What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (2024)

If you’ve studied any of Shakespeare’s sonnets you may have heard of ‘iambic pentameter’… but what exactly is iambic pentameter?

Iambic Pentameter Definition

Iambic

In a line of poetry, an ‘iamb’ is a foot or beat consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

Or another way to think of it it a short syllable followed by a long syllable. For example, deLIGHT, the SUN, forLORN, one DAY, reLEASE. English is the perfect language for iambus because of the way the stressed and unstressed syllables work. (Interestingly, the iamb sounds a little like a heartbeat).

Pentameter

‘Penta’ means five, so pentameter simply means five meters. A line of poetry written in iambic pentameter has five feet = five sets of stressed syllables and unstressed syllables.

Putting these two terms together, iambic pentameter is a line of writing that consists of ten syllables in a specific pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, or a short syllable followed by a long syllable.

What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (1)

5 iambs/feet of unstressed and stressed syllables – simple!

Iambic Pentameter Examples

Here are three very different examples of iambic pentameter in English poetry:

Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 starts ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’. This line of poetry has five feet, so it’s written in pentameter. And the stressing pattern is all iambs (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable):

Shall I | compARE | thee TO | a SUM | mers DAY?
da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM
What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (2)

From Shakespeare to Taylor Swift, whose #1 dance-pop single Shake It Off includes some iambic pentameter. Who knew?! (And yes, we have just classified Taylor Swift as a poet!)

I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, sha-ake
da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM

And one final (and more traditional) example of iambic pentameter, this time from Robert Browning’s poem My Last duch*ess. The poem is written as a dramatic lyric made up of rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter, with each line made up of 5 sets of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables – 10 syllables in all:

That mylastDuchesspaintedon thewall,
Lookingasifshewerealive. Icall
Thatpieceawonder,now: FràPandolf’shands
Workedbusilyaday, andthereshestands…
Andseemedastheywouldaskme,iftheydurst,
Howsuchaglancecamethere; so,notthefirst
Areyoutoturnandaskthus. Sir,’twasnot
Her husband’spresenceonly, calledthat spot…

Beginning to understand it now? Check out this short tutorial

Why Do Poets Use Iambic Pentameter?

Iambic pentameter is used frequently, in verse, poetry and even pop songs. This rhythm was popularised by Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatised such as Shakespeare and John Donne, and is still used today by modern authors (read sonnet examples from other poets – some use iambic pentameters and some use other meters).

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. Put simply, iambic pentameter is a metrical speech rhythm that is natural to the English language. Shakespeare used iambic pentameter because it closely resembles the rhythm of everyday speech, and he no doubt wanted to imitate everyday speech in his plays.

Why Shakespeare Loved Iambic Pentameter

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    • What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (4)

      John Appleback says:

      January 30, 2024 at 4:25 pm

      Hope this article was helpful, thank you guys for reading!

      Reply

  1. What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (5)

    Laurette Iris Escobar says:

    May 4, 2022 at 12:41 am

    Thank you for this tutorial. I am still trying to understand poetry. I loved it when I was at university but I never quite understood the technical aspects of it.

    Reply

  2. What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (6)

    Aida Espinoza says:

    May 5, 2022 at 6:12 pm

    This has been most helpful. Thank you so much!

    Reply

  3. What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (7)

    Leslie Forbes says:

    December 4, 2022 at 8:27 am

    How can you be discussing literary devices when you are not able to distinguish “who’s” from “whose”?
    I’ll explain simply: “who’s” is short form for “who is” and does not fit correctly in the sentence about Taylor Swift.

    Reply

      • What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (9)

        darlah says:

        January 16, 2023 at 1:25 pm

        that was very rude of leslie, but very well behaved and polite of you to answer so kindly Ed, I’m sure god will reward you for this🙂

        Reply

    • What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (10)

      Eze Ifeanyi says:

      April 4, 2023 at 10:42 am

      Surely, you could have been couth with your observation? There was no need to speak in such a tone.

