Iambic pentameter

Iambic pentameter

Iambic pentameter is a type of meter that is used in poetry and drama. It describes a particular rhythm that the words establish in each line. That rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables; these small groups of syllables are called 'feet'. The word 'iambic' describes the type of foot that is used. The word 'pentameter' indicates that a line has "five" of these 'feet'.

Different languages express rhythm in different ways. In Ancient Greek and Latin, the rhythm is created through the alternation of short and long syllables. In English, the rhythm is created through the use of stress, alternating between unstressed and stressed syllables. An English unstressed syllable is equivalent to a classical short syllable, while an English stressed syllable is equivalent to a classical long syllable.

If a pair of syllables are arranged in a short followed by a long, or an unstressed followed by a stressed, pattern, that foot is said to be 'iambic'. The English word 'trapeze' is an example of an iambic pair of syllables, since the word is made up of two syllables ("tra—peze") and is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable ("tra—PEZE", rather than "TRA—peze").

'Iambic pentameter', then, is a line made up of five pairs of short/long, or unstressed/stressed, syllables. If the short/long or unstressed/stressed pattern were to be reversed, producing a line of five pairs of long/short, or stressed/unstressed pairs, that line would be described as an example of trochaic pentameter. A trochee (DUM—de) is the opposite of an iamb (de—DUM).

These terms originally applied to the quantitative meter of classical Greek poetry. They were adopted to describe the equivalent meters in English accentual-syllabic verse. Iambic rhythms come relatively naturally in English. Iambic pentameter is among the most common metrical forms in English poetry; it is used in many of the major English poetic forms, including blank verse, the heroic couplet, and some of the traditional rhymed stanza forms.

imple example

An iambic foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. We could write the rhythm like this:

The following line from John Keats' "Ode to Autumn" is a straightforward example: [This line (line 7 of 'To Autumn') is used by Timothy Steele as an example of an unvaried line of iambic pentameter, see page 5 of "All the fun's in how you say a thing," Ohio University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8214-1260-4.] :To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

We can notate the scansion of this as follows:

Another common departure from standard iambic pentameter is the addition of a final unstressed syllable, which creates a "weak" or "feminine ending". One of Shakespeare's most famous lines of iambic pentameter has a weak ending: [This line is used as an example by Majorie Boulton in "The Anatomy of Poetry" (revised edition), Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953, revised 1982. ISBN 0-7100-9087-0, page 28, although she marks the third foot as carrying no stress.]

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History in English

William Shakespeare, like many of his contemporaries, wrote poetry and drama in iambic pentameter. Here is an example from his Sonnet 18:

: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?: Thou art more lovely and more temperate:: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.: And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

There is some debate over whether works such as those of Shakespeare were originally performed with the rhythm prominent, or whether the rhythm was embedded in the patterns of contemporary speech. In either case, when read aloud, such verse naturally follows a beat.

The rhythm of iambic pentameter was emphasised in Kenneth Branagh's 2000 production of "Love's Labours Lost", in a scene where the protagonists tap-dance to the "Have at you now, affection's men-at-arms" speech. In this case, each iamb is underscored with a flap step.

John Clare is another example of a writer who uses the iambic pentameter; his poem "Badger" is consistent with it throughout:

: The badger grunting on his woodland track: With shaggy hide and sharp nose scrowed with black


Some scholars deny that this verse, at least in its most common and literal definition, applies to Elizabethan poets; these include, in addition to Robert Bridges (mentioned above), Leonardo Malcovati and Bryan Beard.

ee also

*Systems of scansion



*Derek Attridge, ""
*David Baker (editor), "Meter in English, A Critical Engagement"
*Robert Bridges, "Milton's Prosody, with a chapter on Accentual Verse and Notes"
*Alfred Corn, "The Poem's Heartbeat"
*Paul Fussell, "Poetic Meter and Poetic Form," McGraw Hill, 1965, revised 1979. ISBN 0-07-553606-4.
*Harvey Gross and Robert McDowell, "Sound and Form in Modern Poetry"
*Philip Hobsbaum, "Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form"
*Leonardo Malcovati, "Prosody in England and Elsewhere"
*Timothy Steele, "All the fun's in how you say a thing"
*Lewis Turco, ""
*Miller Williams, "Patterns of Poetry"

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • iambic pentameter — noun A verse form comprising lines each of five feet, each foot containing two syllables, used in blank or heroic verse in English • • • Main Entry: ↑iambus iambic pentameter see under ↑iambus • • • Main Entry: ↑pentameter * * * iambic pentameter …   Useful english dictionary

  • iambic pentameter — UK / US noun [countable/uncountable] Word forms iambic pentameter : singular iambic pentameter plural iambic pentameters literature a common pattern used in English poetry, in which each line contains five iambs …   English dictionary

  • iambic pentameter — noun A poetic meter consisting of a line with five feet in each of which the iamb is dominant …   Wiktionary

  • iambic pentameter — i.ambic pen tameter n [U and C] a common pattern of beats in English poetry, in which each line consists of five iambs …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • iambic pentameter — i,ambic pen tameter noun count or uncount a common pattern used in English poetry, in which each line contains five IAMBS …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • iambic pentameter — noun (C, U) a common pattern of beats in English poetry, in which each line consists of five iambs …   Longman dictionary of contemporary English

  • Iambic tetrameter — is a meter in poetry. It refers to a line consisting of four iambic feet. The word tetrameter simply means that there are four feet in the line; iambic tetrameter is a line comprising four iambs. The Green Lantern oath (as well as the oaths for… …   Wikipedia

  • pentameter — [pen tam′ət ər] n. [L < Gr pentametros: see PENTA & METER1] 1. a line of verse containing five metrical feet or measures; esp., English iambic pentameter (Ex.: “Hĕ jésts | ăt scárs | whŏ név | ĕr félt | ă woúnd”) 2. verse consisting of… …   English World dictionary

  • pentameter — pentametrist, n. /pen tam i teuhr/, Pros. n. 1. a line of verse consisting of five metrical feet. 2. Also called elegiac pentameter. Class. Pros. a verse consisting of two dactyls, one long syllable, two more dactyls, and another long syllable. 3 …   Universalium

  • Pentameter — In poetry, a pentameter is a line of verse consisting of five metrical feet. Iambic pentameter is one of the most commonly used meters in English, used extensively by many poets, including William Shakespeare, John Milton, and William Wordsworth …   Wikipedia

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