Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

How to take a poem apart

a poet reading aloud

a poet reading aloud

First, why do this? Because if you can find the poem’s structure, you’ll know more about it. You’ll know what the poet was working from when she was fitting the words in place, and you’ll be able to see the places where she changed the pattern. If a poet changes the pattern, it’s for a reason, to draw your attention to the words or meaning, so we need to work out what the pattern is.

This method of poetry dissection only works with traditional metred verse, with or without rhyme. This means pretty much all poetry written before 1930 or so, but not for poetry in Anglo-Saxon: that uses a different way of rhyming. It’s more difficult to use with modern verse that does not use metre or regular rhyme schemes.


You’re looking at the poem you want to take apart. Count the syllables in each line and write down the number at the end of the line, but not too close in. You’ll end up with a column of numbers running the length of the poem. The number of syllables in some words will be tricky, especially if they’re artificially compressed by replacing a letter with an apostrophe. Heav’nly is a common example, where the three syllables of Hea- ven – ly have been reduced to the two of Heav – nly. The poet does this to squeeze the word into the counted metre, or to make sure the stressed syllable – Heav – falls in the right place in the line. Going in the opposite direction, a poet may add a syllable where there would not normally be one, often indicated by a backwards accent (a ‘grave’ in French), as in storèd, so the single syllable of stored  becomes two, as stor – èd.

So now you have a column of numbers. They tell you how many syllables are in each line, which lines have the same number of syllables, and how likely it is that the lines will be in either a three-foot or a two-foot metre. Whoa.

Time out for technical explanation: a foot is the unit of measurement for a line of poetry, and measures or counts the beat of the line. The foot of a line, or a poem, is named in Greek: iambic and trochaic feet have two syllables. The difference between them is that an iamb holds the stress on the second syllable (da DUM), and the trochee on the first syllable (DAH da). The three-syllable feet are more various, because, as mathematics will tell you, there are more possible arrangements for three syllables of which only one is stressed. The most commonly used are the anapaest (an a PAEST), the dactyl (LAH la la), and the amphibrach (la LAH la).

Going back to the column of numbers, here’s an example:













Most of these lines have 12 syllables. Of those that don’t, there is only one syllable extra or missing (more on this later). We can thus assume that 12 is the common number, with a bit of admissible stretching or compressing going on. 12 is divisible by 2 and by 3, so this needs some attention. (A line of 10 syllables is only divisible by 2, so is very easily seen as iambic or trochaic  – the two-syllable feet – and pentameter – five-footed.) To work out whether your 12-syllable line is to be divided into groups, or feet, of 2 or 3 syllables, you need to speak the lines aloud, and listen to where the stresses fall.

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney

As a tip, prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, the small words and the ‘joining’ words in English, are rarely stressed, so don’t rely on your eyes, you really do have to read the lines aloud to hear the pattern. Reading poetry aloud is far more informative, and more fun, than merely looking at it. Have a go: read out this line by Sir Philip Sidney:

Loving in truth, and faine in verse my love to show

Here’s the line with the stressed syllables marked in bold:

Loving in truth, and faine in verse my love to show

This line clearly uses a two-syllable foot. Apart from the first foot – Loving – which is a trochee (a trochaic substitution, in technical terms), this is an iambic line. Because there are six feet in the line (12 divided by 2 is 6), this is a line of iambic hexameter. Monometer is a 1-foot metre, dimeter is 2 feet, and the rest are trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, and then it gets rare and unusual.

Felicia Hemans

Felicia Hemans

Here’s a line by Felicia Hemans: read this aloud too, and listen for the stresses:

I lay on that rock where the storms have their dwelling

This line uses a three-syllable foot, an amphibrach, so this line is in amphibrachic tetrameter (as is the poem).

Where does this bring us? If you apply this method of dissection to a poem, you end up with a nameable metrical pattern that fits most if not all the lines. The lines that do not fit are the most interesting, because here the poet has deliberately broken the pattern to show you something. It might be a visual effect in spelling, or in punctuation, drawing your attention to the meaning of the words, to what the poem is saying at that point. It might be an aural effect, matched patterns of sounds at the beginnings or ends of words, or sounds that echo the meaning of the words or that part of the poem.

Rhyme scheme

Go back to the ends of each line, and say each end word aloud: listen to  the vowel sound of the word, label it A, and write down A at the end of the line. The end rhyme of the second line may also have an A rhyme, in which case label it so. But if the sound is different, label it B. Carry on to the end of the stanza (equivalent to a verse in a song), adding new labels C, D, E as new end rhymes are identified. Start again with A at the start of the next stanza, no matter what the vowel sound of that first end-rhyme is.

You’re marking differences here, rather than what the sound actually is. The labels A and B have no connection to the actual vowel sound of the rhymes, they’re just convenient labels. You could use numbers instead, or bird’s names, but A, B, etc are conventional. You’ll end up with a second column, which might look like this. [The formatting won’t allow me to show the line breaks, so these are three 4-line stanzas.]













