When I first read Dante's Divine Comedy in high school, I remember once being puzzled at what I thought were strained rhymes in the translation, and mentioned it to my English teacher. In reply, she told me that it had to be so, as Dante wrote in a terza rima rhyme scheme that was much more easily accommodated by Italian, and that writing in the iambic pentameter that English poetry "naturally" favored required breaking some of the very easy internal rhyme presented in the original. I left it at that then, but afterwards she repeatedly invoked the same idea of iambic pentameter's "naturalness" to English when we read Shakespeare and I think William Blake.

Is she correct? Is iambic pentameter indeed "natural" to English? What linguistic characteristics of English make it so? I know many of these things boil down to, "that's just the way it is", but I guess in this question I'm just looking for a deeper explanation than just giving the simple fact.

  • 3
    Hm. I had thought that normal English speech tends to favor trochaic foot structure rather than iambic.
    – Kosmonaut
    Apr 5, 2011 at 22:25
  • 5
    Also: obligatory xkcd :-P
    – PLL
    Apr 5, 2011 at 22:33
  • 3
    @Alenanno I am from the US, and yes, we studied Dante and his Comedy in my junior English class.
    – Uticensis
    Apr 6, 2011 at 1:36
  • 8
    If you put a gun to my head and asked me what the natural meter for English was, I'd have to answer common meter, just because of the number of folk songs in it, not to mention its name. Apr 6, 2011 at 3:37
  • 4
    I cannot say that normal English speech would favor iambs more than other schemes. Although it does prevail in poetry, it takes much work, or so to me it seems.
    – Dan
    Apr 6, 2011 at 4:55

8 Answers 8


There is an interesting argument that none of the classical rhyme schemes is natural to English, and that instead alliterative verse is the most natural form. JRR Tolkien is well-known for his work on this theory (in addition to some other, more obscure works).

Alliterative verse is characterized by (1) the use of head-rhymes or alliterations and (2) meter based on accent, not on feet (accentual verse).

(1) Alliterations are based on sound, not spelling, and some sounds are considered to alliterate even if they are not identical. All vowels alliterate with each other. So center alliterates with sin, elf alliterates with antler, and victor can alliterate with fern.

(2) In meter, stressed syllables are counted, and unstressed syllables are not counted at all. So the following lines have 2 stresses per line, even though the first line has 4 syllables and the 2nd has 5.

Baa baa, black sheep
Have you any wool?

Much of the poetry of Anglo-saxon was alliterative verse, notably Beowulf. Its popularity as formal poetry waned after the influence of Norman French and classical forms. It is still apparent in modern forms like cowboy poetry and rap. Tolkien's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a good example of alliteration in modern English. Here is an excerpt from Langland's Piers Plowman in modern translation:

Among them I found a fair field full of people
All manner of men, the poor and the rich
Working and wandering as the world requires.

The arguments in favor of its naturalness to English are

  1. English does not have many inflectional endings, so end-rhymes are less natural than in languages that do use such endings.

  2. English is a stress-timed language, not a syllable-timed language or a mora-timed language. Accentual verse matches the patterns of stress-timing more naturally.

There are some problems with the above analysis, to be sure: if alliterative verse is so natural, why isn't it more widely used? Is the stress/syllable/mora-timing distinction even real? However, I thought that this question does merit a discussion of this lesser-known but important verse form.

Natural verse is very vexing
To define: Dante’s Divine Comedy
In terza rima’s rhythmic mode
Apprehends Italian’s essence perfectly;

The dactylic hexameter of Homer’s distichs
Gave us Greek and Roman rhymes,
The prosodic feet which our fathers professed
As the Classical model for modern poetry;

But the uncouth consonant clusters
Of Anglo-Saxon speech are served
Better by a blunter form;
Alliteration loves our letters' patterns!

  • 1
    I read the pages you linked for "Sir Gawain", which I considered quite interesting (there's only the original Middle English text, though). Still, I think it is misleading to mention Tolkien's "Sir Gawain", as people less versed than you in English literature might believe that Tolkien is actually the author of this poem, whereas I suppose Tolkien made a "translation" of this work in modern English and succeeded in keeping its alliterative structure.
    – Paola
    Jun 27, 2012 at 23:03
  • @Paola I tend to be charitable and assume that people will click links. :) However, to your point I shall make a note of the nature of the authorship. Jun 28, 2012 at 1:17
  • 4
    While this answer brings a high-quality and unexpected angle into the discussion, it doesn't address why iambic pentameter is so popular among both English teachers and poets. Jun 18, 2013 at 14:50
  • Inflectional endings have nothing to do with it. Latin has tons of inflectional endings, and Latin poetry didn't rhyme. I've seen arguments that it didn't rhyme because of the inflectional endings. Oct 13, 2023 at 12:44

I'm sadly disappointed that this site
Should give its answers in prosodic ways
When of the poet's art we choose to write,
And rhyme and rhythm's secrets must display.

