The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter

The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter

There is no one way to learn how to write Iambic Pentameter. If you’re not certain what Iambic Pentameter is, then you should probably read my post on Iambic Pentameter and the Basics first. The post explains what it means, how to scan it, and provides an explanation of the some of the terminology surrounding the verse form.

How Not To

The art to writing Iambic Pentameter is partly in knowing when not to write it.

Chaucer was the first poet to write full length “poems” in Iambic Pentameter. But his language was middle English, not modern. The first drama (that we know about) written in Modern English and in Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) was Gorboduc not by one author, but two – Sackville and Norton. Since this was probably their first crack at Iambic Pentameter, and since they wanted to make a good impression, they didn’t vary the pattern one iota. In other words, they didn’t quite know when not to write it.

GorboducVidena: The silent night, that brings the quiet pause
From painful travails of the weary day,
Prolongs my careful thoughts, and makes me blame
The slow Aurore, that so, for love or shame,
Doth long delay to show her blushing face;
And now the day renews my griefful plaint.

Ferex My gracious lady and my mother dear,
Pardon my grief for your so grievèd mind
To ask what cause tormenteth so your heart.
Videna So great a wrong and so unjust despite.
Without all cause against all course of kind!

So it begins. So it goes. So it ends. Te-tum te-tum te-tum. Line after line after line. The only variant feet appear to be some first foot trochees, but even these are up for debate. The word Pardon, in the lines above, was probably pronounced after the French with the stress on the second syllable – Par(don). With a cursory glance, I could find only two feminine endings in the entire play. Here is one of them:

And eke |gain time, |whose on|ly help |sufficeth Act V.i. 105.

The verse of their play feels excessively formal and buttoned up. The vast majority of their lines are end-stopped – which is to say: each line ends with punctuation or a complete syntactic unit or phrase. In short, they wrote the way some of our modern Formalists write.

Don’t make that mistake.

Where To Start

JS BachWhen J.S. Bach used to teach harmony to his students, he would give them give chorales by Martin Luther – unharmonized single line melodies. That way they didn’t have to think about composing a melody. It was already there. All they had to do was to write the base and harmonize. His students would gradually progress from two, to three, to four part harmony.

Likewise, a cool method for learning to write Iambic Pentameter is by picking some prose to poetize. That way, all you have to think about are the mechanics of the meter. To that end, I have carefully selected some old fashioned prose some readers might recognize. Here it is:

Therefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters, both Antonius himself and also from his friends, she made light of it and mocked Antonius so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her.

Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids of the waters) and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderful passing sweet savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf’s side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people. Some of them followed the barge all alongst the river’s side; others also ran out of the city to see her coming in; so that in the end there ran such multitudes of people one after another to see her that Antonius was left post-alone in the market-place in his imperial seat to give audience.

This choice piece of purple prose was written by Thomas North – a translation of a French work by Jacques Amyot which Cleopatrawas itself a translation from Plutarch – a Greek historian who wrote while Nero was emperor of Rome. North was describing Cleopatra. The coin at right, recently discovered, is said to portray Cleopatra. We live in the 21rst Century and normally I wouldn’t pick some 500 year old snippet, but the beauty of this example as that , if you try your hand at it, you can compare your effort to the greatest poet of the English language.

Now, imagine you’re a playwright and you’ve been given an advance to write a play about Cleopatra. You only have a few weeks to write the play or the advances will stop. The drama is to be written in blank verse – the standard of the day. This is your chance to Wow! theatergoers not only with your dramatic powers but with the virtuosity of your blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) – a new and flourishing verse form. You decide to draw your material from North’s translation of Plutarch.

Free Verse First

Where do you start?

The first thing you might do is to lineate the prose. A skilled poet will do this *and* produce Iambic Pentameter but I’ll break down the thought process. And (so that this post isn’t a book length post) we’ll only poetize the first of North’s two paragraphs

CleopatraTherefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters,
both Antonius himself and also from his friends,
she made light of it and mocked Antonius
so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise
but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus,
the poop whereof was of gold, the sails
of purple, and the oars of silver, which
kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music
of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such
other instruments as they played upon in the barge.
And now for the person of herself:
she was laid under a pavilion
of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled
and attired like the goddess Venus commonly
drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand
of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters
do set forth god Cupid, with little fans
in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her.

