Poetry Kaleidoscope: Guide to Poetry

Iambic Pentameter

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Iambic pentameter is a meter in poetry. It refers to a line consisting of five iambic feet. The word "pentameter" simply means that there are five feet in the line; iambic pentameter is a line comprising five iambs. The term originally applied to the quantitative meter of Classical Greek poetry, in which an iamb consisted of a short syllable followed by a long syllable. The term was adopted to describe the equivalent meter in English poetry, where an iamb refers to an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. 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 many of the traditional rhymed stanza forms.

A Simple Example

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

da DUM

A line of iambic pentameter is five of these in a row:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

We can notate this is with a 'x' mark representing an unstressed syllable and a '/' mark representing a stressed syllable (for a more detailed discussion see the article on Systems of Scansion). In this notation a line of iambic pentameter would look like this:

x / x / x / x / x /

The following line from John Keats' ode To Autumn is a straightforward example:

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

We can notate the scansion of this as follows:

x
/
x
/
x
/
x
/
x
/
To swell the gourd, and plump the ha- zel shells

Rhythmic Variation

Although strictly speaking, iambic pentameter refers to five iambs in a row (as above), in practice, poets vary their iambic pentameter a great deal, while maintaining the iamb as the most common foot. There are some conventions to these variations, however. Iambic pentameter must always contain only five feet, and the second foot is almost always an iamb. The first foot, on the other hand, is the most likely to change, often in a trochaic inversion. 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:

To be, or not to be: that is the question.

Here, the rhythm is :

da  DUM | da  DUM | da  DUM || DUM da | da DUM | da

This line also has a trochaic inversion of the fourth foot, following the caesura. In general a caesura acts in many ways like a line-end: inversions are common after it, and the extra unstressed syllable of the feminine ending may appear before it. In his book Milton's Prosody, Robert Bridges observed that Shakespeare and John Milton (in his work before Paradise Lost) at times employed feminine endings before a caesura.

Here is the first quatrain of a sonnet by John Donne, which demonstrates how he uses a number of metrical variations strategically:

Batter my heart three-personed God, for you
as yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend.
That I may rise and stand o'erthrow me and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.

The rhythm is:

DUM da  | da  DUM | da  DUM | da  DUM | da  DUM
da  DUM | da  DUM | DUM DUM | da  DUM | da  DUM
da  DUM | da  DUM | da  DUM | DUM DUM |dada DUM
da  DUM | da  DUM | DUM DUM | da  DUM | da  DUM

Donne uses a trochaic inversion (DUM da instead of da DUM) in the first foot of the first line to stress the key verb, "batter", and then sets up a clear iambic pattern with the rest of the line (da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM). In lines 2 and 4 he uses spondees in the third foot to slow down the rhythm as he lists monosyllabic verbs. The parallel rhythm and grammar of these lines highlights the comparison Donne sets up between what God does to him "as yet" (knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend"), and what he asks God to do ("break, blow, burn and make me new"). Donne also uses enjambment between lines 3 and 4 to speed up the flow as he builds to his desire to be made new. To further the quickening effect of the enjambment, Donne puts an extra syllable in the final foot of the line (this can be read as an anapest (dada DUM) or as an elision).

As the examples show, iambic pentameter need not consist entirely of iambs, nor need it have ten syllables. In fact, syllables are not counted at all in English meter, which differentiates it from meters such as hendecasyllable, which are commonly used in Romance languages. Most poets who have a great facility for iambic pentameter frequently vary the rhythm of their poetry as Donne and Shakespeare do in the examples, both to create a more interesting overall rhythm and to highlight important thematic elements. In fact, the skillful variation of iambic pentameter, rather than the consistent use of it, may well be what distinguishes the rhythmic artistry of poets like Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, and the 20th century sonneteer Edna St. Vincent Millay.

History in English

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

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 Shakespeare's were originally performed with the rhythm prominent, or whether it was embedded in the patterns of normal speech as is common today. In either case, when read aloud, such verse naturally follows a beat.

Sources

Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction
David Baker (editor), Meter in English, A Critical Engagement
Robert Bridges, Milton's Prosody, with a chapter on Accentual Verse and Notes
Edward Bysshe, Rules for Making English Verse
Alfred Corn, The Poem's Heartbeat
Bastiaan Adriaan Pieter van Dam, Chapters on English Printing, Prosody, and Pronunciation
Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, McGraw Hill, 1965, revised 1979. ISBN 0075536064.
Harvey Gross and Robert McDowell, Sound and Form in Modern Poetry
Philip Hobsbaum, Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form
Alan Holder, Rethinking Meter
Tom Hood, A Practical Guide to English Versification
George Saintsbury, Manual of English Prosody
Timothy Steele, All the fun's in how you say a thing
Lewis Turco, The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics
Miller Williams, Patterns of Poetry


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