Variations of iambic pentameter include a feminine ending, an inversion, and a multitude of unnamed alterations. Iambic pentameter is a poetical meter in which each line contains five iambs, which are pairs of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Writers often vary their poetry and add extra emphasis by switching stressed syllables or adding an extra syllable.
Proper iambic pentameter always contains exactly ten syllables. These syllables come in pairs called feet. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 gives a good example of this meter: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
In iambic pentameter, each foot begins with an unstressed syllable and ends with a stressed syllable. This type of foot is also known as an iamb. Since there are five feet in every line, the rhythm is called a pentameter, after the Greek word for five.
The feminine ending is a variation on iambic pentameter caused by adding an extra unstressed syllable to the end of a line. Also called a weak ending, this variant is used to indicate a question or uncertainty in the speaker. For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character asks himself questions in a soliloquy. Throughout the speech there are multiple feminine endings, including the first line: “To be, or not to be: that is the question."
Another variation of iambic pentameter is the inversion, which uses a trochee in place of an iamb. The trochee is a reversed iamb, with the stressed syllable first and the unstressed second. Inversions typically occur at the beginning of a line or after a caesura. John Donne uses an inversion to begin his Holy Sonnet 14, writing, “Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you / As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend.”
Poets often emphasize certain points by using a spondee, which is a foot composed of two stressed syllables, or a pyrrhic, composed of two unstressed syllables. In the second line of Donne’s poem, “knocke,” “breathe,” and “shine” are all stressed syllables. For proper iambic pattern, “breathe” should be unstressed. By putting three stressed, one syllable verbs together, Donne emphasizes the repeated actions of God, and makes the line sound like someone knocking.
Adding extra syllables within a foot is another way of varying a line of iambic pentameter. An anapest is a metrical foot with two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed, while a dactyl is one with a stressed syllable first and two unstressed afterwards. These extra syllables often slow readers in order to make them ready for a new concept.