Ta da! We now have a free verse poem. And this is probably where 99 out of 100 modern poets stop. Free verse is the easiest and least demanding literary form ever created. But for those who like to juggle with more than one ball, let’s try two. The next step is to transform this passage into Iambic Pentameter. Again, if you’re not sure what Iambic Pentameter is (but have dared to read this post nonetheless) take a look my Guide to the Basics. This will explain just *what* Iambic Pentameter is. Now on to Plutarch. Since we don’t live in the 16th Century, no need to keep the archaisms.

Now Make it Iambic Pentameter

Therefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters,

When she |was sent |for by |An-to|ni-us

both Antonius himself and also from his friends,
she made light of it and mocked Antonius

And by |his friends, |by var|ious let|ters – she
Made light |of them |and mocked |An-to|ni-us

so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise
but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus,

Disdai|ning but |to an|swer with |a barge

the poop whereof was of gold, the sails
of purple, and the oars of silver, which

The poop |was gold, |the sa|ils pur|ple and
The sil|ver oars |kept rhy|thm to |the mu-sic

kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music
of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such

Of o|boes, flutes, |viols |and ci|therns – such
And more |as can |be played |upon |a barge.

other instruments as they played upon in the barge.
And now for the person of herself:
she was laid under a pavilion

As to |her per|son: She |was laid |beneath
A cloth |of gold |of tis|sue – her |pa-vil-ion –

of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled
and attired like the goddess Venus commonly
drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand

At-ti|red like |the god|dess Ve|nus just
As she |is drawn |in pic|tures; next |to her
On ei|ther hand |were Cupidonpret|ty boys |ap-par-eled

of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters
do set forth god Cupid, with little fans
in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her.

As if |they each |were Cu|pid, fan|ning her
To keep |the wind |up-on | her.

And here it is in one piece.

When she was sent for by Antonius
(And by his friends, by various letters) she
Made light of them and mocked Antonius
Disdaining but to answer with a barge –
The poop was gold, the sails purple and
The silver oars kept rhythm to the music
Of oboes, flutes, viols and citherns – such
And more as can be played upon a barge.
As to her person: She was laid beneath
A cloth of gold of tissue – her pavilion –
Attired like the goddess Venus just
As she is drawn in pictures; next to her
On either hand were pretty boys appareled
As if they each were Cupid, fanning her
To keep the wind upon her.

When she | was sent |for by |An-ton|i-us
(And by |his friends, |by var | ious let|ters) she
Made light |of them |and mocked |An-ton| i-us
Dis-dai|ning but |to an|swer with |a barge –
The poop |was gold,| the sa|ils pur|ple and
The sil|ver oars |kept rhy|thm to |the mu-sic
Of o|boes, flutes, |vi-ols |and ci|therns – such
And more |as can |be played |up-on |a barge.
As to |her per|son: She |was laid |be-neath
A cloth |of gold |of tis|sue – her |pa-vil-ion –
At-tir|ed like |the god|dess Ve|nus just
As she |is drawn |in pict|ures; next |to her
On ei|ther hand |were pret|ty boys |ap-par-eled
As if |they each |were Cu|pid, fan|ning her
To keep |the wind |up-on |her.

This is juggling two balls. In altering the verse from free-verse to blank verse, I was careful to keep a strict Iambic Pentameter meter – the only variants being feminine endings. Notice that I’ve had to move some words around. (If I had really wanted to be conservative, I could have end-stopped every line.)

The blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) is competent and passable poetry. And  this is where many poets stop (those who write meter). Now let’s do some real juggling. Let’s vary the meter; give it some life. And since we’re writing verse drama, I’ll add some characters: Enobarbus and Agrippa. Just for the fun of it, I’ve thrown in some Shakespearean touches to give the passage a more conversational feel. I also split up the lines for visual effect, but if you put them back together, they will all be Iambic Pentameter (some with various variant feet). At some later date, I’ll poetize the second paragraph because, well,  it’s fun to do (or at least I think so). Done. Visit The Writing & Art of Iambic Pantemeter II if you want  to read my try at the whole passage.

She answered under Purple Sails

Plutarch & Gillespie

And here it is for easier reading:

She answered under purple sails...

She came from Egypt…

And here’s another juggler – one of our greatest Poets and Dramatists – John Dryden. Not who you were expecting? This is from his play All for Love; or, The World Well Lost Act III Line 180.  The Literary Encyclopedia offers a good article on the play, but you have to be willing to pay for it after the first 600 words.

