I have heard the question a lot over the years when reading online about poetry on forums, “what is the easiest way to explain Iambic Pentameter?”
Here I am going to attempt to give this answer.
First we have to understand the question. The word Iambic is referring to a type of metrical foot.
A foot within metrical poetry is a unit of measurement. There are the following types of metrical feet which I have separated into rising and falling meters.
Rising – metrical feet that climb in accent.
Iamb – A foot consisting of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. As in the word “beCAUSE.” It is said that English tends to fall into Iambs naturally, and as a source of interest it is a fact that the human heart beats in Iambs.
Anapest – A foot consisting of two unaccented syllables followed by one accented syllable. As in the word “underSTAND.”
Pyrrhic – A foot consisting of two unaccented syllables. Often used to form what is refereed to as a double iamb or two unstressed syllables followed by two stressed syllables, which for later purposes here is actually not counted as a substitution of the feet it uses.
Falling – metrical feet that fall in accent
Trochee – a foot consisting of one accented syllable followed by one unaccented syllable. This particular which is the opposite of the question we are answering is often used to great effect when presenting movement as it seems to race across the page. William Shakespeare wrote these lines,
“Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble“
and the effect is noticeable.
Dactyl – A foot consisting of one accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables. As in the word “BEAUTiful.”
Spondee – A foot consisting of two stressed syllables. Often used to form what is refereed to as a double spondee or two stressed syllables followed by two unstressed syllables, which for later purposes here is actually not counted as a substitution of the feet it uses.
Those are the basic types of metrical feet. There are some more advanced one but most 99% of metrical verse is written with these. So, now we understand what metrical feet are, but that is meter, pentameter, and how do I use these feet?
Meter is simply the number of those feet within a line of poetry.
Meter types by number of feet.
- one foot = monometer
- two feet = dimeter
- three feet = trimeter
- four feet = tetrameter
- five feet = pentameter
- six feet = hexameter
- seven feet = heptameter
- eight feet = octameter
In English there is a natural love for pentameter, lines with 5 metrical feet. Moreover, this love in particular has been for iambic pentameter, or lines containing 5 metrical feet of what is called normative iambic verse.
Normative means to maintain the normal amount of iambs (rising) or trochees (falling) within a line.
Normative is decided by substitutions of other feet types within the line, or rather a lack of substituting more than 50% of a line. So, in basic terms, when dealing with iambic pentameter, one could not replace more than two of the feet within the line without loosing the lines normative meter and thus making the poem not metrical any longer.
When I / do COUNT / the CLOCK / that TELLS / the TIME – Sonnet 12, Shakespeare. Perfect Iambic pentameter.
The wáy to dústy déath, Óut, óut, brief cándle!
Here Shakespeare makes two substations within the pentameter line. The first is out, out, which is a spondee and the second is something we have not yet talked about yet, and that is the last syllable at the end of the line. This is what is called a feminine ending, and is technically allowed in addition to the two substitutions, but must not happen on the first line of a stanza so a reader has a chance to establish the meter in their heads.
Any of the above feet can be substituted as long as the meter remains normative.
So in closing, Iambic pentameter is the use of 5 foot lines of poetry that are made of iambs and allowed substitutions within strict metrical verse.