iambic pentameter

iambic pentameter

iambic pentameter: see pentameter.
Iambic pentameter is a type of meter that is used in poetry and drama. It describes a particular rhythm that the words establish in each line. That rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables; these small groups of syllables are called 'feet'. The word 'iambic' describes the type of foot that is used. The word 'pentameter' indicates that a line has five of these 'feet'.

Different languages express rhythm in different ways. In Ancient Greek and Latin, the rhythm is created through the alternation of short and long syllables. In English, the rhythm is created through the use of stress, alternating between unstressed and stressed syllables. An English unstressed syllable is equivalent to a classical short syllable, while an English stressed syllable is equivalent to a classical long syllable.

If a pair of syllables are arranged in a short followed by a long, or an unstressed followed by a stressed, pattern, that foot is said to be 'iambic'. The English word 'trapeze' is an example of an iambic pair of syllables, since the word is made up of two syllables ("tra—peze") and is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable ("tra—PEZE", rather than "TRA—peze").

'Iambic pentameter', then, is a line made up of five pairs of short/long, or unstressed/stressed, syllables. If the short/long or unstressed/stressed pattern were to be reversed, producing a line of five pairs of long/short, or stressed/unstressed pairs, that line would be described as an example of trochaic pentameter. A trochee (DUM—de) is the opposite of an iamb (de—DUM).

These terms originally applied to the quantitative meter of classical Greek poetry. They were adopted to describe the equivalent meters in English accentual-syllabic verse. Iambic rhythms come relatively naturally in English. Iambic pentameter is among the most common metrical forms in English poetry; it is used in many of the major English poetic forms, including blank verse, the heroic couplet, and some of the traditional rhymed stanza forms.

Simple example

An iambic foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. We could write the rhythm like this:

da DUM
A line of iambic pentameter is five iambic feet in a row:
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
We can notate this with a ' mark representing an unstressed syllable and a '/' mark representing a stressed syllable. In this notation a line of iambic pentameter would look like this:
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /

The following line from John Keats' Ode to Autumn is a straightforward example:

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

We can notate the scansion of this as follows:

˘
/
˘
/
˘
/
˘
/
˘
/
To swell the gourd, and plump the ha- zel shells

We can mark the divisions between feet with a |, and the caesura (a pause) with a double vertical bar .

˘
/
˘
/
˘
/
˘
/
˘
/
To swell | the gourd, || and plump | the ha- | zel shells

Rhythmic variation

Although strictly speaking, iambic pentameter refers to five iambs in a row (as above), in practice, poets vary their iambic pentameter a great deal, while maintaining the iamb as the most common foot. There are some conventions to these variations, however. Iambic pentameter must always contain only five feet, and the second foot is almost always an iamb. The first foot, on the other hand, is the most likely to change by the use of inversion, which reverses the order of unstress and stress in the foot. For example the first line of Richard III begins with an inversion:

/
˘
˘
/
˘
˘
/
/
˘
/
Now is | the win- | ter of | our dis- | con- tent

Another common departure from standard iambic pentameter is the addition of a final unstressed syllable, which creates a weak or feminine ending. One of Shakespeare's most famous lines of iambic pentameter has a weak ending:

˘
/
˘
/
˘
/
˘
˘
/
˘
To be | or not | to be, | that is | the ques- tion

The symbol here has been used to indicate a secondary or subordinate stress. This line also has an inversion of the fourth foot, following the caesura. In general a caesura acts in many ways like a line-end: inversions are common after it, and the extra unstressed syllable of the feminine ending may appear before it. Shakespeare and John Milton (in his work before Paradise Lost) at times employed feminine endings before a caesura

Here is the first quatrain of a sonnet by John Donne, which demonstrates how he uses a number of metrical variations strategically:

/
˘
˘
/
˘
/
˘
/
˘
/
Bat- ter | my heart | three- per- | soned God, | for you |
˘
/
˘
/
/
/
˘
/
˘
/
as yet | but knock, | breathe, shine | and seek | to mend. |
˘
/
˘
/
˘
/
/
/
˘
˘
/
That I | may rise | and stand | o'er throw | me and bend |
˘
/
˘
/
/
/
˘
/
˘
/
Your force | to break, | blow, burn | and make | me new. |

Donne uses an inversion (DUM da instead of da DUM) in the first foot of the first line to stress the key verb, "batter", and then sets up a clear iambic pattern with the rest of the line (da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM). In the second and fourth lines he uses spondees in the third foot to slow down the rhythm as he lists monosyllabic verbs. The parallel rhythm and grammar of these lines highlights the comparison Donne sets up between what God does to him "as yet" ("knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend"), and what he asks God to do ("break, blow, burn and make me new"). Donne also uses enjambment between lines three and four to speed up the flow as he builds to his desire to be made new. To further the quickening effect of the enjambment, Donne puts an extra syllable in the final foot of the line (this can be read as an anapest (dada DUM) or as an elision).

As the examples show, iambic pentameter need not consist entirely of iambs, nor need it have ten syllables. Most poets who have a great facility for iambic pentameter frequently vary the rhythm of their poetry as Donne and Shakespeare do in the examples, both to create a more interesting overall rhythm and to highlight important thematic elements. In fact, the skillful variation of iambic pentameter, rather than the consistent use of it, may well be what distinguishes the rhythmic artistry of Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, and the 20th century sonneteer Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Linguists Morris Halle and Samuel Jay Keyser discovered a set of rules (English Stress: Its Forms, Its Growth, and Its Role in Verse, Harper and Row, 1971) which correspond with those variations which are permissible in English iambic pentameter. Essentially, the Halle-Keyser rules state that only "stress maximum" syllables are important in determining the meter. A stress maximum syllable is a stressed syllable surrounded on both sides by weak syllables in the same syntactic phrase and in the same verse line. In order to be a permissible line of iambic pentameter, no stress maxima can fall on a syllable that is designated as a weak syllable in the standard, unvaried iambic pentameter pattern. Notice that the word God is not a maximum. That is because it is followed by a pause. Similarly the words you, mend, and bend aren't maxima since they are each at the end of a line and if they weren't it would mess up the rhyme of mend/bend and you/new. Rewriting the Donne quatrain showing the stress maxima (denoted with an 'M') results in the following:

/
˘
˘
M
˘
M
˘
/
˘
/
Bat- ter | my heart | three- per- | soned God, | for you |
˘
M
˘
/
/
/
˘
M
˘
/
as yet | but knock, | breathe, shine | and seek | to mend. |
˘
˘
˘
M
˘
/
/
/
˘
˘
/
That I | may rise | and stand | o'er throw | me and bend |
˘
M
˘
/
/
/
˘
M
˘
/
Your force | to break, | blow, burn | and make | me new. |

History in English

William Shakespeare, like many of his contemporaries, wrote poetry and drama in iambic pentameter. Here is an example from his Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

There is some debate over whether works such as those of Shakespeare were originally performed with the rhythm prominent, or whether the rhythm was embedded in the patterns of contemporary speech. In either case, when read aloud, such verse naturally follows a beat.

The rhythm of iambic pentameter was emphasised in Kenneth Branagh's 2000 production of Love's Labours Lost, in a scene where the protagonists tap-dance to the "Have at you now, affection's men-at-arms" speech. In this case, each iamb is underscored with a flap step.

# John Clare is another example of a writer who uses the iambic pentameter; his poem "Badger" is consistent with it throughout:

The badger grunting on his woodland track
With shaggy hide and sharp nose scrowed with black

Criticism

Some scholars deny that this verse, at least in its most common and literal definition, applies to Elizabethan poets; these include, in addition to Robert Bridges (mentioned above), Leonardo Malcovati and Bryan Beard.

See also

Notes

References

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