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Iambic Pentameter describes the construction of a line of poetry with five sets of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables. To understand what this means, let’s break down what happens in a line of poetry. When we read poetry, a group of two or three syllables is called a foot. Words have stressed and destressed syllables, depending on how we write and say them. Think of this as parts of the words you emphasize and the parts you do not.
A foot of poetry is referred to as an iamb if it has one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The word “describe” is an iamb because we do not stress the “de” in the word, but we emphasize the “scribe” following it. Therefore, iambic means unstressed/stressed, in that order. Think of the rhythm like your heart beating as a good way to visualize and feel the unstressed-stressed. To look at the second half of the term “Iambic Pentameter,” let’s look at what meter does. Meter is the rhythm in a line of poetry. Penta means five. Therefore pentameter is a line of poetry that is made up of five metrical feet, or five sets of unstressed and stressed syllables. The iamb is the most common metrical foot used in English poetry.
Shakespeare is renown for his use of iambic pentameter. He uses it in his plays and his poetry. Often, iambic pentameter can be used to give indications of class differences in renaissance plays and works. In Shakespeare’s work, upper class characters speak in iambic pentameter and are juxtaposed by the lower class language. Iambic pentameter was heavily used during the Renaissance in England. Poets like John Donne used iambic pentameter in his poetry. Chaucer, during earlier and medieval periods, also used iambic pentameter in his Canterbury Tales.
It is important to note that a piece of poetry or a work that uses iambic pentameter does not have to use iambic pentameter the entire way through the piece. Poets may use iambic pentameter for one line and then not use it for the next. Aside from using it to make a statement or for characterization, as Shakespeare does, poets may get tired of using the same rhythm.
Here are examples of iambic pentameter in use:
From “Holy Sonnet XIV” by John Donne:
“As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend.
That I may rise and stand o’erthrow me and bend
Every other word in these two lines of poetry are stressed. In the first line, the stress falls on “yet,” “knock,” “shine,” “seek,” and “mend.” Donne chooses words that highlight the unstressed and stressed construction. The stressed words have similar sounding vowels or use consonance to highlight their stress.
From Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 12:”
“When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime. . .”
Shakespeare, like Donne, uses iambic pentameter to open his sonnet. The words “I,”count,” “clock,” tells,” and “time” hold stress. Shakespeare heavily uses consonance make the line flow and to stress every other word.
From John Milton’s Paradise Lost:
“Fast by the Oracle of God: I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues…”
Milton tends to follow iambic pentameter closely in this excerpt of his work. If you read this aloud, you feel the unstressed-stressed rhythm. You can especially see the iambic pentameter in the second line by harshly saying and stressing the “voke” in the word “invoke.” Clapping your hands as you say “voke” may help you feel the rhythm and stresses.
Iambic Pentameter Worksheets
This bundle contains 5 ready-to-use iambic pentameter worksheets that are perfect to test student knowledge and understanding of what iambic pentameter is and how it can be used. You can use these iambic pentameter worksheets in the classroom with students, or with home schooled children as well.
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Use With Any Curriculum
These worksheets have been specifically designed for use with any international curriculum. You can use these worksheets as-is, or edit them using Google Slides to make them more specific to your own student ability levels and curriculum standards.