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Iambic Pentameter

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English Literature

The iambic pentameter is the bread and butter for anyone who is interested in poetry, whether it is reading poetry or composing your own. It is the most frequently used meter in poetry. But wait, wait, wait, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let's double back...

Meaning of Iambic Pentameter

To begin understanding what iambic pentameter is, we need to explore what a 'meter' in poetry means. And to do that, we first need to learn about the foot which makes up a meter. This has all of us scratching our heads too, so let's simplify things a little.

If you need to measure the distance from point A to point B, there are numerous units available. If the distance is not too big, we would probably use centimetres. So let's say that delicious burger is ten centimetres away from you. If the distance was slightly larger, we would use metres. Easy peasy. Poetry works pretty much the same way: we measure lines of poetry through feet. In essence, syllables make up the foot/feet, which, in turn, make up the lines of poetry. So, let's move on from the pleasures of juicy burgers to find out about these components in more detail.

A foot is the most basic unit of a line of poetry, and it is usually composed of two (or occasionally three) syllables.

Poetry was and continues to be a pleasure to read out loud and listen to, and this is achieved by the lilts, cadences, rhythms and rhymes contained in a poem. There is something already pre-programmed in us that takes great pleasure in music and melodies, and poetry carries the potential to be both musical and melodious. Not everything we write or say will sound like poetry, though. For example: 'What is the time?' hardly sounds like a line from a poem. There is a reason for this: melody. Certain words, when put together, are more melodious than others. This is to do with the stress we put on certain syllables that provides the poem's rhythm or 'meter'.

Iambic pentameter is a specific meter that a line of poetry can have, and its name gives us clues as to how we can identify it in a poem:

  • The iamb is a foot that contains an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, for example, 'destroy' or 'recount'.
  • The meter indicates how many times the foot is repeated. 'Penta' means 'five,' so the pentameter means that the foot is repeated five times.

Now, if we put all of these concepts together, we get the iambic pentameter.

The iambic pentameter is when the iambic foot (unstressed syllable + stressed syllable) is repeated five (penta) times in a line of poetry.

'If Win | ter comes, | can Spring | be far | behind?'

In the example above from P. B. Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind', the stressed syllables are marked in bold, while the syllables in regular font are unstressed. If you count them, there are a total of ten syllables. An iambic pentameter always consists of precisely ten syllables. A missing syllable would make the line catalectic, which is a fancy term for an incomplete metric line. The catalectic feature is often used to create an effect in poems, which we will examine later.

A horizontal line ( | ) is often used to separate feet when annotating poetry.

Iambic Pentameter: Effect

The iambic pentameter is the most frequently used meter in poetry for a reason. The downward-to-upward lilting of sound creates a pleasing melody. The desire to hear and speak in the iamb is ingrained in the human brain. Read the following two lines out loud:

Line 1: He rang the bell and said bye.

Line 2: The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.

Which line sounds more poetic to you? Line 2 seems to have more thought, more technicalities, more precise word choices factoring into it, thereby making it sound more poetic. One aspect of those technicalities is its meter, and in this case, the iambic pentameter:

'The cur | few tolls | the knell | of part | ing day'.

It is the pleasure of the rising rhythm of the iamb that makes the iambic pentameter the most widely used meter in poetry.

Because of its wide and frequent use, the iambic pentameter has earned the title of the Heroic Line.

Numerous qualities can be ascribed to a poem because of the iambic pentameter. It is a universally loved meter because it can make a line sound contemplative, narrative, musical, conversational, formal, comical, accented, or a combination of any of these qualities.

As the meter of a poem is indicative of the tone of the poem, any disruptions or inconsistencies in the meter are deliberate and used to emphasise something. Let's take a look at one of the most famous lines in English literature from Shakespeare's Hamlet (1609):

'To be, | or not | to be, | that is | the ques | tion'.

Here, we have an example of a weak ending. While the rest of Hamlet's soliloquy may be dominated by the iambic pentameter, this line is a disruption from the standard because of the extra unstressed ('weak') syllable at the end.

Due to its weak ending, the questioning tone of the content is reflected in the structure of the line itself, as the disruption of the line's meter mirrors the disturbance of Hamlet's state of mind upon encountering the ghost and contemplating his difficult situation. This is a clear example of how iambic pentameter, or a shift away from iambic pentameter, can express or add layers of meaning to the poem.

Examples of Iambic Pentameter

Here are some examples of iambic pentameter. I have marked the first one with the stressed and unstressed syllable, and you can do so for the rest:

  1. 'Shall I | compare | thee to | a sum | mer's day?' (Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 18').
  2. 'One truth is clear, "Whatever is, is right"' (Alexander Pope, 'An Essay on Man', Epistle 1).
  3. 'And praised his wife for every meal she made' (Simon Armitage, 'Poem').
  4. 'He's worn out. He's asleep beside the stove' (Robert Frost, 'The Death of the Hired Man').
  5. 'My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains' (John Keats, 'Ode to a Nightingale').

After trying it out, you can find the answers to 2-5 in the flashcards.

Iambic Pentameter: Sonnet

Sonnets are almost always written in the iambic pentameter. The sonnet is a type of poem that has a long and rich history. The sonnet form (first popularised by Francesco Petrarca and then, thanks to the Renaissance, adopted by Shakespeare) is a popular type of poem containing 14 lines. The most important feature of the sonnet is the volta or the turn.

The volta marks the shift in the tone, idea, concept, or feeling in the previous eight lines of the poem. The volta usually occurs in the ninth line of a sonnet.

The simplicity of the sonnet held great appeal for poets, especially when they wished to lay great emphasis on everyday thoughts and feelings. Since the volta is the expression of contradiction, change, transformation, transition, or doubt, the iambic pentameter serves a dual purpose here. Firstly, because the meter is so commonly used, and its melody is intuitively ingrained in us all, it makes the sonnet a smooth read. If you read a sonnet out loud, you will find it is pleasurable to listen to because of the rising meter of the iamb. Furthermore, because the meter remains unchanged in the volta, the change in idea, expression or any kind of transformation is subtly introduced and is not jarring to the reader.

The dramatic change, therefore, may be observed only in content and not form. However, if the meter does change, this change can certainly be made more dramatic. As a result, the iambic pentameter separates the sonnet from the more dramatic rhythms and meters, such as the spondee (two stressed syllables) or the pyrrhic (two unstressed syllables) foot, thereby making the sonnet appear simpler in its expression.

How to write in Iambic Pentameter

Here are some tips you can follow for writing in the iambic pentameter:

  1. Remember that you are practising a form of poetry - focus on the rhythm of the unstressed-stressed syllable. Don't concentrate too much on rhyming or using flowery language. That can come later when the iambic pentameter has become second nature to you.
  2. You can use lines that are conversational or informal to practice the iambic pentameter.
  3. Think of starting with a word or words whose first syllable is naturally unstressed in everyday speech.
  4. First, practice writing in the kind of English you are familiar with rather than using 'archaic' English.

Trying to write poetry can be scary, and you might feel the fear of embarrassment. To quell that fear, I have attempted to write a few lines in the iambic pentameter. You will notice that these are hardly the same quality as William Shakespeare's or John Keats' works.

I wish | to blow | a pipe | like the | piper

This meet | ing is | a re | al drag | today

I did | a stu | pid thing | I now | regret

The mo | ther land | beckons | and off | I go

The leaves | did twirl | down to | their ground | ed death

Once you master the iambic pentameter and it begins to come naturally to you, feel free to experiment with couplets, rhyming couplets, and adding punctuation to them. Remember, practice makes perfect!

Iambic Pentameter - Key takeaways

  • The iambic pentameter contains the iambic foot, which is repeated five times.
  • The iambic foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
  • The iambic pentameter is the most commonly used meter in poetry because of its versatility in conveying numerous tones, moods and emotions.
  • Most sonnets are written in the iambic pentameter because of its versatility.
  • The iambic pentameter is also known as the 'heroic line'.
  • You can practice and perfect the art of writing in the iambic pentameter.

Iambic Pentameter

The iambic pentameter is a 'metric foot' – a unit to measure the rhythm of a poem.

While there are no shortcuts, and practice makes perfect, you can follow some tips to perfect your iambic pentameter. Start out with simpler language and do not focus on rhyme. Write a few lines of iambic till you feel it starts coming to you naturally. Then you can gradually add high diction and figures of speech to your lines.

An example of the iambic pentameter is:

'If Win | ter comes, | can Spring | be far | behind?'

('Ode to the West Wind' by P. B. Shelley)

Yes, the iambic pentameter is always 10 syllables without exception. When a syllable is missing, it is called a catalectic line.

The iambic pentameter creates a pleasing melody and adds a steady rhythm to the poem.

Final Iambic Pentameter Quiz

Question

How many syllables does the iambic pentameter contain?

Show answer

Answer

10

Show question

Question

Which is the most frequently used meter in English poetry?

Show answer

Answer

Iambic pentameter

Show question

Question

Iambic pentameter begins with...

Show answer

Answer

An unstressed syllable

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT true of the iambic pentameter?

Show answer

Answer

It must be an end-stopped line

Show question

Question

Which of the following word is NOT an example of the iambic foot?

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Answer

Impossible

Show question

Question

In a line of the iambic pentameter, the iambic foot is repeated how many times?

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Answer

5

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT an effect of the iambic pentameter?

Show answer

Answer

It evokes fear

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT a line in iambic pentameter?

Show answer

Answer

Tyger Tyger! Burning Bright!

Show question

Question

Which type of poem typically features the iambic pentameter?

Show answer

Answer

A sonnet

Show question

Question

The other name for the iambic pentameter is...

Show answer

Answer

Heroic line

Show question

Question

Mark the stressed and unstressed syllables in the following line:
'One truth is clear, "Whatever is, is right"'
(Alexander Pope, 'An Essay on Man', Epistle 1)

Show answer

Answer

One truth | is clear, | "whatev | er is | is right"

Show question

Question

Mark the stressed and unstressed syllables in the following line:

'And praised his wife for every meal she made' 

(Simon Armitage, 'Poem').

Show answer

Answer

And praised | his wife | for eve | ry meal | she made

Show question

Question

Mark the stressed and unstressed syllables in the following line:

'He's worn out. He's asleep beside the stove' 

(Robert Frost, 'The Death of the Hired Man').

Show answer

Answer

He's worn | out. He's | asleep | beside | the stove

Show question

Question

Mark the stressed and unstressed syllables in the following line:

'My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains' 

(John Keats, 'Ode to a Nightingale').

Show answer

Answer

My heart / aches, and / a drow / sy numb / ness pains

Show question

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