Iambic Pentameter - Poem Analysis (2024)

This particular form has two parts. First, the “iamb.” An iamb is one single foot or beat. It is made up of two parts or two syllables. The first is an unstressed syllable, and the second is a stressed syllable. The sound these two parts make together is most often associated with the sound of a heartbeat. It sounds like, baBUM baBUM baBUM.

Now that we know that the line is made of unstressed and stressed beats let’s get to the “pentameter” part of the structure. The root of the word “penta” means “five.” This is a hint that these lines have five iambs. Or, at its simplest, each line contains five sets of two beats. The first is unstressed and the second stressed.

Some poets who are well-known for utilizing this pattern include William Shakespeare(Bio | Poems) in his sonnets and plays, John Milton(Bio | Poems) in ‘Paradise Lost,’ and Alexander Pope(Bio | Poems) and John Donne(Poems) in their poems.

Explore the term 'Iambic Pentameter'

  • 1 How do I know if a line is iambic pentameter?
  • 2 Examples of Iambic Pentameter in Poetry
  • 3 Why do poets use iambic pentameter?
  • 4 Why does iambic pentameter matter?
  • 5 What’s the history of iambic pentameter?
  • 6 Other Poems in Iambic Pentameter
  • 7 FAQs
  • 8 Related Literary Terms
  • 9 Other Resources
Iambic Pentameter - Poem Analysis (1)

How do I know if a line is iambic pentameter?

Deciding on the meter of a poem can be one of the most challenging parts of analyzing poetry. This is due in part to the fact that poets often change up the meter, rather than follow one specific pattern. Or, a writer throws in dactyls or spondees to make the lines even harder to pin down.

This metrical pattern is commonly used in sonnets and plays like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and more.

Examples of Iambic Pentameter in Poetry

My Last duch*ess by Robert Browning

When you’re looking at a poem and trying to decide whether or not the lines are written in iambs, it is immensely helpful to read the words out loud. Let’s take ‘My Last duch*ess’ by Robert Browning as an example. The first line reads, “That’s my last duch*ess painted on the wall.” If we read this aloud, it sounds like,

That’s MY last DUchess PAINted ON the WALL.

This line is not the only example, but it is one of the best.

Read more Robert Browning poems.

Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

The emphasis is clearly on the second syllable and there are five sets of unstressed and stressed beats in the line. Let’s look at another example. These two lines are from John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale.’

My HEART aches, AND a DROWsy NUMBness PAINS

My SENSE, as THOUGH of HEMlock I had DRUNK,

In this particular example, Keats makes use of iambic pentameter throughout the poem until he gets to the eighth line. This line is in iambic trimeter. It takes the form of the iamb, but each line contains three rather than five pairs of unstressed and stressed.

Read more John Keats poems.

Why do poets use iambic pentameter?

This is a great question, and different poets have different reasons. Most commonly, though, this metrical pattern is chosen because it resembles natural speech patterns. There are other reasons too; for instance, it might make sense conceptually. It could be used to mimic something consistent or unfailingly rhythmic, like the fall of a horse’s hooves. Or, due to its regularity, be utilized to make a scene appear solemn, serene, or even boring.

Poets and dramatists might also play with when and where they use this structure. If a writer takes it away suddenly when having used it previously, very interesting things can happen. For example, if a poem is entirely structured in iambic pentameter, and then without warning, one line isn’t, the poet is very clearly trying to draw attention to this particular line. It gets even more interesting when it comes to dialogue. Often within his plays, Shakespeare would format the dialogue of kings and the upper classes in iambic pentameter, and then, when someone from a lower class or someone playing a fool spoke, the meter would disappear. This was done to imply that the speaker was less educated.

There is a well-known example within William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in which the structure dissipates as Macbeth tries to determine whether or not to kill King Duncan. Without iambic pentameter, the lines sound cluttered, and the speaker is unsure of himself. This was done very intentionally in order to show Macbeth’s fear and anxiety.

Why does iambic pentameter matter?

It is more likely than not, if you are a consumer of poetry that you have come across iambic pentameter. It is the most common meter in English poetry, and many of the best-known Elizabethan poets and playwrights, such as William Shakespeare(Bio | Poems), John Keats(Bio | Poems), Ben Jonson(Bio | Poems), and Christopher Marlowe(Bio | Poems) made use of it. The latter is thought to have influenced Shakespeare through his skillful use of the structure.

What’s the history of iambic pentameter?

The first use of iambic pentameter is attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer(Poems), the famous writer of the Middle Ages who is best known for The Canterbury Tales. The structure was used primarily in the 15th century for the same reason it was used throughout the following centuries— to give order to the English language. It elevated a writer’s verse, making the English lines sound more elegant than they would otherwise.

