Definition of Iamb
An iamb is a unit of meter with two syllables, where the first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is stressed. Words such as “attain,” “portray,” and “describe” are all examples of the iambic pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. The iamb is one of the most fundamental metrical feet in English language and poetry. Many poets writing in strict meter choose to write with many successive iambs to create a consistent rhythm of unstressed and stressed beats. We will see some of these types of consistent meter below in more depth.
The metrical foot of trochee is opposite to that of iamb, containing two syllables where the first syllable is stressed and the second syllable is unstressed.
The etymology of the word iamb is a bit unclear; in Ancient Greece there was a type of satyrical poetry called iambus. This could be because of the legendary Iambe, who was the goddess of humorous verse. However, others have suggested that the word “iambos” came from before the Ancient Greeks and meant something akin to “one step.” Whatever may be the case, the word iambus has also survived and has the same definition as the definition of iamb.
Common Types of Meter With Iambs
There are a few types of meter containing iambs that are used in poetry:
- Iambic Trimeter: A line with three iambs (six syllables total). This was common in Greek tragedy and comedy, and was the meter in which most verses were spoken.
- Iambic Tetrameter: A line with four iambs (eight syllables total). Less common than the other metrical forms containing iambs.
- Iambic Pentameter: A line with five iambs (ten syllables total). Iambic pentameter is one of the most common meters used in all of English language poetry, and became especially popular in Renaissance England. It remained popular for hundreds of years.
- Iambic Hexameter, also known as Alexandrine: A line with six iambs (twelve syllables). Poems in this meter were popular in the German Baroque period and in early modern and modern French poetry. The name “Alexandrine,” meaning a line with twelve syllables, probably came from a book of romances of which Alexander the Great was the hero and all of the lines were contained twelve syllables.
- Iambic Heptameter: A line with seven iambs (fourteen syllables total). Perhaps the rarest of all of these meters.
Common Examples of Iamb
There are countless words in English that are examples of iamb, either with two syllables like “delay,” “abscond,” and “attack,” or with four syllables like “unquestioning,” “adorable,” and “comedienne.” There are also plenty of idioms in English that demonstrate iambic meter:
- A bitter pill.
- A dime a dozen.
- From A to Z.
- It’s made from scratch.
- Through thick and thin.
- See eye to eye.
Significance of Iamb in Literature
The iamb has been one of the main building blocks of western literature, from Ancient Greece to Renaissance England to the modern day. The regular pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables in any iambic meter helps to create a sense of rhythm and order. Poets have used iambic meters for millennia to set apart their works of literature from ordinary speech, while not forcing language into unnatural formations.
Examples of Iamb in Literature
Example #1: Iambic Tetrameter and Iambic Trimeter
If you were coming in the fall
I’d brush the summer by
With half a smile and half a spurn,
As housewives do a fly.
(“If You Were Coming in the Fall” by Emily Dickinson)
Iambic trimeter is generally considered the shortest regular line of meter, with only six syllables in the line. Most poets choose longer lines simply to be able to say more. In this short stanza from Emily Dickinson’s “If You Were Coming in the Fall,” we can see her alternate between lines with four iambs (eight syllables) and lines with three iambs (six syllables). This type of alternation is also known as common meter or ballad verse.
Example #2: Iambic Tetrameter
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
(“She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron)
Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” is an excellent example of iambic tetrameter, i.e., lines of four iambs each. While this is still a fairly short line, Lord Byron is able to beautifully express his love in impressively rhythmic and rhyming lines.
Example #3: Iambic Tetrameter and Iambic Trimeter (Ballad Verse)
The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’
(“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s very long poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” tells the story of a sailor who has returned from a voyage and wants to tell his experiences to a wedding guest. Coleridge chose a meter often associated with ballads which alternates iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. This creates a sing-song feeling, which we are familiar with in songs like “Amazing Grace” and “America the Beautiful.”
Example #4: Iambic Pentameter
ROMEO: But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)
One of the most popular meters ever used, examples of iambic pentameter abound in Shakespeare’s work, such as in Romeo’s famous quote above. Most of Shakespeare’s poetry is written in iambic pentameter, and much of his drama is as well. If you consider most of the famous soliloquy examples in Shakespeare, and even dialogues, you will find a steady pattern of iambic pentameter. It has been theorized that there is something innately “natural” about iambic pentameter in the English language and that it represents the total amount that a human can say easily in one breath.
Example #5: Iambic Pentameter and Iambic Hexameter (Alexandrine)
Then, at the last and only couplet fraught
With some unmeaning thing they call a thought,
A needless Alexandrine ends the song,
That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.
(“An Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope)
Alexander Pope makes a joke about the Alexandrine form by demonstrating it in the final line of the above excerpt. He writes, “That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along,” which does indeed feel long as compared to all of the lines of iambic pentameter that come before it. Pope brilliantly finds a way to represent the slowness of iambic hexameter through imagery.
Example #6: Iambic Heptameter
It was the man from Ironbark who struck the Sydney town,
He wandered over street and park, he wandered up and down.
He loitered here, he loitered there, till he was like to drop,
Until at last in sheer despair he sought a barber’s shop.
“‘Ere! shave my beard and whiskers off, I’ll be a man of mark,
I’ll go and do the Sydney toff up home in Ironbark.”
(“The Man From Ironbark” by A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson)
There are very few examples of iambic heptameter, i.e., lines with seven iambs amounting to fourteen syllables. Indeed, if the poet Paterson had chosen to cut his lines differently, this could easily be understood as an example of the ballad meter of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. However, in this example of iamb we can see the way the regular meter offsets any unnaturalness caused by the sheer length of each line.
Test Your Knowledge of Iamb
1. Which of the following statements is the best iamb definition?
A. A metrical foot of two syllables with one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.
B. A metrical foot of two syllables with one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
C. A metrical line of six to fourteen syllables with the alternating pattern of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables.
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2. Consider the following stanza of poetry:
He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
Which of the following meters occurs in this stanza?
A. Iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
B. Iambic pentameter and trochaic pentameter.
C. Iambic hexameter and iambic octameter.
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3. Which of the following famous lines from Shakespeare contains an iamb example?
JAQUES: All the world’s a stage
(As You Like It)
MACBETH: To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow
SOOTHSAYER: Beware the Ides of March.
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