Quantitative and Syllabic Verse

Quantitative and Syllabic Verse

Readers may be wondering why a previous post called Tony Kline’s renderings of Horace syllabic verse rather than quantitative in the way claimed by his introduction: (1)

‘Horace fully exploited the metrical possibilities offered to him by Greek lyric verse. I have followed the original Latin metre in all cases, giving a reasonably close English version of Horace’s strict forms. Rhythm not rhyme is the essence. Please try reading slowly to identify the rhythm of the first verse of each poem, before reading the whole poem through. Counting syllables, and noting the natural rhythm of individual phrases, may help.’

The poem in question was the famous 7th Ode of Book Four: a dactylic hexameter (with a long replacing two shorts in places) followed by a hemiepes (2)

– – | – u u | – || u u | – – | – u u | – – 15
Diffu- gere ni- ves, rede- unt iam gramina campis

– u u | – u u | – 7
arbori-busque com-ae;

–     –  |   – –  | – u   || u | – –        | –     u u | – – 14
mutat  terra vices    et de-cre- scen tia ripas

– u u – u u | – 7
flumina praete re- unt;

Tony Kline’s rendering was:

The snow has vanished, already the grass returns to the fields, 15
and the leaves to the branches: 7
earth alters its state, and the steadily lessening rivers 15
slide quietly past their banks: 7

English is not a quantitative language, and it’s rather difficult to distinguish between vowels, but in the sense that ‘bite’ is longer than ‘bit’ the pattern of ‘longer’ and ‘shorter’ vowels here may be something like:

u – u u u u – u – u – u u – 15
u u – u u – u 7
– u u – u u – u u – u u – u 15
– – u u – u – 7

The number of syllables is broadly kept, but only the third line reasonably matches the Latin metrical pattern.

Some more comparisons of the Latin metres (2) with Kline.

Horace IV.5:
– – – u u – / – u u – u – // 12
– – – u u – /- u u – u – // 12
– – – u u – / – u u – u – 12
– – – u u – u – 8
– u u – – / u – u u – u 11
u – u u – u /- – u – – – // 12
– u – u – – u – / u u – u 12
– u u u u u – u 8

(Son of the blessed gods, and greatest defender
of Romulus’ people, you’ve been away too long:
make that swift return you promised, to the sacred
councils of the City Fathers)

Horace 1.5:
– – – u u – / – u u – u – // 12
– – – u u – / – u u – u – // 12
– – – u u – – // 7
– – – u u – u – /// 8

u u u – /- – /- u u u u – // 12
– u – u /- / u – – u u – u // 12
– – u u u u – // 7
u – u – – u – – /// 8

(What slender boy, Pyrrha, drowned in liquid perfume,
urges you on, there, among showers of roses,
deep down in some pleasant cave?
For whom did you tie up your hair)

Once again, the line length is respected, but not the metre.

In fact, returning to 4.7, I think we’d read it in the usual accentual-syllabic way as:

The snów has vánished, alréady the gráss retúrns to the fiélds, 15
and the léaves to the bránches: 7
éarth álters its státe, and the stéadily léssening rívers 15
slíde quíetly pást their bánks: 7

When the rhythm (except in the third line again) is still different.

u – u – u u – u u – u – u u – 15
u u – u u – u 7
– – u u – u u – u u – u u – u 15
– – u – u – 6

Syllabic verse is a poetic form with a fixed or constrained number of syllables to the line, in which stress or tone play little or no role. Syllabic verse is common in Italian, Spanish, French, and the Baltic and Slavic languages, but much less so in English, which is predominantly accentual or accentual-syllabic. (3) More features are generally needed to make an acceptable literary form, however. The line lengths are pre-defined, fixed by their number of syllables. The line is commonly divided into two parts (hemistich), each containing a set number of syllables. Hemistiches have to start with whole words, and their ends may be marked by a stressed syllable, sometimes preceded by an unstressed syllable to emphasize the ending. Such languages are generally quantitative, of course, and have further rules to govern how syllables are counted and sounded.

English syllabic verse, the invention of twentieth-century poets, is much freer: the hemistich and end markings are not usually observed, and, as Brogan remarks: ‘It is very doubtful that verse lines regulated by nothing more than identity of numbers of syllables would be perceived by auditors as verse . . . Further, absent the whole notion of meter as pattern, one may question whether syllabic verse is ‘metrical’ at all.’ (4) In English, the difficulty of perceiving even brief isosyllabic lines as rhythmically equivalent is aggravated by the inordinate power of stressed syllables.’

That said, with an immense amount of fastidious craft and effort, syllabic verse can be made beautiful if not very effective. Marianne Moore’s No Swan So Fine has two stanzas of 7, 8, 6, 8, 8, 5, and 9 syllables, y- or w-glides counting as one or two syllables. Two lines are also rhymed.

“No water so still as the
dead fountains of Versailles.” No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and gondoliering legs, so fine
as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown eyes and toothed gold
collar on to show whose bird it was.

Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
Candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
tinted buttons, dahlias,
sea urchins, and everlastings,
it perches on the branching foam
of polished sculptured
flowers — at ease and tall. The king is dead.

But that’s not for all tastes, and far from the negligent charm of Horace.

I hope this won’t seem to disparage Tony Kline’s work, whose renderings are close, intelligent and helpful: it’s often among the renderings I consult when perplexed by the Latin – and Horace can be difficult. The point, I think, is that verse is read by customs specific to a particular language, which are not arbitrary but created by long trial and error, with occasional flashes of prosodic genius. Centuries of effort have failed to make classical verse grow on English soil, and syllabic verse is not really an acceptable alternative: in longer lines it’s generally too prosaic, (5) flaccid and arbitrary. (6)


1. Horace: Odes. Book Four. Translated by A. S. Kline © 2003 http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/HoraceOdesBkIV.htm
2. Halporn, J.W., Ostwald, M. and Rosenmeyer, T.G. The Meters of Greek and Latin Poetry: Revised Edition. Univ. Oklahoma Press, 1994.
3. Syllabic verse. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllabic_verse. Accessed 28 Sep 2013.
4. Brogan, T.V.F. (1993), Syllabic Verse, in Preminger, Alex; Brogan, T.V.F., The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: MJF Books, p. 1249.
5. Sayler, M. Learning To Leave Well Enough Alone In Five Syllables Or Less. 29 Apr 2013. http://thepoetryeditor.blogspot.com/search/label/syllabic verse
6. Wilson, J. The Third Way of Syllabic Verse. 8 Mar 2010.

Relevant Website Pages

Rhythm in Poetry.  http://www.textetc.com/traditional/rhythm.html


  1. forum Quantitative and syllabic verse. | Texet T Blog

  2. This is relevant.
    I hope you find it interesting

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