Iambic Pentameter in Poetry

Hugh Zimmerbaum, Joshua Wimmer
  • Author
    Hugh Zimmerbaum

    Hugh Zimmerbaum is a prospective PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures. After earning his BA degree in Literature with a concentration in Russian Studies at Bard College in 2018, he spent two years as an EFL teacher on the Russian island of Sakhalin.

  • Instructor
    Joshua Wimmer

    Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Learn about iambs and iambic meter. Explore iambic meter examples and uses in poetry, and discover types of meter from trimeter to heptameter. Understand how to identify different forms of meter, and the types of literature they can be found in. Updated: 10/05/2021

Table of Contents


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.

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  • 0:01 Iambic Meter Defined
  • 0:52 Common Meter
  • 1:40 Blank Verse
  • 2:33 Sonnets
  • 3:18 The Fourteener
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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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:

  • Hymns
  • Ballads
  • Folk songs
  • Sonnets

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

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.

Singing Hymns. Hymns are often written in common meter.

Blank Verse

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.

Shakespearean Sonnet

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:

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Frequently Asked Questions

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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