Plutarch & Dryden

John DrydenAnt. … she came from Egypt.
Her Gally down the Silver Cydnos row’d
The Tacking Silk, the Streamers wav’d with Gold.
The gentle Winds were lodg’d in Purple Sails:
Her Nymphs, like Nereids, round her Couth, were plac’d;
Where she, another Sea-born Venus lay.
Dolla. No more: I would not hear it.
Ant. O, you must!
She lay, and leant her Cheek upon her Hand,
And cast a Look so languishingly sweet,
As if, secure of all Beholders Hearts,
Neglecting she could take ‘em: Boys, like Cupids,
Stood fanning, with their painted Wings, the Winds
That played about her Face: But if she smil’d,
A darting Glory seem’d to blaze abroad:
That Men’s desiring Eyes were never waery’d;
But hung upon the Object: To soft Flutes
The silver Oars kept Time; and while they played,
The Hearing gave new Pleasure to the Sight;
And both to Thought: ‘twas Heav’n or somewhat more;
For she so charm’d all Hearts, that gazing crowds
Stood panting on the shore, and wanted Breath
To give their welcome Voice.

The Chair she sat in…

And here’s another juggler! This poet’s name is T.S. Eliot. Not who you were expecting? This is from the second part of The Waste Land: A Game of Chess. Eliot doesn’t hue to Plutarch’s text. That’s not what he’s about in in this rendition, but notice how some of North’s words show up in different contexts and how the general  tone and progress imitates North’s narrative.

TS EliotThe Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,
From satin cases poured in rich profusion.
In vials of ivory and colored glass,
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid–troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odors; stirred by the air
That freshened from the window, these ascended
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.
Huge sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,
In which sad light a carved dolphin swam.
Above the antique mantle was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.

The barge she sat in…

And here are some of the greatest lines ever written by the greatest poet of the English language – 150px-shakespeareWilliam Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s version (on which I based my own) Enobarbus describes what he has seen. This comes from Antony and Cleopatra Act II Sc. II 230. You can hear it read on YouTube.

And here’s the thing to know. What make’s this passage great is what makes poetry great. It’s not content. This is what novels do. There are many great and profound passages of prose. What makes poetry great is something else: style—ordinary content made into something extraordinary. Every woman, with a touch of Cleopatra, knows that by a turn of hair, the cut of her skirt, the shade of her lips and eyebrows—small and poetic touches—her beauty is transformed into something that makes the heart skip.

And this is what’s missing in so much contemporary and free verse poetry.

If you want to be a truly great poet, learn what little touches make a woman into a beauty. Study closely how little additions and adornments turn ordinary prose into poetry. It’s not the content that makes the poem. Shakespeare’s every addition plays on the idea of Cleopatra’s sexual seductiveness. North’s passage is merely description. Shakespeare gives description suggestiveness, underscoring the psychology of the character who speaks the lines – an essential part of Shakespeare’s dramatic genius. Shakespeare’s use of imagery always underscores his character’s psychological state. When you write your own poetry, remember this. There is not a single 21rst century poet, to my knowledge, who gets it. The winds are “love-sick”. The silver oars make “the water which they beat follow faster, amorous of their strokes”.

Don’t miss the erotic double-entendre in the phrase “amorous of their strokes”.

With the image, amorous strokes, still fresh in his mind, Shakespeare then adds that the wind “did seem to glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool”.  NShakespeare's Wordplayo image is separate or divided from the image before. Shakespeare’s imagery is of a piece. This subtle linkage between images, frequently through wordplay, is a habit of his thought that allows Shakespeare to unify acts and entire plays through the linkage of word and image. In Shakespeare’s hands, imagery can be like a leitmotif. If you really want to understand how Shakespeare did it, M.M. Mahood’s book “Shakespeare’s Wordplay“, is worth every penny. Compare Dryden’s effort to Shakespeare. Interestingly, Dryden was trying to imitate Shakespeare. The entirety of Dryden’s play was written in blank verse. This was a considerable departure for Dryden who, along with his contemporaries, wrote nearly all their poetry in heroic couplets.

In the next passage, the silken tackle “swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands”. All in all, Shakespeare’s additions to North’s passage reach a kind of subliminal sexual crescendo. Enobarbus is not just smitten by the extravagance of Cleopatra’s excess, not just reporting on what he has seen, the undercurrent of his imagery reveals him to be smitten by the sexuality of her excess.

