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Poetry Guide: Foot

In verse, a foot is the basic unit of meter used to describe rhythm. A foot consists of a certain number of syllables forming part of a line of verse. A foot is described by the character and number of syllables it contains: in English, feet are named for the combination of accented and unaccented syllables; in other languages such as Latin and Greek, the duration of the syllable (long or short) is measured.

When scanning a line of verse, a poet looks at feet as the basic rhythmic unit rather than words. A foot can consist of multiple words and a single word can contain many feet; furthermore, a foot can and often does bridge multiple words, containing, for example, the last two syllables of one word and the first of the next. To scan for feet, one should focus on the stream of sound alone and forget that words exist at all.

The poetic feet

Below are listed the names given to the poetic feet by classical metrics. The feet are classified first by the number of syllables in the foot (disyllables have two, trisyllables three, and tetrasyllables four) and secondarily by the pattern of vowel lengths (in classical languages) or syllable stresses (in English poetry) which they comprise.

The following lists describe the feet in terms of vowel length (as in classical languages). Translated into syllable stresses (as in English poetry), long becomes accented and short becomes unaccented. For example, an iamb, which is short-long in classical meter, becomes unstressed-stressed, as in the English word "betray."