When we speak, we make a lot of different sounds. Every sound that we make is called a syllable. In poems, combinations of syllables are used to create rhythms.
A rhythm is a pattern of sounds and silences. Do you sometimes hear a song and feel like clapping along? Then you’re following the song’s rhythm!
A single line in a poem is called a verse. There are many ways to create rhythms in a verse. One of the most common rhythm patterns is called iambic pentameter. Let’s learn what it means!
Iambic Pentameter Definition
Iambic Pentameter is a line of verse with 5 metrical feet, that consists of one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed) syllable. Unclear? no problem; read along.
What is a Foot in Poetry?
Poems are made of simple beats called feet. A metrical foot is a group of syllables that repeats in a verse. A foot normally has two or three syllables. It may contain multiple words.
A foot with two syllables is named a binary foot. For example, elbow. Binary feet can contain two words, like my dog. Similarly, a ternary foot has three syllables, like elephant.
When we say a word with two syllables, one syllable is usually stronger than the others. Say the word strawberry out loud. Notice how you have to put more effort into saying straw? But berry rolls off your tongue easily! Thus, straw is the stronger syllable.
Strong syllables are called stressed syllables and weak syllables are called unstressed syllables. Binary feet may have any combination of syllables: strong and strong, like ‘apex‘, or strong and weak, like a ‘lantern‘.
A binary foot that follows the pattern of weak and strong syllables is called an iamb, like ‘above‘, ‘attempt‘, ‘in love‘. Iambs follow the beat da-DUM, just like your heartbeat – check for yourself!
What is a Pentameter?
The basic pattern of rhythm in a verse is called its meter. Poetic meter depends on the number and type of metrical feet in the verse. The Greek word Penta means five. Thus a pentameter refers to a verse that contains five metrical feet!
Iambic meter means a meter made of iambs. Now we can define iambic pentameter! Iambic pentameter is a verse in a poem that uses five pairs of iambs to create a rhythm.
Iambic Pentameter Examples
Here are some examples of iambic pentameter.
The famous Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare starts as:
Shall I com-pare thee to a sum–mer’s day?
In John Keats’ poem Ode to Autumn, we have instances like:
To swell the gourd, and plump the ha–zel shells
William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night contains the phrase:
If mu–sic be the food of love, play on
John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost contains over 10,000 lines, written completely in iambic pentameters:
Brought Death in-to the World, and all our woe
John Donne’s Sonnet X also features iambic pentameters like:
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die
Origins of Iambic Pentameter
Iambic Pentameter was originally used by the Greeks! In Greek poetry, the iambs weren’t made up of weak and strong syllables. Instead, they contained short and long syllables.
From Greek, iambic pentameters traveled to Latin, then French and Italian, and finally English. But English doesn’t have short and long syllables as Greek does! That’s why in English, the rhythm is created by stressing the syllables.
Famous poet Geoffrey Chaucer introduced iambic pentameter to English poetry. The Canterbury Tales was written by him in this manner, and many poets later followed Chaucer’s style.
But the person who made iambic pentameters popular was William Shakespeare! Shakespeare used iambic pentameters in his sonnets and plays. After that, iambic pentameter became very common in English poetry. It’s still used in modern times.
Why Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Keats loved Iambic Pentameter?
Famous English writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Keats loved using iambic pentameters in their poems and plays. This is because iambic pentameter is considered the natural rhythm of speech in English.
When we speak to each other normally, we use iambic pentameters without realizing it! It can be easily spoken by actors in plays and understood by the audience. You can find more information about this here:
English poetry in iambic pentameter also sounds very natural and is pleasing to the ears. It is very close to how people speak in real life.
Plus, a pentameter is what a person reciting poetry can normally say in one breath! That’s why iambic pentameters are so common – about 75% of all English poetry since Chaucer is written this way!
Exercise: Spot the Iambic Pentameter
Q. Which one of these is in iambic pentameter?
- I wake up on this earthly bed,
with stars still hanging past my head
- All ready to put up the tents for my circus,
I think I will call it the Circus McGurkus
- When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night
Answer: The third passage.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you check if something is in Iambic Pentameter?
Read the verse out loud and mark where you hear the beats. See if every beat is made up of an iamb. Finally, count the total number of beats. If there are five beats, it’s in iambic pentameter!
Is ‘to be or not to be’ Iambic Pentameter ?
To be, or not to be, that is the ques-tion
While the first part of the quote is iambic, in that is, that is the stronger syllable! Also, an iambic pentameter has five iambs and ten syllables. But this verse has eleven syllables! So it’s not a proper iambic pentameter.
How to write in Iambic Pentameter ?
First write a normal sentence, like:
I took the dog for a walk
Then, add or remove words until you get exactly ten syllables, and underline the binary feet:
I took the dog for a walk in the park
Finally, change or shift words until all the feet become iambs:
I took the dog to walk out-side my home
And there you have it, an iambic pentameter!