So what is iambic pentameter?
The building block of a poetic metre (or rhythm) is called a "foot". An iamb is the foot of iambic pentameter. And an Iamb is a short syllable folowed by a long syllable (de-DUM). As it's PENTameter there are 5 iambs to the line, so a line of iambic pentameter goes de-DUM/de-DUM/de-DUM/de-DUM/de-DUM. If you write iambic pentameter without any rhymes,that's known as Blank Verse. Here's Shakespeare to demonstrate:
I would give anything to have your gifts.
Or more than anything to give men dreams
that would live on long after I am dead.
I'd bargain like your Faustus for that boon.
But why would anyone be interested?
Well, I have a confession. I've mislead you. The above is SPOKEN by Shakespeare, but it's actually written by Neil Gaiman in Sandman #12, where Shakespeare is one of the characters. Imagine my satisfaction when I figured out what it was about the way Shakepeare was talking that made him sound like Shakspeare. (Shakespeare reappeared in Sandman #19 which was about the first performance of A Midsummer Nights Dream. Neil Gaiman won the World Fantasy Short Story Award for it. They then changed the rules so that comics couldn't compete for the award)
Anyway, here's some blank verse really written by Shakspeare, chosen, not entirely at random, from Henry V:
King: Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more;
Or close this wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war bloes in our ears
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
And so on. The first two lines split up like this:
once MORE/ unTO/ the BREACH/ DEAR friends/ once MORE
or CLOSE/ this WALL/ up WITH/ OUR eng/lish DEAD
Note that the 4th "foot" in each line has got the long and short syllables the opposite way round to normal. Meter is a tool and a guide, not a strict rule.
Shakepeare uses blank verse for a variety of reasons; as a rule of thumb, the posher the character the more likely to use blank verse rather than prose; the more formal the occasion, the more likely to be blank verse; the longer the speech (esp. sollilquies) the more likely to be blank verse.
But why is he using it at all? Well, the rhythms of blank verse are very similar to normal spoken english; one reason why it's such a popular meter for english poetry. But it has a definite and regular rhythm to it, which makes it sound formal and important; not just people saying the first thing that comes into their head.
Talking of english poetry, the "classic" english poem is the sonnet. The english sonnet usually has a meter of iambic pentameter and consists of 4 quatrains and a concluding couplet. I'm not going to go into an explanation of what that means, because it's much easier to just give an example. Shakepeare wrote a whole bunch of sonnets. Logically enough, I'll demonstrate the classic english poem with an example written by an Australian (this is (c) 2002 by Cecilia Dart-Thornton incidentally). I'll also stop here, as, after reading this poem, I don't really have anything more to say.
Sonnet for a Swanmaiden
With skillful elegance she skims the sky
And rides the foam like wind upon the sea,
Yet mortal men for love of her would try
To steal her, in their bold effrontery.
Their fleeting hands of clay should not endeavour
To smirch the likes of she who treads the ground
In eldritch loveliness, unchanged forever,
While flowers spring like fallen stars around,
Or glides, spearheading chevrons on the lake,
Reflected there in lucid symmetry.
No lover nor true artist could mistake
This paragon of femininity-
Where else is such ethereal beauty twined
Than avian and damsel-shape combined?
[Note:Previously sent by e-mail on 29 December 2004]