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Trimeter

It may not be the first meter that springs to mind when you think of popular poetry, but you'll be surprised to learn that trimeter is all around us. Iambic trimeter, combined with iambic tetrameter, forms one of the most 'common' meters of all time. It's known as ballad meter! Or common meter, depending on who you ask.

You'll find ballad meter in everything from classical poetry and lyrical ballads to Christmas songs and TV themes. It's short, it's catchy, and it's everywhere. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's learn the basics of poetic meter, see how trimeter fits into the bigger picture, and analyse some examples to help you better understand the concept.

Trimeter Meaning

What is a trimeter? Let's begin with a simple definition.

A trimeter is a line of poetry that contains three metrical feet.

But what are metrical feet? If that definition doesn't make things any simpler, let's recap the basics of meter so we can comprehend how trimeter fits into our understanding of poetry.

Recap: meter and feet

Before we look at some examples of trimeter, let's understand what a 'meter' is:

A meter is the basic rhythmic structure in a line of poetry.

To assess the meter of a particular line, we look first at the number of beats (syllables) in a line. We then look at which syllables the poet emphasises and which they don't. We refer to each syllable as either stressed or unstressed.

The act of stressing certain parts of a word may seem unnatural. However, we naturally stress certain syllables in words every single day!

Take the word 'tiger' as an example.

  • Split the word up into syllables (ti-ger)
  • Say the word aloud and notice which syllable you naturally emphasise.
  • You should find you place more emphasis on the first syllable (TI-ger). This means that the first syllable is stressed, and the second is unstressed.

If you were to stress the second syllable and not the first (ti-GER), the word would sound unnatural. This is why meter matters! If a poet doesn't choose a suitable rhythmic structure, the line is uncomfortable to read.

Now that we've established which beats in a line are stressed and unstressed, we can categorise these beats into metrical feet.

A foot is the simplest rhythmic unit in a line of poetry. It consists of two or three syllables. Feet combine to make the overall rhythmic structure known as a meter.

Depending on the arrangement of unstressed/stressed beats in a group of syllables, we can decide which category of metical feet to place them in.

The most common categories of metrical feet are:

  • Iamb: Unstressed/Stressed (da-DUM)
  • Trochee: Stressed/Unstressed (DA-dum)
  • Spondee: Stressed/Stressed (DA-DUM)
  • Anapest: Unstressed/Unstressed/Stressed (da-da-DUM)
  • Dactyl: Stressed/Unstressed/Unstressed (DA-da-dum)

Let's look at examples of words and in which categories they fit.

Returning to the word 'tiger', we've established that the first syllable is stressed, and that the second is unstressed (TI-ger). This makes 'tiger' an example of a trochee (stressed/unstressed).

What about the word 'obey'? When we split the word up (o-bey), we notice that the second syllable is stressed, and the first is unstressed (o-BEY). This makes 'obey' an example of an iamb (unstressed/stressed).

Let's look at what this means in relation to trimeter.

Trimeter

We now know that different combinations of syllables make up metrical feet and that these feet, in turn, make up the meter of a line. We name the 'meter' simply based on how many metrical feet are in a given line. For example, one foot in a line is known as a 'monometer', and two feet per line is known as a 'dimeter'.

With this in mind, a line with three feet is known as a 'trimeter'!

Trimeter occurs whenever there are three instances of feet in a line. What type of stress pattern the line includes doesn't affect whether a line is called a trimeter. All that changes is the word preceding it. For example, three iambs (da-DUM/da-DUM/da-DUM) are known as iambic trimeter, while three dactyls (DA-da-dum, DA-da-dum, DA-da-dum) are known as dactylic trimeter.

Here's how tetrameter fits in with other meters:

  • Monometer = one foot
  • Dimeter = two feet
  • Trimeter = three feet
  • Tetrameter = four feet
  • Pentameter = five feet
  • Hexameter = six feet
  • Heptameter = seven feet
  • Octameter = eight feet

Trimeter Example

Let's look at some examples of a trimeter featuring different metrical feet. Remember, no matter the stress pattern, it's always a trimeter as long as the pattern is repeated three times.

In all examples, stressed syllables are bold and underlined.

I love the jocund dance,

The softly breathing song,

- William Blake, 'I Love the Jocund Dance' (1783)

Blake's verse features three repetitions of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. As an 'unstressed/stressed' pattern is an example of an iamb, this verse is in iambic trimeter. Iambic stresses are known for being relaxed and calm, because each foot begins with an unstressed syllable, reflecting Blake's 'softly breathing song'.

Iambic trimeter features three iambic feet, each two syllables long. This means that an example of iambic trimeter will always contain six syllables.

In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun

- Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'To A Skylark' (1820)

These two lines within Shelley's famous poem each feature three instances of a 'stressed/unstressed' pattern (DA-dum). As this is an example of trochee, we know that the lines are in trochaic trimeter. Trochaic stresses are known for being harsh and powerful because each foot starts with the stressed syllable. This harshness mirrors Shelley's evocative depiction of the sun's rays as golden lightning shooting across the sky.

Like iambic trimeter, each line of trochaic trimeter will always contain six syllables.

Iambic Trimeter

Iambic trimeter is a popular poetic meter that contains three repetitions of an 'unstressed/stressed' pattern. It's rare to find iambic trimeter throughout an entire poem. It's usually interlaced with lines of iambic tetrameter (four metrical feet per line). This alternation between iambic trimeter and tetrameter is known as 'ballad meter'.

