Understanding Poetry 2: Poetic Shape

A look at how lines of poetry take shape.


Familiarity with poetic imagery, figurative language, and tonal variations allows a deeper appreciation of the world of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” But there’s much more to the poem than we were able to cover last lesson. In particular, you may have noticed that the words flowed differently in different parts, that Eliot uses rhyme only occasionally, or that the poem is grouped into stanzas.

In short, you may have noticed that the way a poem is built matters. How do the elements of poetic construction — meter, rhyme, and stanza — affect meaning? In this lesson, we’ll look at the strong effects of form in poetry.

Meet Meter

Let’s turn back to the beginning of “Prufrock”:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table . . .

You’ll notice a real rhythmic shift in this passage, especially if you read it out loud. Line 1 bounces along, line 2 slows down and spreads out, and line 3 seems to have had all the energy leached out of it. These changes in rhythm both reflect and reinforce a change in tone, as decisiveness crumbles in the face of a strained metaphor. Eliot achieves these effects by changing meter in these three lines. Meter is the organization of rhythm. Does rhythm get your feet tapping? Good, because when scanning the meter of poems, we depend on feet. Let me explain.

Scan Your Feet

When you read Eliot’s first line, you naturally stress certain syllables over others: you lean into Let, go, you, I more than us, then, and. We would scan the line like this:

Let us go then, you and I

Now, a foot is a unit of measurement, a way of looking for patterns in the meter. Each foot is a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. How do we recognize the foot that dominates Eliot’s line? Well, Table 2-1 is a list of some of the most common “feet,” along with words that demonstrate how each foot sounds.

Type Definition Examples
Iamb short stress — long stress indeed, about, against
Trochee long stress — short stress certain, women, patient
Dactyl long stress — short stress — short stress muttering, restaurants, oyster-shells
Anapest short stress — short stress — long stress afternoon, do I dare, overwhelm
Spondee long stress — long stress One-night, shirt-sleeves

When we scan the meter of a poem, we look for how many feet are in the line, and what those feet are. The major stresses determine how long we say the line is.

Line Lengths

Length Name
one foot monometer
two feet dimeter
three feet trimeter
four feet tetrameter
five feet pentameter
six feet hexameter
seven feet heptameter
eight feet octameter

In the first line of “Prufrock,” then, we have four feet, mostly trochees. It’s so regular; we could easily call it trochaic tetrameter:

Let us go then, you and I

The regularity of this line, together with the natural forcefulness of trochees (they lead with their strength!), gives us a sense of drive and purpose.

But then look what happens:

When the eve ning is spread out against the sky

It’s much harder to scan the second line, because it becomes irregular. But I’d argue that it sets forth a couple of anapests, flips to a dactyl, and ends with an iamb. The anapests rush us along, only to smash up against their opposite and break all regularity. Meter stretches out all the more in the next line, etherized and woozy.

The meter in some poems is much more regular than in others, of course. As we examine various forms of poetry, we’ll be on the lookout for typical patterns and interesting variations of meters. Scanning is hard work sometimes, but it’s rewarding, too — we can see why words affect us the way they do, just through sound.

We’ve made good time, now onto rhyme!

Feet Cheat Sheet

Want a handy way to remember feet? Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers help — just memorize this!

Trochee trips from long to short;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow Spondee stalks; strong foot yet ill able
Ever to come up with Dactylic trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long —
With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng.

By the way, pages 159-160 in MP summarize meter, though not in rhyme.

A Poet Sounds Off

The manipulation of sound in poetry is a mysterious thing and often best described by those who actually do it day to day. Of the poets who write about meter, I particularly recommend John Hollander. His Rhyme’s Reason is a classic — incisive, lively, and full of fun. If you have already read this book, or another about sound in poetry, come to the Message Board and tell us what you learned from it.


The shaping of poetry doesn’t just happen through meter. Words themselves suggest relationships with each other by sounding alike. We’ll look at four ways words carry their own patterning into poetry.


Rhyme is most often used to punctuate the ends of lines. It’s the workhorse of poetry: it can hold lines together, it can signal their length, and it can bestow an overall sense of order. At the same time, rhyme also often suggests surprising connections between things.

Look at Gerard Manley Hopkins’ exultant “Pied Beauty” (AFP, p.127). Listing the rhymes, we have:


Word Rhyme
things a
cow b
swim c
wings a
plough b
trim c
strange d
how b
dim c
change d
him c

Notice how “things” takes “wings” and how “him” resolves “dim.” These are underlying messages of a poem drunk on the variation of the world and ascribing all to one underlying cause.

