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What Is Iambic Tetrameter?

By Anna B. Smith
Updated May 23, 2024
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Iambic tetrameter is a form of meter used in poetry consisting of four feet which feature a syllable that is unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. This pattern of unstressed and stressed may be expressed as beats assigned to each word, and is given the name iambic. Tetrameter refers to the number of times this pattern occurs in one line of poetry. The poems of Emily Dickinson frequently use this type of meter.

Every word used in a poem may be divided into syllables. A syllable is the beat assigned to a particular word, or portion of a word. The word "cup," for example, has only one syllable, or one beat in it, while the word "babble" contains two.

Human beings tend to speak words naturally with stressed and unstressed syllables. To stress one part of a word is to give more importance or more pronunciation to it than another portion. This is part of the natural cadence of speech. The word "away" has two syllables where the first is unstressed and the next is stressed. The "way" portion of the word is typically spoken longer than the initial "a."

Poetry is often written as verse presented in a series of lines. The poet may choose to rhyme the lines or not. He may write in free verse, or require each line to conform to a set pattern. The use of a specific pattern in a poem is typically referred to as writing in meter.

A foot is a unit of meter that consists of one stressed syllable and either one or two unstressed syllables. Iambic is one of the names given to a particular pattern of stressed and unstressed feet. A foot of iambic tetrameter will contain words that are divided by one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Using only rhythm, an iambic foot sounds like da DUM.

The meter of a line is determined by how many feet are present. A line of iambic tetrameter contains four feet. The iambic foot may be used in other meters, with less than or more than four. Similarly, tetrameter lines may contain other types of feet, where the stressed syllable is written first or with two unstressed syllables.

Emily Dickinson is a famous poet who frequently used iambic tetrameter in her writing. She often spaced the lines of tetrameter with alternating lines of iambic trimeter, which hold only three feet instead of four. Her poem Because I could not stop for Death uses this pattern.

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

The first line, if written in such a way as to express the portions of the verse which should be stressed, looks like this: "beCAUSE i COULD not STOP for DEATH."

Lines 1 and 3 are both written in iambic tetrameter. Each word, or grouping of words may be divided into one unstressed beat followed by a stressed one. Lines 2 and 4 use this same iambic foot, but each contain only three such feet instead of four.

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Discussion Comments
By anon324749 — On Mar 12, 2013

Thanks! Really helpful! I started writing sonnets for fun and would like to try out ballads. This really helped!

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