by Roland King
A Brief Discussion of Iambic Pentameter
Ah yes the mystical and oft-used piece of poetry terminology that most of the population has at least attempted to throw out in conversation with a poet once or twice in their life. Usually with a knowing grin the average person will feel at least somewhat scholarly at throwing around such a fancy term. Of course any scholar of Shakespeare will know that it was a staple to some of his most famous plays. But apart from being a good conversation starter in a room full of poets or English Majors, most people don't really know what it is or how it is used.
So what actually goes into the form?
Well...first you need to know it involves five metrical feet. For more information about the four most common types of metrical feet, click here.
Each metrical foot involves an iamb. An iamb is structured as one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. As an example, we will look at the word "regain".
You'll notice this is a two-syllable word separated into "re" and "gain." Notice that "gain" is highlighted in red in the example above. The bolded syllable is what is called the "stressed" syllable in the line. In an iamb, the first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is unstressed. Say the word "regain" aloud and you will hear how the accented or stressed syllable at the end of the word you say with a little more emphasis. As another example, you can also the say word "aloud." This one is even more emphatic in its stress on the second syllable.
Now let's look at an example applying to an entire rhyming couplet
I try to write as often as I can
but rhymes are hard when I’m a busy man.
If you read this carefully, you should hear the natural rises and falls in the two lines.
Below you will see the accented syllables again highlighted in red with separators for the individual feet. If you count the number of accented syllables, there are five. There are also 5 unaccented syllables.
I try / to, write / as of / ten as / I can,
but rhymes / are hard / when I’m / a bus / y man;
And THAT is iambic pentameter. Notice that in some circumstances Iambic pentameter is actually meant to simulate the rhythm of spoken language. As such it can even split up some words with an image broken across multiple words. Often it can sound a little forced but when used in a way that feels like a natural flow, it can be a well-appreciated metrical flow.