Alexandrine Poetry Form: Celebrate Gallant Feats

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Here is what the Alexandrine poetry form is:

Alexandrines, in English, are lines of iambic hexameter, but the term actually has a rich and storied history across multiple countries and cultures.

Most alexandrines trace their origins back to the French alexandrine, a 12-syllable line form with two hemistiches (half-lines) that are divided by a caesura (pause).

So if you want to learn all about the Alexandrine poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s jump right in!

Alexandrine Poem Type (Simply Explained & Examples)

Forms of Poetry: The Alexandrine

A Woman With A Flower Crown

The term “alexandrine” can actually refer to one of several different poem forms, but they nearly all can be traced back to the French alexandrine.

The form is named after the French Roman d’Alexandre (1170), though usage in French has since been traced even further back than that by at least several decades.

Alexandrines are typically poems that rely on six syllable half-lines.

The most traditional variants of the form employ a mid-line caesura (a mid-line pause often enforced by punctuation), but both the length and the use of the caesura have seen experimentation and variation over the course of the centuries.

The form has since become a heavily disambiguated term appearing over multiple languages.

In most forms the alexandrine looks roughly like this, where ‘S’ is the main stressed syllable and ‘o’ represents any syllable:

o o o o o S | o o o o o S

The most notable exceptions across many languages are usually those that include a final unstressed syllable, referred to in English poetry as a feminine ending:

o o o o o S x | o o o o o S x

Depending on the region, alexandrines may or may not be metric, and may or may not include an extra syllable (optional or mandatory).

This article will attempt to discuss as many variants of the alexandrine as is reasonable, beginning with what we usually mean when we refer to the alexandrine in English.

It’s worth noting that alexandrines in most cultures have a passing association with heroic verse, or rather the verse most associated with epics in any given region, but English tends to prefer pentameter over the hexameter that alexandrines are classically known for.

Basic Properties of Alexandrines

Alexandrine Properties
Rhyme StructureDepends on the country
MeterIambic hexameter (in English)
OriginFrance (usually; see Polish alexandrine)
PopularityWildly popular across Europe and western culture, though especially in French literature
ThemeVaries; use as heroic verse is common in non-English cultures

In English

Alexandrine In English

In English we often use the terms “alexandrine” and “iambic hexameter” interchangeably, though it’s not exactly historically appropriate.

Regardless, that is a commonly accepted usage.

Iambic hexameter consists of six metric feet (thus hexameter) and each of those feet is an iamb, or an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

It has often been said that iambic meter, of all the common meters used in English, is the one that best matches the natural cadences of the language.

It may sound as though English is therefore not all that different from the French, but keep in mind that the original alexandrines mostly care about the stress of just the ending.

English poetry is unique in that there is an obsession with the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllable across the entirety of each line, and our interpretation of the alexandrine is no exception.

Therefore, an accurate way to denote the common English alexandrine might be:

o s o s o S | o s o s o S

Alexandrines in English sometimes adopt the caesura and sometimes opt out of it entirely.

While alexandrines have been used in isolation and in dedicated poems, the position they’ve evolved into in English is mostly as a means to break up the texture of poems that are mostly written in another meter.

Writers like Shakespeare and Dryden all but cemented this role of the alexandrine line, and poems written entirely in iambic hexameter have been rare ever since.

Of course, it’s also true that a twelve-syllable line is just long enough to be unwieldy in English poetry, so it’s perhaps natural that it would only show up on occasion.

Iambic tetrameter (four feet) is far more common and both pale in comparison to the omnipresence of iambic pentameter.

In French

Portrait Of A Woman/model/book Character Standing By A Window In Warm Daylight With A Thoughtful/sad Expression In A Fashion/beauty Editorial Magazine Style Film Photography Look Generative Ai Art

It may seem almost sacrilegious to speak of French alexandrines second, but this article is written in English, after all, so it felt important to get the English usage out of the way.

Historian Mikhail Gasparov argues that the French alexandrine is likely a mutation of and evolution of the even older Ambrosian octosyllable, an eight-syllable line form.

If his works are to be believed, then the alexandrine we know and love was the result of an eight-syllable line losing its two final syllables and then simply doubling.

This origin is likely why the caesura developed in the first place, to delineate the point at which two separate lines would have originally been.

Alexandrines actually experienced quite the false death for the better part of 200 years, not returning until a sudden revival in the 16th century.

We can thank La Pléiade, a group of French Renaissance poets, for single-handedly bringing back this seemingly dead form for future generations.

Note that the alexandrines of this era always rhymed and became so popular that French poetry itself was largely typified to alexandrines, much in the same way that iambic pentameter was seen as “the” English form of poetry for many centuries.

In Spanish

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Here we see our biggest departure from the original form thus far, in the alejandrino, an imitation of the alexandrine that uses two seven-syllable hemistiches, expanding the twelve syllables of the French and English forms to an even heftier fourteen syllables.

This Spanish form does not have nearly the storied history of the French alexandrine, but it is noteworthy in and of itself for expanding on the form instead of merely being an attempt at copying it.

