Learn English – Difference between meter and rhythm in poetry


What is the difference between meter and rhythm in poetry? The explanations found from googling were highly confusing.

Best Answer

There are situations where they mean the same thing.

But rhythm is the general term, applying to all speech, in every language, as well as sounds in general, provided the sounds are continuous or repetitive, and show some pattern in their continuity or repetition. Music is a good example; it has rhythms, but no meter.

Meter, on the other hand, in the sense intended (there are plenty of others), applies strictly to poetry (or vocal song), and refers to certain specific repetitive patterns of syllables, in a particular language.

Languages vary a lot in how meter works in their poetry. Stress-timed languages like English tend towards rhythms that exploit the "stress group" -- syllables between major stresses -- as in Longfellow's famous

  • One if by
  • land, and
  • two if by
  • sea, and
  • I on the
  • op-osite
  • shore will
  • be ..

On the other hand, syllable-timed languages like Latin, French, or Japanese tend to count syllables, distinguishing (as in Latin or Greek) between "heavy" syllables, which end with a consonant, or contain phonetically long vowels or diphthongs, and "light" syllables, ending in a short vowel. Patterns of these are also "meter", and the traditional Greek names that mplungjan mentioned were developed by ancient Greeks to describe their poetry.

Meter in syllable-timed language doesn't sound like poetry to speakers of stress-timed languages. For example, while Classical Latin was syllable-timed, and had distinctive long and short vowels, Medieval Latin was stress-timed, and did not retain vowel length distinctions, so Classical poetry is quite different from Medieval.

Virgil's Aeniad (composed in the first century BC) has the following first lines,

  • Arma virumque canō Trōiae qui primus ab ōris
  • Ītaliam fātō profugus Lāvīnaque vēnit
  • lītora - multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
  • vī superum saevae memorem Iūnōnis ob īram,
  • multa quoque et bellō passus, dum conderet urbem
  • īnferretque deōs Latiō—genus unde Latīnum
  • Albānīque patrēs atque altae moenia Rōmae.

which somehow don't feel like they're in meter, the way a Medieval Latin poem like "In Taverna" does, even though they both have strictly-regular meter.

  • In taverna quando sumus, non curamus quid sit humus
  • sed ad ludum properamus, cui semper insudamus.

Of course, the fact that end rhyme wasn't invented until the first few centuries AD helps make this sound like poetry.

The point is that poetic meter is specific, and varies between languages, and may not sound metric to speakers of other languages; while rhythm is far more general, extending even to human contraception.

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