A (very) few words on

French versification



hose who take an interest in formal verse composition in English will probably know a few terms like iambic pentameter, spondee and maybe even trochaic foot. Herewith, a (very) few notes on some things to look for in French verse, particularly that of Victor Hugo.

The meter of poetry is in large measure shaped by the way a language flows. Greek and Latin have short and long syllables (the latter take twice as long to enunciate as the former) so their metrical schemes are designed to balance these. English, with its emphasis on stressed syllables, built on Greek and Roman models, but balancing stressed and unstressed syllables in place of long and short syllables.

French has little variation in syllable length, and stress, to the extent it occurs at all, is allocated to phrases, not individual words. Because there is not the sort of syllabic variation that would otherwise disturb the flow of a poem, French is able to use the syllable as the basic unit for counting out meter. The two most common meters are:

Octosyllabe, i.e. eight-syllable. The octosyllabe is a fast moving meter. Because the lines are relatively short, one seems to feeds into the next, creating a sense of urgency, excitement or anticipation. It is a nice form for rants, rallying cries and battle scenes. Here it nicely captures the eagerness of a visionary Hugo:

Elle apaise l'âme qui souffre,
Guide la vie, endort la mort;
Elle montre aux méchants le gouffre,
Elle montre au justes le port.

For a nice rant in octosyllabe (including a list of charges against Second Empire France), see Puisque le juste est dans l'abîme.

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Alexandrin, hemistiche