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The Canterbury Tales: Meter, Iambic Pentameter & Rhyme Scheme

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Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

There are several technical aspects to 'The Canterbury Tales' that may make it difficult to understand for modern readers. Explore this poem's meter through its rhyme scheme and application of iambic pentameter. Updated: 01/06/2022

Meter

In addition to being an ambitious poem that includes stories from many different characters from many social classes, the technical aspect of The Canterbury Tales is worth noting as well. Meter in poetry refers to the rhythm, which is created by the patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. The Canterbury Tales is written in Middle English, a form of English spoken from around the 12th to 15th centuries. This form of English, to modern readers, may seem like almost an entirely different language and even words that are recognizable may not be pronounced the way they are pronounced now.

Because pronunciation and the way syllables are accented in Middle English are so different from readers of Modern English, it can be difficult to determine how many syllables there are in a line and where the stressed and unstressed syllables are.

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  • 0:04 Meter
  • 0:53 Iambic Pentameter
  • 2:15 Rhyme Scheme
  • 2:51 Lesson Summary
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Iambic Pentameter

The meter that Chaucer used in writing The Canterbury Tales is iambic pentameter. Let's break that down. An iamb is a pair of syllables, one unstressed and the other stressed. Pentameter means that there are five of these sets of syllables in a line, for a total of ten syllables in each line, alternating unstressed and stressed.

This is the same meter in which Shakespeare wrote most of his plays and sonnets, but may be harder for a modern reader to distinguish in Chaucer's Middle English versus Shakespeare's more modern version of English. Iambic pentameter is a type of poetic meter that is fairly similar to the cadence of regular speech in English.

Here is an example of iambic pentameter from the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. The ''/'' divide up the iambs, which each contain an unstressed and stressed syllable, for a total of five iambs:

''The droghte/ of march/ hath per/ ced to/ the roote''

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