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What Is an Iambic Pentameter Sonnet?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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An iambic pentameter sonnet is a 14-line poem that utilizes the iambic pentameter rhythm system. Such poems can use one of many rhyming systems and can use Petrarch’s ideas on octaves and sestets or follow Milton’s ideas on merging the two. It can also cover any theme the poet wishes to write about. The distinguishing feature of this poem type, therefore, is the rhythm used within the line and nothing else.

The sonnet was first imported to England in the early 16th century by Sir Thomas Wyatt, but originally gained popularity in the Italian states thanks to Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch in English. The format gained popularity during the century and was personified by William Shakespeare, who bequeathed the world a large collection of 154 sonnets, each one an iambic pentameter sonnet.

Pentameter means the meter of a poem’s line has five feet. A foot is a basic unit of rhythm, which can contain between two and four syllables. Italian and Latin tend to use dactylic feet, which contain three syllables. An alternative to pentameter is hexameter, which naturally employs six poetic feet.

Iambic is one of several types of two-syllable feet. It is distinguished by the fact that it employs one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. This pattern is repeated five times a line for each line in the iambic pentameter sonnet. It is possible for some iambic feet to reverse the stress pattern on the rare occasion, but normal service is resumed in the next foot. The idea of stressed and unstressed syllables harks back to Old English, which relied upon alliterating stressed syllables for rhythm.

The iambic pentameter sonnet is flexible enough to use any rhyming system used for sonnet. The most common types are the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan. The Shakespearean system employs three quatrains with an A-B-A-B, C-D-C-D, E-F-E-F form and a final rhyming couplet. The Petrarchan sonnet, on the other hand, uses an A-B-B-A, A-B-B-A, C-D-E, C-D-E rhyming system.

Even poets, such as the metaphysical poets, and John Milton who merged the octave and sestet together, kept to the same rhythmic system used by the early sonneteers. The iambic pentameter sonnet grew to become the dominant sonnet form in English. It has been used by poets such as William Wordsworth, William Butler Yeats and Robert Frost. In most English-speaking schools, it is the first sonnet form students will learn in class.

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