As a tutor, you don’t know how many times I’ve seen people freak out about iambic pentameter. It sounds stressful, doesn’t it? I don’t blame most of my students when they run a mile! But it’s not as hard as you might think. In fact, when it comes to analyzing a poem or old play, it’s one of the easiest things to find and get right in an exam or essay. Easy marks! And for the hobbyist readers out there, you won’t be able to stop hearing it once you catch on. It’s quite fun to spot!
So what exactly is iambic pentameter and how do you spot it? Well, it’s all about practice, really. Practice, reading aloud and lines all over your work. To get the hang of it, you’ll need a pencil, a Shakespeare play or poem and your fingers. You’re going to be doing some counting! So stick around and let me help you! Soon enough, you’ll be able to amaze your teacher with how much you know and sail through your exams with ease!
What is Iambic Pentameter?
In short, Iambic Pentameter is all about how many syllables and stresses we have in a line of a poem. Yes, it’s usually poetry. Shakespeare writes his plays in mostly verse, after all! All metre is about stresses and syllables, though, and this isn’t the only kind of metre we’ve got! It is, however, the first one most people learn about. In fact, I spent about two years of my school life able to tell iambic pentameter before I even knew about any other kind of metre! But they do exist and they are useful to know, so I will go into them in a future post.
Until then, though, let’s split the term into its two words and talk about them one by one.
So let’s look at the first word in iambic pentameter. This is where you’ll have most of the trouble. The “iamb” part refers to where the stressed syllable is. In English, there are always parts of a word that we stress (or say louder) than others. That’s just how we talk! And metre takes advantage of that. It uses the natural way we stress words. An iamb has one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed. Here are some examples below. I’ll put the stressed syllable of the sentence or phrase in bold.
The three words I used all have two syllables (a-bove, des-cribe, res-pect) and we say the second syllable louder than the first. So “above” becomes aBOVE, “describe” becomes desCRIBE “respect” is resPECT. If you tried to say it the other way around, it would sound quite silly.
Of course, the word doesn’t have to have two syllables in poetry. It can have one. It can have three or more! But for the “iamb” part of iambic pentameter, the most important thing is that there is always one unstressed syllable and then one stressed. And words can change stress based on whether they’re nouns or verbs, or whether they’re important in a sentence.
Or the easy way, the iamb sounds like dee-DUM!
This is the easy part to grasp. If you know the names of shapes, you know that “pent” means “five”. Of course, you can figure out the “meter ” part. That means that there are five iambs (groups of one unstressed syllable and then one stressed) in each line.
So if an iamb sounds like dee-DUM, iambic pentameter sounds like: dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-Dum dee-DUM dee-DUM
Here are some examples of lines with iambic pentameter. The stressed syllable will be in bold.
- “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare
- “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height” Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- “Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste” Paradise Lost by John Milton
All of those examples have 10 syllables, broken down into a stressed and unstressed syllable. a “dee” followed by a “DUM“
What Does It Do?
So now that we know what iambic pentameter looks like, what does it do for poetry or plays? Well, it makes the poem sound regular. There’s a clear pattern. And just like everything else in a poem, iambic pentameter will have a metaphorical reason or two as well as a structural one. Yes, the poem might be a sonnet. Yes, it might sound regular. You might know that Shakespeare usually writes in it. But why? I promise you that no good poet would have decided to write in a metre for no reason. We don’t choose to write a sonnet just because. A good poet has a method to their madness.
So saying that a poem is in iambic pentameter doesn’t mean a whole lot on its own, especially in an exam or essay! It’s all about being able to say what the poem is trying to do with it. The metaphorical reason could be many different things! For example, a poem about horses could use it to mimic the sound of hooves. A poem about boredom could use it to make us think about how repetitive the speaker’s life is. A lot of poems use a regular metre to show how normal or common the thing they’re writing about is. A poem about war might use a regular metre to show that all those awful things are common in war. In fact, Wilfred Owen’s famous poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est, is written in iambic pentameter.
