Trochaic tetrameter

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Trochaic tetrameter is a meter in poetry. It refers to a line of four trochaic feet. The word "tetrameter" simply means that the poem has four trochees. A trochee is a long syllable, or stressed syllable, followed by a short, or unstressed, one. Stresses on a syllable are detected by simply noting which syllable one puts stress on when saying the word. In many cases, this is the syllable which is pronounced loudest in the word, for example, the word 'purity' will take a stress on the first syllable and an unstress on the others.

Because English tradition is so strongly iambic, some feel that trochaic meters have an awkward or unnatural feel to the ear.

Example of trochaic tetrameter[edit]

A line of trochaic tetrameter has the following rhythm:

1st foot 2nd foot 3rd foot 4th foot
DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da

Using the classical symbols longum and breve (or brevis) a line of trochaic tetrameter can be represented as follows:

1st foot 2nd foot 3rd foot 4th foot

Literary examples[edit]

Two of the best-known examples are Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha and the Finnish Kalevala.

This can be demonstrated in the following famous excerpt from "Hiawatha's Childhood", where the accented syllables of each trochee have been bolded:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

The Kalevala also follows a loose trochaic tetrameter, although it also has some slight variations to the normal pattern, which cause some people to term it the "Kalevala Metre".

Another clear example is Philip Larkin's "The Explosion".

On the day of the explosion
Shadows pointed towards the pithead:
In the sun the slagheap slept.

Down the lane came men in pitboots
Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke
Shouldering off the freshened silence.

One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark's eggs;
Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.

So they passed in beards and moleskins
Fathers brothers nicknames laughter
Through the tall gates standing open.

At noon there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun
Scarfed as in a heat-haze dimmed.

The dead go on before us they
Are sitting in God's house in comfort
We shall see them face to face—

Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion

Larger than in life they managed—
Gold as on a coin or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them

One showing the eggs unbroken.

Trochaic tetrameter is also employed by Shakespeare in several instances to contrast with his usual blank verse (which is in iambic pentameter). For instance, in Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare frequently writes the lines of his fairies in catalectic trochaic tetrameter, as is evidenced by Puck's lines, here:

Through the forest have I gone.
But Athenian found I none,
On whose eyes I might approve
This flower's force in stirring love.
Night and silence.--Who is here?
Weeds of Athens he doth wear:
This is he, my master said,
Despised the Athenian maid;
And here the maiden, sleeping sound,
On the dank and dirty ground.
Pretty soul! she durst not lie
Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy.
Churl, upon thy eyes I throw
All the power this charm doth owe.
When thou wakest, let love forbid
Sleep his seat on thy eyelid:
So awake when I am gone;
For I must now to Oberon.

Later he and Oberon have a conversation entirely in catalectic trochaic tetrameter, which is unusual, since generally Shakespeare used pentameter for dialogue sequences.

Flower of this purple dye,
Hit with Cupid's archery,
Sink in apple of his eye.
When his love he doth espy,
Let her shine as gloriously
As the Venus of the sky.
When thou wakest, if she be by,
Beg of her for remedy.

Re-enter PUCK

Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand;
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover's fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Stand aside: the noise they make
Will cause Demetrius to awake.

Then will two at once woo one;
That must needs be sport alone;
And those things do best please me
That befal preposterously.

See also Edgar disguised as Poor Tom in King Lear:

Tom will throw his head at them: avaunt, you curs!
Be thy mouth or black or white,
Tooth that poisons if it bite;
Mastiff greyhound, mongrel grim,
Hound or spaniel, brach or him,
Or bobtail tyke or trundle-tail,
Tom will make him weep and wail;
For with throwing thus my head,
Dogs leap the hatch and all are fled.

And the Three Witches in Macbeth:

When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.

That will be ere the set of sun.

Where the place?

Upon the heath.

There to meet with Macbeth.

I come, graymalkin!

Paddock calls.


Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Good examples of the rhythmic scheme, albeit not in English, are found in two famous thirteenth century medieval Latin hymns. Dies Irae (used as the sequence in the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass), the first two verses of which are...

Dies iræ! dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla
Teste David cum Sibylla!

Quantus tremor est futurus,
quando judex est venturus,
cuncta stricte discussurus!

...and Stabat Mater (a standalone meditation on the suffering of Mary, Jesus Christ's mother, during his crucifixion), the first two verses of which are:

Stabat mater dolorosa
iuxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.

Cuius animam gementem,
contristatam et dolentem
pertransivit gladius.

Kalevala meter[edit]

Balto-Finnic (e.g. Estonian, Finnish, Karelian) folk poetry uses a form of trochaic tetrameter that has been called the Kalevala meter. The Finnish and Estonian national epics, Kalevala and Kalevipoeg, are both written in this meter. The meter is thought to have originated during the Proto-Finnic period. Its main rules are as follows[1] (examples are taken from the Kalevala):

Syllables fall into three types: strong, weak, and neutral. A long syllable (one that contains a long vowel or a diphthong, or ends in a consonant) with a main stress is metrically strong, and a short syllable with a main stress is metrically weak. All syllables without a main stress are metrically neutral. A strong syllable can only occur in the rising part of the second, third, and fourth foot of a line:

Veli / kulta, / veikko/seni (1:11)
("Brother dear, little brother"[2])

A weak syllable can only occur in the falling part of these feet:

Miele/ni mi/nun te/kevi (1:1)
("I have a mind to ...")

Neutral syllables can occur at any position. The first foot has a freer structure, allowing strong syllables in a falling position and weak syllables in a rising position:

Niit' en/nen i/soni / lauloi (1:37)
("My father used to sing them")
vesois/ta ve/tele/miä (1:56)
("tugged from the saplings")

It is also possible for the first foot to contain three or even four syllables.

There are two main types of line: a normal trochaic tetrameter and a broken trochaic tetrameter. In a normal tetrameter, word-stresses and foot-stresses match, and there is a caesura between the second and third feet:

Veli / kulta, // veikko/seni

A broken tetrameter (Finnish murrelmasäe) has at least one stressed syllable in a falling position. There is usually no caesura:

Miele/ni mi/nun te/kevi

Traditional poetry in the Kalevala meter uses both types with approximately the same frequency. The alteration of normal and broken tetrameters is a characteristic difference between the Kalevala meter and other forms of trochaic tetrameter.


  1. ^ Finnish Folk Poetry: Epic: An Anthology in Finnish and English. translated and edited by Matti Kuusi, Keith Bosley, and Michael Branch. Finnish Literature Society. 1977. pp. 62–64. ISBN 951-717-087-4.CS1 maint: others (link)
  2. ^ The Kalevala. trans. Keith Bosley. Oxford University Press. 1999 [first published 1989]. ISBN 0-19-283570-X.CS1 maint: others (link)