Updated August 1, 2019

by Evan Mantyk

There is very little difficulty behind writing classical poetry from a technical perspective. Classical poetry is simply poetry that is metrical (also called metered), thus contrasting with unmetered poetry, known as free verse. There is no requirement to rhyme or have a particular number of lines or anything else.

The easiest beginner-level approach to writing metrical poetry is to simply count the syllables. If your first line has ten syllables then your next line should have ten syllables. Seven, eight, ten, and twelve syllables are all common lengths. Write in this way, and perhaps make your last two lines rhyme or use alliteration (or neither) and call it classical poetry. It is that easy.

If you don’t know the number of syllables, simply look it up in a dictionary.

Beyond the Beginner Level

Okay, so here is the rub: Moving past the beginner level, we find that, strictly speaking, counting syllables is not metrical. Counting syllables puts us on the right path, but doesn’t get us to high-level classical poetry. For truly metrical poetry you have to count the number of hard and soft syllables (or stresses)  in the words.

Below is an excerpt from a sonnet by Edmund Spenser (from his Amoretti sequence)

What more miraculous thing may be told
That fire, which all things melts, should harden ice:
And ice which is congealed with senseless cold,
Should kindle fire by wonderful device?

Here are the same lines showing the hard syllables in capital letters and soft syllables in lowercase letters:

what MORE mirACulOUS thing MAY be TOLD
that FIRE, which ALL things MELTS, should HARden ICE:
and ICE which IS conGEALED with SENSEless COLD,
should KINDle FIRE by WONderFUL deVICE?

Notice that a soft syllable is always followed by a hard one. This is perfect meter since the soft-hard pattern (iamb) is repeated without flaw. Because there are five such patterns, this is called pentameter. This particular meter is thus called iambic pentameter. There are many other forms of meter, but this one comes perhaps closest to natural English speech.

You may ask, how did you determine which are the hard syllables and which are the soft ones? There are two main factors:

(1.) The first factor is whether the word has a natural stress in it. “Harden” is usually pronounced “HARDen” not “hardEN” and “congealed” is usually “conGEALED” not “CONgealed.” Two-syllable words ending in -ing and -less are usually like harden (hard then soft), two syllable words beginning in a- or en- (such as “adjust” or “enjoy”) are usually like congealed (soft then hard).

(2.) The second factor is simply based on where it is placed in the poem. Many, perhaps most, syllables and words can go either way. For example, “Fire” and “cold” are used as hard syllables above, but in these lines their role is reversed:

how FIERCE fire RAges in HERoes HEARTS
so CRUEL cold COMES but NOT one dePARTS

Judging which to use as soft or hard is something that one has to determine for oneself. Reading your poem aloud is recommended. Note that the further one strays from the soft or hard stress found in natural pronunciation, the more one’s poem becomes unmetered and sonically mushy. Of course, on the other hand, if the wording becomes too abstruse and removed from listeners’ comprehension, you risk endangering the effectiveness of your poem. You have to balance technical perfection and accessibility well.

Finally, notice that in the above two lines, “RAges in HER” and “NOT one departs” both have an extra soft syllable. This is breaking from strict iambic meter that is otherwise consistent in the lines. This is not perfect meter like Spenser’s meter further above. Nonetheless, the four hard syllables make the lines still relatively strong. William Shakespeare, Spenser, and other great poets often bent the rules in exactly the same way. Thus, the number of hard stresses or hard syllables is strict, but the number of soft and the pattern leaves room for variation to suit the poet’s vision.

Read more about meter here: The Basics of Writing Classical Poetry. I also recommend the Society of Classical Poets’ official guide: How to Write Classical Poetry.

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One Response

  1. penny turner

    Thankyou for this. I have an MA in English Literature and Language, and I know about metre etc.. but somehow I understand it much better now..


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