In poetry written in English, an SVO (subject-verb-object) language, sometimes paramount importance falls to the visuals, the form, — as in poetry written in the shape of a tree or lines beginning with lower case instead of capitals. Length (as well as content) differentiates a 14-line sonnet from a 5-line limerick. Other important components are audio: like rhyme scheme and rhythm. Ancient classical poetry was written to be sung, chanted, or spoken, but rhyme in a language like Greek or Latin, with the inflected verb defaulting to end of the phrase was not important.
Just as you can tell from the music score of a movie that when the bassoon sounds, you should be on your alert because something is about to go wrong, so you can tell from the cadence of ancient poetry what type of emotional response is expected. The term for this general cadence is the meter. Meter is made up of two parts. One is the syllable structure and the other is the number of repetitions of these repeated syllable arrangements in each line. The syllable arrangement is the foot.
So, meter in Greek and Latin poetry takes two words, one indicating the number of times a foot is repeated; the other discussed below. A foot consists of two or more syllables. For more on the study of meters, see Prosody.
In English, we talk about stressed and unstressed syllables. In Greek and Latin verse, the syllables were long or short. This next list of 5 shows the five most common arrangement of feet. They may be familiar from English poetry. The slash represents a stressed (or long) syllable and the tilde an unstressed (or short) syllable.
Basic syllable arrangements or feet:
- Iam – Iambic Meter ~ / (unstressed, stressed)
- Trochee – Trochaic Meter /~ (stressed, unstressed)
- Anapest – Anapestic Meter ~ ~ / (unstressed, unstressed, stressed)
- Dactyl – Dactylic Meter / ~ ~ (stressed, unstressed, unstressed)
- Spondee – Spondaic Meter / / (stressed, stressed)
Metrical Feet as Musical Notes
As mentioned above, ancient poetry might be sung. In early times, it would be accompanied by musical instruments, thus a lyre accompanied lyric poetry. So to me, it seems appropriate to illustrate metrics using modern musical notes.
Unlike stress-based English meter, Latin and Greek meter depends on the length of the vowels in the syllables. A long vowel (_) is twice the length of a short (u). A short vowel has a length of 1 mora. [Morae is the plural of mora.] [1 mora =short vowel; 2 morae = long vowel. ] A mora can be thought of as like an eighth (1/8) note (♪) in music. Here I’m using musical quarter (1/4) notes (♩) and eighth notes (♪) for the syllable vowels:
Feet of 3 Morae
Trochee : _ u (♩ ♪)
Iambus : u _ (♪ ♩)
Tribrach : uuu (♪ ♪ ♪)
Feet of 4 Morae
Dactyl : _ uu (♩♪♪)
Anapest : uu _ (♪♪♩)
Spondee : _ _ (♩♩)
Proceleusmaticus : uuuu (♪♪♪♪)
Feet of 5 Morae
Cretic : _ u _ (♩♪♩)
First Paeon : _ uuu (♩♪♪♪)
Fourth Paeon : uuu _ (♪♪♪♩)
Bacchius : u _ _ (♪♩♩)
Antibacchius : _ _ u (♩♩♪)
Feet of 6 Morae
Ionicus a maiore : _ _ uu (♩♩♪♪)
Ionicus a minore : uu _ _ (♪♪♩♩)
Choriambus : _ u u _ (♩♪♪♩)
Ditrochee : _ u _ u (♩♪♩♪)
Diiambus : u _ u _ (♪♩♪♩)
Miscellaneous Possible Feet
Pyrrhic : uu (♪♪)
First Epitrite : u _ _ _ (♪♩♩♩)
Second Epitrite : _ u _ _ (♩♪♩♩)
Third Epitrite : _ _ u _ (♩♩♪♩)
Fourth Epitrite : _ _ _ u (♩♩♩♪)
Antispast : u _ _ u (♪♩♩♪)
Dispondee : _ _ _ _ (♩♩♩♩)
Second Paeon : u _ u u (♪♩♪♪)
Third Paeon : u u _ u (♪♪♩♪)
Molossus : _ _ _ (♩♩♩)
This is based on a page (…/od/latinlanguage/qt/LatinMeter.htm) from what was my Ancient/Classical History site (http://ancienthistory.about.com) at About.com. Unfortunately, it now rolls over to a military history page.