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Literature Glossary

Don’t be an oxymoron. Know your literary terms.

Over 200 literary terms, Shmooped to perfection.

Iambic Pentameter

Definition:

Here it is, folks. Probably the single most useful technical term in poetry (and in drama, too). Shmoopers, if you learn one term in poetry, let it be the old I.P. Or maybe metaphor. But you already knew that one.

Let's break it down:

  • An iamb is a metrical foot that consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one—daDUM. 
  • Penta- means five.
  • Meter refers to a regular rhythmic pattern in poetry.

So iambic pentameter is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consists of five iambs per line, almost like five heartbeats: daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM.

Let's try it out on the first line of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night:

If music be the food of love, play on.

Just read that line aloud to yourself, and you'll be sure to hear those daDUMs.

Of course, though many poets use this rhythm, it might get pretty stinkin' boring after a while if they didn't shake it up a bit. So while a ton of poems are written in iambic pentameter, you'd be hard pressed to find one that follows the meter perfectly. Poets like to mix it up with metrical variations like extra syllables or out-of-order stresses. Be sure to check out our page on meter for more.

Iambic pentameter has some majorly early roots, dating back to Latin verse and Old French, but Chaucer is considered the pioneer of the verse in English and used it for his famous Canterbury Tales. Yep, it's been around that long.