Main PageProsody Guide

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There are several approaches to how verses are constructed in classic poetry; as we shall see, none of them really works with most classic poems, but they do yield some interest (and some real examples as well).

This approach is based on a funny mistake in considering Latin prosody (which itself is not considered in this guide) and taken extremely seriously by English scholars. It comes from those times in which British poets took delight in calling each other 'Adonais' and in believing Heracles had created porridge to strengthen the Manly Virtues of England. The rest of the Orb finds this approach screwy, even when applied to English poems, while real Latin experts consume their liver in vain anger every time it is mentioned. Coming to the details, its main principle is that each verse can–and must–be split into metric modules called 'feet' and, as we shall see, so far this is true. What is ludicrous is the subsequent concept (which has affected late XIX century English poetry not a little) that good verses should be made of sequences of equal feet, or that Shakespeare strictly uses this approach, or even that every classic verse may be divided in feet in a single way.
Feet are classified according to the sequence of stressed (S below) and unstressed (U below) syllables they contain; the most common ones are:

Verses made of iambs only are fairly common in English, and occasionally found in French as well:

The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared (S. T. Coleridge)

Soit biens soit maus, n'en poeut partir (anonymous of the Narcisse)

Purely anapaestic verses often belong to humorous poetry in English, and are found mixed with other types of feet in French:

To the horror of all who were present that day
He uprose in full evening dress
And with senseless grimace endeavoured to say
What his tongue could no longer express. (L. Carrol)

Pour bannir l'ennemi dont j'étais l'idolâtre,
J'affectai les chagrins d'une injuste marâtre (J. Racine)

Other feet almost never are used alone in a verse; although, Carrol's experiments have bred these two examples, one trochaic, the other amphibrachic:
Yet, the picture failed entirely:
failed because he moved a little

Say what is the spell, when her fledgelings are cheeping...

The author of these notes cringes in horror at the very thought that purely dactylic or spondaic verses exist in modern European languages, but cannot safely deny they do; at least he can grant they are not found easily.

Syllabic Versification
French, Provençal, Spanish and Italian, which have had enough time to solve their Oedipus' complex towards Latin's fatherhood, define metres first of all in terms of number of syllables to the last stressed one. We shall, from now on, refer to this as the number of metrical syllables, which is perhaps the most important concept in this whole guide; caution is recommended, since the same term is used sometimes to indicate a different thing. In archaic poetry, this is almost the only criterion that matters, as shown by these examples:

F. Villon: Rondeau

O amore_amativo,
amor consumativo,
amor conservativo
del cor che t'ha_albergato
(Jacopone da Todi, 6 metrical syllables but 7 actual syllables per verse)

Vers Deus de totas iens
aiaç dreiç chausimens,
pietaç et merce,
et mais vos prec de me,
quar mout vos ai forfaiç
eç en diç et en faiç
eç en autra mesura
don hai faiç mespriçura.
(Provençal anonymous, 1254, 6 metrical syllables per verse, the number of actual syllables is variable)

These fragments are terribly boring, but prove the point quite clearly: there is no pattern inside the lines: their only common feature is having the last stress on the fifth (in the French one) or on the sixth (in the Italian and Provençal) syllable.
Similar samples may also be easily found in mediaeval Latin, but that would again go beyond the purposes of this book; if anyone were interested, he'd just have to browse the Carmina Burana to find his prey.
Of course, the character of a poem built syllabically does depend on the number of metrical syllables in each line; actually this isn't necessarily homogeneous (counter-examples will be given later). Assuming it is, the basic guidelines seem to be:
  1. High numbers of metrical syllables (more than 9) form unruly verses, which require some additional constraints in the stress pattern of their inner part. The solutions chosen in classic poetry regarding this point shall be expounded in the next paragraph; there are, moreover, several exceptions to this rule.
  2. Verses containing more than 12 metrical syllables are infrequent.
  3. Verses with an odd number of metrical syllables are generally sing-songy; they were used nonetheless in some of the worst examples of mediaeval poetry, and are extensively employed in the dullest romantic 'songs'; we owe their introduction in readable poetry to Baudelaire and to the many among the Decadent and Symbolist that imitated him. On the other hand, these verses are the most naturally sung, and they constitute a good 90% of both libretti and rock lyrics, not to account for hogwash like country and pop; the difficulty in providing examples in the latter category is due to the general illiteracy in the environment, where syllables are swallowed in singing or added by means of oh-oh's and similar gargles. In classical music, one may just pick up at random:
Madamina,_il catalogo è questo
delle belle che_amò il padron mio:
un catalogo_egli_è che_ho fatt'io;
osservate, leggete con me.
In Italia seicento_e quaranta,
in Almagna duecento_e trentuna
cento_in Francia,_in Turchia novantuna,
ma in Ispagna son già mille_e tre.
(L. Da Ponte for Mozart, 9 syllables)

More reasonable verses
Historically, pure syllabic versification was a comfortable option during the short flare of Provençal poetry, and was used in France at least till the beginning of the 20th century; partly syllabic metres were also employed by Italian poets during the same period. Soon, however the need seemed to arise to stiffen longer verses in order to make them more regular. The most primitive solution is putting a stress on a fixed syllable inside the verse, thus breaking it, in a sense, in two, as shown in this example by Villon, in which octasyllabic verses are split in two equal parts:

Je suis Françoys, dont il me poise,
Né de Paris emprès Pontoise,
Et de la corde d'une toise
Sçaura mon col que mon cul poise.

One of the earliest applications, and one that would dominate Italian poetry to this day, and affect English and French as well was the endecasillabo.
This verse is systematically defined as 'a verse of eleven syllables' by English-writing prosodists, which show how they ignore not only Italian literature, but a good deal of their own as well. In reality, it comes in two varieties, both of ten metrical syllables and both with a caesura after the first mandatory stress:
The two types are usually freely mixed; exceptions in which only one type is used, or they are set in purposeful patterns, do exist, but do not concern such a general treatise as this one.
Common trespassing on this structure include omitting the caesura, or stressing both the fourth and the sixth syllable: in the latter case there is usually some reason, phonetic or otherwise that highlights either syllable clearly.
The endecasillabo has enjoyed a major role in classic poetry: the Spanish symbolists loved it, the majority Italian poems from Dante to Montale uses this metre exclusively and Shakespeare employs it in those rhymed pieces that are not entirely written in iambic pentameters, as may the diffident Reader may verify in his sonnet CLIII (Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep) (actually a quatorzaine, and probably one of the works the Magnanimous Shade of the Bard would like to have buried with himself).
Proper endecasillabi are terribly rare in French (Guillaume de Machaut, to name somebody famous, uses something similar, at times); however, one of the most common verse types in France is very similar to the endecasillabo, of which it can well be considered a simplified form. This verse is the Gallic decasyllable, which has two mandatory stresses, one on the fourth and one on the tenth syllable. The first occurrences of this verse are lost in the haze of time: it was used by the Raimbaut de Vaqueiras in his epic letter, one of the extremely rare examples of long poems in troubadouric literature; in Northern France it was certainly already very widespread during the second half of the XIV century, when Jean Froissart and Deschampes used it extensively; popular during the Pléiade, it culminated with Valéry, who employed it in his longest masterpiece, 'Le Cimetière marin'. This verse is called 'Gallic' in this guide to account for both its Provençal origin and its presence in France, not simply to pester the Reader with a rare adjective.
However, it is to be noted that no verse ever dominated French poetry at any point the way the endecasillabo does Italian: the mediaeval octasyllable was never really abandoned, experimentation was ever present and, oftentimes very sharp caesuras were used to break long verses, rather than introducing internal constraints on stresses. There is, however a multi-purpose verse in that language, and it is called alexandrine.
An alexandrine is often defined as a iambic hexameter with a caesura after the third foot, a definition that covers only part of the possible cases (in two words, mild bullshit). In the actual classic tradition this verse line is made up by adjoining two verses of six metrical syllables each; in French the first one is almost always masculine (in modern French all verses are masculine, but things were different a few centuries ago), so that the alexandrine is practically defined as a line of 12 metrical syllables with a stress on the sixth and a caesura immediately after it.
This verse is by far the most used in modern (post-Baroque) French poetry, with so many examples a good one is found (at last) without even sweating:

