What is the meter in John Milton's "On Time"? 

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Michael Ugulini | (Level 3) Educator

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The meter in the poem "On Time" by English poet John Milton is primarily iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter in poetry is when a line has five sets of stressed and unstressed syllables. So, in the poem “On Time” an iambic pentameter line occurs right at the beginning:

Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,

Here is the line broken down so as to analyze the meter:

Fly en/vious Time,/ till thou/ run out/ thy race,

The bold and underlined parts are the stressed syllables. Therefore, in this line there are five unstressed syllables and five stressed syllables for a grand total of ten syllables. Each division (/) is an iamb. Therefore, there are five iambs in this line; each iamb consists of an unstressed and a stressed syllable.

However, Milton did allow for some variation of this meter in the poem. In other words, he breaks up the strict meter and its controlled march with lines that deviate from this structure. He has some shorter lines in the poem that are not iambic pentameter.

The reason for this is that sometimes adhering religiously to a pre-defined meter can have a hypnotic effect on a reader. Sometimes a reader becomes attuned to the regular meter of the poem and its sustained beat and doesn’t pay attention as closely to the words and what they mean.

Think of a song that you enjoy because of a catchy beat. You may hear it on the car radio and hum along because of the musicality of the beats and the rhythm of the song. You may hum the words while driving, while enjoying the music, and not really be thinking of the words. This is what can happen when it comes to strict meter poetry. Therefore, poets utilize variation to break up this hypnotic effect. They want readers to pay attention to the words of the poem and what they are saying, while enjoying the musicality of the poem also.

The best poets who write in meter use variation judiciously though. They do not employ so much variation that a poem loses the structure that it was built on in the first place. You can see in the poem “On Time” that the majority of the poem is iambic pentameter, with some variation put in for good measure.

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