Does English ever to the iamb tend?
Not all perhaps, but much of what is there
To five full feet of short-long beats does lend
A certain credence to that theory bare.

But "natural beat" doesn't nat'rally meet the requirements of which the words speak.
Its rhythm's in three not in two, don't you see? So perhaps it's "dactylic" we seek.
And this verse, though amateur, is no pentameter, four feet then three is its bent.
So ask not "Who knows?" Maybe anything goes. But that's more than enough now, I'm spent.

  • Amazing verse :)
    – Uticensis
    Apr 8, 2011 at 1:54
  • 1
    @Billare It could be worse :)
    – user1579
    Apr 8, 2011 at 2:11
  • 7
    Don’t stop there; the picture’s bigger! // Trochees also often figure. // (Slightly less, though, I’d agree, // pace this xkcd.)
    – PLL
    Apr 9, 2011 at 16:24

I expect the strained rhymes in Dante are merely from the fact that it's translated. If you're writing original poetry, you have much more freedom to change things around to make them rhyme than you do if you're translating poetry, and care about keeping it moderately faithful to the original.

Anyway, Dante's terza rima scheme is pretty much iambic pentameter with an unusual (for English) rhyme scheme1. Shelley wrote some great poetry in this scheme which rhymed perfectly well (e.g. Ode to the West Wind).

1 Each line ends with a feminine (two-syllable) rhyme, rather than a masculine (one-syllable) one, but that's just because of the way Italian words are accented.

  • 1
    A feminine ending refers to a line that finishes on an unstressed syllable; the masculine finishes on a stress. That nitpick aside, +1 for a good answer. You should read Robert Pinsky's translation of The Inferno, if you haven't already.
    – Robusto
    Apr 6, 2011 at 1:01
  • 1
    @Robusto: Doesn't it naturally follow that if the last syllable is unstressed (feminine rhyme by your definition), it will also be 'two-syllable rhyme' (as Peter Shor defines it)? A pair of unstressed single-syllable elements wouldn't make much of a rhyme. Apr 8, 2011 at 1:32
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers: But (say) recline and decline rhyme, and they can are stressed on the last syllable. So you could have two-syllable masculine rhymes. @Robusto's definition is the correct one. Apr 8, 2011 at 1:46
  • You are correct of course. As is Robusto (but when is he not?) That's EL&U for you - you just have to live with ignoramuses butting in trying to defend the indefensible. Apr 8, 2011 at 1:56
  • I would like to add that it seems like the languages flow differently as well. Stressed and unstressed syllables, as well as rhymes, are different in each language. Apr 12, 2011 at 15:07

The most natural English prose meter is the limerick kind that you hear here. It's really a cinch to produce in a pinch and it always reads simpler than Shakespeare. This meter is based on a system. It's three tones that come in a rhythm. Two low tones surround a high tone that's found at some regular places within them.


Dr. Seuss when he wrote, and he wrote for a while, used a rhythm that's much like the limerick in style. It's not quite a limerick, though they're both the same kind. It's a high tone that comes with two low tones behind.


Why are these systems so easy? Because low tones in English are common. You can write blank verse too that scans much alike, but lacks rhymes to help readers to see this.

  • Anapaest is the type of foot you describe here. Also: in English the differentiator is termed 'stress', not 'tone'. Mar 3, 2012 at 23:10
  • @Mark Beadles: It's annoying to have the same thing called by two different names. It makes Chinese unnecessarily difficult to learn for westerners. Hey, westerners, what they call tone is just what you call stress.
    – Ron Maimon
    Mar 4, 2012 at 0:10
  • 1
    Actually, tone in Chinese is phonetically quite different from stress in English. Have you ever listened carefully to people speaking Chinese? It doesn't sound at all like English, because Chinese has tones and English doesn't. May 3, 2015 at 13:56
  • @PeterShor: NO! Tone and stress are the EXACT same thing. My wife is Chinese, I learned to pronounce it comprehensibly when I realized that "high tone" is what we call in English "stressed", while low tone is "unstressed". This is a product of experience with Chinese. It is not a trivial insight, it was the single most important thing for me to learn (it was hard because nitwits told me nonsense exactly like what you are saying). The rest is syllables like a metronome and avoiding using tone/stress to indicate questions, or emotion, rather use instead the particles in the language (like MAH).
    – Ron Maimon
    May 13, 2015 at 0:03
  • @RonMaimon Mandarin has 4 tones. How does that match to a binary stressed or unstressed?
    – Blaisem
    Nov 29, 2022 at 10:49

