I am studying poetry structure and I am focusing on iambic pentameter at the moment.

From what I have read, there are 10 syllables per line and 5 stressed and 5 unstressed syllables. It goes unstressed, stressed, unstressed etc.

For words that have more than one syllable, it seems that the stressed and unstressed pattern is set already. e.g. if you go to dictionary.com:

after [af-ter] the first syllable is always stressed.

before [bih-fawr, -fohr] the second syllable is always stressed.

However, with monosyllables, it's not clear.

Example from Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Shall I/ compare/ thee to/ a sum/mers day?/

I, be, to, a, thee, not, day etc. are not stressed on their own.

Is it that they are stressed following an unstressed word?

e.g. I am/ going/ to the/ shop now/.


"Is it that they are stressed following an unstressed word?" Short answer, in general yes, because in perfect iambic verse a stressed syllable always follows an unstressed syllable.

Iambic pentameter is called iambic pentameter because it is written with five iambi (or iambs) per line. An iamb is a foot, or pattern, that is two syllables that are short-long, or unstressed-stressed.

A typical line of iambic pentameter would look like this, using — to indicated long and ˘ to indicated short syllables.

Iamb = ˘ —

˘ — / ˘ — / ˘ — / ˘ — / ˘ —
Shall I / com pare / thee to / a sum / mer's day

If I write the line using trochees (the opposite of an iamb, — ˘ ) it becomes

— ˘ / — ˘ / — ˘ / — ˘ / — ˘
Shall I / com pare / thee to / a sum / mer's day

You can see that your monosyllables now have the opposite stress.

I could, if I wanted to, re-write it in some sort of tetrameter (so four feet per line) using a mixture of dactyls (— ˘ ˘ , so named because they look like the bones in your fingers) and spondees (— —).

— ˘ ˘ / — ˘ ˘ / — — / — —
Shall I com / pare thee to / a sum / mer's day

You can see that the stress of your monosyllables has altered again.

So the easiest way to work out the stress is to annotate above it with the iambs (trochees/spondees/dactyls or combination of etc) , and then it should be easy to tell which is which.

However, there are times when that pattern is an oversimplification, and doesn't reflect how you'd naturally pronounce the words. In that case, either

  • Shakespeare replaced an iamb with a different foot so it isn't absolutely strict iambic parameter (although it might still be — the rules for this come from classical poetry and do allow for some deviations). Perhaps it's more correct to say it's no longer written with five iambi per line.
  • It's intended for effect, or to make a rhyme work
  • Pronunciation has shifted from Shakespeare's time to now (think of the shift in stress from harass to harass)

The first would help make it sound more like natural speech, the second could be to convey something about a character, to make a joke, or force a rhyme. The third obviously wouldn't have been intentional, but Shakespeare did use variations of words to give the stress and pattern he was after — an example would be "taken" and "tak'n".

  • But surely you wouldn't read Sonnet 30 as "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought // I summon up remembrance of things past." Scansion is a lot more complicated than dah DUM dah DUM dah DUM dah DUM dah DUM.
    – Peter Shor
    Jul 26 at 15:30
  • 1
    That's true (although there are some schools of thought that would want you to do that — especially if reciting in another language, where the rhythm becomes more important than the usual stresses). But answering "well, it's written in iambs but put the stress wherever you think it sounds best" doesn't actually answer the question of whether there's a rule for where the stress falls, which there is. Jul 26 at 15:41
  • I could have answered it in terms of "it isn't intended to be strict iambic pentameter", but then you miss out on understanding what iambic pentameter actually is (which I didn't think the questioner knew from the way the question was couched). I also think with the shifts in pronunciation and accent, it's quite possible some of those lines were 'strict' iambic pentameter and now aren't. A more recent example of that would be harass, which has moved from harass to harass. Jul 26 at 15:47
  • But I'll edit to make it a bit more general because you are right. Jul 26 at 15:48

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