Iambic Pentameter (The Basics)

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  • Revised, tweaked and improved March 24 2009.
  • February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost, you might like reading Birches along with a color coded scansion of Birches included in my post on Frost’s Mending Wall. To find all the posts I’ve written on Robert Frost, click here.
  • After you’ve read up on Iambic Pentameter, take a look at some of my poetry. I’m not half-bad. One of the reasons I write these posts is so that a few readers, interested in meter and rhyme, might want to try out my poetry. Check out Spider, Spider or, if you want modern Iambic Pentameter, try  My Bridge is like a Rainbow or Come Out! Take a copy to class if you need an example of Modern Iambic Pentameter. Pass it around if you have friends or relatives interested in this kind of poetry.

First Appearance

Iambic Pentameter is the meter of Blank Verse, most Sonnets, and a variety of verse forms starting in the14th and continuing through the 21rst Century.

Iambic Pentameter is closely associated with Blank Verse, which some websites credit as having first been written by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The assertion is incorrect. Chaucer was, in fact, the first poet to write Iambic Pentameter and examples can be found with the prologue of the Canterbury Tales.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
chaucer-stained-glassAnd bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

Although, at first glance, this may not appear to be Iambic Pentameter, it is. We’ll get back to it in another post.

What is Iambic and Pentameter?

All of Elizabethan, Jacobean and Restoration Drama, written in verse, is written using Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) – this includes all of Shakespeare’s Plays and Sonnets. Milton’s Paradise Lost is written in Iambic Pentameter. Keats’ Sonnets & Hyperion, along with most of his major poems, are written in Iambic Pentameter.  Almost every major poet , prior to the 20th Century, wrote Iambic Pentameter when writing their best known poetry.  Exceptions would be poets like Walt Whitman (free verse), Robert Burns (who wrote a variety of metrical lines – mostly iambic), and Emily Dickinson (whose meter is derived from hymn tunes, which is why so many of her poems can be sung to Yellow Rose of Texas).

Iambic is an adjective. Iamb is the noun and is short for Iambus. Iambus is from the Greek and refers to two. Therefore, Iamb refers to any two syllable “unit”, referred to as a foot by metrists, consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (or ictus).

What is a Foot?

A foot is defined as a group of syllables (unspecified in number) comprising a metrical unit. In the case of an Iamb, the metrical foot contains two syllables.

In the following example, I’ve bolded and italicized the stressed syllables.

To be or not to be

The bolded and italicized words receive greater stress, when speaking, than the words which have not been bolded or italicized.

Now, if we break this line into feet, we end up with following:

To be | or not | to be | that is | the question.

Except for the last foot, each foot consists of two syllables. The last foot is a variant called an amphibrach (in that it varies from the first four iambic feet). The amphibrach is a foot (a metrical unit) consisting of an unstressed, stressed, and unstressed syllable.

A strictly iambic line would be:

Of hand, | of foot, | of lip, | of eye, | of brow   (Shakespeare: Sonnet 106: Line 6)

What is Pentameter

The Greek prefix Pent- or Penta-, means five. Pentameter therefore means a line of verse consisting of five metrical feet. Remember, a metrical foot contains an unspecified number of syllables until it is modified by an adjective like Iambic.

What is Iambic Pentameter

The adjective, Iambic, modifies Pentameter to mean, a line of verse consisting of five Iambic metrical feet [feet containing an unstressed and stressed syllable].

There are also examples of poems written in trochaic pentameter. In this case, the term would mean a line of verse consisting of five trochaic [metrical feet [feet containing an stressed and unstressed syllable]. (Note: The stressed and unstressed syllables, in comparison to Iambic, are reversed.)  It would also be possible to have amphibrachic pentameter. To my knowledge, no poems have been written in this meter. If any reader knows of one, let me know!

The line:

Of hand, | of foot, | of lip, | of eye, | of brow

is strictly Iambic Pentameter because each foot is strictly an Iamb and there are strictly five feet.

The line:

To be | or not | to be | that is | the question.

or

To be | or not | to be | that is | the question.

is not, strictly speaking, an Iambic Pentameter line, because the final foot is amphibrachic and the fourth foot may be read as being trochaic. However, it is considered an acceptable variant of the Iambic Pentameter line. In the second scansion of the line above, putting the emphasis on is might sound awkward, but imagine an actor speaking the line. The second scansion gives the line a different emphasis. It all depends on where the is is.

Perfect Iambic Pentameter?

After having written this, I’ve noticed various websites who (not to put too fine a point on the matter) get it wrong. Frostfriends.org, for example, writes the following about the closing line of Frost’s poem Birches:

Birches: “It’s when I’m weary of considerations.” This line is perfect iambic pentameter, with an extra metrical (feminine) ending.

