Definition of Trimeter

Trimeter is a poetic meter comprised of three metrical feet per line. A foot is a beat made up of stressed and unstressed syllables; poetic lines written in meter contain a repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables throughout the poem. While trimeter is slightly rarer than pentameter (a metrical line of poetry comprised of five feet), there are countless examples of trimeter throughout the history of poetry. We will look at some of these different examples below.

The word trimeter comes from the Greek suffix tri- for “three” and the word metron, which means “measure.” The definition of trimeter thus comes from this measuring of lines into three parts.

Forms of Trimeter

  • Iambic Trimeter: A line with three iambs, resulting in a total of six syllables. An iamb is a metrical foot with an unstressed syllable followed a stressed syllable. This meter was common in Greek tragedy and comedy, and was the meter in which most verses were spoken.
  • Trochaic Trimeter: This line would be made up of three trochees, also resulting in six syllables. A trochee has the opposite pattern of an iamb, and is comprised of stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.
  • Anapestic Trimeter: In this meter, there are three metrical anapestic feet, each of three syllables, giving each line nine total syllables. An anapest is a metrical foot with two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.

Poetic Forms with Trimeter:

  • Ballad Meter: Ballad stanzas are quatrains that alternate between iambic tetrameter (i.e., a line with four iambs, resulting in eight syllables) and iambic trimeter. The rhyme scheme of the ballad meter is generally ABCB.
  • Limerick: A limerick is made up of five lines; in most limericks there are three lines (the first, second, and fifth) which are written in trimeter, which is to say they have three beats. Most of these lines are made up of anapests and iambs. The other two lines (i.e., the third and fourth) usually have two metrical feet, which is known as dimeter.

Common Examples of Trimeter

There are many advertising slogans which are lines with three beats, and thus trimeter examples. We have broken the following advertising slogans into the different meters in which they are written:

Iambic Trimeter:

  • “The best a man can get.”—Gillette
  • “Be all that you can be.”—United States Army
  • “A diamond is forever.”—DeBeers
  • “Have you Met Life today?” —Metropolitan Life
  • “Improving home improvement.”—Lowe’s
  • “It’s finger lickin’ good.”—KFC
  • “The snack that smiles back.”—Goldfish

Trochaic Trimeter:

  • “Taking Care of Business.”—Office Depot
  • “Put a tiger in your tank.”—Esso/Exxon
  • “Always Coca-Cola.”—Coca-Cola
  • “Gather ‘round the good stuff.”—Pizza Hut
  • “Better sound through research.”—Bose

Anapestic Trimeter:

  • “So easy a caveman can do it.”—GEICO (The first foot is an iamb)

Significance of Trimeter in Literature

Trimeter is one of the more common lengths in meter. Indeed, it was extremely important in ancient Greek and Latin poetry. As stated above, iambic trimeter was the meter generally used in Greek tragedy and comedy in places where a single character was speaking (as opposed to choral passages). The function of all metrical forms in poetry is to structure the work so as to differentiate it from normal speech patterns and set it apart as something aesthetic. Though we have shown above that there are countless examples of trimeter in ordinary things like advertising slogans, the repetition of this meter over and over throughout a poem (or the combination with this type of meter with a different type of meter) elevates the language and gives it higher functions.

Examples of Trimeter in Literature

Example #1

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’

(“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a great example of the ballad meter, where in most stanzas the first and third lines are written in iambic tetrameter and the second and fourth are written in iambic trimeter. Coleridge also uses the telltale rhyme scheme of ballad meter of ABCB; we see the rhyme in these first two stanzas between “three” and “me,” and “kin” and “din,” respectively.

Example #2

There was an old man in a tree,
Whose whiskers were lovely to see;
But the birds of the air,
Pluck’d them perfectly bare,
To make themselves nests on that tree.

(Limerick by Edward Lear)

Edward Lear was famous for his limericks, and we can see in the above poem that the first, second, and fifth lines are examples of trimeter. Lear composes these trimeter lines with one iamb followed by two anapests. The third and fourth lines are comprised of two anapests each.

Example #3

Sorrow like a ceaseless rain
Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain,—
Dawn will find them still again;
This has neither wax nor wane,
Neither stop nor start.

People dress and go to town;
I sit in my chair.
All my thoughts are slow and brown:
Standing up or sitting down
Little matters, or what gown
Or what shoes I wear.

(“Sorrow” by Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote this poem with a strict trochaic pattern, where every line begins with a stressed syllable. In the two stanzas of the poem the first, third, fourth, and fifth lines are all written in trochaic tetrameter. The second and sixth lines of both stanzas are trimeter examples.

Example #4

I love the jocund dance,
The softly breathing song,
Where innocent eyes do glance,
And where lisps the maiden’s tongue.

I love the laughing gale,
I love the echoing hill,
Where mirth does never fail,
And the jolly swain laughs his fill.

(“Song: I Love the Jocund Dance” by William Blake)

William Blake’s expressive poem “Song: I Love the Jocund Dance” is an excellent example of trimeter. However, Blake is not too strict with the repetition of metrical feet. In the first stanza, we can see two lines of iambic trimeter followed by two lines with mixed feet (“where innocent eyes do glance” is broken into an iamb, an anapest, and an iamb again, while “And where lisps the maiden’s tongue” begins with an anapest and ends with two iambs). Blake’s freedom with the syllables fits the sense of dancing well.

Example #5

If you were coming in the fall,
I ’d brush the summer by
With half a smile and half a spurn,
As housewives do a fly.

If I could see you in a year,
I’d wind the months in balls,
And put them each in separate drawers,
Until their time befalls.

(“If you were coming in the fall” by Emily Dickinson)

Emily Dickinson’s poem “If you were coming in the fall” is another example of ballad meter, which is also sometimes called common meter. Each stanza is a quatrain in which there is an alternation between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.

Example #6

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

(“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke)

Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz” is a more contemporary example trimeter than the other works of literature. Roethke’s choice of meter fits well with the imagery of an intoxicated father waltzing his small boy around the room. Roethke also is a bit loose with the meter, choosing iambic trimeter, but often ending lines with a “weak” syllable (i.e., one that does not throw off the meter because it is not stressed).

Test Your Knowledge of Trimeter

1. Which of the following statements is the correct trimeter definition?
A. A line with three iambs, resulting in six syllables.
B. A form of meter with three metrical feet.
C. A stanza with three lines in it.

Answer to Question #1 Show

3. Which of the following stanzas is written in trimeter?

The Only News I know
Is bulletins all day
From Immortality.

(“The Only News I Know” by Emily Dickinson)

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

(“The Waking” by Theodore Roethke)

Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face
Terror the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy, the Human Dress

(“A Divine Image” by William Blake)

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following advertising slogans is written in iambic trimeter?
A. “Come home to NBC.”—NBC
B. “Where a kid can be a kid.”—Chuck E. Cheese’s
C. “You deserve a break today.”—McDonald’s

Answer to Question #3 Show

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