Iambic Pentameter

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by Mikasa, May 22, 2014.

  1. Hello! It's labelled "Tutorial", but well, I'm not the one giving it...


    Okay well, I wanted to find out more about Iambic Pentameters, and what better place to ask than here? If this question is misplaced, please, feel free to move it. And the questions:

    How exactly do you construct an iambic pentameter?

    Or more precisely: How do you know what syllable is stressed, and what isn't?

    Per my understanding... To understand an iambic pentameter, you have to understand 'meters', which, very simply put, is a rhythmic structure of a verse... And meters... Are sequences of 'feets', or 'iambs'......... And something about stressed and unstressed syllables... Yep, I kind of lost it while reading Wikipedia.

    The burning question though, is how do people know which syllable is stressed and which is unstressed. Are these stressed syllables always stressed in all situations? Can stressed syllables in a specific word be unstressed?
  2. If i remember correctly an iambic pentameter is a single colum five syllable poem of about eight- ten lines similar to a haiku where it doesn't need to rhyme it's been a while since i last wrote an Iambic Pentameter
  3. Oh... It doesn't have to rhyme? I had always been under the impression it had to. That said, I'm still wondering, how do you know what syllable is stressed and what is unstressed? Is there like a sort of guidebook to it?
  4. it may or may not have to rhyme but i prefer my poems to rhyme
  5. @Mikasa
    "The burning question though, is how do people know which syllable is stressed and which is unstressed. Are these stressed syllables always stressed in all situations? Can stressed syllables in a specific word be unstressed?"

    First, a demonstration of stresses and meter. The following poem is William Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 18. It's a very good example of Iambic Pentameter. In the following version of the poem, the syllables in bold and italics are stressed, whereas the syllables merely italicized are unstressed:
    Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
    Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
    And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
    Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
    And often is his gold compleksion dimmed,
    (My misspelling here is deliberate, by the way, to show the separation of syllables)
    And ev'ry fair from fair sometime declines,
    By chance, or nature's chanjing course untrimmed: (
    Again, deliberate misspell)
    But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
    Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
    Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
    When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

    Two important notes:
    1) Notice the consistency of the placement of stresses. This is key to identifying a poem as having "iambic pentameter", as explained later in this post.
    2) The above poem assumes modern pronunciation. Though the stresses would have remained in the same distribution in Shakey's time, the words themselves would've been pronounced differently. It's a totally different and amazingly amazing experience to hear this as pronounced in Shakey's time (there are demonstrations of such pronunciations in Youtube).

    Now, stressed means there's a certain emphasis on the syllable, ie it sounds longer or stronger, whereas unstressed means the syllable is somewhat softer, ie weaker or swifter, sounding. Think drum beats: "ba-BUM ba-BUM ba-BUM ba-BUM ba-BUM". Syllables in specific words do not need to be stressed/unstressed all the time (ie, there's often no one defining standard for stresses, I believe), but there are established conventions, and often deviating from said conventions leads to either a change of meaning, or general awkwardness of the line. For example, compare China to China. Poets often assume that the readers of their metered poetry follow these conventions when reading their poetry.

    Anyway, many poems follow a structure called meter, which in essence is a definition of which syllables in their lines are stressed or unstressed. Often, when defining a poem's meter, there are two words. Take, for example,
    "Iambic Pentameter".​
    The first word describes what kind of feet the lines of the poem will generally have. Feet here means small collections of syllables within a line that fit a pattern of stresses. In the case of "Iambic Pentameter", each foot follows the iambic mode of foot, wherein there are two syllables, with the first syllable being unstressed and the second syllable being stressed. For example,
    "So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."
    "So long", "lives this", "and this", "gives life", "to thee" are the feet of the above line, with their stresses always following the iambic mode ("So long", "lives this", etc. etc.).

    The second word defines the number of feet each line of the poem will have. In the case of "Iambic Pentameter", lines following this type of meter will have five iambs. Take, once again, the following as an example:
    "So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."
    "So long", "lives this", "and this", "gives life", "to thee" are, as said, the feet of the above line, and there are five of them. Hence the "penta" in "pentameter".

