Common meter (or common metre, common measure, abbreviated CM) is a specific syllable stress and rhyme pattern in poetry, as well as a subgenre of poetic forms which result from this meter. It can be heard throughout the works of Emily Dickinson and William Wordsworth, Christmas carols, popular Protestant hymns, folk songs, television theme songs like "Gotta catch 'em all!" (the opening music for season one of the Pokémon anime television series), and long narrative poetry like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's lyrical ballad "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."
Common meter is comprise of two-line units in which the first line is iambic tetrameter (four iambs, the rhythm "u — u — u — u —") and the second line is iambic trimeter (three iambs, the rhythm "u — u — u —"). Traditionally each trimeter line will have end rhyme paired with the end rhyme of the following trimeter line, but the tetrameter lines do not necessarily have to rhyme with neighbouring tetrameter lines, except as an elective stylistic choice on the part of the poet or lyricist. For example, the song "Amazing Grace" rhymes every tetrameter line, "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." Another stylistic optional variation is the removal of the first syllable of any given line, reducing it from eight (or six) syllable to seven (or five). We can observe Coleridge applying both these variations in the following two stanzas:
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The very deep did rot – Oh Christ!
That ever this should be.
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs,
Upon the slimy sea.
Coleridge drops the initial weak syllable that would come before "water," and in the second stanza his tetrameter lines do not rhyme, but they do rhyme in the first stanza. The application of these variations, rather than strict adherence to rhyme and syllable count, qualify as "ballad meter," the term used to distinguish the strict from the "casual" or "conversational" application of common meter.
Other variants are the "fourteener," which merges the tetrameter and trimeter lines into a single line of seven feet, two of which together form a couplet of fourteen iambs; the "common particular meter," which has two lines of tetrameter and one of trimeter, for stanzas of six lines; and the "common meter doubled" which simply stacks two stanzas of four lines together as an extended stanza of eight lines, and has no other distinguishing characteristics from common meter.
Common meter has a singsong quality which generally is thought to lend itself poorly to somber topics for poetry in English, compared to more rigid rhythmic patterns of the same odd-numbered feet on every line (such as Shakespeare's adherence to iambic pentameter), but plenty of sorrowful blues and folk tunes rely on this meter for its expressive storytelling quality, favouring its relatability and higher overall "singability" and ready adhesion to one's memory. "The House of the Rising Sun" is one such example, and - with a generous allowance for variant syllable counts - so is "In the Pines / Where Did You Sleep Last Night." Note that in music, two eighth notes upon weak (unstressed) syllables can function as metrically equal to one quarter note on an unstressed syllable, so common meter represented in music can functionally tolerate up to twelve syllables on tetrameter lines and nine syllables on trimeter lines (u u — making one foot, with the unstressed syllables being one beat and the stressed syllable being a second beat of music). This tolerance for extended syllables is not present in common meter poetry which is not set to music, as there is no framework to "hear" where an eighth note doublet should go, instead of a quarter note.
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