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Writing

Understanding Iambic Meter: Examples of Iambic Meter in Poetry

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 12, 2020 • 3 min read

In the English language, poetry flows from syllable to syllable, each pair of syllables creating a pattern known as a poetic meter. When a line of verse is composed of two-syllable units that flow from unaccented beat to an accented beat, the rhythmic pattern is said to be an iambic meter.

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What Is Iambic Meter?

Iambic meter is the pattern of a poetic line made up of iambs. An iamb is a metrical foot of poetry consisting of two syllables—an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, pronounced duh-DUH. An iamb can be made up of one word with two syllables or two different words. The word iamb comes from the Greek iambos and Latin iambus which describe a short syllable followed by long syllables. An example of iambic meter would be a line like this: The bird has flown away.

6 Types of Iambic Meter

There are different variations of iambic meter depending on how many iambs are in a line of poetry. These are:

  1. Iambic dimeter: a line of poetry with two iambs
  2. Iambic trimeter: a line of poetry with three iambs
  3. Iambic tetrameter: a line of poetry with four iambs
  4. Iambic pentameter: a line of poetry with five iambs
  5. Iambic hexameter: a line of poetry with six iambs
  6. Iambic heptameter: a line of poetry with seven iambs
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3 Examples of Iambic Meter

From John Keats to David Mamet, poets and playwrights use various literary devices to create their work. Meter is an important element that helps create the structure of a literary work. Iambic meters are common throughout English poetry, including these four examples:

  1. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: Geoffrey Chaucer weaves both poetry and prose through his classic Canterbury Tales. His prologue is written in iambic pentameter and is one of the first written examples of this meter in the English language. Chaucer wrote in Middle English, the version of the English language spoken from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, and certain vowels were pronounced differently, which accounts for some of the syllables in his iambic meter. As seen in the following four lines which open his book, Chaucer’s intro is written in iambic pentameter and in couplets—two consecutive lines of verse with the same meter and rhyme scheme: “Whan that aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of march hath perced to the roote, / And bathed every veyne in swich licour / Of which vertu engendred is the flour”
  2. Macbeth by William Shakespeare: There are many examples of iambic meter within William Shakespeare’s body of work. In certain scenes within his plays, he used blank verse—a poetic form written in iambic pentameter but without rhyming lines. Shakespeare composed most of Romeo and Juliet in blank verse. Here is an example from Macbeth: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / To the last syllable of recorded time; / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools.”
  3. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson: When the first line of a poem written in iambic tetrameter is followed by a line written in iambic trimeter, the combination is called “common meter.” Emily Dickinson uses a common meter in her poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Here is an example from the middle of the poem: “We passed the school where children played, / Their lessons scarcely done; / We passed the fields of gazing grain, / We passed the setting sun.”

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4 Other Types of Feet in Poetry

Poems can have different types of metrical feet. The type of foot is determined by the number of syllables (most often a foot has two or three syllables) and the stress pattern of each syllable. Aside from the iamb, other types of poetic feet include:

  1. Trochee: Pronounced DUH-duh, as in “ladder.” A line of verse with one or more trochees is said to have a trochaic meter. This stress pattern is the opposite of iambic meter.
  2. Spondee: Spondees have two stressed syllables, pronounced DUH-DUH, as in “TV.” Learn more about spondee in our guide here.
  3. Dactyl: Dactyls are pronounced DUH-duh-duh, as in “certainly.” This foot has a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.
  4. Anapest: Pronounced duh-duh-DUH, as in “what the heck!” Anapestic meter typically divides its syllables across multiple words.

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