Pentameter: Definition & Example

Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

Poets use pentameter in order to create a rhythmic sound to their poems. Read on to find a definition of pentameter and learn how poets create consistent pentameter. We will also cover a few examples of pentameter in poetry.

Definition

Pentameter is the repetition of a pattern of syllables five times in the same line. 'Penta' is Greek for 'five' (for another example, if a shape is a pentagon, that means that it has five sides). A syllable pattern is known in poetry as a metrical foot. Five metrical feet within the same line makes pentameter.

Examples

Example #1 - Pentameter in Plays

Let's take a look at this example from William Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night.

If music be the food of love, play on.

Shakespeare wants to make these words sound rhythmic because they will be spoken by actors; therefore, he wants to make these words follow a rhythm. He alternates the stresses of each syllable in this line. The first syllable in each line is unstressed. This means that when you read the syllable out loud, it sounds lighter, and you do not come down hard on the syllable when you speak it. The second syllable in each line is stressed. In other words, when you say it out loud, you naturally come down harder on the syllable.

Let's review those lines again, but this time, let's add notation to see which syllables are stressed and which are unstressed. Stressed syllables will be in bold, and unstressed syllables will be in regular type. Try reading it out loud to see if the stressed syllables sound a little 'harder' than the unstressed ones.

If music be the food of love, play on.

You can see that in this line, we have a pattern. Every unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. That pattern repeats five times in this line. Since we have a clear pattern, or metrical foot, that repeats five times within the same line, that means that this line is an example of pentameter.

Example #2 - Pentameter in Poetry

As with plays, poems are meant to be read out loud. The words sound lyrical, almost song-like, if the poet repeats a metrical foot over and over in his or her lines. In this example from Lord Alfred Tennyson's 'Tithonus', the poet uses the same pattern as Shakespeare uses in the above example of unstressed-stressed in order to write the following lines:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground

Now, let's go ahead and mark those lines the same way as we did with the Shakespeare example; stressed syllables will be marked in bold, and unstressed syllables will remain unmarked.

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground

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