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Iambic-Pent-art - 5/26/10


"That Thing Shakespeare Wrote In or iambic pentameter" by Lady Ingeborg bildsbriĆ³tr Ulfsdottir.


NOTE: See also the files: theater-msg, poetry-msg, poems-msg, Icelndic-poet-art, Goliard-Poets-bib, medvl-poetry-lnks, Entrtng-n-SCA-art, The-Fool-n-SP-art, Bardic-Guide-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:.. THLord Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



NOTE: This article was first published in the May 2007 issue of _The Barge_, monthly publication of the Barony of Three Rivers, Calontir.



That Thing Shakespeare Wrote In

or iambic pentameter

by Lady Ingeborg bildsbriĆ³tr Ulfsdottir


      When prompted, many of us dimly recall an English teacher saying, "Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter."  But since we were busy trying to figure out what the metaphors meant, (and why in the world it was taking Hamlet so long to get around to killing his uncle) any actual explanation on "iambic pentameter" may have been difficult to retain.  Fear not!  I, your self-appointed busybody prosodist, am here to once again elucidate the structure of poetic forms, as comprehensibly as I'm able.


      Whether or not you're interested in poetry yourself, if you have a late-period persona who considers him- or herself educated, he or she will know a little about verse.  A well-rounded courtier simply must be able to compose poetry, or at least give an impression of knowledgeable appreciation of it, if he or she doesn't paint or play an instrument.


      Back to England, and its most famous poetic meter.  I'm having trouble tracking down the specifics on the origin of iambic pentameter as it's used in English, but though it obnoxiously cites no sources on this page, Wikipedia is of the opinion: "Chaucer is also widely credited with the first extensive use of iambic pentameter." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heroic_couplet) (For one of Chaucer's works in iambic pentameter, you could check out his mocking "The Tale of Sir Thopas.")  My favorite prosody guide (http://www.trobar.org/prosody/) declares that after the fourteenth century classic English poetry favors the iambic pentameter most of all.  So while he used it for most of his work, Shakespeare neither invented nor popularized the meter, and it wasn't the only type of rhythm he employed. It's actually kind of fun to skim through his sonnets and go, "That's not an iamb!" impressing all your friends with your literary acumen.  Or else they'll roll their eyes and call you a nerd: some people just don't understand what a fun toy language is.  We must pity those poor unfortunates, and do our best to convert them.


      Understanding iambic meter requires that you know a bit about syllable stresses.


           Stressed syllable: a word, or part of a word, that is either more important than those sounds around it, or else is just given more oomph.  Have you heard the old joke about "putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle?"  The silliness is that the way we pronounce them is "EMphasis" and "SYLlable," because those are the syllables that are stressed when speaking those words.  (Sometimes it can be hard to tell where a stress is; a former English teacher once told me that if you need help finding it out, put your hand under your jaw, and the part of the word or phrase that makes your jaw move the most is usually the one with the most stress.)  If you're just reading poetry instead of writing it, you don't need to be able to say, "this is stressed and that is unstressed" as long as you know how to pronounce the word.

            Unstressed syllable: a word, or part of a word, that is either less important than those sounds around it, or else is just given less oomph.  The -ten of KITten, com- and -ter of comPUter.  If the vowel sound in the word or syllable is uh, then it's usually unstressed.


      Within a few single words, stresses are: BEAver, deCLARE, ANthropoMORphic.  

      In a phrase: the DIM LIGHT was YEllowish.  


      An "iamb" is a unit made of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable.   The word 'deCLARE' is an iamb.  An iamb could also be made of two words: 'the CAT' is an iambic unit.  Sometimes there are even a couple iambs contained in one word, like with 'proPITiaATE.'  So that's the iambic part.  "Pentameter" is just what the word literally means: five-meter, or meter of five.  A line of five iambs is thus iambic pentameter. A whole poem made entirely of those lines is said to be in iambic pentameter, regardless of whether or not it's rhymed, or how long it is, or how many lines in a grouping (stanza).


