This document provides an overview of poetic forms and devices. Where possible, I reproduce complete poems as examples. Where that is not possible (in the case of very lengthy poems, for example), I provide a link to an example. When a good example exists in the public domain I cite that instead of a poem still under copyright.
This guide is a work in progress, and I welcome suggestions or corrections.
There are two kinds of metrical systems: quantitative and accentual. Quantitative meter, introduced by the ancient Greeks, counts the number of syllables per line. Accentual meter, dating from third century Rome, counts the number of accented/stressed syllables in a line.
English verse traditionally employs accentual-syllabic meter, which counts both the number of syllables and the number of accents. These syllables are arranged into recurring patterns (called feet) of accented and unaccented syllables.
Syllables are the basic phonological building blocks of words. One syllable is one sound. A syllable is usually one vowel (or a vowel pair) with one or more consonants before and/or after the vowel.
The word cat is pronounced as one sound, and is one syllable. The word helicopter is pronounced as four sounds, and it's syllables can be illustrated like this: hel·i·cop·ter.
There is some ambiguity in the syllabification of English words. For example, certain speakers pronounce the word banker as ban·ker, but other speakers say bank·er.
Accent is some combination of loudness, pitch, fullness of vowel elocution, and duration. Context also plays a role in accentual emphasis.
The English language does not have universal rules that allow you to deduce with certainty the spoken accentuation of a word you've read but never heard. Many homographs differ by accentuation. The noun record is accented on the first syllable. The verb record is accented on the second. Syllabic accents may even differ slightly between dialects of English. Some experts suggest that there are two or more degrees of stress in English words.
However, here are a few hints which may help you guess which syllables are stressed or unstressed:
The foot is the basic unit of poetic meter. A foot is comprised of two or three (or, rarely, four) syllables, which are accented or unaccented according to a pattern. The most common feet in English verse are the iamb, the trochee, the dactyl, and the anapest.
English verse has many variations of types and numbers of feet, but by far the most used meter in English verse is iambic pentameter, five iambs per line.
x / x / x / x / x / Shall I | compare | thee to | a Summ|er's day? x / x / x / x / x / Thou art | more love|ly and | more tem|perate: x / x / x / x / x / Rough winds | do shake | the dar|ling buds | of May,
from Shakespeare's sonnet 18
The practice of marking the feet of verse is called scansion. In these example of scansion, the unaccented syllables are marked with an "x" and the accented syllables with a "/". Other notation systems can be used; often unstressed syllables are marked with a breve ( ̆ ) , and stressed syllables with a macron ( ¯ ).
Ballad meter (sometimes called common meter), mixes lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
x / x / x / x / I nev|er saw | a man | who looked x / x / x / With such | a wist|ful eye x / x / x / x / Upon | that lit|tle tent | of blue x / x / x / Which priso|ners call | the sky,
from Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol
Lines of iambic heptameter are sometimes called "fourteeners".
x / x / x / x / x / x / x / Yea, fool|ish boy, | thou doest | desire | (and all | for want | of wit) x / x / x / x / x / x / x / A grea|ter charge | than an|y God | coulde ev|er have | as yet.
from Golding's Ovid
Here Blake abandons the iamb in favor of trochaic feet (trochaic tetrameter):
/ x / x / x / In what | distant | deeps or | skies / x / x / x / Burnt the | fire | of thine | eyes? / x / x / x / On what | wings dare | he a|spire? / x / x / x / What the | hand dare | seize the | fire?
from Blake's The Tiger
x / x / x / / x x / x To be, | or not | to be: | that is | the quest|ion
Shakespeare's famous line of iambic pentameter has eleven syllables, and that last syllable is unaccented. This is called a weak ending (also called a feminine ending). A poet might just needs an extra syllable, but more often the weak ending creates a particular poetic effect—in this case, emphasizing Hamlet's uncertainty.
Wordsworth sticks to ten syllables, but he emphasizes the first words of these two lines by substituting trochees in place of iambs:
/ x x / x / x / x / MILTON! | thou shouldst | be liv|ing at | this hour: / x x / x / x / x / England | hath need | of thee: | she is | a fen
Blank verse has a regular meter, but the endings of the lines do not rhyme. Blank verse became popular in the English language when it was employed by Elizabethan playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.
Free verse uses neither rhyme nor regular, repeating meter. The Victorian poets, including Christina Rossetti and Matthew Arnold, were the first to widely employ free verse in English.
Tropes are figures of speech in which words are used in unexpected ways.
Metonymy calls a thing not by its own name, but by the name of something with which it is intimately associated. Hollywood had a profitable summer refers to the American film industry at large by naming the city with which it is most closely associated.
Metonymy might be thought of as a particular kind of metaphor.
Naming the whole by one of its parts, or (arguably) naming the part by its whole. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's line "the western wave was all aflame" substitutes "wave" for "sea." The animal barked with alarm calls a specific dog by its taxonomic kingdom.
Synecdoche might be thought of as a particular kind of metonymy.
This sentence displays synecdoche, metaphor, and metonymy:
"Fifty keels ploughed the deep..."
The synecdoche "keels" names the whole (the ship) after a particular part (of the ship). "Ploughed" metaphorically substitutes the concept of ploughing a field for sailing the ocean. "The deep" is a metonym, as "depth" is an attribute associated with the ocean.
Zeugma is a figure of speech in which one verb or one noun joins several parts of a sentence. Shakespeare's
"friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" is one kind of zeugma. Syllepsis is another type of zeugma in which the governing word changes meaning for each part of a sentence it governs:
Piano, n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.
Ambrose Bierce, A Devil's Dictionary
While tropes use words in unexpected, non-literal ways, rhetorical schemes arrange words in a pattern that changes or enhances their meaning or effect.
Any rule or prescription made regarding a particular form is in practice often ignored. Poets wantonly vary meter and break rhyme schemes. But that's not quite true. Poets work in formal verse because constraints spur creativity. When poets deviate from form they do so for good reasons.
The origins of the ballad are murky, as most cultures has a long tradition of ballad-like forms. Ballads originate in song, and usually narrate a topic of popular interest, such as a shipwreck, civil insurrection, gruesome haunting, or particularly tragic love affair.
See Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" for an example of the form.
The Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry, which has been adopted by many English poets. Japanese haiku consists of seventeen moras, and English poets use seventeen syllables, although moras and syllables are not quite the same thing.
This haiku, translated from the Japanese, was written by Matsuo Basho in the seventeenth century:
the first cold shower
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw
Yone Noguchi, who was instrumental in introducing Japanese poetry to the West around the turn of the twentieth century (and, incidentally, was the father of sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi), wrote this haiku:
Some one at my door?
Go away, go—go away!
Good night, sir or madam
The pantoum is derived from a Malayan form which came to the English language via France in the nineteenth century. Like the villanelle, it is notable for the repetition of lines, but unlike the villanelle the pantoum does not have a prescribed length.
A minor variant of the pantoum is the imperfect pantoum, in which the final stanza deviates from the prescribed rules.
The senryu is a minor form of Japanese verse. Like a haiku, it has 17 syllables in three lines. Unlike haiku, the subject of senryu is human foibles. Senryu are often darkly humorous in tone.
The sestina was invented in the twelfth century by troubadour Arnaut Daniel in Provence, France, and introduced into English by Philip Sidney in the sixteenth century.
Speakin' in general, I 'ave tried 'em all,
The 'appy roads that take you o'er the world.
Speakin' in general, I 'ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get 'ence, the same as I 'ave done,
An' go observin' matters till they die.
What do it matter where or 'ow we die,
So long as we've our 'ealth to watch it all --
The different ways that different things are done,
An' men an' women lovin' in this world --
Takin' our chances as they come along,
An' when they ain't, pretendin' they are good?
In cash or credit -- no, it aren't no good;
You 'ave to 'ave the 'abit or you'd die,
Unless you lived your life but one day long,
Nor didn't prophesy nor fret at all,
But drew your tucker some'ow from the world,
An' never bothered what you might ha' done.
But, Gawd, what things are they I 'aven't done?
I've turned my 'and to most, an' turned it good,
In various situations round the world --
For 'im that doth not work must surely die;
But that's no reason man should labour all
'Is life on one same shift; life's none so long.
Therefore, from job to job I've moved along.
Pay couldn't 'old me when my time was done,
For something in my 'ead upset me all,
Till I 'ad dropped whatever 'twas for good,
An', out at sea, be'eld the dock-lights die,
An' met my mate -- the wind that tramps the world!
It's like a book, I think, this bloomin' world,
Which you can read and care for just so long,
But presently you feel that you will die
Unless you get the page you're readin' done,
An' turn another -- likely not so good;
But what you're after is to turn 'em all.
Gawd bless this world! Whatever she 'ath done --
Excep' when awful long -- I've found it good.
So write, before I die, "'E liked it all!"
A variation of the sestina is the double sestina, which uses twelve repeating end-words varying in order through twelve stanzas, and terminated by a six line envoi.
There are two major varieties of sonnets: Shakespearean (English) and Petrarchan (Italian). Sonnets are often employed as love poems.
Well-known practitioners of the Petrarchan sonnet include Wordsworth, Milton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. The conventions of the form were established by the 13th century.
The Shakespearean sonnet came to popularity in the 16th century. Shakespeare himself wrote at least 154 sonnets in the English style. Probably every major poet since Shakespeare has employed the form, including modern poets such as Yeats, Frost, and e.e. cummings.
Here's an example of a Petrarchan sonnet:
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
The most popular of the minor sonnet variants is the Spenserian sonnet, named after Edmund Spenser (The Faerie Queen). The Spenserian rhyme scheme is ababbcbccdcdee. Spenser often began line 9 of his sonnets with the word "yet" or "but", which could signal a volta, though often line 9 was a false turn, and the actual turn did not occur until the final couplet.
Here's an example of a Spenserian sonnet:
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washèd it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide and made my pains his prey.
Vain man (said she) that dost in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalise;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wipèd out likewise.
Not so (quod I); let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame;
My verse your virtues rare shall eternise,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
Where, when as Death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.
Another sonnet variation is the caudate sonnet. A caudate is a regular fourteen line sonnet with an additional coda added. The rhyme scheme of the coda is not standardized. The caudate is most often employed for satire. For an example of a caudate, google John Milton's "On the New Forcers of Conscience Under the Long Parliament." Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a number of caudate in the form of Petrarchan sonnets with a six line codas, one example of which is "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire."
Hopkins invented a sonnet form called the curtal. The curtal is ten-and-a-half lines long, and can be considered a shrunken Petrarchan. Whereas a Petrarchan sonnet is comprised of an octave followed by a sestet, a curtal is a sestet followed by a quatrain (with a half-line coda), so the Petrarchan and curtal share the same proportions. The curtal has the rhyme scheme abcabcdccdd. The few poets who have employed the curtal since Hopkins have used it mostly as a novelty. See Hopkin's "Pied Beauty".
The Onegin sonnet, sometimes called the Pushkin sonnet, is written in iambic tetrameter instead of pentameter. Its rhyme scheme is ababccddeffegg, with weak endings on lines 1, 3, 5, 6, 9, and 10. Alexander Pushkin invented the form for Eugene Onegin, his novel in verse.
Some modern and contemporary poets have penned free verse sonnet-like poems of fourteen lines, some without regular rhyme and meter, others with rhyme but not fixed meter.
The tanka is one of the major short forms of Japanese verse.
The villanelle, with its repetitions and often pastoral theme, may have originated in the work songs of French peasants. It became popular in English in the late Victorian era. One of the finest examples of the villanelle is Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night."
They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.
Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill.
They are all gone away.
Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.
Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,
And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.
There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.
Edwin Arlington Robinson
© Paul Gorman