An iamb (EYE-am) is a metrical unit consisting of two syllables where an initial unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. For example, the words amuse (a-MUSE), portray (por-TRAY), delight (de-LIGHT), and return (re-TURN) are all iambs. Iambs are used in poetry and in verse plays.
The word iamb first appeared in English as a noun in the 1570s and as an adjective (iambic) in the 1580s. It comes from the Late Latin iambicus, which is derived from the Greek iambikos, from iambos, which means “metrical foot of one unaccented followed by one accented syllable; an iambic verse or poem.”
Types of Iambic Meter
Iambs do not occur in a vacuum. Instead, multiple iambs are used in a line of verse to create meter. One iamb is considered one metric foot. The most common iambic meters are:
- Iambic dimeter, which consists of two iambs per line
- Iambic trimeter, which has three iambs per line
- Iambic tetrameter, which has four iambs per line
- Iambic pentameter, which consists of five iambs per line
- Iambic hexameter (also called alexandrine), which contains six iambs per line
Accentual vs. Quantitative Iambs
Iambs are used in both accentual verse and qualitative verse.
- Accentual verse has meter determined by where the stress (emphasis) is placed on each syllable. In accentual verse, iambs are units of unstressed-stressed syllables. When you encounter the term iamb, it almost invariably refers to their application in accentual verse.
- Quantitative verse occurs when the meter is determined by the length of the syllable (how long it takes to pronounce). A quantitative iamb would have a short first syllable and a long second syllable. Quantitative verse was used in classical Greek and Latin poetry but isn’t seen in English or American verse.
Why Writers Use Iambs
Writers use metrical feet in poetry and verse plays because they are the building blocks of rhythm. The patterns formed by repeating the unstressed and stressed syllables of iambs create music and harmony, which engage the audience by sounding pleasant.
The most common meter in English poetry is built on iambs, most particularly iambic pentameter. William Shakespeare used iambic pentameter in his sonnets and plays, and it can also be seen in the works of John Donne, John Milton, John Keats, and 20th-century American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Many writers and lovers of literature believe the iamb is the most popular metric foot because its sound mimics the sound of a human heartbeat (da-DUM).
Examples of Iambs in Literature
1. William Shakespeare, Macbeth
In Act I, Scene IV of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Macbeth muses upon the possibility of becoming king by saying:
The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires:
Let not light see my black and deep desires:
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be,
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. [bolded for emphasis]
This section, as with most of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, is written in iambic pentameter.
2. Emily Dickinson, “The Only News I Know”
The Only News I know
Is Bulletins all Day
From Immortality. [bolded for emphasis]
Because this tercet (three-lined stanza) has three iambs per line, it is composed in iambic trimeter.
3. t’ai freedom ford, “dear Ebonics”
t’ai freedom ford’s book & more black is a series of what the poet calls “black-ass sonnets” inspired by Wanda Coleman’s work. As modern sonnets, the poem don’t need to adhere to meter or rhyme schemes; however, ford often plays with metric units to create rhythm.
In the last few lines of the poem “dear Ebonics,” ford writes:
& when whitewash tries
to render your black spectacular irrelevant
your heartbeat whisper: i be i be i be [bolded for emphasis]
Although the rest of the poem is in free verse, the final line of the sonnet dips into using iambs, particularly to place stress on the words heart and the repeated i.
Further Resources on Iambs
John Reed wrote a great piece for The Believer showing examples of iambic pentameter in song lyrics.
Poets Bob Holman and Margery Snyder composed a wonderful overview of the iamb.