Iambic Pentameter: A Comprehensive Definition and Examples
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


Ever wondered about the magic behind the rhythm of your favorite Shakespeare sonnet? Well, the secret is out—it's all about the iambic pentameter! This blog post will take you on a journey to understand the definition of iambic pentameter, its origins, and how to identify it. Not only that, we'll also explore why poets love it and provide some familiar examples from literature. By the end, you should be able to read and even write in iambic pentameter. So, grab your sonnet, sit back, and let's dive into the rhythm of poetry.

What is Iambic Pentameter?

If you've ever tapped your foot to the rhythm of a poem, you've felt the beat of a meter. An iambic pentameter, to be precise, is a specific type of meter. It's made of two parts: the "iamb" and the "pentameter". An iamb is a unit of poetic meter, or a foot, that contains two syllables. The first syllable is soft, or unstressed, while the second syllable is hard, or stressed. You can think of it like a heartbeat: da-DUM.

Now, what about the pentameter? 'Pente' is a Greek root meaning 'five'. So, a pentameter is a line of poetry that has five iambs—five heartbeats if you will. So, the definition of iambic pentameter is a line of poetry with five iambs. Simple as that!

Here's an easy way to remember the definition of iambic pentameter:

  • Iamb: A unit of meter with two syllables, where the first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is stressed (da-DUM).
  • Pentameter: A line of verse containing five iambs, hence the prefix 'pente', which means five.

Now that you know the definition of iambic pentameter, you'll start noticing it everywhere in poetry. It's like a secret language that you're now part of—welcome to the club!

Origins of Iambic Pentameter

Now that we've deciphered the definition of iambic pentameter, let's step into the time machine and explore its origins. Iambic pentameter may sound like a fancy term, but its roots are quite humble—stretching back to the classical Greek and Latin poetry.

Early Greek poets, like Homer, loved to use a different kind of meter called dactylic hexameter. But the Greeks also had a form known as the iambic trimeter, which was the closest thing to iambic pentameter at the time. Fast forward a few centuries, and the Romans started experimenting with iambs in their poetry, but they didn't quite hit upon the five-beat line that we know and love.

So, when did iambic pentameter, as we know it, come into the picture? Well, it was during the Renaissance period. At this time, English poets began to experiment with different poetic forms, and thus, iambic pentameter was born. It was a poetic revolution!

One of the earliest known uses of iambic pentameter in English literature was by Geoffrey Chaucer in his 'Canterbury Tales'. But it was William Shakespeare who truly mastered this form. He used it extensively in his plays and sonnets, earning him the title of the "Prince of Iambic Pentameter".

Now, just imagine—the iambic pentameter has been around for centuries, and it's still being used today. Isn't that something?

How to Identify an Iamb

Before we can fully grasp the definition of iambic pentameter, we need to understand what an iamb is. An iamb is the heartbeat of iambic pentameter, and it's simpler than you might think!

An iamb is a unit of poetic meter containing two syllables. The first syllable is unstressed (or soft), and the second syllable is stressed (or strong). Think of the word "allow". When you say it out loud, you'll notice that the accent naturally falls on the second syllable: a-llow.

To put it in a fun way, an iamb sounds like a tiny horse galloping: da-DUM. It's as if the first syllable is taking a small step, and the second is leaping forward!

Here's a simple trick to help you identify iambs in poetry: Tap your foot or snap your fingers as you read. If you find a pattern of soft-hard, soft-hard, you've likely found an iamb!

So next time you're reading a poem, listen closely to the rhythm of the words. Can you hear the iambs galloping between the lines?

How to Read Iambic Pentameter

Now that we know what an iamb is, let's take the next step in understanding the definition of iambic pentameter by learning how to read it. But don't worry, it's not as complex as it sounds!

Iambic pentameter is a type of poetic meter, which is just a fancy way of talking about the rhythm of a poem. In iambic pentameter, each line of a poem has five iambs — so, ten syllables in total. Remember our little horse galloping? Well, in iambic pentameter, that horse gallops five times in each line: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM.

