Iambic Pentameter (Variants – I)

  • This post was edited, tweaked & improved on March 24, 2009.
  • February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost (& Middleton is a scansion too far), 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.

Variants That May or May Not Be Variants

Individual lines of Iambic Pentameter can be found in any poem, including free verse.

However, since free verse avoids any regular meter, there’s no meter from which to vary.

So, variants are only relevant within the context of Metrical poetry. Blank verse is meter consisting of un-rhymed iambic pentameter. It is the verse of Shakespeare’s Plays and the verse of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

john-milton1This turn hath made amends; thou hast fulfill’d
Thy words, Creator bounteous and benigne,
Giver of all things faire, but fairest this
Of all thy gifts, nor enviest. I now see
Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self
Before me; Woman is her Name, of Man
Extracted; for this cause he shall forgoe
Father and Mother, and to his Wife adhere;
And they shall be one Flesh, one Heart, one Soule. Paradise Lost Book 8 491-499

In the passage above, Adam expresses his gratitude for the creation of Eve – man’s gratitude for woman.

The first line that appears irregular is the fourth line. However, this line is not, in fact, a variant. Milton usually wrote a very strict blank verse in terms of syllable count. So, if a line looks like it might contain an extra syllable, especially in Milton, there’s usually a way to read it while maintaining the integrity of the pentameter line. In the case of the fourth line, -viest (of enviest) should be elided (0r synaeresized as some metrists say), making it one syllable instead of two.


Making the assumption that a poet means for two syllables to be elided, when habit of speech tells us they can be, is usually a safe assumption for poets through the 19th century. But this assertion, like all things, isn’t without controversy. Some metrists will assert that anapests shouldn’t be swept under the rug and that elision is simply a prudish avoidance of anapests. Anything can be carried too far; and not all anapests should be excised. On the other hand, metrists who oppose such elision (as above) give no answer as to why so many anapests during this period of poetry occur with words that can be easily elided or synaeresized. Even in the 20th Century, Robert Frost will frequently read anapestec feet as Iambic. In Birches, he writes They are but contracts the words to read They’re when reciting the poem. It’s hard for critics to argue with that! In poetry prior to the 20th century, indisputable anapests can be hard to find unless one considers all epic caesura to be anapests (more on that later). The pragmatic answer is that poets saw words like  enviest as a sort of middle ground – a compromise between anapests and a stricter iambic rhythm. Simple as that.

By the 20th century, the strictures and expectations concerning blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) loosen considerably. Also, especially toward the end of the 20th century, poets have become less knowledgeable and skilled in the use of blank verse and iambic pentameter. One need not assume that a word can be or should be elided.

The 8th line is trickier: “Father and Mother, and to his Wife adhere“. This is an eleven syllable line and there are two ways to scan it. One way, knowing that Milton was a very rule-bound writer of blank verse, is to look for another possible elision.


In this case, “to his could be elided – the two words combining so that, when one reads it quickly, the word “his” almost disappears: Father and Mother, and to’s Wife adhere. Such elisions were common practice in Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden and many other poets during this period. (Poets during the Restoration took Iambic Pentameter very seriously.)

But then again… the tricky “Art” of Scansion

But then again, as I presently devote an entire post to this passage, I’ve taken to another possibility:

Epic Caesura

In this scansion, I’ve read the line as having an Epic Caesura (to be discussed below). The rest of the feet are iambic. (In essence, an Epic Caesura is a feminine ending at a midline break.)  So… some lines can be scanned in multiple ways. As for myself, I think I’ve come to prefer this second scansion.

Missing & Extra Syllables

In my last post (Basics), we saw that even though a poem or play might be written in Iambic Pentameter, individual lines may vary from the overall pattern. The 11 syllable line beginning Hamlet’s famous, blank verse soliloquy is an example: To be or not to be, that is the question. A given line may have 9 , 11 or even 12 syllables instead of 10. And variations in Iambic Pentameter can extend even further. Shakespeare will sometimes intersperse the overall 10 syllable pattern with 6 syllable lines – called squinting lines (a term coined by George Wright).

