Prosody: Meter of Poetry

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Prosody is a technical term used in linguistics and poetry to describe the patterns, rhythms or meters of a language.

Prosody can refer to the rules for the pronunciation of a language as well as its versification. The correct pronunciation of words includes:

  1. enunciation,
  2. proper accenting
  3. making sure each syllable has its required length

Syllable Length

Syllable length doesn't seem terribly important for pronunciation in English. Take a word like "laboratory." It looks as though it should be divided syllabically into:


So it appears to have 5 syllables, but when someone from the U.S. or U.K. pronounces it, there are only 4. Oddly, the 4 syllables aren't the same.

Americans heavily stress the first syllable.


In the U.K. you probably hear:


When we stress a syllable, we hold it an extra "time".

The Latin for time is "tempus" and the word for the duration of time, especially in linguistics, is "mora." Two short syllables or "morae" count for one long syllable.

Latin and Greek have rules about whether a given syllable is long or short. More than in English, length is very important.

Why You Need to Know About Prosody

Whenever you read ancient Greek or Latin poetry you are reading the writing of a man or woman who has replaced the mundane with the loftier speech of poetry. Part of the flavor of the poetry is conveyed by the tempo of the words. To read the poetry woodenly without trying to grasp the tempo would be like reading sheet music without playing it even mentally. If such an artistic rationale doesn't motivate you to try to learn about Greek and Roman meter, how's this? Understanding the meter will help you to translate.


A foot is a unit of a meter in poetry. A foot will usually have 2, 3 or 4 syllables in Greek and Latin poetry.

2 Morae

(Remember: one short syllable has one "time" or "mora".)

A foot composed of two short syllables is called pyrrhic.

A pyrrhic foot would have two times or morae.

3 Morae

A trochee is a long syllable followed by a short and an iam(b) is a short syllable followed by a long. Both of these have 3 morae.

4 Morae

A foot with 2 long syllables is called a spondee.

A spondee would have 4 morae.

Uncommon feet, like the dispondee, can have 8 morae, and there are special, long patterned ones, like the Sapphic, named after the famous woman poet Sappho of Lesbos.

Trisyllabic Feet

There are eight possible feet based on three syllables. The two most common are:

  1. the dactyl, which is named visually for the finger, (long, short, short)
  2. the anapest (short, short, long).

Feet of four or more syllables are compound feet.


A verse is a line of poetry using feet according to a specified pattern or meter. A meter can refer to a single foot in a verse. If you have a verse made up of dactyls, each dactyl is a meter. A meter is not always a single foot. For instance, in a line of iambic trimeter, each meter or metron (pl. metra or metrons) consists of two feet.

Dactylic Hexameter

If the meter is dactyl, with 6 meters in the verse, you have a line of dactylic hexameter. If there are only five meters, it is pentameter. Dactylic hexameter is the meter that was used in epic poetry or heroic poetry.

  • There is one additional important bit of confusing information: the meter used in dactylic hexameter can be either dactyl (long, short, short) or a spondee (long, long).

Meter for the AP Exam

For the AP Latin - Vergil Exam, students need to know dactylic hexameters and be able to determine the length of each syllable.


The last syllable may be taken to be long since the sixth foot is treated as a spondee. Except in the fifth syllable, a long syllable can replace the two shorts (UU).

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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Prosody: Meter of Poetry." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). Prosody: Meter of Poetry. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Prosody: Meter of Poetry." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).