      Reply

    • What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (11)

      Russell Johnson says:

      April 6, 2023 at 3:05 am

      You are quite correct in your critique but the information given about iambic pentameter is also correct. I appreciate you both.

      Reply

    • What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (12)

      Jim says:

      April 22, 2024 at 12:17 am

      Sorry, Leslie. The use of “whose” you are referring to is used correctly in that Taylor Swift reference in the article. “Whose” is the possessive form of the pronoun “who”. It is correctly used by the author.

      Reply

  4. What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (13)

    darlah says:

    January 16, 2023 at 1:23 pm

    thx this was actually really helpful, unlike sm other websites i found, thx again! 😊

    Reply

  5. What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (14)

    Eli says:

    January 23, 2023 at 8:03 pm

    V helpful! Glad I found this, was suuuuper confused on my poetry assignment heehee

    Reply

  6. What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (15)

    Adah says:

    March 4, 2023 at 12:56 am

    This was so helpful! Thank you.

    Reply

  7. What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (16)

    Simon Fiasco says:

    August 4, 2023 at 8:04 am

    A short poem of thanks utilizing iambic pentameter:

    I thank you for this great tutorial.
    I cannot stress how much I was in need.
    I’d like to think I am mercurial;
    The words struck home and knowledge was received.

    Reply

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Common Questions About Iambic Pentameter:

Does iambic pentameter needs to be ten syllables?

Pentameter is simply penta, which means 5, meters. So a line of poetry written in pentameter has 5 feet, or 5 sets of stressed and unstressed syllables

Is ‘to be or not to be’ iambic pentameter?

No. Although there are elements of iambic pentameter throughout Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be‘ soliloquy there are many lines with more than ten syllables, which by definition means the lines can’t be in iambic pentameter.

How can you identify iambic pentameter?

Iambic pentameter is a line of writing that consists of ten syllables in a specific pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, or a short syllable followed by a long syllable. For example ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18.

What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️ (2024)

FAQs

What Is Iambic Pentameter? An Explanation & Examples✔️? ›

Iambic pentameter is a specific meter that a line of poetry can have, and its name gives us clues as to how we can identify it in a poem: 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.

What is an iambic pentameter and an example? ›

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 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.

Which of the following is an example of iambic pentameter? ›

D. "With a love that the winged seraphs of Heaven" This line has five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables: "with a LOVE that the WIN-ged se-RAPHS of HEA-ven." So, option D is an example of iambic pentameter.

What is meter iambic pentameter example? ›

Examples of Iambic Pentameter

The most common meter used in poetry and verse, iambic pentameter consists of five iambs and 10 syllables per line. Here are examples: If ever two were one, then surely we. But, soft!

What is an example of iambic pentameter in as you like it? ›

Although As You Like It uses more prose than verse, you will still be able to find examples of iambic pentameter throughout the play. For example, after Orlando first meets Rosalind, he says 'What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue? ' (1:2).

What is an example of a iambic meter in a sentence? ›

Some more modern sentences that use iambic pentameter might be:
  • I ate my sister's soup, and it was good.
  • I can't make rhymes when I am fast asleep.
  • I wish that you and I were in Japan.
  • Why do we have to go on Tuesday night?
  • She likes to drink her tea with jam and bread. (Shoutout to Maria von Trapp!)

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).

How do you know if a word is 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.

How do you 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.

How to read an iambic pentameter? ›

Well, in iambic pentameter, that horse gallops five times in each line: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. To read a line of iambic pentameter, you simply stress every second syllable. For instance, take this line from William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet": "But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?"

What is an iambic pentameter with examples? ›

Iambic pentameter is a specific meter that a line of poetry can have, and its name gives us clues as to how we can identify it in a poem: 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.

How to tell if a syllable 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.

What is the opposite of iambic? ›

The reverse of an iamb is called a trochee.

Is iambic pentameter just 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.

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