Not all of these lines could be called Iambic Pentameter (since they’re not all Pentameter or five foot lines), but they might be variations if they vary from (but not too far from) an established iambic pentameter pattern. They also will generally be iambic. In other words, all these lines might be found in Free Verse but context is everything. In free verse, there is no meter to vary from, therefore the same line in a free verse poem wouldn’t be heard as a variation.

Let’s say a given line in an Iambic Pentameter poem has eleven syllables.

How, if one is scanning, do we decide which foot contains the extra syllable?

The following rule of thumb is fairly reliable: Choose the scansion that preserves the most Iambs. NOTE: If you were reading a poem that was Trochaic Tetrameter or Trochaic Pentameter, let’s say, then you would choose the scansion that preserves the most Trochees.

(I stress fairly because, in some cases, scanning a poem is as much art as science. If you don’t have a tin ear for the rhythm of language, the art of scansion is learned quickly.)

Missing Syllables: Headless Line

Here is an example from my own blank verse poem, Ulysses in Burlington, Vermont :

Longboard idle at the curb – I dole
My laws to boys that leer and know not me

If you divide the first line without giving thought to preserving the most iambs, marking off every two syllables, you might scan the first line as follows:


This gives us five feet (a Pentameter line). But by simply marking off every two syllables, starting with the first word, we have created a line with no Iambic Feet. They are all Trochaic – meaning that the first syllable of each foot is stressed and the second unstressed (the reverse of an Iambic Foot). If this were a free verse poem, this scansion would probably be as good as any. And if this were a free verse poem, another way to scan might be as follows:


In this case, we have a four foot line, or a tetrameter line, not pentameter. (A one foot line is a monometer line, two foot line is a dimeter line; a three foot line is trimeter; a four foot, tetrameter; five foot, pentameter; six foot, hexameter.) In the line above, the first two feet are Trochaic, the third foot is Anapestic (two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable, while the last foot is Iambic.

While tetrameter lines or trochaic pentameter is not unheard of in an Iambic Pentameter poem, consider it an option of last resort. If we follow our rule of thumb, preserve the most Iambs when scanning an Iambic Pentameter Poem (as well as trying to preserve the five feet of a pentameter line) we end up with the following:


A Cretic Foot?

The arrow indicates a missing syllable. This scansion preserves our five feet and preserves the Iambic pattern established by the poem.You might be tempted to read the first two feet as one |Long-board id|, a cretic foot – also called an amphimacer. This foot is exceedingly rare in Iambic Poetry. It also would make the line above a Tetrameter line:

Longboard id|le at| the curb| – I dole

There’s no hard and fast reason why one couldn’t read the first foot as cretic, but metrists generally prefer to read a line within the context of an established metrical pattern. Since the established metrical pattern of the poem is blank verse (I wrote it), my intention was to treat the line as a headless Iambic Pentameter variant.

  • Hint!If you just can’t make sense of a line, sometimes it helps to scan the line backwards. Start by establishing the last foot of the line first, (|I dole| in the line above), then work your way backwards.

Missing Syllables: Broken-backed Lines

A line missing an unstressed syllable before the stressed syllable in the first foot is called a headless line and is a common variant of Iambic Pentameter. A missing syllable may occur in any foot. Here’s an example from Shakespeare:


In this case, the third foot is missing an initial unstressed syllable. This is called a broken-backed line because an unstressed syllable is missing after a midline pause (Wright: Shakespeare’s Metrical Art Page 176). The final foot is an Amphibrachic Foot which, in an Iambic Pentameter poem, is called a Feminine Ending. That is, when a line ends on an unstressed syllable, it is called Feminine. When it ends with a stressed syllable, it is called Masculine.

One more important lesson to notice about the line above is that it contains ten syllables. But just because the line contains ten syllables doesn’t make it Iambic Pentameter through and through. Otherwise one might have been tempted to scan it as follows:


But this breaks our tidy rule of thumb. Instead of having three iambic feet (the first foot is still considered iambic with an intermediate stress), we now have two. For a full consideration of lines with missing syllables, try reading Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, already linked above.

Extra Syllables: The Feminine Ending

Any line in an Iambic Pentameter poem that contains more than ten syllables (syllables which can’t be elided) contains extra syllables. Perhaps the most common extra-syllabic variant is the line with a feminine ending – an amphibrach in the fifith foot.


