What is an Iamb in Iambic Meter?
In poetry, iambic pentameter is a type of iambic meter in which each verse line comprises five poetic feet. In this context, a foot is a group of stressed and unstressed syllables. An iamb is a foot consisting of an unstressed and then a stressed syllable. The words "belong" and "indeed" are examples of iambs: we stress the second syllable, pronouncing it louder and longer than the preceding unstressed syllable.
Although this lesson will focus solely on iambs, there are other types of feet:
- Trochees: A stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable
- Dactyls: A stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables
- Anapests: Two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed
Meter refers to the number of feet in a given line. Pentameter is a type of meter that contains five feet, though there are verse forms that use terameter (four feet), trimeter (three feet), and hexameter (six feet), among others. The following line taken from William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 is an example of iambic pentameter:
- Shall I / compare / thee to / a sum / mer's day?
Each foot is an iamb because it contains an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. There are five feet, meaning the line is written in pentameter. Therefore, we say the line is written in iambic pentameter.
Types of Iambic Meter
Iambic verse, or lines of poetry composed of iambs, is the most common metrical verse in English poetry and has been used in various poetic genres such as:
- Folk songs
Of iambic meters, the most well-known is iambic pentameter. However, iambic tetrameter, written with four iambic feet instead of five, is also frequently used.
Before the works of playwrights, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare used Alexandrines, verses written in six-footed iambic hexameter, were familiar. Several poetic forms incorporate the iamb, including standard meter, blank verse, Shakespearean sonnets, and fourteeners. These forms differ from each other by the number of feet per line (meter), the number and grouping of lines, and by rhyme patterns.
Common meter, also known as common measure, is a verse form consisting of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (four feet) and trimeter (three feet). Traditionally, common meter is a verse form associated with hymns. The following verse from the hymn Amazing Grace is an example of common meter:
Ama / zing grace / how sweet / the sound
That saved / a wretch / like me
I once / was lost / but now / I'm found
was blind / but now / I see
Each iambic foot contains an unstressed and then a stressed syllable, and the lines alternate between tetrameter and trimeter. Therefore, this is considered to be a common meter.
Blank verse describes lines written in iambic pentameter which do not rhyme. The following lines from John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost are written in blank verse:
The World / was all / before / them, where / to choose
Their place / of rest / and Prov / idence / their guide:
They hand / in hand / with wand / ring steps / and slow,
Through E / den took / their sol / itar / y way.
Blank verse is familiar in narrative poems, which tell a story, and has been used by many of the most renowned poets of the English language tradition.
The Shakespearean sonnet, also known as the English sonnet, is a poetic form that consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. The Shakespearean sonnet is traditionally divided into three quatrains, stanzas of four lines, and one final two-lined couplet. The rhyme scheme is as follows: ababcdcdefefgg. Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 demonstrates these qualities:
Shall I / compare / thee to / a sum / mers day? a
Thou art / more love / ly and / more tem/ perate: b
Rough winds / do shake / the dar / ling buds / of May, a
And sum / mers lease / hath all / too short / a date; b
Sometime / too hot / the eye / of heav / en shines, c
And oft / en is / his gold / complex / ion dimmd; d
And eve / ry fair / from fair / sometime / declines, c
By chance / or nat / ures chang / ing course / untrimmd; d
But thy / eter / nal sum / mer shall / not fade, e
Nor lose / possess/ ion of / that fair / thou owst; f
Nor shall / death brag / thou wand /erst in / his shade, e
When in / eternal lines / to time / thou growst: f
So long / as men / can breathe / or eyes / can see, g
So long / lives this / and this / gives life / to thee. g
Notice the iambic pentameter, the three quatrains and final couplet, and the traditional ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme, characteristic of the Shakespearean sonnet.
A fourteener is a line that contains fourteen syllables. They are frequently written in iambic heptameter, meaning they consist of seven iambic feet. The following line from Robert Southwell's The Burning Babe is an example of a fourteener written in iambic heptameter:
- As I / in hea / vey win / ters night / stood shiv / ering in / the snow
Keep in mind that although the fourteener has fourteen syllables, it has only seven feet because each foot consists of two syllables.
In this lesson, we have established that iambic meter is a term used to describe verse written in lines comprised of poetic feet called iambs, each of which consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Iambic pentameter describes a line of iambic verse that contains five of these feet; it is one of the most common verse forms in English language poetry and is used in hymns, ballads, folk songs, and sonnets.
Then we looked more closely at a few poetic forms written in iambs. The following table summarizes the most important of these:
|Alexandrine||A line consisting of six iambic feet|
|Common Meter||Alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter|
|Blank Verse||Unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter|
|Shakespearean Sonnet||A form of sonnet written in iambic pentameter with an ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme|
|Fourteener||A line of poetry with fourteen syllables, often written in iambic heptameter|
This lesson also briefly mentioned that there are several other types of feet in English poetry. These included trochees: a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable; dactyls: a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables; and anapests: two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.
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What is an example of an iamb?
An iamb is when an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable, which is pronounced louder and for a longer time. Some examples are words such as "perHAPS" and "inDEED."
What are iambic units?
An iambic unit, or iambic foot, consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in the word "inDEED"; a Iambic pentameter consists of five of these iambic units, or feet.
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