This means that the lines are composed of two sets of two beats or syllables. The first of these is unstressed, and the second is stressed. The iamb is the most common metrical foot in English poetry, but the dimeter is far less common. More often, lines are composed in iambic pentameter or iambic tetrameter. These refer to lines with five or four sets of beats.
It’s possible to have a poem that is mostly written in iambic dimeter but has a few breaks in the pattern. For example, one line might have a total of five syllables rather than four. This is very common in poetry and is to be expected. Iambic dimeter is one of the harder metrical patterns to use continually throughout a poem (although it certainly is not the hardest).
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Definition of Iambic Dimeter
Iambic dimeter is one metrical pattern a poet might choose to use in their work. It’s made up of two parts. The first refers to the order of the metrical foot, while the latter refers to how many of those feet are in one line. The word “dimeter” carries the prefix “di” meaning two. In each line that’s written in dimeter, readers can expect to find two metrical feet. In this case, two iambs.
What is an Iamb?
In order to adequately understand what iambic dimeter is, it’s important to fully understand iambs. Finding and interpreting the metrical pattern of a poem is one of the hardest parts of analyzing poetic works. Sometimes it’s slightly more obvious than others, but it is always going to take some work.
Iambs are the most popular metrical foot in English-language poetry. They can be found in the work of all the most famous Elizabethan and Romantic poets. Consider these lines from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats. The first line is a particularly good example:
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:
The emphasis falls on “heart,” “and,” “drow-,” “numb,” “pains” in the first lines. The other syllables and words are unstressed. In total, there are five iambs in this line, creating the metrical pattern iambic pentameter.
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Other possible metrical feet besides an iamb are:
- Trochees: two beats, the first of which is stressed and the second is unstressed.
- Spondee: two beats, both stressed.
- Dactyl: three beats, one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.
- Anapest: three beats, two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
These metrical feet can be arranged in any order. More often than not, readers will find that poets mix and match, using trochees, iambs, and spondees in the same poem or even in the same line. The three-syllable metrical feet are the hardest to use consistently. It’s very uncommon to find a poem in which the writer has only used dactyls or anapests.
Dimeter, Trimeter, Tetrameter, Pentameter
These three arrangements of metrical feet are the most common in English poetry. As noted above, dimeter refers to two iterations of whichever metrical foot an author has chosen. That could be two iambs, trochees, spondees, etc., per line. Trimeter, with its prefix “tri,” refers to three iterations, tetrameter: four and pentameter: five. The latter is certainly the most common of all four. Consider the following poem, ‘We Are Seven’ by William Wordsworth as an example of dimeter:
———A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
The first line of this piece is written in diameter, but the following lines contain more syllables. As noted above, it’s an unusual find to an entirely consistent poem that uses dimeter throughout. The second and fourth lines are in trimeter, and the middle line is tetrameter.
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Examples of Iambic Dimeter in Poetry
In this short Frost poem, the poet engages with some of his most common themes, including nature. The lines are all quite short and provide readers with three lines written in perfect iambic dimeter. They are also the first three lines of the poem. They read:
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
These three lines are followed by others, including: “From a hemlock tree.” This fourth line contains five syllables, breaking the pattern and using an anapest. The first two syllables are unstressed, followed by one stressed syllable and a final iamb in the fourth line.
Explore more Robert Frost poems.
The Robin by Thomas Hardy
The following poem is not one of Hardy’s best-known. But, it does contain a few examples of lines written in iambic dimeter. The poem uses these short lines to describe a robin’s experience. The poem comes from the bird’s perspective. Consider these lines:
When up aloft
I fly and fly,
I see in pools
The shining sky,
And a happy bird
Am I, am I!
Here, iambic dimeter is used pretty consistently. The pattern breaks in the second to last line of this stanza with “And a happy bird.” In this line, the poet starts with an anapest and ends with another iamb.
Read more Thomas Hardy poems.
Why Do Writers Use Iambic Dimeter?
Writers use iambic dimeter when they want to create regular and consistent lines of verse. Due to the fact that dimeter only allows for four syllables per line, they are necessarily short lines. This is often well-suited to children’s poetry and to lines in which the poet wants to make a direct and impactful statement. Consider how one line of iambic dimeter would strike the reader in among several lines of iamb pentameter. Selective use of meter is one of the most important choices a writer can make in their work.
Iambic dimeter is a metrical pattern in which the writer only uses two iambs in their lines.
An example of iambic trimeter is this line from ‘I Love the Jocund Dance’ by William Blake: “I love the jocund dance.” There are three sets of iambs in this line.
An iamb is a pair of syllables. The first of these is unstressed, and the second is stressed. They can fall within the same word or bridge across two.
Iambic pentameter is the most popular English-language metrical pattern. It occurs when the poet uses five sets of two syllables or metrical feet. The first of these, in each pair, is unstressed, and the second is stressed.
First, count the syllables in the line. If there are a total of four and the second and fourth syllables sound stronger and stressed (when read out loud), then the line is in iambic diameter.
Related Literary Terms
- Sonnet: fourteen-line poems that follow a strict rhyme scheme and conform to the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter.
- Sound Devices: anything writers use that improves or emphasizes the sound in a piece of writing.
- Cadence: the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.
- Euphony: a literary device that refers to the musical, or pleasing, qualities of words.
- Scansion: the analysis of a poem’s metrical patterns. It organizes the lines, metrical feet, and individual syllables into groups.