Extra Syllables: The Anapestic Feminine Ending

In the 20th Century, Poets like Robert Frost (especially) introduced anapestic feminine endings.

In the final foot of the example above, Frost substitutes an anapest for an Iamb (in what would otherwise be an Iambic Feminine Ending). More on this line and the poem it comes from in my post on Frost’s Birches.

  • Note: The amphibrach  is also common before a midline break and is called an Epic Caesura (see example at bottom of post.)

Extra Syllables: The Heavy Feminine Ending

Another form of the feminine ending is known as the heavy feminine ending, wherein the final (and extra) syllable of the line receives an intermediate or heavy stress (example from Middleton’s The Changeling).


Like the feminine ending,  the heavy feminine ending can also occur before a midline break – another form of Epic Caesura – but, to my knowledge, never occurs in Shakespeare and very infrequently in Middleton.

Here’s another example of a Heavy Feminine Ending from Frost’s Birches:


Extra Syllables: A Triple Ending

A final foot with a kind of double feminine ending (two additional unstressed syllables in the final foot) is called a triple ending (example from my next post on Thomas Middleton).


or Shakespeare:


A triple ending can also occur before a midline break (Hamlet Act IV Scene 5).


(Note that all these examples are still pentameter: they still have five feet though they are not iambic through and through.) Any of the other metrical feet can contain extra syllables and the rule of thumb for scanning those lines remains the same – use the scansion that preserves the most iambic feet.


This is from MacBeth, IV iii Line 5. You might be tempted to think the line above has 12 syllables. However, the word spirits can be elided, and given what we know of the time and Shakespeare’s metrical habits, it probably should be (though no one can say with absolute certainty). The word woman, however, cannot be elided. This foot is amphibrachic, containing an extra unstressed syllable before a midline pause (the end of a phrase). It is called an Epic Caesuras (George Write: Shakespeare’s Metrical Art Page 165). The example is my own. The Epic Caesuras is easily among the most common extra-syllabic variant after the feminine ending. It is, in fact, a kind of feminine ending that occurs midline.

Extra Syllables: Epic Caesuras & Epic Controversies

But, as I mentioned earlier, calling this pattern an epic caesura is not without controversy among cut-throat scansion professionals (and they do cut throats). Some metrists, like Robert Wallace, seem exasperated with the term and the seeming avoidance of anapests. They would read the line above as follows:


This dispenses with the “pretense” of an epic caesura and the elision of the word spirits. I could go along with treating spirits as two syllables (who knows how they really pronounced it). In this case one has an anapest in the final foot.  But simply stamping this as an anapest somewhat ignores the history of meter and how it was practiced during the time.  Again, my own view is that poets like Shakespeare treated such words as an acceptable middle ground – a sort of neither/nor. In the same way that Canterbury was pronounced as a three syllable word (see my post on Chaucer), I have frequently heard spirit  pronounced as having a single syllable.

As to the whole concept of an epic caesura, I’m for it. Dicing up woman, in my view, ignores the phrase. There is some art to scansion and this is where I, personally, would apply it. Why ignore phrasing just to hang an anapest on the wall? A metrist like David Baker (Meter in English pp. 328-329) may not like the term, epic caesura, but if not, then he has to answer why these “anapests” all seem to occur with a midline break. It is the most common “anapest” in Shakespeare – and so was clearly considered an acceptable iambic pentameter variant. If all anapests were equally acceptable then one should expect to find them at every point of the line and with equal regularity – but prior to the 20th Century one simply does not. This tells us that the midline “anapest” was considered a special case – a sort of midline feminine ending. Given the evidence, I think it’s worth discriminating this foot from the run-of-the-mill anapest.

Extra Syllables: On to the Anapest

That said, the anapest is the second most common extra-syllabic variant (though far behind the epic caesura), a variant which readily picked up speed two centuries after Shakespeare died. Prior to the 19th Century, the anapest was considered a sign of decadence and depravity – literally. Critics and poets were scandalized by them. By the 20th century though, and after free verse had become the dominant verse form, the anapest became a regular (if not too regular) feature of iambic pentameter poetry. It’s overuse (overused by poets too accustomed to free verse and unskilled formal poets) frequently threatens to break down any regular metrical pattern – casting into doubt a poem’s claim to an iambic pentameter pattern. Frost used the anapest regularly but was also careful to ground the the meter just regularly by writing solid Iambic Pentameter lines – that is, without variants.

