1902 Encyclopedia > Alexandrine Verse

Alexandrine Verse




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, published early in the 13th century, of which Alexander of Macedon was the hero, and in which he was represented, somewhat like our own Arthur, as the pride and crown of chivalry. Before the publication of this work most of the trouvère romances appeared in octo-syllabic verse. 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 Bœuf, one of the seven poets known as the Pleiades. It was not he, however, but Eonsard, who made the verse popular, and gave it vogue in France. From his time it became the recognised vehicle for all great poetry, and the regula-tion of its pauses became more and more strict. The fol-lowing is an example of the verse as used by Racine—

" Où suis-je ? qu'ai-je fait ? || que dois-je faire eucore ? Quel transport me saisit ? |) quel chagrin me dévore ? "

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. Such verses as the following by Eonsard would be intolerable in modern French poetry—

" Cette nymphe royale est digne qu'on lui dresse Des autels. . . .
Les Parques se disoient : Charles, qui doit venir Au monde. . . .
Je veux, s'il est possible, atteindre la louague De celle. . . .

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. Our principal measure is a line of ten syllables, and we use the Alexandrine only occasionally to give it variety and weight. In our ordinary 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 Indolence, 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—_

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

(E. S. D.)







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