Their statement is incorrect. This line is not perfect iambic pentameter (and this is more than just splitting hairs). A perfectly iambic pentameter line would not have a feminine ending (an amphibrach) in the final foot. The correct thing to say would have been – this is a perfectly acceptable variant within an iambic pentameter pattern.

More on this poem, and its scansion, can be found at my post on Frost’s Birches.

Symbols used in scanning Metrical Poetry

Lastly, the symbols used to denote stress in a line of verse are as follows:

weak-stress This symbol denotes a weak stress.

intermediate-stressThis symbol denotes an intermediate stress.


strong-stressThis symbol denotes a strong stress.

metrical-divider This symbol denotes the division of a metrical foot.

So, the line above would appear as follows:

to-be-scansion

Note: I’ve scanned that as receiving the stress although I believe that the word is should receive it. For more on this opinion and why, visit my post on To Be or Not To Be.

And consider the following scansion:

when-to-scansion

In the scansion above, notice that the word sweet receives an intermediate stress. This means that most readers would probably put less stress on sweet (saying it less loudly) than on the syllable si- of silent. Try it out. Also, importantly, notice that the feet divide the words. An iambic metrical foot consists of two syllables, not necessarily two words. Thus, count two syllables and mark off a foot, count two more syllables and mark off a foot, etc… Mark off every two syllables regardless of the words. If the lines contains more than 10 syllables, as in the scansion of “To be or not be”, one of your metrical feet will not be iambic.

A Ten Syllable Line is not the same as an Iambic Pentameter Line

It’s also possible that just because a line has ten syllables, it might not have 5 feet. It might have four feet with two anapestic feet. And this is where science becomes art. There is an art to scansion, but it is not hard to learn. While metrical feet may divide words, the placement of metrical feet is not insensitive to phrasing. In other words, sometimes it may make more sense to recognize a phrase as being anapestic or, as with feminine endings, amphibrachic.

(My next post answers what to do when considering such variants.) In the example above, the last foot was not iambic. In other examples, the first, second, third or fourth foot might not be iambic. When I write my next post, on variant lines, we’ll figure out how to tell which foot gets the extra syllable.

Two More Symbols: Elision

There are two more commonly used symbol to consider. One is the symbol for elision. Elision means that instead of pronouncing a word as having, say, two syllables, it is pronounced as having one. Likewise, a word that appears to have three syllables, might be pronounced as two.

elision This symbol denotes elision.

Consider the following line:

scansion-with-elision

This example is taken from George T. Wright’s Shakespeare’s Metrical Art. Only the first foot is scanned. Notice that -lier of livelier may be pronounced with two syllables -li-er or one -lier. If the reader wishes to maintain the iambic rhythm of the line, the whole word livelier would be pronounced with two syllables. If the word were pronounced with three, then the line would be considered dactylic – a strong stress or syllable followed by two weak stresses or syllables.

livelier

Two More Symbols: The Missing Syllable

Finally, a less common but equally useful symbol designates a missing syllable.

missing-syllable

It is useful when discussing variant lines, such as the following from my blank verse poem My Bridge is Like a Rainbow:

missing-syllable-in-my-bridge

The symbol indicates a missing syllable in an otherwise fully Iambic line. The line itself is called a headless line, but more on that in my next post.

The next post will deal with sorting out variation in the Iambic Pentameter line  – how they can be read, how to know, and if you can know.

Other Symbols, Other Systems

the-book-of-formsIt’s worth noting that there are other systems and symbols used to denote stress patterns in English Language Poetry. The one that I’ve presented here is the most universally used and recognized. There may be slight differences. For instance, Lewis Turco, in his book The Book of Forms, doesn’t use the intermediate symbol that I provided above – he uses a dot instead.

turco-intermediate-stressSymbol used for Intermediate Stress in Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms.

Besides the difference in this one symbol, however, Turco uses the same basic system I have been describing. You may run across other symbols or, if you are researching this as a part of a class, you may have an instructor that prefers one symbol over another. All that matters is that you understand the basic ideas that these symbols represent. The symbols themselves are secondary.

Beyond this point, the fights between metrists can get ugly. There is no end to the precision to which some metrists aspire. Some detest the basic system of scansion described above. Some dispense with the symbols altogether and opt to typographically move individual words up or down (in relation to each other) according to how much stress they believe each word should receive. My own view is that these systems of scansion lose sight of their original purpose. They reflect a sort of obsessiveness that has more to do with linquistics than with poetry.

  • Note: There are critics & poets who deny that meter “exists”. I tend to group them with flat-earthers and moon landing denialists. Dan Schneider, of Cosmoetica, is one of them. If you’re curious to read my response to some of his writing, read Critiquing the Critic: Is Meter Real.

(This is the short form, for a slightly more detailed description, try Wikipedia.)

Feel free to comment if you have questions or suggestions.

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24 responses

  1. You have done such a thorough job of explaining the basics. Thanks. The phrase Iambic Pentameter is, itself, nicely poetic.

