Iambic Pentameter & Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

  • January 10 2011 Updated Scansion.
  • March 19 2009 John Donne & his Sonnet Death be not proud… . [This sonnet is so misread by contemporary readers that it might as well be a companion to this post on Shakespeare's sonnet.]
  • A companion guide to this one is the Annotated To be or Not to be. Don’t forget to check out some of my poetry while you’re picking my brains – I do write some good stuff. And let me know if this was helpful or if, especially, there’s a question you would like answered. I have written other posts on Iambic Pentameter including guides to the scansion of Iambic Pentameter (with more examples  from Shakespeare) and a look at Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter. I just completed a guide to Shakespearean, Petrarchan and Spenserian Sonnets. I’ve also written a detailed guide to Haiku (if you’re interested). (Further links on other Sonnets are at the bottom of this post.) According to my Stats page, this has become one of my most popular posts; and no one is commenting! Just say hello or thanks – I like hearing from readers.
  • 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.
  • April 23 2009: One Last Request! I love comments. If you’re a student, just leave a comment with the name of your high school or college. It’s interesting to me to see where readers are coming from and why they are reading these posts. :-)

william-shakespeareWhat possible use could scansion be?

A masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. In Shakespeare’s hands, the meter tells us about the writer, the speaker of the sonnet – something we might easily miss.

Meter is of no use to free verse poets or reader’s of free verse. But to poet’s writing meter, it provides a tool, an extra layer of meaning, counterpoint and play. And to readers of metered poetry, knowing that there’s an underlying pattern informs the language and meaning of the poem. In the hands of a skilled poet (Shakespeare, Keats, Wilbur, Frost, Browning), the tension between language and meter is an art form.

I’ll look at other poets and poems, because it’s fun to do, like sleuthing, but I wanted to start with Sonnet 116 because it’s so famous and so frequently misread. These days, I suspect most readers, without a knowledge of meter, would read the poem as follows:


This reading would be acceptable if this were a free verse poem. Since there’s no metrical pattern in free verse one is free to put the emphasis (ictus) wherever one wishes (within reason) , depending on ones subjective interpretation of the poem. But, in Shakespeare’s day, so many variants in so short a space would have landed him in critical hot water with his contemporaries and with the reading public. (In his shorter poems, at least, Shakespeare was much more conservative, leaving the more daring flights of metrical variation to his contemporary, John Donne – who was, regularly, skewered for his turgid meter and blank verse.)  But the first line’s two trochaic feet (Let me | not to ) would have been daring even for Donne – (trochaic feet are the reverse of iambic feet in that the stressed syllable is first and the unstressed second). Two such variant feet at the start of a sonnet was practically unheard of. Only one of John Donne’s Sonnets, the most controversial metrist of the day, could be construed to begin with two trochaic feet.


Yet even here, knowing that Donne was a skillful master of diction and meter, one could consider an alternate reading (and one should, whenever diction appears to run against a meter’s pattern):


Stressing the preposition of isn’t as awkward as it might seem. Even in modern speech we sometimes stress the preposition of – as in: Well, you know, part of the fun is getting drunk. It’s a sort of sly tone of voice which, in the case of Donne’s sonnet, fits with his argument. It’s a tone of voice Donne could be angling for, made possible only if one considers the meter. The same can be said of the second line. The temptation is to read Son as strongly stressed and Thy as weakly stressed. But in keeping with the tone of the first line, putting the stress on Thy reinforces that Donne is addressing “Father” and doing so with a direct, knowing tone of voice. There is no way to know whether this is actually what Donne intended, but the reading is reinforced by the poem’s Iambic pattern.

Likewise, there’s a tone to Shakespeare’s sonnet that we miss if we fail to take the meter into account. Here is how Shakespeare most likely expected his sonnet to be read.

  • January 10, 2011: I decided to bring this scansion “up to date”.  As opposed to before, I’ve left all Iambic feet unmarked so the scansion is less cluttered. I’ve chosen to mark the “weak” Iambic feet, marked in yellow with weak stresses, as Pyrrhic feet, although others might be inclined to mark them as Iambic. The two feminine endings, ne|ver shaken and be taken are marked green. The Spondaic feet are purple.

The sonnet takes on a different tone and, to a certain extent, meaning. Where the first scansion has a sort of elegiac sound to it – a sort of contemplation on love – the second reading gives it a more inflected sound, as if the poet were writing with an unspoken agenda – (Shakespeare was nothing if not a dramatist).

For example, in the iambic version, the line sounds almost defensive: Let me not admit impediments – as if he were responding to some sort of accusation. Don’t accuse me of denying true love. Here is what I believe. In this wise, taking into account the pull of the iambic meter, we are already starting with a very different tone to the sonnet – in keeping with the other sonnets of his collection. They are all written as though in conversation – as though the speaker of the poet were responding to another speaker, or character, whose statements we can only hear through Shakespeare’s responses. Each one is like a monologue in a play.

