Versification by Sara Selby

Have you ever wondered what the art of making verses is called? It’s versification — a word you won’t often hear. In this article, Professor Sara Selby clearly describes the principles of prosody, which is the study of versification.


by Sara Selby

Easter Wings by George Herbert 1633

Poem “Easter Wings” by George Herbert, 1633
(Text available here; what rhyming pattern is used in this poem?)

Prosody is the study of the principles of verse structure, including metre, rhyme and other sound effects, and stanzaic patterns.

METER, in English verse, refers to the pattern of stressed (´) and unstressed (x) syllables found in poetic lines.


Iamb: x´ one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable; the most common pattern in English speech and in English poetry; adjectival form is iambic.
Trochee: ´x one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable; adjectival form is trochaic.
Anapest: xx´ two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable; adjectival form is anapestic.
Dactyl: ´xx one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables; adjectival form is dactylic.
Spondee: ´´ two stressed syllables; adjectial form is spondaic.
Pyrrhic: xx two unstressed syllables; adjectival form is pyrrhic.

When a line is divided into metrical units, or feet, the following terms are used to indicate the number of feet in the line:

Monometer:  one foot
Dimeter:  two feet
Trimeter:  three feet
Tetrameter:  four feet
Pentameter:  five feet
Hexameter:  six feet
Heptameter:  seven feet
Octameter:  eight feet

The analysis of metrical patterns of verse is called scansion.

Certain terms are used to describe the rhythm of poetic lines:

Masculine ending:  a line ending with stress
Feminine ending:  a line ending with an extra unstressed syllable
Caesura:  a slight pause within the line
End-stopped line:  a line which concludes with a distinct syntactical pause
Run-on line (enjambment):  a line whose sense is carried over into the next line without syntactical pause.

Rhyme (the repetition of similar or duplicate sounds) is another facet of poetical discourse:

Perfect (exact) rhyme: the most usual rhyme in English verse; also called “true,” “full,” “complete,” or rime suffisante; the final accented vowels of the rhyming words and all succeeding sounds are identical, while the preceding sounds are different, as in true-woo.
Half-rhyme (off-rhyme): also called “near,” “slant,” “oblique,” “approximate,” and “imperfect”; in such cases, often only the final consonant sounds of the words are identical; the stressed vowel sounds as well as the initial consonant sounds, if any, differ, as in  live-save.
Eye-rhyme: the sounds do not in fact rhyme, but the words look as though they would rhyme, as in rough-through.  An eye rhyme which was once a true ear rhyme is called a “historical rhyme.”
Masculine rhyme: the final syllables are stressed and, after their differing initial consonant sounds, are identical in sound.
Feminine rhyme (double rhyme): stressed rhyming syllables are followed by identical unstressed syllables; “triple rhyme” is a kind of feminine rhyme in which identical stressed vowel sounds are followed by two identical unstressed syllables.
End rhyme: also called “terminal rhyme”; the rhyming words occur at the ends of the lines.
Internal rhyme: at least one of the rhyming words occurs within the line.
Alliteration: sometimes defined as the repetition of initial sounds, and sometimes as the prominent repetition of a consonant.
Assonance: the repetition, in words of proximity, of identical vowel sounds preceded and followed by differing consonant sounds.
Consonance: the repetition of identical consonant sounds and differing vowel sounds in words in proximity.

Poems may also be defined by their organizational patterns:

Stanza: a group of lines which form a division of a poem.
Spenserian stanza: a stanza of nine iambic lines rhymed ababbcbcc; the first eight lines are pentameter, but the ninth line has an added foot, making that line an alexandrine (iambic hexameter). The form was created by Edmund Spenser for The Faerie Queene.
Couplet: a pair of rhyming lines of verse, usually having the same meter.
Heroic couplet: a rhyming couplet of iambic pentameter, often “closed,” that is, containing a complete thought, with a fairly heavy pause at the end of the first line and a still heavier one at the end of the second.
Triplet (tercet): a three-line stanza, usually with one rhyme.
Quatrain: a four-line stanza, rhymed or unrhymed.
Heroic (elegiac) quatrain: a quatrain of iambic pentameter, rhyming abab.
Sonnet: a fourteen-line poem, predominantly in iambic pentameter.
Petrarchan sonnet: also called “Italian sonnet”; a poem of fourteen lines divided into two parts, an octave or octet (the first eight lines) rhyming abbaabba and a sestet (remaining six lines) rhyming cdecde. The octave generally establishes a conflict which is resolved in the sestet.
Miltonic sonnet: a form, introduced by John Milton, which retains the octave rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet but does not have any pause or turn of meaning or change of rhyme scheme in the sestet. Thus, the rhyme scheme is abbaabbaabbaabba.
Shakespearean sonnet: also called “English sonnet”; a poem of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter divided into three quatrains and a concluding couplet, generally rhyming either ababcdcdefefgg or abbacddceffegg. The final couplet usually expresses the central theme of the poem.
Spenserian sonnet: a sonnet rhyming ababbcbccdcdee; also called the “link sonnet,” it maintains the Shakespearean sonnet’s final couplet, but it often contains no break between the octave and sestet.
Refrain: a phrase or verse repeated at intervals throughout a poem.
Ballad stanza: a quatrain of alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines rhyming abcb.
Dialogue poem: a poem which is told through the conversation of two speakers.


Sara Selby is currently the campus director of the Waycross campus of South Georgia State College and was a professor of English at Waycross College (GA). She holds a BA and MA in English from the University of Mississippi, where she also completed additional graduate studies in English. She is the Deep South regional representative for the American Chapters of the Brontë Society and publishes a quarterly newsletter for regional members.

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Sara Selby for graciously giving us permission to reproduce this piece, which was originally published on her website.

This resource is reprinted here for educational purposes, with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work.

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