Je ne viens pas ce soir | vaincre ton corps, ô bête
En qui vont les péchés | d'un peuple, ni creuser
Dans tes cheveux impurs | une triste tempête
Sous l'incurable ennui | que verse mon baisier:

Je demande_à ton lit | le lourd sommeil sans songes
Planant sous les rideaux | inconnus du remords,
Et que tu peux goûter | après tes noires mensonges
Toi qui sur le néant | en sait plus que les morts.

Car le Vice, rongeant | ma native noblesse
M'a comme toi marqué | de sa stérilité,
Mais tandis que ton sein | de pierre est habité

Par un coeur que la dent | d'aucun crime ne blesse,
Je fuis pâle, défait, | hanté par mon linceul,
Ayant peur de mourir | lorsque je couche seul.
(S. Mallarmé)

Alexandrines also exist in Provençal and in Spanish, where they usually have thirteen metrical syllables:

En el nomne glorioso | del Rey omnipotent
(Gonzalo de Berceo)

A common myth about alexandrines tells us that they were invented in France in the 15th century and never used in Italy; however, by comparing their French variety, in which the first hemistich is masculine, and the Spanish variety, in which it is feminine, it is legitimate to wonder whether a hemistich with a triple ending (as, say, the word 'infinity') was ever devised. The answer is in the affirmative: it happened in Sicily in the early 13th century, thus long predating the French 'invention': again we have a verse with a caesura both preceded and followed by two hemistich of six metrical syllables each. Here is a very typical (and quite famous) example by Cielo d'Alcamo:

Rosa fresca_aulentissima | ch'apari_inver l'estate
le donne ti disiano, | pulzell'e maritate
tràgemi d'este focora, | se t'este a bolontate

One drawback of the Hundred Years War is that alexandrines are extremely rare, though easy to write, in English. A partial exception to this scorn is found in Edmund Spenser who, being already busy enough hating the Spanish and Italian, thought he could afford the risk of placing a single specimen of these horribly French lines under the weight of eight patriotic iambic pentameters. His alexandrines are almost invariably actual iambic hexameters, with a few exception like this one:

And therefore wisht me stay | till I more truth should find

We have seen that classic English poetry may use several metres; albeit, like other languages, it favours one kind above all: after the 14th century this kind is the iambic pentameter. This verse is usually defined, as the name suggests, as a sequence of five iambs; most prosody treatises stop here in the definition, while others, proving they have at least read some Shakespeare and/or Marlowe, realise that some of the 'iambic feet' do not actually carry any accent, and introduce wispy concepts as 'virtual' or 'possible' stresses; further readings teach them that quite a number of these verses actually end with an amphibrach, and so introduce the idea of 'feminine iambic pentameter', making quite a mess of the whole matter.
Examples of both the 'exceptions' mentioned are easily found through all the iambic pentameter works (as opposed to the endecasillabi one, of which most 'experts' do not even mention the existence) of Shakespeare, e.g. in sonnet CII ('My love is strengthened, though more weak in seeming'). It is quite obvious to the reader, I hope, that all these nags in the definition of this most popular English verse could be removed by adopting a definition similar to those adopted for the endecasillabo and the alexandrine: the iambic pentameter is a verse of ten metrical syllables which carries no stresses on odd-positioned (first, third, seventh, etc.) syllables.
And now, the most hidden secret of English poetry being revealed, you can, kind Reader, proceed to the next chapter with a light heart.
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