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

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4 Answers 4

Rhythm describes in general the patterns of stressed and unstressed, or long and short, syllables found in language, and especially in verse. Metre describes the particular kinds of rhythm found in verse, for example, an anapaestic tetrameter (four repetitions in a line of the pattern ‘dum-dum-DUM’) or an iambic pentameter (five repetitions in a line of the pattern ‘dum-DUM’).

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I believe Rhythm and Meter/Metre are interchangeable in poetry. –  mplungjan Feb 20 '12 at 15:38
    
@mplungjan: Here are the Oxford English Dictionary's most relevant definitions. RHYTHM. ‘Prosody.The measured flow of words or phrases in verse, forming various patterns of sound as determined by the relation of long and short or stressed and unstressed syllables in a metrical foot or line.’ METRE: ‘Any specific form of poetic rhythm, its kind being determined by the character and number of recurring units of rhythm (especially feet) within the verse.’ –  Barrie England Feb 20 '12 at 15:54
    
I'm sure you've been teaching this stuff long after I learned it, but I think what you say is the best answer here. Even in the context of discussing poetry, rhythm has a broader "reach" than metre. My recollection is that metre always applied to some recognised (and named) repeating pattern, but rhythm could be applied to more obscure aspects where it might even be difficult or impossible to identify specific repeated sequences. –  FumbleFingers Mar 16 '12 at 18:17
    
@FumbleFingers: Never taught it, I'm afraid! –  Barrie England Mar 16 '12 at 18:24
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@FumbleFingers: Just realised my comment could have been ambiguous. I meant not that I've never been taught it, but that I've never provided instruction in it. –  Barrie England Mar 16 '12 at 18:34
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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 quit 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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How does music have no meter? (ignoring songs which are poetry). There's repetition of musical phrases and patterns in that repetition. –  Mitch Feb 20 '12 at 16:57
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True. But it's not called meter unless it's got words; that's the difference. To be fair, the Greeks might not have felt that way; they tended to think of poetry as a form of music, or vice versa. But that's the way it gets used these days. –  John Lawler Feb 20 '12 at 17:05
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OK, I didn't notice the point in your last paragraph, given the long digression into Latin poetry. –  Mitch Feb 20 '12 at 18:05
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Well, I thought digressing into Greek poetry might be a little off topic. –  John Lawler Feb 20 '12 at 18:43
    
Would time signature be the musical equivalent of meter? We're used to 4-4 and some others but like meter varying with languages and not sounding metric, some songs use time signatures that feel awkward. Most songs stick with one time signature, but some (that sound strange and experimental) change time signature throughout. Also, depending on the time signature, natural accents (or stresses) result. –  user49891 Aug 17 '13 at 18:17
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Seems very clear that rhythm and meter/metre are interchangeable

Metre

In poetry, metre (meter in American English) is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse.

More:

English poetry employs five basic rhythms of varying stressed (/) and unstressed (x) syllables. The meters are iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests and dactyls. In this document the stressed syllables are marked in boldface type rather than the tradition al "/" and "x." Each unit of rhythm is called a "foot" of poetry.

Even more

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Metre produces rhythm, i.e. the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is the metre and the music resulted from this pattern is called rhythm.

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