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What is iambic pentameter?

Welcome to the first lesson in my live blog of Stephen Fry’s, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. How does one live blog a book, you ask? — Well good question!  The Ode Less Travelled happens to be more textbook than easy reading book and comes divided into lessons and exercises — so I’ll share a summary of the lesson and my resulting attempts at the exercises. I welcome your feedback on my practice in the comments!

The first lesson in The Ode Less Travelled has to do with meter in poetry and introduces the iamb and it’s classic form, iambic pentameter.

What is an iamb?

Simply put, an iamb is a pair of syllables that sound like “da dum“.

In poetry, such a unit is called a “foot”, and it can be thought of as akin to a measure in music — the basic repeated unit of rhythm in the verse:

In music we have: and one and two and three and four

And in poetry it becomes: da dum da dum da dum da dum

So that’s the iamb: a simple metrical unit (or foot) that goes “da dum“.

Introducing iambic pentameter

What about iambic pentameter? We’ll we’ve met the iamb and pentameter means just what it sounds like — “penta” being five and “meter” being measure. So a pentameter is merely a measure of five, and in this case we measure five iambs:

da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum

It’s a classic metrical line in English poetry, used by everyone from Chaucer to Shakespeare, to Byron and beyond.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall

That strain again! it had a dying fall

And another, from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe

Brought death into the World, and all our woe

Got it? Good.

Let’s move on to the exercise

Stephen Fry gives a great number of rules for this exercise, the most important of which I shall summarize in brief:

  1. Write 20 lines of iambic pentameter
  2. Write single lines and pairs of lines
  3. Do not use rhyme (I failed at this — oops!)
  4. Do not polish or strive for any effect beyond the metrical
  5. Use a variety of world lengths
  6. Write in contemporary English

Here are the lines I came up with:

I want to go, to where I do not know.

My mind was shattered there like broken glass.

I ran away and in my running lay
A longing need, a desperate escape.

It truly was a staggering of snow
I stayed at home and watched it, blow by blow

I yearn to go to bed and restlessly
to sleep, I am so tired I might weep.

Now wish me well; I shall return, I swear.

I tried to light a merry blaze, a fire.

My roommates are so noisy late at night
I cannot sleep in peace without a fight.

I wish to think alone, not fast or slow.

The door it creaks on hinges now so old.

The table is of fine and oaken wood.

I ate an egg for breakfast, overdone.

The day is young and I long to run and play
the way that children did back in my day.

What do you think? Catch any places my meter slipped?

Let me know in the comments. And feel free to try your hand at iambic pentameter, too!

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