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A (very) few words on

French versification

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I

n reading French poetry (as well as English poetry), one will often find that the "sentences" or units of meaning in the poem do not correspond exactly to the lines of verse. To some extent, the continuation of a thought from one line to the next is a necessity for the form; either an idea won't fit on one line or the meter or rhyme scheme cannot be maintained without re-ordering the elements of the thought being expressed. Sometimes, however, a poet will deliberately finish a thought with one or two words on the following line for the express purpose of keeping the reader going from line to line and associating one idea with the next. Hugo makes relatively liberal use of this device, which is called enjambement; however, Tennyson's Ulysses may better make the point for Anglophone readers:

...All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea...

The whole passage features ideas which start on one line and finish on the next, but the "greatly" is an unqualified enjambement. It unquestionably belongs to the line above, yet there it is, on the following line, thus serving to unite enjoyment and suffering.

Reading French Poetry
This section presumes that the reader knows how to pronounce modern French; covering the pronunciation of French is beyond the scope of this short article. The notes below only differentiate between standard French pronunciation and the reading of poetry.

In modern French pronunciation, one usually drops unaccented e's unless doing so will result in three consonants being pronounced together. In poetry, this "e caduc" is pronounced everywhere except 1) at the end of a word, if the next word starts with a vowel, 2) at the end of the hemistiche (now you know why the hemistiche had to be explained) and 3) at the end of a line.

Here's a short passage with hemistiches marked and unpronounced e's in bold (the pronounced e's are plain text):

Un jour, maigre et sentant / un royal appétit,
Un sing
e d'une peau / de tigre se vêtit.
L
e tigre avait été / méchant, lui, fut atroce.
Il avait
endossé le droit d'être féroce.

To show the difference, here's the same passage; this time the boldface e's are those that would be left out in modern conversational French:

Un jour, maigre et sentant un royal appétit,
Un sing
e d'une peau de tigre se vêtit.
Le tigr
e avait été méchant, lui, fut atroce.
Il avait endossé le droit d'être féroc
e.

FIN

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Alexandrin, hemistiche