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What Is Iambic Hexameter?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated: May 23, 2024

In poetry, iambic hexameter refers to a type of meter. It is a line of verse consisting of 12 syllables. The line may have thirteen syllables if the thirteenth and last syllable of the line is unaccented. As a meter, iambic hexameter is most often associated with a French form of poetry called the Alexandrine. The meter was infrequently used in English poetry, but some poets incorporated the Alexandrine into English verse as rhyming couplets at the end of a stanza of verse.

Iambic refers to the pairing of syllables in each word of the line, one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed or accented syllable is called an “iamb.” The groupings of successive iambs in the verse lines give the poem its rhythm. In metrical terms, an iamb is equal to one “foot” of meter. Hexameter refers to the fact that each line of verse is composed of six iambs.

The Alexandrine was a classical form of French poetry and highly popular. Its name may be derived from the fact that it was developed during the time of Alexander the Great of Macedonia. It could also have originated from verse composed specifically to honor him. Poets of the time considered the meter flexible and adaptable to many themes.

In the English language, the Alexandrine was not used very often. It did make appearances in English poetry from time to time during the 17th and 18th centuries. Ironically, one of the most quoted examples of the Alexandrine was written by English poet Alexander Pope, describing why he found it ill-suited to English verse. In his Essay on Criticism, he gave an example of the Alexandrine which also questioned its usefulness: “A needless Alexandrine ends the song/that like a wounded snake drags its slow length along.”

Not all English poets agreed with Pope. The 16th century English poet, Edmund Spencer, creator of the Spenserian sonnet, incorporated Alexandrine rhyming couplets as the end lines to stanzas in his sonnets. English Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s famous Immortality Ode also used iambic hexameter: “The things/which I/have seen/ I now/ can see/no more.”

Iambic hexameter is now rarely used in English poetry. In cultures with other linguistic traditions, meter has a different meaning if it exists at all. In Japan, a country with an ancient and important poetic tradition, all syllables in the Japanese language are given equal stress. Meter in some ways becomes more complex, because rhythm is derived from individual syllable sounds instead of syllable stress. In many other Asian languages, pitch may make up the most important part of what English speakers would think of as meter.

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