Poetry Terms: What Is Iamb and Iambic Meter?

It's All About a Poem's Rhythm

Have you heard a poet or English teacher talk about iambic meter? It may sound like a difficult concept to grasp, but it's actually as simple as the rhythm of a poem. Once you learn what it is, you will begin to recognize it in poetry and use it when writing your own verse.

What Is an Iambic Foot?

An iamb (pronounced EYE-am) is a metrical foot in poetry. What is a foot? A foot is the unit of stressed and unstressed syllables that determines what we call the meter, or rhythmic measure, in the lines of a poem.

 

An iambic foot consists of two syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed, so that it sounds like “da-DUM.” One iambic foot can be a single word or a combination of two words:

  • away is one foot: a is unstressed and way is stressed
  • the crow is one foot: the is unstressed and crow is stressed

A perfect example of iambs are found in the last two lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

So LONG / as MEN / can BREATHE / or EYES / can SEE,
So LONG / lives THIS / and THIS / gives LIFE / to THEE.

These last lines from Shakespeare's sonnet are actually in 'iambic pentameter." This is a type of iambic meter that is defined by the number of iambs per line.

6 Common Types of Iambic Meter

Iambic pentameter may be the most recognizable type of iambic meter as many famous poems use it. Your high school English teacher likely spoke often about iambic pentameter, which means that there are five iamb feet per line in the poem.

Iambs are all about pattern and rhythm and you will quickly notice a pattern to the types of iambic meters:

  • iambic dimeter: 2 iambs per line
  • iambic trimeter: 3 iambs per line
  • iambic tetrameter: 4 iambs per line
  • iambic pentameter: 5 iambs per line
  • iambic hexameter: 6 iambs per line

Study Tip: Robert Frost's "Dust of Snow" (1923) and "The Road Not Taken" are two poems that are popular in iambic studies.

A Little Iambic History

The term iamb originated in classical Greek prosody as “iambos.” It refers to a short syllable followed by a long syllable. The Latin word is "iambus."

  • Greek poetry was measured in quantitative meter, determined by the length of the word-sounds.
  • Accentual-syllabic verse is measured by the stress or accent given to syllables when a line is spoken. It has dominated English poetry from the time of Chaucer through the 19th century.

Both of these forms of verse use iambic meter. The biggest difference is that the Greeks concentrated not just on how the syllables sounded, but their actual length (they were extremely methodical).

Traditionally, sonnets are written in iambic pentameter with a strict rhyming structure. You will also notice it in many of Shakespeare's verses and plays, particularly when a higher-class character speaks. 

A style of poetry known as blank verse also uses iambic pentameter, yet in this case rhyming is not required (or encouraged). Again, you can find this in the works of Shakespeare as well as Robert Frost, John Keats, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton and Phillis Wheatley.