To read a line of iambic pentameter, you simply stress every second syllable. For instance, take this line from William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet": "But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?"

When we read it in iambic pentameter, it sounds like this: "But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?" Notice how the pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables brings a rhythmic flow to the line.

So, when you're reading a poem written in iambic pentameter, remember our galloping horse and the counting of syllables. It's like singing a song or playing a beat on a drum!

And that's the beauty of iambic pentameter — it's a melody hidden in the words, waiting for you to discover and enjoy!

Why Poets Use Iambic Pentameter

Why do poets choose to use iambic pentameter? Surely, they're not just trying to make English class more difficult for you! The truth is, iambic pentameter serves a very important purpose in poetry.

The rhythm of iambic pentameter is said to closely mimic the natural rhythm of spoken English. When we talk, we naturally stress some syllables more than others, just like in an iamb. By writing in iambic pentameter, poets can make their lines sound more like everyday speech, while still keeping a steady rhythm. It's like having your cake and eating it too!

Take Shakespeare, for example. He's famous for his use of iambic pentameter in his plays and sonnets. By using this rhythm, he was able to create dialogue that flowed naturally, while still maintaining a poetic structure. This made his works more engaging and memorable for his audiences, both in his time and today.

So, if you ever find yourself writing a poem or a speech and you want it to have a natural, rhythmic flow, why not give iambic pentameter a try? It might just be the key to making your words more captivating and memorable.

Examples of Iambic Pentameter in Literature

Now that we've explored the definition of iambic pentameter, let's dive into some examples that will help you recognize this meter in the wild world of literature. Ready to be a literary detective? Let's go!

Shakespeare, as mentioned before, is a master of iambic pentameter. A classic example can be found in his play, "Romeo and Juliet". The line "But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?" follows the pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, five times in a row. Can you hear the rhythm?

Another example comes from the sonnet world. John Milton's "When I Consider How My Light is Spent" is a beautiful representation of iambic pentameter. The line "And that one Talent which is death to hide" is a perfect iambic pentameter. The rhythm of the words seems to match the rhythm of your own heartbeat, doesn't it?

Finally, let's look at a contemporary example. The poem "The Wasteland" by T.S. Eliot also uses iambic pentameter. Consider the line "April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead". Even in our modern times, the iambic pentameter continues to hold its charm!

These examples should help you spot iambic pentameter in other works of literature. And who knows, maybe next time you're reading a book or a poem, you might just find yourself tapping your foot to the rhythm of the iambs!

Practice Reading and Writing in Iambic Pentameter

By now, you might be feeling pretty cozy with the definition of iambic pentameter. But how about we take it one step further? Let's try reading and writing in this rhythmic pattern. It's like learning a new dance move. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be twirling with the best of them!

First, let's practice reading. Grab a piece of literature, it could be anything from a sonnet by Shakespeare to a stanza from "The Wasteland" by T.S. Eliot. Read the lines aloud, tapping your foot or clapping your hands on the stressed syllables. Notice the rhythm they create. It's like music, right?

Now, onto writing. This might seem a bit tricky at first, but remember, every poet starts somewhere. Start with a simple sentence. For example: "I love to eat ice cream on hot days". Now, let's transform it into iambic pentameter. How about: "I yearn for cream of ice when days blaze hot". See how we kept the rhythm, but added a little poetic flair?

With practice, you'll get more comfortable with iambic pentameter. It might even start to feel like second nature. And who knows? Maybe you'll discover a hidden talent for poetry. So, why not give it a shot? Remember, even Shakespeare had to start somewhere!

If you're looking to expand your knowledge of iambic pentameter and further develop your poetry writing skills, we recommend checking out Alieu Drammeh's workshop, '10 Minute Poetry Challenge: THINK LESS, WRITE MORE!.' This engaging workshop will help you hone your craft and produce more inspired poetry, all within a 10-minute time frame!