Iambic Pentameter: Definition and Examples (2024)

You’ve probably heard of William Shakespeare, that olde English fellow, the famed poet often referred to as thefather of our modern language. While reading Shakespeare can sometimes feel awkward because of the elaborate vocabulary, there is something undeniably rhythmic about the writing. That rhythm is called iambic pentameter, and it’s a classic pattern inpoetry that is still used today.

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What is iambic pentameter?

Iambic pentameter (pronounced eye-AM-bik pen-TAM-i-ter) is a rhythmic pattern that consists of ten syllables per line, with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. The pattern that emerges sounds like this: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM.

One of the most famous examples of iambic pentameter is the opening passage of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Sometimes the rhythm isn’t quite so obvious. For example, John Updike’s novel S. uses iambic pentameter to give the prose a more subtle musicality. Look at these lines from the story:

“The man who broke into the lab, the dog / That trotted in obediently after”

Updike probably doesn’t expect his reader to theatrically stress every other syllable (The MAN who BROKE inTO the LAB, the DOG), but even the subtle patterning gives the language some form.

However you use it, iambic pentameter should give your writing a cadence that establishes a sense of order and flow.

How to write iambic pentameter

In poetry terms, each line of iambic pentameter contains five metrical feet, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. But what do all of these wordsiambic, pentameter, feet, metermean?

Iambic: Iambs are units in poetry consisting of two syllables, with the first syllable unstressed and the second syllable stressed. Each da-DUM in iambic pentameter is a single iamb.

Pentameter: Pentameter is a type of verse consisting of five metrical feet per line. Notice the root pent in pentameter, referring to the Greek word pente, or “five.”

Feet: A foot is a unit of meter in poetry that determines which syllables in a row are stressed. In English poetry, the most common feet are the iamb (da-DUM), the trochee (DA-dum), the anapest (da-da-DUM), and the dactyl (DA-dum-dum).

Meter: Meter refers to the overall rhythmic structure of a poem, created by the number of syllables in a line and the arrangement that they’re stressed in.

If you’re interested in learning more about the fundamentals of poetry, check outthis blog post!

Why did Shakespeare use iambic pentameter?

Iambic pentameter was first used in ancient Greek poetry, but it gained popularity in English poetry in the sixteenth century, thanks, in large part, to Shakespeare. Shakespeare used this meter because the rhythm of five beats per line closely mimicked spoken English at the time. Furthermore, it provided just enough structure to challenge him creatively.

The meter became synonymous with a high style of poetry throughout the Renaissance, and its versatility allowed it to be carried through the centuries that followed. Although it has been adapted and modified in various ways over time, the fundamental structure of iambic pentameter remains unchanged, and it continues to be one of the most beloved forms of poetry.

Why use iambic pentameter?

Writers today use iambic pentameter for a variety of reasons. Among them:

Tradition: Iambic pentameter has a long and storied history in English poetry, and many writers choose to use it as a nod to that tradition.

Rhythm: The regular beat of iambic pentameter can create a pleasing rhythm in the reader’s ear and make the text more musical and memorable.

Emphasis: The stress pattern of iambic pentameter can be used to emphasize certain words or ideas, giving the text a sense of importance and weight.

Challenge: Writing in iambic pentameter can be a creative challenge, forcing the writer to carefully consider each word and phrase and rearrange them until they fit into the meter.

Effect: The use of iambic pentameter can create a certain effect or mood in the text, such as formality, grandeur, or even playfulness, depending on how it is used.

Where can we find examples of iambic pentameter today?

Poetry: Poetry, of course! Though the roots of the meter are ancient, there are still examples of iambic pentameter in contemporary poetry. For example, the poet Carol Ann Duffy frequently uses iambic pentameter in her poems. Her 2013 poem “Prayer” is an excellent example to look at.

Song lyrics: Given that one of iambic pentameter’s main functions is musicality, perhaps it’s unsurprising that you can find examples of it in music. Kate Bush used iambic pentameter in her song “Wuthering Heights,” as did Leonard Cohen in “Suzanne” and Bruce Springsteen in “Born to Run.”

Literature: Modern authors have also used iambic pentameter in their writing. John Updike wrote a novel called S. (1988) in iambic pentameter, and Ian McEwan used iambic pentameter in parts of his 2010 novel Solar.

Iambic pentameter examples

Here are some examples of iambic pentameter in literature and poetry. Try reciting them out loud, and listen for the alternating syllables.

Iambic pentameter in Shakespeare:

“To be, or not to be, that is the question

Hamlet

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

“Sonnet 18”

“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”

“Sonnet 73”

More examples of iambic pentameter:

“When I consider how my light is spent”

“Sonnet 19,” by John Milton

“I met a traveller from an antique land”

“Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T. S. Eliot

Iambic pentameter FAQs

What is iambic pentameter?

Iambic pentameter is a rhythmic pattern in poetry that consists of ten syllables, with stress on every other syllable.

How does iambic pentameter work?

Iambic pentameter creates rhythm to the pattern of da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. This underlying structure provides writing with a sense of musicality and order.

Why use iambic pentameter?

