Why is iambic pentameter the most commonly used meter in poetry?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

dstuva is absolutely correct in answering that iambic meter is widely used in English because it so closely matches the natural rhythm of that language. Just consider a sentence or two, spoken in a regular tone, such as:

I was walking down the street....

You'll notice that, with a small exception here and there, an English speaker will fall into an alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables (such as "WALKing DOWN the STREET"). Of course, there are different kinds of stresses (not all stresses are equal); even so, it's safe to see most spoken English rhythm as iambic.

At the same time, however, I don't agree with dstuva that pentameter somehow allows for more natural sounding verse than, say, tetrameter. The traditional ballad stanza uses iambic tetrameter and trimeter and -- far more than most sonnets, at least -- tends to very closely follow the patterns of spoken English.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Iambs are thought to be the formal rhythm that most closely resembles natural spoken and written English.  A different form of rhythm may occur more naturally in another language, but in English it's iambs. 

The enotes Study Guide seconds this thought: 

Iambic rhythms come relatively naturally in English. Iambic pentameter is the most common meter in English poetry; it is used in many of the major English poetic forms, including blank verse, the heroic couplet, and some of the traditional rhymed stanza forms. William Shakespeare used iambic pentameter in his plays and sonnets.

Of course, being endorsed by Shakespeare, not to mention Chaucer, probably contributes to the prevalent use of iambic pentameter as well. 

The length of a pentameter line enables a more natural-sounding line as well, if the poet chooses to make it so.  The use of enjambment, for instance, can create more naturally sounding sentences with much less awkwardness, than is possible in, say, a tetrameter line pattern.  Rhyme is also more easily separated in a line of ten syllables than it is in a line of six. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial