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Iambic Meter: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Iambic Meter Defined
  • 0:52 Common Meter
  • 1:40 Blank Verse
  • 2:33 Sonnets
  • 3:18 The Fourteener
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You might've thought 'iambic meter sounds like Greek to me.' You wouldn't necessarily be wrong in that assumption. Nonetheless, read on to find out more about how this poetic meter might just start to sound familiar if you listen hard enough.

Iambic Meter Defined

Although it may sound daunting, we can identify iambic meter rather simply as lines of poetry containing iambs. But what's an iamb? When talking about poetic meter, the most basic unit is known as a metrical 'foot.' An iamb is such a foot having two syllables: the first unstressed, or 'weak,' and the second stressed.

Let's look at one example, the word 'belong.' Try saying this word out loud. Chances are, when you said the first syllable, 'be,' it was softer than when you said the second, 'long.' This is because 'long' is the stressed syllable in the word - and this is what makes 'belong' an iamb.

Originally a tool of satire and abusive criticism, iambic meter has developed much over the millennia and has been used in a variety of poetic genres, as you will see in the coming examples.

Common Meter

We'll first look at the common meter. For centuries, common meter has been widely popular among folk lyricists and writers of ballads and hymns. Songs from 'House of the Rising Sun' to 'Amazing Grace' have all made use of this alternation between lines of iambic tetrameter (four feet) and trimeter (three feet). The following example from Australia's national anthem demonstrates the practice in common meter for the tetrameter and trimeter lines to rhyme with others of the same length. Read these lines out loud:

'AusTRALians ALL let US reJOICE,

For WE are YOUNG and FREE;

We've GOLden SOIL and WEALTH for TOIL,

Our HOME is GIRT by SEA.'

Blank Verse

Before Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare, many English dramas used iambic hexameter, verses with six iambs per line, otherwise known as alexandrines. These two Elizabethan playwrights are largely responsible for changing this convention by shortening the lines to five iambs, making iambic pentameter the dominant meter of English dramatic poetry. Below is a famous example of blank verse, non-rhyming lines of iambic pentameter, taken from Act II, Scene II of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Read the verse below aloud:

'What's IN a NAME? That WHICH we CALL a ROSE

By ANy OTHer NAME would SMELL as SWEET;

So ROMeo WOULD, were HE not ROMeo CALL'D,

ReTAIN that DEAR perFECtion WHICH he OWES'

Sonnets

The Shakespearean sonnet, given its creator's flair for iambic pentameter, also makes use of this meter. Unlike blank verse, though, it follows a specific rhyming scheme. Since its inception, this poetic format has remained steadily popular, even making appearances in the 2007 Alchemy Index project by the band Thrice. Below is an excerpt from their sonnet 'Kings Upon the Main.' Read the following verse out loud:

'When KINGS up ON the MAIN have CLUNG to PRIDE

And HELD themSELVES as MASters OF the SEA

I've HELD them DOWN beNEATH the CRUSHing TIDE

Till THEY have LEARNED that NO one MASters ME'

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