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Poetry Guide: Choriambic Verse

Choriambic verse, or Choriambics, is the name given to Greek or Latin lyrical poetry in which the metrical unit or 'foot' called the choriambus predominates. The choriambus is a verse-foot consisting of a trochee united with and preceding an iambus - so it is a long syllable followed by two short syllables and then another long syllable. The phrase "Go to the play" is metrically a Choriambus.

In poetry, Choriambi are never used alone, but always combined with other metrical 'feet' such as spondees, trochees and dactyls. A Choriambus preceded by a spondee and followed by an iambus creates a line called an asclepiad, so named because it was said to have been invented by the Aeolian poet Asclepiades of Samos. The 'Greater Asciepiad' is a line prolonged by the introduction of a second choriambus.

Choriambic verse was first used by the lyric poets of the Greek islands, including Sappho. It was also a feature of choral writing within the Greek tragic plays and was used in Alexandrian times by Callimachus and Theocritus.

Among writers in Latin, Horace was the greatest exponent of Choriambic verse. Metrical experts distinguish six varieties of it in his Odes. This is an example of Horace writing in the Greater Asclepiad form (Od. i. II):

Tu ne quaesieris ~ scire nefas ~ quem mihi, quem tibi
Finem Di dederint, Leuconoe; nec Babylonios
Tentaris numeros. Ut melius, quicquid erit pati
Seu plures hiemes, seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
Quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare

In this poem, the pattern of long and short syllables is the same in every line. Using the first line as an example, the pattern goes like this:

TU NE QUAES-i-e-RIS ~ SCI-re ne-FAS ~ QUEM mi-hi, QUEM ti-bi

The two Choriambs in the line cover syllables 3-6, and syllables 7-10.

In later Roman times, both Seneca and Prudentius wrote choriambic verse. Swinburne even introduced it into English poetry:

Love, what ailed them to leave life that was made lovely, we thought with love?
What sweet vision of sleep lured thee away, down from the light above?

Such lines as these make a brave attempt to resuscitate the measured sound of the greater asclepiad.