Great question! Yes, many claim that the best prose that scans as iambic. I question the "pentameter" part, though: to me, most of the best English prose is in tetrameter.


English is naturally spoken Iambicly, that is we tend to pair stressed and unstressed syllables. Such a pairing is an Iamb, from the Greek for foot, Iambic meaning step. Like left-right,left-right.

But we do not tend to speak in pentameter.

Pentameter is a specific measure of syllables, that is five sets of paired syllables, which tend to be pairs of one stressed and one unstressed syllables. So Iambic pentameter merely means 10 syllables which tend to alternate in the way that they are stressed.


Actually, this is an interesting question, and I think I may have an answer. I am writing a book called Shakespeare's Numbers that explores the nature of Shakespeare's "iambic pentameter" and you are not amiss in questioning the "natural iambicity" of English. English is no more iambic than it is trochaic. The idea that its rhythms are iambic probably arise from the fact that the language is largely comprised of monosyllabic words. When speaking strings of monosyllabic words the normal alternation between short and long syllables accentuates the iambic rhythm, making English seem iambic. And when arranged by an unskillful poet in unending strings of iambs, yes, the language seems iambic. However, natural English can't be said to be iambic if half the time (or more) it's not iambic. My examination of Shakespeare's verse yields the observation that his blank verse was actually constructed to flatten lyricism in service of creating a mirror-like imitation of natural speech for the drama. Shakespeare's verse is as uniambic as it is iambic: it contains just as many "iambic inversions" as it does iambs, and speaking onstage in "iambic pentameter" mangles his verse as it was intended to be spoken, since the actor is attempting to instill lyricism, as he speaks, into verse from which it has been removed. As far as translating rhyme schemes between languages, it should be frowned upon; the manner in which a language can be lyrically rhymed with itself usually doesn't translate into a language of a different structure. If you're interested in these issues the best place to start is the long ignored The Arte of English Poesie published in 1589.

  • Are you implying that Petrarchian sonnets are unnatural in English because the rhyme scheme was taken from Italian? And Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate because the rhyme scheme was taken from Pushkin's Eugene Onegin? You could discourage some of the greatest English poetry with this "frowning upon" May 3, 2015 at 14:43
  • Didn't mean to imply that it never works, only that to remain true to the meaning AND original rhyme scheme is very difficult, and that using inapt rhymes, such as mentioned above in the original question, doesn't, in my opinion, produce a successful translation. It all depends on the context, and the work. My point was that you could translate a rhymed poem into an unrhymed one. May 3, 2015 at 16:54
  • Well ... those poems weren't translated; the rhyme scheme itself was borrowed from another language and used for completely different poems in English. And these poems work fine. May 3, 2015 at 17:44
  • I was referring to The Divine Comedy translation discussed in the original question, which contained rhymes in the English translation which were "strained" to the students ear, or, bad rhymes. May 4, 2015 at 14:26
  • I do not think that word — “lyricism”— means what you think it means Oct 13, 2023 at 2:56

I did some research on this topic, finding answers ranging from that English doesn't fit this rhyme, to natural English following this meter, to sources saying “subject-object-verb” arrangement makes this sort of rhyme scheme work.

The most convincing piece of evidence claimed that rhyming was the norm until the early 1800’s (see: Romantic Era), but quickly fell from favor since the rhythm can feel “forced”. But then, there are examples from some famous playwrights (David Mamet, Aaron Sorkin) arguing that this way of writing is most natural. They use it in their dialogue, and everyone agrees how musical their lines are.

My conclusion is that it is natural, but a lost (or dying) art. For example, writing this entire answer using (almost) perfect iambs wasn’t hard. And I would argue that this answer, although quirky, doesn’t have the feel of forcing rhyming. But maybe that's just me.

  • Your reply doesnt feel forced, but it also doesnt feel more natural than the other comments here, unless everyone is writing in iambs.
    – Blaisem
    Nov 29, 2022 at 10:53

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.