Definition of Foot

The literary device “foot” is a measuring unit in poetry, which is made up of stressed and unstressed syllables. The stressed syllable is generally indicated by a vertical line ( | ), whereas the unstressed syllable is represented by a cross ( X ). The combination of feet creates meter in poetry. Later, these meters are joined for the composition of a complete poem. Therefore, a foot is the formative unit of the meter.

In poetry, there are various types of foot, each of which sounds differently. Some of the basic types of foot are given below:

  • Iamb: Combination of unstressed and stressed syllable – (daDUM)
  • Trochee: Combination of stressed and unstressed syllables – (DUMda)
  • Spondee: Combination of two stressed syllables – (DUMDUM)
  • Anapest: Combination of two unstressed and a stressed syllable – (dadaDUM)
  • Dactyl: Combination of stressed and two unstressed syllables – (DUMdada)
  • Amphibrach: Combination of unstressed, stressed and unstressed syllable – (daDUMda)
  • Pyrrhic: Combination of two unstressed syllables – (dada)

There are two types of meter, which are known as rising meter and falling meter. Each type of meter uses a different type of foot. As the rising meters go from unstressed syllables to stressed ones, they mainly use iamb and anapest feet. On the contrary, the falling meters go from stressed syllables to unstressed ones, and mostly use trochee and dactyl feet.

Examples of Foot in Literature

Example #1: Twelfth Night (By William Shakespeare)

“If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall;
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound.”

This stanza is taken from William Shakespeare’s well known play, Twelfth Night. It has been composed in iambic pentameter. To make it easy to understand the unstressed and stressed combination of syllables, the stressed syllables are given in bold font.

Example #2: King Lear (By William Shakespeare)

“And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there …!”

This is yet another extract from Shakespeare’s another great play, King Lear. It is an appropriate example of trochaic pentameter. This has the combination of a stressed and unstressed syllable pattern – a pattern opposite to iambic.

Example #3: The Destruction of Sennacherib (By Lord Byron)

“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown, …
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast
And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew still!”

This is a selection from Lord Byron’s poem, The Destruction of Sennacherib. It is one of the best examples of anapestic pattern of foot. In particular, it follows a tetrameter pattern, which consists of four anapests in a line. In this selection, anapests have been made bold. This entire poem follows the similar pattern. In each foot, two syllables are unstressed, while the third syllable is stressed.

Example #4: The Charge of the Light Brigade (By Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”

These lines have been taken from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s well known poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade. It is an excellent example of the of use dactyl pentameter. The dactyl follows a pattern of stressed, unstressed, and again unstressed syllables. As it is an elegiac poem, it uses dactyl pentameter, which suits elegies. The meter in this verse functions like a building block and provides a regular rhythm.

Function of Foot

The function of foot is to provide the basic structure for the meter in a verse. As it is based on the combination of either two or three syllables, this combination creates musical rhythm. Therefore, it is the use of feet that brings rhythm to poetry – the reason that poetry is differentiated from prose. Without the repetition of a particular foot in a verse, poetry would be no different from prose, as the important elements of rhythm and musical quality will be missing in the absence of feet.

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