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Iambic Tetrameter: Definition & Examples

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Instructor: 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.

In this lesson, we will explore iambic tetrameter, a common way of writing poetry that consists of stressed and unstressed syllables. Then, we will examine some sample poetry that uses it.

What Is Iambic Tetrameter?

First, let's review the definition of an iamb. An iamb is a beat in a line of poetry where one unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. Iamb sounds like a heartbeat, sort of like duh-DUH. When four beats are placed together in a line of poetry, it is called tetrameter. When we combine iamb with tetrameter, it is a line of poetry with four beats of one unstressed syllable, followed by one stressed syllable, and it is called iambic tetrameter. It sounds like: duh-DUH, duh-DUH, duh-DUH, duh-DUH. Some believe that tetrameter is a natural rhythm and that it is easy to read out loud. After each 8-syllable line, the reader tends to pause.

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  • 0:00 What Is Iambic Tetrameter?
  • 0:50 Kilmer And Tetrameter
  • 1:45 Emerson And Tetrameter
  • 2:55 Dickinson And Tetrameter
  • 3:40 Lesson Summary
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Kilmer and Tetrameter

Take Joyce Kilmer's simple poem 'Trees' as an example. In this poem, we see a simile where trees are being compared to poems. (Read the poem aloud.)

'I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.'

Each line is written in iambic tetrameter. For instance, we would read line one as: 'I THINK that I shall NEver SEE'. The beat is placed on the think, 'I, ne' (of never) and 'see.' Try clapping the beats in the line as you read them, which makes the tetrameter very clear.

Emerson and Tetrameter

Ralph Waldo Emerson admired Milton's use of tetrameter and used tetrameter in many of his poems, as well. He would use it to expound upon such topics as nature, where transcendentalists, such as himself, found much solace. He also focused on emotions. Here is one of Emerson's poems that displays iambic tetrameter. We will look at the first two stanzas of 'The Romany Girl.' Read them aloud.

'The sun goes down, and with him takes
The coarseness of my poor attire;
The fair moon mounts, and aye the flame
Of Gypsy beauty blazes higher.

Pale Northern girls! You scorn our race;
You captives of your air-tight halls,
Wear out indoors your sickly days,
But leave us the horizon walls.'

Again, looking at the first line, we can see the pattern. 'The SUN goes DOWN, and WITH him TAKES.' Here the beat is placed on 'sun,' 'down,' 'with' and 'takes.' In this poem, Emerson emphasizes the natural beauty of this gypsy girl versus the polished charm of white women in established society.

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