Furthermore, just try to scan “Pied Beauty”! It seems to be pentameter, but the meter couldn’t be less regular. Only rhyme keeps us oriented as rose-moles stipple past us on trout.

So strong is rhyme that it stages a double climax at the end of the poem. The last line could arguably be complete with “change”: the line is metrically full at that point (five feet have sounded), and “change” resolves the one unrhymed word up until then (“strange”). But Hopkins adds one last bonus rhyme: “him,” to echo “trim” and “swim.”

This double-rhymed conclusion is especially fitting for a poem celebrating “pied” beauty — the beauty of something that has two or more colors.


Sometimes words almost rhyme, but don’t quite. This can be a striking effect. Look at John Keats’ “This Living Hand” (AFP, p. 152). The pentameter lines don’t rhyme, but the suggestion of rhyme haunts the poem, much as the speaker promises to haunt his beloved after death.

The word “cold” doesn’t quite rhyme with “blood,” but it almost does: both words end in “d”; both contain “o” sounds and the letter “l”; both are one syllable.

Moving further away from true rhyme, but still suggesting it, are “tomb” and “you,” sounding the same “u” sound. We could even argue that “nights” is echoed by “it is” — the syllables vary, of course, but the two lines share “ts” sounds.


While sniffing around for off-rhyme, we noticed that two words suggested a connection just by sharing the same “u” sound. Shared vowel sounds are called assonance, and they bring yet more structure to poetic lines. Note that it’s the sound, and not the actual vowel, that determines assonance.

Assonance can be found at ends of lines or within them. A fine example of the latter case is Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” (AFP, p. 273). Look at lines 2-3:

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

“O” sounds broken up by “a” sounds, with a final release into “i” sounds: it’s a small reenactment of the resistance to inexorable time that the poem describes.


Consonants can form their own alliances, patterns, and meanings. When consonants line up at the beginnings of neighboring words or syllables, that’s called alliteration. (If they line up at the ends of words or syllables, then that’s called consonance.)

“Pied Beauty” is studded with alliteration. Take another look:

Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

Again, order in variety is suggested. Notice specifically how alliteration helps Hopkins braid his description, particularly in the fifth line. Not only do “p”s dance around “f”s, both “p”s and “f”s link up with friendly “l”s. The result is an intricately plotted weave of consonants.

The Fall and Rise of Rhyme

John Milton chose to dispense with rhyme in Paradise Lost — a controversial choice for an epic in 1667. He even added an “Argument,” calling rhyme “no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse . . . the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meter.” But did he really dispense with rhyme altogether, or does it lurk in unlikely places? Read aloud and listen closely to the excerpt discussed in this lesson (MP, p. 107).

Between the Lines

Varied Punctuation

A common tendency in reading poetry out loud is to pause at the end of a line. The temptation to do so is understandable — a line is presented to us as a unit, and many lines in poetry are marked off by punctuation. But some are not, and it’s important to note the difference.

In fact, line length and punctuation are sometimes quite independent of each other in a poem, and this creates little tensions that often enrich meaning.

Take a look at William Blake’s tribute to the ferocious tiger (MP, p.143):

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The meter seems to impose an unalterable pace, with steadily falling stresses up through the last line. The first three lines are purely trochaic, with strongly stressed syllables at their ends. (Lines like these are often said to have “masculine” ends).

Yet punctuation is not so regular — it licenses no pause between “bright” and “In” or “eye” and “Could.” The stanza’s meter and punctuation play out a tension in framing that predicts the derailing of meter at the stanza’s close. It ends with a disruptive dactyl, and its final syllable is unstressed (a so-called “feminine” ending).

Regularity has been overthrown — but we had a sense that might happen, just by paying attention to the irregular punctuation.

Stop and Flow

If the end of a line coincides with the end of a sentence or clause — if the line gives us a sense of completion — it is end-stopped. But sometimes clauses run on past the ends of lines. We rush on to the next line to make sense of what we’re reading. When this happens, it’s called enjambment.

Here’s an example from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (MP, p. 107):

Anon out of the earth a fabric huge
Rose like an exhalation, with the sound Of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet,
Built like a temple, where pilasters round
Were set, and Doric pillars overlaid
With golden architrave . . .

The spill of description over the ends of lines is almost constant here — only the third line is end-stopped. And enjambment is entirely appropriate, considering what’s being described: the emergence of a palace, Pandemonium, from the dreary grounds of Hell. The “ascending pile” is bursting forth from the ground, so no wonder description bursts the boundaries of line length (note, though, that those lines are in strict pentameter).

