Monday, April 4, 2011

Poetry Terms: Alexandrine and Caesura

Caesura: A pause in the middle of a line of poetry, usually indicated by a comma.

Alexandrine: A line of twelve syllables, typically punctuated by a caesura, or pause, between the sixth and seventh syllables, or sometimes into 3 sections with caesuras after the 4th and 8th syllables. Often works in romance languages are written entirely in Alexandrine, but in English verse Alexandrine is typically used to break the meter in a poem that is otherwise written in iambic pentameter. Within this context, the Alexandrine lines have an extra metrical foot.

When breaking up other lines of iambic pentameter, Alexandrine often has the effect of slowing the poem’s rhythm, an effect that Alexander Pope cleverly illustrates in these lines from his poem “An Essay on Criticism:”

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

Dryden's poem, “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham,” also contains an Alexandrine.

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.

Though most of the poem is written in iambic pentameter couplets, the Alexandrine line forms a triplet with the two preceding lines. This is called a “triplet Alexandrine,” and during the 17th century it was popular to break up iambic pentameter with the occasional triplet Alexandrine. However, after Jonathan Swift’s parody of this habit in his poem “Description of a City Shower,” few poets were willing to indulge in the poetic excess of the triplet Alexandrine:

Sweepings from butchers stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats and turnips-tops come tumbling down the flood.

Look at Charlotte Smith’s “To Sleep” on page 31. Read the poem silently to yourself and note the Alexandrine in the final line. What is the poem’s attitude toward sleep? Why do you think Smith chooses to end with an Alexandrine (which would have been highly unconventional for a sonnet)?

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