Classical Poetry Basics

MOST of us enjoy poetry in one form or another. While much of today’s poetry is written free verse, using neither rhymes nor meters, I would like to focus on classical style poetry, using meters, rhyme patterns and forms that include them both.

Some of you may have studied poetry before and will be familiar with the terminology, but others among you may be like me, and remember your brain going fuzzy at the words iambic pentameter and never pursuing the subject any further. I was that way in school, and I actually dreaded having to read Shakespeare. Now I can only shake my head and wonder why I found it so hard to grasp some fairly simple concepts.  I think maybe it’s because no one ever explained WHY we use the terms, WHAT they all mean, and HOW we use syllables and stress patterns to create the melody that is the English language.

I’m here to explore these questions, and discover how classical poetry is built, and how to use it to create my own works of word art. If you would like to learn along with me, then take my hand, and let’s begin.

Please keep in mind that the natural flow of poetic pronunciation and stress patterns will be influenced by your diction, and sometimes even your accent. This exploration will be done using the diction that comes naturally to me. I am from the Pacific Northwest in the US, and I speak with no dialect or discernible accent (at least not to me).


In order to build a classical style poem, and to be able to discuss, explain and look at samples of these poems, we must define some terms. Some of this may sound simplistic, but there are those who struggle with these concepts and I would like to begin with some very rudimentary basics concerning words, sounds and cadence.

Syllables (Word Building Blocks)

Syllables are single sounds and the English language is comprised of words, built using these sounds. Some words, “cone” for example, contain only one syllable (emphasized sound). Other words, such as “circle” (CIR-cle) contain two syllables.

In the English language, we have words built from any number of syllables – the word “constitutional” has five syllables (CON-sti-TU-tion-al).

Stress (Emphasis)

Syllables are the building blocks of sound that we use to build words, but we don’t usually talk in monotone, as this makes us sound robotic and has been known to put listeners to sleep.

Instead, we vary the pitch, volume and strength of our pronunciation, or the “stress,” of the syllables in our words.

Sometimes our meaning may be completely different, depending on which syllables we emphasize. For example, if someone asks, “How are you today?” we can assume that they are interested in how we are doing, as opposed to someone else, or maybe even themselves. However, if they ask “How are you today?” they most likely want to know how we are in comparison to yesterday.

Although not usually written using italics or bold print, classical poetry uses syllables and stress patterns, that allow the words to flow in noticeable, and almost melodic, cadences and rhythms. This is accomplished by separating these stress patterns into small pieces, known as feet.

Poetic FEET

This is one of the hardest parts of classical poetry to grasp, but if you stay with me, and try my tapping methods, you can learn exactly what these words mean, and how we use them to read, understand and build classical style poems.

Classic poetry in English is usually comprised of pairs and trios of stressed syllables, in measured rhyming patterns. These pairs and trios are known as poetic feet. Each foot  contains a combination of hard (stressed) and soft (unstressed) syllables. In English poetry there are five basic poetic feet used. Here they are, with their syllable counts and patterns.

iamb – 2 syllable foot: A soft syllable, followed by a stressed one, as in the word “adjust” (ah-JUST’). Used to create iambic lines.

trochee – 2-syllable foot: A hard syllable, followed by a soft one, as in the word “shatter” (SHA’-ter). Used to create trochaic lines.

dactyl – 3-syllable foot: A hard syllable, followed by two soft ones, like “carefully” (KAYR’-ful-ly). Used to create dactylic lines.

anapest – 3-syllable foot: Two soft syllables followed by a hard one, like “comprehend” (kom-pre-HEND’). Used to create anapestic lines.

amphibrach – 3-syllable foot: A hard syllable, sandwiched between two two soft ones, like “forgiveness” (for-GIV’-nes). Used to create amphibrachic lines.

There are other patterns of poetic feet, but they are very rarely used in classical English poetry. Here is a complete list of two and three syllable feet, with a syllable count and pattern, using “DUM” for the hard syllables, and “dee” for the soft ones. By tapping your finger hard on the “DUM” and soft on the “dee,” you will get an idea of the sound patterns that can be created.