Breaking From Iambic Pentameter
It’s even more important to take note of the times where a poet breaks from their own rules and stops using iambic pentameter, even for a word or two! I mean, the writer spends all this time setting up the rules they will use in their poem! They could have written the whole thing in prose! But they chose to use iambic pentameter. So they must have broken their own rules for a reason. A good student always keeps their eye out for times when the rules are broken. Why? Well, the writer is drawing attention to the word or phrase that breaks from the norm, of course! And just like I said with my Chekhov’s Gun post, you need to be aware of when you’re drawing attention to something in your writing so you do it properly.
There are two main ways in which a piece of writing can break from iambic pentameter: in a line and in a section. Both of these draw attention to where the break happens and give it extra importance in the writing.
A Break in the Line
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he breaks from iambic pentameter in one of the most famous lines. The stressed syllables are in bold.
“To be or not to be. That is the question” – Hamlet by William Shakespeare
So the “That” breaks from the iambic pentameter by being stressed when it should be unstressed. Of course, if we were speaking normally, we would stress the “that” anyways if it was an important question, so the reason for breaking the metre here is quite clear. This is an important question. It is one of the main questions that define him as a character, in fact. Should he live or not? Hamlet is a suicidal hero and he lets us know by stressing this question.
John Milton’sParadise Lost has another great example of a break from the metre in a line.
See here the break is that the “No” is also stressed. So the word is important. Milton is drawing our attention to the negative! Why? Because it suggests finality. This is the book of the epic where Adam and Eve eat the fruit and disobey God. With that, they lose Een and all of the perks of being there. This is the end of their life in Eden and the big, stressed “No” helps us to see that.
A Break in a Section
Shakespeare likes to use this one. It’s harder to do in a poem, but not impossible! It’s mainly used for plays that are mostly in iambic pentameter. In Hamlet, most of the low-class characters speak in prose, not verse. This makes it seem like poetry is reserved for the educated characters and they’re too low-class to speak “beautifully”. This is interesting because Hamlet starts to speak in prose, too! At that point in the play, we question whether he’s really mad or not. The fact that he switches to prose might show that he is too mad to think. Or maybe that he’s sharing how he really feels instead of making his words extra formal.
In Macbeth, the witches do speak in verse. They don’t speak in iambic pentameter like all of the other characters, though! Let’s have a look at a well-known line. The stresses will be in bold again.
“Double, double toil and trouble” – Macbeth by William Shakespeare
See what’s going on here? Well, first of all, this line is much shorter than the others we’ve looked at. It has eight syllables, not ten like in iambic pentameter! So it’s definitely not pentameter.
But also the stress comes before the unstressed syllable in each pair! Not iambic either. It’s actually trochaic, but we’ll look at that at another time.
So what is this break from the iamb saying about the witches? Clearly, Shakespeare broke from the rules for a reason. It must have a point to it! So maybe he’s saying that the witches don’t play by the same rules as everyone else? Plus, if you say it out loud, it sounds a lot quicker than iambic pentameter. It kinda makes it seem more exciting!
How to Mark Iambic Pentameter in the Text
So now that you know what iambic pentameter is, there has to be an easy way to mark it up for an exam or in your book. Who wants to spend ages drawing arrows and writing “breaks from iambic pentameter”? Well, there is an easy way to show it in the text! It’s as easy as two simple symbols: the / symbol and the ⌣ symbol.
You put the / symbol on the stressed syllables and the ⌣ symbol on the unstressed ones. So a line of iambic pentameter should look something like this once you’re done with it.
Of course, you won’t have the table, but you get the idea! This will help you split up the meter and check if it’s iambic quickly.
A Quick Guide to Iambic Pentameter in School
So the things you need to remember for your exam or essay to see and use iambic pentameter properly are easy:
- Ten syllables.
- One unstressed syllable followed by one stressed.
- Regular metre.
- A break from iambic pentameter is drawing attention to itself.
- Mark up that text!
If you remember those things, you’ll be in a great place to get top marks in an exam or essay. It will make your life so, so much easier!
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