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An English Teacher's Glossary - Pentameter

A line of poetry made up of ten (occasionally eleven) syllables or five ‘feet’. The rhythm is nearly always iambic - an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in the word ‘avoid’.

 

If you take a line like ‘/ Shall I / compare / thee to / a sum / mer’s day? /’ from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, your ear is treated to iambic pentameter. Indeed, the third foot, ‘thee to’, is not in itself iambic’ it is trochaic. ‘Thee’ is the stressed syllable. But as part of the pentameter line it gets drawn into the iambic pattern. Notice, the rhythm is based on syllables, so complete words, in this case, ‘summer’s’, can be broken up.

Some of the greatest poetry in English is written in pentameters, either as heroic couplets (Chaucer) or as blank verse (Milton). Here are the opening lines of Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Mending Wall’ (notice how he draws attention to the significant opening foot, ‘something’, by making it a trochee rather than an iamb) :

 

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing….

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