    And so, by discussing said naming conventions, I've just defined what "Iambic Pentameter" is! To recall, "Iambic Pentameter" is a type of meter wherein each line has Iambs for feet, and five feet per line. Note that there are many other kinds of meter, so this kind of meter doesn't apply to all poetry. Take, for example, the following excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha" (an example I found from Wikipedia):​
    "By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
    By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
    Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
    Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis."
    Note that the position of the stresses are different from the preceding example from Will Shakey. This is because the poem follows the metrical mode of "Trochaic tetrameter", wherein the feet are in Trochees, and there there are four feet per line. A Trochee, by the way, is a foot of two syllables with a stress on the first syllable and no stress on the second one. Again, there are many more kinds of meter, but those I'll just leave for you to discover yourself.

    And there you have it, a fairly comprehensive guide to Iambic Pentameter. Note that I italicized generally before because sometimes poets will deviate from the assumed metrical form of a poem for a poetic effect. Take, for example, some of the Trochees Shakespeare used in beginning some of his lines in some of his plays (I currently don't remember any good examples of this, but I believe these examples are searchable). And now, to address your other questions:

    "How exactly do you construct an iambic pentameter? Or more precisely, how do you know what syllable is stressed, and what isn't?"

    Once again, you just have to follow conventions on saying words. Read the words out loud as you write them down, to feel or hear the stresses of the line. Following my earlier definition of Iambic Pentameter and stresses, here's another example (that this time I myself conjured up) to demonstrate stresses and Iambic Pentameter.​
    "A cat came in and ate my chinese bowl
    And so, in hate, I ate him in return!"​
    An even simpler example would be "A cat a cat a cat a cat a cat". Just read the lines out loud, and you'll feel the "ba-BUM-ba-BUM-ba-BUM-ba-BUM-ba-BUM" 'drum beat' that characterizes Iambic Pentameter.
    If you wanna practice your meter-identifying skills, a good way of practicing would be, quite frankly, reading more metered poetry. I suggest reading Shakespeare's Sonnets, mainly because the meter there is fairly uniform (almost always Iambic Pentameter with no added Trochees and such), but also because Shakespeare's Sonnets are really fairly pretty. Read them out loud, feel the beat, and eventually you'll get a hang of the whole meter thing.

    "It doesn't have to rhyme?"

    No, it doesn't!
    You just have to follow the meter, ie the placement of stresses and the number of feet per line. A good example of non-rhyming Iambic Pentameter would be Shakey's plays (especially Hamlet), although sometimes they feature prose and non-IP poetry. Here, non-rhyming IP (with a few metrical inconsistencies. The poem still works, though, as do the rest of Shakey's work. Take note of the Trochee beginning the second line):​
    "To be, or not to be, that is the question—
    Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
    The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
    Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
    And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep—
    No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
    The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
    That Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
    To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there's the rub,
    For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
    When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
    Must give us pause. There's the respect
    That makes Calamity of so long life:
    For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
    The Oppressor's wrong, the proud man's Contumely,
    The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
    The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
    That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
    When he himself might his Quietus make
    With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardels bear,
    To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
    But that the dread of something after death,
    The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
    No Traveler returns, Puzzles the will,
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
    Than fly to others that we know not of.
    Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
    And thus the Native hue of Resolution
    Is sicklied o'er, with the pale cast of Thought,
    And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
    With this regard their Currents turn awry,
    And lose the name of Action. Soft you now,
    The fair Ophelia. Nymph, in all thy Orisons
    Be thou all my sins remembered."​
    You often see IP being written with rhymes because, well, rhyming is fairly popular! Doesn't a poem just sound so clean with lovely rhymes? But that's beside the point: once again, a poem that it's in Iambic Pentameter (or any kind of meter, actually) doesn't have to rhyme in order to be in that meter.

    Final question: "Is there like a sort of guidebook to it?"

    In this day and age, there probably is, but the best way to learn meter in poetry is by reading it (out loud if you ain't used to it yet), mainly because you not only get a comprehensive, applied education in it, but also because POETRY.
    If you still want to look for a guidebook, however, I don't really know any guidebooks for poetry outside of Wikipedia, so... err... Google is your friend? :P

    Anyway, I hope this long, in-depth explanation helps, and I hope that you understand what Iambic Pentameter, and meter in general, is!

    #5 RiverNotch, May 26, 2014
    Last edited: May 27, 2014
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  6. @RiverNotch seems to have a better grasp on iambic pentameters so i relent my mentorship to them
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  7. @RiverNotch

    THANK YOU SO MUCH! This was an extremely informative post, complete with examples. And Shakey? That's cute :P
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