    • Mona,

      If there’s any information that confuses you or that you would like to see added, please let me know. The best improvements I can make are those suggested by my readers. :-)

      Patrick

  2. This explains everything thoroughly.I’m absolutely sure that if I, as an eighth grader, can get it anyone can. Thanks!

  3. Thank you for such a well written explanation of iambic pentameter. I read somewhere that the iambic pentameter is also called the ‘divine’ meter. Do you have any info on that? Please share with us if you do. Thanks.

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  7. Do you know how you recognise it when its written down? Because surely it’s down to interperatation which words you stress and don’t, so how do you know that your not just using Iambic pentameter to something that was not meant to contain it? or is it up to the read or actor to decide whether ot not to add the use of Iambic pentameter-or is it that it was simply sound odd if you added Iambic pentmeter to everything?

    • //Do you know how you recognise it when its written down? Because surely it’s down to interperatation…//

      No, it’s absolutely not a matter of interpretation. English, like other European languages, is an accentual language (unlike, say, Chinese). This means that, as part of the way our language is spoken and communicated, we choose to emphasize some syllables more and some less. If you’re curious, I’ve had this argument with Dan Schneider and you can read the results here. You will find, if you research the subject, that linguistics during the past century, has “shown convincingly that many aspects of poetic form are merely extensions of natural processes already at work in language itself” – this from the Princeton Ecyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. This is not to say that certain words might shift their ictus over the centuries, but they are the exception to the rule. I can’t think of any poetic passage which could be (or ever was) misidentified as Iambic Pentameter. In fact, there are some passages in Shakespeare which were wrongly written as prose, when they were obviously intended to be verse. Lastly, it’s not up to the reader or actor to decide if the given verse is Iambic Pentameter. That was decided by the poet when he or she wrote it. What is an interpretation matter are instances when one word could be emphasized rather than another, as in the line “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Does one emphasize ‘that’ or ‘is’?

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  10. Thanks for sending me some of your work. Unfortunately, I’m not your best audience.

    The Bible bores me to tears. There are some beautiful passages in the King James translation, but it’s solely the language that compels me. In all honesty, I think those days are long past. What you propose to do isn’t all that different from the thousands of medieval mystery (or miracle plays) written prior to morality plays and the later Elizabethans. They were all plays drawn from passages in the Bible. You’re at least some 600 years late.

    You might get some small recognition in some small circles.

    The larger problem is that you simply can’t write like this. It’s dated. You throw in a few dusty touches here and there – the auxiliary do-form, the inverted grammar (even Miltonic inversions), the thee’s and thou’s — but it’s like trying to animate the dead. The culture and language from which this kind of poetry and language sprang is long gone. You’re not even writing blank verse, but a free verse affectation.

    If you really want to compete with the Elizabethan poets and playwrights, you don’t do it by imitating their language but by imitating their ambition. The Elizabethans didn’t go about trying to imitate the drama of the Middle Ages or the verse forms of the 12th or 13th century (or the Angle Saxons for that matter). The days of mystery plays, cantatas and Biblical epics are behind us. Learn to elevate the language that is spoken today. Write about lives and characters that are — to us today — what the characters of the Bible were to the people of the Middle Ages.

    Lastly, study the difference between writing poetically and writing poetry. Your verse is full of tired adjectives, adverbs and mannerisms. For example: “Cannot devise or move like common beast…” “Common” is a tired adjective we might expect from an Elizabethan writer sleep-walking his way through a given passage. It’s an antiquated commonplace — hackneyed. Your writing is full of similar mannerisms.

    My advice is this: whether you decide to write free verse or blank verse, learn to work within a modern vernacular. You’re not living in the 16th century.

    All that said, you clearly have tremendous talent and drive. Not everybody can write a pastiche like yours. There’s something there, you just have to pour it into the right bottle.

  11. Dear Patrick:

    I would like to express my sincere gratitude for this article. I’m a journalist writting to you from Spain. I’ve always been passionate about English language and culture. This year I started to study English Philology (now called here “English Studies”) in the university of distance education in my country. I signed up for just a few subjects (to see how I manage studying by myself) this first academic year and one of them is Medieval and Renaissance English Literature. I was feeling overwhelmed with all the syllabus, the works I must read and specially with the meter. The manual is not that good explaining this and I was feeling a bit lost. Until I found your page while studying Chaucer I googled “iambic pentameter”! I thank you so much for your perfectly comprehensible and complete explanations. You saved my life!

    Best wishes,

    Zulema (θulemɑ)

  12. Very descriptive of the basics, thank you.
    I need to imitate shakespeare’s style in Titus Andronicus, and I’m wondering if most lines with 10 syllables will work

    • //I’m wondering if most lines with 10 syllables will work…//

      No. That would just be writing a syllabic line. The lines need to be accentual-syllabic, meaning that unstressed/stress syllables (hence the name iambic) alternate.

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