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by Julia Sneden


Last week, I found myself preparing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediment ...”) for a reading at my niece’s wedding.

After a few panicky practice efforts, I remembered all those play rehearsals I’ve attended over the years (a few on stage and most out in the darkened house), taking note while directors carried on about breath control, searching for the simple meaning of the words, and how it is a sin to create end-stop lines where there is no period or comma to justify the pause.

It took several run-throughs, but eventually I began to relax and enjoy the words, thinking how lovingly iambic pentameter embraces the English tongue (or vice versa). It was a long time since I’d dwelled on the iamb, that tuh-DAH syllabic emphasis of so many words, like “beSEECH,” or “reTREAT,” or “enJOY.”

My high school English teacher, Mrs. Dulley, no doubt would be proud of me for recalling and being able to use the term.

I even remember that great swatches of Shakespeare’s plays (and all 154 of his sonnets) are written in iambic pentameter, pentameter being a line of five iambs strung out one after the other, thus:

“In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,

For they in thee a thousand errors note;”

(from The Bard’s sonnet 141, a surprisingly sado/masochistic little number)

When I was about 13, I remember thinking bravely: “there’s nothing to this sonnet business,” and trying to produce one of my own. I soon realized, however, that I was in a bit over my head. I did manage to produce something 14 lines long in iambic pentameter, with an honest-to-God rhyme scheme, but the message was not just hard to find: it was utterly lacking. And if you don’t have a coherent thought, what’s the point of all that rhyme and meter?

Thinking about iambic pentameter has, however, raised my ear’s awareness, and suddenly I’m hearing it all over the place. No wonder Shakespeare wrote the way he did! In our language, you can hardly have a conversation without falling into the rhythm of iambic pentameter. It shows up even in inanities like:

" The mailman’s late again. I wonder why?


"A sugar spoon works just as well for soup.


It’s terrifically expressive for emotional diatribes or laments, like:

"You double-dealing, lying, cheating skunk!


I loved my little dog and then he died.


It even serves for expletives and descriptions like:


O damn! The cat is puking on the rug.”


This morning I found myself stomping around the kitchen in a snit, muttering:

My muffin’s stuck inside the toaster slot.

It’s charred beyond all hope of being et.

I’d grab it, but the fool thing is too hot.


This wedding recitation needs to be over soon, at which point I’ll retreat to prose with a song in my heart. I just hope it doesn’t scan in five tuh-DAH beats.


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