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Poetry Guide: Catalectic

A catalectic line is a metrically incomplete of a line of verse, lacking a syllable at the end or ending with an incomplete foot.

Making a meter cataletic can drastically change the feeling of the poem, and is often used to achieve a certain effect. Compare this selection from Book III of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" with that from W.H. Auden's "Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love". The first is in trochaic tetrameter, and the second in trochaic tetrameter catalectic.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

--H.W. Longfellow

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

--W.H. Auden

Catalexis can also apply to headlessness, where the unstressed syllable is dropped from the beginning of the line.

A line missing two syllables is called brachycatalectic.

See also


Fenton, James. "An Introduction to English Poetry". New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002. ISBN 0374528896

Harmon, William. "A Handbook to Literature". Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2005. ISBN 0131344420