Plutarch & Shakespeare

Enobarbus: I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion–cloth-of-gold of tissue–
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

Agrippa: O, rare for Antony!

Enobarbus: Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ the eyes,
And made their bends adornings: at the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.

Upon hearing this report, Mecaenas realizes that Mark Antony, who had been the most admired soldier in all of Rome, is quickly becoming nothing more than Cleopatra’s playboy. Legend has it that when Cleopatra initially saw that she was going to be defeated by Caesar, she ordered that she be rolled inside a carpet. The carpet was to be presented to Caesar as a gift. When Ceasar unrolled it, Cleopatra unrolled with it, naked, nubile and young. The rest is history.

This is the legend.

Here is the story as presented at the United Nations of Roma Victrix website:

Cleopatra was rowed in a small rowboat by a single Sicilian, by name of Apollodorus. Upon reaching the palace area, the only way to enter Caesar’s presence was to conceal herself in such a manner without arousing suspicion of her brother’s men. The story of Cleopatra being rolled in a carpet, while false, is still true in essence. She was slipped into some bed coverings and presented to Caesar as a gift. Though little is known of the actual meeting, it’s quite clear that the young queen made an enormous impression on the great Roman. Though her ‘beauty’ is disputed, (at worst probably plain of appearance) Cleopatra was young and virile. She was elegant and charismatic, but most of all, she had power and money, and Caesar probably supposed she was susceptible to manipulation. Caesar, at 52 years old and 35 years her elder, was easily seduced, or perhaps even seduced her, as Caesar’s affairs were legendary anyway. Cleopatra was politically brilliant and secured Caesar’s loyalty, certainly not only through sexual pleasure, but through manipulation of her own. She was, and Caesar was well aware, the key to controlling the vast wealth of Egypt. Caesar was, and she was well aware, the key to securing her place as Queen, and perhaps even Pharaoh, and the power of the gods.

At the close of Enobarbus’ description, Enobarbus plainly knows that Antony will never escape the whiles of Cleopatra. The image of Cleopatra, at right, was created for a BBC documetary. It is a reconstruction of what Cleopatra might have looked like based on coinage, description, artifacts, etc…

cleopatra-reconstructedEnobarbus: I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breathe forth.

Mecaenas: Now Antony must leave her utterly.

Enobarbus: Never; he will not:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

Give it a Try

If you decide to give North’s passage a try, measuring yourself against Shakespeare, be sure and post it in the comment section!

In any case, if this post has been helpful or has inspired you, let me know.

53 responses

  1. Lovely, in depth article. Thank you for taking the time to write it! I’m trying to write a sonnet with iambic pentameter, and am not finding it easy.
    This article was very helpful.


    • Hi Sara,

      Let me know how it goes and send me your sonnet when you’re done (if you’re not too shy) I’d love to see it. It’s great to know that the article was helpful, and if you have any other questions, ask away.


    • Thank you for this blog! It has been around for a very long time and only now have I discovered it! The tricky thing for me is finding out which words/ syllables are stressed and unstressed. I have been writing poetry for almost two years and never have written in a meter form. Because I find it easier to arrange and let the words speak for themselves. Also I make the message in my poems to be the strong force rather than all the little technicals.

      For my next poem I’m going to write about the concept of time and time management and I would like to write in iambic pentameter to match the tick and toc sounds clocks make. Because of your advice I thought I could write one in free verse style and then later do a revised version of the same poem in iambic.


    • Thankyou for the reply. It’s amazing how you quickly respond back to comments. I will write it when the creativity is back in the air.


  2. Thanks for the lesson, thanks for your effort. So here is my attempt, its far from pure iambic pentameter but I’m just a beginner you know. I did digress a bit from the source material too …

    When she received the summons from both he,
    Antonius himself and his cohorts,
    amusement brought a sigh, a smile, a giggle
    The poor poor man, what foolish hope he had.
    Her barge she asked to be made ready
    and on the river Cydnus did she sail

    Reflecting gold across the water does
    the poop make pale the mid day sun, the sails,
    the purple sails are slowly heaved and rolled
    by fresh cool breeze jealously rushing in.
    By silver oars the waves are pressed and parted
    and pound a rythm to music slow and deep.

    Beneath a gosamer veiled pavilion,
    the centerpiece herself, like pearl in shell,
    like crystal tears of angels she does shine,
    as candle light behind fine silk she glows.
    Pale cream splashed over todays plump peaches.
    The smoothest velvet over ripe fruit draped.

