A Guide to Poetry #1: On Metrics #3: Metrics in modern Romance languages

French

French metre is syllabic only, meaning it merely counts the number of syllables in a line. Rhyme is considered more important than metre. A silent ‘e’ counts as a syllable prior to a consonant, but is elided before a vowel (where h aspiré counts as a consonant). At the end of a line, the “e” remains unelided but is hypermetrical (which means outside the syllabic count, same as a feminine of “weak” ending in English verse. Likewise, the rhyme in French in this case will be called “feminine,” to distinguish from the more usual masculine.).

Alexandrine

The most common metre in French poetry of the early modern and modern periods is the alexandrine (often, outside of an English or French context, known as “dodecasyllable”), which was also common in the German literature of the Baroque period and in English drama prior to Marlowe and Shakespeare, upon which it was supplanted by the iambic pentameter (see above).

An alexandrine, in syllabic verse, is simply a line of 12 syllables, usually divided into two equal parts of 6 syllables each (hemistitches) by a caesura. Alternatively, the line is divided into 3 4-syllable sections by two caesuras.

For a typical example, let’s consult Baudelaire. Here is his Les Bijoux (The Jewels):

La très-chère était nue, || et, connaissant mon cœur,

Elle n’avait gardé || que ses bijoux sonores,

Dont le riche attirail || lui donnait l’air vainqueur

Qu’ont dans leurs jours heurex || les esclaves des Mores.

In accentual-syllabic verse, the alexandrine is a line of iambic hexameter (six iambs, to save you scrolling up), usually with a caesura between the sixth and seventh syllables (though this caesura placement was significantly varied by Milton in Samson Agonistes). Alexander Pope famously characterised the alexandrine’s potential to slow or speed the flow of a poem in two rhyming couplets consisting of an iambic pentameter followed by an alexandrine:

A needless alexandrine ends the song

that like a wounded snake, || drags its slow length along.

Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,

Flies o’er th’unbending corn || and skims along the Main.

Occasionally, however, alexandrines are simply inserted into predominantly pentameter verse for the sake of variety – see the Spenserian stanza or rare appearances in Shakespeare’s blank verse. In Restoration and 18th century poetry, couplets were sometimes varied by the introduction of a triplet in which the third line was an alexandrine, as in Dryden:

But satire needs not those, and wit will shine
Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line:
A noble error, and but seldom made,
When poets are by too much force betrayed.
Thy generous fruits, though gathered ere their prime,
Still showed a quickness; and maturing time
But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.

It should be noted that the alexandrine is also a term in Spanish poetic metre, but refers to 14 syllabic lines of usually two hemstiches of seven syllables each.

Spanish

Spanish poetic metre is again syllabic. The phonetic accent in the last word of the verse, though, decides the final count of the line – if the accent of the final word is at the last syllable, then poetic rule states that one syllable shall be added to the actual count of syllables in the said line, thus poetic syllables will outnumber grammatical syllables! If the accent lies on the penultimate syllable, however, it is not counted as an extra syllable. And if it lies on the third to last syllable, one syllable is subtracted from the actual count, meaning there grammatical syllables will outnumber the poetic syllables… mental.

Spanish poetry uses poetic licences, unique to Romance languages, to change the number of syllables by manipulating mainly the vowels in the line. One must, regarding these poetic licences, regard three types of phenomena:

  1. Syneresis, when inside a word has two vowels together that are generally not diphthong, e.g. poe-ta, loyal-ty.
  2. Umlaut, the opposite of syneresis, because it consists of separate two vowels that are usually diphthong, e.g. su-to-see, ru-i-ing.
  3. Hiatus. I have no idea what this is and I doubt this is useful information considering I’m never going to learn Spanish.

Anyway… some common metres in Spanish verse include, along with the alexandrine (which is 14 syllables rather than 12 as in French; see above):

Septenary and Octosyllable

Lines with seven and eight poetic syllables, respectively. The latter, the octosyllable, is commonly used in proverbs and in romances, narrative poems roughly equatable to English ballads.

Hendecasyllable

A line with eleven poetic syllables, playing a similar role to the pentameter in English verse. It is commonly used in sonnets, among other things. It is even more commonly found in Italian poetry (see below), and has been used in English to refer to a line of iambic pentameter with an extra short syllable at the end, e.g. the famous first line of John Keats’ Endymion:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever

…Though this was far more likely to be an Italian or Classical rather than a Spanish influence. The hendecasyllable was also used in Ancient Greek and Latin (see below), though obviously it was counted quantitatively. Tennyson, unlike the imitations of the hendecasyllable by his countrymen Swinburne (see the Hendecasyllable section of Greek and Latin) and Robert Frost (see For Once Then Something), even kept the quantitative features of the metre in his Hendecasyllabics:

O you chorus of indolent reviewers,
Irresponsible, indolent reviewers,
Look, I come to the test, a tiny poem
All composed in a metre of Catullus

Italian

Italian metrics are solely determined by the position of the last accent in a line. Syllables are counted with respect to a verse which ends with a paroxytone, so that a septenary (a line with seven syllables) is defined as a verse whose last accent falls on the sixth syllable: it may also contain eight grammatical syllables:

Ei fu. Siccome Immobile

…or just six grammatical syllables:

la terra al nunzio sta

…and still be a septenary.

Moreover, when a word ends with a vowel and the next one starts with a vowel, they are considered to be the same syllable.

Lines with an even number of syllables have a fixed stress pattern – because of the mostly trochaic nature of the language, these are easier to compose.

Some common metres in Italian verse include the sexenary, where the last stressed syllable is on the fifth, with a fixed stress on the second as well; the septenary, where the last stressed syllable is on the sixth line; and the octosyllable, where the last stressed syllable is the seventh (more often than not, the secondary stresses fall on the first, third and fifth syllable, especially in nursery rhymes for which this metre is well-suited). But the most common, as in Spanish, is

Hendecasyllable (again!)

A line (know as endecasillabo in Italian) where the last accent falls on the tenth syllable, therefore consisting of eleven poetic syllables. The verse also has a stress preceding the caesura, on either the fourth or the sixth syllable. The usual stress schemes are on the sixth and tenth syllables or on the fourth, seventh and tenth syllables.

Most classical Italian poems are composed in hendecasyllabic lines, such as the works of Dante (with the stress falling on the fourth and tenth syllables in the Divine Comedy), Francesco Petraca, Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso. They differ greatly in the rhyme scheme, from terza rima to ottava, from sonnet to canzone.

In later poems, since 1800, hendecasyllables are often used without a strict system, with few or no rhymes at all, e.g. in Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti. These “endecasillabi sciolti” (loose hendecasyllables) are roughly equivalent in usage to Shakespeare’s blank verse (see iambic pentameter).

Next: Classical prosody

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