What Is Iambic Trimeter?

G. Wiesen

Iambic trimeter is a form of poetic meter that indicates a work is written with three feet per line and each foot uses the iambic structure. There are many different types of metrical categories in which different types of works can be written, usually poems and some plays. The word “trimeter” in iambic trimeter indicates that the work is written with lines that consist of three metrical feet per line. Each of these feet consist of an “iamb,” which is a structure in English that indicates two syllables per foot, with the first syllable being unstressed and the second stressed.

William Shakespeare made frequent use of iambic meter in his works.
William Shakespeare made frequent use of iambic meter in his works.

The term “iambic trimeter” usually refers to works written either in English or in ancient Greek, though the exact meaning varies slightly between these two languages. In either language, however, the term “trimeter” indicates how many feet or metra are found in each line of the work. A work written in trimeter has three feet per line, while a work written in heptameter has seven and pentameter has five. Each of these feet can be set up in a number of different ways, and this is indicated by the other descriptive word for a work.

A poem or play written in iambic trimeter has three feet per line, and each of these feet uses the iambic structure. This means that each foot consists of a single iamb. The iambic structure is quite simple and popular in a number of different works, especially in poetry and plays by William Shakespeare and Victorian or Romantic poets. An iamb consists of two syllables; in Greek writings the first syllable is short and the second syllable is long, though in English the first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is stressed.

These feet in iambic trimeter do not have to be a single word, and the division between feet is based purely on the stresses or lengths of the syllables. This means a foot can be created by a single word, such as “unsaid,” which consists of a simple iambic structure that can be shown by indicating the stresses as “unSAID.” Two or more words can also create one or more iambic feet in a line; a phrase like “A word unsaid is loud” is an example of iambic trimeter. The line consists of three feet, with an iambic structure that can be represented as “a WORD / unSAID / is LOUD.”

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