Pentameter

Definition

Pentameter is a line of verse consisting of five metrical units, called feet.

Pentameter may be trochaic, anapaestic and dactylic, but the most widely used form of pentameter in English poetry is iambic. Iambic pentameter is the basic metre of the sonnet, and was used by Shakespeare in his plays, by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales and by Milton in Paradise Lost.

Pentameter continues to be a popular choice among contemporary poets. The subject matter of Paul Farley?s poem A Minute?s Silence is reflected in what he describes in his introduction as an 'elegaic metre'. An elegy is a poem of lament for the dead, frequently (though not always) written in pentameter; 'Eden Rock' by Charles Causley is another example here in the Poetry Archive. One of the most famous elegies in the English language, 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard', by the 18th century poet Thomas Gray, begins like this:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

This is an example of iambic pentameter. Each foot is called an iamb, and consists of two syllables: a short or unaccented syllable followed by a long or accented syllable:

the CUR | few TOLLS | the KNELL | of PAR | ting DAY
the LOW | ing HERD | wind SLOW | ly O?ER | the LEA,
the PLOW | man HOME | ward PLODS | his WEA | ry WAY,
and LEAVES | the WORLD | to DARK | ness AND | to ME.

Pentameter is not always elegiac, however. Wendy Cope?s poem The Christmas Life has a warm and festive tone, but the metre helps make it feel traditional too.

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