What Is Pentameter?
Pentameter is the most common form of poetic meter, composed of five metrical feet in one line. (A “metrical foot” is a word or phrase composed of one stressed syllable and one or two unstressed syllables.) A line of verse in pentameter typically contains ten syllables, although in some cases it may contain up to 15. Only the stressed beats count in determining the number of metrical feet.
Iambic pentameter is the most common metrical form used in English drama and poetry. Many famous writers, including Shakespeare and John Donne, wrote almost exclusively in this pattern. Scholars note that its prevalence is probably due to the fact that English speakers tend to speak in a rhythm close to iambic pentameter; hence, written verse followed an established oral pattern.
How Do You Identify Pentameter in Writing?
Pentameter takes several different forms. The most common are as follow:
- Iambic pentameter consists of five metrical feet, with the stress falling on the second syllable.
- Trochaic pentameter is the opposite of iambic pentameter. The stress in each of the five metrical feet falls on the first instead of the second syllable. It’s difficult to find examples of this metrical pattern because trochiac tetrameter and trimeter (four and three metrical feet, respectively) are more conventional patterns.
- Dactylic pentameter occurs when there are five metrical feet in a line, with two unstressed syllables following an initial stressed syllable. Use of this meter dates back to classical antiquity; in ancient Rome, the second line of an elegiac couplet is written in dactylic pentameter.
- Anapestic pentameter is the inverse of dactylic pentameter. Two unstressed syllables precede one stressed syllable. Like trochaic pentameter, anapestic pentameter is uncommon; anapestic meter typically occurs in lines of verse with three, four, or six metrical feet.
Examples of Pentameter
1. “Thou still | unra | vished bride | of qui |etness,” the opening line of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” is in iambic pentameter.
2. “Is this | a dag | ger which | I see | before me?” asks Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
3. But soft! | what light | through yon | der win |dow breaks?” is another famous Shakespearean question, this time posed by Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.
4. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” begins Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet #18.
5. “Why should | a dog, | a horse, | a rat, | have life, . . . ” This line from King Lear is a good example of trochaic pentameter.
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