How to Write in Iambic Pentameter

Updated on April 6, 2016
Sparrowlet profile image

Katharine writes both modern and traditional poetry. She was named poet laureate for AllPoetry 2015 and has two books of poetry in print.

Shakespeare by Droeshout c1815
Shakespeare by Droeshout c1815 | Source

What is iambic pentameter anyway?

Writing a poem in iambic pentameter is not as difficult as it may sound. If you want to write a sonnet, you will need this skill, and many other forms require or are at least better in iambic rhythm. Iambic pentameter is a line of poetry written in alternating stressed and unstressed syllables, with a total of ten syllables to the line.

The first thing you need to understand is an iambic "foot", which is two syllables, one unstressed and the other stressed. Take the word "inform". The first syllable is unstressed and the second one is stressed, so "inFORM" is one iambic foot. There are five iambic feet in a line of iambic pentameter.


This is where some people have difficulty - in identifying an iambic rhythm. It is because, some people have trouble "hearing" the stressed vs. the unstressed utterance. You can train yourself to hear the rhythm with a little practice. One way to do this is to study a line that is written in iambic pentameter, such as the following example:

My Lady, whisper low and hear my plea

To show the iambic rhythm, it could be written this way:

My LAdy WHISper LOW and HEAR my PLEA

The stressed syllables are in bold capital letters to show where the voice naturally stresses the words in this sentence. Notice that the first syllable is unstressed, the next stressed, the next unstressed, etc. In order to teach yourself to "hear" the stresses in a line of iambic pentameter, try beginning the line by stressing the first (unstressed) syllable instead, and going from there, like this:

MY laDY whisPER low AND hear MY plea

Say the line out loud, stressing the syllables in bold capitals and not those in regular type. It sounds wrong, doesn't it? You wouldn't say laDY or whisPER because that is simply not how those words are spoken in English. Now go back and read the first example, again stressing those syllables in bold capitals with your voice. It will sound a little awkward because you're using more stress than necessary, but you will hear that it at least makes sense - the words are spoken as they normally are in the course of conversation.

Here is the next line of the poem:

for well I know thine hand hath been secured.

If you start the sentence out loud, stressing the first syllable, FOR, it won't sound right. You wouldn't say SEcured for example, but seCURED. Use this exercise with a number of lines that you know are written in iambic pentameter, turning the stress around the opposite way. If it sounds wrong when you start by stressing the first syllable, then try putting your stressed voice on the second syllable first instead. This should sound correct to your ear.


Now try writing a line in iambic pentameter yourself. Remember, you will need five iambic feet, so that the total syllable count in your line will be ten. Here is one that you might come up with:

The dog needs to go outside to be walked.

This is ten syllables all right, but it's not iambic pentameter, because if you put the naturally stressed syllables in bold print, it would look like this:

The DOG NEEDS to go outSIDE to be WALKED.

It is not every other syllable that is stressed! To turn your thought into a line of iambic pentameter, you could change it to this:

I need to take the dog outside to walk.

This is a correct iambic pentameter line, because you can hear that every other syllable is stressed, like this:

I NEED to TAKE the DOG outSIDE to WALK.

Not as hard as you thought? That is because the English language is often normally spoken in a rhythm very similar to iambic pentameter. It is the most melodic way to fashion a line of poetry in English. Here is the rest of the English sonnet we have been using as an example. Listen as you read it aloud for where the stress of your voice falls on the words.


Source

Confession

My Lady, whisper low and hear my plea-
for well I know thine hand hath been secured.
Thy thoughts and thy sweet heart lie not with me,
but of my love enduring, be assured.

For never have I known a gentler maid
than thee, who owns the padlock to my soul.
Temptation calls my hands, so softly laid
upon thy skin to mend my poor heart whole.

But he, the noble Earl who holds the key,
will ne'er release his right to claim his prize-
while here, the knight before thee on one knee,
professes what his public tongue denies.

My Lady, pledge my secret safe to keep!-
while I can only watch thee go, and weep.

