The way I wish Iambic Pentameter had been explained to me:

  • Some phrases can be said in Iambic Pentameter but they don’t have to be.
  • `Iambic’ and ‘Pentameter’ are entirely different conditions: you can have dactylic pentameter or Iambic tetrameter
  • When we say “This is Iambic” we mean normally mean “This can be said in an Iambic way” or even “You end up naturally saying this in an Iambic way”
  • An ‘iamb’ is a unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. This is the same as an ‘iambic foot’.
  • You can say single-syllable words with any stress you like, but multi-syllable words have a defined stress that you can look up (or hear, but that’s a skill to learn). For example: ‘Mutant’ is stressed-unstressed, ‘delivered’ is unstressed-stressed-unstressed, and ‘perfect’ is stressed-unstresssed if you mean ‘this is perfect’ and unstressed-stressed if you mean ‘I will perfect it’
  • if the stressed parts of your multi-syllable words are on even numbered syllables in a sentance, then you can say the sentance iambicly. The sentance ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ has two syllables that must be stressed (the first syllables of ‘happy’ and ‘brothers’) and both are in an even position so it can be said iambicly.
  • to say something iambically you put stress on the even syllables of the sentance. This easier when the words naturally have a stress in them.
  • А poem is said to be written in pentameter when the lines of the poem have the length of five feet. This would make lines in Iambic Pentameter ten syllables long. Shakespeare fairly regularly puts an extra unstressed syllable on the end. This is called an feminine ending, although all lines of poetry that end unstressed are said to have feminine endings. I think of this as: it’s in pentameter if it has five complete feet.
  • Shakespeare wrote a lot of lines that were intended to be said in iambic pentameter, but also mixed in a lot that were nearly iambic pentameter, and a bunch that were nowhere near. Neither ‘to be or not to be, that is the question’ or ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ are in strict iambic pentameter: they both have feminine endings.

I worked this out yesterday and I’m quite angry about it because it’s something I’ve wondered about fairly often over the years and every time I’ve asked someone about it I’ve been left with the impression that detecting syllable stress is a magical skill that orges like me don’t have. I only worked it out because yesterday I wrote some python code to solve a related issue I was having and in the process of testing my code I got the final bits of the puzzle to work out the rest. I’m pleased I did it, but also really annoyed at how impeneratable this was for me.

Edit - this turned out to be a reasonably popular post for Google traffic. People who liked this post might also like these maps of popular narratives, this book I wrote on memory palaces, and this discussion of a science of cooking course I’ve been doing.