    By gentle deep brown framed her happy eyes,
    serene expression, tiny lips so full,
    so begging, sweetest cherry, faultless bliss.
    Uncomplicated, so modest, so perfectly pure.
    The chest does swell and hold and heart does ache,
    with eyes on her all else does fade away.


    • Tony, I love that you gave it a try! Sails heaved and rolled. The waters were pressed and parted – the rhythmic music. My favorite: “Pale cream splashed over todays plump peaches”! Ha! The pearl in the shell… well… it was strung on a necklace wasn’t it? All of it gives the lie to her modesty and purity.

      So much insinuation and innuendo – I think you and Shakespeare saw the matter in just about the same light.


    • I was certainly influenced by you drawing attention to Shakespeares suggestiveness, i would not otherwise have been so bold. I’m gonna pick up a copy of Shakespeare’s Wordplay. Interesting that even he thought she “beggar’d all description” so I thought I might try, but not having seen her I may have been thinking of someone else, its quite a challenge, i think I might try again.


  3. An excellent introduction! Here’s my version, which is pretty flat compared to Shakespeare:

    She sneered at letters from Antonius
    and from his friends, and mocked them with her wordless
    answer when she paraded down the Cydnus
    River, her royal barge embellished with
    a golden quarterdeck and purple sails,
    with splashing silver oars a metronome
    for serenading flutes and oboes, pear-like
    guitars and viols whose Venus-bodied shape
    mirrored her own, and draped like Venus in gauze,
    she lolled beneath a canopy of thin-
    meshed gold while on each side young undressed boys,
    like painters’ Cupids, fanned her with little fans.


    • Hey, that’s great! I like how you compared the “pear-like” guitars and viols to Cleopatra’s “Venus bodied” shape. Nice touch. And your blank verse is solid.

      Thanks so much for sharing your effort. :-)


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  5. Hi. this is an amazing article!

    This is EXACTLY what i was looking for! I wanted to know how to go from an idea to something akin to shakespeare, but navigating the confusions of free verse, blank verse, and iambic pentameter was a headache.

    I love that you showed how these different poets approached one source.

    I’d like to read more about constructing dramatic poetry in this fashion? Would you be able to supply any further references? I’d be so happy. Thanks! :)



    • Hi Arthur, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to approve and respond to your comment! It’s been a busy last couple of days. My care went off the road last night – no damage to me or the car.

      Anyway, that’s great that the post worked for you. It’s incredibly rewarding to hear from a reader like you. :-)

      I’d like to read more about constructing dramatic poetry in this fashion? Would you be able to supply any further references? I’d be so happy.

      Sort of… but I’m not sure. Which do you mean? – constructing blank verse within a dramatic framework, or weaving scenes into a coherent and dramatic whole? The first focuses more on poetry, then second more on drama. Maybe if you give me an idea of what you’re trying to do?


  6. Pingback: On Linux, Software Patents & Shakespeare « PoemShape

  7. Kind of stumbled along with a haphazard iambic pentameter due to trying to make it rhyme:

    Letters from antonious sent for her
    she took heed of them with an ice cold shoulder
    and took her barge out to river cydnus,
    on the golden deck she lay, shrine to Eros.

    Purple sails with gusting gales unfurled
    and thus, across the waters the barge hurled.
    Its Silver oars were loud and swayed
    in harmony with the sensual music played
    from the flutes, viols and citherns and such
    which rivaled the servants’ fanning touch.

    But her countenance wasn’t as fair as Venus,
    under her gold pavilion, her layer of brightness.


  8. Octavian: What ails Antonius’ audience?

    Agrippa: None but the serpentine tremors of heart,
    That shepherds them away from the Throne;
    Disorderly ants after grains of sugar,
    Grains on golden leaf on the Cydnus.

    Octavian: What spectacle reduces mighty man
    To a curious child? From heaven or hell?

    Agrippa: Riches, common yet envied, women, common
    Yet valued, beauty, rare yet despised.
    All together, especially, when of Earth,
    That, that, reduces man, mighty or not.

    Dolabella: Should the Gods now descend upon this Earth,
    They shall pass for men, mere mortal men, such
    Is the scene to be seen. Nereides seem
    To hover over the flower of my heart
    And extract the honey of my love
    And by the look of it, everyone present.

