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Poetry Guide: Alexandrine

An alexandrine is a line of poetic meter. Alexandrines are common in the German literature of the Baroque period and in French poetry of the early modern and modern periods and much less common in English poetry, which more frequently uses iambic pentameter or 5-foot verse.

In syllabic verse, such as that used in French literature, an alexandrine is a line of twelve syllables, often with a caesura between the sixth and seventh syllables. The dramatic works of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine are typically composed of rhyming alexandrine couplets.

In accentual verse, it is a line of iambic hexameter - a line of six feet or measures ("iambs"), each of which has two syllables with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. It is also usual for there to be a caesura between the sixth and seventh syllables (as the examples from Pope below illustrate. Robert Bridges noted that in the lyrical sections of Samson Agonistes, Milton significantly varied the placement of the caesura.

In quantitative meters, an iamb comprises a short syllable followed by a long syllable (as in the word delay), and an alexandrine consists of six such short+long feet.

In the poetry of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene 8 lines of pentameter are followed by an alexandrine, the 6-foot line slowing the regular rhythm of the 5-foot lines.

Undoubtedly the most famous alexandrine in the English language is a rhyming couplet of Alexander Pope's, in which the first line is in iambic pentameter and the second line is an alexandrine:

A needless alexandrine ends the song
that like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

A few lines later Pope continues discussing fast lines:

Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o'er th'unbending corn and skims along the Main.

The second line of the couplet, a very fast line, is remarkably an alexandrine itself, which Pope just claimed made the line excruciatingly slow. As Paul Fussell has said, "It is the literary equivalent of shouting, 'Look! No hands.'"

Alexandrines are sometimes introduced into predominantly pentameter verse for the sake of variety. The Spenserian stanza, for instance, is eight lines of pentameter followed by an Alexandrine. In the Restoration and eighteenth century, poetry written in couplets is sometimes varied by the introduction of a triplet in which the third line is an Alexandrine, as in this example from Dryden, which introduces a triplet after two couplets:

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.

There is some doubt as to the origin of the name; but most probably it is derived from a collection of romances, collected in the 12th century, of which Alexander of Macedon was the hero, and in which he was represented, somewhat like the British Arthur, as the pride and crown of chivalry. Before the publication of this work most of the trouvere romances appeared in octosyllabic verse. There is also a theory that the form was invented by a poet named Alexander. The new work, which was henceforth to set the fashion to French literature, was written in lines of twelve syllables, but with a freedom of pause which was afterwards greatly curtailed. The new fashion, however, was not adopted all at once. The metre fell into disuse until the reign of Francis I, when it was revived by Jean Antoine de Baiif, one of the seven poets known as the Pleiades.