I have an assignment where I have to write a Shakespearean sonnet for my professor (who is very strict about the formatting of the assignment). Are there any ways/tricks in which I can figure out if my poem is in iambic pentameter (which is the format Shakespeare used) besides just having to sound it out?

And just speculation: If Shakespeare wrote all of his sonnets in iambic pentameter, then why are the words 'Shakespearean Sonnet' not in an iambic rhythm?

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    There are no tricks to writing a good sonnet; // The thing you need to do is tune your ear.// Read poetry; spend lots of hours on it // And gradually you will learn to hear. – Peter Shor Nov 22 '20 at 16:03

As the comments to your question have noted, the most reliable way to figure out whether a given line is iambic pentameter is to sound it out. But if you're not confident of your ear, there are certain techniques you can use to help you identify how a line scans.

First, it's necessary to understand how stress works in English. When any sequence of English words is spoken or read out loud, certain syllables are accentuated (emphasized) by being spoken relatively louder and/or being articulated more distinctly, while others are unstressed by being spoken relatively softer and/or slurred. This holds true regardless of whether said sequence comprises:

  • Conversation
  • A prose passage being read aloud
  • A poem being read aloud.

All spoken English exhibits this pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Native speakers tend to think of this pattern as "natural". It is, of course, no such thing; different languages have different stress patterns, and what seems natural is just convention, in the same way that grammar is. Other languages have other stress patterns that feel equally natural to speakers of those languages. For example, French tends to emphasize the last syllable of words and phrases; Indian languages lack stress within words entirely, relying instead on a sing-song stress pattern within phrases. What native English speakers discern as "a foreign accent" derives from non-native stress patterns being applied to English about as equally as from mispronunciation of phonemes per se.

Specifically with regard to poetic meter, this accentual-syllabic nature of English means that to scan a line and identify its metrical pattern, one counts two things: the accents and the syllables. That is, English meter is determined by how the accents (stresses) are distributed over the entire set of syllables in a given line. So when we say that a line is iambic pentameter, we're saying that the line has five stressed syllables, each preceded by an unstressed syllable.

The syllables that are emphasized in everyday spoken English, and therefore in English poetry, are fairly predictable grammatically. With monosyllabic words:

  • Nouns, main verbs, adjectives, adverbs, negations, and interjections are stressed
  • Articles, auxiliary verbs, pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions are not.

So in a sentence like "The cat sat on the mat and played with the rat":

  • Cat, sat, mat, played, and rat will be spoken relatively louder
  • On, and, with, and all three thes will be softened.

Further, the latter set of words will be spoke relatively quicker and less distinctly.

With polysyllabic words, things are a bit trickier. Each polysyllabic word has its own stress pattern; one of the syllables in the word receives the stress. In most cases, a native English speaker will "just know" where the emphasis goes. For example, we say ENG-lish, not eng-LISH; re-CEIVES, not RE-ceives.

For the most part, stress in polysyllabic words is a matter of "just knowing". But even here, there are certain guidelines that hold true:

  • If a word has a suffix, such as "-tion" or "-ed", the syllable before the suffix receives the stress. Consider: MO-ti-vate, but mo-ti-VA-tion; ED-u-cate, but e-du-CAT-ed.
  • In words of more than three syllables, a syllable that's at least two away from the primarily stressed syllable sometimes receives a secondary stress. Take the examples above: MO-ti-VA-tion, E-du-CA-tion. In both those words, the first syllable is also stressed, though not to the same degree as the third.
  • Negating prefixes receive stress. SYM-met-ry but A-sym-met-ry. Note that met would receive secondary stress here.
  • The suffix guideline trumps (eek) the prefix guideline. UN-kind but un-KIND-ness.
  • Homographic nouns and verbs with a common root are distinguished by stress: RE-bel is one who rebels; to re-BEL is to rise up against something.

These are observations, not rules. Trust your ear over these guidelines if the two come into conflict. If you're not a native English speaker, well, the magic of the internet means that every dictionary allows you to hear the word, so you can figure out where the stress goes in polysyllabic words.

Let's put it all together. Since I'm a mean old cuss, I won't make it too easy for you by demonstrating iambic pentameter. Instead, here's the first verse of Ben Jonson's song from Cynthia's Revels:

Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,
Now the sun is laid to sleep,
Seated in thy silver chair
State in wonted manner keep:
Hesperus entreats thy light,
Goddess excellently bright.

