Definition of Pentameter

Pentameter is a type of poetic meter formed by five metrical feet per line. A metrical foot is a grouping of one stressed syllable with one to two unstressed syllables that repeats in a regular pattern. We will examine these different types of metrical feet that can make up pentameter lines below. Due to the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, lines with pentameter almost always have exactly five stressed beats, regardless of the number of syllables.

The word pentameter comes from the Latin words penta and metron, which mean “five” and “measure,” respectively. The use and definition of pentameter have been a part of poetry for thousands of years.

Types of Pentameter

  • Iambic Pentameter: An iamb is a combination of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Therefore, iambic pentameter has five stressed syllables and ten syllables total. Iambic pentameter was the most common meter used in traditional English poetry and drama.
  • Trochaic Pentameter: A trochee is the inverse of an iamb, and is comprised of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Trochaic pentameter thus also have five stressed syllables and ten syllables total, similar to iambic pentameter. However, lines begin with the stressed syllable and end with an unstressed syllable. Trochaic pentameter is relatively rare, as trochaic lines usually have four feet (tetrameter), i.e., a line with four stressed syllables and a total of eight syllables.
  • Dactylic Pentameter: A dactyl has one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. Dactylic pentameter has five stressed syllables, and a total of fifteen syllables in a line. Dactylic pentameter was very important in the poetry of antiquity, and was usually found as the second line in an elegiac couplet. Elegiac couplets began with a line in hexameter followed by a line in pentameter, thus creating a constant sense of rising and falling action.
  • Anapestic Pentameter: Anapest, sometimes called an antidactyl, is a metrical foot comprised of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. In a line of anapestic pentameter there are five stressed syllables and a total of fifteen syllables. This form is very rare, as anapest more frequently occurs in lines of three feet (trimeter), four feet (tetrameter), or six feet (hexameter).

Common Examples of Pentameter

Pentameter is a strict pattern of beats in which the rhythm of unstressed and stressed syllables is regulated by the author. Yet, it has also been theorized that pentameter is a very natural pattern for English speakers to use. Here are some famous lines from speeches that include five stressed syllables:

  • “From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”—Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “We shall fight in the fields and in the streets…”—Winston Churchill
  • “We choose to go to the moon in this decade…”—John F. Kennedy

Significance of Pentameter in Literature

Lines with examples of pentameter have been extremely important in the history of literature from classical Greek drama to contemporary poetry. Iambic pentameter is perhaps the most commonly used form in all of English poetry and drama, being the meter of choice for authors such as William Shakespeare, John Milton, and John Donne. More modern authors such as Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay also adopted pentameter forms in order to give their poetry more rhythmic unity. As stated above, some theorists think that pentameter is both a natural and an ideal length for a line, as it contains about the amount of syllables that we can speak in a single breath.

Examples of Pentameter in Literature

Example #1

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 complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest 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.

(“Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare)

More than any other type of meter, William Shakespeare favored iambic pentameter. In his famous “Sonnet 18,” Shakespeare uses perfect iambic pentameter in every line, a relatively difficult feat. We can analyze this usage of iambic pentameter from the very first line: “Shall I com-PARE thee TO a SUMmer’s DAY?” Every successive line contains exactly five stressed syllables, ten total syllables, and a regular pattern of alternating between unstressed and stressed syllables.

Example #2

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

(“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” by Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Edna St. Vincent Millay had a deep sense of tradition that she brought into her own poetry, and created many sonnets with iambic pentameter and other strict meters. The above excerpt is the second stanza of her poem “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,” and is a lovely iambic pentameter example. She evokes winter imagery and alternates between unstressed and stressed syllables with a total of five stressed syllables in each line. We can see this rhythm in the first line: “Thus IN the WINter STANDS the LONEly TREE.”

Example #3

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

(“Birches” by Robert Frost)

Robert Frost is another twentieth century poet who wrote many of his poems with traditional poetic devices, such as rhyme and meter. The poem “Birches” does not contain any rhyme but Frost does write in relatively strict iambic pentameter. We can see this meter in the second line, for example: “A-CROSS the LINES of STRAIGHTer DARKer TREES.” He varies a bit in the feet he uses—the sixth and seventh lines begin with dactyls, while the eighth and ninth lines begin with anapests—yet includes exactly five syllables in each line.

Example #4

Are you still standing there east of the Garden of Eden, or
were you relieved by the flood that revised our geography?
Cherubim tasked with protecting the Tree of Life, surely you
saw when that tree was returned to us lifting our Lord on it.
Were you the same angels posted beside the new tomb with the
body of Jesus, the New Tree, provided again for us?

(“Angels’ First Assignment” by Stan Galloway)

The recent poem “Angels’ First Assignment” by Stan Galloway is a very interesting example of pentameter that is not iambic. This poem is a beautiful dactylic pentameter example. Each line is comprised of five dactyls, thus having five stressed beats with a total of fifteen syllables per line. This produces a rolling and melodic effect to the short poem. We can see the rhythm of beats in each line, such as in the first line: “ARE you still STANDing there EAST of the GARden of EDen, or…”

Test Your Knowledge of Pentameter

1. Which of the following statements is the best pentameter definition?
A. A line with five syllables.
B. A line with five unstressed syllables.
C. A line with five metrical feet.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the following line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

Which of the following terms describes the meter in this line?
A. Iambic pentameter
B. Dactylic pentameter
C. Anapestic pentameter
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. There are five metrical feet in this line, each of which is an iamb.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following lines from William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” is an example of perfect iambic pentameter?
A. Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
B. If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
C. I have seen roses damasked, red and white
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. Lines A and C have a mixture of metrical feet because they both start with a stressed syllable (i.e., a trochee).[/spoiler]