One more trick of punctuation and line length to notice here: in the third and fourth lines, a comma interrupts the line. If you were reading the verse out loud (and you should), you might pause to breathe at those commas. The pause in the middle of a line is called a caesura. It is one more subtlety in the battle between pace and line length. In Milton’s lines they lend a certain jerkiness to the proceedings, suggesting that Satan’s palace, however glorious, has a seriously unreliable foundation.

We’re now ready to continue work on our foundation. Our next steps, now that we have a better sense of the shape of a poetic line, will be to look at how lines come together in stanzas and how stanzas come together as traditional forms of poems. That will give us plenty to do in the next lessons.

Let’s end this one by applying what we’ve learned about meter, rhyme, and line formation to another difficult and wonderful poem, Hart Crane’s ” Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge.”

Case Reading: Crane’s “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge”

Eternity Condensed

The Brooklyn Bridge was a long time coming. The New York State Legislature petitioned for a bridge over the East River in 1802, and a bill to pay for it passed in 1869. Construction began and continued until opening day in 1883.

Crane’s 1930 decision to make the bridge his dominant image was helped by this history. The making of the bridge transcended the span of most human lives, and its life extends into an unforeseeable future.

Hart Crane was a contemporary as well as a great admirer of T.S. Eliot. And though they are in many ways quite different poems, “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge” (AFP, p. 58) sports similarities to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Both poems describe romanticized reactions to a modern urban landscape. Both narrators locate themselves in the margins of a bustling and grubby world. And both comb their surroundings for transcendent meaning.

But the shape of each poem — their contrasting use of rhyme, meter, and line construction — is a key to their difference. “Prufrock” relies on relentless rhymes; its meter varies wildly and its lines sprawl. Its construction reflects the claustrophobia and fragmentation of Prufrock’s self-consciousness.

Hart’s “Proem,” on the other hand, finds stability in the greatness of its subject, the Brooklyn Bridge. The very function of a bridge — connection — is exactly what Prufrock looked for so hopelessly. Though Hart’s New York teems with traffic, imprisoning business, flashy escapism, and even suicides, the bridge offers a constant connection to eternity and God.

Line Formation

Honoring the perseverance of the bridge’s construction, no matter what the time of day or weather or human use, Crane forces regularity into his lines. They all hold to pentameter, no matter what the variation in rhythm might be. And when the bridge is described, the meter tends to settle even more regularly into iambic pentameter, one of the most common patterns in poetry.


And Thee, across the har bor, sil ver-paced O harp and al tar, of the fur y fused O Sleep less as the riv er un der thee

Note, too, that in the top two examples the caesuras occur symmetrically.

Not a single question mark. (How about that, Prufrock?) Instead, ellipses suggest perseverance:

All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . . Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.


As opposed to the sing-song rhymes of “Prufrock,” Hart’s “Bridge” employs rhyme sporadically at first, then more regularly as it fixes on its object. Off-rhyme sounds first: “building high” and “Liberty.” As the poem goes on, rhyme puts in more regular appearances: “clear” and “year”; “sod” and “God.” Off-rhymes also connect stanzas: “thee, yet left” and “parapets”; “Jews” and “fused”; “undone” and “to God.”

Assonance often attends descriptions of the bridge (“across the harbor”; “bedlamite speeds to thy parapets”; “Accolade thou dost bestow”; “night lifted in thine arms”).

Alliteration, in a poem obsessed with height, can define different levels (“Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft”; “snow submerges”; “Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend”; even “dip and pivot”).

You will see for yourself many more ways that Hart’s tribute to a marvel of construction — “(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)” — is carefully built to reflect the human encounter with something large and enduring.

A final note: though Eliot’s poem described failure, and Hart’s is more positive, that shouldn’t lead us to think that one is more successful than the other. Each poem takes its necessary shape and reflects its necessary conclusions, given its subject.

In the next lesson, with “fury fused” ringing in our heads, we’ll take a look at how poets fuse lines into larger forms of meaning.

Assignment: Poetic Shape

  1. Choose a stanza of “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge” and scan it. What meter is dominant? Take note of irregularities in the rhythm.
  2. Next, look at punctuation, end-stops, and enjambment. Are there any surprises there?
  3. Finally, comb the stanza for rhyme, off-rhyme, assonance, and alliteration.
  4. After you’ve finished with steps 1, 2, and 3, summarize how the sound and flow of your stanza distinguish it from the rest of the poem.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *