Metre in Sonnets – Part One

This is only a very brief introduction to the basics of metre and rhythm; enough to help you start thinking about sonnets and how to write their lines whilst paying attention to these aspects. First, we’ll look at regularity of rhythm and then, in part two, the effect of variation. People feel rhythm quite instinctively and enjoy the play of unexpected variations to this, of which more in part two of this blog.

We’re going to look at two different concepts: metre and stress. Metre tells you when to expect a stress. Much like the beat does in music. People and even animals are good at picking up on a regular beat as long as it’s not too fast or slow. Skilful musicians often defeat that expectation in their music, putting stresses where they are not anticipated.

Imagine relaxing in a railway carriage listening to the sound of the train rattling along, the ti-dum, ti-dum of the wheels rolling over the joins between the tracks. These are regular beats. The expectation of a beat like this in poetry is known as metre, or if you prefer, meter.

Now, if you said or sang something out aloud in the carriage, your utterance would have its own natural stresses. Syllables, which are shortest spoken sounds, may be weak or strong. Spoken English frequently follows a weak-then-strong speech pattern. If you spoke at the same speed as the train, these stresses might coincide with the beats of the train noises or not. Imagine saying: “We roll and roll along the railway track” so that your spoken stresses coincide with the chugging of the train. Then imagine the opposite: your stresses falling into the silences between the beats. Can you imagine the different syncopated effect?

Now in poetry, the regular noise of the train is not heard but felt as an anticipated pattern. This weak-then-strong metre can be notated as:  u  – , with “u” meaning an anticipated non-stress and “–“ as an anticipated stress. This pair forms an atomic rhythmic unit in poetry, which is called a foot. And this type of weak-strong foot is called an iamb. It is the bedrock of traditional sonnets. An understanding of this may be useful even when writing modern sonnets.

Consider a pair of spoken syllables such as “to be” or a two-syllable word “assume”, the natural stress of both examples is ti-dum, weak then strong. The spoken stress can be notated: / and the spoken non-stress with: o.

Now look at the word “whether”, which also has two syllables. As you speak it, the first of the two syllables is naturally sounded more heavily, so dum-ti. Try making the second syllable “-er” heavier, like in an iamb and the word sounds odd. This pattern of stress is called a trochee. It works against the expectation of an iambic metre. Depending on what you say, your stresses may fall on the expectation of the metrical stress, called an “accented” or anticipated stress, or off, called “un-accented”.

Metre . \
u under-stressed A un-accented stress
under-stressed B accented stress
  • Under-stressed A and B will have a slightly different feeling. Under-stressed B is where expectation of a stress is defeated.

The metrical patterns may be built up into lines of poetry. Four iambic feet together constitute an iambic tetrameter (“tetra” means four). Every five feet mark the end of an iambic pentameter line (“penta” means five). And a pentameter is the template for every line in a traditional English sonnet. Notated as  –  u  – u  – u  – u  – u.

Here is an example of an iambic pentameter: “The lone and level sands stretch far away”, from Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here it is again but annotated with feet, metre, and stresses:

1st foot 2nd 3rd 4th 5th
u u u u u
o / o / o / o / o /
The lone and lev el sands stretch far aw ay

And an example of iambic tetrameter:

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Next month, we’ll look at how necessary it is to introduce variation to this scheme to make your poems less metrically repetitive and more interesting. Otherwise, any companion you had in this train carriage would probably fall asleep.

Metre in Sonnets Part 1 of 2

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