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The word iambic - pronunciation IPA: /aɪ ˈæmb ɪk/, eye-AM-bik - may be used either as an adjective or as a noun. As an adjective, iambic is applied to a foot or measure consisting of two syllables of which the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. As a noun, iambic may mean an iambic foot, though a better noun is iamb - pronunciation IPA: /'aɪ æm or 'aɪ ˈæmb/, EYE-am or EYE-amb - or iambus - pronunciation IPA: /aɪ ˈæmb ʊ (or, less formally ə) s/, eye-AM-bus. Iambic may also be used to describe a line of verse which consists entirely of iambic feet, or as a noun for such a line.

The following lines which open The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) are made up entirely of iambic feet:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weak'ning eye of day.

As you will see, lines 1 and 3 have four iambic feet - in more technical language, they are iambic tetrameters - while lines 2 and 4 have three iambic feet - they are iambic trimeters. A line of verse consisting of five iambic feet (e.g., the line from Hamlet's famous soliloquy 'For who would bear the whips and scorns of time') is known as an iambic pentameter. This is the metre of the blank verse in Shakespeare's plays and of John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost.

Iambic metre is probably the most common metre in English poetry, not least because it reflects the rhythms of much ordinary English speech. Many everyday unpoetic remarks in English (e.g., 'I went to town by bus and bought myself a book about the ancient Greeks') consist of a series of iambic feet. (Many of the effects of emphasis in blank verse are built by a reversed foot in a line, a form of metrical control that seems easy in English iambic verse.)

This account of the meaning of iambic fits not only English poetry but most medieval and modern European poetry, where the metre consists in the patterned arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables. However, in the poetry of Classical Greece and Rome and in Classical Arabic poetry the metre consists in the patterned arrangement not of stressed and unstressed syllables but of long and short syllables In this context an iambic foot is a foot consisting of two syllables, the first short and the second long.

See further metre, dactyl, trochee, spondee, anapaest.