Consider the change in line two:




The first is how a modern reader usually reads the close of the second line. The second reading follows the Iambic pattern of the sonnet. The second reading, putting stress on the verb – isadds emphasis to Shakespeare’s argument, emphasis which a modern reading lacks.

At the start of the third line we have another choice:




While a pyrrhic foot isn’t unheard of in sonnets of the time, the iambic reading adds emphasis to the argument of the sonnet. Love doesn’t alter when it alteration finds. The emphasis almost lends a tone of sarcasm or perhaps scorn. Again, the iambic pentameter acts as a sort of prompter, hinting at how the sonnet should be read, in what tone and inflection.

Line five tends to be misread by inexperienced readers, especially when reading unaccented versions of the poem, which frequently print the word fixéd as fixed:

O no, it is an ever fixed mark.


The accented é indicates that the -éd of fixéd makes the word two syllables rather than one. Even in an unmarked edition, however, experienced readers of Iambic Pentameter, simply through familiarity with metrical poems, will quickly hear the missing syllable and instinctively read fixéd as two syllables.


The seventh line is the next that typically diverges between modern readers and the iambic pattern. The iambic reading renders that line as follows:


Notice that, once again, the verb is is accented. While modern readers might read this first foot as being pyrrhic (two unaccented syllables), accenting the verb adds emphasis to Shakespeare’s argument. No, he seems to be saying, it is the ever fixéd mark, it is the star. It almost feels as though he is disagreeing with someone who claims that love isn’t any of these things. And notice too, the -ery of every is elided, making it a two syllable word -though most modern readers would read it this way.

The eleventh line is the next where the emphasis differs between the iambic line and modern readers. Notice the emphasis on his implied by the iambic meter.


It’s the equivalent of saying: His brief hours and weeks won’t alter love! Once again, it’s a difference of emphasis. The iambic reading is more emphatic and more dynamic. Immediately following is a line that most would read as a variant iambic line – reading even as two syllables. Although Shakespeare doesn’t use syncope to change even to e’en, the tradition of eliding these words is well-enough established, especially in poetry of this period, that we can safely do so.


If a line can be read so that it conforms to an iambic pentameter reading, especially in poetry during this period (and for the two centuries following too) then it probably should be read that way. (Note: Robert Frost took to calling these feet loose iambs, by which he meant that a foot could conform to an iambic rhythm depending on pronunciation.  It’s a useful term and reflects a convention that metrical poets have known about for hundreds of years.) Anyway, the elision of words in metrical poems is like the performance of trills in baroque and classical music. It was simply assumed that the reader (or performer in the case of music) understood the conventions of the day. Those conventions didn’t need to be spelled out. That was a long time ago, though. Nowadays, those conventions need to be relearned if one wants to read a poem the way it was read in its day. In a similar vein, and during the last thirty years, old conventional practices were relearned and rediscovered in classical music performance. These days, such performances are called Historically Informed Performances. Likewise, reading a Sonnet or Blank Verse passage with an awareness of the metrical pattern underlying it, might as well be called Historically Informed Readings.

[Just as an aside. Tooting my own horn. Helen Vendler states the following: "No reader, to my knowledge, has seen Let me not to the marriage of true minds as a coherent refutation of the extended implied argument of an opponent, and this represents an astonishing history of critical oversight." Well, I've been reading this sonnet (most of them for that matter)  in just this fashion for over 20 years. Her book was published in 1997. So, Helen, if you should read this blog, take comfort. You weren't the first.]

So far,  the rhymes have alternated ABAB, CDCD, EFEF. Now comes the final couplet, GG – a Shakespearean Sonnet. Shakespearean Sonnets heat the metal through the first 12 lines then, when the working out of the argument is white hot, he lays it to the anvil and strikes:

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

My intention hasn’t been to interpret the poem, though some interpretation arises simply by reading it through the lense of meter. Many critics are troubled by the series of negatives in this poem and in its last line – never, nor, no. I’m not as trouble by the negatives. Shakespeare’s last line is almost a dare. I dare you to prove me wrong! Even in offering the possibility that he could be proved in error, he (almost sarcastically) refutes the possibility by offering the impossible retort that proving such an error would mean he never writ and that no man ever loved. Since we know already that he wrote and that men have loved, Shakespeare urges us toward the inevitable conclusion that he will never be proven in error.

The one metrical nicety to notice is in the final line. An iambic reading urges the following:


Notice the iambic emphasis on no. The modern reader might be tempted to gloss over the third foot as pyrrhic (see the “modern” scansion above), putting the emphasis on man. The iambic reading gives extra force to no, lending to the poet’s voice a kind of anger – as if both daring to be proven wrong and contemptuously dismissive of any effort to try. Go ahead, he seems to say, try! Prove me wrong! If you do, then no man ever loved! The equanimity of a modern reading, of an innocent love poem, vanishes. This is a sonnet with a transcendent axe to grind.

