Iamb (poetry)

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An iamb /ˈæm/ or iambus is a metrical foot used in various types of poetry. Originally the term referred to one of the feet of the quantitative meter of classical Greek prosody: a short syllable followed by a long syllable (as in "delay"). This terminology was adopted in the description of accentual-syllabic verse in English, where it refers to a foot comprising an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (as in a-bove).


Main article: Iambus (genre)

R. S. P. Beekes has suggested that the Ancient Greek: ἴαμβος iambos has a Pre-Greek origin.[1] An old hypothesis is that the word is borrowed from Phrygian or Pelasgian, and literally means "Einschritt", i. e., "one-step", compare dithyramb and thriambus, but H. S. Versnel rejects this etymology and suggests instead a derivation from a cultic exclamation.[2] The word may be related to Iambe, a Greek minor goddess of verse, especially scurrilous, ribald humour. In ancient Greece iambus was mainly satirical poetry, lampoons, which did not automatically imply a particular metrical type. Iambic metre took its name from being characteristic of iambi, not vice versa.[3]

Accentual-syllabic use

A metrical tree representation of an iamb. W = weak syllable, S = strong syllable
An alternative metrical tree representation of an iamb. F = foot, σ = syllable. The head of the foot constituent, i.e. the stressed syllable, is indicated with a vertical line.
A bracketed grid representation of an iamb. The x's in the lower grid are syllables, the x in the upper grid indicates the position of the stressed syllable.

In accentual-syllabic verse an iamb is a foot that has the rhythmic pattern:

da DUM

Using the 'ictus and x' notation (see systems of scansion for a full discussion of various notations) we can write this as:


The word 'attempt' is a natural iamb:

at- tempt

In phonology, an iambic foot is notated in a flat representation as (σ'σ) or as foot tree with two branches W and S where W = weak and S = strong.

Iambic pentameter is one of the most commonly used measures in English and German poetry. A line of iambic pentameter comprises five consecutive iambs.

Iambic trimeter is the metre of the spoken verses in Greek tragedy and comedy, comprising six iambs—as one iambic metrum consisted of two iambs. In English accentual-syllabic verse, iambic trimeter is a line comprising three iambs.

Less common iambic measures include iambic tetrameter (four iambs per line) and iambic heptameter, sometimes called the "fourteener" (seven iambs per line). Lord Byron's poem "She Walks in Beauty" exemplifies iambic tetrameter; iambic heptameter is found in Australian poet A. B. "Banjo" Paterson's "The Man from Ironbark". Related to iambic heptameter is the more common ballad verse, in which a line of iambic tetrameter is succeeded by a line of iambic trimeter, usually in quatrain form. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a classic example of this form.

The reverse of an iamb is called a trochee.

Types of meter


Main article: Iambic tetrameter

Iambic tetrameter is a meter referring to a line consisting of four iambic feet:

Lo, thus I triumph like a king,
Content with that my mind doth bring. (Edward Dyer, "My Mind to Me A Kingdom Is")
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe. (Lewis Carroll, "Jabberwocky")


Main article: Iambic pentameter

Iambic Pentameter is a meter referring to a line consisting of five iambic feet:

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. (Alfred Tennyson, "Ulysses")
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? (William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18)

(Although, it could be argued that this line in fact reads: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Meter is often broken in this way, sometimes for intended effect and sometimes simply due to the sound of the words in the line. Where the stresses lie can be debated, as it depends greatly on where the reader decides to place the stresses. Although in this meter the foot is no longer iambs but trochees.)

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse! (William Shakespeare, Richard III)


Iambic Heptameter is a meter referring to a line consisting of seven iambic feet:

I s'pose the flats is pretty green up there in Ironbark. (A. B. Paterson, The Man from Ironbark)


  • Non-bold = unstressed syllable
  • Bold = stressed syllable

Sound change

Through iambic shortening, a word with the shape light–heavy or short–long changes to become light–light.

See also


  1. R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 572.
  2. Versnel, H. S. (1970). "I. 2 Θρίαμβος". Triumphus: An Inquiry Into the Origin, Development and Meaning of the Roman Triumph. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishers. pp. 16–38. ISBN 90-04-02325-9. Retrieved 2 January 2015. 
  3. Studies in Greek elegy and iambus By Martin Litchfield West Page 22 ISBN 3-11-004585-0


External links