If you’ve studied any of Shakespeare’s sonnets you may have heard of ‘iambic pentameter’… but what exactly is iambic pentameter?
Iambic Pentameter Definition
In a line of poetry, an ‘iamb’ is a foot or beat consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
Or another way to think of it it a short syllable followed by a long syllable. For example, deLIGHT, the SUN, forLORN, one DAY, reLEASE. English is the perfect language for iambus because of the way the stressed and unstressed syllables work. (Interestingly, the iamb sounds a little like a heartbeat).
‘Penta’ means five, so pentameter simply means five meters. A line of poetry written in iambic pentameter has five feet = five sets of stressed syllables and unstressed syllables.
Putting these two terms together, iambic pentameter is a line of writing that consists of ten syllables in a specific pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, or a short syllable followed by a long syllable.
And one final (and more traditional) example of iambic pentameter, this time from Robert Browning’s poem My Last Duchess. The poem is written as a dramatic lyric made up of rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter, with each line made up of 5 sets of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables – 10 syllables in all:
That my last Duchess painted on the wall,Looking as if she were alive. I callThat piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s handsWorked busily a day, and there she stands…And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,How such a glance came there; so, not the firstAre you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas notHer husband’s presence only, called that spot…
Why Do Poets Use Iambic Pentameter?
Iambic pentameter is used frequently, in verse, poetry and even pop songs. This rhythm was popularised by Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatised such as Shakespeare and John Donne, and is still used today by modern authors (read sonnet examples from other poets – some use iambic pentameters and some use other meters).
Iambic pentameter is a basic rhythm that’s pleasing to the ear and closely resembles the rhythm of everyday speech, or a heartbeat.
For playwrights, using iambic pentameter allow them to imitate everyday speech in verse. The rythm gives a less rigid, but natural flow to the text – and the dialogue. Put simply, iambic pentameter is a metrical speech rhythm that is natural to the English language. Shakespeare used iambic pentameter because it closely resembles the rhythm of everyday speech, and he no doubt wanted to imitate everyday speech in his plays.