Reading the poem by the meter, we discover a very different kind of poem – one of refutation, of a speaker refuting an unspoken argument, not of impersonal definition. In this third post on Iambic Pentameter, I wanted to demonstrate just how powerfully a knowledge of scansion can inform and alter a poem’s meaning. If you have any questions or comments, please post.

February 4rth 2013: I was asked if I could read 116. What follows is about my 21rst try.  I wanted to communicate the sense that this is half of an argument, like a speech in one of Shakespeare’s plays. See what you think:

I’ll be examining more poems as time permits – especially Robert Frost.

Follow up posts:

Thomas Middleton’s Blank Verse

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter

Shakespeare & his Sonnet 145

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

Spenser’s Sonnet 75

John Milton’s Sonnet: When I consider…


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29 responses

  1. Hi! I’m here via the comment you left on a post in pfour.wordpress.com, about the video of this sonnet. I’m the reader — and first, let me say thank you for your kind words.

    Second, let me say: /wow/. This post has me simply beaming. I think you’ve really articulated perfectly the way Shakespeare uses meter to shape a performance, and I am most certainly going to keep it in mind next time I approach performing poetry.

    I’m looking forward to reading your other analyses, and I hope you’ll visit the pfour project again!

  2. Thank god for you, Patrick! I knew there had to be something more to this poem than many idealistic or religulous teenage girls have taken it for when posting it upon their bedroom walls. I love Shakespeare at his most vicious. If, at the very least, you have managed here to bring out (through the preferred meter of the day, no less!) the sarcasm and argumentativeness of this poem, then you have also granted it vigour and coherence within the whole sonnet cycle that saves it from such usual ethereal romanticizations as it has been subject to in recent days.

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  4. Thank you so much for existing. And for your very intelligent and thorough analysis to be still here. I’ll use it with my students. I’m an Italian teacher of English at high school and I love poetry … trying to get my students to love it , too

  5. This analysis is amazing! You are one of the most insightfull people in the world, life without shakespear sonnets analysis is just pointless. I am glad to say I have visited this absolutley amazing website, everyone is just so amazing. Thank you so much!! ily…

  6. Can you explain the difference between the two types of ictus – ie when one looks like an acute and the other a grave (french terms -sorry didn’t know how else to explain)?

  7. Im from Canadian University College, Alberta. I enjoyed reading your ideas and loved exploring how the poem can be read by meter and its implecations when done so. A lot of fun. I was doing research for this as a final paper. Cool stuff!!!

  8. Thank you so much for this post! I’m teaching a college course on “Shakespeare for Non-majors” and though I myself have a love for the music of metrical poetry, I have struggled to convey its value to students. This is the first time I’ve come across such a cogent explanation and argument! Thanks also for the post about approaching sonnets as dialogues or conversations. I’ll be drawing on these posts quite liberally in my sonnet lesson plans–thanks immensely for the insights!

    • Thanks Kelli. Wow and good luck with the course!

      I just re-read the post on 116. It’s full of typos. Good grief! But your comment is the best sort of encouragement. If you ever have questions on Shakespeare or poetry, you know where to find me. :-)

  9. Yes, please keep writing about scansion. I was able to come to the same conclusion about the couplet, but not through scansion; although I wish. I guess I understood enough about Shakespeare to know that he must have known that no one could argue that he hadn’t written or that “no man ever loved”; and therefore, no one would dare refute. Are you saying that if one understands that the poem was meant to be written in iambic pentameter that one should begin by assuming the iambic pattern? If so, how does one know when it varies? I still have difficulty with that.

    • Good morning. :-)

      //Are you saying that if one understands that the poem was meant to be written in iambic pentameter that one should begin by assuming the iambic pattern?//

      Yes. Almost without fail, you can assume that any poem written before the 20th century uses meter. That said, some poets are better at using meter than others and some eras were better at it than others…. but that’s another post, I guess. Yes, if the poem is written metrically, then you should begin by assuming a metrical pattern of some sort. It may not be iambic. It could be trochaic or anapestic.

      //If so, how does one know when it varies?//

      English is an accentual language, meaning that some words will receive greater stress than others. Imagine if I were to read your question as follows:

      If so, how does one know when it varies?

      The whole thing begins to sound a little strange, right? Like the person asking the question doesn’t know how to speak English (or isn’t familiar with the stress patterns). Every sentence in the English language, in a sense, has a meter. What if the question were asked like this:

      If so, how does one know when it varies?

      That makes a little more sense. Or how about this?

      If so, how does one know when it varies?

      Also acceptable, but do you notice how stressing different words signals a slightly different tone and thrust to the question? Now, let’s turn this question into Iambic Pentameter:

      If so|, how does| one know| when me|ter varies?

