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Pentameter

In poetry, “pentameter” refers to a line that contains a total of ten syllables. Commonly, these are divided into iambs or trochees.

The lines can be split in half, with five syllables on either side, sometimes utilizing caesura. It is the most popular syllabic pattern in English poetry, dating back to the fourteenth century with Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The form was used throughout the following centuries and increased in popularity after it became the staple metrical pattern of sonnets. Specifically, poets like William Shakespeare utilized iambic pentameter in their work (it can be seen in his sonnets and plays). 

Along with, or instead of pentameter, poet’s might choose to use other forms of meter. For example: 

Pentameter Definition and Examples


Pentameter Definition

If a line of poetry is described as “pentameter,” this means that the line contains a total of ten syllables. More often than not, these ten syllables can be divided into five sets of two.

If the poem is written in iambic pentameter, in each of these sets of syllables, the first is unaccented, and the second is accented. If the poem is written in trochaic pentameter (another very common pattern) the arrangement of accents or stresses is switched. 

While iambs and trochees are the most common arrangement of beats, it’s also possible to find examples in which poets utilize the following: 

  • Spondee: contains two stressed syllables.
  • Anapest: consists of three beats, two unstressed and one stressed.
  • Dactyl: consists of three beats, one stressed and two unstressed. 
  • Amphibrach: one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable and ending with another stressed syllable. 
  • Pyrrhic: two unstressed syllables.


Examples of Pentameter in Poetry 

Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats 

This well-loved Keats poem was written in 1819, and it is the longest of his odes. It contains eight stanzas, each with ten lines. They are written in iambic pentameter. Here are a few lines 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:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

The first two lines of this excerpt are great examples of the poet’s use of meter. With the stresses in bold, the consider these lines again: 

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

The poet alternates between stressed (or accented) and unstressed (or unaccented) syllables. The use of this pattern is commonly associated with the sound of a steadily beating heart. This makes sense for ‘Ode to a Nightgale’ as Keats spends most of the text describing the melancholy singing of a nightingale he saw and heard. 

Read more John Keats poems

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare 

‘Sonnet 18’ is one of William Shakespeare’s best-known sonnets. This piece, and the other 154 sonnets that he wrote throughout his career, utilize iambic pentameter (with a few small exceptions). The sonnets and the poet’s use of iambic pentameter in his tragedies, comedies, and histories helped to make this type of meter so popular with following generations of poets. Consider these lines from ‘Sonnet 18:’ 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed,

These are some of the best-known lines in all of English poetry. Now, consider the first two again with the stressed syllables in bold. 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

This sonnet also utilizes a very well-known rhyme scheme. It is: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. This pattern, and the use of iambic pentameter, are the two main features of a “Shakespearean” sonnet. (Readers may also note the poet’s use of a “turn” or volta in these sonnets as well.) This rhyme scheme can be compared to the pattern used in a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. It rhymes: ABBAABBA and concludes with one of several possible endings, such as CDCDCD or CDECDE. 

Discover more William Shakespeare poems

FAQs 

What is a pentameter example?

The first line of William Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18’ is a great example of how poets use pentameter. The line reads: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter specifically in this line. This means that in total, there are ten syllables. These are divided into five sets (or feet), each containing two beats.

How do you identify a pentameter?

The easiest way to figure out if a line, or an entire poem, is written in pentameter is to start with line one and read it aloud. If the line has ten syllables, then it is pentameter. This does not mean that the entire poem is going to be structured in the same way. If the poet does not consistently use ten syllables, it is more likely than not that the poem is written in free verse. Or that the poet chose to utilize numerous metrical patterns throughout their text.

What is an unstressed syllable?

An unstressed syllable in poetry is also known as an unaccented syllable. This is a type of sound, it could be an entire word or a part of a word, that you do not emphasize when speaking. When you read a word, certain syllables are more important than others. Those that feel or sound stronger are those which are accented. For example, the “to” in “today.”


  • Poetic Foot: a foot refers to a unit of meter in poetry. It is a grouping of stressed and/or unstressed syllables.
  • Poetic Diction: describes the language of poetry. It is differentiated from everyday language and that which is commonly used in novels, by its style, vocabulary, and use of figurative language.
  • Tetrameter: a line of poetry that includes four metrical feet. These feet may conform to various metrical forms. 
  • Alliterative Meter: a type of verse that focuses on alliteration as a way of creating a metrical structure. Alliteration is used rather than accents or rhymes.
  • Burns Stanza: named for Scottish poet Robert Burns who popularized its use. It is a six-line stanza form that uses a rhyme scheme of AAABAB, and lines of tetrameter and dimeter.


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