      Now, it doesn't have to be flawlessly according to the rules, just recognizable as trying to follow them.  It's perfectly acceptable (and perfectly period) to switch the order sometimes, or add on an extra syllable if need be.  For effect, a unit may be flipped (DA-da, 'CYcle') or two unstressed syllables (da-da, 'and the') used in place of an iamb. Keep in mind, though, that excessive reordering of syllable stresses changes the rhythm in the poem, so try not to go overboard until you feel you've developed a fair sense for cadence, and how much mucking about a poem and its meter will put up with.  


      The reader will actually help you keep the meter constant once you've got it well established.  Most people aren't consciously aware they're subtly altering the stress of words to fit the pattern, but we like a steady beat, and iambic is very natural to us.  There's some argument about why it should be so popular; some argue that iambic pentameter is the "natural rhythm of the English language," as even in normal speaking a sentence may fall into it (i NEver WANT to GO back THERE aGAIN).  Another idea is that we're drawn to iambs because they throb like a heartbeat.  What I know is that this tendency makes writing easier.  Glance at these lines from Shakespeare's Sonnet Two:


Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,

Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;


When you just casually read it, especially if you'd read the previous rhythmic lines before to fully set up the driving beat as a base, you probably felt something like:


Then BEing ASKED where ALL thy BEAUty LIES,

Where ALL the TREAsure OF thy LUsty DAYS;


But if you'd just run across the second line in a novel, you'd feel it as:


WHERE all the TREAsure of thy LUsty DAYS


I encourage you to look at various poems yourself, or listen while another reads them aloud, to find that this unconscious conforming of rhythm tends to occur.  We like patterns, you know.  God to king, king to lord, lord to peasant, nice and stable.


      For whatever reason, an iambic meter is probably the easiest type to work with (for English.  If you're wondering about Ukrainian go research it yourself), so if you're just trying strongly structured poetry for the first time, I recommend iambs. No need, by the way, to write with five units per line; that's just most common, most traditional.  Iambic tetrameter (four iambs) was probably next most common, but as long as you have the same number of units in every line, you could reasonably also use a triameter (3) or hexameter (6).  Much longer or shorter lines than that, though, and you'd likely have what is heraldically known as a "period weirdness."



Go forth, and play with words!



Peace Arts

An iambic pentameter example


Two months are gone since last we marched from war;

Since battle's end, and home we wound our way.

And in the calm where clamor was before,

The gentle arts have once again held sway:

They lead the men and maids to them essay.

Were fighters lured to woodwork from their axe?

Was armor then dumped heedless into packs?


The angels feeding fighters turned from soup,

From salty, fluid foods to pasties fair,

Now free from mobile kitchen's tiny coop,

Creating by their art astounding fare:

Removes quite fanciful and trifles rare.

And spending hours on a single dish

Instead of multiplying loaves and fish.


And now did simple folk turn clothier;

They prayed two months enough, to garments make.

A dress full gay, and pants much sturdier

Than those that would not much abusing take.

(This task enormous made myself to quake.)

How well I fared you will not need to guess:

I now have nearly finished my first dress.


In leather, fain were some of us to cut

With clever knife, and stipple tool impress

In skin as white as egg or brown as nut.

A belt, a purse, a jack, a mural, yes,

I tried myself with varying success.

Alas, untrue, a belt all I've begun,

And really I believe it's nearly done.


The reassuring thump of busy loom

Accompanies the shoosh of carding wool.

A fair light banishes all threat of gloom;

A turning spindle drops in earthward pull

As clicking needles loop a cloth in full.

I know that wood is carved and metal cast,

And sundry other arts I've yet to tast.


But for myself, they'll wait 'til Lilies' gone,

As I've my arm to strengthen for the fight

(I need a bit more speed, or else more brawn.)

And there are verses that I need to write

And songs to memorize to join at night.

Oh leisurely in peace the arts do grow,

But joy!  At war their bouquet'ed flowers show.



Copyright 2007 by Caitlin Johnoff, 2801 Middlebush Dr., Columbia, MO 65203. <alianoraree at yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org