In case it’s not clear already, the anapest consists of a metrical foot containing two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. Here is a possible example from Browning’s the Last Duchess.

She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech

The second line could be scanned as follows:


Notice the extra syllable in the fourth foot. This is an anapest if we judge it by 20th century standards. However, that said, this poem was written in the 19th century, Browning learned from poets like Shakespeare, Milton and Keats and the rest of the poem, My Last Duchess, is perfectly Iambic. It’s possible that we once again have two syllables that should be elided: the approving could be read as th’approving. Browning doesn’t write it this way though. He doesn’t use synaloephasignaling the omission or elision of one or two vowels with an apostrophe as in t’other for the other. Perhaps he doesn’t feel the need to (it was assumed), but he did use synaloepha elsewhere in the poem. It is for the reader or performer to decide. I’m willing to call it an anapest – a little variation is a good thing.

The Primary Variant Feet and Their Names

If the nominal pattern for a poem were Iambic (unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) the following feet would be considered variants. By in large, these feet account for almost all of the variants you will find.

Trochaic : Stressed followed by unstressed. Hamlet Act I Scene I


Spondee: Intermediate Stress followed by Stressed. Hamlet ActI Scene III


Pyrrhic: Unstressed followed by unstressed or intermediate Stress.  Hamlet Act II Scene V



Spondaic: Stressed followed by a stressed syllable.  Act III Scene 4


Dactylic: Stressed followed by two unstressed syllables. Tempest Act V Scene 1 (Notice that this line is a tetrameter line due to the two Dactylic feet.)


Amphibrachic: Unstressed followed by stressed followed by unstressed. Hamlet Act III Scene 4. In the fifth foot, this is called a Feminine Ending. In the examples below, they would more particularly be called Iambic Feminine Endings.


If the Amphibrach occurs before a midline break, it is called an Epic Caesura (example from my own All Hallows’ Eve). (The Epic Caesura, an extra unstressed syllable, was a frequent Shakespearean variant.)


Anapestic: Two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. 2 Henry VI Act II Scene 1


In my previous post (Basics) I mentioned that sometimes phrases can define a metrical foot. The anapest would be an example of this. If a line has 11 syllables, or even twelve, and the last foot isn’t a feminine ending, then it’s likely that one or two of the metrical feet are anapests (not Iambic). In this case, it doesn’t make sense to simply mark off a foot at every two syllables, especially if the line is part of a larger poem with an established meter like Iambic Pentameter (and, as with the line above,  it would defeat the rule that one should preserve as many Iambs as possible).  In the line above, the phrase, in a day, defines the metrical foot.

All of the variations above can occur in any of the five feet in a Pentameter line.

  • 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.

What’s Next?

The third post, Iambic Pentameter & Shakespeare, tries to answer the question: Who cares? Why does any of this matter? Why on God’s green earth would anyone want to scan a poem? And we’ll answer the question using Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.

The fourth post , Iambic Pentameter: Variants & Long Lines, is more or less the second half of this post. It takes a look at some variants (not discussed here) by actually scanning some of Thomas Middleton’s blank verse (a contemporary of Shakespeare).  The verse isn’t pretty, which is why it’s useful for demonstrating the extremes of metrical variants. Between these four posts, you will hopefully have a good fix on how to scan Iambic Pentameter.

And finally, know who said this?

scott-patton“You know. . .if I had my way, I’d send that genius son of a bitch an engraved invitation in iambic pentameter: A challenge in two stanzas to meet me alone in the desert. I’ll deliver it. Rommel in his tank and me in mine. We’d stop about paces. We’d get out, we’d shake hands. . . then we’d button up and do battle, just the two of us. That battle would decide the outcome of the war. It’s too bad jousting’s gone out of style.”

Feel free to comment if you have questions, suggestions or if you would like to see some part of this subject treated more fully – I’ll add it.