Iambic Pentameter: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Iambic Pentameter Definition
  • 0:42 Examples
  • 3:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
Iambic pentameter is a poetic device that has been used by famous writers for centuries. In this lesson, find out how to identify iambic pentameter in many of the poems and sonnets you have read.

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.


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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