The pattern of the rhyme scheme shows you what kind of poetical form has been used. Here, it looks like a ballad: short stanzas, repeated and limited end-rhymes, the third line in each stanza uses a different rhyme, and will probably (because this is a break in the pattern) carry important or new information in that line. The last two lines also break the pattern as a rhyming couplet, and signal the end of the poem.

Sometimes, the pattern of the metre and feet combined with the pattern of the end rhymes will work together to tell you even more about the poem, what it’s saying, how the poet has worked to get those effects. In this example, if the metre and the rhyme scheme above are from the same poem, it’s actually a very odd ballad because the second and fourth lines are not shorter then lines 1 and 3, which they should be. This too is useful information about what the poet was trying to do.

And that’s just the beginning: you can look inside the lines for more rhymes and sound effects, you can look at the way the words are arranged to make repeated patterns, and you can notice patterns in the meanings of words as well. Working from the smallest elements (the letters and syllables) up to the largest scale (patterns of meaning and sound across lines and stanzas) will reveal the meaning of the poem.

Welcome to prosody.

Kate loves teaching poetry, and knitting while listening to really long poems on audiobook. She has podcasted about Beowulf, The Faerie Queene, The Rape of the Lock, The Princess and Paradise Lost on

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

7 comments on “How to take a poem apart

  1. David
    June 11, 2013

    ‘What we call the beginning is often the end
    And to make and end is to make a beginning.
    The end is where we start from. And every phrase
    And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
    Taking its place to support the others,
    The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
    An easy commerce of the old and the new,
    The common word exact without vulgarity,
    The formal word precise but not pedantic,
    The complete consort dancing together)
    Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
    Every poem an epitaph. And any action
    Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat…..’

    – think TSE put it all admirably, as well as being able to play complex variable and totally apposite tunes with rhythm rhyme etc.- an enigma, really, – a modernist, yet a traditionalist, too.

    Thanks for most interesting overview and analysis, Kate !

  2. rosyb
    June 11, 2013

    I can see this one whizzing off into that pantheon of Vulpes’ most plagiarised pieces, Kate.🙂 This is a great explanation. Can you explain “verse-speaking” to me? THere is lots of quarrelsomeness between actors over verse-speaking when it came to Shakespeare in the past and when things started veer more towards trying to make it more like naturalistic speech. Did actors really trot it out like da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM? I can see that could get tedious to listen to.

  3. Kate
    June 11, 2013

    Thank you, David! A great example of showing, not telling, by TSE.

    Rosy, I’ve never really thought about ‘verse speaking’, since I don’t teach drama, but I imagine that if you’re thinking about the sense in the lines, the meaning of the words, you ought to ignore the rhythm until the rhythm simply takes over and you find yourself DAH-dum-ing without realising it, because the poet has written the lines to sound like that. Go ask an actor!

  4. Jackie
    June 11, 2013

    This was really helpful. Some of these things I knew about, but had no idea of their proper names and others are new to me. I think this post will help anyone who is unsure of how to read poetry in order to make it flow. You made the mechanics clear & easy to understand, thanks!

  5. conor
    June 12, 2013

    How to Take a Poem Apart

    The Poem Inspector Teaches Poem Inspection

    This is how to take a poem:
    Cut it up in little bits,
    Count the bits and note the numbers,
    Testing if the pattern fits

    All the patterns in the book on
    ‘How to Take a Poem Apart’
    And if it do, that’s nice, ain’t it?
    And if it don’t, well, then … you start

    To think, Why don’t it, stupid poem,
    Fit the flippin’ pattern book?
    Ruddy poets, always moanin’,
    Breakin’ rules, can sling their ‘ook!

    Give me facts and information,
    Plastic, metal – much more fun!
    Clean, precise and regulated:
    Reducible to nought and one.

    Tum ti tum ti tum ti tum ti
    Titti titti titti tum! …
    Tum ti … tum ti … tum ti … tum ti … …
    Why don’t all ti’s sound like some?

    God, I hate these effing pomes,
    Maths without the answers, right?
    Counting pansy tum ti numpties,
    Kick their heads in, all gobshite.

    The poem’s reply to the poem inspector

    Words have weight and speed and texture.
    Every phrase is sacred too.
    If you cut us we will bleed, Sir.
    We are living. How are you?

  6. Martine Frampton
    June 16, 2013

    I was reading quite carefully then this:
    “Here’s a line by Felicia Hemans: read this aloud too, and listen for the stresses:

    I lay on that rock where the storms have their dwelling

    This line uses a three-syllable foot, an amphibrach, so this line is in amphibrachic hexameter (as is the poem).”
    I don’t understand why this is hexameter?
    Interesting stuff, having done A level english lit, including Eliot, I don’t recall learning anything like this.

  7. Kate
    June 16, 2013

    Martine, you are absolutely right and I am innumerate. I’ve changed ‘hexameter’ to ‘tetrameter’ in the post. Phew.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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