Other languages across Europe have their own adaptations, but most are either very close to the French or English alexandrines.

In Polish

Alexandrine In Spanish

Polish gives us the most unique and interesting alexandrine form we’ll be discussing in this article.

Unlike most alexandrines, derived from French, the Polish alexandrine actually comes from a form in Latin poetry.

It is not completely unlike the French alexandrine, however.

A Polish alexandrine is structured like so:

o o o o o S x | o o o o S x

Take note that Polish alexandrines take advantage of a mandatory feminine ending on both halves of the line, leading to an especially unique structure.

The extra syllable is not a typo, either.

This particular alexandrine has thirteen syllables instead of the usual twelve, making it a true oddity among European poems.

One interesting little factoid is that English pentameter is commonly translated into 13-syllable lines in Polish.

This is a result of a difference in word structure between the two languages.

Polish words tend to be longer, so what looks like a difficult form to our eyes actually makes a great deal of sense in context.

Examples of Alexandrine

花と女性のポートレート with Generative Ai

Wherefore my love might be, you’ll surely find me there,
to chase away her fears, to show her that I care,
to blind myself with her; the beauty, grace, and sparks.
O love, my love, for true: You own my soul and heart.

Above is an example of what a poem written entirely in English alexandrines might look like.

Do remember that back-to-back alexandrines are quite uncommon in English.

This particular poem also takes the caesura quite seriously, even going so far as to use colons and semicolons to denote the divide in lines where commas might otherwise cause confusion.

A French equivalent would not be entirely dissimilar but would not be obligated to iambs.

If you’ve ever wondered why metric poetry in English tends to show an unorthodox obsession with adverbs and unusual syntax, it’s actually a result of shuffling the syllables around to put the metric feet in their proper places. (Though most poets wouldn’t admit that to your face.)

While the Polish form is hardly mandatory for an article like this, given that you’re unlikely to see an English adaptation of a Polish adaptation of a Latin form ever again in your life on earth, it would feel remiss not to at least try my hand at a quick couplet:

The graves reek of soil, lady; as to mock my shovel.
Still I’ll dig deep, milady; deeper for your troubles.

Of course I wouldn’t feel confident calling this anything other than a sort of bastard son of the Polish alexandrine, but it should at least give you some idea of how the sentence structure for these poems works, without us having to dig up a Polish to English dictionary.

The alexandrine is interesting in that it’s structurally quite simple but has such a deep and developed history across the western world that it really does manage to stand out as a wholly different experience when you know the context.

Tips for Writing Alexandrine Lines

Alexandrine Tips

Before starting, it would be a good idea to establish the purpose of your alexandrine.

Alexandrine lines do not necessarily need to be the entire poem or even the focal point of a poem, at least in an English context.

They tend to work well as lines that break up the monotony in other meters and while using them in such a way wouldn’t be revolutionary, there is a reason that it became popular.

As to how to write the form once you’ve started, focus on each hemistich separately.

Personally, I find that writing in trimeter is far more natural and simple than writing in hexameter, so it’s convenient that the alexandrine seems almost custom-built to promote this kind of thinking.

Be flexible in how you approach the alexandrine.

While you could stick to iambs in order to challenge yourself, the strict patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables that defined English poetry for so many centuries are swiftly falling out of favor, and the world isn’t necessarily worse off for it.

Determine on your own whether the meter is worth the extra hassle.

Do you enjoy metered poems or do you find them archaic and intellectually cluttered?

Ask yourself similar questions about whether or not you want to add feminine endings to your lines.

Read some poems that feature alexandrines to get ideas of how they’re used and why.

Ultimately, the best poem is the one that the poet enjoyed writing.

Your readers can and will be able to tell the difference between a poem that you wrote just because you felt like you had to versus a poem in which you were playing with words like a living toy.

If You Treat Alexandrine

If you treat the alexandrine like a chore, then reading your work will be a chore.

Don’t subject your readers to that, if you can avoid it.

One last thing that may be of note, although it is anecdotal, is that I tend to find forms like this to work especially well for narrative poems, or rather poems that have a sense of moving forward in some way.

Starting a story encourages you to follow through and finish the story.

You write because you want to know what happens next, which puts you into a better sense of flow.

This is especially useful for metric poems, like the popular English variant, as it allows you to relax and write the poem by ear instead of by math.

Meter is something you can develop the ability to hear naturally in your head while you write, and while you will inevitably pause a few times when you stumble on a line, there will be this sense that everything is going according to plan when you happen to get it right on the first try now and then.

Whatever your modus operandi, enjoy the process.

Don’t get hung up on whether your poem is correct or incorrect or whether your caesura is obvious enough.

What matters is just that the poem feels about right when spoken and read.

Poet’s Note

Pen lays on paper.

It’s amazing that the alexandrine doesn’t come up more often in language classes, frankly.

I recall learning about Shakespeare for maybe seven or eight courses in a row, but somehow not one of my teachers thought to mention the historical significance of alexandrines?

Oh, for shame.

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