Since Chaucer’s time, the majority of the poems written in the English language utilized iambic pentameter in some way. That is until we get to the last 100 years or so in which modern and contemporary poets struck out from traditional forms and began using a free verse in which there is no rhyme or rhythm.

Other Poems in Iambic Pentameter

If you are interested in reading more poems that depend on various degrees of iambic pentameter, take a look at these links.

  • ‘Our Mothers’ by Christina Rossetti(Bio | Poems)
  • ‘Grief’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning(Bio | Poems)
  • ‘Sunday Morning’ by Wallace Stevens(Bio | Poems)
  • ‘I now had only to retrace’ by Charlotte Brontë(Poems)
  • ‘Redemption’ by George Herbert(Bio | Poems)
  • The Question by Percy Bysshe Shelley(Bio | Poems)
  • Time does not bring relief; you all have lied by Edna St. Vincent Millay(Bio | Poems)
  • I Am In Need Of Music by Elizabeth Bishop(Poems)

FAQs

How do you explain iambic pentameter?

Iambic pentameter is a common rhythmic pattern that poets use in English. It is composed of lines that use five sets of two beats, or syllables. The first of these beats in a pair is unstressed, and the second is stressed.

What is an iamb?

An iamb is a set of two syllables, the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed. These two syllables could make up one word, a part of a word, or stretch from the end of one word to the next.

Is iambic pentameter always ten syllables?

The best examples of iambic pentameter contain ten syllables per line. There are poems written in this pattern that use lines of different lengths but are generally regarded as ‘iambic pentameter poems.’

Can iambic pentameter have eight syllables?

A line of iambic pentameter with eight-syllables is actually iambic tetrameter. Other variations are iambic trimeter and iambic diameter. These lines have a total of six and four syllables.

  • Free Verse: lines are unrhymed, and there are no consistent metrical patterns. But, that doesn’t mean it is entirely without structure.
  • Blank Verse: poetry that is written in unrhymed lines but with a regular metrical pattern.
  • Anapest: two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
  • Dactyl: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is the opposite of an anapest.
  • Spondee: an arrangement of two syllables in which both are stressed.

Other Resources

Iambic Pentameter - Poem Analysis (2024)

FAQs

What does an iambic pentameter do to a poem? ›

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.

How to analyze an 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 does the iambic pentameter symbolize? ›

Iambic pentameter is a basic rhythm that's pleasing to the ear and closely resembles the rhythm of everyday speech, or a heartbeat. For playwrights, using iambic pentameter allow them to imitate everyday speech in verse. The rythm gives a less rigid, but natural flow to the text – and the dialogue.

What is the theme of iambic pentameter? ›

Iambic Pentameter Meaning

Think about it this way: iambs mirror the rhythm of a heart beating — da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM — one unstressed syllable, one stressed syllable. Writers have used iambic poetry for thousands of years to keep the most intrinsic of all paces; our heartbeat (in pairs of five).

What is the simple explanation of iambic pentameter? ›

The iambic pentameter is a rhyme scheme commonly found in English poetry. An 'iamb' is a metrical foot containing an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one (eg. 'forLORN'), while 'penta' means 'five'. In other words, iambic pentameter means a line of poetry that's made up of five iambs.

How does iambic pentameter effect the audience? ›

Effect: The use of iambic pentameter can produce various effects and moods in the text, such as formality, grandeur, or even playfulness, depending on how it is implemented.

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 does iambic pentameter reflect? ›

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.

Why is the iambic pentameter particularly useful? ›

in a drama, the lines are best written in plain verse, such as iambic pentameter, so everyone can understand them.

What are the principles of iambic pentameter? ›

So, here's a simple definition of 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.

Why does the iambic pentameter sound so good? ›

Because of its odd number of metrical beats, iambic pentameter, as Attridge says, does not impose itself on the natural rhythm of spoken language. Thus iambic pentameter frees intonation from the repetitiveness of four-beat and allows instead the varied intonations of significant speech to be heard.

What type of poetry is traditionally written in iambic pentameter? ›

Traditionally, the sonnet is a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter, employing one of several rhyme schemes, and adhering to a tightly structured thematic organization. The name is taken from the Italian sonetto, which means “a little sound or song.”

What is the effect of iambic tetrameter in poetry? ›

All syllables in poetry are either stressed or unstressed, and different combinations of these syllables combine to form different metrical feet. Iambic tetrameter is noted for its gentle, rhythmic quality, while trochaic tetrameter sounds more urgent and unnatural.

How does the rhythm of the iambic pentameter contribute to the meaning? ›

The stresses highlight important words and concepts. The stressed syllables impart an impression of anger. The irregular rhythm emphasizes unpleasant meanings. The regular rhythm intensifies the emotional impact.

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