Iambic Pentameter Definition

Some people’s biggest exposure to poetry is in nursery rhymes and things like, “Roses are red, violets are blue . . . .” Unless someone has taken poetry courses in high school or college, it’s unlikely he or she will know many useful poetry terms like meter, strophes, trochees, iambs or any of the other words used to describe the techniques and word constructions that are used to write a poem. If you want to write poetry or you want to be a more careful reader of it, learning these terms will help.

What is Iambic Pentameter?

Let’s define some terms to help explain this one. Meter refers to the pattern of syllables in a line of poetry. The most basic unit of measure in a poem is the syllable and the pattern of syllables in a line, from stressed to unstressed or vice versa. This is the meter. Syllables are paired two and three at a time, depending on the stresses in the sentence.

Two syllables together, or three if it’s a three-syllable construction, is known as a foot. So in a line of poetry the cow would be considered one foot. Because when you say the words, the is unstressed and cow is stressed, it can be represented as da DUM. An unstressed/stressed foot is known as an iamb. That’s where the term iambic comes from.

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Pentameter is simply penta, which means 5, meters. So a line of poetry written in pentameter has 5 feet, or 5 sets of stressed and unstressed syllables. In basic iambic pentameter, a line would have 5 feet of iambs, which is an unstressed and then a stressed syllable. For example:

If you would put the key inside the lock

This line has 5 feet, so it’s written in pentameter. And the stressing pattern is all iambs:

if YOU | would PUT | the KEY | inSIDE | the LOCK

da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM

That’s the simplest way to define iambic pentameter.

Great examples of a iambic pentameter poems would be many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He often wrote sonnets and whole lines of dialogue from plays in this meter.

Other Poetry Definitions

It can help to understand the other forms of feet and meter that are used in poetry.  These are all determined by the stressing pattern.

DA dum (FORest)  =  Trochee

DA DUM (RED CAT) =  Spondee

da da DUM (like a WOLF) = Anapest

DA da DUM (CUT the FLESH) = Dactyl

da dum (and the) (-ing the) = Pyrrhic

Understanding the rhythm of poetry and how to read a line to determine whether iambic pentameter or some other meter is used can help you learn to write your own poetry and better appreciate the writings of classic and modern poets.