    The poop of gold, the sails of purple,
    The silver oars that caress the virile
    Water with each stroke, set to music of
    The flutes, howboys, citherns and other
    Such instruments, all embellish the barge.
    Heaven on Earth or the river Cydnus,
    But for the Hades that runs in us.

    Divine to divine with all senses, she,
    The Venus of this Heaven, laid under
    A pavilion of gold cloth tissues,
    With two cherubic Cupids to her
    Either side, to fan wind upon her.

    Octavian: Who casts such charms on our men? Is it her?

    Dolabella: Yes, she who was sent for many times; yes
    She who mocked Antonius and disdained
    Much to set sail. But now has come only to
    Show-off to the world and mock it some more.


    • Hey Narendranath, that’s really cool! Your own voice really comes out in this.

      You’ve made it your own. The Blank Verse is interesting, very muscular. In a couple places the meter looses the measure, but I’m impressed. :-)


  9. Mr Gillespie,
    Yes but what influenced those variant foots were some ideas I picked up here. The Iambic Pentameter when converted to Iambic Tetrameter or Trimeter should no longer be as metric and the metre should not be monotonous. So I thought I might as well take the liberty. It’s alright, isn’t it?
    Mr G, I register my thanks. By the way, it is always good to know that the teacher is impressed.


    • The Iambic Pentameter when converted to Iambic Tetrameter or Trimeter should no longer be as metric and the metre should not be monotonous.

      The degree to which a poet can vary iambic pentameter and still call it that varies depending on the poet and citic. While a few readers might call some of Wallace Stevens’s later verse “blank verse”, I would not. I tend to be a little harder on the definition. I find that too much variance turns the verse into accentual rather than accentual/syllabic meter. But everyone eventually sets their own standard.

      As to substitution. One doesn’t normally, even by today’s standards, substitute Iambic Tetrameter or Trimeter for a Pentameter line – or at least only very rarely. What is normally considered a substitution pertains to an individual foot, not an entire line. So you might substitute a trochee, spondee, anapest, amphibrach, etc, for an Iamb; but you wouldn’t substitute a line of Iambic Trimeter for Iambic Pentameter.

      As to how much substitution? That’s a fine line. Too much breaks down the underlying pattern, too little leads to monotony. That said, it doesn’t take much to avoid monotony. Milton’s lines are not monotonous with only sparing use of variant feet. My own suggestion is that you scan a hundred lines of Milton, Shakespeare, and Frost. See for yourself how much they vary the pattern, then try it yourself. My own habit when learning, is to start strict (just to prove I know the rules and can play by them), then artfully learn to break them. :-)

      Edit: If you really want to understand blank verse, read Shakespeare’s Metrical Style by George Wright.


  10. hey i have an assignment due this friday and the yr 11literature class has to do a creative task of writing the final scene of Hamlet. This is quite exciting for me because of my personal connection with the many themes. I discovered I can earn extra marks by writing a section of my scene in iambic pentameter. But as you can imagine, i am no Shakespeare. I am finding it difficult to translate one of my soliloquy’s into this style. I was wondering if you would be able to help?


    • Yes. Visit the Services page, or see the header above. Call it tutoring – either a half-hour or one hour session. Not sure it’s worth it for ‘extra marks’, but you’ll have to decide. :-)


  11. Hello, I just wanted to leave a comment saying how wonderful this was! I was trying to help a friend out by using the iambic pentameter and this just helped me so much! Made it click, and I ‘think’ I got it (needless to say I’m butchering it, but I do NOW understand what I should be doing!). So, thank you so much for this great post!


  12. Pingback: The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter – II « PoemShape

  13. I live in Timboon, Australia and my work actually deals with this
    matter. Zeal for what you believe and in putting it into words is a true
    talent. Your article is informative, illuminating,
    and passion-driven, all of which I profoundly respect when dealing with this topic.


  14. Pingback: Iambic Pentameter · Mr Vinceo

  15. Pingback: Flirtations with Iambic Pentameter · Mr Vinceo

  16. Hello, wonderful article! Recently I have become more interested in poetry, and reading your blog has been a (very helpful) delight. Thank you so much for taking the time to post.

