Foot and Verse of Poetry

I’m doing a report for school and need help with figuring out the verse and foot of poetry–specifically this poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. No research that I’ve found has been able to explain foot and verse in layman terms. Can any English majors help me out here?

As you stated, poetic meter is measured on two counts: stress and length.

The length is the number of feet: pentameter has five feet, hexameter has six feet, and I’d wager that other forms are rare but you can determine what they’re called by finding the appropriate Greek prefix. (Monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, septameter…). Note the pronunciation: pen-TAM-ih-t@r, hex-AM-ih-t@r, etc. (Where @ is schwa, the unstressed vowel.)

So, what’s a foot, you ask? One complete set of stressed and unstressed syllables, the number of syllables and composition of the set determined by the meter.

A trochaic foot, or trochee, consists of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. DA-dum, DA-dum, DA-dum, DA-dum. An example might be: “Róund a-bóut the cául-dron gó, / Ín the pói-soned én-trails thrów” (Macbeth, IV, i). (Yes, there’s an extra syllable at the end; that’s allowed.)

An iambic foot, or iamb, consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. An example might be: “Ill mét by móon-light próud Ti-tán-ia” and “These áre the fór-ge-ríes of jéa-lou-sý” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II, i).

A spondaic foot, or spondee, consists of two equally-stressed syllables. DA-DUM, DA-DUM, DA-DUM. Sorry, no examples.

A dactylic foot, or dactyl, consists of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

An amphibraphic foot, or amphibrach, constists of an stressed syllable surrounded by two unstressed syllables.

An anapestic foot, or anapest, consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.
There are various forms of poetry formed by combing these patterns of verse: *sonnets, alexandrines, ballad stanzas, heroic couplets,*etc.

[sub]In composing this answer, I found The Guide to Literary Terms quite helpful. You might also check out this site. A search for “poetic meter” on Google proved helpful, and an identical search here also found the following interesting thread: Double Dactyls. [/sub]

Wow, StephenG, I’m impressed! And I have a Master’s in English…

poogas21…guess what? I was just teaching this poem TODAY to my Creative Writing students.
Since SG has already covered the technical matters, I can only add a little:
This poem is called a villanelle.
Villanelles must have five tercets (3-line stanzas) and a quatrain (4-line stanza) for a total of 19 lines. There should be spaces between all the stanzas.
Villanelles have only two rhymes: a and b. You will notice this immediately in Thomas’ poem. Every word at the end of each line rhymes either with light/night/height, etc. or with day/gay, etc.
There are also two lines that repeat at certain times and then are joined together at the end (last two lines).
There are only three other villanelles that I am familiar with: William Empson’s “Villanelle”; Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”; and Richard Hugo’s “The Freaks at Spurgin Road Field.”
My students are struggling to write villanelles at this very moment. :wink:

There’s also the one that starts “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow” – but I can’t remember who wrote it.

(Villanelles, incidentally, are even harder to write than sonnets…)

Theodore Roethke

Katisha, you’re right. I think the students enjoyed the sonnet form, but the villanelle is going to be an ordeal.

Dr.Pinky, thank you.

Just a couple points–

  1. the original poster should head straight to Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, where these topics are discussed with great clarity & economy.

  2. there are oodles of villanelles out there, since as with sestinas it seems like every student in a creative writing program decides to write one to show a bit of poetic muscle. (I swear when I helped edit a grad journal I several times received a submission from such people containing both a sestina & villanelle–covering the bases I guess.) Unfortunately (again as with sestinas) it is a form largely notable in English for the paucity of successful instances.


poogas – don’t be too discouraged if you can’t quite hear the meter right off the bat. It can be a bit difficult at first, especially because pretty much all poets vary the meter a bit in their verse, for purposes of stress and the such. Let me give you a poem that’s very, very strict in meter, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village though,
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

I’m doing this from memory, so excuse the punctuation. Now, listen as you read out where the stresses fall. It should sound something like this:

whose WOODS these ARE i THINK i KNOW,
his HOUSE is IN the VILL-age THOUGH.

What is it? Four stressed syllables, all following the pattern unstress-STRESS. That’s iambic tetrameter.
This poem is particularly rigid in its meter because, well, it’s supposed to reflect the quietness of the scene. There are no rhythmic suprises … it lulls you a bit.

Now the Dylan Thomas poem is a bit trickier to scan, since Thomas varies the meter a little. Heck, I’ll help you with your homework here:


Now, to be sure, not everyone is going to scan this line identically. You can argue that the first “do” should be stressed. I’m also debating whether “IN-to” should be “in-TO.” I actually read it as "in-TO,’ but I wrote it above as such because it’s a little easier to analyze that way.

So what do we have here? The first six syllables all follow the “unstress-STRESS” pattern, so we have something that looks iambic. You will discover that a majority of English poetry is iambic. What happens at the fifth foot? Well, we have a spondee creeping in. In this case it emphasizes the phrase “GOOD NIGHT.” You can, I suppose, read it as “good NIGHT,” but reading it as a spondee sounds better. This line has lots of valid, debatable points.

The last line of the first tercet is easier to scan:


spondee, iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb

You definitely have iambic pentameter going here. I can go on for pages about the intricacies of meter, but it’s easier if you have any more questions, just ask them and I’m glad to help. I love talking about this stuff. :slight_smile: