In this blog I aim to provide a fairly comprehensive description and exploration of iambic pentameter from the ground up, in simple, easy to follow segments.

We will progress from what is meant by ‘iamb’ and ‘pentameter’, to what defines ‘stress’, to different types of ‘feminine ending’, to simple variant ‘feet’ (a ‘foot’ being the smallest possible metrical component), to the ‘figures’ formed by combinations of feet, to ‘displaced beats’, to the interplay of rising and falling rhythms, to more unusual variations, to looking at how to deliver certain lines that may not appear to be metrical, and then onto exploring meter in more extended passages of verse, starting with Sonnet 1 (which is as far as I’ve got so far!). I also provide a separate glossary, which you can refer back to at any point along the way! (In this, and all future posts, you can click on any word highlighted in blue to be taken to another one of my posts – to the ‘glossary’ if not otherwise indicated. For a concise summary of the technical principles of iambic pentameter, I would refer you to one of my answers on Quora: Shakespeare’s rhythm. You can also find links to all my most useful answers on metered verse at the bottom of my profile.

Much of this knowledge is not readily available, and I feel it’s important that it should be! You can only make an informed decision about whether to follow the meter in Shakespeare’s work if you first understand the meter – and hardly anybody understands meter as well as they think they do (this includes even the best known Shakespearean actors and directors).

What is more, there is a pervasive myth that Shakespeare created expressive effect by alternating between following the meter and breaking the meter, which is a myth I would like to dispel! He certainly created expressive effect by varying the iambic pattern – but he did so within the constraints of meter, according to specific metrical principles, and this is often not appreciated. Many actors, teachers and directors misread lines due to their lack of comprehension of meter (as well as the principles by which words can be expanded, contracted or glided together to fit the meter), and as a result, identify irregularities which actually don’t exist – and then read some expressive significance into these non-existent irregularities. The fact is, when you simply break the rules of meter, you are no longer playing with the constraints of meter, which is what Shakespeare did so artfully (the frequent irregularity in meter among many of his fellow playwrights shows up their comparative lack of skill).

The traditional approach to scansion (‘scansion’ is the process of marking the metrical patterning of a passage of verse) is to simply divide the line up into individual ‘feet’ (a ‘foot’, as I mentioned, is the smallest possible metrical component, and always contains one beat). My approach is a little more sophisticated: my emphasis is on the metrical patterns formed by the various combinations of feet; once you familiarise yourself with these patterns, you can start to read a passage of verse, with all it’s repeated and contrasting metrical patterning, in much the same way that you would read a piece of music (this can also help you to decide which syllables to stress when there is more than one legitimate choice, as it then becomes far more clear how the individual lines fit together to form a rhythmic composition). And if you are not yet at the stage where you can recognise instinctively whether a line scans, without having to laboriously demarcate and count each individual foot, I believe familiarising yourself with these patterns will help you get there more quickly!

Meter provides lift and rhythmic momentum: it is heightened speech. However, simply choosing the right syllables to stress does not, in itself, guarantee that your delivery will sound rhythmic, or have a rhythmic flow. A concrete example is the common mistake of excessive lingering or pausing on the first syllable of a choriamb (this is the ‘DUM-di-di-DUM‘ pattern that you will frequently encounter), which spoils the expressive rhythmic swinging movement Shakespeare intended. And even beyond this, in order for the verse to truly lift, you need to be guided by a feel for the metrical rhythm, rather than merely relying on stress placement. For this purpose, I have experienced a recognition of the metrical patterns formed by combinations of feet to be far more useful than simply cutting up the lines into individual feet.

One more very important clarification: when I talk about being ‘guided’ by the metrical rhythm, this does not mean simply imposing the metrical rhythm onto the line – in fact, mechanically imposing the metrical rhythm is fatal. If you simply impose the iambic rhythm onto the line it actually kills the expressive effect of the verse. In practice, iambic pentameter verse never sounds exactly like ‘di-DUM, di-DUM, di-DUM, di-DUM, di-DUM‘; the speed and rhythm of the line is affected by all kinds of factors, such as: punctuation and phrasal junctures within the line; the presence or absence of consonant clusters; the use of long or short vowels and consonants; the use of mono- or polysyllabic words; the use of words and phrases within the line that have a contrary, falling rhythm, and span the foot divisions; etc. As well as where you happen to feel the impulse to vary the tone, speed and emphasis in performance! (This, incidentally, is the most obvious difference between poetry and rap. With rap, the beat is insistent: the pumping, heavy beat is the driving force behind the line delivery. With metered poetry – and especially with the five beat pentameter, which is much less insistently regular in it’s rhythm than the four beat tetrameter – the rhythm floats on top of the line. It is more subtle and sinuous: the rhythm is there to serve the line rather than command it; it is a guiding force, rather than a driving force. Having said that, here’s a fantastic example of a Shakespeare sonnet being delivered as a rap!: Sonnet 18 rap.  And here’s the full video it was taken from: HipHop & Shakespeare. I am not, by the way, saying that rap is less expressive than poetry: it’s just a different form of expression, and actually a very exciting art form).

In the hands of a skilled poet, the pulse of the metrical rhythm complements and heightens the sound and texture of the words: once you really feel the metrical pulse, the words lift off the page. This is why an effective delivery sounds both rhythmic and textured. Simply imposing the rhythm onto the line kills it, while if you ignore or lose the rhythm, you will lose the heightened expressiveness the words would otherwise impart. The more pleasure you take in the texture of the words, the better – and the easier you will find it to allow the rhythm to provide lift and forward momentum to your delivery. Reading my analysis of Sonnet 1 might give you some idea, but I would also highly recommend learning Arthur Lessac’s ‘linking’ method (a method I will probably outline in a future post – though, by contrast, I also discuss ‘separations’ in Shakespeare’s verse in my first post: Iambic pentameter & the principles of metrical variation: part 1 – feminine endings & simple variations).

Finally, I would like to share an extract from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, which I feel is very much in the spirit of what I am trying to achieve with this blog: to explain ‘the rules of the dance’, reveal its techniques, and share its beauty!

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er th’ unbending corn, and skims along the main.

I hope you enjoy my posts. Please feel free to give feedback – whether it be praise, criticism or suggestions!

N.B. Future posts will include an exploration of the principles by which words can be expanded or contracted to fit the meter, and a full analysis of Sonnet 116 (one of Shakespeare’s most popular sonnets, frequently recited at weddings – but which has been, in my opinion, very much misinterpreted, partly as a result of not following the meter!).

{P.S. You can navigate this site by either clicking on the small picture of the skull towards the top left hand corner of the page, to see all the posts displayed, or you can choose one of the categories underneath the small skull picture}

12 thoughts on “Introduction

  1. I am delighted and relieved to find another meter person on the Web. I’m sure you know what the state of metrical poetry is these days. I had been thinking of presenting the basics by way of pushing formal poetry (inappropriate and perhaps rude to say “real poetry), and you’ve done just that. Thank you! I haven’t gotten further than scraps in my head. Do you write metrical poetry. I didn’t notice any on your Site. The Steele book deals with Shakespear’s variations, always within the pentameter. If you have any comments on my use of rhyme and meter, please hold forth.

    And thank you for following my blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Alan,

      I just thought I’d mention that I’ve written a brief review of Steele’s book in my most recent post: ‘Resources & further reading’.

      Returning to Steele’s book after you mentioned it, was interesting and useful for me. It also sparked off some thoughts which led me to add some extra analysis to the 2nd quatrain of Sonnet 1, so thank you!

      Free verse, and what factors can lend free verse the rhythmic quality of metered verse, is something I’m still getting to grips with, but one thing I am aware of is that some 20th C. verse adheres much more fully to syllabic-accentual metrical principles than most readers would suppose, because the author has found techniques to play with, or lend greater freedom to, the meter, which are similar to the metrical techniques Shakespeare used exclusively in his plays (which I explore in my 3rd post on ‘Iambic pentameter & the principles of metrical variation’). Gerard Manley Hopkins comes to mind (many of his poems which are considered to be simply accentual are, in fact, accentual-syllabic), as does one of my favourite Sylvia Plath poem’s, ‘Snakecharmer’. No doubt this will be the subject of a future post!

      Thank you for your interest and enthusiasm, Alan!


  2. I have read Steele’s book, and have a few comments to make about it.

    Your comments also got me thinking about free verse (and I do understand your impulse to refer to formal poetry as “real” poetry, as so much modern free verse is more along the lines of poetic prose – which is fine, but let’s call it what it is!).

