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Rhythm of poetry: beats and metre

Rhythm of poetry: beats and metre

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Rhythm of poetry: beats and metre

​​In a nutshell

Rhythm is essentially the pattern created by beats and pacing in a poem. These beats are created by stressed and unstressed syllables in a line and even by pauses or moments of silence. Rhythm can enhance meaning within a poem by emphasising certain aspects of it, and it can help control the pace of a poem. In this summary, you will learn how to identify and understand rhythm in poetry.

The effect of rhythm

Rhythm is used by poets for a number of reasons, all of which can have an impact on the overall meaning. Rhythm can be used to give a poem a certain tone or feeling, for example, a regular rhythm can make a poem seem musical, or it can mimic the subject matter of the poem. Rhythm can also help emphasise certain moments in the poetry, it can build tension by staying regular, or it can help control a poem's pace.


Syllables are the different parts of a whole word, and certain syllables are naturally stressed or unstressed (also referred to as ictuses and non-ictuses). A stressed syllable is one which is elongated or emphasised in a word, whereas an unstressed syllable is one which occurs quickly. Some words are only one syllable, while others could have many, and poets use the different types of syllable to create rhythm in their poems.


The word 'poetry' has three syllables: po-e-try. The first syllable is stressed, the second is unstressed, and the third is also unstressed. Sound the word out loud to hear the difference.


There are particular types of beat, made up by combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables. These beats influence the rhythm of a poem, and can also help determine the pace or feel of particular sections. Beats can occur over more than one word, and they can even start in the middle of words. Beats are combined with metre in order to create rhythm.

Type of beat



iamb (iambic)

Unstressed / Stressed

return (re-TURN)

trochee (trochaic)

Stressed / Unstressed

beaten (BEA-ten)

spondee (spondaic)

Stressed / Stressed

bookmark (BOOK-MARK)

dactyl (dactylic)

Stressed / Unstressed / Unstressed

poetry (PO-e-try)

anapaest (anapaestic)

Unstressed / Unstressed / Stressed

understand (un-der-STAND)


The particular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry determines what is known as the metre of the poem. There are different types of metre, and they can all contribute to a poet's intention with the poem, emphasising certain points and altering the overall pace. The rhythm of poetry is measured in metrical feet. metrical foot usually consists of two or three syllables adhering to a type of beat. The metre of a poem is determined by how many metrical feet there are per line.

Type of Metre

Number of metrical feet


Two metrical feet


Three metrical feet


Four metrical feet


Five metrical feet


Six metrical feet


Seven metrical feet


Eight metrical feet

Example 1

This line is in pentameter:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

See how it is broken into five metrical feet:

Shall I / compare / thee to / a sum- / mer's day?

(From 'Sonnet 18' by William Shakespeare)

Example 2

These lines are in tetrameter:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

See how they are broken into four metrical feet:

She walks / in beau- / ty, like / the night

Of cloud- / less climes / and star- / ry skies;

(From 'She Walks in Beauty' by Lord Byron)

Combining beats with metre

When you recognise a particular metre, you should try to figure out what the patterns of beat are in each line. Poets combine rhythm and metre to create particular sound qualities in their poems, so there's often more to a line than just its metre. The type of beat which occurs in any metrical line influences the metre to create particular rhythms.

Example 1

This line is made up of iambs, and is in pentameter. It is therefore iambic pentameter:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

See how the iambs are contained within five metrical feet:

Shall I / com-PARE / thee TO / a SUM- / mer's DAY?

(From 'Sonnet 18' by William Shakespeare)

Example 2

This line is made up of trochees, and is in octameter. It is therefore trochaic octameter:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

See how the trochees are contained within eight metrical feet:

ONCE u- / PON a / MID-night / DREAR-y, / WHILE I / PON-dered, / WEAK​ and / WEA-ry.

(From 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe)

Blank verse

Blank verse is any metred verse that does not rhyme. It usually occurs in iambic pentameter, but can take the form of any metre or beat. It can easily be confused with free verse, so look out for whether or not a poem is metred or not.


The following excerpt is in iambic pentameter, but does not rhyme. This makes it blank verse.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th'unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

(Excerpt from A3.S1 of Hamlet by William Shakespeare)


Punctuation such as full stops, commas, semicolons, brackets and dashes can be used to create rhythm and influence the metre of a poem too by forcing a moment of pause.

Irregular rhythm and metre

Some poems have what is called irregular metres. If a poem does not abide by all the rules of rhythm and metre, it can be said to have an irregular metre. If a poem doesn't rely on a structure of rhythm and metre, and therefore reads like prose, it is called free verse.


I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful,

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

(From 'Mirror' by Sylvia Plath)

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