What is Iambic Tetrameter?

Sasha Blakeley, Debbie Notari
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • 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.

Discover the definition of iambic tetrameter. Review iambic tetrameter examples and see passages from four poems that feature iambic tetrameter. Updated: 10/07/2021

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What Is Iambic Tetrameter?

What is iambic tetrameter? Iambic tetrameter is a type of poetic meter. To fully understand what this means, it is first essential to understand the concept of poetic meter and the concept of an iamb. Meter is a term for rhythm in poetry: which syllables in a line of poetry are stressed or emphasized, and which are unstressed? Different patterns of syllable emphasis have different names; iambic tetrameter is one of them. An iamb is a term for a particular syllable stress pattern. Such syllable patterns are called metrical ''feet.'' Iambs consist of two syllables: the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. If a line of poetry contains four iambs, it is said to be written in iambic tetrameter, as ''tetra'' comes from the Greek word for ''four.''

A good way to check if a poem is written in iambic tetrameter is to read it out loud. Iambic tetrameter poetry has a rhythm that sounds like ''da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM'' in each line, for a total of eight syllables. Iambic tetrameter is quite common in English-language poetry, but not as common as iambic pentameter. As the name implies, iambic pentameter is the same as iambic tetrameter, but with five iambs per line instead of four. Iambic tetrameter is often used in English and Scottish ballads, though it is also found in many other poetic genres. It is also found in poetry written in languages besides English.

Emily Dickinson is one of many writers who used iambic tetrameter in her work

Iambic tetrameter examples are found throughout the poetry of Dickinson

Iambic Tetrameter Definition

The simplest iambic tetrameter definition is a poem written with four iambs per line. One thing to keep in mind is that this is not the only tetrameter definition in poetry: if a poem uses a metrical unit other than iambs, it can still be written in tetrameter. The opposite of an iamb, for example, is a trochee: a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. A poem written with four trochees per line would be written in trochaic tetrameter. Iambic tetrameter is sometimes incorrectly called ''iambic quadrameter,'' but ''quadra'' comes from Latin, and metrical terms come from Greek.

As mentioned above, iambic tetrameter is less common than iambic pentameter. Other types of iambic meter also exist, depending on how many sets of syllables are in each line. Iambic dimeter has two iambs per line, iambic trimeter has three, and there are also longer line lengths like iambic hexameter and iambic heptameter, with six or seven iambs per line respectively. An iambic tetrameter example can be found in ''The Romany Girl'' by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

The sun goes down, and with him takes
The coarseness of my poor attire.

Emerson admired John Milton's earlier use of iambic tetrameter, which may have inspired him to use the form in his own work.

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Iambic Tetrameter Examples

There are many famous iambic tetrameter examples that can be found throughout the history of English poetry. Some have speculated that the prevalence and popularity of iambic meter can be attributed at least in part to the way that iambic meter seems to flow naturally in English. It sounds natural to the ear and seems well suited to the syllable structure of the English language. It is also easy to read out loud.

Lady Anne Wilmot, the inspiration for She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron

Byron wrote a famous tetrameter example

There are other metrical forms that seem better suited to other languages: dactylic hexameter, for instance, is a metrical form that was popular in ancient Greece and Rome, but it is almost never used in English because the syllable pattern is so challenging to pattern onto English words. A dactyl consists of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables; a dactylic hexameter has six dactyls per line.

Sir Walter Scott's ''The Lady of the Lake''

The stag at eve had drunk his fill,
Where danced the moon on Monan's rill,
And deep his midnight lair had made
In lone Glenartney's hazel shade;
But when the sun his beacon red
Had kindled on Benvoirlich's head,
The deep-mouthed bloodhound's heavy bay
Resounded up the rocky way,
And faint, from farther distance borne,
Were heard the clanging hoof and horn.

''The Lady of the Lake'' by Sir Walter Scott is a very long narrative poem about the conflict between King James V of Scotland and the clan Douglas. It also features a romantic subplot, mistaken identity, and all kinds of other intrigues. The poem is primarily written in iambic tetrameter, as in the stanza above, but some parts are written in iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What type of poem has iambic tetrameter?

Iambic tetrameter can be found in many genres of poetry, but it is most commonly found in English and Scottish ballads. Poems in languages other than English also use iambic tetrameter.

What is an example of tetrameter?

Tetrameter is a term that refers to any poem with four metrical feet per line. Examples of types of tetrameter include iambic, trochaic, dactylic, and anapestic tetrameter. Of these, iambic tetrameter is the most common.

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