Coleridge's poem takes poetic meter as its subject, so it's a safe bet that it's gonna have some meter of its own. And boy does it. It's a veritable smorgasbord of different types of meter. We're up to our ears in metrical feet. So let's take a step back for a mini-lesson on meter, just so we can get our bearings, before we jump into talking about this poem in particular.
Usually when we talk about meter, we describe the type of foot (iambic, trochaic, etc.) and then describe the number of them in each line (tetrameter – 4, pentameter – 5, hexameter – 6, etc.). So, for example, in iambic pentameter, the most common meter in English, each line has five iambs.
When it comes to "Metrical Feet," it can be a little tough to keep track of all the meters flying at us in every line. Because the poem is so complex, we'll break the first stanza down for you, line-by-line, so you can really see the meter at work.
Line 1: Tro-chee trips from long to short.
We're talking about trochees here, and we're using trochees. Go figure. A trochee is a type of foot that contains a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. In this case, we have four total stressed syllables, which makes this trochaic tetrameter. That's just a fancy way of saying the line consists of four trochees, all in a row.
Line 3: Slow spon-dee stalks; strong foot; yet ill ab-le
Here, we've got eight stressed syllables all in a row. If we break this up into groups of two, then we've got four spondees, which are feet that contain two stressed syllables. So line 3 is an example of spondaic tetrameter. Getting the hang of things yet?
Just to throw us for a loop, Coleridge tosses in an extra foot at the end of the line that doesn't match the others. Can you tell what kind of foot it is? Here's a hint: we've seen it already in the poem.
Line 4: E-ver to come up with da-ctyl's tri-syll-a-ble
Ah the dactyl! So fun to say. This type of foot contains three syllables: stressed, unstressed, unstressed. And there are four of them so this line is – you guessed it – dactylic tetrameter.
Line 5: I-am-bics march from short to long
Here we've got an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed one, and this pattern recurs four times. There you have it folks: iambic tetrameter. Once you learn iambic meter, you'll start to see it just about everywhere, from Shakespeare's sonnets to Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."
Line 6: With a leap and a bound the swift An-a-pests throng.
Now we're really getting into the good stuff. In this line, we've got two unstressed syllables, followed by a stressed one. And this foot, known as an anapest, repeats – no surprise here – four times. So line 6, then, is in anapestic tetrameter.
Line 8: Am-phi-bra-chys hastes with a state-ly stride.
At this point, you can probably figure out on your own that an amphibrach is a foot that contains an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed one, followed by yet another unstressed one. And you can probably guess that because this foot repeats four times in this line, it's a line of amphibrachic tetrameter.
Line 9: First and last be-ing long, mid-dle short, Am-phi-ma-cer.
Okay, last one, guys. If an amphibrach is unstressed-stressed-unstressed, it only makes sense that its opposite, the amphimacer, is stressed-unstressed-stressed. This plodding line is an example of amphimacic tetrameter.
Phew! That's a lot of different kinds of feet. Congratulations on sticking with us.
Now let's take a closer look at the second stanza, which is much more irregular than the first. The second stanza of the poem makes use of the different types of feet discussed in the first stanza, but its lines that are much longer, and the meter takes a backseat to the meaning of the lines.
It does provide us with an awesome opportunity to practice what we've learned about meter in the first stanza, so take a look at the first few lines of the second stanza and see how you might scan them. For each line, ask yourself: is it iambic? Anapestic? Is it tetrameter? Pentameter? Or even hexameter? You might find that scanning these last nine lines is a bit trickier than scanning the first ten. But hey, that's okay; we're just getting our sea legs.
There's just one more thing we have to point out about "Metrical Feet." It's easy to get so caught up in figuring out the meter than we forget to notice that this poem rhymes. In fact, those rhymes come in pairs, which we call couplets, like little couples (cute, no?). So lines 1 and 2 form a rhyming couplet, as do lines 3 and 4.
The only part of the poem that doesn't fit snugly into this scheme is the end of line 16, which has its own indented line. We like to think of that line as a kind of aside that gives the poem a chatty, loving feel, as if Coleridge just can't resist using a term of endearment to refer to his son. After all, let's not forget that this poem was actually a part of a letter.