The first thing I want to say here is that, on some level, every English speaker is already familiar with iambic meter. There’s a reason that great poets have used it for centuries. It’s natural and human. The tones and rhythm resemble our everyday speaking voice, so you could find yourself speaking in iambic meter, and possibly in perfect iambic pentameters, when you next order pizza. To understand – what is iambic pentameter? – you must first know about the basic iambic rhythm.
What is iambic meter?
Iambic rhythm is a rising rhythm, and an important lesson in poetry. You can hear it when you speak or read a line out loud. Because all words with over one syllable have accented and unaccented syllables. The accent of the word ‘abroad’, for example, is on the second syllable.
It can sometimes be difficult to hear the accent, and one trick is to try switching the accented syllable. A/broad, for example, with an accent on the first syllable, sounds unnatural, so a/BROAD is clearly correct. Some accents are more difficult to identify than others, but this method usually works for me.
What is an iambic pentameter?
An iamb is a type of foot. A metrical foot with an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. The word ‘abroad’ is an iamb. The first syllable is unaccented, and the second syllable is accented. It’s as simple as that.
An iambic pentameter is a line that contains five iambs (penta = five). An iambic pentameter has ten syllables, five unstressed, and five stressed.
Here’s an example by Shakespeare, from Macbeth.
As calling home our exiled friends abroad
Try reading the line aloud, feeling the stress of the syllables and overall rhythm. It should feel quite musical to read, but it should also feel natural and right. By the time you reach the end of the sentence, you’re ready to take a breath. That is intentional, and part of what makes the iambic pentameter so special.
Why every writer should care!
There’s a reason Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameters, especially during the crucial moments in his plays. Most of his famous lines, in fact, are iambic pentameters.
Romeo, during the balcony scene: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
The lines were easier to memorise for Shakespeare’s actors, and simple to say comfortably in one breath. We want our writing to be memorable, don’t we? And accurate too! When writing dialogue, you’re trying to make it sound authentic. The iambic pentameter offers a technical solution to make dialogue rhythmically realistic, while more beautiful too. You certainly wouldn’t want every line written in such a way, but perhaps there’s an opportunity to use it at a pivotal moment. And you can use any words you want. It doesn’t have to be profound or poetic.
But there’s a greater reason behind Shakespeare’s love for the line, and it’s about our bodies. Our hearts beat in iambic rhythm. da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. When you read an iambic pentameter, you’re reading a perfect breath of words that beat in time with your heart. You can use them anywhere in your writing, in poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction, and even a shopping list if you dare. I have to buy a cake for Mark today.
Whatever you write in iambic pentameter, it will be read completely. Heart and mind.