      Do you see the variant foot? It’s the last foot. The last foot has three syllables instead of two, so it’s called a feminine ending. That’s a variant foot. Now, if you didn’t know this question were part of an Iambic Pentameter poem, you could justifiably read it as follows:

      If so,| how does |one know |when me|ter varies?

      In this case, the first two feet would be variant feet. However, the rule is as follows: If you can read a foot as Iambic, then you probably should. So, in the context of a poem, you would probably want to revert to the first version because the poet is probably taking advantage of the meter to deliberately and selectively stress certain words. In this case so and does. Sometimes, though, the English language gives you no choice but to break the metrical rhythm. For instance:

      Take this sentence. The first two feet aren’t Iambs.

      You really can’t read the sentence as follows:

      Take this |sentence. |The first |two feet |aren’t Iambs.

      That’s because the first two feet would be variant feet in an otherwise Iambic Pentameter poem. You would have to read it as follows:

      Take this | sentence. | The first| two feet| aren’t Iambs.

      The first two feet are variant feet. They break the Iambic pattern. They are trochaic feet. (And once again, the final foot is a feminine ending because it ends with an extra weak, third syllable.) Does that help?

    • Well at least I can start by assuming the Iambic pattern for sonnets; but it will take me a while to catch on to the variations. For example, when trying to scan other sonnets, such as Keat’s “When I have fears” or Rossetti’s “The Sonnet,” I couldn’t tell if the iambic pattern was natural or if I was forcing it. That also leaves questions about other poems that don’t follow Iambic pentameter but some other pattern. I can see I have some work to do, but your reply was a tremendous help.

    • Hi Debra! For more help, check out the following posts:

      Iambic Pentameter: The Basics


      Iambic Pentameter: Variants I

      There’s also a third post, Iambic Pentameter, Variants II, but that last post is pretty stiff stuff and probably more than you need to know.

      By way of comparison, Timothy Steele wrote a post on meter. You can find it here. I find his prose just as stiff as his poetry, but there’s good information there. (I guess scholars can’t be taken seriously unless they write in a starched shirt.)

  10. Thank you for the blog! I am reading this poem at a wedding in Salisbury, Wiltshire, UK, next month and am hoping I can read it correctly now!

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  13. Hi, I’ve just started reading a book you recommended, ‘Shakespeare’s Metrical Art’ by George T. Wright, and I notice he assumes variation in the line ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’, where he assumes that both ‘in’ and ‘and’ are unstressed; and in the line ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought’, where he assumes ‘to’ and ‘of’ are unstressed. Do you believe he’s wrong? I am currently practising sonnet 106, and am undecided whether to stress ‘in’ on lines 1 & 5, and ‘of ‘ on lines 2 & 5.

    • No, I wouldn’t say that George Wright is wrong. Everything I know about meter I learned from Mr. Wright. :-) So, I can’t imagine a time I would dare disagree with him — only very slightly. Besides, meter isn’t an entirely objective science. Meter is only a framework (or a guide) on which good poets build their syntax. So, what’s my advice? Try reading the lines according to the meter. It *may* make sense to “promote” (as they say in metrical parlance) words like “to” and “of” from unstressed to stressed. My favorite example is:

      To be or not to be that *is* the question…

      One *can* stress the word *that*, but one can also stress *is* (following the meter) and make dramatic sense of the line. Reading with the meter subtly changes the meaning of the line and adds dramatically. If you can do the same with the sonnets, then read with the meter. If not, then there’s probably more power in treating the meter as having variant feet. For instance, I personally think there’s more to be gained and more power in emphasizing sweet:

      When to the sessions of sweet silent thought…

      I also see nothing gained by emphasizing ‘to’ over ‘When’. Same here:

      When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…

      The disruptive ‘When’ and ‘men’s’ are more powerful when stressed (for being disruptive). There’s nothing gained, in meaning or dramatically, by emphasizing ‘in’ or ‘and’.

      To sort this all out you need to pretend you’re an actor. Read the lines different ways and see which makes the most sense, which is the most meaningful. Meter derives it’s power both in ‘promoting’ words unexpectedly and by lending power to words through their disruption of the pattern. Too much disruption and meter’s rhythm and pattern is lost; and you end up with free verse. The skilled poet strikes a balance.

  14. Thank you – that’s a very thorough and helpful response!
    I hope you’ll forgive me for pointing out, though, that you already have disagreed with Mr Wright in this article: his analysis of the meter of Sonnet 116 is very different to yours!

    • Shhhhhhh! Sheesh! I’m trying to show some humility before the master and you’re blowing my cover. Truth is, neither of us knows what Shakespeare intended. Only Shakespeare. You’ll just have to decide which of us makes the more persuasive argument on your own. ;-)

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