        • old English           poetry
        • rap
        • sprung            rhythm
    • syllabic metre
        • Haiku
        • accentual- syllabic
        • iamb
        • trochee
        • dactyl
        • anapaest
        • spondee
        • alexandrine
free verse
metric foot














A link to more examples of nursery rhymes...