By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Iambic pentameter has been around in English verse for … well, almost as long as English verse itself has been around.
Certainly, since the late fourteenth century when Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), arguably England’s first great poet, used iambic pentameter in his work, this five-foot and ten-syllable verse line has proved indispensable to pretty much every great poet writing in the language, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, T. S. Eliot, and beyond.
Below, we select and introduce ten of the best examples of iambic pentameter in great English poetry.
1. Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The Miller’s Tale’.
Whilom ther was dwellynge at oxenford
A riche gnof, that gestes heeld to bord,
And of his craft he was a carpenter.
With hym ther was dwellynge a poure scoler,
Hadde lerned art, but al his fantasye
Was turned for to lerne astrologye,
And koude a certeyn of conclusiouns,
To demen by interrogaciouns,
If that men asked hym in certein houres
Whan that men sholde have droghte or elles shoures,
Or if men asked hym what sholde bifalle
Of every thyng; I may nat rekene hem alle …
Iambic pentameter rhyming couplets are also known as heroic couplets, after their use in English translations of epic poems, but even back in the late fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer saw that ‘heroic’ couplets could be used comically for decidedly unheroic topics.
Although it’s an example of a French literary form known as the fabliau, the plot of ‘The Miller’s Tale’ appears to have been Chaucer’s invention. Chaucer’s genius appears to have been in bringing together three well-known features of the traditional fabliau. We have analysed ‘The Miller’s Tale’ here.
2. William Shakespeare, ‘To be or not to be’ from Hamlet.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life…
One of the great meditations on suicide in English literature, this speech has become so well-known that its meaning and power have become less clear: as T. S. Eliot observed of Hamlet, it is the Mona Lisa of literature.
Shakespeare uses not the heroic couplets of Chaucer but the unrhymed iambic pentameter – also known as blank verse – which Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (c. 1517-47) had developed in the 1540s.
Blank verse was especially suited to verse drama because it freed the playwright from the limitations of rhyme but kept the speech-like pattern of iambic pentameter, whose to-and-fro metre is not unlike the rhythms of everyday English speech. This made it perfect for playwrights like Shakespeare, wishing to explore their characters’ inner thoughts through monologues and soliloquies.
3. John Milton, Paradise Lost.
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos…
Probably the greatest epic poem in the English language, Paradise Lost (1667) was not Milton’s first attempt at an epic: as a teenager, Milton began writing an epic poem in Latin about the Gunpowder Plot; but in quintum novembris remained unfinished.
Instead, his defining work would be this 12-book poem in blank verse about the Fall of Man, taking in Satan’s fall from Heaven, his founding of Pandemonium (the capital of Hell), and his subsequent temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden.
4. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much …
Alexander Pope (1688-1744) also eschewed blank verse in favour of rhymed iambic pentameter: specifically, as with Chaucer, rhyming couplets. Pope and his fellow eighteenth-century neoclassical (or ‘Augustan’) poets saw how heroic couplets could be used for discursive poetry about weighty moral topics as well as for retelling heroic epic stories.
5. William Wordsworth, ‘Tintern Abbey’.
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky…
This poem was not actually composed at Tintern Abbey, but, as the poem’s full title reveals, was written nearby, overlooking the ruins of the medieval priory in the Wye Valley in South Wales. Well, actually, according to Wordsworth, he didn’t ‘write’ a word of the poem until he got to Bristol, where he wrote down the whole poem, having composed it in his head shortly after leaving the Wye.
The poem is one of the great hymns to tranquillity, quiet contemplation, and self-examination in all of English literature, and a quintessential piece of Romantic poetry written in meditative blank verse. We have analysed this poem here.
6. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh.
Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine,–
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is…
As well as being used for verse drama and meditative lyrics, blank verse has also proved highly useful for poets writing longer narrative poems, as Milton’s use of blank verse demonstrates. Victorian poems could be long and ambitious, and this is the crowning achievement of the Victorian long poem – although really it’s as much a verse novel as it is an epic poem.
Barrett Browning’s love affair with epic poetry began at a young age: when she was just twelve years old, she wrote The Battle of Marathon, an epic poem about the battle between the Greeks and Persians in 490 BC.
But her crowning achievement in the genre would be her long blank-verse novel Aurora Leigh (1857), about an aspiring female poet, which takes in issues of marriage, female authorship and independence, and what happened to women who ‘strayed’ outside of the accepted norms of Victorian society: the so-called ‘fallen woman’, embodied here by Aurora’s friend Marian Erle.
7. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
We could have chosen a number of other Tennyson poems written in blank verse here, but we’ve opted for ‘Ulysses’ because it’s about a hero of classical myth, Odysseus (or Ulysses to the Romans) and so follows Sappho’s poem nicely.
In this classic dramatic monologue, the ageing Ulysses prepares to leave his home of Ithaca and sail off into the sunset on one last adventure. Is he old and deluded, a man who cannot just accept he’s past it? Or is he a bold and hardy adventurer whose persistence we should admire as – well, as heroic? Readers are often divided on that issue …
8. W. B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
This blank verse poem prophesies that some sort of Second Coming is due, and that the anarchy that has arisen all around the world (partly because of the events of the First World War, though the tumultuous events in Yeats’s home country of Ireland are also behind the poem) is a sign that this Second Coming cannot be far off. Yeats wrote ‘The Second Coming’ in 1919.
9. Wallace Stevens, ‘Sunday Morning’.
What did the modernists of the early twentieth century do with iambic pentameter? Modernism was known for its spirit of experimentation and rejection of traditional forms, but poets such as Wallace Stevens still drew on the flexibility and speech-like qualities of iambic pentameter.
This longer poem first appeared in 1915 in the magazine Poetry, although the fuller version was only published in Harmonium in 1923. Yvor Winters, an influential critic of modernist poetry and a minor modernist in his own right, pronounced ‘Sunday Morning’ to be ‘the greatest American poem of the twentieth century’.
The poem, which is a meditation on not being a Christian, centres on a woman who stays at home, lounging around, on a Sunday morning, when virtually everyone else is at church. The poem includes the statement that ‘Death is the mother of beauty’. We have analysed this poem here.
10. Alice Oswald, ‘A Short Story of Falling’.
We’ll end this selection of some of the best examples of iambic pentameter with a contemporary example of iambic pentameter rhyming couplets from one of the great lyric poets of the last few decades. Oswald’s poem is not discursive or didactic, as Pope’s was, but is instead a subtle and thoughtful meditation on the falling rain and its connection to all aspects of nature.
Whereas Pope’s poem used closed couplets (end-stopped lines), Oswald’s couplets are open, and she uses plenty of run-on lines or enjambment to reflect the running water.
Fair enough. Invalid example. I shouldn’t have relied on my memory. My point still stands, however. I don’t think you can quarrel with the syllable count in the lines from Yeats and E.B.Browning.
There is a misconception that every pentameter line has to be an iambic pentameter. Shakespeare wrote in pentameters, full stop. His lines were not exclusively iambic. Another heresy, slavishly adhered to by some early 20th century poets, is that pentameter lines have to be restricted to exactly ten syllables. Just check a dozen or so lines from a work by Shakespeare and you’ll see this is not so. The “penta” element of “pentameter” means “five”: five STRESSED syllables per line – and as many unstressed syllables as you can fit in without spoiling the rhythm. For example:
“IF it were DONE, it were WELL it was DONE QUICKly” (Macbeth) – five stressed syllables, seven unstressed.
The second line of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem above, and the first line of the Yeats quotation both contain ELEVEN syllables, unless you choose to mangle the pronunciation.
In case anyone should be misled, the lines from Macbeth are as follows:
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: