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Iamb: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Patricia Vineski

Patricia has an MFA in Writing, an MS in Teaching and English Language Arts, and a BA in English.

In this lesson, you'll learn what an iamb is in poetry, and how it functions within the poetic line to form the meter or rhythm of a poem. Take a look at some examples, and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition

All words have syllables. Some of those syllables are emphasized, while others are not. For example, we emphasize, or stress, the first syllable, 'wal' and not the second syllable, 'let' when we say, 'wallet.' Likewise, we stress the first syllable, 'sta' and not the second syllable, 'tion' when we say, 'station.'

These stressed and unstressed syllables in our words form the varying rhythms of our speech, such as when we say, 'I lost my wallet at the train station' and 'I must have dropped my wallet at the station, just as I got on the train.'

In poetry, an iamb is a unit, usually of two syllables, containing an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable so that it sounds like 'da-DUM.' An iamb can be simple or extended, and it forms the meter, or rhythm, of the lines in a poem.

Examples

  • The simple, and most common, iamb contains two syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed.

For example, the words, 'equate', 'destroy', 'belong,' and 'delay' are simple iambic words because the first syllables in each word, 'e, de, be,' and 'de' are unstressed, whereas, the second syllables 'quate, story, long,' and 'lay' are stressed.

  • The extended iamb contains three or four syllables, with an added end-syllable that is unstressed.

For example, the words, 'revising', 'surprising', 'intended,' and 'belligerent' are extended iambs because they contain three or four syllables and the added, and unstressed, end syllables, 'ing, ed,' and 'ent.'

  • The most common meter in English poetry, because it reflects the natural rhythms of English speech, is iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is formed by five iambs in each line.

For example, in the following stanza from Dylan Thomas' 'Do not go gently into that good night' the rhythm of the lines is formed by the five iambs in each line:

'Though wise/ men at/ their end /know dark/ is right

Because/ their words/ had forked/ no lightning,/ they

Do not/ go gen/tle in/to that /good night.'

Note the extended fourth iamb, 'no lightning,' in the third line, and the variation on the meter that occurs in that line: da-DUM/ da-DUM/ da-DUM/ da-Dum-da/ da-DUM, which, in this case, signals the theme, and repeated line of the poem, 'Do not go gentle into that good night.'

  • A less common meter in English poetry is iambic tetrameter, and is formed by four iambs in each line.

For example, in the following stanza from William Wordsworth's 'I wandered lonely as a cloud,' the rhythm of the lines is formed by the four iambs in each line:

I wand/ered, lone/ly as/ a cloud

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