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Poetry Magnum Opus

Iambic Pentameter


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The most common metric line in English poetry is iambic pentameter. A poem written in pure iambic pentameter (da Dum da Dum da Dum da Dum da Dum) can create a sing songy effect yet a skilled writer can deliver the metric pattern without the poem sounding like a nursery rhyme. Here are some guidelines for composing iambic pentameters. The guidelines are generally accepted standards that I try to follow.


Many people have the misconception that a line of iambic pentameter must contain exactly five iambs. While five iambs in a row certainly does make an iambic pentameter, iambic pentameters are not limited to this configuration. Various substitutions (of other metrical feet) may be used within lines of iambic pentameter, and the lines will still be considered iambic pentameters.


The most basic iambic pentameter consists of five iambs in a row:

I want to write some lines of formal verse

/ i WANT / to WRITE / some LINES / of FOR / mal VERSE /

/ iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb /


Now, let's introduce some variation into this line. An unstressed syllable at the end of a line of iambic pentameter is known as a "feminine ending," or "hypermetrical":

I want to write some lines in proper meter

/ i WANT / to WRITE / some LINES / in PRO / per ME / ter

/ iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb / ^


(The carat ^ designates the last syllable, or feminine ending.)The important thing to remember is that when writing a line with a feminine ending in rhymed poetry, the line that rhymes with it should also have a feminine ending:

I want to write some lines in proper meter

the way I once saw done by poet Peter

/ the WAY / i ONCE / saw DONE / by PO /et PET / er

/ iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb / ^


Now that we've looked at some basic iambic pentameters, let's consider some metrical feet that can be substituted for iambs within an iambic pentameter. I'll introduce some trochees into the iambic pentameters we looked at above. Trochees may be used anywhere within an iambic pentameter except in the last foot, which should be an iamb. Also, trochees (and other substitutions) must not outnumber the iambs within a line. This means that at least three of the feet in an iambic pentameter should be iambs:

Wanting to write some lines of formal verse

/ WANting / to WRITE / some LINES / of FOR / mal VERSE /

/ trochee /iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb /


There's only one trochee in this line. I could have used two, and the line would still be an iambic pentameter.


The next substitution is a pyrrhic, followed by a spondee. It counts as two iambs in the line, and it's called a "double iamb":

It's all easy to do when you know how

/ it's ALL / EASy / to DO / when you / KNOW HOW /

/ iamb / trochee / iamb / {pyrrhic / Spondee} /


As you can see, in the above line, I used the pyrrhic spondee combination which counts as two iambs. You can also see I threw a trochee into the mix, in foot two of the line. Yes, this combination of iamb-trochee-iamb-pyrrhic-spondee amounts to a strict iambic pentameter. Double iambs are okay anywhere in an iambic pentameter. Spondees are also okay anywhere in an iambic pentameter.


The next often used metrical convention is known as a "headless iamb." When the first iamb of an iambic pentameter is missing its unstressed syllable, the line is said to contain a headless iamb. A headless iamb is okay in iambic pentameter, so long as the line contains no other substitutions. This means that the line must contain, in addition to the headless iamb, exactly four iambs --

Soon you'll write in meter like a pro

/ ^ SOON / you'll WRITE / in ME / ter LIKE / a PRO /

/ headless iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb /


(Again, the carat ^ designates a missing syllable, in this case, that of the headless iamb.)

-- but the line could have been easily modified to omit the headless iamb by omitting the contraction:

Soon you will write in meter like a pro

/ SOON you / will WRITE / in ME / ter LIKE / a PRO /

/ trochee / iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb /


Either way is okay, with or without the headless iamb; both are considered iambic pentameters. I'll add that some people think a poem written in iambic pentameter should not start out with a line that contains a headless iamb. I myself don't think a headless iamb in the first line is a bad thing.


The last thing I'll mention in this topic is the matter of anapests. Anapests, used sparingly, are acceptable in iambic pentameter. A poem that contains no anapests is considered "strict," whereas a poem containing some anapests is referred to as "loose." Here's one of the lines used above, modified slightly, to contain an anapest:

Writing in meter's a cinch when you know how

/ WRIting / in ME / ter's a CINCH / {when you / KNOW HOW} /

/ trochee / iamb / anapest / {pyrrhic / spondee} /


Notice, even with the trochee and the anapest, the line still conforms. The iambs (when the double iamb is taken into consideration) still outnumber the substitutions.


Well, there you have it. Some basic guidelines for iambic pentameter.


Poem with scansion explaining iambic pentameter



At no point in any iambic pentameter should there be three unstressed syllables in a row. Therefore, a combination like a trochee followed by an anapest is not possible.

Here is a link to an index of my works on this site: tonyv's Member Archive topic

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