    I will respond more fully when I have more time!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Shakespeare is an excellent poet for studying the pentameter. Scan-able pentameter lines have an unmistakable sound. Read aloud, it sounds like Shakespeare even to those who don’t know what an iamb is. Thank you for liking my ersatz journalism!


  4. Hey Keir,

    I’m glad I found your blog, I’m learning a lot! If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your background in writing and poetry? How did you hone your skill for meter aside from studying Shakespeare? And do you have your own poetry online? You unpack a lot and use terms I haven’t heard anyone use before in person- such as ionic minor or choriamb, so I’m just curious. Thanks a lot for your work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Malcolm, one thing I really should have mentioned is Stephen Fry’s book, The Ode Less Travelled: it contains exercises at the end of each chapter, which makes it a pretty good starting point for anyone trying to master meter. And he has an excellent chapter on enjambment.

      The only serious shortcoming in his understanding of meter lies in the fact that he doesn’t recognise that a beat can be pushed forward to produced the minor ionic: di-di-DUM-DUM (this metrical pattern is frequently not recognised or understood because it can’t be split into two separate feet, and so doesn’t lend itself to traditional scansion). He also doesn’t recognise the 2nd epitrite: DUM-di-DUM-DUM.

      I review this book here: The other books I review may interest you too.


    2. Hey Keir, thank you for the info and resources, it means a lot and I’ll put it all to good use!

      And it’s not disappointing that you don’t write, I just think it’s kinda funny since you’ve done so many detailed posts on meter. And even more with the David Keppel-Jones terminology. I guess everyone has their thing or particular interest.
      Also, I found your blog through Patrick Gillespie’s poemshape blog. Both of you are great at what you do and I appreciate the in-depth analysis!

      I’ll let you know if I have more questions, take care!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Malcolm – I don’t know if you receive automatic notifications of my new posts, so I just thought I’d mention I’ve recently added a couple (I’ve also added a photo of the basics of my notational system near the bottom of my post on “Radical variations”).


  5. Hi Malcolm, and thanks for your message!

    I’m sorry if this disappoints you, but I don’t write poetry, I just read!

    I borrowed the terminology for the “figures” from a book called The Strict Metrical Tradition by David Keppel-Jones (which I review in this post: I’m not surprised you haven’t encountered this terminology – it’s a very specialised book! I adopted Keppel-Jones’ approach to scansion because I’ve found it much more faithfully accommodates what we actually hear when we read or listen to metered verse: we don’t necessarily hear individual feet, we hear patterns. I do explain the basic technicalities of iambic meter without so much technical terminology in this Quora post: But of course, when discoursing at length, it’s useful to apply names to all of the 4 & 6-syllable patterns.

    I started investigating meter in depth when I was sick and housebound for a few weeks: I could tell there was something inadequate in my understanding of meter, so I decided to take the opportunity to really get to grips with it!

    It took me a little while to be able to read metered verse at speed, and be able to tell instinctively whether a line scans (especially with Shakespeare, where there are frequent expansions and contractions and gliding together of words). I practiced simply by reading out loud and memorising plenty of metered verse (I am memorising the whole Sonnet cycle), and by spending time with the verse by marking the scansion.

    Those who say that meter is constrictive really miss the point: it is the very constrictions of meter that give a writer something to play off for expressive effect. That’s something I’ve learned to to appreciate more and more.

    You will find links to more of my posts on meter at the bottom of my Quora profile:

    As a poet, I am guessing you would be most interested in my analysis of specific poems. Besides my analysis of Shakespeare’s opening sonnet in this blog, there are couple of poems I’ve provided some analysis of in my Quora posts: in this post on trochaic/headless meters, I analyze a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay, in which, among other things, I mention her deployment of meter to place stress on an unexpected syllable, which is a very clever and striking technique; and in this post I discuss a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and highlight how she used enjambment, beat displacement and contraction to expressive effect:

    This post compares the various types of meter: And this one specifically explores line length:

    If you take a thorough browse through all the links on my profile, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of interest (and I hope all the links I’ve given you work! If not, I shall correct them).

    It’s nice to hear that you’re learning a lot from my blog – I certainly spent enough time and effort on it! If you have any questions along the way, I shall do my best to answer them.


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