What is Iambic Pentameter?

William Shakespeare, date and artist unknown

I heard about iambic pentameter for years before I understood what it meant. I was able to figure out that it had something to do with five (penta), but the standard definition, “in poetry, a metrical pattern in a 10-syllable line of verse in which five unaccented syllables alternate with five accented syllables, with the accent usually falling on the second of each pair of syllables,” just didn’t give me a mental picture of what iambic pentameter really sounded like.

It took a lot of syllable counting and oddly accented reading aloud to understand it fully, but when it clicked it was actually pretty simple. Here is a video that explains it thoroughly and helpfully, using a couple of lines from Macbeth as an illustration.

You might also enjoy learning about meter in poetry through these videos by Dr. Timothy Bartel:

Dr. Timothy Bartel can help you understand iambic pentameter and other types of meter in poetry.Dr. Timothy E. G. Bartel is a poet and professor from California. He lectures on the history, formal traditions, and cultural significance of poetry on YouTube through his Knowing Poetry series. Dr. Bartel is the author of several books, including The Heroines of Henry Longfellow (Lexington Books, 2023), and A Crown for Abba Moses: New and Selected Poems (Solum Literary Press, 2023). He holds a PhD in Divinity from University of St Andrews and an MFA in Poetry from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Bartel currently teaches literature and theology at Saint Constantine College.