A quick aside to explain the meaning: Cynthia is another name for Diana, goddess of the moon, the virgin huntress. Hesperus is the evening star, aka Venus. Wonted means customary. The sitch is that the sun has set, the evening star has risen, and said star is formally asking ("entreats") the moon to rise.

Now on to the scansion. Let's begin with the monosyllables. Line 2 is all monosyllables, so it's a good place to start. Here's how the stresses divide up:

  • Stressed: Now (adverb), sun (noun), laid (main verb, and get your mind out of the gutter), sleep (main verb)
  • Unstressed: the (article), is (auxiliary), to (preposition).

Using ‘ to mark a stressed syllable and x for an unstressed one, the line looks like this:

  ‘  x   ‘   x   ‘   x  ‘    
Now the sun is laid to sleep

You can see a pattern: alternating stressed and unstressed syllables, beginning with a stressed syllable. The line can be divided into feet, i.e., units of stressed and unstressed syllables that come together to form the overall pattern. Let's use bars | to demarcate each foot:

|  ‘   x  |  ‘  x  |   ‘   x |  ‘    | 
| Now the | sun is | laid to | sleep |

A foot that has one stressed and one unstressed syllable is trochaic. Since there are four stresses in the line, that's tetrameter. And since the last foot is missing its last syllable, the line is catalectic. So it looks like the line is in catalectic trochaic tetrameter.

Do the other lines fall into the same pattern? Let's give it a whirl, again marking off the stressed and unstressed syllables.

  • The monosyllables are easy: QUEEN (noun), CHASTE (adjective), FAIR (adjective), CHAIR (noun), etc. The unstressed words are all pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, auxiliaries, or articles: and, in, thy, etc.
  • The polysyllables are pretty easy too. HUNT-ress, because "-ess" is a suffix. SIL-ver, just because nobody says sil-VER. WONT-ed, because "-ed" is a suffix. How about "excellently"? Well, "ly" is a suffix, so that gives us "ex-cel-LENT-ly". But it's a sesquipedalian word, so we have a secondary stress. The only syllable that's more than one syllable away is "ex". So that gives us "EX-cel-LENT-ly".

Putting it all together, we have:

|  ‘     x  |  ‘     x   |   ‘     x  |  ‘   | 
| Queen and | hunt-ress, | chaste and | fair |

|  ‘   x  |  ‘  x  |   ‘   x |  ‘    | 
| Now the | sun is | laid to | sleep |

|  ‘   x  |  x  x  |  ‘   x  |  ‘    | 
| Sea-ted | in thy | sil-ver | chair |

|  ‘    x  |  ‘    x |   ‘  x  |  ‘    | 
| State in | wont-ed | man-ner | keep: |

|  ‘   x   |  x  x  |  ‘      x  |   ‘   | 
| Hes-per- | us en- | treats thy | light |

|  ‘    x  | `   x   |   ‘   x |  ‘      | 
| God-dess | ex-cel- | lent-ly | bright. |

Yup, going through the poem line-by-line and marking out the stressed and unstressed portions of each using the guidelines above confirms that the rest of the lines match the second, and the poem is indeed catalectic trochaic tetrameter.

This seems rather more tedious than simply sounding out the lines. But it's actually a really good check. As @PeterShor said in his comments, with a little practice, sounding out poems quickly makes scansion second nature. So does marking out syllables in this way; it very quickly becomes second nature as well. Personally, when I'm scanning a poem, I do both those things so instinctively that I couldn't even tell you whether I'm relying more on sounding out or on marking syllables, because they both happen simultaneously.

In poetry that approximates speech—as in all Shakespeare's blank verse—I actually find that marking syllables helps me see the pattern better. Particularly when delivered at breakneck speed by actors untrained in Shakespearean English, his speeches come across as an undifferentiated mass of prose. Marking up the syllables and paying attention to where the stresses fall restores the poetry of the lines. With difficult passages, that's a help to semantics as well, because when I see the stress pattern in a sentence, I know how to sound it out, and that clues me into the meaning.

So try both approaches. If sounding out leaves you puzzled or ambivalent about the scansion of a particular line, use the guidelines to see what they suggest. Or if marking out syllables doesn't immediately reveal a pattern, read out the line and see what your ear tells you. Between your ear and these (far from exhaustive) guidelines, working out the required prosody should be fairly straightforward. Good luck on your sonnet!

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