An iamb is a metrical unit. It occurs when two syllables are placed next to one another and the first is unstressed, or short, and the second is stressed, or long.

E.g. In the sentence, "The cat in the hat had a bat and a rat in his mat.," the stressed syllables occur in the bolded words, creating a pattern of unstressed-stressed syllables, which is a characteristic pattern of the iambic meter.

Iamb is the most common unit of meter in the English language and is often maintained throughout an entire poem. It is fundamental to the history of English-language poetry. When written out, an iamb sounds like line du-DUM. Some common iambic words are “define,” “attain,” “perchance,” “beneath,” and “upon.” Its opposite is a trochee. This metrical unit is made up of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. It sounds like DU-dum. Some examples include “inward,” “dances,” “lonely,” and “better.” 

Iamb definition and examples

Definition of an Iamb 

An iamb is a unit of meter. It occurs when in poetry when a writer arranges words or uses two-syllable words, in which a stressed syllable follows an unstressed syllable. It can be stretched out over more than one word, despite the examples above. For instance, “and be” in which “be” is stressed and “and” is unstressed. Or “as I,” in which “as” is unstressed and “I” is stressed. Iambs are used throughout poetry and are quite common in their most traditional forms. Famous examples can be found in the words of William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, and others. Today, it is less common to find poetry that is completely formatted with a specific metrical pattern. Free verse, or the use of no rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, is far more common. 

Iambic Pentameter 

When one thinks of an iamb, one likely also considers its most popular and widely spread form, iambic pentameter. This is a metrical pattern that’s used throughout poetry and describes how many iambs are present in a single line of a poem. The word “pentameter” signals that there are five iambs per line of verse. That is five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. For example, John Keats uses this form in Ode to a Nightingale.’ Here is an example from the poem: 

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

In these lines, although it is not completely consistent, readers can find a great example of iambic pentameter. The first line, in particular, is successful. “My heart,” “aches and,” a drow,” “sy numb” are all examples of unstressed and stressed beats from this line. 

There are many more examples of iambic pentameter to explore. Such as: 

Examples of Iambs in Poetry 

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth 

In this famous poem, Wordsworth uses iambs fairly consistently. The lines are written in iambic tetrameter. This means that they should, on average, all contain four sets of iambs. That is four sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. Here are a few lines that serve as an example of the pattern: 

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

In this first stanza, readers can clearly see the pattern at work. The first two lines, with the stresses emphasized in bold, reads: 

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er dales and hills. 

This sustained pattern helps to give the poem a regular song-like feeling. 

Read more William Wordsworth poems. 

Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson 

This is perhaps Emily Dickinson’s most famous poem and certainly one of the most popular poems about death and the afterlife. In the text, readers should be able to spot her use of a meter. She writes in alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. This means the odd-numbered lines are in the former, and the even-numbered lines are in the latter. Take this stanza, from the beginning of the poem, as an example: 

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

Dickinson’s use of meter is quite regular throughout this poem. In the first two lines, readers should note the use of stressed syllables as follows: 

Because I could not stop for Death

He kindly stopped for me

Although the lines have different numbers of iambs, they still maintain the same arrangement of stressed syllables. 

Explore more Emily Dickinson poems.

The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare 

Shakespeare is famous for his use of iambs. Specifically, the use of blank verse. That is unrhymed iambic pentameter. Throughout his plays, he was known to use this style of writing when crafting dialogue for the higher-class characters. In his poetry, which is almost entirely sonnet-based, he used iambic pentameter constantly. There are, of course, moments in almost every poem where the pattern breaks, but it is an integral part of his verse. So much so that today he has a particular sonnet form named after him. Consider these lines from Sonnet 130,’ also known as ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.’ 

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

Readers might also be interested in analyzing these lines from the Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrowspeech from William Shakespeare‘s Macbeth.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death

This passage is a perfect example of a blank verse. That is, the lines are written in unrhymed iambic pentameter. 

Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry, including his 154 sonnets. 

  • Lyric Poem: a musically inclined, short verse that speaks on poignant and powerful emotions.
  • Alliteration: a technique that makes use of repeated sounds at the beginning of multiple words grouped together. It is used in poetry and prose.
  • Enjambment: occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point.
  • Caesura: a break or pause in the middle of a line of verse. These breaks can be towards the beginning, middle, or end of a line.
  • Rhyme Scheme of Sonnets: usually conform to one of two different rhyme schemes, those connected to the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan sonnet forms.

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