Iambic pentameter is a very common way that lines of poetry are structured. Each line has five sets of two beats, the first is unstressed and the second is stressed.
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.
Explore the term 'Iambic Pentameter'
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 throw in dactyls or spondees to make the lines even harder to pin down.
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 Duchess’ by Robert Browning as an example. The first line reads, “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall.” If we read this aloud it sounds like,
That’s MY last DUchess PAINted ON the WALL.
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 got 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.
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 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 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 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, John Keats, Ben Jonson, and Christopher Marlowe made use of it. The latter is thought 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, the famous writer of the Middle Ages whose 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.
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
- ‘Grief’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- ‘Sunday Morning’ by Wallace Stevens
- ‘I now had only to retrace’ by Charlotte Brontë
- ‘Redemption’ by George Herbert
- ‘The Question’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- ‘Time does not bring relief; you all have lied’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay
- ‘I Am In Need Of Music’ by Elizabeth Bishop