Chaucer's metre: iambic pentameter

Chaucer was the first to use the iambic pentameter in English, and it has remained perhaps the most popular of all verse forms in English literature.

The natural rhythm of English

English poetry finds its rhythmic patterns from the strong stresses that characterise English speech. There is a clearly audible contrast of strongly stressed syllables and weakly stressed ones. This obvious feature of how everyone who speaks English talks is usually represented like this:

We put really strong stresses on somsyllables and extremely little stress on other syllables

The iambic foot is a phrase or word that has the stress pattern X / i.e. a weak syllable followed by a strong one. Examples of words which are iambic are therefore:

alone or Michelle    

Regular iambic pentameter

A pentameter is a line of verse with five feet.

So this line is an iambic pentameter:

And ringe it out as rounde as gooth a belle.

Chaucer uses exact iambic pentameter lines, like that one, frequently enough for our ears and brains to get to expect that pattern. 

Varying the rhythm

Having set up a regular pattern, the poet can then play with it. To make every line an exact iambic pentameter would both lose the opportunity for pleasant variation in rhythm and also lose the chances of giving emphasis by breaking the expected pattern.

Note how Chaucer conveys sudden vehemence in the outcry

   ‘Naylat him telle us of no ribaudye!'

Here, the line starts with two strong stresses coming together (‘Nay — lat') but thereafter it's actually quite hard to pick out a clear pattern of weak and strong syllables, though the first syllable of ribaudye is certainly strong, so we probably have another couple of strong stresses coming emphatically together:  ‘no ri---‘.

Pronouncing the ‘e' sound in Middle English

In Chaucer's period, there was still the option of pronouncing certain ‘e' sounds that were gradually becoming silent. The sound spelled e here should be pronounced like the sound in the second vowel in the word metre:

  • Sometimes we need to pronounce such an e softly for the sake of the metre:

  I peyne me to han an hauteyn speche

  • Sometimes the addition of these little sounds can add cleverly to the sense of fullness or fussiness in what is being described:

   Y-crammed ful of cloutes and of bones

These three extra e sounds add to the idea of being ‘crammed full'.

  • Sometimes the possibility of lightly sounding those e sounds at the end of words contributes in The Pardoner's Prologue to a sense of the elaborate ‘patter' the conman is using. It verbally echoes all the fuss he makes over carefully holding up his documents in front of the crowd, stressing the idea he wants to create of how many and how important these are. 

Eliding syllables

There are also lines where it would have been normal to elide (merge together) two syllables to fit the metre:

  •    And est and west upon the peple I bekke

Note how the last syllable of peple can be merged into I here and produce a smooth iambic metre.

Reading Chaucer aloud

If you read Chaucer's lines aloud, aim to pick out a basic, repeated, iambic beat, but allow for variations where the sense and style of the speech need it. You will find that, even with a modern pronunciation, most of the original rhythm and metre will come out.

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