Writers use iambic pentameter for tradition, rhythm, or certain effects like emphasis. It also creates a structural challenge, which some writers find fun to work within.

Iambic Pentameter: Definition and Examples (2024)

FAQs

Iambic Pentameter: Definition and Examples? ›

Iambic pentameter (pronounced eye-AM-bik pen-TAM-i-ter) is a rhythmic pattern that consists of ten syllables per line, with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. The pattern that emerges sounds like this: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM.

What is an iambic pentameter example? ›

Examples of Iambic Pentameter

I have marked the first one with the stressed and unstressed syllable, and you can do so for the rest: 'Shall I | compare | thee to | a sum | mer's day?' (Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 18'). 'One truth is clear, "Whatever is, is right"' (Alexander Pope, 'An Essay on Man', Epistle 1).

What is an example of an iambic word? ›

An iamb (EYE-am) is a metrical unit consisting of two syllables where an initial unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. For example, the words amuse (a-MUSE), portray (por-TRAY), delight (de-LIGHT), and return (re-TURN) are all iambs. Iambs are used in poetry and in verse plays.

How many lines is an iambic pentameter? ›

There can be any number of lines written in iambic pentameter. The term refers to how a particular line is structured. An “iamb” is a pair of syllables in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is stressed.

How to tell if a poem is written in iambic pentameter? ›

To identify iambic pentameter, you must first identify that the feet of the poem are iambs, units of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Reading the poem aloud and emphasizing the stressed syllables can help you in determining the foot. Then you must check whether there are five iambs in each line.

What is a famous line of iambic pentameter? ›

Read them out loud:
  • If music be the food of love, play on. (Twelfth Night)
  • O that this too too solid flesh would melt! (Hamlet)
  • But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? (Romeo and Juliet)

What is an iambic pentameter for dummies? ›

iambic pentameter: A form of verse in which every other syllable is stressed (as in “dah-DUM”) and each line contains five stressed syllables. quatrain: A stanza of four lines, usually rhyming on alternate lines.

How to tell if a word is iambic? ›

What is an iamb word? An iambic word is a word that has two syllables, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed.

How do you know if a sentence is iambic pentameter? ›

Iambic pentameter (pronounced eye-AM-bik pen-TAM-i-ter) is a rhythmic pattern that consists of ten syllables per line, with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. The pattern that emerges sounds like this: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM.

What is an example of this includes iambic pentameter? ›

Examples of Iambic Pentameter

'Shall I | compare | thee to | a sum | mer's day?' (Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 18'). 'One truth is clear, "Whatever is, is right"' (Alexander Pope, 'An Essay on Man', Epistle 1).

What is the easiest way to write in iambic pentameter? ›

If you're intimidated by iambic pentameter, don't worry—it's easy to execute in your writing. To write with iambic pentameter, you'll need to use five iambs in each line, so each line must be ten syllables in total. Remember, an iamb is when the first syllable is unstressed, and the second syllable is stressed.

How to speak in iambic pentameter? ›

Focus on your breathing. Proper delivery of iambic pentameter requires good breath control. Take deliberate pauses and breaths in order to match the text's rhythmic breaks, striving to preserve the meter without making the lines sound unnatural.

Why is it called an iambic pentameter? ›

Rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables called "feet". "Iambic" indicates that the type of foot used is the iamb, which in English is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (as in a-BOVE). "Pentameter" indicates that each line has five "feet".

What is a famous example of iambic pentameter? ›

Other examples of iambic meter in poetry include “Paradise Lost, Book VI, Lines 801–66” by John Milton, “Essay on Man, Epistle I [excerpt]” by Alexander Pope, “[I wandered lonely as a Cloud]” by William Wordsworth, “The Face of All the World (Sonnet 7)” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as works by T. S.

Which line is the best example of an iambic pentameter? ›

Final answer: The line 'The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head' is the BEST example of iambic pentameter, as it follows the classical pattern of having five metrical feet of one short (unstressed) and one long (stressed) syllable.

How do you know if a passage is in iambic pentameter? ›

What is a good way to check iambic pentameter? It is a line of five beats, where the beat lands on every other syllable; and in which a beat can be either pulled back one syllable, or pushed forward one syllable under certain conditions.

Is iambic pentameter 10 syllables? ›

iambic pentameter, in poetry, a line of verse composed of ten syllables arranged in five metrical feet (iambs), each of which consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

How do I write in iambic pentameter? ›

If you're intimidated by iambic pentameter, don't worry—it's easy to execute in your writing. To write with iambic pentameter, you'll need to use five iambs in each line, so each line must be ten syllables in total. Remember, an iamb is when the first syllable is unstressed, and the second syllable is stressed.

How do you know if a word is stressed or unstressed? ›

A stressed syllable has a longer, louder, and higher sound than the other syllables in the word. Syllables with the schwa sound in them are rarely the stressed syllable.

Is iambic pentameter a rhyme? ›

Poems in iambic pentameter may or may not rhyme. Those that are written in continuous lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter are said to be in blank verse, while rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter may be called "heroic couplets", particularly when each couplet closes a thought or sentence on its second line.

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