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Iambic Pentameter: Definition & Examples

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Debbie Notari

Debbie Notari received her Bachelor’s degree in English and M.S. in Education Literacy and Learning for Grades 6-12. Debbie has over 28 years of teaching experience, teaching a variety of grades for courses like English, Reading, Music, and more.

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Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

Iambic pentameter is a line of verse with five metrical feet, and each foot consists of an unstressed syllable and a stressed syllable. Learn more about the definition and examples of iambic pentameter, including in Shakespeare's sonnets and Robert Frost's poem 'Acquainted with the Night'. Updated: 08/29/2021

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 a short syllable followed by a long syllable, according to FreeDictionary.com. An example is the word comPLETE. Interestingly enough, the iamb sounds a little like a heartbeat.

FreeDictionary.com defines pentameter as a line of verse consisting of five metrical feet. When put together, iambic pentameter may be defined as a line of verse consisting of five metrical feet where each foot consists of an unstressed syllable and a stressed syllable.

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Examples

William Shakespeare was famous for using iambic pentameter in his sonnets. Here's one example from his Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Notice that the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in bold does not necessarily correspond to the number of words used. One must always listen for that heartbeat pattern 'du-DUH, du-DUH.' The unstressed syllable may start in one word and the stressed syllable may follow in a completely different word.

Also, we don't read lines of iambic pentameter in an unstressed/stressed pattern of vocal inflection. The line would sound very different if we read it that way, almost like an exaggerated Count Dracula saying, 'I've COME to DRINK your BLOOD.' Try reading the first line of Sonnet 18 with an exaggerated sense of unstressed and stressed syllables. It would look and sound like this: Shall I comPARE thee TO a SUMmer's DAY?

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Practice:
Iambic Pentameter: Definition & Examples Quiz

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Stressed lines in iambic pentameter should _____ be exaggerated for effect when read.

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Additional Activities

Iambic Pentameter: Deeper Dives

Now that you know what iambic pentameter is and how it is used, it's time to explore the concept further and even create your own poetry.

Write It!

Try writing a poem in iambic pentameter. Remember the heartbeat-like pattern: unstressed-stressed, unstressed-stressed, five times per line. If you want more structure for your work, try and write a sonnet. These are 14-line poems that are almost always written in iambic pentameter.

Tip: It's okay if your lines have a slight variation to them, and don't all fit exactly into the iambic rhythm. Even Shakespeare's wording sometimes fell slightly outside the bounds of iambic pentameter. Do your best to stick to the pattern, but don't stress.

Iambic Pentameter: A History

This is your opportunity to do a short research project on iambic pentameter, which as this lesson told you, has been in use for centuries. Create an annotated timeline of the history of iambic pentameter and its use in poetry. Where did it originate? What are some famous works written in that style? Was there a period in history that you would consider iambic pentameter's heyday, or is it as popular among poets now as it was when it was first created?

Other Iambic Patterns

An iamb, as you know, is an unstressed-stressed syllable combination in a line of poetry. The "pent" part of pentameter is what requires five iambs in a line. Poems are also written in iambic tetrameter (four iambs), iambic trimeter (three iambs), iambic hexameter (six iambs), and more. You can try writing some poetry in another iambic meter, or else do some research to see if other iambic meters originate at the same time and place as iambic pentameter. Have fun!

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