    A little late to the party, but here’s my attempt:

    She came by the river Cydnus atop
    an elegant barge of purple and gold.
    Oars of silver flashed in a uniform pulse
    (down and up, up and down) to the music
    of flutes and citherns, catching the sun as
    they rose, tossing its gold upon the water.
    A stray beam lit her face—She, Queen of Eygpt,
    whose mild lashes framed molten eyes, whose
    skin shone gold, whose voice was that of the viol,
    precise and fine as the weaver who seeks
    to bind—the very picture of a goddess.

    Not sure how well I did with the meter. Thanks again!!


    • Hi Lauren! Thanks so much for trying! What a treat to come home to after a long day of work. By modern standards, your blank verse might squeak through, but by Elizabethan standards, it’s a little too losee. :-) But for a first try, who’s complaining? Not me. My favorite line: “whose voice was that of the viol”. Lovely. Now to write the play.


    • Thank you! I’ve only tried writing iambic pentameter a few times now, but each time I tend to just focus on the syllables and kind of forget about the stresses/accents until the end…oops. I’ll try my hand at the second passage when I have the time and make sure I keep them in mind the whole way through.


  17. Good post. I learn something new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon on a
    daily basis. It’s always interesting to read content from other writers and practice something from their websites.


  18. As a child I spent much of my time discovering things and relationships in the world. A marvelous experience. I am in a more infrequent manner still discovering things and relationships in the world and I have just come upon this wonderful web site and thank the creator!


  19. “Te-tum te-tum te-tum. Line after line after line.”

    I have a strange OCD about avoiding metrical substitutions. To me, despite the sometimes mechanical-sounding result, unvaried meter just feels “right.”


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  21. Thanks very much for taking the time to write this. I’m just getting started as a hobby poet and post was very educational, and motivating.


  22. This is certainly a humbling exercise! Here’s my try:

    Again in naked words he penned his hopes
    And pleas in such fine form, none could despise
    Their power, and yet she did; for all reply
    She loosed a sea of laughs, which drowned her gaze
    In salty spite. Then, to her barge she went;
    The bay glittered, a golden throne carved out
    Of sea and sun; this latter star did bow
    To grace her fine-featured frame, while strange notes,
    Piped by flutes, marched in processions of air.
    So as the heart pulls blood from distant veins,
    So did she pull the crowd, the herdlike mob,
    Who from miles around this wide world watched
    As if she were a goddess had come down
    To care of mortal things, for one brief day.
    And all the while he sat prettily posed,
    Enthroned in solitude in the main square,
    And none came, for what living soul could want
    Of man, with such a woman to see there?


  23. Pingback: Helpful Websites – Ms. Ellis' Literature Lab

  24. I’ve always been a sucker for challenges… and had a ball trying my hand at this particular one. I’d love any feedback as to how it might be improved…

    Not just one letter, but a pile of them:
    Antonius’ curt, imperious note,
    The blah-blah of some legal-minded scribe,
    And various summons, issued at the hands
    Of men who deemed proximity to power
    a worthy end, sufficient in itself.

    She smiled. “So this is it? Your show of power?This blunt command is all you have to wield?
    Man of courage, strong of arm and will,
    How dimly you do comprehend this world!
    I’ll show you power! A woman many be weak
    In that brute combat in which you excel
    But more of life is lived outside the scope
    Of battle-mongering than on the field.”

    And taking to her chambers, she devised
    A costume such as Venus might have worn,
    Dressing herself in such seductive guise
    She could not fail to turn the head and eyes
    Of anyone, much less a healthy man.
    Dressed like a goddess, from among her slaves
    She cast a set of pretty-cupid boys
    Who, all but naked, holding woven fans,
    Embodied in the flesh a painter’s dream;
    Her fairest maidservants became the Nymphs
    and Graces of which ancient legends speak;
    And thus attired, they all took to the stage:
    A golden barge, with silver oars and sails
    Of Tyrian purple, hung with golden drapes.

    An orchestra of instruments: plucked strings
    And bows and reeds and hollow flutes, dispensed
    A sweet, exotic music to the winds,
    Keeping the silver oars in perfect time
    As the barge moved down the river. There she lay,
    On deck beneath a golden canopy,
    Attended by her servants, smiling at
    The crowd that gathered soon along the banks,
    Exuding wonderous perfume as she passed.

    Imperious, he sat upon the throne
    Erected in the forum by the State:
    The children were the first to skip away,
    Drawn by the spectacle down at the pier.
    In twos and threes, their parents followed suit,
    Pretending that their offspring needed care.
    Then, shamelessly, the multitudes decamped;
    He sat alone there in the empty square.


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