Ballad meter, also known as common meter, is a type of meter frequently used in lyric poetry. It always features an iambic stress pattern and alternates between eight-syllable lines (tetrameter) and six-syllable lines (trimeter).

Ballad meter has existed for centuries, and it has a long history of use in romantic poetry and lyrical verse.

The very deep did rotOh Christ!That ever this should be.Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs,Upon the slimy sea.

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (1798)

The first and third lines of Coleridge's poem feature four iambic feet (tetrameter), and the second and fourth lines contain three iambic feet (trimeter). This makes 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' a famous example of ballad meter.

However, the popularity of ballad meter has transcended poetry. Today it is frequently found in pop songs and TV adverts. It's so popular that you won't be surprised to learn why it's also referred to as 'common' meter'. Take a look at John Newton's 'Amazing Grace' (1779), 'House of the Rising Sun' by The Animals (1964), or the theme from Pokémon (1997-) and you'll see that they all follow the rhythmic structure of ballad meter.

Warning: ballad meter is catchy. The songs will get stuck inside your head. Proceed with caution.

Iambic Trimeter effect

When combined with iambic tetrameter to form ballad meter, iambic trimeter is noted for its easily readable, relaxed rhythm. This is in part because iambic meter, with its down-up stress pattern, is said to make verse flow smoothly and mirror human speech.

Furthermore, by changing the length of the lines from longer to shorter in an alternating pattern, each couplet has a resolution, rather than droning on endlessly. A consistent rhyme scheme also helps to achieve this effect.

Altogether, this makes iambic trimeter a very catchy verse style. It is easy to read, listen to and remember, making it a popular choice for light-hearted songs, lyrical poems and ballads.

Let's look at some examples of poetry in trimeter, both in iambic and trochaic forms.

Trimeter Poem

Let's look at some longer examples of trimeter in poetry.

Iambic trimeter

We can see an example of iambic trimeter in Emily Dickinson's 'If you were coming in the fall' (1862).

If you were coming in the fall

I'd brush the summer by

With half a smile and half a spurn,

As housewives do a fly.

- Emily Dickinson. 'If you were coming in the fall'.

This poem is written in ballad meter and follows an ABCB rhyme pattern. In this excerpt, the lines of iambic trimeter feature in lines two and four, while the first and third lines are in iambic tetrameter. The poet is longing for her lover and wondering when she will next see him. The uplifting iambic stress pattern within this stanza reflects the hopefulness that her lover will return to her soon.

Trochaic trimeter

An example of trochaic trimeter can be observed in Edna St. Vincent Millay's 'Sorrow' (1918):

Sorrow like a ceaseless rainBeats upon my heart.People twist and scream in pain,Dawn will find them still again;This has neither wax nor wane,Neither stop nor start.

- Edna St. Vincent Millay, 'Sorrow'.

Millay sticks strictly to a trochaic pattern. Each line begins with a stressed syllable. Most of the poem is in trochaic tetrameter, but in lines two and six, there are examples of trochaic trimeter. The meter matches the content of the poem perfectly, as the downward progression of trochees (DA-dum) mirrors the downcast mood of the poem.

Trimeter - Key takeaways

  • A trimeter occurs when a line of poetry contains three metrical feet.
  • A meter is the basic rhythmic structure in a line of poetry. It is made up of metrical feet, which in turn consist of two to three syllables.
  • All syllables in a word are either unstressed or stressed, and different combinations of these syllables make up different metrical feet.
  • Iambic trimeter is a popular poetic meter that consists of three instances of 'unstressed/stressed' syllables.
  • Iambic trimeter is noted for being easily readable and for being very catchy. It is, therefore, popular in ballads, lyrical poems, and songs.

Frequently Asked Questions about Trimeter

Iambic trimeter is a popular poetic metre that consists of three instances of an 'unstressed/stressed' pattern. 

While trimeter contains three metrical feet per line, tetrameter contains four.

In poetry, a trimeter is a type of metre. It is made up of metrical feet, which in turn are made up of different combinations of syllables. A trimeter always contains three metrical feet.

Iambic trimeter is known for being easily readable. It is also very catchy, which is why it is often used in ballads and songs along with iambic tetrameter.

Here is an example of iambic trimeter:


I love the jocund dance,

The softly breathing song


- William Blake, 'I Love the Jocund Dance' (1783)


Here is an example of trochaic trimeter:


In the golden lightning
Othe sunken sun


- Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'To A Skylark' (1820)

Final Trimeter Quiz

Question

How many metrical feet are there in a line of trimeter?

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Answer

Three.

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Question

'Ballad meter' includes iambic trimeter and which other type of metric line?

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Answer

Iambic tetrameter.

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Question

How many syllables does each metrical foot include?

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Answer

2-3

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Question

Finish this sentence. 'We can split syllables into _______ and ________'.

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Answer

stressed and unstressed.

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Question

Look at the stress pattern in this line. Which meter is this?


Higher still and higher.

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Answer

Trochaic trimeter.

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Question

How many syllables does each example of iambic trimeter include?

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Answer

Six.

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Question

Finish this sentence. 'Meter is made up of feet, which are in turn made up of ________'.

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Answer

Syllables.

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Question

In this word 'garden', is the first or second syllable stressed?

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Answer

The first.

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Question

In the word 'device', is the first or second syllable stressed?

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Answer

The second.

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Question

A metrical foot with an unstressed/unstressed/stressed pattern is known as..?

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Answer

Anapest.

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