Difference Between Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter

Key Difference – Blank Verse vs Iambic Pentameter

The words blank verse and iambic pentameter are two literary terms used in poetry. Blank verse is one of the most commonly used poetic structures in the English language whereas iambic pentameter is one of the most commonly used meters in poetry. The key difference between blank verse and iambic pentameter is that blank verse is a poetic structure whereas iambic pentameter is a meter that is used to write poetry.  In fact, iambic pentameter is the most commonly used meter in blank verse.

What is Blank Verse?

In 1514, Italian writer Francesco Maria Molza tried to translate Aeneid from Latin to English, experimenting with different styles of translating in which he tried to maintain the original style in the best possible way. The form Molza used in this translation was later named as Blank Verse. This new style caught the attention of the Italian Renaissance drama and many artists like Giovanni Rucellai and Henry Howard used it in their work. The first two English playwrights who used this term blank verse are Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton.

Characteristics of Blank Verse

  • Blank verse is a form of poetic prose.
  • It has no fixed number of lines.
  • It is written with a regular meter with unrhymed lines.
  • It can be composed in any kind of meter, such as iamb, trochee, spondee, and dactyl.
  • However, iambic pentameter is the commonest meter used in blank verse.
  • Blank verse is similar to normal speech.
  • The rhyme comes from the way in which it is structured.
  • Blank verse is popular among Romantic English poets, as well as among some contemporary American poets.
  • Imagery and emotional power of poetry can be seen.
  • It can express different emotions and allows more variety in the tone and pace of the language.
  • This format is used in both reflective and descriptive poetry as well as in dramatic monologs

Poets: John Milton, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne and John Keats.

Example of Blank Verse

“You stars that reign’d at my nativity,

Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,

Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist

Into entrails of yon labouring clouds,

So that my soul may but ascend to Heaven…”

– Dr.Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Meters Used in Blank Verse

  • Iamb pentameter blank verse (unstressed/stressed syllables)
  • Trochee blank verse (stressed/unstressed syllables)
  • Anapest blank verse (unstressed/unstressed/stressed syllables)
  • Dactyl blank verse (stressed/unstressed/unstressed syllables

Key Difference - Blank Verse vs Iambic Pentameter

What is Iambic Pentameter?

The history of Iambic Pentameter dates back to Latin and Old French verses. The term ‘iambic pentameter’ consists of three words Iamb –Penta – Meter. An iamb is a musical or metrical foot that has an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable. (ba-BUM). Penta means five. Therefore, iambic pentameter has five pairs of repeated unstressed syllables and stressed syllables. Chaucer, who used iambic pentameter in his Canterbury Tales, is considered to have introduced this form to English. Iambic Pentameter can be called as a common meter in poetry.  Iambic Pentameter is the commonest feature used in blank verse.

Characteristics of Iambic Pentameter

  • Each line in a iambi pentameter has ten syllables.
    • These syllables are arranged in pairs.
    • Therefore, a blank verse has a line of five (Penta) meters.
    • Example: Is this/ the face / that launched / a thou / sand ships…
    • The two syllables do not necessarily have to be in the same word (e.g. thousand is split across two different pairs)
    • The unstressed syllables are followed by stressed ones.
    • The rhythm in each line sounds like ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM.
  • William Shakespeare uses the Iambic Pentameter in most of his verses. For example, we can consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet no.18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

  • Each pair of syllables in an Iambic Pentameter is called an iambus.
  • An iambus is made up of one unstressed and one stressed beat (ba-BUM).

Use of Iambic Pentameter by Shakespeare

  • Shakespeare added an extra unstressed beat at the end of a line to emphasize a character’s sense of contemplation. This is a variation of the Iambic Pentameter which is called a feminine ending.
  • He reversed the order of the stresses in some iambi to help emphasize certain words or ideas.
  • Occasionally, Shakespeare completely broke the rules and place two stressed syllables in the same iambus.

Example of Iambic Pentameter

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

Variations in Iambic Pentameter

  • Headless Iamb – One stressed syllable at the beginning of the line
  • Spondee- two stressed syllables, as in “hot dog”
  • Double Iamb- Four syllables, unstressed-unstressed-stressed-stressed. A double iamb is counted as two feet
  • Feminine Ending – An extra unstressed syllable at the end of a line

Difference Between Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter

What is the difference between Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter?

  • Blank verse is a common structure of poetry.
  • Iambic Pentameter is a common meter used in poetry.
  • Iambic pentameter is the commonest meter used in poetry.
Image Courtesy:
“Sonnets 1609 title page” By William Shakespeare – Shake-Speare’s Sonnets, quarto published by Thomas Thorpe, London, 1609,  (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia
“1499166” (Public Domain) via Pixabay