© Katharine L. Sparrow

Some people do better with graphics. Here is a little visual review of how to write in iambic pentameter.

Once you get good at writing in iambic pentameter, you need not stick to the rhythm exactly all the time, as long as your words still flow for the most part in the unstressed/stressed rhythm. You will come to be able to notice if a line sounds awkward when read aloud. Then try writing in iambic tetrameter (8 syllables per line) or iambic hexameter (12 syllables per line).

If you still don't get it, don't despair. It takes a while for some people to be able to recognize the stressed vs. unstressed syllables, just don't give up! Continue to practice and you will find yourself getting better and better at writing in iambic pentameter.

Now you are ready to write an English sonnet!

*Use your iambic pentameter and learn to write a Triolet poem or a Swap Quatrain poem!
.....or how about a haiku?
...........or a new form of my own creation, a Sparrowlet?

© Katharine L. Sparrow

Comments Appreciated!

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    • profile image

      Grayson Casey 14 months ago

      Thanks for the help. I am a sophomore in high school and we are reading the Canterbury Tales for English. We were given an assignment to write our own Canterbury tale in iambic pentameter and I could not figure what my teacher was talking about. Thanks again.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks for a clear and helpful analysis.

    • profile image

      SaritaJBonita 5 years ago

      Love this Hub. I thought about majoring in English literature in college, but went with Anthropology instead.

    • Sparrowlet profile image
      Author

      Katharine L Sparrow 5 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Thanks for commenting PDXKaraokeGuy! Yes, I think listening for it helps people to get it!

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      You know, I once had a poetry professor who spoke iambic pentameter and heavy enjambment. It helped me understand and hear it better.

    • profile image

      Peter Groves 6 years ago

      Nice to see people talking about metre. Your example of an unmetrical line could become metrical (though complex) in the right contxt:

      You can't throw frisbees in the fining-room!

      The dog needs to go OUTside to be walked.

    • Sparrowlet profile image
      Author

      Katharine L Sparrow 6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Tim, you're on the right track! Dr. Seuss: I will not eat green eggs and ham! I will not eat them, Sam I am! That is iambic rhythm (although it's iambic tetrameter - 8 syllables per line) and Poe: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary. This is also in a similar rhythm, although notice that each "foot" is exactly opposite of iambic pentameter, with the first stress falling on the first, rather than the second syllable! Good observation!

    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 6 years ago from Escondido, CA

      Thanks for the education. I tend to just write, read aloud and see if there is a dance or not. Sometimes I hear the cadence, which I presume is the iambic pentameter. Dr. Seuss is a big influence and Poe very much. Psalms jumps out now and then, while proverbs hides until it is then.

      Now, with this article I have a touch of structure to refine the craft of ditty's, riddles and puzzles. Thank you - coach, if I may. Now, back to the sonnet to learn some more . . .I say

    • Sparrowlet profile image
      Author

      Katharine L Sparrow 6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      You're welcome, Jamie! Thanks for stopping by!

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 6 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you. Jamie

    • Sparrowlet profile image
      Author

      Katharine L Sparrow 6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Almost iambic pentameter, chef-de-jour! Only the last two syllables are off, since Sparrow has its stress on the first syllable! Thanks for stopping by, and keep writing! (even if it's free verse! LOL)

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 6 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      I have to say you did just fine Sparrow!?

      10 syllables but is it iambic? Nearly.

      Thanks Sparrowlet. Always fascinating to see how these traditions came about - and why so many of us love free form verse!!

      Trochees all round!!

    • Sparrowlet profile image
      Author

      Katharine L Sparrow 6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Thanks, Audrey, I hope it was helpful to you!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 6 years ago from California

      Excellent explanation!!

    • Sparrowlet profile image
      Author

      Katharine L Sparrow 6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Thanks Shea, I hope it helps!

    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 6 years ago from new jersey

      Wow, great method! I write sonnets and I find iambic pentameter difficult. Great hub.

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