What are Metrical Feet?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Meter means “measurement,” and in poetry, it refers to the repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in the lines of a poem. The unit of measurement in poetry is called a metrical foot, which is a set of syllables, usually two or three, with only one receiving a strong stress.

William Shakespeare's plays were largely written in iambic feet.
William Shakespeare's plays were largely written in iambic feet.

Scanning is the name for the technique of determining the meter of a poem. When scanning poetry, people use an ictus (') to mark a strong stress, and a breve (˘) to mark weaker stress. Another way to describe a metrical foot is to say that each is made up of a particular pattern of strong and weak stresses.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Hiawatha, which was written with trochee feet, told of Great Lakes Native Americans.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Hiawatha, which was written with trochee feet, told of Great Lakes Native Americans.

Each metrical foot has a name:

Name of Metrical Foot Description Example
Trochee 2 syllables; strong weak peacock
Iamb 2 syllables; weak strong reprieve
Spondee 2 syllables; strong strong Paul’s cat
Dactyl 3 syllables; strong weak weak entropy
Anapest 3 syllables; weak weak strong Illinois
Amphimacer 3 syllables; strong weak strong M&M’s®

The trochee, iamb, dactyl, and anapest are those in English that are most likely to form the main body of feet in a poem. The spondee and the amphimacer are generally found as occasional substitutes for an odd foot here or there in a poem that is mainly composed of one of the four other feet mentioned.

One way to help recall each major metrical foot is to connect each to a poem in which it predominates. For example, trochee is the primary form in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha,” in which the hero is introduced with the lines:

There the wrinkled old Nokomis, Nursed the little Hiawatha...

The iamb is the principal form in William Shakespeare’s plays. Here's an example from Julius Caesar:

The evil that men do lives after them;The good is oft interred with their bones.

Dacytls are used to begin the Mother Goose rhyme:

Hippity hop to the barber shop...

Anapests are well-known by many from the poem generally attributed to Clement Moore and titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” but also commonly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


While there are many kinds of metrical measurement for poems, the most commonly known is probably iambic pentameter, which as its name describes involved lines of 5 iamb feet, or ten syllables altogether. It is the one used by William Shakespeare in nearly all of his works, for two reasons. One that it sounds most like normal speech. Secondly, that normal speech pattern also most mimics the human heartbeat as well.


A poet named Samuel Taylor Coleridge made up a poem to remember the different types of metrical feet. I'm sure if you google his name you'll find it if you're interested.

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