Common metre

Common metre

Common metre or Common measure,[1] abbreviated C. M., is a poetic meter consisting of four lines which alternate between iambic tetrameter (four metrical feet per line, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) and iambic trimeter (three metrical feet per line, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable), rhyming in the pattern a-b-a-b. The metre is denoted by the syllable count of each line, i.e. or 86.86, depending on style, or by its shorthand abbreviation "CM". It has historically been used for ballads such as Tam Lin, and hymns such as Amazing Grace and the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. It has also been used for Advance Australia Fair, the national anthem of Australia.



A variant of the common metre is the ballad metre, which was used in ballads. Like common metre, it has stanzas of four iambic lines. The difference is that ballad metre is "less regular and more conversational"[2] than common metre, and does not necessarily rhyme both sets of lines. Only the second and fourth lines must rhyme in ballad metre, in the pattern x-a-x-a.

Another closely related form is the fourteener, consisting of iambic heptameter couplets: instead of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, rhyming a-b-a-b or x-a-x-a, a fourteener joins the tetrameter and trimeter lines, converting four-line stanzas into couplets of seven iambic feet, rhyming a-a.[3]

The first and third lines in common metre typically have four stresses (tetrameter), and the second and fourth have three stresses (trimeter).[4] Ballad metre sometimes follows this stress pattern less strictly than common metre.[2] The fourteener also gives the poet somewhat greater flexibility, in that its long lines invite the use of variably placed caesuras and spondees to achieve metrical variety, in place of a fixed pattern iambs and line breaks.

Another common adaptation of the Common Metre is the Common Metre Double, which as it sounds, is the Common Meter repeated twice in each stanza, or Traditionally the rhyming scheme should also be double the common meter and be a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d, but it often uses the ballad metre style, resulting in x-a-x-a-x-b-x-b. Examples of this variant are Christmas hymn It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, and America the Beautiful.


Common metre is often used in hymns, like this one by John Newton. (see Meter (hymn))

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
— from John Newton's "Amazing Grace"

William Wordsworth's "Lucy Poems" are also in common metre.

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
— from William Wordsworth's "A slumber did my spirit seal"

Many of the poems of Emily Dickinson use ballad metre.

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.
— from Emily Dickinson's poem #712

A modern example of ballad metre is the theme song to Gilligan's Island, making it possible to sing any other ballad to that tune. (Note that the first two lines actually contain anapaests in place of iambs; this is an example of how ballad metre is metrically less strict than common metre).

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
a tale of a fateful trip.
That started from this tropic port,
aboard this tiny ship.

Another modern example would be "House Of The Rising Sun" by The Animals.

There is a house in New Orleans,
They call the rising sun.
And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy,
And God, I know I'm one.

"Gascoigns Good Night", by the English Renaissance poet George Gascoigne, employs fourteeners.

The stretching arms, the yawning breath, which I to bedward use,
Are patterns of the pangs of death, when life will me refuse:
And of my bed each sundry part in shadows doth resemble,
The sundry shapes of death, whose dart shall make my flesh to tremble.
— from George Gascoigne's "Gascoigns Good Night"

"America the Beautiful" by Katherine Lee Bates employs the Common Meter Double, using a standard CM rhyme scheme for the first iteration, and a Ballad Metre scheme for the second.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

See also


  1. ^ Blackstone, Bernard., "Practical English Prosody: A Handbook for Students", London: Longmans, 1965. 97-8
  2. ^ a b "common metre". Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2008-07-30. 
  3. ^ Kinzie, Mary. A Poet's Guide to Poetry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. 121-2, 414-5
  4. ^ Horton, Ronald A. (1995). British Literature for Christian Schools. Bob Jones U. pp. 100–1, 718. 

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