Help for Rachel

A long time ago I wrote up a tutorial on iambic pentameter over on my other, family blog.  I still periodically get comments on it.  Like today Rachel asked for help with iambic pentameter, and pointed me to a sonnet she’d written: I wrote back telling her about my new blog and how many this would be a better place to discuss it.  Hi Rachel, I hope you stopped by! If you’re most concerned about the iambic pentameter, your last couplet is probably the closest if you flip a few words: Forgive me, sir, for sins have I to tell.
Repent or not–condemned am I to hell.
There are times and places where you can get away with bending the natural pronunciation of a word (is it “washed”, one syllable, or “wash-ED”, two syllables?) but in general you need it to flow pretty naturally.  I liken it to trying to play music without a beat.  You can’t really do it, you just end up with a string of notes and nothing holding them together.   Your reader needs to find the flow immediately and not be left struggling for it. A few years ago I wrote an Elizabethan sonnet for my daughter Elizabeth’s first birthday, if you want to check it out: I’m no poet, but your original question to me was about iambic pentameter, so hopefully that’s an example you can work with that’s not quite as hard to follow as some of Shakespeare’s.  You can clearly see places where I snipped a syllable here or there to fit the form (such as “e’er”, one syllable, in place of “ever”). Good luck!

3 thoughts on “Help for Rachel

  1. If you really want to get into it, you must read George Wright’s “Shakespeare’s Metrical Art” which discusses iambic pentameter in detail. Actually, good iambic pentameter, like Shakespeare’s, has variations from the basic pattern of unaccented beat followed by accented beat 5 times (i.e., 5 iambs). The original couplet you changed starts the first line with two trochees (backwards iambs–accented beat followed by unaccented beats), in this case a bit awkward, but a technigue that Shakespeare uses sometimes to beautiful effect. A poem made up entirely of perfect iambic pentameter is usually boring. Only Shakespeare could carry off relentless streams of iambs with variation and grace.

  2. Just for some clarification, catkins…

    Good iambic pentameter does not have variations. iambic pentameter means five iambs of unstress, stress. It is rather the poetry that can be made more dramatic by well placed variations of the meter.

    I’ve tried to write a sonnet before, never got too far. Maybe I’ll try again, but I don’t think that writing is my forte. One thing one must remember when composing a sonnet in iambic pentameter is to use the meter. Variations in the meter must serve a purpose other than there was no other word that you could think of, and should be used sparingly. In Shakespeare’s verse, changes in the meter most often have some significance to the content.

  3. Oh, shame. Oh, consequences abound now.

    Maybe change “abound” to “looming”, as that would change the rhythm to work without altering your rhyme

    A mis-idea of her only choice

    Technically this works, although mis-idea is awkward. Perhaps “misconception” or “wrong idea” or something

    Has darkened her intent, good will and vow.


    (How can such a smile guard an evil voice?)

    I’d change take out the “How” and say “smile” as two syllables. “How” is a strong word, so at the moment, you’re starting with two trochaic feet.

    “The devil is at work,” says the pastor.

    The pastor/master rhyme is going to be the hardest thing to fix, as those two words are both naturally trochaic (the weak ending of “er” makes them “stressed-unstressed”, as opposed to “unstressed-stressed”). If it weren’t for the rhyme, I’d suggest ” “The devil is at work,” the pastor says.”

    “Cleanse us her soul–her heart washed in the blood.”

    My normal inclination would be to stress “washed” over “in”, as it’s a more interesting word, although I can understand the stretch here. “Cleanse” has to be stressed, so right now you’re starting with a trochee. Which is fine (Shakespeare did it plenty), but if you’re trying for perfect Iambic Pentameter, it’s got to get altered.

    Three men–father, son and ghostly master–

    “Father” and “Master” are both trochaic, so they’re currently throwing off the rhythm here.

    Will haunt you to gain your faith, joy, and love.

    Consider “Will haunt you ’til you gain faith, joy, and love.” The word faith won’t be stressed, but that’s the best solution I’ve come up with so far.

    “The demons are gone!” Misconception breeds

    “are gone” is the issue here, as gone is currently stressed and shouldn’t be… My first thought was, “The demons vanquished!”, but that’s an incomplete sentence… Maybe “The demons left us!”?

    A bias, a false feeling all’s perfect.

    Perfect/Defect are trochaic again, so you need a new rhyme here… But this line is currently stressing the word “a”, which is the least important word here. I think you mean “biased”. I’d probably switch it to “A biased, shallow feeling all is well”, or something like that. But again, that’ll change your rhyme.

    Smile–Candid Camera, Big Brother; God sees.

    When I say “smile”, it’s two syllables, as is “camera” (although I see how that could be three). I’d change it to “Big Brother, Candid Camera — Smile; God sees.

    Need more be said of our worldly defect?

    Defect is trochaic, as I said before. So is “worldly”, although I know that Shakespeare used “earthly conceit” to end a sonnet line in Comedy of Errors, so I suppose I can understand the stretch there.

    Sir, forgive me, for sins have I to tell.

    I agree with Duane. “Forgive me, Sir” is an easy switch.

    Repent or not–condemned am I to hell.

    The final line is perfect as is.

    Hope this helps. 🙂


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