Meter in Verse

Meter in Verse


a form of rhythm in verse, consistently maintained throughout a verse work or a part of it.

In syllabic versification, the meter is determined by the number of syllables (for example, a line may consist of eight or 11 syllables); in tonic versification, the meter is determined by the number of stresses (for example, a line may have three or four stresses). In metric and syllabotonic versification, the meter is determined by the number of feet; examples are iambic trimeter and dactylic tetrameter. Meter as such determines the rhythmic structure of a line (an example is iambic meter) and is usually distinguished from meter in verse, which determines the length of a line (an example is iambic tetrameter). Meter in verse may vary within a poem, supplementing the rhythm; for example, iambic tetrameter may have successive masculine endings, and iambic tetrameter may alternate with iambic trimeter. However, this terminology is not yet definitively established; in particular, the terms “meter” and “meter in verse” are sometimes used synonymously.

Meters are correlated with the division of speech into syntagms and cola and, consequently, with the intonational structure of speech. The meter coincides most closely with the middle part of the colon, making possible the most natural and varied intonations. Therefore, Russian poetry makes the greatest use of meter in lines of eight or nine syllables (trochaic and iambic tetrameter and dactylic, anapestic, and amphibrachic trimeter). The shorter meters produce an impression of abruptness, and the longer ones of solemnity and smoothness.

These natural features of meter, combined with historical and literary traditions, determined the tendency of meters to become linked with specific genres and themes. Thus, iambic hexameter with paired rhyming (the alexandrine) was used in 18th-century Russian poetry chiefly for such lofty classical genres as the tragedy, epistle, or narrative poem. During the 19th century this meter was used in poems with subjects from classical antiquity, for example, the anthology lyrics of A. A. Fet and A. N. Maikov, and to a lesser degree in poems on civic themes, for example, N. A. Nekrasov’s Elegy. Since these three types of poetry are rarely found in 20th-century verse, the alexandrine is now almost unused. In the same way, iambic tetrameter with successive masculine rhymes has been used almost exclusively in poems connected (although sometimes as parodies) with the romantic tradition; examples are V. A. Zhukovskii’s translation of Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon, M. Iu. Lermontov’s Mtsyri, Nekrasov’s On the Volga and The Court, and K. M. Simonov’s Murmansk Diaries.

The use of one or another meter in the history of Russian poetry has changed according to the popularity of different genres and the utilization of various subjects and themes. Lines of 11 and 12 syllables predominated in the syllabic poetry of the 17th and 18th centuries. Dominant in the syllabotonic poetry of the 18th century were the iambic hexameter and tetrameter, free iambic verse, and the trochaic tetrameter.

The first half of the 19th century saw the gradual introduction of the iambic pentameter and of three-syllable meters—the dactyl, amphibrach, and anapest, at first usually in four-foot lines, and later in three-foot lines. During the second half of that century the following relatively stable proportions in the usage of meters became established in Russian lyrical poetry: about one-fourth of all poems were written in iambic tetrameter, one-fourth in the remaining iambic meters, one-fourth in trochees, and the remaining in three-syllable meters.

Among the nonsyllabotonic meters introduced in the 20th century have been the dol’nik (a line with three or four recurring stresses) and accentual verse (a line with three or four stresses). Otherwise, the proportions in the usage of meters have remained the same, although in our time some meters have almost disappeared, among them free iambic verse and the iambic hexameter. Others, such as the trochaic pentameter, have developed intensively.