A formal structural division of a poem, consisting of one or more feet arranged as a separate rhythmical entity. The line, as Brooks and Warren point out, is a "unit of attention," but it is not necessarily a unit of sense: in fact, poems are rather rare in which individual lines constitute complete sense units. For this reason, line divisions, unless they happen to coincide with sense pauses (whether indicated by punctuation or not), are often as unrelated to the rhetoric of poetic assertions as foot divisions. Lines are commonly classified according to their length in feet:

monometer                       a line of 1 foot 
dimeter                         2 feet 
trimeter                        3 feet 
tetrameter                      4 feet 
pentameter                      5 feet
hexameter                       6 feet (also "Alexandrine")
heptameter                      7 feet 
octameter                       8 feet

Because the memory can retain a rhythmical pattern of only a limited duration, heptameters and longer lines tend to receive from reader or hearer an unconscious restructuring: the heptameter commonly breaks into a tetrameter and a trimeter (as in ballad meter, q.v.), the octameter into two tetrameters, and so on. Line divisions frequently function like foot divisions in providing a form of counterpoint to the rhetorical and syntactical design in a poem. Although generalization on this point is traditionally hazardous, it may be suggested that short lines (trimeter and shorter) tend to imply levity of tone, and that the pentameter line (or a line of similar duration, measured by whatever system of scansion) has proved the most flexible in English.


Divided prosodically into two general types depending upon the position of the final stress in relation to the other syllables near the end of the iambic or anapestic line. A masculine ending (generally productive of an effect of some force or weight) has the stress on the final syllable of the line:

Upon the moon I fixed my eye
(Wordsworth, "Strange Fits of Passion")

A feminine ending has the last stress on the penultimate (or even the ante penultimate) syllable and most often requires terminal extra metrical syllables:

          Whatever ails me, now a-late especially,
               I can as well be hanged as refrain seeing her
                    (Middleton, "The Changeling" [2.1])

Feminine ending is very common in the blank verse of the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, where it is frequently used to give the verse a suggestion of colloquial informality, lightness, or irregularity. The term weak ending is sometimes used to describe masculine ending with a secondary (instead of primary) degree of stress. Marianne Moore's "In Distrust of Merits" is full of weak endings.

On the "line" versus the "sentence" as the formal basis of poetic language:

Modern and especially contemporary American avant-garde poetry, especially that following the modernism of William Carlos Williams, has generally repudiated the sentence as a basis of poetic language, preferring the line as its central formal feature. No one has stated this preference more adamantly than Robert Creeley, who poetic form descends directly from that of Williams.

  • See an overview of meter.

    A note on the source.


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    Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:27:17 EDT