Syllable Count: Foot Name: Pattern
2 syllables: pyrrhus: dee – dee
2 syllables: iamb: dee – DUM
2 syllables: trochee: DUM – dee
2 syllables: spondee: DUM – DUM
3 syllables: tribrach: dee – dee – dee
3 syllables: dactyl: DUM – dee – dee
3 syllables: amphibrach: dee – DUM – dee
3 syllables: anapest: dee – dee – DUM
3 syllables: bacchius: dee – DUM – DUM
3 syllables: antibacchius: DUM – DUM – dee
3 syllables: amphimacer: DUM – dee – DUM
3 syllables: molossus: DUM – DUM – DUM

Line Meter

Poetic meter is a count of the number of feet in a line. Most poems are written with between one and eight poetic feet per line. This creates the following poetic metric line types, based on how many feet are in the line:

Number of Feet: Meter Name
1 foot: monometer
2 feet: dimeter
3 feet: trimeter
4 feet: tetrameter
5 feet: pentameter
6 feet: hexameter
7 feet: heptameter
8 feet: octameter

Perhaps the most famous type of classical line is that used by Shakespeare in many of his works, both prosaic and poetic – iambic pentameter – or five pairs of iambs, for a total of ten syllables, or thereabout.

Often, poets will use a line with a missing first or last syllable, for emphasis and strength in their pattern. These lines are referred to as  ACEPHALIC (“headless”) or  CATALECTIC (“tailless”).

Rhyme Pattern / Stanzas

The final ingredient in the creation of the classic rhyming poem, is the number and pattern of rhyming lines. The final syllable or syllables in the lines are set to rhyme with each other in many different patterns, and the number of these lines determines the stanza length.

Stanzas are generally sets of lines that are separated by a blank line. The most common of theses are stanzas containing four lines, also known as a quatrain, but there are many varied types of stanzas, from the simple two-line couplet to complex forms like the sonnet or sestina.

Stanza Length: Stanza Type / Name
2 lines: couplet
3 lines: tercet (or triplet)
4 lines: quatrain
5 lines: quintrain (or quintet)
6 lines: sestet
7 lines: septet
8 lines: octave (or octet)

In order to show the rhyming pattern in poetic stanzas, I will use the letter labeling method of describing the rhyming lines, so that all the lines identified with the same [letter] rhyme with each other.


Now that we have a vocabulary, we can examine poetry with a common language. The final term you should be aware of for now is SCANSION. This is the process of examining lines of poetry and breaking them down into their feet and rhyme patterns, as I will do with a few examples.

Probably the most common form of poetry, one that we learn very young, is the quatrain (four lines) in an [a b c b] pattern. These poems may consist of different meters and foot counts, even having them mixed, as long as the second and fourth line rhyme.

[a] I loved you before,
[b] I love you still,
[c] I always have and
[b] I always will.

This is a very simplistic form of rhyming poetry, and is not truly metered. It is still valuable, and the greeting card industry would be lost without it. For our purposes of exploration however, we will leave this simplistic approach behind, and look at more organized and structured poems.

(Note that in the following samples the hard syllables will be underlined and the feet will be separated with the | character.)

One of the simplest structured poems ever written is a couplet titled “Fleas,” written in trochaic monometer (two lines with a single trochee each):

[a] Adam
[a] Had ‘em.

Another very popular poem, “A Visit From St. Nick,”  was written in anapestic tetrameter quatrains (four anapests per line, four lines per stanza) with an [a a b b] pattern. The [b] lines are missing the first syllable (acephalic):

[a] ‘Twas the night | before Christ|mas and all | through the house,
[a] Not a crea|ture was stir|ring, not e|ven a mouse
[b] The stock|ings were hung | by the chim|ney with care
[b] In hopes | that Saint Nich|olas soon | would be there.

The last example we’ll look at is from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” This fantastical play was written in iambic pentameter quatrains (four line stanzas, with five iambs per line) in [a a b b] pattern:

[a] And I | do love | thee: there|fore, go | with me
[a] I’ll give | thee fair|ies to | attend | on thee,
[b] and they | shall fetch | thee jew|els from | the deep,
[b] and sing  | while thou | on press’d | flowers | dost sleep;

So now we have a basic grasp on classic poetry terms. Next time we will begin exploring classic forms and how to craft poems in them. The next installment on How To Write a Sonnet will be coming soon.

Until then, fellow word sculptors, keep working on your basics.

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