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Alexandrine Verse

Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia

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ALEXANDRINE VERSE, a name given to the leading measure in French poetry. It is the heroic French verse, used in epic narrative, in tragedy and in the higher comedy. 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 Baif, one of the seven poets known as the Pleiades. Jodelle mingled episodical Alexandrines with the vers communs of his tragedies and so introduced them into drama. It was Ronsard, however, who made the verse popular, and gave it vogue in France. From his time it became the recognized vehicle for all great poetry, and the regulation of its pauses became more and more strict. The following is an example of the verse as used by Racine--
    Ou suis-je? qu'ai-je fait? || que dois-je faire encore?
    Quel transport me saisit? || quel chagrin me devore?

Two inexorable laws came to be established with regard to the pauses. The first is, that each line should be divided into two equal parts, the sixth syllable always ending with a word. In the earlier use of this metre, on the contrary, it frequently happened that the sixth and seventh syllables belonged to the same word. The other is that, except under the most stringent conditions, there should be none of what the French critics call enjambement, that is, the overlapping of the sense from one line on to the next. Ronsard completely ignored this rule, which was after his time settled by the authority of Malherbe. The latest school of French prosody has given great attention to the breaking up of the Alexandrine, which no longer possesses the rigidity of authoritative form which it held until about 1880, but is often used with a licence no less than when Ronsard wrote.

Michael Drayton, who was twenty-two years of age when Ronsard died, seemed to think that the Alexandrine might be as pleasing to English as it was to French ears, and in this metre he wrote a long poem in twenty-four books called the Polyolbion. The metre, however, failed to catch the English ear. The principal English measure is a line of ten syllables, and the Alexandrine is used only occasionally to give it variety and weight. In ordinary English heroic verse it is but rarely introduced; but in the favourite narrative metre, known as the Spenserian, it comes in regularly as the concluding line of each stanza. In English usage, moreover, it is to be observed that there is no fixed rule as to the position of the pause, though it is true that most commonly the pause occurs at the end of the sixth syllable. Spenser is very free in shifting the pause about; and though the later poets who have used this stanza are not so free, yet, with the exception of Shenstone and of Byron, they do not scruple to obliterate all pause between the sixth and seventh syllables. Thus Thomson (Castle of Indolenee, i. 42):--

    And music lent new gladness to the morning air.

The danger in the use of the Alexandrine is that, in attempting to give dignity to his line, the poet may only produce heaviness, incurring the sneer of Pope--

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

The Alexandrine was the dominant metre in Dutch poetry from the 16th to the middle of the 19th century, and about the time of its introduction to Holland it was accepted in Germany by the school of Opitz. In the course of the 17th century, after being used without rhyme by Seckendorf and others, it formed a transitional station on the route to German blank verse, and has since then been rarely employed, except occasionally in rhymed comedy.

This article is from the 1911 edition of an encyclopedia, which is out of copyright here in the U.S. It is in the public domain and you may copy, download, print and distribute this work as you see fit.

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