Chaucer's metre: Iambic pentameter

Chaucer invented the iambic pentameter 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 some syllables 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 / phrases which are iambic are therefore 

alone or Michelle or to sing.

Regular iambic pentameter

A pentameter is a line of verse with five feet.

So this line is an iambic pentameter:

  ‘And if I have a gossib or a freend' l.243

Chaucer uses exact iambic pentameters 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 chance of giving emphasis by breaking the expected pattern.

Notice how Chaucer varies the metre to emphasise the Wife's determination to produce a victor in the marriage battle in the Prologue l. 440:

  Oon of us two must bowen doutelees'

The line can be read beginning with a strong stress emphasising ‘Oon' and move to a strong stress on ‘two'. Chaucer indicates the opposition between husband and wife by disrupting the anticipated smooth flow of the line.

Eliding syllables

There are lines where it would have been normal to elide (merge together) two syllables to fit the metre. This is the case where e is followed by a word beginning with another vowel:

 ‘That for my necligence I do no cure' l. 1074

Hear how the last syllable of ‘necligence' can be merged into ‘I' to produce a smooth iambic metre.

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.

The best way to discover how Chaucer could use the flexibility that this variation allows is to listen to a reading with the text in front of you. 

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

 ‘To do the gentil dedes that he kan' (L. 1115)

  • Sometimes, because there are several optional e sounds, the line seems to offer a choice of different possibilities, e.g.                  

‘I am youre owene love and youre wyf' L. 1091 

Here the reader has chosen to elide (merge together) the syllables ‘re ow'. S/he sounds ‘ne' at the end of ‘owene' to pattern the stronger stress onto the important word ‘love'. This leaves the unimportant word ‘and' lightly stressed. ‘… and you…' is read as an iamb. This is followed by a soft stress on the e at the end of ‘youre' which places a strong stress on the significant word ‘wyf' which ends the line

  • Frequently an e is sounded softly at a line ending where it adds to the aural pleasure of the rhyme patterning e.g. ‘richesse' and ‘gentilesse' at the ends of l.1109 and 1110. Here the paired word patterning slows down the verbal performance of two significant words. It gives listeners more time to pay attention to the distinction that the Old Woman wants to make.

Don't be afraid to read Chaucer aloud. Enjoy having a go at it with your friends.

Try 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 modern pronunciation, most of the original rhythm and metre will come out.

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